The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

In the jaws of political or natural disaster: When reality bites for expats

Lately I’ve been thinking about plot lines for movies based on adventure travel. The one I like the most involves a round-the world traveler spotting a shark while scuba diving in the Indian Ocean…

In the hands of the right director, I could see it becoming a remake of Jaws.

Speaking of which, did you notice that first prize for the Matador Network’s “When Travel Goes Wrong” photo contest went to a young woman whose travel bag — containing passport, wallet and cell phone — fell down a Swiss sewage drain and got fished out by a kind, thin stranger. Now that has real Jaws potential!

Unfortunately, however, travel is not today’s focus. Rather, my goal is to highlight some of the mishaps that occur when a global voyager becomes a global resident.

“Boring!” I can hear you say. And having been an expat myself twice over, I have to admit, at some level, you are right.

They’re a privileged set, those expats.

Privileged with insider knowledge. You’re not going to catch them on the street with the open sewers.

Privileged with accommodation. Not for them a stay in Fawlty Towers, or the equivalent.

Still, reality has a way of impinging even on the most glittering expat lives, and in my experience, global residents tend to be even more traumatized than their short-stay counterparts when something goes badly amiss.

(Is that because they’re spoiled? I’ll let you decide…)

Gothic horror redux

In case you haven’t been tuning into The Displaced Nation of late, our posts have been exploring cases where individual expats have had their lives turned upside down, or worse (see “related posts” below).

My colleagues and I have put forth incontrovertible evidence that the expat life, like any other, can have its gothic moments.

Lest any skeptics remain, may I draw your attention to the Friday May 13 incident in Spain’s Canary Islands. A homeless Bulgarian man stabbed and hacked off the head of a 62-year-old British resident of Tenerife, after which he paraded into the street, holding his “treasure” up by the hair for all to see.

According to one eyewitness, who, too, is a long-term British resident of the Canaries:

When I saw the man holding the head, the first thing that popped into my mind was the scene from “Clash Of The Titans,” where the hero holds up the Gorgon’s head — but his was real.

Disruption en masse

Now let’s turn to the instances where the expat life gets disrupted en masse by natural disaster or political upheaval.

Emily Cannell, an American who’s been living in Tokyo with her family since last year, paid a visit to The Displaced Nation as a random nomad last Thursday. She told us about what it was like to be in that city when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11. In just a few moments, she went from a woman whose biggest worry was driving to car pool on time, to wondering if her kids were alive or dead.

And let’s not forget Tony Roberts, who was an honored guest on our site several weeks ago. His story, now written up in the form of a novel, is about what it was like being a teenager in Iran in 1979, just before the revolution took place. The trauma came when his family was given just 24 hours to evacuate back to their home in Kansas, and he had no time to say good-bye to his friends. For some time afterwards, this Third Culture Kid suffered from General Anxiety Disorder, “with feelings of unresolved anger,” as the psychologists put it. He tweeted recently: “Revolution will do that.”

Snatched from the jaws of [domestic terrorism]

I myself had an experience of this ilk towards the end of my stay in Japan, when the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo attacked the Tokyo subway with sarin gas — killing a couple of people in the station just down the street from my house. In all, 13 people died, and thousands more suffered from after-effects. It was and remains the most serious incident of this kind in Japanese history.

As I struggled to come to grips with the idea of nice, safe Japan being populated by terrorists, quite a few thoughts raced through my head; for instance:

1) This place is weirder than I’d realized.
I’d never before heard of the kind of cult where the adherents are well-off, educated young people and their leader, a bearded mystic with a destructive political agenda. (Needless to say, I hadn’t heard of al-Qaeda. But even if I had, Japan is the Far, not the Middle, East.)

2) Do the authorities know what they are doing?
From what I’d observed of the Japanese police, they seemed pretty wimpy, precisely because the country doesn’t have a high incidence of violent crime. Did they really have the chops to capture Shoko Asahara and put an end to his madness? (The attack on the subway took place on March 20, and they didn’t find him until May 16. He was hiding inside the wall of a cult building in the group’s compound near Mt Fuji, dressed in purple robes and in good health.)

3) Who’s looking out for us foreigners?
I suspected that we foreign residents would be the last to know if further incidents were likely to take place. (For weeks following the subway attack, rumors of imminent attacks were rife, and I didn’t know whom to believe.)

Though I eventually got on the Tokyo subway again, the incident took its toll on how I felt about living in that city. Little did I know that I would one day be working in New York City and reliving many of the same emotions — ignorance, disenfranchisement, and vulnerability — in the wake of 9/11.

I discovered, however, in comparing these two incidents that when reality bites in one’s native land, it’s not nearly as unsettling as when it happens abroad.

After 9/11, I wanted to stay in NYC and carry on — it was a way of fighting back. Whereas after the subway attack in Tokyo, I started to fantasize about leaving Japan.

* * *

Are there any world travelers out there who’ve stuck with me throughout this catalogue of woes? I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve come to the conclusion that your nomadic life, even with its many dangers, is preferable to that of most world residents.

Or perhaps you’re feeling a touch of envy? In that case, you may wish to check out Bootsnall’s virtual tour of the top 10 shark-infested beaches in the world.

Question: Have you had any experiences of large-scale disasters during your stay abroad, and if so, how did it affect your perceptions of your adopted country — did it make you feel any less “at home” there?

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4 responses to “In the jaws of political or natural disaster: When reality bites for expats

  1. Karen May 24, 2011 at 1:45 am

    I didn’t experience a disaster en masse, just a small one, when I witnessed a suicide bombing in Istanbul during my first five months of living in the city. Counterintuitively, it is much less stressful to see it in person from above than to hear about it on TV when your imagination intersects with broadcaster’s sesationalism.

    • ML Awanohara May 24, 2011 at 10:14 am

      That is curious — or, as you say, “counterintuitive.” In reading your heartfelt post about the incident, I see that your Turkish friend told you: “It’s the next day when you start thinking about it that the terror starts. The feeling lasts about a month.” That’s about right in my experience. When you’re close to a terrifying event — and almost could have been a victim — it takes a while to get one’s mind around what happened.

      Funnily enough, I found it harder to process this kind of information abroad — unlike you, I just didn’t trust the Japanese authorities, didn’t think they were competent. Plus it wasn’t my culture and I didn’t speak the language well enough to understand at every moment what was going on.

      So, did you have any delayed reactions?

  2. Karen May 24, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    No, I didn’t get a delayed reaction. I knew it wasn’t aimed at me and I knew I could avoid the police area from then on (I have always gone the long way around ever since to not walk next to the police officers). I was 100% sure I didn’t have a dog in that fight, which frankly, is a lovely and rare feeling!

    • ML Awanohara May 24, 2011 at 11:06 pm

      “Not having a dog in that fight” — I like that. Plus I think you’ve also hit upon one of the best things about being an expat. When conflict breaks out, chances are it’s not about you.

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