I sometimes reflect on my life and wonder: at what point did I stop living abroad?
It’s not as dumb a question as you might think. I am, and have consistently been, aware of what country I live in. The question concerns my perceptions of where I live in relation to where I am from.
When you go abroad, your home doesn’t change. During my first stint in Japan, I taught for two years, but in my conception of things I was always working abroad. Canada was always my home, and I viewed everything I was experiencing through that lens. Of course this was all a more intense and immersed experience than simple travel, to live and work in a foreign country for a foreign company.
And I probably have just caught you making the basic assumption that so many Westerners make when thinking of being abroad in foreign lands. Go back and reread the last clause of the last paragraph.
“… in a foreign country for a foreign company.”
What’s foreign about it? I’m the foreigner in this situation. The company is absolutely not foreign. Yet, most of us fail to recognize this simple truth at a fundamental level.
We go abroad to enrich our lives and broaden our horizons, and that is well and good. But how many consider that in doing so, we become the foreign other for that place and its people?
What might we represent to the place we visit?
Here in Japan I’ve worked with so many dickheads (mostly the dickheads are American, but not all, just to keep it real) whose whole experience and narrative is built around, “well, in my country, we do things this way.”
And don’t get me wrong, the Japanese do love this trope. They like hearing about Western cultures this way. They like hearing impressions of their own culture; the more ignorant the better! They like that the barely civilized ape man is so pompous and arrogant. And loud. And uncouth. It’s a real gaijin behaving in precisely the stereotype they have of these gaijin.
How marvelous! He thinks he’s very special! Get him drunk! Applaud him for using chopsticks! Let’s see what wild and crazy thing he does next!
The monkey has been taught to smoke. How very amusing; do keep giving it cigarettes.
It is all pretty harmless. But when you go abroad, it couldn’t hurt to keep this kind of thing in mind. As special and unique as you might think you and your culture are, for the people you visit you are just a specific type of foreigner doing very predictable things.
Everything is a two way street. Never forget that.
However, what happens to you when you don’t go home?
There was a moment (and I don’t know when it was) when I was no longer abroad. It was also the precise moment that Canada, the country of my birth, ceased to be my home.
I am now an immigrant. It is something I am proud to be. It helps me fuck my mind in a way I couldn’t otherwise.
To be clear: I am an immigrant, not an expat. I think the term expat is just a term Westerners self-apply so that they can avoid facing the reality that they are an immigrant. Because, you know, that’s what people of color or eastern Europeans are when they move countries.
Well, fuck that. I don’t think there can be many badges of honor higher in this life than being an immigrant.
In Japan, the country I now live in, I am still perceived to be abroad by the people I live among. It doesn’t matter how long I live here, and how much of the language and culture I can adopt; I will never be of this place.
That’s how it is.
But I don’t need that. And I don’t want it. And I don’t expect it.
One of the things that first attracted me to this place is that there’s a certain amount of anonymity that comes with being such a visible minority in such a homogeneous place (since people just see the stereotype). But that’s not what keeps me here.
Ultimately, it’s just such a simple thing at its heart: I like that everything and everyone around me is not what I grew up with. Every visual I take in is different than what I was conditioned to expect. I take a drive with my family and the farms all look like something in a samurai movie. It’s invigorating.
As much as I’m a foreigner here, and always will be, this is my place too now. I can take possession of it just by virtue of my continued experience of it; through the changing of that experience as it matures. The sense of strangeness the place gives me is no longer that which comes of being abroad. I’ve been here long enough that vistas have become familiar. Places have old memories attached to them. It’s all getting worn in; smooth and comfortable.
Yet because I will always be regarded as an outsider, the place can’t ever get altogether normal for me. That’s what I like about it.
I suppose that after a few more years, with any luck I’ll be able to start heading back the other way. Rediscover Canada a bit. See how it and its people look through the new lenses I’m crafting for myself now.
It’s something to look forward to: being abroad in the country of my birth. A mind fuck only being an immigrant can give you.