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Under fire: why we’re targets and what we can do about it

Would you rather blend in or stand out?

As expatriates, most of us don’t really have a choice. Despite our most earnest attempts at modesty, we simply can’t escape the fact that we’re different. Even though many of us will come to love the places we settle in for years at a time, that won’t change the fact that we’ll always appear to be fresh-faced tourists to the native population.

Most of the times we attract attention with the standard “you’re-not-from-around-here” stares. Growing up in China in the early ’90s, I recall my sister’s best friend often getting gawked at on the street because she was blonde. But what happens when the question “would you rather blend in or stand out?” isn’t so much about vanity or inconvenience, but rather one of survival? What happens when the attention becomes hostile, like in the November terror attacks in Mumbai?

Initial reports indicated that some of the 10 gunmen were targeting those with British and American passports. Also of concern was the fact that popular hotels, a Jewish center, and Café Leopold, a well-known foreigner hangout, were among the locations assaulted. In the aftermath of the attacks, it has become apparent that the terrorists were indiscriminate, unleashing their violence upon all of Mumbai, as the International Herald Tribune reports 18 foreigners killed among the 180 casualties.

In today’s world, we’re targeted for many reasons. Most of the time it’s as simple and obvious as where we’re from. We’re singled out because we represent our passport countries, even though many of us have barely lived in them (if at all). While we know that the policies and ideas of our native governments don’t define us, we forget that others around us can be quick to judge and that extremist factions deal in absolutes.

It’s worth noting that we’re not always targeted for what we represent. Sometimes we’re targeted for a much more tangible motive: money. Typically seen as wealthy by the local population, expats historically come from wealthier countries and are compensated handsomely with travel stipends. In Terrorism and U.S. Foreign Policy (2004), Paul R. Pillar notes that Americans abroad are frequently targeted for ransom, with some companies seeing “the occasional ransom payment as a cost of doing business in some parts of the world.”

A remnant of the Mumbai attacks at Cafe Leopold. Courtesy of DitB from Flickr.
A remnant of the Mumbai attacks at Cafe Leopold. Courtesy of DitB from Flickr.

A Lifetime Shaped Under Fire

Owen McMullen, an American, has lived in the United States, Sri Lanka, Gabon, South Africa, Fiji, Myanmar, and Eritrea. Over his lifetime, McMullen has been targeted by terrorists in South Africa, witnessed a coup in Fiji, and been affected by bombings in Burma.

While McMullen was living in South Africa, PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism And Drugs) terrorists attempted to storm the American embassy, burned the stars and stripes, and blew up Western targets like the Cape Town Planet Hollywood. Because of the heightened regional tension after the high profile embassy bombings in nearby Kenya and Tanzania, he found himself, an 11-year-old American as a direct terrorist target. In all his years overseas, McMullen remembers the incident as his scariest.

“My family had an escape plan if they tried to attack us at our house, which, according to the local police was possible,” recalls McMullen, the son of a high-ranking embassy official. At a time when he was barely entering middle school, McMullen came away from the PAGAD attacks with incredible caution, paying attention to the most minute security details like locking doors.

“There wasn’t much I could do because I was young… except listen to my parents and stay positive,” McMullen said.

Such adversity would be helpful in mentally preparing McMullen for what was to come. After moving to Fiji, the McMullens found themselves in yet another dangerous situation in 2000. While rebels held the Fijian Prime Minister and Parliament members hostage at gunpoint, the country (most notably Suva, the capital where the McMullens resided) was overcome by violent skirmishes and widespread looting. McMullen and his family left the country for three months, returning only after the coup ran its course and the perpetrators were captured. While it may be possible that McMullen was too young to fully grasp the enormity of the situation in South Africa, in Fiji the coup’s complex racial undertones and nationalistic implications left an impression on him.

“It definitely left a sour taste,” says McMullen, who hasn’t been back to Fiji since.

Now in high school at the International School of Yangon, Burma, McMullen has had to face another international crises that would strike close to home: bombings. The bombed targets were very familiar to him: one was a popular modern mall where his friends played pool, the other was the City Mart, a supermarket where his mom shopped weekly. The bombings occured at the very end of his enjoyable time in Burma, disrupting his senior year celebrations. Although McMullen left shortly thereafter to attend Drake University in Iowa, he has been back to Burma since and remains friends with many of his ISY classmates.

Crisis: Before, During, and After

Few people have been in situations like McMullen. But in learning his story, I began to wonder about the measures we should take to protect ourselves while overseas. There are different things we can do, depending on whether we are traveling or living overseas.

First off, we can do our best to hide what makes us targetable when traveling. When the Mumbai attacks were first being reported, my parents suggested I get a Filipino passport in addition to my American passport, in an effort to better avoid anti-American sentiment (although this fails to cover up the fact that I act and sound very “American”). Before visiting a country, McMullen recommends familiarizing yourself by researching cultural norms (to avoid doing anything offensive), and reading travel advisories issued by the State Department. (If these measures sound silly, I don’t blame you. After all, taking precautions while traveling isn’t something us TCKs are necessarily used to — we’ve lived our lives jumping borders and been fine. I know that in the past I’ve left these details to money-belt wearing tourists.)

While living abroad, we can remain in the most heavily guarded expat outposts — embassies and schools — but should also know that they are among the most heavily targeted. While we do go about our business, we should be alert and remain vigilant. In Myanmar, McMullen recalls being restricted in where he was allowed to go, as well as made it a point to actively avoid areas where he would be an easy target. In this BBC news article entitled Helping expats evade kidnappers, expats are warned to lower their profile (ex: dirtying up your flashy car) and to avoid developing patterns when traveling locally, as to reduce the risk of kidnapping.

These are preventative measures. When crisis break out and we find ourselves in the thick of things, we need to remember to remain calm and listen to instruction from those qualified to help us. In this exclusive TIME interview, David Jacobs, an Australian, recounts his experience trapped in his room while the Mumbai terrorists tore the hotel around him apart. After getting in touch with his company (who connected him to a security agency that advised him on what to do), Jacobs recalls that “all the time it took to answer e-mails (via Blackberry) kept me busy and emotionally stable. I didn’t break down or anything.”

Of course when trouble arises, the most effective measure is to flee and get out of harm’s way. As one of McMullen’s friends in Fiji, my family, like his, evacuated during the 2000 coup, leaving everything
behind except for a suitcase of clothing. We were lucky enough to get on a plane out of Fiji to New Zealand. Once there, my mom scrambled around the airport information booths in order to find a hotel for us to stay in that night. Shortly after, we were able to fly out to Australia where we had family. Living in Australia with my aunt, I remember how my mother started taking my sister and I to check out local schools after a few weeks, in case the coup dragged out. I remember my aunt raiding my cousins’ closets for clothes they didn’t wear, as it was winter in Australia and I didn’t have sweaters to deal with the cold. In the month and a half that we lived in Australia, I heard the word “refugee” tossed around a lot. Sometimes we used the term as a joke, but other times, it carried the somber weight it should. My mom, sister, and I monitored the Australian news channels closely, waiting for the short clips about Fiji to appear, the reports of violence and looting prompting calls from my father to reassure us. He had stayed behind in Fiji because it was his job to do so as a representative of the United Nations.

When we came back six weeks later, the crisis was over, but things weren’t normal. Classmates and teachers filtered back in, but ultimately we finished the year with a skeleton class, a school that was a shell of what it was. Many of the expats never came back and I never saw them in person again.

I don’t think anyone can blame those who left for not coming back, but I was guilty of dismissing such behavior as paranoia. I wanted to go back to Fiji and saw the coup as a freak occurrence. Then again, is there such a thing as being too paranoid in this day and age? I moved from Fiji to New York in early 2001, months before we would all witness the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. And I was wrong about Fiji — there have been two more coups since I left, although neither have been anywhere
near as violent as the one in 2000.

Making the Change

With the terror attacks in Mumbai serving as the most recent reminder of just how volatile and dangerous the world has become, it’s easy to feel apprehensive about traveling and living overseas. But to suggest that we are simply targets is a gross misunderstanding. Make no mistake: we have a say in the way we are perceived and ultimately remembered during our stay in foreign countries. We can alienate ourselves in exclusive expat communities, or we can make the effort to assimilate as much as we can. Maybe then we can be seen for what we are: regular people with regular families who were thrown into unique situations. When an opportunity to interact with the local population arises, as TCKs, it is imperative that we take advantage of it and do so, with the understanding that our actions have clout in shaping local perceptions. As people who’ve grown up in non-native lands, we carry the responsibility of improving international relations as much as the adults who brought us there do. We are every bit the ambassadors our parents in business and politics are. If relations are to improve and perceptions are to change, it’s going to start with people like us who are in these countries and can interact at the grassroots level.

It’s a call echoed by Jonathan Ehrlich of Canada, a survivor of the Mumbai attacks. In his interview with Larry King (shown here on the Huffington Post), Ehrlich said, “What we all need to do is get on a plane, go to Mumbai, (and) put our arms around these people. They’re fantastic and beautiful people, they need our support. And we need to go and show these people that we’re not afraid.”

Learn more about the 2000 Fiji coup in an excerpt from Government by the Gun by Robert Thomas Robertson and William M. Sutherland


  1. Christiana says

    I can totally relate, I remember when we were in South Korea there used to be flyers dropped from planes from North Korea. And of course we got the annual threat of a bombing. On Sept. 11 we didn’t get school off in China, but we did when the US bombed Afghanistan.


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  4. Core says

    Thank you for the credit (I took this picture). But I closed my Flickr account 🙂


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