Life as an Expat: Alienation from Home
I’ve now lived abroad for long enough that I can officially call myself an expat without feeling like a total poser. It is safe to say my experience is significant given that I have lived two years in Korea and two in Russia, both substantially different from each other and from the United States. I came, I saw, and I got married. I also learned a great deal about the world in the process – and that is the problem really…
Because whenever I return to the United States I come to realize just how cloistered and unaware everyone else is. Now, to be clear, I am not suggesting that to be as wise and worldly as myself everyone must give over 4 years of their life to itinerancy and sexual debauchery but it certainly helps. The alternative requires that you’ve been doing a lot of reading in the meantime, and not the fictional kind.
When I left the United States I was pretty feminist, in the tumblr social activist sense, and I was also relatively patriotic. Probably not obnoxiously so, as many Americans can be, but enough that I didn’t really tolerate foreign criticisms of the US very well. And while I wouldn’t exactly say I was religious anymore, it is also fair to say that I hadn’t crossed entirely over to atheism yet. I want to detail some of these changes and why I think living abroad was the primary factor that impelled them.
Travel alone couldn’t have accomplished this. It can’t as effectively break down the conceptions we have about the world and how it works.
Even when we do go to strange and far-off places, it is still only within a tourist bubble which is very temporary. You’re surrounded by other tourists and the country becomes more akin to an amusement park than an actual nation-state. Further, your motivation is different. You’re not there for schooling or living, you’re there for fun. And you’re almost never there long enough to truly need anything or anybody.
When we vacation we don’t learn the language, we don’t read the literature and we don’t grasp any of the culture beyond its initial novelty. But more than any of this, due to the ephemeral nature of our stay, all of our experiences and observations are comprised of what are quite possibly exceptions. In the end, our understanding of the place consists of little more than a series of assumptions based off one-time events in places of questionable authenticity.
It is unlikely you will end up in a ‘bad part of town’ or find yourself amongst people for whom English is as cryptic as Sumerian. Your documents will never be in question and you won’t be around long enough to watch real political and social change happen. The difference between those who have only traveled, and those who have actually lived abroad, is that travelers wade in shoals while expats are thrown to the deep end. Travelers will never drown unless they are really incompetent. But the potential for expats is always there.
Living abroad absolutely decimated my Western feminist and social justice narratives and conceptions. It literally became impossible to believe much of American feminist theory and what I had been taught in Women’s Studies after living in S. Korea for only a few months. My time in Russia would only drive the stake in deeper but in the end I not only gave up on feminism as an ideology but came to view it as fundamentally misguided and even pernicious.
Koreans are huge supporters of evangelism, and unlike some, they aren’t at all disappointed with their Western contacts. In fact, when I visited back in 2011, the then head of the Ministry of Education thanked us (Americans) for sending missionaries to their shores. I don’t share his sentiments, but my point is that Koreans don’t feel slighted by the introduction of Western religions, rather their quite thankful for it. They also have an entire park commemorating the support of S. Korea’s allies during their war, much of which centered on America.
Koreans do, however, feel a lot of resentment over Japan’s colonization from 1910 to 1945, an event that had absolutely nothing to do with Europe. And I can’t tell you how often I came across anti-Japanese sentiment while I was there. It literally bordered on hysteria at times.
It’s of note that racism in Korea is pretty blatant, and while most of the time it is directed at darker skinned Asian people, it can turn on Europeans and Americans just as quickly. A mild xenophobia definitely prevails and South Koreans are quick to generalize other cultures and even reject their worth out of hand. I have direct experience with this. They are very homogenous and very proud of their nation and white-hetero-patriarchal imperialism has very little, if nothing, to do with it. It does, however, have a lot to do with being attacked by bellicose neighbors and overlooked by more distant powers.
Now, before I continue I want to make it clear that my time in S. Korea was very positive, overwhelmingly so and Koreans, generally, are some of the politest people I’ve ever met. But we all have our issues and for the purposes of this article I need to detail some of those.
Westerners, for example, were very often depicted as over-sexed and European features were highly exoticized. While these features were certainly considered desirous (and thus positive) Western behaviors and mentalities were the subject of much ridicule. It would hardly be fair to say that being white was a privilege in Korea. It would, however, be more accurate to say that it was a privilege compared to other ethnic minorities. The best of the worst, to put it bluntly.
Some feminists I knew in Korea still blamed this on Western society, claiming it was Western conceptions of beauty that lead Koreans to prefer lighter skin and endure surgeries to alter their appearance. But this is some pretty weak sauce when we consider that the Korean government is 100% Korean and that their K-pop celebrities, which enjoy god-like status, are also entirely Korean.
There’s no shortage of Korean representation or agency in South Korea so one can only conclude that if there’s a problem they’re not solving, it’s because they don’t want to.
I had several similar experiences in Russia which ultimately brought me to question the concept of race as SJWs and feminists see it. My views on privilege and of course, agency also shifted. Many Russians, for example, suffer from levels of poverty and lack of opportunity that even working class Americans can’t begin to touch. For one, Americans in general live in a politically, socially, and economically stable super power which safeguards free speech, meaningful votes, and a change of government, among other things.
It becomes impossible to take seriously the complaints of the likes of Blackgirldangerous when they all have college degrees and access to newly paved roads while at the same time, there are people who regularly went without hot water for three months every year or were extorted in the thousands of dollars to escape indentured servitude in the state military.
Just to make things especially clear here, America’s poor are still, by global measures much better off than most of the world. The bottom 10% of America’s population is socioeconomically better off than Germany’s, France’s, Japan’s, Switzerland’s, and Russia’s. This doesn’t mean we can’t improve, but my point here is that America DOES afford its poor with levels of comfort and agency that many other countries’ simply do/can not.
There is then the issue of cultural propaganda, which is when a nation’s media regularly portrays another culture within a certain light. Namely, the light it finds most convenient to portray it in. America famously portrays Russians as either alcoholics or whores, while China is regularly framed as perennially totalitarian and obsessed with world domination.
We worry a lot about how we portray other Americans, specifically Black Americans, in our films (and we should). But let’s talk a little bit about how the approximately 100 million Russians are portrayed in Hollywood. Thugs, prostitutes, alcoholics, and sex slaves and slavers. Ripley’s Game, Eastern Promises, Hitman, Armageddon, Max Payne, and John Wick are just a few. It is amazing how badly Russians come off in Western cinema. There is literally no end to the debauchery. In fact, Russian women are so well known for their mail-order bride and prostitute status that the name Natasha is actually slang for prostitute.
Never mind how often our media bashes China for doing things that we are literally doing all the time. We attempt constantly to depict them as a rising menace when in fact, China has been engaged in fewer wars since World War II than America has. China currently isn’t engaged in any wars while America is intervening in Syria, just ‘finished’ in Iraq, and is still in Afghanistan.
Americans just don’t seem to grasp that their own media and entertainment doesn’t actually know what it is talking about most of the time. They also don’t seem to question its academics either, as anyone familiar with that snake, Timothy Snyder, is aware that his newest book is rife with holocaust dismissals (practically denial) and hateful innuendo directed at the USSR. But he’s from Yale so…he must be right.
Cloistered in America, or in any country, it is very difficult to know anything about the planet aside from what your government and entertainment industry choose to tell you. One obviously does not need to visit every country, but living in just one abroad provides enough of these life lessons about the importance of skepticism regarding the ‘information’ you’ve received from back home. One comes to realize that much of what they were told about how other countries work is really little more than a self-serving perspective made even more myopic by its utter lack of insight.
Wisdom is not gained through the passage of time. It is forged through numerous experiences and the facility to accurately apply what was learned to future scenarios. Octogenarians who have lived in one town their whole life have nothing on the 20-something who has just returned from spending a fifth of her life abroad.