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Expat life and gated communities; an observation

Updated: Dec 16, 2023

I am cat sitting again, this time in a neighbourhood in The Hague where lots of expats live and work. There’s a German international school in the neighbourhood. Upon passing by for the first time, I noticed the secured fencing around the school, and the heightened glass walls around the play yard. It immediately struck something inside of me… Something about this sight feels “off”.

Gated communities are on the rise worldwide. Luckily in the Netherlands, it’s a very unusual occurrence. A gated building, no matter its function, creates an immediate and strong separation from its surroundings. As if we, the outside world, need to be kept at a distance. Government buildings strongly convey this with their presence: they are big, powerful, wealthy and literally tower over citizens. Clearly these buildings are not build with the idea to be approachable. As if either what goes on behind the doors is none of my business, or as if I’m part of an outside world that is a threat to theirs.

In the case of the German school, I wonder: What message are they sending out to the neighbourhood, but especially to the children? That the outside world is a dangerous place? A threat to be protected from, and the kids need to be locked in for? I imagine, the impact on the children, plays out at an unconscious level. I even called the school because I was curious to hear what they had to say. Unforuntately the lady on the phone didn't have a clue. My guess, and experience, is that this is standard procedure for international schools. Given the variety of children in such schools, coming from parents with high level jobs for governments and such, the extra security measures are common.

It reminded me of my childhood, where I lived with my parents abroad as “expatriates". We lived in compounds: so called enclosures for a specific group of people, usually employees from multinationals from the global North. Every street inhabited mostly Dutch, Belgium, British and German families. In the gated community, there are often all kinds of facilities such as swimming pools, sports facilities and restaurants, catered to the expat community. Traditions of our home countries are kept alive through regular festivities. Locals are not seen (or allowed) into the area, unless they are working there, usually as cleaners or gardeners. Thinking about it now, it touches the same feeling inside me: that something is "off".

I do understand the reasoning: Expats regularly travel (either for work or back home), and given the big wealth differences with local communities, the threat of burglary is, in some (parts of) countries, real. In some cases, it's the felt threat more so than the real threat that drives expats and wealthy locals to live in gated communities. Also, for the international companies its an easy way to provide housing for their employees and to quickly make them feel at home. Thus, a gated community provides a feeling of ‘home away from home’ and a sense of safety. Yet, the setting of Western owner and, in the case of my childhood, Thai server, shines a light on the persistent racial hierarchy and inequality in the world. And more so, the gated community with its own facilities, radiates a lack of (willingness to) connect with local communities.

We have grown so accustomed to the extreme divergence and racial inequality between the global North and South, that we Westerners barely think about the impact of our presence abroad. Imagine for a moment the following: a Chinese multinational would set foot in Holland (okay nothing new here), and multiple Chinese compounds would arise. They have their own restaurants, sports facilities, and uphold their own traditions. The Dutch are only allowed to enter for work related reasons: to serve the Chinese expatriate community.

I am pretty sure, many Dutch people would find this somewhat unsettling. Questions would pop up, such as: Are they even trying to integrate? Are their customs compatible with our societal norms and values? What do we gain from their presence? Why are they gated; are we seen as a threat? Yes, the big difference in this example between the Dutch expats in Thailand and Chinese expats in Holland, is the wealth aspect. But still… it wouldn’t be unreasonable if Thai residents had similar contemplations as we Dutch would about the Chinese expats.

“When You Have More Than You Need, Build A Longer Table Not A Higher Fence”

So, while there are sometimes valid and practical reasons to live in a guarded community, I observe the rise of gated communities with a certain worry. Imagine a world where everyone lives behind high walls and heavy fencing, where we watch everyone that looks different with suspicion, imagine how that would feel...

If the conclusion is that a gated community is necessary; in what ways can expats show an openness to connect with local communities? Are there spaces where one could mingle, exchange, show interest and a willingness to adapt to the local culture? Could locals be invited to festivities to get to know their foreign neighbours? At least, those working in the compound, and their family and friends? Could the facilities tailored to expats, be open to everyone, and perhaps placed outside of the compound? Just some thoughts...

**These are some observations from my own experience. I haven’t read any articles on this topic, so I am sure I am missing some crucial aspects, and I am aware I have not fully captured all sides to the story. That is also not my intention. As always, I share from personal experience on this blog and not with the aim to write a scientific essay. Please read and respond with this in mind.



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