Sunday, January 9, 2011

Dances with (Expat) Wolves

D-w 1Major Fambrough: You wish to see the frontier?
John Dunbar: Yes sir, before it's gone.

Dances With Wolves is a Best Picture movie starring Kevin Costner as a soldier who goes to live among the Lakota Sioux in the mid-1800’s.  He adopts the ways of the horse culture of the Great Plains, only to find that he has lost his place with his native people.

I’ve always liked this movie: the expansive cinematography of the western prairies, the glimpse into the Lakota Sioux, the narrative of journey and discovery.  But last night,  breaking it out to enjoy again, I saw quite a different film.

This time I saw the expat journey, so many parallels to my life over the past five years.  It seems like I could almost conduct a seminar based on what John Dunbar did right as an expat:

  • He took the initiative to meet the natives.
  • He learned the language.
  • He kept a journal of his experiences and thoughts.
  • He suspended judgment while learning and adapting.
  • He shared his customs and his traditions (and coffee).
  • He kept his own integrity and center.

DancesWithWolves102Yet, by the end, he found himself isolated and alienated; what mistakes did he make?

  • He lost contact with his own culture.
  • He adopted local fights that weren’t his own.
  • He failed to communicate with the folks back home.
  • He identified too strongly with local artifacts.

“It seems everyday ends with a miracle here,” he comments.  It’s so true of the best days meeting new people in magical settings. 

“Many times I'd felt alone, but until this afternoon I'd never felt completely lonely,” he laments.  It’s so true of the worst days, cut off from familiar people and separated from my surroundings.

“Of all the trails in this life there is one that matters most: the trail of a true human being.”  I rarely find truth in movies, but I did find a resonance in John Dunbar’s expat journey.

Hopefully I avoid his dénouement.

Are there other works that speak strongly to the expat experience that you would recommend?


Tiffany said...

Fantastic post Dave. To be honest, this is a film I've not yet seen, but I identify myself with John Dunbar based on what you said he did right and what he did wrong. Definitely food for thought for me. I guess I'll have to watch the movie now... that'll make my husband happy!

Dave Hampton said...

Hi, Tiffany and thanks!

It is a good flick, and the fact that the Europeans are the bad guys made me smile. and, if nothing else, the beautifully filmed landscapes are worth seeing (Alberta, I think).

Thinking about expat success in that context, I'm wondering whether isolation or solitude is advantageous to force you to take the plunge into another culture. If you came over with a friend or housemate, would you always stand apart (unless, of course, the partner is Dutch).

'really enjoy your blog; keep writing and sharing, we're reading.