Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 November 2019

Why I find the term ‘expat brat’ both offensive and exclusionary

I’m generally uncomfortable by how classist, racist and reductive the labels around global mobility are

Nyree as a 'threenager' in Doha - at this point, she'd already lived in Aberdeen, Scotland and Muscat, Oman. 
Nyree as a 'threenager' in Doha - at this point, she'd already lived in Aberdeen, Scotland and Muscat, Oman. 

By the time I was eight, I had lived in five countries – with my parents creating a home for me in cities from Muscat to Malaysia via Melbourne. Growing up, I was called an “expat brat”, while the far more flattering “third culture kid” is now in vogue. However, I’m generally uncomfortable by how classist, racist and reductive the labels around global mobility are.

The world has to be honest with itself and acknowledge that expat is a term afforded only to the upwardly mobile

Yes, by dictionary definition “expats” are those who plan to move home eventually, while “immigrants” seek to set up shop permanently and gain citizenship. But the world has to be honest with itself and acknowledge that expat is a term afforded only to the upwardly mobile.

The definition of a third culture kid is “a person who has spent a significant part of his developmental years outside their parents’ culture” – and yet, with this term many young people are also excluded from that “club” without acknowledgement.

To many people, some UAE residents are expats, while others are migrant workers. The problem is, while I have issues with the term expat, I’m not sure of a better way to sum myself up. A term such as “global citizen” is too jargonistic and I didn’t start out as a migrant worker: I was a bit young for that when I moved to Muscat at 6 months old.

When my dad was 25 he got on a boat and sailed from New Zealand to London to see the world and also to seek better opportunities. The trip took him 30 days. He didn’t return to New Zealand long term for another 40 years. He met my Scottish mum in the UK and they left Britain about 33 years ago. My mum hasn’t lived in her home country since. And now, history has repeated itself: I moved to Dubai at 21 and a few years later I met my husband, who is from South Africa. Where will we end up? Who knows.

While people called my parents expats (because, let’s be honest, they are Caucasian), they were really “migrant workers” (and I am now, too). They lived in Oman, Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Australia, the UAE and so on, because that’s where they found interesting job opportunities (Scotland and New Zealand are wonderful places, but their economies are relatively small).

Nyree McFarlane 
Nyree and her mum Marty near the Batu Caves in Malaysia when she was about eight

They, like so many “migrant workers”, made sacrifices to afford my brothers and I an expanded world view and a good education. My dad often went and lived in places without the rest of the family and was always on a plane, with my mum working hard to make sure that whatever house we were in was a home, and then also finding herself in remote locations for work.

They lived off-the-beaten-path – Muscat was pretty quiet in the 1980s and Jakarta was a tough place to be in the late 1990s – and they did so to build a life for themselves, and for me.

And I guess that’s why, while I do find the term expat uncomfortable because it is so exclusionary, I also find the term “expat brat” offensive because it’s reductive.

Ken and Marty Barrett in Abu Dhabi in 2015
Nyree's parents, Ken and Marty in Abu Dhabi, on a trip to visit her now that she herself is a 'migrant worker'

I wouldn’t ever change the way I grew up, but it wasn’t always easy. I had to say goodbye to sets of friends over and over again, I grew up removed from extended family, my dad was often elsewhere, the safety situation in some places I lived meant that life could be a little confined, and my beloved brothers flew the nest when I was eight and 10 respectively (and in our family that meant they moved to the other side of the world, not just down the road).

So, whatever term you like to use, I can tell parents in the UAE raising children in a country that isn’t their own, especially those who move often, that, despite what friends back home might dismissively say, you’re not by default raising a brat by allowing your child to grow up elsewhere. Instead, you’re giving your children a propensity for resilience, diplomacy and flexibility – and in this fast-changing world, I think those are traits we’re all going to need in the future.

Updated: October 24, 2019 03:24 PM

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