Become an Expat By Bob Shacochis
When are you going to get out of school?
And I don’t mean finish the degree, get a job, a life. I mean turn your life upside down, expose it, raw, to the muddle. “Put out,” as the New Testament (Luke 5:4) would have it, “into deep water.” A headline in the New York Times on gardening delivers the same marching orders: IF A PLANT’S ROOTS ARE TOO TIGHT, REPOT. Go amongst strangers in strange lands. Learn to say clearly in an unpronounceable language, “Please, I very much need a toilet. A doctor. Change for a 500,000 note. I very much need a friend.”
If you want to know a man, the proverb goes, travel with him. If you want to know yourself, travel alone. If you want to know your own home, your own country, go make a home in another country (not Canada, England, or most of Western Europe). Stop at a crossroads where the light is surreal, nothing is familiar, the air smells like a nameless spice, and the vibes are just plain alien, and stay long enough to truly be there. Become an expat, a victim of self-inflicted exile for a year or two. Sink into an otherness that reflects a reverse image of yourself, wherein lies your identity or lack of one. Teach English is Japan, aquaculture in the South Pacific, accounting in Brazil. Join the Peace Corps, work in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, set up a fishing camp on the beach of Uruguay, become a foreign correspondent, study architecture in Istanbul.
And here’s the point: Amid the fun, the risk, the discomfort, the seduction in a fog of miscommunication, the servants and thieves, the food, the disease, your new friends and enemies, the grand dance between romance and disillusionment, you’ll find out a few things you thought you knew but didn’t.
You’ll learn to engage the world, not fear it, or at least not to be paralyzed by your fear of it. You’ll find out to your surprise, how American you are – 100 percent, and you can never be anything but – and that is worth knowing. You’ll discover that going native is self-deluding, a type of perversion. Whatever gender or race you are, you’ll find out how much you are eternally hated and conditionally loved and thoroughly envied, based on the evidence of your passport.
You’ll find out what you need to know to be an honest citizen of your own country, patriotic or not, partisan or non-partisan, active or passive. And you’ll understand in your survivor’s heart that it’s best not to worry too much about making the world better. Worry about not making it worse.
When you come back home, it’s never quite all the way, and only your dog will recognize you.