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Friday, August 27, 2010

Paying Tribute to an Elephant-seeing Statesman of Yesteryear, William Saxbe

William Bart Saxbe died this week at his home in Mechanicsburg, Ohio, age 94. A politician and statesman for many years, his biggest claim to fame was serving as U.S. attorney general under Richard Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal. But we can forgive him that transgression in part because he was an unlikely pick for the post (a one-term Republican senator, he had frequently criticized Nixon) — but in large part because he displayed three qualities the Seen the Elephant blog associates with a fearless leader.

1) Saxbe was an American politician to the core, but he was proud of having expanded his horizons beyond American shores. He was familiar with the "seeing the elephant" metaphor and used it for the title of his autobiography, I've Seen the Elephant, published in 2000 (with Peter D. Franklin). Saxbe narrates his life's journey from his youth in a small Ohio town, to his military career during WWII and Korea, to his career as a public servant in Ohio, Washington, and overseas (he served as ambassador to India under President Ford). Saxbe's eldest son contributed the book's introduction. He lauds his father's "sense of adventure, love of travel and receptivity to new people and ideas," adding: "He's the kind of man you don't meet every day" (my emphasis). You can say that again! When is the last time this nation has encountered a politician who feels comfortable trumpeting the alter ego of an elephant seeker? That's if they have one, of course. President Bush famously had not traveled outside the continental United States before he became president. The same is true for most congresspeople and senators. Bill Clinton spent two years at Oxford at a Rhodes scholar but played down this detail of his biography during his campaign for fear it would alienate voters. Perhaps Barack Obama has seen more of the elephant than any previous president, having lived as a youth in Indonesia; but this portion of his life continues to raked over the coals by those who are on a mission to prove he's not an American citizen, to the point where he probably wishes he'd never set foot in Jakarta.

2) Whether consciously or not, Saxbe channeled the 19th-century adventurer who went off to see an "elephant." He was said by his peers to resemble the redoubtable Will Rogers. Born in 1879 on a ranch in Oologah, Indian Territory (what is now Oklahoma), Rogers just about qualifies for membership in what I've labeled "elephant seekers of old." He traveled around the world three times, achieving acclaim as much for his ability to deliver zingers ("Our foreign policy is an open book — a checkbook") as for his trick roping. Likewise, Saxbe, while he may not have been a lasso spinner, was a tobacco-chewing cattle rancher who traveled the world as part and parcel of his career in public service. He became known for such homespun "Saxbeisms" as:
  • "That's a ticket on the Titanic." [a disastrous cause]
  • "There'll be blood and hair on every stump." [a good political fight]
  • "He couldn't carry cold guts to a bear." [a weak advocate]
Notably, Saxbe once said that Nixon, in claiming to know nothing of the Watergate coverup, was like "the man who plays piano at a bawdy house for 20 years and says he doesn't know what's going on upstairs."

3) Saxbe brought home some especially quirky mementos from his travels, a practice this blog wholeheartedly endorses. His treasured white elephants from India included the tiger skin rugs that grace his home in Mechanicsburg (these, it should be noted, are no longer environmentally correct, if they ever were) and, more unusually, a supply of betel nut, which he'd grown fond of mixing with his chewing tobacco. (Although Saxbe was a nonagenarian, tobacco chewing, it should likewise be noted, is not a habit to be recommended: bad for health and teeth.)

Questions: Do you agree that William Saxbe merits the label "fearless leader"? Can you think of any other 20th-century statesmen who might qualify for this status?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Who Are You, What Have You Sacrificed? The Repatriation Challenge/Cornerstone #3

"The Semi-Invisible Traveler,"
by Bruno Catalano (Camden Arts Centre, UK)
Congratulations! You have almost completed the series of cornerstone posts on the themes of this blog. But in order to reach the finish line, you must undergo the experience — full of promise but mostly full of peril — of coming home again after seeing an "elephant."

In the previous post, we became acquainted with Eddie Expat, who has seen an elephant or two in his time — and lived to tell the tale. But for the final phase of this discussion, we will turn our attention to Ramona Repat, who unlike Eddie has packed in the elephant-seeking adventure and trundled back to the land of her birth.

You might think that knowing something of Eddie's story would help you to anticipate what Ramona will have to say for herself. But think again. Just as the expatriate's life is another country (or two), the repatriate's life is another country (or three).

#1: Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant" … Encyclopedic version
#1a: Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant" ... Reader's Digest, Twitter, Movie Trailer, and Crib Notes versions
#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

Ramona Repat is back in the United States after a decade-and-a-half in other countries. I invited her to be a guest blogger, but she prefers to have me speak on her behalf as she has family matters to attend to, which she neglected during her time abroad. Ramona says it has taken her some years to come to grips with the challenges of repatriation — also known as "reverse culture shock" or "reentry syndrome." What follows is a summary of her key observations.


Ramona's Top Ten Observations on Repatriation:

"The Prodigal Son,"
by Gerard van Honthorst (1623)
1) At first Ramona objected to the title of this post, saying it was too repat-centric, since the first thing every returnee must realize is that it's not just about them any more. After all, this blog does not cover prisoners of war or refugees that are being sent home. On the contrary, the blog's focus is on the kind of repats who have voluntarily spent their lives seeing elephants and whose stories are therefore closer to that of a prodigal son (or daughter). Even if their homecoming is joyous, they may still face a reckoning not unlike the one in Rudyard Kipling's poem:
My father glooms and advises me,
My brother sulks and despises me,
And Mother catechises me
Till I want to go out and swear.
In Ramona's view, repats would do well to rise above their personal histories in acknowledging all those who have, in essence, underwritten their elephant-seeking adventures:
  • Your family couldn't always depend on you for support at critical moments, as you were too far away to be physically present (being present in spirit isn't always enough).
  • The government had to sacrifice some portion of your income (as you didn't pay much in taxes).
  • Politicians couldn't rely on your support for their campaigns (at most, you probably voted by absentee ballot, and only in the presidential election years).
  • The working world had to carry on without the benefit of your input and experience.
  • The environment, too, suffered: all that galavanting around the world has left an untidy carbon footprint.
2) Ramona further advises patience: just as you couldn't see an elephant overnight, it will also take time to earn back your compatriots' trust. She warns in particular against assuming you can easily sell yourself with an elephant-seeker's résumé. Most potential employers could not care less about how many wrinkles the elephant has. She read somewhere that if you move abroad, you lose four years of your career, as you can't take your networks with you and have to start again with zero contacts. Well, job hunting as a repat is not for the feint of heart either. So, Ramona suggests getting a dog, if you don't have one already. (If ever there was a time to benefit from a canine's unconditional love, this would be it...)

Statue of Rip Van Winkle, Irvington, NY
3) Who are you, what have you sacrificed? Ramona admits, however, that a certain amount of navel gazing is inevitable for repats like herself. It's not uncommon, she notes, for them to develop a Rip Van Winkle complex. Rip Van Winkle got himself into trouble by proclaiming himself a loyal subject of King George III, having snoozed through the American Revolution. Likewise, most repats possess some major cultural lacunae. Ramona remembers thinking, for instance: since when did this fad for home schooling take off, and what's this I keep hearing about charter schools? And, though most repats don't come back with long white beards (they are more likely to sport a perennial tan), they must nevertheless come to terms with the loss of their former lives (and youths) in the mists of time. And for 21st-century American repats, there is an additional counter culture shock in realizing that your nation — and in many cases, your family as well — has become highly dysfunctional in your absence. Ramona often reflects on how far times have changed since Thomas Wolfe wrote his book suggesting that if you went home, you might be seen as a failure in the eyes of your family and friends. Now it's the other way around. You might be tempted to judge them harshly: good grief, what have you done to this place?!

4) But if Rip Van Winkle is a convenient role model for many repats, Ramona recommends taking a look at the Chinese version of the tale, which in some ways rings truer to their circumstances than Washington Irving's. Irving based his story on an old German folk tale of a goatherd named Peter Klaus, who awakens from a 20-year slumber after drinking fairy wine on the Kyffhäuser Mountain, to find his village dramatically changed. (This tale has parallels to the old Jewish story about Honi M'agel.) But in the Taoist tale that was told in ancient China, a woodcutter ventures into a forest and encounters two old men playing go (weiqi). He falls into a trance and when he comes out many years later, his axe handle has rotted to dust. Japanese (who also have their own Rip Van Winkle, Urashima Tarō) found the Chinese story fascinating, as evidenced by this 9th-century poem conveying the woodcutter's thoughts upon returning to his village:
I've come back home.
There is no friend to play go with.
That place far away
where an axe handle turned to dust -
how dear to me it has become!
Ramona, too, can relate to the woodcutter's feeling of longing. Seeing elephants is an all-absorbing adventure beyond compare. Is it any wonder that so many repats become permanent malcontents? Ramona has to keep reminding herself not to come across as a Ra-MOAN-a.

5) On a related note, Ramona says that one of the most difficult adjustments for repats is a feeling that their horizons are shrinking. Ramona recalls, when she first came back to this country, being drawn to a book on display in a chain bookstore: Seeing the Elephant: Understanding Globalization from Trunk to Tail. The book concerns global financial strategy, but its title really spoke to Ramona. She recalls saying to herself: "Okay, so you've seen everything from trunk to tail. But how do you go back to seeing just trunk again — or being around others who do?" (Not surprisingly, the book was on the half-price table.)

6) As a result, most repats end up with an elephant (or two, or three) in the room. They refrain from speaking out on issues they feel passionately about for fear of being labeled raving lunatics. Ramona, for instance, still can't get over how many cars there are on the roads compared to when she left, of which an unacceptably high proportion are SUVs. In her day, only the military and the police were allowed to drive such gas-guzzling vehicles. How she would love to get up on her soapbox and preach about her years of living in countries where people get around perfectly well using public transport and driving fuel-efficient cars. But she knows full well that, by the time she has cleared her throat, most of her listeners will have bolted for their Range Rovers.

7) That's of course assuming that Ramona could deliver an effective oratory given how challenging she sometimes finds communications with her fellow citizens. Clueless? Well, yeah. "You go, girl," "smokin' hot," "wife beater," "fugly," "rad," "yo," "yadda yadda yadda," "whatever," "as if" — Ramona is in a perpetual state of incomprehension. Vocabulary aside, she still struggles with daily interactions. When someone tells her to "have a nice day," for instance, there is a visceral sense of familiarity coupled with a sense of strangeness. After wrestling with her conflicting emotions, Ramona has at long last reached a place where she accepts that she is now a hybrid personality and will never be fully re-assimilated. She and several of her repat friends now think that the only country where they will feel at home is the one they create for themselves in cyberspace, so have set up blogs. (Ramona calls hers "Ramona's Much-Expanded World" in honor of Ramona Quimby, that rambunctious 8-year-old heroine. Ramona projects she will leave Portland eventually.)

Isabella Bird, 19th-c. explorer
(print by Stephen Alcorn, 1991)
8) As a repat, Ramona also finds herself much more sensitive when someone shows intolerance or bigotry, than she was before her travels. She recalls an incident that occurred the first summer after she came home, when she was walking down the street in the blazing heat carrying a sun umbrella she had picked up in Japan. Suddenly, a car went by honking its horn and with someone leaning out of the window yelling that people "don't do that in America." Ramona noticed it was an SUV with Virginia plates. At times like these, Ramona wishes she had been born in Victorian England, where people who traveled and saw elephants were held in high esteem, however eccentric they became (and women carrying parasols was de rigueur).

9) But despite the many trials and tribulations, Ramona urges new arrivals to have faith in the repatriation process. Cultivating your own back garden can be immensely entertaining after so many years on foreign soil. When she first got home, Ramona spent hours roaming the aisles of her local drugstore, supermarket, and bookstore, feeling like a kid in a candy store. And who knew that the U.S. had so many superb vacation spots on its borders? "Mexico and Canada, here we come!" she is fond of exclaiming.

10) A fan of cinema, Ramona is also not one to shy away from the grand gesture, and she thinks the grandest gesture of all for an elephant seeker is to come back home. So what if you have to eat humble pie and spend some years carving out a new niche for yourself in your homeland? "Hang it all, you've seen an elephant!" The words of the farmer whose cart got knocked over by the circus parade are a mantra that has sustained Ramona through her readjusting pains. Not to mention the idea that if all else fails, she can go abroad again and work on a sequel ... (Joke! Ramona insists she is here to stay, even if it necessitates frequent visits to the pachyderm house in the local zoo.)

Question for repats: Can you relate to Ramona's story? Has she left anything out?
Question for expats: Can you imagine coming home again after hearing what Ramona has to say, or has she scared you off completely? (Pls note: That was not her intention!)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

How to Recognize at a Glance Someone Who Has Seen an "Elephant"/Cornerstone #2

Welcome back to the extended tour — the second in a three (and a half)-part series on what this blog is about, known as "cornerstone posts."

If you need to stretch your legs, you're in luck. We've just now rounded the corner where the tourmobile stops for long enough for us to get out and gawk at people who have seen an "elephant."

But before we do that, some orientation: who exactly are these people, what are they like, and how do they differ from the rest of the traveling herd?

#1: Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant" … Encyclopedic version
#1a: Time to Define "Seeing the Elephant" ... Reader's Digest, Twitter, Movie Trailer, and Crib Notes versions
#3: Who Are You, What Have You Sacrificed? The Repatriation Challenge ... Meet Ramona Repat

#2: How to Recognize at a Glance Someone Who Has Seen an "Elephant"

Once you've seen an elephant, it's relatively easy to spot someone else who has. The faraway look in their eyes, the I-can't-quite-place-where-it's-from (because it's such a funny hybrid) accent, the rather droll way of responding to life's vicissitudes — all are dead giveaways. But what if you haven't met an elephant seeker before, how will you know?

For background, I've prepared a one-page hand-out on Eddie Expat. Though he can't be here today with us in the flesh — he lives on the other side of the world — Eddie is a good friend of mine and trusts me to represent his story. Rest assured, Eddie is with this tour in spirit. The more you come to know him, the more adept you'll be at recognizing people who have seen an elephant.


Top Ten "Need to Know" Items About Eddie:

1) Eddie is the kind of traveler who stays put in his destination — he is not, repeat not, a tourist (he does not travel merely for pleasure) nor is he a globetrotter. He's not one to "eat, pray, love" around the world in response to a life crisis at home. And never once did he aspire to be the kind who clocks up more than a hundred countries and six continents by age 25. Unlike most globetrotters, Eddie prefers to take it slow and easy. He unpacks his suitcase (never a backpack) and stays awhile, sometimes for many years or a lifetime. Eddie insists that s-l-o-w travel is what people generally mean by seeing an "elephant." Elephants are highly intelligent, complex animals. It doesn't do well to rush the experience.

2) At the same timeand I don't think he will be insulted if I say thisEddie is no country expert. By that I mean, someone who has seen so much of the elephant they don't even know they're looking at it any more: they are the elephant. Eddie has seen the elephant, wrinkles and all, but he prides himself on staying at arm's length. Now why is this, you might ask, given Eddie's pachyderm obsession? Eddie doesn't know exactly. It stymies him, too. Sometimes he says it's because he doesn't want to spend his adulthood focusing exclusively on one pursuit, especially as he has to earn a living. Other times he says that not knowing the elephant too well will make it easier to say good-bye one day. Eddie intends to come home, he's just not sure when ...

3) Eddie moved abroad during his formative years. He eventually married and now has a couple of kids, but he still talks about seeing the elephant in the first person, because for him it's been a deeply personal connection. He likes to think that his elephant-seeking experience has turned him into a philosopher — albeit of the garden variety. (Eddie by the way won't mind that joke at his expense. He's a generally humorous guy with a self-deprecating wit.)

4) Eddie can certainly be philosophical about the places where he's lived. The other day I emailed him a map I'd found of London — that's where Eddie went to live first, for graduate school. It was a map plotting where and by whom photos uploaded to Flickr and Picasa were taken during a given period. Sights captured by "local" shutterbugs — who are identified as such because they've taken many shots over a wide range of dates — are marked with blue dots. Tourists get red dots. (Yellows could not be placed in either camp.)
Locals and Tourists #1 (GTWA #2): London, by Eric Fischer
Eddie wrote back that he found the map, which had been generated by a computer programmer in California, very interesting. Whereas tourists see one London and locals see another, he sees both versions, and for him, that's seeing an elephant. You want the broadest possible canvas if the goal is to glimpse life's rich tapestry.

5) Eddie does not delude himself into thinking his travels have been epic, but he does think they are worthy of writing about. That's why he keeps a blog, occasionally including snippets of poetry and wisdom that have inspired him along the way. He notices other expat bloggers doing this, too, and for fun keeps a running list of taglines that he finds uplifting. Here are a few of his recent favorites:
Pony Express ad, 1860
6) Returning to the elephant, which for so long has been the object of Eddie's quest: now, it's true to say that Eddie has developed a certain elephant envy over the years. He particularly admires the way these extraordinary animals have evolved for long-distance living. Elephants in the wild range tens of miles a day. They live in large, tight-knit family groups and communicate with each other at great distance. Eddie doesn't think that expat groups are particularly tightly knit, since the members are so transient. He also doesn't think that modern communications — Blogger, Facebook, Twitter — are especially helpful for staying in touch. Sometimes he wonders if they are any better than the Pony Express, which used to sustain the pioneers who traveled to the Wild West to see the elephant. While Eddie maintains a Facebook page and tweets occasionally, deep down he agrees with the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar that virtual community is no substitute for the real thing and most social media contacts are "weak ties."

7) Eddie is further aware that some part of him couldn't give a toss about having hundreds of friends with whom he communicates constantly. If pressed to say why he's such a loner at heart, he points out that it helps him notice subtleties — and that subtleties are what makes seeing the elephant worth the trouble. Eddie also admits that while he dreams of returning home, he doesn't particularly miss his home country. He was always something of a misfit in America, never having been  one of those "bright outgoing happy shiny" people. (I told him the American psychologist Barbara Held, author of Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching, could have a field day with that comment.)

8) As much as he admires the elephant, Eddie doesn't mind admitting that the quest has left him a trifle world weary. "Same s**t, different scenery really is true": Eddie occasionally catches fellow expats saying things like that, and although he disapproves, he knows it's not dissimilar to the Victorian saying: "Been there, done that, seen the elephant." In his lowest moments, Eddie wonders whether, by giving himself over to the ambition of seeing an elephant, he peaked out too early. He fears he may even be suffering from what the Hawaiian Islanders call "rock fever" — except that for him, the rock is Planet Earth. In which case, what's the cure: space walking?

Emily Dickinson Museum poster (2008),
created by Penelope Dullaghan
9) As he gets older, Eddie admits to having the odd doubt about his chosen life course: was it actually necessary to leave home to see an "elephant"? At his wife's encouragement, Eddie has begun reading Emily Dickinson for the first time. He likes Emily's poems, especially the one about the robin, but he's even more bowled over by her biography — the fact that she could find everything she needed for her poetry in the flowers, birds, and insects she encountered in her own back garden. In comparison to the reclusive 19th-century poet, he and his fellow expat adventurers seem a rather unimaginative lot. On the one hand, you have a garden-inspired world-class poet; on the other, a group of garden-variety world-weary philosophers. Not much of a choice, is it?

10) Knowing Eddie as well as I do, I'm sure he would want this lecture to end on an upbeat note. Like many an intrepid traveler, Eddie is a firm believer in: If life hands you lemons, make lemonade. It's an attitude that has helped him remain grounded over his years of living overseas. Hardly surprising, then, that Eddie has become a lemonade maker worth his salt, occasionally mixing in tequila. (Hahaha — just checking whether you're still listening ...) Eddie recently sent me a link to a Web site for expats where it said that one of the things no expat likes to admit is how much they drink in a given week, particularly as it never seems excessive at the time. I responded I'd drink to that, and he told me he was guffawing out loud. I told you he was a jolly sort!

Question: Any questions you'd like me to answer on Eddie Expat's behalf? We have a few minutes before setting off for our final destination on this tour: what I've labeled the repatriation challenge. At that time, we will learn all about Eddie's counterpart, Ramona Repat. Can't wait!