Category Archives: Expat Life

More Expat Archetypes

The article is a continuation of Expat Archetypes. It would be best to perused it before reading Part II below.

The Phile: Many sojourns begin from cultural fascination; Philes arrive with a genuine desire to learn. Sinophiles to Francophiles, the [theoretically] beloved culture draws many to try living in the culture first-hand. Philes have existed since Marco Polo—they’re as classic as an unshaven bush.

There are many species in the genus, each with a particular passion, but as a group they’re harmless, if dull. You have to love their enthusiasm, even if not what they’re saying, or the fact they interrupt every conversation to say it. Arcane points are their stock-in-trade, and have their place, but if I just want to enjoy a beer, do I really need to hear—again—about the role Ma Xinyi’s assassination played in the Taiping Revolution, and why that’s been important for the development of neon signage in Asia?!?

Characteristics: When young their overwrought enthusiasm for the culture annoys: when older, their bitter disappointment borne of having lived in the culture annoys equally. The Phile can be found on the periphery of any expat gathering pontificating on facts best left unpontificated. You know that dull buzzing in your ear when out for a beer? That’s the Phile.

Subset: The Wannabe is a subspecies of expat that ranges the world, trying to be what they’re not—a member of another race, culture, or country. I’ll talk specifically about The Asian Wannabe, because I have daily contact. Found throughout Asia, particularly on the Indian subcontinent, and in China and Japan. They are distinguishable by their attempts to become Asian. A surprising number of whities arrive expecting to become Asian. Deluded. I suppose the idea comes from expectations developed growing up in more inclusive societies. There is no equivalent to Taiwanese-American or Chinese-Canadian here. The Wannabe exists wherever there are expats.

Characteristics: Easily recognizable as the blonde head towering above all the black-hairs, in traditional hanbok, kimono, kung fu jacket, etc. The mimicry is concurrently genuinely stupid and sweet.

The ESLoser: The frequently maligned and much joked about English as a Second Language instructor is the backbone of most English-speaking working expat communities. (Retirement communities abroad are different). ESLosers are the lumpenproleteriat that holds the whole thing together. Despite getting that Quaker-in-a-titty-bar face when discussing ESLosers, most other expats would find their goods or services out of demand without them. I am many of these archetypes to varying degrees, but foremost I’m an ESLoser, so it is a bit hard to be objective. That provisio out of the way, I’m now going to cut on them.

ESLoser are a diverse group. From high-energy youthful and enthusiastic children’s teachers to jade old alcoholics funding a passion for lechery by doing the minimum as infrequently as possible. The ESLoser is ubiquitous and undefinable. They share similarities with the Burner [see: Part I]. Many ended up where they are by virtue of poor planning, circumstance, and shit-that-happens happening. For the older generation that would describe almost all ESLosers [see: Where Have All the Idiots Gone], but now there is such a thing as a professional ESL teacher. Ugh.

Characteristics: They can be found on practically any corner trying to sell something any English-speaker could do, hustling to survive with little going for them but the host country’s perception of need. They have a devil-may-care joie de vivre that is the envy of other archetypes.

The Teach was initially going to be included with the ESLosers, but ESLosers are the cool kids—The Teach most definitely is not. They have limited redeeming qualities, and a boundless capacity to annoy.

In an effort to distinguish themselves from the “lesser” ESLoser, The Teach engages in self-conscious preening and peacocking, involving the wearing of business attire while ardently and conspicuously discussing such weighty matters as differentiated versus an onset-rime segmentation approach to biliteracy and cognate recognition for acquisition of domain-specific emergant-litera… yada, yada, yada,… bullshit, bullshit, bullshit,….

Characteristics: Can be found in meetings, seminars, conferences, and breakout session vocalizing, in the characteristic dull drone of The Teach, on the power of the Lau Remedies and morphophonology, like they have a dictionary—pardon me, an appendix of lexical terminology—stuck up their ass. The purpose of this overt displaying is to be thought of as…

The Expert: Someone, somewhere, somehow, has made the—frequently dubious—decision that this person is an expert on something, and that their unique skill set is needed in the host country. Despite being “experts” brought over for their wonkish, usually technical knowledge, many of these people are rip-roaring fun. They have a disproportionately high income for the local economy and they’re on a Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure type experience. They have a shelf life, and soon will be back home trudging through their normal 9-to-5, so they have an insatiable need for experiences. Chemical and civil engineers, shipping specialists, and environmental managers all great fun, despite the humdrum job descriptions.

Characteristics: Physically they are obvious engineers [you know what I’m saying]. They have an almost manic need to see it all and do it all as quickly as possible, they’ve a bit of a nymphomaniac-on-death-row feel to them.

The Mooch: Here you have your business executives, diplomats, financial experts, et al. They’re overseas on that most prized of possessions—the expat contract: “Money for nothin’, and your chicks for free…”

 

The best paid and most useless of expats—neither local experts, nor suitably equipped to manage local staff—essentially they’re high-priced interns, or tourists on an expense account. As soon as they know enough to be useful they’re sent on to another country to continue suckling at the corporate/government tit. They have a psycophant-induced hyper-inflated sense of self-worth. For them the world is debutante balls and Dilly Bars, while their local secretary does the work—who else? Producers of nothing, takers of everything; every self-respecting expat dreams of sinking to their exalted heights.

 Characteristics: The Mooch can be seen getting driven here-and-there, asking their assistants to perform simple chores, being coddled, and just generally exhibiting a two-year old’s cross-cultural sensitivity and abilities.

There’ll be another part when I get around to writing it.

The Foreigner Card

If you’ve traveled internationally you’ll have noticed there’s a sort of get out of jail free card for foreigners. It is a kind of social contract where the host region accepts that you, as a foreign guest, don’t know what you’re doing. A foreigner’s card gives the holder the right to screw up the basics of life; get continually lost, ask stupid questions, and just generally act like a one-inch dildo—in the place, but useless there.

I first encountered the concept of a foreigner card in a James A. Michener essay. It expressed in writing something I had felt and used, but never articulated. A foreigner’s license is a necessity for travel. If you were held to account every time you fucked up, international travel would be miserable. Things are usually a little more loosey-goosey for foreigners. People need a little leeway to make it through.

Most understand and freely give dispensations to travelers. The amount of indulgence is a bit dependent on locale. A foreigner’s license in Paris is worth little more than an extremely fine French leather shoe up the ass. In some locations it will get you ripped off. Traveler beware. But, in Taiwan it is golden.

It had even greater importance before the Internet increased the comfort and safety of travelers. You couldn’t arrive in a country with most your bookings in hand, a better sense of where to eat than a local, or any real idea of the lay of the land. Guide books were better for getting excited about—rather than getting through—your travels. Today’s level of research and preparation wasn’t possible.

Translation software now makes reading local signage possible. You can even have a bit of a conversation with a patient local. Google Maps and GPS on your phone prevent getting too lost; or your phone will at least produce an address, in the local language, to show a taxi driver. No longer does the woebegotten traveltard need to tap on someone’s shoulder seeking help.

Not having to depend so heavily on the kindness of strangers is a significant improvement for travelers, but it does come at a cost. Asking for help on the street—foreigner’s card in hand—was a great way to meet people and interact with locals. I still have a good friendship that began by asking directions and has lasted a quarter century. If I remember right I may have asked for directions while not lost. She was hot. [Still counts].

Despite technological advances, the foreigner card is still a travel necessity. Things are almost guaranteed to get fucked up beyond technology’s ability to repair. The card is still an overall positive as regards travelers, but for expats, it invites abuse. It is pretty common for expats to use their foreignness to advantage; to purposely screw the rules, get around annoyances, or otherwise skirt societal norms. It’s no bueno to seek social acceptance on one hand, and benefit by up-playing your foreignness on the other.

There’s no shortage of examples from my life. A personal favorite comes from a friend who during Taipei’s hot summers liked to bicycle to a high-end apartment complex, and despite not belonging, whistle past the security guards with a wave and a smile. Once inside he’d head to the outdoor pool complex to cool-off and lounge about.  All it took were balls, a soupçon of impertinence, and a foreigner’s license. He relied on people being too intimidated to speak up, or assuming he belonged. I have lots of examples and have been guilty as well.

In the hands of a traveler the foreigner’s license is necessary, helpful, and should exist. In the hands of an expat it can become abusive, allowing an escape from the hard work of integrating. Most foreigners I know who’ve lived here have occasionally reaped the foreigner card’s benefits. It’s hard to think of an aspect of [white] expat life in Asia that is not, at least somewhat, colored by special privilege. [See: White Privilege in Asia].

Homesickness & COVID 

I am nominally Canadian, but I’ve been working abroad for a long time. I’ve lived overseas longer than in Canada. Since I’ve been gone the country’s changed, and my hometown, Saskatoon, is unrecognizable. I no longer fit in there. It is not my home.

So, imagine my surprise when I started getting homesick. Seriously. I couldn’t even identify the feeling.

I’ve dealt with homesickness before, but it’s been 30-plus years, since I was in Korea, a super shitty experience. It is not surprising that when I lived there I suffered homesickness.

The feeling culminated at Christmas when I began having visions of a former crush. A young woman I’d—unintentionally—tormented with my affections, which were expressed in true dork fashion. I had the suave and sophisticated smoothness of 220 grit sandpaper. Suffice it to say our interactions were fraught with awkwardness [my part] and animus [her part].

When I was in Korea, that “relationship” was long past. I hadn’t thought about her for years, but as Christmas approached, I kept waking in the night to see a vision of her in my bedroom doorway. Every night. Finally, one night I woke up, frustrated, and asked what she wanted. She said she wanted forgiveness, and I gave it, as everything had been my fault anyway. After that I never saw her again.

I chalked it up to Christmas-induced psy-homesickness-chosis. I was living alone—totally alone—in a fishing village. There were few people willing to interact with me outside the student-teacher paradigm. Homesickness was natural.

When I returned to Canada, I learned she’d died around that time. Either I’d seen a ghost, had a premonition, psychotic break, or a spectacularly weird reaction to homesickness. My students love it when I tell it as a ghost story, but I’m pretty it was just overarching homesickness.

Of course that was back when mullets and tramp stamps were cool. Now expats can avail themselves of the Internet and video conferencing. You would think that’d kill homesickness, and for me it did—until COVID.

COVID in Taiwan has brought those feelings of homesickness to the forefront again. I’m not entirely sure why, probably it’s a combination of being unable to travel, interacting with friends and family through video conferencing, which is great, but also underlines the distances. It makes you painfully aware you’re missing out on your loved one’s lives. You can see them changing and you’re not there. I’ve watched my parents age via video. Maintaining relationships with online conferencing creates a feeling of closeness, and paradoxically, a feeling remoteness. I experience changes happening in the live’s of my family as a TV program.

Normally it doesn’t bother me. Pre-COVID I had the ability to travel to see family. The video conferences were just a nice way to maintain contact between trips. I have enjoyed video conferencing Christmas for years. The difference, I think, is I always felt if I really needed to, I could get home. COVID has brought that into doubt. In an emergency, could I get home in time for my presence to be meaningful? I’ve watched a few of my international students not be able to get home in time for the funeral of a parent.

COVID sucks. The feelings of distance and separation it creates are real. For the first time in decades I’m yearning for home.

Vignette #27: Birth Control in Taiwan

I’ve been friends with a Taiwanese surgeon for decades. He once made an interesting statement. He said medical knowledge among Taiwan’s general population lagged behind the West’s by 15 to 20 years because information here needed to first be translated into Chinese, then noticed and disseminated by popular media. Whereas in the West it is pretty common for scientific studies to be featured in general news and magazine articles.

Personally, that disparity has been most keenly felt as regards Taiwanese attitudes towards birth control. Despite torturing dates with subpar jazz and creepy dude cologne every once in awhile even I managed to fall awkwardly into a penis flytrap. If the relationship developed, at some point skin-to-skin contact became desirable, and Taiwanese conceptions of contraception would become a problem.

Local knowledge of the pill seems cribbed from Vietnam War era pamphlets. Dated. The information relates to the original high-dose hippie pill. I could never convince Taiwanese women that if they went to a doctor and got a decent modern medication, side effects would be minimal, and occasionally desirable. They seemed to suspect ulterior motives, but I was just concerned for their menstrual well-being. I’m a caring and sensitive boy.

My humanitarian efforts were inevitably hampered as most who tried the pill, to avoid embarrassment, just bought something over the counter, not a doctor-prescribed modern low-dose pills. The packaging even looked like war surplus. They worked, but as you’d expect, the massive doses of estrogen and progestin had side effects, one of which was the creation of a confirmation bias in each woman’s mind. The pill = bad.

Thus, Taiwan‘s national form of birth control would best be described as spray-&-pray.

The Pervert in Class Is You

I’m sorry for how long this article took. The Covid shutdown has had its charms; working from home, pantless Friday’s, joining Taiwan’s fine tradition of high-functioning alcoholics, etc. But, Covid fatigue is real. When I finish online teaching I don’t want to do much. Writing has been about as enjoyable as leather pants in a Taiwan summer—just thinking about either gives me a rash and sweaty balls.

However, a friend asked for this follow-up to Talking ’bout Sex. He pointed outcorrectlythat after decades of teaching English in Asia, I must have countless stories of foreigner teachers shitting the bed with their obliviously offensive and inappropriate behavior. True dat.

He thought Talking ’bout Sex was building to some of those tales. I just didn’t think it that important. I haven’t filed those experiences in my mental Rolodex very carefully as other. The foreign teacher with both feet stuck in his mouth is ubiquitous and unmemorable. Still there’ve been a few standouts.

From my blog you might assume I’ve had problems with this. Not really. I get in more trouble with foreigners, when sometimes my words are halfway to Kaohsiung on High Speed Rail before my brain hops out of the taxi at Taipei Main Station. In class my words are more deliberate. Of course I’ve stepped on my own crank a few times. That’s how you learn. Generally it’s been infrequent and minor, but I have seen somethings….

Buxiban teachers are the worst.  Most FOB teachers are quickly put in front of a class with little training and no cultural understanding. They teach English the way they want to learn Chinese. Back in the day, the foreigner community was more dude-o-centric, and many wanted their language courses to resemble Get Laid in Chinese 101. A goal inevitably frustrated by uncooperative female Chinese instructors. But with their own classes, they were free to teach as they wished they were taught.

Examples are plentiful, but I’ll tell you two of my favorites. The first was an absolutely charming American guy. In a Western way, he was saucy, insouciant, and witty. I loved chatting with him, but his charms were completely lost on the students. He was constantly in trouble for something said in class. He eventually got shitcanned when he walked into an 8am adult, all female, class and said, first thing, “So, I was eating out my girlfriend this morning, really diving in there, and it got me to thinking about fish and chips….” He then proceeded to deliver a funnyif career-ending—soliloquy on sex and British cooking.

Usually it’s more of a problem for male teachers, but not to be outdone, there was a female version of him teaching at the same school. She didn’t have quite the same verve, but God she was graphic. I walked by her class once as she was talking about how “fucking” itchy her “cunt” got after “nailing” multiple guys, and she proceeded to colorfully conjecture, in detail, why that might be. She got complaints, but never really got in as much trouble as the guy. Her students seemed too flabbergasted and confused about cross-cultural gender roles to be offended. Good on her, I say. She rode that edge with stunning deftness.

Admittedly those are the worst examples I can think of, from three decades of ESL teaching. Most teachers find themselves afoul of Taiwanese morality at times. There’s a tremendous pressure for buxiban teachers to be entertaining. If you’re not engaging, you lose students; if you lose students, you lose classes; if you lose classes, you lose hours; which means less pay. Lose enough classes and you lose your job. Most teachers have a pretty strong desire to be amusing. Many think risqué badinage puts asses in seats and keeps them there. It doesn’t seem to be true.

My perception is that these things happen less now. Taiwan’s foreigner community has become more sexually mixed, guys have lost their frontier spirit, and are more domesticated. Also, teachers coming to Taiwan now are more professional. [See: Where Have All the Idiots Gone]. Still these situations arise occasionally as a reminder of what happens when low-context teaching meets a high-context class.