The Displaced Nation

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Category Archives: Alice theme posts

Alice in Expatland: Paying tribute as her 150th anniversary year winds to a close

Alice in Expatland

Curiouser and curiouser.

Once upon a time, I found myself chasing a white rabbit with a gloriously old-fashioned pocket watch and falling
d
o
w
n
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

* * *

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.

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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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).

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6 Alice-in-Wonderland themes for creatives abroad to explore in their works

 © Iamezan | Dreamstime.com Used under license

© Iamezan | Dreamstime.com
Used under license

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.

ALICE PASSAGE:

“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!

* * *

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.

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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