Nicole Kidman was recently criticized for breaking quarantine when she traveled to Hong Kong to work on the television adaptation of Janice YK Lee’s novel “The Expats”. Well, she plays an expat from Hong Kong so naturally she would get away with things that others wouldn’t be allowed to do – because expats (including me) are some of the most allowable people I have. know.
In 2011, my husband’s work took us from Boston to Hong Kong, one of the most cosmopolitan and expensive cities in the world. As a Global Mobility Analyst he had traveled and worked in over 500 cities around the world and our favorite after dinner games were “What’s the capital of (insert country name)?” or “What is the currency of (insert country)?”
Secretly – and sometimes not so secretly – we were proud of the fact that neither of us strongly identified with the countries of our birth or the cultures we grew up in – Singapore for me and America for him – and that we saw ourselves as floating and transcultural free-citizens of the world, detached from a single culture or a single country.
Earlier this year my husband was fired. We decided to return to the United States where we figured the lower cost of living would allow us to stretch our savings until he found a new job. We chose Portland, Oregon for our return to American life.
Neither of us had been to this town before, but we had heard it was progressive and bohemian, with impressive international cuisine. We also knew that being in the Pacific Northwest would give us easy access to the great outdoors, which we both love. So it was Portland.
On our first day in our new adopted city, we visited downtown. This part of town had been ravaged by the riots that started in 2016 and most of the good restaurants were closed so we made fun of Chipotle’s burritos.
Our explorations took us to tent-lined streets – the dwellings of homeless individuals who appeared to be plagued by methamphetamine, dozing or just having too many bad days. On the outside of some of these tents were plastic bottles filled with yellow liquid. The smell of despair in the streets was as pungent as the stench of piss.
That night, jet-lagged and in culture shock, we went back to our Airbnb gem, consumed some marijuana candy, then huddled up to each other in our bed and cried. “Toto, I feel like our expat bubble has just burst,” I say.
Global Nomad or Uppity Yuppie in disguise
Today is day twelve in Portland and things are looking up. Amid the very pretty but too sleepy suburban serenity of Southeast and Northeast Portland and pockets of urban misery, I spotted members of my tribe in an area called the Pearl District, northwest of Portland. Portland.
I never even realized I had a tribe, but when I feel like a fish out of water instinct drives me to scan my surroundings for similarities.
And who are those I call my parents? This is the educated, affluent, expatriate jet set – 28-45 year olds who have traveled extensively and have done their yoga retreats in Goa and Koh Samui, who have worked in London, New York, Dubai or Shanghai , who love their Lululemon, and who know their acai from their goji and their sakes from soy.
Wait a minute! Aren’t these people the yuppies of the 80s? Maybe, but these days you’re not a real yuppy unless you’ve done at least two geographies so you can complain about the “province” and the ignorance of the people in your own country.
For over ten years, as an expat living in short-lived metropolises like London and Hong Kong, my friends were mostly frequent travelers with college degrees, culturally sophisticated, with enviable white collar jobs.
People in my social circle think working long hours is worth it if it means they can escape to faraway places at least three times a year, share photos of exotic, too good-to-eat food on Instagram , or one day own a property in Spain or Thailand.
In Hong Kong, most of the people I spent time with had lived in at least three different countries before arriving in the former British colony, and many of them spoke at least two languages. Some spoke with strange accents cultivated during extended stays on different continents as boarding schools or senior company executives.
My tribe is made up of career expats – those of us who find the idea of a home and a nation boring or overwhelming.
We are people who are always looking for new lands, new experiences and more bragging rights. We’re the ones who always put pins on the cards, always looking for ways to get the next overseas assignment. And we are the ones who never really remember where we came from.
Like other members of my tribe, I too have lived in many places. I was born in Singapore and lived in Perth, Makassar, London, then Boston, then Hong Kong. I speak English, Indonesian, Mandarin, Cantonese and Hainanese.
My husband speaks English and German. He was born in New Jersey, raised in London and Munich then lived in Boston before settling in Hong Kong.
The terms ‘career ex-pat’, ‘global nomad’ or ‘third culture jerk’ make me cringe, but for now I can’t think of a better way to describe the type of people. with whom I have the most in common.
When I left Singapore several moons ago, I did so because I didn’t want to be confined by culture, or by the concept of tribe, clan, or nation. I’m afraid of becoming Americanized, and maybe at some point in the future, Singaporean again.
I am afraid that I will one day have to swear allegiance or give my heart to a city, region, country or culture. I’m afraid to call any place home means giving up the rest of the world.
The irony of my situation is not lost on me. By choosing to denounce the concepts of nationalism and culturalism, I have isolated myself from much of the world – a world where most people are content to have a view of their own backyard.
I unwittingly recreated the ‘us and them’ dichotomy that patriotism and racism espouse, but the ‘us’ being those who are international and have traveled a lot, and the ‘them’ being those who can’t or won’t. not leave the towns, villages, and villages where they came from.
Traveling and learning about different cultures should be educational; it should make someone more tolerant, curious, and compassionate, but now that I’ve moved from a big, bustling international trade city to a smaller, quieter place, I can see the snobbery of the expat lifestyle.
I hear a haughty voice in my head say, “I am more progressive, more open-minded and wiser because I have seen more than those who have never left their homeland. Because I have traveled so much, I am smarter, wiser, braver and more sophisticated than those who haven’t. ”
For the first time, I caught this ugly train of thought and was ashamed of how jaded, small-minded and elitist I was.
This morning I spoke to one of the homeless people in Portland.
He told me that he has lived in this city all his life and that Portland is “bee-u-tee-ful” and we are going to love him here. He doesn’t have a wooden and brick house, but he does have a tent that he calls his home.
He has a city and a country that he calls his home. I’m tempted to judge him because it distracts me from having to think about my own greed, workaholic, and boredom.
I thought of my over-ambitious and perpetually restless, adventure-seeking expatriate coterie, as well as myself and my husband and our jet-set lifestyle. We went there and we did, but maybe we’re more homeless than the homeless men and women of Portland.
They may not have houses, water, electricity, Lululemon jackets, Acai bowls, but it might be us: we enviable expats, us third. culture, nomads of the world and citizens of the world, we cross-cultural yuppies – who have lost our homes.
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Michele Koh Morollo is a journalist, editor and author of short fiction films. She is the author of “Without: Stories of Lack and Nostalgia”.
This article originally appeared on Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.