Crooning the expat blues

You move abroad, and suddenly you're making more money and dating sexier women than you ever could in the states. So why aren't you happy?

Published September 30, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

The Tokyo skyline is like a giant graveyard; the countless gray buildings are tombstones blinking neon-sign, Chinese-character epitaphs. Cylindrical chimneys belch puffy spirals of smoke. The highway rises a hundred feet above street level, uncoiling beside packed commuter trains and other, even busier freeways. The airport bus arrives at a large terminal. I step down from the bus into the swirl of humanity. I am lost.

I came to Japan because my luck ran out, because after graduating from college and moving to Manhattan where I spent a year aspiring to be a magazine writer, playing Rummy 500 with a few similarly employment-challenged cronies and losing a good deal of my parents' money betting on college football, I had no choice. During an angry telephone conversation my father told me he would no longer support me, and then my mother picked up the phone and mentioned the possibility of a job teaching English in Japan. Considering the circumstances, I was interested. Though I was born in Japan of a Japanese mother and an American-Jewish father, I grew up in the United States and had only briefly visited the land of my birth. The place remained for me exotic and foreign -- a wealthy island empire at the edge of the world where an indigent young man could start over. I decided I would try my luck at living abroad.

You don't know when you board that jumbo jet how long you will be gone. You know only that you have to go. You are perhaps running from something rather than to anything. You are motivated not just by a desire to change the scenery, but by an urge to transform yourself, by a belief that although you don't like yourself much in New York, you will love yourself in Shanghai, Prague or Mexico City. There you will become the dashing, secure, desirable person you have never managed to become here. You go for broke. You cut your losses. You make a run for the border.

There are different ways to bolt. There are those who meticulously plan their expatriate sojourns, enlisting grants, foundations and fellowships that ease them into cushy lives abroad; there are those who graduate from college, hear that beer costs 18 cents a mug in Bucharest and hop the next standby flight to Romania; and there are those for whom it comes down to a simple choice: overseas or jail.

All of them share certain experiences, emotions and pitfalls. It is
hard moving away from Home Sweet Home, even if you are being
chased by federal marshals or importunate bookmakers. You will
miss the obvious things: a good slice of pizza, baseball and Seinfeld
-- and some things you didn't think you would miss: frozen pizza,
Rickey Henderson and "The Courtship of Eddie's Father."

And, unless you move to England -- or Canada, which doesn't count
as a foreign country -- you miss your native language. Sure, you
can get the Herald Tribune or funky local English-language
newspapers, but aside from that who-what-when-where English,
you may be hard pressed to find anyone to converse with in your
own tongue. You soon long to be understood, to be heard, to have
someone actually get your jokes. You become tired of always
thinking of what to say in a language that for all intents and
purposes, until you came to this country, was unintelligible
gibberish. And you miss your friends, because who understands you
and gets your jokes better than your friends? (The nationalized,
inefficient, long distance telephone monopoly in your chosen
country will profit handsomely from your hunger to speak to
anyone who understands why you miss "The Courtship of Eddie's

And you become pitifully lonely. The first few weeks are
interminable stretches of solitude, punctuated by restaurant meals
during which you stare at native couples and families and envy their
shared human warmth. You were once part of a family, half of a
couple, a section of a circle of friends, and now you are a
foreigner, alone in a strange land. That fantasy you entertained of
picking up a mysterious woman in a smoke-filled bar who would
teach you her language, show you the ropes and initiate you into
hitherto unknown rituals of amorous delight was just that, a fantasy.
The women in whatever country you go to will at first strike you as
so beautiful, so feminine, so totally, completely, and utterly
non-American that you will become dizzy riding subways and
strolling down streets, your neck will strain from craning and your
mind will reverberate with useless English pick-up lines. The
reality is that those women will seem unattainable by virtue of the
fact that your vocabulary in their native language extends to
discussing the weather and inquiring about railway timetables.

But that initial period of loneliness provides a crucial phase of
psychic purification; you rediscover who you are when divorced
from pernicious influences such as friends, parents and The Grind.
You will be surprised to find you enjoy dressing in other colors
besides black, really love the early progressive rock of Canadian
power-trio Rush and actually don't much like the taste of
Jdgermeister. There is no one here pressuring you to pound shots of
syrupy rum, scoffing at you for wearing a pastel sweater and
forcing you to listen to white-label drum 'n' bass releases.

You are molting, shedding your old, American skin and becoming
an expatriate. This is a painful but rewarding process. You feel
misunderstood, insecure, vulnerable, but you are aware that
something is happening inside: You are becoming wiser, more
worldly. You catch your reflection in a shop window or some
subway doors -- you are wearing a rakish new suit purchased in
your adopted land -- and you detect about yourself a hint of
glamour, elegance and mystery that had been decidedly lacking
when you were living in your parents' house. You are an
expatriate, an exile, a fugitive: Henry Miller in Paris, Bogey in
Casablanca, Cary Grant in Monaco. Anything can happen now. You
are in a position to define your own destiny. You are an American
man in a good suit in a foreign land. Nothing can stop you.

Suddenly, the females who seemed unavailable a few months ago
are interested, drawn by your newfound confidence, jaunty swagger
and improved language skills. And you find that being a foreigner
opens many doors -- in part because you're such a rube you can
pretend they aren't closed. Opportunities present themselves. That
first job leads to other job offers. You begin to make serious
money, you pay back college loans and old gambling debts. You
realize you are, for the first time, totally self-sufficient. (By the
way, Americans living abroad get a sweet deal from the IRS: Your
foreign income is tax free up to $70,000 a year.)

You have arrived: You have a better job than you could get back
home. You're making more money. And the girl you are seeing is
prettier than any girlfriend you've ever had back in the States. But
still, something is wrong. You are not satisfied, and here you have
arrived at the expatriate's dilemma: Is all this real? This job, this
girl, this life, it all happened far away from home, in a strange land
that your friends back home can't even find on a map. (Thailand or
Taiwan? China or Japan? Sweden or Switzerland? Your friends can
never remember where you are anyway.) It becomes a
philosophical issue: If none of your friends see you succeed, then
did you ever really make it?

When I was 25, two years after arriving in Tokyo, I became the
managing editor of an English-language, monthly city magazine. I
was paid a handsome salary; I finagled a job for my best friend
from New York who flew out to Tokyo; I wore fashionable,
absurdly expensive clothing and dated a wide array of females, each
of whom, I was sure, would never have gone out with me back
home. Life had never been so good. This was during the era of
Japan's bubble economy, when speculative frenzy and Japanese
purchases of overpriced movie studios and Impressionist paintings
made Tokyo seem like the center of the world. For the first few
months at that job, I truly felt as if I could have anything I wanted,
that life would be a procession of gilded possibilities and golden
opportunities. I was young, bright, promising and in the right city
at the right time.

But in the evening after work, I walked up Gaien Nishi Dori from
our offices to the Aoyama Book Center, where in the harsh glare of
white fluorescence, I would flip through American and British
publications. Those glamorous magazines would be so slick, so
glossy, so packed with photos of celebrities I recognized and bylines
I envied; those magazines seemed real. And the magazine I was
working on, full of Japanese celebrities no one back home had ever
heard of and bylines by writers whose stories I had rewritten,
would appear the local rag it was.

One afternoon, a photographer who sometimes shot for us brought
a young magazine writer by our offices. The blond, slender writer
was a young Brit sent to Tokyo by an American men's magazine.
Though he was not condescending, he had absolutely no interest in
contributing to our magazine. He was a decent fellow, sharp, clever
and eager as young writers are. But as I spoke to him I became
envious. I realized that no matter how many stories about Japan I
had written, it was this Brit's one story about Tokyo that would
actually be read back home.

From that point on I was acutely aware that making it in a foreign
country, no matter how far I went, was not the same as making it
back home.

And this was actually a symptom of that earlier insecurity that made
me leave the States in the first place. You see, it isn't New York or
Atlanta or your home town that's the problem; it's you. You go
abroad because you feel like a failure. You go abroad because you
are depressed. You go abroad, in part, to escape yourself.

Then you discover the truth of the hackneyed new age adage: No
matter where you go, there you are.

And that's when it's time to go home.

By Karl Taro Greenfeld

Karl Taro Greenfeld is a Knight-Bagehot Fellow at Columbia University. He is the author of "Speed Tribes" and a contributor to Vogue, Details, the New York Times Magazine, Wired and other publications. He has written for Wanderlust on Ibiza and exploring northern Thailand by foot.

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