After graduating from college in 2007, I took a job in finance, but soon quit and moved to China to teach English when I realized that it wasn’t what I wanted to do.
The promise of adventure and escape in a country completely different than my own was part of what led me to make this decision, but really, I was after something else: perspective.
Even though I knew I had done the right thing, I was confused. In the eyes of many, I had just “thrown away everything.” What was my place in the world? This was a question that haunted me most nights.
I spent the next five years writing. Next month, my debut novel, Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside, will be published. I’m more confident in my path, but I still write for the same reason I moved abroad: perspective.
While living in Hunan, I wrestled with my identity as a foreigner and, more specifically, someone from the West. I disapproved of behaviors and attitudes I saw in other expats, only to observe them later in myself. That being said, I’ve compiled a list of nine books I believe everyone should read before going to live in a non-Western country. Not only will they transport you across the globe, but they’ll help you see America and the West in a completely different light.
1. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life by Herman Melville
Perhaps one of Melville’s least well-known works today, this was his biggest commercial success while alive. The story recounts the author’s actual experience as a captive on the island of Nuku Hiva in the mid-19th century. It’s still up for debate as to whether the book supports or challenges racial stereotypes of the time, but it’ll make you think twice before anachronistically “othering” foreigners.
2. Burmese Days by George Orwell
Orwell’s debut novel paints a vivid picture of colonial bigotry during the final days of the British Raj, so much so that it was first published in the U.S. to avoid accusations of libel. The author spent five years in the Indian Imperial Police during the 1920s. It’s one of the first (and best) books to depict the “ugly Westerner” in Asia.
3. A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
Set during the same time period as Burmese Days, this book is similar in theme to To Kill a Mockingbird. When an Indian physician is accused of assaulting an Englishwoman on a sightseeing trip, he finds himself the victim of a white man’s justice system.
4. The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham
A story of love, scandal and betrayal in the waning days of British colonialism, this novel follows one woman’s search for meaning in life. Like most of Maugham’s work, it’s both affecting and immensely readable.
5. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
Bowles found immediate success with the publication of his first novel, which delves into a darker side of expat life in what was then known as French North Africa. This book has it all: Western buffoonery, existential despair and an unforgettably inevitable ending.
6. The Quiet American by Graham Greene
The definitive tale of Western innocence and idealism leading to disastrous consequences abroad: an old English journalist befriends a young American working undercover for the CIA in 1950’s Vietnam. Read it!
7. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
I’ve included this book primarily because of its third and final section, in which Baldwin, who lived in Paris for much of his life, explores issues of identity abroad. The final essay, “Stranger in the Village,” recounts his experience in a small village in Switzerland, where he was the first black person most of the townspeople had ever seen.
8. Whiteman by Tony D’Souza
Inspired by the author’s years in the Peace Corps, Whiteman is a ringing indictment of the hollows of idealism. “I didn’t have much to do but live among them,” the narrator admits, after realizing that he is not, in fact, going to change the world.
9. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
This book is set in the West, yes, but hear me out: in following the idyllic journey of John Grady Cole through Mexico, McCarthy warns us of the dangers of venturing naively onto foreign soil. Far and away my favorite book on the list.
We became an Expat Family.
Author: Quincy Carroll
Editor: Catherine Monkman
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