Monday, April 25, 2011

The Expat Myth

So, are they in Asia for the beer or the women?

Months ago I received the usual monthly e-mail newsletter from an organization I subscribe to. This newsletter often features articles, essays and stories from subscribers who have just moved abroad.

I scanned the one that was featured that month. The first line read: “A friend and I used to have a theory – that if you live abroad, you are either running from something or running to something.”

Since then, I’ve been mulling over that line and others of its ilk – theories about why people move abroad that are hilariously applied to everyone who has ever moved out of their native country, at least as an expat (immigrants are generally exempt – we all assume they moved for freedom, money or both). Some that I’ve heard:

“They’re losers back home and moved abroad because they couldn’t make it in their native countries.”

“Call them FILTH – Failed In London, Trying Hong Kong.”

“There’s nothing for them – with a degree from a university nobody cares about and no great career ambitions or prospects, it’s easier to move to Southeast Asia to teach English and take advantage of the beer and the chicks.”

“They fetishize the place where they’ve settled and are unhealthily obsessed with the culture – or the women – there.”

“They couldn’t get dates back home so they moved abroad hoping for better luck.”

(Are we noticing a trend here of assuming that those who move abroad are single men?)

“They were too ‘weird’ back home and abroad they feel they can ‘be themselves’. They don’t really consider that the country they live in frowns upon ‘weird’ even more, and they only get away with it because they’re foreigners.”

“They’ve got no innate personality so they think that ‘being a traveler / expat’ will automatically make them cool.”

“They don’t want to work hard, so they go abroad for easy, stress-free employment where nobody expects them to work their butts off to build a career.”

“They think they’re ‘intrepid explorers’, not realizing that thousands of foreigners before them have gone to the same places and stopped in the same haunts. They want an easy way to be unique.”

“They think they want to learn a foreign language, but most of them don’t.”

There are more – but you get the idea. These aren’t direct quotes, but they do paraphrase the different theories I’ve seen and heard banged about on the Internet (on forums full of expats no less!), by travelers who aren’t expats, and by people back home.

Then, of course, there’s my grandfather who proclaimed he didn’t understand my desire to live abroad. He’s been to dozens of countries for work and just didn’t see why someone would choose it as a lifestyle, because “everywhere I go, I think it will be different but really everything looks like Albany” (He was sent abroad to look at manufacturing issues in paper and felt mills, so he saw a lot of bedroom communities, factory towns, the more boring parts of cities and the inside of high-end Western hotels).

And you know – every single one of them has some element of truth and certainly applies to some people. It’s not entirely wrong to guess that the average expat is a single white male (or white male married to a local woman). It’s not entirely wrong to say that a lot of them are super dodgy.

So what’s the big deal – the assumption that they apply to all expats, or that every expat is guilty of living out the stereotype of one or more.

And that’s simply not true, at least not for everyone.

A good half of the stereotypes listed above insinuate that the expat is moving abroad for better dating prospects – which ignores all women who move abroad despite dating being difficult for them in many countries.

(Yes, there are women who move abroad to date in specific countries where prospects for women improve rather than decline – I may write a post about that in the future).

Explorers have been manning ships and caravans for centuries and the idea of moving to a different place simply because you want to, simply because it’s different and simply because you enjoy the challenge or have a non-creepy interest in the local culture or language is nothing new. A desire to see a place and meet people who are interesting, different, even challenging doesn’t have to be the result of some ego-driven desire to be ‘cool’; it can simply be because it’s fun to do, at least for some.

Considering that this has been true ever since the first humans migrated out of Africa and been documented since the Ancient Greeks if not before, I don’t see why it’s such a difficult concept to grasp.

For every expat who goes abroad intending to learn a new language, and never actually does so, there is another who came over and did learn. Taiwan is littered with the non-learners – I won’t judge for not learning unless you’ve been here for years, but I don’t have much regard for intending to do so and then not following through because it’s ‘hard’. I don’t think every foreign expat, especially those who stay for less than two years, needs to be fluent, and I do recognize that learning predispositions mean that learning a language is harder for some than others. As someone who speaks Chinese, I do however take issue with the assumption that we all came over with noble intentions and we all gave up when we figured out that the beer was cheap. Not true.

As for employment, yes, plenty of foreigners do move abroad, get jobs teaching English and do a poor job of it, which gives the entire profession a bad name, and not everyone who came over with no experience, got a job teaching and stuck around is an inept teacher. Some find that they’re quite good at it or become very good at it and many of those go on to become professionals who get lumped in with the rest.

Because, honestly, is teaching English to grade schoolers easy? I happen to think it is (there are people who would disagree). Does it attract early twentysomethings with a college degree but no professional skills? Yeah, it does. Does that mean that everyone who teaches abroad – and there are some very skilled professionals out there doing so – deserves to get lumped in with them? Absolutely not.

The idea that expats move abroad because they can’t make it at home is wrong, too – or at least wrong much of the time. Setting aside those who live abroad because they’re gainfully employed and successful enough to be trusted with an assignment abroad, plenty of expats left good jobs in their home countries to try something new. I worked in finance before moving to Taiwan – it wasn’t that I was unsuccessful (well, considering I was in my mid-twenties before true success generally hits, anyway – I was doing fine for my age), it was that I didn’t like it. It is possible to do non-traditional work in the USA, but let’s face it, these days most jobs involve a carpeted little box and a softly glowing computer monitor. Not everyone is cut out for duty as a cube monkey, and while some of those jobs provide entrée into more interesting work, plenty lead to a dull management position and an office, which is basically just a larger box to sit in all day (as I see it – those who enjoy this sort of work are welcome to it, and I’m happy for them).

There’s also this: I wouldn’t have the job I have now – in corporate training – if it weren’t for my time working at various financial firms. Or rather, I might have been hired simply for being a good teacher, but I wouldn’t bring in the clients I do without that business experience.

Yes, it’s true that plenty of young Americans and Europeans go abroad because the job market back home is so stubbornly stagnant, but I fail to see what’s so wrong with that – it’s what millions of immigrants hope to do (and several hundred thousand achieve) every year, just in the other direction. There’s no shame in it.

So no, I didn’t move abroad because I was running from something – I didn’t like my job much in DC, but it was respectable enough employment. I had an evening job that I loved and a private student from the Japanese embassy. I had an active social life and still have friends. I dated (rather successfully, I might add, despite not being conventionally beautiful. Take that, Beauty Myth). I rented an amazing townhouse that I still miss living in. Life was pretty good.

I didn’t move because I was running to something. Sure, I’m weird (WHEEEE) but not so weird that I felt I had to leave my native surroundings to ‘be myself’. I certainly wasn’t moving for cheap beer (my taste runs towards Expensive and Belgian) or dates. I did move to learn the language in an immersion environment, but followed through and did actually learn Chinese and some Taiwanese. I have an abiding and deep interest in Taiwanese culture but I would not call it a fetishization – it is possible to have a normal healthy interest in the goings-on around you and how things work.

Yes, I do occasionally suffer from “grass is greener” syndrome (I’ll post about that later), wondering what life would have been like if I’d pursued a more traditional career or gone to graduate school earlier. There are definite perks to that life path and I am happy for those who choose it. That said, many of those folks back in DC who still work in my old office park probably sit at their desks and occasionally wonder what life would have been like if they’d packed up and decided to see the world, learn a new language and explore the limits of their comfort zones.

Finally, again, I really don’t see why this is so difficult to grasp for a lot of people. The travel bug bites some and not others, but it’s been biting people since people were people. You’d think those who don’t get it would stop bartering in worn out clichés and stereotypes about those of us who do enjoy life abroad.

20 comments:

catherine_sr. said...

Great post! When I moved abroad I'm sure there were certain people who thought I couldn't cut it in NYC. Though I loved living there, I wasn't going to stay just to prove I could. Some of my relatives were also like, "Why are you moving to Taiwan? We left that country to give our kids a better life!" That's one of the reasons I keep my blog -- I think seeing Taipei through the eyes of a Taiwanese-American helps them appreciate their hometown a little bit more.

I wanted to ask you if you think there is a difference between the way American expats in European countries and those in Asia are perceived. I feel like if you tell people you are going to teach ESL in a place like France or Spain, they think "Oooooh, how romantic!" whereupon if you say someplace like Taiwan, their reaction is just as likely to be the ones you mentioned: "Loser!" "Flake!" "Creepy dude with an Asian fetish!" I think part of it is snobbery -- cost of living in most European countries is much higher than in Asia, of course. I wonder if some of it is racism, too.

Kathmeista said...

Hear hear!! We're all overseas for a vast number of reasons and you know what? It's awesome good fun. I love living here, I love learning Chinese and I love being outside of my comfort zone. Sure, there are the single white dudes who come for the girls and cos they don't know what else to do but they're not even the half of it.

Another brilliant post. Thanks!

ktvxiaojie.com said...

The one that drives me crazy is the idea that we're here because we're lazy and want an easy life. My thinking is that, whether or not you're lazy, if you can find an "easy" life, why not pursue it? Isn't that what we all wish for? Isn't that the premise on which Tim Ferriss has managed to sell so many books?

Life here allows me to both earn a living and still have time to pursue my actual professional interests, and I'm not at all eager to give that up for the stress of living in America. I've been told before that I'm "wasting my potential" here, but really, I think living here gives me the time and opportunity to explore that potential.

Jenna said...

I do think there is a difference between American expats in Asia vs. Europe, and yes I think it is based on stereotypes and in part, racism. Of course, if one is going to teach in Europe, one needs certifications that are generally not necessary in Asia (although that is changing) so Europe *does* attract more career/pro teachers and fewer 21 year olds.

BTW, your note on "We left that country to give you kids a better life!" gives me a great idea for a post on viewing Taiwan as an expat compared to how locals have expressed to me that they see this country. A great counter-post on your end (or any Taiwanese-American blogger's end, but I encourage you to do it!) would be on how you as a returned Taiwanese American compared to how your parents see it.

ktvxiaojie - I agree. I would have never discovered that I am truly good at teaching and that this is a very fitting career for me if I hadn't come to Asia. I would probably not have done a great job of learning Chinese back home. I would not be in a job that I love as opposed to eternal cube monkey damnation (again, my view, no slight on those who like it), and I would not be planning on grad school for Applied Linguistics next year. I've realized my potential in Asia, not wasted it.

catherine_sr. said...

That's a good idea for a post, I'll get working on it!
Reactions to me from Taiwanese people tend to fall into three categories:

1) The people who are like "Well, duh, of course you want to come back to Taiwan, it's your home!" even though I was born and raised in the US (and have the funky accent to prove it when I speak Mandarin). They just think it's natural I'd be happier in Taiwan, eating Taiwanese food, hanging out with Taiwanese people and are surprised to find out that I did experienced plenty of culture shock when I first moved here. Then again, I love how upbeat they are about Taiwan and how excited they are for me.

2) On the flipside, there are the people who say "Why the hell did you move here if you have an American passport and speak English?" Obviously, this one is hard for me to respond to, since I realize that they might have very good reasons for being frustrated with living in Taiwan and they don't enjoy the privilege of being able to move between two countries like I do.

3) And then there are the people who think I am Japanese. Apparently it's not just the accent: I also "look" Japanese (it's my pale skin, apparently). Sometimes when people find out that I'm not Japanese, but actually Taiwanese-American, they say, "Oh, you are not like typical ABCs, you are polite!" Uh, thanks?

All this makes me wonder about the differences between how Japanese expats, white expats (from any country) and Taiwanese-American expats are perceived by people here. I also wonder what kinds of reactions Taiwanese-Canadians, Taiwanese-Australians, Taiwanese-Kiwis, etc, get. I know the TW media has a tendency to refer to ALL foreigners of Taiwanese parentage as "ABCs" regardless of whether or not they are American (or describe themselves as Chinese, for that matter).

Anyway, back to your point: Every time I see my parents now they tell me a lot of stories about the Taipei of their youth. When they visit the city, I am their guide, and I think seeing things through my eyes helps them take a fresh look at the city they grew up in. At the same time, the fact that I am now familiar with their hometown makes them feel more comfortable about sharing anecdotes from their childhood or facets of culture that were meaningful to them.
I'm looking forward to your post and doing my counterpost!

Marc said...

I love this post on the stereotypes of expats living abroad.

I would like to add two other reasons for living abroad that are not often considered. One is to do art - write or paint - something creative. I write and find living abroad enables it. Another reason is romantic. I know several who have moved abroad to follow their love...

Thoth Harris said...

Jenna, at first you claim that you don't judge people if they are non-learners of Chinese.
But then you got right ahead and judge anyway - proclaiming that anyone who has been here 6 years or 6 years, as I have, is a degenerate...okay, okay, I exaggerate, but still, you have to admit you are being unfair. Some of us don't have the time to learn. I am too tired after being at work for nine hours, and I don't have the skills to learn that some others do. Maybe you will claim I am making excuses for myself. Whatever, man. It's your right to claim whatever you want. But respect the diversity of m.o., please!
Many modus operandi abound, including lack of money, debt-ridden lives, stress, social isolation (not always because a person is merely a "loser" or "misfit," but perhaps because he or she just finds it difficult to fit in or find one's place. Sometimes it takes fifteen or twenty years to fit in. It certainly took me 15 years to fit in in Montreal, but by that time I was sick of the place and of the stasis of my job situation (a very common problem in that city, which is almost completely service industry oriented).

Jenna said...

It's more that I judge not even trying to learn Chinese when one has the time and opportunity. If you work 9 hours a day, you don't have the time (I wouldn't argue with that - I used to teach Korean immigrants in the USA who worked double-digit hours per day and while they took my class, they didn't have time to study, and I didn't think less of them). That's fair.

I don't judge those who have tried and find they just aren't good at languages. I suck at sports (specifically basketball, tennis and baseball) and can understand that sometimes people just are not good at something. That's fair too.

It's more that I judge the type of expat who does have time - (s)he maybe works 15 hours a week at a cram school, hasn't really tried hard enough to learn to figure out whether it's a talent issue and just doesn't really have the energy or caring. If you have the time/energy, and assuming you don't have any great dearth of ability to learn a language, I do honestly think that if you're going to live in a foreign country, taking the time to learn a bit of the language - maybe just for basic conversation and being able to say more than two words to locals who don't speak English is important.

It can take awhile to fit in and feel comfortable, true.I guess I feel that if I hadn't managed to fit in after a year or two, I'd probably try another place or go home for awhile. Fifteen years is too long to feel uncomfortable. Clearly you made it work for you, and that's great, but I admit I don't quite get it.

Freeman said...

Not sure what exactly you want to say here as each one of us has their own personal reasons to move to Taiwan. Mine was love. Some others come to study, work as teachers, some are business men. Some want to find a girl, guy, whatever. It's for me boring to guess why some people go somewhere. There are so many Taiwanese who go to Europe for the same or similar reasons. I would like us (the thinkers) to go beyond this "issue" so often discussed on ex-pat blogs all over Asia and focus on things, that help the community like tips on how to get and keep a job, what to take care of when you live here etc. I know you do that a lot, but sometimes you write too much about some abstract things, that are waste of time. Maybe you could blog less and put more thought into it.

Regards,

Freeman

Jenna said...

Freeman, I basically published your comment only as an example of what I do NOT agree with.

In fact, I think precisely what defines a thoughtful blog are a balance of abstract and concrete/tips-based posts. The abstract is worth looking into. If it weren't, I wouldn't do it.

If you think that expat blogs should focus more on community work, tips, observations etc. then you can write them, and I am going to keep up with my repertoire of both abstract and real-life posts.

And, basically, if you don't like it, that's too damn bad for you. I don't really care. You don't have to read what you don't like.

I also want to know where you get off thinking you have a say in what or how often other people blog - if you think a blog should focus on X instead of Y, then you do it, but don't tell me how to run my site.

Basically: "abstract concepts that are a waste of time" - wrong. At least to me. "You write too much about/maybe you could" - totally not OK to tell someone else what they should and should not be doing on their blog.

Jenna said...

There's also the fact that basically, we agree. You think it's a waste of time to wonder why others move abroad, and I think that people come up with too many stupid stereotypes about why people move abroad and don't judge travelers as individuals.

The only difference is that you don't think it's worth writing about, but I do.

Freeman said...

There's also the fact that basically, we agree. You think it's a waste of time to wonder why others move abroad, and I think that people come up with too many stupid stereotypes about why people move abroad and don't judge travelers as individuals.

Jenna, I believe it's also a waste of time to write about stupid stereotypes other people have about why some foreigners moved to Taiwan. What did you change by writing about that? It's been written about 1000 times on other blogs and websites and I don't see it has in any way changed minds of people who have stereotypes about why some foreigners moved to Taiwan.

And you misunderstood me, I wasn't giving you orders on how to write your blog, after all I don't have the authority to do so, nor it's in my interest to care about the topics that are discussed about on other blogs. It was merely my attempt at constructive criticism. My friends and I were discussing your blog yesterday and I couldn't catch up with it for the past month, because I was on a business trip. So when I came back, I was a bit surprised that you went so deep into this nonessential topic, I expected more from you.

And please don't be offended by my blunt statements. Same as in business, I'm very straight forward when I speak my mind.

Good day.

Freeman

Jenna said...

I still don't think it's a nonessential topic. Other comments here and the fact that it's been linked to mean that clearly, many found it interesting, and I find it worth discussing.

I'm sorry you disagree, but that's the way it is, and if you agree that you don't have authority to say what I should write about, then statements like "Maybe you should", "this topic is worthless/nom-essential" aren't exactly a good idea.

Readin said...

Another post where most of the text is spent on "Somone said the average expat is X, but while that may be true for many or even most expat's, it's not true for every because it doesn't apply to me and to some other people I know"

It's simply a fact of life that not everyone who might be grouped with you is like you, and sometimes negative things that are said about your group can be true even if they don't apply to you personally.

You may be a 7 foot tall womean, but that doesn't prove that we can't assume most women are shorter than most men.

You have a lot of interesting observations, but it seems like every time I come here (usually a link from Michael Turton) it gets buried in a lecture about stereotypes.

Readin said...

To add another non-random data point to your collection, I went t Taiwan after meeting my wife-to-be in the U.S.. In my childhood I had gone on vacations within the U.S. with my parents and had wanted to travel overseas. I had also long been interested in learning a foreign language (not easy to do as a child living 1000 miles form the nearest foreign country).

So I came to Taiwan for a several reasons. I wanted to travel to a foreign country both to experience the culture and for the challenge of living in that culture. I wanted to learn a foreign language, and I wanted to meet and impress my girlfriend's parents.

While I could be said that I came for the women (or "woman" in my case), I drank maybe 4 beers while I was there, so I wasn't coming for the alcohol. Nor, given my views on marriage, was I coming for "easy" women.

The accusation about people who don't fit in in their own culture traveling has some truth for me. I'm a pretty geeky. The accusation about not being able to succeed financially in their own country does not apply to because, as I mentioned, I'm pretty geeky. People who can do math, science, and/or work with computers can find work despite weak social skills.

I think the theory that “They were too ‘weird’ back home and abroad they feel they can ‘be themselves’. They don’t really consider that the country they live in frowns upon ‘weird’ even more, and they only get away with it because they’re foreigners.” has some truth. In fact it is quite liberating. Who doesn't want to be accepted for who they are instead of feeling they have to conform to strange and inexplicable cultural expectations?

Readin said...

cathrine_sr. wrote: "I feel like if you tell people you are going to teach ESL in a place like France or Spain, they think 'Oooooh, how romantic!' whereupon if you say someplace like Taiwan, their reaction is just as likely to be the ones you mentioned: 'Loser!' 'Flake!' 'Creepy dude with an Asian fetish!'"

Are you talking about reactions of people in Asia and Europe, or of people in America?

I have to admit that I have a very different reaction. When I hear about someone going to Europe to backpack or to teach English or something like that, I tend to think of them as wanting to try something different, but not having the guts to try something really different. They want to go do something foreign, but still be in a culture very similar to their own where they don't look out of place.

It's probably unfair of me to think that way since Europe likely would have been my first or second choice were it not for my wife. But that's how I tend to react.

Jenna said...

Readin - well, there are a lot of stereotypes out there to dispel, so I don't see why that's a bad thing. I wouldn't be writing the posts if there weren't assumptions to dispel.

And, as I told Freeman, if you don't like it, you don't have to read it. There is no blog in existence where I haven't come upon a post and thought "meh, I usually like this blog, but this post doesn't really grab me" and I've simply not read it or finished it.

My life will go on if you come to my blog, see a post like this, think "meh, not my thing" and decide not to read it.

I do have a lot of posts that don't talk about stereotypes, or wrong assumptions, or what have you - have you considered the possibility that Michael (whose link backs I'm quite happy to have) chooses which posts of mine to link to based on his personal preference, and his choices swing more toward the "dispelling stereotypes" sort of posts and maybe not so much the "where to find good coffee" or "here's something awesome that happened to me the other day" posts? Maybe that if you come here from Michael Turton, you're reading based on his preferences and not necessarily catching the full focus of my blog?

And again, if you don't like it, too damn bad. If I get many more comments on "you blog about X and I don't like that", I might just start deleting them because I can blog on anything I please.

Readin said...

I just heard on the news that Osama is dead (scared the crap out of me as I initially misheard it as "Obama is dead").

I thought enough of your blog to take the time to write some detailed comments. It's your blog and your comments and you're free to ignore them or to respond by cussing at me.


"well, there are a lot of stereotypes out there to dispel, so I don't see why that's a bad thing. I wouldn't be writing the posts if there weren't assumptions to dispel."

But you don't dispel them. You offer a few exceptions. Stereotypes aren't mathematical theorems where a single exception serves to disprove. Stereotypes are more like statistics.

"I do think there is a difference between American expats in Asia vs. Europe, and yes I think it is based on stereotypes and in part, racism."

Now you are stereotyping the people you assume to be racist! Yet you make no comment about how not all such people are racist.


"have you considered the possibility that Michael (whose link backs I'm quite happy to have) chooses which posts of mine to link to based on his personal preference"

Yes, that's why I mentioned that that was my usual route to your page.

Jenna said...

Again, sorry if you don't like something or disagree, but I stand by my post. I publiahed this and Freeman's comment because I am fine with dusagreement as long as it is rationalky spoken (if I thought your comment was worthless I would have deleted it or at least not responded to it). It is a compliment of sorts that I took the time to respond.

That said, I am ornery by nature (and not ashamed of it - it may not be a quality often prized especially in women but I think I make it work for me). If you write a critical comment, I will defend myself and my blog.

But congrats - news of Osama's death broke while I was on the bus so your comment on my mobile device was the first I heard of it.

Anonymous said...

There really aren't that many female expats in china compared to men.
Also the beer is terrible here.