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Monday, May 31, 2010

Does Anyone Remember the Elephant Any More? Memorial Day Thoughts...

The other day on PBS I was watching Jon Meacham lament that so few of us remember that Memorial Day is not for barbecues and picnics; it's for remembering our war dead. He went on to ask: why does the burden of military sacrifice weigh heavily on so few?

But what interested me most about the program was the segment about the three Lemke brothers of northern Wisconsin, who are about to deploy a year-long mission in Iraq, where new soldiers are still needed for missions despite the troop drawdown.

The interview with the brothers didn't really fit the tone of Meacham's lament. They kept saying how much they were looking forward to the deployment: they would finally be getting their chance to see more of the world. At least on the face of it, they seemed in high spirits. It was left to their mother and youngest sister (she was worried about them not being there for her birthdays) to convey a sense of dread about the risks a military mission entails.

Given the subject of this blog, I started to think of reasons why "seeing the elephant" has shifted away from the grim sense of foreboding it carried from the Civil War onwards, to emphasizing the adventure side of military service:
1) What I would call false consciousness: The military has always been, and remains, very good at propaganda--and perhaps has gotten even better at it now that it has to recruit volunteers.
2) The move toward high-tech, asymmetrical warfare: We tend to engage in conflict nowadays with combatants who don't possess the same kinds of weapons, which lowers the risk to soldiers albeit not to civilians.
3) Following from 2), the shift towards leading an occupation vs. engaging in traditional combat: The Lemke brothers' battalion will be in charge of clearing routes for coalition forces, when they may encounter improvised explosive devices (IEDs) such as roadside bombs. That is definitely a risky business--but nothing like the bloodshed faced by Civil War soldiers (let alone soldiers in the two world wars as well as Vietnam).

Question: Do you agree that the "elephant" is losing its irony for soldiers, and if so, why?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Goodbye to Hello? 5 Reasons to Lament the Demise of Hello Kitty

The New York Times recently reported that after 36 years, the white cartoon cat Hello Kitty may be running out of product lives. Sales of this multi-billion dollar global commodity are down, and Sanrio is looking for the Next Cute Thing to replace her.

Say it ain't so!

Other, yet-to-be-nearly-as-successful contenders include Spottie Dottie, a pink-frocked Dalmatian; Pandapple, a baby panda; My Melody, a rabbit; or TuxedoSam, a penguin.

Tondemonai deshoo. How do I account for my attachment to Hello (as I like to call her) and why I do not wish to see her deposed by these or any future creatures Sanrio dreams up? (Jewelpet?! Let's not even go there...)

1) We go back a long ways. I knew her before she became a global phenomenon and when she was just a cute kitty. Imagine venturing all the way to the Japans in the late 1980s to See the Elephant--and being greeted by Hello Kitty. I'm full of nostalgia for those days...

2) Her brand of cute is quintessentially Japanese. At first I assumed she was designed for kids, and happily bought up Hello Kitty souvenirs (pencils, erasers, coin purses and so on) for my little nieces back home. But as I became more Japanized, I understood that Hello was also for adults. Not only did I start collecting memorabilia--including a set of winter-spring-summer-autumn dolls (which I suspect would qualify for the Kitty Hell blog)--but I came to enjoy the kawaii aesthetic the cat represents.

3) Over the years, this cartoon cat has grown on me, achieving the status of Treasured White Elephant. The Hello Kitty Junkie blogger lists 15 reasons for why the cat brings her so much happiness. For me, 10 of them seem eminently reasonable:
  1. Hello Kitty reminds me of my childhood (youthful innocence).
  2. Hello Kitty reminds me of Japan.
  3. Hello Kitty loves everyone.
  4. Hello Kitty is a universal poster child for caring, sharing, happiness, friendship… And all that other good stuff.
  5. Hello Kitty embodies innocence, sentimentality and harmony.
  6. Hello Kitty just wants to be loved, trusted and respected.
  7. Hello Kitty is Japan’s official ambassador of tourism.
  8. Hello Kitty is a pop culture icon.
  9. Hello Kitty is a fashionista.
  10. UNICEF named Hello Kitty “Special Friend of Children.”
4) The haziness of Hello's back story, the weakness of her characterization, and her lack of edginess only add to her appeal. When Sanrio created a talking Hello Kitty for a pilot cartoon series, it set off a fury among fans loyal to the cat’s mouthless look. It turns out that a mouthless cartoon character cannot easily break into television animation, which is where the action (and the revenue) is nowadays. To prepare her for her TV debut, Sanrio went to great lengths to invent a back story about Hello Kitty--something about how she was born in London and likes to eat cookies--but that's more than any of us needed to know. (I've also just now discovered that her full name is Kitty White, another disappointing detail.) As for Sanrio's experiments to make Hello less cute by using as much black as pink? Not good.

5) Following from 4), thank goodness Hello is nothing like Walt Disney characters. There's such a thing as having too much character. Mickey Mouse, Bambi, Lilo and Stitch: their stories get a little old after a while, and one grows weary of their company. Call it strange, but for me Hello Kitty will always be a Goddess of Blandness, and sometimes bland food is best, just what the doctor ordered. Like this blog's eponymous elephant, she deserves a longer life span than 36 years. Helloo!!!

UPDATE: Lady GaGa to the rescue! At the end of last year, GaGa went to London to shoot a campaign in celebration of the famous white cat's 35th birthday (note: the New York Times says that the brand is 36 years old--but that's okay, who's counting?). The photos have just been released (July 13, 2010), and as one might expect, they more than do justice to Hello's unique blend of Zen-plus-kitsch. Among GaGa's get-ups are some truly spectacular items: a gown adorned with stuffed Hello Kitty dolls, a bedazzled Hello Kitty belt, and some sky-high Hello Kitty-covered pumps. GaGa has also announced that these photos will feature on the cover of the special, limited-edition reissue of her hit album, The Fame. With support like that, we can safely say that reports of Hello's demise has been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, Sanrio has already reported a 30% boost in share performance.

Question: Do you agree that Hello Kitty deserves Treasured White Elephant status?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

50 Ways to See an Elephant, Part III

NOTE: This post is part of a three-part series exploring the etymology of the "seen the elephant" expression. See also:
50 Ways to See an Elephant, Part I
50 Ways to See an Elephant, Part II

It's time to talk about what happens when you touch the elephant but you really don't see it--that old chestnut from India, about the blind men and the elephant.

But first let's recap. In this series of posts, I have been exploring the concept of seeing the elephant. Part I provided the basic definition: those who have seen the elephant have had the daring--and/or the foolishness--to travel to far-flung places and try their luck.

Part II looked at the historical context of the slang expression: in the 19th century, "seeing the elephant" was used to describe
  • going West to in search of gold or other adventures:
  • I am a miner, who wandered away from down-east, and came to sojourn in a strange land, and see the elephant. . . . They went the long way, and saw the elephant.
  • seeing action in the Civil War:
  • Seeing the elephant means seeing the war, boy. . . . Come to see the elephant, farm boy? Found it ain't a pretty sight, haven't you?
  • becoming a jaded world traveler:
  • Been there, done that, seen the elephant.
But there's also the possibility of not seeing the elephant, which is what happened when each of six blind men touched a different part of the beast--the side, the tusk, the trunk, the knee, the ear, and the swinging tail. Afterwards, they compared notes on what they think the elephant looks like, only to find that they could not agree on anything. Is it a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, or a rope? It is of course all and none of these things...

Drawing on the morals of this story, I would contend that a chief effect of becoming immersed in other cultures is that you start to become aware of the blind spots you (and your own culture) possess--and to question some of beliefs you grew up thinking were sacred.

That sounds heavy, but it can also be superficial. I have already written about how, as a result of living in the British Isles and on Honshu Island for so many years, I grew to love trains (and indeed the whole concept of public transportation), eccentricity (Hatoyama's heart shirt with pink blazer), and a Monty Pythonesque sense of humor.

My perspective has shifted in more profound ways as well. There are myriad examples, some of which I'll cover in subsequent posts, but for now, here are three hints:

1) The whale: The idea of eating whale is appalling if you're raised in the West. We don't grow up eating whale meat, and we are taught that we need to save the whales. (Is it any wonder that The Cove received the Oscar for best documentary feature? It follows a group of activists as they document the annual dolphin hunt in Taiji, a town in Japan on the Pacific Ocean known for traditional whaling--see painting below, from the Taiji Whale Museum.) But if you had been born in Japan, from an early age you will have heard your parents, government leaders, and other authority figures questioning why slaughtering sea animals is considered brutal when cows, chickens, fish and other edible animals meet the same fate. I don't quite buy the argument; nevertheless, I have reached the point of understanding why Japanese people become so defensive whenever this topic is raised. (And yes, I admit that not only did I see the elephant but I ate the whale--didn't particularly care for it.)

2) Atheism: The United States attaches a stigma to saying one is agnostic let alone atheist. But if you're living in Europe, where religion has been a force of destruction for so many centuries, admitting to not being religious is no big deal. On balance, I think it's better to remove the stigma--giving people the freedom to worship as they please should also mean they are free not to worship at all.

3) Health care: In the U.S., health care is provided by one's employer. Thus decoupling the two--employment and a health care plan--remains an odd concept. For a long time, I was convinced this was why President Obama had so much trouble getting his health care reform legislation passed. But if you live in countries like the UK and Japan, in which the right to health care does not depend on employment, having what the U.S. calls the "public option" seems the obvious way to go.

"Can't take looking too close at that elephant can you, farm boy?" Sorry if the above three examples offend anyone, but I'm reporting my own Blind Men's Tales.

SEE ALSO the cornerstone series defining the blog's main themes:
#1: Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant" … Encyclopedic version
#1a: Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant" ... Reader's Digest, Twitter, Movie Trailer, and Crib Notes versions
#2: How to Recognize at a Glance Someone Who Has Seen an "Elephant" ... Meet Eddie Expat
#3: Who Are You, What Have You Sacrificed? The Repatriation Challenge ... Meet Ramona Repat

Question to other long-term expats: Have you got some "Blind Men's Tales" to share? By the same token, are there any expats here in the USA who now tolerate things they never thought they would?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

50 Ways to See an Elephant, Part II

NOTE: This post is part of a three-part series exploring the etymology of the "seen the elephant" expression. See also:
50 Ways to See an Elephant, Part I
50 Ways to See an Elephant, Part III

As explained in my last post, "seeing the elephant" denotes the desire to seek out amazing sights. Some--such as professional expats--may do that by traveling to the far corners of the world. Others will stay at home but take advantage if the far corners of the world come to visit them: e.g., the New England farmer who was determined not to miss the circus in a nearby town as he was full of curiosity about the elephant.

A modern equivalent of the elephant-obsessed farmer could be devotees of the Dalai Lama, many of whom sold their shirts to attend his teachings and/or public talk at Radio City Music Hall this week-end, presumably in hopes of being awestruck by his knowledge and spirituality. (He will teach the writings of 2nd-century philosopher Nagarjuna and of the 8th-century Indian saint Shantideva, no less...)

The farmer, of course, collided with the circus train, led by the elephant. He was knocked unconscious, his wagon destroyed, his horse killed. Thus the expression "seeing the elephant" often carries the connotation of "at a price." The Dalai Lama event likewise exacts a price--quite literally and perhaps even figuratively: will listening to His Holiness necessarily bring enlightenment? A case of plus ça change...

But I digress. In a blog devoted to elephant-spotting and the impact that such (mis)adventures have on one's life, three 19th-century uses of the term deserve special mention:
1) To describe the experience of volunteering for the U.S.-Mexican War (1846-48) or heading West to participate in the California Gold Rush (1848-55). Mexican War volunteers and gold-hungry "Forty-Niners" referred to their Western trials and adventures in terms of "going to see the elephant." Those turning back claimed they had seen the "elephant's tracks" or the "elephant's tail," and confessed they'd seen more than enough of the animal. Was it worth the trials, tribulations and hardship, just to have seen the elephant?

Newspapers and periodicals of the 1840s sometimes carried cartoons depicting an elephant pursued by miners, or of miners dying in his howdah.

G.W. Kendall, in his Narrative of the Texan Santa Fé Expedition (1844), reported:
There is a cant expression, “I’ve seen the elephant” in very common use in Texas. [...] The meaning of the expression I will explain. When a man is disappointed in any thing he undertakes, when he has seen enough, when he gets sick and tired of any job he may have set himself about, he has “seen the elephant.”
But for most gold rushers and other Western pioneers, it seems likely that the expression carried a dual meaning. It symbolized both the high cost of their endeavor--the myriad possibilities for misfortune on the journey or in California--and, like the farmer's circus elephant, an exotic sight, and unequaled experience, the adventure of a lifetime.

2) To describe the experience of seeing combat for the first time, coming into widespread currency during the U.S. Civil War (1861-65). In their letters and diaries, Civil War soldiers would often write: "I've seen the elephant," "I'm off to see the elephant," or "Today, we will see the elephant." By this time, the term had acquired a specialized military sense, with the brutal loss of innocence that seeing action entails. Though the term is now considered old fashioned, it was still used on occasion during the Vietnam War, and at least one blogger has suggested reviving the term to help explain the disconnect felt by the returning veterans from the war in Iraq. "Seen the elephant," that blogger writes, conveys the Iraqi War veterans' feeling of "You can't understand unless you were there" as well as their sense that, though nothing has changed here at home, they are so different inside.

3) To describe extensive world travels--not dissimilar from the modern-day expression "Been there, done that, got the tee shirt." According to Tom Dalzell, a slang expert in Berkeley, by the mid-1800s, "seen the elephant" was used to express supreme indifference, a clip of: "I've been around the world and seen something as exotic as an elephant; therefore, what you say does not impress me."

To sum up, this blog will explore "seeing the elephant" in its various phases:
  • the thrill and sense of wonder that comes from seeking out adventure, whether within one's own country or abroad;
  • the way that foreign travel and exotic sights can fuel the imagination;
  • the sense of disappointment and disillusionment that such adventures can also bring: what kind of toll does that process take on the psyche?; and
  • the feeling of disconnect (and superiority) when arriving back home: are there constructive ways to put one's new perspectives to use?

SEE ALSO the cornerstone series defining the blog's main themes:
#1: Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant" … Encyclopedic version
#1a: Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant" ... Reader's Digest, Twitter, Movie Trailer, and Crib Notes versions
#2: How to Recognize at a Glance Someone Who Has Seen an "Elephant" ... Meet Eddie Expat
#3: Who Are You, What Have You Sacrificed? The Repatriation Challenge ... Meet Ramona Repat

Question: Can you suggest additional themes this blog should explore?

Friday, May 21, 2010

50 Ways to See an Elephant, Part I

NOTE: This post is part of a three-part series exploring the etymology of the "seen the elephant" expression. See also:
50 Ways to See an Elephant, Part II
50 Ways to See an Elephant, Part III

I saw a front porch swing, heard a diamond ring,
I saw a polka-dot railroad tie.
But I think I will have seen everything
when I see an elephant fly.
Dumbo Music by Oliver Wallace; Lyrics by Ned Washington
So what's so special about seeing an elephant, let alone seeing one fly? In this blog, "seeing the elephant" is a metaphor for the exotic and strange things one sees when one undertakes to see the world. It's an especially apt metaphor for long-term expats, as I once was. We are the types of people who believe the grass is greener and just have to see for ourselves. Otherwise, our curiosity will never be satisfied...

No one knows the precise origins of the phrase. Some say it dates back to the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, who after hearing stories from African traders of an enormous animal that could uproot living trees, became obsessed with obtaining one for himself. Perhaps he imagined training it to clear paths throughout his heavily forested empire? Eventually, an elephant was obtained in Baghdad and brought by land and sea to the Emperor's seat. Named Abul Abbas, the animal created a tremendous stir in the Frankish world. Stories spread of how it would pull down its stone stable yet gently would eat from its royal master's hand. When the beast was paraded during festivals and celebrations, peasants, who had seldom if ever left their homes before, traveled miles to "see the elephant."

Peak usage of the English-language phrase occurred in the United States during the 19th century. Americans may have adapted the British phrase "seen the lions" to "seen the elephant." Why an elephant and not lions? Maybe for completely literal reasons. When British travelers said that they'd seen the lions, they were referring to lions that were kept in the Tower of London and were an early tourist attraction. A popular entertainment for Americans in the early 19th century was the traveling circus--in which the elephant was the top attraction, and often the last act (thus "seeing the elephant" meant you had seen the entire show).

Interestingly, the phrase picked up ironic overtones soon after it was coined. A New England tale tells of the farmer who upon learning of the arrival of the circus in a nearby town, was determined to attend to see the wild beast that was stranger and bigger than any animal native to North America. He set out early in his wagon to make the first performance. Upon reaching a crossroads where vision was obscured by a tall hedgerow, the farmer urged his horse into the intersection. At that same moment the circus train, led by the elephant, reached the crossroad from a different direction. The resulting collision smashed the wagon to splinters, killed the horse, and knocked the farmer unconscious. The circus train passed on as though nothing had happened.

Awakening after several hours, the farmer surveyed the destruction and stated dryly, "Well, at least I've seen the elephant."

SEE ALSO the cornerstone series defining the blog's main themes:
#1: Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant" … Encyclopedic version
#1a: Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant" ... Reader's Digest, Twitter, Movie Trailer, and Crib Notes versions
#2: How to Recognize at a Glance Someone Who Has Seen an "Elephant" ... Meet Eddie Expat
#3: Who Are You, What Have You Sacrificed? The Repatriation Challenge ... Meet Ramona Repat

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Two Good Reasons Not to Condemn Hatoyama's Sartorial Sense

CNN recently published a report in which Japanese fashion designer Don Konishi criticizes PM Yukio Hatoyama's fashion choices, saying they are an outward manifestation of his antiquated political ideas and philosophy.

While I understand the impulse to criticize the Japanese PM--what a complete hash he's made of the U.S. military base issue on the island of Okinawa--I can't find within me to critique his sartorial choices precisely because of living in Japan, and the UK for that matter, as long as I did. Here is my reasoning:

1) Japan has for so long been the Land of the Three-Piece Suit, it makes a refreshing change. That a Japanese political leader would not be afraid to rock a rockabilly plaid shirt is an event worthy of celebration, not condemnation. As for Hatoyama's heart shirt with pink blazer--what Konishi calls his biggest faux-pas--that is my personal favorite. Besides, consider the context. It looks like he's singing karaoke, in which case what could be more fitting?

2) My years of living in the UK have given me the confidence to say that I rather like things that are in bad taste. As one commenter wrote in response to the poll on the PM's dress sense that appeared the Huffington Post: "I love his style! If this is outdated, I say bring back the good old days." Now that's the spirit! Notably, if Japan is the Land of the Three-Piece Suit, is the Land of Enjoying Bad Taste. Brits even throw Bad Taste Fancy Dress Parties. (That said, I'm glad to see them drawing the line at the young Tory activist who came dressed up as the missing five-year-old Madeleine McCann--he was expelled from the Conservative Party--not to mention Prince Harry with his swastika armband: beyond disgraceful.) When Konishi and his ilk find themselves cringing at Hatoyama's garbs, they should say to themselves, listen, it could be worse!

Friday, May 14, 2010

3 (Fanciful) Reasons Why the U.S. Should Invest in Japanese Trains

One rather curious legacy of living in the UK for so long is my enduring fascination with trainspotting--the  effort to "spot" all of a certain type of rolling stock, whether a particular kind of locomotive or carriage, or all of the rolling stock of a particular rail company. (I lived in Britain before the 1996 film--which in fact had little to do with trainspotting, except perhaps as a metaphor for heroin addiction.)

I moved from Britain to Japan, where I was gobsmacked by modern rail technology--to the point of dabbling in a bit of trainspotting myself.

As my closetful of colorful coats will attest, I'm no sad anorak. But I would morph into a two-year-old boy whenever I spotted a bullet train, or shinkansen, whizzing by at speeds of upwards of 150 miles per hour. I also loved seeing them glide into the station: for such super high-tech vehicles, they have the cutest noses!

And now, perhaps, I have the prospect of continuing my dalliance with Japanese trains in this part of the world. I learned this week that Japan is trying to export its high-speed rail technology to the United States. Japanese high-speed trains in America: who thought we'd see the day? And I wonder which model? The N700 shinkansen series has a tilting capability enabling it to run at a top speed of about 205 miles an hour, and JR Central is now testing a MLX01 maglev bullet train, which in 2003 clocked the world’s fastest trial run of 361 miles an hour. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was in Japan this week test-riding it!

Besides the obvious--reducing traffic congestion and pollution--I can perceive three main benefits:

1) Our country would quickly become a trainspotter's delight. The new maglev (maglev is short for “magnetic levitation") bullet train uses powerful magnets that allow the train to float just above the track. It starts off on wheels, then gravitates upward after reaching high speeds. A train with no wheels--that's enough to turn most of us into train enthusiasts if not hard-core spotters.

2) Our train stations as well might consider becoming more like Japan's--for instance, by providing boxed lunches for travelers featuring local food specialties (what the Japanese call ekiben). I can just see it now: crabcake ekiben in Baltimore, cheesesteak ekiben in Phillie, deep-dish pizza ekiben in Chicago, and lobster ekiben in Boston…

3) And let's not discount the impact these high-speed trains would have on the popular imagination. Kyotaro Nishimura, considered the father of the Japanese travel mystery, is renowned for a series of train-related stories in which a detective named Totsukawa often breaks suspects' alibis by carefully studying the train schedule. At the very least, Hollywood might be stimulated to create a series of adventure films centered on high-tech locomotives--called Close Encounters on the Maglev Train, or some such.

Vietnam is in--they're investing in shinkansen technology to develop a high-speed rail link that will link the southern part of the country to the capital city, Hanoi, in the north.

So what about us? According to LaHood: “We’re right at the start of an opportunity for America to be connected with high-speed, intercity rail," beginning with the building of a high-speed rail connecting Orlando and Tampa (scheduled to be up and running in 2015). 

Question: Does anyone out there agree with me that instead of the Central Japan Railway Co peddling their technology to us, we should have begged them for it long ago? (Never mind what's on offer in France or Spain.)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Four Reasons I Love British Politics

They say you should never discuss politics (or religion, sometimes the same thing) when you travel abroad, but politics was one of the top reasons I enjoyed living in Britain for nearly ten years in total. I mean, politics in the U.S. can become kind of a bore--who's up for another round of discussing big vs. small government, as David Brooks pointed out in a recent New York Times column: "The stale, old debate is back with a fury." As a Canadian, he must know the feeling!

Or maybe it's a case of familiarity breeding contempt: one always finds the politics of one's own country a bit tedious?

In any event, here are the four main reasons the grass was definitely greener for me during my decade of living under the Queen's government:

1) I discovered that I really like parliamentary systems. Even though I had to endure Margaret Thatcher's majority for many years, I still think it's better if governments can accomplish their agendas rather than spending years and years in gridlock. (I'm not sure why the British public has gone for a coalition government this time around--does their U.S. envy really extend that far?)

2) I also discovered the appeal of uncharismatic, unslick politicians. (Sorry, David Cameron!) Gordon Brown was of course the epitome; less recent examples include Michael Foot and John Major ("that nice Mr. Major!"). And let's not forget Shirley Williams. I saw her on BBC America the other night in the sort of flowery jacket that in America would qualify as dowdy leisure ware, but let's face it, she has a formidable intellect and political gift.

3) I took to discussing politics in pubs like a duck to water. Of all the things about Britain I miss the most, it's spending the evening with friends in a pub talking about the news of the day under the influence of a pint or two. I feel sorry for anyone whose main experience with political exchange comes from FB and Twitter. (Something is gained from new technology, but something is also lost!)

4) I adored living in a place not afraid to take the mickey out of its own politics. This video clip, suggested by Roger Ebert during the British elections last week, says it all:

Japanese politics is another matter--and will have to be the subject of a post at a later date. Suffice it to say, I find it a stretch to understand how PM Hatoyama can get himself into such a pickle in such a short time. I guess being in the opposition for that many years fosters rank amateurism? Otherwise, how to explain it? (But I must say, I do feel sorry for the Okinawans...)

Question: Are there any other endearing features of the British political scene that I've missed? Speak out, Anglophiles!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Welcome to My Elephant Party

After more years of living abroad than (consciously) having lived in the United States, I sometimes feel like the female version of Rip Van Winkle. But recently I've figured out that you can go home again (sorry, Thomas Wolfe!) and still fit in.

The key is to locate all the elephants you've encountered--whether actually or metaphorically--while on your travels and invite them to a party. And make sure you invite a really good mix: cute ones, dumpy ones, loud trumpeters, and the kind who keep themselves to themselves. What's nice is that they all have good memories and great intelligence, which makes for rousing party conversation. As Aristotle once said: "The beast which passeth all others in wit and mind."

Without further ado, let me introduce you to three of the "elephants" I encountered on my travels to the UK and Japan, who will most certainly get invites to my own Elephant Party:

1) Lester
Lives in: London Town
Dress style: Trendy, has dyed his tusks bright fuschia to alleviate the dullness of the British clime.
Wit: What's green and looks like a bucket?*
Smarts: Educated at the best universities, can hold forth on any topic from the wherefores of the Greek financial crisis to homo sapiens' common heritage with Neanderthals. Particularly enjoys discussing: How many angels dance on the head of a pin?

2) Akiko
Lives in: Tokyo
Dress style: Kawaiiiiiii as in Walt Disney Dumbo cute with a rakish little hat and a cheerfully flowered bib.
Wit: Likes playing the fool in order to show up the quaint eccentricities of others.
Smarts: Has a degree from an international university, speaks proper English including charming expressions such as: "Keep your chin up" (no easy feat for an elephant!).

3) Henrietta
Lives in: Not sure exactly. She is a perennial expat, the 21st-century Victorian woman traveler, a modern Mary Kingsley.
Dress style: Proper but a bit crumpled because of sitting on planes so much.
Wit: Irreverent, of course!
Smarts: Plenty of book smarts, but what really counts are her linguistic skills (my, can she trumpet, and in five different languages!) and high social IQ: can hold her own in conversation with everyone from the British royals (yes, she has met Prince Charles and told him she admired his ears!) to the delivery boy on the bike she almost ran into on the way to mine (poor guy, she gave him an earful!).

* A green bucket.

Question: Who are the "elephants" you've encountered when living in other places? :-)