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Monday, January 24, 2011

Charity Is Harder Than You Think: Tucson from a Repatriate's Perspective

The time has arrived for me to look in the mirror and say:
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who in the land is most ignorant of all?
And for the mirror to respond:
You are the most ignorant of all! You think that just because you have traveled the world, you are a more tolerant, more open person than others who haven't. Well, think again ...
Why am I being so hard on myself, you may wonder? Recent events — I refer to the shooting near Tucson, Arizona — have prompted me to eat an extra-large slice of humble pie.

As soon as the news started to break on my Twitter feed, I had the shooter pegged as an Angry White Male (AWM) who was trying to do in his congresswoman because she'd voted for health care. He'd really wanted to assassinate President Obama but targeted his congressional representative as the next best thing. When I learned that Gabrielle Giffords was Jewish, it made even more sense. As a Democrat, a woman, and a Jew, she made a good substitute for America's first African American president ("the other").

My narrative was further enhanced when I learned that those who helped to save the Congresswoman's life included her gay Latino intern and a Korean-born trauma surgeon. It figured the Good Guys would be the kind of people the Bad Guy doesn't approve of (homosexuals, immigrants).

What a script I had going! But there was just one problem. As everyone now knows, the perpetrator, Jared Loughner, doesn't fit the profile of an AWM. He is a loner with no clear political affiliation or agenda.

In other words, I'd leapt to the wrong conclusion, and my conscience has been niggling me ever since. Why didn't it occur to me right away that Loughner could simply be a paranoid schizophrenic? There are, of course, no boundaries — political, cultural, or racial — on mental illness. Seng-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, was a Korean-born permanent U.S. resident.

The nation is still mulling over the lessons of the Tucson tragedy. While I have plenty of opinions on what those should be, mostly having to do with my experience of living in countries with more restrictive gun ownership laws, I will focus instead on what Tucson has taught me about myself, and the biases I possess towards other Americans.

Grown-up male Komodo dragon
w/ forked tongue, courtesy
1) However much I've opened my heart to other cultures, I'm not above delivering unfair judgments on other people, including — and especially — my compatriots.

In a previous post, I called out my fellow Americans on their xenophobia, condemning those who are spreading dangerous lies about Muslims, Muslim Americans, and President Obama.

As it turns out, I, too, subscribe to negative stereotypes of other Americans. Mine are of those who identify themselves as politically conservative. Unless told otherwise, I tend to assume most of them are hard-core capitalists, flag-waving patriots, religious fundamentalists, white supremacists, birthers, libertarians, gay bashers, and NRA supporters, when perhaps that isn't the case.

What's more, I'm all too willing to believe that, if provoked, many right-wingers wouldn't hesitate to take out someone who struck them as being un-American in some way.

I'd love to be able to excuse myself by pleading that I've lived out of this country for so long that I can no longer negotiate its political landscape. (Notably, over on the Matador Network, a bunch of us have been debating whether expats can be cut some slack for becoming apathetic towards the politics of their homelands.)

But the fact is, I'm biased.

Of course, I encountered political conservatives during my days as a rex-pat: e.g., Britain's Little Englanders and Japan's right-wingers who drive around in sound trucks. But I tended to think of them as part of the experience of getting to know the elephant wrinkles and all.

But now that I'm back with my own people, I feel as though I've entered a a den of Komodo dragons: full of venom and capable of cold-blooded murder. And you know something else? They scare the living daylights out of me. It's not so much fear of "X" as terror of "X."

2) It's almost too shameful to admit, but I could use a refresher course in the Golden Rule.

Let's see, I think it works like this. If I don't want other Americans to stereotype me as one of those crazies who gets caught up in living abroad and renounces all ties to the United States, I should avoid unfairly stereotyping them.

Apparently, I'm not alone in having lost the hang of the "do onto others..." maxim. Former-Roman-Catholic nun-turned-religious-historian Karen Armstrong says that most of us "moderns" are lacking in compassion: i.e., the moral imagination to place ourselves in the shoes of others. She feels so strongly about this that she has written a book outlining the 12 steps to a compassionate life. (That was after she won a TED prize to create a Compassion Charter.)

Armstrong distilled her advice into "12 steps" for its resonance with AA. She thinks that people of today are addicted to bludgeoning their opponents into accepting their point of view. We define ourselves by our hates: this person is everything I hope I'm not (but fear I might be).

Armstrong's admonitions have gotten through to me. I'm reminded of my expat adjustment process, first in England and later in Japan. I can remember in both countries reaching a stage where I told everyone: "You know, the more I learn about this place, the more I realize how little I know." Admitting my ignorance was a kind of turning point. From then on, I began to revise my initial impressions, e.g.:
  • English people are reserved not because they are cold and unfeeling but because they live on a small, overcrowded island with a capricious climate.
  • Japanese people are suspicious of foreigners not because they are all xenophobic but because they are still recovering from centuries of self-imposed isolation.
What I didn't realize then, and am beginning to realize now, is that it works just the same in my own culture. In the case of conservative Republicans and Tea Party activists, I suppose I might say:
  • America's political conservatives are full of anger not because they want to lash out with violence against people who aren't like them but because they feel threatened by a country that's changing in ways they don't understand or approve of, and threatening to leave them behind.
The above may need further tweaking, but I hope it at least constitutes a baby step towards absorbing new knowledge and overcoming my destructive stereotypes.

Question to other expats| rex-pats| repats: Have you, too, found that national tragedies like Tucson reveal uncomfortable truths about your relationship to the people and politics of your native land?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What Do Barack Obama and Isamu Noguchi Have in Common? Mothers Who Saw Elephants...

Perhaps it's not surprising given my life-long tendency to think (a little too far) outside the box, but for some time now, I've been fixated on what I see as the close resemblance between Barack Obama and world-famous sculptor and architect Isamu Noguchi. Part of it is their mixed-race, movie-star looks:
Isamu Noguchi and Barack Obama as youths (Noguchi photo by Berenice Abbott).
But the other piece of it is that both men benefited from having parents of different races and cultures. They saw the elephant early in life, which influenced their careers in a positive way.

Isamu Noguchi (whose paper lantern lampshades I have coveted ever since living in Tokyo) was able to infuse mid-century modern design with Japanese minimalism, to stunning effect.

And Barack Obama was able to infuse community organizing in Chicago with the Asian art of consensus seeking, which he'd learned during his formative years in Indonesia.

But then something funny happened. After a long period of shunning sightseeing, I decided to play tourist again. First, I took an outing with a friend to the Noguchi Museum in Queens. Second, finding myself in the role of trailing spouse in Jakarta, Indonesia, I made a little pilgrimage, as it were, to the Beseki School, which President Obama attended between the ages of 8 and 10.
From left: Noguchi sculpture in front of the Noguchi museum; inscription on statue of Obama at the Beseki School.

These two expeditions diverted my attention away from these two supremely talented men and toward their mothers: respectively, the journalist and educator Léonie Gilmour, and the anthropologist and Indonesia specialist Stanley Ann ("Ann") Dunham :
From left: Léonie Gilmour in 1912, courtesy Wikipedia; S. Ann Dunham's yearbook pic, courtesy

Gilmour was born in 1873 in New York City and attended the exclusive women's college of Bryn Mawr. Dunham was born in 1942 in Wichita, Kansas, and pursued education in Hawaii.

But while they lived in different eras and parts of the country, their biographies show some extraordinary parallels.

Both women predated the era of widespread international travel, when "global" was not yet a buzz word.

But were they world travelers? For sure.

Were they globally minded? Most assuredly.

And did they see elephants? And how!

Consider, for instance, these three similarities:

1) Both women have an early life-story that reads somewhere between a Mills & Boon romance and a penny dreadful:

Our story is set in New York City in 1901. The dashing young Japanese poet Yone Noguchi has just gotten off the boat from London. He places a classified ad for an editorial assistant, and an earnest Bryn Mawr graduate by the name of Léonie Gilmour answers it. The two instantly hit it off and together resume work on his book, The American Diary of a Japanese Girl — soon to become the first English novel to be published in the U.S. by a person of Japanese ancestry.
       As their professional collaboration flourishes, they fall madly in love. Noguchi writes a declaration that Leonie is his lawful wife. But then, just as Léonie discovers she is carrying his child, the relationship flounders. She goes home to her mother in Los Angeles to give birth, while Yone returns to Japan.
       After the baby is born in November 1904, Yone puts pressure on Léonie to join him. She repeatedly refuses but finally relents, arriving in Japan in March 1907. As she disembarks the steamship in Yokohama, Yone greets her and confers on the child the Japanese name of Isamu. After this reunion, he confesses he has taken a Japanese wife and they've started a family.
       Spurning the idea of being his wife #2, Léonie breaks from Yone — the cad! — once and for all. She makes her own way around Japan and ends up in the picturesque seaside town of Chigasaki, where she has her young son supervise the construction of a house facing out on the Pacific.
       Ensconced in this rustic cottage, which she likes to call her "pine nest," Léonie produces another child, a girl named Ailes Gilmour, who will someday dance for the Martha Graham company in New York. Ailes' father, who is Japanese, is rumored to be one of Léonie's English students. Yone calls Léonie a "slut," but her lips are sealed. She carries the secret of her daughter's father's identity to the grave...
Our story is set on the palm tree-studded campus of the University of Hawaii in 1960. A 23-year-old African man, Barack Obama Sr, is winning hearts and minds wherever he goes by dint of his charismatic personality and novelty value: most students have never seen an African before. His admirers include the 18-year-old Ann Dunham (she has shed her first name of "Stanley," which her father gave her because he wanted a boy), who is in his Russian class.
       Ann is immediately smitten: Barack reminds her of the blacks she saw in the film Black Orpheus when she was 16, the first time she'd ever seen a foreign film. Surely no man could be as warm, sensual, and exotic as he is? Barack appreciates being the object of her upward adoring gaze. Within a few months of their first meeting, she is carrying his child, a boy who will someday be America's 44th president.
       The pair get married, but the relationship falls apart soon afterwards, when Obama Sr reveals he already has a wife and children in his native Kenya. His Kenyan wife has agreed that Ann can become wife #2, but Ann wants none of that.
       Not long after divorcing her son's father, she encounters another attractive foreign scholar, this time a free-spirited Indonesian. They marry, and Ann makes her first-ever trip to a foreign country. The relationship is fruitful, and they have a daughter...
Here, by the way, are our two main male protagonists:
From left: Yone Noguchi in 1903, courtesy Wikipedia; Barack Obama Sr in 1936, courtesy Appletree.
I don't know about you, but I think they look tailor made for the part of lady killer.

2) Both women displayed a cavalier attitude about picking up stakes and moving to parts of the world they knew nothing about.

Gilmour arrived in Japan in 1907 with a young child, no husband or job, and no training in the Japanese language. What was she thinking? On the other hand, she was a Bryn Mawr grad ... and it was not long before she picked up work teaching English at a school in Yokohama. She also did some private tutoring, including for the children of the late Lafcadio Hearn and his Japanese wife, Setsu Koizumi.

When Ann Dunham boarded a plane for Jakarta, Indonesia, with her son Barack in 1967, she had never left the United States before and knew almost nothing about the place she would soon be living in. Maybe it's as well. Her new husband's house, on the outskirts of Jakarta, had no electricity. The streets were unpaved. The nation was transitioning to the rule of General Suharto, which meant rampant inflation and widespread food shortages. A bit of a culture shock after Honolulu!

Still, Dunham appears to have been unfazed. Like Gilmour, she soon got herself a job teaching English (in her case, at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta). She also volunteered at the National Museum in Jakarta, and worked for a U.S. government-subsidized institute dedicated to Indonesia-America friendship.

3) Both women aspired to be part of the wider world they had risked so much to see, not just live vicariously through their offspring.

This is not to say they weren't ambitious for their children, particularly their sons. Each woman underwent a period of separation from her son for the sake of his education, and took enormous pride in his achievements.

But both women also lived for themselves, and tried to leverage their time abroad into careers.

Gilmour worked in the writing field throughout her life, first as an editor, later as an educator and journalist. Her most successful written works were short autobiographical essays for newspapers and magazines chronicling her misfortunes with a self-deprecating wit. One of them, written for the New York Times, was a wryly humorous account of being burglarized in Japan.

When, towards the end of her life, Gilmour was faced with eking out a living in Depression-era New York City, she started up a business importing Japanese knickknacks, not unlike what many expat entrepreneurs do today. Think Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame, albeit on a much smaller scale. (As the New York Times put it in its article last year about Gilbert's New Jersey store full of curios from Southeast Asia: "Love, Travel, Sell.")

It did not take Dunham long to develop a deep affinity for Indonesia, which not for nothing has been called an anthropologist's paradise, with its 17,500 islands and more than three hundred languages. (Notably, her attachment to the country outlasted her attachment to her husband: they divorced in 1980.)

Dunham enrolled in the University of Hawaii to train as an anthropologist, doing the kind of research that foreigners are always doing on Indonesia: documenting the nation's traditional customs before they succumb to the forces of modernization. Dunham wrote a thesis about the blacksmithing industry found in Indonesian villages. She obtained her doctoral degree in 1992, just three years before her untimely death from cancer at the age of 52.

But Dunham wasn't just an academic. She also developed a professional career working on behalf of women's employment in Indonesia. Her most lasting legacy was to help build Indonesia's microfinance program, giving tiny loans to credit-poor entrepreneurs — who are mostly women.
From left: Article by Léonie Gilmour (1921), courtesy New York Times archives; a revised version of Ann Dunham's 1992 dissertation on blacksmithing in Indonesia, published as a book in 2009.

Neither Gilmour nor Dunham wrote their memoirs. Perhaps they were too busy? (Dunham apparently started hers but produced just two pages.) Their stories, however, haven't been forgotten because of their famous sons.

Not at all surprisingly, given the colorful lives these women led, the film world has taken an interest. The feature-length film Léonie was released last year, directed by Hisako Matsui, with Emily Mortimer in the title role:

Ann Dunham: A Most Generous Spirit, a documentary depicting Dunham's life, went into production last year. I just hope the tone isn't so hagiographic that it fails to capture Dunham's elephant-seeking spirit. To get some sense of that, the biopic Little Obama, about President Obama's years in Indonesia, may be worth a look. (Dunham is played by South African actress Cara Lachelle.)

But for my money, the film to see is the one where Gilmour and Dunham appear together, icons of the kind of fearless American woman who isn't afraid to see elephants — husbands, children, social norms be damned. (And, btw, they still managed to turn out some terrific kids.) It's a film that probably won't be made, but if it ever is, look for me at the front of the ticket queue!

Questions: What do you make of the similarities between Gilmour and Dunham? Can you think of other 20th-century women who led (or are still leading) the life of lady-errant, in the United States or elsewhere?