When America's Most Wanted is Your Expat Friend

Bill Dodson of the This is China! blog writes today of his experience meeting a guy who turned out to be a fugitive. Why was he on the run? He’d raped his daughter and posted a video of the crime on the internet. I nearly didn’t believe it when reading his post, but this guy seems to exist, according to USA Today. The ease with which Dodson writes about the incident makes me wonder whether indeed he’d met the guy, but I don’t have any real reason to doubt this blogger whom I’ve never met. So for the sake of this post, let’s assume he actually did meet this guy. Here’s how Dodson met him:

For my part, I’d had lunch with the fellow a couple times at a local eatery popular with expats (he paid the first time; I paid the second), and we’d even gotten drunk together on the Bar Street with other expats who’d been making their lives in Suzhou for several years.

Here, though is where Dodson veers toward an interesting insight. Most of us who have been an expat or read expat writing know that there’s a perceived exemption from local customs on the part of some foreigners. In Japan, the usual narrative people used held that Japanese, unlikely to believe you’d understand the social conventions in their country, were willing to forgive a certain category of behaviors that would have been classified as misdeeds if the actor were Japanese. Here’s what Dodson says:

That Freeman could be so comfortable in Suzhou says as much about being an expat in China as it does about Suzhou. For one, expats do enjoy a kind of latitude in their adopted countries that the locals do not, to the resentment of some locals. Also, expats in the company of other expats are presumed abnormal – perhaps even aberrant – until they make a complete ass of themselves in the community, confirming the presumption.

Freeman’s arrest is still the buzz around town. I don’t know, though, what the locals make of it. They already presume we Westerners are perverted, and don’t know how to take good care of our children. The Freemans of the world just don’t make understanding each other any easier.

It’s this perceived latitude that really gets me. Does an expat really have extra privileges, or do we just not feel as accountable when we’re not in our home countries? After all, when I break a bunch of U.S. social conventions for a little while, people may (fairly) think I’m a bit nuts. I’m not sure this is significantly different from what people think of my cultural gaffes elsewhere in the world, except that there’s a slight assumption that I’ll do something nutty, since I’m foreign. And that’s just what Dodson is getting at above. (As for the presumption of perversion and bad parenting, I’d be interested to hear more evidence for that claim.)

I don’t know that it’s significant that this fugitive found China to be a good place to hide, but it is politically significant that he was caught. It demonstrates with a high profile that this most basic of laws does cross any U.S.–China divide.

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