Tag Archives: abroad and out of touch

The Expat Time Warp

This is the long overdue third part of my Old Fart Trilogy [see also: Here’s an Unpopular Opinion and GenX-pat]. I’d like to say that this will be the end of it, but experience teaches that old farts rarely recover from being old farts, still I’ll try to drift in other directions for awhile.

I once heard an expat lamenting that many of us living and working abroad forsake correctness in speech and behavior, taking advantage of no longer being attached to our home cultures, and not really being assimilated into local culture, to let our collective ya-yas out and act like a pack of ignorant frat boys [read: willfully politically incorrect]. That’s mostly wrong. It’s not that people move abroad and instantly turn into dicks, though I admit that does happen. Some people when first cut loose from the social constraints of their regular life become unmoored, and occasionally descend into assholery. Most long-term expats are past that stage and it’s not that they’re being willfully unenlightened, it’s more that the older ones are—largely by accident—preserving past norms and mores from home.

A large portion of long-term expats live in a veritable time warp. Everyone to some degree, as they age, falls out of touch with the world evolving behind them. It’s natural. Expat life exaggerates that entirely normal arc of a person’s lifecycle. When you live in another country, you lose contact with your home culture. You don’t evolve (devolve) in the same way as other members of your generation. You are simply too out of touch, even more so than the most malignant old fart back home.

Pre-Internet, time spent living abroad placed one totally outside developments, trends, and changes at home. There was very limited access to information. I first started living abroad in a small city in Korea long before the Internet. I couldn’t get English books, or magazines. I had to journey three-ish hours to Busan to find a bookstore with a couple small shelves of English books. Pop culture? Surely movies and music would keep one informed of cultural changes. No. Something many have forgotten: Hollywood movies did not release abroad until one or two years after their North American releases. English TV? Of course not. Phone calls home were the only hope of staying current. Also largely forgotten is the fact international calls were a fortune. Chatting enough to keep in touch with changing values back home was impossible, at least for my finances. My calls with family tended to be of the you’re-still-alive-ok-chat-next-week variety. When I moved to Taiwan it was the same, except I lived in a larger center, so there was some reading material.

The Internet has really changed life abroad. Now it is possible to stay in touch via online editions of newspapers and magazines, downloadable books, TV news channel’s online content, Netflix and other video streaming services, music streaming, online lectures and university courses, etc. The possibilities are endless. Despite all this, expat life remains one of estrangement from home. Keeping current with the changing way of life back home requires effort. The longer you live abroad, the more that your home country recedes into insignificance. Keeping up with trends there becomes unworthy of the effort.

It can become a real endeavor. A lot of the important social shifts and changes happen at universities. Even with the Internet, it is hard to stay in touch with the dynamism of campus life. Sure you can take an online course, but that’s not the same thing. You’re not living it, you’re not feeling it. It’s too distant, obscure, incidental, and inconsequential to your life overseas. Likewise, a lot of important social changes happen in the office. Internet or no Internet, how do you stay informed about shifts and changes in workplace culture while abroad? It’s impossible.

Even staying hooked into pop culture—the easiest thing to stay current with—is an undertaking. Personally I’ve never worked at it, consequently my life is surprisingly devoid of pop culture reference points. TV shows? I have no idea—how would I? Movies? I have little idea since most of the hype happens across Taiwanese media and often I miss it. Music? I’ve made scant effort and am shockingly out of it. I know that’s kind of normal as you get old, but the degree to which I know nothing is truly astounding—even music I should know. As a simple Canadian GenX example, when Gordon Downie of the Tragically Hip died my social media blew up with contemporaries asking me to share my remembrances. I had none. The Hip are supposed to be the soundtrack of my life, but they are not. I saw them a couple times in campus pubs, before they got famous, by the time they hit big, I was gone.

A-Mei and Wu Bai could have become the musical background to my life, but they didn’t. When expats leave home and lose contact with their home culture, that void isn’t automatically filled by current trends in the host country. Instead the expat lives a life with relatively few social and cultural inputs. Absorbing the host country’s social norms and mores is the journey of a lifetime. It takes time and effort, and I’m not convinced it ever totally happens. The relative lack of cultural or social inputs from home or host country means new developments can totally pass by the expat, making the expat a living archive of where society and culture was when they left. Home may change—but expats just stay the same. It’s the generational gap on crack cocaine.

When I first came to study in Taiwan during the mid-1980s I was blown away to find foreigners here—mostly Boomers and Silent Generation—essentially living in the early 1960s. But now I’m living in approximately the mid-1990s, the time I moved here permanently, and I spend a lot of time with foreign Boomers stuck in the 1970s. Next time you see a klatch of elder foreigners sitting at the bar bleating like a bunch of politically incorrect cargo-short-wearing old goats don’t simply leap to the current default setting of immediate unthinking moral outrage. Instead recognize they are less engaged in purposeful incorrectness than perfectly correct behavior from their time and place back in the world.

I have seen these elder expats extending a similar courtesy to younger arrivals. I’ve never seen them outright dismiss the beliefs/concerns of new expats. I remember watching a group of Boomer and GenX expats at the bar, patiently listening to a younger millennial explaining why you can’t say this, dare not think that, and shouldn’t do the other thing. You know,… as millennials do. They kindly listened to all he had to say. They patiently ignored the inconsequentiality, never asking what it had to do with the price of tea in Taiwan, never pointing out it had nothing to do with his new life as a whitey in Asia. It was sweet, particularly since GenX has a proven proclivity to not give a rat’s @ss about socio-BS.

Certainly some new expats arrive and take advantage of the situation to enjoy a bit of  freedom and gratuitous douchebaggery. It’s understandable—if offensive—but the expat environment itself is not the result of purposeful expat shittiness. Most expats are not taking advantage of the situation, they’re just continuing to live the only way they know how. Not asses—just old style. Time warped.

 

I have to apologize again. I know some would prefer I just shut up and look pretty, but as others do enjoy my writing, and I haven’t been coming through for them. I’ve been dealing with health issues for a couple years now. I could have written more, but I just didn’t feel like it, and it gave me an excuse. I don’t see myself going back to dropping articles weekly or bimonthly, but I’ll try to publish a bit more frequently.