Category Archives: Essays

The incredible shrinking expat

Every white guy in Asia who is not hideously disfigured or too clueless to live has had the Charisma Man experience. Charisma Man was a comic strip that debuted in 1998 in The Alien, a magazine for expats in Japan. (Story of The Alien here.) It chronicles the adventures of an expat English teacher in Japan – a nebbishy Canadian guy of overwhelming mediocrity in his home country, who is magically transformed into a swaggering hero and debonair sex god by virtue of his fascinating foreignness in the eyes of admiring locals.

Confused for a modern-day Clark Gable, Charisma Man is mobbed by pretty Japanese women trying to get to know him (“Are you speak French?”). Lacking any discernible qualifications and virtually unemployable at home, Charisma Man interviews for a cushy job teaching salarymen at a major Japanese company – and receives an immediate offer. Charisma Man’s great superpower is his white maleness, which enables him to perform a kind of cultural arbitrage, trading on the gap between the value he actually possesses (zilch) and his perceived value in the minds of locals who have strongly positive stereotypes of Western men. His kryptonite is Western Woman – the expat white girls in Japan who see right through his act with the merciless clarity afforded by a shared culture. Whenever he is unfortunate enough to cross paths with Western Woman, Charisma Man’s heroic bubble is burst – he instantly deflates to his dorky, slump-shouldered Canadian self.

Source: charismaman.com

Source: charismaman.com

This is, of course, a comedic exaggeration of reality – even more so now than 20 years ago, when furriners were still a novelty outside (and even inside) the major metropolises. Nowadays the closed societies of Japan, Korea and China have largely gotten used to the presence of significant numbers of white dudes, to the point of disillusionment and weariness with their unfathomable (but mostly predictable) ways.

Having said that, foreigners and in particular Caucasian men still enjoy a significant edge in most parts of Asia:

  • Mere possession of a college degree and a pulse qualifies even the most hapless expat for a basic English teaching job, which can be fun (for about a year) and usually pays more than enough to live on. The more ambitious expats can leverage their native English skills and knowledge of “global business etiquette” and “international communication” (as well as hyperbolic accounts of their work experience back home) to land a more prestigious corporate gig, where they might be managing a team of locals, mediating communication between locals and foreigners, proofreading/editing documents, or something along those lines. Nice work, if you can get it – which is almost certainly going to be a lot harder in your home country. Furthermore, foreigners are often given a pass for a certain degree of incompetence and cluelessness, on the grounds that a) something is probably getting lost in translation and/or b) foreigners should not be made to lose face, as they need to be kept happy and compliant.
  • Socially, too, your foreignness will open doors and help you carve out a niche that you probably hadn’t even thought of. If you find yourself being interviewed on TV, giving talks to large audiences, or hobnobbing with government officials, you’re probably a foreigner in Asia. To be clear, most of these brushes with celebrity lead absolutely nowhere. But they’re fun and they make for good stories. Also, if you combine your built-in advantage as a foreigner with actual talent and hard work – and you learn the local language – you can make yourself a valued resource and even a respected guru. Start a small business, host an event series, write a book about your experiences, or become the world’s leading foreign expert on, say, Chinese economic data. In some cases, this can be the basis or the accelerant for a very successful career abroad (see point #1).
  • Foreigners also have a huge leg up in the dating realm – this is still very much true despite the growing number and visibility of white people in every corner of Asia. The effect is wearing off in major cities such as Shanghai, but it still exists. Just being a white guy, period, is a conversation starter in most places. You don’t need much “game” to chat with a cute girl who finds you exotic and interesting before you even open your mouth. From there it’s usually not that hard to escalate things. In this arena, the foreigner must be wary to avoid being taken advantage of by predatory local women who may see him primarily as a meal ticket or green card sponsor, but frankly, that’s a highly avoidable danger in the modern Asian megacities. Just be smart and hang out with educated, well-to-do women. Also, use a burner phone.

Here’s the big caveat, though. The fine print you glossed over before you booked your ticket on Kayak. Success “over there” may be entirely meaningless back at home. The sheer alienness (I say it with love) of most of Asia means that your achievements may not be valued or even understood by your compatriots; the skills and experience you labored to acquire in the distant kingdoms of the East may as useless in your home country as your wallet full of Japanese yen at the local Walgreens.

As an extreme example of this, consider the Canadian performer Mark Henry Rowswell, who goes by the name Da Shan in China. Known for his comedic performances delivered in flawless Mandarin, Da Shan is one of the most famous foreigners in China, instantly recognizable to several hundred million people – putting him in the same fame-league as the president of the United States. He first achieved stardom in 1988 by appearing on a TV special during Chinese New Year that was watched by an estimated 550 million people.

Da Shan has clearly built a successful career for himself and, while I have no idea how much money he makes, he probably does well. Nevertheless, his incredible fame comes with a severe qualification: Da Shan is completely unknown outside of China.

So there’s a warning for you. Some skills are transferable if you move back to the motherland; others are not. The confidence you gain abroad, however, is likely to stick no matter where you go.

See also: The bell curve of expat opportunity

And: Loser Back Home (LBH)X-twat

The bell curve of expat opportunity

There’s a theory I’ve been kicking around. It may be totally wrong, and will probably offend some people, but I thought it would be fun to inflict it on the internet and see what happens.

The theory applies to Western (especially American) expats, and it goes like this: The degree of opportunity in living overseas tapers off as you approach the extremes of the social hierarchy.

Here’s a visual depiction of what I mean:

Some explanation is in order. Before I first moved abroad, I was under the vague impression that the streets of the Orient were paved with gold. That seemed to be the general consensus of people who didn’t actually live there. “The China market has over a billion people; if I sell a $1 widget to only 1% of the population, I’ll make $10 million!!!” would be a crude distillation of this type of thinking.

Or maybe this – again using China as an example: “I’ll ‘pick up’ Mandarin, charm my way into the upper echelon of Beijing society, and somehow convince a Chinese billionaire to give me large amounts of cash for [X activity].”

The simple strategy behind these and similar ideas basically amounts to this:

1) Move to Asia
2) Leverage my foreignness
3) ???
4) Profit!

In general, foreigners who move to Asia harboring these types of dreams are likely to be cruelly disappointed by the reality that if they can’t get rich at home, there is almost zero chance they will strike a gold mine in the strange, restrictive, and often cutthroat business environment of the East. In fact, such foreigners are far more likely to wind up teaching oral English to ingrate kids for beer money than building a lucrative business in Asia or somehow weaseling their way into the elite ranks of an Asian society.

This is not to say that it’s a mistake to live abroad. To the contrary, going and staying overseas in a non-Western country can be one of the best moves you ever make. But NOT in order to get rich quick, obtain fame/power, or “change the world.” If you aspire to do any of these things, your best bet is probably to head to a Western power center such as Manhattan, Silicon Valley, Washington, D.C., London, or Boston/Cambridge, depending on your specific ambition, and start climbing the greasy pole. Packing your bags for Bahrain, Bogota or Beijing for anything more than a short-term stay (3-12 months) is as likely to sidetrack your quest for world domination as it is to accelerate it.

Exceptions to this rule might include the heavily Westernized cities of Hong Kong and Singapore (even Shanghai, despite its growing clout, is still something of an outpost). By and large, though, the gateways to the global elite lie in the U.S. and Europe. Like it or not.

So much for the elite. At the other end of the social hierarchy (no offense), we find a similar aversion to living abroad, but for a different reason: the math doesn’t work. For a broad category of people, ranging from comfortable blue-collar workers to those living off the government teat, putting down roots in the smoggy cities of China or the tropical beaches of Siam makes little to no financial or personal sense. People who can’t afford a plane ticket, or don’t have a passport, or lack the educational credentials to find work overseas, are going to find their global mobility greatly restricted. Like the aspiring Wall Street bankers and Silicon Valley tycoons, their future lies at home, in the warm embrace of the motherland.

The bulge of the bell curve, between these two extremes, is what I call the “expat sweet spot.” These are the wannabe elites, the liberal arts graduates and mid-tier professionals and creative, independent, hedonistic types who chase the expat dream because they think it will generate new opportunities and appreciably boost their quality of life.

In a huge number of cases, this belief is correct. Escaping the postmodern hell-matrix of the West for the more easygoing cultures of Asia and Latin America can be a fantastic option for the young, the mobile, and the reasonably well-educated, not to mention retirees looking to kick back in a more exciting locale than South Florida. The dirty secret is that expat life is a blast. Seriously. Someday, all Westerners will catch on to this and the flabby white hordes will overwhelm the beaches and nightclubs of the third world in a modern-day Normandy of self-indulgence. (Some argue that this has already happened.)

Also, it’s often laughably easy to get hired and promoted overseas, where native English-language skills and a Western mindset are in high demand. Working in a foreign country can therefore be a powerful accelerant for your career, if you play your cards right and avoid the deadly English-teaching rut (or, once in it, get out of it ASAP).

Learning a foreign language is overrated because most people do it half-assedly; but mastering a difficult foreign tongue can bring a variety of intellectual and monetary rewards to the committed expat, opening doors to niche but interesting careers. For the subset of expats who choose full immersion in the language and customs of a foreign nation, living abroad can be a gateway to a new and more fulfilling life. These people I would describe as eccentric, and the more alien the nation to which they assimilate, the more eccentric they are. If anyone thinks I’m being disparaging, remember that most of the great artists, thinkers and inventors in history were eccentrics.

Many of these types manage to thrive in their adopted homeland, earning great respect from the locals, carving out lucrative careers for themselves, marrying and raising families and living happily ever after. I call these “high-functioning eccentrics.” The only catch: their lives aren’t generally “transferable” – if they ever decide to repatriate, their accomplishments in a foreign land may be looked upon with total indifference back at home, and reverse culture shock will be amplified by the personal eccentricities that propelled them overseas in the first place. Such are the paradoxes of life – especially expat life.

Homecoming

Are you an American living and working abroad in Asia, who is considering moving back home? Based on my personal experience, let me outline the major advantages and disadvantages of life back in the motherland so you know what you’re in for (this could apply to other Westerners as well):

1) You are closer to your family. Being able to frequently visit your family, without having to endure a crappy 15-hour flight (or multiple flights with a layover) may prove to be the main benefit of moving back home.

2) The internet works here. Those who have lived in China understand what a frustrating, time-wasting drag it can be to have to fire up a VPN to use Google, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or Blogger.com. A VPN that may not even work or be fast enough for your needs. I have wasted weeks of my life trying to get on the internet in China.

3) Work is no fun anymore. There is no getting around the fact that most jobs absolutely suck in the US. Unlike in Asia, unless perhaps you work for a rapidly growing company in a new industry, there is no “Wild West” feel to going to work every day – no adventure or novelty.

In China and other Asian countries, the normal drudgery of work is alleviated by the fact that service industries are in general (much) less mature, so:

  • Things are changing rapidly, which is fun to watch.
  • The standards and expectations for you are lower than in the US, giving you more personal freedom.
  • It is easier to achieve distinction within the system and, in some cases, to make improvements to the organization you work for.

At one point, I was literally the only Westerner working in my industry in a certain large Chinese city. What can I say, it was fun. That feeling of novelty is completely gone as I labor in the climate-controlled sweatshops of Corporate America™.

Reader, it sucks. If you work in a corporate environment, unless you are some kind of genius you will be constantly challenged and shown up by your intelligent, put-together colleagues. You will know shame and embarrassment as you try to bullshit your way through a conversation with a fellow American who sees right through you. You will feel dull resentment at the fact that punctuality matters in America – that 8:00 AM means 8:00 AM. And you will wonder why the hell you left your cushy position in Asia for… this.

4) You don’t get extra credit for being white. Well, putting aside the alleged systemic racism of America… being an unremarkable white dude won’t get you anywhere in a sea of white dudes. Job offers will not be thrown at you. Complements will fail to be offered on your physique or your excellent command of English. Randos that you meet at parties will decline to become your friends for life just because you were born in the US. You’ll have to up your game…. considerably.

5) Things are more expensive. Duh. I have not analyzed my personal finances, but I don’t think I’m saving more than I did overseas, even though I earn considerably more. Minus taxes and rent, I am pocketing about the same amount of money that I did before leaving China.

6) Service quality is better. By and large, service staff are more knowledgeable and competent than in Asia. Also, they are used to dealing with high-maintenance customers, and without a language barrier it’s easier to communicate your unique requests. Tipping means that waiters and bartenders will aim to please. On the other hand, the excessive friendliness of some service people can be annoying. And some give you drama because America is a land of pathological narcissists.

7) Politics is a minefield. In Asia, political issues are so alien to what we encounter at home that your opinions (whether or not you are tactless enough to volunteer them to your Asian friends or colleagues) will be viewed, like everything else about you, as a curiosity. In other words, irrelevant. There are exceptions – you would be stupid to get sucked into a debate with a Chinese person about Taiwan, Tibet, or the Communist Party, for example. And just smile and nod if any Asian wants to give you an earful about US foreign policy toward their country. If you steer clear of those obvious pitfalls, you can say pretty much whatever you want and enjoy the total lack of impact it has on your professional and personal life.

This is not the case in the US. As America’s political polarization deepens and acquires a scary, violent flavor, your opinions are becoming your uniform. You have to be very careful about what you say in the workplace. Avoid political conversations like the Ebola virus. If you don’t agree with someone’s blabbed opinion, say nothing or offer a placating banality. However, even your silence, your failure to provide immediate and resounding assent, will get you labeled as one of “them,” a label that will probably never wash off. This may or not be a problem for you, depending on what company/industry you work in.

8) Attractive women are harder to get. This has been written about extensively in the so-called manosphere, and I don’t really have anything new to add. Suffice it to say, Asia’s reputation as a sexual Disneyland for white men is wholly deserved. It is pathetically easy to get laid in Asia and, perhaps more importantly, you would have to be a complete mouth-breathing loser not to be able to find true romance with a cute Asian woman of good character, if that is what you seek.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this is not the case with American women. Fred Reed has written what may be the canonical article on the differences between American and Asian women. There are obviously many exceptions, but as a general rule I think he’s on the mark.

To sum up, if you’re looking for love you may be better off staying in the exotic and erotic East.

*

Whatever your decision, what you want to avoid is becoming like the white seamen hanging out in Eastern ports in Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim:

The majority were men who, like himself, thrown there by some accident, had remained as officers of country ships. They had now a horror of the home service, with its harder conditions, severer view of duty, and the hazard of stormy oceans. They were attuned to the eternal peace of Eastern sky and sea. They loved short passages, good deck-chairs, large native crews, and the distinction of being white. They shuddered at the thought of hard work, and led precariously easy lives, always on the verge of dismissal, always on the verge of engagement, serving Chinamen, Arabs, half-castes — would have served the devil himself had he made it easy enough. They talked everlastingly of turns of luck: how So-and-so got charge of a boat on the coast of China — a soft thing; how this one had an easy billet in Japan somewhere, and that one was doing well in the Siamese navy; and in all they said — in their actions, in their looks, in their persons — could be detected the soft spot, the place of decay, the determination to lounge safely through existence.