In our monthly column on life in Romania for foreigners, BR’s British writer ponders Western privilege and the ramifications of the expat/immigrant divide.
By Debbie Stowe
US author Mark Twain wrote a series of novels about friends Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, 19th-century Missouri boys who get into all sorts of scrapes. While they are best friends and do everything together, the two have different backgrounds. Tom is from a stable, middle-class family, while Huck’s father is a drunk and abusive vagrant. So after their adventures, Tom gets to back to his comfortable home, while Huck must live off his wits on the street. In short, Tom’s privilege protects him from the consequences of their shared actions.
Don’t worry – I haven’t filed an English literature essay instead of my expat column by mistake. Twain’s characters illustrate expat privilege, or the way that we Westerners living in Romania are protected from many of the consequences of our choice.
As most expats know, it’s easy to live the good life in Bucharest. Okay, it’s a bit less easy now than it used to be, thanks to climbing prices (RON 15 for a lemonade, good grief!), but it’s still doable. You bank your expat salary, or teach a few English lessons, or do your freelance work paid in foreign currency, then rent or buy your city center apartment or your Pipera house, taxi around town, eat in restaurants, not have to check prices, and so on.
(Caveat: I know some younger foreigners working in call centers might not have life quite so good; I’m talking about us “old guard”, who pitched up here before Romanian joined the EU.)
Being abroad, whether as an expat, student, tourist or traveler, is a great adventure – until things go wrong. Until you get arrested, or you or your family member gets sick, or an earthquake hits, or a nightclub burns down, or riot police haul you out of a taxi and beat you up. Even then, you still enjoy some protection and privilege. If you or your child has a chronic condition, you can fly home for treatment. You can visit your own dentist or doctor, in your modern medical system, while you’re home for Christmas or the summer. There is a powerful account on Facebook, by a survivor of the Colectiv fire, of the inadequate treatment for her burns and the Romanian authorities’ reluctance to accept offers from Western European countries to care for victims abroad, lest the state of their infections reveal the poor conditions of local hospitals.
Would the authorities have been quicker to allow a foreign Colectiv victim out of the country to more hygienic facilities? Probably. When I broke a bone about 15 years ago, and was left waiting in reception at a Bucharest public hospital, ignored by staff, my partner announced, “This is a British citizen, and if she doesn’t get seen at once you’re going to have big problems from the British Embassy.” I was seen at once. (The embassy wouldn’t have done anything, by the way, it was a bluff – a well-judged one.)
Would the police have been quicker to respond and taken the situation more seriously if a foreign teenager had called them for help than in the horrific tragedy reported in Caracal?
Expat, or Western, privilege exists in everything from higher salaries and treatment by the authorities to how friends, colleagues, business associates, even strangers on the street, respond to you. Would a Romanian living in London be offered a monthly column in which to vent their thoughts about their host country? I can’t see it.
It goes back to the whole expat/immigrant disparity. Why are rich people in poor countries, or white people in brown countries expats, while poor people in rich countries and brown people in white countries are immigrants? Why do we get city center apartments, good tables and friendly service in restaurants, and they get told to speak English, or vans driving around with “go home” on the side.
At the risk of going all “imagine there’s no countries”, why can’t things be a bit fairer?
Although, with the pound currently in free-fall thanks to the lunatic debacle that is Brexit, the financial advantage that many of us sterling-earning Brits enjoy will soon disappear anyway. Bring on immigrant status!