Recent Posts

Friday, July 30, 2010

Time to Define Seeing the Elephant/Cornerstone #1A

To those who found my first cornerstone post, Time to Define Seeing the Elephant, a little daunting, I have just one thing to say: Lend me a tenor! (No, not a tenner, though that would be nice.) I'm talking about the play by Ken Ludwig that was revived on Broadway this spring under the direction of Stanley Tucci.

For some audience members, the highlight of Lend Me a Tenor is the epilogue. It recounts, in roughly 90 seconds — and zero spoken words — the action you’ve just spent two-and-a-half hours watching. As one critic put it, this "lightning-quick version" serves as the "breathless icing on an already hilarious cake."

Now the blogging medium is such that I can't do zero words, let alone extreme hilarity. But I can at least offer several breathless alternatives that might go down a little easier. Take your pick among the:
1) Reader's Digest version (C'mon now: just 229 words!)
2) Twitter version (Even better: 115 characters!)
3) Movie trailer version (For those who live in a visual world...)
4) Crib notes version (It's all in the labels.)

Reader's Digest Version (229 words)

What is the "theme" of the blog, sort of "adventures of expats and former expats"? No, not exactly, especially if we're using "expat" in a very limited sense to mean a person who is sent to a country through his or her place of work. Rather, this blog is interested in recording observations about what makes people uproot themselves from their native lands. I want to dig down and ask: what made you, unlike most of the other people you grew up with, a candidate for detaching yourself from your native identity to try your luck in a far-off place?

You don't have to be like the 19th-century farmer who went in search of pachyderms at the circus, though that might not be a bad idea as elephants are remarkable creatures. But you do have to go in hopes of broadening your horizons to include sights as exotic as an elephant, and be willing to run the risk of disappointment ("wrinkles and all"). More often than not, however, the experience of "seeing the elephant" fosters tolerance, and even affection, for the culture you are immersed in.

We who have seen the elephant should never forget how privileged we are to travel by choice. And once you've seen an elephant or two, it no longer matters where you physically live: it becomes a state of mind that you carry around.

Twitter Version (115 characters)

Adventurers travel to see exotic sights, or "elephants." They come home again as philosophers.

Movie Trailer Version


A YOUNG WOMAN stands at the entrance to the airport security gates with her MOTHER and FATHER. She is dressed in jeans and a tee shirt that says "Elephant or Bust."

Oh, why can't you just go to the zoo?

Ma, do we have to go through this again?

Take care, baby. Come back in one piece!

And so begins a classic adventure of Seeing the Elephant.


The dawn of a new day… in a new place…

An ELEPHANT lumbers into the field. Then the YOUNG WOMAN appears, wearing a sun hat and sunglasses and carrying a backpack. 

As she approaches the elephant, she tears off her hat and glasses and hurls her backpack to the ground.

Oh my God, oh my God, an elephant? I've been on the road forever, just to see you!

How do I measure up? Worth the journey?

The Young Woman circles the animal, taking in its ears, tusks, trunk, sides, tail.

But our young heroine must now face three difficult questions, beginning with: Is the grass any greener?

Actually, you're a little wrinkly.

She squats down on the ground next to the elephant, running her hand through the grass.

But the grass here, it really is greener. By the way, do you creatures eat anything besides roots?

Second: Can she get to know and love the elephant, wrinkles and all? 


Six BLIND MEN surround an elephant as a WISE MAN looks on. The Young Woman enters as each of the blind men is touching a different part of the beast — the side, the tusk, the trunk, the knee, the ear, and the swinging tail — and arguing about what they think the elephant looks like.

Is it a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, or a rope? It is all and none of these things...

Now what are they wittering on about?

And third: Can she defy Thomas Wolfe and go home again?


The Young Woman sits on sofa in her parents' house

The Elephant is also in the room, visible only to the Young Woman.

The girl's father comes in, picks up the remote control and switches on a video of Walt Disney's Dumbo.

Hey, does that make you feel at home?

The girl's mother comes in carrying a tray with cups of tea. The Young Woman reaches into her backpack and takes out a box, offering it to her dad.

I brought something back for you guys. It's tree bark. I hope you like it.

Thanks. ... What you might call an acquired taste?

The elephant trumpets in laughter, and the girl glances back at him. He quietens down.

How long are you staying this time, dear?

As the narrator speaks, majestic images of elephants fill the screen.

How long indeed?

Noise of an elephant matriarch trumpeting.

Coming soon to a theater near you.

The end.

Crib Notes Version

As the Japanese realized some time ago, it's all in the labels!

Blind Man's Tale: An instance where you as a long-term expat feel compelled to defend something about your adopted culture to the folks back home, knowing full well they'll think you're deranged and suspect you've "gone native." {Origin} The South Asian parable of the blind men and the elephant.

Cornerstones: Posts that explain the blog's key concepts, including the etymology of "seeing the elephant."

Dumbo Culture: Observations having to do with the popular culture in your adopted country. In some cases, can also apply to your native country, especially when experiencing the Rip Van Winkle syndrome.

Elephant Seeker Interviews: Fun Q&As with people who have left their native lands or places in search of broader horizons.

Elephant Seekers of Old: 19th-century adventurers, with whom the idiom "seeing the elephant" originated. Most were traveling West to participate in the U.S.-Mexican War or to join the California Gold Rush.

Elephantry: The practice of joining the military as a way of seeing the world, with a secondary meaning of seeing action in battle. Notably, soldiers in the U.S. Civil War often said they were "going to see the elephant." {Origin} The branch of the army that uses war elephants.

Feed Time: New foods or food experiences that come from extensive travel, considered by most expats to be a key fringe benefit.

Fearless Leaders: Expats who transcend the typical expat life. They go abroad, immerse themselves in other cultures, learn languages, tell entertaining or informative stories to people back home, and then come home again to write bestsellers, become talking heads, etc. They are the exceptions that prove the rule "You can't go home again."

Grass Really Is Greener: Stuff about your adopted culture that you really like and have come to prefer over your own.

Rejoining the Herd: Trying to go home again after a long period abroad and confronting the inevitable counter-culture shock.

Treasured White Elephant: Something you've collected on your travels that's in bad (questionable) taste but you cherish it anyway because it reminds you of those days. You know that if you displayed the item in your house back home, no one would get it — but that only makes you cherish it the more.

Wrinkles and All: Instances where you come face to face with the ugly, less-than-salubrious sides of your adopted culture(s) and are confronted with a fundamental decision about whether you can compromise your core values.

Why Do Elephants Paint Their Toes Yellow? Any observation having to do with new styles or fashions — often lending new meaning to the word "outlandish." Can be in your adopted or native country (the latter usually after a long absence).

PLEASE NOTE: This blog also has geographical labels, which thus far include:
Africa | Australia | China | France | Japan | UK

#1: Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant" ... Encyclopedic version
#2: How to Recognize at a Glance Someone Who Has Seen an "Elephant" ... Meet Eddie Expat
#3: Who Are You, What Have You Sacrificed? The Repatriation Challenge ... Meet Ramona Repat

Question: Would anyone like to propose a tagline for this blog? As we say in Japanese, onegaishimasu. Also, please feel free to make suggestions about the labels. They are not set in stone... Thanks!


Corianda said...

A bildungsroman featuring elephants and more pictures....
Too long??

ML Awanohara said...

Thanks, Corianda. Bildungsroman is perfect!

ML Awanohara said...

p.s. But by "more pix" did you mean fewer words?!

Kym Hamer said...

I'm always reminded of my fave poem, The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost and the particular line:

"Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back."

Not that this relates to the Elephant theme necessarily, but this doubt (note it's doubt not certainty) about going 'home' seems to be the thing not said to those we leave behind, the proverbial Elephant in the Room so to speak. And it's one of the hardest conversations I ever have...

ML Awanohara said...

Right, and if you do go back some day (as I did), then your experience in the foreign land becomes the Elephant in the Room. At its worst, these feelings are akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. That's why I find it so interesting that the Victorians made very little distinction between Gold Rushers and Civil War soldiers when it came to "seeing the elephant."

(The good news is, unlike PTSD, which often requires treatment, the traveler's version can fade with time…)

Like you, I often have recourse to "The Road Not Taken". Definitely, we expats are the type who tend to take the road less traveled by--whether thru wisdom or folly or the wisdom of folly?!

And don't you find it striking that Robert Frost (1874-1963), who bridges the Victorians and our era, came up with what is really the perfect travel poem?

Though he wasn't living on airplanes the way some of us do, he wasn't a stranger to travel either. He sailed to Britain with his family in 1913 (they came back in 1915, when war broke out). After that, he lived in New England, Michigan, and Florida.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler ...
You may recall that in my comment on your interview, I spoke about having two selves?

Of course, some critics take Frost's poem to mean that he had no regrets, and intended it with irony, but I have never read it that way. He captures so well the regret one feels at the moment of realizing that you can't go down two different roads simultaneously.

Something tremendous is gained by international travel and the expat life, but something is lost as well...

Kym Hamer said...

And he really captures the essence at the end when he says

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence...
....I took the one less travelled by
And it has made all the difference.

Amazing poem...I loved it when I first read it at 13 at an advanced poetry class at school and it still touches my heart as much now as it did then...maybe there's a strapline for your blog somewhere in there?

ML Awanohara said...

Yes, I had thought of this poem as a potential source for a strapline. But whether it's meant defiantly or with a sigh (or both), don't you think it strikes a rather melancholy note: e.g., "The road less traveled by and the difference it's made..."

A highly creative friend has been in touch w/ two suggestions:
1) About adventurers who set off to see the world and come back philosophers. (I've tried to incorporate in my tweet above.)
2) A watering hole for ex-ex-pats
(I think "watering hole" relates to the elephant analogy?)

What do you think???

Incidentally, I've just now come across another Aussie blogger who takes her title from Nabokov:
where everything is trembling on...The Brink of Something Else.

(I must say, you Aussies are fonts of literary knowledge!)

Kym Hamer said...

But isn't there something wistful and constantly searching in all of us who lead this life? That others don't seem to experience I mean...

Re yr friends suggestions...what about something related to addressing the elephant in the room...seen the elephant and now its in the room for good?

ML Awanohara said...

Very cute! And is it any wonder my Manhattan apt. feels cramped: two people, two dogs, and an elephant!

susumu said...

I vote for the Twitter version for brevity -- though I really like the Movie Trailer and want to see it on screen. As for the tagline I like the first -- about adventurers who set off to see the world and come back philosophers.

Thandelike said...

Great stuff ML. Wonderful to find you -- as mentioned, have added you to my blogroll at expat+HAREM, the global niche.


P.S. How about:

Returning home, the existential elephant


The existential elephant of returning home

Jeffrey said...

Not to lower the discourse, but don't forget the seventh blind man describing an elephant, at least according to long time "New Yorker" cartoonist Sam Gross - "An Elephant is Soft and Mushy."

ML Awanohara said...

@Jeffrey: Hahahaha. You are right: I mustn't forget. BTW, they don't call him Gross for nothing?! Still, what an extraordinary book title ... And hey, he calls it as he sees it, which is what "seeing the elephant" is all about (the blog and the activity).

Post a Comment