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Thursday, December 30, 2010

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

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

How did you spend Christmas this year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Bittersweet Calculus of Changing Countries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 6, 2010

French Expat: Chicago, My Kind of Town


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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