Recent Posts

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Life's a Jolly Holiday: Why I'd Rather Be the Expat than the Tourist

On morning strolls with my two dogs, I often pass by the Student Travel Association office, New York University branch. Until recently, it had a poster of The Tourist, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, in the front window.

Maybe it's the effect of mid-winter doldrums, but nearly every time I spotted that poster, I became possessed by the need to step into the world it depicts. If only I were Mary Poppins, I said to myself, and had her power of leaping into pictures.

As anyone who has seen Mary Poppins knows — wasn't it everyone's favorite film as a kid, or was I an Anglophile even back then? — Mary, Bert, and her two wards jump into one of Bert's chalk-pavement drawings. They land in an animated countryside, replete with merry-go-round and dancing penguins.

But in the case of this poster, I'd be landing on a train that's just left Paris for Venice just as a math teacher from Wisconsin (Depp) encounters a femme-fatale-and-a-half (Jolie).

Okay, maybe this 'oliday won't be so jolly (haha) given that the poster's tagline reads: "Perfect Trip. Perfect Trap." But what would be the fun of travel without a whiff of danger about it? Even in Mary Poppins, the chalk-painting scene ends in a madcap horse race that has us kids on the edge of our seats ...

So that's this winter's escapist fantasy. The only thing is, I can't quite sustain it. By the time I've finished walking my dogs, I'm having my doubts. I just think the plot could have been so much richer, and more convincing, if the Depp character had been an expat, not a tourist.

In my experience, being a tourist rarely affords such exciting opportunities. Or if it does, you're far too preoccupied with how you're going to get to your hotel without being ripped off, fend off jet lag, and find a cash point machine that takes your Cirrus card, to appreciate the thrill of mysterious strangers. And you certainly don't have the psychic energy required to give their intrigues the time of day.

But spending chunks of time overseas: that puts you in the kind of zone where you're open to the idea that anything can happen (it often does). Little by little, life takes on a cinematic, unreal quality.

Here is why I think an expat's life is so much more film-like than a tourist's:

1) An expat gets the chance to play many roles — with wardrobe changes to match.

There I am, all those years ago, flouncing around in my Laura Ashley dresses and Liberty print skirts as a graduate student at a British university.

Oh, and there I am again, a housewife in a provincial English town, sporting my Marks & Sparks separates.

And now look: I've moved to Japan and am approaching a glass-fronted office building in a demure Audrey Hepburnish suit adorned with silk scarf and pearls. Goodness me, was I really wearing my hair pulled back in a snood back then?

Irene Dunne is one up on me:
I have the opera-length pearls
but no opera gloves.
And look at me now: I'm setting foot again in the United States. My clothes are so exotic compared to what everyone else has on (not saying a lot since many of them appear to be in gym clothes), I could almost be a modern Countess Olenska, from Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. Like Irene Dunne who played her in the 1934 film, I have a slightly foreign accent and elaborate hair style. (Come to think of it, I had the nickname of "countess" in those days — no joke!)

2) You want danger? Expats are far more likely to encounter it than tourists.

In England, I experienced everything from serious crime to fear of terrorist attacks. It was an era when people traveled into Central London with a certain trepidation lest the Provisional IRA had left another car bomb outside Harrods. It was also an era of unemployment, linked to rising crime.

Japan, too, despite its reputation for being safe and staid, offered dangers aplenty. I was in Tokyo when the Great Hanshin earthquake struck Kobe and pandemonium ensued. And, little did we expats suspect that just a few months later, we'd be coping with sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway. Several people perished in the station just down the street from where I lived, and there were warnings for several weeks afterwards about further attacks. That was pretty petrifying.

3) The old adage is true: the longer you stay in a place, the less you know about it.

Expats in Japan can relate.
Perhaps I'm exaggerating — memory has a way of distorting things — but I don't remember having many days as an expat when I wasn't baffled, beguiled, or confounded in some way.

England is the land of the lace curtain, something Agatha Christie, the Queen of Mystery, understood all too well. (Don't know about lace curtains? They permit you to see out while others can't see in...)

As for Japan, that's a country where most foreigners feel as though they've stepped through the looking glass because pretty much everything is the opposite of what they've experienced before. And unlike Alice, most do not emerge unscathed.

At about this point, you're probably thinking I've forgotten about how life overseas can be just as humdrum as it is back home. All I can say is: get with the program.

Chances are, if you're reading this post, you're the kind of expat who, if the going gets really rough, as it has in Libya right now, can expect to be rescued by your government in a plane or a boat.

So take it from me, your resident repat: time to own the aura of glamor, danger, and allure that goes hand-in-hand with a privileged expat existence.

And don't be afraid of looking like a fool when swanning around in your kimono or Scottish Highland kilt. The Tourist itself had pretensions of being a Hitchcock-style thriller, only to be lambasted by critics. Nevertheless, it got a Golden Globe nomination — in "comedy."

No shame in that, though I would expect your version, which will be entitled The Expat, to succeed in paying homage to Hitch, since you have the material. And you know the other good thing about that title? It anticipates the sequel: The Rex-Pat.

Now if that doesn't scream Oscar potential, I don't know what does.

Instant Poll: Which one gets your vote when it comes to thrills and glamor: tourist or expat?


Kym Hamer said...

One hand going straight up here for the expat vote....there's nothing like being a constant curiosity for stoking the embers of one's confidence and passion when expat times get a bit tough...

ML Awanohara said...


Thanks for the vote. I also like they way you put it: "There's nothing like being a constant curiosity." This suggests that expats should be playing their parts with a certain panache. I could not agree more! To refer back to the exchange we had on my George Eliot post, your expat years are the time to display your feathers, not sit on your tail!

As I'm writing this I'm reminded of the only mainstream film I can remember that had to do with expats--in Japan, as it happened: Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation.

To be honest, I never thought the Scarlett Johansson character was prime expat material. I mean, a bit of loneliness and depression is fine, esp in a culture as strange as Japan's. But all of that existential ennui--she should get over herself.

Not only that but she's staying in the Park Hyatt Tokyo. Many of us would give our eye teeth for that level of luxury!

I for one, have always been found in translation: a star is born (hahaha).

Jeffrey said...

I probably have more of insignificance to add later, but we were in NYC when the "Blind Sheik" and his crew tried to bring down the WTC. I was miles uptown in Morningside Heights, but the good wife was across the street in the World Financial Center. Their office faced the WTC Plaza and the bomb blast felt as if a plane had struck their building.

And, it was the tenth anniversary this month of the Nisqually Earthquake. It was only 6.8 on the Richter scale, but it you were in the wrong kind of building . . . We got off easily only losing a Bizen-yaki vase (I cried), which never should have been on the top shelf. At work, I spent the duration under my desk.

So, I think, especially since the '90s, that we face as much peril here as anyone in the Western world (and we have nothing to complain about when considering much of Latin American, Asia and Africa).

Finally, I agree with you that it would be such punishment to be forced to stay at the Park Hyatt (actually, we did once - the in-laws were paying).

ML Awanohara said...

@ Jeffrey
You've just reminded me of something that's been a constant thread in my life. Whenever I'm a tourist these days, something God-awful happens and I end up spending most of my time in the hotel watching CNN. I was in Crete when the Twin Towers were under attack, in Shanghai during the Asian Tsunami, and in New England during Katrina. I guess that's why I don't think much of the potential for tourists to have adventures.

ML Awanohara said...

p.s. I just now had the chance to watch the video of the Seattle quake, and I take your point about America offering ample dangers of its own, both natural and manmade (I'm remembering our Tucson discussion). It's just that for some unfathomable reason, more "stuff" seemed to happen to me while I was abroad. Call it an expat's luck!

I also think it was the first time I'd ever lived with the constant, nagging fears of terrorism (in London) and earthquakes (in Japan). Plus I didn't fully trust the authorities in either country in terms of their ability to respond--particularly in Japan, where the police struck me as being incompetent (turns out I was right about that!).

p.p.s. You've actually stayed at the Park Hyatt? You lucky thing! I've only had tea and drinks there. Oh, and I used the ladies room--now that was something to write home about (talk about elephants!).

Jeffrey said...

It was a treat all around. Ojii-chan and Obaa-chan insisted that our daughter, who was just a few months old at this point, go through a "christening" ceremony at Meiji-jingu. So they spiffed for the Park Hyatt. A special treat for us since we lived less than an hour away from the Harajuku area.

ML Awanohara said...

Oh, I just love the idea of playing high-class tourist in the place where you're already living as an expat. In my view, travel doesn't get any better than that! :-)

Happy Homemaker UK said...

You've touched on so many things I agree with, I don't even know where to begin! As I drive around lost in England, I always say, 'if I'm not lost, then I'm not in the UK!' I'd love it if you joined my Expat Linky Party on March 19th :)

4 kids, 20 suitcases and a beagle said...

I'd always rather be an expat (7 countries in 10 years) but having lived in LIbya and after watching recent events, I'm not sure I'm convinced my government will always be there to come and save me.


ML Awanohara said...

@Laura aka Happy Homemaker UK
Thanks so much for stopping by! I had a look at your blog, and I must say, I admire your energetic approach to trying to make sense of life in the UK. Most people in the U.S. have the impression that it's not all that different from the way we live over here. Well, they obviously haven't seen the elephant!

Another friend responded to his post by emailing me a link to a YouTube video of a stand-up comedy performance by American comedian Reginald D. Hunter, at London's Apollo Theatre. (I hadn't actually heard of him before, but apparently he's made a name for himself in the UK?)

I found him rather funny on the differences between American and British English, as well as senses of humor. I particularly liked his joke about how when a British person insults him, it takes him three weeks to figure it out!

Thanks for the invite to your Expat Linky Party. Are you sure I'm eligible even if I'm no longer an expat but an ex-expat, or an ex-rexpat (to be precise)? I'll see if I can figure it out...

ML Awanohara said...

p.s. to Laura: Forgot to say that you made me realize that one legacy of living in the UK as long as I did is that I actually enjoy getting lost to this day--I think because like you, I got lost so many times, I stopped panicking about it and went with the flow.

That's actually something I miss. The U.S., where most cities are new and on a grid, doesn't provide as many opportunities for getting hopelessly lost--except for in Greenwich Village. Thank goodness I live near there!

ML Awanohara said...

@ Kirsty aka Four kids, 20 suitcases, and a beagle:
With four kids and a canine, I can see you're holding up the side for the never-a-dull-moment expat life. Good on you!

(BTW, I've been thinking about doing a post advising repatriates to get dogs the moment they arrive back to their homelands. What is it like traveling with one?)

On Libya: I take your point that even Western governments may not succeed in rescuing all of their citizens.

But at least they are trying, by sending boats and planes.

Meanwhile, thousands of migrant workers--many of them illegal immigrants from Ghana and Nigeria--have been trapped on the outskirts of Tripoli with scant food and water, no international aid, and little hope of escape.

There was an article in today's New York Times explaining that these Africans are desperately poor people who got smuggled over Libya's border in hopes of getting jobs in its oil economy. They don't have passports. They can't afford plane tickets. They are getting robbed and beaten up. And their governments are doing very little. (Even Egyptian, Bangladeshi and Chinese migrant workers have found a way out...)

So I guess my point was that there are expats...and there are expats...and those who are the privileged kind should make the most of the fact that they can have (relatively innocent) adventures.

Kate said...

I think I need some time as a tourist. I've become entirely too comfortable as an expat. Some repat time required, perhaps? Just for a couple of weeks, as a tourist?

ML Awanohara said...

What a lovely thought, an expat being a tourist in her own country! I used to love coming back to the U.S. during my expat days. It was a all such a novelty, and I couldn't believe my luck in having family and friends to show me around and advise on where to go.

I was also open to meeting people in a way I was not when I lived here.

The key is to keep it short. Don't stay long enough for the old "you can't go home again" feeling to kick in.

Post a Comment