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Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008

COUNTERPOINT

The expatriate whiner: fond of the homeland but lost abroad


E xpatriates can be the source of many positive things. They are contributors to the welfare of their host nation. They are often agents of trenchant criticism, perceiving things in their new nation that natives either do not, or refuse to, see. They educate and enrich.

But today I want to look not at the "expatriate as enricher" but at the "expatriate as whiner or kvetch."

I have lived in America, Europe (both Eastern and Western), Australia and Japan, and believe you me, nobody whines and kvetches like an expatriate, wherever they may be. I've seen it innumerable times. Your standard complaint begins with "Where I come from . . ." Then there follows a monologue about how things are done so much better in "my" country; how foreigners are treated so much more equitably there. Despite this, most of these expatriates prefer to live in their host country rather than go back to "the green, green grass of home."

Well, if you are a gaijin (sorry, to me this word — the Japanese for foreigner — is neutral) and you think discrimination here against you is intolerable, please read on.

I take as my example my own country, Australia, the self-styled home of multiculturalism and tolerance.

I have three daughters who are currently at an Australian university. They are all entitled to a student travel pass that halves the price of commuting. Now, a full 27 percent of the income of Australian universities comes from full-fee-paying foreign students, yet these students are not allowed any travel concession on the trains. By contrast, all foreign students in Germany, for instance, get drastically reduced concessions on all public transportation, as well as at museums.

The public schools in Australia are free, as they are in Japan. If you are a non-Australian skilled worker without permanent residency, however, you will have to pay to educate your children in the public system. Business people posted to Australia for a set span of time fall victim to this.

It is often pointed out that Japan is a heartless nation when it comes to asylum seekers. This is true. Japanese people hide their prejudice behind some of the world's strictest admission laws. But please consider the case of Mohammed Hussain, an Afghan asylum seeker who was detained by the Australian government. His plea was rejected, even though he and his supporters insisted that his life would be in danger were he sent back to Afghanistan. The government of John Howard rejected him. He was sent home. The Taliban caught up with him. He was tortured and beheaded in front of his family.

The government of Kevin Rudd will certainly be more compassionate toward asylum seekers than the reactionary one of his predecessor, Howard. It is a fact, nonetheless, that Australia has returned a considerable number of genuine refugees to their home country who have then experienced great suffering or death. So much for Australia's grandiloquent defense of "freedom" in Iraq and Afghanistan, coupled as it is with the refusal to open its doors to all people genuinely fleeing oppression in those countries.

The most blatant recent example of heartless and unusual treatment of a nonnative migrant is that being dealt out to Bernhard Moeller. Moeller is the only physician working full time at the Wimmera Base Hospital in Horsham, Victoria. The doctor, who is from Germany, has been the resident physician there for two years. He came to Australia on a temporary work visa in answer to a request by the government to redress a shortage of doctors in rural districts.

The Department of Immigration and Citizenship has now rejected his application for permanent residency. One of Moeller's three children, 13-year-old Lukas, has Down syndrome. The department has told the Moellers that their son would be an undue burden on the Australian taxpayer.

"Nobody told us it could be a problem," said Moeller, as reported in the Sydney Morning Herald On Oct. 31. "Lukas is discriminated against because of his disability, and we thought that it would be different in Australia. We came because we wanted a better education for him.

"It's really unfair, not only to Lukas, but to our family and to the community at Horsham, because we've settled in really well and we love it here."

There has been an outcry of support in Australia for Moeller and his family, and I hope the decision of the department will be overturned. Yet this case does underscore the reality that the task of creating a truly open, fair-minded and tolerant society is an arduous one.

Let's come back to Japan.

My wife, who is also non-Japanese, and I raised four children in this country. When they were born, we received a generous payment of money from the ward office covering nearly the entire cost of the birth, in spite of the fact that, at the time, I was not a permanent resident of Japan.

The children were readily accepted into government subsidized day-care centers, kindergartens and the public school system whenever we moved into a neighborhood. Without question, they had access to student travel and other concessions.

All medical facilities open to Japanese were open to us in an equal manner, from the first regular free checkups at the hokensho (public health centers) to hospital visits.

Were I to once again choose a country in which to bring up my children, it would without hesitation be Japan. The freedom for children to use public transportation safely and efficiently at any time of the day is a precious liberty that citizens of Western democracies can only envy.

The word gaijin may be linguistically neutral, but that hardly means that nonnatives are treated without bias in this country. Any reader of Counterpoint will know my feelings about societal and institutionalized discrimination in Japan. The Japanese people are hardly tolerant of differences among themselves, let alone between them and true outsiders. In many respects, this is still a semifeudal society. But there is much here that the expatriate can gain joy from, if they have the ability to adapt themselves to the norms of life (as they would have to do in any foreign country).

The waves of grain may look all the more amber in the eye of the American expatriate, as they pile up years in a foreign land. Britain may appear all the greener and more pleasant to the British expatriate. I met a Norwegian living for decades in Kobe who said, "I never realized that our fjords were so beautiful till I came to Japan."

The combination of time and distance, makes the heart grow fonder, deepening nostalgia for the idyll of "home."

All I am asking is that you look before you kvetch. American novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote a book titled "You Can't Go Home Again." Please bear in mind that if you do, it might not be there when you get there.



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