Two expat writers’ stories

I’d love to have an expat writer story like Richard Boudreaux’s. He’s a journalist who left the U.S. in 1977 and had a reasonably exciting career. I left the U.S. in 1985 and didn’t start writing full time until 2008 and it wasn’t to cover war stories. Our writer connection may be tenuous, but we are both expat writers who were born in the United States, and neither of us calls the States home.

I learned about Richard Boudreaux in his Wall Street Journal essay, An Expat Writer, Still Looking for Home. It was a good read, but I found the title odd. I don’t identify with any country. Where I am at any given time is “home” to me.

I know the world is divided up into a bunch of countries and the people of each country are proud to be part of their individual cultures. Live abroad long enough, though, and it’s hard to take identifying with a single culture seriously.

“Truth is, I can make myself comfortable almost anywhere, but nowhere feels completely like home”, writes Boudreaux. That’s been true for me for as long as I can remember. Even when I was in high school and hadn’t set foot outside the United States except for a couple of surfing trips to Ensenada, America didn’t feel like home. I identified with Southern California, but only my fingernail clipping sized portion of it and only because it was at the beach. I would gladly have traded it for another beach, though, and did when I moved to Australia. That beach felt like home to me because that’s where I made my home and raised my family. There were things about Australian culture I liked and I became an Australian citizen. I prefer travelling on my Australian passport and using Australian spelling, but I’d be lying if I said I was an Australian. It was home to me for awhile, just as Cambodia is home to me now.

Boudreaux writes:

Being an outsider was fine by me. The beauty of nomadic life is that you’re detached from the flaws of the surrounding society while you soak up the best it has to offer. You’re an observer. You have no stake. You’re just passing through.

My life hasn’t been as nomadic as his, but I am still an outsider wherever I live and it’s fine by me, too. I staunchly defend Cambodia because I see how much the country has been through and how far it’s come, but after eight years, I’m still a “barang” (foreigner) to Cambodians and feel like one, too. That doesn’t stop me from sharing my point of view about life in Cambodia. My Sihanoukville Journal gets quite a few visitors and through it I am able to share the good things about my adopted “home town.”

They say “home is where the heart is.” I have memories of growing up in the United States, raising a family in Australia and now, improbably at my age, raising another family in Cambodia. My heart is still in each of those countries:

  • My value system came from my upbringing in the U.S. Unfortunately, I no longer see those values being given more than lip service in that country. They may have only been given lip service when I was growing up, but then I only had the limited perspective of the American (dis)information bubble to judge the world by.
  • I loved Australia’s working class ethic and healthy disregard for status (the “tall poppy syndrome”), but disliked the racism and am sorry to see the country now following the American model.
  • I’m impressed by how Cambodia has lifted itself out of poverty (down from 50% to 20% since 2004) and joined the international community, but am distressed by the cost to its ecosystem. It is now the most deforested country per capita in the world.

Life from a different perspective

There’s good and bad in every country. I first learned that when I travelled overland to India in 1971 and have been relearning it ever since. In every case, it seems to me the good elements are always the so-called “common people,” who don’t crave power or wealth. Blame my American upbringing for that. When I was a kid, I was taught that the United States was a nation “of the people, by the people and for the people.” When I went to Sunday school, I won a “photograph” of Jesus for memorising the beatitudes. I think I’ll close with them. I’m not a Christian (God forbid!), but they’ve stuck with me ever since and for me at least, have relevance for people of all religions and cultures, especially those Americans who call themselves Christians, but justify greed and war:

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
  • Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.
  • Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.
  • Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
  • Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.