Category Archives: Expat Life

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.

 

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.

Life as a Freak: Being Other in Asia

This article examines the casual, almost charming, racism that gives color to expat life, those small moments that remind you that you’re really an outsider. I am relating the following stories for their anecdotal charm. If you want a more serious look at racial issues in Asia try: Asian Anti-Foreigner Bigotry Pt.I and Pt.II.

Being different in Asia can lead to bizarre experiences as locals, often unrestrained in dealing with foreigners, toss normal social mores when faced with the obvious outsider. There is often a kind of fast-and-loose disregard for social niceties as related to foreigners. The oddest examples are in Inappropriate Touching and Being Other where I describe literally being petted like an animal. The experiences ran from the pleasurable, having my arm and leg hair petted by strange women, to the less desirable vigorous chest hair stroking by a Korean man, while freebagging it in a steam bath. Don’t miss those stories.

You’d assume for homoerotic oddness that’d be unmatched, but no, during my very early days in Thailand [I lived there briefly], Korea, and Taiwan I somewhat regularly got hit on by gay men. Fine.  But, sometimes the inappropriateness of the situation made me think I must be doing something wrong. After an unusually assertive mid-afternoon invitation to enjoy a blowjob in the nearby public restroom—on a Wednesday—I was particularly flummoxed. There was no reason to believe me either gay, or looking for action. This happened during my early days in Taiwan, but also occurred in Korea and Thailand. I asked an older male student why these things were happening. In his words, it was probably because as we [Taiwanese] “know all foreigners are gay”.” Ahh. Well that explained that. I had been told something similar in the other countries. One of those racial situations that isn’t so bad, but causes pause. I’m pretty sure this belief has died over the last couple decades as interactions with the West have grown.

As globalized as Asia is becoming, you can always count on obasans to keep it real. It is a frequent refrain to hear old ladies telling their grandchildren, “Look, look,” with emphatic finger-pointing. “See the foreigner? Over there, look at him.” Gawp at the weirdness that is a foreigner. I have many friends—both Taiwanese and Western—who get really pissed off, but I don’t care about this one. You’re never going to change old ladies, and children are children.

It doesn’t stop there, when I step outside, I’m stared at by Taiwanese of all ages and genders. I’m used to it. I like it. It’s been a constant part of life since I was nineteen. During my first trip to Taiwan, thirty-three years ago, I walked into a nightclub and everything stopped. The music stopped. The dancing stopped, Conversation stopped. The houselights came up, and the entire club turned and stared at me for a solid twenty to thirty seconds. That’s the way it should be. However, ogling has been in steady decline as the expat population has grown. I don’t like it—it feels like people don’t appreciate what a special little flower I am.

As much as I might enjoy the attention it has cost me two relationships that I’m aware of. One was serious, but she couldn’t deal with the constant attention. She interpreted it—at least partially—as moral suasion aimed at getting her to conform, stop being a white-dating slut, and fulfill her social obligation to date, marry, and bear a Taiwanese. The other simply disliked being constantly noted. There’s a lot of pressure in Asia to just be another cog in the wheel, to not stand out. I stick out like a sore dink, and anyone who’s around me gets hit by the spotlight too. I guess it’s good that Westerners are less unique now—it’s helped stabilize my social life.

As a foreigner, I have been the recipient of a lot of weird friendliness, where people try to be affable, but the execution falls flat. Once while scootering around Taipei, I was chased from stoplight-to-stoplight by a young Taiwanese guy who kept trying to engage me in English and offer his assistance. I believe he was genuinely trying to be nice, but it was really uncomfortable to be chased all over town by a stranger—no matter how well-intentioned. When I came to Taiwan to study, thirty-three years ago, I went to the National Palace Museum and was quickly swarmed on all sides by hundreds of students yelling, “Hello, nice to meet you,” and trying to shake my hand. Rationally I know they were just teens trying to practice their English, but when you’re surrounded, jostled, and yelled at—no matter how friendly the intent—the result is intimidating. Similarly, at that time, I used to get chased around the city streets by adults yelling, “Nice to meet you. How are you? Nice to meet you. How are you?…” Undoubtedly they were looking for a chance to practice their English, but it was alarming.

As a Westerner, I’ve always considered myself a bit of a zoo animal in Asia—on display for the pleasure of others. The constant scrutiny has decreased over the decades as Asia has become more international. It’s like going from a caged zoo animal to one that lives in a nature park. To me the feeling of being on exhibit is an integral part of the expat experience, but life is undeniably more comfortable as one of a crowd—even if some sick part of me misses the over-the-top attention.

Male-Male vs Female-Male

I’ve been distracted by the covi-plague, but it’s time for me to get back to my bread and butter—writing about nothing. That’s my sweet spot.

As mentioned in Expat Friendships developing deep companionships as an expat is difficult. The problem extends to expat-Taiwanese interactions, though for different reasons. I’ve been here a long time. Most of my friends and acquaintances are Taiwanese. I have some wonderful female friends; but guys, not so much. I have actually actively sought male friends, largely unsuccessfully.

When I was single, I was aware of the problem, but not much bothered. I had an army of female friends. If I wanted to see a movie, go dancing, have coffee, take a trip I knew the perfect companion. Beyond my obvious sexiness—to know me is to need a change of panties—there were other appeals for Taiwanese women in having an intercultural friendship.

Twenty or more years ago there was a distinct coolness factor in having a foreign friend. Look, I’m international, I can function in the wider world. However, familiarity breeds contempt, with a passel of foreigners on every corner now, perceptions of our suavity have slipped. But still, we retain some appeal. Many women enjoy communicative activities and language learning. Foreign friends are a great way to practice these skills. That’s why the whole language exchange thing was such a great fiddle for finding dates. It was useless for learning Chinese, but awesome for the social life. Still works, but not as well.

Great, right!?!

Not totally. From my earliest days here I’ve focused more on developing Taiwanese friendships than expat friendships. I hoped to gain cultural insights and smooth the transition into Taiwanese society. It worked, but I ended up with all female friends, any guy friends were expats.

As much as Taiwanese women may enjoy intercultural friendships, most Taiwanese men find them wearisome for much the same reasons. What guy wants the annoyance of communicating through a haze of cultural misunderstandings and worse—in English? It’s like doing extra credit in school long after graduation.

As an illustrative anecdote, years ago I was at the site of a traffic accident where a car struck a scooter. I went running up to assist. The scooter driver was on his back, on the asphalt, looking surprisingly chill—until he saw me, when genuine panic Took over. He started sliding on his bum away from me, pushing himself with his hands and uninjured leg, while agitatedly saying, “No English,… no English”. I tried to calm him, but he wasn’t having it. The perfect metaphor for my attempts at friendship with Taiwanese guys.

Also, I was twenty-nine when I arrived in Taiwan. By that age guys have their circle of friends and generally aren’t looking to expand. I found there were simply less opportunities for developing male-male friendships with Taiwanese.

The feeling was a bit mutual. I didn’t seem to have much in common with most Taiwanese men. The ones I met didn’t have a lot of hobbies or interests. They just wanted to talk about their jobs and stock portfolios. The Taiwanese stock market was really booming at that time, and guys were deeply fascinated by how well they were doing. Not a great conversation.

The downside relying heavily on XX chromosome friendships became manifest when I got married. I lost all my friends when I tried cleaning out the non-platonics.  Turns out all the female friends I’d accumulated over a dozen years weren’t as conversant with Plato’s canon as my wife would’ve preferred. Somehow I’d failed to notice that even my purest friendships were less than transcendent.

Marriage may have closed a beautiful door, but it did open a less comely window. I’ve developed some male acquaintances from among my wife’s guy friends. They’re forced to interact with me. Before marriage I had one true Taiwanese guy friend, after marriage maybe two—I have a pretty strict definition of true friendship—and a  handful of acquaintances.

I think the situation I’m describing is no longer. Younger Taiwanese men seem more open to developing international friendships. And, the plethora of foreigners living in Taiwan means Taiwanese women have more chances for cross-cultural friendships and language practice should they desire. Now a moderate looking foreign guy is unlikely to find himself with such a stack of female friends, at least not without considerable effort. I suppose these changes are one  impact of globalization. It’s an improvement.

I have no idea if long-term female expat experiences are analogous, and they also find it easier to develop friendships with Taiwanese women. I’m going to guess it’s similar, but less extreme.

Vignette #21: Expat Recidivism

When you’re young it seems the world is giant, full of adventure and possibilities. I chased that feeling as a young man. I retain that boundless boneless desire for travel, though tempered by a middle aged need for roots.

My first decade abroad I was scrupulously careful not to acquire anything that couldn’t be thrown away, or stuffed into a rucksack. I always wanted to be ready to roll down the road again as a peripatetic pedagogist. I had a kind of a permanent wartime mentality. If I’m down-and-out and running, what do I need, and what can I shed?

A few people are natural born rovers, who pursue an itinerant lifestyle until their ashes are cast upon the wind. I respect them. I love the romance of what they do—but it’s a hard life.

Most wanderers begin craving permanence, stability, a lasting connection to places and people. Usually sometime in their mid-thirties to early forties, they look around and find nothing; no meaningful possessions, no significant relationships, nor any feeling of belonging—not even a goldfish to mourn their passing. That’s the international vagabond’s midlife crisis.

At heart I’m a freebooter, but I have other needs too. The expat lifestyle is a good compromise. You get to put down roots, yet still feel you’re on the road. There’s still the chance to feel you’re in a foreign land, discovering new things, and being surprised by the patterns of life. For me, Taiwan is home, but it remains fresh and exciting.

It’s that feeling of having the best of both worlds that salves the wanderer’s soul, and makes expat life addictive. I’ve known many who’ve tried giving it up and returning to their home countries; it’s a rare few that succeed. Of course practical matters of job and finances are factors. However, I believe most can’t face a life without the possibility of being excited or stunned by prosaic pieces of daily life. That’s an adventure too.