A Totally Impractical Expat Interview #7: Philip Johnson of The Philiad

Welcome to episode 7 in my infinite series of expat interviews. Today I bring you the eloquent and witty Phil of the brilliant Philiad (pa-dum!). Phil lives in Guadalajara, Mexico for now, and rumor has it he’ll be heading of to NYU come September to do his MA in International Education. That, I must say, is awesome.

There was a bit of an unplanned posting gap between interview number 6 (the lovely Fiona) and this one and it wasn’t for lack of content. Poor Phil’s interview has been in my drafts folder for, um, nearly a week now. I just didn’t have an introduction written.

Why no introduction?

Well. Um.

I have a small self-enforced internal policy of not posting when royally ticked off. And this week, I was mentally halfway to, well, anywhere else but here.  I could see sunny blue skies in Phil’s photos (blue skies, people- imagine that!) and then I’d look out the window and see Shanghai’s iconic eerie low-lying swirling opaque off-whiteness and feel the need to bang my head repeatedly against blunt objects.

Welcome to lovely downtown Krikkit

We’ve had a week of foul-tasting, lung-paining, no-sky weather. Ever read Douglas Adams? Do you remember the planet Krikkit? Except without the cosmocidal happy locals singing Paul McCartney songs? That would be here.  Except the skies are pale grey rather than black. A polar bear could walk around and no one would notice.

And it wasn’t just the atmosphere conspiring against my better moods.

I’ve had the internet-connectivity rug pulled out from under me repeatedly in the past week or so, with not only the usual Great Firewall wreaking havoc, but also my place of employment deciding to cut costs by cutting me off.

Yes, not only are VPNs now only intermittently able to connect due to the cunning sino nerds and only about half the internet is available, but now my solitary office way out in the wilds of urban North Shanghai is off the grid. To save money, over the Tomb Sweeping long weekend the university decided to cut my phone line and disconnect my internet.  Since I work alone 96% of the week in an empty office with a rather grim view, this was the last straw.

Damn it, I’d had enough of this counter intuitive life style. I wanted to move to…Mexico.  Yeah. Blue skies! Real tacos with real salsa verde! Brightly painted buildings! Good times had by all!

Which brings us back to poor Phil, who now has to bear the brunt of a disgruntled rant as his introduction. Kind peoples of the internet, I’d like to introduce you to Philip Johnson. *applause*

Phil and his gorditas *applause*

Leaving

I live in Guadalajara, the second largest city in Mexico. I moved here about a year and half ago.

I was already living in Latin America, but was volunteering and my money was running out. I wanted to continue living in (Spanish-speaking) Latin America, but needed to earn enough money to sustain my expensive habits (i.e. compulsive travel). That didn’t leave many options for an unqualified teacher. I’d planned to move to Buenos Aires, but eventually chose Mexico because I wanted to see more of North/Central America, particularly the Mayan sites. It was also closer to a lot of friends, whom I’ve been luring down here for visits whenever possible.

Before going abroad, I’d lived in the same house with the same people (i.e. my family) in suburban Sydney for the first 22 years of my life. A model of stability.

Since I began traveling independently, though, I’ve never really settled to any one place. I’ve been in Mexico for a year and a half – the longest I’ve spent in one country – but I’ve still had three different apartments in that time.

The first time I ‘moved’ to a new country, I did so accidentally. I was backpacking through Spain and some friends prevailed upon me to take a break to make some money teaching English. I lived out of my pack for the whole time, and could barely communicate with my housemates, but still it was about as easy a transition as you could have. No big plans, no packing or visa issues (few teachers bothered with a visa). It was very easy for me to find work and a place; Spain at the time was crawling with under-the-table English teachers.

Then I spent a year in (very) rural Korea, again teaching.

After that I spent a while volunteering in Bolivia.

In between these I’ve been traveling, and occasionally getting back to Australia.

So yes, lots of time in The Abroad lately.

Happy drinks with Phil

Mexico has been the easiest transition so far (even easier than accidentally transitioning to Spain). There was really no culture shock upon arrival. Partly I’m sure this is because expat’ing gets easier with experience. Part of it is also, I suspect, that Mexico (or at least Guadalajara) is an easy cultural mix, nothing too threateningly different, but plenty of cultural curiosities.

The flip side of this is that with less culture shock there is also less surprise, fewer of those moments of unexpected joy. Living in Spain I would be overwhelmed by this sense of wonder all the time. I could be taking the subway to work at 6 in the morning, and all of a sudden be struck by a sense of baffling, breathtaking joy. At the time I thought this was wonderful, and I would have said it was why I traveled.

I don’t get that feeling very often these days, but I also engage a lot more deeply with the places I spend time in. The more informed you are the less surprised or overwhelmed you can be. I like things like this though: exploring, investigating, writing. As lame as this is, blogging really enriches my experience of a place. I didn’t blog much in Spain. I never stop in Mexico.

Staying

I’ve been in Guadalajara for a little over a year and half. Once I reach two years, I’m planning to leave. This has nothing to do with being sick of the city or country (I love them both), and everything to do with being bored in my work, and ever-eager to progress to new things. It doesn’t take much for me to feel like I need to fly free; I guess it’s a kind of impatience. I think this is a pretty common characteristic in expats. It takes some spark of impatience or discontent or curiosity – call it what you will – to make a person pack up and move. And I’m particularly flighty, even as expats go.

It only took me a few months in Mexico to know that I wanted to stay for a second year after my first was done. By the same token

though, I was only a few months into my second year when I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be staying for a third. My second year

Phil in the kitchen

here has been so good that I want to quit while I’m ahead; I don’t want to drag this out by clinging to a moment that has passed.

I don’t like the prospect of leaving Latin America, or my half-formed Spanish skills, but I think I’ll be back in Latin America before too long. I could see myself living in Mexico again, and would love to spend serious time in Mexico City (although I hope the Mexico of my future will have a little less bureaucracy, a little less corruption, and a little less violence).

I’m also ok with leaving because I can’t reconcile myself to the idea of being a teacher forever. I love the opportunities it opens in terms of travel, but always get tired of it sooner or later (usually sooner). Whatever happens after Mexico, it will hopefully represent a move beyond teaching.

My Spanish is decent, enough to carry on a deepish conversation. I know I make a lot of mistakes, sometimes I even know what they are, but I don’t know enough to know how to fix them. I should probably take a few lessons to iron out some of the wrinkles (the subjunctive wrinkle, the passive voice wrinkle…).

Sometime it feels like I’m traveling backwards, language-wise. I work in English and speak English at home. These days I mostly socialize in English. Language acquisition seems to trip up a lot of- maybe even most- expats. When I started out, I assumed I could just absorb a language by being in its presence. I didn’t realize what discipline and patience were needed. I know a lot of new expats here get frustrated by how long it takes to learn the language, and I’m always impressed by/envious of those that have stuck it out long enough to reach a real fluency.

By and large, being in The Abroad has eased a lot of old angsts for me (partly I’m sure this is also just a matter of growing up). I felt greater discontent before I started traveling. When I think back on all that, I’m amazed at how much calmer and more confident I am now. I used to feel like I hadn’t really done anything worthwhile. I didn’t start seriously writing until I started traveling. I remember answering questions prior to donating blood in Australia: no tattoos or piercings, no travel to dangerous locations, no exotic sexual partners, no strange diseases, no injuries or hospitalisations. I was perfect blood donor, but I felt like a failure.

I suppose a part of this is being overly-idealistic, and always wanting/expecting more out of life, no matter how good things are. I still feel like I have a long way to go, (still no truly exotic diseases; Montezuma’s revenge doesn’t count) but since living abroad I at least feel like I’m moving in the right direction.

I’m a very independent, self-sufficient person. I think I do pretty well without a great deal of support, but having said that I also have benefitted a lot from networks like Couchsurfing, which have meant that even when I’m alone in a new place, I have some form of contact. I actually got my current job thanks to Couchsurfing contacts.

This doesn’t mean I don’t get lonely though. There are times when I seek out solitude, but there are also times when the loneliness gets really oppressive. I’d guess that most expats experience this. Certainly in most expat communities, and in expat writings (be it book or blog), I think there is a sense of dissolution that comes from being isolated and severed from the usual ties and support structures. Part of changing location semi-frequently is that there is always a little bit of heartbreak. To be always leaving people, to be making powerful connections and then breaking them or at least weakening them through distance. And yet as difficult as it all can be, I can’t imagine myself living any other lifestyle.

It took me a while to embrace Guadalajara. Part of this chronic, dreamy dissatisfaction was feeling like I’d relegated myself to the boonies, while all the important stuff was happening in Mexico City. I’m pretty much over that now. I think wherever I am, I’ll always be fascinated by where I’m not.

And although I’ve been in Guadalajara for quite a while (by my slim standards), it’s not exactly ‘home’. I’m not sure where home is. I refer to Australia and Mexico as home, but neither of them feel completely like home. I think I’ve always viewed the places I live in as temporary homes, but that doesn’t mean I see myself returning to ‘home’ in Australia. It’s hard to picture myself with a permanent home anywhere.

Maintaining Stability

I’ve never felt ready to settle down in one place. There are plenty of places in which I would like to spend more time living, but for whatever reason, I’ve never really thought of any place in a long-term sense. I know that sooner or later I’ll have to start thinking more long term, but it just doesn’t seem real to me at the moment.

MexiMicrobrew

I think there is something linear about [the settling down process], because there is a sense of continuity about the whole journey. Each place I have lived in has effected what has come after it. It can even effect what comes before it; wherever I am I’m always thinking about where I might be next. So in that sense I don’t think that you start again every time you move to a new place. To me it all feels like a building towards something bigger. I’ve never had the sense that I’m going nowhere with all this. It all feels connected, like everything contributes to something bigger (though I don’t know what that might be yet).

I’ll be 28 soon. I started all this when I was 22.

Basically, I found myself by going abroad. I don’t know that I’ve gained much else (certainly not money, certainly not stability, certainly not a career), but that’s probably enough. Being abroad is a part of who I am now. I guess I’ve gained greater fulfillment, I guess I am more myself.

There are some obvious things that I’ve given up. I don’t spend nearly enough time with some of the most important people in my life – but I don’t think of these relationships as lost. Being away from people you love is the price you pay for this kind of lifestyle. In any case, given how interconnected the world is, the sacrifice isn’t nearly as great as it must once have been. Expat’ing in the days of yore, relying on hotel stationery and fair seas to keep you in touch with loved ones must have been a completely different prospect. And yet I doubt I would have done much differently, even under those conditions.

I don’t have any big regrets. I always wish I could do more with the time I have, but there are only so many hours in the day and at least a few of them need to be occupied with sleeping, gainful employment and personal hygiene. It would be nice to be a gentleman of true leisure, but nothing about blogging or teaching is likely to set me on to that path.

Wherever I am feels enough like home to keep me happy. But nowhere feels completely like home.

The Future

I’m planning to leave Guadalajara and Mexico in Augustish. I know that wherever I go next, I won’t enjoy nearly as good a standard of living as I have here. It’s not that I’m earning great amounts of money here (I’m definitely not), but Mexico’s particular culture vibrates very well with me. A lot of this has to do with food. Wherever I go next, I won’t eat half as well as I do here (and this is while being vegetarian in a land of lard). This upsets me a lot.

I can say my decision to move on was provoked by boredom at work, but really it’s something bigger; a desire to always be doing more, seeing more, knowing more, being more. Changing location doesn’t automatically change a person, but it can help. I like to feel as though I’m making progress; I like a sense of narrative or journey. I guess I don’t like feeling too settled. I don’t like things to be too definite. I need to feel that there is always more opportunity, always many more doors to open – more than I could ever actually go through.

I know, or at least I’m pretty sure, that I won’t be able to do this forever. I don’t want to be the bitter old nomad still clinging to the life he led in the early 2000s. One way or another, something will cause me stay in one place for longer, to put down deeper roots and to start thinking and acting in the long term. It’s inevitable, I think, but it still feels alien to me. I can’t see this me, the current me, settled in one place. It’s not that I don’t know if I’d like it, I just can’t even imagine it. It’s too far outside of the sense of who I am and what I feel right in doing.

So I don’t know about the future really. It excites me a lot and scares me a bit, but for now all I see myself doing is continuing onwards, living in different places, settling for a while before moving. It’s who I am; I don’t see any other possibility.

 

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.