Standing on the waters casting your bread
While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing.
Distant ships sailing into the mist,
You were born with a snake in both of your fists while a hurricane was blowing.
Freedom just around the corner for you
But with the truth so far off, what good will it do?
Ex-pat as a subject has occupied much of my mental space over the past couple of years. Likely that has to do with the fact that I am, of sorts, an ex-pat. As has been noted, I am somewhat of a reluctant ex-pat. In some respects I feel entitled to have my say on the subject, particularly in the face of some of the sillier things I hear people say about ex-pats, but in many other circumstances I feel like a total newbie as I stand alongside people who have, literally, served the Queen from Jamaica to Sri Lanka to Hong Kong and beyond. A lifetime abroad. I can hardly imagine.
What is an ex-pat? The definitions certainly vary. Many of the ex-pats I know say they are not ex-pats because they are not on an “ex-pat package.” Still, they are residents of a country that is not officially their own and easily distinguishable through physical and lifestyle differences. Other people say they are not ex-pats because they will never repatriate. The actual definition is: a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country and culture other than that of the person’s upbringing or legal residence. Seems to me the people I have been talking to are ex-pats after all. Other people I know embrace the label, though they tend to be of an older generation and embody it in terms more familiar: G&Ts, Panama hats, an oil and water relationship with locals.
And why my reluctance to adopt the clearly apt moniker?
Well, first, I want to go home – and apparently that is not “cool” in the ex-pat scene. In fact, it seems to imply some sort of direct challenge to the ex-pat lifestyle whenever it comes up, which is then promptly chided by a lengthy diatribe against the United States.
I miss my tribe. Saying that, of course, brings up a whole slew of crap insults opinions.
No matter how one identifies with the concept of ex-pat, the experience is of living away from your “father” (or mother) land is singularly significant. The shift in perspective is amazing, and I might suggest necessary in many ways. I have seen my ideas of what it means to be American, to be an ex-pat, and to be an American ex-pat, go through amazing changes over the course of five years.
So swiftly the sun sets in the sky,
You rise up and say goodbye to no one.
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread,
Both of their futures, so full of dread, you don’t show one.
Shedding off one more layer of skin,
Keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within.
To fully consider ex-patriatitis, consider the etymology: there is a suggestion of being forcibly sent off from your home country. That would definitely color the experience, though I don’t think that is the primary cause anymore. Or is it? Why do people leave their home countries and settle, or wander, abroad? Save for being a law-breaker, getting sent off seems a bit archaic these days, but I would guess there are many ways in which one gets “sent off.” Pulling a geographical is hardly a new phenomenon, and many people who may believe they are expatriating by choice are doing it more so for circumstance. I may be projecting as I perpetrated a total runner as many of you know – I couldn’t deal so I sprinted. (Bad strategy, btw.) I think there are far more subtle runners though: can’t find love, work, peace, hope… at home? Move it out.
For these reasons the location of my expatriation are famous. No easier place for a Western man to find a partner than Asia, it is simply how it works; Western male + Asian female = Instant hook-up. In the current economic climate, there is no easier place to secure employment than Asia, and the money is good. Peace? Well, Hong Kong has it if for no other reason than no one cares to consider things that bother them… you simply do not need to. I suppose that is very insular, but you can certainly get away with it here in a place where political/environmental/religious/racial/humanitarian issues seem to be so far removed from the work/play/consume culture of Hong Kong. I realize that sounds harsh, even judgemental, but if you live here it is worth acknowledging as a reality, at least to some degree, and I definitely understand the appeal, so I am not really casting aspersions.
Hope? Ahh… that springs eternal when one need not consider the alternatives.
You’re a man of the mountains, you can walk on the clouds,
Manipulator of crowds, you’re a dream twister.
You’re going to Sodom and Gomorrah
But what do you care? Ain’t nobody there would want to marry your sister.
Friend to the martyr, a friend to the woman of shame,
You look into the fiery furnace, see the rich man without any name.
And so, you find yourself away. Entrenched? Maybe. Detached? Often. Stuck? That is to be determined. The manner in which one ‘becomes’ an ex-pat greatly influences the kind of ex-pat into which one evolves. Do you immerse yourself in the culture? Are you insulated from it? Somewhere in between? It is clear to me that those options and all points between describe the experience for nearly everyone.
There is freedom in being an ex-pat, or a perceived freedom that apparently allows for behavior that people would not condone at home – a suspension of the standard progression, I think. Not that the standard progression is really all that, or progressive for that matter. But the suspended reality of the ex-pat life is nearly tangible. This can be ultimately completely freeing or petrifying in its stasis. And I wonder at what point one moves beyond it, I have not in five years. Would marrying a local do it? I think that it is far more likely that the local comes to the way of the ex-pat than the other way around. Though, I speak as an observer rather than a practitioner here.
The thing I do notice is that the choice to do things you might never think of at “home” seems available as an ex-pat and this offers much possibility. Likely, this calls into question the nature of home for most people who experience this liberty. And once you begin to fully examine the nature of home, and what home means to you, you are wandering the wide open spaces of the ex-pat. These manifestations of these ruminations will disclose the nature of home for you, I believe.
If that is the result of embarking on the life of an ex-pat, maybe it is enough.
Well, the Book of Leviticus and Deuteronomy,
The law of the jungle and the sea are your only teachers.
In the smoke of the twilight on a milk-white steed,
Michelangelo indeed could’ve carved out your features.
Resting in the fields, far from the turbulent space,
Half asleep near the stars with a small dog licking your face.
I listen to people Americans who travel here, some to stay, criticize American ex-pats all the time. They do this with noticeable disdain for the embarrassing behavior of Americans abroad. I giggle when I hear these comments. In this regard, I know of what I speak, and know it well. Funny enough, the Brits and Aussies do it to their own as well. The behavior they criticize is the bumptious and belligerent behavior of their kind acting as the bulls in the proverbial China shop of the non-Western world. This shortchanges the awareness of the “China shop” as well as the ex-pats in question. It has nothing to do with being American or British or Australian or whatever. The mob mentality and hive mind tendencies of human beings is what these criticisms are really taking aim at. No matter where you go, those in groups of their own will annoy you. I have never heard of Swedes being particularly offensive in any way. Go to Thailand: there in roving packs, they earn the same scorn of the Americans in Europe and the Brits in Hong Kong. Israelis are always getting harshed on (I raise my hand in culpability here) but I learned through humbling trial and error, this is not to do with the individuals from Israel, it is the fact that as soon as they finish their military service they head abroad. In groups. Multitudes of them traveling in tribal groups. And so, the reputation is perpetrated.
Anthropologist Monica Wilson described the significance of the definitions of ritual that characterize the Book of Leviticus as “the key to understanding a society’s central values; it makes up the markers by which a group of people recognise themselves as a group, and distinguish themselves from their neighbours.” I wonder then, if the innate desire to determine and understand our own identities lies at the restless nature of the ex-pat – no matter where you go… there YOU are. In the same way, the cultural mythologies far and wide discuss journeys through the wilderness with the ultimate hope of arriving at some sort of promised land. It makes up the majority of the Book of Deuteronomy (as much as my limited Biblical studies indicate.) Forty years of wandering leads you….
None of my friends, or much of my family for that matter, seemed all that surprised to see where my life has taken me. Why then was I? Lamenting the wanderlust of my cousins Haley and Nolan, my aunt Ginger reportedly said, “They are such Barickmans!” Perhaps the genetic code is that strong – and maybe we can identify the fernweh in others as a central value thus superseding the necessity to reconvene with our tribe of national origin and that in itself creates the ex-pat culture. Home for many may be the impermanence offered by ex-patriating. When I return to my tribe, will I belong there again? I have yet to articulate the nature of home beyond one simple requirement: mi familia. This is where I am “far from the turbulent space.” For this reason alone, I know I will find my place. I harbor few illusions about an idealized promised land and expect that there will always remain some sort of question as to permanence or belonging as a residual effect of my ex-pat experience. It is simply who I have become am.
Jokerman dance to the nightingale tune,
Bird fly high by the light of the moon,
Oh, oh, oh, Jokerman.