1. Resist the urge to compare everything to U.S. pop culture.
崔健 is not China’s Bruce Springsteen. Rain is not the Justin Timberlake of Korea. 張懸 is no Taiwanese Feist. Don’t think of the local music as “a decade behind America.” Let that go. The point of living abroad is to ditch the pop cultural references you’ve built your identity around. Embrace that freedom.
2. Relax. Not everything has to do with Confucianism, Shintoism, Taoism, or anything of the big -isms.
Travel blogs will have you believe that Asia runs on the C-man’s teachings, but I’ve never heard anyone namedrop Confucianism in my 17 years in Taiwan. Imagine if someone ran around Portland yelling “totes Judeo-Christian, brah!” That’s not only stilted, but probably pretty unhelpful to understanding Portland.
3. Go beyond expat enclaves.
In high school, I remember walking back home and seeing my classmate – a skinny exchange student from Florida – playing an er hu with old motorcycle mechanics in full goth makeup. Now that’s a boss.
4. Have a good sense of humor about common expat gripes:
5. Learn to karaoke local songs.
Best way to learn a language. Not even kidding. Every country has a starter catalog of foreigner-friendly songs.
6. You’re not the edgiest person in town, I promise.
No, your Frank Zappa cover band will not ‘finally bring rock n’ roll to Korea.’ If you assume everyone’s an uninteresting salaryman or schoolgirl naif, you’ve watched Lost In Translation too many times. Talk to anyone at a Hongdae bar, or Taipei’s Shida cafes, or kids at a punk show in Koenji. There’s someone who’s savvy and into what you’re into. Whether you share languages to the both of your satisfaction will be the tricky part. But never judge the depth of the city by what’s written in the English newspapers.
7. No, the women aren’t more subservient, nor are the men more chauvinist than the average expat.
Some bros assume Asia’s a conservative Neverland where feminism never happened. Every expat knows that guy and cringes when he talks. The truth is there are progressive and retrograde people everywhere, not just Asia. The women aren’t so helpless that they’re waiting for white knights to rescue them, either. Count yourself among the progressive by not assuming the above.
8. Do make local friends.
Making friends across language divides can be heroically awkward, we know. And we know you’re translating your personality at an unfavorable exchange rate, but chances are folks will sympathize with the difficulty of speaking another tongue. Props for learning to speak local. It’s tough work.
9. Learn enthusiastically, but don’t do this:
I grew up in Taiwan. My parents are Taiwanese. I wish I can tell you that no expats have tried to teach me the meaning of my own name after living in Asia for two year, or correct my knowledge of local politics. But sadly, that’s happened too many times. Being sub-literate doesn’t stop them, either. Yeah, you already know that’s awful.
10. And finally: have a blast.
Uprooting yourself to a new country is a bold move. And expats are mostly fun, smart, and kind people. Expats face their share of discrimination, too, though James Baldwin’s travelogues in Switzerland will show you that not all discrimination cuts the same way.
Be awesome. Be strong. Cheers to the voyage, and best of luck living abroad–