The Hierarchy of expats: A lesson in tolerance

OLGA MECKING Culturs guest contributor logo

“These Turks in Germany, they’re not interested in getting integrated. They have their own shops and their own districts and they don’t even know German”- my German father-in-law says sometimes.

I don’t want to argue with him. After a while, I got tired of explaining how hard it is to live and work in a country that doesn’t really want you except to perform menial labor for the lowest wages.

I don’t want to tell him that if he was the one living abroad, he would want – and be allowed to – maintain his cultural heritage rather than be expected to adapt. Privilege can make people blind sometimes.

A Guardian article from a while back argued that immigrants are black but expats are white. This is not exactly the case. Instead, there is a hierarchy to the various people who live abroad, depending on the country of origin and skin color.

This is no different in the Netherlands where I live. Here, being a local is best, but if your native tongue is English, you’re OK. Locals may complain about your lack of willingness to learn Dutch while simultaneously insisting on speaking English with you, but you’re OK. If you’re German or French, or from most of any other, Western EU-countries you’re just as OK.

…there is a hierarchy to the various people who live abroad, depending on the country of origin and skin color.

But if you’re Polish, for example, you’re suddenly less OK, but still better than if you were, say, Bulgarian or Rumanian, Russian or Ukrainian. If you’re from outside of the EU, that’s even worse. And the further away your country of origin and darker your skin tone, the less OK you are.

I don’t know where the cut—off is between expat and immigrant but it’s not about skin color since there are plenty of white people who are considered to be immigrants. They’re better off than many dark-skinned people but they’re still lower in the hierarchy than are locals and Westerners.

By origin, I must be somewhere in the middle. I am Polish and therefore, in the mentality of Dutch people, below Western Europeans. However, my being married to a German man elevates me.

When we are in Germany, people tell me, “you speak almost accent-free German.” It’s always said with stress on “almost.” It means: “We know you’re making an effort but you’re still not one of us. You’ll never be one of us.” I can only begin to imagine what it must be like for people whose German is less “good.”

I used to work for a German company as call center agent. I never had any problems but customers never complained about me because my German is near-to-perfect. But a friend of mine whose German is good but who speaks with a distinctly Polish accent, was repeatedly told off by her customers: “Can you please give me someone who speaks proper German?”

But if you’re a foreigner and you complain about your problems with finding a job you won’t be met with understanding. You’ll be told, in the words of Dutch minister Mark Rutte, that “you have a choice. Either you’ll be offended or you can decide to stay and fight. Foreigners in the Netherlands always had to adapt.” You’ll be told you need to behave like a native, learn the language, become a local.

But if you’re a foreigner and you complain about your problems with finding a job you won’t be met with understanding.

No matter that even if you do happen to speak the language perfectly, but your name is “weird,” by which I mean not local-sounding, you may not get invited for that interview or will have to start again at a job that is way under your competencies or education level.

Mark Rutte calls on the Dutch not to judge foreigners, but it doesn’t change the fact that racism and xenophobia are a daily occurrence all over the world, including Germany and the Netherlands – even though both countries consider themselves enlightened and tolerant.

At the same time, there are of plenty black travelers who don’t fit the stereotype that says: “whites travel to save and blacks travel to be saved.”

In the end, it’s easy to blame everything, including lack of will to adapt on the black immigrant, especially if one is in a position of power. After all, he’s at the very bottom of the expat food chain.

We’re often trying to determine another human being’s position in the expat hierarchy to help us understand how we relate to them (with the assumption, of course, that no expat can be as good as a local). I have a better idea: if we’re privileged and way up in that food chain, let’s shut our mouths, open our ears and listen instead.


Olga Mecking is a Polish woman living in the Netherlands with her German husband and three tri-lingual children. She is a blogger, writer and translator. The European Mama is a blog about  life abroad, raising children and traveling. She also is a regular contributor to  Multicultural Kid Blogs, where she is a member of the board. Her writings have been published on Scary Mommy, Mamalode and The Huffington Post. When not blogging or thinking about blogging, she can be found reading books, drinking tea or cooking. You can join her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest

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  1. Great article! To quote one Dutch friend of mine:” Unfortunately it will take many years and probably lots of outrage and activism before mainstream Dutch society is ready to look at itself critically in this regard.”

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