Thursday, April 29, 2010

Become an Expat

Back when I was doing my MFA in Spokane, I clearly remember sitting on my best friend MH's couch--and he says, "You have to hear this." He proceeds to read me this short piece and it was one of those moments where the world just goes "Huh. Yeah." It was an issue of Men's Health on 100 things to do before you die and Bob Shacochis's "Become an Expat" was #16. For years now, I've had that taped to my office door and yesterday as I was continuing to pack up my East Hall life, I took down everything on my door, including that piece of wisdom (which, I will admit, is slightly depressing). When you're a writer (and maybe this applies to people who don't claim themselves as writers), there are pieces of writing that are like sandpaper to your consciousness, roughing up the surface so that the finish will take better. This is one of those pieces for me. By the time MH read this to me, I'd already spent considerable time traveling, including a six-month study abroad in Ireland in college. What Shacochis was talking about, I knew--at least in a vague sort of way.

Here it is:

“When you teach grad students, those brainy, dreamy, slack-ass selves who have been squeezed through the educational intestine into the relatively expansive bowel of never-ending higher education, you have a recurring thought each time you enter a seminar room and scan the robust, nascently cynical faces of the whatever generation horseshoed around the table, receptive to the morsels of your wisdom: When are you guys ever going to get the fuck out of here?

And I don’t mean finish the degree, get a job, a life. I mean turn your life upside down, expose it, raw, to the muddle. ‘Put out,’ as the New Testament (Luke 5:4) would have it, ‘into deep water.’ A headline in the New York Times on gardening delivers the same marching orders: IF A PLANT’S ROOTS ARE TOO TIGHT, REPOT. Go among strangers in strange lands. Sniff, lick, and swallow the mysteries. Learn to say clearly in an unpronounceable language, ‘Please, I very much need a toilet. A doctor. Change for a 500,000 note. I very much need a friend.’

If you want to know a man, the proverb goes, travel with him. If you want to know yourself, travel alone. If you want to know your own home, your own country, go make a home in another country (not Canada, England, or most of Western Europe.) Stop at a crossroads where the light is surreal, nothing is familiar, the air smells like a nameless spice, and the vibes are just plain alien, and stay long enough to truly be there. Become an expatriate, a victim of self-inflicted exile for a year or two.

Sink into an otherness that reflects a reverse image of yourself, wherein lies your identity, or lack of one. Teach English in Japan, aquaculture in the South Pacific, accounting in Brazil. Join the Peace Corps, work in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, set up a fishing camp on the beach of Uruguay, become a foreign correspondent, study architecture in Istanbul, sell cigarettes in China.

And here’s the point: Amid the fun, the risk, the discomfort, the seduction and sex in a fog of miscommunication, the servants and thieves, the food, the disease, your new friends and enemies, the grand dance between romance and disillusionment, you’ll find out a few things you thought you knew but didn’t.

You’ll learn to engage the world, not fear it, or at least not to be paralyzed by your fear of it. You’ll find out, to your surprise, how American you are — 100-percent, and you can never be anything but — and that is worth knowing. You’ll discover that going native is self-deluding, a type of perversion. Whatever gender or race you are, you’ll find out how much you are eternally hated and conditionally loved and thoroughly envied, based on the evidence of your passport.

You’ll find out what you need to know to be an honest citizen of your own country, patriotic or not, partisan or nonpartisan, active or passive. And you’ll understand in your survivor’s heart that it’s best not to worry too much about making the world better. Worry about not making it worse.

When you come back home, it’s never quite all the way, and only your dog will recognize you.”


This little piece has become my End of Semester Speech to my students. I tell them that the best advice I can give them is to study abroad. Not just a trip for a couple of weeks, but a semester, a year. Be in a place long enough that you have to go to the grocery store, "stay long enough to truly be there," as Shacochis puts it. There are things you will learn that you will never learn any other way. But if your finances or educational plan don't allow for studying abroad, the next best thing is that when you graduate, don't take a job in your hometown, don't take a job in your home state--even if it is your intention to return. You'll learn the same types of things by moving to a different part of the country for a while. And if it is your dream to return to your hometown, leave for a while, so that you're making the deliberate choice to come back. Don't end up where you are by default, just because you never left. Don't let life happen to you. Be an active participant in your life. I tell them some of the things I learned when I moved from MN to Spokane. I tell them some of the things I learned when I moved to Ohio--and thinking that there wouldn't be much difference between MN and Ohio and I couldn't have been more wrong. Ohio is weird, I tell them--which always gets grins and nods from them--it's a lot more East Coast than it likes to think it is.

But this year, I tell them, I'm taking my own advice. My life has gotten a little too comfortable for comfort and I'm feeling the need to shake things up. So I'm leaving here, after seven years, and I'm going to a place I've never seen to start a PhD program. I don't know what it's going to involve, I don't know what it's going to require of me, I don't know who I'll be at the end of it. But that's part of the appeal. "When you come home, it's never quite all the way," Shacochis writes, "and only your dog will recognize you."

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely love that essay and your interpretation. It's so motivating and more people should honestly challenge themselves to "shake things up" when they start to feel a little bit too comfortable. Half of the excitement is not knowing how it's going to work out... or even if it will at all! But, it's certainly better than not going for it!

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