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EXPAT MOMENTS: Finding your tongue

Continuing our food-themed posts of September, here’s an Expat Moments post on unexpected encounters with local cuisine.

Kyoto reveals itself to you, a source of delight for the curious of spirit. Alien yet unintimidating, you lose yourself in this ancient city, confused and disoriented as only a contented traveler can be.

But with all that wandering comes hunger. You look around for a restaurant to try. You aren’t entirely sure where precisely you are. It’s not that you’re lost, you know you are somewhere near the centre. You can see in the mid-distance Kyoto Tower. You know you only have to walk in the direction of the tower to find yourself back at your hotel. It’s by no means late, but everything here seems to close unfathomably early. Nothing appears to be open. You had expected the streets at night to be awash with neon advertising hoardings in kanji, but that is not the case here. Your assumptions again proved incorrect.

You spot a salaryman, the only other person on the street apart from you, and see him go into a small building. You follow, but stop at the doorway of the building. There are no windows for you to peer through. There is no sign. You can smell something intoxicating inside, but is it a restaurant? Is it the entrance to an apartment complex that the salaryman lives in? Is it something altogether more illicit that you would be ill-advised from entering? Curiosity combined with hunger gets the better of you and you step into the building.

Walking through the hallway, you discover that it is a restaurant, a tiny one. In the center of the restaurant is an open kitchen where a chef cooks. Who you immediately assume (though why you assume this, you’re not entirely sure) is his daughter serves the food. Three salarymen are sitting there, eating and smoking. The assumed daughter smiles at you. She goes over to the side of the room and rummages through her menus looking for that English copy that they had made. When she has finally located it, she hands it to you with a smile and the only English phrase she will say to you other than a “thank you” as you leave. “For you,” she says, and hands you a laminated menu.

You take the laminated menu. Reading through it, you notice that there is only the one ingredient that they cook – beef tongue (gyutan). Not what you were expecting, or what your stomach was grumbling for. The assumed daughter smiles expectantly at you. You smile back and pick from one of the dozen gyutan dishes available and you wait. The smell of the cigarette smoke from the salarymen irritates you, gets in your chest. As you wait, you read through that laminated menu again and notice that they have included a print-out of the English language Wikipedia page on gyutan, saying hat it only became popular during the occupation after World War 2. You read on, irritated that the Japanese still allow smoking in restaurants, not knowing that you are about to eat one of the most unassuming — but most delicious — meals in your life. Beef tongue, grilled and served with rice.

Assumed daughter and father will say “thank you” as you leave, but you have no Japanese to tell them how much you loved what they offered. All you can give is awkward smile and utter an even more awkward, tongue-tied attempt at “sayonara”.

STAY TUNED for next Monday’s post.

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Image: MorgueFile

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EXPAT MOMENTS: A Question of Sport

As this summer, for me at least, has been a summer of sport, I thought I would continue this Expat Moments series with a post I originally put in 2010 on my own blog Culturally Discombobulated. They are thoughts I had while watching a San Francisco giants baseball game. That season the giants would go on to win the World Series, and the fans celebrating outside my apartment elicited a sound like that of a dying whale.


I’m in AT&T Park, San Francisco. It’s the top of the 4th innings and the San Francisco Giants trail the Arizona Diaomondbacks 6 – 1. It is little surprise therefore that the atmosphere in the stadium is tetchy. The main object of the crowd’s impatience is the Giant’s pitcher Barry Zito who to use a British expression is “having a ‘mare.” Even to me – a man who could write everything he knows about the art of pitching on the back of a postage stamp – it is apparent that Zito is a player struggling with confidence and that’s affecting his ability to settle into a rhythm. Within minutes of the game starting he had allowed Arizona to wrest the initiative. That disaster of a first innings would see Arizona score 6 quick runs – now they’re hoping to add more. Zito is in trouble again as he preps himself to pitch at Reynolds. Young has already walked and LaRoche hit a single. There’s an unpleasant air of expectancy in the ground as Zito pulls his left arm back readying himself to throw. It doesn’t feel as if the crowd expect much from this pitch – at least not heroics from Zito. There’s a palpable feeling of a crowd readying itself for disappointment, a collective anxiety over the failure they anticipate. Crack!! It’s a sweet hit from Reynolds. The crowd groans in anguish. Jesus, they knew it, they just knew it was going to happen. As the groan turns into boos, Young, LaRoche and Reynolds pass home plate. Arizona Diamondbacks 9 – San Francisco Giants 1.

A few minutes later and Zito is “relieved”, to use a baseball term, by Ramirez, another of the Giants’ pitchers. Relieved: to free from anxiety, fear, pain – that sounds about right. Zito trudges off the field disappointed. Some of the crowd feel the need to make their feelings known. “You suck, Zito!!” Despite the anger of those shouting, as someone used to English soccer fans, the language the baseball fans employ is clean – unimaginative even. For me, I am disappointed that Zito is off. He is one of the few players I’d bothered to read about before the game and was vital in my attempt to try and pass as being vaguely knowledgable about the Giants. I feel disconnected from the rest of the crowd; alone in the communal. Various things have confused me. I don’t get why the National Anthem was performed by a guitarist who looks Will Ferrell done up as a generic rock star for an SNL sketch. I don’t get why the Giants came out to Radiohead’s Idoteque; surely the oddest choice of song to get 30,000 people pumped up? And then there’s the game itself, following it takes effort. Though I think of myself as a sports fan, this game is not my sporting heritage and mythology. I am having to start from scratch, learning new rules and new idols. Though some aspects of the game are familiar, for me it is still the Other, it is still foreign. I feel like a Christian pilgrim worshipping in a mosque. This feeling is made worse (or better) by the opportunity for contemplation and reflection that the game allows. It is in that respect that I find baseball most like cricket – quick bursts of action punctuated by long periods of anticipation, the moments where it pleases me to sit and think.

And as I think, I’m reminded of an old teacher of mine. He was American, first-generation. Possessing both an Ivy League and Oxbridge education he was smart, but not overbearing about it, and though now mature in his years he had the height and broad shoulders of a man who back in college must have made for a hell of a footballer. To my mind, he was like a character out of a Philip Roth novel. And here at AT&T Park, I am reminded of a conversation I once had with him, a conversation that hadn’t really registered much with me at the time, but now a few years later is striking a chord. Like so many American stories, it centres around a child’s grievances against their father. In this case, my teacher told me about how he had unfairly resented his immigrant father for not understanding or enjoying the same sports as he did. Unlike his friends’ fathers, his didn’t play catch with him in the backyard or explain the rules of baseball or football. When it came to sport they spoke different languages: the son spoke in the vernacular of the New World, of Red Sox and Yankees, of touchdowns and home runs; the accented father could only speak of the weird and unknown – of Dynamos and Red Stars. And so my teacher, as a boy, would observe his friends and their fathers and how they bonded over sport. Fathers teaching sons how best to catch, how best to bat. When they did this, they would mention how the Babe gripped the bat, how DiMaggio hit the ball, without knowing it they were passing down an ocular history of American sport, a sense of identity ever bit as important as tales of Washington or Lincoln. To my teacher’s young self, his father was failing in the very purpose a father was meant for. He wasn’t giving him this rites of passage that all the other fathers were giving their sons. Heck, if a father can’t show you how to throw a curveball, just what use is he? Today, I feel like that father.

For me, dealing with sport in America is like having a whole idiom and vocabulary removed; I feel emasculated even. All those useless little facts and figures that I know about sport are useless here. No one knows of Dixie Dean or has an opinion on the relative merits of the Duke ball against the Kookaburra ball. Where once I was confident with the sports round in a pub quiz or in a game of trivia pursuit, it’s now my weakest subject and to be avoided at all costs. When a discussion turns to Roger Clemens or Brett Favre I have to Wikipedia them to remind myself just who they are and what sport they play. I try to learn a few facts so I have something that I can at least talk about. For this Giants game, by rote I have learnt the following: that the Giants were until 1957 the New York Giants after which they oved to San Francisco; that since leaving New York they have failed to add to their tally of five World Series; that game 3 of the 1989 World Series against local rivals Oakland Athletics was disrupted by the Loma Prieta earthquake; that Giants pitcher Barry Zito has a teddy bear collection and is the nephew of Dallas actor Patrick Duffy. But they’re just random facts that I have learnt, it’s not as if I have an opinion about any of these sports. And if you don’t have dumb sports opinions then it is difficult to connect with 90% of American males. What noticeable about my time here is that I’ve found that I don’t get along with American men as much as American women. Put a group of men together and talk quickly descends into discussing the minutiae of sport. When that happens I find I have little to say and so for the most part keep quiet.

I am going to try and change that. I often feel that I’m only in America when I step out of my apartment. Thanks to the web, my apartment remains de facto British soil where I can still listen to British radio, read the British papers and watch British sport. By that token, I remember coming across a photograph of Kim Philby; it had been taken late in his life when he was exiled in Moscow. Behind him, you could clearly see a bookshelf, and on the shelf where fat, yellow volumes of Wisden – the cricket lovers bible. That image has stuck with me. Though Philby had defected to the USSR and had betrayed his country, he still couldn’t escape the trappings of his Britishness – nor I guess did he have any intention of. I imagine Philby struggling to explain to his KGB handlers about just how important Test cricket is and resenting them for their indifference. And I’m guilty of that too, isolating myself culutrally from those around me. I need to make a concerted effort to change that and understand American sports better. With the baseball season getting to its interesting stage and the football season about to start, it seems an opportune time to make a greater effort to learn this new (for me) language though I will still, from time to time, talk of Dynamos and Red Stars.

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post where Kate will be reviewing a chocolate app.

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Images: by Anthony Windram.

Lessons from Two Small Islands — 4) Keep Calm and Focus on Your Core

Keep calm and focus on your core — it sounds as though I’m about to lead a Pilates class!

Is that what life on two small islands taught me — the value of doing daily sit-ups and push-ups?

Hardly. I wasn’t into exercise routines in either England or Japan, the two small islands where I lived for almost as long as I’d (consciously) lived in my birth country, the United States.

It was only after repatriating that I ventured into my first Pilates class — and ended up cursing Joseph Pilates for developing, in essence, a set of military exercises for civilians. Hup two! Hup two!

I asked around at the class but no one seemed to have a clue who the founder of this torture had been. I did some investigation and discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that Mr Pilates had led a displaced life not dissimilar from mine.* He was descended from a family of Greeks who’d emigrated to Germany — German kids would taunt him for being “Christ’s killer” because they thought “Pilates” sounded like “Pontius Pilate.” Still, he had something going for him: an athletic physique. His father having been a prize-winning gymnast, Pilates Junior was a gymnast, a diver and a body-builder. He moved to England in 1912 to earn a living as a professional boxer and circus performer. Eventually, he would emigrate to the United States, where he set up his first exercise studio for professional dancers and other performers, offering them a routine that focused on core postural muscles.

What impressed me the most about Mr Pilates’s life, though, was that at his most displaced moment, his instinct was to think about his core. That moment occurred few years after he arrived in England. World War I broke out, and because of being German, he was rounded up and sent to an internment camp on the Isle of Wight. In great physical condition himself, he wanted to help the other prisoners, who included some wounded German soldiers, stay in shape, too. He thoughht it would lift their spirits. The exercises he developed for them, for strengthening the core, were the precursors of what we now call the Pilates routine. (See, I wasn’t so far from the mark: military exercises for civilians!)

No core, no cry

I thought about my core a lot, too, when leading my life of displacement first in England and then in another shimaguni (island country), Japan.

To begin with, I was convinced that it was my very lack of a cultural core that enabled me to live in other cultures for as long as I did. What does it mean to be an American from Delaware, of all places? I didn’t have any clear cultural identity — yet it didn’t really bother me. It meant I could go with the flow.

I still remember my first job in Tokyo, which involved working as an editor in the research department of a British stockbrokers that had been taken over by a major Swiss bank.

Being a displaced person myself after several years of living in the UK, I looked forward to working in what I thought would be a mini-UN: Brits, Swiss and Japanese.

It did not take long to disabuse me of that fantasy. The Brits and the Swiss were always clashing, and the Japanese kept themselves to themselves (they probably wished they’d never allowed foreign bankers into their country!).

There were three or four of us Yanks in the department, and we tended to be the ones who tried to be pleasant to everyone else and didn’t bear grudges. A couple of us (not including me) were great speakers of Japanese so were often called on to facilitate when “war” broke out.

“Why can’t we all get along?” was our motto. “Go with the flow.”

But that was then…

By the time I got back to the United States, however, I envied the residents of the two island nations where I’d lived for knowing what they were about — for having such a strong sense of core, or self. Which, when you think about it, is no easy feat in the face of globalization!

Not only did I envy them, but I was grateful for the bits of each nation’s core that I’d picked up on my travels. These are the principles I keep going back to in times of stress, particularly when I’m struggling to readjust to life in my native U.S. — which is what this series is about.

Indeed, if it weren’t for those core pieces I’ve borrowed from other countries, I think I’d now feel like the tin man wishing for a heart, the scarecrow wondering what it would be like to have a brain, the lion yearning for courage… (Boy, did L. Frank Baum ever understand his native country!)

England would not be England without…

A couple of months ago, a group of Britophiles and Brits were debating the essence of Britishness on our site. They were responding to a list created by the gardening journalist Alan Titchmarsh (could there be any more British name than that?) beginning with “England would not be England without…”

Some were disputing the items on the list as being hopelessly out of date and romanticized — Miss Marple, daisies in the lawn, and cucumber sandwiches without crusts. Come on, what century is he living in?

Meanwhile, the author of the post, Kate Allison, maintained that Britain had become more like a mini-US in recent years.

But I didn’t agree with any of that. After spending so many years in the UK, I am ALWAYS overjoyed when encountering someone else who “gets” the part of me that’s anglicized. It means they share my need to discuss politics over a beer, my love of creamy desserts, my preference for baths not showers, my excitement at seeing fresh rhubarb and gooseberries at the green market, or my passion for public transport and national healthcare.

Now if I, a quasi-Brit, feel this way, how much more so must the true natives feel?

Japan would not be Japan without…

Likewise in Japan — or perhaps even more so, as that nation adopted a policy of isolating itself from the outside world, which lasted over two centuries. Plenty of time to develop a core of Japanese-ness.

Again, I am not a true Japanese — but I was the only foreigner in a Japanese office for four years, when I was more or less adopted by the group and taught their code of ethics. I used to joke with my colleagues and say, “I’m a bad Japanese,” as they often had to nudge me about some protocol I’d forgotten.

Still, they trained me well. To this day, I can rattle off a long list of what it means to be Japanese. Surely, Japan would not be Japan without sakura (cherry blossoms) set lunches, soba, slurping soba, sushi, sashimi, shiatsu, shinkansen, and sumo? And that’s just the “s”es. Japanese traits run the gamut from A (amae) to Z (“Zen”).

Even tonight, when I was walking down 9th Street in the East Village and heard the sound of obon music in front of one of the Japanese restaurants, I longed to hear the beat of taiko and join in a traditional dance… Now that’s at the very core of Japanese culture — and I happily went there, still would!

America would not be America without…

What is the American core? Despite Joseph Pilates’s efforts, I don’t see much of one. Here is my attempt to brainstorm a list.

America would not be America without:

  • wide highways chockerblock with traffic (at least here on the East Coast, where it’s one person, one car)
  • gas-guzzling cars
  • poor people using the Emergency Room for their health care
  • shooting sprees every so often by young men who are too easily able to buy guns
  • racial incidents/slurs (even against the president — we still seem to be fighting the civil war)
  • rudeness and the blame game (there’s so much rage here!)
  • supersized food portions
  • junk food of all kinds
  • children with obesity/diabetes
  • mindless popular culture as represented by Kate Perry, Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears…
  • gridlocked politics and a Supreme Court with a political agenda
  • men in power who think they know what’s best for women
  • men in power who act like cowboys
  • religious nuts who home-school their kids so that they won’t learn evolution

Of course I know there are good things about being American — such as the freedom and openness we represent to oppressed people, our generosity in helping strangers, our inventiveness, our can-do attitude (not for us “ten reasons why not” as it was for many of the people in both of my small-island homes), Hollywood, jazz, and of course the old stand-bys of baseball and apple pie — can we also throw in some Sonoma Valley wine?!

But several of these positive aspects were breaking down when I left this country to live abroad, and now the situation seems so much worse! Indeed, our much-vaunted openness to outsiders seems to be in question now that so many states are threatening to send hard-working  immigrants back to their countries. (Strange, given that such immigrants are among the few left who carry some core-building potential…)

Why don’t we have a proper core, on which we continue to build an identity? Is it because we are too big or too new? Size probably has a lot to do with it — and the fact that we are divided into states.

Several cities/states/regions have stronger cores — I’m thinking of New York, Vermont, Texas, Silicon Valley, the Deep South — than the nation as a whole.

But our national core seems to be as hallow as the European Union’s is proving to be.

Newness, too, could be the reason our core is underdeveloped. Both England and Japan have lived through hard times, which have given their people a sense of who they are. Thus far our hard times — e.g., 9/11 — bring us together only for a brief respite, after which we are more divided than ever.

Readers, please tell me that I’m wrong — that America has a sound core, but I just haven’t seen it?

Next time I do Pilates, I’m going to breathe in thought the nose, out through the mouth, so that I can keep calm, and focus not only on strengthening my own core, but on what we citizens can do to strengthen that of our native land…
* I herewith nominate Joseph Pilates for the Displaced Nation’s Displaced Hall of Fame!

STAY TUNED for Thursday’s post, another in our “Expat Moments” series, by Anthony Windram.

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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