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.