My White Face Opens Doors

I was reading earlier in the week that several people have been pondering the meaning of the word “expat” and why the definition of expat seems to include only white westerners who are living in a foreign country, while everyone else would be referred to as immigrants. As an expat myself for much of the past twenty years, it’s an interesting question and has many important features to ponder. It touches on difficult topics of race, ethnicity, colonialism, white privilege, socioeconomic status as well as many possible areas. It’s a lot to consider and nothing a short blog post will be able to do justice to.

However, I do have to acknowledge that my white face opens doors. Today I had a perfect example of this. For the past couple of hours, I’ve been buzzing around Georgetown (Penang) checking out the Chinese New Year decor. When it was time to find a restroom, I, without putting any thought into it whatsoever, walked into a hotel, through the lobby and to their bathroom near the first floor restaurant. I made no gesture towards any of the hotel’s commercial endeavors. I simply walked in, used the restroom, and walked out.

The doorman didn’t notice me. The front counter reception barely glanced my way. The other guests milling around in the lobby didn’t have any sort of shocked look on their faces. I was a six-foot three, white American in a Southeast Asian country and yet it was if I was an invisible man – completely blending into my surroundings.

I bring this up because my face, at that moment of entry, acted as my “passport” into that hotel. I conjecture that the homeless person sleeping across the street wouldn’t have been afforded such a safe passage. In fact, while the hotel has guests from a multi-cultural background, I’m confident that not just anyone of any color or dress would have been treated (or in my case – not treated at all) that way.

It’s an uncomfortable truth of living here. I enjoy certain privileges simply because I have more means than some. At the same time, I will be the first to admit that I am no better, and often times much worse, than my fellow humans. There’s nothing magical about having a white face, but yet I must admit that there is a difference. I’ve experienced it numerous times in my time in Asia.

Expats live a good life, but there is nothing I hate worse than a spoiled expat who believes that he or she deserves that good life. I’ve seen my fair share of those kind of people, unfortunately. Like the time when an expat I knew was complaining about a power outage and yelled, “I deserve electricity! I’m American!” It was cringe-worthy.

Or the snide comments about how “they do things here.” A little patronizing, perhaps?

May we all come to the place in our lives when we can look at another human being and realize that they are another human being – no different from ourselves and race and socioeconomic status means nothing.

We’re humans. We might as well act like them.

My Story: I Stand Out in an Asian Crowd

I wrote this for another website a while back. It sums me up well, though, so I thought I’d post it here.

I stand out in a crowd in Asia.

That may seem like a strange place to start in telling my story, but it has been the one constant truth in my life for the better part of 20 years.  I’m a strange site, indeed.

I’ve gotten used to the stares and comments, but at first, it was quite a change for a shy, country boy from Western Pennsylvania.

That’s where I grew up, playing baseball, following my beloved Pirates, and knowing near nothing of Asia. Strangely enough, one of the very few novels I read during my high school years was Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth.  I also remember loving the children’s book we had at our house about a boy in China and the flock of ducks that followed him around. But that was about it, for me. I didn’t even like rice.

I went to college and majored in English, because I didn’t know what else to do. I married my lovely wife a week after college graduation and settled into normal American life. But it was not to be. I spent the summer of 1992 in China teaching English, and that experience changed everything for me. I couldn’t wait to get back to Asia. I didn’t have to wait long.

In 1994, my wife and I moved to Vietnam with our 15-month-old daughter. We stayed for ten years. Then in 2006 we moved to Malaysia, where we currently reside.

What does all of this have to do with my writing? Everything.

My overseas experiences have become the fodder for all of my stories. I am inspired by diverse cultures, and I have become a completely different person – and a completely different writer.

My first novel, Beauty Rising, rose out of my experiences in Vietnam. My second novel, The Recluse Storyteller, is also partially set in Vietnam. My third, yet to be published novel, The Reach of the Banyan Tree, is my epic story about my love for Vietnam, set in two different time periods; it’s a story I can’t wait to publish. (It’s coming in July 2014!)

My time in Malaysia, living on the beautiful, tropical island of Penang, has been my muse. Since I moved here nearly 8 years ago, I’ve rekindled my love for writing. I’ve written and produced 11 full-length stage plays, and I’m working on my fourth novel.

And more importantly, I get to daily eat some of the best food in the world. Trust me, Penang is a food paradise.

I’m a lucky man; I know that. I have a wonderful family, and I love to tell stories about the human experience from my uniquely formed Asian worldview.

I’m also tall and white and stand out in an Asian crowd, yet I fit right at home at a roadside stall or a small dive-of-a-cafe.

I hope you’ll give one of my stories a try.