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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

In Honor of Those Who See the Elephant Untrammeled by Xenophobia

We long-term expats are far from perfect. We're too often the empty chair at the extended-family table; we can come across as arrogant or aloof; and some of us are boozers. But one thing you can say for us, we don't fear the "other." We're not xenophobes. Thus one of the most difficult challenges of repatriation can be witnessing an outbreak of xenophobia in one's native land, as has been happening lately in the United States.

Immigrants, Muslims, President Obama: demonizing the "other" is rapidly becoming a blood sport. Never mind that most immigrants come to see an "elephant" (as did many of our own ancestors). Or that most Muslims aren't terrorists. Or that in this age of international travel, President Obama is hardly alone in taking the "x" out xenophobe and putting it into expatriate. In a cover story for this month's Forbes, conservative thinker Dinesh D'Souza asserts that because Obama spent “his formative years — the first 17 years of his life — off the American mainland, in Hawaii, Indonesia and Pakistan, with multiple subsequent journeys to Africa," he is an "other," doesn't think like an "American," and takes actions that benefit foreigners, not natives. (This barb from a man who was born and raised in India!)

As an antidote to these poisonous times, this blog will be issuing occasional Pachrydermophile Prizes in honor of Americans who are carrying on a love affair with the elephant, or "X," in a very public way, untrammeled by xenophobia. In this post, "best of" prizes will be awarded for the following categories:
  • Wrinkles and All: For foreign-born or first-generation Americans who continue to embrace their native cultures in the face of vitriolic attacks.
  • Grass Really Is Greener: For Americans who admire certain things about the "other" and aren't afraid to broadcast that fact.
  • Feed Time: For Americans who, having fallen hard for another culture's food, try hard to get the rest of us to fall as well.
  • Why Do Elephants Paint Their Toes Yellow? For Americans who express a love of other cultures through clothing.
And the winners are . . .


Porochista Khakpour, an Iranian-American novelist, for facing down the American "elephant" since 9/11. Khakpour's debut novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects, told of the travails of an Iranian-American family in New York post-9/11. But little did Khakpour anticipate, when she published the book in 2007, the "boiling hot summer of anti-Islamic assault" the nation has just experienced. As she wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times, published on September 11, 2010:
. . . it would take almost a full decade for the proverbial 9/11 fallout to fall out, for anti-Muslim xenophobia to emerge, fully formed and fever-pitched, ostensibly over plans to build an interfaith cultural center near ground zero.
Khakpour's family fled Tehran at the advent of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980, when she was only three years old. They hustled from country to country, ultimately settling in Southern California. At that time, Khakpour spoke only Farsi; now she is a professor of literature Santa Fe University of Art and Design as well as an accomplished novelist. She did not embrace Islam and has become an American citizen. That said, she still considers herself to be a Middle Easterner culturally — an identity that sometimes clashes with her values, those of a political liberal. For instance, she cannot fully accept Western stereotypes of Muslim women:
. . . I used to experience so many mixed emotions when I’d see women in full burqa in Brooklyn: alarm at the spectacle (no matter how many times I’d seen it), followed by a certain feminist irk, and finally discomfiture at our cultural kinship. And then it would all turn into one strong emotion — protective rage — when I’d see a group of teenagers laughing and pointing at them.

Elisabeth Rosenthal, a medical-doctor-turned-foreign-correspondent, for combining an anthropologist's ability to immerse herself in other cultures with a journalist's ability to report back on her discoveries. As the health and environment reporter for the International Herald Tribune, Rosenthal has embarked on a quest to find out what makes Europe greener than the United States. She likes to tell an anecdote at her own expense: about how she struggled to get used to not having a clothes dryer or air conditioner in her apartment in Rome. All's well that ends well, she says: "I now enjoy the ritual of putting laundry on the line, expect to sweat in summer, and look forward to the cool of autumn." She is also of the conviction that if she can do it, others can. The average American produces three times the amount of CO2 emissions as a person in France. So if we are serious about lowering our carbon footprints, then it's time to forgo some of our energy-wasting appliances.

Before Europe, Rosenthal reported on health-related issues for the New York Times' Beijing bureau. She recently drew on that experience when contributing a front-page story to the Times's Week in Review addressing the debate now raging in American educational communities about the importance of testing. She tells the story of how well her children adapted to their international school in Beijing, which combined a Western curriculum with an Asian emphasis on discipline and frequent testing. She says that her kids mostly didn't understand they were being tested as the "tests felt like so many puzzles; not so much a judgment on your being, but an interesting challenge." What's more, they came to "like the feedback of testing." American educators would do well to heed Rosenthal's advice and learn from the Chinese example. Notably, her observations dovetail with some new U.S. research showing that not giving tests may be bad educational practice.


Ratha Chau and Ben Daitz, two members of the New York City restaurant scene, for founding the city's first Cambodian-American sandwich shop. Daitz and Chau were buddies at Clark University in 1992. Their paths crossed again some years later when both were working in the food industry in New York City. Daitz helped Chau open Kampuchea (New York's first Cambodian restaurant, now closed) on the Lower East Side. Daitz still remembers the first time he visited that restaurant, and Chau made him a sandwich using his Cambodian mother's recipe. He took one bite and felt he'd seen the "elephant." Eventually, the two friends joined forces to open up a tiny sandwich shop in the East Village called Num Pang, showcasing traditional Cambodian ingredients — fermented fish, shrimp paste, fermented shrimp, and lots of herbs — in a style (gourmet sandwiches) they hoped would appeal to Americans.

In a recent "At Lunch With" column in the New York Times, the actor Oliver Platt dragged film critic Leah Rozen to Num Pang and proceeded to order his favorite skirt steak sandwich topped with mayonnaise flavored with fresh cilantro [coriander]. Platt's father was a diplomat specializing in Asia, so the family (which also includes food critic Adam Platt) lived in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, and Japan. There are many Americans who think that cilantro tastes like soap, but for Platt, cilantro is the equivalent of what the madeleine was to Proust: the flavor that recalls his time abroad more than any other. No wonder he's a Num Pang regular. At the same time, Platt appreciates how well Daitz and Chau have made their Southeast Asian food concept work in a New York City's ultra-urban environment. "You’ve got all of New York in microcosm right here," he told Rozen. ". . . I can smell the exhaust, and that’s part of the whole palate.”


Lisa Mayock and Sophie Buhai, a team of up-and-coming fashion designers, for melding designs from far-flung corners of the globe with an American retro aesthetic. Mayock and Buhai met when they were graduate students at Parsons School of Design (home of Project Runway). Each was elated to discover a fellow Californian who was attempting to dress an East Coast "elephant." (In Mayock's view, West Coast style is much less defined than what's found in the East.) Upon graduating from Parsons, the pair collaborated on their own label, Vena Cava, which is distinguished for its hip prints and dresses with a worldly feel — clothes that, in New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn's phrase, "hint of Americana with a dash of another country."

Vena Cava's cultural references have included Egyptian history, japonismo, Wiener Werkstatte, and African textiles. Lately, Buhai and Mayock seem to have turned to the Tuscan region of Italy or France for inspiration. (Are they suggesting we'd all like to escape?!) Their Spring 2011 collection, shown at New York Fashion Week, "felt very Mad Men by way of Capri," according to Huffington Post contributor Nicole Berrie. "An Eat, Pray, Love of the 1960s if you will." (Sounds heavenly, in my current mood ...)

Question: Long live the American pachydermophile spirit! Are there any other exemplars you think should be honored?


Anonymous said...

Interesting as always. But are you an expat? By definition, ML, whether you spend your time gazing at elephants or not, you are an American citizen living in the USofA. If anything, you are an” ex-expat.”

Never liked the Latin in “ex” anyway -- it implies a departure from what was or still should be but ain’t no more. How about we get rid of expat and use a new word, say, “neo-pat”? For that is what it is. The experience (unless you are a refugee) is not so much about EXiting but about entering. A new place, new possibilities, new awareness ...

Kate said...

Something that a non-American notices: no one in America is actually American. America is the melting-pot of the world, after all. You can be Italian-American, or Irish-American. If your great-great-grandmother came over on the boat from France, you can claim to be French. (I've given up explaining that this does not, in fact, make you French, any more than my own Dundee-born great-great-grandmother makes me Scottish.)

On September 11th, 2001, however, everyone closed ranks and became American. Just American. It was a long time before I heard anyone refer to himself as *insert country*-American.

Stacy said...

Ah, bless you for this post! Until the last few years, I really thought American xenophobia had gone the way of the dinosaurs, except in some odd backwoods enclaves here and there. It's been a shock to realize that it's alive and well and breeding like mad in the sewers (or over the internet).

The people I would nominate for your awards aren't any of them well-known--they're the Japanese-American neighbors of my childhood, who had lived in internment camps in their own youths, and who had the brightest flower-garden in the neighborhood, because they couldn't stand ever to look at gray ugliness again, who put their Buddha statue right next to their front door, and taught the little neighbor girl to eat with chopsticks. They're my current neighbors in New Mexico, who invited their Protestant church pastor to their daughter's Navajo coming-of-age rites this week; the German neighbor who bakes küchen for the neighborhood every year; the other neighbors who roast a bushel of New Mexico green chiles every autumn and bring posole to every neighborhood potluck (for luck, of course); my friend whose family is Hindu from India, two generations back, and who is passionately hounding her Facebook friends to support the (Muslim) victims of flooding in Pakistan.

The country is still full of people who live quiet melting-pot lives. They're just not outré enough to go viral.

ML Awanohara said...

@Anon (who isn't really anon): When I first read your comment, I thought: not that old chestnut about "expat" and what it really means. Sigh ... But then it occurred to me that you may be on to something. It is interesting that we refer to those of us who leave our countries as "ex-" and those who come back as "re-." It's interesting because it says that our entire identity revolves around the Latin word patria, meaning "fatherland," which derives from patrius (of or pertaining to a father) and pater (father) and is a cognate with the ancient Greek words patria (generation, ancestry, descent, tribe, family) and patris (place of one's ancestors).

To this day, "expatriate" carries the connotations of withdrawing oneself from, or renouncing allegiance to, one's native country: being exiled, banished or deported. While "repatriate" connotes being restored or returning to one's country of origin, allegiance, or citizenship (it is often used for prisoners of war).

It's written deeply into our language (and perhaps our DNA) to distrust people who abandon patria for any reason, even if they do so involuntarily. (As a youth, Obama could hardly tell his mother he wasn't moving to Indonesia with her, but people still distrust him for this.)

Replacing "ex-" (and perhaps "re-" as well) with "neo-"--which derives from the ancient Greek prefix meaning "new, young"--may be a step in the right direction, but it doesn't get at the core problem of "patria." Are we willing to abandon that concept, too, and come up with an entirely new word for who we are? That would be an extremely radical step since where we are born, where our family lives, still has enormous value and consequence--even to those of us who aren't xenophobes, who've spent a lifetime exploring the "other."

ML Awanohara said...

@Kate: That's an astute observation about the 9/11 aftermath--that it marked a rare moment when Americans no longer referred to themselves in a hyphenated way, at least for a period. That's why we rely on you foreign observers, to tell us stuff we just can't see! :-)

Now, being a hyphenated American wasn't always a badge of honor; on the contrary, it was a derogatory term. In a cartoon from Puck, America's first successful humor magazine, published August 9, 1899, Uncle Sam sees hyphenated voters and asks: "Why should I let these freaks cast whole ballots when they are only half Americans?"

For descendants of these immigrants, it's something of a novelty that they can call themselves "Americans"--and can feel equally comfortable broadcasting the fact that they are "Italian-Americans," or whatever. Having lived in England, I can understand why you'd find it strange that anyone would want to hang onto their ethnic heritage after so many generations, but I think it's a measure of how virulent the xenophobia was against certain groups of Europeans.

(The debate has now moved to discussing whether or not to hyphenate minority Americans: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Mexican-Americans ... I for one have always found the idea of hyphenating African-American strange as so many blacks in this country have roots that go back much farther than many non-hyphenated whites. But I digress ...)

Anyway, I think you are right, Americans of all stripes referred to themselves without the hyphen after 9/11. We pulled together as a "tribe." Many, especially people in New York City, interpreted this as a positive sign. But little did we know, as Porochista Khakpour expresses so movingly in her NYT op-ed, the xenophobic implications it would have for this nation further down the road. Actually, as an Iranian-American (note the hyphen!), Khakpour had more of an idea than most, but even she didn't grasp the full implications.

ML Awanohara said...

@Stacy: Thank you so much for your warm and passionate response to my post! I'm particularly pleased that you mentioned the Japanese-Americans who were interned during WWII. I had them in mind when composing it. They seem an obvious historical antecedent for the kinds of challenges Porochista Khakpour describes.

I'm also very taken with your blog, Microcosm, which I've just now visited for the first time. it may seem ironic, since I've dedicated so much of my life to overseas travel, but I'm equally fascinated by the concept of exploring beauty in restricted circumstances, of finding pleasure in small lives, small worlds. As I expressed in my post on Eddie Expat (see #9), I've long admired Emily Dickinson for finding everything she needed for her poetry in the flowers, birds, and insects she encountered in her own back garden--so much more imaginative than the rest of us.

That said, I purposely decided to offer these Pachydermophile Prizes to notable, rather than average, Americans--the kind whose actions can enrich large numbers of fellow citizens and, hopefully, influence them to follow suit (whether that's literally, with a suit of clothes, or ideologically, with a suite of ideas).

But I take your point that many ordinary citizens embrace the "other" as well in their everyday lives, whether by sharing their traditional customs and foods, or by persuading their friends to support international causes. It's also important to be keeping a record of these countless small examples--the better to fight off these xenophobic onslaughts, which as you say can blindside us when we least expect it ... though perhaps we should have been expecting this one? (I know, hindsight is always 20/20.)

Anastasia said...

Thanks for this new award series ML. As an American abroad and wife of a non-American-born Muslim and founder of a cultural site for global citizens and identity adventurers, I’d say it’s much needed. In fact, I’ll be highlighting the above post (and your whole site!) in my October newsletter because I think xenophiles need to be more vocal, visible, and connected.

Also, I’d nominate pretty much all the Americans who frequent expat+HAREM, the global niche as posters or commenters -- but admit I’m biased!

Here’s a v.short and terribly incomplete list of bloggers putting their xenophiliac values into their work:

Tara Agacayak: “If marriage is the smallest unit of a community, then cross-cultural couples are ambassadors, peace-makers, and change-agents.”

Catherine Bayar: "If that 1% difference that we human beings have in our various facial features and skin colors is enough to keep us at odds, what hope do we have of ever reconciling cultural, moral and religious differences?"

Elmira Bayrasli: "We all carry the same passport, and allegiance to a government that is based on equal rights and equal protection, because our identities originate from a Constitution that knows only values, not ethnicity."

I hope you also saw the Economist’s account of Dinesh D’Souza’s background? Likely mixed-race elite Roman Catholic Brahmins in Goa who embraced a caste system and resisted affirmative action so certainly had a fear of the ‘other’ even though they were more-native. Although ultimately the magazine declares understanding a person’s background is not necessary to be able to critique his or her ideas on their own terms.

Anastasia said...

...part 2

The rise in xenophobia in America has certainly become more apparent with the widespread adoption of online social media. Puncturing our ideals about our own cosmopolitanism, we stumble across boundaries and apply local politics to exotic (to us) situations, while ‘ethnic’ Americans grow increasingly prickly when asked “where are you from”?

We can expect more of the same, as the economy refuses to resolve (as the Atlantic proclaimed in March, despair from the long jobless era ahead will warp American culture and politics.) At the Facing Race conference this week one speaker noted that even as we become racially more diverse, economic crisis promises disaster, and this San Francisco writer says, America needs its demons.

ML Awanohara said...

@Anastasia: Thank you so much for these comments and especially for your announcement that you intend to promote this post, my blog. I'm honored. Expat+HAREM is an extraordinary site for us cultural hybrids and amphibians!

I note that your Home Page currently features a post by Virginia Guneyli telling of her life in St. Louis, Missouri, with her Turkish husband and their child. They've been horrified to see protestors holding up signs like "I’m More Afraid of Obama than Osama" and "Obama, Go Back to Kenya." By the same token, when the couple visits the Asian part of Istanbul, they are shocked to see so many women wearing the Turkish version of niqab. Guneyli wonders whether the turban may be to Turkey what the xenophobic protest signs are to America's "heartland." Quite a provocative analogy!

In fact, Guneyli's post, along with your comments above, have prompted three further thoughts on American xenophobia:

1) In awarding these "prizes," I was trying to seek out Americans who haven't gone native in other cultures quite to the same extent as you, Guneyli, or I, but nevertheless have actively promoted their customs. (By going "native," I mean marrying into the culture and/or immersing oneself in it for an extended period.) At some level, I think such people are more courageous than us expats--given the barriers they need to overcome.

2) As worrisome as the xenophobia in the U.S. is right now, it's by no means the only country with this problem. Indeed, I suspect it would be even more difficult to find awardees for my prizes in my two adopted countries, England and Japan, both of which have pronounced xenophobic tendencies. If you've ever come across a Little Englander, you will know what I mean. And history has taught us how scary Japan can be when it turns nationalistic. The most international English and Japanese people I know are expats, many of them in the United States!

3) I have tried to keep this blog fairly light-hearted in tone (my next post will be about pancakes!); as a result, I often skirt around political issues. But after spending time on your blog as well as reading the terrific posts by the four bloggers highlighted above, I keep thinking: "The personal is political." Just as the Turkish lady who dons the turban is making a political statement, so, too, are we in choosing to live, marry and work outside of our native countries. At the same time, though, we "global citizens" are a long ways away from being a political force. Take, for instance, Sarah Palin, who intends to "stampede" Washington with her Pink Elephants or Mama Grizzlies (pick your metaphor!). By bonding to family, culture, and nation, she can appeal to local constituencies. But if you think global, how can you act local? That is the paradox of our situation. ... I also see President Obama struggling with that problem. As the nation's first president to have truly seen the "elephant," he doesn't quite know how to make average Americans appreciate the relevance of that viewpoint--particularly in times like these, when so many people are preoccupied with making ends meet. ...

Elephant's Eye said...

Came from Microcosm. Find this fascinating. In South Africa, an ex-pat is someone with roots Over There, like the Swallows who spend the summer here, and our winter there. And xenophobia sadly is directed at people from other African countries. A huge problem - the xenophobia, not the people, who are just trying to survive, away from politics and poverty. As my own father did when he left the Depression in New Zealand, then London, to come here to work.

ML Awanohara said...

@Elephant's Eye: A warm welcome to a fellow blogger whose blog title references the elephant, albeit only its peeper. Is there some special significance?

At my last job, working for an institutional Web site, I posted an opinion piece that concerned the xenophobia directed at people from other African countries who emigrate to Johannesburg in search of better economic opportunities, written just after the May 2008 riots. So I at least have an inkling of the kind of xenophobia you're talking about. If I'm not mistaken, it had something to do with the immigrants' success (often the case when two groups of "have nots" are competing).

I like your analogy between the South African expat (who gets to have summer all year round, if they so choose) and the swallow. I can see why you're a fan of Microcosm. As I mentioned to Stacy (above), it's extremely refreshing for a rex-pat like me to encounter those whose lives resemble that of the poet Emily Dickinson -- who from a drop of water can infer the Niagra ...

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