The Giving Tree and Expat Privilege

There is something about the crystal clear waters and untethered beach town vibe of Bocas del Toro that attracts expats from all over the world. One visit turns into two.  A two week vacation turn into a two year sabbatical with no end in sight. When I first arrived here at the height of “high season”, I was surprised at how many foreigners other there were here. Many have fully integrated, but others never bothered to learn Spanish and have little contact with Panamanians outside of the local people working in the service sector. 

blue coconut bocas


First, it’s necessary to  recognize that there are specific privileges that are bestowed upon those with holding an American, Canadian, or European passport. Abroad, flashing the blue of my American passport often supersedes the black of my skin.  The Sudanese refugees referred to it as "blue magic". When I lived in Egypt, it was made painfully clear to me that I have freedom of mobility and a level of access that was not immediately available to someone who looks exactly like me, but carries a passport from a non-Western nation.

Ahead of the Arab Spring, when Egypt simply became too overwhelming, I packed up and left. That may seem unremarkable to many; however, the East African refugees who had treated me like family during my time there did not have that flexibility. Many had been waiting years for a visa or to have their refugee application approved in order to be able to leave Egypt. Even when the uprising began in Egypt and foreigners were being evacuated, Americans and Europeans had first priority amongst evacuees. The East Africans had only two choices: wait out the uprising or try to cross an international border illegally. Neither choice was ideal.

As expats, we have a responsibility to recognize rather than reinforce this unearned privilege and translate it into a  deeper understanding of our environment- after all, you are a guest in their country.  I was once again reminded of  expat privilege last week when the issue of the system of recycling and trash collection in Bocas came up in one of the many expat forums on Facebook. Similar to many other places in the developing world, this small island with a limited amount of space and resources hasn’t quite figured out a trash collection system that is cost-effective, accessible, and able to scale up to deal with a large influx of people during tourist season. Thus, non-biodegradable trash such as plastic bags and beer cans end up strewn in random places- in stark contrast to the natural beauty of this place.  

In one of many comments, for example, this person blames solely the Panamanians for litter In a country full of tourists and expats. The author even say that she "looks down" on the locals as the bar of excellence could only be set by Steve, another expat such as herself. She then concludes that what Panama needs is, of course, more expats like them to surely bring the backwards, trash throwing locals into modernity.

Needless to say, this language is problematic and paternalistic at its core. It implies that the Panamanians lack the ability to govern themselves and need the assistance of benevolent foreigners to launch them into modernity.  This casual presumption of gringo superiority is rarely self-consciously held and is often a challenge for many to even see because they are built into our institutions and practices- even terms like "first world", "third world", and "developing country" imply a hierarchy of development and modernity.  Never mind that beer cans are often thrown around by backpackers after a night of partying, or that the local people come up with creative ways to address the trash issue as a community...

Sign reads: "Do not throw trash here"

In truth, a trash collection system is never as simple or cheap as it sounds. During my international development career, I watched as an entire multi-million dollar project fell apart solely because of the complex social and environmental issues related to trash collection and waste-pickers. The structural issues that have lead developing countries to be unprepared to deal with the trash caused by an increased trade in manufactured goods are both longstanding and deep; therefore, the solutions will also need to be longstanding and more far-reaching than Steve's well-intentioned trash service.  Rather than complain, I recognize that it's complex and do my part to clean up when and where I can. However, not all expats share my sentiments. 

A lack of understanding the society you live in leads to further assumptions about the people around you like this one below:

I, too, have never seen a single Panamanian kid playing in the old local playground. I wonder if any of them ever even noticed it was there as they play soccer in the street, skateboard around town, use the new playground or scamper off to the beach to surf every chance they get...?  I've marveled at how active the kids in Bocas are- little girls still sit on their porches  and giggle in the last light before dusk; boys actually play with each other rather than stay glued to a television screen playing video games.  And, yes, they all have shoes. I also doubt anyone asked her for the other playground she's committed to building one day, but since she is foreign, she surely knows what those kids need. Her assumption is that they couldn't possible really be happy without the material things she values and her inputs are vital, i.e., a White Savior Complex. Her concern only serve to validate her own privilege.

The kids in Bocas seem to learn to walk, then learn to surf- or maybe it's the other way around.

There is a disconnect here that cannot be ignored. Another aspect of being an expat is that most other foreigners abroad are white ("gringos")  and bring with them both their wealth and the sense of entitlement that comes with the white privilege they experience both at home and abroad.  Even with an American passport,  I do not share in the access to spaces, deference, comfort, and safety that whiteness allows. For example, mistaken for Cuban, I was turned away from a number of establishments in Old Havana last year until I opened my mouth and my carefully groomed American accent came rolling out. In Bocas, wealth and access grant the white expats a life that is sometimes in direct contrast with the local people. Time and time again, this privilege causes a clash of cultures. Here is one such example:

Whether or not "Jonito" should take the coconuts- and whom they really belong to- is debatable in this situation. Nonetheless, the tension between locals and expats is highlighted by the fact that the concept of ownership over the fruit of a tree (which was probably there long before any of us) is foreign, imposed by one party,  and not entirely accepted by the other.  Rather than acknowledging the cultural differences at play here and trying to come to an agreement, however, this person embarked on a mission to teach "Jonito" a lesson about "personal boundaries"- a term so Western that I'm sure "Jonito" would reference his "pipe" once more if and when she confronts him with it. The assumption that someone who is surely an adult needs to be publicly shamed by you hinders on an overwhelming sense of entitlement that can only create more tension in the long-run.

In order to avoid these types of tensions, we must first acknowledge the privileges we have  as expats- myself included. Acknowledgement alone does nothing to create social change; however, it's the first step to dismantling the barriers and misunderstandings that privilege invokes. My suggestions for going one step further is to form more relationships across the socioeconomic, cultural, and racial divides and become ever more aware of the how the society that you are in truly functions. Educate yourself on the history, culture, and politics, and engage in community efforts for change rather than assume change can only be imposed from well-meaning yet often problematic outsiders. Learn the local language. Fully integrating into your new home.

 Lastly, take that privilege and power down a notch, you're making the rest of us look bad.

Artwork at a local business