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What Is It to Be an Alien? Expats Discuss
I recently joined TNT Radio host Hrvoje Moric, himself the subject of an interesting international journey story, to discuss my recent memoir about expatdom and existentialism and civilizational anxieties, Broken English Teacher: Notes From Exile.
I appreciated his quoting this following passage from the book about what it means, psychologically and spiritually, if you're into such things, to be a foreigner:
"What it is exactly about living in a foreign country, of an alien race that speaks a foreign language, that appeals to the disaffected Westerner. Of course, there are many peripheral benefits, as well as drawbacks, but what is the core enticement that makes the experience so inviting? Certainly, materially, life is generally more comfortable in America than in Taiwan. And more convenient. And often, less lonely -- at least in the traditional sense of the word.
A common thread I had noticed among ex-pats -- even then so early on in my foreign career, and especially among the ones who had basically forsaken the notion of ever returning to the West -- was a disdain for organized society of the kind they had left behind. They most especially were disillusioned with their home countries, the ones they were most familiar with."
Hrvoje cut the passage off there for the obvious sake of time management – having a radio show to conduct, after all.
This is the rest of it, which adds valuable context to the overall point:
"The process of the evolution of dogs from wolves occurred over millennia. Certain wolves that were too old, too slow, or otherwise unable to run with their packs began to hang around early humans' camps and patrol the fringes of the campfire, fending off any potential predators. They were not of the same race as the humans, and I would surmise that in their own limited way they understood that they were not. At the very least, if they did come to view themselves as human, they understood their divergent, peculiar role on the perimeter of the society.
Regardless, the dogs and humans built a symbiotic relationship that could mitigate any conflict arising from the suspicions caused by being different species. They were not expected to behave as humans, and they retained, at least to some extent, their natural instincts and habits. Unlike the human born that night in the camp, the puppy born on the outskirts would never be subject to indoctrination. The puppy inherited its unique societal obligation to behavior through DNA sequences via its mother and father and would forever be free in a way the human baby in the interior, embraced by the warm glow of the campfire, could not.
Membership has its privileges, as they say, but also its costs.
As a foreigner, particularly of a nationality and race that the locals admire (American and white), the expat can stay safely on the margins of society without ever necessarily being marginalized to an undesirable extent. Social infractions of the alien are immediately forgiven, for he knows not what he does. There are no unbearable limitations placed on social mobility (for the white alien, that is) or access to resources, and movements from the cold and open fringes to the embrace of the warm and suffocating center and back again are made freely. He might not be able to live at the heart of society, but he can warm his feet before returning to his domain on the fringes. Everything that the expat needs that can only be gained from the expertise or labor of others -- like acetaminophen or motor oil or cellphones, the material bases for social cohesion -- is within arm’s reach.
But for all of the perks, there is a definite, unshakeable loneliness that comes with being an expat, and it can be comforting, saddening, disturbing, exciting, and depressing all at the same time.
It's a peculiar loneliness -- not the kind of being lost in the woods at night, but the kind a person feels in a huge, crowded room when, despite all the noise and chatter all around, there persists a detachment from the whole scene that can be at times infinitely more disturbing than the lost-in-a-national-park kind."
Ben Bartee, author of Broken English Teacher: Notes From Exile, is an independent Bangkok-based American journalist with opposable thumbs.
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