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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.

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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EXPAT MOMENTS: What to wear for an Independence Day Party

Another in our series focusing on little moments of expat experience — moments that at the time seemed pifflingly insignificant.

As far as I can gather, the main advantage of Independence Day for many people seems to be the opportunity to dust off and wear that stars-and-stripes leather jacket that they bought back in 1979.

Wishing to get into the Independence Day spirit, it was clear that I also needing something “appropriate” to wear if I wanted to blend in successfully so I headed over to Target, a fine American corporation that would hopefully have even finer American clothing for me to purchase.

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?”

He just stared back at me. I’d been wrong about him. His jaw line was not as strong as I’d thought, his posture a little crooked, and his hair-style now I was closer was greasy and ostentatious.

“Why would we have that?” he sneered.

“Because you love this country — that’s why!”Though difficult, I tried to calm myself down and keep my temper in check. “Okay, have you got anything with a bald eagle in full flight in front of the stars and stripes, but, and this is the important bit, with a kick-ass explosion going on behind the flag? No? Nothing?”

“Have you tried Wal-Mart?”

I wandered off disappointed. This must have been how Benedict Arnold felt. You try and give this American lark a try, but you just end up getting kicked in the teeth. And that was when I saw the above little number, which I decided would from now on be my Independence Day T-shirt.

A version of this post first appeared on Culturally Discombobulated

STAY TUNED for Thursday’s post, in which Kate Allison debunks some common myths about the UK vs the USA.

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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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.

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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