One of my colleagues and I have been having a long-running conversation about ethics and aesthetics. Her assertion is that aesthetics = ethics– not necessarily that this is the way it should be, but that it is how most people operate: people have strong aesthetic preferences and they express them as (and often believe them to be) their ethics. My rants about Uber and celebration of public transportation are an excellent example. My colleague’s reactions to others’ photography and the way they explain their work is another. But I think living abroad also affects our aesthetic/ethical experiences, then shapes our reasoning, then broadens (or narrows) both our aesthetic and ethical convictions.
I remember moving back in with my dad after years of living away at college. Again taking showers in the bathroom that had been mine in my four years at high school, I was struck (displeased, alienated, discomfited) by its aesthetics: the dull tan ceramic fittings of the sink and toilet; the K-mart (or equivalent) bathmat; and especially the mass-produced and flowery-scented pink bar of soap. It needled me so much to have shifted back to this pre-college aesthetic that when I first had the opportunity to go to the natural foods store and buy what I thought of as better (‘natural’, brandless, herb-smelling) soap, I immediately felt calmer and more in touch with myself. In hindsight I definitely judge my own snobbery, but I also understand it more since living abroad.
There are so many ways to experience disconnection when you live outside your home country. Most obviously, the language of passers-by on signs and in the street. A newfound geographic orientation and a need to be more aware of where you are so as not to get lost. A need to learn the local habits (restaurant opening times, places to buy vegetables, how to recharge your subway card) and access bureaucratic and logistical systems. But for me, the deeper disconnection is aesthetic. I visited a friend in Sweden in 2011 and was amused and sometimes flustered by the differences in fixtures on faucets, the presence of a sauna in every apartment building basement, and the cleanliness and orderliness of the trains. The baked goods used cardamom instead of cinnamon. The door keys were a different shape of metal. My summer in China in 2008 is still a blur of specific food smells and tastes (lots of soup; red bean buns for breakfast), silk fabric, humidity, and construction-zone dust. Jordan was the home of red dirt creeping in under the doorsill, meat dishes made with lamb and yogurt, and signs written in flowing curly and incomprehensible script. You could say experiencing these is just the adjustment to a new geographic and cultural location and the resulting need to accommodate, but I experienced it as a sometimes aggressive new reality that I needed to sometimes protect myself from or defend myself against. Because who am I if I switch to using lever 2000 or irish spring instead of my vermont-sourced, handmade, sandalwood-scented soap? How can I recognize myself if I start wearing sports-name-brand clothes, or using hairspray, or eating spam? Does my name written in arabic script still signify the same me?
Living abroad can seem like an onslaught against personal identity. Holding tight to aesthetic values is one way to reply to this. Of course, I am exercising my (expat, moneyed) privilege in holding onto these. My ability to shop and pay for the things I want in my home and my ability to choose my method of transportation exists because I am well-paid and can take the time to indulge myself. And in this, I understand my colleague’s assertion that aesthetics equals ethics– the preferences I have become almost sacred to me, because they represent the choices I am making about how to live.