What expat living has taught me about life in general

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I watched Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next” last night. It followed a conversation I had with a guy at a restaurant I go to frequently. He has lived in Cambodia for two years, but is returning to the U.S. I don’t speak with him often, but I do overhear his conversations. They’re all about America. The combination made me think about what expat living has taught me. It’s taught me a lot.

I left the United States in 1985 when I moved with my family to Australia. Back then, Australia was like a breath of fresh air to me. Australians weren’t as patriotic as most Americans were. They liked their country, but I never heard anyone say it was the “greatest country on earth.” I heard that a lot in the United States. I got Australian citizenship in 1992.

I moved to Cambodia in 2007, so I’ve been here over 10 years. I’ve lived outside the United States for 32 years. I’m 69, so I’ve lived almost half my life outside the United States. I’ve visited other countries, too. Every country has some things that are bad about them and some things that are good about them. Some Americans don’t realise the bad things about the United States. The guy in the restaurant was one of them. He seems to have blocked out the good things about other countries and the bad things about America.

I don’t want to pick on the United States, but the Michael Moore movie highlighted the good things about other countries. He may have cherry-picked the countries he visited, but the movie reminded me that people of every country take pride in some things about their country and wish to change other things. Some of the comments in the movie suggested Americans know less about other countries and make assumptions about them that are not always true. When he was in Iceland, Moore said something interesting (I’m paraphrasing): “You have a ‘we’ society. America has a ‘me’ society.” From my experience, he’s right.

Cambodia gets a bad rap because of the Khmer Rouge. That was four years out of a far longer history than the history of the United States. Since I’ve lived here, I’ve noticed it’s more of a “we” society than the United States. That’s because many Cambodians still remember living in villages, where everyone looked out for each other. That sort of culture is gone in America, where people compete in the workplace and outside the workplace. They compete here, too, but it doesn’t seem to be as selfish as American competition.

Competition is part of life, but it shouldn’t be an all-consuming part of life. Australians love to compete, but they don’t judge others on their status in sports or work. They have the “tall poppy syndrome.” That means they tend to cut down tall poppies who think they’re superior to others. That may be changing as Australia seems to be adopting American ways, but it was definitely true when I moved there in 1985. I chatted with famous surfers in the water, for example. Hardly any of them thought their skill made them superior. They took pride in their skill, but didn’t let it go to their heads.

Expat living has taught me to be more tolerant of other countries. I have to be. Cambodians are in the majority here, but expats come from all over the world: Europe, Russia, Ukraine, China, etc. Some are good and some are bad, but it doesn’t depend on their country of origin. It depends on the individual. There is no “us and them” — only “we.” We are all humans who share the earth. We should take care of each other instead of putting our country at the head of the pack.