Being an Expat


Here we go again.

Recently, I heard an American resident of Ukraine talk about the sympathy expressed by Ukrainians after 9/11. I’d also felt a lot of sympathy even from left-wing university students in South Korea, usually indifferent or hostile to the US. I used it as an opportunity to insert some National Public Radio coverage as listening materials. In Korea, the sympathy ended when the first US bomb hit Afghanistan. On the 9/11 anniversary, I posted on Facebook, and Michele responded that she’d been concerned about what effect the news would have on foreigners in the Middle East, where she was at the time.

Here’s some of that long-distance conversation. Please check the links below for stories from both of us.

 Michele’s story ( with additions from me):  

My undergraduate degree is in political science. While I was at university, I started reading about US history and economics and other things, and from there my interest grew. I had a minor in Islamic Studies and was interested in politics, economics, and social issues in the Middle East and South America. In 1989 I went to Jerusalem for a summer abroad. It was the first Intifada, and I could see what was happening on the ground as opposed to what was being reported in the news media. It was a very different story.

For example?

Before we went to Jerusalem—there were a total of six of us–we were told about the situation, but not everything. One day we were in Bethlehem, just shopping and wandering around. And at one point it felt like something wasn’t quite right…people were clearing the street, going in shops, and a weird vibe was in the air. All of a sudden. we saw Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) chasing somebody, and some male Palestinians were throwing rocks at the IDF. I started taking photos, but one of the soldiers motioned for me to come over, and he took my film, which would not have happened here in the United States.

What other events changed your attitude toward the US? 

About 2010 when I was just about to leave the UAE, we were about twenty teachers who were told we would be teaching in another emirate and if we did not agree to go, we would be fired. I know that people are screwed over in the US too, but I felt I was being manipulated in a way that I would not have been in the US. In the UAE I had no rights, and I couldn’t even talk to journalists because the government controls what appears in the media. So, as I said I was grateful for the US laws.

This awareness of having no rights is something I’ve heard from a lot of expats. In South Korea I ran down to the street to support a friend of mine after a woman delivering pizza ran into her car. A man on the sidewalk introduced himself as a lawyer, gave me his card and volunteered to serve as a witness to the accident. He did this because he knew how likely it was that other pedestrians might side with the motorcyclist, who was clearly at fault, and against the foreigner. It took all day, but the police investigation cleared my friend.

Do you have any similar stories?

Well, I don’t actually have to be outside the US to feel that way. When I was in Kuwait about 2000, Bush was running for president and I wanted to make sure that I voted absentee because I didn’t want that to happen. I could see the reach that the US had in certain countries, areas of the world, and not always good ways, sometimes by any means possible. Then we talked about 9/11.

You worried that it might lead to more attacks by non-Kuwaitis on foreigners, and I was surprised that my Korean students viewed the US more sympathetically for a short time until the US struck back.

But then the Kuwaitis like Americans because of what we did in the Iraq war. As I said I don’t have to be overseas to see things I don’t like about the US because I’ve always studied US policy. South American politics and Middle Eastern and so on, and Asia, so off the top of my head I would say that my experience overseas did not make me see the US any more negatively than I already did.

For me, one event was my trip to Berlin in early 1961. The wall went up in August of that year.  I was a freshman on a tour with other foreign students arranged by the Foreign Affairs Office of our university. In Berlin I first discovered propaganda because our tour group would hear melodramatic, pro-Western stuff from places like refugee camps on the Western side. I knew at least some of it was true because my favorite teacher in high school had escaped to the West. But at night we’d go over to the East and drink beer with East Berliners and we’d hear a totally different story. Or buy stuff in bookstores which we’d been told was banned—it was the West that had banned it, not the East. At the end we were wined and dined by the underlings of Willi Brandt, who was mayor at the time. Brandt gave us a presentation of his Realpolitik. I was very impressed.

I demonstrated against US aggression in Asia, in Latin America, in Iraq, and did a lot of demonstrating for civil rights and the Equal Rights Amendment. Oddly, I never felt more patriotic than when ‘ISm pumping my fist in the air and yelling my head off. I guess It’s the hope for change.

The West Bank is full of restrictions put in place by the Israelis. They have more power and more freedom than the Palestinians even though it’s not their territory. That was one of the first things that open my eyes, not necessarily to what the US was doing but to the way it was helping the occupation, especially the disconnects between what you hear on the news here and what was happening there.

I suspect long-term expats have a complicated relationship with their country of origin. Do you have that feeling as well?  

Yeah I think that’s true. It certainly is true for me and others. I find that the Brits don’t seem to have that. They seem to return home the same people they came—but I could be wrong about that.

I remember a foreign student from Leeds who was studying in China and whose Chinese was very good. She said she’d changed too much to go home, but she was talking mainly about the deterioration of her table manners.

Other Americans admit they’ve experienced change while overseas, not that they’ve become anti-American, but they just seem to see more gray areas. The world had become less black and white.

I lost my Philadelphia accent after living in England for some time, which led to an interesting dispute on the Philadelphia subway with a man who refused to accept that I was from there.

When I was teaching German at Arkansas State, one of my students was convinced I was a native German who was lying about it—probably some family hold-over idea from World War II—this was two hundred miles away from where I grew up. Some people can still hear the Southern in my accent and others ask me if I’m Canadian.

Of course, accent is a good social marker, but there are a lot of other things. I remember in 1956 when I was in high school in Germany, there were three Americans and a British girl in my class. We were on a class trip to an island in the North Sea, and several of my classmates were upset that the two other Americans, who were not there at the time, didn’t eat the crusts of bread on their sandwiches. During and after the war, food shortage had been an enormous problem. So as we sat outside on a break, the teacher asked me about it, and I said some kids did that and it was considered okay. I didn’t. A friend of mine piped up: “She’s exactly like us.”  That felt wonderful.

So, speaking of social markers, did you find your perspective changing on privilege and social class?

Not that much. Maybe in China I would have seen it more. I was different of course because I was white and I was American. The Kuwaitis were obviously at the very top, then white Americans, then Europeans. The lowest of the low with the Bangladeshis, I don’t know about the brown-skinned and the uneducated.

Nobody respected the police because they weren’t even Kuwaitis. Maybe two-thirds or three fourths of the population are non-Kuwaitis who came to do the work Kuwaitis don’t want to do. So that was a real eye-opener there. Many people said that it was like India during the raj. And unfortunately, after a while, although I didn’t want to mistreat people, I knew I could get away with it. That’s not following humanitarian principles. And, yes, when I was in a bad mood I would yell at someone because they pissed me off. That was one of the reasons I left Kuwait. I didn’t want to become that kind of person many long-termers had become. Their behavior could be really shocking.

When I was teaching at Dongguk University in Korea, a big controversy sprung up over an argument between a professor and a student over a parking place. The professor hit the student, which probably wouldn’t have caused a big uproar, but the student hit the professor back. During all the ensuing debate, I reminded myself that I shouldn’t behave as I damned well pleased even if I could get away with it.

You mentioned China. Many times I’ve walked into a five-star hotel to use the rest room, wearing the sort of thing I never would have in a posh place at home or in Europe and eased my nervousness and embarrassment by reminding myself it was okay because I was white.

I’ve done the same thing because I’m white and I’m a Westerner, so that’s okay. But it feels really awful.

In 1949, when I was seven years old, I had a moment of clarity I never forgot. We were living in Luxembourg, and my family took a cruse down the Rhine. Now, ordinarily my parents were careful not to expose the children to the effects of the war, but this time they missed. The boat stopped on the German side, and we walked through a village in ruin. All of the second floors of the houses were missing, with walls crumbling down. In one there was a radiator on a pipe flying above the house like a white flag. I was wearing black, patent leather shoes which were too scuffed up to wear for parties. I thought brown suede scuffed up shoes would have been okay, but these I was ashamed of. Then a crowd of children, mostly barefoot and dressed in clothes that were not warm enough for the weather, spotted my wonderful, shiny shoes, and they chased after me, pointing and admiring. It was a very humbling experience which taught me a lot about privilege.

One of the most remarkable times I spent overseas was my semester in the West Bank. It was basically a war zone. I guess one of the reasons I went there was that I didn’t like the way my government was involved in that situation and I wanted to show that not all Americans supported it—which some Palestinians already knew. It was maybe a bit idealistic on my part. That was in 2004, one of the most stressful times of my life. I ended up leaving a semester early. The weight of the inequality and oppression was unbearable, and I felt it every day. Once some of my colleagues and I tried to go from Janine to Nablus, from one Palestinian city to another. Because of the Israeli check-points we paid five taxis to get there. The Israelis would not let us in because we needed special permission from some commander. It wasn’t even their country. That trip was an eye-opener when I saw how living under that oppression could result in a population with serious mental health issues.

What signs of emotional stress did you see?

Well, in the classroom I noticed that if I gave them a topic which was even remotely political there was this blank look on their faces and no response. The students didn’t seem to want to talk about politics.

I’ve heard that was true in China after the Tiannanen Square Massacre. It wasn’t when I was there in 1984-86.  There was even a student demonstration, and during that time I got a lot of questions about life outside China. Once something happened that pissed me off and I went on a wild tear and gave a graduate class a spontaneous lecture on the Bill of Rights while my students tried to scribble down every word. The next class period there were two middle-aged men sitting in my class. None of the students gave them a copy of the materials. By then we were reading about using computers for academic research—really boring—so nothing happened.

n China I noticed that there was more equality in the jobs given to men and women than in the other countries.

That’s a big issue for the Chinese Communist Party.

But then on the streets I was reminded of the episode in the novel 1984 where Winston and others see a hand in the gutter and nobody mentions it, just keeps walking. Because you didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. Just in case.

When I’d been working in China either one or two years, I was back in Pittsburgh, and there was a guy lying on some grass near the sidewalk. I thought to myself, I wonder if he’s dead. I walked by and went into the 7-Eleven where people were talking about it, and I said “He looked dead to me.” Somebody called the police. On my way back they were rousing this guy who was apparently very drunk. When I mentioned this to my friend, she was horrified that I would see someone I thought was dead and not do anything about it. Obviously, I was not afraid, I was just not in the habit of doing anything about things I saw around me.

What about your situation as a woman living in the Middle East?

The impact on me was much more about being a Westerner than being a woman—just like in Korea.  I dressed with respect for whatever country I was in. No shorts or short skirts., which I was told not to wear. Later. when I was teaching in Kuwait for the military, some students told me my dress was too short. The skirt came just to the knee. The administration told me not to wear that dress again. In Kuwait I also got a complaint about a listening tape that had some music on it. Some students were offended although Islam, as far as I know, does not outlaw music. I was just aware that as a woman I should not act as I would in America.

Sometimes I joked with my Saudi students at Texaco, maybe a little flirty, but totally harmless.

“Oh, would you like to meet me somewhere?”

“Will your wife be coming along too?”

In Dubai you see women dressed as if they were going to the beach in short shorts and tops. I guess they were allowed to. No police told them to cover up. But I have heard people were arrested fir kissing in public, so I guess physical affection was what they were against rather than clothing.

As I said, in China, Korea and the other places I’ve been I’ve always tried to be respectful of the culture—even if no one says anything, you pick up cues. In the Middle East I didn’t wear a hijab. That would have been weird for a Westen woman unless I was married to a Muslim man. But I would have if it had been necessary.

Not long after I arrived in Kuwait, there was an incident in an elevator. The elevators were so small that each one would only hold a maximum of three people. I was on my way up to my apartment, and this guy jumped in at the last minute. I think he was probably Egyptian – you get used to thinking of nationality in order to anticipate someone’s behavior. He was pushing all these elevator buttons, I tried to get out, and he blocked my way as if he was looking for having a bit of fun. I tried to pull back, like what’s going on, and then he didn’t push it because that could have gotten him in trouble.

But you know you have to be wary of that. In the Middle East because you’re Western woman some men could think you would automatically go into your apartment and sleep with them. There are some Western women that do that, but you have to be careful.

It’s changed now, but when I arrived in Korea in 1988, there were some ads showing scantily dressed women posted in public places, but none of the models were Asian. Most were white, some black. Any pin-ups I saw, like on calendars, were the same. There was clearly the patriarchal attitude of “we are not going to treat our women like that.” I think this comes from the idea that “our women” are pure, and also from an Asian stereotype of Westerners as over-sexed. Like the white stereotype of black people as over-sexed, more animal.

At least in Men’s fantasies, the expectations of what a western woman would do are a lot different than the expectations of what a local woman would do.

Absolutely yes definitely. I have an American friend from Kuwait, ethnically Asian, who’s now living in Hong Kong with her Irish husband.  We used to talk about Americans outside of America and the way a person’s perspective might change. She said in Kuwait people thought she was Indian and looked down on her. She told me once she was getting on an elevator and a white woman in the elevator drew back. My friend suddenly realized it was her skin color. ­Until that incident she didn’t really think the race issue had anything to do with her.

Yeah. What about race and class issues?

In Kuwait people were clearly not being treated equally, but what’s interesting is that if you go south to Oman, just there on the Arabian coast, everyone is treated really well. I knew an Omani who could speak Hindi, whereas no Kuwaiti would ever stoop to speaking Hindi with an Indian. Heaven forbid!

If you travel around Oman and stop to ask for directions, you’ll inevitably be invited to come to the person’s house for coffee—even though they don’t know you. The hospitality was such a pleasure after living in Kuwait and seeing the disparity between races there.

Did you have any employees or household help when you were living abroad? Of course, here in the Philippines household help is an important part of the economy.

Well, I could see having somebody, absolutely, but I never found someone I thought I could rely on. With other people I know it has worked out, but it just didn’t work for me overseas for some reason. living abroad you probably wouldn’t have to pay someone as much. It sounds awful to say that, but I’m just being honest.

I asked because an American woman came over with a bunch of our mutual friends one afternoon. After she used the bathroom, she smiled and said she noticed through the glass door of the medicine cabinet that I had some money there. I’d taken it out of my pocket as I got undressed before taking a bath. She said when her family lived abroad, they used to leave money around to see whether their employees would help themselves—as a test.

Oh that’s awful. That’s terrible.

You remember my Mrs. Woo? An honest, hard-working soul who cleaned and ironed on Saturdays. I can’t imagine tempting her into stealing. Fe, who’s been looking after me now for 14 years, was falsely accused of stealing on a former job. I can’t imagine anyone less likely to do that.


Well, that’s what I thought, but apparently it’s like what we were talking about earlier, treating people badly because you can get away with it. But then, I imagine most people are decent everywhere. I have noticed here that even when relations between employers and employees seem very casual, boundaries are still maintained.  

I really wish that many Americans could live overseas for a year. It broadens your horizons so much.

Well, I have heard a lot of people say that the United States is the best country in the world, but I’ve never heard that from anybody who’s lived anywhere else.

Exactly. I totally agree with you. I want to throw up every time I hear people saying  America this America that. It’s just a stupid statement. That has very little validity and to me it just borders on nationalistic bull shit.

Just one more thing. When we lived in Hamburg in 1955-56, we were subletting an apartment owned by faculty member at the University of Hamburg, where my dad was teaching. This huge urban residential area was sparkling new because the entire city except for a few historical landmarks, had been flattened during the war. My hope for Ukraine is that we will give the people what they need to repel the Russians and hold them accountable  and then institute a second Marshall Plan so they cab bounce back as quickly and convincingly as Germany did. We must do a lot more than we are doing.

Links to Michele’s posts: We did a series called “Bouncing around the Middle East. Kuwait (Link) Oman and the West Bank (Link)

My life as travelog goes from  The US and Europe (Link)  to Germany and the US  (link) to  China (Link)  to teaching in Korea (Link) and (Link) and then to retirement in the Philippines (Link)