The ‘Thomsons from Sunderland’

Stupidity is something immovable; you can’t try to attack it without being broken by it … In Alexandria [Egypt], a certain Thompson from Sunderland has inscribed his name in letters six feet high on Pompey’s Pillar. You can read it from a quarter of a mile away. You can’t see the Pillar without seeing the name of Thompson, and consequently without thinking of Thompson. This cretin has become part of the monument and perpetuates himself along with it. What am I saying? He overwhelms it by the splendor of his gigantic lettering … All imbeciles are more or less Thompsons from Sunderland. How many one comes across in life in the most beautiful places and in front of the finest views.

Gustave Flaubert, quoted in The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

I came across my own version of Flaubert’s “Thompson from Sunderland.” These particular imbeciles—Flaubert’s pejorative feels entirely appropriate—were not scrawling names in big bold letters across some archeological treasure. It was a different sort of debasement, inflicted on a different sort of treasure, no less precious.

Laomei Green Reef is located on the north coast of Taiwan, east of the Fugui Cape.

Fugui Lighthouse

Every year, beginning in April, Laomei Green Reef attracts throngs of camera-wielding humans.

Laomei Green Reef seen at a distance from a nearby hill.

Limestone-producing algae grows over a shelf of volcanic rock. The limestone remains after the organism dies. Successive layers of limestone build up forming the reef.

Laomei Green Reef close up

Water erosion carves meandering channels in the reef. How to describe it? Said to Dahlia, “It looks like a shaky hand ran a giant comb through the rock when it was cooling.” Well, I took a stab at it, anyway.

Laomei Green Reef, pattern of erosion

Along the reef water shoots up through fissures in the reef. Note the fishermen standing on the reef in the background.

Laomei Green Reef, water shoots up through a fissure.

Note the clearly marked sign by the entrance.

Laomei Green Reef, clear signage posted. Stay off the reef.

Note this asshole standing on the reef.

Laomei Green Reef, asshole standing on the reef.

So anxious to capture the beauty of Laomei, all the while trampling it beneath their feet.

Laomei Green Reef, assholes standing on the reef.

We saw a lot of that.

Laomei Green Reef, yet more assholes standing on the reef.

It make us angry. Dahlia had finally had enough. She confronted a man walking across the reef. “Don’t you know you ruining it?” He should have known better.

Laomei Green Reef, another asshole standing on the reef.

This is what reef looked like closer to the parking lot, well-within range of the selfie-obsessed hordes.

Laomei Green Reef, damage done?

If you walked to the other end of the reef, away from the morons standing on it, this is what Laomei Green Reef looks like. Note: It is possible to take a decent photo standing a safe distance away away from the reef (evidence below).

Laomei Green Reef, close up of water shooting up through a fissure.

To be an other

I met Kenzie at a party. We were standing amidst of group of people engaged in small-talk, which is, admittedly, not an area of competence for me.

Kenzie said she felt liberated living in Taiwan. As a woman, as an African-American. Well, good. I’m glad, I thought. And I meant it.

The conversation carried on. I kept a toehold in it, while the rest of me went off somewhere. I took a booth at the back corner of my mind. There I carried on a separate conversation, albeit a related one.

And still, I nodded my head like a metronome, keeping time with the rhythm of the conversation. The guy feigning to listen was the amiable, somewhat socially competent part of me. That guy, unfortunately, decided to tuck in for the night. The old curmudgeon punched in for the late shift. He immediately decided Kenzie was a bonafide, card-carrying optimist—the curmudgeon suffered optimists like he suffered fools.

I bulldozed back into the conversation, no idea how long I’d stood there in absentia.

“But back to what Kenzie was saying, doesn’t our experience here have more to do with the fact we’re strangers? It’s not that there isn’t discrimination in Taiwan. It’s not like Taiwan has somehow eliminated prejudice, or that we won’t ever have to deal with it as foreigners living here.”

“We are still an other,” I said. “We are still outsiders. Maybe they (I meant Taiwanese people) just don’t know how to categorize us (I meant the expats in the room). We don’t fit into their daily experience. We aren’t easily placed within the established hierarchy. That isn’t to say there isn’t one. That isn’t to say we’re going to somehow avoid unfair treatment that has something to do with who are or how we look. Being an expat may work to our advantage sometimes, sometimes but…”

Dahlia put her hand on my arm, squeezed it gently. It was my curtain call, more subtle than a vaudeville hook, but it had desired effect.

That was weeks ago. But as I sat at the kitchen table this morning, I thought about that conversation, thought about what I might have said had Dahlia allowed me to carry on.

…we’re still foreigners. We will always be laowai. Because of the way we look. Because of our accent. Because culture leaves its mark. We will never quite belong, and for that, we’re always be made to pay the foreigner tax in one form or another.

I think that’s where I was going.

I might have hastened to add: This has nothing to do with Taiwanese culture. It has everything to do with the human condition. We are hard-wired to discriminate. We organize our world into competing tribes, us and them. It is baked into our DNA. 

This isn’t, of course, any kind of excuse. Our biology does not justify our prejudice. (I think I would have made that point clear.) We aren’t automatons after all. We have a will. We have a fucking choice, and we can choose to be better than that.

Notes on a train wreck

Watching from afar. A grand, sweeping vista. It’s an ugly view. Brett Kavanaugh, sorry excuse for a life-time appointment, confirmed to the Supreme Court of the United States. I am aghast. I am angry. I am thoroughly disgusted. I am resigned.

I refuse to call America “my country” just now. I am American by birth, American by passport, American by default, but no longer American by consent.

What I see:

America, the spoiled rich kid, ignorant of the world, insistent on unearned privilege, squandering—callously so—its inheritance, the accumulated wealth of generations.

America, shouting, foot-stomping, carrying on.

America, fingers in its ears, shouting “Nah nah nah, I’m not listening. Not to you, not to anyone.”

America, hopelessly, recklessly, stupidly arrogant.

America, the drunken frat bro who just wants to do keg stands and bang unconscious chicks without your judgment.

America, the land of “Me first” and “Go fuck yourself.”

America, the Empire of Liberty (not at all ironic), where of course the sun never sets on bigotry, violence, and hate.

America, the shining beacon of toothless, gun-toting, backwater morons.

America, the fantasy island of God-fearing, Dirty Harry wannabes, with their dead eyes and their cold dead hands and their praise Jesus amens.

America, the darkened shore of the retched, huddled masses, the teeming, ragged refuse, the brain-washed, tired, and weary.

America, from sea to shining sea, a colossal cluster fuck, no longer anyone’s land of milk and honey.

America, a hulking, sagging wreck washed up and broken up on the shoals of what might have been.

And yet, and yet…

Somehow, I remain a patriot—of self-evident truth and inalienable rights, of equality before men and women, and any other category of human—ideals that a vocal and benighted quorum of star-spangled idiots seem so intent to discard, so casually, in the name of what exactly? Tell me what kind of better world.It isn’t at all apparent from here.

Expat = immigrant? Some thoughts on the matter

I stumble onto complaints about the word “expat” now and then. So the argument goes: “expat” is really just another word for immigrant, reserved exclusively for those of European descent, Westerners, “white people,” while “immigrant” applies to everyone else. Its use is a subtle means to reinforce a global hierarchy defined by race, nationality, and socio-economic status. Or something like that.

I’m not trying to diminish anyone’s personal experience. I won’t claim that  “expat” has never been misused to elevate one group at the expense of another. That old-fashioned imperial chauvinism still infects the world, I have little doubt. There are assholes and ignoramuses the world over. I’ve met more than a few who call themselves expat.

But I have to disagree.

For starters, let’s consult a dictionary. An expatriate is “a person who lives outside their native country.” An immigrant is “someone who comes to live permanently [emphasis added] in a foreign country.” The notion of permanence being the key distinction.

Let me add to those definitions at bit.

Expats are tumbleweeds blown across the globe by the winds of curiosity and opportunity. We’re modern nomads. Itinerant vagabonds with itchy feet. Idealists and opportunists. Rootless cosmopolitans. We are businessmen and scholars and diplomats and educators and aid workers, and the families that come along for the ride.

We settle sojourn for a time in a foreign country, but rarely with any intent to stay. And there’s nothing imperative in our peregrinations. We go because we can, because we’re so inclined, and because the opportunity presents itself.

And we do come in various hues, and we aren’t all Westerners, and it’s safe to say we’re not all standing on the same rung of the socio-economic ladder. From what I can tell, we’re a diverse group, mostly held together by shared experience.

Now what about that other word, “immigrant.”

Immigration is often the product of limited or narrowing opportunities. It is less a choice, more an imperative born of circumstance—instability and poverty and injustice; a potato famine, a pogrom, a civil war.

(Note: I do recognize there are other reasons, not all of them dire, which may compel someone to uproot and replant themselves with such finality. We’re not going to talk about those here.)

The costs of relocation tend to be higher for the immigrant. The risks greater. The potential rewards less certain. And can you change your mind? Can you simply reclaim your old passport if the Land of Opportunity doesn’t live up to the hype? An expat, of course, can always pack up and head “home” should they so desire.

An immigrant is expected to relinquish some aspects of his former self—his language, his culture, social and familial bonds. “Assimilate” is the word often used. Such sacrifices are rarely required of the expat. No one forces you to adopt the local customs, frequently you don’t even have to learn the language. And it goes without saying, no one demands you pledge allegiance to some other flag.

So clearly, there are real differences. “Expat” and “immigrant,” I feel comfortable saying, are two different words for two different things. And while we’re at it, expat ≠ “migrant” or “guest worker” either. That seems obvious to me, but again, there are some who conflate and confuse the terms, so…

“Migrant” implies a spartan menu of life options. it is applied to both “internally-displaced peoples” (IDPs) and to refugees fleeing across international borders. I’m going to go out on a limb here and posit that migrants don’t choose to displace themselves in order to alleviate the doldrums of sedentary life.

And what of the guest worker? Like the expat, a guest worker is a foreigner who’s allowed to work in a host country for a limited period of time. Wealthier countries—like Saudi Arabia—”invite” guest workers from poorer countries—like Nepal—to perform the sorts of break-breaking and menial labor nobody else wants to do.

Guest workers often live and work under unenviable conditions. They are abused by unscrupulous employers, subjected to dangerous work environments, and often deprived of basic human rights.

The draw for the guest worker is a steady job and a paycheck, which may not be available back home. For the expat, moving overseas is an option, often an attractive alternative to the drudgery of the status quo, but not typically the only option one has to earn a livable wage. No expat I know or ever heard of has experienced anything remotely analogous to the plight of a guest worker. A reasonable person should be able to make the distinction.

So I’ll end on this: it seems reasonable to call yourself an expat. It’s a useful term. Its use is not an act of exclusion or a claim to some elite status.

It is a form of identity. It does imply membership in a group. But that group identity isn’t defined by race or ethnicity or nationality or even social status, but a shared lifestyle—that of the foreigner in a foreign land, who freely chooses to live that life.

Getting down off my soapbox now.

Your flight has been delayed, cue despondency

Our life in voluntary exile has stalled out for the moment. It seems we’ll be sticking around Central New York for a few weeks longer, emphasis on the “longer.” (The circumstances, though relevant, won’t be discussed here.)

I pray to the gods of travel: No, please no. Not this. Lift this heavy burden from me. You said you wouldn’t give us more than we could carry. Well, maybe that was another god, but still, couldn’t you just do us this one tiny favor? Please oh please.

If it was up to me, we’d be gone tomorrow, yesterday—hell, weeks ago. Who am I kidding? We never would’ve come back here in the first place. To visit maybe, but to live? for any length of time? Fugetaboutit.

It’s nothing personal, land of my birth. You just don’t do it for me anymore, if you ever did. The thing is, now I have something else to compare you to, and while you may be able to offer a orgy of consumer choice—like fifty different varieties of mustard for my hotdog—this isn’t inducement stay any longer than I have to.

And let’s not forget the fact that my fellow countrymen (and women, but mostly men) chose for their leader—of all the goddamn possibilities!—a bloviating, infantile, ignoramus—a fucking has-been reality star, a D-lister! as the CEO of this listing ship. This was, of course, accomplished with an assist from the Russian oligarchy, but never mind all that. Never mind the fact that every shit-kicking, down-home Nazi feels right as rain about which way the winds are blowing.

I say to you good luck with all that. And get me the fuck out of here. I’ll come back when the monsters slink back to the shadows where they belong.

But that’s a bit unfair. Of course it is. You have many fine qualities, land of my birth. You truly were once that shining city on a hill, I believe that. And there were many things to wave the flag over. There are reasons to be a patriot, but I can’t get on board with the rebranding. This new marketing strategy you’ve hit upon…Well, it’s safe it isn’t gonna foster any kind of brand loyalty with me. I daresay your erstwhile customers are fleeing in droves to the nearest competition. I guess that’s one way to solve the so-called immigration problem.

This is what happens when I light upon the subject of America in 2018. The bitterness is real, the product of so many shattered illusions, but I shouldn’t neglect to mention—I should emphasize (like that)—that it isn’t the reason Dahlia and I are leaving. We’re not leaving out of spite. It’s because we can’t help but seek other shores. It’s what the wandering sort was born to do. We are that sort, and so we must do.

But I’m staying for now, I guess. Dahlia and I will be staying for just a little bit longer, but not one second longer than we have to.

Taiwan, I’m eagerly anticipate our reunion though it will be delayed for a time. I look forward to getting to know you, for real this time. I have a good feeling about us. It’ll be nice, at the very least, to live in a country still on its way up. Who knows, we might not ever leave.

But who am I kidding? We will be on our way eventually. That moment always comes. It’s in our blood after all, this itinerant life.