The JGM BitBlog: From former colonial masters to current day expatriates

Journal of Global Mobility

Christopher Richardson, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Malaysia

Living and working abroad can be hugely rewarding in many ways, but, as regular readers of JGM will be aware, it is not without its hardships. Removing oneself from familiar surroundings and adjusting to a different set of norms and values, both in the workplace and outside it, isn’t always easy. A lot of research has of course gone in to exploring the myriad challenges expatriates face in their sojourns abroad, with some of the most common themes relating to cultural differences both inside and outside the workplace and the failure of accompanying family members to successfully adapt to the changes in their own lives. These are certainly all very important observations, but what if an extra layer of complexity were added to the mix: what if a manager were to find themself working in a land that was once a colony of their home country – and one with particularly painful, and fairly fresh, memories of this colonial period? This study was motivated by this question not only because it is interesting in itself but also because, given geopolitical trends of (relatively) recent human history (at the end of the Second World War, nearly a third of the world’s population lived under some form of colonial rule), many people do actually find themselves in such situations.

A reasonable supposition would be that expatriates might find it particularly difficult under these conditions. After all, there may be some residual bitterness and suspicion among host-country nationals (HCNs) towards anyone and anything connected to the former colonial power. But what we see from a number of related studies is quite the opposite: expatriates working in former colonial outposts of their home countries are very often well-adjusted and rather positive about their lives, both in and outside the office. One reason put forward relates to what Edward Said called ‘imaginative geographies’, which involves the construction of an essentialist binary hierarchical sense of self/other. These imaginative geographies, it has been argued, linger to the present day among certain expatriates from former colonial powers, manifesting in ‘expatriate bubbles’ that separate them both physically and socially from locals. In other words, what this strand of literature suggests is that the positive experiences reported in these studies relate in large part to the minimal overlap in the lives of expatriates and HCNs, rather than any sort of organic cordiality and affection between them.

Given that much of the research in this area has had a somewhat European slant to it (i.e. the expatriate participants have tended to be from European former colonial powers working in ex-colonies of their home countries), this paper attempted a slightly different context: that of Japanese expatriates working in Malaysia. Today of course the two countries in question regard one another as partners and allies on many fronts. But for a brief period during the Second World War, Malaya (as it was known at the time) was governed by the Japanese – an episode widely regarded as being the grimmest in the nation’s history. How might such a history affect Japanese managers in Malaysia, and HCNs working alongside them?

The broad answer seems to be that, like some of the other studies done in other contexts, it doesn’t really have a negative impact; the managers who were interviewed were largely positive about – or at the very least, accepting of – their time in the country. What was perhaps most interesting, though, was that people in certain jobs actually benefited quite substantially as a result of the colonial period from eight decades earlier. Some of the participants in the study (one expatriate and two HCNs), for example, work for a Japan-Malaysia research and cultural institute which teaches and researches the present and historical ties between the countries. For the Japanese expatriate here, an academic, being in Malaysia is clearly advantageous as he is close (geographically, if not chronologically) to the source of much of his work. Also, among the participants here were two women who run (separate) travel agencies aimed at the Japanese market. While most of their customers seek out the beaches and colourful cities that Malaysia has to offer, a small but growing number are interested in understanding the country’s history and the role their own country played in this history. Without necessarily being proud of Japan’s legacy in the region, the managers of these travel agencies acknowledge that it is an increasingly important part of their business, as ‘dark tourism’ becomes more and more popular.

One of the implications of the study is the inspiration we can take from the accounts reported here. Although there was a dark period in their countries’ relations just 80 years ago, Japan and Malaysia have for several decades now moved on and established a much warmer relationship with each other, and these positive vibes appear to have trickled down to expatriates and HCNs. Rather than seeking to completely erase the painful memories of the past, we can learn from them and appreciate even more what we have today.

To read the full article, please see the Journal of Global Mobility publication:

Richardson, C. (2022), "It's all in the past: how do colonial legacies between host and home countries affect the expatriate experience?", Journal of Global Mobility, Vol. 10 No. 1, pp. 36-54.