A Defense of the Expat Bubble

Expat bubble is a phrase that usually has negative connotations; whenever we hear it, it’s usually to exhort us to burst, Janice.BubbleManescape, or avoid it, or to invite us to disparage those who luxuriate in its hermetic warmth. To many, the bubble is a perfect and all-encompassing barrier that signals a desire to keep the unfamiliar at bay. To burst someone’s bubble is to disabuse them of a fantasy, and expat bubbles are likewise seen as artificial oases in the midst of an otherwise authentic cultural setting.

While some expats can’t live within the bubble, some can’t live without it. I recently read a rare and spirited defense of the expat bubble by Alyssa Abkowitz, which begins from the proposition that expat life can be tiring and hard.

The idea of wanting the simple comforts of home in a foreign land is understandable, particularly after braving language, logistical and cultural hurdles throughout the day. These bubbles let expats’ brains take a much-needed rest.

Hard to disagree with that. I’ve had my share of trying days in Korea and can certainly relate to what she’s saying, though the bubbles in Busan tend not to encompass entire neighborhoods but smaller spaces like pubs or private homes (I think of my old friend and the “Korea Stops Here” sign that hung on his door).

In the piece, Abkowitz highlights five cities, and it seems that the cities that Westerners tend to find more livable (like Singapore and Hong Kong) had the most dispersed expat communities, while the grittier cities (New Delhi, Bangkok, Jakarta) were more likely to have Western enclaves.

Criticism of the bubble tends to assume that everyone came abroad to have some kind of growth experience, but that’s not bubbl popnecessarily true, particularly of company-assigned expats. Those of us who chose to come here and were attracted by adventure may find ourselves looking down our noses at the bubble dwellers (though strangely we’re also likely to be charmed by the expat bubbles ethnic neighborhoods in our hometowns), but the fact is not everyone is looking to burst it.

Whether or not one chooses to live in the bubble seems to have a lot to do with where you live and why you went there in the first place. The situation here in Busan seems to support that working hypothesis, with the company folks clustered around the glass towers of Marine City, and the long-term expats scattered far and wide.

What are your thoughts on the expat bubble?

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8 comments

  1. Really, really interesting article that hit home.

    I am an expat in France and have been for 2 years, and most of my best friends are expats. I’ve lived with both expats and French people, and also have French friends. I work in a French university with both French and foreign colleagues, and I love my expat friends very much. I have no shame of being an expat and hanging out with expats because even though I am living in France, I’m still going to do things from my culture, such as eat dinner earlier, stream american tv and celebrate thanksgiving!

    I have integrated myself well into society in France but I also have had the deepest connections with expats. The curious thing about this community is that we all connect on a deeper level because we are all here for the same reasons and have similar interests!

    Thanks for your thought provoking post!

  2. I agree – I don’t think there’s any shame on living in a way that is comfortable, whatever that means for each person. There’s a particular strain of expat/traveler that sees any sort of comfort-seeking as some kind of sin. I don’t see it that way at all.

    My experience is much like yours in that I have formed my deepest connections with fellow expats while still integrating and acculturating into the greater society.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. No way near the expats you guys are, but I it’s still not America here in Quebec and speaking French uses every bit of glucose in my brain. When it’s over, it’s kind of soothing to turn on satellite radio in the car, if I drove that day, and come back to my bubble building. Most of the people here are students or medical residents that speak English, usually from Anglophone Canada, Arabic-speaking countries, or Asia. I know my French would get better and I’d get more of a cultural exchange if I lived in a Francophone building, but it’s sanity-restoring to not have my cultural translation engine on all the time. Cool post, thanks John.

    1. We have a podcast called two fat expats (you can find us on iTunes) and we’re talking about the expat bubble this week – I found your comment really interesting and so true. Will chat about it this week for sure.

  4. I hear you, John. It’s exhausting. I look forward to switching it off at the end of the day too. I’m sure you’re getting lots of French the rest of the day. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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