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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Babar to Burkina: All for the Love of La Langue Française

This native Delawarean who is now a French citizen says that despite her life-long love affair with the French language, she has come to prefer French-speaking Africa to France.

We both grew up in Delaware — a state so small some people have never heard of it — and have been friends for decades. Were there any early indicators that we would one day be candidates for seeing the elephant? Well, we were both outsiders in high school — nerdy, maladjusted. You and I had a children's birthday party business, so we were more likely to be putting on puppet shows in clown suits than hanging out at the mall. But that didn’t necessarily destine us for international adventure. My family went to Canada on vacation — that was about it. And my mother had taught French, but for that very reason I rebelled against studying it. I wanted to do something different so tried Latin.

What made you change your mind? I took a French course in 10th grade and realized that I loved it. Maybe it was easy because of studying Latin first.

You've been to France countless times for prolonged visits, but have you ever really made a home there? My longest stay in France was the nine months I spent teaching English at the University of Bordeaux when I was a grad student. But even though I've never been an expat like you or others featured in this blog, I've been immersed in French culture for years. Now I live in Washington where I teach college-level French and travel to France at least twice a year. I also have French citizenship.

What motivated you to become officially Gallic? Marriage at the time, and now speeding through the EU line at immigration! And if you travel a lot, it's helpful to have a non-American passport, just in case we’re at war and hated by the rest of the world...

You’re immersed in French culture, as you say, but you don't seem all that attached to the country. I have an intellectual and emotional attachment to the language, but not so much to France itself. Years ago, my first serious relationship was in France, but with an Algerian — interestingly, I chose to be with someone who was also an outsider. Then later, I knew I wanted to marry someone who speaks French as the language is so important to me, but I didn't necessarily want to live in the country.

Is it fair to say that something has kept you from giving yourself over to France — from seeing the elephant in its entirety, wrinkles and all? Yes, I think I prefer making frequent travels, so that I can keep up with changes in the language and culture, rather than actually living in a place. That way I can also avoid the Rip Van Winkle syndrome when coming back to the U.S.

Would you live in France now if the opportunity arose? No, if I were to live somewhere else, it would be French-speaking West Africa. It's more interesting, and, paradoxically, I feel more comfortable with the people even though I am more of an outsider than in Europe.

Tell me more about your interest in Africa. When did it start? I was teaching French at Johns Hopkins SAIS where a number of my students were in African Studies or were Africans themselves. I tutored a student from Kenya, who got me interested in studying some Swahili. Again, it was language that first drew me in, though not French. Post-SAIS, I have worked for Cohen & Woods, a consulting firm which has done a lot of work in French-speaking African countries.

How many African countries have you visited? Six — one English-speaking, Zimbabwe; and the other five French- or Arabic-speaking: Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, and Senegal.


Where have you stayed the longest? In Dakar, Senegal's capital city, for a month.

Is Senegal your favorite? No, I prefer Burkina Faso — maybe because it's more like Delaware! The Senegalese remind me of New Yorkers: they tend to be more aggressive, hustlers. Whereas the Burkinabè are calmer, less in your face. I feel more comfortable there.

So, have you seen any African elephants? I've seen lots of monkeys but no elephants yet. I do have an elephant obsession, however, but it comes from my interest in France, not Africa. My aunt bought Babar the Elephant books for me and my brother as kids. Later, I started collecting Babar stuff: original watercolors, posters, books, stuffed animals... I love the illustrations and the old French cursive in the books.

Can you tell me any Blind Man's Tales — stories that demonstrate the differences among American, European, and African perspectives? An obvious one is the way they respond to the news that a prominent person is having an affair. At President Mitterand's funeral, his wife and his long-term mistress stood side-by-side at the grave, accompanied by their respective children. That would never happen here with American puritanism. Many Africans, even if they are Christians, accept and practice polygamy — traditional culture trumps imported religion. I have a Burkinabè friend who has 64 siblings because his father has I-don't-know-how-many wives. And of course Europeans and Africans were united in their ridicule for our attitude during the Clinton-Monica period.

Africa is a mystery to most Americans, though perhaps the World Cup will help to dispel that. What is the biggest cultural gap? Americans will open up to total strangers, whereas Africans are often extremely private. I have a Burkinabè friend who told me she had a boyfriend — but didn’t want me to tell her sister, even though the two of them are close. I know other African families where several sisters sleep in the same bed but will not undress in front of each other. Americans are puritanical, but Africans have more taboos.

Do you have any Treasured White Elephants — something useless or bizarre that you've collected from your travels that you're attached to nonetheless? I've been collecting traditional cooking utensils from West Africa. One of them, a kind of primitive whisk, is hanging on my kitchen wall. A Senegalese broom — a bunch of straw tied together with a bit of dress fabric — does a better job on the kitchen floor than our industrial ones.

Will you celebrate 4th of July, le quatorze juillet, or both? I don’t do much for either, but I will put out a French flag on Bastille Day but no American flag on the 4th. And a Québecois flag went out on June 24th for la Saint-Jean.

Lastly, let's talk food. If you had to design a menu for the summer season consisting of a favorite dish from America, France, and Africa, what would it be? Grilled capitaine (fish) kebabs from Africa, with spicy sauce on the side. A French puy lentil salad with garlicky vinaigrette. And my mom's sour cherry pie for dessert. She uses Crisco (yes, it still exists!) so I avoid the crust, but the filling is wonderful!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Cleaning Up the Oil Mess: Where Are the Yakuza When You Need Them?

Oil keeps spilling, and so does the bad news. This week we learned that thick oily sludge has washed ashore on Pensacola Beach, on Florida's Emerald Coast. That would make Florida the fourth state to be hit. Crude has already been reported along barrier islands in Alabama and Mississippi, and it has impacted some 125 miles of Louisiana coastline.

Near Fort Pickens, a tourist carried an oil-covered dolphin to shore, and several bystanders, including some children, rushed to save the poor animal. It was crying as they used their hands to scrape the oil off its body and out of its eyes. These efforts were in vain, however. The creature died while on its way to Gulf World Marine Park, a rescue facility in Panama City.

The dolphin was crying, I am now crying — and soon Florida Gov. Charlie Crist will be crying as he can't get the help he needs for the clean-up.

And so I find myself fantasizing about what it would be like to recruit a few Japanese gangsters, or yakuza, to get the clean-up under way in the Gulf States, for these four reasons:

1) They can cut through red tape. 
Just over two months into this oil spill crisis, clean-up efforts have been thwarted by the lack of a clear command structure. No one seems to know who is in charge: BP, the Coast Guard? As Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has repeatedly attested, there is a labyrinth of agencies involved in the decisionmaking. For instance, he stood by helplessly as barges for vacuuming up oil sat idle for days, awaiting Coast Guard approval.

I've seen this movie before: when the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck Kobe — the worst quake to hit Japan since the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. I remember being appalled that official support was inconsistent and chaotic for several days. I also remember being impressed when the yakuza stepped up to the plate, providing on-the-scene assistance to earthquake victims long before the national government resolved to act. Japan expert Glen Fukushima offers this analysis:
Kobe was lucky that, in the absence of prompt and effective response by Japanese governmental authorities, non-governmental organizations such as the infamous yakuza — relying on their nationwide network and clear lines of authority — were able to transport relief supplies (water, food, toiletries, diapers, etc.) to the Kobe area and distribute them to local residents with considerable aplomb and efficiency.
2) They have networks that can be mobilized quickly.
Alabama Gov. Bob Riley ran into trouble when he asked the Coast Guard to find ocean boom tall enough to handle strong waves and protect his shoreline. The Coast Guard went all the way to Bahrain to find it — but then moved it to Louisiana.

As Fukushima mentions, for the Kobe recovery, the yakuza quickly mobilized their network across Japan to get supplies to Kobe. (If need be yakuza can also reach across borders — a key advantage of being a transnational criminal organization, though I'm not advocating that aspect of their services...)

3) They understand the need to empower people who are on the scene.
David Brooks has written eloquently of how the United States has vested too much authority for handling the Gulf crisis in national officials who are smart but too distant. "We should be leaving more power with local officials, who may not be as expert, but who have the advantage of being there on the ground," he asserts.

In the immediate aftermath of the Kobe earthquake, the Yamaguchi-gumi, the Kobe-based yakuza clan, took charge. They were handing out 8,000 meals a day — including  bread, powdered milk, mineral water and fresh eggs — from a parking lot next to their headquarters. The group also used motor scooters, boats and even a helicopter to move food and other precious goods into and around the city, as roadways had become dangerously clogged due to quake damage. (The authorities, meanwhile, made little use of the boats, despite Kobe being a port city.)

4) They stand up for the little guy.
We all know by now that the Minerals Management Service had a cozy relationship with Big Oil. So how does that help people like fisherman Hong Le in their hour of need? Le came to the U.S. from Vietnam, rebuilt his home and business after Hurricane Katrina wiped him out, and is now facing bankruptcy again. (He was working as a welder on commercial fishing boats. "No fishing, no welding," he told an AP reporter.) Like others in this situation, Le has received $5,000 from BP, but that money didn't last long.

After the Kobe earthquake, Japanese gangsters bullied local businesses in Kobe into giving them the food free or at a discount for distribution to the homeless, many of whom were socially disadvantaged. Similar to the case of the oil spill, victims of the Kobe quake tended to be the poor, the elderly, the disabled, Koreans and other immigrants — people who had no choice but to live in hazardous areas, in buildings or near roadways that hadn't been built to a standard to withstand earthquakes of a high magnitude. They were victims not only of the earthquake but of the Japanese Ministry of Construction. It had been too busy developing cozy relationships with the building industry to exercise proper oversight.

There have been other disasters. There will be other disasters. I don't mean to discount the need for taking precautions, recruiting experts, and respecting the need for a legal framework. But in dire situations like these, it helps to be able to call on a group of nimble, public-spirited, well-connected outlaws with a strong sense of honor — the sort of people who have no qualms about slicing their fingertips off if they do something wrong — to cut through the red tape and get things started. If nothing else, their efforts would embarrass authorities at various levels into taking action.

One vital detail I've omitted in painting this chivalrous portrait: The yakuza would also demand a share in the reconstruction business, as well as a cut in the oil profits once drilling is resumed.

Question: Am I dreaming in another language, or do I have a point?

Monday, June 21, 2010

Seen the Elephant — It's Not All Sweetness and Light

This former Air Force serviceman and long-time resident of the Tamagawa district in the Ōta ward of Tokyo, Japan, describes his dilemma of not really fitting in anywherethe fate of many long-term expats. One way he keeps sane is by writing a blog, Japan without the sugar.

How did you end up living in such a far-flung corner of the globe? I was in the Air Force and sent to South Korea twice, even though I had never wanted to go overseas. After I got out of the Air Force, I went back to college. The Japanese economy was very strong back then, and every news report emphasized how vital understanding Japan was for the future of American business. I switched my major from wildlife management to business administration — and then to East Asian studies. After graduating, I went to Japan to work for a Japanese company. I also taught English at one point.

Did living in Japan alter your perspective? What I find interesting is how much of the stuff written about Japan in the late 1980s and early 1990s — Japan as Number One, by Ezra Vogel; Theory Z, by William Ouchi — has proved to be half-truths at absolute best.

In brief, how were they wrong? Were they right about some things? Many of these books maintained Japan had gotten it right in about every way — without examining how much Japan benefited from the the unique circumstance of having the United States provide its security for example. There was little mention of the darker side of things here either. These authors got it right insofar as Japan's economic rise was also the result of smarts and hard work.

How well have you adapted to your new environment? Tokyo is not a very green city. What I now consider to be "nature" I would have laughed at back home in Montana. In other ways, though, I've failed to adapt. Sometimes, when talking to Japanese people, I just want to know: are we really connecting or is this a façade? Tatemae/honne is in all the travel guides, but to read about it is one thing; to live it can be frustrating. Something else that sets me apart is my interest in politics. Japanese people tend to take the point of view that nothing can be done about politics or that "it has no connection with my life." Likewise, the positive, "can do" feeling that I associate with the US contrasts very sharply with the Japanese tendency to list all kinds of reasons why something can't be done without seriously exploring it.

Your blog title, Japan without the sugar, suggests that you haven't gone native. The longer I live in Tokyo, the more I realize how American I am.

But can you go home again? I returned to the United States for six years in the 1990s, after living in Japan for two years. I had a harder time re-acclimatizing than I had getting used to Japan. As is frequently noted by returning expats, Americans place little value on overseas experience, knowledge of foreign cultures, or foreign language skills. Meeting someone like me is nice for a short chat and some entertainment — but not much else.

Tell me more about your blog. I started Japan without the sugar in 2004. I was teaching English at the time and hoped my more motivated students would use it as a forum for discussion. Since few students bothered, I begin posting on Japan-related topics. Later, I started focusing much more on politics. A major catalyst was the publication, in 2006, of The Dignity of the State by Masahiko Fujiwara, a classic work of Nihonjinron. It quickly rose to number two in sales in Japan. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe incorporated Fujiwara's ideas into his book, Towards a Beautiful Country, setting forth his vision for Japan's future.

Define Nihonjinron. It's when Japanese claim that normal human feelings, thought, tendencies, characteristics — even body temperature — are unique to their culture or race.

I've noticed this syndrome before: the longer people stay in Japan, the more disillusioned they become. Why do you think that is? I don't know. I once considered Nihonjinron to be a cute, quaint oddity of Japan. I now consider it to be borderline — if not openly — racist. It's also an indicator of how little the Japanese educational system stresses intellectual curiosity. How could so many Japanese people believe, for instance, that Japan is the only country with four seasons? I often make fun of that, but it tells you so much about Japan and the way people here aren't encouraged to ask questions.

Who are your readers? Many come from other Japan politics blogs. A few are experts in the Japan field, which makes me try to keep from posting something completely loony, but I don't always succeed in that.

I have a theory that one of the reasons many of us travel is food. Have you gotten to know and like Japanese food? At least it's not overly sugared! Yes, in the summers I have grilled eel (unagi) and a cold beer every Friday. I wouldn't think it was summer unless I could enjoy that.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Where Has All the Valor Gone?

Shortly after I posted my Memorial Day thoughts questioning whether modern-day soldiers are seeing as much of the elephant as their predecessors did, an article, "What Happened to Valor?" appeared in the New York Times magazine reporting some rather striking statistics:
Despite its symbolic importance and educational role in military culture, the Medal of Honor has been awarded only six times for service in Iraq or Afghanistan. By contrast, 464 Medals of Honor were awarded for service during World War II, 133 during the Korean War and 246 during the Vietnam War. “From World War I through Vietnam,” The Army Times claimed in April 2009, “the rate of Medal of Honor recipients per 100,000 service members stayed between 2.3 (Korea) and 2.9 (World War II). But since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, only five Medals of Honor have been awarded, a rate of 0.1 per 100,000 — one in a million.”
The reporter, Katherine Zoepf, goes on to say that one reason for fewer medals may be the nature of modern warfare: it no longer necessitates coming face to face with an enemy in bloody combat. She cites Michael O’Hanlon, a defense-policy specialist at the Brookings. He argues that counterinsurgency efforts, which place greater emphasis on avoiding the use of force (to minimize civilian casualties), call for "a quieter daily kind of courage," one that rarely requires "that moment of extreme valor typically honored with a medal

Upon learning these stats, I had a series of contradictory thoughts (it turns out that, when describing this particular elephant, I can be all of the blind men at once!):

1) First, I felt rather smug about my powers of deduction: from a drop of water, I had inferred the Niagra, as the redoubtable Sherlock Holmes would say. I wondered if my next post on this topic should be called "Seeing Mr Snuffleupagus" — the Sesame Street character who looks like an elephant at first glance (he has a nose that he drags along the ground but no tusk or ears, not to mention a dinosaur's tail). What got me thinking along these lines was Mr S's appearance at a benefit gala for military families, held in Manhattan on June 2 and sponsored by Sesame Street. Upon noticing that the Wall Street Journal gave Mr S pride of place in their write-up of the event, I started to think that a muppet that goes by the nickname of Snuffy might be a more apt symbol for modern-day military service than the elephant (very yesteryear).

2) But, not so fast, my friend! Many combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan dispute O'Hanlon's arguments, and it turns out they have a good point. Indeed, another reason for the current paucity of medals might be a lack of valor not on the part of soldiers but on the part of the top military brass. The Pentagon is afraid to give out such medals without being 300% sure that an act of valor occurred — and who can be sure of anything in the fog of war? What's more, because of the Pentagon's recent experiences with Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman, it is hesitant to publicize or otherwise herald tales of heroism, for fear of later embarrassment. (Both Lynch, in 2003, and Tillman, in 2004, were initially celebrated as war heroes.)

Those who believe that the Pentagon has become overly cautious and bureaucratic on medals often point to the example of Rafael Peralta. Despite horrific wounds, the 25-year-old Marine had the presence of mind and courage to scoop a live grenade from under his body to save the lives of his comrades. Yet he has been denied the Medal of Honor.

3) I was less struck, however, by another argument that Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans frequently make, which is that they have become the victims of their own success. Congressman Duncan Hunter, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan as a Marine, told Katherine Zoepf that in today’s all-volunteer military, an action that would have been considered heroic in the mid-20th century is seen today almost as routine conduct, "just being a Marine." With all due respect, Congressman Hunter, but my years and years of living in Japan — where U.S. Marines stationed at Futenma and other U.S. bases in Okinawa were constantly causing scandals and headlines — will forever make it difficult for me to associate that particular branch of the American armed forces with rising standards of behavior. I understand that acts of valor are something different, but still...

4) That said, I do buy another argument made by many younger servicemen, which is that Pentagon officials are frequently disrespectful, even dismissive, of their eyewitness accounts of acts of valor. In today’s military, younger servicemen sometimes have far more combat experience than their seniors now working in the Pentagon, who often progressed through the military hierarchy in a time of relative peace: after Vietnam but before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Having lived in a hierarchical society like Japan, I know that nothing goads your superior more than the knowledge that you've experienced something he or she hasn't--particularly when it comes to seeing the elephant. Could their seniors be jealous? Uh... yeah.

In a blog post for the National Review responding to Zoepf's article, David French wrote:
Why is the military awarding so few medals of honor? Are we less courageous now? Or is the military stifling valor awards in a labyrinthine bureaucracy dominated by rear echelon second-guessers?
This blogging business makes strange bedfellows, but as First Lieutenant in the United States Army Reserve and a senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, I think French has the creds to ask such pointed questions. Why, indeed?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Is America the Strangest Country of All?

How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. You can never go home again.
--James Agee, A Death in the Family
Sorry, Mr Agee, that is clearly not true. Many of us expats come home again after having gone about as far as possible "away from ourselves."

But, fair enough, we do not come home to the country we remember--especially if our notion of home is that of a teenager's.

I have already given a shout-out to one such expat, Peter Hessler, who lived abroad for many years as a young adult, mostly in the UK and China, and then, when he was nearly 40 years old, came back to the US to live. He settled with his wife, Leslie Chang, in the relatively obscure town of Ridgway, Colorado.

Writing about their experience of reverse culture shock for this year's "Journeys" issue of the New Yorker, Hessler said one thing that didn't surprise me and something else that really got me thinking. First, the not-so-surprising:
If I told somebody in a small town that I'd lived overseas for fifteen years, the initial response was invariably the same: "Were you in the military?" After that, people had few questions. Leslie and I learned that the most effective way to kill our end of a conversation was to say that we were writers who had lived in China for more than a decade.
I tend to think that there is nothing especially American about getting a cool reception after years of being abroad. In England, people often joke about expats retiring to the seaside towns of Sidmouth and Budleigh Salterton where they can talk to each other about their adventures living in Britain's former colonies--as no one else can bear listening.

Japan of course is even more severe on its long-term expats. They accuse them of buta kusai (reeking of butter)--meaning they have drawn too heavily upon Western influences and are, therefore, tainted.

But Hessler also said something incredibly interesting--which I've been thinking about ever since. He reported that of all the adjustments he had to make in reacclimatizing to life in the US, the one that took him most aback was the American habit of telling personal stories to strangers about themselves and the places they had lived: "In a small town, people asked very little of an outsider--really, all you had to do was listen." This of course was in sharp contrast to most Chinese he had known, who will engage in small talk on matters like food and money and the weather but will avoid personal topics like the plague.

Doesn't that make America is the strangest country of all? My experiences of living in Britain and Japan conform to what Hessler says about China--English and Japanese people do not reveal their private selves easily; they believe in the need for personal boundaries.

So what makes us the U.S. the outlier when it comes to narcissism? Here are three preliminary ideas:

1) Heterogeneity. Because we're such a mixture of backgrounds and cultures, it is hard for people to place each other instantly in terms of social class, education, and other factors--hence the need to "sell ourselves" with some sort of elevator speech about where we came from and our key life experiences. (Whereas in England, people can often tell a lot about you just by hearing your accent, and in Japan, the ultimate homogeneous culture, there are certain across-the-board assumptions you can make about people before they've even opened their mouths.)

2) Mobility and the possibility of constant reinvention. As mentioned in a previous post, it was 19th-century Americans who embraced the expression, "seeing the elephant": it originally meant traveling West and striking it rich. Since the birth of the nation, people have been rewriting their stories--and hoping to come up with a better one than the one they were born with.

3) Cultural narcissism. Ever since America became the world's great imperial power in the middle of last century, Americans have come to think of their stories as far more interesting than anyone else's. And, as popular reality shows such as American Idol keep telling us, the audience we care most about consists of our fellow Americans. (As a side note, is it any wonder that the US invented celebrity culture? Fame and fortune in this society accrue to those who are willing to have their stories on display all of the time--who no longer have anything close to resembling a private self.)

Gloomy weather today, isn't it? Since coming back to the U.S., I can't tell you how often when, finding myself the earpiece for someone I've never met before, I've longed for a nice, short, superficial chat about the weather.  

Question: Can you think of any other reasons why we Americans are so caught up in our personal stories that we only want to talk, not listen?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Wistful for Wisteria, and Some Rather Sobering Thoughts on the Oil Spill

We long-term expats are permanent malcontents, always wishing we were somewhere other than we are right now. I guess this explains why, these past few days, I've been feeling wistful for wisteria--those long purple pendants of sweet-pea-like flowers that climb along brick walls. June is of course the peak month for wisteria in England, my first home away from home.

1) I'm remembering a particular Victorian house with thick and gnarled vines of wisteria framing its front door, in the town in East Anglia where I once lived. I became obsessed with this house and would often fantasize about living there and leading a storybook life. This fantasy never diminished, even when I learned that its real-life inhabitants were terribly unhappy (they were among the first couples amongst my set to divorce).

2) Some people have salad days, but I have wisteria days. This blog doesn't really need another metaphor, but there is something about the wisteria plant, its mixture of whimsy and hardiness (wisteria grows quickly and aggressively, living for up to 100 years), that suggests the kinds of qualities I had to draw on in the early stages of living abroad, so far away from my family and everything I'd known. Playful, curious, enthusiastic on the one hand, and full of fortitude and powers of endurance on the other.

3) Wisteria is quintessentially Victorian. I'm fascinated with Victorian times, which produced the metaphor of "seeing the elephant," around which this blog is built. It was the German Dr. Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold who brought the first wisteria and hydrangea plants to Europe from Japan. (He went to Japan in 1822 to gather information on that closed-off country.) Thanks to him, Victorians could adorn their houses with wisteria.

4) Like the heroine of Alice Walker's book, over the years I have come to embrace the color purple. England may be known for its roses and Japan for its cherry blossoms, but I remember them for their wisteria and hydrangea respectively (that Dr Siebold had good taste). Don't get me started on hydrangea (or ajisai)--I'm even more passionate about that plant than about wisteria, if that's possible. I miss my beloved ajisai as well--it's the flower Japanese people most associate with June (it flourishes in the cool and humid conditions of the rainy season, or tsuyu).

5) Memories of natural beauty help to counteract the sadness that I feel while being bombarded with images from the the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Is this what I came home for?
When I first saw this picture, I actually wondered if it was an elephant? It's a seabird of course, but species becomes indistinguishable once a creature is drenched in oil.

At the same time, I've been thinking that we world travelers are somewhat culpable in this disaster. Let's be honest: we have something in common with oil excavators. As recounted in a previous post, "seeing the elephant" was originally used by those who rushed to California in hopes of striking gold and getting rich quick. Oil, of course, is black gold.

While we may not literally seek gold or oil, we expat types tend to follow the money, going abroad to seek adventure and fortune, hopping on airplanes that leave a large carbon footprint without so much as batting an eye. We may not have chosen to live in the United States, but our actions, too, have played a part in driving the relentless demand for black gold--which fuels (quite literally) our adventures.

I am grateful to Matthew Rees for supplying a relatively recent photo of English wisteria.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Al and Tipper: Just the Latest Jukunen Rikon

I'd like to slip in a few comments about Al and Tipper Gore's impending divorce while it's still big news. Was I surprised? Yes, mainly because I hadn't thought about either of the Gores let alone the state of their relationship for quite some time. Was I shocked? No, not really--something I put down to living in Japan for so many years, where one soon becomes inured to jukunen rikon (late-life divorce).

Jukunen rikon gets less attention than that other growing category of Japanese divorce known as "Narita divorce," when a newlywed couple bids sayonara at Narita New Tokyo International Airport, having just returned from a honeymoon trip outside of Japan. During the honeymoon, it dawns on the newlywed bride that she's made a terrible mistake in hitching her wagon to a boring salaryman.

Grey divorce, by contrast, occurs when a middle-aged Japanese woman, having toughed it out with such a salaryman for a good 30+ years, can't face living with him for another 30+ years upon his retirement--Japanese are of course blessed (cursed?) with having the world's longest life expectancy for both sexes.

Whether it's an early or late divorce, Japanese women tend to initiate the divorce proceedings.

I have no idea whether Tipper initiated this idea with Al, but their talk about having grown apart (and the fact that there doesn't seem to be anyone else) suggests to me that we have a classic jukunen rikon on our hands.

So rather than feeling shocked or saddened, let's think creatively about Al and Tipper's announcement. If we're lucky, perhaps it will:

1) inspire an American television drama similar to the Japanese drama, Jukunen Rikon (illustrated above--actually, doesn't that couple look a little like an Asian Al and Tipper?).

2) lead Tipper (or another woman of her status) to write a bestseller +/or start up a blog, to help guide other older American women who are thinking of changing their lives. She could even borrow the (translated) title from one such Japanese book: Why Are Retired Husbands Such a Nuisance? Chapter headings (blog post tags) could include "freedom," "identity," and "need for fulfillment" for starters...

3) raise our awareness that a drift to older divorce is happening throughout the Western world (similar trends have been noted in the U.S., Canada, Britain, Italy, and France)--thus that if it comes to a relationship near you, it's not that unusual and certainly not the end of the world. Dierdre Bair makes this point very well in her recent New York Times op-ed, "The 40-Year Itch."  Upon learning that divorce lawyers' waiting rooms are coming to resemble geriatrics units, Bair decided to write a book on the phenomenon. She talked to hundreds of men and women who had divorced after long marriages. "For them, divorce meant not failure and shame, but opportunity," she reports, going on to say we should wish Al and Tipper well as they begin new chapters of their lives. Or, as their counterparts in Japan might say, gambatte kudasai.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Peter Hessler, Elephant Spotter Extraordinaire

Time to nominate some heroes of elephant-spotting: people who have traveled to distant points, had adventures, and done a remarkable job of reporting these adventures to the folks back home.

First up: journalist and author Peter Hessler, for these four reasons:

1) Hessler has paid his dues, having spent a decade and a half overseas, in England and China. His decision to see the elephant was hardly a given as he spent his early childhood in Columbia, Missouri. Still, he came to the East Coast for his education and carried on from there--first to England (on a Rhodes Scholarship) and then to China.

He initially went to China with the Peace Corps and taught English and American literature at a teachers college located in a small city on the Yangtze River. (Along with a fellow teacher, he was the first foreigner to be in this part of the Sichuan province for 50 years.)

After the Peace Corps, Hessler settled in Beijing for about a decade, producing articles and books on the socioeconomic upheavals he observed all around him in China.

2) Hessler also earns major elephant points for taking an unplanned trip around the world while still a graduate student in the UK. He started in Prague and continued by land and boat all the way to Thailand, via Russia and China. After returning from that trip, he applied for a travel grant to take a long hike across Switzerland, spending two months camping and hiking in the mountains, from the French border to the Italian border. Not bad for a side adventure!

3) While living in China, Hessler told his fair share of Blind Men's Tales--attempts to make the rest of us understand things from non-Western perspectives. Particularly courageous was his article for the Atlantic Monthly, written just over ten years ago, "Tibet Through Chinese Eyes," where he tried to explain why China cares so much about Tibet. Unsurprisingly, the article came in for heavy criticism in the United States. Americans, it seems, don't care to know the deeper historical reasons for the problems in Tibet.

4) After a decade and a half of living abroad, Hessler took the momentous decision to move back to the United States. He came back in 2006, settling with his wife, the Chinese American journalist and author Leslie Chang, in Ridgway, Colorado. He has chronicled their homecoming adventures in an article, "Go West," for the "Journeys" issue of the New Yorker (April 19, 2010). As the article points out, by the time the couple returned to their native land, Hessler had never held an American job, owned an American home, or even rented an American apartment.

What made Hessler spend such a large chunk of his life seeing the elephant--or perhaps in China's case "dragon" would be a more apt metaphor? And how has he found it adjusting back to life in his native land? The latter question will be the topic of my next an upcoming post.

UPDATE: I found an audio interview with Hessler (and with Evan Osnos, who writes the NYer's Letter from China) on the NYer site: "Back from Beijing" (mp3, 15 min).

Question: Are there any other long-term expats you think deserve "hero" status for their extraordinary feats of elephant-spotting?