Curiouser and curiouser.
Once upon a time, I found myself chasing a white rabbit with a gloriously old-fashioned pocket watch and falling
a hOle into Aliceland, where people stood about in anoraks and talked about the weather.
I was an expat in the United Kingdom.
Next I stepped through a looking glass into a topsy-turvy wonder-world where commuters in suits sporting high-tech timepieces were dashing about, afraid to be late for apparently important dates.
I was an expat in Japan.
In 2015 the world celebrated the 150th birthday of Lewis Carroll’s first Alice story, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and, although I’m no longer an expat—I repatriated back to East Coast USA some time ago—I have spent the year paying tribute to this Victorian heroine for being my role model, or muse, during the period when I lived abroad.
What drew me so powerfully to the Alice stories? Skeptics may surmise that this Alice obsession of mine comes from some childish need to exoticize the adventures that took place during my time overseas. By comparing myself to Alice, I’m implying that my expat life was even more extraordinary than it actually was.
These critics may also think I’m being condescending in implicitly likening the natives of the UK and Japan to talkative animals or mad people.
For anyone who’s not feeling the thing I have for Alice: My point is, being an expat made me feel like a child again, especially when I found myself struggling to communicate basic points or failing to understand what was happening around me.
At moments like those, if someone had told me lobsters could dance, cats could have grins that fade in and out, and men could be shaped like eggs—I would have believed them. (In fact, I did see a lobster dance. That was at a fish restaurant in Tokyo. It hadn’t mastered the quadrille, though.)
“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle…”
Alice is a child on the verge of adolescence—and the expat me could relate to that portion of her story as well. Her statement “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then” echoed in my head throughout my expat life—especially towards the end, when I was an American who spoke with a British accent and, similar to Through the Looking Glass Alice, had lost my first name. (As the only foreigner in a Japanese office, I was always referred to by my last name, with the suffix “-san”.)
Psychologist Eve Hemming addresses what it feels like to lose one’s cultural bearings in her recently published Scatterlings: A Tapestry of Afri-expat Tales. As she tells it, her decision to emigrate from her native South Africa to New Zealand was traumatic. Her arrival in “the land of the long white cloud” of Māori legend was akin to “falling through Alice in Wonderland’s looking glass and waking up an extra-terrestrial in an alien landscape.” Not long after, she had the chance to return to her homeland for a brief visit, and felt as though she has “plummeted down the rabbit hole back into Africa.”
These descriptions make me think of the Cheshire Cat’s advice to poor disorientated Alice:
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
If you stay in the expat world long enough, you feel, and are treated like, an alien wherever you go. I can still recall going home to America and having people refuse to believe I was American because of my credible British accent. They also found it strange I was so apologetic, a trait that had come from working in a Japanese office.
I had become one of those people who are at home everywhere—and nowhere; an adult yet a Third Culture Kid.
“How do you know I’m mad?”
Although I didn’t know it at the time, Lewis Carroll’s wonderland story could be a textbook illustration of the four stages of expat acculturation, as outlined by psychologist Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign in her manual, Living Abroad.
As soon as she lands at the bottom of the rabbit hole, Alice enters Stage One: Elation. She glimpses a “most fabulous” garden and samples a delightful drink that has “a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast.”
It is not long, however, before she enters Stage Two: Resistance. “It was much pleasanter at home,” thought poor Alice, “when one wasn’t always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits.”
At the same time, though, she shows potential for entering Stage Three: Transformation, when, after saying she almost wishes she hadn’t gone down the rabbit hole, she reflects: ”…and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”
And, although Alice never quite reaches Stage Four: Integration (when cultural barriers are bridged)—she leaves Wonderland still feeling a bit displaced—the memories of her adventures clearly have an impact. In the next Alice story, Carroll shows her as being keen for another adventure, why she steps through the looking-glass…
“And yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”
The quality that Alice develops in spades (and hearts, clubs, diamonds) is resilience—which by many expert accounts is the key on a glass plate that opens the door to a successful expat life.
As Linda Janssen puts it in her book The Emotionally Resilient Expat, to have a successful transition into living in another part of the world, we need to know how to adapt, adjust or simply accept what cannot be changed.
Janssen, an American, called the blog she kept while living in the Hague “Adventures in Expatland.” She said the title perfectly expressed her feelings about an experience that was “incredibly exhilarating, challenging, and occasionally maddening.”
I know what she means. There were several instances during my times in the UK and Japan when I needed to believe six impossible things before breakfast… By the same token, though, I knew that after a fall into expatland, I should think nothing of tumbling down stairs—a thought that kept me going through a second expat assignment, and now repatriation, possibly the curious-est wonderland of them all.
Thank you, Alice, for being my heroine, and I hope you enjoyed your big birthday. Now that you’re 150, you shouldn’t be taking any stuff and nonsense from the March Hare. Tell him to pour you that glass of wine! Cheers, kanpai, bottoms up—from one of your top expat fans xoxoxo
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ML Awanohara, one of the Displaced Nation’s founders and its current editor, has been conducting a series of “wonderlanded” interviews with expat authors whose lives, and works, in some way echo Alice’s adventures. If you find her Alice comparisons amusing or even a bit nonsensical, be sure to subscribe to the weekly Displaced Dispatch, which has an “Alice Obsession” feature.
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Photo credits: Top row: Ann Smith – Sleepy Summers Day – Lobster Quadrille, by sea +; Final Tea Party, by Joe Rice via Flickr; and Float in the Tres Reyes parade (Seville, Spain), by Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble. Bottom row: Night cat, by Raffaele Esposito; The Pool of Tears, by sea +; and Have I gone mad (Berlin), by onnola. All photos via Flickr (CC BY 2.0), except last one, which is via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).