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.
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