On Living Abroad: The A:R Ratio

ar ratioAs 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.


The Squid Will Come When You Least Expect It

squidOn Friday night, Fang Deng and I decided to go out to eat at a little Thai restaurant in Beijing for dinner. It was six o’clock in the evening and I was starving as though I’d just gone through months of famine. I fear this is my body getting older and thus craving dinner at earlier and earlier times, until I eventually transform into my grandparents and start eating at four in the afternoon. I guess that’s part of the aging curve. In another decade, I’ll probably have to accept pre-sunset dinner times just as I’ll have to accept balding and impotence.

Flipping through the menu, I knew immediately that I was going to order an appetizer. I really only order appetizers when I’m starving, as it’s my understanding that ordering an appetizer means food will come quicker. Wasting as little time as possible, I looked up at the waitress and placed our order.

“We’ll start with the fried squid,” I said, and then I ordered some red curry with chicken and a spicy beef and pepper dish. Fang Deng and I then drank water and she talked about something while I thought about food.

About ten minutes went by and suddenly there was the red curry with chicken sitting in front of us with two big plates of rice. Next came the spicy beef. And then, after we’d eaten everything, our appetizer arrived.

Which wasn’t exactly surprising. It’s just another one of those things that you have to adapt to, living abroad. It seems to me that in western culture, we apply logic to a lot of stuff, including how we eat. We have drinks and appetizers and entrees and deserts. Here, things aren’t so orderly. Here, it’s anarchy.

Like, for instance, if I order a drink at a restaurant back home, it will likely come first, before the food. Not so much in China. In China, the drink sometimes comes well after the food has been served. Because there’s not the same thought process going on. No one thinks, “Hmm, the food will probably make the person thirsty, so we should give them something to drink first! It’s brilliant!” Nope. Here, it’s more like, “Well, I wrote this thing down first, so we’ll serve that. And then we’ll serve the next thing I wrote down. Unless something else cooks faster. In that case, we will serve that. Unless I forget it. Yes, I will likely serve the thing I forgot last.” Sometimes one dish comes out and then an eternity passes before the next one shows up, unlike the synchronicity in which the dishes arrive back home. Sometimes one dish will be a real stragler and arrive like an hour after everything else; sometimes you will be tempted to cancel something because it’s taking so long, and then, as soon as you complain like an impatient foreigner, it magically appears.

Food timing. Yet another cultural division between the east and the west. Fang Deng held her stomach and said she was full, our freshly delivered appetizer now sitting on our table. I was stuffed as well. In the past, I’ve heard people say that there’s always room for desert.

I’ve never heard anyone say that there’s always room for fried squid.

The Man Who Brought Mustard To Asia

Mustard BabyYan Yan likes to take pictures of herself. She’s in her thirties and puts selfies on her WeChat at a rate that likely exceeds most teenaged girls. Not that this is a bad thing. Enjoying one’s own image is a trait I find commendable. It takes an enviable degree of confidence, I think, for one to want to see themselves that often.

For a period of about five months, I took Chinese lessons from Yan Yan. Her English was decent and her rates were low, so she was an ideal teacher for me. Yan Yan’s lessons were fun and were mostly conversational; she’d just start talking to me in Chinese and I’d do my best to respond. Usually our conversations were about food and where I was going (which was often the grocery store, to get food). A friend of mine took the lessons with me, and that made it better. If you’re going to butcher a language, it’s nice to have a little company to butcher it with.

But one day, in one of our lessons with Yan Yan, something happened that will forever stick with me. We were talking about the grocery store (yet again), and my friend was trying to articulate himself.

“I’d like to buy,” he said, in Chinese, “eggs and milk and…”

“And what?” Yan Yan asked.

“Oh, I don’t know the word,” he said, in English. “How do you say mustard?”



She furrowed her brow. “What is that?”

“You know. It’s the yellow stuff you put on hot dogs.”

“Ah, yes, mayonnaise.”

“No, no, no. Not mayonnaise. Mustard. The yellow stuff.”

“I think it is the same as mayonnaise. No?”

For some reason, I thought I’d jump in and try to help.

“Mayonnaise is white,” I said. “Mustard is yellow. It comes from, like, mustard seeds. I think.”

She was baffled. Eventually we got on our phones and searched for mustard. Finding pictures of bottles of French’s Mustard, we showed them to Yan Yan, assuming this would clear everything up.

“I don’t know what is that,” she said. Her face told us she was telling the truth. She had really never, in her life, heard of mustard before. It was a totally alien item to her.

“You’ve never had mustard?” I asked.

“It is like wasabi?”

“It’s nothing like wasabi,” my friend said.

Yan Yan stared at the mustard the way I might stare at ancient hieroglyphics. She just couldn’t comprehend what she was looking at. We put our phones away and moved on. We figured that going forward, we’d just have to give up on buying mustard.

This incident has stuck with me. I understand that we are all of different cultures, and yet…how does someone not know what mustard is? Part of me thinks that this is probably common. Most of us probably don’t know the condiments typically used in other countries. Take India, for example. I have no idea what condiments are used in India. I don’t even know if they use condiments in India. So not knowing mustard, then, isn’t so strange.

Still, though, it’s mustard. I can’t help thinking of those stories where English people go into isolated, tribal societies in the jungle and the jungle people freak out because they’ve never seen blonde hair before. That’s what I imagine happening in China with mustard. I keep picturing a Chinese person going nuts over a jar of Gray Poupon and then running around Beijing, spreading word of the ‘wild yellow mayonnaise.’

When you’re living abroad, you grow to accept that the people of your new country are going to have a different frame of reference than you do. Your pop culture references will not be understood, and your fond remembrances of Taco Bell and Hot Pockets will fall on deaf ears. But then, sometimes, something comes up, and it strikes you, like a ton of mayonnaise, just how big the gap is, how enormously different your worlds are. And you stand there and you wonder how the heck that’s possible.

I guess I’ll just have to be content in telling myself that one day, mustard will be a common item in China. And on that day, we can start talking about Miracle Whip.

In Which Time, Like a Common Person, Gets Sidetracked by Wine and Sex (A New Year’s Eve Post)

Somewhere. People stand in a room where loud music plays and the lights are low. Drinks are poured. Dance moves are put on display. All talking is done in shouts and yells. Men and women look around longingly, trying to spot their person. The one, the special one, who might be willing to kiss them at midnight. The room is filled with hope and tension and the vague promises of the upcoming new year. Yes, there is sadness and desperation, but all of that is in the background, made insignificant by the excitement and the energy and the wonderful idea that there is an ending to be made, and all one has to do is write it.

New Year’s Eve has always been my favorite in-theory-but-not-in-practice holiday. I mean, in theory, New Year’s Eve is awesome. It’s about the passing of time – but not in a bad way, not like a birthday. A birthday is an unsexy passing of time, filled with the subtext that you’re getting older and closer to becoming senile. New Year’s Eve is seductive. It’s like foreplay. It puts time in a g-string. New Year’s Eve is the only holiday that’s supposed to end in drunken sex. Easter doesn’t end like that. There’s no one drunk or having sex at the end of Easter. At the end of Easter, you’re sober and saying goodbye to your grandparents. And New Year’s Eve is also awesome because it’s all about erasing the slate, too. Whatever dumb shit you did the previous year is okay, because now that year is over, and all your mistakes are forgotten, even if they just happened the night before.

But that’s all in theory. The hooking up and the resolutions. The sloppy sex and the forgiveness. In practice, I’ve usually ended up in some club, striking out with the ladies and getting wasted with my friends, and then feeling hopeless and like a loser the next day. In reality, New Year’s Eve is pretty much a tease. It’s like a plan you make when you’re drunk, like when you go ‘Hey, maybe if I call my ex right now, we can get back together.’ It all seems brilliant and filled with possibility at the time, but in the end you wind up alone, wondering what you did wrong and peeling the labels off your beer bottles.

This year, at age 37, I wanted to do something different. No bars. No electronic music. No…young people. That ‘somewhere’ at the beginning, that was my memory, and the last thing I wanted was to repeat that scene yet again, regret and rejection being my New Year’s traditions just like a birthday has cake and presents.

So my girlfriend and I concocted a plan that seemed both fun and age appropriate. We booked a night in a fancy-pants hotel in downtown Beijing, and decided we would spend our New Year’s Eve pretending to be rich people. Because really, in a vacuum, a person can be anything. Put into the context of one isolated night, the money I have in my bank account indeed makes me wealthy. It’s when one elongates the time frame, when that same amount of money becomes not for one night but for an entire lifetime, it’s only then that I become economically disadvantaged. In the vacuum of a single night, we could be rich and successful and in love and everything else, and so that was our New Year’s theory. It’s harder to be all of those things over the longer haul, next to impossible, and so to ease that looming truth, we stocked up on wine.

By five o’clock on New Year’s Eve, we had checked into our five-star hotel and were busy figuring out how to turn the lights on. The room was big and spacious and dimly lit. It had a hot tub and everything was elegantly painted in hues of dark browns and creamy off-whites. There was a large television and a huge desk with a phone on it. I wondered briefly if the room also came with a secretary. Outside we could see the Beijing cityscape, all the tall buildings wrapped in the romantic soft-focused haze of heavy smog.

Dinner. Fettuccine with sea bass and a bottle of Chardonnay. We left the restaurant happy and light headed. The time was 7:30 pm.

“Wow, it’s earlier than I thought,” I said. “We’re really going to need to drink a lot to stay awake.”

Back to the hotel room. A bottle of Riesling. My girlfriend put on some music, a strange mix of pop tunes that began with lots of club music and eventually transformed into a long Juliana Hatfield playlist. I sat on the bed and watched basketball highlights. We finished the bottle. Time – 9:15 pm.

“We’re never going to make it,” I said. We’d started too early. The rich don’t eat dinner at six and they certainly don’t get bored before ten. We decided a change of scenery would be good and we went down to the hotel bar. The place was dead, about nine people lingering around and having cocktails while a DJ spun dance music. Balloons were everywhere and we sat at the bar and drank Cuba Libres that were cut with so much lemon juice they tasted like Hooch (which in turn sparked memories of New Year’s Eves from the late ’90s).

Back into the elevator. We inserted our key and hit the button. Drunk and exhausted. Time – 11:00.

It was then that I started thinking about time, right then as the elevator went higher and higher. Because time, I decided, is a lot like the floors in a big hotel. The numbers keep going up and up and getting larger, and it feels like you’re really going someplace. Like there’s this progression happening. I thought that the next year isn’t much different from the next floor, a step along the way to the top. But really, if you get off on any floor, you’d find that they’re basically all the same. Floor 5 looks a lot like Floor 15 and they both get mirrored by Floor 25. And that’s what I decided time is like too. That all these floors, all these years, it isn’t really a progression as much as it’s going from one thing to another thing that’s almost identical. Sure I’d gone from clubs and house parties to a swanky hotel, but I was still the same guy, and New Year’s Eve still felt like a tease to me.

Where was my fucking optimism? Where was my hope? I looked at the beautiful girl standing next to me. I could marry this girl and start a new life with her. I could begin a family and name my kid after a cocktail. Harvey Wallbanger Panara or something. I could do any of that. The elevator got to our floor and the doors dinged open.

We got back into the room and my girlfriend started up the hot tub. I stumbled over to the big desk with the purpose of opening up the champagne. I listened to the water running and I went over to the bed and laid down. I was beat. The time was 11:30.

I was ready for the new year, and I didn’t really care to wait for it. The new year would get here. They always do.

I closed my eyes and fell asleep.