Archive | The Expat RSS feed for this section

Tragedies of Exile Part II

10 Oct

THOUGH MANY LEAVE THEIR HOME COUNTRIES FOR JOB REASONS OR FOR PERSONAL ADVENTURE, THERE IS NO SHORTAGE OF THOSE WHO FIND THEMSELVES ABROAD FOR OTHER REASONS, OFTENTIMES DISHEARTENING. SOMETIMES, IT’S THEIR STORIES THAT ARE THE MOST COMPELLING. JOIN WRITER TOM SYKES IN THE CONCLUSION OF A TWO-PART SERIES AS HE SHARES HIS PERSONAL INTERVIEWS WITH REAL PEOPLE WITH REAL TALES TO TELL.
Bryant

As I leave the post office of the University of the Philippines, a hirsute giant in a Panama hat rushes over to me. His breath is supernaturally bad. His ginger beard is spiky with sweat. He clamps a sweaty hand to my shoulder. “Name’s Bryant,” he says in fast and frantic Californian. “You a writer, man?” Before I can answer, he talks over me. “I’m a writer, see this?” He opens up a kit bag full of poorly-printed self-published books.

I try to ask him what he writes, but he talks over me again. “I’ve had the damnedest luck since I came to Manila. I wrote a PhD and they failed me ‘cause we had an argument. That wouldn’t happen in countries like ours, would it?”

He then proceeds to loudly chastise a number of well-known Filipino authors and intellectuals. ‘X’ lacks grace, ‘Y’ is arrogant. ‘Z’ is a feeble copyist of Bryant’s favourite American writer. I look nervously around in case one of these people happens to pass by. I wonder if Bryant is less a victim of his damnedest luck than of social ineptitude, especially in a culture where anger and confrontation are taboo.

I ask him why he doesn’t return to the US.

“A little money issue.” He points to his kit bag. “So you’ll buy one of my books?”

I make the excuse that I don’t have any cash on me.

He doesn’t seem to hear me. “Maybe you could hook me up with a publisher in your country? The publishers are real unfriendly here.”

A chubby Filipina in mirrorshades appears. She wears an embarrassed, spaced-out smile. “This is my girl,” says Bryant. “She’s a very talented photographer.” He takes out his phone and shows me a series of unbelievably clichéd island sunsets. “Perhaps you could help her get an exhibition?”

I tell him it’s not really my area.

“Damn,” Bryant sneers and scratches his beard.

I say goodbye before I become another victim of his damnedest luck.

Coop

Coop wanders the homestay he runs with his Balinese wife Ida. He is topless, a bypass scar leading from his chest to his bathtub belly. He natters in Aussie monotone, a cigarette pivoting in his mouth. “The thing about Candi Dasa, right, is we’ve got the best beach in the world ‘cept no one knows about it … Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall got married just up the road … My wife’s a bloody whizz in the kitchen, it’ll be just like your granny’s cooking back in England …”

Coop worked as a baggage handler for Qantas until a heart attack made him re-think everything. Wanting a new start, he flew to Bali and never came back.

In Australia he’d been a nobody. “It was hard for a bloke to get on,” he moans. “Too many immigrants taking all the jobs.” With no concern for hypocrisy, Coop built a successful business here in Bali, putting his “raconteur’s skills” (his description not mine) to use. He reminds me of Ronald Merrick, the colonial policeman in Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet novels. Merrick felt his grammar school education and lack of connections impeded his career in Britain, so he moved to India where he found it easier to excel. Thousands of real-life expats would agree with him. As Sriskandarajah and Drew observe, ‘For some middle class families, living abroad is a social aspiration. The experience of foreign living and culture may be a way to redefine themselves in the social hierarchy.’

Like Merrick, Coop despises the indigenes. He has a particular problem with those taxi drivers who dare to ask him for a 12,000 Rupiah (about 90p) tip. He doesn’t seem to respect his wife much either: she is slaving away in the kitchen while he hangs out half-naked, smoking and swigging Bintang beer.

A creaky old man in a rugby shirt enters the homestay. “This is Clive,” says Coop. “He’s a Kiwi, but we’ll try not to hold that against him.”

Trailing behind Clive is a Balinese girl young enough to be his granddaughter. She is in fact his new wife. I don’t believe her claim to have children from a previous marriage. Clive has three grown-up sons of his own. They too have a penchant for the oriental lady.

“My eldest married a Japanese,” he says. “My second a Vietnamese. But my youngest, well, he’s been a disappointment to me; he married an Australian.” Coop tuts at the comeback. Clive winks.

Western men have long been enchanted by Asian women. In the 1880s, the Irish-Greek Japanophile Lafcadio Hearn wrote, “the most wonderful aesthetic products of Japan are not its ivories, nor its bronzes, nor its porcelains, nor its swords, nor any of its marvels in metal and lacquer – but its women.” Today, in Thai villages of 500 families, some two hundred women are married to American and European men. For many, love is now the holy grail of expatriation.

Candi Dasa is no exception, Coop assures me. He mentions a retired Dutchman who’s just moved into the area. “He’s bought the land, he’s built the house, now he’s looking for the girl. He’ll find one no worries, bloke like that.”

After Clive and his missus retire, Coop reveals a darker dimension to expat relationships. “That bloke you just met,” he says with the shamelessness of a gossip, “he had another Balinese chick before that one. Got her pregnant. One night they were staying here and she wouldn’t, you know, sleep with him. So he yelled at her, really upset her. Then he drove down to Kuta for a ‘takeaway.’ Know what he meant by that?”

I think I do. “What did you say to Clive?”

Coop shrugs. “Well what can you say? None of my business, mate.”

It dawns on me that Coop’s industry is a dirty one. The imperatives of hospitality have made him a coward. He’ll let someone behave like that so long as they’re a paying customer. I wonder if he’d react differently to a Balinese man doing exactly the same thing to his girlfriend. Perhaps not; business is colour blind.

Coop finishes his eighth bottle with a burp. I feel for his poor wife. He’s already had one major heart attack and he’ll have another if he carries on like this. Then Ida will be back on the scrapheap, waiting for another white sugar daddy.

Now slurring, Coop mocks a guest he suspects of being gay. I call it a night and go to my room. I realise I’m next door to Clive.

Ambrose Bierce’s wry definition of ‘exile’ could well apply to an expat like Coop or Clive: ‘One who serves his country by residing abroad, yet is not an ambassador.’ Australia and New Zealand are well-served by Coop and Clive residing 1,500 miles away. But by the same logic, I feel sorry for Bali.

 

 

 

The expats I interviewed were all fleeing some personal tragedy – failure, guilt, ill health, bereavement – as if the physical act of travel could elude their internal demons. Whether this is possible is an open question. Annisa was disappointed with her ancestral homeland and alienated from other expats. Clive, Coop and Bryant were surely doomed.

Meanwhile, Lily seemed to be coping best with the tragedies of exile. She’d embraced the host society and was curing her melancholy by helping others. With her sense of adventure and fondness for boats, she might well appreciate Mark Twain’s positive angle on expatriation: “So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

 

 

Tragedies of Exile Part I

28 Aug
Tragedies of Exile: Candid Encounters with Expats
27 August, 2012

THOUGH MANY LEAVE THEIR HOME COUNTRIES FOR JOB REASONS OR FOR PERSONAL ADVENTURE, THERE IS NO SHORTAGE OF THOSE WHO FIND THEMSELVES ABROAD FOR OTHER REASONS, OFTENTIMES DISHEARTENING. SOMETIMES, IT’S THEIR STORIES THAT ARE THE MOST COMPELLING. JOIN WRITER TOM SYKES IN THE FIRST OF A TWO-PART SERIES AS HE SHARES HIS PERSONAL INTERVIEWS WITH REAL PEOPLE WITH REAL TALES TO TELL.

 
During my two years in Asia, some of the most intriguing people I met were expats. Some were genial and intelligent, others were obnoxious, but not one was ever dull. Settling down for brief periods in India, Malaysia, and other places, I became an expat myself. I experienced a weird kind of dislocation, a confusion about who I was and what I was doing. Despite my keenness to integrate, I had many fears and anxieties. Such feelings were new to me; I wanted to understand them better.

 
I decided to interview a number of expats about their attitudes, motives, and desires. I became fascinated not only by their personal stories, but with the wider phenomenon of expatriation itself. I found out that expats are defined as migrants from economically advanced countries and that, while there’s much debate about immigration to such countries, there is less focus on emigration from them. I was surprised to learn that six million Britons (10% of the total population) currently live outside the country, while 5% of Australians and 2% of Americans have moved overseas.

 
The more interviews I conducted, the more I realised that my troubles weren’t unique. An expat life seldom runs a smooth course.

 
ANNISA

I first meet Annisa at the University of Malaysia. She is performing an experimental dance routine drawing on African and Asian styles. She lurches around the stage as if possessed, her face pinched with terror. Afterwards, she sits down with me, exhausted.

 
Her beauty suggests she is younger than the “late 30s” she claims. She has caramel skin, sleek black hair and small elliptical eyes. These looks are typical of Cape Malays, she tells me, the descendents of Javanese slaves brought to South Africa by the Dutch. But while her ancestors were forcibly expatriated, Annisa has freely chosen to return to their country of origin five centuries later. She belongs to a genre of expat called “the returnee.” As Sriskandarajah and Drew observe in Brits Abroad, other returnees include British-Jamaicans who opt to go back to the Caribbean in later life. They are not always impressed with what they find. “It’s a foreign culture for us,” complains one man. “Now it is Americanised and strange.”

 
Is Annisa impressed with what she’s found? “It’s not how I imagined,” she sighs. “I was hoping for more gamelan music and fewer shopping malls.”

 
Does she spend time with other expats? “Apart from my English husband, not really.” She inverts Aesop’s adage: “Divided we stand, united we fall.” Fellow expats are “too inward-looking; they have little to do with the locals.” She has touched on a big theme: the problem of integration. In one school in Spain with a majority of British pupils, teachers protest the refusal of these Brits to learn Spanish. While living in Manila, a Filipino friend accused me of hiding in a gated community: a tower of rich outsiders guarded by natives poor enough to be sacrificed in an armed robbery or kidnap attempt. I pointed out to my friend that this was the only accommodation available to foreign workers like me; I hated it as much as she did.

 
However, some expats don’t feel welcomed to integrate. In Knowles and Harper’s study Hong Kong: Migrant Lives, Landscapes, and Journeys, British teenager Jess complains that Hong Kongers won’t sit next to her on the bus. When she enters a clothes shop they giggle at her Western physique. Knowles and Harper link this hostility to the colonial past, when local coolies had to ask special permission to enter whites-only neighbourhoods such as Victoria Peak. “There is a whole other life here which is very different from ours,” Jess concludes miserably.

 
In contrast with Jess, Annisa has learned fluent Malay and is founding a theatre company here in Kuala Lumpur. I ask her why she chose the expat life. “I was a professional actress in South Africa for five years, but the work dried up. I thought I should travel and better myself as a writer and performer.”
Annisa belongs to a long tradition of creatives who have sought inspiration and ideas abroad. As Malcolm Bradbury puts it, “by virtue of his dedication, creative anguish, and distinctive perception, the artist exercises his freedom and his powers by existing in a displaced relationship to his national culture.” Bradbury goes on to examine the great American writers who moved to Europe, from Henry James to Washington Irving, Ezra Pound to T. S. Eliot, Henry Miller to William Burroughs. Many of them went to Paris and joined a United Nations of artists: Irish playwrights, Spanish filmmakers, German painters, and so on.

 
Has Annisa been an expat anywhere else? “I’ve lived in San Francisco, Jakarta, Mumbai, and Yeovil.” “Yeovil?” I wonder if I heard correctly. “Yes,” she laughs. “It’s where my husband’s from. We didn’t last long there.”

 
LILY

I sit with Lily in a peach-coloured bar that used to be a Portuguese villa. Her peroxide blonde hair and sequined dress recall a femme fatale from a film noir, except she may be too old for the part. We are waiting for a band to tune up.

 
I ask Lily how she came to live in Goa. She looks over at the band, tears filming her heavily shadowed eyes. I seem to have upset her.
“I’m sorry,” she says, catching a tear in a napkin. “It’s been a while since somebody asked me that question.” She composes herself and begins her story.

 
Lily used to be a “workaholic miser,” running old people’s homes in Auckland. When her 20-year-old son Doug died in a car crash, she stopped caring about her career, money, New Zealand, and a lot else besides. She moved to Australia and lived on a houseboat. She threw lavish parties for her neighbours, enjoying this “new feeling called generosity.” A typical party would start with steak and champagne for breakfast and end with skinny dipping in the Timor Sea.

 
Lily then lived on a houseboat in Thailand for two years before sailing on a cargo ship to Goa. She admits to “running away from something,” but doesn’t mention her son. Her latest act of generosity was to buy instruments for the band, which has just started playing.

 
“Doug loved music,” she shouts in my ear. “Really loved it.” For the first time this evening she smiles. Some other expats join us, kissing Lily on the cheek. She keeps smiling for the whole of the gig.

 
Read part two in next month’s issue of The Expat.
This article was written by Tom Sykes for The Expat magazine.

Source: The Expat August 2012