Expatriatism, Ctd

Dish Staff —  Sep 5 2014 @ 11:41am
by Dish Staff

A reader addresses Jonah’s piece on living abroad for several years in Jordan:

Thank you for sharing your experience. I went to Beirut, Lebanon from my US university as a third-year student in 1974, interested in history and archaeology. During the ten months I spent in Lebanon I was forced to consider all sorts of new experiences: Palestinian dorm-mates, life experiences that were very different from mine; travels to “mysterious” (as it then was) Syria; and finally the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in spring 1975. All of these experiences forced me to think in new ways about the US, about its role in the world, and about the lives of others who (in the US corporate media) were mostly overlooked or dismissed. And the more I began to dig into the causes of the Lebanese war, the more complex (and hitherto unknown to me) this world became. So began a lifelong quest to try to figure things out. After all these decades I have more questions than answers, but I suppose that is the point of a life’s journey.

Another reader:

I grew up in Beirut … well, sort of. My family moved there when I was 11 and I stayed until I graduated, and my folks stayed another 4 years until July 4, 1976. Yes, as we were watching the Boston Pops and fireworks, they were in a convoy leaving Lebanon because of the civil war. I am definitely a “3rd Culture Kid”. I rarely feel 100% at home with anyone except others who have lived abroad and understand that phenomena.

Another shares some great insights from his time abroad:

My husband and I packed up our cat and moved to Asia in 2008. We lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for five years, then moved to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia in September 2013. Being an expat means about a million things, but I’ll try to focus on a few. We Americans develop a strange sense of our own importance that life overseas corrects. Americans on both the left and right are wrong when they assume people from other countries automatically don’t like us.

From people on the left, the assumption is based on the Iraq war and the George W. Bush administration, plus various CIA/Central America/Vietnam War activities, depending on their age. From the right, we hear this assumption about Muslims (especially because we lived in Muslim Malaysia) and any/all others presumed to disagree with US foreign policy. But as you described in your post, people focus primarily on their own day-to-day lives. Expat life teaches that people go about their daily lives doing what they do without thinking about the US all the time. And we make individual relationships to move past the stereotypes.

That said, the US is a model for democratic governance, and people outside the US pay attention to how our democracy works. I work in international development and have been in many meetings where civil society leaders reference the Bill of Rights when discussing how to expand civil and human rights in their countries. The US Constitution serves as a very real example, as freedom of press, religion, assembly (or rule of law generally) and the judiciary are still aspirations in many places that are grappling with democracy. Before moving overseas, I had no idea that people in other countries actually talk about the US Constitution.

Which is why it’s so painful when we slip, as in Ferguson. We can be a model on paper, but when police kill unarmed citizens, then dress in combat gear to break up a protest AND arrest journalists, we look like hypocrites. And this is why it gets up people’s noses when we tell them to do what we say. Andrew has pointed out many times how we lose our moral authority when we torture; it’s the same problem when we violate the Constitution in other ways as well.

Another reader:

A great post by Jonah Shepp. In 1987, my husband and I and our two sons, aged 2 and 5, relocated to Melbourne, Australia, from Chicago.  We went because my husband got a great job offer, and we had always wanted to live abroad (the job offer to go to Sudan five years prior was not quite the same).  At any rate, we lived a privileged life there, and not because we were on expat salary and benefits.  We actually became permanent residents of Australia, and now have dual citizenship, something that the US tolerates with countries like Australia (would we ever really go to war with them?), and Australia doesn’t mind at all.  Typical of the Aussies.

We loved living in Melbourne and we made friends who are with us forever.  At first glance, many think that Australia is a lot like California (my native state), and the point of this piece is that it’s not – not at all.  And it’s not like England either.  And I would not know this if I had not lived there.  So many little things: an Aussie telling me that an Australian politician would be laughed out of office if he dared invoke God, or Jesus, or made any sort of religious comment, in a speech.  That their version of peanut butter is a disgusting thing called Vegemite, but they love it with a passion – the ultimate comfort food – because of course, they all grew up with it.

And another: no country wants to be controlled by another country.  This seems so obvious to an American, and I’d never given it much thought, until I went to Australia, and learned first-hand about England’s domination of that country, and how England just expected Australian men to fight and die for Mother England, in far off places.  This didn’t hit home to me, despite having seen movies like Breaker Morant, until at a dinner party one evening, when another guest bitterly talked about it.

And another:

I spent a couple years in the Peace Corps, so allow me to give a plug to the incredible benefits of the program. Yeah, yeah, sure, it helps others and makes the world a better place, blah blah (and that is all very true, and the program is wonderful). But don’t be fooled by that gloss of altruism. Most Peace Corps volunteers GET a heck of a lot more than they put in. How could it be otherwise? The volunteer offers an individual’s insights and hard work, but receives an entire culture in return. And back home in a United States that offers a large helping of praise to those who serve in the military, may I suggest that Peace Corps volunteers give more and get less recognition for it? (But once again, no sour grapes here, because we volunteers received more than we gave.)

Even for a socially backward nerd like me, fresh out of college, with basically no social skills and a profound reluctance to interact with any people from my host country aside from the students to whom I taught science, it was an eye-opening and amazing experience. The States did not look the same when I returned. I can tell you exactly when brake lights started appearing in the back windshields of cars … they were not there when I left, but when I returned, every car looked to me like a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica (original series, of course). More profoundly, I had a feeling of accomplishment after my service that saw me through some tough bouts of self-doubt. And I had a sense of how lucky I was, because I knew that I was, like most Americans, a child of privilege.

Thanks for the post and the memories.