A friend recently recounted to me the story of meeting a Caucasian man who was fond of describing himself to people as an “expat”. My friend’s retort was typically amusing and, no doubt deservedly, barbed:
“If you were Asian you’d be called an economic migrant.”（註 1）
The conversation touches on an important point about words and concepts, which is that they change.（註 2）
I was raised to understand an expatriate as only those people who had been recruited abroad, and whose employers had them relocate to Hong Kong. This is what it meant in expatriate circle in which I was raised in the 1980s.
Coming from a mixed family with local roots, it was a circle in which I was made welcome but never felt I belonged. This was not because expatriates looked down on me as a “local”, but because I always felt tied to and related to Hong Kong in a way I felt they could not.
Expatriate package were generous. Not only were expatriates paid more than locally recruited employees, their packages would also include accommodation, either through the provision of company accommodation or a rental allowance. Schooling at one of Hong Kong’s international schools would be provided for all children, as would two return flights “home” each year for he family, usually by business class. Sometimes private club memberships would also be included.（註 3）
What mattered was perfectly encapsulated in a conversation I overheard at the time between a family friend, who worked at a European bank, and a young expatriate who had recently arrived.
“So you like sport. What do you play?” the older man asked.
“Cricket and tennis, mostly,” replied the young man.（註 4）
“And you’re not a member of the Cricket Club? Well, that won’t do.”
Not long after the young man joined the club as a corporate nominee.
Behind the obvious sense of entitlement in the older man, who like many expatriates of a certain seniority at the time seemed to feel a certain Hong Kong society moved to their convenience, was also the simple logic of a more innocent time:
For the company, you and your family had left the comforts of home. It was therefore the company’s responsibility to ensure in your new posting those comforts you would otherwise have enjoyed at home continue to be available to you. This had nothing to do with greed or social climbing. It was not about keeping people down, more about ensuring someone who did not necessarily want to be in Hong Kong could continue to live life as they were accustomed. This was not seen, as I feel is more often the case today, as a demonstration of power. It was simple what was done, and the decent thing to do.（註 5）
Growing up I knew many such expatriates. At the time, in my eyes, their material life seemed unremarkable. Unlike wealthy locals businessman they tended to drive unassuming cars, and wear unassuming clothes.（註 6）Their homes were filled not with the latest fashions but well worn rattan furniture. Despite often living in the same estates, they were more long-stay holiday homes than the marble shrines of family fortunes as were the homes of my wealthy local friends.
Neither did I associate expatriates as necessarily being from the West, or of being Caucasian. They came from all over the world, and from every continent. Many expatriates were Asian and worked for Asian multinationals. Some of my friends were the children of Japanese and Korean expatriates.
But with the perks and privileges of being an expatriate came costs, which are easily overlooked today. Many expatriates, including my step-father, were on short term postings. After three years many would leave. The instability made it hard to form deep relationships, and those that did form were haunted by the realisation that on short notice you might be posted elsewhere. I often envy friends and family, including my wife, who has the support of a close network of friends whom they have known all their lives. For much of my childhood my best friends left every three to four years, never to return.
A common condition of an expatriate package was that you were not allowed to invest in Hong Kong.（註 7）A rental allowance was provided on the understanding your stay in Hong Kong was limited and that you did not and would not settle in the city. It was not until my step-father left his expatriate job that he was able to buy a home in Hong Kong.
Today, the term “expat” may mean something else, and carry different connotations. Hong Kong, once blighted by insanitary living conditions, poor public health standards and a prevalence of disease, is no longer as it was, nor is it considered a “hardship” posting. This was very different as little as two generations ago. Cricket clubs, once the preserve of a colonial elite who actually played and enjoyed cricket, are today very different kinds of institutions. Society too has changed, as has our understanding of social standing and how we show it.
There are some people, mostly Caucasians and whom I would not consider expatriates, who today seem to revel in the term “expat”, attaching a certain colonial prestige so attractive to those who care about one-upmanship. Sadly such people, combined with the contractual changes to the expatriate package itself, has shifted both the commonly held understanding of the term as well as our understanding of what it once actually meant.
Today, as reflected in my friends opening reply, the term “expat” suggest to many people “white privilege”. We have forgotten that to be an expatriate had nothing to do with race nor indeed was it specific to the West. We think today of it as representing a superior position in society, when in fact it could equally be said to reflect that this person did not belong. Others identify with it a certain lifestyle, without seeing past the material to acknowledge the condition of transience on which this material comfort was provided. It was often lent rather than owned.
When words change their meanings, what is most instructive is not what they had meant before, but what they mean to us today. Far from reflecting on the realities of the expatriate existence as I knew and lived it, what we see in the term today is rather a reflection of our own times: a time defined equally by unparalleled materialism, a heightened sense of victimisation and virtue signalling.
As a child of Hong Kong who moved in expatriate circles, there has never been any doubt in my mind that my roots and relationship with my home and my community meant infinitely more to me than the perks and privileges of an expatriate package.（註 8）
I once told my stepfather that I could never be an expatriate. I could not take so lightly a decision to leave my home, family and friends. Neither could I accept to live somewhere were I could never be nor would ever be accepted as local? His answer was that it was an adventure, and perhaps in a way in his retirement he continues to live that adventure. It’s one way to live life. But it isn’t for me.（註 9）
作者由一個英文字說起，叫做 Expatriate，簡稱 Expat。
這個字的中譯很費神，不是指「海外移民」（Immigrants），而是專門在位於亞洲的英國殖民地內，少數與殖民地管治權力有關的人士，例如駐港英軍的妻子與家庭，又或派駐吉隆坡及新加坡的英國民官。當然指 60 年代星馬獨立之前。
Expatriate 一字亦充滿文化暗示：英國一家唐人餐館的新界老闆，不算當地的 Chinese Expat，只是英國的新界移民。這個字天生帶有統治優越的特權。作者身為混血人士，有一半英國血統，又在當地出生及長大，加上對文化身份特別敏感，他對於 Expat 的稱呼或「標籤」必有一番感受。
- Expatriate 往往具有優厚的生活條件，僱主不是宗主國政府，就是因殖民主義獲益的跨國企業。有了 Expats 才有香港國際學校，而許多學生今年也擁有回英國的免費機票，有的還可以坐商務位，更自動成為會所會員。
- 因為擁有華人血統，作者自小在特權的 Expat 家庭長大，蒙受心理衝突，這一切並非在香港的純英國白人所能理解，亦非絕大多數香港華裔人士所能明白。或許黃秋生是一個例外。
- 身為 Expatriate，若在香港住得太久，會不會受當地文化意識影響而產生身份危機？在上海或北京住了許多年的西方白人，又是否擁有香港昔日的特權？西方國家社會經濟的轉變，使愈來愈多「洋人」背背囊，由中東開始漫遊，去尼泊爾深山住兩個月之後，又由雲南進入中國，展開獵奇之旅。若是這樣，他們不是富裕之人，但在中國人眼中，卻擁有白人的歷史優越感。這些特殊的中國白人 Expat，在面對金錢之際，又會如何取捨？