Expat . . . With a Drill — How Living Cross-Culturally Messes With Your Values

orignially posted on www.thecultureblend.com

I am an expat . . . AND . . . I own a drill.

Hold your applause until the end please.

It’s funny how the value of stuff changes when you live cross culturally.

This month we crammed the full sum of our belongings into eleven 52.0 pound (23.6 kg) suitcases and plastic tubs (not counting carry ons or the cat) and threw the whole heavy bit on an airplane so we could (once again) call ourselves expatriates.  Two years ago we took a strikingly similar trip in an airplane going the other direction so we could call ourselves repatriates.

We spent the last two years “restocking” our lives with American piles of stuff (mostly made in China) only to sell it or give it back to Americans on our way out.  Now that we are back in China we are restocking again and  I am noticing that there is a vast difference between America restocking and  China restocking.

When I moved back to America I wanted tools.  Lots of tools.  Tools for fixing things and for breaking things.  Tools for banging and smashing and tightening and straightening and loosening and scraping and sanding and cutting and fastening and climbing and nailing and setting things on fire and putting out the fires that I start.  Tools for putting holes in stuff.  Tools for lifting up heavy things.  Tools that you could shoot electricity through and chop things in half.  I wanted tools that would hold my other tools and more tools that would help me pick those other tools up off the ground without bending over.  I wanted tool boxes and tool bags and tool buckets and tool cabinets and tool hooks and tool hangers and tool shelves and (just imagine it) a whole, entire tool wall  . . . that would glow just from being awesome.

I wanted to be THAT guy.  The one whose friends would know that no matter what job they needed to do — I would have a tool for it and they were welcome to use it.

I gave it my best shot.

I spent every Saturday morning driving to the yard sales of other men who were upgrading to better tools and selling their old ones.  I would come home like a cave man dragging a wooly mammoth for the entire village to feast on.  Spreading my bounty across the living room floor I would beat my chest and grunt . . .



My wife tried to reason at first:

“Jerry, when are you ever going to use this?”


“How much did this cost?”


“You don’t even know what this tool does.”

“Do too.”  

“What does it do?

“Doesn’t matter.”

She eventually recognized the futility of rational thought and just started patting me on the head.

Why fight it?  There was clearly a hardware store shaped hole in me that needed to be filled and I was determined.  Each time I got to add to my collection was a victory and victories are for celebration . . . not common sense.

Then we moved back to China . . . and I bought a drill.

That’s it.  One drill.  The cheapest one they had.

And I gotta’ tell ya’ — I’m walking high this week.  Victorious all over again.

It’s the strangest thing.  Just weeks ago I gave away three drills exactly like my new one as well as two other drills that were much nicer.  I sold saws and hammers and bags full of screwdrivers and wrenches and I wept quietly as other men walked away with my two years worth of plunder.

Then I replaced it all with a drill.

Life is different in the expatosphere.  I rarely have an occasion which demands tools beyond those you can find in the Fisher Price starter set and I’m not sure where I would put them if I had them.  Most of the people around here have a screwdriver or two.  Maybe a tape measure and  possibly the half sized hammer that comes in the same plastic box.  There are zero glowing tool walls around us and quite honestly I would feel ridiculous even pursuing one.

I do have my drill though which is pretty much all it takes to be THAT guy.

Tools are just one example of things that would be considered gratuitous  luxuries in my new world and base essentials in my old.

I have three friends here who own a car.  Three.  That’s it.

Where I come from it’s nothing for ONE person to own three cars but unthinkable to have none.

Here — there is a sense of, “waah — you got a car?”

There — the sense would be, “Waah — you don’t have a car?!”

Don’t get me wrong.  We don’t get all judgy here.  It’s not like “well WOOTEEE DOO DOO.  Look at Mister Flashy Cash driving his fancy new car all around the town.  Must be nice!  Dirty joker.” It’s more like, “Wow.  You passed the driver’s license test AND you don’t mind driving in Chinese traffic?  Cool.”

It’s a bonus — BUT there is nothing pitiable about NOT having a car.

Or a dishwasher.

Or a garbage disposal.

Or a television.

Or a dryer.

Or a vacuum.

Or a full sized refrigerator.

Or an oven.

Or a bathtub

Or a lawn mower.

Or an Xbox.

Or gluten free pizza dough.

Or a drill.

Here’s the kicker.

Many (if not most) of our friends have a paid house helper.  Usually a middle aged woman who comes to their home during the day to clean the apartment and do the dishes.  Some of them cook meals and watch the children.  They might even do the shopping AND when the expats aren’t careful . . . they become a part of their family.

It’s how people live here.  It’s common and there is no stigma around it.

However, it’s almost embarrassing to share with our three car, glowing tool wall having friends back home.

“Well WOOOTEEE DOO DOO — Must be nice to have a maid!  You got a butler too? Tough life over there huh?!!”

It’s funny how we set our parameters around what’s essential and what’s extravagant based on the people around us.  It’s even funnier to see it from two sides.

Now you’ll excuse me . . . I have holes to drill.

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Jerry Jones

Jerry lives in China with his beautiful blended family. He is a trainer, a speaker, an adventurer, a culture vulture and an avid people watcher. He writes about all of that at www.thecultureblend.com

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