Peacefully Living Abroad


In many countries people are afraid of foreigners for no good reason, and as an expat, this type of irrational behavior has a direct impact on my life. Let me tell you about some of my experiences living abroad so that you can learn about some of the stupid ways people target you when they find out you're a foreigner.

Hungary During the Iraq War

I lived in Budapest in the fall of 2003, not long after the Iraq War began. My friends and I were part of a wonderful university exchange program called Budapest Semesters in Mathematics, and we studied math every day. One night after class we went to see a movie. We were walking on the sidewalk and talking to each other when a cab pulled up. Here's the conversation he had with us.

Driver:Hey, you from America?
Driver:Fuck you.
Me:Where are you from?
Me:Well fuck you too.

How's that for diplomacy? I opposed the Iraq War long before it started. I went to a few protests, and I wrote emails to friends and associates arguing that Cheney was a deceptive slimeball and explaining how the intelligence was vague and unreliable, and that Iraq had little to do with al-Qaeda. Of course the taxi driver didn't know any of that. All he knew is that I was American, and to him, America was doing bad things. He carelessly blamed the leader's actions on the citizens, and on me.

People said before the Iraq War, If the Iraqis don't like Saddam, why don't they get rid of him? What nonsense. I voted against Bush, and the majority of Americans disapprove of Trump, but nevertheless they both took office. As citizens we have the responsibility to act politically, and specifically to vote, but sometimes bad things happen despite our best efforts, and it's ridiculous to blame us for things we tried hard to prevent.


I've been in Japan for ten years, I spent a lot of time developing my Japanese, and I don't ever jaywalk. I never break the law here, except for traffic laws, and everyone breaks those. If I get a criminal conviction, my visa won't be renewed, and I'll have to leave the country. Certificate for teaching English? High level Japanese abilities? None of it would matter, because I'd be gone. As an expat, I know that I can't risk breaking the law. If I got caught, the consequences would be disastrous. All expats know this.

If I were somehow arrested and found not guilty, I still might lose my job or my apartment. Where there's smoke, there's fire. Or not, but many people think so.

In Japan, the per capita crime rates of Japanese citizens and non-Japanese residents are approximately the same. The data is real, but that doesn't mean the average person knows it. Cops sometimes stop me and demand to see my immigration papers just because I'm "obviously a foreigner". Racial profiling at its finest. It's ridiculous because cops can't tell if you're foreign just based on skin color, you have the legal right to remain silent, and if you're a Japanese citizen, you don't have to carry any documentation proving so. But refusing to speak to them is an awful risk. If they arrest you anyway, you're screwed.

You might be thinking, Hey, white people are more likely to be foreigners, so they're more likely to commit visa violations, so isn't it reasonable for the cops to do spot checks? This is an interesting question. Not only is it a sick attempt to justify discrimination as practical and therefore necessary, it's also a data-dependent policy question. The short answer is, No, it's not reasonable, not that the data shows. It turns out the vast majority of non-Japanese residents in the country are from Asian countries, and racial profiling won't catch them. Other countries like the U.S., Canada, Australia, and many places in Europe, are more likely to have citizens of ethnic backgrounds that make them visible in a crowd, but people from these countries almost never overstay their visas. And when they do, it's almost always accidental, and a quick trip to the visa office makes everything better. Also, there are a huge number of Japanese citizens of mixed roots. In short, your intuition might suggest that white means foreign means visa violation, but actually there are too many false negatives (people who "look Asian"), too many false positives (Japanese citizens who "don't look it"), and too few violators. In Japan, racial profiling is an ineffective way to fight illegal immigration.

Some of my students are Japanese citizens, born and raised, but they don't "look Asian", people might say. In a few years, they'll grow up and become new victims of officers who think that racial profiling is peachy. Can you imagine that? Your parents are Japanese citizens, you're a Japanese citizen, you're born and raised in Japan, you don't speak English, but because you have a pale or dark skin color, cops will detain you and threaten to arrest you.

There was an interview in the Japan Times (Meet the man who gets frisked by the Tokyo police five times a year, Baye McNeil, 2017-01-22) with a man who routinely deals with police harassment. If you've never read first-hand narratives of this kind of abuse, you should read the article. It's sick and twisted. The cops are looking for African drug couriers, so they illegally search bags of black people walking down the street. This type of police behavior is illegal, racist, and really needs to stop. I think that is clear enough.

People Blindly Trust Police

In comments of the above Japan Times article, I discussed some of the drawbacks of racial profiling with other commenters. One of the discussion threads stood out, because the person chatting with me couldn't imagine the cops were getting it wrong. It was fundamental to him that the police were keeping us safe. Here's a snippet of the discussion.

Andrew:So it happens to white guys. It seems to be a 'scheduled activity', and I think its a reasonable undertaking. One can't ignore the fact that 'crime is cultural'. Race might correlate with culture, but Japanese police cannot not make the distinction. Of course Japanese police 'cultural profiling' is only a statistical proclivity. You can insist they shouldn't 'generalise', but that is what you do in the absence of 'specific knowledge'. If you require police to have 'specific knowledge', then the criminals win because they are just as smart as police, and have more reasons to evade police than the police have for finding them...
Me:Statistically, foreign residents in Japan commit about as many crimes per capita as Japanese people, and that includes visa overstays. Police can stop a ton of crime without resorting to racial profiling. And they do, right, because a ton of "Asian-looking" people get caught breaking the law every single day.
Andrew:... I don't begrudge people doing their job in difficult conditions. I empathise with their situation. I tell myself, if they think my nationality is responsible for cultivating a perception that 'we are all thieves', then let me offer an alternative perspective. Just as I do when Japanese estimate of Australia is 'kangaroos'. I can begrudge their 'simple' estimate, or I can add to it, knowing they don't study much geography, or travel so much.

I totally failed to convince him of two things. First, I couldn't convince him that cops often act improperly and that this is horrendous. That was weird, because the entire interview above the discussion highlighted the badness. And on a policy level, I couldn't convince him that national policy could be used to make the police force on the whole work more efficiently and keep us all safer. Without any evidence whatsoever, he believed—and probably still believes—that if cops are left free to act on their own instincts, they'll keep society safe.

It's interesting to see people slowly recognize that police can break the law and do bad things. Here's the summary of a conversation my dad and I had last year.

Dad:I think police officers are well-intentioned.
Me:Really? A cop last month stood in front of a car, stepped aside when the driver hit the gas, and then tried to shoot the man from behind as he was driving away. And then lied about it on the police report.
Dad:No, that kind of thing doesn't happen.
Me:No, please, don't take my word! There's video. Get on YouTube and see for yourself.
Me:Look, there are lots of cops out there. It's hard to say they're all doing the right thing all the time.
Dad:Yeah, as you say...

Interestingly, my initial description appeared to be third-hand information, and therefore unreliable, but once I mentioned that a video of the incident was available, my credibility instantly rose. My dad didn't watch the video, at least not then, but he's a smart guy and quickly revised his position. The good thing is that we have the technology to take video and share it with others. The bad thing is that in order to get video of people being mistreated, that mistreatment has to occur. It would be highly preferable if people wouldn't assume the authorities always do the right thing, so we could talk about sensible public policy before so many people's lives are disrupted.

We Don't Hate People

When I talk about cops and racial profiling, sometimes people assume that I hate the cops. That assumption is incorrect. When cops target someone because of their skin color, they're doing the wrong thing. They're doing the wrong thing, but I don't hate them. I don't even know them. What I know is that the bad actions are the problem. If you take the police officers who target visible minorities for no good reason, and make and enforce new rules preventing them from doing so, those officers might spend their newly-acquired free time doing things that actually reduce crime. Asking public officials to form reasonable public policy is not an expression of disdain for public servants but rather an expression of care for society at large.


On January 26, 2017, President Donald Trump said, "We’ve taken in tens of thousands of people; we know nothing about them. They can say they vet them, they didn’t vet them. They have no papers. How can you vet somebody when you don’t know anything about them and you have no papers? How do you vet them? You can’t. On January 27, he said, "I am establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America. We want to make sure we are not admitting to our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas." In reality the U.S. already had thorough procedures for vetting immigrants, but that only matters if you care about the truth.

Let's look at some excerpts from his January 27, 2017, executive order.

(c) To temporarily reduce investigative burdens on relevant agencies during the review period described in subsection (a) of this section, to ensure the proper review and maximum utilization of available resources for the screening of foreign nationals, and to ensure that adequate standards are established to prevent infiltration by foreign terrorists or criminals, pursuant to section 212(f) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1182(f), I hereby proclaim that the immigrant and nonimmigrant entry into the United States of aliens from countries referred to in section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12), would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, and I hereby suspend entry into the United States, as immigrants and nonimmigrants, of such persons for 90 days from the date of this order (excluding those foreign nationals traveling on diplomatic visas, North Atlantic Treaty Organization visas, C-2 visas for travel to the United Nations, and G-1, G-2, G-3, and G-4 visas).

This is stupid. If you want to fix immigration law, don't start by breaking it. Plane tickets and paperwork expire, and families are being torn apart simply because of a person's passport.

(c) Pursuant to section 212(f) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1182(f), I hereby proclaim that the entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States and thus suspend any such entry until such time as I have determined that sufficient changes have been made to the USRAP to ensure that admission of Syrian refugees is consistent with the national interest.

A textbook case of xenophobia. Anyway, it should not matter what the president determines. If he wants to change the law, he should work with Congress.

(i) information regarding the number of foreign nationals in the United States who have been charged with terrorism-related offenses while in the United States; convicted of terrorism-related offenses while in the United States; or removed from the United States based on terrorism-related activity, affiliation, or material support to a terrorism-related organization, or any other national security reasons since the date of this order or the last reporting period, whichever is later;

(ii) information regarding the number of foreign nationals in the United States who have been radicalized after entry into the United States and engaged in terrorism-related acts, or who have provided material support to terrorism-related organizations in countries that pose a threat to the United States, since the date of this order or the last reporting period, whichever is later; and

(iii) information regarding the number and types of acts of gender-based violence against women, including honor killings, in the United States by foreign nationals, since the date of this order or the last reporting period, whichever is later; and

(iv) any other information relevant to public safety and security as determined by the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General, including information on the immigration status of foreign nationals charged with major offenses.

Do you see the badness in the above sections? It makes sense to keep track of dangerous people, and it makes sense to keep track of terrorists. But that order only keeps track of foreign terrorists. It intentionally omits domestic terrorism. Why? Because if you start counting domestic terrorism, and it turns out that Americans can be dangerous too, then your anti-foreigner policies start to fall apart. And that would undercut Trump's message.

Thorough documentation of law enforcement actions is a good thing, but what new data is supposed to be uncovered here? There are very few cases of terrorism, and they're all well documented. There's nothing of substance to be found.

It's Not Just Trump

Trump is trying to blame crime and terrorism on foreigners, and the same thing happens in other countries. It's an old trick: you blame all of the badness on a group with no political power, because they can't stop you, and it's so much easier than actually dealing with real problems. Don't fall for this trick.

If You Don't Like It Fix It

When you talk about foreigners or expats or immigrants and difficulties living abroad, people are quick to say, If you don't like it so much, why don't you just leave? What nonsense. First, if a situation isn't going well, fixing it is a good idea. Why not try making things better before quitting? Second, some people can't "just leave" because they have family, or they've invested time and resources into getting where they are. I've worked hard to learn Japanese and do my job well, and I like living in Japan and teaching English and international culture to Japanese kids. Third, I would return the question. If you don't like listening to me trying to make this country a better place, even though I'm an immigrant, why don't you leave instead?

Actually, I wouldn't return the question. There's no point. Many people are blind patriots. They are unwilling to imagine that their country could get better. Their country is perfect, never mind all that bad shit in the past. And when you run into people like this, it's hard, because you probably won't reach them. But we still have to try, because you might, and that's why I wrote this blog entry.

Immigrants, expats, whoever, we're all just trying to go through our lives. We work normal jobs, we pay taxes, we follow the law, hang out with friends and family, and basically we want to live life peacefully.