PCVs and American Expats

Peace Corps volunteers, despite their idealism and romantic reputation in the US, fall near the bottom rung of the expat hierarchy in the developing world. Some PCVs like it that way, some go native and forget they’re American altogether, some seethe with jealousy and/or disgust over the extravagant lifestyles and lack of integration of the higher rung expats, while others are madly networking to move up the ladder into a big white house with a matching Land Cruiser. Or at least that seems to be the experience in Georgia.

In Suriname, the expat community was small and the American community nearly non-existent so it didn’t seem quite so much the topic of conversation as it does here. The few Americans in Suriname at the time were easily classified as embassy, missionary, mining, or monkey researcher. In terms of friendships, the missionaries were out as the conversation usually began with, “Are you saved?” The mining executives were out on moral grounds as I took the bulldozing, flooding or poisoning of pristine rainforest fairly personally in those days. The monkey researchers were friends and I eventually joined them for six months in their tiny cabin in the rainforest for even less pay and amenities than a PCV.

The American embassy staff we met only at the occasional parties PCVs were invited to (usually Thanksgiving and 4th of July) where we spent most of our time jumping in the pool while downing as much food and liquor as possible. There was, however, one American embassy staffer who was friends with our entire group, even visiting PCVs in their villages and coming to our parties. And in return, we gladly accepted his offer of hot showers, internet, TV, and pool parties. Peace Corps staff did not like that friendship, of course—they frown on, and in some countries even forbid, fraternizing between PCVs and miscellaneous embassy staff.

Maybe there was some jealousy of the expat lifestyle in Suriname, or at least their access to hot water and cars, but mostly, PCVs were critical of the international development organizations in general who rode into the villages in their fancy white Land Cruisers a couple times a year and thought they knew what was happening. Of course I worked for an international NGO too, so I lived and worked somewhere in between worlds. But by the end of Peace Corps, my general feeling of the higher rung of the expat community was that it wasn’t a place I belonged or particularly wanted to join, which is partly why I didn’t stay on that career path.

Eight years later, I’m in Georgia because I wanted to revisit that career choice.

And once again I’m in an in between world, in the city, working for a Ministry. But in contrast to Suriname, the American expat community here is massive and diverse. The lowest rung starts, it seems, not with PCVs, but with the 500-1,000 (the number is fluid) English teachers here through a Georgian government program called Teach and Learn for Georgia (TLG). Then come the Peace Corps volunteers (superior beings on the volunteer scale, of course, at least in their own eyes), the many, many fellows and interns with the embassies and various NGOs, academic researchers, the international NGO staffers (sometimes paid on that international scale, sometimes not), and then on up to the business executives and various embassy staffers of every shape and size. (And this isn’t even considering all the European expats floating around) There are a few lifers, those who’ve married Georgians and stayed, but most expats are just passing through, maybe a few months, maybe two, four, six years. Some learn Georgian, most do not.

But expats are a rather looming influence on PCVs here. Like all new immigrants, the new arrivals (the TLGers) are the most disliked or demonized due to their perceived cultural inappropriateness. Rivaling them in animosity from PCVs, and even many NGO expats, are those towards the top of the caste system, the American government staffers (embassy, USAID, etc.)—the dislike is usually attributed to their privilege and bubble lifestyles. I’ve been exploring the expat community a lot more this trip and I’m trying to be a lot less judgmental this time. And I figure I’ll just hang-out with people I like and respect, whether they’re at the bottom of the expat rung or top, or shocking, I know, actually Georgian.

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9 Comments on “PCVs and American Expats

  1. Its nice to see Georgia is working hard on integrating and inviting foreigners to their state to work. Brilliant on their part. I couldnt help but remember that I actually dated a guy in Miami ( oh-so briefly) that knew you from the embassy in Suriname.
    How are you liking living on your own Edith?? Have you seen your former
    host family yet?

    • I admit we did gossip about that guy a bit….

      I’ve called my host-brother a couple times but haven’t spoken to him yet. I’ll probably wrangle a PCV who speaks Georgian to call my host-mother for me if I don’t get thru this week.

  2. Very balanced observations of ex-pat lifestyles, Edith. As a senior American who can’t afford to retire in this country, I’m considering ex-pat-ism myself. But perhaps a bit closer to home than somewhere in Europe….

    Would love to hear more of your adventures whenever (if) you get back to the Pacific NW.

    cheerio,
    Carolyn

    • I will definitely be up in Seattle in September for a few days. Enjoy the reunion–if you’re going?

  3. Good choice. It usually is best to judge people on their individual merits rather than according to which “group” they belong. And since you can label people according to any number of groups, it’s really not that helpful of a measurement.

    But it seems you got all the judging right. Personally, I don’t mind where I’m at, whether it’s in the hovel I live or in a posh apartment on Rustaveli. So, I don’t really mind where my friends are at.

  4. Hi there – I enjoyed your balanced review Edith. I think there is a general dislike of expats in the developing world: they are the wealthy minority flashing wealth, sometimes misbehaving, and imposing western standards on the impoverished majority. I am actually very drawn to expat life, but have promised myself to use the benfits for my savings account whilst fully integrating and respecting the local ways..

  5. I just got from a trip as a tourist to Jamaica and it is soo bittersweet to see the culture and environment diluted to be american tourist friendly but then folks got to eat. Some Ex-pats are not so bad but Americans are just too loud and fail to see what is approriate in many situations. I have also thought about living over seas many times but now am old enough to like my hot water, etc but still like to travel below the radar

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