Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Expatriate Act is Dead (Long Live Expatriate Act)

"Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity."
- Gustave Flaubert

To the four readers I have left (hi mom), Expatriate Act is not dead. But it will be soon enough. If you listen closely, you can hear the death knells ringing down from the Sichuanese hills. They - the knells, I mean - sound something like 600 million Chinese men launching double barrel snot rockets in unison. And what that sounds like, I leave you to imagine. Rest assured, I can imagine it well enough.

Sometime in April, this blog will turn five years old. And three months after that, it will die. Of that I am certain. Because as of July, I will be traveling no longer. As of July, I will be an expatriate no more. As of July, consider my ass retired.

In July, I will return to my native Omaha. And I intend to stay there for a while. I also intend to keep writing. So I could, of course, prolong the inevitable. I could rechristen this blog "Repatriated Act" or "Ex-Expatriate Act." I could write about the outside world from my foreign correspondent's desk in Omaha. Or I could write about Omaha; no doubt my native Nebraska will be as foreign to me as China once was. But I started this blog as a first-time traveler, and I intend to close it out as a retired traveler. Frankly, I am exhausted. I sense that my work here is done. And anyway, five years seems like a good number to go out on. So at this juncture, I will graciously bow out and pass on the torch. Let the laowais write for the laowais, I figure.

I started this blog in April of 2006. I turn 28 this Friday, but I was 23 back then. Imagine that. Time gets away from us.

At 23, I had successfully graduated from college with a degree in creative writing. For the better part of a year, I worked as a copywriter until I realized what I had known all along: that the encubicled life was not for me. So that fateful April, I set off for Poland to earn a teaching certificate of sorts. I started a blog. I called it Expatriate Act. I got the teaching certificate, but all my luggage was stolen in Berlin. Broke and half-naked, I returned to the States to buy some new clothes from the Salvation Army. Shortly thereafter, I landed a fairly lucrative gig teaching children in South Korea. I lived in South Korea for one year. Then I vacationed for a month on the east coast of China, where unmentionable things happened. Then I spent two weeks in The Netherlands, where even less mentionable things happened. I returned to the States and squandered my life savings on beer and women and Taco Bell. A good couple months they were. Then I taught English for six months in a coal mining town in Poland. The women were many, but I couldn't bring myself to stay there, so I tried to put together a life in Berlin. I failed. I returned to the States. I got a teaching job in Mexico. I lived there for six happy months while the country tumbled into civil war. Somewhere along the way, I was accepted into the Peace Corps fold. In the summer of 2009, the Peace Corps shipped me off to China. I have spent the past two years in Nanchong, Sichuan Province, People's Republic of China.

This is the trajectory of the past five years of my life. At the outset, when I first left America, I couldn't have anticipated, or guessed, or dreamed that I would be gone for so long. And now that my adventure is drawing to a close, I'm surprised at how quickly the time has passed.

Vague intentions begat vague writing. I didn't know what I was looking for when I first left America, so I wasn't sure what to write about when I started this blog, the blog I dubbed Expatriate Act. After five years of writing, I am still not sure what I am writing about. I cannot say that I have gotten any closer to figuring out who I am. I cannot say that I understand China, or Mexico, or Poland, or Korea any better than I did before I lived in those places. Writing, and the process of writing, eludes me even more than it did when I first started writing.

I cannot say that I have ever consciously worked on Expatriate Act. If anything, Expatriate Act has worked on me. If anything, the presence of Expatriate Act has dogged me and pestered me, has compelled me to write more than I otherwise would have. For better and for worse, Expatriate Act has injected me with a neurotic compulsion to write, even when there is positively nothing worth writing about.

That said, the most wonderful times of my life - namely, the six months I spent in Mexico - are almost totally absent from this blog. I wrote nothing about Mexico. I was too busy being happy. Conversely, the most tedious, most miserable times of my life - the time I have spent in Asia - have been written about ad nauseam. This isn't terribly mysterious. Or at least, it shouldn't be. The natural habitat of the writer is misery. In the absence of misery, what else is there to write about? Perhaps that is why I couldn't stay in Mexico. I had nothing to write about in Mexico. I was too happy. But in the end, I am not just a writer. I am also a person. And like most people, I tend to avoid misery when I can. And that is why I cannot stay in China.

I don't know why I started writing Expatriate Act. And I'm not sure why I continued writing it. I never attracted an audience in the beginning, and I only just barely have an audience now, five years later. A cult following, you might say. But at no point have I written for the sake of attracting an audience. I am too selfish and not quite conniving enough for that. I write to get things off my chest. And more than that, I write to amuse the people I hold dear. As I write, I am forever wondering and worrying - would so-and-so find this funny? Getting things off my chest is a necessity, but it only affords relief. It brings me no pleasure. What affords me the most pleasure are the emails, comments, compliments, criticisms, and assorted contributions from the people who read what I write. So I thank you all for that. Very little in life makes me happier than the knowledge that other people are made happier by what I write. I mean that. The fact that other people read what I write flatters me to no end, and is pretty much the only thing that inspires me to keep writing. This all sounds very cheesy and Oscarspeechworthy, but I wouldn't have written for five years if so many people hadn't encouraged me along the way. I thank you again.

I have learned a lot about myself through writing, and through writing, I have learned much about the cultures that have allowed me to cavort - drunk and disheveled all the while - in their midst. But above all else, it has been a real pleasure to write: the process itself has been indescribably rewarding. I have always been a writer, but I have never enjoyed writing so much. Expatriate Act was an experiment, and I consider the experiment a marvelous failure. In five years of writing, I never once put things exactly the way I wanted to. But that goes with the territory. Dancing bears and cracked kettles and what not. So - fuck it, I say. If my hypercaffeinated, hyperinebriated crotch-scratching labors have inspired a single bout of unfalsifiable laughter, then my work here is done.

But my work here isn't done. Not quite yet. I still have four months left to go. I still have many classes left to teach, countless hecklers left to ignore, and yes, many things left to write about. Expatriate Act is not yet dead. I'm just letting you know that it will be soon enough. This is not to say that Expatriate Act will disappear completely. I imagine I will leave it up for posterity, in all its unabridged, unedited glory. As a time capsule. As a tombstone. As a cautionary note to the up and coming generations of college graduates. Listen: here are all the mistakes you can make during your mid to late twenties. And listen: here is why they are worth repeating.


M said...

Then I have to post a comment to let you know you stayed in China too long and have been hitten by the ridiculous Modesty virus. I would put my hand in the fire as a bet saying that you have way more readers and admirers of your whackiness than 5.
If you ever land in France, I'd be curious to see how much you write. You should try, just as an experiment. We got good cheese, too, but we don't like beer, so you might write loads.
Bon courage for this last semester (woop woop!)

Hayden said...

Hello Keith,
I feel I can call you by your first name because, had Peace Corps not placed us a couple of months and a couple of Asian countries apart, we would have been good friends. I've been following your blog for about a year now, and you have described many of my experiences here in Thailand and my reactions to them. I have laughed out loud a lot and been inspired occasionally by Expatriate Act. Now I find myself in the same situation as you, on the other side of Peace Corps and preparing to be repatriated. I just wanted to thank you for your ramblings. They've made me happy.

erin said...

you had better keep writing.

Concerned Citizen said...

Best description of one's 20s that I've ever heard.

Sarita said...

I feel like some creepy stalker... usually I don't post comments since you have no idea who I am but after reading your "Expatriate Act is Dead..." I had to mention that I love your blog. I am a PC volunteer in the Dominican Republic and your blog has gotten me through at times. You must know how talented you are and I wish you could know how many of us down here follow your adventures...I guess if you have a cult following we are it...the PC of misfit toys down here. Just so you know that you are legend down here and if you need a place to crash in the next 10 months we can help you out. ;)

Josua said...

Hey Keith we don't know each other but I love the blog. Don't go home! Come to the Dominican Republic! There are many a female volunteer down here who would love to meet you. Come bachata away your memories of Asia. The people only yell "fuck you!" occasionally and it's so hot that everyone wears next to nothing. Your women and taco bell fantasies will be fulfilled in the capital and you already have a group of waiting bros to chill with. Let's call it a Caribbean debriefing. ;) Think about it.

Anonymous said...

WHAT!!! NOOOOOOOOOOOO! Come do PC response in the DR! What the F dude! We need you to keep writing! I follow you closer than I follow the Washington Post! You think people don't read your blog? I got 236 volunteers that prove otherwise... I totally second Sarita's and Josua's comments...