In Defense of the Expat Bubble

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Expat bubble is a phrase that usually has negative connotations; whenever we hear it, it’s usually to exhort us to burst, escape, or avoid it, or to invite us to disparage those who luxuriate in its hermetic warmth. To many, the bubble is a perfect and all-encompassing barrier that signals a desire to keep the unfamiliar at bay. To burst someone’s bubble is to disabuse them of a fantasy, and expat bubbles are likewise seen as artificial oases in the midst of an otherwise authentic cultural setting.

While some expats can’t live within the bubble, some can’t live without it. I recently read a rare and spirited defense of the expat bubble by Alyssa Abkowitz, which begins from the proposition that expat life can be tiring and hard:

 

“The idea of wanting the simple comforts of home in a foreign land is understandable, particularly after braving language, logistical and cultural hurdles throughout the day. These bubbles let expats’ brains take a much-needed rest.”

 

Hard to disagree with that. I’ve had my share of trying days in Korea and can certainly relate to what she’s saying, though the bubbles in Busan tend not to encompass entire neighborhoods but smaller spaces like pubs or private homes (I think of my old friend and the “Korea Stops Here” sign that hung on his door).

In the piece, Abkowitz highlights five cities, and it seems that the cities that Westerners tend to find more livable (like Singapore and Hong Kong) had the most dispersed expat communities, while the grittier cities (New Delhi, Bangkok, Jakarta) were more likely to have Western enclaves.

Criticism of the bubble tends to assume that everyone came abroad to have some kind of growth experience, but that’s not necessarily true, particularly of company-assigned expats. Those of us who chose to come here and were attracted by adventure may find ourselves looking down our noses at the bubble dwellers (though strangely we’re also likely to be charmed by the expat bubbles ethnic neighborhoods in our hometowns), but the fact is not everyone is looking to burst it.

Whether or not one chooses to live in the bubble seems to have a lot to do with where you live and why you went there in the first place. The situation here in Busan seems to support that working hypothesis, with the company folks clustered around the glass towers of Marine City, and the long-term expats scattered far and wide.

What are your thoughts on the expat bubble?

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