Category Archives: Repatriating

The prodigal expat returns to Asia

Realizes the inviting bosom of the motherland is in fact a graveyard of all hope

He had had enough. It was time. Time to flee the hell-matrix of the West, the spiritual tundra of America. Time to reboot, course-correct, go back to square one. To admit utter, crushing defeat and failure in regard to the past six months of his life, a blur of suffering, signifying nothing. To shrug off said humiliating defeat and the colossal waste of time and life it represented, accept that he had gained literally nothing from it, not even a “learning experience” that would somehow enable him to make better decisions in future, not even a new relationship that he valued – it had really been completely pointless from start to finish – and just charge it to the game and move on.

Yep, it was time to go the fuck back to Asia.

ASIA. It was funny, because during his whole ordeal in Indianapolis, whenever he thought about moving back to Asia his pulse would quicken and he felt as if he were waking up from a deep, cold slumber. Almost as if the true orientation of his life were towards the East. As if, by LARPing as a working stiff in corporate America, he was fooling himself and others and doing violence to his true nature.

Was it possible that he belonged in Asia, that his destiny was to remain an expat forever? Because he would never, ever belong to any Asian nation – as long as he lived out there, he would always be a stranger in a strange land.

Mike pondered this, but the answer eluded him. How much of his hideous experience in America could be blamed on his job, versus the nature of the country itself? He had to admit that life in the US hadn’t really been that bad – quite the opposite, in fact, from a material standpoint. He had lived in a large, comfortable dwelling. He had enjoyed healthy, palatable food every day. He had never had an appetite or want that he could not rapidly satiate.

And it wasn’t like America was lacking in arts and culture, or people who shared Mike’s interests and priorities. There was always the internet for whatever conversation and community he couldn’t get in real life – and unlike in China, you didn’t need a VPN because the good stuff was hidden behind a great firewall erected by tyrants. Not yet.

Mike’s social and romantic life had hit a nadir during his agonized months in Indianapolis, but that was his fault, it stemmed from the anarchic state of his personality. There was no shortage of people he could have met, women he could have dated and/or fucked. He had just never tried. His few lame efforts in that direction had promptly smashed against the rocks of his massive indifference.

“I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention,” said Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. No, neither did Mike. But between believing and doing, a great gulf was fixed. The truth was that Mike had achieved, during his wintry exile in Indianapolis, levels of morbid introversion that shouldn’t even be possible.

Could he have learned to love the motherland? Perhaps. And there would be more chances for that in the future. But what most bothered him about America, he suspected, what really made it impossible for him to settle down and get with the program, was boredom – that most underestimated of human emotions.

Life in America in the current year was just indescribably dull. It was hard to explain, but he felt that the absence of real hardship or large-scale adventure had reduced human life to a series of pointless chores, a mindless rearrangement of matter on the surface of the earth, followed by death. You didn’t get that sense in Asia. There was something different in the air. History was moving there, titanic forces had been unleashed. Asia was a continent-wide adrenaline rush. Life was interesting. And maybe that was just an illusion produced by his borderline mental illness, but it felt real, and that was all that mattered.

“These people have got something that we’ve lost. … There’s a velocity and density of life there that you don’t get in the West, and that I found oxygenating.” -David Mitchell

And then there was his job, that florescent-lit hell. That chain gang of Excel and performance reviews. Every second a micro-death.

Did he exaggerate? No, he did not. It really was that bad. And when he realized it would only get worse – that the climb would only get steeper from here on out, that working his ass off would only bring more responsibility, which meant the torture would be increased, intensified – they would bring in the real professionals for this, oh yes, the instruments were being readied in Uday Hussein’s private dungeon – then he understood it was time. He had to go back.

No more feminized corporate cuckspeak. No more pretending to be “excited” by bullshit. No more fake joviality with people he would pay money to avoid. No more shuffling to his cube in the eunuch uniform of a wageserf.

It was over. He was going to Asia.

His first serious attempt at repatriation had ended in total disaster, and now he would become an ex-ex-expat. A re-expat, perhaps. Whatever. He had bought his ticket. Fuck this place, he was going back.

Adaptation

Mike was floundering after several months back in the US. It wasn’t that he wanted to throw in the towel and move back to China, per se. But something wasn’t clicking; something about his new life didn’t “take.” An important part of him had missed the flight from Chengdu.

He walked aimlessly around the capital of Indiana, as exotic-seeming to him now as the sloppy villages of rural China or the Beijing subway at rush hour, choked with black-haired humanity. Mike had left the US as a kid, for all intents and purposes – a dumbass with a diploma – and had spent most of his twenties in Asia. Coming back home now, he felt immeasurably older, more seasoned, and also more detached, a stranger in America, like an anthropologist studying the folkways of a remote Papuan tribe.

It was the little things: Everyone drank their water cold here, even in winter. Like the Chinese, he found it bizarre. Americans treated business cards with a nonchalance bordering on contempt. It was harder to send money to people – nobody used WeChat Wallet here. Tipping and being asked for donations all the time. A major difference: Large white people everywhere, hot white women commonplace. His people. The Chinese were again a minority, albeit a significant and growing one.

Mike felt vaguely dazed all the time. Unable or maybe just unwilling to shed his Chinese life, to “move on.” He still talked to his expat friends in China every day. He posted photos and funny memes on his WeChat account so cute girls on the other side of the planet would “heart” them. He ordered the occasional batch of dress shirts from his tailor in Chengdu – sent her the money and had the shirts shipped to his apartment in Indianapolis. Received visitors from China, girls he fucked. Hell, he was still chasing Chinese girls *here*, or perhaps more accurately, they were chasing him. What was it about him that they found so fascinating? In any case, he had come back to the US to fuck white chicks, not East Asians, and he was failing even at that simple task.

His moral standards had collapsed in Asia; there was no question about that. Even the degenerate moral climate of post-modern America seemed prudish and uptight compared to China. Or maybe it was just easier to get laid over there. Everyone was more easygoing, less coked up on stress. American girls were much nicer than he had remembered, but he was always turned off by them in the office. They reminded him of schoolmarms. Few things in this world were more boner-killing than an attractive woman spitting out phrases like “implementation specialist” and “success-based team” briskly and without irony.

Mike felt constantly outsmarted and outclassed by his hard-working Midwestern colleagues. His inadequacies gnawed at him, but that was not his immediate problem. His immediate problem was his job. He was overwhelmed on a daily basis by his job, the hideous and unrelenting pointlessness of it. Layer upon layer of mindless process that withered the human spirit. He was bad (slow, error-prone) at the tedious stuff, and the rest of it, the parts that required “soft skills,” made him want to sell all his possessions and go on a vision quest.

He had to persist, though. If he went back to Asia he would never be hired by anyone again, ever. Destitution would await him. He would have to go on food stamps; a slow spiral of despair, alcoholism, and petty crime would ensue; he would ultimately be murdered in a back alley. No, he had to stay in the US. More than that, he had to stay useful to his company long enough to save up some money, get a side business going with a reliable income stream, before the machines took his job. That was his quest, and it gave some semblance of a purpose and structure to his life.

Mike flew to New York and met a couple of American friends he had known in China. They both worked for the same consulting firm, which had relocated them back to the US, several months apart. He couldn’t believe how happy they were. They gushed about their new jobs, how exciting it was to be back, all the cultural adaptations they had to make, which bemused them. They joked about how chaotic things were back in China, the kids pissing and crapping in the streets. The toxic air and the tap water you couldn’t drink, even if you boiled it.

“I always drank boiled water,” said Mike. “I had one of those kettles.”

“No, that doesn’t work,” said Joe, who had brought his Chinese-American wife and three kids back to New York. “You’re just heating up the heavy metals in the water. You’re drinking hot pollution. In fact, you’re concentrating the pollutants because a lot of the actual water evaporates.”

“Fuck.” Mike felt reasonably healthy, though, after all those years of drinking lead and cadmium by the gallon. Or did he? Maybe that explained his malaise, his persistent mental fog.

Joe had become a full-blown China-hater before he escaped. The other friend, Sandra, spoke fluent Mandarin and was much more ambivalent about the superiority of Anglo-American culture. Nevertheless, Mike had never seen her so excited. Normally cool and reserved, she laughed with delight at their China anecdotes and rambled on about her fancy new position in New York. She gestured extravagantly as she spoke, tossing her blonde hair. She was getting married in a few months.

Mike’s heart went out to them both. Joe and Sandra had lived abroad longer than he had, and they had moved back successfully. They were happy and well-adjusted. Mike was not. But had he ever been?

No doubt Mike had left a lot of loose ends in China. His transition back was “unresolved,” like the end of the Korean War. It was about as far from a clean break as humanly possible; but then again, that was classic Mike – he was the still the same dumbass kid who had refused to attend his own college graduation ceremony. Stubborn, myopic, and fixated on the past. Nothing ever, ever changed.

He wasn’t suffering reverse culture shock. The problem wasn’t America; the problem was him.

I can see how that would be disorienting

It’s weird coming back to the late-imperial dystopia of America, especially if you’ve been overseas for as long as Thomas Fuller has:

AFTER more than 27 years abroad, mostly as a foreign correspondent in Asia covering civil unrest and poverty, I wander the streets of this city, my new home, like an enchanted tourist.

The people who share sidewalks with me must wonder why I sometimes laugh out loud. The advertisements for sustainably grown marijuana on the sides of San Francisco buses. (“That’s cannabis, the California way.”) The comfort dogs on public transport and the woman who brought her dog to the Easter Sunday service. Blindingly white teeth. The burrito that was so huge it felt as if it would break my wrist. Police officers covered in tattoos.

[…]

I spend hours in supermarket aisles. Organic ice cream sandwiches! Vegan shoes! A “Bluetooth compatible” electric toothbrush!

The America of 2016 is so much more specialized than the one I left in 1988. It almost seems that we have created needs so that we can cater to them.

I stop and stare at the giant trucks in San Francisco designed for the specific purpose of shredding and hauling documents. What a luxury as a society to produce tons of confidential documents and then deploy specialized trucks to destroy them. I knew yoga was big in California and ditto for cannabis. But it was still a surprise to discover “ganja yoga.”

[…]

Greater Bangkok, a sprawling metropolis with more than 10 million people, has 1,300 homeless people, a survey this year found.

San Francisco has less than one-tenth Bangkok’s population but six times as many homeless people.

The special loopiness of San Francisco, I would imagine, only heightened the contrast with Asia. The author seems to have taken it well — bemusement is a powerful mindset.

Home sweet home

Hessler on coming back from China

Insightful essay by Peter Hessler, author and formerly The New Yorker‘s China correspondent, on the complex process of moving home:

The first thing I learned while living abroad is that if you’re lost you have to ask for directions. The last thing I learned is that it’s possible to ship a hundred and forty-three boxes from Beijing across the Pacific Ocean without a final destination. I’ve never been good at planning ahead, and this quality became worse after years in China, where everybody seems to live in the moment. And in a country like that it’s easy to find a moving agent who’s willing to improvise. He went by the English name Wayne, and he wore his hair long, the way Chinese artists often do. When we arranged the contract, Wayne asked my wife, Leslie, if she had any idea where we were going. “It will be a small town, probably in Colorado,” she said. “But we haven’t decided which one.”

“Can you decide within the next few weeks?”

“I think so.”

Wayne explained that the shipping container would be on the ocean for much of a month, and there the address wouldn’t matter. But after it arrived in the U.S. the American partner would need to know where to deliver it by truck. That was Wayne’s deadline: we had to find a home in less than five weeks.

[…]

Neither of us had much experience as adults in the United States. I had left after college, to attend graduate school in England, and then I travelled to China; before I knew it I had been gone for a decade and a half. I had never held an American job, or owned an American house, or even rented an American apartment. The last time I bought a car, I filled it with leaded gas. My parents still lived in the Missouri town where I grew up, but otherwise nothing tied me to any particular part of the country. Leslie [Hessler’s wife] had even fewer American roots: she had been born and brought up in New York, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and she had made her career as a writer in Shanghai and Beijing.

That was 2010. America must not have offered what Hessler was looking for, because he moved to Cairo with his family the following year, and is apparently still there.

Attitude adjustment

From the US State Department’s guide to reverse culture shock:

Myths & Misconceptions About the United States

Many people [i.e. Americans returning home after a long sojourn abroad] have misconceptions concerning life in the United States. Some of these myths include:

  • Everything works better back home.
  • People are more efficient.
  • Everything is clean.
  • Things are basically the same as when I left.
  • Personal relationships can be resumed easily.
  • I can cope easily in my own culture.

New Attitudes & Values of Sojourners

Americans often develop new attitudes, values and perceptions as a result of their travels. These can often cause stress on reentry.

  • I see America through a sharper lens, both its strengths and weaknesses. I no longer take this country for granted and I really resent unbalanced criticism by Americans who haven’t experienced the rest of the world.
  • I see the validity of at least one other culture. That makes me realize that the American way is not always “right” or “best.” I am impatient with people who criticize other countries and blindly accept everything American causing them to never question anything.
  • I have an unclear concept of home now.
  • I place more value on relationships than other Americans seem to. People here are too busy for one another.
  • Everyone in America is always so stressed and frantic. They never relax. I feel like I can’t relate to others.

This is so true, in particular the last two points. After several years of living abroad, I was shocked at how intense and stressed-out most Americans are. No more leisurely hour-long lunches with colleagues… everyone eats at their desks or goes downstairs to “grab something.” Once you’ve lived the good life, it’s hard to go back.

Civilization and its discontents

Article: “You’ll Never Be Chinese”

Definitely not Chinese

Mark Kitto, noted British expat, publisher and author, penned a classic and controversial article in 2012 about why he was calling it quits on China. He moved back to northern England with his family the following year:

Death and taxes. You know how the saying goes. I’d like to add a third certainty: you’ll never become Chinese, no matter how hard you try, or want to, or think you ought to. I wanted to be Chinese, once. I don’t mean I wanted to wear a silk jacket and cotton slippers, or a Mao suit and cap and dye my hair black and proclaim that blowing your nose in a handkerchief is disgusting. I wanted China to be the place where I made a career and lived my life. For the past 16 years it has been precisely that. But now I will be leaving.

I won’t be rushing back either. I have fallen out of love, woken from my China Dream. “But China is an economic miracle: record number of people lifted out of poverty in record time… year on year ten per cent growth… exports… imports… infrastructure… investment…saved the world during the 2008 financial crisis…” The superlatives roll on. We all know them, roughly.

Don’t you think, with all the growth and infrastructure, the material wealth, let alone saving the world like some kind of financial whizz James Bond, that China would be a happier and healthier country? At least better than the country emerging from decades of stultifying state control that I met and fell in love with in 1986 when I first came here as a student? I don’t think it is.

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.