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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Blowing My Own Trumpet for a Change(!)

Elephants trumpeting,
courtesy Mr Thinktank
April showers and flowers are here. Robotayaki, the new kid on the East 9th St restaurant block, is holding an ohanami (cherry blossom viewing party), with a special koto performance, this week.

Meanwhile, I have a few green shoots of my own to report:

1) I have started up a collaborative blog with a couple of writers I met through Seen the Elephant. It's called The Displaced Nation. The tagline reads: "Welcome to the curious, unreal world occupied by the international traveler." We launched it on April 1 (no fooling!), and the response has been encouraging.

Detail from
The Displaced Nation banner
Among other items, The Displaced Nation features:
  • A serialized fictional diary of a housewife-mother in London who becomes a trailing spouse in Boston: "Libby's Life."
  • Expat interviews, highlighting favorite objects, foods, and words picked up on one's travels
. Our very first subject was Anita McKay, who has been a loyal follower of the lumbering elephant (she blogs at Finally Woken).
  • Food articles, exploring everything from acquired tastes (eg, Marmite, nattō) to movable feasts (foods you discover on your travels that you like so much, you carry on eating them).
  • Excerpts from classic expat writing.
I invite you to go in and take a look and, if you like what you see, subscribe to our posts, which are short and come out with frequency.

2) I'm building a new home for the elephant on Wordpress, which has more features. In other words, I don't intend to put my poor elephant, who has been burdened with my blogging ambitions for almost a year, out to pasture even though I'm spending time elsewhere. From now, he'll also be given a different sort of baggage to carry, more personal to me. If all goes well, the next time you see him he'll be ensconced in his new dwelling. Stay tuned for his "change of address" notice!

3) I had an interview about my nascent blogging efforts with a cool Web site, WWWORD bills itself as a "home for readers, writers, illiterates, browsers, time-wasters, mavens and bores — and all those who use, abuse, love and hate the English language."

One of the site's lead editors, Lucy Sisman, asked me why I'd started up Seen the Elephant and what I get out of blogging as an activity. The resulting profile strikes me as being more than anyone needed to know about me or this blog.

Still, I had a blast talking to Lucy and, in the process, became a fan of her writing. In the same week as my profile was published, Lucy contributed an "On Design" piece urging designers to leave certain products alone because their packaging is already perfect and has stood the test of time. She illustrated her point by taking objects at random from her kitchen cupboard — including a Marmite jar, a tin of Davis Baking Powder, and a can of Tuttorosso crushed tomatoes. Brilliant!

One of the main insights I offer on blogging is how difficult it is for writers to find their "sweet spot" in terms of length and frequency of posts. Seen the Elephant will be a year old next month, but I still don't post often enough and my posts are too long. Will that change in the coming year? Gaman shite iru (I will do my best).

Speaking of posts, my next post for Seen the Elephant will be on international marriage, a topic on which I fancy myself, a veteran of two such unions, something of an expert.

Question: Can you suggest any topics you'd like to see the "elephant" cover once it reaches its new home? Kindly let me know in the comments.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Rain in Seville ... Was Simply Marvelous, Says Ex-Expat of Andalusia

This wannabe full-time travel writer left her native Lancashire behind to study Spanish at Oxford University. After almost 10 years of alternating between Oxford and Spain, she has now repatriated to the UK, where the rain isn't quite the same.

Spain is such a popular tourist destination for English people. I'm guessing it must be a wildly different place to visit than to live. The majority of Brits see Spain as "sun, sea and sangria." They flock there in hopes of living a carefree, easy life full of fiesta followed by siesta. In the busy tourist enclaves of the Costa del Sol — literally, sunshine coast — surrounding Málaga, in the south, it is almost like "Britain on Sea," with English the dominant language and fried breakfasts as common as tapas on restaurant menus. Many Brits move out here for a relaxed life in the sun, but for those of us who move to a less touristy part of the country, the Spain we encounter is a world apart.

Were you ever one of those British tourists? I holidayed in Spain with my parents several times as a teenager, mostly on the Costa del Sol.

Is it true it's always sunny there? I'm remembering the phrase: "The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain..." Most of Spain's rain is in the northern mountains. But even in the south, I've been caught in downpours more than once. By the way, the Spanish translated the My Fair Lady lyrics as La lluvia en Sevilla es una maravilla ("The rain in Seville is marvelous...").

When you first went to Spain to live, I presume you steered clear of your compatriots, especially as you were there to practice language? I first moved to Spain in 2004 as required by my Spanish language degree course at Oxford. I applied to be an English Language Assistant in a secondary school, and although I could state which region of Spain I preferred, I couldn't be specific about the town they placed me in.

Where did you get posted? Alcalá de Guadaíra, a medium-sized town in the southwest, near Seville. With very few other international residents, Alcalá is hardly a traditional expat enclave.

How old were you then? Just 20. It was a little daunting. I was the first in my family to move abroad — or even contemplate it, as far as I know. I had no experience to draw on.

But you already spoke the language? To a certain extent. I wasn't very confident when speaking Spanish, and I had real difficulty understanding the Seville accent at first. Seville is the capital of the autonomous community of Andalusia, an area of southern Spain with many Moorish influences. The Andalusian dialect is famously difficult to get used to, even for Spaniards, as they don't pronounce some letters: mostly "s" and "d" in the middle or at the end of words.

So at this fairly young age, you lived by yourself in a small Spanish town where expats were a novelty. What hurdles did you face besides language? Alcalá was more relaxed and very family- and friends-orientated than what I was used to. It took me a while to adjust to the rhythms. Another challenge was the daily timetable: everything happens later in Spain than in the UK. People in Spain eat lunch from 2:00 p.m. onwards and dinner at around 10:00 p.m. I still remember the first time I went on a night out. My Spanish flatmate warned me that after a night of partying, it was typical to eat breakfast and then roll into bed at about 7:00 a.m. I was horrified and told her I’d be home at 2:00 a.m. Looking at my watch as I re-entered our flat, I realized she’d been right!

What did your students make of you? The boys all wanted to know what I thought about football players such as David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, while the girls wanted to know about the latest fashions. The idea of vintage horrified some of them, though: one student wrinkled her nose in horror at the thought of us British girls wearing second-hand underwear, until I reassured her that the trend didn’t go quite this far.

Soon-to-be-royal Kate graces cover
of Spain's leading gossip rag (3.3.11).
Do the Spanish have as many stereotypes of Brits as Brits do about them? Of course. Their more positive images of us include la puntualidad inglesa (English punctuality). The images I’m less keen to associate myself with are of hooliganism and drunken partying. Many people asked me if it rains all the time and if we all sit down for a cup of tea at 3:00 p.m. every afternoon. More serious questions are about politics and the Royal Family, who are almost as famous in Spain as they are in Britain, for some reason.

Did you make Spanish friends in Alcalá? Yes, because the vast majority of the town’s population is Spanish. That said, it took me a couple of months to make friends, as it was difficult to socialize by myself in places where I might meet people. Eventually, one of my older students befriended me, and I got to know the rest of her crowd.

Can you tell me any stories that help to illustrate fundamental Spain-UK differences? I call these Blind Men's Tales of seeing the elephant. One "sees" the ears and another "sees" the trunk, and so on. Compared to British people, Spanish people draw the line in a different place about what is considered rude. They see — and comment on — the entire elephant when it comes to one's appearance. It took me a while to get used to being stared at and looked at up and down in public. One of my students once asked me whether I didn’t like Spanish food because I’d lost weight: quite flattering but untrue. Another time my male Spanish flatmate enquired whether, after an attempt to style my new short haircut, I was going to "go out with my hair like that." Much less flattering, and needless to say, I didn’t.

Puntillitas (fried squid),
a typical Andalusian tapa,
courtesy Wikimedia
One of the biggest thrills of travel is the chance to try out new foods. You lucked out in being posted to Andalusia, which is renowned for its tapas and especially seafood. Did you develop any new favorite eats? I'm a pescetarian, meaning I eat fish but not meat. However, before moving to Alcalá I would only eat white fish prepared without any of the "nasty bits" such as the eyes and tail. The friends I made in Alcalá insisted that I enlighten my tastebuds. By the time I left, fried andaluz-style fish (pescaito frito) had become one of my favorite dishes, and I now love squid, prawns and other seafood. Oh, and I grew to love olive oil on toast, something that causes great bemusement now that I'm back in England.

If you had to design a meal that blends your favorite British and Spanish dishes, what items would you choose? Maybe cazón en adobo (fried dogfish in a sort of pickled marinade) with British-style chunky chips — the perfect Spanglish fish and chips!

Returning to your story: you went back to live in Spain for a second time after finishing university? I returned in 2008 and lived in Seville for three months. Then I moved to Madrid, where I lived for a year. I saw a different side of Spain in these cities. Unfortunately, I also found it more difficult to strike up friendships with Spanish people — especially in Madrid, where I worked for a bilingual company.

When did you start up your blog Tales of a Brit Abroad? About six months into my time in Madrid. At first the readers were just my friends, but I soon found a broader audience among the expat community.

Christ Church Meadow, taken by Kate
for her Travel Belles article
And I believe you also write for some other travel sites? I started writing for a travel site for women, called Travel Belles, shortly after starting my blog. My contributions include a two-part series on my life in Seville and a piece about Oxford. The latter marked the first time I'd written about the city that’s been my home on and off for almost a decade. As I was living in Madrid at the time, I can detect my own nostalgia in it. I also write freelance for Rough Guides when I can.

And now you're no longer a Brit abroad. When did you return to the UK? In July of last year, for a job opportunity. It wasn’t an easy decision. It had taken me a while to adjust to the faster pace of life in Madrid, but once I did, I grew to love the life I had there.

Rainy and deserted London,
courtesy renaissancechambara
What were your first impressions upon coming back to the UK again: were there any elephants in the room that weren’t there before? Leaving Madrid at the height of summer for a relatively cold and rainy London was quite a shock to the system. I had to fight my instincts to book the first flight back to Spain. It was also my first time living in London, which didn’t help. Everyone in London seemed in more of a rush than in Madrid and hence less friendly and communicative. Even though both are capital cities, London is bigger and more stressful to navigate. In Madrid I spent a lot more time just walking around the city, even at night. It felt safe because so many Spanish people were out and about for the paseo, dining with their families until late. I also missed Madrid's lower cost of living, its more efficient public transport system, and the excellent coffee.

I see you've started up a new blog called This Reluctant Londoner. Well, I'm not reluctant in every way. I like being closer to my loved ones in the UK. In fact, the time I spent in Spain made me appreciate my British family and friends far more, as I saw how much the Spanish treasure these relationships. I'm also glad to have the British print media and TV easily within reach. And, as I report on my new blog, I've been enjoying the UK’s more diverse culinary offerings. One more factor is that I recently moved to Oxford for work and am feeling more settled. If this pattern continues, I might have to rename the blog to "This Contented Oxford Resident."

Meanwhile, you're keeping Tales of a Brit Abroad alive by interviewing other young Brits about their expat adventures. I'm not actually interviewing them but asking them to write about their experiences, good and bad, in their own words. I've learned a lot from these guest posts — not only about life in other countries, but also about how other people look at the expat life, which strikes me as being a highly individual experience.

I noticed that you also posted some stories of your recent travels to Singapore and Malaysia. Do I detect that you might be a Brit abroad again before long and if so, where? I enjoyed the Far East, but I have to say that Spain is the country with the strongest draw for me — I’m sure I’ll live there again someday. For now, though, I’m trying to settle in Britain and establish a career. Ask me again in a couple of years ...

Would you say you've become a hybrid personality, not quite all British and not quite all Spanish? The challenge of moving to another country by yourself really forces you out of your comfort zone, and some people choose to embrace that and make the most of their time abroad, getting to know as much as they can about the culture and seeing all that they can. I like to think I did that and, in the process, became not more Spanish but more confident and open minded. The Spanish way of being more open and approachable rubbed off on me too, and I now find it easier to meet people and make friends than I did before. On the other hand, I'm pleased I left Spain with my la puntualidad inglesa intact. I have yet to adopt Spain’s more casual approach to time-keeping...

Elephants at the Madrid Zoo,
courtesy Ludo29980
Last but not least, did you see any elephants in Spain? I guess you didn't see bulls as you're a pescetarian? Even though bullfighting originated in Andalusia... No, no bull fights for me. And I saw just one elephant — in a zoo in Madrid. It didn't look very happy, though.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Before, During and After Shocks: A Former Expat Reacts to Japan's Superquake

One of several broken picture frames
in our niece's Tokyo apartment,
just after the quake.
March 11, 2011, 6:00 a.m., New York City. My husband's cell phone rings super early and I wake up. I assume it's his work colleague in Tokyo, calling about the story they are is writing on whether Japan's prime minister will be forced to resign over the latest political funding scandal.

Unusually for me, I can't get back to sleep. I get up and go over to my husband at his computer and ask: "So is Prime Minister Kan stepping down?"

"No, no." Looking over his shoulder, he seems a little surprised to see me. "There's been an earthquake in Japan. A big one."

"Does that mean Kan is saved?" I have a one-track mind, and besides, I'm not really awake, not fully taking things in.

"Saved by the earthquake...for now."

I stagger over to my computer, and the earthquake news starts rolling over me, in waves as big as a tsunami. OMG, can this really be happening?

I turn on CNN. Yes, it's happening. Not only that, but it looks like Japan has just had the kind of earthquake I dreaded for all those years when living in Tokyo.

As I take in the scenes of devastation, part of me breathes a huge sigh of relief. I wasn't there! For me, earthquakes were the biggest wrinkles on the Japan elephant, one of the features of life in that part of the world that I could never quite get used to.

Just as pressure kept building under the plates of the earth's crust that lie beneath the Japan Islands, pressure kept building inside the worry-wart region of my brain: how would I cope if the next really big earthquake struck? (Question inside my question: What was a nice East Coast girl like me doing in an earthquake-prone country like this?)

But relief at having escaped that fate is quickly followed by guilt. Why am I thinking about myself rather than others less fortunate?

The people who've lost their lives or loved ones.

The people who are still alive but surrounded by water and debris with no way out.

The people who made it to makeshift shelter but are desperate for food, water and heating...

Photo of Matsushima Bay,
courtesy Wikimedia
I'm thinking of the victims and I'm also thinking of places. Years ago, I went to Sendai on a company trip when I was working for a Japanese advertising agency. Sendai is of course the city in Japan that was closest to the quake's epicenter. It bore most of the brunt of the tsunami.

My work colleagues and I spent a pleasant morning touring nearby Matsushima Bay, ranked as being one of Japan's most famous sights for its many small islands (shima) covered in pine trees (matsu).

The sea looked so tranquil on that day. Never in a million years did I imagine it would one day generate huge waves that would pummel the Japanese coastline.

Our word "tsunami" comes from Japanese. I guess I should have known better?

The Ghost of Earthquakes Past

The last major earthquake in the Tokyo area was the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 (7.9). It claimed 140,000 lives, mainly from firestorms. The quake took place in the middle of the day, when many people were cooking rice. Fire spread rapidly due to high winds from a nearby typhoon.

According to seismologists, such major quakes are periodic, occurring every sixty years or so. For the past 25 years, they've been predicting another big quake along a major plate boundary southwest of Tokyo, which like its 1923 predecessor, is likely to devastate Tokyo, Yokohama, and Shizuoka.

No one was therefore expecting the Great Hanshin or Kobe earthquake (7.3) of 1995. I was living in Tokyo at the time and remember watching in disbelief as some 200,000 buildings collapsed, along with much of the city's transportation infrastructure. The death toll rose to more than 6,000. Some 26,000 were injured.

Likewise, no one was expecting a massive quake in the northeastern part of Honshu, which like Kobe was not considered one of the island's most vulnerable areas. The Sendai earthquake occurred in a subduction zone, where the Pacific tectonic plate slides beneath the North American one. The plate boundary off the coast of Sendai may not have suffered a rupture like this for more than 1,000 years.

Earthquake Drill!

ARK Mori Building, Tokyo
Even in Tokyo, which was far from the epicenter, the March 11 quake struck hard, with buildings "swaying like trees in a breeze" as one American visitor put it.

Hearing such accounts brings back vivid memories of my own time in the city.

"ML-san, you go first!" my Japanese colleagues cry. We are standing on the plaza next to the ARK Mori Building, the 37-floor office building near the Roppongi area of Tokyo, participating in a mandatory earthquake drill. Our task is to make our way through a tent where they've simulated the kind of fire that might take place in the wake of a catastrophic earthquake.

The next thing I know, I am on my hands and knees, trying to feel out the edges of tent. I can't see anything, the smoke is so thick.

Later I tell off my colleagues for putting me in such a frightening, humiliating position. They laugh and say it was for my own good.

Around this time, I decide I don't like working in a skyscraper. Every time we have a tremor, the building sways, and I get seasick — and suffer from severe headaches for about a week afterwards.

Japanese earthquake kit,
courtesy Mr Wabu (Flickr)
After this drill I seriously consider getting an earthquake kit, with transistor radio, bottled water, flashlight and so on.

In the end, I don't bother with the kit, but I do get a small flashlight that I keep in my purse, as a kind of talisman to ward off the Big One.

Minor Tremors Can Be Fun

Upon learning of Japan's monster quake, I reflect, as I have countless times before, on what a difference a few shindo (seismic intensity, literally "degree of shaking") can make. Believe it or not, little earthquakes can be fun.

I'm thinking all the way back to my first sojourn in Japan, on a research exchange in Yokosuka, about 31 miles south of Tokyo.

I've just come home from a drinking night with some Japanese friends. I fall asleep as soon as my head touches the futon on the tatami mat floor.

I awaken around 3:00 a.m., noticing the pendant lamp on the ceiling swaying around.

Am I still drunk, or is this my first earthquake?

If the latter, it's not as bad as I thought.

Fast forward to several years later, and I am lying in bed in my apartment in central Tokyo. It's again around 3:00 a.m., and the building is shaking like crazy.

I try to picture myself heading out to the local shelter dressed in a nightgown and with my hair in curlers. "Just not happening!" I turn on my side and go back to sleep, an expression of amusement on my face.

Even during the daytime, the little ones can be fun. They are a conversation piece (where were you when it happened?) and a meeting stopper/interrupter, something office workers relish as a break in their routines.

There's also a practical reason for liking the less serious tremblors. The more little earthquakes you have, the less likely a big one is. Pressure is being released instead of building.

My Only Big Earthquake Experience, and a Moderate One at That

When God-awful things happen to innocent people, other human beings can find it traumatizing as well. They tend to relive emotions from similar, or even remotely similar, events in their own lives.

This time, because I actually lived in Japan, I'm replaying in my head my first scary quake, even though it doesn't in any way approach the scariness of the March 11 quake, the largest in Japan in recorded history.

I'm back in Yokosuka, sitting in a packed-out medical clinic, the only non-Japanese in the room.

I know only a few words of Japanese and am feeling a little intimidated, especially as I'm surrounded by people all of whom seem to be staring at me.

Actually, I can't really blame them. Most of the Americans who live around here belong to the U.S. naval base. They have their own doctors. That makes me an oddity in a public health clinic.

Eventually, my name is called, and I find myself in one of the doctor's cubicles. His desk is rather cluttered, and he, too, looks disheveled. I wonder if he's overworked and underpaid? He says he doesn't speak much English. I say I don't speak much Japanese.

Just at this moment, the room begins to shake. Nurses start running back in forth, and I hear some of the patients in the waiting room screaming "Jishin!"

"Earthquake?" I venture to the doctor. (Talk about learning language in context!)

He is sitting back in his chair, with his eyes closed, looking very Zen.

"Yes, earthquake," he says very slowly in English.

"Um...should we get under the desk?" The books on the shelf above us are rattling. I don't fancy a medical tome falling on my head.

"It's...okay," he says, and at that very moment, the shaking, which has been gaining in intensity, subsides.

Later I find out it was a moderate earthquake (6.7), and I congratulate myself for having the good sense not to take the pedestrian flyover when walking back home from the doctor's.

The Morning after the Tohoku Kantō Great Earthquake

March 12, 2011. I wake up today thinking about how much I admire the Japanese people for their gaman, or stoicism, in the face of major disaster.

So many of them are reacting to this catastrophic event with dignity and calm. Even more incredibly, some in the Sendai region are already hard at work clearing out the mud and rubble from their homes and other properties.

As for me, I'm starting to fret again. What if this earthquake is just the prelude to another, bigger one, as happened so recently in New Zealand?

Seismologists by their own admission are appallingly bad at predicting where and when the next deadly quake will strike, let alone the conditions that will produce a tsunami. I'm now thinking we should implore our family and friends in Japan to consider living somewhere other than the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Perhaps I'm overreacting? Moving is no guarantee against being blindsided by disaster, whether natural or man-made.

Speaking of which, Japan's natural disaster appears to have precipitated a manmade one, as officials now presume that partial meltdowns have occurred at two nuclear power plants. (Will horrors never cease?)

But back to my main point: no one here in NYC anticipated 9/11. Who's to say another place will necessarily prove safer?

Still, there is something a little creepy about not being able to trust the earth beneath one's feet.

And what about the water? I am remembering the waters of Matsushima again, so blissfully tranquil that even the famed Edo poet Matsuo Bashō was at a loss for words.

And now it's our turn to be nonplussed. In the battle of Man vs. Nature, it can be hard to remember that Nature holds a lot more cards. Or to put it in terms of this blog's central metaphor: don't be seduced by the elephant's majesty!

Question: Where were you when you heard about Japan's big quake, and what were your first reactions and thoughts?

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?

Thursday, February 24, 2011

After 9 Years, Expat Accordionist Squeezes into Asia's Music Scene


This Uzbek-born Russian has seen the "elephant" twice — first in his native Russia and now in Korea. Meanwhile, he has introduced Koreans and other Asians to another bellower: the accordion.

When did you realize that you wanted to be an accordionist when you grew up? My mother and her twin sister both play the accordion, so it's been part of my life ever since I can remember. When I tried to play myself at age 6, it came naturally. It's the only thing I've ever excelled at. My only doubt was about whether I could make my living as an accordion player. Fortunately, I persisted.

Piano & button accordions,
courtesy Wikimedia Commons
This may not be true in Russia, but when people hear the word "accordionist" in the West, they tend to picture a wandering minstrel accompanied by a monkey who passes around a tin cup. Part of what I do is educating people that the accordion isn't just polka and the kind of folk music a busker might play. There are two basic types: the button accordion and the piano accordion. The former has its origins in Russian folk music, while the latter was patented in Vienna in 1829. I chose to learn the piano accordion because that is what my mother and aunt played, and I fell in love with the sound.

What was it about the sound that captured your fancy? Because it has bellows as well as reeds, the accordion can make a sound reminiscent of the human voice. It has breath, it has timbre, it has a soulful tone. The other thing I like is the accordion's versatility. It can play in the highest registers or the lowest, loud or soft. An accordionist can be a soloist or an accompanist. He or she can play any style of music, be it classical, jazz, rock, or folk. I often refer to my instrument as a portable mini-orchestra.

On that note, let's hear you play:

You were born in Uzbekistan, one of the five so-called Stans of Central Asia, which achieved their independence from the Soviet Union when you were around 15 years old. Is it fair to say that experience made you something of a crazy mixed-up kid? I was born in one place, Uzbekistan, but can't live in it, and I can live in in another place, Russia, but it doesn't feel like home. The situation was, and remains, crazy for me, yes.

But you were lucky insofar as Russia provides top-notch musical training. Russia places the accordion is on the same level as violin, requiring 14 years of rigorous training. My mother gave me lessons when I was very small. She enrolled me in music school in Uzbekistan when I was around nine years old. After five years, it was time to go to music college. I went to Kazakhstan for that phase, after which I went to Russia for five years of additional study at the Ural State Conservatory. So, yes, I'm well trained!

Why do you think you found it so challenging to adjust to life in Russia? I first moved to Russia at age 20. The people seemed insensitive and thicker skinned compared to what I was used to, and the country itself was unwelcoming. Even though I'm Russian, I had to wait until I'd graduated from the conservatory before I could obtain citizenship and sponsor my mother and sister to come over. They now live in Yekaterinburg, on the eastern side of the Ural Mountains, but not me. I jumped on a plane the day after graduation.

To go where? I went to Korea. Just before graduating, I'd heard that Lotte World in Seoul, the world's largest indoor theme park — it's in the Guinness Book — was holding auditions. I often played in a duo with one of my fellow students. I asked her if she wanted to try out with me. The first thing she said was: "Where's Seoul?" And now she's married to a Korean with two kids!

Did you know where Seoul was? Yes, but I didn't know how much I would love it there, too. Signing on with Lotte World was an easy way to travel to Korea. Everything was taken care of: our transport, visa, housing...

SUPER SCARY: An elephant
in Lotte World
When you got to Lotte World, did you see any elephants? As a matter of fact, I saw one right away in the Jungle Safari. It was huge, with a moving head, and was making some rather scary trumpeting noises.

What was your first impression of Seoul? I felt at home there straight away, which is quite remarkable considering I could speak neither English nor Korean when I first arrived.

And now you speak both? I try to.

How did you learn? I taught myself. Think about it. I couldn't attend a language school for English as you had to know Korean, and the same thing for Korean-language schools: I had to know English. As my English improved, I attended the weekly English classes given by the Mormon Church, which I found very helpful. (We always said a short prayer at the end, but they didn't try and convert me.)

(courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
Why do you think you took to Korean life so quickly? One reason is the weather. The area near the Ural Mountains where I lived with my mother and sister goes down to -40 °C in the winter. Seoul is much milder and has four distinct seasons. And because of my background, I was already familiar with Korean food. There's an ethnic Korean community in Uzbekistan. When they were forcibly relocated to the region from the Soviet Far East under Stalin, they brought their kimchi with them. Russian call it chimcha.

Did the Koreans respond well to your music? That's another reason I adjusted so quickly. We musicians speak with our souls, and the audience responds with its heart. Koreans have big hearts. They love live music and feel it very deeply. Also, because Korean society appreciates music, professional musicians receive fair compensation.

MAJOR MILESTONE: Alex's first CD. Also check out
his new Web site:
You've been living in Korea for nearly a decade. Is the grass still greener? My nine years in Seoul have gone by in a flash. For the past seven years, I've been building my career as an independent musician. I've played stadiums, concert halls, dive bars and jim-jill-bangs [Korean bathhouses]. Normally I play solo, but I also have a tango quartet, Coamorous. And sometimes I play in a Russian folk band with balalaikas. I made my first CD, Here & There, a few months ago: it features my own arrangements of world-famous pop songs and some Russian hits. I also teach, mostly to private students. One more regular activity of mine is acting on Korean TV: I'm on a weekly "true or false" show.

Ah, you're what the Japanese call a talento! As you were describing your life in Korea, I was thinking that in addition to your seeing the elephant in terms of new adventures, you've also brought an elephant with you for the Koreans to ogle at, by which I mean your music and your talent. After nine years, has Korea come to appreciate this? I can safely say I've made the accordion more popular in Korea than it was when I first arrived. It helps that I have my own YouTube channel, by my stage name of Alex Acco, with more than 250 videos of my concerts. The Internet has also helped me extend my network throughout Asia. I've been invited to play gigs in Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, China and Indonesia. When I went to Taiwan, I was greeted at the airport by some fans carrying an accordion.

Asians are famously proficient at Western instruments like violin, piano, and flute. But not the accordion. My instrument won't become big in the region until Asian countries decide to support accordion-learning at the level of the state-run music academy.

Are any Asian countries doing that? China is beginning to. A leading music conservatory in Beijing has recruited Russia's top accordion teacher. He reports that the Chinese students have a very good attitude. They follow instructions and are very disciplined.

Will you ever leave Korea? I've been asking myself that question a lot lately. I am 33 years old. I'm not really Russian, but I'm also not Korean. I think that if you live in one place for a while, you should be rewarded with something more than just being able to call the place home. I will always be a foreigner in Korea.

But where would you go, especially as you clearly have no desire to rejoin the Russian herd? I'd prefer an English-speaking country. I've been thinking about Canada but my visa application got turned down twice.

Out of curiosity, what is the accordion scene like in the United States? Actually pretty good. Many people play the piano accordion as well as the squeezebox (the Mexican version). There's an American Accordionists Association (AAA) that organizes annual concerts and events. And my idol in the accordion world is legendary jazz accordionist Art Van Damme. He died a year ago this month, age 89, but was going strong almost to the end.

WHITE RED ELEPHANT: Alex's treasured Hyundai
One more question that I've asked of all of the blog's interviewees. Have you collected any of what I call Treasured White Elephants, which you'll take with you when you eventually leave Korea? Well, I don't regard it as a white elephant since it helps me earn a living, but I do have a precious Hyundai accordion, which will accompany me wherever I go next.

As a traveler myself, I envy you your musical talent. It gives you an entree wherever you go. Music is an international language. It doesn't require translation. Regardless of where I end up, I can be happy as long as I can play my music and have the chance to share it with others. The accordion has given me great joy every day of my life, and when I have the chance to transmit this feeling to an audience, I am in my element. It doesn't get any better than that.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Of Eliot, Elephants, and Expat Mascots

Valentine's Day is upon us. But before gushing about my beloved el-e-phant and all it means to me, I want to talk El-i-ot, as in George: another extraordinary creature with a prominent schnoz. She is coming to mean a lot to me, too.

Somehow I missed out on the works of George Eliot (the nom de plume of Mary Anne Evans, later Marian Evans) when I was a student.

As an expat in England, I lived in fear that someone would someday expose this lacuna. I tried to make up for it by faithfully watching all the episodes of the BBC adaptations of Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss.

But I still didn't pick up the books.

Years later, I am back in the United States and, Kindle in hand, have decided there can be no more excuses, especially as Eliot's oeuvre can be downloaded for free. While I have yet to tackle Middlemarch, I'm now halfway through The Mill on the Floss.

And I've already made some significant discoveries.

For all these years, I've missed out on Maggie Tulliver — a lively and free-spirited child, as smart as a whip, said to be based on Eliot herself. As the daughter of the man who owns the mill on the River Floss, Maggie is the novel's protagonist.

I've also missed out on an exchange that could have enhanced my understanding of why people travel.

Courtesy The Dunktionary
I refer to the scene toward the start of the novel when Maggie pesters her father's head miller, Luke, to tell her whether he's read any books apart from the Bible. He confirms he hasn't, so she offers to lend him one of her picture books, called Pug's Tour of Europe:
...that would tell you all about the different sorts of people in the world, and if you didn't understand the reading, the pictures would help you; they show the looks and ways of the people, and what they do. There are the Dutchmen, very fat, and smoking, you know, and one sitting on a barrel.
When Luke owns up to having a low opinion of Dutchmen, Maggie says: "But they're our fellow-creatures, Luke; we ought to know about our fellow-creatures."
Animated Nature, by William Bingley
(available from Google Books)
Seeing that Luke has not been swayed by her appeal, Maggie wonders if he might like to take a glance at Animated Nature instead:
...that's not Dutchmen, you know, but elephants and kangaroos, and the civet-cat, and the sunfish, and a bird sitting on its tail — I forget its name. There are countries full of those creatures, instead of horses and cows, you know. Shouldn't you like to know about them, Luke?
To which Luke responds that he "can't do wi' knowin' so many things besides my work" as that's what "brings folks to the gallows."

Now, I have to hand it to Maggie. For a youth who has spent her short life in the provincial St. Ogg's, she really knows her onions. She understands the basic reasons why people might venture to other places: to see and get to know their fellow-creatures.

Plus can I hear Eliot gently mocking us by insinuating that we sometimes conflate our fellow humans with strange animals? ...

Hang on a second, a kid is tugging on my arm. Goodness, it's the insatiably curious Maggie. She says she has a question for me:
Why an elephant, ML? Why not a kangaroo or a civet-cat, which are also featured in Animated Nature?

I'm not used to interacting with fictional characters, but what the heck, makes a change from talking to myself:
Maggie, you have a point.

Like the elephant, the civet is native to Africa and Asia, two continents that remain inscrutable to many of us Westerners.

And the first Europeans who saw kangaroos did not know what to make of a creature that has a head like a deer but without the antlers, and that stands on two legs like a human but hops around like frog. They could come up with only one word for it: "astonishing."

Wait, there's another voice cutting in. No way: it's GEORGE!!! She's saying she has a question for me, too:
As you know from making it halfway through The Mill on the Floss, Maggie has a strange and twisted relationship with her doll. Could it be that you, too, have an elephant toy or figurine to which you have a preternatural attachment? Perhaps you keep it hidden in your attic ...

ML's elephant collection
Ahem, George, I haven't got an attic, but I suppose you might mean metaphorically?

I don't mind telling you that I've collected a number of elephant objects, but only since the launch of this Web log last year. I find one or two of them colorful or cute, but that hardly qualifies as an elephant fixation.

Besides, I've met people who are far more elephant besotted than I am: Véronique Martin-Place or Beth Lang, for instance.

And then there's Ona Filloy, a New Zealander who lives in a Victorian house in Brisbane. She and I have exchanged several messages about her elephant curios: a magnificent ebony-and-ivory elephant head and lamp ...

Oh, wait. George is looking impatient. She wants to ask another question:
Then why, perchance, did you settle upon the elephant as your mascot for experiencing life in other parts of the world?

Hmmm... For such a formidable intellect, I find her a bit nosy (hahaha). Still, let's see if I can impress her:
George, I thought you'd never ask!

I could give lots of reasons, but here are three you should find compelling:

1) By reviving the expression "seeing the elephant," I'm hoping to put the trials and tribulations of the modern-day traveler in perspective.

You see, today we have the luxury of traveling in vehicles that fly even faster than birds. But even though this makes life so much easier, we are constantly grumbling about it.

We forget that our counterparts in your century, who came up with the expression "seeing the elephant," had it so much worse.

I'll give you two quick examples:

1. Emigrants who set out for California. Perhaps there are some 21st-century adventurers who would prefer to dine with the Donner party than have Christmas dinner in an airport because of flight delays, but I haven't encountered them yet. The Donner party is, of course, just one among many who trekked some 2,000 miles across continent in the mid-1800s in hopes of seeing the elephant. But they are distinguished for their botched attempt at taking a "shortcut" to California, only to get trapped in the frozen wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. (No, you don't want to know what they ate!)

Print of an original painting: "Antietam,"
by Thure de Thulstrup, courtesy The Old Print Shop
2. Young men who fought in the U.S. Civil War. The expression "seeing the elephant" has a secondary meaning of seeing battle for the first time. If today's soldiers could time-travel onto the battlefield of Antietam, the scene of the most brutal hand-to-hand combat in U.S. history, don't you think they'd appreciate their unmanned aerial vehicles even more?

2) The elephant, with its massive size and theatricality, is the perfect symbol for why most of us travel.

As Maggie intimates when she offers Luke her picture books, most of us go abroad because we yearn to see great sights and to be entertained.

As the largest land animal, the elephant is symbolic of that yearning.
It represents the kind of fear-laced excitement most of us will never experience unless we seek it out, which, for most of us unimaginative types, entails venturing to points unknown.

Today we no longer approve of training elephants for circuses. But the same qualities that made the elephant such a successful performer for Astley's Royal Amphitheatre in Lambeth — intelligence, personality, and a certain quirkiness — are also on display in the wild.

Audrey Delsink, who has observed many an African elephant, has a favorite story she likes to tell about a proud elephant bull. She and several others were sitting in a land rover [a kind of horseless carriage] watching as Charles (that's what they called him) tried, but failed, to push over a large tree. Charles looked up, saw them laughing at him, and walked over and pushed a smaller tree right down on top of their car! Delsink claims he then sauntered off with a toss of his head and a self-satisfied swagger.

Notably, the only other animal on Maggie's list that can hold a candle to the elephant in these respects is the ocean sunfish, which with an average adult weight of 2,200 pounds, is the world's largest known bony fish.

But as I think as you can see from watching this little movie (yes, we now have moving pictures!), its antics are less than enthralling:

3) The elephant is super trendy nowadays.

George, welcome to the era where actors, actresses, musicians, sportspeople and other popular entertainers are the new Greek gods. We call them celebrities ("celebs" for short).

Right now among the celebs, elephants are all the rage. Here are some recent examples:

1. Elephants keep turning up at celebrity nuptials. At the end of last year, a celebrity couple included an elephant with an elaborate headdress in their wedding celebration in Los Angeles (the closest thing we have to a Mt. Olympus, which isn't very close since it's terribly flat).

Said couple weren't the first — another pair tied the knot with elephants and camels a few months before them; nor will they be the last.

A celebrity super couple — think of them as our Aphrodite and Ares — are rumored to be planning a Hindu-style wedding to take place this year in Jodhpur, India. Will the groom ride in on an elephant? Ladbrokes in London is offering 10-1 odds.

Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
2. An elephant is reputed to have bonded very closely with a celebrity heart-throb. A young deity with the face and reputation of Eros says he accepted the lead role in a movie called Water for Elephants because he fell head over heels with his co-star: a 9,000-lb. elephant named Tai.

George, I know you are thinking: so what? There's no reason we mortals should feel compelled to mimic these gods and their frivolities. (This blog even has its own label for that: Dumbo Culture.)

But George, hear me out. You Victorians took for granted your ivory cutlery handles, musical instruments, billiard balls, and other items. Little did you know the toll it was taking on the elephant population. Allow me to share a chilling statistic: in 1831, ivory consumption in Great Britain amounted to the deaths of nearly 4,000 elephants.

George, the sad truth is that as a result of the fashion for ivory, the elephant population is now at risk.

But several celebs are doing their best to change that. One or two of them have recently adopted elephants in support of their conservation.

But I digress. My real reason for applauding the celebs and their predilection for the pachyderm is a matter of self-preservation: I'm hoping to get a celebrity endorsement for this blog.

On that note, and without further ado, I offer my valentine to the elephant. (Yes, George, we still celebrate Valentine's Day, despite dropping the "saint.")
So, George, what do you think of my reasoning? ... Yoo-hoo, George, ayt? ... George, please come back! Was it something I said: about the ivory, about your proboscis? I promise to get cracking on Middlemarch to atone ...

Question: So now it's your turn! Do you think the mascot for expats, rex-pats, and repats should be:
a) an elephant
b) another creature ____________
c) a range of creatures, as in Maggie's book.
Extra credit: Name the bird in Maggie's book that "sits on its tail."

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?