For international readers, allow me to explain: I am an American but I have lived in China since 2004. My city of Chongqing is a megacity of 30 million people. Often abbreviated as CQ, and pronounced Chong Ching to rhyme with Wrong Ring, Chongqing is located in south-central China on the Yangtze River. I’ve come a long, long way – 13 time zones, to be exact – from my small hometown located in south-central Missouri on the Little Dry Fork Creek. CQ is indisputably one of the world’s largest cities but I am on a quest for a simple life. Thus, even in the middle of a huge metropolis, I publish these observations and admonitions to “simplify, simplify” from my 18th Floor Homestead.
I am working on a new book, The Expat Life, and this chapter introduces some of the good and bad aspects of life as an expat. I’m sure there will be changes in it as I revise the book before it is ready for publishing… but you saw it here first. Enjoy!
Pros and Cons of the Expat Life
Communications with my friends and relatives in the US and other places around the world reminds me – sometimes forcefully – how very different my expat lifestyle is from theirs. Living in another country and, in my case, living in a much larger city than my rural hometown often feels like I am on another planet or another era.
Thor Heyerdahl, the famous Norwegian leader of the Kon-Tiki expedition in the mid-20th Century, wrote of an experience he had as a young man. In his first trip to the South Pacific, he encountered two old Scandinavians who had lived in the islands for years. Here they were, living in paradise – tropical breezes, tropical beaches, tropical fruits and flowers, tropical girls! And what did they daydream about? They missed the gooseberries of their home country! For them, the simple, unglamorous gooseberry had come to represent all of the pleasures from their previous life which were not available in the islands. For me, gooseberries matter not at all. However, I have found no steaks in my new country which match the bacon-wrapped, medium-rare fillets of my favorite steak house in the hometown of my youth. The same is true for the shrimp nachos as they were prepared by my favorite Mexican restaurant. Becoming an expat requires some sacrifices.
However, putting childhood memories aside, let’s be a little more objective. As he aged, the American writer Ernest Hemingway famously returned to many of the sites of the adventures from his early years – the race tracks of Paris, the bullfight rings in Spain, the safari in Africa, the canals of Venice, the indolent pace of Key West, and the hunting in the mountains of the American West. Invariably, when he returned to those same spots years later, the people were not as funny or heroic or guileless as he remembered. The places were not as beautiful and sophisticated, or charmingly rustic and undeveloped. Everything was changed: the ease and simplicity, the excitement, the food and drink… None were not as good as he remembered – and he had hoped to relive. Indeed, he had changed also. Not as physically strong, not as ruggedly handsome and irresistible to women, not able to drink all night then fish or hunt all afternoon after a morning of productive writing, Hemingway himself had declined. Attempts to relive those early experiences brought him more disappointment than pleasure. Despite the advantages of fame and wealth, those original sensations eluded him.
Hemingway never admitted that the sensation and charm of a first experience could never be reproduced; this was precisely because they were a first experience, something new and often unexpected. It’s true for all of us, including Hemingway. I confess; it is true for me also. No chocolate will ever be as incredible as my first taste of fine Swiss chocolate after a boyhood filled with American candy bars. No relationship will ever be as sweet, trusting, and innocent as our first love. No current pets could ever match the loyalty, intelligence, and antics of beloved dogs and cats from our past. In my stories, no steak ever tasted so good, no skies were ever so clear, no fish were ever so willing to bite, no afternoon on the golf course was ever so satisfying, no river was ever so beautiful in the evening, and no friends so humorous as those in my pre-expat life. As I regale my new friends with tales of my old life, they must wonder why I ever considered leaving such an idyllic life to become an expat.
However, if becoming an expat requires some sacrifices, there are benefits aplenty, too. Thinking, then, about the expat life I have chosen, here is a short list of the pros and cons of that choice. Note: Before you start packing your bags and begin searching online for the best ticket prices, don’t assume that your experiences or conclusions will be identical to mine. As the car manufacturers caution: Your mileage may vary.
1) I have a car-free life. Briefly stated, the benefits of giving up your car are immense. I relish not having a car as the center of all my activities and my self-image. Expense, stress, complications, maintenance, and comparisons with others evaporate. They all disappear when you eliminate car ownership. Let me repeat for effect: I do not miss the joys of rush hour traffic. Indeed, my quality of life improved immeasurably when I threw off the shackles of the automobile.
Don’t get me wrong; I had my first car when I was 16 and I have owned many cars in my lifetime. Some of them were real jewels and immensely fun and satisfying to drive. Now, my cars and my beloved motorcycles are only memories and a few photographs. (Well, I still have my leather motorcycle jacket hanging in the closet… but the dern thing appears to have shrunk over the years.) Today, those memories make me smile and I admit to occasionally getting an involuntary motorcyclist’s throttle twisting wrist motion when I see someone on a nice “bike” and open road – but I wouldn’t go back. I haven’t had to search for a parking spot for years. How much is that worth?
2) Language challenges. There are both benefits and limits when you don’t speak the local language. I have mastered some standard phrases and it is amazing what you can deduce from repeated experiences, tone of voice, context, and facial expressions. Example: The first words any taxi driver says to you in any language are, “Where to, Mac?”
Sometimes, not being fluent in the local language is a decided challenge. However, it can also be a benefit when you consider that most conversations are unnecessarily long and pointless. When I can’t understand the words, I can’t waste my time in listening to what someone had for breakfast and the aftermath. I just wait for my translator of the moment to condense the directions or decision into a couple of sentences. Keep your breakfast adventures and their aftermath to yourself, please. Fortunately for me, my son (who was born an expat and learned two languages since birth) is my default translator now. Smoothly bilingual, he is immensely helpful. When we go out together, the young boy will give instructions to the taxi driver while the old man looks out the window.
Another manifestation of the language obstacle is the chronic problem I have with receiving surface mail from the outside world which is addressed in English. This is an example of the inherent difficulty when two languages collide inside a bureaucracy. I have explored several solutions but none have been entirely satisfactory. Over the years, this situation has gotten better but waiting for something sent from abroad is still a concern until you have it safely in your hands. Don’t forget the professionally suspicious people in the customs office who may question your need for the contents or if they are truly for “personal use”.
3) The language mountain means that serious conversations about deeper subjects are limited to people who are quite fluent in English. It is difficult to find new acquaintances who can truly relate to your vocabulary, experiences, and outlook. Yet, many of life’s experiences are not complete until we can share our thoughts and feelings about the event with another person. Then, to complete the process, that person must be capable of relating to that experience and contributing their own thoughts and feelings. In a foreign country with a different native language, finding such a local resident or among a small expat community is often tough. Issues that may be vitally interesting to me are inconsequential or incomprehensible to locals. It is almost impossible to find residents who can truly understand my experiences and worldview even if they understand my English words. Likewise, I may fail to appreciate the importance of some issues for local people about matters which have no history with me. Indeed, a quiet but persistent loneliness is an occupational hazard of being an expat.
4) Assuming that there are no local biases against foreigners of your specific nationality or ethnicity, you will find it refreshing to be exempt from most expectations. (The acid test: Try to marry a local and see how you are received.) Many of the unspoken rules which we learned as children in our native culture, become questionable or irrelevant. For example, in America, I was always admonished to “eat with your mouth closed” and “don’t talk with your mouth full”. In other countries, those rules are not taught to children. Indeed, my expat-born son often urges me to eat with my mouth open, and a mouth full of food is hardly a hindrance to the non-stop chattering of the local residents. Provided that I do not break any laws, it is nice to go through my days being relatively unlimited by the norms and expectations of the local culture. Being a foreigner makes me a member of a quite small group which is largely accepted, welcomed, and valued – and forgiven.
5) Counterbalancing the freedom from most of the expectations and requirements which apply to local residents, expats do have a few limits which apply to them but which do not affect the locals. Banks are sometimes reluctant to open accounts for foreigners because of tax and reporting issues. (Sometimes the resistance is merely because a clerk doesn’t know how to handle an unfamiliar situation but won’t admit it. The solution is diplomatic persistence, i.e., come back tomorrow and talk to a different clerk.) Visas and work permits for foreigners are not permanent or automatic. They have to be renewed periodically; this involves a bureaucratic labyrinth most expats would prefer to avoid. When language issues are also involved, communications about minute legal or professional details can become difficult and frustrating, especially if they involve some point you are expected to be familiar with or whose regulations have just changed.
I am often asked if I will ever return to my home country. Indeed, queries from family and friends back there are often phrased as when I will return. I always answer that, when all factors are considered, my current decision is that the best life for me and my family is in our present location. But I hasten to add that this is only my choice today. Life, as we know, is full of changes so I reserve the right to make different decisions – minor or major – if you ask me tomorrow. Next year (or next week), I may give you a different response. Indeed, one of the greatest benefits of having moved halfway around the world is, having done it once, you have become aware of the fact that it is relatively easy to do it again – either returning to your home country or moving to a completely new place.
I am determined not to make Hemingway’s mistake. As the saying goes, “You can’t go home again.” Probably, I won’t even try, regardless of how alluring the memories may be. I am quite satisfied with the life I have now. Besides, the folks back home think that I, the expat, am the one with the glamorous and exciting life. And, yes, the steaks in my new town are pretty good, too. Still haven’t found shrimp nachos as good as the old place yet, though.