Expats & Their Histories

History is bound to repeat itself.

The victors write the history.

…and the rest is history.

People toss around platitudes about history, nuggets of so-called wisdom to remind ourselves and others why history is important. In grade school the subject is approached as something pragmatic, objective, a little stale, occupying its own academic island.

As we grow, though, our own body of knowledge gains nuance: we see the growth and decline of empires in our travels; famous people and their speeches have greater context when we see or read about modern-day oppression; what you learned in a textbook is challenged when you visit a museum or monument in a different country (as has happened to me quite a few times, and each time is shocking and empowering). Ideally, what we think we know about any history and its truths will be self-edited for as long as we are alive and willing to learn.

Armed with this perspective, I recently began volunteering a few hours a week at the Expatriate Archive Center (EAC). My first time in the office, the PR & Marketing Director gave me a stack of books and documents to familiarize myself with the institution and its practices. Among the papers was a document describing a 1931 speech by American historian Carl BeckerThis excerpt from his speech struck me:

If the essence of history is the memory of things said and done, then it is obvious that every normal person, Mr. Everyman, knows some history. Of course we do what we can to conceal this invidious truth. Assuming a professional manner, we say that so and so knows no history, when we mean no more than that he failed to pass the examinations set for a higher degree; and simple-minded persons, undergraduates and others, taken in by academic classifications of knowledge, think they know no history because they have never taken a course in history in college, or have never read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. No doubt the academic convention has its uses, but it is one of the superficial accretions that must be stripped off if we would understand history reduced to its lowest terms.

In the West history was traditionally a political affair written by (mostly White) men. Before last century, public records—documents related to the mechanisms and actions of the state—were the primary context, mostly because that’s what was available. Becker’s speech is regarded by American historians as a period piece, at the time a jolt to the academic body. Even today it’s seen as a major marker to show how historiographic studies have progressed.

Shelves at The Hague Municipal Archives of original marriage licenses issued in the city from as early as the mid-19th century. Marriage licenses are one example of non-traditional historical sources used today to better understand local histories.

The EAC has its roots in documenting the everyday lives of families moved overseas by Royal Dutch Shell (headquartered here in The Hague) from one of its gazillion outposts to another. The archive is full of journals, letters sent home, photographs, and other documents that have been donated by Shell families. In 2008 the EAC became independent (more or less) from its Shell affiliation, and the center assumed its current name. The EAC has operated as a non-profit since then, and the organization’s taken measures to expand its utility, such as inviting researchers and making contacts with universities and other archives.

Recently the EAC partnered with the City of The Hague for a temporary exhibition in the Stadhuis (City Hall) called “Expat Impressions of The Hague.” At the exhibition’s opening I chatted over some glasses of the complementary wine and bitterballen with a PhD student researching the EAC archives.

Sarah, this exhibition’s interesting, but it also seems a little… privileged, yeah?, I said, referring to the archival material featured at the exhibit. (To be fair, The Hague is what I consider a pretty privileged city.) Sarah’s eyes flickered at the question, and she smiled, leaned in a little, and said, Kelly, can I interview you for my research?

If you think my question or Sarah’s response is wrong-headed, know that we’re far from alone.

Earlier this year, Mawuna Remarque Koutonin of SiliconAfrica.com asked Guardian readers, “Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants?“. A couple weeks later, a naturalized Singaporean living in the U.S. dismissed Koutonin’s question as an “outdated worldview” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, suggesting the tension behind the word is one of socioeconomic discrimination.

In one breath, the cultural usage of “expat” is racist. In the next, racism is dismissed for a claim of classism. Both points are valid, if anecdotal.

It wasn’t until we were living in Japan that I began to see the lexicon of migration through others’ eyes, specifically the divisions between “expat” and “immigrant.” American culture has romanticized expatriate life. Life abroad is viewed as an experience, something we have control over, something we can do for the sake of doing it. Psychologist Greg Madison’s name for this concept is Existential Migration:

“Rather than migrating in search of employment, career advancement, or overall improved economic conditions, these voluntary migrants are seeking greater possibilities for actualizing, exploring foreign cultures in order to assess their own identity, and ultimately grappling with issues of home and belonging in the world generally.”

Ask the average American about immigrants, though, and she or he will think about hotel cleaning staff or the group of Latinos at the big box hardware store, furtively waiting to be picked up for a day’s work. America—as we were recently reminded when faced with the task of resettling Syrian and Iraqi refugees—is a nation of immigrants! But when Americans go abroad, we’re expats, even if we go abroad for the same reasons immigrants come to the U.S.

At The Hague Municipal Archives

The distinction is far from an America- or English-centric one. For example, the German language differentiates between “expat,” die Ausländerin, der Immigrant, die Migrantin, der Zuwanderer, der Einwanderer, and the more encompassing and more politically correct Mitbürgerin mit Migrationshintergrund (or MiMiMi for short)Japan recognizes gaijin (foreigners) and gaikokujin (persons from another country). As this Quora post explains, both words are used to separate Japanese from the non-Japanese, and the use of each can be impolite in differing situations. The implications of both are clear, though: you aren’t one of us.

The week after the exhibition opening, a small group of us—all expats—at the EAC office discussed the center’s use of the term “expatriate” and its implications. We were all familiar with how loaded the term can be, though none of us eschewed our own expat label. In fact, I made that very point: self-identification is a liberty every human should have. If we have the freedom to identify as an expatriate and reap the social benefits from the label, the EAC should strive to be as inclusive as possible by extending its label to those who aren’t typically represented in its archives.

I pitched to the PR & Marketing Director the idea of the EAC creating and maintaining a Rotation Curation (#RoCur) Twitter account focused on lives abroad. RoCur accounts can be place-based (@sweden), vocation-based (@realscientists), or hobby-related (@WeAreWikipedia), among other groups.

Every tweet by every person lives legally in perpetuity; the U.S. Library of Congress maintains an archive of all public tweets published since Twitter’s inception in March 2006 for research purposes. In hosting an expat-led RoCur Twitter account, the EAC is effectively entering the realm of curating and archiving online lives. For our expat-led account, there’s no requirement to cross any sea; if you speak decent English and live in a country other than the place your passport is from, you can be a curator. This is one way the EAC will widen its coverage of who is an expatriate.

The EAC may be based in The Hague and rooted in a global commercial enterprise, but there’s a will at work to broaden the scope of archives collected. At its most basic, the archive center is an institution of historiography. Just the act of collecting documents of the everyday is a somewhat subversive act, because recalling the everyday alters the tone of a historical time or event, questioning the assumed historical perspective. Here, social histories are preserved, and it’s a pretty cool thing to be a part of.

Update: The expat-led WeAreXpats RoCur went live on June 6, 2016. You can check out the Twitter account here, and read more about the project on its official website.


One Comment

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  1. That was wonderful to read and very insightful. What a fascinating contribution you made, congrats!


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