As an American living in Asia, I’ve met tons of interesting expats over the last six years. There was Charlie, who was old as hell and had fought in the Vietnam War and could not for the life of him remember my name. I met a girl named Jalia who had somehow gotten cast in a Clint Eastwood movie and had one lengthy scene acting opposite Eastwood, although she refused to talk about the experience or give us any details. And then there was another guy named Bob who, as some Internet snooping would reveal, had gotten in trouble for having inappropriate relationships with several of his former students in Canada and had subsequently made his way to an international school in China, where he’s been teaching for the last ten years.
One meets a lot of colorful characters living abroad, some colored in hues perhaps a bit darker than others. But with every person that one meets, there is always one question that, also rarely asked or answered directly, is generally present:
What is it that brought you here?
A few years ago, I had a memorable conversation with my friend Trinity. We were talking about all the people we knew, and what we thought had lead to their decisions to leave their home countries and live abroad. During that initial conversation, we decided that every expat could be grouped into one of two categories.
Category One: Adventure – These are the young people fresh out of college. Maybe their degrees were in highly competitive fields, or maybe they just always wanted to live in another country and as soon as that diploma was secured it was off to Beijing. The adventure people are here to experience the culture, to gain work experience, to party and hook up a lot. On the same spectrum are the older people, some retired, who had gotten bored with the usual routines and had thus jaunted off to Asia in the hopes of breaking fifty years of monotony.
Category Two: Running – While true that there are some older adventurers, most of the middle aged people living abroad seem to fit into this category better. Running. Maybe there was a divorce. A death in the family. Maybe there were problems with alcoholism. Maybe they just didn’t fit in back home. Depression. A criminal background. Children that didn’t want to have anything to do with them. There are many reasons why one might be running from something. And young people aren’t completely exempt from this either. They just seem to have the skeletons in their closets hidden better.
Trinity and I would shout out names of people we knew and then try to put them in their correct category. It was pretty fun. When we got to ourselves, Trinity quickly identified herself as “adventure.” I sank down in my seat. I knew what was coming.
“You’re obviously running,” she said.
“What? Me? Why?”
“Well, for one, you’re divorced. You have problems with your parents. You talk about being depressed in the States. And you drink too much.”
All of these things were very true. Still, I wanted to be there for adventure. I didn’t want to be a runner. I argued that I’d traveled to over twenty countries after leaving the USA, which was pretty adventurous. I was a big fan of Chinese cuisine and enjoyed throwing back some baiju with the locals. And I’d dated Chinese women, which meant that I could include ‘romance’ in my pull factors. As opposed to only having the push factor of ‘sexual frustration.’
Our conversation ended without a conclusion. But a few days later, Trinity had changed the way she looked at things. She told me that the idea of having two categories had been the wrong way of going about it.
“Part of me is running too, I guess,” she said. “It’s more of a ratio, you know? Everyone is looking for adventure and they’re also running from something. There’s just a different balance for all of us.”
“We can call it ‘The A:R Ratio,'” I proposed. “The degree to which someone is looking for adventure compared with the degree that they’re running away from their own personal demons.”
“I’m 70:30,” she said.
“What about me?”
She thought for a moment. “30:70?”
Fine. I thought that maybe there was a nobility in running. I mean, if you think about it, running is actually an act filled with hope. It’s not giving up. It’s continuing a search. It’s believing that life does indeed offer an escape that isn’t death.
Now as I prepare to move back to the USA, I wonder if I’ll have a new ratio. Or if I’ll have a ratio at all. I think that maybe this is the reason that people decide to spend years living in other countries. Because when they return home, they know that the running has stopped.