A Soldier’s Thoughts on an Expat’s Life

Expats usually read books written by other expats to formulate their own experiences of living abroad. But soldiers stationed abroad can offer insightful observations about living abroad too. A memoir titled In Pharaoh’s Army written by acclaimed memoirist Tobias Wolff describes his time in Vietnam during the late Sixties. He was stationed near Saigon in the town of My Tho. Upon his arrival to Vietnam, Wolff describes the expectations for American soldiers fighting alongside Southern Vietnamese:

We were expected to live like our Vietnamese counterparts, which sounded like a noble project, democratic, right-minded, the perfect show of allies — a terrific idea, really, until you actually tried it.

But Wolff did not want to participate in that kind of assimilation:

…my own intention was to live not as a Vietnamese among Vietnamese but as an American among Vietnamese. Living like an American wasn’t easy.

Wolff’s words still ring true today. Living as an American among Americans isn’t easy. One of the unbearable characteristics of living among Americans is their appetite for extraneous information. While traveling in Vietnam, I have throttled my consumption of extraneous information. Television shows, news articles, and pop music are rarely accessed.

While living in America, it was never possible to set a limit. Any little nugget of extraneous information meant something profound.

When figuring out the truth to live with, Wolff writes it best:

The truth was not forthcoming, you had to put it together for yourself, and in this way your most fantastic nightmares and suspicions became as real to you as the sometimes unbelievable fact of being in this place at all.

Nightmares and suspicions are what dominate the headlines today. Everyday, people are attempting to forecast what may happen or who might be the cause of trouble. Nightmares and suspicions are driving culture over the cliff in an ever-expanding information economy. This allows confusion to fester and several bad decisions to be lined up like dominoes. They stand at the ready to fall within a few years not centuries.

The only way to escape involves producing a number of memories related to personal experiences that are neither photographed or written down. Memories that are permanent and impermanent.

Wolff writes a wonderful description of reality:

Your version of reality might not tally with the stats or the map or the after-action report, but it was the reality you lived in, that would live on in you through the years ahead, and become the memory by which you remembered all that you had seen, and done, and been.

The vigorous attainment of your reality is what drives economies, beliefs, and romances today.

As the information economy grows, memories apart of your reality are always being monetized. There isn’t anymore privacy. It isn’t a terrible trend. The more information that ends up underneath the permanent light of technology enables more people to discover different lives to live and decide on which one to be lived.

Also, people will construct whichever reality they want, wherever they are. Wolff writes of My Tho:

The French had made the town like this so they could imagine themselves in France.

All in all, we must endure and have fun. Wolff condenses life to this sentence:

​We are made to persist, to compete the whole tour. That’s how we find out who we are.

Life’s a private affair, especially an expat’s. Live your life to understand yourself because no one else will.

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