Re-Post: The Danger and Adventure of Living Abroad

I alluded to this post, written in December of 2013 on my old blog, in a post yesterday.  So I thought I’d share it again here:

For half of us expats, living abroad is driven by the thrill of it, the excitement and anticipation of ever-discovery. This can be quite positive – living in a new environment, faced with new experiences and new dilemmas challenges us to re-frame our approach to certain issues and develop different skills. We are constantly learning, adapting, adjusting, analyzing. And thus this half of people who live abroad *generally* are more capable when it comes to comprehending and addressing complex issues than their compatriots at home.

But there’s a downside to being an actively engaged expat – and something to be said for the other half of expats, those who are really just living out their everyday lives abroad, and are probably living far from home for purposes of work, rather than for the excitement and thrill of living in an interesting place. Because belonging to the first type of expats – especially perhaps in Asia, which still has a ring of the exotic to it – dictates that you must always be discovering, analyzing, understanding. In China, where I lived for near five years, it often feels like there’s this race: who knows the most local, out-of-the-way place; who has the most unique ensemble of local friends; who has traveled to the furthest, most remote mountain village; who has some special insight on this place or that; who has been closest to cracking open some aspect of closed culture. Discovery is a currency, and once you stop discovering, you’re broke, like a punctured tire. So you keep on discovering, pursuing, analyzing, seeking to have some edge on understanding so far unseen by everyone else.

What this does is place the expat in a direct dichotomical relationship with the local: locals are all in the “inside”, with us expats trying to seek some access into their inner lives. Friends, in this context, are also currency. It’s impossible to have a local friend without using them in some way (just as, for example, most Chinese friends also want to use their expat acquaintances to practice their English or learn more about life in the states).

Last summer I was always analyzing Bishkek, wherever I went – observing, taking pictures, questioning and writing about the city which I always saw as “other”, some code to crack.
But now, coming back – I’ve realized that there is indeed value in just living in a place. Not seeking to understand or analyze all of it, but just living: going to the market or the grocery, walking along the winter streets, sitting at home with a cup of tea in the morning, going out with a group of friends not caring where they are from but rather who they are as individual characters, being plied with piece after piece of meat by Erdem’s lonely jovial co-worker who talks of his son in the states, even getting up and going to a job or classes in the morning – there’s nothing wrong with just living in a place.

I’m not recommending going the way of my old colleagues at the English school I part-timed at in Urumqi, guys who had lived in China for five years and could still barely order more than ramen and friend rice off a menu, who’s off-hours life evolved around Xbox, beer, eating out, and their English-speaking Chinese girlfriends, who basically lived in a bubble whose walls were so thick they couldn’t see the city around them. But sometimes it may be better to relax and live. Learn Russian, go out, mix groups of friends, let Bishkek be Bishkek.

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