Kansai Scene Magazine


What are we doing so far from home?

In this month's three-part feature, KS meditates on the expatriate experience.

You, the reader, may have something in common with Harry Potter creator JK Rowling, literary giants James Joyce and Henry James and movie hard man Steven Seagal. These people were at some stage in their lives, expatriates, and if you are not a tourist or a permanent resident of this country, you are too.

Rowling spent time in Portugal, married to a Portuguese national and teaching English. Joyce spent much of his life in Italy and Switzerland, from which distant perspective he wrote so evocatively about his homeland Ireland. He, like Rowling and many KS readers was an EFL teacher, and worked for Berlitz. Henry James decamped to Britain, though is not thought to have offered English lessons. More recently, Seagal learned how to kick and chop right here in Osaka where he owned his own dojo.

The expatriate is an odd soul, neither just passing through nor quite staying; a sort of hybrid who has detached him or herself from home to deliberately seek the unfamiliar.

The expatriate might be seeking adventure and a life experience before start- ing a career. She or he might be working off debts, may have been posted here by employers or may be simply following a spouse. The expatriate may be learning the language or an art - martial or non-martial - or developing career skills or life skills. The expatriate may be on the run from the police or may simply have nothing better to do.

The media is full of hype about the global village and globalisation, but the expatriate phenomenon is as old as history. Think of the Roman officials and administrators posted to the farthest flung corners of their empire, places that took a year to travel to, distances which guaranteed their family would forget who they were by the time they got home.

For all the talk of this shrinking world and the ubiquity of air travel, getting about before WWII was arguably easier. Now, bureaucracy and 'security' - passports, visas, ID cards, x-rays for shoes, biometric tests - accompany every move we make. In his travelogue A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor describes crossing Europe on foot in the 1930s without having to show passport or docu- ments while sustained and sheltered by the hospitality of ordinary people wherever he went. Of course, after a year or so of travel, Europe plunged into war and Fermor found himself bearing arms against the very people who had been his hosts, friends and drinking companions, which is a hazard the modern expat is unlikely to encounter.

The expatriate becomes hung between two states, never quite of the place she or he lives, and separate from the culture of the home country. In the UK, returned expats are sometimes known derisively as 'When Is' for the perceived habit of beginning anecdotes, 'When I was in Osaka/Vilnius/Bangkok/Johannesburg …"

Obviously, as the expatriate goes along, she or he picks up habits and customs from the host country, and by seeing and understanding and learning from the way other people live will enrich his or her personality - and this is the primary goal of many a traveller. However, it is important to remember that the temporary resident of another country will bring something enriching to the host culture as well. The local people will learn from the traveller, may even adopt new ideas and ways of doing things.

Communities of expats will sometimes make a lasting change. After WWI, large numbers of Americans, especially Americans of African heritage, moved to Paris where they were not subject to segregation and where racism was less overt. This community brought with it its own music, jazz, and helped to establish Paris's thriving jazz culture, which continues to this day.

Moving abroad is a tough decision and fraught with risks and once away from home we may wonder what we are doing. But look at Rowling, Joyce, and Seagal. It didn't do their careers any harm, did it?

Text: Chris Page
Illustration: Jack Lefcourt

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