Some advice on expat living

In a recent article, I considered some personality or temperamental traits that may help expats find 'success' in their postings. Then, serendipitously, I came across remarks a fine writer, David Foster Wallace (see more about him in the postscript to this article), made in a commencement address to the new graduates of Kenyon College in the USA in 2005.

Wallace’s words that day capture far better than I could how people both succeed and fail in living life a certain way. I believe these ideas have particular relevance for expatriates. I think you’ll see why as I give you a little précis + commentary on what Wallace said.

Wallace begins by identifying and plumbing the deep well of self-centeredness in which we mostly live our lives. This is inevitable, Wallace believes; it’s the human condition, the way we’re hard-wired. But look where it leaves us:

Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this [i.e. when we are frustrated by petty details of day-to-day living] are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

And how much easier is it to see the world this way when those people don’t look like me, don’t speak my language, and don’t follow my expectations of good behavior? And there’s so damn many of them . . . . If it’s easy to live in your own little world in your own culture, it’s at least twice as easy to do so as an expat, once you’re over culture shock and have established your routines and ‘comfort zones’.

And once you start thinking this way it . . .

. . . tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn't have to be a choice. . . . It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.

Wallace then speculates a bit on just who those people who are annoying him might really be. He tries to imagine their stories, instead of focusing solely on his own. The guy who grabs the last seat on the train might be utterly exhausted after a day of hard, thankless work. The woman who’s screeching at her kids in the supermarket checkout line might be the low-level clerk at a government bureaucracy who’s actually been kind and helpful to his spouse earlier that very day. Wallace admits these scenarios are not likely to be literally true, but simply being willing to entertain their possibility helps you break free from the easy assumption that your own knee-jerk, egocentric construction of reality is definitive. No matter how smart you think you are, you just don’t know that much about what’s really going on, do you?

So if you can keep your mind open, and if . . .

. . . you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Sounds good, but:

On one level, we all know this stuff already . . . . The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

As he nears his conclusion, Wallace urges his listeners to choose freely what to think about, what to spend their mental and emotional energy on. The content of your thought matters, and so does how you treat the people who bounce up against the borders of your little world. Handling these encounters with an open and disciplined mind, more than knowing lots of information, or pompously pretending you have ‘learned how to think’, is what it means to be educated:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

For many expats, of course, that ‘infinite thing’ is ‘home’. It’s easy to believe that if only I could just get back home, then all of these problems (which are of course the result of living in a tropical hellhole, or an overcrowded urban jungle, or a godforsaken postcolonial outpost, etc, etc) would fall miraculously away, and The Real, Good Me could shine through again. But of course it’s The Real, Good Me that’s got into this mess in the first place.

So how do we focus our eyes beyond ourselves? How do we manage to take other people’s worlds as seriously as our own?

Wallace, so far as I can tell from what he’s written, is agnostic. He says his advice has nothing to do with religion or even morality. But his spiritually evocative language – ‘sacred’ and ‘infinite’ and ‘sacrifice’ – seems to point beyond our selves not only in terms of perceptions, but in terms of powers.

I know what Wallace is trying to say, i.e. that keeping our eyes open is a constant, difficult struggle, but a strictly human one. I guess I don’t share his faith in human nature; I fear that even when we really pay attention we often simply see more to condemn. I know the only way I can rein in my anger and frustration and self-centeredness on many days (and of course many, many days I fail utterly) is to look at each and every jerk assaulting my little world and think to myself, ‘He’s a child of God, child of God, child of God . . .’.

My recent introduction to David Foster Wallace's work was a book of essays. The essays are great stuff; highly recommended. Wallace is best known, however, for his massive novel Infinite Jest (which I have yet to read; I tried once, but the 1100-page book was so heavy it was killing me to carry it around). I'm now all set to try his earlier novel The Broom of the System.

If you'd like a thought-provoking Wallace essay to get started on, you can read his Consider the Lobster.

It's obvious Wallace is very, very smart, and that he's quite the vituoso with words. He also takes lots of risks with his writing style, and invetibly some pay off, others don't.


me me me!

Mr Tall, good find. I've certainly seen that self-centeredness in myself plenty of times, and more so while I've lived overseas.

Two or three years back I was making business trips out of Hong Kong once or twice each month. I noticed that when I came home after a longer trip, I'd be grumpy for a couple of days. I'm not sure most people would notice, MrsB probably bore the brunt of it. I don't remember when, but thankfully at some point I worked out that I was behaving like a sulky, spoiled brat.

What caused it? Well the trip overseas would mean staying in nice hotels where other people clean up after you, either taking taxis or being driven around, and typically being wheeled into a meeting as an expert about something. Sometimes there would be an upgrade to business class on the flight home too, just to make things worse.

And then I'd come home and have to do the washing up, or ... catch the bus. Heavens! Just like everyone else. I never got so bad that I said "Do you know who I am???", but you get the picture.

I do think that living overseas makes us feel a bit different, perhaps a bit more special. It's natural and harmless to enjoy that except when, as described above, the self-centeredness gets out of hand.

The happy ending is that once I noticed what was happening it started to happen less, and eventually fizzled away. And having kids has definitely helped too - nothing like changing nappies to remind you where you fit in the world!


A tragic end

I was shocked and deeply saddened over the weekend to learn that David Foster Wallace, the inspiration for this article, has killed himself.

An obituary from the New York Times is here; it reveals that DFW was under treatment for serious depression for the past two decades. 

If you're interested in sampling his work, this page at Time magazine has links to several of his most recent essays. I can recommend them all, but might I suggest you start with the appreciation of Roger Federer; it's simply dazzling.