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Saturday, March 26, 2016

Exotica: Why I Love Living Abroad

Living in a foreign culture can be a visceral existence to say the least. There's never a dull moment. Around every corner there's a confounding curiosity, an exchange highlighted by a smile, or perhaps an ambiguous glance.  You may need that figurative playbook, the one you keep in your back pocket or purse, to help you translate what just happened. 

My favorite scene from the movie Ghostbusters ironically may shed some insight. It's the one where Bill Murray's character, Dr. Peter Venkman, knocks on the apartment door of Sigourney Weaver, playing a woman possessed by the devil. She opens the door, seething from her dark world. He meanders in, in his capacity as world class ghostbuster. Weaver immediately starts coming on to him in her devilish stupor. Now splayed across her huge bed, he pushes her away, proclaiming, "I have a rule never to have sex with a possessed woman." Not easily deterred, Weaver continues trying to sexually overwhelm Murray. Suddenly, he sits up and says with a sly smile, "Well, maybe it's more of a guideline."

Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters. Living in a foreign country requires navigating
the often unclear rules and guidelines of a culture

Seeking to understand the rules and guidelines of a place is part and parcel of living abroad. It's the caffeine in the experience. How does a place work? What are the rules and laws? What is it they might drag me away for? Just as important, are the informal guidelines of the culture--the routine expectations one needs to know to navigate day-in and day-out without leaving too large of an expat wake that unsettles the natives' boats.

Back home, the rules and guidelines are more intuitive. Nearly all the background chatter is intelligible to my senses. My knowledge of where the boundaries lie, and where the footing might be soft, saves me from cascading over a cultural cliff. Life is normative, not exotic.

One time in Korea, decades ago, I had missed all the signs, literally and figuratively. A friend and I were walking along a isolated, pebbly beach. We were lost in a world of our own. Suddenly there were screams, unrecognizable yelling, all of it in Korean. Soldiers came rushing toward us demanding that we come to a halt. We had been walking along a beach mined to protect that part of the coastline from North Korean infiltrators. We had been oblivious to all known rules and guidelines. Luckily, we lived to see another adventure.

The cultural landscape can be riddled with social "landmines"
Less dangerous, but still highly stimulating are the more mundane encounters of life in a foreign culture. What's the guideline, for example, when during a rare quiet moment on a tour of the DPRK, your North Korean tour guide who, until that moment had been distant and staunchly pro-North Korean, turns speaking in a low voice, to talk about her personal life?  Handling this awkward encounter was not mentioned in our pre-tour briefing.

Once, while walking on a busy downtown street, clothed in my youth and naivety, a new Korean buddy reached across our cultural divide to hold my hand. Chills of embarrassment ran up and down my spine. The idea of two guys holding hands in public pushed me way out of my comfort zone. The guideline here, of course, was that its quite normal for Korean friends of the same sex to hold hands.

These experiences, sometimes significant, but more typically innocuous, occur on a daily basis living in a foreign place. They become exotica, objects considered strange or interesting, because they are out of the ordinary, your ordinary. They make living overseas unrelentingly stimulating.

Having spent many years living and working in so-called foreign cultures, thoughts of returning home raise perplexing quandaries. Will life be as exciting, or even as interesting? Will I miss the familiar smells and sounds that have come to define my life in Korea? Will my life be less exotic, and does that even matter?

I don't imagine I will ever lose the wanderlust that flows through every fiber of my being. Nor, the thrill of discovering the peculiar rules and guidelines of distant places. In the spirit of ghostbusting, I trust there will always be doors too tempting not to open.