I've given this speech to my students at the end of every semester for more semesters than I can count. (And I thought I'd posted it to this blog before, but I can't find it, so here it is again.) I first came across this piece when I was doing my MFA and my friend Matt sat me down on his couch and read it to me. It was in an issue of Men’s Health and it was an issue on 100 Things to do Before You Die or something like that. Bob Shacochis’s “Become an Expat” was #16 and it’s also hanging on my office door for anybody to read.
This time, as I read it, I have plans in the works for a July trip to Ireland to present at the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures conference (a paper titled "'My Kinda Place': The Craft of the Urban in Contemporary Irish Noir," which basically means I'm going to be looking at how several contemporary noir novelists craft urban spaces to be active participants in their narratives.) But I'll spend a week in Belfast (which I've only been to once and that was with an incredible sinus infection, so I don't think it counts) and then I'll go to Galway for a week to finish up writing my dissertation.
Not only do I appreciate this little piece for its content, but I love it as a writer. It never fails to light a little something inside me, as a writer as well as a traveler. Besides being beautifully written (listen to the internal rhymes in the “here’s the point” paragraph), it makes me a little itchy and makes me want to explore whatever options are available to go live abroad. It makes my restless soul a little more restless, which is sometimes a good thing. It inspires me, so I hope it inspires my students to continue to think outside the box—and even to live outside the box.
I don’t remember when I started making this piece a part of my End of the Semester speech to my students, but this is the gist of it.
"When you teach grad students, those brainy, dreamy, slack-ass selves who have been squeezed through the educational intestine into the relatively expansive bowel of never-ending higher education, you have a recurring thought each time you enter a seminar room and scan the robust, nascently cynical faces of the whatever generation horseshoed around the table, receptive to the morsels of your wisdom: When are you guys ever going to get the fuck out of here?
And I don't mean finish the degree, get a job, a life. I mean turn your life upside down, expose it, raw, to the muddle. 'Put out,' as the New Testament (Luke 5:4) would have it, 'into deep water.' A headline in the New York Times on gardening delivers the same marching orders: IF A PLANT'S ROOTS ARE TOO TIGHT, REPOT. Go among strangers in strange lands. Sniff, lick, and swallow the mysteries. Learn to say clearly in an unpronounceable language, 'Please, I very much need a toilet. A doctor. Change for a 500,000 note. I very much need a friend.'
If you want to know a man, the proverb goes, travel with him. If you want to know yourself, travel alone. If you want to know your own home, your own country, go make a home in another country (not Canada, England, or most of Western Europe.) Stop at a crossroads where the light is surreal, nothing is familiar, the air smells like a nameless spice, and the vibes are just plain alien, and stay long enough to truly be there. Become an expatriate, a victim of self-inflicted exile for a year or two. Sink into an otherness that reflects a reverse image of yourself, wherein lies your identity, or lack of one. Teach English in Japan, aquaculture in the South Pacific, accounting in Brazil. Join the Peace Corps, work in the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, set up a fishing camp on the beach of Uruguay, become a foreign correspondent, study architecture in Istanbul, sell cigarettes in China.
And here's the point: Amid the fun, the risk, the discomfort, the seduction and sex in a fog of miscommunication, the servants and thieves, the food, the disease, your new friends and enemies, the grand dance between romance and disillusionment, you'll find out a few things you thought you knew but didn't.
You'll learn to engage the world, not fear it, or at least not to be paralyzed by your fear of it. You'll find out, to your surprise, how American you are--100 percent, and you can never be anything but--and that is worth knowing. You'll discover that going native is self-deluding, a type of perversion. Whatever gender or race you are, you'll find out how much you are eternally hated and conditionally loved and thoroughly envied, based on the evidence of your passport.
You'll find out what you need to know to be an honest citizen of your own country, patriotic or not, partisan or nonpartisan, active or passive. And you'll understand in your survivor's heart that it's best not to worry too much about making the world better. Worry about not making it worse.
When you come back home, it's never quite all the way, and only your dog will recognize you."
As our time together is coming to a close, I want to end the semester with the best advice I can give you. And that is to Get Out of Here. If at all possible, study abroad. And I’m not meaning a vacation to Europe for a couple of weeks. I mean living somewhere long enough that you have to go grocery shopping and unpack your suitcase. Go for a semester or a year. And if at all possible, don’t share your living space with people who come from the same place you do. There are things you can only learn by picking up your life and seeing what it looks like somewhere else. There are things you will never learn in a book, never learn in college. Some things you have to see for yourself. The milk will come in a different shaped carton, the vegetables might be called by a different name. Maybe there will be different flavors, different colors. But what you learn about yourself will be the most important. I took great classes when I was in Ireland, some of which remain my favorite classes I’ve ever taken, but I learned what I could put up with and what I couldn’t. Nothing is too small to learn.
I disagree that you shouldn’t go to most of Western Europe. I went to Ireland because they spoke English. At least I thought they spoke English—and that’s something you’ll never learn in a book, that Irish English and British English and American English are not the same thing, barely from the same root language. You need to learn for yourself what you can handle and what you can’t. You can’t learn that in a book.
[Pause: I’m making myself homesick for Ireland, as always happens when I make this speech…and it’s not helping that the weather outside is damp, I’ve got Irish Breakfast in my mug, and the Chieftains on iTunes…]
If your educational plan or finances don’t allow for studying abroad, when you get out of college, don’t take a job in your hometown or even your home state. If you’ve got a plan for grad school, choose a place nowhere near anything that’s familiar. Go somewhere you’ve always been curious about. Go to a place you’ve never been, just because you can—go to a place that you have a crush on. Nobody says you have to stay there forever. But you should go. Just go. Because you can—and you should. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t. Throw a dart at a map if you have to and go live there long enough that you make a choice to return. I’ve known way too many people who are still in my hometown just because they never left. If your dream is to go back to your hometown and take a job there, make it a deliberate choice to return. Don’t ever end up anywhere by default just because you never left.
I grew up in northern Minnesota and I went to college in western Minnesota. But when I got out of college, I went to eastern Washington, a place I had no experience with, where I only knew one other soul. And you’d think that there wouldn’t be much cultural difference between certain parts of the country, because we’re all Americans, right? Wrong. Absolutely wrong. In the Pacific Northwest, I learned that while they’re friendly people, they’re also very self-sufficient and stay out of each other’s business, to the point where people won’t offer to help you. You have to ask for it. Why is this? Well, I figure that because the Northwest was so far away from government that they had to rely on themselves for survival and now they dislike any kind of interference, telling them how to live. When I graduated from grad school and moved to Ohio, I thought there wouldn’t be much difference between Minnesota and Ohio, since they’re both Midwestern states, but that’s almost been the worst culture shock I’ve suffered so far. And you’d never know that unless you experience it for yourself. I've been in Nebraska for three years now and I could talk to you about all kinds of things that happen in Nebraska that don't happen elsewhere—and this is a good thing.
It’s been many, many years since I left Minnesota and I’m not back there yet—and it's a place I want to return to. But I need to make the choice to return there. I don’t want anything in my life to be default. And neither should anything be in your life. Be deliberate about your decisions.
The best advice I can give is Get Out Of Here.
So, Get Out Of Here.