Originally published on The Airship.
‘To be an expatriate, or not to be an expatriate: that is the question: whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous Culture, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?’
The case of Hamlet is, in many ways, the case of the expatriate. Overnight, both find themselves in a world that does not really make sense. In relative terms, this foreign realm is not that different from the place the traveler calls home: people still drive cars to work, smoke cigarettes, and drink beer.
But the expatriate soon realizes that things are not what he or she expected them to be. For Hamlet, the state of Denmark is completely tainted by a change in his perception of the people around him. The formerly esteemed court, his father’s Denmark, suddenly seems to him a hotbed of vice. He must wrestle with the total inversion of that former world, of everything he once knew. Nobody seems to understand him; he is completely alone. In this sense, Hamlet is the ultimate expatriate—a man bereft of any conception of home.
There is nobody more alone than an expatriate without a country; it is difficult to find in literature a character more isolated than Hamlet. You may try to make the outside world your home, but you will never truly be a part of that new world, whatever country it may be. The expatriate, like Hamlet, is a wanderer.
‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’
I’ve lived abroad for a long time. Or, more importantly, I feel as though I’ve been away from home for a good while. But it seems less significant to wax on about the number of daysmonthsyears since I’ve called my home country home than it does to simply assure anyone who asks me that I now feel more at home in China than I do in America.
It is true—I have only lived there for a year and a half. A year and a half is not very long, and I’m obviously still in the honeymoon stages of my overseas engagement. But while one and a half years—or eighteen months, or 78 weeks—doesn’t seem like a very long time, how exactly should one measure “time abroad?” A month in Shanghai can seem like a short errand run to Chinatown; a month in Mongolia might feel like ten decades on Mars.
‘I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I live in China.’
Indeed, those living out-of-country and those living at home in America seem to have very different ways of calibrating this “time abroad” thing. For my friends back home, every individual month that ticks by seems to give me extra credibility as that much more of a “knower” concerning all things “Asian.” But in China, time is irrelevant. There, most expats are not grouped into different categories based on the amount of time they’ve registered overseas, or on their respective age groups, but rather on their respective mental health.
‘Good Expat, cast thy nighted colour off, and let thine eye look like a friend on China.’
Some expatriates wander between the nether-regions of boredom, frustration, bitterness, and self-doubt: shouting expletives at anything overly “Chinese;” stalking the widely paved sidewalks of communism with an acerbic look in their eyes; jumping at the chance to eat any Western foods they can get their I’ve-spent-too-much-time-abroad-and-thus-this-McDonald’s-hamburger-is-the-greatest-thing-I’ve-ever-tasted hands on.
‘Doubt thou the stars are fire; doubt that the sun doth move; doubt truth to be a liar; but never doubt I love China.’
Others—usually the newly-arrived expats (read: intercultural newlyweds)—take every cultural mishap in perfect stride, labeling even the most painful mistakes as an “experience” that can be dissected into some sort of “look-at-what-I’ve-learned-about-Western-culture-from-token-non-Westerners.blogspot.com” discourse.
These young souls can be spotted easily on any typical Chinese street-corner, as they spend an inordinate amount of time fielding questions from complete strangers about their home country, and what it’s like living abroad in China. “How do you like China? Are you accustomed to eating Chinese food? How much is your salary? Would your mother let you marry a Chinese girl? Would your mother let you marry me?”
For these primaveral expats, every day is Christmas: Santa Claus is real, and his gifts present themselves in the form of gawking locals bearing countless opportunities for language practice and inter-cultural analysis.
‘There are more things in China and America, Expatriate, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’
I fall somewhere in the middle. I can feel that crotchety expat’s disillusionment growing within me, and things tend to piss me off now more than they used to. But I still get a sense of naive excitement when overhearing a conversation that I inevitably feel has given me “insight” into another culture and, ultimately, my own country’s mores.
The spice of living outside of America is still jolting enough to keep things exciting, like Marco Polo’s descriptions of distant kingdoms in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities: lands and urban centers opulent to the imagination take shape and become real in the mind of Genghis Khan, their very foreign-ness and mystique being the key to what makes them somehow tangible. It is, after all, the possibility of something truly unknown that keeps the itinerant soul upon the masthead, looking transfixed over a swirling sea of blue-gray and out into nothingness. At any moment the void could break and reveal stretches of whatever it is you’ve been waiting for.
This great desire is for something new, and it can never, ever, be sated; the Indies lie always on the horizon.
‘Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not ‘seems.’’
If this boundless desire for novel experiences can’t be satisfied, why not make something up? This is perhaps the greatest license available to any expat. Transitioning from a life in your home country—speaking your native language with people who have grown up in the same culture as you—to one on foreign shores is equivalent to the difference between children playing with real toys and children inventing abstract games with their minds. In the former scenario, the toy gun is a cheap imitation; in the latter, the absence of any prop whatsoever gives the child the ultimate freedom to invent whatever type of gun suits his fancy.
Similarly, foreign countries become blooming gardens of the imagination: every moment is seeped in contextual clues that you’ve never encountered before, and therefore the possibilities for creative ascription are limitless—bound only by the constraints of your own dynamic willpower.
‘America’s a prison.’
While walking down the sidewalk one day, I overheard a woman on the street saying to her friend, “咱们吃饭就行 (zanmen chifan jiu xing),” which translates to “let’s just eat and it’ll be fine.” I remember thinking to myself: “Egads! What a perfect encapsulation of Chinese culture! Simply eating food is enough to be happy—the Chinese value their culinary tradition so much!”
Later on, I shared the observation with a Chinese friend. She insisted that I had missed whatever must have preceded the statement; my interpretation was incorrect and what I had overheard was likely someone implying to their friend that they didn’t need to bring any gifts to the meal. This was no isolated instance: while abroad, I regularly take inane conversations and interpret them in such a light that they become representative of the entire country’s ethos (or, more likely, what I presume the country’s ethos to be).
This is a human exercise—one that Marco Polo surely must have participated in, and one that the seekers of novelty—expatriates of the world—tend to utilize overzealously. There is little room for this in one’s homeland—the conversations you overhear on the street make sense, and they don’t allow for much abstract interpretation. Indeed, life back home can be downright boring.
‘I knew it, Expatriate: a country of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. It hath borne me on its back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!’
But did this malaise with life in America only come about after I had already lived abroad? Or is that what caused my departure in the first place? Perhaps I was already feeling an absence of something; I really don’t remember.
Regardless of the reasons—for there are certainly too many to name and explain—it will suffice to say that time moves much slower in America than it seems to in [insert the name of token ‘exotic’ country here]. This new, foreign world, once seen, will never leave me. Now, the feeling of isolation and utter fear of my surroundings only sets in when I’m back in America. I’m not sure if it’s caused by the bathos of re-habituation to the ‘ordinary,’ or if exposure to a different world has brought on an irrevocable distaste for that which is easily understood.
But back to the hinterlands (of China, for now) I go—until I grow old and realize that life is essentially the same everywhere and that only one true quest remains: to sail beyond the sunset.
13 January, 2013