Safeguards – Astro City #4 and the Expat Experience

Stand back! I’m about to do a literary analysis, something I haven’t done for a while. This article contains spoilers for Astro City #4 – “Safeguards.”

I have taken a great interest in comics this last year and am working on one myself. As such I have been reading as many as possible to learn all I can about the industry. This week I read volume 1 (containing issues 1-6) of Astro City and I was completely captivated by how much issue 4, “Safeguards,” seems to represent the expat experience.

An expat (short for “expatriate”) is someone who lives, temporarily or permanently, in a country or culture other than that of his or her upbringing. However, that is the broadest interpretation of the term. Expats usually differ from immigrants in that they typically do not seek citizenship of their new home and, thus, are never fully adopted into it. Of course, the use of the term “expat” can vary from person to person and be influenced by many factors such as countries involved, socio-economic standing, and political issues.

Astro City is a comic series set in a fictional city of the same name written by Kurt Busiek and illustrated by Brent Anderson. Astro City is Busiek’s non-traditional take on the typical superhero comic genre. From the very first issue, readers are introduced to a very large cast of characters which continues to grow throughout the series. Each issue is told from a different viewpoint, sometimes that of a hero, sometimes that of an average person. Issue 4, “Safeguards,” is one told from the point of view of an average person, Marta, who struggles to live life in two different worlds within one city. Even though Marta doesn’t travel halfway around the world to a new country, she only journeys “down the hill,” Marta is the quintessential expat and her experience highlights the difficulties associated with expat assimilation and the usual failure of such attempts.

On page 3*, Marta pretty much says that she is an expat. She says, “we have left The Hill — left the world where I am my parents’ child, a daughter of my culture and a follower of the old rules.” She continues on page 4: “I am no longer a child, but a woman of my own, defined by my skills and work and choices.” When people leave their home country to live as expats, they cease to be a person of one culture. Whether or not they ever assimilate into a new culture, they will now always be defined by at least two cultures. The expat will never be the same again and will be fundamentally different from people raised only by one culture. They are no longer a child of their parents only, but a child of the world who grows independently. Some children (no matter their age) can only grow fully into an adult after becoming an expat. Marta also says on page 4, “as much as I love my home — as much as I love my family — I also love the city.” There are many, many reasons why people choose to become expats, but a lack of love for their family or country is not usually one of them.

On page 5, Marta starts sharing the daily life of an expat. While many Western countries like America, England, and Australia are melting pots of people from every walk of life, many developing nations lack diversity. Marta says that “some of the [bus] passengers glance at the girl from Shadow Hill, look away and sit somewhere else.” It is not uncommon for expats to be stared at, even in large cities. My husband and I have lived in the provincial capital of Changsha for two years, and we still see people sneaking pictures of us when we go out for dinner.

On page 8, Marta is (apparently once again) confronted with the amazement of her co-workers. They simply can’t believe that Marta lives in Shadow Hill. One co-worker exclaims “don’t you have vampires up there?” Curiosity and shock often accompanies the conversations of expats, from people in both the native and new cultures. In America they ask “don’t they eat dogs in China?” In China, they are genuinely worry that “doesn’t everyone have a gun in the nightclubs in America?” Marta responds with the most politically correct answer an expat can give, “I grew up there. I guess I’m just used to it.” This idea of what one is ‘used to’ is the main theme of “Safeguards.”

On page 9, after being invited to move to Astro City proper, away from Shadow Hill, Marta must talk to her family about it, who, like many parents of expat kids who choose to move away, are less than pleased. Page 9 is very interesting in terms of the expat experience and Astro City as a whole. Shadow Hill is, on one hand, simply a suburb of Astro City. The Astro City buses run through Shadow Hill and it is close enough for Marta to commute to downtown Astro City for work every day. But Astro City and Shadow Hill are two completely different cultures. English isn’t even the native language of Shadow Hill. To the people of Shadow Hill, Astro City is “other,” it is “alien.” For many people who have never left their home country, even if they know people from other cultures and find other cultures interesting, they can’t never truly understand them. Marta’s family sees a value in teaching their daughter English, but it backfires when she wants to leave Shadow Hill to live where people speak English as a native language. In America, people are more and more realizing the value of teaching children multiculturalism, whether it be through language, art, dance, or food. But when the children develop a love for another culture that might take them away from their native one, parents many times feel betrayed. Parents will do all they can to try and convince their child to stay in the native country.

On page 9 and 10, Marta then goes into a comparison of the good and bad of living in Shadow Hill and Astro City. Originally, I thought this was the crux of the story. Marta says “we’re not truly so different, are we?” This is how most expats eventually feel about their new home. One place is not better or worse than another, they are just different. This is the “safe” viewpoint for most expats. But Astro City is not a “safe” story and the reality for many expats can turn out quite different.

Marta makes the decision to leave Shadow Hill. After all, in Shadow Hill she is a child. Eventually, all children grow up. When she has a nightmare about being swallowed up by Shadow Hill and rescued by the residents of Astro City, she says on page 13 that “I don’t want to be a scared little girl anymore, but I can feel the bulk of The Hill weighing down on me, burying me alive.” She is just about to accept the invitation to be a roommate of some of the Astro City girls when her office is attacked by a gang known as the Unholy Alliance.

Marta ends up trapped under a brick wall, injuring her leg, and is cornered by one of the villains. In that moment, it no longer matters that she is a grown-up because she is completely helpless. In this moment in Astro City, she is reduced back to her child-like state. All her life, even though Astro City and Shadow Hill both have their good and bads, she was never taught to defend herself against the bads of Astro City. All the defenses she was taught, wolfsbane, crosses, mistletoe, etc., are only protections against the bads of Shadow Hill.

Even though Marta is rescued by one of Astro City’s heroes, she says on page 22 that “something changed for me that day.” She comes to realize that even though Astro City and Shadow Hill are “not that different,” she doesn’t know the “rules” of Astro City. Even though Shadow Hill has real dangers, she says on page 23 that they protect her from “the dangers I don’t understand.” In America we say “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” In the end, Marta quits her job, goes to work at the local butcher shop like her mom wants, and makes plans to stay in Shadow Hill. The theme of issue #4 isn’t that both cultures are equally good and equally bad and that people should celebrate differences, the theme is that try as one might, you can never really fit in and be safe in a culture you aren’t raised in.

Is Marta a failure for choosing the “safe” option and returning home? To say “yes” would be to say that all expats who eventually return home are also failures. But is staying in a new culture the goal of an expat? As I said earlier, expats aren’t immigrants. Expats are always on the peripherals of their new culture and many will eventually return home. Expats and immigrants have different goals. Immigrants aim to become members of their new society; expats aim to be citizens of the world. Most expats are happy when they return home for simply having the experience of living somewhere else, of seeing the world through a new lens. Because of this, many of them can actually be better citizens of their home countries. I know in my three years living in China I have gained a much stronger appreciation for America. Of course America is far from perfect and can always improve, but it isn’t as bad as many Americans who have never been to another country think it is.

The ending of “Safeguards” is a bittersweet reality check. For many expats, they may try to call their new country “home,” they may love it, embrace it, and defend it to the end, but in the end it never really is home. At the end of the day, it’s much easier to sleep when you are surrounded by familiar safeguards.

*pagination based on digital version.