Expat Failures Where It’s Impossible to Fail, Vol I: The ‘Going-Out’ Shirt

Writer’s note: I wrote this in 2014 while living in Bangkok, basing it on nightlife experiences in the darker corners of China, Thailand, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. Fear not, it is more of an anthropological piece on the characters you find in such places rather than anything autobiographical. 🙂

It’s Wednesday night in a Shenzhen salsa club. Ladies night. You’re surrounded by other 30-to-50-something foreigners somewhere around the same range as yourself — but you stopped counting (and celebrating) birthdays after the divorce and the subsequent onslaught of day-in-day-out meals alone.

You can’t salsa, but you’ve been telling yourself for months that this is the night you’ll go out and try something new. You’ll try to have a conversation with someone of the opposite sex. But when you spot a 3/10 you think might be within your range and finally work up the courage to talk to her after a double-shot of counterfeit Johnny Walker that somehow hints at both varnish and varnish-remover in equal parts, she and her friend immediately turn away from you in avoidance, covering their mouths and blushing with embarrassment. As if you never even walked over and spoke to them. As if you were never even there.

Feeling an inch tall, you lean up against the wall next to several aged Filipina prostitutes. They scatter like birds, leaving you exposed and alone. The wall is sticky, and when you try to shift off it, it pulls fuzz off your Kenneth Cole going-out shirt. The droning sound of the (also Filipino) cover band mumbling their way through a salsa-remix of Sir Mix-a-lot’s “Baby Got Back” intensifies, reverberating in your skull. Your ears ring as the smoke, music, and loneliness make the room swim. Every single major choice in your life that has brought you to this moment seems to replay at the same time in your head, a dizzying visualization of a thousand memories overlapping. You slump to the ground, leaving a hundred fuzzy fibers of cheap, pilled cotton stuck to the wall above you.

You have just confirmed what you long suspected: Tonight is a microcosm of the rest of your life as an illicit English tutor without credentials. Staggering to your feet, the plastic Oxfords you are wearing (the same ones you always wear when you go out, even though they give you blisters and bite into your Achilles’s tendon) threaten to take each foot in divergent directions on the cocktail and vomit-slick floor. Somehow you steady yourself, and in that tiny moment of physical stability, you feel clarity. You begin making your way to the roof. You’re on the fifth floor. Should be good enough. On the way up, you fantasize that your ex-wife and son will read about it and care.

But you know they won’t.

A Modest Proposal to Fix America

It doesn’t take more than a few minutes outside my gated high-rise condominium to see that something’s gone slightly awry with the United States of America. It’s particularly noticeable to me after spending the last 12-13 years overseas — but don’t worry, I’ve got some solutions. They’re quite modest, really, and I think you’ll like them.

First, let’s identify the problem: The symptom is that there is far too much stupid shit being written on the internet by people who have no appreciation for the things they have. It might appear to the casual observer to be a problem with free speech, but what I’m willing to bet all of California on is that it’s really a bunch of folk who have never experienced anything but comfort and convenience. Tl;dr: America is just too darn great. Not for everyone, of course. We do have one or two people living under the poverty line. And, I mean sure, we have some *ahem* minor issues here, there, and in the closet and under the rug… but, really, if it weren’t the case that it’s just too easy to survive in America, then what’s with the 36 million Americans active daily on Twitter? How can this random page I found that supports my point say that Americans spend two hours a day watching YouTube, and Americans aged 16-29 spend three hours a day on social media on average? And what is that time on social media doing to these disgusting, craven, and sinful individuals? Making them hateful towards each other. So now that I’ve identified that the problem is a lack of perspective to appreciate our privileges, let’s get into the solutions.

I used to think that we could solve American’s problems with perspective by forcing everyone to leave the country for two years, but then I realized that they’d probably just go to Canada or Amsterdam and become even lazier socialists than they already are: What we need are targeted solutions to specific problems.

Naturally of course, Americans will first need to be implanted with a modest iPhone-sized data-collection system that lets the government record precisely how much time is spend engaging with each media platform. You might be thinking that it would be difficult to get people to have a deck-of-card-sized chip implanted in them for this purpose, but I actually already have a foolproof way to quickly get majority coverage of the American populace.

Give Elon Musk another huge low-interest loan in exchange for him tweeting about how cool the chip is, then go on the Joe Rogan experience to talk it up. Amazon would sell them for dirt cheap, Lew could do a live-implanting on Unbox Therapy. I estimate we can get a quick 50% of the US right there.

Naturally, we can’t expect everyone to jump on board so haphazardly, so we’re also going to need to associate this horribly invasive tumescent chip with social causes it has nothing to do with: An LGBTQ+ rainbow-flag version, a BLM edition, an Amazon-exclusive “stop violence against Asian-Americans” one, a “science is real” one for the Academic hold-outs, and, of course, “Freedom Chip” editions in red, white, and blue. Again, pay no mind to the fact that this chip has nothing to do with (or is even anathema to) the causes we affiliate each edition with — nothing could be less important!

Hell, I already want five of these babies in me! Let’s make a special offer where anyone with all the editions of the chip installed gets free Amazon Prime for life… when they get back, of course.

“Wait, where will they going?” I hear you ask. Modern problems require modern solutions, and we’ll have to split things up according to whichever social media the subject engages most with.

Twitter users seem to enjoy conflict, and so will get sent to Yemen, where they will be tasked with one of two different objectives: Regular Twitter users will be tasked with providing humanitarian aid to the besieged and beleaguered country. “Blue check” users will be tasked with front-line combat and airstrike-targeting for our allies.

Facebook users mostly seem to want to see and experience the same things over and over again in service to a horrible corporate entity ruining the world, and so they can perform their overseas service by working in rare earth mines.

TikTok users like stupid dances and attention, and so they will be sent to parent country of their favourite application, the People’s Republic of China, where they will spend two years traveling as a touring troupe of foreign entertainers to be paraded around the country for the satisfaction of the Party elite.

LinkedIn users are primarily interested in ladder-climbing, making vacuous statements like “Nice post, Greg!” or “Congrats on the promotion, Sally!”, and sharing meaningless corporate platitudes. Actually, on second thought, let’s just shoot these people into space. If they make it back, then they’re probably ingenious enough to actually contribute something beyond a co-working start-up.

With a standard overseas tour length of two years, I have a feeling that whoever makes it back is going to find that running out of almond milk will no longer redline their cortisol. Perhaps someone cutting them off in traffic won’t literally actually totally ruin their whole day. Maybe they won’t think it’s so enjoyable to only be able to do as you’re told. Maybe they’ll get a bit less upset by Mr. Potatohead, someone using words that hurt their feelings, be a little more judicious about calling random people racist/sexist/fascist/Nazis, and find new value for the human rights they didn’t have for just a short little while. It would go a long way towards helping us find a healthier perspective.

Oh, and I almost forgot about the worst offenders: Hypocrites writing inflammatory clickbait nonsense. These people are just *the worst*, and, like LinkedIn users, are probably irredeemable. We’ll have to take more ruthless measures against them in order to stop their propagation of nonsen—

—hold on, there’s someone banging on my door. At this hour? Midnight?! Hold on, let me get that. I’ll be right back to finish this piece of quality writing.

Recommended: Dr. Shanna Swan on the Chemicals Causing our Hormonal (and Reproductive) Decline

Dr. Shanna Swan has been studying the effects of phthalates and plastics for over 20 years, writing over 200 papers trying to get word out about how badly plastics have been damaging our hormonal and reproductive health. The pitch of her new book, “Count Down”, follows:

“In 2017, Shanna Swan and her team of researchers completed a major study. They found that over the previous four decades, sperm levels among men in Western countries had plummeted by more than 50 percent. The results sent shockwaves around the globe—but that was just the beginning. It turns out that sexual development is also changing broadly, for both men and women, and that the modern world is on pace to become an infertile one.

How and why could this happen? What is hijacking our fertility and our health? Count Down reveals what Swan and other researchers have learned about how chemical exposures are affecting our fertility, sexual development—even, perhaps, gender identity—and general health. Not just an illuminating overview of a grave threat but a helpful guide to protecting against it, Count Down is an urgent wake-up call, an enjoyable read, and a vital tool for understanding our future.”

Before her 2017 study was published, I was seeing a hormonal specialist in Hong Kong. He told me, with the caveat that the research hadn’t completely confirmed it (yet), that he would bet his life that chemicals in our environment — particularly from plastics — were responsible for lowered testosterone and sperm count in men and earlier puberty for women. I am not surprised to find out how correct he was.

But why is Dr. Swan on Joe Rogan? Because nobody outside of her group of research specialists seemed to have been following her research over nearly two decades. When I was teaching at HKUST, I co-wrote a capstone course on communicating science to the public. The rationale for the development of the course was that media has extremely little space for covering science, and when it does so, it misrepresents it. The changing media landscape now demands that scientists find ways to publicize important findings to the public on their own. It’s somewhat unfortunate, but I think this is actually a very beneficial skill for scientists to learn for themselves — the ability to contextualize and communicate without misinterpretation by the lay public.

As an aside, Dr. Swan’s research focuses on plastic and pesticide-related hormonal issues in the West, noting that Europe has much stronger protections against plastics, Phthalates and Phenols, and pesticides. However, much of the world, particularly Southeast Asian countries, such as the Philippines and Thailand, have extremely high usage of plastics and fertilizers — even those banned in the US. I suspect that the global impact of these chemicals on hormone levels and fertility issues is even more serious than Dr. Swan’s research suggests it is in the US.

It’s a great podcast, and well worth the 90 minutes of your time. All hope is not lost, either: Swan believes that the damage may be reversible in just three generations if we take sufficient action.

On Having Vision

Photo by Douglas Black

Author’s note: This essay was written in early 2019, when I was still living in my adopted home of Hong Kong.

“Wisdom is acting on knowledge.” God Help me, that’s a quote from Russel Brand, I think.

We live in an age of unprecedented access to information, and we’re only just beginning to understand the potential for it. Despite a few (hopefully soon to fade) black marks of internet censorship, we are all more informed than ever before on a global scale. We know about the current inferno consuming the Amazon rainforest, poverty (not financial, but lack of resources), climate change, tribalism, human-rights violations, etc. — but what can we actually do about it?

A lot, I propose.

What we’ve lacked historically is a lack of a vision for where we are going. Elected leaders are more focused on managing domestic issues, and few (if any, other than perhaps Barack Obama) were elected based on a positive global vision. But it looks like we need one now more than ever.

That’s what it looks like for me here in Hong Kong, but I’m sure that’s what it looks like for many elsewhere, as well. So again: what can we realistically do? Strive to make a difference with your personal conduct. I’m not going to quote Ghandi because I’m too affected to be trite, but it’s time we collectively look within, find our values, and adhere to them.

I’m not telling anyone to stop eating meat or to throw out your smartphone. I’m just saying that everything we do has an impact and we are all somehow connected by only a few degrees. I’ve been trying to stop eating fish and other seafood after I started seeing less and less fish in the ocean on my SCUBA dives; I’m now trying to not eat the meat of any animal I would not kill myself; I’m trying to help people be informed, find themselves, and connect with my writing and music. Maybe it helps (I think it does), or maybe it doesn’t. But it feels good to just try.

Nobody’s perfect, and I don’t advocate trying to be. But we need to stop trying to disconnect ourselves from our actions and instead try doing the opposite.

Find your ethics; listen to them; and then figure out what direction you want to head in. Hopefully, we’ll all meet somewhere in the middle.

Why Hypocrites Are Dangerous

“Red Guards” performing their morning ritual reading of Mao’s “Little Red Book”. Image Credit: Keystone/Getty Images

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I have always disliked about double-standards (despite still having a few of my own). It’s related to something I’ve also spent a lot of time trying to figure out: the common denominator between all people who have done historically horrible things the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, the Cambodian genocide, the Uyghur genocide, and so on. It’s got little to do with left/right politics, but instead it’s what has often been called “the zeitgeist”, or “the spirit of the age”. In other words, when people do what other people are doing because it’s what everyone else is doing. When they aren’t thinking, but conforming.

What really bothers me about hypocrisy is that it’s irrefutable proof that people don’t actually believe in the things they purport to. If you say you believe in freedom of speech, but you don’t believe people who say things that you don’t like should have freedom of speech, then you don’t believe in freedom of speech. You don’t value it — you value the appearance of saying you value it while acting the opposite. If you have beliefs you can’t comfortably defend, then you likely don’t actually believe in those things. You believe in them by chance, because you adopted those positions from those around you. As a frequently used example, if say that all life is sacred and are anti-abortion on those grounds while being adamantly hawkish about killing people accross the world before exhausting diplomatic options, then you don’t really believe life is sacred.

So what disturbs me about people who don’t believe in the things they claim to believe, who adopted their beliefs because they sounded good or because they were popular or “safe” to have, is that they have those “beliefs” completely by coincidence.

Psychologically, there is just one difference between someone who thinks all democrats hate America and want to see it destroyed and someone who thinks all republicans hate poor people and minorities is that they happened to be in an environment where those views are condoned. Many on the left and on the right are precisely the same kind of useful idiot. The same kind of useful idiot who turned in their Jewish neighbors to the SS, or reported their parents to the Red Guard for being anti-revolutionaries because its in the spirit of the times. A dangerous liability, because they can be easily manipulated into doing horrible things.

So that’s indeed quite depressing, but there is one upside. For as long as there have been useful idiots caught up in the zeitgeist, there have been people who had ideals and values that they wouldn’t compromise. People listened to their morals and refused to comply even when it could (and often did) cost them their mortal lives. As far as I can tell, for as long as there have been people who have done horrible things to others, there have been people who refused to, often at great sacrifice. That gives me hope.

Visit Your Local DMV

Image Credit: Unknown

For an expat, going to the Visa Centre in many countries elicits the same feeling as going to the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) for an American. They both bring any pretenses of who you may have thought you were in your day job, and remind you that you’re a human being. That we’re all just human beings working to survive.

I visited my local DMV today. If you’ve never been, the staples of the DMV experience are always the same: the dispassionate, bored, and disconnected dispositions, the ugly government building design, done at lowest possible cost, the water fountain area, the restrooms, and, of course, the large waiting room of bucket-seats — where the real action happens: waiting. These winter days, of course, due to the Wuhan virus, the waiting has to happen outside, in a queue. 

Passed all of those standard fixtures of the experience, though, there are the humans who are just trying to survive and provide for their close ones. And due to the close quarters, it is inevitable that people’s own realities open up and seep (or sometimes, gush) out from around them. A man giving guidance over the phone to a family member in a bad situation. The long-haul trucker, who is just at the DMV for a permit — but is also just a trucker because it’s the only job he could get that would help him pay off his home mortgage payments. People working fast-food service to pay their rents or mortgages. The middle-class, working unglamorous jobs. Americans, just trying to get by.

It was the long-haul trucker who interested me most. He had been giving advice to a close friend or family member (I couldn’t tell) about getting away from toxic family members. It seemed the girl on the other end had a mother who was manipulating her, stealing money, and otherwise taking advantage of the girl. I’ve been in similar situations with people who I let attach themselves to me, wanting nothing more than to bring me down with them, and I could imagine how bad things could get for an adolescent girl in such a situation. Her father was advising her in no uncertain terms a silent move away from her mother, and to not tell her where she moved to. “Find a new job, start a new life, and move silently,” he repeated urgently.

I can only guess how many other people there are, single or otherwise, trying their best to survive while also being responsible for their dependents. This is the reality that a very large proportion of our country is living. It’s not facebook, Netflix, and being offended. It’s not the reality of $200,000 a year salaried IT workers for Google or Apple on the West coast. It’s not the reality of the Washington D.C. elite. But I believe this is the reality of what could perhaps be called the “silent majority of middle-class America” — people too busy working to survive to give themselves a voice on media.

Maybe we should all visit the DMV more often.

Can We Defeat Totalitarianism Without Becoming Totalitarian?

Image Credit: Unknown

In late 2009, a man ran through a crowded Beijing street with a sword, stabbing around 18 people and killing an unknown number of them. Who was he, why did he do it? People will never know: It was banned from being reported as it would disturb the public to know something like this had occurred — there was no benefit for the Party if it was reported. Thus, the Party determined it would not be on the news and any mention or discussion of it online would be scrubbed.

The only reason I know of this event is because a friend of mine worked for Chinese state TV at the time, and they had been told by the party not to report on the event — so, of course, by telling people what not to report, they knew roughly what had transpired.

In 2014, when a terrorist attack in Kunming killed dozens of people at a train station, it was reported widely. The knife-wielding attackers were terrorists furious over ongoing Uyghur repression in Xinjiang, and stoking fear, anger, and overseas sympathy all served the party. State newspapers and foreign newspapers alike reported on the tragedy for weeks.

In relatively free societies where media and other facets of life are not tightly controlled by the state, it is not a political party or government who determines what news is reported on, but instead the prerogatives of the journalists and editors. I say “relatively free”, because today the vast majority of newsrooms are based on ratings/clicks for revenue. Without a tightly state-curated online environment, individuals are free to upload content to private corporate platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Substack, Reddit, et al. if they wish to report on their own news. In this case, certain content and perspectives are projected according to the publication, and censorship is performed by the staff running the platforms according to their own beliefs and interests.

Time for the big questions: How can a society plagued by petty in-fighting and divided artificially resist the combined power of another people bound by a singular ideology, regardless of how bankrupt that ideology may be? How can such a loosely organized, chaotic and distracted people come together and achieve what is necessary to prevent the ever-creeping encroachment of totalitarian dictatorships?

Do we need a unifying media presence? Public news that is neither for profit, nor censored according to private companies’ ideologies? A coordinated, cohesive voice that tells people what to pay attention to and care about so that we can actually get something done rather than pull ourselves apart? Is there even a way for such a thing to exist anymore, and if there were, would it even be sufficient? And would doing so not put that society at risk of becoming totalitarian itself?

And, don’t forget the kicker: The result of falling to totalitarianism is becoming totalitarian. These might be difficult questions to ask and answer, but we avoid asking them at the risk of losing the ability to question at all.