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The 6 Characters You'll Meet At Every Expat Bar

by Matthew Guttentag Dec 9, 2008

Could he be #2 – The English Teacher? / Photo by Rene Ehrnhardt

From South America to Southeast Asia, from the Middle East to the Middle Kingdom, every town that sees tourists has one: the ex-pat bar.

It’s never hard to find your way there – all you need to do is follow the American music which is old enough to feel stale without being old enough to feel hip and look for a chalkboard sign advertising a European football match.

But no matter where you are, the same set of people manages to populate every one these ex-pat haunts, so read on to identify who’s who and save yourself some valuable mingling time.

1. The Overpaid Aid Worker

You can easily pick out this character by the imported beer on his table and the way he litters his speech with acronyms: USAID, NGO, MFI, MPP.

If it’s a weekday night, he might nurse his beer while tapping away on his MacBook, shooting off emails to his friends in D.C., or maybe to the alumni listserve of a bastion of East Coast higher education.

This year he’s empowering women in Latin America, but two years ago he was working on democracy promotion in Bangladesh, and next year it’s off to Thailand to oversee microfinance development.

Is there any world problem this whiz can’t solve on a two-year contract, armed only with his cushy salary, company car, and housing stipend?

Before you get a chance to answer that, though, he will: there’s “real progress” being made at the “grass roots level” with his current initiative. Another European microbrew, please!

2. The English Teacher

This guy couldn’t get a job after college back home, so he’s managed to put to use the one qualification which will always make him stand out abroad: native English speaker.

You can find him sitting at the bar, taking shots of the local brand of firewater with one of his young female “private lessons” by his side. Sure, he can barely string a sentence together in a conversation, much less on paper, but he found the loophole in the system — his wonderfully Western face and accent!

He can barely string a sentence together in a conversation, much less on paper, but he found the loophole in the system — his wonderfully Western face and accent!

Now instead of stocking shelves back home, he’s got status overseas. Hey, that online TEFL degree was $200 and took a couple of weeks to finish, so give him some respect.

If the bartender knows his name, that means The English Teacher has probably been around long enough to let his rise in status get to his head, and he’s already progressed to the dreaded next stage of ex-patdom: The Wannabe Travel Writer.

If this is the case, no matter how nice he looks, avoid starting a conversation at all costs, unless you’re in the mood to spend your night listening to interminable stories about how much better Macchu Picchu was the way he did it.

3. The Diplomat’s Wife

She shows up every night at five o’clock on the dot, ready for happy hour surrounded by the group of four ex-pat wives who make up the town’s Western high society network in its entirety.

The Diplomat’s Wife will without fail order the one martini on the menu, and will without fail mention how unfortunate it is that “you can’t even get a decent martini around here.”

She spends her days doing her best to avoid the fact that she no longer lives in the land of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods by shuttling between the one grocery store which stocks imported goods and the one coffee shop which has made a few token efforts to imitate Starbucks.

Any conversation with The Diplomat’s Wife will inevitably come around to all the ways in which “the locals” make life difficult, from stalling the delivery of her shipped furniture to routinely botching her weekly hair and nail appointment.

4. The Idealist

A young, doe-eyed recent grad, The Idealist can be found clutching the local bottom-of-the-barrel brew to show his solidarity with the people.

Don’t be fooled into thinking the backpacker in the corner with the Che shirt is The Idealist; no, The Idealist threw that shirt away after freshman year, when everyone else started wearing it, and instead sticks to his tried-and-true collection of ironically-named indie band tees.

If you want to start a conversation with The Idealist, casually mention that you’ve been looking into WWOOFing later in your trip – The Idealist has already WWOOFed in countries you can’t even find on a map and isn’t afraid to tell you all about it.

Plus, The Idealist has a friend of a friend who’s volunteering where you’re thinking of going right now! When not putting up postings for activist events on the community bulletin board, The Idealist can often be seen trying to strike up a conversation on grad programs with his future self, The Overpaid Aid Worker.

5. The Lifer
Nobody knows much of anything about The Lifer other than the fact that he’s been in town as long as anyone can remember.

Who is this leather-faced man, camped out on a stool which has over the years conformed to his shape, taking half-bottle gulps of the mid-range national beer between whisky shots?

He’s The Lifer, and nobody knows much of anything about him other than the fact that he’s been in town as long as anyone can remember.

Where does his money come from? How did he end up here? It’s all a mystery.

But one thing’s for sure, when The Lifer first came through town, that’s when “travel was real, man.”

The Lifer is good for a few amusing stories involving the ingestion of huge quantities of drugs which haven’t existed since the mid-80’s, but be careful: he’s not in any hurry to get anywhere, so you could be in for a long night.

6. The New Ager

The New Ager is hard to miss. She’s the one dressed up in the clothes which the locals import from India to sell to the tourists as “authentic native garb” and the necklace she bought at the market with a rock pendant that a street kid found on the ground and hawked to her as a “lifeforce crystal.”

The New Ager eschews soul-sucking alcohol altogether, and instead opts to sip gingerly on her herbal tea. A conversation with The New Ager might seem normal to begin with, but you won’t get very far before she casually mentions the fact that your aura is looking a little bit greenish today.

She’ll believe absolutely anything you can possibly make up, so long as you throw in something about indigenous peoples or Eastern religions, so go ahead, try her:

Has she heard that the wood of the bar top was specially crafted by a local medicine man out of a tree bark which cleanses the kidneys? No, but she’ll give it a lick to find out. Did she know that a certain sect of Buddhism teaches that when we stick our tongue to our nose, only then do we truly connect to God?

The New Ager’s way of looking deeply into your eyes and constantly using your name can be off-putting at first, but as you get deeper into your cups, she can become a valuable source of entertainment.

Any expat characters we missed? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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