The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Repatriation is just relocation — with benefits

Today’s guest blogger, Anastasia Ashman, has been pioneering a new concept of global citizenship. Through various publications, both online and in print, and now through her GlobalNiche initiative, she expresses the belief that common interests and experiences can connect us more than geography, nationality, or even blood. But what happens when someone like Ashman returns to the place where she was born and grew up? Here is the story of her most recent repatriation.

I recently relocated to San Francisco. Three decades away from my hometown area, I keep chanting: “Don’t expect it to be the same as it was in the past.”

Since leaving the Bay area, I’ve lived in 30 homes in 4 countries, journeying first to the East Coast (Philadelphia Mainline) for college, then to Europe (Rome) for further studies, back to the East Coast (New York) and the West Coast (Los Angeles) for work, over to Asia (Penang, Kuala Lumpur) for my first overseas adventure, back to the USA (New York), and finally, to Istanbul for my second expat experience.

My daily mantra has become: “Don’t expect to be the same person you once were.”

With each move, my mental map has faded, supplanted by new information that will get me through the day.

Back in San Francisco, I repeat several times a day: “This place may be where I’m from, but it’s a foreign country now. Don’t expect to know how it all works.”

What a difference technology makes (?!)

Today my work travels, just as it did when I arrived in Istanbul with a Hemingway-esque survival plan to be on an extended writing retreat and emerge at the border with my passport and a masterpiece.

I knew from my previous expat stint in Malaysia that I needed to tap into a local international scene. But I spent months in limbo without local friends, nor being able to share my transition with the people I’d left.

This time is different. Now I’m connected to expat-repat friends around the world on the social Web with whom I can discuss my re-entry. I’ve built Twitter lists of San Francisco people  (1, 2, 3) to tap into local activities and lifestyles, in addition to blasts-from-my-Berkeley-past.

I’ve already drawn some sweet time-travely perks. To get a new driver’s license I only needed to answer half the test questions since I was already in the system from teenhood.

After Turkey’s Byzantine bureaucracy and panicky queue-jumpers, I appreciated the ease of making my license renewal appointment online even if the ruby-taloned woman at the Department of Motor Vehicles Information desk handed me additional forms saying: “Oh, you got instructions on the Internet? That’s a different company.”

One of the reasons my husband and I moved here is to more closely align with a future we want to live in, so it’s cool to see the online-offline reality around us in San Francisco’s tech-forward atmosphere.

It doesn’t always translate to an improved situation though. Just as we are searching for staff to speak to in person at a ghost-town Crate & Barrel, a suggestion card propped on a table told us to text the manager “how things are going.”

So, theoretically I can reach the manager — I just can’t see him or her.

So strange…yet so familiar

It took a couple of months to identify the name for what passes as service now in the economically-depressed United States: anti-service. Customer service has been taken over by scripts read by zombies.

When I bought a sticky roller at The Container Store, the clerk asked me, “Oh, do you have a dog?”

“No, a cat,” I countered into the void.

He passed me the bag, his small-talk quota filled. He wasn’t required by his employer to conclude the pseudo-interaction with human-quality processing, like, “Ah, gotta love ’em.”

What I didn’t plan for are the psychedelic flashbacks to my childhood. I may have moved on, but this place seems set in amber. The burrito joints are still playing reggae (not even the latest sounds of Kingston or Birmingham) and the pizza places, ’70s classic rock stations (Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like An Eagle,” anyone?). The street artists are still peddling necklaces of your name twisted in wire. Residents are still dressed like they’re going for a hike in the hills with North Face fleece jackets and a backpack.

A bid for minimalism

The plan is also to be somewhat scrappy after years of increasing bloat. My Turkish husband and I got rid of most of our stuff in Turkey in a bid for minimalism. We camped out on the floor of our apartment in San Francisco until we could procure some furniture.

If it was a literal repositioning, it was also a conscious one — for a different set of circumstances. We’d expanded in Istanbul with a standard 3-bedroom apartment and “depot” storage room, and affordable house cleaners to maintain the high level of cleanliness of a typical Turkish household. In California, I intended to shoulder more of the housework.

I was soon reminded of relocation’s surprises that can make a person clumsy and graceless. I should have kept my own years-in-the-making sewing kit since I can’t find a quality replacement for it in an American market flooded with cheap options from China — and now have to take a jacket to the tailor to sew on a button, something I used to be able to do myself.

When the lower-quality dishwasher door in our San Francisco rental drops open and bangs my kneecap, I recall the too-thin cling wrap and tinfoil that I ripped to shreds in Istanbul, or the garden hose in Penang that kinked and unkinked without warning, spraying me in the face.

New purchases

“We’re getting too old for this,” my husband and I keep telling each other as we shift on our polyester-filled floor pillows that looked a lot bigger and less junky on Amazon. (We were abusing one-day delivery after years of not buying anything online due to difficulties with customs in Istanbul. Cat litter can be delivered tomorrow! Pepper grinder! Then I read about the harsh conditions faced by fulfillment workers in Amazon’s warehouses and cut back.)

One of our first purchases Stateside was a television. Not that we’re going to start watching local TV, but we did flick through some satellite channels. It’s something I like to do upon relocating: watch TV and soak up the local culture like a cyborg.

Since I last lived in the US, reality shows like COPS — where the camera would follow policemen on their seedy beats — have gone deeper into the underbelly of life, and now there are reality shows about incarceration.

The Discovery Channel has also gone straight to the swamp. That’s where I caught a moonshiner reality show featuring shirtless (and toothless) men in overalls called “Popcorn” and “Grandad.”

It’s an America I am not quite keen to get to know.

But I can take these reverse culture shocks lightly because my repatriation is part of a continuum. It’s not a hiatus from anything nor a return home. I’m not missing anything elsewhere, I haven’t given up anything for good. Being here now is simply the latest displacement. Today is a bridge to where I’m headed.

ANASTASIA ASHMAN is the cultural writer/producer behind the Expat Harem book and discussion site.  The Californian has been on a global rollercoaster: fired in Hollywood, abandoned on a snake-infested island off Borneo, married in an Ottoman palace, interviewed by Matt Lauer on the Today show. She brings it all home in the “Web 3.0 & Life 3.0” educational media startup, empowering creative, adventurous, self-improving people to tap into a wider world of personal and pro opportunity no matter where you are. Get your copy of the Global You manifesto here.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s episode in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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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Images: Anastasia Ashman (2012), her World Champions ring, and a view of the bridge to where she’s headed right now.

16 responses to “Repatriation is just relocation — with benefits

  1. Miss Footloose August 23, 2012 at 8:41 am

    I know how you feel, Anastasia. I’ve lost count of the number of countries and houses I have lived in, and although I have actually never re-patriated to my home country of the Netherlands, I have re-patriated twice to the USA, my adopted country now. It is an adjustment. But like you, I always knew it was not permanent. I do dread the day when I have to say, “This place (whatever country we choose) is it. No more going anywhere but in a box.” (I am Dutch, we say it as sit is 😉

    • Anastasia M. Ashman (@AnastasiaAshman) August 23, 2012 at 1:52 pm

      Hi Karen. Now that I’m onto the impermanence kick (which works so well! it removes the freight from any given moment) I doubt I’ll come to the conclusion that I am not going anywhere else or that a present circumstance is forever-until-the-box. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Jack Scott August 23, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    As a recent repat myself, I agree that the person who left is very different from the person who returned. I have a new perspective. For me, though, home is where the heart is and where the health care is free 😉

    • ML Awanohara August 24, 2012 at 8:02 am

      I didn’t know you’d repatriated! Was it in time for the Olympics? And can you say a little more about how your perspective has changed?

      • Jack Scott August 25, 2012 at 6:47 am

        It was, but that was a happy coincidence. We’ve moved to Norwich in the flatlands of East Anglia. I now write about my observations of Blighty life with the odd Turkish comment thrown in. My perspective has altered because Turkey broke the invisible umbilical cord between work and life, and taught us to make do with less. Turkey also gave me the time and space to write – the blog, then the book. They’ll be a second book and perhaps a third. It won’t make my fortune but it is enormously satisfying in a way that my old well-paid career never was.

    • Anastasia M. Ashman (@AnastasiaAshman) August 24, 2012 at 12:34 pm

      Hey Jack! Congrats again on your book, loved the recent trailer.

      In returning to a place I once spent a whole lifetime (what childhood feels like!), it’s certainly a temptation to read unchanging aspects as stagnation — as if the place should have evolved along the same path I have, or at least been triggered to change in some way. But why would it? I would say this is my new perspective: seeing the place I’m from in a much larger context in terms of the world, and the person I am/am becoming/have become in it.

      And, when I walk into the right room for me here (or anywhere), it’s palpable. This spring I volunteered at a Wisdom 2.0 conference, a whole ballroom of people combining ancient fundamentals with cutting edge technologies. My fellow practitioners of hybrid East/West methodologies, the offspring of counterculture and cyberculture. I felt at home, more than in a room of people I used to know or with whom I share blood. Plus, I was struck how my own development, theory & practice, mirrored what was occurring in that hotel ballroom even though I was out in the ‘wilderness’ for 30 years, often surrounded by settings that didn’t support that kind of development. That’s what a global niche can do for a person, I’m thinking. We can actualize/nurture our nature no matter what our situational limitations.

  3. ML Awanohara August 24, 2012 at 8:16 am

    Funny you mentioned the pseudo-interactions you have with salespeople in the US — I was having similar thoughts a few days ago, and I’ve been back much longer than you have! I often have the feeling here in New York City that people don’t “read” me too well. Maybe it’s all the narcissistic personalities that are attracted to this city, but I often have the feeling when I meet someone for the first time that they’re casting me in a script they’ve written about themselves. The script has much more to do with who they are, or aspire to be, than with who I am (I’m just a bit player). There’s very little curiosity about the stuff that makes me a curiosity. I find this strange, as well as off-putting, after so many years of interacting with Brits and Asians. In both England and Japan, I easily found people with whom I could have a two-way interaction, a proper dialogue — which didn’t always go according to either person’s script.

    I was ruminating on all of this and coming to the conclusion that this country’s rampant individualism can can lead to much loneliness! Which I now see is a long ways off from your scripted Container Store guy — except I wonder if it’s part and parcel of the same thing? Long story short: the art of conversation seems to be dying a death in this part of the world.

    • Anastasia M. Ashman (@AnastasiaAshman) August 24, 2012 at 12:05 pm

      Thanks again for the opportunity to write about this for TDN, ML.

      I find these scripts particularly intrusive at restaurants where the wait staff makes you sit through a fake Applebee’s style of homey introduction (and then interrupts your conversation repeatedly through the meal to ask what *they* need to ask “everything ok?” rather than just monitor the table for a sign we need something). My husband has started replying to the “How is everyone today?” questions with disarming questions of his own. “How are the kids?” he asks the waitress, who snaps out of it and suddenly is a person again. “Oh, I don’t have kids but I’ve got two nephews. They’re up in Grass Valley.”

  4. Adventures (@in_expatland) August 24, 2012 at 9:52 am

    It’s interesting to get your perspective (and those of the commenters) on ‘going back’. Guess you’ve been gone long enough to make it surreal yet it’s familiar enough to be cozy. Like you, I’m not sure we’d ever go back full-time; we’ll just have to see what the future has in store. Really enjoyed the post.

    • Anastasia M. Ashman (@AnastasiaAshman) August 24, 2012 at 1:08 pm

      Surreal AND cozy, you hit it on the head, Linda. A new place that doesn’t take as much parsing as most new places, with some unexpected memory jogs and core-shaking realizations. I visited New York this month (my *other* home in America) and had similar flashbacks and revelations mixed with autopilot ease.

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