So this is the story of how I ended up being in what I consider to be exile, but in the country of my birth. I had been living and working overseas since 1991, 1990, something like that. I had started in Turkey, then migrated to Saudi Arabia, then through a series of circumstances, ended up working in Asia all in IT jobs.
I was an inveterate job hopper. The idea of remaining with a single company for years and years, and eventually getting some type of a retirement package, never even entered my mind. I was enjoying my life, I was getting paid well. Enjoying, if not total tax freedom, significant tax advantages. And I frankly just enjoying moving from one country to another every few years.
I had been working in the Philippines for a US multinational for some years, but I ended up resigning and taking a job for another firm in the Philippines. The new firm sent me back to the United States to train on their new software product.
I ended up in Texas, one of the quintessential American states, one might say. If it hadn’t been for an old friend of mine, who happened to live in Texas, one of my best friends, I might have had real problems. He let me, insisted in fact, that I stay with him. What happened next (after about 8 weeks) was that the company I worked for in the Philippines ran out of money, stop communicating with me, and overnight, just abandoned me in Texas. Never paid me accumulated vacation pay, never finished paying my expenses, just dropped me. Ah … people are so reliable. 😊
However, there I was, I had some money in the bank, and I was able to get some interim work with people in the United States for the very software I had been sent there to train on. So I continued to live with my friend, travel around the United States doing temporary consulting work, and looking for a full-time job. Within about two months I had found a job in Dallas with another high tech company. They hired me as a project manager for a fiber infrastructure project. This was in 2000. The Internet boom was still going strong, and this company had decided it was going to put fiber infrastructure into multi-story office buildings all over the United States. My job was to be a project manager traveling nationwide to ensure the metropolitan facilities were properly set up.
So here I was, with my ponytail, earrings and TCK background working for a dyed in the wool conservative Texas company. And the guy I worked for, I tell you, when I interviewed with him, I thought “oh boy this is not going to go well”. [Me judging a book by its cover – and I was way off] 😄
He was a Texas cowboy. Jeans, boots, Levi shirts, high and tight haircut, played football for high school and college … almost a stereotype. But you know what? We ended up getting on very well indeed. I did a good job for him, and he didn't judge me on my appearance. One of the best bosses I ever had. I did a very good job for them. Towards the end of my time in this company, I was about to go down to Brazil, to start working on buildings there. Hours before the flight left they canceled it. That was the early signs that the Internet boom was starting to crash.
However, I lucked out, they sent me to Toronto for 6 months to work with a small Internet company there that they had acquired. Interesting that I was the only one in the company that was interested in going outside the U.S.
And I just enjoyed that completely. I liked the guy that owned the Canadian company, I liked the ladies that staffed the office (kind of a miniature Portuguese enclave … really cool), and I just loved it. Toronto was my kind of town. Multi-ethnic, laid back, and I just like Canadians. The Toronto winter left a little bit to be desired, but it was, all in all a really cool experience for me. Especially the winter.😁
But it also told me that I would never fit in back in the United States again. My outlook on life is just too different. I just kept running into these provincial, hide bound ways of looking at things that just reflected a world view that (to me) was so different as to be totally incompatible. Just being in Toronto, I felt so much more comfortable and welcome … words can’t describe it. In a matter of days I was at home in the Canadian company in a way I had never enjoyed my entire sojourn in Texas.
The story that follows is indicative of my cultural dissonance. After months of hard work, we had finished a significant milestone on the project, and my boss took 15 or 20 of us out to a local eatery in Dallas to celebrate. It was lunch. It was the first time I had ever gone out with all these people together and when they were going around asking for drinks I said that I would like a beer. I am not joking when I say that the entire table fell silent to look at me. And I guess that in the United States, where everybody has to be politically correct all the time, that they think it's a bad thing have a beer at lunch. And if I sound superior here, I make no apologies for it. In retrospect it was kind of funny. They had no idea what to say to me. And from my side I was absolutely appalled at a cultural viewpoint which says "You are a child, you cannot be responsible for your actions, therefore we (society) will dictate to you what we believe to be adult behavior." And I railed about it too … very vocally. I was disgusted. That America was provincial and narrow minded in its outlook. That Americans clearly had no understanding how civilized people in civilized countries behaved. Now … possibly I shouldn’t have gone on like that. [apologies – I was in my late thirties back then and decidedly less sensitive] I know nobody at that table ever forgot what I said. I remember still hearing about it the day I left the company. To be fair, I had a good reputation with them so I don’t think they bore me a grudge or anything. But it really drove home to me how out of sync I was with the people around me.
And of course – I know I should have been respectful of their local culture. After all, I wouldn’t have tried to do that in other cultures that I can think of. But … I don’t know … maybe I resented that America wasn’t the bastion of freedom of thought and action that I had somehow believed it be. Maybe it was pent up resentment from being in ‘exile’ as I perceived myself to be. And I did regret the way I reacted … but it doesn’t make my feelings any the less real.
And the other major thing I noticed, in retrospect, was that I remained isolated my whole time in the United States. I had bought a house (stupid thing to do but that is another story entirely), a car, a motorcycle, but I found myself with no friends except my old friend from when we worked together in Japan. They kept trying to introduce me to people but I felt no connection whatsoever to any of them. I would drive around on my own, eat on my own, go to bars and restaurants alone, and leave alone. Spent my nights when I was in town reading and watching TV. And happy (more or less) to do so. Because as I talked to people I found myself floundering for a common ground from which to communicate. And I kept coming up dry.
Through a fortuitous series of events as the Internet bubble collapsed, I finally lost my job with the Texas company but was hired the same day by a company which posted me back out to the Asia. I was ecstatic. That was in 2001 and I honestly have never gone back for more than 10 days a time since. And I haven’t been back at all for going on 8 years now. And honestly. Don’t miss it at all.
The exile had only lasted 18 months (12 if I don’t count the 6 months in Toronto). But it seemed like forever. It was worthwhile in as much as it reminded me I was a fish out of water in the country of my birth. By the way … I also get that landing in what is perhaps one of the more conservative bastions of American life probably did me no favors. Had I been in San Francisco or Seattle I might have had a vastly different outlook on the experience.
One final observation. There are, of course, other hide bound conservative cultures out there as well. However, in writing this article I came to realize that when I am out in those cultures as the obvious “foreigner”, it gives me a degree of freedom I might not otherwise enjoy. And in the U.S., as an American, I didn’t get that leeway. Insight moment. Maybe that is why I enjoy being a permanent ex-pat.
So as I read this article just before I hit the publish button, I realize that I made many mistakes (during my exile). Hopefully, I have learned from them. This was a good 15 years in the past so I sure hope so :-).