The Displaced Nation

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Lessons from Two Small Islands — 4) Keep Calm and Focus on Your Core

Keep calm and focus on your core — it sounds as though I’m about to lead a Pilates class!

Is that what life on two small islands taught me — the value of doing daily sit-ups and push-ups?

Hardly. I wasn’t into exercise routines in either England or Japan, the two small islands where I lived for almost as long as I’d (consciously) lived in my birth country, the United States.

It was only after repatriating that I ventured into my first Pilates class — and ended up cursing Joseph Pilates for developing, in essence, a set of military exercises for civilians. Hup two! Hup two!

I asked around at the class but no one seemed to have a clue who the founder of this torture had been. I did some investigation and discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that Mr Pilates had led a displaced life not dissimilar from mine.* He was descended from a family of Greeks who’d emigrated to Germany — German kids would taunt him for being “Christ’s killer” because they thought “Pilates” sounded like “Pontius Pilate.” Still, he had something going for him: an athletic physique. His father having been a prize-winning gymnast, Pilates Junior was a gymnast, a diver and a body-builder. He moved to England in 1912 to earn a living as a professional boxer and circus performer. Eventually, he would emigrate to the United States, where he set up his first exercise studio for professional dancers and other performers, offering them a routine that focused on core postural muscles.

What impressed me the most about Mr Pilates’s life, though, was that at his most displaced moment, his instinct was to think about his core. That moment occurred few years after he arrived in England. World War I broke out, and because of being German, he was rounded up and sent to an internment camp on the Isle of Wight. In great physical condition himself, he wanted to help the other prisoners, who included some wounded German soldiers, stay in shape, too. He thoughht it would lift their spirits. The exercises he developed for them, for strengthening the core, were the precursors of what we now call the Pilates routine. (See, I wasn’t so far from the mark: military exercises for civilians!)

No core, no cry

I thought about my core a lot, too, when leading my life of displacement first in England and then in another shimaguni (island country), Japan.

To begin with, I was convinced that it was my very lack of a cultural core that enabled me to live in other cultures for as long as I did. What does it mean to be an American from Delaware, of all places? I didn’t have any clear cultural identity — yet it didn’t really bother me. It meant I could go with the flow.

I still remember my first job in Tokyo, which involved working as an editor in the research department of a British stockbrokers that had been taken over by a major Swiss bank.

Being a displaced person myself after several years of living in the UK, I looked forward to working in what I thought would be a mini-UN: Brits, Swiss and Japanese.

It did not take long to disabuse me of that fantasy. The Brits and the Swiss were always clashing, and the Japanese kept themselves to themselves (they probably wished they’d never allowed foreign bankers into their country!).

There were three or four of us Yanks in the department, and we tended to be the ones who tried to be pleasant to everyone else and didn’t bear grudges. A couple of us (not including me) were great speakers of Japanese so were often called on to facilitate when “war” broke out.

“Why can’t we all get along?” was our motto. “Go with the flow.”

But that was then…

By the time I got back to the United States, however, I envied the residents of the two island nations where I’d lived for knowing what they were about — for having such a strong sense of core, or self. Which, when you think about it, is no easy feat in the face of globalization!

Not only did I envy them, but I was grateful for the bits of each nation’s core that I’d picked up on my travels. These are the principles I keep going back to in times of stress, particularly when I’m struggling to readjust to life in my native U.S. — which is what this series is about.

Indeed, if it weren’t for those core pieces I’ve borrowed from other countries, I think I’d now feel like the tin man wishing for a heart, the scarecrow wondering what it would be like to have a brain, the lion yearning for courage… (Boy, did L. Frank Baum ever understand his native country!)

England would not be England without…

A couple of months ago, a group of Britophiles and Brits were debating the essence of Britishness on our site. They were responding to a list created by the gardening journalist Alan Titchmarsh (could there be any more British name than that?) beginning with “England would not be England without…”

Some were disputing the items on the list as being hopelessly out of date and romanticized — Miss Marple, daisies in the lawn, and cucumber sandwiches without crusts. Come on, what century is he living in?

Meanwhile, the author of the post, Kate Allison, maintained that Britain had become more like a mini-US in recent years.

But I didn’t agree with any of that. After spending so many years in the UK, I am ALWAYS overjoyed when encountering someone else who “gets” the part of me that’s anglicized. It means they share my need to discuss politics over a beer, my love of creamy desserts, my preference for baths not showers, my excitement at seeing fresh rhubarb and gooseberries at the green market, or my passion for public transport and national healthcare.

Now if I, a quasi-Brit, feel this way, how much more so must the true natives feel?

Japan would not be Japan without…

Likewise in Japan — or perhaps even more so, as that nation adopted a policy of isolating itself from the outside world, which lasted over two centuries. Plenty of time to develop a core of Japanese-ness.

Again, I am not a true Japanese — but I was the only foreigner in a Japanese office for four years, when I was more or less adopted by the group and taught their code of ethics. I used to joke with my colleagues and say, “I’m a bad Japanese,” as they often had to nudge me about some protocol I’d forgotten.

Still, they trained me well. To this day, I can rattle off a long list of what it means to be Japanese. Surely, Japan would not be Japan without sakura (cherry blossoms) set lunches, soba, slurping soba, sushi, sashimi, shiatsu, shinkansen, and sumo? And that’s just the “s”es. Japanese traits run the gamut from A (amae) to Z (“Zen”).

Even tonight, when I was walking down 9th Street in the East Village and heard the sound of obon music in front of one of the Japanese restaurants, I longed to hear the beat of taiko and join in a traditional dance… Now that’s at the very core of Japanese culture — and I happily went there, still would!

America would not be America without…

What is the American core? Despite Joseph Pilates’s efforts, I don’t see much of one. Here is my attempt to brainstorm a list.

America would not be America without:

  • wide highways chockerblock with traffic (at least here on the East Coast, where it’s one person, one car)
  • gas-guzzling cars
  • poor people using the Emergency Room for their health care
  • shooting sprees every so often by young men who are too easily able to buy guns
  • racial incidents/slurs (even against the president — we still seem to be fighting the civil war)
  • rudeness and the blame game (there’s so much rage here!)
  • supersized food portions
  • junk food of all kinds
  • children with obesity/diabetes
  • mindless popular culture as represented by Kate Perry, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears…
  • gridlocked politics and a Supreme Court with a political agenda
  • men in power who think they know what’s best for women
  • men in power who act like cowboys
  • religious nuts who home-school their kids so that they won’t learn evolution

Of course I know there are good things about being American — such as the freedom and openness we represent to oppressed people, our generosity in helping strangers, our inventiveness, our can-do attitude (not for us “ten reasons why not” as it was for many of the people in both of my small-island homes), Hollywood, jazz, and of course the old stand-bys of baseball and apple pie — can we also throw in some Sonoma Valley wine?!

But several of these positive aspects were breaking down when I left this country to live abroad, and now the situation seems so much worse! Indeed, our much-vaunted openness to outsiders seems to be in question now that so many states are threatening to send hard-working  immigrants back to their countries. (Strange, given that such immigrants are among the few left who carry some core-building potential…)

Why don’t we have a proper core, on which we continue to build an identity? Is it because we are too big or too new? Size probably has a lot to do with it — and the fact that we are divided into states.

Several cities/states/regions have stronger cores — I’m thinking of New York, Vermont, Texas, Silicon Valley, the Deep South — than the nation as a whole.

But our national core seems to be as hallow as the European Union’s is proving to be.

Newness, too, could be the reason our core is underdeveloped. Both England and Japan have lived through hard times, which have given their people a sense of who they are. Thus far our hard times — e.g., 9/11 — bring us together only for a brief respite, after which we are more divided than ever.

Readers, please tell me that I’m wrong — that America has a sound core, but I just haven’t seen it?

Next time I do Pilates, I’m going to breathe in thought the nose, out through the mouth, so that I can keep calm, and focus not only on strengthening my own core, but on what we citizens can do to strengthen that of our native land…
* I herewith nominate Joseph Pilates for the Displaced Nation’s Displaced Hall of Fame!

STAY TUNED for Thursday’s post, another in our “Expat Moments” series, by Anthony Windram.

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6 responses to “Lessons from Two Small Islands — 4) Keep Calm and Focus on Your Core

  1. Anastasia M. Ashman (@AnastasiaAshman) August 31, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    Great observation about Joseph Pilates and his displaced-person reliance on core strengths, ML!

    I am not sure a cultural core is the same thing as a core of strengths, however, and so perhaps only when Americans feel displaced will we begin to drawn on our true strengths as a nation. Fact is, we’re in the process of being displaced as a superpower and certainly as “the world’s greatest nation” — I see that bandied around a lot in this convention season — but waking up to the reality of that global displacement is going to take a lot longer. In the meantime, we fall back on our “cultural core”, which is a shortcut to feel in control of a chaotic situation. That’s what we’re seeing right now with the flag-waving small-mindedness and no-immigrants policies, etc.

    • Anastasia M. Ashman (@AnastasiaAshman) August 31, 2012 at 1:38 pm

      In fact, in your case ML, not having a cultural core has been a core strength.

      • ML Awanohara September 1, 2012 at 6:18 pm

        @Anastasia
        Strangely, I think America would have more of a “core” if every single citizen were required to spend some time abroad, learning empathy for others!

        • ML Awanohara September 2, 2012 at 3:40 pm

          On what you said about America being a displaced superpower — I’m glad you mentioned that wider historical context as that’s kind of my point. Britain was an imperial power, as was Japan at one point. But since being displaced, each of these countries has reconnected with its core, at least to some extent. (I agree with Kate Alliison that Britain has had a harder time of it because over-exposure to all things American.) In America’s case, I fear that there is nothing to fall back on once we lost our superpower status. After 9/11, George W. Bush suggested that we all go out and shop! If that’s our only core value, then we’re in trouble…

  2. Sezin Koehler August 31, 2012 at 5:41 pm

    America would not be America without:
    *Institutionalized ignorance, i.e. cutting education programs to warmonger.
    *Blind patriotism, i.e. not understanding that there are many things the US can learn from other countries.
    *A cult(ure) of consumerism, i.e. more, cheaper, newer, bigger, faster, more.
    *A general lack of public transportation (the few cities that have it are in the major minority)
    *Mind-numbing television advertisements
    *A lack of interest in the world outside the USA, i.e. only about 30% of Americans have a passport!

    I could go on, but now I’ve gone and re-depressed myself.

    This is a great post, ML. I wish I could be as eloquent as you and Anastasia as you discuss repatriation. I am just so angry at this country I see red every time I try to write about it. I’ve since decided to sublimate and frame this rage using fiction. I just can’t manage any other way.

    • ML Awanohara September 1, 2012 at 6:30 pm

      @Sezin
      Thank you! I quite agree that commercialism — as in, shop until you drop; or “I shop therefore I am” — is at the heart of the American identity. I also agree that crass commercialism, while it might have its place in life’s rich tapestry, will not create a core cultural identity of the kind that sustains a country over the longer term. So, what else have we got to offer? Maybe fiction writers like good self can come up with something? ! sure hope so… :)

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