Other And Different Worlds

Expatriation Here And There

June 2, 2003

Expatriates. You see them in back-street bars of Bangkok, Manila, Guadalajara, along third-world waterfronts, in up-country Thailand, anywhere living is cheap and rules scarce.

Some are old guys in their sixties and seventies with fading tattoos from other lives, lives that also fade into fewer and fewer living memories. Some are in their thirties and run little businesses, often legitimate. They are a bit rough-looking or maybe just eccentric, congenitally what they are and not concerned about what you think of them. You find them heisting a brewski in out-of-the-way spots, chaffing with the barmaids who maybe or may not have a sideline. They are the dropouts of the earth-the interesting expats, not the middle-management retirees who really belong in some dismal retirement colony in Florida.

They are a breed overlooked by the world, which suits them fine. Some have pasts. You see jailhouse tattoos. A few are drunks waiting to die spitting blood--poor miserable sods who just couldn't get it together after the contract ran out on the oil rig and the wife ran with the kids, probably for good reason. Most are solid enough. They drop by the bars because that's where the social life is. Some own bars. Many have local wives and families. Some did once back in the States and figure they'll pass this time around.

They are men with stories, many of which wouldn't be believed in the upholstered countries of the earth. On the other hand, expats generally don't talk to upholstered people. You meet a lot of retired pilots, maybe for United and maybe for spook outfits like Air America, or maybe the personal pilot of some oil-sheikh out of Arabia. Some did things they don't talk about during the American lunge into Asia in the Sixties; after the war, the golf course just didn't appeal to them. Golfers don't always understand about Lucy's Tiger Den, the Grey House, the Blue Fox in TJ.

Their defining trait is that they don't fit in and don't want to. The bond broker for example who wondered, "What am I doing this for?" and stopped. He opened a dive shop in Mexico and never looked back. There are drug dealers who got smart in time; men who don't seem to have last names, or not the same one twice; guys who scout trinkets for the US import market. You bump into freelance writers living by their wits, credentialed by obscure publications which sometimes exist. Military men who retired on twenty and didn't want to work in the NAPA outlet; the former bouncer at a strip joint in Florida who somehow drifted abroad and saw no reason to go back.

The waters of anarchy run wide and fast through expatriate realm, though they don't gather up everybody. Some of the Americans are deeply attached to the memory of the US they left. For a few, patriotism has replaced religion as the psychic buoy for the otherwise unmoored.

Others are profoundly, by conviction or inattention, citizens of nowhere, loyal to no country. Maybe they've lived in so many places that whatever bonds they may have had have worn through; borders are to them just places where you get your bags inspected. Maybe they wearied of the socialism of Canada, the regimentation of the United States, and bailed. Some are angry that their countries haven't lived up to their desires. Others are bored with the question.

The world does not approve of deliberate statelessness. These men wouldn't care. There's not too much they do care about.

A few expats are bad-voodoo muck-skulkers. The Federales in Guad recently snatched a candyman on the lam out of Spokane: something like forty counts of homosexual child molestation. (He seemed like a nice guy.) But it's rare. More commonly men marry and play Leave It To Beaver, have kids or adopt the wife's, live happily and make sure she gets the Social Security when they die.

Almost universal among them is a profound desire not to be part of somebody else's parade. They want to be left alone. In the semi-developed countries favored by expats, governments usually don't care about you unless you break the law. Sometimes they don't care even if you do break the law, depending on the law. The big North American governments never stop supervising, admonishing, collecting data, requiring forms. Those who dislike it enough end up somewhere else.

The uncharitable in America bruit the notion that men expatriate because they want to enjoy sex with lovely young lovelies. That's part of it. For a man of fifty, a sloe-eyed sweetie of twenty-five beats hell out of an angry menopausing gringa with a law degree. Maybe it shouldn't be that way, but it is that way.

But much more than sex is involved. Women in the backwaters are often just plain agreeable. After the divorce back home, men learn. Some do.

There are interpretations and interpretations of the prostitution and semi-prostitution that one finds abroad. Hooking, an expat might tell you, if he cared, which is unlikely, gets a bad rap. Bar girls usually aren't bad people. The cynical among the expatriates, which is about all of them, say that hooking differs from other approaches to sex chiefly in that the latter cost more.

Deep down, a lot of men just don't want the admin overhead of the usual relationship: the breakup, the shrieking, the agony, and let's-get-counseling, and everyone feels like dirt. Relations between the sexes, they say, are always fundamentally commercial. Women trade sex for whatever they want, and men trade whatever they have for sex. In the US, when the whole mess becomes horribly boring, the husband insists that he's still in love to avoid admitting that he'd give anything to be in Bangkok. The woman eats bon-bons.

Remember that the expat lives there, unlike the crypto-sadistic Japanese sex tourist. He knows the girls in the bar, laughs with them, takes one home here and again. For her, it beats being sweated in a running-shoe factory. Most countries don't have the Puritan background America does.

I know lots of men who have married either bar girls or non-hooking local women. (Some don't know they have married bar girls.) Often it works well. The woman gets what she wants: a decent life, and a husband who doesn't knock her around. He gets what he wants: a pretty and pleasant young wife, food on the table, and a good mother if they have kids. He probably actually loves her because, praise God, she's not congenitally angry or in a law firm. They're happy. It's their business.