Monday, January 17, 1994

How To Be An Expat

Written in 1994 for Esquire, re-written in 1998 for G.Q.

Most of us have a yen to live abroad sometime in our lives—to savor the romance of feeling at home in a foreign country. Everyone has his own version of the Expatriate Fantasy, but the idea is usually that being overseas can make you, in unexpected ways, into a free man. (Just ask Ronnie Biggs, mastermind of the Great Train Robbery, who's lived happily in Brazil, outside the reach of British law, for decades.)

Maybe you get sent for three years to open the firm's new branch in Hong Kong, Rio, or Paris, and expect to be well compensated for making the move. Maybe you make a personal vow to grab your paintbrush or laptop and try to match Hemingway's bells, bulls, and balls in a Madrid cafe. Maybe you set enough aside in your twenties to take the plunge—to go native and withdraw from the millennial chaos on a beach in Bora-Bora or Belize. Or maybe you're trying to drop from sight of the Feds, like the crooked New York stockbroker who died and eventually turned up running a video rental shack by the Caribbean under an assumed name. No matter where or how, a good deal of the same thumbnail rules apply.

This How-To is culled from the personal expertise of expat businessmen, spies, artists, diplomats, journalists, surfers, consultants, con men, veteran retirees as well as foreigners—to help the Innocent Abroad avoid becoming the Ugly American, no matter how long you stay away.

Before You Go Abroad:

1. First, prepare yourself for a new luxury—learn to really enjoy diarrhea. It's absolutely everywhere except for that tiny slice of civilization called Western Europe. In the "developing" world, some forms of diarrhea verge on a religious experience.

2. If you can't master another language, consider marrying a foreigner. Just be sure to choose your foreign spouse wisely. If she's Iranian, for example, you instantly become an Iranian citizen too. In sickness and in health.

3. If you have a blonde wife or daughter, don't go to the Middle East. What you fear most is true: every single male wants them as sex slaves.

4. Take out plenty of airmail magazine subscriptions—a surprisingly efficient way to ease the pangs of homesickness.

5. 71% of all expats turn out to be alcoholic. That probably means you. This percentage is even higher in hot climates.

6. If you're moving somewhere poor, get over your politically correct ideas about servants before you arrive. Saves time.

Once You Get There:

7. Learn the local currency as quickly as possible. The sooner you can stop converting ("438 rupees, that makes $9.25 to cab it back to Delhi,") and think in terms of how many days a local family can survive on the money, the closer you'll be to your new home.

8. Don't ask for reliable advice from your "friendly" U.S. consulate or embassy. Consular officers don't like Americans abroad; they wish we'd all stay home. As they're mostly dorks who wish they were political officers instead (i.e. possible future ambassadors), their advice is dubious at best.

Still, let's say your tooth hurts and you just arrived in Caracas. If you're forced to go to a consulate for advice, ask a foreign employee (a local who works for the consulate, known as FSNs in governmentese) which dentists are lethal and which trustworthy. The locals are usually smarter and more honest than the consular officers—it's much more prestigious for them to work there than it is for your fellow Yank.

9. Expect your salary to go down in buying power, unless you end up with a cushy relocation package. Life overseas usually costs more. The poorer the country, the more bribes you have to lay out to get the water heater fixed.

Americans often have a philosophical problem with bribery. It does have one advantage, however. When a transaction's done (say, you drop $200 to get your trunks through customs) it then truly is finished. There's none of the tyranny we have here of people owing each other "favors" and the consequent worries about repaying them.

10. Make friends with someone in the Interior Ministry—those folks who confirm your work permit, boot you out if it's not in order, or bug your phone if they don't like you. They make very helpful and informative dinner guests, but keep them separate from anyone you know on the U.S. Embassy staff.

11. Be careful whom you have sex with. If you're in Europe, enjoy the dessert trolley. Odd as it may seem, most foreigners (outside of Southeast Asia) are statistically safer partners than Americans, who per capita are highly infected.

Don't even think about sex in Africa (truly unbeatable odds) or in the Middle East, where only four eyewitnesses are required in court to prove unlawful fornication.

12. Don't wear school ties or graduation rings overseas. They look even geekier abroad than they do here. And resist telling those priceless college anecdotes. No one over there cares.

13. Tax attorneys abroad invariably cost more and know less than in the States. Your tough luck, you're screwed.

14. Gird your loins for underwear shock. In France, Italy, and Spain especially. Undergarments, particularly women's, cost many times what they do here. The first time you slide French underwear off a woman you'll undoubtedly note the superior workmanship. If you paid you may note the price; $150 for a brassiere isn't uncommon. Still, there are compensations.

15. Resist the temptation to place your children in U.S. schools overseas. One joy of living abroad is that your kids will avoid an American education. Likewise, never send kids to an English boarding school. The playing fields of Eton are filled with weeds nowadays.

French and German schools are found nearly everywhere, and your children will come away speaking a foreign language plus the language of the country you're in, and also be able to speak, read, and write English better than most of their peers back home. Unfortunately, your children may develop nasty French and German habits (respect for their elders, for example).

16. The climate overseas is always more extreme than they tell you. You'll never be as comfortable as here. Most Europeans still don't understand heating, and many Brits don't even know what a thermostat is. You'll find yourself spending a lot of time next to the pre-war towel heaters in the bathroom.

17. People overseas—even in Europe—may stink. Often they think it's sexy. Not surprisingly, these people also disapprove of air-conditioning. (A French magazine recently sold millions with this headline: "Surprise Survey! The French wash!") Actually, the French are among the cleanest.

18. Never repair your shoes overseas unless you're in Turkey, Italy, or Hong Kong. Otherwise it's incredibly expensive and dangerous. More than one American lies doddering and drooling in a foreign jail cell for beating to death a local shoemaker who transformed his loafers from size 10 to size 7.

19. If you consider yourself a sensitive American who never says an unkind word based on race, gender, and political or sexual orientation, grow up. Foreigners love to trash their fellow man. Remember: outside the USA, everyone openly hates everyone else. Be careful about expressing any compassion for humanity until you're totally certain about the religious, family, and tribal backgrounds of your hosts.

20. Conversely, become adept at denouncing the States right at the beginning of every dinner party. Foreigners really love to hear an American criticize his homeland. If you do so early enough in the evening, there's every chance that by the time you get to after-dinner drinks, they'll start to trash their own countries, and you can really join in. If not, be patient. It may require a few dinner parties before you have the deep pleasure of excoriating your hosts.

21. In many countries, people seem to have a sixth sense about which cars belong to Americans and can thus be scratched, bumped, and wrecked with impunity. When you go for repairs, you'll learn why French auto mechanics look as prosperous as surgeons. One solution: own the car there, but insure it here.

22. Master the art of changing money. Be wary of the fellow in Egypt, Italy, or all Asia who can count phony bills off the bottom of a wad of cash quicker than any card sharp. Do not, however, automatically distrust the so-called black market. In some countries the banking has simply moved onto the streets. For example, in Latin America the funny guys standing on the corner with briefcases full of money almost never cheat you.

23. Unless you're homosexual, don't learn Japanese in bed. The men and women speak significantly different dialects, the women's being quieter, more deferential. Many a Westerner who's enjoyed a Japanese girlfriend long enough to learn the lingo ends up, it seems, being seen afterward as (in Japanese terms) a poofter.

24. Learn to enjoy soccer ("football"). And if you don't already know what an after-dinner drink is, find out fast.

Going Native—The Final Frontier

25. Choose a country with a high standard of living. Sounds obvious? Not to all the ex-hippies stranded in India, still trying to earn enough to leave. You'll become much less popular with the locals if you end up as poor as they.

26. No matter what crimes you've committed, don't ever give up your citizenship, even if you have to hide that U.S. Passport under a reed mattress. Think of it as a ripcord you might have to pull on very short notice one day. The USA is like your long-lost cousins at Thanksgiving: they have to let you in. (At the same time, watch out for those extradition treaties.)

27. Never, never, never hit the locals. The Marines—unlike the British Army of yesteryear or the French Foreign Legion of today—won't come to your rescue.

28. Accept the fact that your friends back home a) will be very jealous of you, not imagining how difficult it is to get your water heater fixed, and b) if they do keep in touch with you, will be forever promising to come visit you in several months' time, and c) they will never, ever, come.

29. If you must hide big money, hide it somewhere handy (preferably several somewheres) so you can flee fast and far on short notice. Don't make the mistake of spending quickly or ostentatiously; go for the long haul; don't be greedy. If living abroad helps you decrease your worries and increase your daily pleasures, that's plenty. Don't play millionaire among peasants.

30. A small local income, no matter how incidental, ties you in a friendly way to neighbors so long as it doesn't take work away from them. Do not resent paying modest taxes if the country has a good national health service (you're better off than here). Get a strong local lawyer a.s.a.p. Don't dream of buying a house till you've lived there through all four seasons—if the place actually has seasons.

31. Going native doesn't mean you have to dress native. Even Gauguin probably looked absurd in a sarong. Anyone who's been to Guatemala and seen gringos in Mayan weavings should beware their mistake—not realizing what really goes together. Most expats who "dress native" and think they blend in never imagine they look as absurd as a man strolling around in a woman's blue jean skirt under a dinner jacket.

32. A good way to judge the future of a country—when deciding if you want to hang out there for a decade or two—is by the state of its poor. There really is such a thing as clean, safe, and community-minded slums (say, Istanbul's or Tahiti's). On the other hand, a society with filthy, dangerous, every-man-for-himself slums (like Los Angeles) probably has a bleak future.

33. To go native usually means to eat native. Get ready to enjoy goat thighs washed down by corn beer fermented with old women's saliva—the enzymes act as a yeast, in case you wondered.

34. Don’t automatically trust most the locals who speak English best.

35. Remember what Dante wrote about exile: "Other men's bread is salty, other men's stairs are steep." Be careful you don't become a man without a country while trying to be a citizen of the world; there's a crucial difference. If you live abroad, embrace the experience fully, like a lover with whom you share few responsibilities, and see how much you can learn before you break up. Who knows? The affair might last a lifetime.

Don't expect your stay-at-home friends to understand. Sadly, you'll have less and less in common as the years pass. And when you do visit them, never forget the advice of an expert raconteur: There is no bore like the travel bore.

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