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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!


Marie said...

I believe I know Eddie intimately. In fact, I might even be Eddie. I'm not sure. I've just discovered your blog and I love how you are searching for the direction in which to take it. I do wonder about that (daily) with my own blog. In the meantime, I'm just trying to keep my elephant well fed and watered so that that she's got enough energy to keep exploring.

ML Awanohara said...

Good on ya, Marie! Having just now visited your extraordinary blog, Shantiwallah, I see that like me, your wanderings took you as far as Japan, but unlike me, you went even further: all the way to New Zealand(!).

While living in Japan, I visited Auckland and Wellington as a tourist. It was very beautiful but also disorienting: I felt as though I'd reached the ends of the Earth!

Talk about going bush (Eddie's #7). Next thing you know, you'll be wondering where you can possibly go next--Mars? (Eddie's #8).

But you're too young to be at #8. Keep nurturing that elephant with plenty fruit, veg and tree bark; don't let it get knackered!

I'm impressed you've already done some thinking about what "home" is:
"Of course, Lake Huron doesn’t freeze anymore and our house in Miami is long gone thanks to a hurricane. Sometimes I’m surprised at how much focus there is on place when defining home. Home is much more than place to me."

I hope you stick around and give me the benefit of your insights on my next topic, homecomings, which I'll discuss with the help of Ramona Repat. (Yes, I know these characters are corny, but they help me to think thru these issues...)

Welcome to the herd! :-)

Peter said...

The recent posts sound like an intriguing book in the making.

ML Awanohara said...

Thanks, Peter! Part III is now in the works. Stay tuned! I'll be curious to hear what you make of it, since repatriation doesn't appear to be on your personal agenda yet... Are you keeping that option open? (At least you haven't given up your real estate over there!)

Kate said...

Fabulous post, ML, especially #9.

Sometimes you have to ask yourself if the elephant, like the emperor, has no clothes. Or perhaps that should be 'howdah'.

ML Awanohara said...

Thanks, Kate. Most of the time, though, I agree with Kym's comment on my last post. She thinks that taking the road less traveled by "makes all the difference."

On that note: I see that the photographer Jason Bell has a new book on Brits in NYC. The Daily Telegraph offers a slide show that includes a photo of Simon Doonan, the creative director at Barney's, who moved from London in 1985. Doonan says: "New York is a 'can do' society. I often think what would I be doing if I’d stayed in England? I’m sure I’d still be on the scarf counter at John Lewis where I started."

Do you think that is one of the reasons why you and your family have thrived over here? It's one of those counterfactuals, but I sometimes find it interesting to speculate...

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