First up: journalist and author Peter Hessler, for these four reasons:
1) Hessler has paid his dues, having spent a decade and a half overseas, in England and China. His decision to see the elephant was hardly a given as he spent his early childhood in Columbia, Missouri. Still, he came to the East Coast for his education and carried on from there--first to England (on a Rhodes Scholarship) and then to China.
He initially went to China with the Peace Corps and taught English and American literature at a teachers college located in a small city on the Yangtze River. (Along with a fellow teacher, he was the first foreigner to be in this part of the Sichuan province for 50 years.)
After the Peace Corps, Hessler settled in Beijing for about a decade, producing articles and books on the socioeconomic upheavals he observed all around him in China.
3) While living in China, Hessler told his fair share of Blind Men's Tales--attempts to make the rest of us understand things from non-Western perspectives. Particularly courageous was his article for the Atlantic Monthly, written just over ten years ago, "Tibet Through Chinese Eyes," where he tried to explain why China cares so much about Tibet. Unsurprisingly, the article came in for heavy criticism in the United States. Americans, it seems, don't care to know the deeper historical reasons for the problems in Tibet.
4) After a decade and a half of living abroad, Hessler took the momentous decision to move back to the United States. He came back in 2006, settling with his wife, the Chinese American journalist and author Leslie Chang, in Ridgway, Colorado. He has chronicled their homecoming adventures in an article, "Go West," for the "Journeys" issue of the New Yorker (April 19, 2010). As the article points out, by the time the couple returned to their native land, Hessler had never held an American job, owned an American home, or even rented an American apartment.
What made Hessler spend such a large chunk of his life seeing the elephant--or perhaps in China's case "dragon" would be a more apt metaphor? And how has he found it adjusting back to life in his native land? The latter question will be the topic of
UPDATE: I found an audio interview with Hessler (and with Evan Osnos, who writes the NYer's Letter from China) on the NYer site: "Back from Beijing" (mp3, 15 min).
Question: Are there any other long-term expats you think deserve "hero" status for their extraordinary feats of elephant-spotting?