About five years ago, a friend of mine in Istanbul sent me a questionnaire about privilege, which I dutifully filled out and posted on my Livejournal. I was, I discovered, fantastically privileged. This was something I had suspected for a long time but had never fully articulated or itemized before.
My particular brand of privilege was not one of summer houses or ballet lessons or holidays abroad (or hell, central heating, cable TV, or new clothes on a regular basis) but it was there and I still wear it like a cozy body suit that is so familiar that I sometimes forget I’m wearing it.
Before I continue with this post, I want you to do the questionnaire. Tick all that apply and then think about it for a while. I’ll wait here. Go on then!
1. Father went to college
2. Father finished college
3. Mother went to college
4. Mother finished college
5. Have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor
6. Were the same or higher class than your high school teachers
7. Had more than 50 books in your childhood home:
8. Had more than 500 books in your childhood home:
9. Were read children’s books by a parent
10. Had lessons of any kind before you turned 18
11. Had more than two kinds of lessons before you turned 18
12. The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively
13. Had a credit card with your name on it before you turned 18
14. Your parents (or a trust) paid for the majority of your college costs
15. Your parents (or a trust) paid for all of your college costs
16. Went to a private high school
17. Went to summer camp
18. Had a private tutor before you turned 18
19. Family vacations involved staying at hotels
20. Your clothing was all bought new before you turned 18
21. Your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them
22. There was original art in your house when you were a child
23. You and your family lived in a single family house
24. Your parent(s) owned their own house or apartment before you left home
25. You had your own room as a child
26. You had a phone in your room before you turned 18
27. Participated in an SAT/ACT prep course (or equivalent for non Americans)
28. Had your own TV in your room in high school
29. Owned a mutual fund or IRA (or equivalent) in high school or college
30. Flew anywhere on a commercial airline before you turned 16
31. Went on a cruise with your family
32. Went on more than one cruise with your family
33. Your parents took you to museums and art galleries as you grew up
34. You were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family
In addition to these questions, I have a few more that I think might be pertinent.
35. Which country’s passport do you hold?
36. Do you have a passport ?
37. How many countries can you enter without going through a convoluted visa process that will probably end in rejection?
38. Are you white, or at most a bit latte’ish in skin tone?
39. Can you legally reside or work outside of your home country (ancestry visas, EU passport, working holiday visa, sufficient tertiary education to apply to emigrate or be hired from overseas)?
40. Does your country let you leave without going through a convoluted and expensive bureaucratic process?
41. Is your country’s currency (and your salary and savings, by extension) freely convertible internationally? Can you legally buy foreign currency with your currency?
42. Has your country been through genocide or civil war in the past few generations?
I could go on for quite some time with this list but I’ll stop here.
Allow me to introduce myself.
Hi! I’m an average looking Canadian woman of western European extraction (too far back for any ancestry visas, alas). I grew up neither rich nor poor. I had what I needed, including my parents’ unconditional support and love.
I have a university education which was partly paid by my parents’ wisely invested RESP and partly by jobs I worked while studying and living rent-free with my family. They made sure I was fed and sheltered and able to save most of what I earned. They earned enough in their jobs so I never had to give them any of my wages.
I graduated with no debt at all. In the middle of my degree, I took a few years off and traveled around Europe and Africa and lived in London on a slightly overstayed 2-year working holiday visa. No one checked.
I didn’t have any problems traveling around Western Europe, unlike my African friends and my South African boyfriend at that time. No visas, no hassles. Jobs were easy for me to get in London so I didn’t have that to worry about either. I was reassured a number of times by employers that although I was foreign, at least I ‘wasn’t one of those dark ones!‘ True quote. She was my nursing home supervisor in North Kensington in London, where I was one of only two white people on staff.
The Alzheimers wing there was staffed entirely by over qualified Eritrean doctors whose qualifications were yet be recognized by the NHS. I was in the stroke wing, working with a dozen over qualified Zimbabweans and Nigerians. I wasn’t even a fully trained registered nurse much less an over qualified doctor, but, hey- at least I wasn’t one of those dark ones!
Over the past two decades, my Canadian passport and university degree and mother tongue have allowed me to teach and travel all over the world with remarkable ease. Doors tend to open when I knock on them. It’s a good gig. Here in Shanghai, my life is very comfortable, albeit smoggy and hectic if I step outside our very nice flat.
When I do step outside the flat, I’m given more leeway than, say, your Average Zhou, especially those not blessed with a much-coveted Shanghai hùkǒu from birth- the millions of migrant workers, both educated and not so educated, professional and labourer, who keep this city running (a bit like Dubai or Doha, really, but with domestically sourced cheap labour) but who don’t get the perks that the native born Shanghainese are blessed with (advantages with schools, housing, health care, etc).
If I rock up to the front gate of a friend’s building complex, I’m let through without any questioning even though I’m a stranger. Restaurant reservations are never a problem. Job options feel almost infinite at times. Visa renewals aren’t too tricky thanks to my country of birth being on the list of favoured places for teachers.
This is not necessarily the case if you are one of the millions of bureaucratically non-connected Chinese (both Han and non Han) or a non-white foreigner from the wrong category of country.
At work, I’ve generally been paid about two or three times more than the equally (or better) qualified Chinese staff. Students have never scrawled racist epithets on the blackboard, something that has happened to a non-white British friend here. I’ve never been denied a job because of my colour, something which happened to a former colleague of mine who had been hired to teach in Korea, flown over from South Africa on a one way ticket, and unceremoniously fired the moment he arrived for being darker than his passport photo had led them to believe.
My comfortable, relatively simple expat life is not exactly the result of my own hard work and smart choices. Some of it was, (you don’t end up in China after 17 years abroad without any input of your own), but the path was certainly made very smooth before me. This may not be apparent when masked by my chronic depression and the stupid frustrations of daily life.
I have a baseball metaphor for you here, courtesy of my mother: If you were born on third base, you really oughtn’t go through life thinking you hit a home run.
If you don’t know baseball, I’ll try to rephrase it: You born with certain advantages. You didn’t earn them and you didn’t get to be ahead of those behind you through hard work only.
After publishing 16 expat interviews (if we count Hector Lakemonster, which I do) and reading a lot of travel blogs over the past year or two, I noticed a trend: We’re pretty much all (with a few notable exceptions) a combination of at least a few of the following: white, middle class, educated, western, with professional skills of some sort (teaching, engineering, graphic/web design, law, etc). We like to travel a lot, and our passports are, thankfully, ones from countries with few visa restrictions. Our education and professional backgrounds have given us the leverage to be able to save up to travel or to get work abroad. We’re a bit restless and don’t want to live a conventional life back home so we have chosen to live abroad as expats. We can always go home again if we want. We have choices. We make use of those choices as best we can. We are fortunate.
And that’s fine. It’s what many of us in backpacker/traveler/expat-land are. It’s what I am. It’s what a lot of people out there are– and what far, far more people aren’t. Before I post my next expat interview (as soon as Unbrave Girl completes the required 10,000+ words), I want everyone to stop for a moment and think about how you got to where you are. Think about it seriously. And don’t ever take what you’ve been given for granted. You got lucky.
Further reading and viewing
- Ai Weiwei on Beijing’s Migrant Labourers
- Genocidal Tourism in Cambodia
- Oh, and Privilege Denying Dude
- Perspective on job options from a Shanghai popcorn maker (video)
- On recognizing your own classism
- On hukou and migrant workers in China
- World of Class Warfare (Jon Stewart)
- Alain de Botton’s TED Talk on snobbery and success