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.
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 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.”