Edward Said, Orientalism, and Responsible Expatriation

Novels like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, George Orwell’s Burmese Days, and  E.M. Forster’s Passage to India provide a gateway to the expatriate experience of the late 19th and early 20th century, and the often oppressive and dark contexts that formed the backdrop for the characters adventures, turmoils and struggle.

From Left: Joseph Conrad, George Orwell, and E.M. Forster.

A quick look at the author’s pictures above illustrates an obvious commonality between them, namely, they are three white men from the West and who in their novels wrote about their time spent in the “East” (note: While Joseph Conrad’s novel takes place in Africa, I would argue the same principles of “otherness” from the West associated with “the Orient” still apply).

Of course, this is no fault in and of itself; in fact, Orwell and Conrad are personal favorites of mine. But there is significant complexity to be found in the dynamic between Western writers and Eastern culture and how the culture in which the writer places themselves is portrayed.

This dynamic is spelled out in detail by Edward Said, a professor at Columbia University who in 1978 authored his landmark book at the time, Orientalism. In it, Said explains the bias that the West has towards itself across disciplines when evaluating, reporting on and exploring Eastern cultures (what he refers to as “the Orient”) and the near impossibility of a Westerner to fairly, accurately and responsibly depict Eastern cultures, and the imbalance of power this creates. It is this imbalance of power that the term Orientalism refers to and the distortion of perception that results.  

Fast-forward to modern expatriation, and expats are far more likely to find themselves opening a coffee shop or working in technology, serving and working aside local people as equals, than they are witnessing the scenes of explicit oppression such as the “shackled monsters” of Conrad’s tale or the “Indians incapable of responsibility” in Passage to India.  Void of any direct oppressive or imperialist activity or behavior, it would seem unnecessary for the professional expat of today to concern themselves with the potential for propagating Orientalism in any way.

But to write off the ideas of Orientalism completely is to be mistaken. From Facebook posts to Instagram pictures to travel blogs, the modern expat is as responsible as ever for how they portray the countries in which they find themselves a guest. The difficulties faced by the Conrad’s and Orwell’s of history when reporting Eastern cultures from Western perspectives are now faced by every Sue and Sam with a smartphone and social media platform, and that responsibility is not one to be taken lightly.

I want to illustrate the potential influence an expat can have using Said’s argument by providing his definition of Orientalism, and using his idea of Orientalism to explain the pitfalls of Western expatriate reporting and how Orientalism still applies in the modern era.

Defining Orientalism

Our perception of the world is tainted by a forever changing stain on the lens’ of our perspective. For Edward Said, a prime example of this is how the power relationship between the West and East can taint the West’s perceptions of Eastern culture. Diana Lary, in her essay “Edward Said: Orientalism and Occidentalism,” provides a short summation of some of Said’s argument in Orientalism. She writes:

“One of the major themes running through Said’s work is the distortion that power relations between the West and the Orient brings to scholarship; scholars of the powerful nations instinctively treat the history, and the present, of less powerful peoples as inferior, childish, or at a lower stage of development.”

And the power struggle in this case is not just about comparing the size of nations or its armies. It is the West’s ability to develop standards of legitimacy across disciplines without the input of those who the West then uses those standards to judge.

Said writes of the privileged position of expats in the East throughout history, writing that “the scientist, the scholar, the missionary, the trader, or the soldier was in, or thought about, the Orient because he could be there, or could think about it, with very little resistance on the Orient’s part” and Said saw this ability to examine the orient as “..as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient…”.

The luxury to observe other cultures results in Westerners having the opportunity to develop, control and share the narrative of the East with the rest of the West, a narrative developed through the eyes of a Westerner and without the input of the Eastern subjects themselves. Peering into the thought and culture of “the other,” the West enjoys the power of creating stories that fit the narrative of an already preconceived notion of what “the Orient” is.

The Pitfalls of Expatriate Reporting

One of the issues that Said articulates about expatriate reporting is the difficulty of accurate reporting. He begs the question, “Isn’t there an obvious danger of distortion (of precisely the kind that academic Orientalism has always been prone to) if either too general or too specific a level of description is maintained systematically?” Meaning, to extrapolate a perceived trend of behavior, thought or belief across an entire region of the world is to be so general and inaccurate as to be worthless, but to try and narrow down the event with a list of contingencies — “In this instance, under these circumstances, this one person from the East acted like this”—is too narrow to be useful.

This choice between broad and narrow representation is found throughout expatriate novels. “Native” characters tend to either be a caricature of the West’s perception of the East or simply have no voice at all.  Neither the unspoken character, whose thoughts and actions are general to the point of nonexistence, nor the cultural caricature can be used as any representation of reality.

And these authors have not only the power to present an entire region to their compatriots back home, but also to build the identity of Eastern people in the eyes of the West for its readers.

As Said writes, this lays the foundation for the West to begin forming its distorted understanding of foreign cultures. He explains:

“Thus a very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts…”

From already controlled and distorted narratives, the West begins to formulate their understanding of the “Orient,” its culture and its people, extrapolating even further to create general theories that are so far removed from the original source as to be ridiculous.    

The Responsibility of the Modern Expat

With the exception of a few select hermit nations, the modern era and the technological advances brought with it have forced nations, to varying extents, to submit to the transparency that tools such as social media afford.

Having said that, the interest that people from the West have in the state of Eastern nations and the intricacies of other cultures is varying, and the information that people do read about other cultures is limited to only a few select sources. These of course include national media outlets and documentaries. But they also include the personal reporting by travel bloggers and expats who share their stories with friends, family or online followers.

And just like the power wielded by Conrad or Orwell, the modern expat has a similar, or even identical, power to control the perception of large swaths of people through their reports back home to family, friends or online networks as they share stories of their travels abroad. They are the gateway through which information about a culture passes through, and it is in their power, just as it has always been for authors reporting home, to chose what they share and how they share it.

Posts such as Nomadic Matt’s post “Why I Will Never Return to Vietnam” (I chose not to provide the link to his site) which can now be found across the internet and has collected hundreds of comments illustrates this potential influence. This is not to say Matt’s post is wrong (though after two years in Vietnam I certainly can’t reconcile my Vietnam experience with his). It is only to illustrate the power that a few hundred words can have in the perception that people hold of a country or area of the world, how that perception can influence action (people not wanting to visit Vietnam anymore) and also the limitations faced when summarizing an entire country and culture in 1,000 words.

I feel this burden of responsibility personally. With almost no other information, or no interest in knowing more about Vietnam, I am the de facto number one source of information on life in Vietnam for my close friends and family. To some extent, I control their perception of Vietnamese culture and Vietnamese people through the stories I tell and the way that I present my experience in Vietnam. And this is a responsibility that I and anyone else living abroad should at least acknowledge.

A Positive Final Note

Despite all of the limitations of expatriate reporting, Said does offer hope and a vision for what an international community can look like and what must be overcome in order to achieve it:

“Rather than the manufactured clash of civilizations, we need to concentrate on the slow working together of cultures that overlap, borrow from each other, and live together in far more interesting ways than any abridged or inauthentic mode of understanding can allow. But for that kind of wider perception we need time and patient and skeptical inquiry, supported by faith in communities of interpretation that are difficult to sustain in a world demanding instant action and reaction.”

It is the duty of the expat to do their best to at least acknowledge their limitations in providing fair assessments of other cultures and to try and do so as judiciously as possible. As Said makes clear, the task of reporting is at best challenging and for the reporter is riddled with limitations.

We should of course share stories of adventure and travel, and the act of doing so is important. But doing so with the awareness of the responsibility we have to the countries we are guests in is equally as important as the telling of  the stories themselves.

What do you think the responsibility of an aspect is in how they portray their host country? Let me know on Twitter at @12hrdifference.


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Aaron Horwath Written by:

Since graduating from the University of Portland in 2014, I have worked abroad. Currently, I live and work in Da Nang, Vietnam as the Head of Global Training at an international technology company. Through my blog, I share my experiences of working abroad to give others a glimpse into international life and help them decide if working internationally is right for them.