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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant"/Cornerstone #1

I've developed a new test for friendship. A true friend is someone who gives you brutally honest feedback upon receiving a link to your blog. One friend that I contacted this week passed with flying colors. She wrote back: What is the "theme" of the blog, sort of "adventures of expats and former expats"?

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.

#1: Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant"

So, back to my friend's Q: is this a blog for expat stories? The answer is, no, not exactly, especially if we're using "expat" in a very limited sense to mean a person who is sent to a country through his or her place of work. The term "expat" implies that you have a career job (versus just picking up whatever work you can get) and that you intend to go back to your home country.

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.
Now, I like to see pink elephants as much as the next expat, but again, that's not what this blog is about. (By pink elephants, by the way, I don't mean Sarah Palin's posse of women; poor choice of idiom on her part!)

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
Well, I've wittered on for long enough, and besides it's almost 5:00 p.m., time for making a G&T, a bad habit I picked up during my misspent years with other expats. Let me wrap this up with two concluding thoughts:

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.

2) Once you've seen an elephant or two, it no longer matters where you physically live: it becomes a state of mind that you carry around, a kind of 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!

SEE ALSO:
#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

11 comments:

An American Girl in the UK said...

Thank you for your very thoughtful and thought-provoking comments!! :)

Kym Hamer said...

This post made me wonder what the actual definition of Expat was so I looked on Wikipedia - apart from the usual discussion about what the word means, I thought that this comment below was particularly interesting...

'The differentiation found in common usage usually comes down to socio-economic factors, so skilled professionals working in another country are described as expatriates, whereas a manual labourer who has moved to another country to earn more money might be labelled an 'immigrant'.'

It's always in the interpretation isn't it?

ps...how do you put a link in a comment?

ML Awanohara said...

American Girl in the UK, thanks, but the pleasure is all mine!

Kym, I'm grateful for your help in researching the term "expat." I think you've hit the nail on the head with the passage you quoted. In fact, I thought I kind of addressed this in my first graf where I say:
The term "expat" implies that you have a career job (versus just picking up whatever work you can get) and that you intend to go back to your home country.

In other words, you're a white-collar worker and you aren't an immigrant.

It does not help matters, though, that "expat" isn't consistently used in this way. Some still use it in a more general sense, reflecting the word's Latin roots: "ex" = out of; "patria" = country, fatherland. For instance, I recently noticed a reference to the "low-skilled expatriate workforce" in an article on Qatar.

Is it any wonder, then, that defining "expat" is something of a hoary old chestnut?

p.s. Blogger lets you insert basic html tags into comments. It also prompts you if you forget to close the tags (as I often do!).

Anonymous said...

You like friends who give you brutally honest feedback? Really? I learned to hate them a long time ago. ‘If you are my friend, tell me nice lies!’ … Which is why my financial advisor will NEVER be my friend.

But since you are a self-defined emotional masochist, here goes. ‘Seeing the Elephant' WAS interesting. Chocolate éclairs are tasty until you have them four meals in a row. I LIKED the original analogy and the Queen Vicky quote, and I still like the logo. But I can only take so many elephant analogies. To me, elephants are those noisome, unfriendly-looking creatures staring at me across the fence at the zoo. (They are definitely bitter about being on the ‘wrong’ side of the barrier.) When I stare back, they invariable drop a massive, straw-encrusted poo-pie without a hint of modesty or any recognition of my distaste. They are smelly, distempered, droll beasts, and the less I hear about them the better.

Perhaps you could switch off. You know, Month 1: Seeing the Elephant. Month 2: Petting the Squirrel. Month 3: Shooing the Crow….

Imagery aside, tying a blog too closely to a tightly defined theme seems counter to the medium. A blog, unlike a traditional editorial (one man’s opinion), is a snap-shop of COLLECTIVE consciousness, and it is supposed to, like consciousness, be able to change, to morph, to evolve. An effective blog reflects and affects changing awareness among the community. It engenders and euthanizes mimes. Insisting its community self-regulate to stay within the bounds of normative behavior will ultimately force the freer thinking members out while solidifying groupthink among those left. (Where are the Puritans?)

Groupthink is a terminal disease that often manifests its symptoms after the damage has been done. Think the war on Iraq. (Envision legions of smelly, evil-eyed, sharpened-tusked elephants trampling poor Iraqi civilians and foreign journalists!)

If asked, ‘what is the theme of your blog?’ I would answer, ‘whatever the bloggers think it is. I started talking about "seeing the elephant;" let’s see where this adventure takes us!'

Thoughts for the pot from a (true) friend.

AKahaney said...

Amelia here, the one who asked about the theme. I asked about the theme only because the blog did seem to "want" to be about expats, or returned expats, or straddling two countries, or something.

I agree, though, that a blogger (and a human being, natch) should be free to meander and wander in all kinds of directions. I, for one, would be thrilled to learn what Seeing the Elephant thinks of the Al Gore massage situation or where Seeing the Elephant likes to eat Korean BBQ or how Seeing the Elephant is coping during these recessionary times. Travel is likely somewhat curtailed, but surely we are all straddling many worlds, whether or not we've lived in another country.

Most of us reading have left our hometowns seeking work and adventure, right? Isn't that what it means to be a global citizen today?

I guess what I'm saying is that we're most of us half-here, half in some other distant place where things were different. We're all trying to keep up and adapt (example: twitter. what a nightmare, but it's the future.)

I'll follow seeing the lumbering elephantine beast wherever she decides to go. Because I'm a traveler, like her.

ML Awanohara said...

Anonymous: Your tumultuous applause on my choice of metaphor is still ringing in my huge, flapping ears. Rest assured, I have the skin of a pachyderm -- oh, there I go again with those elephant analogies ... I keep forgetting you aren't very keen on them! In which case you'll be pleased to hear I don't intend to spend the entire blog making them. As I suspect you know (since you are not anonymous but a good friend), "seeing the elephant" is just a framework for some themes I like to discuss.

That said, I do think it's a useful metaphor. As you may recall(?), I borrowed it from our Victorian forebears. You didn't mention the historical roots of the term in your comment, which makes me think (in fact I know) you are a Californian. In any event, it was the Victorians who came up with and popularized the "seeing the elephant" expression, not me. I appreciate that they did so for two reasons:

1) It shows we are not the first to go on quests to see if the grass is greener, and who knows? Perhaps we can even learn a thing or two from our Victorian cousins. I often think they are closer to our experience than we like to admit.

2) The elephant describes, better than other animal I can think of (certainly than the two you mentioned -- the squirrel and the crow?), the dichotomy between fantasy and reality that occurs whenever human beings make efforts to broaden their horizons. (Those Victorians, they really got it about life's ironic overtones!) From afar, the elephant is a magnificent beast, grander than any you will find in North America. Is it any wonder some of us would dearly like to see it? But seeing an elephant up close can be another story. Elephants have wrinkles and complex personalities. They also have tempers and can be unpredictable. On balance, though, I think they are still very engaging, just in a different way than one might expect...
* * *
Last but not least, thank you for relaying your experience of seeing elephants in the zoo. To be honest, it made me admire these creatures all the more. I can imagine you might be tempted to put on a similarly scatological performance if you were in an enclosed space and someone were staring at you as though they thought you were some evil great pudding.

p.s. I'll be publishing a relatively pachyderm-free version this post very shortly. (Based on yet more brutal feedback, I've decided I need to offer a shorter alternative, for people who don't read any more...)

ML Awanohara said...

Amelia, I think you are right: we all of us are lumbering along, trying to make sense of life's voyage. But if at the broadest level, "seeing the elephant" can be a metaphor for life itself -- the series of rather strange and wonderful journeys it entails -- as far as this blog goes, I don't want to drift too far away from the etymology of the saying.

As explained above, it originated during Victorian times. I believe Victorians had in mind the sort of people who traveled in hopes of broadening their horizons to include sights as exotic as an elephant. They made a significant physical change (from a smaller to a bigger place, from one coast to another, from native to foreign lands) to find out if the grass is any greener. And they stayed for long enough to make sure...

Now, lots of people don't do that. I mean, they move, but within a fairly narrow radius of where they grew up. They take trips, but largely as a tourist, without cutting ties and giving up their home base.

I'm also interested in the way the idiom "seen the elephant" morphed to include the idea of seeing action in battle. It came to be used by Civil War soldiers, who would say things like: "Today, we will see the elephant." Already, I've done two posts on whether American soldiers of today see the elephant in quite the same way as their Civil War predecessors. (Our anon. commenter may be interested to note that I've classified these posts under "Elephantry", referring to combat elephants.)

Even with these restrictions, the blog can encompass a fairly wide range of topics, e.g.:
*expat and repat adventures -- hey, I've invented a new ryakugo (略語)! -- both mine and especially other travelers'.
*observations on American life from the perspectives of citizens who are now odd cultural hybrids (e.g., my call for the Japanese mafia to assist with the Gulf oil spill clean-up).
*various "grass is greener" reminiscences (e.g., my account of developing a serious real-cream addiction while in the UK).

You point out very astutely that many of us are now restricted in our travels due to the recession. You can say that again! Most of the travel I do nowadays is in my head, and if this blog enables me to take others, such as your good self, along, so much the better.

For a start, I could spare you the effort and expense of pulling up stakes and going to live in England or Japan (my two countries), neither of which is a bargain destination.

In addition, I could report on elephant-seeking possibilities within our vicinity. After all, elephants occasionally come to town, which makes seeing them more feasible in these hard economic times. I alluded to one such possibility in passing when talking about the Dalai Lama's recent visit to New York, but the topic could also use some dedicated posts. As Anon. remarked in his inimitable style, a blog "is supposed to, like consciousness, be able to change, to morph, to evolve."

Thanks once again, Amelia, for provoking such a stimulating conversation. And pls stay with me! I hope to enlist you again to help propel this heavy-footed animal forward...

ML Awanohara said...

p.s. As for the latest reports on Al Gore and his massage shenanigans, that only makes me think I nailed it when I likened him to a typical Japanese salaryman. I guess you missed that post: Al and Tipper: Just the Latest Jukunen Rikon (worth checking out just for the pic!).

Kym Hamer said...

Well I don't look for a few days and some much went on here!

Anonymous (Californian), I completely agree with your comment about letting a blog meander and develop in the 'hands' of the audience..but do you think it's a bit chicken and egg when a blog starts? You want a dialogue so you need the audience for that to happen but how do you engage the audience and create really rich interaction with some themes...

To spark even more chat, who is a blog really for? The blogger's ego rides peaks and troughs with every comment (or not...because really who would blog if they thought no-one read it.) And the readers and contributors are a time-poor, fickle lot who come and go often without us knowing as things pique their curiosity here and elsewhere...

Does a blog need to follow a particular path for success? And what is the measure for success: followers,comments, views, links out/in?

It would appear I have more q's about this than I thought!

Anonymous said...

Kym, I think you and I are on the same page entirely. I too agree that the blog needed a theme and structure to get off the ground – which ML has provided very well. (I was kidding about the “pet the squirrel” theme...) I too agree that over time the blog, if is a healthy organism, will be increasingly defined by its community.

There are a couple of other blogs I read, but they are in fact exercises in personal publishing: an author (unsung or sung but not enough) has some nifty ideas and a craving to be “out there,” and so he/she carefully wordsmiths what used to be called “an article.” People can attach their reactions to the article and to each other at the bottom, but with rare exception, they are mostly nowhere near the caliber of the source article. More efficient than Time magazine but not really a community blog.

In contrast, ML has collected some interesting friends over the years -- except for the drunk I met at her wedding. No, not me –- but that is another story :-) She has rounded them up into the same electronic room and thrown them a mime. Like a Japanese game show where the host provides a word or phrase and the “guests” have to come up with increasingly clever uses of it.

(The host then stays out of the way, other than to add or subtract cushions for them to sit on according to how successful they are.)

When the clamor and clapping have died down, the host throws out another mime.

Let’s see where ML's “QV Saw the Elephant Blog” goes.

BTW, “Anonymous From California” is not a bad handle. :-)

Kym Hamer said...

Love the Japanese game you describe...sounds like a grown up version of pass-the-parcel (party game from my youth!) Might try it out at my next bbq'd :-)

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