I’ve walked for miles, my feet are hurting
All I want is for you to make love to me

Beast of Burden by The Rolling Stones

When expats make comments about their host country, how does it make a local feel?

Even if you agree with what is being said, you may choose not give that opinion much weight or credit. More often than not, the reaction an expat gets is: “Go back, then”, You just don’t get it” or “You have no stake in the future of this country.”

Is it justifiable to say such things?

A key ingredient to understanding a people, a nation or even a region is context. When we apply a foreign modality to a local region, there is always the risk of misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

Following on from that, I would like to ask a second question: should expats be allowed to meddle in or influence a country’s home affairs? Are they temporary residents or long staying guests?

If they are guests, then we may treat them well or poorly depending on our cultural compass. If they are temporary residents, then they are like turtles, simply stopping by before the next destination.

I have lived my life as an expat for 12 years, both as a temporary guest and sometimes as a visitor who had overstayed my welcome. In every country, there is a divide that exists between locals and foreigners. For some, the longer you’ve lived in a country, the more that divide begins to blur. For others, the longer you’ve resided in a place, the more that sense of nostalgia grows for a long lost space in time that no longer exists upon your return.

Given my history, it may be tempting for people to believe that I adapt easily or effortlessly. Just because it looks easy to the external world does not automatically make it so. Like the turtle, I slowly and surely adapted to the ways of my host country like an adopted kid who knew that this was not my birth family, but had been there long enough to begin thinking of it in that regard. The problem was: I didn’t look anything like my adopted parents and we didn’t share the same genes.

Sometimes we depart from our homelands due to extenuating circumstances and at other times we depart because a better or more fulfilling opportunity presented itself. In either case, we leave seeking our fortune. As to whether that fortune is of an emotional, material or spiritual nature; that is a very individual matter.

In 2020, the movement of peoples across borders screeched to a sudden halt. In the heyday of international travel, my generation had numerous opportunities to travel for pleasure, leisure, work and education. Those valuable opportunities to uproot, reorient and reroot oneself have all disappeared. We have been forced to stay put where we are and call it a day.

We may look across that vast ocean and dream about the day that we will finally be able to cross it, but the truth is, for the vast majority of us; there is absolutely nowhere to go. If you can go out to a restaurant and have a meal, consider yourself lucky.

In 2018, the year prior to the COVID crisis, I unexpectedly found myself on a globetrotting extravaganza, the stories of which I narrated in my second book The Merchant of Stories.

Am I restless? Am I dreaming of greener pastures? Do I dream of the next great adventure?

Yes, yes and yes.

But perhaps this time around, the adventure is not about making a trip to a faraway land; but about returning to my roots and allowing an uprooted tree to return to the earth where it was born.

I’m still restless. I still gaze across the ocean and dream of greener pastures. I still see myself embarking on that next great adventure.

But, perhaps, there is only one place in the world for me.

Instead of being a turtle that transverses the globe as though the entire globe were all home; perhaps I have slowly and surely morphed into a stubborn ox that is obstinate, unyielding and unmovable.

Unlike turtles which carry their homes on their backs and take it with them wherever they go, the ox can pull twice its body weight, which is why they have been used for transportation and farming purposes for centuries. The phrase ‘slow and steady’ has been used to describe both the tortoise and the ox. Both animals are known for their longevity and ability to outlive and outlast.

Where the tortoise and ox differ is in their own individual journeys. The ox works the land. Due to the contribution and the staying power of the ox, the land becomes more productive, creating value that did not exist prior to its arrival on the scene. The tortoise, on the other hand, has to carry the burden of taking its home with it wherever it goes.

I see the tortoise as the expat and the ox as the local.

The ox can work hard and travel far, but if it is left to its own devices, it would rather stay put. The turtle, on the other hand, enjoys the journey while keeping its eye on the destination at all times. One is a cold-blooded reptile and the other is a hot-blooded mammal. In either case, one commonality the two creatures share is that they are both beasts of burden.

The expat carries the burden of taking his home with him wherever he goes. The local, on the other hand, carries the burden of tilling the unpredictable and unyielding land where he is planted.

The grass may well be greener on the other side. But as far as I’m concerned, grass is grass… and it is always green.

The other day, while sitting in my office, a gentleman called me waiguoren 外國人, which means foreigner in Chinese. It is not the first time in my life I have been addressed by that term. When I was actually living in China, it didn’t offend me. I was, obviously, a foreigner and that was that. But when I am labelled a foreigner in Singapore, where I was born-and-raised, it feels impetuously imprudent.

I immediately corrected him in Chinese, no less, and he did not see the need to apologise for what he had said. He grew quiet and went on his merry way.

My fellow countryman is largely not a courteous person. My fellow countryman is also not someone who likes direct confrontation and will also find the opportunity to give you a backhanded smack when you least expect it. This is something I relearnt the hard way after living abroad for twelve years.

There is an undercurrent of unspoken emotions that drive our conscious behaviour. We can try and be politically correct all we want, but the intention behind our words has a way of lingering long after we have said them. You are not one of us.

The truth is, I’m not sure if I ever wanted to be.

Even as a local, would you give up your cultural heritage to fit in with the majority ethnic group? In the Ancient World, the democratic way of dealing with cultural difference, so as not to upset the sensibilities of various ethnic groups, was to employ a strategy of syncretism instead of a strategy of separatism. For syncretism to work, locals had to be willing and able to absorb external influences. Both the mind and the heart had to be open. If either the heart or the mind were guarded, obstructed or barricaded in anyway, syncretism was not possible.

Is homogeneity a necessary ingredient for a prosperous society? I think not. Homogeneous societies slowly and surely stagnate, as I discovered for myself in Japan. When locals refuse to accept and embrace ‘foreign’ influences, they do so at their own peril. The societies that thrive over the long haul are the ones that are able to make room for both the turtle and the ox.

The Mother Turtle. Artwork by Author Dipa Sanatani

If you had just the turtle, it wouldn’t work–as you would be playing host to a roving population that would never put down roots. If you had only the ox, it wouldn’t work either–as you would be stuck with a population that would be unwilling to change when a crisis hits or when a significant change appears on the horizon.

Both the ox and the turtle are built to last, so we’re not talking about implementing quick fixes or short-term changes here. The point I am trying to get across is that we need both change and continuity to build a nation, a community and a society with a long-term vision and goal. If you think you get there by being insular, you will reach an upper limit that you won’t be able to move past. If we stick to our guns, valuable opportunities for much-needed growth will move on to the next destination.

If you ask me, grass is grass. It doesn’t matter how green it is—as long as the animal can eat it. Whether the grass grows in India, China or the US is inconsequential. All that matters is that it does and that it is edible.

If Mother Nature does not discriminate, why do we?

We are one world, one people and one soul.

I vote for syncretism, not separatism. I vote for harmony, not tolerance.

I suppose, for me, the time has come to retire by beloved shell… and embrace the journey of being an ox. My hope is that a turtle arrives on my shore soon. If nothing else, I could use a new friend. A true friend is a true friend, regardless of where they come from.

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