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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Ring Out the Old, Ring in the New with Expats from Oz, the U.S., and France

This pachyderm ended the year
being crowned Miss Elephant International
Chitwan National Park (Nepal), Dec. 29.
What does it mean to be an elephant seeker? Kym Hamer, David Hufford, and Véronique Martin-Place were among the first expats to help this blog answer that question. For this year-end post, I've asked them to share their holiday highlights, new year's resolutions, and any fresh insights on their adventures.

How did you spend Christmas this year?

KYM HAMER [Australian based in London]: This year was my first Christmas visiting my family in Melbourne since 2005. I arrived here early Christmas morning and walked out of passport control wearing a big bow. Hahaha... For the last six years, I've fervently wished for a white Christmas in the UK. It actually came true this season — and I missed it! C'est la vie...

VERONIQUE MARTIN-PLACE [Frenchwoman based in Chicago]: We stayed put in the United States. As I've written recently on my blog, I'm not a fan of returning to one's home country during the holidays.

DAVID HUFFORD [American based in Tokyo]: Christmas is not a holiday in Japan, so my wife and I usually work. But since December 25 was on a Saturday this year, we both had it off. In that sense, it was an unusual Christmas.

Have you tweaked your holiday celebrations at all since living abroad?

KYM: Particularly since moving to the UK, I've enjoyed the tradition of decorating my own Christmas tree. I love revisiting my travels through all of the ornaments I've collected from various places. This year I am away over Christmas and New Year and could not face the thought of coming back and having to "undress" the tree in mid-January, so I am sans tree... I did help some good friends with their tree so did not miss out altogether.

DAVID: Neither my wife nor I is religious, so there hasn't been much of a change in how we celebrate — except that we do much, much less Christmas shopping since there is no tradition in Japan for exchanging gifts. We still put up a tree and have a special dinner. Thus far we've been able to avoid the local custom of reserving a special Christmas menu from KFC, and we only rarely buy a Christmas cake.

VERONIQUE: In the United States as in France, we celebrate by doing lots of family activities: ice skating, going to the movie theater, museums, baking, and most important of all, playing with the new toys Santa Claus brings to our two daughters... But since settling in Chicago, my family has acquired a couple of new habits. My husband bakes cookies for the girls to leave out for Santa. And we listen to Christmas songs nonstop: at home, in the car, any and everywhere!

Have you had any new insights on your adoptive land since your interview appeared on this blog?

VERONIQUE: One thing I've noticed relating to the holidays is that American people usually say "Happy Holidays," not "Merry Christmas." I wasn't aware of it until I started living here. I guess it is a way to be politically correct. For me, it was both amusing and shocking.

DAVID: Nothing especially new, except that I am beginning to believe that the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the current ruling party, is totally incompetent. I blog about Japanese politics but was late to come to this conclusion.

KYM: Two big personal changes in the past months: I start an amazing new job in January, which I am insanely excited about; and I became a single girl again. The latter I wasn't so excited about, but I'm now on the mend and starting to revel in the joys of being completely selfish again!

Last but not least, have you made any news year's resolutions related to blogging and travel?

VERONIQUE: My Resolution #1 is to write, write and write — for new clients; for my blog, Expat Forever; and on behalf of personal writing projects. My Resolution #2 is to run, run and run — with the goal of doing the Chicago Marathon in 2011. And my Resolution #3 is to travel to Hawaii in 2011. Hmmm... I wish my husband will read this one!

KYM: My new job will involve some travel, so I am hoping to experience some new places/people and maybe revisit some former haunts. And Gidday From The UK will continue to chart my expatriate life no matter where it takes me.

DAVID: I never bother with New Year's resolutions. As far as Japan without the sugar goes: I never run out of things to complain — I mean blog — about. The most interesting trend at present is Japan's apparent moves in changing its defense posture towards China, and its move to become more involved with South Korea and the US alliance toward the DPRK. As far as travel plans, I hope to get back to the US for a visit next fall around Thanksgiving. I have been saying that for the last four years and haven't made it yet.

If you missed the interviews with these three expats, here are the links:
See also interviews with:
This blog has been going since May of this year and has been a success due to the participation of these five elephant seekers, along with all of you commenters and followers (the thundering herd!). Thank you, and as they say in Japan on New Year's Day, kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu [please continue to help me in the new year].

I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to New Year's Eve celebrations that include one or two pink elephants, preferably with painted toenails (see photo above). And with that thought in mind, à votre santé, cheers, kampai!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Bittersweet Calculus of Changing Countries

Seville orange marmalade with rind,
invented 1797 in Scotland
(courtesy Wikimedia)
While everyone else was stocking up for Christmas at the Union Square greenmarket last week-end, I was on a quest to find a humble jar of marmalade, as we'd just run out. It took a while, but at last I ferreted out a candidate amidst the dandelion, garlic raspberry, and other exotic jellies at the Berkshire Berries stall. Just to be sure, I asked the vendor: "Is this regular marmalade?" To which he instantly responded: "No, it's the best there is!"

Me: "Well, I wouldn't know. Even though I lived in the UK a long time, I never acquired the taste. Too bitter!"

"Don't be afraid to try this one," he urged. "It's made with Florida oranges, not Seville oranges."

"How very clever of you," I told him, "to come up with a New World version!"

But as I walked away, I thought to myself: Is the New World any less bitter than the old nowadays? At best, this past year has been rather bittersweet for us U.S. citizens. But I imagine our sufferings and disappointments are as nothing compared to those of newly arrived immigrants, who've given up everything to come to this country — the ultimate New World destination — for a fresh start.

Recently I had occasion to ruminate on the plight of immigrants to the United States, after making back-to-back visits to Little Indonesia in Philadelphia and Indonesia itself.

Several thousand Indonesians have emigrated to South Philadelphia in the past ten years or so. I was envisioning their having set up a vibrant neighborhood, rather like Indonesia itself, but the scene that confronted me in late October was rather desolate: one level up from a slum. Philadelphia's Little Indonesia consists of a limited grid of narrow streets lined with pokey row houses. There are several hole-in-the-wall restaurants and nondescript shops carrying Indonesian goods. We tried the food: it is decent enough. And the shops, though cramped, are reasonably well stocked with Southeast Asian staples, everything from cassava chips to jackfruit (in cans).

I have since learned that the majority of these immigrants are Christians from Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city. They fled to the United States after attacks were made on their churches in the late 1990s. A significant minority (something like a quarter) of Little Indonesia's residents are Muslims. And, whereas the Christians have been integrated into the local churches, the Muslims have to make do with any space they can find. The nearest mosque is in West Philly, and, ironically, during Ramadan they have ended up borrowing space from a Mennonite church where the pastor is an Indonesian Christian.

Would these Little Indonesians — particularly the Muslims — have been better off staying put in their native land? Bear in mind that their prospects have most likely worsened since 9/11, which ushered in an era of racial profiling and, as evidenced by the controversy over the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero, xenophobia.

Even the Christians — many of whom I suppose are ethnic Chinese — may be wondering if their children might have done better in the Indonesia, where the economy has been growing strongly despite the global financial crisis and recession and, amazingly, reducing debt at the same time. This year Indonesia achieved a growth rate of 6 percent, and pundits say it could have been even higher — 10 percent, easily — if only the government had made some headway in overcoming abiding corruption and structural inefficiencies (democracy hasn't solved these problems just yet). Thanks to real economic activity and bullish expectations, the stock market is up by 50 percent — one of the best performers in the world in 2010.

A couple of weeks after my trip to Little Indonesia, I took off for Indonesia itself and saw this emerging economic miracle with my own eyes.

I had last visited Jakarta in 2004, when it was still shell shocked from the Asian financial crisis and had not found solid democratic footing after dictatorship. The entire city had an air of foreboding about it. The Indonesians I met then seemed defeatist as well about their future economic prospects, particularly as compared to China's.

This time around, there were signs of an economic revival. Don't get me wrong: Jakarta still deserves its sobriquet of the Big Durian, and you take your life into your hands when crossing the street. But one of the first things I noticed is that there is now a Starbucks on virtually every major street corner. As we New Yorkers know, whenever Starbucks moves in, gentrification can't be long behind.

I also witnessed many Indonesians beginning to partake in this new-found prosperity. The first Sunday after my arrival, we visited Grand Indonesia Shopping Town, a luxurious new shopping mall anchored by Seibu and Harvey Nichols. The basement cafes and restaurants were buzzing with customers; parents and kids packed out the indoor playland featuring a kid-sized train; and young people were queuing up for tickets to the mall's 11-screen cineplex.

All of this leaves me with the bittersweet sense that, while something is always gained from moving countries, a great deal is risked. Reader, I leave you to ponder all of this with the help of some photos from my two "Indonesian" trips:

1) STANDIN' ON THE CORNER: Would you rather hang out in front of a faceless grocery in South Philly, or at the entrance to an exclusive supermarket chain in a posh city mall?
Corner grocery: Little Indonesia, South Philly
99 Ranch Market, part of a California-based chain:
Grand Indonesia Shopping Mall, Jakarta
2) PRACTICING ISLAM: Would you rather worship in a makeshift way in a country that fears Muslims, or join the throngs reciting prayers in Southeast Asia's largest mosque?
Hand-written sign on row-house front door: Little Indonesia, South Philly
Worshippers at Istiqlal Mosque, Jakarta
3) SEEING ELEPHANTS: Would you rather contemplate grease-stained elephants while waiting for takeaway in your neighborhood's lone Thai restaurant, or be welcomed to a museum celebrating your nation's history, by a Thai elephant statue?
Thai take-out:
Little Indonesia, South Philly
Bronze elephant statue donated to Indonesia by King Chulalongkorn of Siam in 1871:
front of National Museum of Indonesia (also known as Elephant Building), Jakarta

Monday, December 6, 2010

French Expat: Chicago, My Kind of Town


This diplomat's wife and mother of two reflects on life in the city of broad shoulders, jazz, and deep-dish pizza, and how after two years she has come to own the experience.

Which part of France did you grow up in, and did you ever dream of living in the United States? I am from Lyon, in the southeastern part of the country, between Paris and Marseilles. Lyon is known as France's gastronomic capital. When I was a child, I would have laughed if somebody had told me I'd be living in Chicago one day. I wanted to move to Paris, but the idea of living abroad never entered my mind. It was not my plan at all.

And then you married a diplomat and traveled the world? Yes, my husband is a civil servant with the French Foreign Office. We have already completed one full expatriate cycle: three years in Norway, three years in Sri Lanka, and three years back in France (the city of Nantes). Chicago marks the start of our second cycle. We've been living here since summer 2008 with our two daughters. It's our first stay in the United States.

I have a soft spot for your resume as like me, you earned a Ph.D. in politics but chose not to stay in the academy.  I will always remember June 1999. My husband was about to receive his first overseas assignment — to Norway, though we didn't know that yet. Meanwhile, I got a phone call from the director of Department of Political Science at the University of Paris expressing interest in my candidacy for an adjunct teaching post. Without thinking too much, I answered: "I'm leaving the country." At that time I was writing my Ph.D. thesis. I could have stayed on my own for another year in Paris to teach at the university and defend my dissertation, but I didn't consider it. I wasn't passionate enough about academe to make it my career.

How does Chicago compare to Oslo and Colombo? It's been easy to settle here because I already speak the language, which was not the case in the other two cities. And the American way of life has been easy to adapt to. It helps that Chicago is family friendly compared to other American cities, Los Angeles for instance.

ON THE "TO DO" LIST: Bank of America
Chicago Marathon 2011
Is your family becoming Americanized? To some extent, just as we became "tropicalized" in Sri Lanka! My girls love celebrating Halloween, which isn't at all popular in France. This year, we decorated our apartment with fake pumpkins and spiders made in China (thank you, Target) and carved our own jack-o-lanterns. Also, my husband and I have started running like a lot of Chicagoans do. We've done some races and hope to run the Chicago Marathon next year, before we leave.

Have you made any American friends? As I'm fond of saying, I got to know more people after six months living in Chicago than after three years of living in Nantes, where we repatriated after Sri Lanka. But having a wide social network doesn't mean having many good friends. My daughters attend an American school so I often meet Americans, but in most cases the friendship doesn't go any further than a nice talk on the playground. To this day, most of my friends in Chicago are other expats.

bikini top, even in France.
I imagine that some of the Americans you meet have preconceived notions of what French people are like. I have a funny story about that. The first year we were here, my younger daughter was in prekindergarten. At that time she was fond of the Disney character Ariel. She would draw Ariel at least ten times a day. One day at pick-up time, the teacher gave me one of my daughter's drawings and said: “At least, she drew her with a bra!” I answered: “Yes, it is very realistic: Ariel always wears a purple one.” The teacher: “Well, you know. Most often children draw what they see. Don’t you go to the beach all naked in France?”

Great story. Can I ask you to follow it up with a "blind men's tale" — an example of how Americans and French people can approach the same topic very differently? Coming from Lyon, I would have to say the style of eating. I still cook everyday which I think is not the case of most Americans. People here are much more convenience oriented — except on Thanksgiving, when they go all out with fancy gadgets. And, although I've picked up the American habit of having food delivered from time to time (I love it!), I always request: no plastic forks, spoons, or paper plates.

That's something I've had trouble readjusting to as well after living in England and Japan. It doesn't feel like a proper meal without real cutlery and china. It's not just that, it's also wasteful. When I first got to this country, I was really shocked by the way Americans consume paper cups and plates, plastic glasses, napkins, etc. all day long. I was doubly shocked when I realized that I would not be able to recycle my garbage in my apartment building. These days, I bring my garbage down to the laundry room for sorting into newspapers, glass, plastic bottles and so. Once a week, I drive out to a place where I can deposit these bags for recycling.

So life isn't "greener" in Chicago? I get demoralized whenever I see bags of garbage on the Chicago streets. Why am I bothering if no one else is?

Even though you've moved around a lot, have you always tried to have a job? I am a mother of two but I am not only that. If my brain doesn't work, I get depressed. My identity is linked very closely to my professional and intellectual activities. But when you are an accompanying spouse and move every three years, it is almost impossible to have a career. Actually, you should remove that word from your vocabulary. You have to find other ways to feel active and comfortable in your shoes.

Tell me more about the business you started up recently. I had always picked up jobs as a trailing spouse, although the work wasn't always suited to my background and skills. When we arrived in Chicago in summer 2008, I was optimistic about landing a more challenging job, but then the American economy tanked. Nine months into our stay, I had no leads, nothing, not even an interview. Almost a year had gone by, and I had only two years left. I enlisted the help of a coach. I began to change my thinking: why not develop a portable job? After a full cycle of life as a diplomat's wife, I had grown tired of having to hand in my notice and search for something else every three years. I wanted some continuity. Just over a year ago, I started my own Web site, Writer Forever, offering freelance writing and editing services. For years, writing had been my passion, and although most of my jobs had included writing, it wasn't always the kind of writing I enjoyed.

Who are your clients? Online magazines, Web sites, publishing companies, and media agencies. I specialize in producing articles in French and English on a variety of topics from a French expat point of view.

You also have a companion blog? I started up Expat Forever this past April to share my thoughts and experiences as a serial expat. People think that "seeing an elephant," to use your expression, is glamorous, but that is a myth. When I was living in Sri Lanka, for instance, I had to contend with the threat of dengue fever, water and electricity cuts, violence and civil war. Another myth people have is that they will solve their problems by going abroad, but this is a mistake. It will only make things worse. Besides writing about my own experiences, I also review books dealing with expatriation, and I just now posted my first interview with a French expat: a painter who has lived in Chicago since 2006.

The blogosphere seems to be full of Americans writing about living in Paris. I imagine they have plenty of French counterparts who are living in American cities? Mais oui. One of my favorites is New York La Dolce Vita, about a Frenchwoman's adventures in New York City.

I notice you recommend Julia Child's memoir on your blog. To be honest, I had no idea of who Julia Child was until I watched the trailer for Julie and Julia on the Internet — and then I knew I had to see the movie. I saw some of my own story in hers. She was an American woman married to a diplomat. When the couple landed in France right after WWII, she had no idea of what what she was going to do with her life. She fell in love with France and the food culture. Her passion became her business. After seeing the movie, I ran to Borders to buy her memoir, My Life in France. A few days later, I wrote an article for Femmexpat proclaiming Julia Child an icon to expat wives everywhere.

Can you channel Julia for a moment and tell us: if you had to design a meal that blends your favorite French and American foods, what items would you choose? I would start with a nice salad in the French style with a real vinaigrette. Then I'd prepare hamburgers and French fries, along with a choice of dips for the French fries — you Americans love your dips! For dessert, I'd serve homemade madeleines with strawberries. And nice wines, of course ...

No Chicago-style pizza? I've tasted it but am not a fan. It's too ... stuffed, too heavy.

LUCKY SIGHTING: Elephants at
Sri Lanka's Esala Perahera festival,
Courtesy S Baker
Finally, a couple of questions posed to all interviewees for this blog. First, have you collected any Treasured White Elephants during your stay in America? My daughters each have an American Girl doll, which I'd like to keep as a reminder of their early years in the United States and how they became a little like American girls themselves. Perhaps my grandchildren will play with one day? I haven't yet started my own collection, but I had one in Sri Lanka. Guess what it was? Elephants: small statutes, wooden children's toys (including a small representation of the Perahera, a yearly Buddhist festival consisting of dances and ornately decorated elephants), lamps with elephant bases, you name it. My younger daughter was born in Colombo, and I decorated her room using an elephant theme. To this day, the equivalent of her teddy bear is a small stuffed elephant.

BATH TIME: Pinnawala pachyderms,
courtesy Dominique Schreckling
I love the idea of elephants being your treasured white elephant. I presume you've seen some real life elephants during your travels? Not in Chicago but certainly in Sri Lanka, where we attended the Esala Perahera in Kandy, and I would sometimes see elephants in the streets of Colombo. I also visited the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, where I was able to witness mother elephants and babies taking their baths in the river. C'était magnifique!

Monday, November 22, 2010

If the Shoe Fits ... An Englishman's Curious Devotion to a Curious Country

For this author and indefatigable observer of cultural habits, Poland is one of Europe's more opaque and challenging destinations, at once welcoming visitors while denying it has anything to offer them.

Where are you from originally — which part of England? I was born on the outskirts of London, spent my early childhood in Canada, my teenage years in Kent and then 15 years in North London.

What brought you to Poland originally? Ask any foreigner why they live in Poland and you will hear one of three possible answers: 1) I am married to/dating a Polish woman; 2) I was sent here by my company; or 3) I have Polish roots. I'm in the first category. Notice I say "Polish woman" — in all my time in Poland, I have met just one Western woman married to a Polish man but dozens of Western men married to Polish women, a topic recently covered in the collaborative blog I write for, called Polandian. I have no idea what this says about Polish men, but I do know what it says about Polish women!

How long have you been in Kraków in total? Do you speak Polish? I've lived in Kraków for three years. I speak bits of Polish — it's a big language, and I haven't gotten around to all of it yet. My first trip to Poland was in 1997. I lived in Warsaw for about two years. It was an interesting but ultimately frustrating experience that led me to conclude I was better off back in the UK. With a free choice of 197 countries, I moved to Poland again in 2007 — I am not a smart man.

Where and what did you study before embarking on your Polish adventure? I studied philosophy at King's College London. This in no way prepared me for any experiences, including that of being repeatedly asked who my favorite philosopher is.

What do you do for work? I've been a freelance writer and editor for more than ten years, working mostly on nonfiction books for a wide range of UK and US publishers. I also contribute a monthly "Perspectives on Poland" column to the Kraków Post (Poland's only English-language newspaper) and a weekly column Okiem Angola (Englishman's Eye) to Wirtualna Polska (published in both Polish and English), as well as blogging for Polandian — but those are hobbies more than anything.

as KGB agent in The Spy Who Loved Me
What do most people in the UK imagine when they think of Poland? Most Brits, even now, think Poland is somehow in Russia — a fact that makes Poles incandescently and rightly furious. This is a hangover from the Cold War when we were taught to regard the Soviet Bloc as a single, evil place populated by extravagant moustaches and female super spies wearing lingerie under their fur coats.

Haven't quite a few Polish youth emigrated to London in recent years? Perhaps they could correct that impression. There is an enormous number of Poles in the UK. So many in fact that nobody has any idea how many there really are. It could be a million, it could be two million. And they're not just in London. You can find Poles all across the country. It's not unusual to find shops in English villages that carry Polish beer and foods to cater for the migrants.

Are more Brits visiting Poland since it became independent? There was a time when speaking English on the street would draw a crowd of spectators, but that is long gone. Kraków, like many other eastern and central European cities, has become a favorite stag party destination for Brits and Irish, much to the detriment of the reputation of both nations in the minds of Poles. Warsaw is also a draw to some extent. There is quite a large British expat community in Poland, but most Poles don't know it exists. There are thousands of Brits living in the pretty areas of Kraków and Warsaw, but when Poles meet them they assume they are tourists.

EXPAT H(E)AVEN: With rents a quarter of London levels,
what's not to like about Kraków Old Town?
(courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
You say the Brits are living in pretty places. Is that part of the draw, that the grass is somehow greener? (Saying a lot for a Brit, of course...) As I mentioned, Poland's image is irrevocably tied to the Cold War idea of grim communist housing blocks, permanent winter, and tractor factories. In fact, the summers are long and gorgeous, the cities are ancient and beautiful, and the tractor factories were retooled long ago to build Daewoo cars. The grim housing blocks, the scowling old ladies with sharp umbrellas, the absurd bureaucracy — it's all still there, but many of us expats see it as the spice, not the principal ingredient. What's more, you can live reasonably well on a fraction of what it would cost in London or other major European cities.

Have you found it easy to make Polish friends? Poles love foreigners and hate other Poles. Foreigners are assumed to be sophisticated, civilized human beings — other Poles are assumed to be car thieves. It's pretty weird.

What do Poles usually say when they find out you're from the UK? Ten years ago, when I was teaching English in Warsaw, a student asked me: "Why did you come to Poland?" I replied: "Because I was curious." He thought about this for a while and then announced gravely: "One day, I wish to be curious like you." In other words, Polish people find it very hard to understand why a Westerner would choose to live in Poland. The longer I live here, the more I can see why.

Bigos, Poland's national dish,
One of the biggest thrills involved in travel is the chance to try out new foods. But unless I'm mistaken, food is not one of Poland's top attractions. Polish cuisine doesn't have any reputation at all, largely because there is nothing in Polish cuisine that is uniquely Polish. Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Czechs, Belarusians and a lot of Germans eat pretty much the same stuff with slightly different names. Brits who visit Poland usually thoroughly enjoy the food because it's basically big chunks of meat in fatty, salty sauces — all the stuff they've been weaned off over the past twenty years of cholesterol paranoia.

Hmmm... What would elephants eat? They are vegetarians. Elephants would have a hard time here. Stories of vegetarians being given chicken when they ask for "something without meat" are not entirely apocryphal.

What's the British food you miss the most? Any kind of pie — for some reason pies are completely unknown here. My fantasy food would be Thai green curry pierogi.

Can you tell me any stories that you think help to illustrate key Poland-UK differences? I call these Blind Men's Tales: one man "sees" the elephant's ears and another the trunk, and so on. The collaborative blog, Polandian, which I created with several other English-language bloggers — some foreigners, some Polish — is essentially a giant catalogue of Blind Man's Tales. Our stories, however, are a little different than those you might tell after living in Japan. I spent some time in Tokyo, which is so alien that it's possible to mistake a window for a door. Poland is nothing like that. The differences between Poland and the UK are much more subtle and take time to make themselves known to the visitor. For example, Poles are obsessed with wearing the right shoes for the season — the kind of shoes you are wearing comes up in conversation far more often than I would have believed possible. Other unexpected topics include exhumation and an almost supernatural sensitivity to what anybody anywhere says about the country.

Could you elaborate a little more on the shoes — how many pairs do you need? When I first came to Poland I had two pairs of shoes: a pair of trainers/sneakers and a pair of Dr Martens slip-on boots. I loved those boots. They were probably the seventh or eighth pair of the same make I had owned. I could wear them year round, in any weather. Three years later I have winter shoes, autumn shoes, summer shoes, sandals, going-to-wedding shoes, visiting-priest shoes, walking shoes, "good" shoes and, of course, slippers. And I am still considered to be woefully shoe-deficient.

It sounds like you're becoming Polish-ized. Definitely not. If anything, I'm more English than I ever was. When you live in a foreign country, your nationality becomes a vital part of your identity in a way it never is in your homeland. It's the first thing anybody says about you: "This is my English friend ... I know this English guy ... Speak slowly, he's English ...," etc.

I should mention that if anyone wants to read more about the Polish shoe fetish and other equally astonishing topics — such as exhumation mania or the necessity of owning a meat tenderizer — they should visit Polandian. Who are your readers, and how many visitors does the blog typically get? An eclectic mix of English-speaking Poles, Poles living in English-speaking countries, Westerners with Polish roots, and foreigners living in Poland. We get about 50,000 page-views per month and have recently passed 1.2 millions views in total.

Last but not least, I'd like to pose a couple of questions that are put to all elephant seekers who agree to be interviewed for this blog. First, have you collected any Treasured White Elephants: something that has captured your fancy that you would probably cart away when you leave? Books by Ryszard Kapuściński. He deserves to be far more widely known that he is. His writings about Africa in particular made me see things in an entirely new way. Kapuściński once said he writes for "people everywhere still young enough to be curious about the world," which ties in nicely what I said to the Warsaw student.

Kraków Zoo elephants, courtesy Andrew Llanwarne
Second, have you seen any elephants in Poland? Yes. Two very confused looking Indian elephants in the Kraków Zoo. I also saw a tiger on television that had escaped from a Warsaw circus about a week after I arrived in that city. It ran around the suburbs for a few hours and eventually got shot, but not before a vet had also been shot by an overenthusiastic policeman. It did make me wonder what I was letting myself in for ...

Friday, November 5, 2010

It's 59 Degrees Farenheit, So Why Am I Wearing a Fur Coat?

Up for some down? A warm (75 °F) and
humid (90%) day in late October, NYC
Actually, I tell a lie. No, not about the temperature: it is definitely 59 °F (around 15 °C), and that's in the shade. But I'm wearing an unlined polyester raincoat. It's the people around me who have on fur or — leaving politically correct considerations aside — some close equivalent: down, shearling, leather, or wool.

Temperatures on the U.S. East Coast have been averaging a good 10 °F above normal. But from the way many of my compatriots dress, you would never know this.

I wonder, are all these heavily-clad people sweating it out for the sake of fashion? Or have they actually persuaded themselves that 59 is the new 39?

As a repeat expat, or rex-pat, I'm all about acclimatizing. Upon arriving in a new place, I tune into what the natives are wearing and adjust my own dress habits accordingly.

"Grumpy and Freezy" in Prague,
courtesy Sezin Koehler
Sezin Koehler, a half-American half-Sri Lankan horror novelist who has traveled the world but now lives in Prague, understands this. In a recent post for Expat+HAREM, she wrote:
When I first arrived in Prague I was a size 7, had an acceptable C-cup and chocolate-colored skin. Three years later I’ve become a size 12 and an overbearing DD-cup with skin the color of weak tea. Aging plays only a small part.
I take Koehler's point. Finding herself under assault from Prague's sub-zero temperatures, she responded as any sensible rex-pat would: by making the necessary bodily and sartorial adjustments.

But on the East Coast of America, it may be safer to take your cues from other new arrivals (including us repatriates), not the natives. Often as not, New Yorkers are staggering around like Rip Van Winkle, bundled up against a cold that existed some twenty years ago.

So, how is it that we Americans got stuck in this time warp? (I say "we" because to some extent this post will be a self-indictment.) And what will it take to shake us out of our stupor?

First, some possible causes:

Americans are most comfortable with binary choices: good guys vs. bad guys, socialists vs. libertarians — or, as Heidi Klum might put it in her steely German accent: "One day you're in, and the next day you're out." It's hardly surprising that we should apply the same non-calibrated approach to the weather. If it's winter, we wear a coat, regardless of what the thermometer says. Life is so much simpler that way. Often it's much sweatier, too, but we have showers and deodorant for that...

The first time I went to the dentist since repatriating to the U.S., I couldn't get over how much he was at pains (pun intended) to tell me I wouldn't feel pain. If I'd been able to move my mouth, I would have said: "Are you kidding me? Since when did dental procedures become pain free?" That was an important lesson in how coddled my fellow Americans had become in my absence. I suspect that one reason so many of them can't wean ourselves off their heavy coats is that they can't stand the thought of being cold for so much as a second or two. It's everything I can do to refrain from getting up on my soapbox and preaching about mountain climbers who survived horrific cold simply by keeping their bodies moving. Oh, sorry, here I go:
Yes, the first blast of cold air hurts, but keep moving, folks, keep moving, and you'll be fine. Heavy wraps are for when you plan to be stationery for an extended period. ... Amen!

Illustration by Milo Winter,
Courtesy Project Gutenberg
America prides itself on being a new-world culture, where people can take charge of their destiny rather than giving into the Fates. That's all well and good, but attempting to rewrite Aesop's "wind and sun" fable qualifies as overreaching, in my humble opinion. That's the kind of thing I say to myself when I see my compatriots sallying forth in great big coats in 50-degree weather. What were they thinking when they decided to don that monstrosity: that they could make the climate gods conform to their sartorial whims? "Save that for when it's windy," I say under my breath, trying not to smirk upon noticing a few people lugging their coats around. That Aesop was smarter than he looked!

As Ross Douthat pointed out in his New York Times column this week, we Americans can't seem to make up our minds about global warming and whether it can really be happening to us (see #3). His observation dovetails with my theory that for some of us clinging ever more tightly to our coats is a way of clinging ever more tightly to the hope that if we ignore the issue for long enough, it will simply go away. It may even blow out to sea if we're lucky (and collide with the aftermath of the Gulf oil spill, but that's another tale of woe...).

Global style hub Refinery 29 has just posted a "cheat sheet" for snapping up the perfect winter coat:
Finally, with so many strange, balmy days behind us, the deep chill of winter is in the air. Along with November's arrival comes a brand-new urge to overhaul the closet and put our coziest wardrobe staples front-and-center. And that definitely begins with a good, sturdy coat for winter.
Of course it's jabberwocky, but I fall for it every time. Why? Not because I don't want to know about climate change, nor because I abhor being cold. The truth is, I'm an old sentimentalist. More than any other item of clothing, a coat harks back to an idyllic past that existed before the earth warmed up. Ah, the good old days when summer was hot and winter was cold, and you needed two wardrobes. I am getting all warm and fuzzy inside just thinking of it! But unfortunately for the retail industry, I have already collected a closetful of coats that I rarely wear any more. I keep them just in case I'm suddenly in the mood to bask (hahaha) in my nostalgia.

And now a few ideas for some wake-up jolts:

British officer in WWI,
Courtesy Wikimedia
1) Corral British and Japanese expats to give lessons to the natives on the fine art of layering one's clothes. As is well known, no one is better prepared for capricious weather than Brits. By dressing in layers, they can weather all four seasons in a day, a not infrequent occurrence in Albion's clime. Regardless of whether you're a rumpled tweed type or a fashionista, two basic layering principles apply:
  1. A lightweight innermost layer in case the sun makes a rare appearance for long enough for you to strip down to next-to-nothing — or in some cases, nothing at all. As Andrew Welch of British Naturism puts it: “When the weather gets warm, we have a whole wardrobe of clothes to choose from. We choose to choose none.”
  2. A practical outermost layer such as a rain/trench coat, mac, or anorak — ideal for when you find yourself being stalked by a chill north wind.
Japanese, too, are fond of layering; but in their case, the tendency is to add under- (rather than over) garments, as can be seen in this illustration of underwear from the Heian era (794-1185). To this day, most Japanese don long underwear in winter. Boring, I know, but boring is where it's at in a country where most people have a long commute in overheated, overcrowded subway cars (the long johns, too, are hard at work, wicking away the sweat).

The Climate Change Elephant,
Facebook profile pic
2) Arrange a stampede by a herd of Climate Elephants. Under the aegis of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, a group of cheeky pachyderms have been popping up Down Under to remind people that climate change is the elephant in the room. Could we Americans commission them to perform the same or similar stunts stateside? Depending on how dexterous they are with their trunks, perhaps their first prank could be plucking excessively heavy coats off people's backs — a kind of Gestalt therapy.

3) Harness the power of reality TV to call attention to our proclivity for overdressing in winter. Possible titles include What Not to Wear — Quite Literally or The Emperor's Old Clothes. Contestants would be taken apart for their failure to don the appropriate garb for a climate that no longer gets as cold as it used to, and taught how to dress in layers. One or more of the judges would be from the UK or Japan. They would make surprise visits to contestants' homes on days when the temperature suddenly rises by at least ten degrees: how well are they calibrating their clothing?

4) Encourage tourism to some of the world's coldest inhabited places. Not only would we Americans find out what cold really is but we would finally have a good excuse for getting our beloved outerwear out of storage. One possible destination is the village of Listvyanka in Siberia, next to the world's deepest lake, Lake Baikal, which freezes over from late January to early May. I'm envisioning a Doctor Zhivago tour, with glamorous fur coats and hats provided as part of the package, along with the option of having your photo taken standing atop the lake next to a cardboard cut-out of Omar Sharif or Julie Christie.

Question: Have you taken any steps to cope with our markedly different weather conditions? NOTE: Practical is fine, but nutty is even better! (Nutty times call for nutty measures ...)

Monday, October 25, 2010

United by an Uncommon Language / Part 2

Maiyim Baron considers herself a henna gaijin
and runs a site by that name.
Strange — that's the word for the people who, as soon as they set foot in Japan, aspire to become more Japanese than the Japanese. The Japanese themselves call them henna gaijin, which literally means strange foreigner — or, as one contributor to a Web site exploring this concept put it, "a weird white person who wants to learn about swords and stuff."

When I first got to Japan, I said to myself:
Well, I may be strange, but I'm not foolhardy. I've just had a small-island nation experience in England, which was pretty intense. No need to charge head on into another one straight away. Besides, only a glutton for punishment would embark on such a difficult language right after getting out of grad school. I'll learn just enough Japanese to get by, no more.
Famous last words, as it were. When I first went to England, I resolved not to pick up a British accent: thought it would sound even more pretentious on an American than it does on a native. Little did I envision visiting my hometown one day and being asked: "Are you from England? I love your accent!"

In Japan as well, my initial resistance to going native gave way to a preoccupation with absorbing what the 16th-century Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier nicknamed the devil's tongue.

In retrospect, I think St. Francis Xavier had it right. Who but the devil could have seduced me into dabbling in Japanese for so many years, knowing full well I would never reach fluency? Not only that, but since leaving Japan, I've been possessed by the need to persuade ALL English speakers to give it a go, for these four reasons:

1) Everybody needs a supreme challenge, and assuming you're not about to climb Mt. Everest, studying Japanese is the next best thing. Once you've embarked on the adventure, it becomes all consuming. You're in pain, you're exhausted, you're under stress, your brain is swelling, you think you're on the verge of getting lung disease (Japan is a smoker's paradise) — and it turns out you've only reached base camp, where you can say a few basic things like "Kore wa pen desu ka? Hai, kore wa pen desu." [Is this a pen? Yes, it's a pen.]

Mt. Everest, courtesy Wikimedia Commons
At this point, you try not to get psyched out, reminding yourself that others have done it before you — never mind the fact that unlike you, they started when they were young, before their language-learning faculties had atrophied. You also try not to think about what the experts have told you: that, to become truly good at Japanese — as in reading and writing as well as speaking — requires seven years of dedicated study. Lethargy is setting in, and you're full of confusion, but you slog on memorizing kanji characters — just another couple of thousand, and you'll be reading the newspaper.

Pretty soon, though, you can't cram anything more into your poor addled brain, and you take a rest. By the time you resume, it's clear you haven't got a prayer of so much as glimpsing the summit. Even then, you refuse to give up, loathe to relinquish the bragging rights it gives you with your expat friends in Europe.

"You think that learning Spanish is hard?" you say to your friend who has been in Madrid for a couple of years. "Try Japanese!" As long as you're learning Japanese, you'll always be the most macho person in the expat room. In fact, you now see your earlier self as a wimp for complaining about learning French in school. At least it's in the same family as English, for pity's sake!

2) Everybody needs a laugh, and the Japanese language has a comical side — quite literally. Kya-ha-ha. No, I'm not talking about Japlish, the "almost-English" that is plastered on tee shirts, adverts, stationery and the like — "I feel Coke" being a notorious example. Given my predilection for the Queen's English (as professed in Part 1 of this post), I have only one thing to say to the perpetrators of such trends: "We are not amused."

Rather, I refer to the many comical expressions the language contains, which not coincidentally are also the lifeblood of Japanese comics, or manga. Does art imitate life or vice versa? In Japan, one is never quite sure ...

At one point during my stay in Tokyo, I was the only non-Japanese in a Japanese office. Whenever we were facing a tight deadline, my colleagues would use the expression giri giri. Even though no one told me the literal translation, this expression, technically known as an echo word, became imprinted on my brain. It perfectly described my inner state of panic while also providing some light relief. If something is giri giri, it's hard to take it too seriously.

Giri giri is an example of gitaigo, mimetic expressions of states of mind or emotions that do not produce sounds. Japanese also has many onomatopoeia — words that replicate voice or sounds, known as giongo: e.g., guu guu (stomach rumbling), kusu kusu (giggle), pachi pachi (hand clapping), and kin kon (ding dong of a door bell). There is even a word for the sound of breaking big sticks, such as an elephant makes when ambling through the forest: baki baki (see visual). How silly-sweet is that?

Courtesy Think Geek
3) It's the duty of every English speaker to find out what happens to our words when they enter other languages, and Japanese makes a fascinating case study. During Japan's period of national seclusion, lasting more than two centuries, Japanese language borrowed a few Western words, known as Gairaigo or Katakanago, mostly from Portuguese and Dutch: e.g., pan [bread] and biiru [beer]. But with the arrival of Commodore Perry and his Black Ships in 1853, Japan began pursuing modernization, which led to heavy borrowings from German, French, and English. The next major shift occurred after WWII. There was a torrential influx of English into Japanese, which continues to this day.

So, do Japanese people use and pronounce our words the same as we do? You've got to be joking! Typically, they alter our words out of all recognition. For a start, Japanese have shown no hesitation in chopping up our words and recombining them. Sometimes they come up with a brilliant new compound: aircon, for instance. But what if I told you this discussion was ofureco and you can't use your dejikame? Pretty clear, right? (Off the record; digital camera.)

And, while we English speakers have no trouble saying "judo," "sushi," and "anime" (this last is actually a reborrowing), Japanese speakers will modify the pronunciation and/or meaning of our words to suit themselves. Let's try another test. What if I said I was trying to find the mochibeeshon to ridusu? Maybe, just maybe, you'd understand that I'm trying to find the motivation to reduce. But reduce what? As it turns out, ridusu refers only to cutting down on the amount of garbage I create, not my weight.

And that's just the half of it. To make matters worse, many Japanese are offended — the cheek! — by English loanwords. While some people think they sound cool, many more fear their overuse has debased the native tongue and led to no end of communication problems. (The natives, too, frequently get lost in the labyrinth of Katakanago, confusing grin piisu [green peas] for Greenpeace, for instance.)

Woe betide the individual who laces his speech with too many English-derived words. He will be told he has a foreigner's complex (the ultimate put-down being bata kusai: literally, reeking of butter). The nation's sportscasters recently set a good example by developing an alternative lexicon for baseball (another Western import). Now, instead of proclaiming shinguruhitto, they say tanda.

Which brings me to my final point:

4) Believe it or not, English and Japanese have something extraordinary in common. Both languages developed in the shadow of an imperial language: for us it was Latin; for the Japanese, Chinese. (Note: This item relates to Part 1 of this post.)

Kibino Makibi(吉備真備),
a scholar who traveled to China in 716
A brief history lesson. Beginning in the Yamato-Asuka period (538-710 AD), Japan sent envoys of scholars to China to study the Chinese character-based writing system. Not only did these scholars create Japan's first written language using Chinese characters (known as kanji), but they also introduced the first Sino-Japanese words, or Kango.

Similar to the role of Latin in Medieval Europe, Kanbun (the written form of Kango) became the language of statecraft, scholarly literature, and Buddhism (another Chinese import).

But even while borrowing heavily from the language of Imperial China — over 60 percent of Japanese words are derived from Chinese (similar to the percentage for Latin-derived words in English) — ancient Japanese were at pains not to let these borrowings take over. They still used their native words, known as Wago, for describing uniquely Japanese feelings and beliefs. An example is the Man'yōshū, an 8th-century collection of poetry exploring themes at heart of Shinto (Japan's native religion).

While on this topic, let's give a shout-out to the Japanese women who kept the native lingo alive during the Heian period (794-1185), when an alternative writing system emerged, consisting of two phonetic scripts (hiragana and katakana) for representing Japanese words with no Chinese equivalent. Aristocratic women, who had not been trained in Chinese like their male counterparts, took up the brush for the first time. They went on to produce some of outstanding early works of literature. The most illustrious example is Murasaki Shikibu's Genji Monogatari, or Tale of Genji, reputedly the first novel ever written.
Written text from earliest illustrated handscroll (12th C)
of Tale of Genji, courtesy Gotoh Museum

Meanwhile, the literature produced by male writers of the Heian, written in much more stilted Sino-Japanese, has been forgotten. 

Methinks George Orwell would have approved. And he might have been gratified that English and Japanese, despite having so little in common, are united in the robustness of their native tongues. As a general rule, an English word derived from Latin/French roots corresponds to a Sino-Japanese word in Japanese, whereas a simpler Anglo-Saxon word would best be translated by a Wago equivalent.

Question: Have I convinced you to try studying Japanese, or have I merely proved that I have the chops of a henna gaijin, and a demonic one at that?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

United by an Uncommon Language / Part 1

The "look up" dictionary on my Amazon Kindle has turned me into a much slower reader. I can't seem to resist clicking out to every single word I'm curious about. But if it now takes me twice as long to read an article or book, I find it twice as engrossing.

I've been interested in etymology for as long as I can remember. I was an English major in college and proceeded to study literature and politics in the UK. During the latter experience, I took it upon myself to figure out why George Bernard Shaw (among others) had quipped that the U.S. and the UK are separated by a common language. For a word nerd like me, England was the Land of Linguistic Chills, Thrills and Excitement. In particular, I enjoyed:

1) Vocabulary challenges on BBC Radio 4. Who knew word games could be such a hoot? My all-time favorite was Just a Minute, the panel game where players must talk for sixty seconds on a given subject "without repetition, hesitation or deviation." (Hmmm ... sounds a little like blogging!) In my day, Clement Freud (Sigmund's grandson) was a regular competitor. He kept the other panelists on their toes with his virtuoso command of English coupled with a mercurial wit. For instance, when asked to talk for one minute about tripe, he responded:
I think it is proper to say that taramasalata is the biggest sexual stimulant that we have in the western world. A man in Newport Pagnall ate his own weight of this confection of smoked cod's row, lemon juice, sunflower oil, spices, herbs and...
(At this point, he was challenged for hesitation — and for talking tripe!)

2) The Queen's English Society. Actually, I didn't find out about the Queen's English Society until recently. But the QES has made the list because of the pleasure I took in the UK in meeting the sort of people who might belong to the QES: who care passionately about correct and elegant English usage. I'm only sorry I can't be in the UK now for the QES's latest campaign to "protect the language from impurities, bastardisations and the horrors introduced by the text-speak generation," to be spearheaded by an Academy of English. There are those who find this initiative patronizing and pathetic: patronizing because of the belief that England should be in charge of what is now the global lingua franca; pathetic because of the attempt to use language to restore Britain's declining world status. But I don't agree. Maybe it's my long exposure to Japlish, but I'm glad to see someone holding up the side in an age where emoticons, acronyms, and other irritating examples of textese are creeping in willy nilly. And I've found studies to back up this opinion, such as the one showing that SMS messaging, though faster to write, takes more time to read than normal English. LOL !

3) Saxonists. Likewise, England was the first time I encountered the sort of people who pay attention to the proportion of Anglo-Saxon to Latinate words in their sentences. English (as you probably know, if you've gotten this far in the post) is distinguished for having many words with identical meanings that appear in two forms — one derived from Latin and one derived from Anglo-Saxon:
The incendiary device exterminated twenty citizens.
The bomb killed twenty people.
- - -
I adjourned to the sitting room and perused the morning paper.
I went into the sitting room and read the morning paper.
In his famous polemic "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell pointed out that we English speakers tend to resort to Latinate words whenever we have an urge to obfuscate or gloss over the truth, dress up simple statements, or avoid expressing an opinion:
Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones . . .
A word or two more on this Saxonism business. I subscribe to it myself — using Saxon words as the building blocks for my sentences and tossing in the odd Latinate word for variety. There are times, however, when I find this preference for originally and etymologically English words over words from alien sources a little unsettling. And I'm not the only one to have felt this way. The late, great lexicographer Robert Burchfield once referred to the quest for Saxonisms as "an unrealizable nationalistic dream."
Minted in Italy @ 49 BC

Maybe it's because I've become preoccupied with xenophobia of late, but I ask you: where would we be if the Romans hadn't introduced elephantus into the vocabulary? Hmm ... On second thought, that may be a poor choice of example. It turns out Caesar literally introduced the elephantus when he invaded Britain. As one ancient writer recorded:
Caesar had one large elephant, which was equipped with armor and carried archers and slingers in its tower. When this unknown creature entered the river, the Britons and their horses fled and the Roman army crossed over.
Orwell wrote another famous essay about shooting an elephant, in which the slowly dying elephant serves as an emblem of everything that is wrong with imperialism, suggesting it will ultimately fade and (though it may take a long time) die.

Historical linguists could tell us for sure, but doesn't imperialism linger forever in language? The Romans may have entered British territory with an elephant in tow, but the elephant they left behind — that of the Latin language — has proved far more significant. That particular beast refused to perish, especially after the Normans invaded, bringing in still more Latinate words.

(As a sidebar, I wonder if the early Brits couldn't believe their luck when pompous officials of church and state, not to mention academics, declared their intention to make Latin their special province? As Orwell so clearly demonstrated, the language of Imperial Rome suits the bureaucratic mindset to a T.)
COMING SOON: Part II of this post, in which I report on some of the best (and worst) features of attempting to learn the Japanese language, which not for nothing has earned the epithet of the devil's tongue (this from a Jesuit missionary, who had every incentive to master it!). Until then, I am abandoning the realm of philology post-haste to spend more time with my Kindle ...

Questions: Do you, too, value England as the keeper of the flame for the English language? And am I being paranoid, or does our Mother Tongue sometimes have a xenophobic flavor?