Expat Archetypes

Here are a few archetypal expats I’ve met, or been, during my time in Asia. Personally I’ve passed through several of these archetypes. I’m guessing that’s not unique. 

The Burner: People who wash up on Asia’s shores because they can’t stay in their home countries. They end up here because of bankruptcy, divorce, legal problems, etc. They’re jet-setting losers. The Burner usually does well. Asia is a second chance and they’ve got the smarts and life experience to take advantage. They’re a personal favorite, they have the best stories, just crank them up with a couple drinks and let ’em fly—entertainment all night.

Characteristics: Alcoholism, frown lines, a brooding thousand yard stare, and cargo shorts; barely repressed rage directed at the West.

The Irrationally Angry Foreigner (IAF): Chronically incapable of adapting to change, they lash out at any differences from their perceived social ideal (the West). IAFs are raging assholes, totally lacking self-awareness, and assuming themselves the only right-minded people in a nation of idiots. It’s annoying—even Tom Cruise is mindful enough to know he’s short and crazy. Avoid IAFs at all costs. They’ll drag you down to their level, and have you violently raging about how much better Western grommets are than Asian grommets. The fury that burns brightest is the briefest—thankfully IAFs don’t last long. They either get over it or get out.

Characteristics: The red-faced pedestrian punching the taxi grill while bellowing at the driver for some perceived infraction is an IAF. The foreigner in a pet about pedestrian rights and pitching parked bicycles off the sidewalk is an IAF. They’re everywhere.

The Backpacker: Present throughout Asia in their current iteration since the late sixties, they’re traveling through seeking experiences they can afford. Northeast Asia is the wrong part of Asia. Coming here for budget travel is like going to Dubuque, Iowa for the opera. The Backpacker can be annoyingly cheap as they try to make their exit date. They were responsible for many Asian stereotypes of Westerners when I arrived. My sense is this is changing as Asia gets more sophisticated in its view of foreigners and stereotypes evolve.

Characteristics: Backpack adorned with flags and vibram-soled sport sandals. They’re in wonder of everything, knowledgeable about nothing. Usually they’re fun for short periods.

Subset: The Begpacker funds their international backpacking by begging as they go. Recognizable by their cardboard sign, alms bowl, and ability to relax on any piece of shopping district sidewalk. Generally they’re young, white, and ridiculously entitled; you’d have to be to fly from Europe or N. America to Laos or Cambodia and beg from subsistence farmers. They’re the unsolicited dicpic of expats.

The Addict: From the kindergarten teachers on speed (children love it) to the drunk falling off his barstool, they are our ever-present id. The expat life—if not actively promoting it—certainly aids addiction. It’s a bit like the military; lots of young people, free from family constraints, far away from recognizable societal guardrails, in an unknown land where the party runs 24/7. The most common entry level expat job, cram school English teacher, [inadvertently] promotes the party life. Most of the work is from 3:00-10:00pm. After work, what are you going to do? You’re making relatively good money and can sleep until mid-afternoon, for many the answer is clear. It can be vertigo-inducing after spending your teen years in Bumblefuck, USA. For some older expats the party never ended.

Characteristics: They travel in fun-loving packs, and can be seen in large numbers in their native habitat—bars and clubs. They’re great fun to be around. To find the related subspecies, Homo Hungoveris, The Addict’s less charming cousin, check buxibans in the afternoon.

The Slut: Some men arrive here specifically to bag Asian women. I’m not talking about normal guys who arrive for a long-term stay desiring an active social life. No. I mean guys trophy hunting and collecting beaver pelts. These guys are young, dumb, and full of cum. They’re very predatory. Honestly I’ve never seen this behavior so blatantly displayed outside the expat community. I suppose it exists everywhere, but the phenomenon is on crack cocaine here. I suppose the expat lifestyle’s freedom from social restrictions, combined with a depersonalized view of Asian women as easy china dolls, allows it to flourish. Amazingly, despite being as charming as an abscessed perianal boil, some of these guys get more ass than a toilet seat. Toxic masculinity exists for a reason I guess.

Characteristics: Men with hyper-aggressive banter, heads on a swivel, and eyes on pinions. You’ll find the Slut hitting on your mother-in-law, the hottie in the bar, their students, or the local obosan collecting trash. As one told me, “always be closing.”

The Earth Muffin: All expat archetypes are annoying in their own way, but my choice for most annoying are Earth Muffins. They’re here on a spiritual journey of self-discovery and tofu. The magical mystical East is the place to find both. I guess what bothers me is they take Eastern religion, philosophy, and mysticism, add a gloss of new age spirituality, and masquerade it as depth and meaning. It’s a mish-mash of bullshit. The Earth Muffin shouldn’t be confused with people earnestly studying religion, meditation, qigong, kung fu, or whatever. You can find The Earth Muffin in the park doing their own creative take on Tai Chi because, “it is all about spirituality and individualism—not a set form—but free-flowing energy and communing with the universe.” [Read in a laidback, yet pretentious voice].

Characteristics: They look like they went on a granola run, got lost, and ended up in Asia. Male—Man bun, Thai print harem pants, embroidered Hmong satchel, day old granola in the hair, and morning tofu breath. Female—virtually indistinguishable from the male, except smelling of patchouli.

 

I can think of more archetypes, but this is too long already.

 

Vignette #23: Flashing Lights and Arrests

Have you heard the one about the Taiwanese exchange student in Texas? It seems the highway patrol wanted to pull him over so they put the flashing lights on and drove up behind them.  The hapless student led them on a merry chase for twenty miles, all the while blissfully unaware that he was in a scene from Smokey and the Bandit. When apprehended and asked what he thought he was doing, his reaction was: Huh!?! How could I know you wanted to stop me. There were no hints. Likely apocryphal, but possibly it’s true.

For those who don’t know, Taiwan’s police drive everywhere with their flashing lights on. It doesn’t imply any sort of rush, emergency, or desire to apprehend you. The flashing cherry simply tells the world: Hey look. I’m driving,… in a car,… and it has some flashing lights…. Fun!

Many foreigners, when they arrive, ask the obvious question: Why? Most Taiwanese can’t answer because they’ve never thought it strange, but it is weird, prevents stealth, and impedes police work.

Embed from Getty Images

I have a theory. During martial law it made a lot of sense for cops to drive around with the lights a-popping. They weren’t a police force as we currently understand it. They were a force of oppression,  there to keep the citizenry in check, and be a visible symbol of governmental power and reach.  It makes perfect sense to try to draw as much attention as possible. We see you. The government is everywhere.

I think when martial law ended, the police showed up for work the next day, and exhibiting the Asian preference for doing it the way it’s always been done, turned on their flashing lights and headed out. A few decades later, and no one has given it a second thought—except yours truly.

White People Look Weird: Expat Self-Alienation

Being a minority in Asia has given me an odd perspective on my country, my culture, and myself. In the mid- 1980s—pre-globalization, the Internet, and most immigration—Asia was, from my perspective, stunningly homogeneous.

As an outsider, it was enough to change your self-perceptions. In Korea I became so alienated from my race that I stopped regarding white as normal. For the first six or seven months in Yeosu, I never saw another foreigner. Hard to imagine in the Internet age, but not only didn’t I see another living foreigner, I also didn’t see a picture of a foreigner, one on TV, nor in film—all I saw for half a year were Koreans.

I gained perspective on what it felt like to be Korean living in virtually homogeneous Korea. Any variation from the racial norm stuck out as unnatural. During that time, I traveled to a larger center and spotted a mixed race school girl. If I saw her in Canada, I wouldn’t have noticed her, or I’d have thought her looks a pleasant racial blending. When I saw her, through my Korean eyes, I found her freakish. She had freckles, slightly lighter skin, and hair running to auburn. Frankenstein’s monster. Undoubtedly, she was cute, but after seeing only “pure” Koreans for months, she seemed exceptional, in a negative way.

Don’t judge. The first time I saw another white person I had a similar reaction. After a few months, I found a theater playing a Western movie. The film transfixed me. It wasn’t the story, nor the special effects—I couldn’t get over how bizarre the white people looked. I spent the whole movie staring and thinking, “My God, look the nose on her—it’s huge.” Seriously, it felt like it was coming right out of the screen. I was hypnotized by the freakishly colorful eyes. Don’t get me started on the uniqueness of each person’s hair. I was so estranged from my race that I saw my Caucasian characteristics as weird and unseemly.

I don’t think this could happen anymore. The consumption of pop-culture is more globalized. Helped by video sharing sites, downloading, and Netflix, we listen to each other’s music and watch each other’s TV shows and movies . If I lived in Yeosu today, I wouldn’t lack visual images of white people. I would have access to endless videos and photos—I’d find imagery of my own race. Plus, it is undoubtedly more international now, with a foreigner community. I wouldn’t disassociate from my race.

For travelers and expats, the Internet’s ready access to your own culture provides comfort previously undreamed of by international travelers. Still, something important has been lost. It is now feasible to physically live in a foreign country while not really living there. You can live in Taiwan, do your shopping in American [online] stores—except for shoes, where Italy is obviously the place to shop—buy English books, watch Hollywood movies, and even access regional TV programs from your home. It’s truly awesome and comfortable and … limiting.

It is much harder to escape your culture and immerse yourself in another. It may be impossible to experience the cultural uncoupling I’ve described. That’s sad. My time in Asia has roughly corresponded with the rise of the Internet. My quality of life has risen dramatically with improved access to Western goods and cultural items. Also, concurrent globalization and trade liberalization means you can find a range of international goods in-country.

I also feel a sense of loss. It’s healthy to, once or twice, get so removed from your race/culture that your own weirdness slaps you in the face. Many small difficulties of expat life have disappeared, like traveling hundreds of kilometers to the only English “bookstore” in your region to gaze in wonder upon the dozen thirty-year-old titles, or uncomprehendingly watching Chinese TV, because what else? The expat life is special, and it makes you special. But, how special are you really if you travel to Asia, but only eat the regionally grown organic quinoa of your birthplace, or exclusively drink Starbuck’s double shot, half-caf, decaf, almond milk, mint mocha macchiatos, with a gentle breeze of cinnamon?

For a bit more on the Internet’s impact on expat life see: WTO and My Waistline and Kickin’ it Old School. For the whiny alternative viewpoint see: Making Taiwan Better.