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A clueless immigrant’s 5 expat highlights for the year

I am not doing well with the passing of the years: they are over at an alarming rate. That we are already coming to the end of 2012 fills me with anxiety and dread. So perhaps I am not the best person to be in charge of one of those prerequisite “best-of-the-year” lists that fill up space this time of year. Nonetheless I have revisited my 2012 posts on The Displaced Nation to come up with my personal expat highlights for the year. Do join me on my existential journey.

1. “Travel for excitement, not enlightenment”

We started 2012 with a look at travel and moving abroad as a search for spiritual enlightenment. While I may possibly in the minority among this blog’s readers in finding the Elizabeth Gilbert idea of travel patronising, irritating, and misplaced, I do think travel is important. It (when done properly) broadens the mind; it can also be the most exciting thing you can do in your life. But — let’s be clear — in of itself buying a Virgin Airways ticket does not nourish your soul. That can be done much closer to home.

Now most of us can’t be as amazing as Pico Iyer — that’s just the burden we have to carry through our lives. We can’t just move to rural Japan and fetishize solitude. We will still spend our evenings in the grocery store, our weekends in the mall, they will still be those 2.4 children and those bloody traffic jams — as David Byrne sang, “same as it ever was.”

What I am going to do try and do in 2012 (and yes even though it’s mid-January I still feel it is early enough to mention resolutions in a post) is to take advantage of technology to find some solitude. I’m not going to posture by lighting an incense stick as if the path to personal enlightenment lies in sniffing in something called Egyptian Musk. What I am going to do is take advantage of the quiet moments that my everyday life provides by sitting and concentrating at a task and deriving satisfaction from that. It may be by learning programming, a foreign language, or taking advantage of the sheer, vast number of books that are now available for free on Google books. In this well-known brand of coffee shop while Tony Bennett plays to me and the tattooed man and the policeman and the baristas return to talking about the smaller one’s mother-in-law, I have on my iPad access to a library of books greater than the Bodleian — reason enough not to throw the iPad across the room when I’m annoyed by Iyer.

2. What to wear for an Independence Day party

Being British I always find Independence Day just a little bit awkward. Choosing appropriate clothing is always something of a dilemma.

Finding the Target employee that looked the most patriotic — the telltale signs are a sensible haircut, good posture, and a strong jaw line — I asked where I might find the most patriotic T-shirts in store. Leading me to a selection of T-shirts featuring the stars and stripes, it was difficult for me to contain my disappointment with this somewhat anemic selection.

“Hmmm, do you have anything more patriotic?” I asked.

The patriotic youth seemed a little confused, a look that made him seem increasingly un-American.

“I was,” I said, “looking for something with a little more pizzazz. Something more OTT. I was kinda hoping you’d have one where Jesus is cradling the Liberty Bell while a bald eagle looks down approvingly?”

3. London Olympics

In 2012, I was swept up by the Olympics far more than I anticipated. What I did not enjoy, however, was the poor coverage I had to put up with by NBC which revealed their own awkward world view.

The Games have made me homesick. My usual cynicism is no match for the enthusiasm of my London friends, all of whom seem to be attending events (if Facebook is anything to go by) while I sit watching it in one of the dullest towns in California. The opening ceremony elicited in me a mixture of pride and embarrassment — and as such, perfectly encapsulated for me what it is to be British. The ceremony also irritated Rush Limbaugh — so clearly job well done on Danny Boyle‘s part there.

4. Are you an imposter or a chameleon?

The release of a new documentary film about the French con man, Frédéric Bourdin, led to my favorite discussion of the year: what sort of expat are you, an imposter or a chameleon?

I know that I find myself occupying roles I had previously not thought I would before. Sometimes I am the imposter. I play a role that isn’t me. In my case, it may be exaggerating national characteristics and language that I feel people expect of me, but that I would never use back home. At other times, I find myself trying to be the chameleon. Trying to scrub away my otherness so that no attention is drawn to me because I sound different, or behave differently.

5. Donkeys and elephants: The US Presidential election

Here in the US, 2012 was marked by the presidential election. As a resident alien, a domestic election is an interesting thing as you have one foot in and one foot out.

It’s a strange feeling waking up on the morning of an election in the country that you live, and not voting. Equally, it’s a strange feeling posting your ballot in an election 6,000 miles away as I did in the last British election in 2010.

What are some of your expat highlights of the year? If you have a blog, feel free to leave links to a favorite blog post you may have written.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts.

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How the 2012 elections looked to a repatriated American who is now a digital global citizen

Global citizens follow the US elections closely; some even see American politics as a spectator sport. For today’s post, we asked Anastasia Ashman, an occasional contributor to the Displaced Nation, to tell us how she felt about the 2012 elections. An expat of many years and an active proponent of global citizenship, Anastasia recently repatriated, with her Turkish husband, to her native California.

Rather than drifting away from the American political process when I was far from my fellow citizens, it was during an expat stint that I became most deeply involved.

My involvement had a displaced quality, of course.

I have always been on the edges of the American experience, hailing as I do from the countercultural town of Berkeley, California. The first time in my life I owned and brandished an American flag was after 9/11. It felt like a homecoming after a lifetime of being the outsider.

Even now that I’m back in California, my political involvement continues to have a displaced quality because I know what it’s like to be a citizen on the front lines of our nation’s foreign policy. For most Americans, the issue of how the rest of the world perceives our country is distant, amorphous, forgettable — but not for those of us who’ve lived abroad.

Clark for President!

I’d discovered Wesley Clark on television after 9/11. A four-star general, he was talking about the world we’d suddenly plunged into like a polished, collected and thoughtful world-class leader. It was easy to feel a kinship with the philosopher general even though I’d grown up in a household that vilified the military. Instead of activist or escapist pursuits, I chose to join him in geopolitical chess.

During the months between September 2003 and February 2004 when Clark competed in the presidential primary to become the Democratic candidate, I campaigned for him from afar. My email inbox soon filled with security warnings from the U.S. Consul urging Americans to keep a low profile.

If I had been able to get my hands on a campaign poster back in 2003 and 2004, I wouldn’t have displayed it publicly in my Istanbul apartment window. We were invading Iraq, and Istanbul was the site of four al Qaeda-related terrorist bombings that November. Avoid obvious gatherings of Americans, the emails cautioned. No mention of red, white, and blue “Clark for Democratic Candidate” campaign posters plastered on your residence — I had to extrapolate that.

Instead, I became active in online forums and wrote letters to undecided voters and newspapers in numerous states for my choice, the former N.A.T.O. Supreme Commander Wesley Clark. That was all I could do.

Obama for Re-election!

I’ve now been back in the USA for a year and have followed this election cycle, like the last one, mostly via social media. Online is an ideal place to become disconnected from echo chambers you don’t resonate with, and to stumble into rooms you don’t recognize. Both have happened.

But for the first time in the American political process, I don’t feel displaced. I feel like I am right where I belong.

Maybe it’s the San Francisco environs, which, although they may not match my concerns, don’t rankle too badly. At least I’m not in Los Angeles being asked to vote on whether porn actors must wear condoms. (They should, obvs!)

I feel less displacement in this election because of the resonant connections I’ve made online in the last four years or more. I’m in open, deep geopolitical conversation with Americans, American expats and with citizens of other nations, all over the world.

During this election I’ve been using my web platform, my digital footprint, to gather political news and opinion, enter discussions, and raise awareness. I’ve been reconciling my patchwork politics by weaving together who I relate to, and what I care about, and what sources I pass on to my network and what conversations I start. I now know that I am

  • A woman from an anti-war town who campaigned for a general!
  • A Hillary supporter who’s backing Barack, and
  • An adult-onset Third Culture Kid who understands how and why Obama’s Third Culture Kid experience confuses the average American.

What I have chosen to share on social media during this election cycle is a processing of all that makes me a political animal. I feel I have participated in this election cycle as the whole me, and that is all I can do.

I’ve shared that I care deeply that

I am buoyed that these abominations are leaking out and being countered. I was edified to hear others share my disapproval of eligible voters who choose to throw their votes away.

I have been able to be an active digital world citizen during this election cycle, someone who votes for the bigger picture, not just at the ballot box, but in everything I do. And that feels like home to me.

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” transformational media startup, empowering people to be more visible in the world and develop personally/professionally through social web technology. Get your copy of the Global You manifesto here.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s account of the American election cycle from a British expat’s perspective.

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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19 more films that depict the horrors of being abroad, or otherwise displaced

Readers, we have to confess, ever since horror novelist, former expat and Third Culture Kid Sezin Koehler suggested 15 horror films on travel and the expat life, we’ve become rather addicted — and have invited her back here today for another hit. Go ahead and indulge yourselves — it’s Halloween, after all!

Being the horror-obsessed film nut that I am — and loving how my expat/traveller life has collided with my scary movie self — I offer here are a few more honorable mentions within the three sub-genres I presented in last week’s post:

  1. The expat.
  2. The world traveler.
  3. The otherwise displaced.

1. Expat Horror: Caveat expat, or expat beware (or in some cases, beware of the expat!).

1) Blood and Chocolate, about an American orphan who goes to live with her aunt in Bucharest. Oh, and the orphan is a werewolf.




2) Drag Me To Hell, in which a Romany shaman in the US is evicted from her home and takes her rage out on the lowly loan officer who refused to give her a mortgage.




3) In The Hole we find an American student in a British boarding school who gets trapped in a World War II bomb shelter with a few classmates. So we’re led to think…




4) In The Grudge, Sarah Michelle Gellar gets far more than she ever bargained for living and working in Japan as a nurse, when a malevolent creature in her house begins an awful campaign of harassment, mayhem and torture.




5) Orphan finds us with a family interested in adopting a young Russian girl, only the longer she’s with them the more the mother suspects she’s not the child she claims to be.




6) + 7) The Joss Whedon marvels Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, both of
which feature a number of prominent expats — a few are slayer trainers sent over to California from the Old World (Britain), a few are expat vampires who’ve decided the anonymity of the United States better suits their feeding habits.



2. Traveler Horror: “Let your suitcases gather dust!”, cry these films.

8) In Shrooms, a group of young Americans go to meet their Irish friend on his home turf in order to experience the hallucinogenic mushrooms indigenous to the fairylands of Ireland’s bonnie green forests. He forgot to tell them that their chosen “tripping” site is also the home of a haunted and abandoned insane asylum. And that not all the mushrooms are the magic type.



9) In Open Water, two Carribbean cruise snorkelers are left behind, to be tormented by a shark. Based on a true story — and one of many reasons why I keep my feet on dry land despite now living in Florida.




10) In the same vein we have Piranha 3D, in which half-naked spring-breakers are set upon by prehistoric piranha that have been released through an underground fault.




11) The Hills Have Eyes features a family on a road trip through the post-nuclear testing New Mexico desert are set upon by a group of psychopaths who live in the hills.




12) Worlds collide in From Dusk Till Dawn when a reverend on a road trip to Mexico with his children is hijacked by two ruthless killers on the lam from the law after a series of brutal murders and robberies. They find themselves like fish out of water when their rest-stop bar turns out to be a haven for vampires.




13) When a group of friends go white water rafting in Appalachia, the idylic back country scene turns nightmare when a group of inbred locals terrorizes the group, and one of its members in particular. Deliverance is not for the faint of heart.




I could keep going with this sub-genre, but surely you get the point by now. Stay home!

3. Displaced Horror: “Think twice about moving or taking a sojourn outside the ‘hood” is the moral here.

14) Rosemary’s Baby, in which Mia Farrow discovers that her new Manhattan residence is also the home to a group of mad Satanists who’ve got their sights on her unborn baby.




15) The slasher musical Don’t Go In the Woods features a band on the verge of a breakthrough go camping to write some new tunes. Only, there’s something else in there with them that’s picking them off one by one.




16) Every incarnation of the Alien series brings us a group of Earth’s citizens in outer space, battling a wretched and basically unkillable xenomorph. Keep your feet on land. Save yourself the trouble.




17) In Friday the 13th, a group of summer-camp goers are stalked by a relentless killer. Man, this one makes me glad I never went to summer camp, even though growing up I always wanted to.




18) A writer on a summertime retreat to a supposedly peaceful cabin is brutalized by a gang of locals. One of my personal favorites, I Spit On Your Grave is a grotesque revenge fantasy come to life and suggests one might be better off simply working from home.




19) And we can’t forget one of the most iconic examples of Displaced Horror: The Shining, in which Jack Torrance, temporary caretaker of the historically creepy and ever haunted evil Overlook Hotel, goes mad and tries to murder his family. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, eh?

Happy Hallowe’en!

* * *

So, are you ready to burn your passport and throw away all your travel gear yet? 😉

And while we’re still at it, do you have any other films you’d add to Sezin’s best-of abroad horror list?

Sezin Koehler, author of American Monsters, is a woman either on the verge of a breakdown or breakthrough writing from Lighthouse Point, Florida. Culture shock aside, she’s working on four follow-up novels to her first, progress of which you can follow on her Pinterest boards. Her other online haunts are Zuzu’s Petals, Twitter, and Facebook — all of which feature eclectic bon mots, rants and raves.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, in which our fictional expat heroine, Libby Oliver, checks in and lets us know how she’s doing back at “home” in Merry Olde.

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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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.

RANDOM NOMAD: Brian MacDuckston, American Expat in Tokyo & Expert Ramen Slurper

Place of birth: San Francisco, California USA
Passport: USA
Overseas history: Japan (Saitama, Hiroshima, Tokyo): 2006 – present.
Occupation: Food consultant and freelance English teacher (available for high school classes, after-school programs, private lessons, children’s events…)
Cyberspace coordinates: Ramen Adventures (blog); @macduckston (Twitter handle); and Ramen Adventures (Facebook).

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
Around 2004 I took a colloquial Mandarin Chinese class, hoping to learn a bit to help with the massive amounts of Kung Fu movies I was into at the time — I soon learned that Cantonese, not Mandarin, is used in these flicks. One of my classmates was going to China for a year to teach English. I did some Internet searching and decided I really wanted to check this out. I was stressed with my computer job, and a year abroad seemed like a good idea. Opportunities abound in China, Korea, and Japan. Japan just seemed like a good choice to me.

You’ve now lived in Japan for more than five years. Tell me about the moment when you felt the most displaced.
My first day of work in Saitama, I somehow managed to get on an empty train that had reached its last stop. A minute later and I was in the depot storage yard with an attendant yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand. I was late to my very first English lesson. I wanted to quit right away. Things got better, obviously.

Is there any particular moment or moments that stand out as your least displaced?
Whenever I’m on the road here in Japan. I ride a motorcycle — very few foreigners do that. Something about being able to navigate across mountain ranges on poorly marked roads fills me with a great sense of accomplishment.

Hmmm…are you sure it’s safe? And now you may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from your adopted country into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
A curiosity? I am actually quite a minimalist, collecting only photos. My Nikon camera is technically a Japanese thing. I guess I would choose that. Or perhaps I should consider bringing a few of my Japanese cooking knives. Beautifully crafted and razor sharp, they are amazing things.

Ah, cooking! I’m glad you mentioned that. You are invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other members of The Displaced Nation. What’s on your menu?

Ramen of course! Let’s go ahead and serve it after the drinks. After many drinks. Ramen is one of the best hangover prevention foods. All that fat and all those carbs do wonders for the next morning.

And now you may add a word or expression from the country you live in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
Umai is a great food word in Japanese. Most people first learn oishii to mean delicious, but umai is a bit stronger, a bit more cool. It’s mostly a guy word, though. I hope that’s okay with the female occupants of the Displaced Nation?

Perfectly okay! This summer, thanks to the London Olympics, all of us Displaced Nation residents, whether male or female, have become obsessed with displays of machismo and strength. In fact, this may be a good time to bring up your hobby of eating ramen in as many Tokyo venues as possible. How did you get launched in such a curious culinary sport — and become so accomplished that you and your blog were featured in the Travel section of the New York Times?
After living in Hiroshima for a bit, I knew that I needed to live in the big city.  So I finished my contract, signed up for unemployment insurance, and moved to Tokyo. Suddenly I found myself with a massive amount of time on my hands — and not a lot of money in my pockets. I decided to wait in the ridiculously long ramen shop line that I had seen many times across the street from a massive bookstore in Ikebukuro, one of Tokyo’s multiple city centers.

I was shocked how good it was. Completely worth the hour wait outside in the cold. A bit of research later, and I had a list of the 30 best shops in Tokyo…a nice place to start.

Thirty shops sounds rather daunting, particularly if each one involves standing in line for hours! What keeps you going, and do you still like ramen after the upteempth bowl of it?
What keeps me going? A job that doesn’t pay much! In fact, it’s the kind of random fun that comes with this obsession that keeps me going. When I can somehow influence someone to have the best bowl of ramen they have ever had, I feel like it is worth it.

Would you say that you’ve now graduated from amateur to pro?
Becoming a pro in such a niche corner of the food world is tough, but I suppose the few guidebook articles or magazine pieces I have worked on would put me up there.

Readers — yay or nay for letting Brian MacDuckston into The Displaced Nation once he’s finished slurping up his latest bowl of noodles? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Brian — find amusing!)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s Displaced Q, about nationalism and the Olympics.

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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img: Brian at a ramen-ya in Tokyo, pursuing his favorite “sport.”

Trying — but failing — to keep up with Wendy Nelson Tokunaga, Olympic e-book author and karaoke star

**Announcing a giveaway of one of Wendy Nelson Tokunaga’s Kindle e-books. open to DISPLACED DISPATCH SUBSCRIBERS  & ANYONE WHO COMMENTS. And guess what? You get to take your pick! Woo hoo!!**

During this summer’s London Olympics there will be endless displays of speed grace, strength, masochism, endurance, pain, and perseverance.

Just the the thought of it makes me feel exhausted and a little bit nauseous.

But I don’t necessarily have to look toward the Orbit (I refer to the “eyeful tower” that looms over London’s Olympic Stadium) to feel that way. Instead I can direct my weary gaze towards the Golden Gate Bridge, near to where the once-displaced Wendy Nelson Tokunaga resides.

Tokunaga was a special guest at The Displaced Nation before as one of our 12 Nomads of Christmas. We have invited her back today to showcase what it means to be an “Olympian author.” She has just completed the marathon-like feat of publishing three e-books — two novels and one work of nonfiction — in a period of 12 months.

Has she tired you out yet?

I ask because that’s not the whole story. A talented writer, Tokunaga is what the Japanese call a talento: she can sing jazz as well as j-pop and enka (a type of sentimental ballad). Put it this way: you do not want to compete with her in a karaoke contest!

If you don’t believe me, listen to her singing this enka she composed for one of her novels — you would never know that Tokunaga is a native-born Californian who’d spent time in Japan!

Just one of the many reasons why you’ll never keep up with her…or if you dare to try, you’ll be huffing and puffing, just as I am. (Why oh why did I agree to sing a few bars of “My Way” with her?)

* * *

[Catching my breath…] Thank you, Wendy, for agreeing to this interview with The Displaced Nation. While I rest for a bit, can you tell me a little more about yourself — where you were born and how you ended up living in Japan?
I was born in San Francisco and have lived in the Bay Area all my life except for when I lived in Tokyo during the early 1980s. I had been studying Japanese language and culture at San Francisco State University when I won a prize in a songwriting contest sponsored by Japan Victor Records. It allowed me to perform my song at Nakano Sun Plaza in Tokyo. After that I moved to Japan to pursue music, teach English and do narration work.

While I’m still catching my breath — let’s hope I don’t have a heart attack here — why don’t you tell us about all your books? I understand you’ve published eight of them in the past 12 years, of which three of them came out in the past 12 months?
I self-published my first novel, No Kidding, in 2000 with iUniverse. Then I wrote two books for elementary-school students with Kid Haven Press: Famous People: Christine Aguilera (2003) and Wonders of the World: Niagra Falls (2004). Next came two novels that featured Japan, both of which were published by St. Martin’s Griffin: Midori by Moonlight and Love in Translation. And then I self-published three Kindle e-books within the past 12 months: Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband, in 2011; Falling Uphill and His Wife and Daughters, both in 2012.

I suppose you’re working on another book right now?
Yes, a mystery/thriller.

Crossing publishing platforms…

Turning to your three recent books: what made you decide to join the Kindle e-book world?
Falling Uphill was a “trunk novel” I wrote in 2004 that never got published. With the popularity of e-books I decided to revise it a bit and put it out instead of having it gather dust on my hard drive. My agent at the time came close to selling His Wife and Daughters to a major publisher in 2011, but in the end things didn’t work out. I still wanted to bring the book out, so making it available as an e-book seemed like a great idea. I’d gotten a few bites from publishers regarding Marriage in Translation, which was based on a series of blog interviews I’d done of Western women married to Japanese men. But dealing with a publisher would mean the book would take at least a year to come out and would probably need to be longer. I just wanted to get it out as soon as I could to take advantage of the momentum of the blog. Coincidentally, when I was in the finishing stages, the disastrous earthquake and tsunami occurred in Japan. I brought out the book shortly after and for a time gave 50 percent of the proceeds to Japan relief.

Do you think you can reach a different audience through self-publishing?
What’s exciting about e-books is that I can reach an audience! For various reasons, these books wouldn’t have seen the light of day, so I’m happy to continually find readers for them. And, yes, I think I’m reaching a wider geographical audience. And another bonus is that in the e-book world, unlike in the traditional publishing world, the pub date is irrelevant — people can continue to discover my books and I can promote them as summer reads, fall reads or whatever. And e-books don’t ever go “out of print.” I couldn’t be happier with this platform, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t still appreciate traditional publishing and don’t rule out traditional publishing in the future.

Crossing genres…

You got your MFA in creative writing. You also teach and consult on creative writing. What was it like trying your hand at a nonfiction book Marriage in Translation?
These days, non-fiction written in the manner of creative non-fiction and/or narrative non-fiction has lots in common with novels. I think it can be easier for fiction writers to tackle non-fiction, but there might be more challenges for the strictly non-fiction writer to undertake writing fiction.

Why is it so challenging for nonfiction writers to switch over to fiction?
Some — not all — non-fiction writers find it difficult to “make things up” and use their imagination after being so ingrained at using “just the facts.” And, for journalists, I think it can be a challenge to structure a novel that doesn’t reveal everything at once and fight the tendency to go about verifying each point.

Crossing cultures…

Turning to Japan and its influence on your writing. For a while there, Japan was your lodestar. Both Midori by Moonlight and Love in Translation had strong Japanese themes, as does Marriage in Translation. But in your two latest novels your protagonists are all Americans. I’ve read His Wife and Daughters — and enjoyed it very much. There was a scene set in Japan — involving one of the daughters, Phoebe — but otherwise it’s about an American politician who has an affair that causes him to lose his job. I haven’t read Falling Uphill — does it have any Japanese references?
Falling Uphill doesn’t have any Japanese references, at least that I can recall! And in His Wife and Daughters, I thought that for the particular purpose of depicting a certain time in Phoebe’s life that setting it in Tokyo made sense because of the bar hostess culture there. Otherwise, Japan really wouldn’t have played any part in that novel.

Are you moving away from Japan, or will it always be something you write about?
There have been times when I’ve felt that I’ve said all I can say about Japan and need to move on, though it will always be a part of me. I’ve enjoyed writing about Japan and Japanese culture and I even had a Japan-themed short story published in the recent Tomo anthology published by Stone Bridge Press, but I do enjoy writing about topics other than Japan. Yet I am careful to “never say never” about most things.

That said, I think Japanese might enjoy His Wife and Daughters. They have plenty of sex scandals, the most recent one involving the political kingpin Ichiro Ozawa. But in that case, the wife has spoken out — and is trying to poison his career. What was the inspiration behind the book —  do you like politics?
I don’t see His Wife and Daughters as a particularly political book. I was more attracted to the theme of exploring why some women stand by their men in these situations and withstand the humiliation, as well as the fascinating dynamics of a dysfunctional family affected by serial adultery and public scandal.

Crossing art forms…

And now I’ve just got to ask you about your musical career. Are you still pursuing music alongside all this writing?
I’ve been singing and playing music for longer than I’ve been writing. And music is what originally got me to Japan so it’s very important to me. But I don’t have as much time to devote to music right now. My husband and I occasionally play together at home for fun (he plays keyboards), but we haven’t done any gigs for several years. And I wish I had time to keep up with J-pop and enka and go to karaoke! I do manage to catch some music shows via the TV-Japan satellite service, but that’s about it.

Didn’t you and your husband collaborate on a theme song for your book Love in Translation?
Yes we did. That was our last major musical project.

Do you listen to music when you’re writing?
Not usually, but I often have Pandora playing quietly downstairs from my office (the cat likes it!) on a variety of eclectic stations: piano jazz, trip hop, ambient, etc.

Last but not least, I’d like to quiz you about your reading and writing habits:
Last truly great book you read: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
Favorite literary genre: Books that are well written, fast paced and full of surprises.
Reading habits on a plane: I read on my iPad.
The one book you’d require the president to read: He’s so well read that I think he’s way ahead of me.
Favorite books as a child: I especially liked the Edward Eager Magic Series (Half Magic, Magic by the Lake, Seven Day Magic, etc.) as well as The Borrowers series by Mary Norton and The Summer Birds by Penelope Farmer.
Favorite heroine: I always liked books about girls who had special magical powers or mysterious backgrounds.
The writer, dead or alive, you’d most like to meet: I’m constantly networking with fellow writers and have gotten the opportunity to meet with many that I admire, but I suppose it would be quite fascinating to talk with Joan Didion, a writer who definitely excels at both fiction and non-fiction.
Your reading habits: I’m a pretty fast reader. I sometimes take notes and I am mainly reading electronically now. I do find myself constantly analyzing the books I read for craft and structure so it’s sometimes hard to get lost in a good book like I used to be able to back in those Edward Eager days.
Your favorite of your own books: Always the latest one: His Wife and Daughters.
The book of yours you’d most like to see as a film: Any of them!!!
The book you plan to read next: The Expats, by Chris Pavone.

Say, would you do a review for The Displaced Nation on what you think of Chris Pavone’s book?
I’m happy to do a review, but I can’t promise any time soon. I’m in the midst of some very big projects right now. So if there’s not a firm deadline, then I can say yes. 🙂

(See what I mean about how you just can’t keep up with her?) Okay, one final question before I let you go. Since you’ve been so prolific of late, I wonder if you have any advice to impart to other writers who struggle to wrap up their books?
I wish I knew the secret! I’m struggling with my current book and don’t know when the heck I’ll finish it. Writing takes discipline and there’s no magic formula, I’m afraid. And some books come quicker than others.

* * *

Readers, any more questions for Wendy? Please put them in the comments. To reiterate, we are doing a giveaway of one of Wendy’s Kindle e-books to Displaced Dispatch subscribers and to ANYONE WHO COMMENTS! As I can assure you from my own experience, you WANT TO WIN one of these books — they are THE PERFECT SUMMER READS!!!

STAY TUNED for some more fiction tomorrow, with another 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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img: Wendy Nelson Tokunaga throwing her considerable energy into yet another round of karaoke…

For former expat Matt Krause, a second act as a heathen pilgrim

For some of us, starting a new life overseas is challenge enough. But for others, it represents an opportunity to take things to the next level. It’s fair to say that Matt Krause falls into the latter category. Returning to California after following a Turkish woman back to her native land, he used the material for his first book. And now he’s preparing to set out on a 1,300-mile solo walk across Turkey — a country he still regards as his second home. I caught up with Matt recently to ask about this latest, much more athletic challenge.

Hi again, Matt. Welcome back to The Displaced Nation. It seems like only yesterday that we were reviewing your expat memoir, A Tight Wide-open Space, and now we find you preparing for an epic travel adventure. Can you say a little more about it?
On Saturday, September 1, 2012, I will start an eight-month solo walk across Turkey, from the Aegean to Iran — 1,305 miles (2,100 km) in all. I will carry a backpack, a tent, and a sleeping bag.

Why are you doing this?
To put my life where my mouth is.

In 2003 I met a girl on an airplane to Hong Kong. We ended up going out, then moving together to her hometown of Istanbul and getting married there. We lived in Turkey for six years, but in 2009 things unraveled and I came back home to the US.

When I came back to the US, people kept asking me about the differences I had seen in Turkey. Political differences, religious differences, cultural differences, gender differences, just about every kind of difference you could think of.

But I really wanted to tell them about how people are so much the same. Living in Turkey had reminded me that most of what we are as human beings, and how we act in any given situation, is pretty much the same. Human nature being what it is, though, we can’t take our eyes off our differences, and I think that this focus makes us more afraid of each other than we need to be.

I don’t want to talk about this in theory. If these similarities are so profound, I should be able to walk, alone and unprotected, across the country I still think of as my second home.

Going to the dogs

What have you done to prepare for this odyssey?
I walked 1,200 miles (almost 2,000 km), 700 of them with a fully loaded backpack. That’s four hours a day, five days a week, for five months.

I walked the same four 12-mile routes about 25 times each — those were 1,200 very repetitive and boring miles.

However, I love dogs, and the dogs added some flavor to the walks. The first few times I walked those routes, the dogs all acted ferocious, but week by week they warmed up to me. The Labs were the first, of course — I only had to walk past them once or twice before they’d run out to me wagging their behinds like I was an old friend.

The last to go was one particular Doberman Pinscher. He spent about four months acting like he was going to rip my head off each time I passed by, and then one day when I walked by he was busy talking to another dog. He looked over at me like, “Are you serious, are you going to make me interrupt this perfectly good conversation in order to come chase you?” He broke down quickly after that, and now when I walk past his house he just playfully runs alongside me, glancing back at the house every few seconds to make sure nobody’s watching. He’s got a reputation to think about, after all.

How will you finance the trip?
I have savings, which I’ve supplemented by working in the peach and plum orchards near my hometown of Reedley, California. I was grafting, which is basically cutting off the top of an old tree and sticking a new kind of wood into it. The new wood takes over, and within a couple years the tree is producing a new variety of fruit.

I will also be raising some money on Kickstarter in a few weeks.

Will you be grafting any electronic devices onto yourself while you walk?
I’ll have a pocket camera and a cell phone connection so that I can post daily updates (people photos, landscape photos, short written updates, etc) on my Web site, Heathen Pilgrim. Most of the time, of course, I’ll be out in the middle of nowhere. It’s not like I’ll be able to run into the nearest Starbucks and connect over wifi, so I had to figure some things out. I’ve been doing a lot of equipment testing.

An oxymoronic concept?

“Heathen Pilgrim” — that’s a curious name for a project.
I picked that name for a couple of reasons. The main reason is that a heathen is a person who does not share one’s religion. Christians see non-believers as pagan; Muslims see them as infidels; and as far as Jews are concerned, gentiles can never be members of God’s chosen people.

One thing we all have in common is that someone, somewhere considers us heathen. And if you want to travel outside of your own circle, you must be willing to be considered a heathen by someone else. If the people around you are not considering you heathen yet, you have not traveled far enough from home.

I also have a tongue-in-cheek reason. A secondary definition of “heathen” is “a rude or uncivilized person.” I’m a fairly polite and well-mannered person. So calling myself a heathen pilgrim is a bit of an attempt at self-deprecating humor.

Well, particularly when you juxtapose it with a word like “pilgrim,” since pilgrims are supposed to be on a journey to a holy place. Your itinerary is pretty ambitious. Do you identify at all with the athletes who are now preparing for the Olympics?
No, not at all. Those guys train all their lives. I’m just a guy who likes to eat donuts and walk — although I did have to turn a lot of things upside down in my life in order to do this.

On the subject of ways of looking at this project, there’s a relevant saying I like, that we are not entitled to the fruits of our labors, only to the labors themselves.

In this case, I have no control over the meanings people might assign to my walk. I only have a say in whether or not I do it.

A few last-minute jitters

What’s left by way of preparation for this unholy journey of yours?
Not much. At some point you’ve just got to take the leap of faith (no pun intended!), and that time has arrived for me. Right now I’m preparing for the Kickstarter campaign in a few weeks, and there are still a few things I still need to get, like a sleeping pad and a small whiteboard. But I’m as prepared as I’ll ever be without actually doing it. It’s time to go.

But what about psychological preparation? Are you nervous? Despite your affection for Turkey, do you worry about feeling out of your element, displaced in ways you’ve never been before?
You bet I’m nervous. I’ve never walked across a country before. I’ll be displaced and out of my element 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the entire trip.

What makes me most nervous is that I don’t know where I’ll be sleeping at night. I don’t want to stay in hotels, because then I’d just be doing the tourist thing. So I’ll be taking people up on their offers to pitch my tent in their front yard, or let me sleep on their living room floors, or even sleep on their roofs (many of the roofs in that part of the world are flat, and people use them like a front porch).

For a while, I was really worried about approaching all these strangers and asking for help. In fact, until a few months ago I would wake up in the middle of the night worrying about how that was going to pan out. But then I talked to a young woman who had backpacked through that part of the world many times. She said don’t worry about them, they’ll be fine with it. The worry is in you. Get over it quickly by knocking on a stranger’s door the very first night.

How to follow Matt’s progress

If people want to follow your progress, what should they do?
I’ve put out an open invitation to anyone who wants to come walk part of the route with me. So if you can, get yourself a backpack and a sleeping bag, and join me on the road somewhere.

However, if you can’t join me in person, follow the trip vicariously. There’s the aforementioned Heathen Pilgrim site, a weekly email newsletter, a Facebook page, and my Twitter account (@mattkrause). Use whichever of those you prefer — they’ll be showing pretty much the same content.

I assume you’ll also be getting some books out of this?
I’ll also be writing four books at the end of the trip: two books tentatively titled “Turkey on 12 Miles a Day” and “Walking Turkey”; and two photo essays, tentatively titled “Walk Turkey: The Landscape” and “Walk Turkey: The People.”

Those books will be available later on Amazon, but you can sign up for them early, and get some other trip-related goodies, by backing the trip on Kickstarter. The Kickstarter campaign isn’t live yet, but if you keep an eye on my cyber-coordinates, in early August you’ll hear about it when it starts.

Thanks, Matt. You may not think of yourself as an Olympic athlete, but I’m impressed by your determination and all the meticulous preparations. Readers, make sure you follow Matt’s journey in one of the ways he suggests and spread the word about his Kickstarter campaign. You can also support him by downloading his memoir on his expat life in Turkey — as Kate Allison said in her review, “For all that this is a love story, Matt pulls no punches in the telling of it.” He’s honest, as well as humble. Two great qualities for a pilgrim, even if he is a bit of a heathen! 🙂

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s Displaced Q on the Olympic Games and the sometimes awkward issues they raise for us displaced types about national loyalties, by Tony James Slater.

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EXPAT MOMENTS: American Dentata

Following last month’s post on expat moments, we start a new series focusing on little moments of expat experience — moments that at the time seemed pifflingly insignificant.

The dentist I went to as a child was located in a Victorian terrace which had been converted into a practice. What must have once been a gloomy living room where the family of the house had sat in sullen silence had now become a gloomy waiting room where the patients of the current occupant sat on musty couches until called for their appointment. When it was finally your turn, you would make your way up a staircase just off from the waiting room; a staircase that always seemed too steep, too narrow, too dark.

There at the top of the stairs were three rooms; two always had their doors shut, but the third would always be open. This was the examination room; no threadbare carpet or peeling plaster here. The smell of must from downstairs replaced with the sweet smell of eugenol. Clean and white with foreboding looking machinery, the centrepiece being that chair, it all felt futuristic and at odds with the rest of the house, and to my imagination it was as if I had stepped through the wardrobe or into the TARDIS. I was in the unknown.

Not so now; there is no peeling plaster, musty smells or dark Gormenghast shadows to navigate at my current dentist’s. I am in a box within a box; that is, like nearly every business in this part of California, the practice is to be found in a strip mall and the examination room is in a perfectly square room that reminds me of the prefab annexes I was sometimes taught in at Secondary school. My mouth is in the painful process of being “Americanized”. A molar is ground down in order to be crowned and slowly a childhood’s worth of NHS fillings, the colour of slate, will be extracted and the teeth will be capped gleaming white.

Bereft of a crumbling Victorian house my nightmarish fears of the dentist may have gone, but they have simply been replaced with a fear of humiliation and mockery. Opening my mouth in a dental surgery here I feel self-conscious. When my dentist starts scraping around in there I feel a whole nation’s health system being judged rather than my own admittedly poor choices.

British teeth and their perceived awfulness have become an established American comic meme popularized by The Simpsons and personified by Mike Myer’s Austin Powers. It’s an entrenched stereotype and always good for a cheap laugh.

When I open my still predominantly British mouth (it’s only partly been Americanized, the vowels and consonants it forms are still resolutely British) it inspires my American dentist to grandiose plans of what she should do with it – rip out those British pegs and start from scratch and craf me an all-American smile.

My understanding is that a teeth whitening course will be a compulsory part of the American citizenship test.

This post was first featured on Culturally Discombobulated

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, a poll on Wimbledon by Kate Allison.

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img courtesy morguefile

Living La Dolce Vita with Food Writer and World Explorer Robyn Eckhardt

Veteran travel and food journalist Robyn Eckhardt is here. A few months ago, she shared some insights on Southeast Asian cooking with Displaced Dispatch subscribers, but for this post I’ve asked her to supply a recipe for La Dolce Vita, or the Sweet Life — drawing the ingredients from her extensive world travels and their sensory delights — along with an easy version anyone can try!

Robyn Eckhardt’s Personal Recipe for La Dolce Vita

Mix together the following:

3 heart-stopping sights

1) The Bund, Shanghai, in 1990 before the city underwent its construction boom. It was of those moments when you realize that a place you know by heart from books (I studied Chinese history in college and grad school) is actually real.
2) Istanbul’s Blue Mosque from a taxi at 1:00 a.m. on a crisp, clear February night. It was my first time in Turkey; I’d just arrived from Shanghai, where I was living at the time. The combination of jetlag and being somewhere so foreign and utterly different to the place that I called home was like a slap in the face, in a good way.
3) When I was 17 I saw the Statue of Liberty up close on a Circle Line tour. Even though I was your typical cynical, jaded teenager, my jaw kind of dropped. I imagined the thousands and thousands of immigrants to the US arriving by ship and having that same view. It’s still a pretty amazing sight, I think.

11 intoxicating scents

1) In most any neighborhood in Chengdu (capital of China’s Sichuan province) at around 5:00-6:00 p.m., the scent of dried chilies hitting hot rapeseed oil.
2) Just-off-the-boat anchovies grilling in Sinop, on the Turkish Black Sea.
3) Chicken barbecuing anywhere in Thailand.
4) Chòu dòufu, or “stinky beancurd,” in Taipei — funky yet beguiling.
5) Jasmine flowers in bloom on a hot summer ‘s (which is actually in September or October) evening in the San Francisco Bay Area.
6) On winter evenings in Santa Fe, burning piñon tree branches in a hundred fireplaces.
7) The seafood section in the market in Butuan, Mindanao in the Philippines, which smells like nothing but seawater — it smelled so good we didn’t mind eating kinilaw (the Philippine “ceviche”) prepared by a fish vendor, right smack in the middle of the market.
8) In any Turkish town or city very early in the morning, the first whiff of rising dough and baking bread from any bakery.
9) The enveloping, almost chokingly overwhelming scent of spices freshly ground in huge quantities at an old, Indian-run spice shop in George Town, Penang.
10) The dining room at a tiny osteria in Calosso, Piemonte, which my husband and I frequented four years in a row. It didn’t matter what was on the menu that day, as soon as I walked in the I knew that I was going to eat wonderful foods, drink good wines and leave very, very happy.
11) Last but not least, the smell of China. You smell it as soon as you get off an airplane. What is it? I’m not really sure. It’s certainly not magnificent but it is intoxicating to me because it never fails to transport me in a single second to my 21-year-old self, abroad and on her own for the first time, arriving in Chengu. Lots of emotions there.

4 dreamy sounds

1) The call to prayer one late afternoon as I sat on a hill overlooking the ruins of the theater at Aspendos, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. One muezzin started, then another from the opposite direction began, then another and another, from mosques in nearby villages. Their voices alternately intertwined and competed — one of those incredible moments that leaves you almost gasping for breath.
2) The sound of calling/singing/chanting vendors at wet markets. Especially when they get into a groove, sing-songing the same phrase over and over again. Like at Pudu Market in Kuala Lumpur: satu ringgit satu ringgit satu ringgit satu ringgit satu ringgit satu ringgit! When I hear a great call from a market vendor I just stop and listen while the market frenzy continues around me.
3) The sound of the rain forest waking up on Langkawi Island from the vantage point of the top of a hill, above the forest canopy. I arrived to perfect stillness; as the sky began to lighten there was movement in the trees — creakings and squawks and chirps and rumbles and knocks and grinding noises. Just before I left, ten or so hornbills simultaneously rose from their perches, making a tremendous, wonderful racket with their wide wingspans. It sounded like a jet flying low overhead — whoo whoo whoo whoo. I could feel that noise in my gut. Incredible.
4) A trio of genggong (Jew’s harp) players on the front porch of a cottage on the edge of a rice field in northern Bali. Bali is magical to begin with. This was an unexpected treat.

A particularly delicate flavoring

Normally, I’m attracted to bold flavors, but as this is La Dolce Vita, I’ll probably throw in the sap from the cut flower of an aren palm, which I tasted when I went out at dawn with a palm sugar maker in northern Sumatra to get the sap he was collecting in bamboo tubes from dozens of trees. It was sweet and flowery but in a very, very restrained way — what’s incredible is that after just three hours of boiling it becomes one of the most intensely flavored sugars in the world.

An extraordinary physical sensation

For this recipe I’ll include the most amazing physical sensation I can remember: riding an elephant bareback and solo, which I did last year in northern Thailand near the border with Burma. Grabbing its leathery ear to pull myself up, palming the spiky, hair-sprinkled knobs of its massive forehead to keep my balance, feeling its shoulders move under me when it walked — something I will never, ever forget.

A memorable encounter with strangers

My husband and I ended up eating lunch with an elderly Turkish couple in their traditional timber farmhouse on the Black Sea. The experience sticks with me, for many reasons. Rather than retell the story here, let me point you to the relevant post on our blog, EatingAsia.

A place that stimulates all five senses

For me, this can be anywhere unfamiliar, or where I haven’t visited for a long time. Right now, especially, it’s eastern Turkey, which I’ve been getting to know in bits and pieces over the last two years.

The food is new (to me) and surprising — interesting twists on familiar Turkish dishes and curve balls out of nowhere, like dolma made with cherry tree leaves(!) or dough spirals seasoned with copious amounts of ground poppy seeds that taste like cacao.

I love the way the Turkish language sounds; I speak enough to get by but am nowhere near even half-fluency. I desperately want to be better at it, so when I’m traveling there my ears and brain are hyper alert to conversations around me; I’m constantly trying to understand what I hear, writing down unfamiliar words, trying (and often failing) to communicate well with strangers. That’s fun in a certain way, though ultimately exhausting — but it’s a level of engagement with everything that is going on around me that I don’t always have.

Outside Turkish cities the sky is big and the population sparse. To me — a resident of Southeast Asia — that is incredible and wonderful. When my husband and I go, we rent a car and do long, long road trips. I’m always eager for what’s around the next bend in the road or over the next pass because in two or three hours the terrain can change tremendously.

I can never get over the scent of air in that part of the world: nothing but air, clean fresh air! We make it a point to go once or twice a year when it’s cold; this past February temperatures in Eastern Anatolia averaged about 10 degrees Fahrenheit and there was lots of snow. It was that kind of cold where the hairs in your nose freeze as soon as you walk outdoors and ice cracks under foot and snow crunches with an especially hard “c”. I loved it.

And I’ve had so many great people experiences there — strangers opening their homes and kitchens to me. Even though I’m always a wee bit tentative in that way that you get when you are among strangers somewhere unfamiliar, eastern Turkey is probably the place where I travel with my heart the most open. When I arrive there I take a deep breath and just relax and let whatever is going to happen, happen. I can’t and don’t always let my guard down like that when I travel, so it’s lovely to be somewhere where I can.

Art by 2 artists who understand La Dolce Vita

1) Well, I am biased, but this recipe definitely calls for my husband Dave Hagerman‘s portraits and people-focused street photography because they often capture, I think, that moment when a subject decides to just let it go. Those sorts of photographs only come when a photographer is willing to extend his or herself, take a risk and show utmost respect to his or her subject.
2) I also love the work — paintings especially — of California realist John Register. The empty-room paintings, the diners-at-night paintings. I can’t say much about his heart or his soul when he was painting them, but to me they show that mundane things can evoke emotion. That is beautiful.

An inspiring travel quote

“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.”
– Rudyard Kipling

As one who travels most of the time on her stomach, I can especially identify with this sentiment.

* * *

After adding a pinch of salt to all of the above, Robyn is living the sweet life. And if you’re not as well traveled as she is, not to worry. Robyn offers this simple recipe to try at home.

Robyn’s recipe for living La Dolce Vita at home

You don’t have to physically get on a plane or train or bus to travel. Do something unfamiliar in the place you know best, your home:
1) Go to a neighborhood you don’t usually frequent, go to a museum if you are an outdoors person or to a park if you’re an indoors type.
2) If you are not an early riser, go out before dawn and watch your town or city or neighborhood wake up, or if you’re an early-to-bed sort of person, take a nap in the evening and then go out late and see what where you live looks and sounds and feels like when you’re usually asleep.
3) Ride a bus or some other form of public transport if you’re always in your car.
4) Try a new restaurant or bakery or cafe, or shop at a farmer’s market if you usually buy your food at the big box or grocery store.

Penang-based freelance food and travel journalist Robyn Eckhardt is a contributing writer at Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia, a contributor at ZesterDaily and to publications like The New York Times Travel Section, Saveur and SBS Feast. With her photographer husband David Hagerman, she publishes the food-travel blog EatingAsia. As this interview hits interwebs, the two are hiking village-to-village in far northeastern Turkey, learning about beekeeping and cow-herding and tasting lots of honey and cheese.
Final note from ML Awanohara: Extra points will be awarded to anyone who recalls Robyn’s husband, David, being featured in the series I ran at the end of last year: “The 12 Nomads of Christmas.” He’s just as extraordinary as Robyn says!

STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post, an interview with Laura Graham, author of Down a Tuscan Alley, a semi-autobiographical novel about her mid-life move to Tuscany. (Ah, la dolce vita!)

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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Img: Robyn Eckhardt writing in Tokat, Turkey (by David Hagerman).

Keeping yourself earthed: Expats and Earth Day

We should do a post on Earth Day. It fits in with the celebration theme we have for this month, in honor of The Displaced Nation’s first birthday

The brainchild of Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. senator from Wisconsin, Earth Day was established in 1970 — a year that also gifted world culture with bell-bottom trousers and Jon Pertwee’s itineration as the third Dr Who — as a day to engage the public about air and water pollution. From these beginnings it has grown into a day observed by groups and people throughout the world to celebrate the environment and raise awareness of the dangers our planet faces. This Sunday is Earth Day’s 42nd anniversary. The event will be marked with an amusingly inventive doodle on the google homepage and by NBC turning its normally multi-colored peacock logo green. Hallmark will once again fail to capitalize on the day as perhaps they might wish to. This will lead to high-level discussions in the Hallmark marketing department.

it seems to be just the sort of thing that our expat readership would think is a good cause

The vast majority of people agree that not f***ing up the environment is a good idea. Admittedly there may be disagreement over the means by which you do that, and the extent of the problem, but in principle most people would seem to think of Earth Day as  a fairly decent, mostly harmless idea.

…in fact, its just the sort of thing that expats are into. You see, I think expats are more concerned about the environment.

With absolutely no studies to back up the assertion, it was suggested here to me, in the corner of the Internet we call The Displaced Nation, that Earth Day would be a good topic for me to consider writing a post about as expats, so we thought to ourselves, are possibly more attuned to the environment that those mundane muggles known as non-expats.

Theyve just traveled more widely, experienced a bit more.

So I find myself sitting down ready to write this piece. My “notes” if we can call them that, consists of a half-baked observation written on a torn piece of notepaper about all the gas-guzzling trucks people in my current locale (California) seem to love driving. It eloquently reads, “ubiquity of big trucks.”

Added to this is a later notation, a parenthetical thought, where I write that the sights of these unnecessary trucks make me nauseous.

So that’s all I’ve got as I try and knock out this post, but I don’t get far as it seems that this idea that we’re, as I assume if you’re reading this blog you’re an expat, somehow better from my truck-driving neighbors is complete and utter tosh.

Theyre more in tune with whats going on

Now I admit that not all expats are equal, and what I am going to write about doesn’t apply to migrant workers who have left a home country that is undeveloped in a search of a better pay in a more developed country. Neither do I include those individuals who are living in foreign climes doing environmental work. No, what I am concerned about is the self-satisfied expat. You know the type — the sort that decides to start a blog about their experiences because their observations are just so damn important that they need to be read by others. In other words, the likes of me, and, most probably, the likes of you.

and theyre probably better informed.

I was extremely willing to go along with the idea that my expat status confers some sort of wisdom on me. Let’s face it, it’s an intoxicating thought, the idea that living in a different culture from your own automatically transforms you for the better. I guess I must half believe it as I make a point of mentioning on my C.V. that I have lived on three continents, as if that makes me better than a candidate who has only lived on one continent.

Now I do think that there’s a lot to be gained from moving abroad, from leaving your comfort zone, but there should also be an awareness that it is a position of privilege, a privilege conferred — at least on me, I should stop talking on your behalf — by living in the jet age, by ignoring that the life I have chosen, a life that I at times get smug about by being an expat blogger (which really is the smuggest of all expat types) leaves on the world a far greater carbon footprint than my neighbor’s life driving his gas-guzzling truck. And yet I’m the one to feel disdain for him and his environmental choices.

Happy Earth Day.

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