I’m Baa-aack…

How many times has the owner of a neglected blog said that before? More importantly, how many times has the owner of a neglected blog not said that before?  At any rate, I’ve decided to fire up the old blog for a few reasons.

First, a word on what I’ve been up to. Now that the ink is dry, I can say that I’ve recently been contracted to write the new edition of Culture Shock! Korea, a culture guide to my 51S2PF3V45L._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_adopted home geared toward people who are going to be living, working, or studying here (as opposed to just passing through). In other words, I’m writing the book I wish I had in my own hands 17 years ago when I moved here.

Toward that, I’ve been busy boning up on everything from rental agreements, K-Pop, the Choseon Dynasty, and what not to say at business meetings, among many, many other things – some necessarily interesting, and some interestingly necessary – as well as hammering out the first, very messy drafts of what I hope will be a useful, readable book on how to get along in Korea.

Now, the reasons I’m firing up the blog again:

I need an occasional break from rental agreements, K-Pop, the Choseon Dynasty, and what not to say at business meetings. The work and the reading has been fun, and it’s taught me a lot,  while also obliging me to look at the familiar afresh. But I need an occasional short break, and five out of five doctors agree that blogging is better for you than smoking.

Also, as a writer, the blog helps me exercise good writing habits, like forcing me to get stuff out on time, not getting too hung up on perfection, and just jogging the muscles that we use in the creation of text. This of course is in lieu of actually jogging around the block, which is no fun at all.

Another reason is that I’m reading a lot of stuff, and a lot of it is stuff that doesn’t necessarily fit with what I’m doing in the book, but is nonetheless interesting ,and I’d like to share it. That’s just the kind of guy I am.

I also want to try to tap into that other great potential of blogging which is as a sounding board and avenue for thoughtful feedback. Criticism, comments, rants, and praise are all welcome, as all of it, good, bad, and perhaps even ugly, helps the process of refining a piece of writing and getting a sense of what makes readers tick. I invite you – the sensitive, thoughtful, and clearly tasteful regular reader of this blog – to share your thoughts. And thank you!

More to come, just after I wade through today’s to do list, which includes finishing the draft of the chapter in which I condense 5,000 years of history into 5,000 words. That’s one word per year, but trust me, most of those years were not especially noteworthy and will be skipped.

Have a good day, and welcome (back?) to Outside Looking In!


Some place in Korea, at a time when nothing important happened.

This Week Out There – May 11th – 17th

A selection of this week’s expat-related stories

Into the Wild… of Hong Kong?


Idiot Patrol to the rescue

A 27-year-old British expat living in Hong Kong was rescued by helicopter after somehow getting lost in the woods at Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak. The story describes him as “drunk”, which strikes me as an understatement, not only because he couldn’t find his way out to the densely populated city literally surrounding the park, but also because he claimed that he somehow got his foot tangled in a rope, as if that explains anything.

New Jersey DMV vs. Chinese Bureaucracy


Abandon all hope, ye who enter. It helps!

Living overseas often lends perspective to the life you left, and returning home can also cast your overseas experience in a new light. Alan Paul, a former expat who once struggled to get a Chinese driver’s license, gets a large dose of perspective at the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles, when his 17-year-old son gets caught in a bureaucratic nightmare that Kafka would have appreciated.

Paul observes that it’s sometimes easier to laugh off problems like this overseas. “In China, I would have been laughing under my frustration and thinking through a column outline. In Springfield, N.J., I felt my temples pounding and my temper turning.” Expecting life overseas to be hard is certainly a helpful attitude; what I’m wondering is why he apparently expected negotiating the New Jersey DMV to be easy.

I Shoulda Been One of Them There Computer People


The 21st century cubicle?

It was hard not to be jealous reading this piece written by a British freelance writer who fled Old Blighty to set up shop at Hubud (Hub in Ubud), a work space shared by expat professionals in Bali, Indonesia. With nothing tying them to a particular locale, these “digital nomads” live cheaply in paradise while living on a Western payscale. No word yet on how well they manage the work-beach balance.

Off With his Beard!


I wonder what this guy did to deserve that.

Two Qataris were sentenced to a year in jail for accosting an expat driver and shaving his head and facial hair. The men went after the driver, identified only as “Asian”, because they said he was driving recklessly and almost caused them to crash by failing to signal a lane change and cutting them off. The victim was quoted as saying he was driving ‘normally’, though he neglected to say in which country his driving is considered normal.

This Week Out There – May 4th – 10th

A selection of this week’s expat-related stories

Don’t Flip Off The Philippines

deportedThai national Prasertsri Kosin earned the rare honor of being one of a small number of Southeast -Asians ever to be deported from the Philippines, when he received his walking papers on Tuesday for insulting Filipinos on facebook, tarring them as ‘stupid creatures’ and ‘low-class slum slaves’. Not least among the takeaways from this short article is the confirmation that truly stupid people, say for example those who express bigoted views on facebook, often lack a well-developed sense of irony. Western readers also may find a small measure of relief in reading about an Southeast-Asian expat playing the asshole for a change.

Expatriation Through a Child’s Eyes

When a company assigns someone to work overseas for an extended period, it often means uprooting the whole family expatkid_1875646band setting up in a new country together. In the expat blogosphere, it’s fairly easy to find the stories and reflections of the “trailing spouse” (usually the wife) whose husband’s relocation thrusts her into the role of managing the family in an unfamiliar environment. The following post by 9-year-old Arabelle Rossi is the first time I’ve read a blog post by what you might call a “trailing kid”. Forced to move to Hong Kong when her dad was assigned there, she eloquently offers a child’s take on the fear, confusion, and angst of reluctant expatriation.

Heading for the Exits

533-1108063008-Getting-out-leaving-AmericaAccording to these two recent articles, record numbers of U.S. citizens are renouncing U.S. citizenship, and more and more are considering doing so because of tax policies that they believe are unfair. U.S. expats have for a long time been obliged to pay U.S. taxes above a certain income threshold on foreign earnings, even though they are paying local taxes on the same income. Also fueling the exodus is the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) enacted in 2010 to make it harder for U.S. citizens to hide money overseas but which has bedeviled expats who are merely trying to have money overseas.

Also interesting is the Forbes writer’s use of the term “expatriate” to refer to those who are renouncing citizenship. While technically correct, if the trend continues, we may need a new term to distinguish them from the more numerous group who merely live abroad.

You Can Take a Brit out of Britain…

A British expat has put together a list of Ten Weird Things Brits do in America, which spans the expected (watching old tomatoBritish TV shows) to the funny (adopting American pronunciations with the exception of “tomato”) to the odd (stalking suspected fellow countrymen in the supermarket). May strike familiar chords in expat readers. Or not. But here it is.

And how are you doing out there this week?

Occidental Hero, or, How I Screwed Up and Inspired the Development of a Global City

Here’s my latest piece over at SweetPicklesandCorn.wordpress.com. Sometimes heroes are neither made nor born; they’re fabricated.



By John Bocskay

When Typhoon Sanba slammed into Busan in 2012 I had my face pressed to the window of my 10th floor apartment in typhoon waveHaeundae Marine City, watching as great roiling waves crashed over the sea wall and raced up the street past my building. When the swells came at a certain angle, water surged through the manhole at the intersection and finally blew the cover off, so that subsequent swells pumped thick columns of water into the air. Gusts of wind rattled our windows hard enough to make me wonder if I should be standing near it. The question was settled a minute later when a pane fell from the 50-somethingth floor of the building across the street and smashed on the sidewalk below.

The storm blew all morning, and when it ended in the early afternoon, I went out for a look. The sun was out and the…

View original post 1,545 more words

This Week Out There – April 27th – May 3rd

A selection of this week’s expat-related stories

Whatever gets you through the night…

kim-kardashian-hollywood-game-revenueIt can be a little lonely out there as a stranger in a strange land, and everyone has different ways of dealing with it. To combat her loneliness and alienation in Spain, 30-year-old British expat Emma Biggins spends 30 hours a week playing the Kim Kardashian – Hollywood game, in which users (most of whom are teenage girls) “compete to get points in a bid to become Kim’s best mate.” Biggins says the game makes her feel “fabulous.” and that she thinks “Kim really is [her] best friend.” Read the story here, or decide you’ve already heard enough and move on.

Filipino Expat Spared Death (for now)



Filipino expat Mary Jane Veloso narrowly escaped execution by firing squad in Indonesia on Wednesday when Indonesian President Joko Widodo granted her a temporary 11th-hour stay of execution after evidence surfaced that she may have been duped into drug trafficking. Time will tell if she is exonerated, granted a reduced sentence, or executed, as were eight other convicted smugglers, including seven foreign nationals whose appeals fell through. For now it appears she will be given the opportunity to testify against Maria Kristina Sergio, the daughter of Veloso’s godparents who Veloso claims set her up by giving her a bag that had over 2 kilograms of heroin sewn into the lining.

There’s no Taste Like Home

battleship burger

The Battleship Burger. Oh yeah.

As U.S. troops relocate from Yongsan Garrison in Seoul to points south, a reluctant U.S. expat marks the passing of the Navy Club, “an eccentric bar-and-grill that was a vital taste of home for generations of soldiers, sailors and civilian expats,” and waxes poetic about the Battleship Burger, “a sizzling half-pound of ground Angus sirloin, topped with America.” Seoul’s changing food scene in the area around Yongsan may make the passing of the Navy Club a quiet one, but the Navy Club will no doubt be missed by many for whom it provided a crucial taste of home to smooth the transition abroad.

You Can’t Go Home Again?


A group listens to a returned expat as he relates his overseas experience.

Repatriating after an extended stay abroad can be tough; so tough, in fact, that many expats (like yours truly) never seriously attempt it, and those who do sometimes end up bouncing back overseas.

Was Thomas Wolfe right when he wrote that you can’t go home again? The following short primer on repatriating is a bit more sanguine, and advises those heading back to treat it as they would treat a move to any foreign country. This bit of advice from one commenter stood out:

“Don’t immediately talk about all the places you’ve been, what you’ve done, etc.… This will alienate people,” she wrote. “Keep it low-key, make it like dating, dole out information very, very slowly.”

Sounds about right. I would also add that favorably comparing country X to your home country in any way should be exercised with extreme discretion, especially during Christmas dinner.

And how are you doing out there this week?

Mission Improbable – The Trouble with Traveling to Improve your Country

From February to June 1787, with all of his necessities packed in a single trunk, Thomas Jefferson traveled “incognito” by coach, barge, and sometimes mule across most of France and Northern Italy. Reading the extensive diary he kept of the trip, one encounters many passages like the following.

In the boudoir at Chanteloup is an ingenious contrivance to hide the projecting steps of a staircase. Three steps were of necessity to project into the boudoir. They therefore made triangular steps, and, instead of resting on the floor as usual, they are made fast at their broad end to the stair door, swinging out and in with that. When shut, it runs them under the other steps. When open, it brings them out to their proper place.

jefferson1787I don’t quote this because it was Jefferson’s most electrifying prose; it’s not, and to be fair, he never intended to publish it. What is striking about the diary is what it says about Jefferson’s sense of the grand purpose of travel, evidenced by the wealth of detail describing everything from soil types, methods of grape cultivation, the relationship of social conditions to regional crops, and sketches of practical contraptions like the one above. Every page reveals a man bent on devouring as much practical information as he could with an eye toward using it to improve both himself and his country on his eventual return to Virginia. In addition to scouting markets and securing contacts for American agricultural producers (which were his primary duties as a minister), he brought back with him new varieties of plants, architectural designs and ideas he would later implement, plans for technological devices, and an unparalleled expertise in European wines and viticulture. Not too shabby for an 18th century backpacker.

Despite competing with the leisure travel industry for our hearts and minds, the idea of traveling to improve one’s country is still discussed today, though it more often falls under the purview of travel scribes than presidential hopefuls. One of the most vocal and visible contemporary champions of what you might call national-improvement travel is the writer and entrepreneur Rick Steves. In his recent book, Travel as a Political Act, Steves explains the book’s eponymous theme thus:

When we return home, we can put what we’ve learned – our newly acquired broader perspective – to work as citizens of a great nation confronted with unprecedented challenges. And when we do that, we make travel a political act.

steves wine

Rick Steves, travel writer and man of a sober age.

Steves’s notion that travel can improve one’s country echoes Jefferson, who wrote to his nephew in 1787 that “men of a sober age” could travel to “gather knowledge, which they may apply usefully for their country.” There is however an important difference between them: The country Jefferson came home to was agrarian, weak, and relatively undeveloped, so many of his observations found an appreciative audience among a people who felt they had something to learn from Europe. In contrast, Rick Steves has to chip away against the popular conceit that America is exceptional and has little to learn from Europe – least of all the French, whose label as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” has been un-ironically accepted as the last word on France by the millions of FOX viewers who never quite grasped that learning international studies from Homer Simpson is a bit like learning feminism from Archie Bunker.

Attractive Expressive Young Mixed Race Female Student Sitting and Talking with Girlfriend Outside on Bench.

So like, oh my god, I have to tell you about this thing they use in Europe called the metric system…

But like Jefferson, Rick Steves is also a man fired with missionary zeal. In the book, he writes cogently about successful heroin maintenance programs in Switzerland, Sweden’s commonsense approach to underage drinking, the liberal stance toward prostitution in the Netherlands, and several other battle-tested European social policy triumphs. This is well and good until one recalls that Europe is no longer some distant land from which letters take weeks to arrive and none but seamen, diplomats, or the very rich will ever see in person. Another difference between Jefferson’s time and our own is that the traveler coming back from Europe today isn’t really telling people much that they haven’t already heard.

So if we know about these things, why don’t we implement all these great ideas? Part of the answer lies in yet another important difference between the worlds of Jefferson and Steves: today’s traveler is sharing his European insights with countrymen who are too often hypersensitive to criticism (Love it or leave it!) and who seldom give a hot damn what Europeans do, think, or say. While some of Jefferson’s contemporaries may have replicated the “ingenious contrivance” he observed in the boudoir, today the phrase “solution X has worked in country Y” is rarely the premier feature of a persuasive discourse or a winning debate.


Reality star Sarah Palin gazes vigilantly at Russia.

You don’t even have to look as far as Europe to overlook an idea. Case in point, socialized medicine in Canada. You can be for it or against it – and I frankly don’t care which – but one thing that should be very clear by now is that its implementation doesn’t lead down the dreaded “slippery slope” to inevitable and abject totalitarianism, as many Americans strangely imagine despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For some Americans this is as easy to debunk as literally looking out the window (there goes Sarah Palin’s excuse), yet to point out that Canada has socialized medicine but no dictatorship is to be cheeky or obtuse, not a Jeffersonian visionary.

No doubt mindful of these obnoxious tendencies, Steves is obliged to draw doomed analogies between constructive personal criticism and criticism of one’s equally beloved country:

I enjoy bettering myself by observing others. And I appreciate constructive criticism from caring friends. In the same spirit, I enjoy learning about my society by observing other societies and challenging myself to be broad-minded when it comes to international issues.

I’d be out of my depth to deal with the question of whether the average person strives to better themselves, but even among people who do, this is a leap that many still don’t make. Whatever the reason for that, it leads me back to a pet peeve of mine regarding some of the grand claims that are occasionally made in praise of travel, namely, the idea that the inevitable consequence of travel is growth, openness, or some other species of personal improvement. While it appears to make intuitive sense, the continuing struggles of people like Rick Steves to invite their fellow Americans to brook even well-intentioned and thoughtful criticism suggests to me that there are in fact prerequisites to this happy side-effect – call it ugly-american-thumbhumility or openness if you like – and that travel does not necessarily teach us those things. Traveling certainly affords the opportunity to learn, but in order to learn something it seems we must first acknowledge that we have something to learn in the first place. Without that, the opportunity is wasted, as evidenced by every self-assured ding-dong, dipshit, and dunderhead who strapped on a backpack and came back with his ignorance intact.

I’m not saying that travel has not cracked open a stubborn nut here and there and managed to ram home an essential truth, welcome or not. That happens, though it strikes me as less common. It’s also not hard to find examples of travel gurus (Steves is one) advising us to open our minds prior to traveling in order to get something out of the experience. In other words, we generally become travelers by becoming open, but you can’t count on it happening the other way around.

If our goal is to better our country, is there still a point to purposeful travel, or is bettering ourselves the best we can do? And if openness is the main requirement to do that, does travel need have any role in that at all?

The big question seems to be: how do you learn openness?  I don’t really know, but I’m pretty sure that if you’re headed into a boudoir in Chanteloup, you want to be ready for anything.


Hello there, sailor.

This Week Out There – April 19th-25th

In this new weekly segment, I curate some of this week’s expat-related stories.

Ah! The Luxury of Moving House

Moving house is never fun, and moving as an expat can carry added difficulties. Being mobile requires one to frequently let go of many things, so the process of deciding what to leave behind can be especially fraught.

To help ease the move for her son, this expat mom in Turkey offers a dose of perspective, writing that deciding what to take with you in a rusomo-refugeesstrife-torn part of the world is a luxury that many people can’t afford.

As we watch the morning and evening news together, we are both reminded of just how fortunate we truly are. My son understands that around the world, and along the Turkish borders in particular, there are so many people who do not have the opportunity to pick and choose which items they want to keep and carry with them.

For those dealing with a recent move, read it here.

Stop the Press! Expats Consider Moving

A recent survey found that around half of expats in the UAE report that they are considering leaving due to the rising cost of living. In a country where an estimated 88% of the population is composed of expats, that works out to about 3 million people and a hell of a lot of moving vans.

It’s good to keep in mind that when an expat says he or she is considering moving, we probably need to take it with a grain of salt – my own anecdotal evidence suggests that expats as a species are generally more open to the prospect of moving than the average person; it may be part of the reason many of us ended up living halfway around the world in the first place. Anyway, here’s the story.

Possible Link Between Expat Experience and Creativity


Too much creativity can actually cause the brain to explode

Many of the great 20th century artists – Orwell, Picasso, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway – lived abroad for significant parts of their lives. If you’ve ever pondered whether the expat experience helps to foster great art, check out this report on a recent study by Columbia University and INSEAD, which found a link between expat experience and enhanced creativity (You can find the abstract here). The study looked at fashion houses but the authors point out that it could have broader applications for business.

“Creativity is the driver of growth for companies and individuals in the 21st century. Professional foreign assignments are the surest way to become creative, and fashion industry understands that. Companies in other industries also should value executives’ foreign experiences and promote them through global talent mobility programmes,’ said INSEAD’s professor Andrew Shipilov”

Shiplov also notes that it’s not just living abroad that drives this growth, but engaging with local culture in meaningful ways.

‘The key, critical process is multicultural engagement, immersion, and adaptation. Someone who lives abroad and doesn’t engage with the local culture will likely get less of a creative boost than someone who travels abroad and really engages in the local environment,’ he added.

Now we await the research that explains why repatriated expats are undervalued. Any guesses?

Speaking of creativity …

In 1954, expat Alice B. Toklas published a cookbook that was to become legendary in the 1960’s for the hashish brownie recipe it included, which was the inspiration of the 1968 Peter Sellers film I Love You Alice B. Toklas. Anthropologist Layla Eplett has written an interesting account of the origins of the recipe, and its unwitting inclusion into the book that rocked the hippie scene and was a favorite of William Burroughs and other expatriates of the mind.