How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. You can never go home again.Sorry, Mr Agee, that is clearly not true. Many of us expats come home again after having gone about as far as possible "away from ourselves."
--James Agee, A Death in the Family
But, fair enough, we do not come home to the country we remember--especially if our notion of home is that of a teenager's.
I have already given a shout-out to one such expat, Peter Hessler, who lived abroad for many years as a young adult, mostly in the UK and China, and then, when he was nearly 40 years old, came back to the US to live. He settled with his wife, Leslie Chang, in the relatively obscure town of Ridgway, Colorado.
Writing about their experience of reverse culture shock for this year's "Journeys" issue of the New Yorker, Hessler said one thing that didn't surprise me and something else that really got me thinking. First, the not-so-surprising:
If I told somebody in a small town that I'd lived overseas for fifteen years, the initial response was invariably the same: "Were you in the military?" After that, people had few questions. Leslie and I learned that the most effective way to kill our end of a conversation was to say that we were writers who had lived in China for more than a decade.I tend to think that there is nothing especially American about getting a cool reception after years of being abroad. In England, people often joke about expats retiring to the seaside towns of Sidmouth and Budleigh Salterton where they can talk to each other about their adventures living in Britain's former colonies--as no one else can bear listening.
Japan of course is even more severe on its long-term expats. They accuse them of buta kusai (reeking of butter)--meaning they have drawn too heavily upon Western influences and are, therefore, tainted.
Doesn't that make America is the strangest country of all? My experiences of living in Britain and Japan conform to what Hessler says about China--English and Japanese people do not reveal their private selves easily; they believe in the need for personal boundaries.
So what makes us the U.S. the outlier when it comes to narcissism? Here are three preliminary ideas:
1) Heterogeneity. Because we're such a mixture of backgrounds and cultures, it is hard for people to place each other instantly in terms of social class, education, and other factors--hence the need to "sell ourselves" with some sort of elevator speech about where we came from and our key life experiences. (Whereas in England, people can often tell a lot about you just by hearing your accent, and in Japan, the ultimate homogeneous culture, there are certain across-the-board assumptions you can make about people before they've even opened their mouths.)
2) Mobility and the possibility of constant reinvention. As mentioned in a previous post, it was 19th-century Americans who embraced the expression, "seeing the elephant": it originally meant traveling West and striking it rich. Since the birth of the nation, people have been rewriting their stories--and hoping to come up with a better one than the one they were born with.
3) Cultural narcissism. Ever since America became the world's great imperial power in the middle of last century, Americans have come to think of their stories as far more interesting than anyone else's. And, as popular reality shows such as American Idol keep telling us, the audience we care most about consists of our fellow Americans. (As a side note, is it any wonder that the US invented celebrity culture? Fame and fortune in this society accrue to those who are willing to have their stories on display all of the time--who no longer have anything close to resembling a private self.)
Gloomy weather today, isn't it? Since coming back to the U.S., I can't tell you how often when, finding myself the earpiece for someone I've never met before, I've longed for a nice, short, superficial chat about the weather.
Question: Can you think of any other reasons why we Americans are so caught up in our personal stories that we only want to talk, not listen?