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?

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?

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!


Innovation or Aberration? – Unpeeling the Costco Onion Salad

My latest piece over at Sweet Pickles an Corn: on the odd practice of eating condiment onions as a side dish, and the odder habit of freaking out about it.


By John Bocskay

Any American or Canadian who has been to a Costco in Korea has witnessed what Koreans do with the onions. In the U.S. you turn the crank on the dispenser and catch the tumbling onions on the hot dog, the whole hot dog, and nothing but the hot dog, but that’s not how the Koreans roll. Most of them pile the onions on a dish or a patch of foil, dump globs of ketchup and mustard over them, mix it all into a lumpy orangey mash, and tuck straight into it with fork and spoon as an improvised side dish to their pizza, clam chowder, or Caesar salad.

Expat critics react with a mix of condescension, bemusement, derision, and disgust. Didn’t Koreans get salad_downloadthe memo? Onions are supposed to go on the hot dogs! And look how many onions they’re piling on! Have they no shame?

Among the many unfair and…

View original post 1,565 more words

Interview with Author, Essayist, and Travel Writer Rolf Potts


If you’ve heard the term ‘vagabonding,’ there’s a good chance you’ve heard the name Rolf Potts. Though he invented neither the word nor the concept to which it refers, he has arguably done more than any contemporary writer to champion it as a viable travel ethic, describing it in his 2003 book Vagabonding – An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel as a deliberate way of moving through the world, “an extended time-out from your normal life –six weeks, four months, two years – to travel the world on your own terms.” Now in its 15th printing, Vagabonding has been hailed by some as a postmodern classic and has inspired thousands of would-be wanderers to reevaluate their priorities and hit the road.Vagabonding

Before launching his globetrotting career, Rolf lived as an expat in Busan, South Korea, teaching English, honing his writing chops, saving money, and imbibing lessons that would serve him well as the vagabonding columnist for Salon.com in the late 90’s. Since then he has driven a Land Rover across South America, piloted a boat down the Laotian Mekong, and hitched, biked, trained, planed or walked across six continents, once even traveling for 6 weeks and 30,000 miles with no baggage. His work has appeared in magazines like The New Yorker, National Geographic Traveler, The New York Times Magazine, Slate.com and several others, as well as over a dozen travel writing anthologies.

In 2008, Rolf authored a second book, Marco Polo Didn’t Go There, in which he lets readers get under the hood of many of his best stories with extensive endnotes illuminating the construction of each tale. He also teaches non-fiction writing at the Paris American Academy and Yale University. When he’s not on the road he’s home in Salinas County, Kansas in a farmhouse he renovated, enjoying the view of the Kansas prarie from his porch.

I recently heard that Vagabonding was being recorded for audiobook format, so I thought it would be interesting to revisit the book with Rolf and get his thoughts on it ten years – and tens of thousands of miles – down the road. Rolf was kind enough to answer some questions about the book and about travel writing, and offered some reflections on the formative years he spent in Busan.

All of the press I’ve read has said great things about Vagabonding. What kinds of reactions has the book gotten from your readers over the years? What sorts of e-mails do you get from them?

I’ve been humbled by how positive the response has been. I get a good number of emails from folks hitting me up with planning or itinerary questions, but most people just want to say thanks, and share how the book gave them the courage to travel, to not postpone their dreams. At least a couple dozen readers have told me that they moved to Korea (if not specifically Busan) to teach English after reading how I had done the same in advance of my first big international vagabonding stint. I think that’s great.

Ten years down the road, what’s your own opinion of Vagabonding? How does the message hold up? Is it any more or less relevant?

I just reread the whole thing aloud for the audiobook, and listened to it multiple times in postproduction edits, and (while I’m no doubt liable to be biased) it feels as relevant as ever. I took out a few dated references in the audio version, and updated some of the resources online, but the philosophical core of the book still holds true. Before the recording session it had been awhile since I’d read the whole book, so it wound up feeling like a conversation with myself from ten years ago. I was home in Kansas when the first round of edits came in, and as I was listening to the audio I kept thinking to myself, “Man, I’ve got to get back out and travel some more.”

In Chapter 2, Earn Your Freedom, you talk about quitting a job, either permanently or temporarily, in order to make the time for long term travel. Written four years before the Great Recession of 2007-2008, how does this advice strike you now in a time of economic uncertainty and “jobless recovery”? Is there still a strong case to be made for quitting one’s job to go vagabonding?

I think there is always a case to be made for quitting your job to travel, if travel is what you’re inspired to do. And in many ways the recession has underscored how what I call “domestic certainties” are not as certain as you might think. I’ve had several readers email to say that the recession itself is what gave them the final push into long-term travel. For years they had been hanging on to what they thought was job security, only to find that job disappear. It made them realize that there are few guarantees in life, and if you have a dream — travel or otherwise — you should probably be bold and act on it sooner rather than later.

To me, Vagabonding was one of those books that just makes so much sense that you find it hard to imagine anyone having a serious quarrel with it. Yet, our species, being what it is, must have also provided you with a few critics. What have the critics said about the book, and how do you respond to them?

When the book came out I knew it was mathematically probable that some people just wouldn’t like it. At first the naysayers wrote in to say, “but this is common sense; I could have written it!” I replied saying that, yes, it is common sense — common sense that many people need to be reminded of. (While tempted, I restrained myself from saying, “Well if you could have written it, why didn’t you?”) Over time, as more and more people have read the book and made it a part of the collective travel conversation, I’ve heard that complaint less.

One rather perplexing criticism that recurs from time to time is that Vagabonding is “preachy.” At first this observation baffled me, since I urge flexible open-mindedness from the opening Preface chapter (“Add what is specifically your own…The creating individual is more than any style or system”), and the only things I preach against are postponing your travels, micromanaging your itinerary, or traveling too fast to truly experience your cultural surroundings. After a bit of follow-up, I’ve discovered that most of these critics were upset by my “anti-marijuana” stance. The thing is, I never come out and tell people to not smoke it on the road; all I say is to (a) not get caught traveling with it in places where it could land you in jail, and (b) don’t get into the habit of using it all the time, because it will separate you from the more mind-blowing experience of unfiltered reality.

Reading Vagabonding, one comes away with the message that travelling in a deliberate, thoughtful way is virtually synonymous with living deliberately, thoughtfully and openly all the time. Are you good at vagabonding at home? Keeping the traveler mindset alive for a summer in Paris doesn’t seem like it would require too much effort, but how are you able to vagabond in rural Kansas? No offense to Kansas, but is that harder to do?

I think it’s an ongoing challenge. Even on the road in 2013, with so much technology at our fingertips, it can be easy to slip into the ritual of tapping at your smartphone instead of engaging with your surroundings in some amazing place. So even in Paris or Tasmania (a couple of my recent destinations), mindfulness is an ongoing challenge.

Kansas is a challenge in a different way. I’m very contemplative here — I do a ton of reading and writing — but contemplation itself can take you away from your surroundings. I love aimless Kansas road-trips — you tend to meet interesting people and see a lot of pretty landscapes — but I’ll admit I don’t take them as much as I’d like.

As travel has become a major part of your work, how do you keep work from taking away from the travel experience? Is there any tension for you between the notion that travel should in some sense bring you away from your normal life, and the fact that traveling has in some sense become your “normal life”? How do you find the balance between work and travel as someone who travels for a living?

I’ve ended up mixing things up over the years. Periods of full-time travel or overseas sojourn have been offset by more settled experiences. After living in Asia full-time for over seven years I came back to the U.S. and lived for a while in San Diego, then New Orleans. Then I bought and renovated my house in Kansas, which gave me a more tangible sense of home. I did a lot of far-flung travel in-between these U.S. stints — including a Land Rover expedition across the Americas, extended stints in Cuba and Brazil, and an around-the-world journey with no luggage — but my “home life” lent a sense of contrast and stability to my travel life.

Travel has over time become a relative concept to me. One of my most interesting adventures in recent years came in moving to the East Coast last spring to teach a writing course at Yale. After all my years of wandering far-flung corners of the world, being a part of that elite institution felt like an exotic new leg of my life’s journey.

Rolf in Ethiopia

Rolf in Ethiopia

How did your experience as an expat in Busan prepare you for long-term traveling? How did it prepare you for travel writing?

Expat life in Busan was terrific preparation for both long-term travel and travel writing, since it helped me understand cross-cultural difference at an intuitive level. Often use my time in Korea as an illustrative example of how you can intellectualize cultural difference all you want, but you can’t really understand it until you are immersed in that culture, making discoveries and mistakes as you go. Working for a locally administrated institution (like a school) in that culture for months at a time is in effect a crash course on how to operate in a foreign culture. You end up with sharpened instincts for long-term international travel — and this intensified awareness makes its way into your travel writing.

One reporting skill I picked up in the classrooms and on the streets of Korea was learning how to communicate without fully understanding a language. Academics have different terms for the kinds of communication that underpin travel reportage. “Intralingual” communication happens when, say, an American travels to Australia and communicates in English; “interlingual” communication happens when an American travels to Mexico and communicates in Spanish; and “intersemiotic” communication happens when an American travels to, say, Nepal or Zambia and communicates without the benefit of a common language. My experience in Korea attuned me to the idiosyncrasies of intersemiotic communication, and my ability to navigate these kinds of interactions has proven invaluable, both as a traveler and travel writer.

You’ve said in a 2006 Slate piece that you had mixed feelings about your time as an expat in Busan. Could you elaborate on that a little?

I touch on one aspect of that ambivalence a little bit in the second installment of that Slate piece. When I was in Korea, a lot of the teacher-expats didn’t specifically want to be there. They weren’t trained in pedagogy, and they had no interest in teaching; they had come to the country mainly hoping to make some money and pay off debts (often college debts). When I first arrived in the country I fell into the reflexive, boozy negativity that seemed to pervade so much of the expat crowd. Every second person at a given expat bar claimed to be a writer or artist, but you never saw much writing or art. It was all very bitter and petty and self-defeating, and I didn’t begin to write about Korea in a meaningful away until I learned to keep that expat crowd (friends and coworkers included) at arm’s-length and experience the city on quieter, more Korean terms.

But apart from those nihilistic expat vibes, Korea could simply be a tough place to live and work. Koreans can at times be xenophobic, and I suffered my shareFritzLiedtke-Potts-001-3 of culture shock and loneliness. At times I worked crazy hours and didn’t get much sleep. Winters could be brutally cold, summers could be witheringly hot, and I often got tired of the noise and crowds (and the occasional filth) of the big city. I’m actually glad I experienced all these things, but they weren’t always easy.

What’s next on your personal travel itinerary?

I have a little bit of U.S. travel pegged to the release of the Vagabonding audiobook, and once that’s done I hope to hit Indonesia for 4-6 weeks before starting another semester-long teaching gig at Yale.

Though I don’t have specific plans right now, I’d love to get back to Busan one of these days. I lived a couple of the most important years of my life there, and it still feels like a kind of home to me.

The View from Outside

I’m an American living in South Korea. There are lots of us here: soldiers, businesspeople, teachers and others. Some of us call this place home, whether home for now, home for good, or home for lack of a better word. I’ve been out of the U.S. long enough that my family and friends long ago stopped asking me when I intend to “come home”, meaning, the place where I was born. South Korea is my home, for better or worse.

Maybe it’s because I live in Asia, but I’ve always felt like an outsider, even though I’ve lived here longer than many of the people who refer to me as a foreigner have been alive. I’m married to a Korean, have kids in school, Korean friends, in-laws, neighbors, etc. but I understand that no matter how long I stay or how much I assimilate, I’ll always be a waygookin (literally “outside country person”). That’s natural; I’m not lamenting it, and it isn’t unique to South Korea. I’m not even talking about discrimination. I am discriminated against, but I am also discriminated for, which evens the balance. I’m not a citizen of Korea, and I don’t intend to be. I don’t expect any special rights or privileges, only those to which fairness entitles me, which, for the most part, is what I get.

I don’t want to blog about Korea or America per se. I’d like to blog about the spaces in between, the space I inhabit with other expatriates, in which we strive to make sense of both countries to which we partially belong and our place among them. This blog is founded on the assumption that expats of all nations have a unique cultural vantage point and something to add to both conversations. In a world that requires and increasingly values cross-cultural understanding and exchange, expats have always been on the frontier. They are the pioneers of the cultural borderlands, the tinkerers of new cultural forms, and the messengers of human possibility.

This is not necessarily a blog for American expats in Korea, though of course you are welcome. I happen to be American and live in Korea, but I’d like to welcome anyone who is living in the cultural space between the motherland and some other place. My goal here is to create a space for thoughtful global citizens to meet, have a laugh, and reflect on life on the outside looking in.