Expatriatism: International Academics go to Camp
I’ve recently returned from a multi-day international conference, one of the best perks about academia. They are usually a real treat, since you get to chat and debate with people who know your field as well as you do. Plus, they tend to be in pretty interesting places and since that’s part of the appeal, when the conference is done, you can legitimately throw in some exploring as well.
I’ve been to 5 or 6 of these and in describing them to a friend in another line of work, was told that they sound like summer camp: you arrive in an unfamiliar location, with the local university faculty to act as guides (or counsellors?); you make instant friends and stick together like you’ve been friends your whole life; you eat meals together, go to activities together (lectures, papers, wine and cheese receptions, group tours), and usually sleep in the same dorms (or hotels). What you need to complete that atmosphere is a ready group of enthusiastic campers – people who jump right in and get involved in all of the activities and make friends.
That this particular conference was about imperialism (particularly with reference to the British Empire, but not exclusively) made this ‘camp culture’ all the more interesting. The recent publication of Robert Bickers’s edited volume for the Oxford History of the British Empire, Settlers and Expatriates, coincided with an increased interest in what life was like for those who left the metropole to travel, work, and live within the empire. So it was not surprising that there were a number of papers on this theme at the conference. What was more surprising was the number of expatriate academics in attendance.
Of the three British plenary speakers, 3 now work in the US. I met British academics working in Hong Kong and Macau, an Australian academic working in Denmark, an Indian student studying in Sweden, Canadians academics in the US, American academics in Britain, a British student who had studied in Malaysia, a Dutch academic who had studied in Britain. Even more than this, those academics who stayed in their home countries (and there were certainly plenty of them too) had significant experience of travelling, with many spending time out of the country on research trips or to study.
Rather unsurprisingly, then, I couldn’t help but think of expat/settler cultures in the empire. There’s a lot of research on the way that settler societies interacted with each other and with their surrounding environments and indigenous populations. Settler societies were known to be particularly hierarchical and rigid in the face of larger indigenous populations (they thought they had to appear more ‘civilized’ and superior in order to enforce their control). But expats are a more elusive bunch, usually defined by their heterogeneity and their integration into some local institutions, if not always for the temporary nature of their relocation. Expats are harder to differentiate in history from ‘immigrants’ or ‘migrants’ and tend to be grouped together because of wealth or high skill levels. But this ‘camp’ mentality can be seen in the clubs, pageants, fancy dress parties, sports days, Christmas parties, and in general the ‘European’ exclusivity of colonial situations. Expats shared the instant friendship; the love-hate relationship with local institutions, food and customs; and a sense of belonging to a wider international community. The dark side of this was the exclusion of people deemed different; a disdain for and ignorance of local culture and traditions; and a sense of superiority for belonging somewhere else.
Luckily – and hopefully since they were imperial historians who knew better! – with this particular group of expat academics, these nastier aspects of expat culture were absent. Which made it a really great conference group full of people ready to jump right into whatever the counsellors…er…faculty had ready for us!