Choosing When to Be a Local
And When to Be an Outsider
May 9, 2008
Since arriving in China three years ago my family has been determined to explore as much of Asia as possible. Though it can be exhausting and expensive, we push on, conscious that our time here is limited.
My wife or I sometimes spend hours sequestered in a hotel corner pecking away at a laptop while the rest of the family sleeps or enjoys an adventure, but we always try to head for the airport or train station and set out for somewhere every time our kids have a break from school.
One of the differences in my travels since becoming an expat is I naturally find myself contemplating what it would be like to live in the places I am visiting, something that never occurred to me before.
So it was last week, when we made our first trip to Japan, traveling to Kyoto and Osaka, where we spent a day with Douglas Schafer, a childhood friend whom I hadn’t seen in over 20 years. He has lived in Japan for 16 years, is married to a Japanese woman and is raising three kids there. He helped us get a handle on this fascinating place, which seems a world away from China. Spending time with him also brought home the contrast between a short-term expat like myself and someone who chooses to live abroad indefinitely, like Douglas.
I have never felt comfortable when readers or friends and relatives back home describe our decision to move to Beijing as brave, something I have heard many times. I think it was a no-brainer with relatively little risk involved. We had the opportunity to come to China for a limited amount of time, secure in the knowledge that “home” was waiting. I believe that long-term expats like Douglas have made the truly difficult and courageous decision to cast their lots in a foreign nation. He, however, rejects that notion.
“When I came to Japan I had no kids and very little to lose so I wasn’t really making as big a decision as you did,” he says. “I had not planned on being here this long. I also think it is very American to be so surprised that someone would move to another country to live and work — which is exactly what America needs more people to do. Your decision was a big one for the kids, but most people look at the negative rather than the positive, while I view it as absolutely a good thing to have done.”
As a lifer expat, with a long-term time horizon, Douglas has been able to watch a lot of changes take place in his adopted country. That’s the kind of thing often missed by short-term expats like me, on a definitively timed assignment with solid plans to return home. Talking to Douglas, who has witnessed a good deal of Japan’s advancement from developing to developed country, brought home that many of the stark differences between China and Japan, which can be lazily chalked up to differences in national character, may actually have more to do with phases of development.
China is still a place where you might see people strolling outside in pajamas in the middle of the day. When the weather’s warm, men sit on the sidewalk playing cards or eating lunch with their shirts rolled up, exposing their sweaty bellies. In Japan, cab drivers dress formally, mostly sporting ties, white gloves and chauffer caps. The trains are modern and high speed.
To really get to the bottom of the differences between China and Japan it helps to start at the literal bottom — the toilets. Though rapidly improving, China still has many shockingly unsanitary restrooms. I have smelled and seen things that will be with me forever. And even decent restrooms in nice places often lack soap. Japan, on the other hand, seems to have a fetish for bathroom cleanliness. The toilets do everything except pull your pants up and down, often featuring a wide array of bottom-cleaning water sprays.
A friend who recently moved back to the U.S. after a decade in China told me he always enjoyed visiting Japan, finding its orderliness “a perfect antidote to the craziness of China.”
It didn’t take long to understand what he meant; Japan seems to be structured where China is chaotic. While this made me feel like Japan was a great place to visit — particularly as a break from China — I also thought it would be a tough place to feel at home. People in Japan were largely friendly and welcoming, but often with an underlying rigidity that kept me worrying about my children’s behavior, which always seems to teeter on the unruly. It’s a feeling I often have in the U.S. but rarely in China, where people generally seem to be charmed by mischievous kids. I like China’s informality and enjoy its chaos, which feeds a sense that anything is possible and is partially a natural byproduct of a society in transition.
As Douglas pointed out, most of the shrines and beautiful temples in Kyoto still have squatty toilets, which dominated Japan just a decade ago. “China is basically where Japan was 20 years ago,” he said.
As we sat chatting in the living room of his home in the Osaka hills, his three kids and mine played downstairs. Thirty-five years after Douglas and I made mud pies in a Pittsburgh park, our children played Wii in an Osaka basement. It felt both totally natural and somewhat surreal.
As a foreigner in a fairly closed society and an entrepreneur in a culture that reveres the company man, Douglas is a double outsider — but he actually views his status as an advantage.
“As a foreigner in Japan I have one benefit that the Japanese don’t have and that is I get to choose when I want to be local and when I want to be the outsider,” he says. “That means I can live the life I want without having to obey all the rules that someone like my wife has to. I think that a key to expats who want to make it long term here both in business and in day-to-day life is understanding when to be an American outsider, as we can never be 100% a part of the Japanese culture.”
While Douglas has had to learn when to try to be an insider and when to revel in being an outsider, his kids will likely move with ease between the two different cultures. The three boys are truly third culture kids, growing up in Japan with a Japanese mother and an American father. His two younger sons attend Japanese schools, while the oldest, now 13, recently transferred to an international school, where he is studying in English. Many friends in China in similar situations make the same decision, ensuring that the child will be literate in Chinese (or Japanese) characters and also fluent in English.
Douglas’s kids speak both languages as a mother tongue. They have both U.S. and Japanese passports and spend their summers attending summer camp with their American cousins. But they are not likely to move to their father’s home country any time soon.
“It would be hard at this point to return to America,” Douglas told me later, over a beautiful and lengthy dinner of endless, delicate dishes I never could have ordered myself; his wife Sayuki did a masterful job. “I have laid down a business, created strong friendships and have family roots that would be too hard to tear up and start over.”
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Write to me and I’ll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don’t want your letter published. I received a tremendous amount of mail regarding my last column about some Beijing expats’ efforts to assist Wang Ming Zhi, a migrant construction worker who was badly burned in an accident. This probably generated more responses from Chinese readers than any other single column.
Please let me know how I may send some money to assist Mr. Wang. I feel compelled to offer whatever assistance I am able to.
— Bill Constantine
Many writers from all over the world wrote with the same question.
I am honored that so many people were touched enough to want to assist.
Those wishing to donate to the medical, living and educational expenses of the Wang Ming Zhi family can contact Lisa Rassi directly at email@example.com.
If you are in Beijing she is happy to meet you, and also introduce you to the Wang family if you are interested.
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Your article about Wang Ming Zhi is very touching. I have seen some disabled person like Wang and have spared some money to them. I often participate in charities organized by my residential area to help disaster areas. I know that there are too many cases of aiding people in difficulty from past to present, home and abroad. Domestic media often cover cases like this. However, I still get moved by the story about the spirit of his family’s persistence and the caring foreigners who helped them. That brings hope to this world and makes me understand the world better. So many people need to be helped, why don’t we start with trivial things around us?
— Li Yi
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Thanks for the help made by you and your team to Mr. Wang Ming Zhi. What you did makes this world better. You not only lead a better life but also make others live in a more quality and nice way. I think this transcends different backgrounds such as culture and region. Your kind behavior should be praised.
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Thanks for your help to Mr. Wang. There is no border to kindness and caring which has nothing to do with politics. You really touched me.
— Zhang Zhiqiang
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I am a Chinese student. It’s my honor to mail the letter to you, a foreigner whose act moved my heart deeply. Recently I didn’t do well in an English oral exam. After reading your moving column, I have the courage to meet the new challenge again. I believe that you have added something important to my life.
— Xu Yue
Thank you all. I’m honored and touched by your kind words, but I just wrote the story. People like Justin Hansen and Lisa Rassi really have helped Mr. Wang and his family.
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The latest article reminds me of a woman I see almost every morning, asking for help. I once gave her a dollar, but never stopped to find out more about her. The next time I see her, I will be sure to stop.
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Thank you very much for everything you have done for the poor beggar from Henan province and please forward my gratitude to everyone who has helped him. Your report shows the dark side of China’s unbalanced development. Behind high-rise skyscrapers and world-class hotels there are indeed people who can not afford their children’s education and even three meals a day. While some Chinese keep a blind eye to all these problems, you reached out your hands of help. Your story left me deeply moved and a big thanks to you all.
— A Chinese reader of WSJ
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After living a high-flying life in San Francisco and New York City, I recently decided to pursue my Masters degree in South Africa. In addition to studying philosophy, I am now volunteering with two organizations here in Cape Town that work with orphaned and street children.
You perfectly articulated what is often difficult to articulate: that the poverty here is both very “in your face” and yet quite removed; there is very little physical separation — the shacks and wandering, lost children are constant reminders — yet it is as if I live in a different world from them — one that employs several security guards in my apartment building, etc.
You also highlighted that help here goes much further and is much more personal than in the US. In working with these children, I find that I am not just a supplement to what they already have — I often fill the “caring adult” role that is simply missing in their lives. The only thing that I would have added to your column is that it can be difficult to find the balance between ignoring the poverty (“rolling up our windows”) and trying to help without becoming too emotionally overwhelmed by the amount of need in developing countries.
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Your story about Wang Ming Zhi shows that we are the most caring people in this world. Even as an expat one does not forget where one came from and how to help others in need. Thank you for bringing this story out and showing those in China that not all U.S. citizens are lazy individuals who don’t care about anyone but themselves.
— Chris Landauer
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I also continued to receive some insightful feedback about my previous column, concerning the taxation of American citizens living abroad.
As a specialist in expatriate taxation, one interesting thing we have found in our practice is that it is sometimes not in an expatriate’s best interest to claim the exclusion at all. We now analyze each return both with the exclusion and without (and using foreign tax credits only) to see which way results in lower taxes. This would only be applicable to someone who has income in the $200,000 range or higher, and is working in a high tax country. The mechanics of the exclusion at that level of income doesn’t work to reduce tax as much as the foreign tax credit does, and foreign tax credits alone can be better. This can also be an advantage in that if you are claiming only foreign tax credits you don’t need to be concerned about meeting the qualifying time tests for the exclusion.
— Carol-Ann Simon
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I’m a CPA in California, and I e-file all my expats. All I have to do is be sure the address syntax matches what the IRS and my software people want to see, and it goes right through. Contrary to what a letter writer said and you seconded, it definitely is possible to e-file expat U.S. citizens and green card holders.
— Barbara J. Aue