The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives


Justin Mussler is traveling around the world with his wife and two kids, recording their adventures in the blog “The Great Family Escape.” In a recent post defending his family’s decision to eschew a conventional lifestyle for one of constant travel, he says:

By the time it’s time to go home, we all realize that home is just not where we want to be.

Hmmmm… “Home is just not where we want to be.” Once upon a time, I could relate to those sentiments. I spent a significant chunk of my adult life living on two small (and rainy!) islands, England and Japan. I never expected to go home again.

But that was then and this is now. As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m now back in my native land, the United States — though still living on a small, mercifully less rainy, island (Manhattan).

So, can you go home again?

The conventional wisdom is that you can NEVER go home again, particularly if you spend more than three years abroad.

To which I say: “Poppycock!”

Well, not really. I’ve definitely had my Rip Van Winkle moments in attempting to get used to the United States again. Still do, in fact.

But unlike Mr Mussler and his family, home is exactly where I want to be right now.

By “home,” of course, I mean my original nation of birth. I mention that in case you’re one of those people who has lived abroad for so long that you no longer know where “home” is or have reached the point of questioning what “home” really means.

(If you are a Third Culture Kid who has never lived in your nation of birth, this post doesn’t really apply — though I’m happy to point you towards some blogs with plenty of posts that would.)

A few overall discoveries I’ve made since repatriating:
1) Travels are like stories: they need a beginning, middle — and an end — to have true meaning. By going home again, you can begin to see what you’ve actually retained from the experience. No doubt you changed some of your behavior — but how much of that was due to expediency and how much to actual lessons learned?
2) Hard as it may seem, travelers can contribute something of what they’ve learned to their native lands. Coming home again gives you a chance to do that.
3) We long-term expats, rex-pats and round-the-world travelers enjoy a good challenge. Trust me, going home again is a challenge of Olympian proportions — which just so happens to fit the theme The Displaced Nation will be exploring this summer.

Lesson #1: Keep Calm and Carry On!

And now to begin my new, occasional series for The Displaced Nation. Through my own expat-to-repat experience, I will try to demonstrate that going home again can be just as enriching as venturing across borders to travel and live.

So what did I learn from being displaced within two small-island countries for so long? I’ll start with the most obvious lesson that anyone who is at all familiar with Japan and/or England has doubtless picked up on:


In England it’s known as Stiff Upper Lip (SUL); in Japan, as gaman.

In America we use many words to describe this quality — perseverance, patience, fortitude, stoicism — but I think that’s because we don’t have a single cultural concept that corresponds to what the English mean by SUL or the Japanese by showing gaman.

This may be why I didn’t take to the concept in either country right away. On the contrary, I took to it kicking and screaming. Where the citizens of each of these countries saw grace, strength, endurance, and perseverance, I saw passivity, masochism, fatalism and pain. “Why is everyone bowing so readily to their fates?” I would ask myself repeatedly.

And, though I never committed an act of “queue rage” while standing in line at the post office in the English town where I lived, I came pretty close — especially when watching others who’d come in after I did get served before me.

On those occasions, I felt like crying out: why don’t we try a serpentine line instead? (You know the kind of line I mean — when all customers are funneled into one big snaking queue, demarcated by ropes or barriers. When you reach the head of the queue, you are directed to the next available server.*) But I was too polite to do so.
*Fellow serpentine-line enthusiasts should check out Seth Stevenson’s terrific article on the topic, published just now in Slate.

It’s the weather, stupid!

Thank you, Jared Diamond, for your book that supports, in scholarly depth and detail, the inkling I had while living in Japan and Britain that climate has much to do with how people behave. For a long time, I’d been convinced that it’s the weather on both of these small islands that builds stoicism.

My mental image of gaman is the famous woodblock print by Hiroshige depicting figures huddling under straw umbrellas as they cross a bridge in a driving, chilling rain — carrying on despite. Hiroshige was much admired in Europe for the slanting lines in his prints. But I suspect the Europeans didn’t fully understand the conditions that inspired him to portray rain in this manner — it’s a rainy (and windy) old island, Honshu.

My mental image of England is — well, in fact, it’s what happened on the River Thames Flotilla Spectacular for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee this past week-end. Yes, it rained on that dear lady’s parade, yet she carried on despite…

Now, I don’t mean to equate the English stiff upper lip with Japanese gaman. The Japanese have a grounding in the Buddhist religion, which shapes their understanding of this concept. In addition, they must often contend with fairly severe climactic conditions — earthquakes as well as typhoons. No wonder they tend to emphasize the fatalistic aspect of keeping calm and carrying on. There’s nothing you can do about Mother Nature’s whims, so just bow to the inevitable and make the best of it.

The English, by contrast, tend to feel that they should make the best of situations by finding some humor in them. SUL is called for in situations where you might otherwise be overwhelmed by huge feelings (to the point where your upper lip might start to tremble). Black humor along with understatement can provide some welcome relief or distraction: “I won’t let the Jerries spoil our picnic! What’s a few bombs on a sunny day?” (Hey, I wonder if the Queen cracked a joke about the rain the other day? She’s reputed to have a sense of humor…)

Respect for the aged

In my view, however, the overlap between England and Japan on this point is greater than the differences. It’s interesting, for instance, that both countries have created a special category for those who’ve mastered their professions through years of persistence. Japan confers the title of Living National Treasure, or Preserver of Important Intangible Cultural Properties, to prominent artists or craftspeople of advanced years.

Likewise in England, knighthoods and dame-hoods (is that a word?) go to artists, entrepreneurs, and other major contributors to British society once they’ve reached a certain age — Dame Judi Dench, Sir Richard Branson, Sir Paul McCartney (almost 70 and still rockin’ with no signs of stoppin’!).

And then there’s the veneration shown to Queen Elizabeth herself. Having bounced back from her self-proclaimed annus horribilis, she now finds herself admired precisely for the quality that people (myself included!) at one time loathed: her ability to keep calm and do her duty. As the political journalist Anne Applebaum put it in her Slate column this week:

…the queen, simply by living so long, has come to epitomize an increasingly rare idea of duty that many in Britain, and elsewhere, admire. She doesn’t quit, she doesn’t complain, she doesn’t talk to the press or protest when people draw nasty caricatures or say unpleasant things about her family…

My, she has aged well!

My queenly umbrella

When touring Nova Scotia in the rain this time last year, I ended up buying the exact same “birdcage” umbrella that the Queen uses. A product of the Royal warranted umbrella maker, Fulton, the umbrella is transparent so that the Queen’s public can still see her, but then trimmed with the appropriate color so that it matches her outfit exactly. (Mine is trimmed in gold.)

Notably, that’s the brand of umbrella she and Camilla were carrying as they stepped off the royal barge when Sunday’s Jubilee pageant came to an end at Tower Bridge.

I think I was attracted to the umbrella not just because the Queen uses it but because it reminded me of the transparent umbrellas you can buy everywhere in Japan — helps you to see where you’re going when you’re bent over in the wind and rain like a Hiroshige figure.

Of late a couple of my friends have remarked that I remind them of the Queen. At first I was horrified: are they trying to say I’m getting on? But I think they might have been referring to my habit of wearing hats to protect my skin from sun and rain (which I picked up in Japan, actually) — and now, of course, there’s my Fulton umbrella! 🙂

My takeaways

The lesson of “keep calm and carry on” enriches my current life in all kinds of ways and, I’m convinced, can enrich the lives of my fellow Americans. Here are a few scenarios close to some I’ve experienced, with pointers on appropriate responses:

1 — Two airplanes crash into the twin towers in your city and there are constant rumors of another attack on the subways. Keep calm and carry on — and take the bus for a change. It’s slower, but the culture is a lot more pleasant.

2 — Your dentist asks you if you mind a slight pinprick from the needle used to inject the novocaine for fixing your cavity. Keep calm and carry on — and resist the temptation to remark: “Yanks are such wimps!” Instead, make a joke: “That’s going to make it damn tricky to keep talking to you.” He won’t laugh, but at least you’ll be seizing the occasion to practice your black humor, a key component of SUL.

3 — You’ve gathered together a group of friends from your apartment building to go out for dinner. You all meet in the lobby, but just as you’re about to step outside it starts raining like it does in the tropics. Your friends show hesitancy and want to call off the evening’s festivities. Keep calm and carry on — and think of the Queen. After checking that everyone is wearing the proper foot gear (wellies), go out the door first, wielding your queenly umbrella. So what if you get a bit wet? Just smile and be regal. If anyone looks at you as though they think you’re crazy, give them the royal wave. How dare they intrude on this, your finest hour? Off with their heads!

* * *

So, tell me: does any of this make sense, or has living abroad for so long rendered me totally bonkers?!

STAY TUNED for Thursday’s post, a Displaced Q on patriotism and the expat life, by Tony James Slater.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Image: MorgueFile

8 responses to “LESSONS FROM TWO SMALL ISLANDS — 1) Keep Calm and Carry On

  1. Marina June 7, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    You are spot-on about how difficult it can be to adjust to the SUL. When we first arrived in London, we waited hours at the bank to set up our accounts. I was ready to explode with rage by the end of all the tedium. Then an English woman walked in and explained that she was about to go on a holiday but her accounts were locked. It was evident that she was frustrated, but she held it together really well. The bank manager explained a long list of non-reasons why he would not be able to help her until the next day (her flight was leaving that evening), and instead of exploding she just calmly walked out. As an ex-New Yorker, I thought it was self-defeating behavior, but I’ve just come to accept that this is the way things are. Although I suspect a bit of that emotional repression/frustration finds it way to the surface at pubs after work and on the weekends!

    On another note, I need to find one of those Queenly umbrellas…

    • ML Awanohara June 8, 2012 at 12:24 am

      What a great story! I could relate to the part about “a long list of non-reasons.” I used to have an expression for that, too, when living in Britain: “10 reasons why not.”

      I just keep thinking how strange it is that the quality I most loathed in that part of the world — Stiff Upper Lip, repressed emotion — I now see as one of my chief “lessons learned.”

      Likewise, If someone had told me I would someday laud the Queen for her stoicism, I’d have said they were bonkers. Now I’m wondering if I’m bonkers, parading around with my trusty queenly umbrella!

      The other day, here in Manhattan, I walked by a vagabond who was voicing an opinion on every pedestrian who passed him. Here’s what he had to say about me: “You’re a long way from England, but not that far from Connecticut.” Are my years in Merry Olde that apparent? And would Connecticut be more of a natural home for someone like me? (Perhaps I should refer that question to Kate Allison, our resident Brit-in-Connecticut?)

      Curiouser and curiouser…

      • Kate Allison June 8, 2012 at 1:01 pm

        Well, I don’t know, ML…if you’re expecting a pub on every corner and a curry house every three streets, CT still has a way to go! But the town where I live now reminds me very much of the town where I grew up, in terms of the strong community and everyone knowing everyone else, so yes, maybe. And I imagine that going to live in NYC would be a culture shock after most places anyway…

        • ML Awanohara June 8, 2012 at 10:43 pm

          As I recall, your town has had some pretty extreme weather in the past 12 months, so in that sense it might be a better fit for me — I could practice (and perfect!) my Stiff Upper Lip techniques! 🙂

          • Kate Allison June 13, 2012 at 11:12 pm

            It certainly had its share of extreme weather this last year! Obviously I’m getting less and less British, because IMO the Stiff Upper Lip was less useful than the full tank of propane on the gas barbecue.

  2. Tony James Slater June 8, 2012 at 11:37 am

    Well, I’m not a massive fan of umbrellas, for starters. And it’s a while since I’ve been told I look like the Queen. A Queen for sure, but not THE Queen…
    It’s definitely a part of British culture though. We love to moan and complain as much as the next folk about anything and everything that isn’t important, but genuine adversity tends to be put up with and gotten through. I dunno – maybe it’s because we all grew up so poor? My generation, I mean. We were raised by the children of war veterans, those incredible tough and inventive types who had no choice but to soldier on – literally in many cases! All the ‘make do and mend’ type philosophies were impressed very strongly on my parents by their parents, and to this day I HATE to throw anything away if there’s a chance of fixing it, and I rarely (if ever) admit to being overmatched by a task, or to struggling with anything. Just suck it up and carry on!
    It makes me wonder actually, if we’ll be the last generation like this? I’ll try and instil a bit of a staunch spirit in my kinds, but is the Playstation generation ever going to be as hardy and practical as my grandfathers’?
    Somehow I doubt it…

    • ML Awanohara June 8, 2012 at 10:39 pm

      You make an interesting point about this “keep calm and carry on” quality being generational. It may be that both Japan and Britain developed a super strain of stoicism during WWII, albeit for different reasons (Britain because it was being hit by the Germans, Japan because it was being hit by the Allies). But I also think the weather has a lot to do with it. It wears you down after a while, in both places. Could global warming change that? Maybe… But until it does, I think you’ll continue to see SUL and gaman — at least that’s my prediction!

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