The Expat Mongrel

*Spoken at The Big Fat Expat Meet-up at the Shangri-La Shanghai*

Before the pedigree plague of poodles of varying degrees, before the oodles, the spoodles, the cavoodles and groodles, or Golden Doodles depending on which part of the world you’re from (Australians stop giggling now) before the oodles – there was your basic mongrel. The family dog that came from the fair or the friend of a friend, a random litter from a kid at school, or in our case the cowering black puppy that we found underneath our house one day after school. Sam – our beautiful bitsa.

There was always a kid with a dog called Bitsa. “Whatdya call your dog bitsa for?”

“Cause she’s bits of this and bitsa that.”

I’m a true mongrel, there’s nothing pedigree about me. I’m the child of middle class country Australians, of vegemite on toast for breakfast, a pie with sauce from the school canteen at lunch, and chops and three vege for dinner. We stayed in motels not hotels, had Grandparents who caravaned “up north” each year. As a kid I remember making the trip to the city to go to the Adelaide Show, budgets were discussed, an allowance for one show bag, a couple of rides and a treat to eat. We stayed with an older single aunt dossing down in the spare room. On one visit while the grown ups talked I flicked my way through her magazines and discovered with great excitement that there was a competetion to be won for a trip to Disneyland. The pictures look amazing, it was the Adelaide show on steroids, I immediately found a pen, ripped out the page and began to apply.

“What are you doing?” my mother asked with curiosity.

“We can win a trip to Disneyland!” I couldn’t contain my excitement.

And with the honesty of a full time working mother living in country Australia she hit me with the cold hard truth.

“We’re not people who go to Disneyland darling. Where would we get the money to go to Disneyland? She was right, the closest we would get to an overseas trip was Tasmania.

We’re not people who go to Disneyland.

Who were we? We like most Aussies were bitsa’s. On my mother’s side there was a strong British background with the Irish and English well represented, but it was my father who made us a little more interesting. A great grandfather from China who arrived by boat as a crew member, we were always told he “jumped ship” lost his Chinese name and began his new life as John Egge. He started as a cook on river boats, paddlesteamers, and without boring you with the details he went on to become a legendary businessman of the river, a Captain and a pioneer. One of his boats was described as “the floating deparment store”. Captain John Egge, now has a statue in his honour, and is described as a remarkable gentleman.

John Egge became something I will never be – a successful immigrant. For I, maybe because of him, get to be an expat. I have the true priveledge of not having to search for a better place to live, my search is for an experience, an adventure, an opportunity.

And while like my ancestors I’ll make a new home – I’ll also always return home – perpetually geographically schizophrenic. A heart broken and scattered over several locations, each one holding a piece of my life and the person I was while there.

The first time I took my children to Disneyland was in California, we were expats in Calgary, and as we walked through the gates my second child, a toddler, squealed and raised her hands to her mouth in exclamation  “Loooooooooook! It’s Cinderella!” she broke free and ran to Cinderellas feet hugging the bottom of her dress. Our days were full of these moments while our nights were spent marvelling at fireworks and Disney shows – there were also margaritas, really good margaritas. It remains as one of our best family holidays.

The second time I took my children to Disneyland was in Hong Kong, we were expats on our way home to Australia for a family wedding. We surprised the children at the airport, they thought we were about to board another long flight – instead we hopped on bus to a Disney hotel with chandellers with hidden glass slippers, it was magical.

The third time I took my children to Disneyland we returned to California, just because it was so good the first time, and the fourth time? The fourth time we went to Disneyland we went to Paris on a holiday, and we spent a day remiscing about our North American lives while recreating new Disney memories. That evening as we stood huddled together sighing and gasping in wonder at the spectacular light show and Disney fireworks I took the time to watch my children’s faces, like really watch them as only a mother can, to see their pure enjoyment and gratitude, tears streaming down my face.

We were people that went to Disneyland.

There’s much discussion about the difference between an expat and an immigrant. Harsh words have been written about white privledge and socio-economic name tags, why would one group be called immigrants and another called expats. To me it’s very simple – if you haven’t immigrated, if you plan to go home, no matter who you are or where you come from you’re an expat. If you’ve made the life choice to move for opportunity, and invested in a new country, gained a new passport and began a new life – you’ve immigrated, like my ancestors.

Captain John Egge was born in Shanghai in 1830, Egge obviously wasn’t his real name (it’s actually Scandanavian) we still don’t know his real name, and I can’t see how we ever will, all traces of his Chinese heritage were lost over the years. All that remains is our thick dark dead straight hair and our slightly almond eyes. As I touched down in Shanghai yesterday I marveled over the landscape, and wished I knew more. I wondered how often he thought about his homeland, the smell, the flowers, the colour of Asia. Was there ever a time where he stood at the wheel of his paddle steamer on the river Murray thinking how the hell did I end up here? How much did he miss the food? How hard was it to never speak his language, practice his religion or recreate his culture. By all accounts he gave it all up to start a brand new life, he never looked back, only forward.

What’s the difference between an expat and an immigrant? Luck, we’re a lucky bunch of bitsas.

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  1. Darlene Foster says

    Excellent! You have such a great way with words.

  2. Zoe Wassermann says

    Such a good read, people always ask where we are from and I always say we are worse than the UN but I think bitsa is a much better way….

  3. Wonderful… too many people get hung up on labels, expat or immigrant we’re all “a bunch of bitsas”. Every country is a country of immigrants and we are indeed the lucky expats. I wish we knew as much of our heritage as you do, I’m thinking of getting us a genealogy blood test for our birthday’s this year.

  4. I just love Aussie terms born out of descriptive necessity. What a sweet post. Glad you got to see the land of your ancestor. Rest assured that this would have meant a lot to your great grandfather.

  5. Lucina Wuxi China says

    Yes, I agree. We are only expat and not immigrant because we have the privilege to go back anytime (sometimes…maybe). But as an immigrant, an expat is someone who gave up his own life, he leaved his parents alone, he left his familiar smells, his tastes, with the only certain that when and if he’ll be back he’ll be totally another person who has to start again to challenge himself in his own ex home.

  6. Jeremy Stocks says

    Hi just wished to say Hi, I liked your post about being a “spoilt” expat. I remember the disjointed feeling in Dhahran in Saudi where everyone back in Wales thought I lay by the pool all day. I’m in Germany now as a male “trailing” spouse so feel similar while my wife works. I follow the Middle East a lot. One hint: I know Qatar has “issues” at the moment, but keep calm and don’t take hasty decisions. I’ve been in that boat!

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