My friend's uncertainty was a wake-up call. I realized it's was time to deliver what's known in the biz as a cornerstone post, addressing the blog's major themes. Check out the rest of the series:
#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
SEE ALSO: Three-part series exploring the etymology of the "Seen the Elephant" expression: 50 Ways to See an Elephant, Parts I, II, and III.
For me, these are rather tedious distinctions and not what this blog is about.
I'm aware of a certain irony in this position given that I've been an expat in my day — and on the strength of that affiliation, have joined several expat blogging groups. It's just that I'm wary of overusing a word that tends to conjure up a negative picture of the sort of people who:
- Go into a siege mentality, "circle the wagons" and say: "Right, it's just us now." I'm sure you know the kind of expats I mean, the ones who live in a colony or compound, or socialize as if they do.
- Enjoy slagging off the former homeland: e.g., "Is that what they call a train service?"
- Become obsessed with the negatives of their new home country: e.g., "Don't like the police here, and can't get any decent ham."
- Can no longer spell English words.
- Are inclined to excessive alcohol consumption.
Rather, this blog is interested in recording (mostly) sober observations about what makes people uproot themselves from their native lands. Candidates for seeing the elephant can range from people on lavish expat packages to those who join the military and travel to distant lands. Notably, soldiers in the U.S. Civil War would use the expression "seeing the elephant" to describe the experience of seeing combat for the first time.
I am not, however, interested in the pedestrian observation that despite our vastly different backgrounds, we elephant seekers share a yearning for a better job, change of scene, adventure, blah, blah, blah. I want to dig down and ask: what made you, unlike most of the other people you grew up with, a candidate for detaching yourself from your native identity to try your luck in a far-off place?
In my interviews with elephant seekers, each one has told me a different story. Beth Lang, for instance, said that it was an overwhelming love of the French language, dating all the way back to high school, that propels her need to travel every year to France and French-speaking Africa. She finances this peripatetic life by teaching French to college students and consulting for French-speaking African embassies, in between trips.
For Kym Hamer, by contrast, language was hardly an incentive to pack up and leave her home in Melbourne, Australia, for a new life in London. She can speak the Queen's English just fine — if you can forgive a few pronunciation quirks not to mention her rather country-bumpkinish habit of fossicking on people's desks. What drew Kym to the UK was not language but the history everywhere she looked as well as, rather surprisingly, the weather. She loves snow! (Fortunately, the London climate has been more than obliging these past few winters.)
As for David Hufford, both he and I were among the many foreigners who flocked to Tokyo at the height of Japan's bubble economy in hopes of working for Japanese companies. During the 19th century, it was common for Americans who were heading West to find gold to say they were "seeing the elephant." You might say that David and I were modern equivalents of 19th-century gold rushers. And, like our earlier counterparts, for the most part we failed to strike it rich. We quickly discovered that much greater profits for far less labor were to be found in other activities such as teaching English or becoming a foreign tarento.
A few more points to note:
1) Quality, not quantity. There are no set rules about the journey's length; what counts is how you approach it. That said, for most of us, it will require a prolonged stay in the adopted country (or countries), of which a significant minority will opt to become "lifers" in that place.
2) Broader horizons. Though the journey need not be to another country — it could also be to another coast, or to a big city — it entails broadening one's horizons in a literal sense, through travel. Recall the story of the farmer who tried to go and see the elephant only to get knocked unconscious by the circus parade, led by the elephant. That was extremely unfortunate, but the farmer still deserves credit for making the effort to journey by wagon as far as the town hosting the circus, a feat in and of itself.
3) A serious elephant fetish, metaphorically speaking. You don't have to be like the farmer and go in search of pachyderms, though that might not be a bad idea. Elephants are known for their terrible tempers — to anyone who has been following the news, the name Baby Louie should speak volumes — but on the whole I would contend they are lovely animals: intelligent, complex, and in need of our protection. (Perhaps Baby Louie attacked his trainer because he was bored?) But you do have to go in hopes of broadening your horizons to include sights as exotic as an elephant, and be willing to run the risk of disappointment (what I like to call, "wrinkles and all"). A case in point is that of Emperor Charlemagne, who, as explained in a previous post, became obsessed with obtaining an elephant. We can imagine he was less than thrilled when, upon its arrival from Baghdad, the creature pulled down the stone stable that had been specially built for its home. (I wonder if Abul Abbas was an ancestor of Baby Louie?) More often than not, however, the experience of "seeing the elephant" fosters tolerance, and even affection, for the culture you are immersed in. Two quick stories from my own travels should help to illustrate how this works:
- I went to Japan and didn't see an elephant but saw a whale ... on a plate ... being served as a main course! To this day, I don't approve of eating whale. (I'd like to think it's because I refused to compromise my core values — only I suspect it's as much because I didn't care for the flavor.) Nevertheless, I've been known to defend this Japanese culinary preference, pointing out that eating whale is not all that different from eating other mammals. I call this a Blind Man's Tale — referring, of course, to that old chestnut from India, about the blind men and the elephant.
- I went to Japan and didn't see an elephant but met Hello Kitty. As explained in one of my very first posts, I have developed an inordinate fondness for the famed Sanrio cat and have accorded her the status of a Treasured White Elephant in my life.
1) It remains a sad reality that the vast majority of the world's uprooted cross international borders because of civil wars, violence or persecution (even greater numbers of people are internally displaced by such forces). We who have seen the elephant should never forget how privileged we are to travel by choice.
elephant in the room. For some, this may be a burden — I'm thinking of soldiers who have traveled to the front and seen action and now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Whereas for others, it can be a source of enlightenment. I'm remembering my conversation with Beth Lang again. She sailed through the Monica Lewinsky scandal convinced it was no big deal as compared to the peccadilloes of France's political leaders. For still others, seeing the elephant can be a source of endless delight. David Hufford may seem an unlikely candidate for this since he no longer views Japan through rose-colored glasses. Yet he admits it can never be summer again for him unless he can partake in the sublime Japanese meal of unagi (grilled eel) and cold beer. For some things, the grass really is greener, and on a beastly hot summer's day, it doesn't get any greener than that.
Questions: Will the real elephant seekers please stand up? Have I told you enough to identify who they are through this post? And have I been too hard on the expats among us — do you feel betrayed? If so, I don't know what I was thinking, I may have been drinking?! And now it only remains to say thanks to Amelia for inspiring this post — and to everyone else, cheers!
#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"
#3: Who Are You, What Have You Sacrificed? The Repatriation Challenge