Being an expat is decidedly less exciting than being a traveler. We worry about cat food and cleaning schedules, mundane little things that go by the side – or become the base for an exciting adventure – when you’re traveling. Here it’s just cat food.
I would describe my lifestyle in China as a slow traveler-cum-researcher, or “explorer-expat”. I settled somewhere during the school year (generally Sep-July) and took extended vacations hopping across the country and tracking dozens of town, hundreds of miles, for two months each every winter and summer over the holidays. Everywhere I went I researched, pulling apart the layers of the country, always trying to figure out what was under the surface. Searching for that key to explain how the system worked. I learned and practiced language without cease. I was forever redefining my topic.
Though I spoke Chinese and understood a great deal about the country and the culture, I was never at home. It doesn’t matter how many people call you a “zhongguotong” (China Hand) or mistake you for a local minority – China will never welcome you, and you will always see the country as a strange and foreign (if frighteningly familiar) land.
China does have settled expats – people who go there to pursue their careers, who send their kids to international schools and live a rather Americanized life. But for me the job I held was never the most important piece. I followed locations, and saw this string of jobs as something that would allow me access to the places of greatest research interest. Something temporary before I settled back into academia in the states.
And then in the last year when I moved back to Bishkek that changed. I went from being an explorer to just an expat, someone who lives abroad and happens to be residing in their current locale for reasons other than their ardent desire to be in that particular place. Where daily life is more important than the place we live. It’s something I scorned while living in China – oh-so-lowly franchise school English teachers who could order two items off a menu, couldn’t even give coherent directions to a taxi driver, and spent all their time with their X-Box and English-speaking girlfriends. They weren’t in China. They weren’t creating a ‘valuable’ cultural experience for themselves. They barely knew the city they lived in, apart from the best burger and beer joints. And yet here I am, an expat with two cats sleeping on the sofa (though still with no X-box). Guilty admission: some days when I don’t have meetings, I don’t leave the house until 3. In part because it’s easier to work here than in a crowded cafe with spotty internet connection (that’s you, Sierra Cafe on Manas, with all the Kyrgyz kids blasting music videos on their cellphones in the supposed ‘conference room’). But it’s also because I don’t feel an incessant desire to explore. It’s not like I’m going to miss something if I don’t leave the apartment.
I no longer think either side is better than the other, and there are quite a few things I’ve learned in the transition.
The first is the above-mentioned diminishing drive to explore, to find something new or uncover something of the secret culture. I wrote about this before, in “The Danger and Adventure of Living Abroad“. Among travelers (especially, I might note, travel bloggers) there’s an immense pressure to discover and share something new, whether it be an insightful perspective, a local experience, or the best underground music. There’s an anxiety – I might even call it a “fear” – that you won’t discover something authentic, that you’ll go to a place and just have normative experiences, and come home with nothing to brag about.
Here I feel like I have time, and time stretches infinitely. I’ve been to the bazaar. I’ll go to the bazaar again. The bazaar will still be there tomorrow. And while I love the bazaar (and sometimes marvel at the strange things on display), it’s more and more becoming just the place where we get our weekly groceries. The desire that drives one to explore every corner, the feeling that there’s something unthinkably authentic beyond that display is more muted. Sure, I still love discovering a new restaurant, but I don’t have an undying impetus to stake out every corner of the city – and I don’t feel guilty if I don’t discover the ‘most authentic’ Kyrgyz experience. I don’t like kumis or boiled mutton. No thanks, no need.
Living abroad longer, we also marvel less. The wonders we first saw slouch towards the mundane. I might also surmise that we see a different, and perhaps more honest (more nuanced), angle. Nothing is blanket beautiful, or unarguably ugly; much more of it’s in the middle. Those decaying soviet-style apartment blocks that first looked picturesque and somewhat romantic? With all the electricity cuts, they would be a pain to live in…but it would be nicer to live closer to the city center.
In the same vein, while in Urumqi I had a couchsurfer who later visited Bishkek for a few days, and had the following to say about the female population:
“The Kyrgyz girls have an elegance, they move like a river viewed from afar, always perfectly coiffed, inhabiting their long, thin dresses rather than wearing them, eyes hidden behind aviator sunglasses that suggest cool disaffection. I’ve never sat across from such elegance as a Kyrgyz girl, face a pleasant enigma, a reticent smile dancing across her lips that curled up at the edges. You wonder if one has ever stuttered. There’s a fierceness underneath: a surprising number of girls have stories of bashing other girls’ faces in, but it’s hidden with such grace, such incredible smiles, such calm.”
He obviously came during the one week when everyone wasn’t wearing fluorescent green, and I doubt he ever tried to stand in line in Bishkek (lines don’t exist except as surges), for I’ve rarely seen a Kyrgyz girl wait with “such grace”. Earlier this week I saw a similar comment on twitter from a traveling couple I usually respect:
The other week a fifty-something Kyrgyz woman thwacked me on the head with her hefty handbag when I didn’t immediately give up my bus seat (I was listening to Turkish podcasts and staring out the window at the time). A great photo op bearing the heart of a nation? Possible. Photogenic? Probably not in the sense they suggested.
I’m not saying that either of these quotes come from bad travelers. But they do definitely come from explorers, as opposed to settled expats. What happens when you explore – and why people, countries or cities will look “beautiful” when it’s obvious to full-time residents that they’re not, is probably akin to the cheerleader effect – when you spend less time on an experience, the distinct features blend together to give you a general impression. The longer you live in a place, the more nuance you notice, and the harder it is to form and pass on general statements.
And last comment for today… you won’t love every country, every culture, every people. There’s no shame in that – with around two hundred countries and quasi-independent territories in the world it’s impossible to be attracted to every one. I’m not fascinated by Kyrgyzstan. I don’t love the country or hate it. I don’t think I’ll ever return here after we move. I hope it develops democratically and society becomes more open and equal for all, but it isn’t my lifelong cause. And that’s OK. I don’t have to love the culture, to give my every waking moment to discovering the city or learning the language or rooting for some local cause. I can live here without being immersed in the country, just as I lived in Chicago without being immersed in the culture of the city (it didn’t help that Chicago was really, really cold, the buses were always off-schedule, and I didn’t have a car). Some places we will love and want to explore every inch of, whether at the end of the workweek or during holiday. Some places won’t have the same hold on us, but we can still live there without feeling the shame of avoiding complete immersion.