Call us zany, but when we first started this site two years ago, someone (no, not me!) had the bright idea of picking a literary or historical figure and using that person as a source of inspiration for a month-long series of posts.
June 2011, for instance, was Alice in Wonderland month; July, Pocahontas month; September, Robert Persig month; and October, Julia Child month.
You’ll never guess which one of these themes proved most popular: why, Alice of course! What international traveler or expat hasn’t experienced the sensation of stepping through the looking glass or falling down the rabbit hole? Like Alice, those of us who venture beyond borders must furiously navigate the new environments we uncover. Also like Alice, we are prone to feeling lonely and a bit sorry for ourselves on occasion.
Most expats can also relate to Alice’s gradual loss of self-identity. As she confesses to the Caterpillar:
“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir, because I’m not myself, you see.”
In today’s post, I propose to revisit Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece for themes that are worth exploring from a creative angle. Here are six that I find myself thinking about a lot, when trying to parse my own expat experience (an American, I lived first in England and then in Japan). WARNING: Tongue-in-cheek, but only somewhat!
1) The old adage about trusting your gut doesn’t always work when it comes to your actual gut.
ALICE PASSAGE: In Alice’s Wonderland, a jar labeled “Orange Marmalade” is not actually a jar full of orange marmalade.
APPLIES TO: Expats in Japan, who are always biting into pastries in the hopes of tasting chocolate and tasting azuki bean paste instead. Indeed, should you ever be in need of an Alice-like culinary experience, Japan has got to be your place. There’s the wasabi Kit Kats, of course. And how about the time when Carole Hallett Mobbs’s friend in Tokyo bought a sandwich with a lumpy filling? As Carole reported in her guest post for us:
A gentle squeeze sent a whole cooked potato shooting across the room.
ANOTHER ALICE FOOD PASSAGE: Fearing the contents of the “Drink Me” bottle may be poison, Alice is pleasantly surprised:
it had, in fact, a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast.
APPLIES TO: International travelers who venture to remote spots and are pleasantly surprised by the local cuisine. Actually, you don’t even have to be somewhere remote. Tokyo was where I developed a fondness for hirezake (hot sake with fugu fin) — talk about poisonous cocktails! And travel author Janet Brown told us she dreaded trying fried grasshoppers while living in Bangkok, only to find she liked them as much as popcorn! But even dedicated locavores, such as Jessica Festa, can have an Alice moment from time to time. I’ll never forget the story about her first experience eating cuy (guinea pig) in Ecuador. As she tells it, she saw it on the grill and thought it resembled her childhood pet, Joey. Repressing her better instinct not to eat anything she grew up playing with, she took a bite and said: “Holy crap, this is delicious!”
2) Communications with others and in general are far from satisfactory.
ALICE PASSAGE: When Alice is “opening out like the largest telescope that ever was, saying good-bye to her feet, she cries “Curiouser and curiouser!”—and then feels surprised that “for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English.”
APPLIES TO: Native English speakers living in a non-English speaking country. Their English inevitably morphs into the version the locals speak; spelling, too, deteriorates, and doesn’t come back.
ANOTHER ALICE MISCOMMUNICATION: Alice repeatedly offends the creatures in Wonderland without even trying.
APPLIES TO: Anyone who finds themselves “tone deaf” in Bangkok, as the aforementioned Janet Brown once did. (NOTE: Applies equally to those struggling to learn other Asian tonal languages such as Mandarin Chinese.) As she explained in her interview with us:
The most common mistake for foreigners is to tell someone their baby is beautiful, while actually announcing that the infant is bad luck.
3) Committing to another country can sometimes mean altering your body size (or wishing you could).
ALICE PASSAGE: When Alice first lands in Wonderland, she finds herself too large for the doorway out of the dark hall into the beautiful garden.
APPLIES TO: Anyone over 5’5″ living in Japan, Korea or Southeast Asia, who has to keep their head down when entering traditional dwellings for fear of getting a concussion.
ANOTHER BODY-CHANGING ALICE MOMENT: At the instruction of the Caterpillar, Alice tries eating portions of mushroom he’s been sitting on, which make her grow and shrink.
APPLIES TO: Repeat expats, or rex-pats, who find themselves going back and forth between the obesity epidemic in United States and almost anywhere else in the world, where people simply eat less and walk more. While living in Tokyo I soon reached my lowest body weight ever without even trying: all those meals of clear soup, rice, veggies and fish. Now that I’m back in America, I weigh ten pounds more, while in England I was somewhere in between…
4) People in other countries have their own relationships with Father Time.
ALICE PASSAGE: Alice experiences the full gamut: from the White Rabbit dashing about with his stopwatch for fear of being late for an important date, to the slackers at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, who waste time “asking riddles that have no answers.”
APPLIES TO: Repeat expats, or rex-pats, who’ve had the chance to live in Southern Europe, South America, or other places notorious for their laid-back approach to time, as well as in Germany, Switzerland or Japan where people pride themselves on their punctuality. Compared to Japan, I found England a Southern European country. When I was living in Tokyo and visiting the UK during summers, I was always late to appointments because I’d forgotten that trains don’t run on time (or at all). And most of the time, I had their sympathies. Whereas in Japan, I swear a White Rabbit must be in charge of public transport. You can set your watch by the trains! No excuses for lateness…
5) The laws and practices of another land can take some getting used to.
“No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first—verdict afterwards.”
“Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!”
APPLIES TO: Anyone who displaces themselves to a country with a radically different life philosophy. For instance, as an American I found that one of the biggest challenges of getting used to England and then Japan, the two small-island nations where I lived, was that I could never quite accept the natives’ stoicism. As I wrote in the first of my “Lessons from Two Small Islands” posts:
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?
And what about all those expats living in countries with byzantine immigration laws? Apparently, Alice’s own home, the UK, is among the worst. As we learned from interviewing New Zealander Vicki Jeffels, it essentially tells any wannabe immigrants: “Off with your heads!” Even if you’re from the Commonwealth! Still, at least they no longer discriminate… (Jeffels sorted out her visa problems in the end but has since repatriated.)
6) “Pool of tears” moments eventually build resilience.
ALICE PASSAGES: Alice goes from “shedding gallons of tears, until there was a large pool all round her, about four inches deep” to holding her own in Wonderland (see #5).
APPLIES TO: Well, really all of us. In the previous incarnation of the Displaced Nation, I had a Random Nomads column in which I would interview expats or veterans of international travel and ask them to describe their “most displaced” and “least displaced” moments. Many had difficulty with the former request, I guess because they felt uncomfortable going down the Rabbit Hole and examining their hearts more closely. The American Brian MacDuckston, though, was the rare exception. His “pool of tears” moment was his very first day of work as an English teacher in Japan. He somehow managed to get on the wrong train (every foreigner in Japan’s nightmare) and ended up in a “depot storage yard with an attendant yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand.” He was late for his first class and wanted to quit. Since then, however, he has emerged as one of the leading experts on Japanese ramen. Last we heard, he’d been offered a few gigs on Japanese TV shows as a “ramen reporter” and successfully pitched his first magazine article about a best-of-ramen list. Way to go, Brian, in treating that screaming railway worker as a Jack of Spades!
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So, are you ready to inject a bit of Alice into your Great Work on the voluntarily displaced life? And can you think of any more inspirational passages from Lewis Carroll? (No doubt there are more, and I will think of some of them as soon as I post this.)
Meantime, the Displaced Nation will continue its tradition of awarding “Alices” to writers who capture the curious, unreal side of the displaced life—only we will now be awarding one per week, via our Displaced Dispatch. What, not a subscriber yet? CLICK HERE NOW—or off with your head! Recommendations of posts (your own, other bloggers’) for Alices are also warmly appreciated. Please send to ML@thedisplacednation.com.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another in our Old World/New World series.
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