Month: April 2015

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.

Work Hard, Play Hard, Sleep Hard

As an American expat in Korea, some things, like eating piles of meat from a grill, are pretty easy to get used to. Other things, like sitting on the eatingonfloorfloor for the hour it takes to eat it, are quite a bit harder. My American education prepared me for a lot of things, but spending scads of time on the floor was not one of them.

Some of this difficulty is perhaps cultural, but some is certainly my own. I’ve been culturally flexible for many years, but physically I remain as stiff as I’ve always been. In college, I took a flexibility test that required me to sit in front of a sliding scale and push the knob as far as I could to get a measurement of my flexibility. I couldn’t touch the knob. Even as a slim, athletic kid, sitting “Indian style” was never hosp-misc-flexibility2-0903comfortable and the Lotus position would have required me to have two broken legs. Yoga for me is out of the question. Apparently I was born to plank.

Traditionally, Koreans did most things close to the floor, perhaps as a consequence of one of the great hallmarks of Korean civilization: the ondol floor-heating system, which has been in use for at least 3,000 years. For millennia, the floor was the warmest part of any Korean home, so daily life seems to have naturally gravitated toward the warmth.

Though there are exceptions, the average Korean today appears equally at home on the floor as were his remote ancestors, even though Western-style furniture is ubiquitous and ondol is no longer a common feature of Korean homes. Koreans still sit on the floor, eat on the floor, play on the floor, and sleep on the floor. On weekends, my wife and millions of other Koreans migrate to the saunas, lay their heads on a small wooden block, and bask in the simple and ancient pleasure of lying on a warm floor. After an hour or two of this, my wife is floor lounging in saunaready to take on the world. I’m ready for a chiropractor.

Our kids are OK on the floor too. They use the sofa a lot, but I’m just as likely to find them plunked down on the tiles in front of the tv, sprawled out with their laptops and iPads, or crashed out with only a blanket.

Our youngest daughter has an exceptional talent for sleeping on the floor. Ever since she was small, I’ve found her crashed in various parts of the house: in the middle of rooms, wedged under furniture, blocking IMG_0802doorways, etc. For years I’ve been documenting her remarkable sleeping habits in a photo album which is large and still growing.

How does my lack of floor-living skills affect our family? Not much. Occasionally we’ll pass on the odd restaurant that has no chairs, which today seem to be fewer and fewer anyway. Our home is furnished with chairs and a sofa, and my wife and I sleep on a bed – a bed with a mattress, I should say, not one of those luxury stone beds, which is basically an expensive piece of floor on legs. Recently I’ve learned to appreciate the flexibility of the coffee table, which is just high enough to use with a chair and just low enough to accommodate floor-sitters. Who’d have thought that the humble coffee table could have become an important setting for cultural compromise? And don’t get me started on the coffee.

A Defense of the Expat Bubble

Expat bubble is a phrase that usually has negative connotations; whenever we hear it, it’s usually to exhort us to burst, Janice.BubbleManescape, or avoid it, or to invite us to disparage those who luxuriate in its hermetic warmth. To many, the bubble is a perfect and all-encompassing barrier that signals a desire to keep the unfamiliar at bay. To burst someone’s bubble is to disabuse them of a fantasy, and expat bubbles are likewise seen as artificial oases in the midst of an otherwise authentic cultural setting.

While some expats can’t live within the bubble, some can’t live without it. I recently read a rare and spirited defense of the expat bubble by Alyssa Abkowitz, which begins from the proposition that expat life can be tiring and hard.

The idea of wanting the simple comforts of home in a foreign land is understandable, particularly after braving language, logistical and cultural hurdles throughout the day. These bubbles let expats’ brains take a much-needed rest.

Hard to disagree with that. I’ve had my share of trying days in Korea and can certainly relate to what she’s saying, though the bubbles in Busan tend not to encompass entire neighborhoods but smaller spaces like pubs or private homes (I think of my old friend and the “Korea Stops Here” sign that hung on his door).

In the piece, Abkowitz highlights five cities, and it seems that the cities that Westerners tend to find more livable (like Singapore and Hong Kong) had the most dispersed expat communities, while the grittier cities (New Delhi, Bangkok, Jakarta) were more likely to have Western enclaves.

Criticism of the bubble tends to assume that everyone came abroad to have some kind of growth experience, but that’s not bubbl popnecessarily true, particularly of company-assigned expats. Those of us who chose to come here and were attracted by adventure may find ourselves looking down our noses at the bubble dwellers (though strangely we’re also likely to be charmed by the expat bubbles ethnic neighborhoods in our hometowns), but the fact is not everyone is looking to burst it.

Whether or not one chooses to live in the bubble seems to have a lot to do with where you live and why you went there in the first place. The situation here in Busan seems to support that working hypothesis, with the company folks clustered around the glass towers of Marine City, and the long-term expats scattered far and wide.

What are your thoughts on the expat bubble?

Expat Gripe of the Month?

Everybody who lives abroad has complained about it at some point. Complaining is something everybody does, for a variety of reasons, and with varying degrees of justice and skill.

Much bandwidth has been occupied here in Korea with expat complaints, and many K-bloggers have attempted to explain the complaining itself, including this excellent taxonomy of expat complainers published by Roboseyo some years ago and which still rings true today.

Lately I’ve been curious about some of the things that expats in other countries complain about, and I came across an interesting piece in ScreamThe Kurdish Globe entitled An Expat’s View on Kurdistan: Complainers.

As residents of a self-governing region that has recently had to rebuild its infrastructure, absorb thousands of displaced people, fend off ISIS, and deal with collapsing states on its doorsteps, surely Kurdistan’s expat community would have some interesting bones to pick, no?

Turns out that the writer is addressing himself to Kurdistani complainers and imploring them not to abandon their country in these trying times. Any expats in need of a little shot of perspective can read it here.

And have a swell day, wherever you are!


Expat, Immigrant, or None of the Above?

The question of who is an “expat” and who is an “immigrant” and how those terms relate to privilege has received some attention lately. This piece is my take on how those seemingly clear-cut lines get blurred a bit here in Korea.

For those of you living overseas, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Expat, Immigrant, or None of the Above?