Do expats offer the best local tips?
comment 14 Written by on June 11, 2009 – 1:38 pm

I woke up this morning to find that I’m an "interesting expat". Which was nice.

At least so says Matador Network in a piece on 20 interesting expats on Twitter. It’s not the list, but a list, they point out. But let’s not worry about that. Today I’m officially interesting and I am going to bask in the moment. Tomorrow I may not be.

Anyway, all this got me thinking about expats in general. How long does it take you to be deemed an "insider" in a place? Being a foreigner, can you every be truly "inside" a country’s psyche? Or will you always been on periphery of sorts? Maybe that periphery is a good place to be. Especially when it comes to offering travel advice.

(I’ve just read that back and it sounds a bit like Sex-and-the-city does travel writing. Without the sex. Apologies on both counts if I’ve disappointed.)

I’ve been commissioning a lot of longterm expats on the guidebook project I’m currently working on. For this type of work, this is the ideal vantage point. They know all the best places to recommend, plus the culture, the language and the nitty-gritty, need-to-know advice; yet they also know the market they’re writing for (they know what readers from overseas will find interesting; they know people’s expectations; they can predict the disappointments; they’ve been in the same shoes themselves).

Last year, when doing my Going Local column, I sometimes debated including an expat as my host of the week. On the few occasions when I broke this self-enforced rule-of-sorts, the results proved to be no less insightful. During one memorable week in Caracas, I met with Pierre – a Frenchman who’d been a longterm resident the city. He offered incredible perspective on local life, introduced me to his friends from the nearby barrio (shantytown), and was surely far more involved with the local community than most Venezuelans.

Pierre didn’t live an expat life. I experienced that other side of Venezuela, however, when I met a fellow journalist out there and went to a party full of other foreign journalists, diplomats and embassy staff. It was a good party and just interesting for me as I don’t usually mix in those crowds. The trouble is, in expat circles, there is always an omnipresent danger of that "them and us" barrier emerging. Everyone needs to sound off occasionally when living away from home, but, when things start going down the national stereotypes route to the point of no return, I’ll get my coat.

Spend some time living abroad and you’ll soon notice: some expats live in a bubble; some manage to avoid the bubble altogether; and some manage to flit inside and outside the bubble without bursting it, which can be quite an interesting place to be.

As for travel advice, it’s nice to be able to gain tips from all sides: the expats and the locals. And, fortunately, the internet – from Couchsurfing to Twitter – can make getting to these sources even easier.

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14 Responses to “Do expats offer the best local tips?”

  1. Thanks for sharing your perspective. I agree with you, it’s always best to explore both sides of the story. I live in the Netherlands and have many friends within the expat community and some, as you say, live in a bubble. They hardly speak Dutch (even though they’ve lived here for many years) and rarely have other Dutch friends. There are others though who fit in well with both expats and locals and love engaging with both groups. As an outsider (I’m not an expat), I much prefer the latter type.

    Love your blog – the theme looks familiar! 😉 There’s quite a bit you can do to customise it. I’ve only used WordPress (since I started my blog in Jan. this year) and am very pleased with it. It can be a bit slow sometimes (especially when viewing stats) but that’s about it really.

    Best regards,
    Keith (@velvetescape)

  2. Nice post Vicky. I agree with your conclusion. Be it for traveling tips or just to learn about a country, I find it to be helpful to have opinions from diverse sources. It’s not just that expats know what it is that may interest other foreigners, but that they have different insights, useful for analyzing things around. Being inside a country’s psyche can also be blinding.

    I believe foreigners can attain deep knowledge of a country, as long as they are open and sociable enough to move outside of the bubble. Alright, it’s hard to learn all the cultural traits, to laugh at the same jokes as an average local, be enthusiastic and offended at the same things and on the same amount. But is that really necessary for functioning well in a society? If you’re living in an reasonably-open society, I don’t think so. You can always be the expat with the funny accent and some awkward habits, who nevertheless socializes very well, enjoys local culture and works efficiently.

    By Andy Djordjalian on Jun 11, 2009 | Reply
  3. The exact same situation exists in our small Spanish village. In the British vocabulary, you have those who have “gone native” (us) and the other, vast majority who prefer their own company, and never learn the language. They are very much the poorer for it.

  4. Thanks for this post, Vicky. I think it’s an interesting question to pose.

    I don’t think expats offer the best travel advice, just another perspective that might be more in tune with what the seeker is looking for. The more integrated the expat is into the local culture, the better the advice probably is. I suspect it’s even more valuable if the expat retains a sense of objectivity about their chosen home.

    As you said, it’s good to be able to combine the advice from expats with that of locals, as well as from more ‘official’ sources such as guide books and tourist industry websites. Social media like Twitter makes it easier to find people who have information to add to the mix, whether they are only temporarily “interesting” or not! Armed with all these differing perspectives on a new place, we then go there and form our own opinions, reflected through the prsim of our own experience.

    Can you ever truly be inside a foreign culture’s psyche? I’m not sure. I would like to think so. A lot depends on the extent and form of the cultural disconnect, and how pro-actively the expat (and to an extent, I guess, the locals) try to bridge this. To Andy’s insightful comments I would add one thing: I think to penetrate deeply in to a local culture, one must speak the language with a degree of fluency. If you cannot understand the nuances of the interactions around you, and cannot express yourself with sufficient sophistication, you will always remain an outsider. I am no linguistics expert, but I feel that language helps determine how we view the world, not just how we interact with it. If we want to get inside the head (heart?) of a country, we must be able to talk the talk.

    We can respect, empathise with, and think we understand another culture, but are we truly immersed in it, if we don’t subscribe to all of its values? And what does it mean to immerse ourselves into a country’s culture, when its inhabitants move within their own (social, economic, political) bubbles?

    For me, that is the privilege of living as an engaged expat. We are less constrained by the entrenched moulds of the society we have chosen to live in. Should we choose to do so, we have the freedom to flit between many different bubbles, and to integrate ourselves as much as we can within each of these cultures. I’ve lived and travelled in Egypt for three years now, and I like to think I have a reasonable handle on the people and the country. But no matter how deeply beneath the surface I may scratch, there is always more to come. And I will never “be” Egyptian.

    By Nick Rowlands on Jun 12, 2009 | Reply
  5. Thanks all. Great to read your comments. Seems like the reoccurring theme here is language. You can’t unlock a place without it.

    However, you can also be an expat in a place that speaks your native tongue. Brits in Australia and vice versa; the French in French Guiana; Spaniards in Latin America. I guess you can be in a bubble there and not even realise it.

    “Being inside a country’s psyche can also be blinding” – I like that observation from Andy. At uni I remember studying literature from second-generation immigrants in the UK. Made me aware of things in British culture that I’d never even noticed.

    By Vicky Baker on Jun 12, 2009 | Reply
  6. Interesting thoughts. Travel advice is best coming from a variety of sources of course. Expats alone are too clever by half much of the time and too cynical often for wide eyed travelers.

    I think a sense of place is integral to humans and I am not sure that many people can ever get beyond that however long they live away from the place their conciousness was formed.. VS Naipaul wrote the definitive books on the subject.

    Years ago I worked for a travel agent and I sold a one way ticket to Delhi to an elderly Indian gentlemen who had lived in the UK since he was in his early teens. He said to me that the ‘thing is, my children, they love the mud and the rain, they are British, but me, I need the dust and the sun to die easily’.

  7. Hey Vicky,

    Lovely post! And great to see you on the Matador expat list.

    I think the advice expats give is that of someone who knows a bit more than a traveler passing. Whenever we have Couchsurfers staying with us, I feel like we’re exploring the city together. I can help us get around and suggest places to stay, but a traveler brings a “newness” that you sort of lose after living in one place for a while.

    Sam: as a recent expat to Argentina, your comment hits home. I love where I am, but I’m not sure I’ll ever 100% belong here. Not that belonging is something I always need or even want, but sometimes it’s nice to really be home.

  8. Hi Vicky,

    Interesting post. I also believe you need to get a mix of local and expat views to truly understand and get a feel for the city. All expats will have a different view of a city than any local (whether they stay in their own bubble or not), and vice versa, because of what each person compares it to. I am an “expat” though I mix mostly with the locals and other latinos. However, no matter how much I mix with the locals and pick their brains for insight to their city and culture, I continue to see things differently than a local, and certainly different than the expats the stick with their own cultural groups. And that’s what makes traveling fun and interesting 🙂

  9. I live in Ecuador and it is a wonderful country. Its people are so nice and kind, they will give you the most warming welcome. I have put together a helpful fact sheet, and also an article on Ecuadorian manners and customs

    By sara on Mar 25, 2010 | Reply

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