For her column this month, transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol interviews displaced creative Valerie Hamer about her culture shock memories and coping strategies.
Hello Displaced Nationers! The moment I learned that this month’s guest, Valerie Hamer, goes by the moniker of “Faraway Hammer,” I knew she had to be on this column. After all, no toolbox worth its salt would be complete without a hammer, even a cultural one!
Forgive me for hamming it up, but I really believe that Valerie, who is “British by birth and a nomad by choice,” will have some great insights for us.
But before we get into that, let’s go over why she has chosen to go by the name of Faraway Hammer. As it turns out, that’s how people pronounce “Valerie Hamer” in Asia, where Valerie has lived for over fifteen years. She loves how her name sounds with an Asian accent, so much so that she decided to name her writing site after it. Head on over there and you’ll discover that although Val has been a “world citizen” for some time now, she still loves her native Britain, and although her passport says teacher, her heart says says writer—of non-fiction, because she thinks the lives of “ordinary, everyday, regular people” are “richer and more interesting than any fictional character.”
Further to which, Val is the author of two non-fiction books with amusing titles:
And now it’s time for the toolbox part. Valerie has kindly agreed to share some of her culture shock experiences with us. Here’s what she had to say…
* * *
Hi, Valerie, and welcome back to the Displaced Nation. Now, I understand you were born and raised in the UK. But what about your alter-ego, Faraway Hammer? Where has she lived?
In Japan for seven years, Vietnam for a couple of months, and currently in year seven in South Korea.
In the context of transitioning from England to various Asian countries, did you ever put your foot in your mouth? Can you share any memorable stories?
I find language learning in a new country to be the thing that will get me into bother, usually when two words sound very similar. That’s how in Japan I once asked a shop assistant if there was poop inside the cakes instead of red beans!
Here’s another example. On public transport in Asia it’s normal to take and hold the bags of those standing, whether stranger or friend, if you are lucky enough to get a seat. The first time that happened to me I wrestled with the old lady trying to be helpful. I just assumed I was being mugged.
What does one do in a situation like that?
With my language gaffes I found people laughed as they actually appreciated my effort to speak. Having said that, such rookie mistakes have put me off learning Korean to any great extent. I don’t have the patience to go through that stage again. With the “bag helping” incident I would probably react the same way again in a new country/culture. Strangely, nothing I read or heard prepared me for that moment in Korea—perhaps people forget about such things when they adapt to a place, and forget to mention them?
Looking back on your transition from the UK to Asia, can you recall any situations that you handled with surprising finesse?
I can’t think of any. As I said, I continue to remain stubbornly “western” in many ways, but it’s also true to say that I’ve adapted to many things and no longer think about them. If you hammer away at something for long enough…
If you had to give advice to someone who just moved to a new country, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first and why?
Develop a keen eye. You can learn a lot by being aware of ordinary interactions between locals.
Thank you so much, Valerie! I think you’ve hit the nail soundly on the head, so to speak. Language gaffes can be icebreakers if you don’t mind people laughing at your expense. And donning your safety specs to observe the details of everyday life before you plunge in: that’s an excellent way to smooth the rough edges of a cultural transition. But of course there will also be times when you just have to hammer away at it; progress isn’t always immediate.
* * *
Readers, what do you make of Valerie’s advice? If you like it and appreciate her sense of humor, I suggest you visit her writing site and/or follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
Well, hopefully this has you “fixed” until next month.
If you are a subscriber to our weekly newsletter, Displaced Dispatch, you’re already in the know. But if you’re not (and why aren’t you? off with your head!), listen up.
Every week, when that esteemed publication comes out, we present contenders for a monthly “Alice Award,” most of whom are writers or other kinds of international creatives who appear to have a special handle on the curious and unreal aspects of being a global resident or voyager.
Not only that, but this person tries to use this state of befuddlement as a spur to greater creative heights.
Today’s post honors March’s three Alice recipients. Starting with the most recent, they are (drumroll…):
“In a way, my sketchbook also helps create the moments I record in it. I might head to a café to draw a street-scape, start talking with the man next to me, and then jot down a line or two from our dialogue on the sketch itself. Sketching has become both my muse and medium on the road—it creates the very stories I love to tell, stories of connection and serendipity, and I now can’t imagine ever travelling without my sketchbook.”
Citation: Candace, we think we should invent a new award for you: a “Poppins.” Your watercolors look so inviting that we want to jump right into them and share in your adventures, just as Mary Poppins jumps into Burt’s chalk drawings. (Incidentally, we refer to the animated sequence in the movie, of which P.L. Travers did not approve, only to be overruled by Walt Disney.) Poor Alice doesn’t go down the rabbit hole because of its visual stimulation; quite the opposite! She goes down the hole due to boredom with her sister’s book “without pictures or conversations.” Our sense is that, were you to receive an “Alice,” it would need to be presented by the Mock Turtle, art lessons having played a role in his superior education:
“Well, there was Mystery,” the Mock Turtle replied, counting off the subjects on his flappers, “—Mystery, ancient and modern, with Seaography: then Drawling—the Drawling-master was an old conger-eel, that used to come once a week: HE taught us Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils.”
Though he doesn’t mention “water” art, it seems likely he would sanction it. Definitely he would not be a fan of our alternative suggestion unless we agreed to call the prize a “Puffins” instead of a Poppins. But enough of these qualifications; suffice it to say, we are in awe of your ambition to “watercolour” your way around the world. You paint, girl!
We may be dogs, but we are dogs with memories. Memories of where we came from. Memories of hot summer days, clear blue skies, people smiling, people laughing, wind slicing through large trees with leaves whisking and shimmering in the sun like waves washing over a million shiny round stones. We are four dogs with memories of home, and somehow, we are all going back. This is what we wail about during the pitch black nights and all we dream about during the hazy grey days.
Citation: The Expat, we have been around the world a few times so are well aware of South Korea’s proclivity for dog meat consumption. This may be why we find your description of yourself and your three mates as a pack of four large wailing dogs on a dog farm “in the lonely cold mountains and valleys of the Korean countryside” alarming. But no more alarming, we suppose, than Alice’s own sense of transformation as she progresses through Wonderland:
Alice took up the fan and gloves, and, as the hall was very hot, she kept fanning herself all the time she went on talking: “Dear, dear! How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, THAT’S the great puzzle!”
A good thing she doesn’t prolong her stay in Wonderland, that’s all we can say. Can she be far off from imagining herself as a caged rabbit that is about to be thrown into the cauldron of pepper soup being stirred by the Duchess’s cook? In any case, we really appreciate your honesty in telling the story, in such a creative way, of four American men arriving in Korea in hopes of a fresh start as English teachers, only to end up “starting over and starting lower.” We can certainly see why you aspire to returning to our “dog eat dog” society here in the West. Only please promise that between now and then, you won’t land in a bowl of Korean soup, which, needless to say, will be a great deal more firey than the Duchess’s.
3) ALEX BAACKES (aka Alex in Wanderland), freelance writer and New York native on the move
Today, I seek out encounters with animals that are willing participants in sharing their space with me; one where everyone walks—or swims—away happy. . . . While I’m still not quite sure how sailors once mistook manatees for mermaids, I can now attest to the fact that these bulbous creatures move with a surprising amount of grace. Braving the chilly winter waters? Worth every shiver to share a swim with these beauties.
Citation: Alex, we are struck by how quickly you have come to the realization that, while it can be fine, even fun, to encounter other human beings on your travels, you should not miss out on the opportunity to interact with new kinds of mammals—relationships with whom could end up being much more therapeutic, especially if they’re the kind you can swim with. Alice, of course, had no qualms about swimming with the Wonderland creatures:
It was high time to go, for the pool was getting quite crowded with the birds and animals that had fallen into it: there were a Duck and a Dodo, a Lory and an Eaglet, and several other curious creatures. Alice led the way, and the whole party swam to the shore.
But in Alice’s case, she was swimming in a pool made of her own tears. We congratulate you on being much more sensible in heading Crystal River, near Orlando, which plays host to the migrating manatees from October to March.
* * *
So, readers, do you have a favorite from the above, or have you read any recent posts you think deserve an Alice Award? We’d love to hear your suggestions! And don’t miss out on the shortlist of Alice contenders we provide in each week’s Dispatch, which are sources of creative thought if nothing else! Get on our subscription list now!
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.
Writers and other international creatives: If you want to know in advance the contenders for our monthly Alice Award winners, sign up to receive The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with news of book giveaways, future posts, and of course, our weekly Alice Award!. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!
Our thoughts, however, did not turn towards the new and original, but to the jaw-clanging skeletons in the Displaced Nation’s very own Crypt.
At which point…someone (Kate Allison?) suggested that we pile all of our Gothic Tales of Old into a cauldron and chant “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.” All was going well until one of us—must have been the American—broke in with:
Stirring and stirring and stirring my brew…
Just as she screeched “O-o-o-o-o, o-o-o-o-o”, 6 apparitions arose from the pot: 6 terrifying tales from the Displaced Nation’s deep dark past. Each said they were there to teach travelers a lesson.
Kate Allison was supposed to post today, for Halloween…but then, pouf, she vanished without a trace!
As readers who are paying attention know, Kate has now posted 80+ episodes in the life of a fictional British expat family living in New England, called Libby’s Life. Two years ago she vanished before uploading the latest episode because of a freak snowstorm in Connecticut, her adopted home.
She finally resurfaced on On All Saint’s Day—in a MacDonald’s! (Has she gone native, or what?)
Travelers, here is the lesson I’m here to impart for your sake: Truth is stranger than fiction, where so’er you roam.
2) The Ghost of Quizzing Others on Their Supernatural Sightings
And then, just occasionally, I have dreams when I’m visited by the spirits of people I’ve lost….
Is there any wonder there were no comments and no likes on his post? He scared the bejeezus out of most of his readers.
Still, point taken, and I’m here to impart an important lesson that you international travelers may not have fully considered: As you traverse the world, bear in mind that any ghosts you meet will be people you know (and left behind), not strangers.
3) The Ghost of Compiling a Master List of Grim Reapers
As frequent visitors to this site will know, Kate has a way with words. For instance, she described Sihuanaba of Central America as follows:
Seen from the back, she’s an attractive woman with long hair; from the front, it’s a horse. (No jokes about Sex and the City, please.)
But even Kate’s rather offbeat humor could not dissuade from the freakishness of some of these figures.
As far as lasting lessons, this will have to suffice: Next time you get lost in a canyon, try blaming an ancient ghoul. Depending on where you’ve landed, as well as gender, you may just about pull it off.
4) The Ghost of Delivering a Screed against Princess Diana Dolls
As anyone who came across it may recall, Mr. Windram was most distressed to find himself at a bed-and-breakfast in NEW England (he is from Jolly Olde) where the innkeeper has put her prized collection of “individually authenticated” Princess Diana dolls on display in the sitting room. He tossed and turned all night, even heard scratchings at his door.
Now, as regular visitors to this esteemed site know, Mr. Windram is no fool. On the contrary, he has has a mighty brainbox. Which is why I’m so stunned that he allowed himself to be frightened by a set of Lady Di figurines. I’m sure they were only there to cover up the fact that the house is haunted—by a young and rather vigorous ghost, which is how ghosts tend to come in America (just ask Libby). The real take-away, then, particularly for those who venture into the New World: Avoid American B&Bs like the plague if you want a decent night’s sleep.
As the ghost that arose from this post, I’m here to say she hit the proverbial coffin nail soundly on the head with this assertion:
Just as we don’t like to think of rats being part of the animal kingdom, we don’t like to think of conmen, pirates, gangsters, and terrorists being part of the group we have loosely defined as “global voyagers” … But trust me, they are a part of it — as are murderers.
Which leads us to the lesson I’ll impart today: Just because you’re in a part of the world where marrows tend to thrive, don’t assume the likes of Hercule Poirot will turn up and save you.
6) The Ghost of Finding Travel Inspiration in Margaret Drabble’s “Red Queen”
Not long ago compared to other posts in this collection, ML Awanohara wrote FOOTLOOSE & FANCIFUL: Margaret Drabble’s “The Red Queen”, explaining how her views of Korea had shifted after reading a book by Dame Drabble depicting a period of bloodshed and horror in the 18th-century Korean court. A real-life tale made more vivid by Drabble’s considerable fictional powers, in which the Prince is a homicidal maniac, and his father, the King, a stern Confucian. The King ultimately decides to murder his son in a style so dramatic that ML couldn’t get it out of her head next time she went to Korea. She remains haunted to this day.
As the ghost of this post about a ghost, I find myself torn. On the one hand, what kind of person would read Drabble—that serious, hip, intellectual British novelist, who likes to come across as one’s brainy, Cambridge-educated best friend—to get a handle on what the Koreans are really like? Apples and oranges—or marmite and kimchi, I should say.
On the other—and this is the lesson I’ve come to deliver: Never hesitate to use a Cambridge-educated Brit as a resource for novel sightseeing ideas.
Welcome to Footloose & Fanciful, an occasional series of posts where we talk about books, films or other art forms that have inspired us to travel to new places or appraise familiar places with fresh eyes.
I’m probably not the best person to kick off this series. As much as I adore fiction, I’m not one to travel on a whim, because of something I read in a book. Especially not these days, when my expat years, spent in England and Japan, are behind me and I have to take time off from work. Typically, I arrive at my destination and collapse in a heap of exhaustion. It’s not until I’ve had a good rest that I am able to take in my surroundings. I peer out the window and say: “Really, I’m in xxx?!”
At that point I go to the other extreme, manically trying to find out as much as possible about where I’ve landed, visiting bookstores with an English-language section to stock up on translated novels, expat memoirs, the lot…
The second time I went to Seoul, South Korea, though, was different, and I’ll make that the subject of today’s post. That trip marked a rare time when a book had piqued my interest in a country to the point of influencing what I wanted to do and see and talk about during my stay.
Finding the soul of Seoul
I said my second visit to Seoul. The first had occurred a few years before. It followed the typical pattern. I arrived tired and unprepared, although on that occasion, I got an immediate lesson in the local culture.
Just as my husband and I were landing in Incheon International Airport, the news was breaking that Dr. Hwang Woo Suk—a veterinary researcher who had achieved world fame by cloning an Afghan hound named Snuppy—had falsified his latest results to make it look as though he’d made advances in human cloning.
“It’s a very Korean story,” some Korean friends of my husband’s informed us. I wasn’t sure what they meant, but little by little, I pieced it together. The Korean government, desperate to project a modern, high-tech face to the world, had turned Dr. Hwang into a national hero. He appeared in many of their promotional campaigns. The post office sold stamps to commemorate his research, and Dr and Mrs Hwang enjoyed a decade of first-class tickets on Korea Air, because of his status as “national treasure.”
Interestingly, our Korean friends were reluctant to condemn him outright. He’d been under a phenomenal amount of pressure to produce results and bring his country greater glory. If you were under that much pressure, you’d probably be tempted to skip a few rounds of clinical trials, too, they seemed to be saying.
I had to think about that for a while. Already, I was inclined to feel sorry for the Koreans because I knew how they’d suffered under Japanese rule. They are the Central Europeans of Asia, if you will. Just as the Hungarians, Poles and Czechs have had to put up with Germany and Russia, the Koreans, due to being sandwiched between China and Japan, have had to put up with incursions from both.
Gradually, I came round to the Korean point of view. My thought process went something like this:
Okay, the Koreans have been victims of some bad geography. But then why do they make things so much worse for themselves by setting such impossibly high standards? What Dr. Hwang did was wrong, a violation of ethical standards in medical research. But, okay, if I can feel sorry for all the Korean schoolchildren cramming like crazy for exams, I guess I can spare a bit of sympathy for Snuppy’s creator…
After arriving home from that trip, I was eager to read more about the country (I hadn’t found much in translation in Seoul’s bookstores).
A novel on Korean history by one of the writers I’d most admired when living in the UK: what could be a more perfect bridge between the two parts of my expat life?
The Red Queen of the book’s title refers to Lady Hyegyong, a Korean woman who lived in the 18th and early 19th centuries. She was plucked from obscurity to marry the Crown Prince of Korea, Sado, who turned out to be…a HOMICIDAL MANIAC, I kid you not.
In Part 1, the Crown Princess tells us about what it was like to live with a husband and in a court where daily, several dead bodies would be carried out of the palace (whenever Sado felt agitated or depressed, he would seek relief by murdering his servants) or reports would arrive of another court lady being raped. After he murders his concubine, he starts harassing his own sister, too.
At about this point, I concluded that the only thing worse than discovering you’re married to psychopath would be to find out you’re confined with him in a palace, from which there’s no escape. Terror within a claustrophobic setting must be the worst kind there is!
The story has a further twist. The Crown Prince’s father, King Yongjo, turns out to have been deeply Confucian. He is the kind of Korean parent who sets impossibly high standards for his son, which—it is hinted in the Crown Princess’s diaries—may be part of what triggers the son’s madness.
In the end, the cruel father proves more than the psycho son’s match. On a hot day in July 1762, he summons Sado and orders him to get into a heavy wooden chest, ordinarily used for storing rice or grain. The lid is shut and locked, and Sado is left to starve. It takes eight days.
The Crown Princess is traumatized all over again at witnessing her father-in-law execute her husband in such a cruel manner.
In part 2 of the book, an Oxford academic travels to Seoul with the Crown Princess’s diary in hand (which has been sent to her anonymously via Amazon.com) and finds parallels between her own life and hers. Professor Halliwell feels that the Princess “has entered her, like an alien creature in a science-fiction movie.” She becomes possessed by her—just as I was by the end of the book, just as I’m sure Drabble was, which was what inspired her to create (in her words) this “transcultural tragi-comedy.”
More questions than answers
I went back to Korea for a second time not long after reading the novel, accompanying my husband on some work he had there. So moved had I been by Drabble’s book that I was determined to find a way to pay tribute to the Red Queen, so called because of all the blood that flowed during her husband’s reign.
But here’s the strange thing. All of my attempts to find out about Lady Hyegyong came to naught. My Korean friends said I needed special permission to visit Changgyeong Palace, where this tragic series of events took place. They did not seem to want to engage in a conversation about this period of their history.
I left Korea with more questions than answers: Do Koreans repress this part of their past, and if so, what does that tell us about them? Is my previous view of them as helpless victims all wrong? Did other countries walk in and take over because Korea had weakened itself through its impossibly high Confucian ideals, which had led to total anarchy by the end of the 18th century?
But the weirdest thing is, I wasn’t that surprised by the Korean reaction. While the Western part of me applauds Drabble for resurrecting Lady Hyegyeong as feminist hero, one who lived long enough to write her tale (the existence of her memoirs, incidentally, served to refute later attempts to restore Sado to a position of honor in Korean history books), the Asian part thinks that poor Lady Hyegyeong must feel displaced in Drabble’s novel. Relationships are, after all, a central theme to Confucianism. The husband is the head of the household and the wife is obedient to him, full stop.
This inner dilemma of mine, along with the spirit of Lady Hyegyeong, which Drabble portrays so vividly in her novel, still haunts me to this day…
* * *
Readers, have you ever read a book that has colored your impressions of a place in weird ways? Also, if you would like to contribute to this new series—perhaps an uplifting tale of being inspired by a book set in the idyllic Tuscan countryside would be in order after this rather macabre story?—please don’t hesitate to get in touch: email@example.com.
Ah, the no-man’s land of the expat life — if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you haven’t been abroad for long enough. Nor would you, I’m afraid, qualify for Displaced Nation citizenship. One person who does know what I’m talking about, and would more than qualify, is Valerie Hamer. She likes to refer to herself “British by birth and a nomad by choice.” Here is her bittersweet tale of where that attitude has taken her…
— ML Awanohara
Having lived in Asia for nearly 13 years, I’ve grown accustomed to the standard opening line: “Where are you from?”
However, as the years have passed, my factual auto response of “England” has made me uneasy.
I consider myself a global nomad: an international citizen, albeit one with a passport identifying my roots in the Commonwealth realm.
Plus, I dislike labels of any kind because they invoke stereotypes: and when it comes to nationality there are only so many questions — do you have afternoon tea at 4:00? do English gentlemen really wear bowler hats? — a person can take!
Not British any more…except at the core!
The truth is, I don’t feel particularly British (whatever that really means) anymore.
In fact, I’m so out of touch I have to spend time online researching current UK news on weather, music, sport fashion and politics — because knowing these things is what is expected of me.
Foreign is what I am all about after all, and that isn’t ever going to change.
The blurring of one’s national identity happens over time. In the first couple of years of the expat life, we crouch on the edge of our host culture, secure in the knowledge that the familiar is only a plane ride away. We make cross-cultural comparisons, some of them invidious; have adventures; reminisce; and sometimes escape for brief periods of intense reunion with the motherland. The possibility is always open for ending the foreign adventure and resuming the life left behind.
Over time, however, the attachment to the homeland fades and in the process, most long-term expats mutate into something closer to the global citizen. Take my case: I am now a quasi-fraudulent impersonation of a bona fide English woman.
But, even though I have lived abroad for over a decade, I have never seriously doubted my citizenship. Great Britain is, after all, the place where I was born and raised. The island I could return to on my terms, without fear of any impositions on my status or freedom.
After all, I continue to be a British citizen, right?
No right to investment
Not quite, as it turns out, for while I have been busy living as a temporary resident of South Korea, times have been a-changing back home in Britain.
A standing joke amongst my family and friends is that I manage to devalue the currency of any country I choose to live in. I have the same effect on UK interest rates, too, which is why I’ve made a habit of checking out the best deals and making the necessary transfers every time I visit.
Suddenly, though, this became impossible! New government rules have outlawed British non-residents from investing their cash in the country. How dare we?!
I chose a Korean bank instead, where thankfully I haven’t confronted similar issues — though it should be no surprise to hear that the interest rate dropped by half during my first year in the scheme!
Little right to health care
I rarely get ill, but sometimes I’ll make a quick trip to the doctors when back in England. Most health care services are free at source, and even temporary visitors can make use of any emergency facility. Those of us with family in England can see a general practitioner as long as a family member is on the books.
It’s never been a problem until now.
Last summer I called the office of the GP my father uses and was interrogated quite fiercely by the receptionist. I won’t bore you with the details: suffice to say, as a non-resident I need to be close to death before the medical profession will give me the time of day.
I can’t complain about being denied access to a system I don’t pay into, but the experience further defined me as an alien in a place where I used to belong.
No right to drive?!
One area that shouldn’t be a problem is driving in the UK, right? Last summer I decided to hire a car for my visit. I hadn’t been behind the wheel for ten years but had kept my license updated, registered to my family’s UK address.
After shelling out for a couple of refresher lessons and an expensive insurance policy, I felt confident that all was good — and it was, that is, until I discovered quite by accident that the insurance had actually been useless.
Who knew that my UK license grants only permanent residents the right to drive? Living outside the country means you forfeit the permission to use, or even renew, the license.
It makes sense when you think about it — but the assumption that we are good to go without an international permit is pretty widespread among us British expats.
* * *
These are just a few examples of show how ignorant I was of the gradual erosion of my rights to access UK services and systems — an ignorance I suspect I share with many other displaced Brits.
Ultimately, those of us who occupy a liminal space between two cultures need to come to terms with the idea that we may truly belong in neither.
* * *
Readers, any comments or questions for Valerie? Can you relate to her “floating world” status?
images: (clockwise, starting top left) Ploughman’s lunch (courtesy Flickr); traditional Korean meal; Korean marchers; Seoul (courtesy Flickr); Thames view of London; Queen’s Guards marching; Valerie Hamer. (Non-Flickr photos from Morguefiles.)
Don’t miss our 4 polls below! Results to be announced in March 2nd Displaced Dispatch! Enjoy!
When I first repatriated to the United States, I relished the chance to watch the Oscars again. For some reason — I’m not sure why, particularly as I was never a big movie buff — I regretted missing out on the pinnacle of Hollywood glamour during my years of living overseas, first in England and then in Japan.
It did not take long, however, before the novelty wore off. I grew bored with the dresses — they all seemed so same-y. And a tux is a tux is a tux.
I also grew bored with the selection of films. Typically, Oscar-nominated films take place within a single country’s borders — and when people cross these borders, it is in the service of maintaining them (IT’S WAR!!!). Apart from when Sofia Coppola was singled out for her Lost in Translation screenplay, the plots do not exactly speak to me and my prior situation of displacement.
Case-in-point: 2013 Oscar nominees
A great example of what I’m talking about are the two historical — or, more accurately, historically informed — movies that are up for this year’s Oscars:
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln — the quintessential American biographical period piece that the Academy loves (it is predicted to win five Oscars, including best director for Spielberg).
Les Misérables, the film of the musical theatre adaptation — which in turn is based on an historical novel by Victor Hugo (1862), depicting life in the aftermath of the French Revolution. (Les Mis is likely to win for its score, sound mixing, makeup and hair styling, and best supporting actress for Anne Hathaway.)
Actually, make that three historical films, as Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (up for best picture, cinematography and best original screenplay) can come under that rubric as well. The first half is a mock Western and the second, a mock-revenge melodrama about slavery. At least, though, it has one foreign character: German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Posing as a dentist, he gallivants around Texas, speaking perfect English. And you’ll never guess what? He’s a villain. He does have manners — but does that mitigate or enhance his villainy? One can never tell with Mr Tarantino…
Likewise, Argo (likely to win best picture along with some other prizes) and Zero Dark Thirty (likely to win for best original screenplay) depict epic events in the — albeit much more recent — American past. And although each of these films portrays Americans abroad, it shows them acting in the service of president and country — with the aim of protecting other Americans. Nothing too displaced about that.
Perhaps the best of this year’s films for anyone with a proclivity for venturing across borders is Life of Pi (likely to win for best original score and visual effects). The story is about an Indian family that is emigrating to Winnipeg, Canada. Yet, as even those of us who haven’t seen the film know by now, Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) gets stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific with a Bengal tiger. (That’s after the steamliner carrying his family’s zoo is pulled underwater during a freak storm.)
Over the course of months, the two unlikely castaways must depend on each other to survive — a scenario that provides an occasion for reflecting on cross-spiritualism, not cross-culturalism. (Pi, who was born a Hindu, loves Jesus and practices Islam.)
It also provides an occasion for displaced Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee to try his hand at 3D storytelling.
Why are we trying so hard to fit in when we were born to stand out?
WELCOME TO THE 2013 DISPLACED OSCARS. If we don’t fit into the Hollywood version, we may as well host our own event. We invite you to vote on your favorite films in the four categories we have created below. Preliminary results were announced in the Displaced Dispatch that came out on Saturday, February 23rd. Final results will appear in the Dispatch that comes out on Saturday, March 2nd. Be sure to sign up if you haven’t already!
1) Best Film Exploring Themes of Interest to Expats & International Travelers
This category honors the films that put cross-cultural themes right at the center. And the nominees are:
1) Shanghai Calling (2012, dir. by Daniel Hsia) SUMMARY: Manhattanite Sam (Daniel Henney), an arrogant young lawyer, is transferred to his firm’s Shanghai office. He bungles his first assignment and finds his career in jeopardy. With the help of his beautiful relocation specialist, among others, he just might be able to save his job and learn to appreciate the wonders that Shanghai has to offer. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: How often do we get to see Shanghai on the big screen? That said, the plot is somewhat shallow and fails to make the most of Sam’s background as a Chinese American.
2) The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012, dir. by John Madden) SUMMARY: A group of British retirees — played by British acting greats like Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy — have outsourced their retirement, attracted by the less expensive and seemingly exotic India. They are enticed by advertisements about the newly restored Marigold Hotel and given false dreams of a life with leisure. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: At the 2012 Mumbai Film Festival, the film was honored for showcasing Indian filming locations — a view not necessarily shared by viewers outside the subcontinent. Some of us feel that India was slighted by being treated as the shimmering background to a story about retirement-age self-renewal.
3) The Imposter (2012, dir. by Bart Layton) SUMMARY: Thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his home in San Antonio, Texas, in 1994. Three and a half years later, he is allegedly found alive, thousands of miles away in a village in southern Spain with a story of kidnapping and torture. His family is overjoyed to bring him home. But all is not quite as it seems. The boy bears many of the same distinguishing marks he always had, but why does he now have a strange accent? Why does he look so different? This British documentary concerns the 1997 case of French serial imposter Frédéric Bourdin. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: By common consensus, The Imposter is one of the year’s most provocative pictures. Certainly, Displaced Nation writer Anthony Windram found it that way. In one of our most popular posts of last year, he mused that Bourdin’s story is not entirely unfamiliar to expats, all of whom have chameleon-like qualities.
CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!
2) Best Foreign Displaced Film
This category honors films about displacement that take place in non-English speaking countries and therefore require English speakers to read subtitles while learning about other cultures. And the nominees are:
1) Tabu (2012, dir. by Portugal’s Miquel Gomes) SUMMARY: The action in this experimental fiction ranges from contemporary Lisbon to an African colony in the distant past, in what was Portuguese Mozambique. First we are introduced to a cantankerous elderly Portuguese lady with a gambling addition. Then we flashback to her youth as a beautiful young woman living a kind of White Mischief existence at the foot of Mount Tabu, where she falls in love with a handsome adventurer…(Notably, the film’s title references the 1931 German silent film of that name, which took place in the South Seas.) WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: The film shows what happens to expats who live too long — there are no remnants of “paradise” left. But some — e.g., A.O. Scott of the New York Times — have faulted the director for glossing over the issues of colonialism in the film in favor of simple aestheticism.
2) Clandestine Childhood (2011, dir. by Benjamín Ávila) SUMMARY: A cinematic memoir drawn from Ávila’s own experiences, the film paints an unsettling portrait of families affected by military dictatorships. The year is 1979, five years after Perón’s death, and the family of 12-year-old Juan, who have been living in exile in Cuba, returns secretly to Argentina. Juan’s parents are members of an underground organization and for sake of their cover, he must assume the name of “Ernesto” and pretend to be a newcomer from northern Argentina. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Juan’s parents aren’t fleeing the law because of their past misdeeds but are trying violently to overthrow a current dictatorship. The film therefore raises the question: do urban guerrillas make good parents? After all, they are asking their son, a Third Culture Kid, to act the part of a native in the homeland he never knew, for the sake of their political ideals. But while this question is intriguing, the story is driven almost entirely by clichés. As one critic remarked:
[T]he writing needs to be sharper to avoid feeling like a generic coming-of-ager.
3) Let My People Go (2011, dir. by Mikael Buch) SUMMARY: French immigrant Reuben (Nicolas Maury) is living in fairytale Finland — where he got his MA in “Comparative Sauna Cultures” — with his gorgeous Nordic boyfriend Teemu (Jarkko Niemi). He works as the mailman in a neighborhood whose colorful houses look like Scandinavian Skittles. Then, after a misunderstanding involving a parcel full of Euros, Teemu casts his lover out of Eden, sending him back to where he came from: Paris. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Ruben’s return to Paris — where he finds his family weathering various crises as well as emotional instability — demonstrates why he left in the first place. (Aren’t most expats escaping something?) However, the scenes with his wacky, feuding family members soon become tedious. As one critic puts it:
The movie’s labored attempt at creating comedy mostly means lots of scenes with Ruben cringing as relatives shout.
CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!
3) Most Displaced Director
This category honors the director who has shown the most chutzpah in raiding the literature of other cultures to make a commercially successful movie (note: they do not cast the natives!). This year’s nominees are:
1) Joe Wright for doing a British version of Anna Karenina (2012), casting his muse (Keira Knightly) in the titular role WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Some enjoyed Wright’s bold new interpretation of this classic Russian novel, while others felt that he did Tolstoy a terrible injustice — for instance, New Yorker critic Richard Brody had this to say:
Wright, with flat and flavorless images of an utterly impersonal banality, takes Tolstoy’s plot and translates it into a cinematic language that’s the equivalent of, say, Danielle Steel, simultaneously simplistic and overdone.
2) Tom Hooper for casting a bunch of Aussies, Brits and Americans in Les Misérables WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Since Hooper previously won the Best Director Oscar for the terribly English drama The King’s Speech (historical drama, yay!), many found it odd that he would choose to take on this sprawling French story, and beloved musical, to create what he calls “an oil tanker of a picture.” But for what it’s worth, Hooper had no qualms about directing a film having to do with French history instead of his own. He is persuaded that Victor Hugo’s story speaks to issues of concern today:
Hugo’s story of populist uprising in 1832 Paris resounds in an era of the Arab Spring, the Occupy protests and general frustration over economic inequality.
3) Korean director Hur Jin-ho for making an Asian version of Dangerous Liaisons (2012) — which was originally an 18th-century novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclosset — and setting it in 1930s Shanghai WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Many have complimented Hur Jin-ho’s decorous adaptation, saying it was clever of him to swap the insular, decadent world of de Laclos’ book, which takes place pre-French Revolution, with the similarly gilded cage of Chinese aristocrats just prior to the Japanese invasion. But the film isn’t particularly sophisticated on a political or historical level. As one critic writes: “It’s all just window-dressing: pretty, but substance-free.”
CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!
4) Most Displaced Actor/Actress
This category honors the actor who has performed this year’s greatest feat of playing a role that requires them to take on a whole new nationality. We’re talking Versatility Plus! And the nominees are:
1) Daniel Day-Lewis, the Anglo-Irish actor who portrayed Abe Lincoln in Lincoln WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Apparently, there was no American actor good enough to play one of the most exceptional presidents the nation has ever known as critics have had nothing but praise for Day Lewis’s performance. Here is a sampling:
His Lincoln is tall and tousled and bent over with the weight of melancholy responsibility in the fourth year of the Civil War.
[Day-Lewis] manages to inject so much quiet humour into what could have been a very reverential portrait.
[The actor] inhabits the ageing figure of the 16th President of the United States with exquisite poise, intellect and grace.
2) Anne Hathaway for playing saintly prostitute Fantine in Les Misérables WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Many find it impressive that Hathaway, cast as the tragic Fantine, sings the show-stopping “I Dreamed a Dream” in one take. (Tom Hooper’s contribution to the genre was having the actors sing rather than lip synch.) And some say that her willingness to have her locks shorn off on screen shows her commitment to her craft. That said, her performance is not to everyone’s taste. “Rarely have the movies seen such an embarrassingly naked plea for applause,” writes Australian film critic Jake Wilson — the implication being the Victor Hugo’s Fantine would have had more dignity.
3) Swedish actress Alicia Vikander for taking on two non-Swedish roles: Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (she served as Queen of Denmark and Norway in the 18th century) in A Royal Affair (2012); and Kitty in Anna Karenina (2012) WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Vikander’s “moxie” is apparently what landed her both of these parts. According to A Royal Affair director Nikolaj Arcel, every actress in Denmark wanted the role of Mathilde, but only Vikander had the requisite “regal quality.” She even went to Copenhagen two months before shooting began to learn to speak Danish fluently. Likewise, Anna Karenina director Joe Wright saw in her the qualities to play Kitty, a flirtatious young woman who believes the dashing Count Vronsky is her Prince Charming, only to find love with a kind-hearted farmer named Levin. It is not uncommon for movie-goers to remark that she outshines Kiera Knightly’s Anna.
CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!
* * *
Are we missing out on any films/categories? Please leave your suggestions in the comments below.
It’s Christmas Day and the holiday party continues for the expats and other global voyagers who washed up on the Displaced Nation’s shores in 2012. Remember all those Random Nomads who proposed to make us exotic meals based on their far-ranging meanderings? Not to mention their suitcases full of treasures they’d collected and their vocabularies full of strange words… How are they doing these days, and do they have any exciting plans for the holidays? Third in a three-part series (see also Part One and Part Two).
During the final third of 2012, we met some expats and intrepid world travelers who, I think it’s fair to say, have developed some rather unusual hobbies and eating habits. The two are one and the same in the case of Brian MacDuckston, who was featured on our site this past August. He has made a habit of eating ramen in as many Tokyo venues as possible — a hobby that was quirky enough to attract the attention of the New York Times. In addition to Brian — a San Franciscan who originally went to Japan to teach English — we encountered:
Liv Gaunt, an Englishwoman who became an expat accidentally, while pursuing her love of scuba diving and underwater photography. Now based in Australia, she told us she has a passion for sharks but would happily do without sea urchins.
Mark Wiens, an American third culture kid who now lives in Thailand and travels all over — he feels least displaced when sampling other countries’ street foods.
Jessica Festa, an American traveler who loves to venture off the beaten track and eat locally — she did not hesitate to eat cuy in Ecuador (even though it reminded her of her pet guinea pig, Joey, named after a school crush).
Larissa Reinhart, a small-town Midwesterner who lived in Japan for several years and, since repatriating, has taken up the pen as a crime novelist. She is now living in small-town Georgia but hopes to go abroad again. She provides recipes for Asian fried chicken, among other delicacies, on her blog about life as an ex-expat.
Patricia Winton, an American who responded to 9/11 by giving up her comfortable life in Washington to become an expat crime writer in Rome. She also invested in a pasta-making machine…
Bart Schaneman, a Nebraskan who wanted to see the world and has made his home in Seoul, where he is an editor for an English-language newspaper and author of a travelogue on the Trans-Siberian railway. He is a huge fan of kimchi.
Three of this esteemed group are with us today. What have they been up to since a few months ago, and are they cooking up anything special for the holidays, besides chatting with us?
1) BRIAN MACDUCKSTON
Have there been any big changes in your life since we last spoke?
I’ve been offered a few gigs on Japanese TV shows as a “ramen reporter” and successfully pitched my first magazine article about a best-of-ramen list. A start! I also started a ramen class aimed at non-Japanese speakers. Check it out!
How will you be spending the holidays this year?
A nice staycation in Tokyo.
What’s the thing you most look forward to eating, dare I ask?
I’m trying to eat more high-class sushi, but I’ll probably just stick to a lot of ramen for the next few weeks.
Can you recommend any books or films you came across in 2012 that speak to the displaced life?
I really enjoyed Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a documentary about the most revered sushi chef in the world. [Editor’s note: The film has been available on Netflix since last August.]
Do you have any New Year’s resolutions for 2013?
I want to train myself to stop using double spaces after periods when I write. Not a big goal, but important for someone who has an interest in being paid for my writing.
A worthy goal, imho! (I’ve had to correct quite a few in my time…) So, any upcoming travel plans?
My father will visit Japan, so I am planning a luxury week-long trip of eating and relaxing in hot springs. Two things I’m good at!
2) LARISSA REINHART
Any big developments in your life since we last spoke?
My second Cherry Tucker Mystery, Still Life in Brunswick Stew, has a release date of May 21, 2013. [Editor’s note: As mentioned in Larissa’s interview, the first in her Cherry Tucker series, Portrait of a Dead Guy, came out this year.]
How will you be spending the holidays this year?
We travel to visit my family in Illinois and St. Louis after Christmas through New Year’s.
What’s the thing you most look forward to eating?
There’s this Italian grocery, Viviano’s, in the Italian district of St. Louis, called The Hill in St. Louis, that I really look forward to visiting. I’ll stock up on cheap wine and Italian staples for the coming year.
Can you recommend any books or films you came across in 2012 that speak to the displaced life?
Yes, two Japanese films:
The fascinating documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. I highly recommend — even for non-sushi fans. The film is beautifully shot and reveals what it takes to be a true master at something. Incredible.
The gorgeous The Secret World of Arrietty (aka The Borrower Arrietty), scripted by Hayao Miyazaki. We were excited to see Arrietty because we saw the ads for the movie when we were still living in Japan (and I’m a big fan of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, on which the film is based, as well as of Miyazaki).
Have you made any New Year’s resolutions for 2013?
To spend less time on social media and more time writing. I love chatting online, but I need to be more disciplined about getting away from the “water cooler” and back to work.
Any upcoming travel plans?
Disney World for spring break! Woot! And we’re hoping to get back overseas soon, but no definite plans yet.
3) PATRICIA WINTON
Any big changes in your life since we last spoke a couple of months ago?
The month after you featured me, I put my long-time WIP in the bottom drawer for a while and started a new one. I’ve written about 30,000 words. This one, also a mystery, is set in Florence. It takes place during the 500th anniversary celebration of the world’s first culinary society.
Meanwhile, my blog partners at Novel Adventurers are working on an anthology of long short stories. We are an adventurous group comprising (besides me):
an Australian who has lived in South America
an American of Swiss-German origin who is married to a man from Iran, where they frequently travel
an American with close family ties in India, where she frequently travels
an American specializing in things Russian, who is married to a Kyrgyz
a former Peace Corps volunteer who writes about the Caribbean
an American who grew up on a sailboat traveling the world and has lived as an adult in many countries.
We’ll be writing about travel and adventure from international perspectives. It will be some time before it sees publication, but I’ll keep you posted. I think it will interest the Displaced Nation!
Where will you be spending the holidays this year?
I’m spending the holidays quietly at home. I plan to visit a friend in the country for New Year’s weekend. The holidays here last almost three weeks, ending on January 6. Nativity scenes are a big deal here, and I plan to visit various churches to view, and photograph, them as I usually do. I’ll write about them on my blog, Italian Intrigues, on January 3rd.
What’s the thing you most look forward to eating?
Christmas Eve in Italy is devoted to eating fish — usually seven fish dishes from antipasto onward. I’m trying out a new recipe for sea bass stuffed with frutta del mare (non-fin fish). I’m using clams, mussels, shrimp, squid and baby octopus, all well laced with garlic. And I always make the holiday custard that comes from my Tennessee childhood.
Can you recommend any books you came across in 2012 that speak to the displaced life? The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver. While it was published in 2010, I didn’t read it until this year, and I think it’s a masterpiece. It’s about a man with one foot in Mexico and the other in the US — but that’s a vast oversimplification. After the young man’s Mexican mother dies, he works for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera while Leon Trotsky is staying with them. He later moves to the US to join his American father. He eventually becomes a successful writer caught up in the McCarthy witch hunt. I don’t want to include spoilers here, but it’s fabulous. The boy/man is a foreigner in both countries and speaks both languages with an accent.
Do you have any New Year’s resolutions for 2013?
Not that I want to share.
Last but not least, do you have any upcoming travel plans?
No concrete travel plans at the moment. While composing these answers, I received an email about a tour of Uzbekistan that sounds really alluring. And I will probably go to the US to attend a mystery writers conference.
* * *
Readers, any questions for this rather motley (one former expat and two current ones) but highly creative bunch?
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post — expat Anthony Windram’s musings on spending Boxing Day in a country that associates boxing with punching, not (Christmas) punch.
Images: Passport photo from Morguefiles; portrait photos are from the nomads (Larissa Reinhart’s shows her family in front of one of their favorite Japanese manga characters, Shin-chan, a sort of Bart Simpson of Japan — the creator, Yoshito Usui, had recently died).
Place of birth:Scottsbluff, Nebraska, USA — I was raised on a farm nine miles east of town. I had an incredible childhood. Passport: USA Overseas history:South Korea (Jeonju, Seoul, Jeonju, Seoul): 2006-08; 2008-09; 2010-11; 2011 – present. Occupation: National editor for the Korea JoongAng Daily, an English newspaper in Seoul; and author of Trans-Siberian, a travelogue about a trip on the the world’s longest railway. Cyberspace coordinates:Bart Schaneman (Tumblr blog) and @bartschaneman (Twitter handle).
What made you abandon your homeland for Korea?
I left because I wanted experiences. I wanted material to write about. I wanted to travel and get out of America. I didn’t want a mortgage. I didn’t want to get trapped. I didn’t want to wait until I was too old to see the world.
Was anyone else in your immediate family displaced?
I’m the only person in my immediate family who doesn’t live in the region called the Great Plains.
Tell me about the moment during your stay in Korea when you felt the most displaced.
I don’t really have a moment like that. Korea’s an exceptional place. It’s safe. The people are kind and educated. It gets easier to live here as a Westerner all the time. I’m here by choice — it gets lonely, and I miss my family, but I don’t really question why I’m here. There were minor annoyances about how things are done differently than what I was used to when I first got here. I don’t really notice those anymore. People here move to their left on the sidewalks. That’s not too hard to get used to.
When did you feel the least displaced?
Every time I go home I remember how lucky I am to live in a foreign country. Not that Nebraska or the Midwest is a bad place. I love it and I hope I’ll be lucky enough to get to live there again someday. It’s just very familiar. Difficult to find interesting. In Asia, I’m rarely bored with my surroundings. I value that more and more as I get older.
You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of the countries where you’ve traveled or lived into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase? Kimchi. But only from Korea. It’s not right anywhere else.
We are therefore looking forward to the meal you are invited to prepare for Displaced Nation members, based on your travels. What’s on the menu?
I’m going to serve you all a bowl of chamchi kimchi jjiggae: tuna and kimchi soup. It will make you feel like you can flip over cars after you eat it. Great when you’re sick or hungover.
And now can you offer a Korean word or expression for the Displaced Nation’s argot?
The most important word to understand in Korean culture, to my mind, is jeong. It doesn’t translate directly, but the closest way to describe it is as a type of deep bond that is formed between people over time that helps you care for someone. You might not see an old friend frequently any more, or you might not be romantic with your partner, but you have jeong for them so you still want to help them when they need you. It explains a lot about the Korean mind and Korean society.
Earlier this month we did a poll on expat voting. Do you still follow your home-country politics?
I work as a journalist so I pay attention to American politics. Koreans pay attention as well. I’ve heard it said by people here that when the U.S. coughs the whole world gets sick. Most of my co-workers are from the U.S. and very well informed.
Do you vote despite living abroad?
I vote when I like the candidates, but I don’t vote if I don’t like what’s offered.
Were you surprised at the 2012 outcome?
I’m always surprised at how divided America seems around election time. People I love and trust can think about the world in an extremely different way than I do. That’s more surprising to me than who won the election.
The American Thanksgiving took place last week. What do you feel most thankful for in your life right now?
I’m lucky to have the life I have. I’m healthy. I’m alive. I don’t need much more than that. No complaints from me.
Readers — yay or nay for letting Bart Schaneman into The Displaced Nation? He may have us all eating kimchi, but at least he can amuse us with tales of the Trans-Siberian! (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Bart — find amusing!)
STAY TUNED for another episode in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. Yes, this time she really is posting! Last week, the washing up after her Thanksgiving dinner took longer than expected…! (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)
Mary-Sue Wallace, The Displaced Nation’s agony aunt, is back. Her thoughtful advice eases and soothes any cross-cultural quandary or travel-related confusion you may have. Submit your questions and comments here, or else by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Shoot! Is it October already? I don’t know how the time flies. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of fall. Who would be living in Tulsa. It just gets grey here, no burnt ochres like in Vermont. In fact, I wouldn’t know a burnt ochre if I saw one. Is it like a vole (please don’t feel the need to write in. I’m not that stupid. I know it’s not a rodent). Anyhoo, on with this month’s questions.
I can’t resist asking you: how does the Wallace household celebrate Halloween? I can imagine it’s quite an occasion!
– Ian (a British fan of yours) in Iowa
Well I can tell you that we don’t celebrate Halloween like the Larsons across the street. She gives out fruit to the kids in the neighborhood. Why would you even do that? It’s just cruel, isn’t it?
No, it’s a time of excess over at the Wallace household. That’s why I wake up the day after Halloween and don’t have to worry about finding the trees outside my house covered in toilet paper.
I buy plenty of Reese’s peanut butter cups because who doesn’t love them? I hear in Europe they have what they call food mountains when they have too much of a particular food source, well let me tell you that the Wallace household ends up with a Reese’s peanut butter cup mountain come Halloween.
My wife and I have lived in the United States since last May, and I must say, she is throwing herself into the life here with considerable vigour. She is now talking about hosting a Halloween party for some of our fellow expats, and inviting a few of our American neighbors. She has suggested that she and I dress up as an Elephant and a Donkey, in celebration of the American election season. No pun intended, but that would make me feel a bit of, well, an ass, to use the local dialect.
I wonder if I could talk her into going as a Milkman and Pregnant Lady instead? At least that would be true to our native (British) culture.
– Stephen in St. Louis
So let me guess this right regarding your Halloween costumes, your wife was to be satirical and you want to be lewd? Gee, what is it with you Brits. You always think your jokes are funny and yet they always just seem to be about sex. Just go as something horror related and stop trying to over think it. If you really want to be true to your native culture why not go as King George III. Bam! Yes, I went there.
My husband writes mystery books for a living. He and I have decided to live in England for a few years while he does research on his latest story. He insists that we look for an old isolated cottage somewhere deep in the heart of the countryside, where he can be free to write. But I feel certain that those oldy-worldy thatched roof places may be haunted. And what if I have to stay in a house like that on my own, should he be called up to London to meet his agent or give a talk.
Do you think I’m strange to be so afraid of (admittedly English) ghosts?
– Susan of Savannah, Georgia, soon to be of Suffolk, East Anglia
If you’re going to be living in East Anglia I’d be more concerned with the living than the dead. They’re a scary in-bred bunch, though coming from Georgia you should be able to handle it. I kid, I kid…well not about East Anglia.
***** Dear Mary-Sue,
Do Westerners see Western ghosts, Chinese see Chinese ghosts, and Africans see African ghosts, or can we see each other’s?
– Just Curious
And does Just Curious see ghosts of low intelligence?
When I first saw the farmhouse in Tuscany that my husband and I are now renting while we look for a place to live for our retirement, I thought to myself: Frances Mayes, eat your heart out! However, we’ve just now found out from one of our neighbors that a murder took place here about ten years ago — and ever since, the house has always been rented to expats. I’m thinking we should consult with the local Catholic priest about whether he could perform an exorcism — casting out evil spirits and all that. But my husband says, don’t be silly — it just adds to the atmosphere.
What do you advise?
-Victoria of Vulterra (formerly of Wellington, NZ)
First thing I would be doing is renegotiating a lower rental fee and not thinking about calling the local Padre.
***** Dear Mary-Sue,
In my opinion, Asian ghosts are far freakier — and hence scarier — than Western ones. Especially the Japanese kind. I mean, what’s a vampire compared to a wailing Asian woman with a very pale face and long, jet black hair? Actually, I’m scaring myself even as I write this…
– Ted of Tsukuba (formerly of Texas)
Yeah, I mean Casper has nothing on the Krasue from Thai legend. Now that’s freaky. I’d like to see Stephen in St Louis go to his party dressed as that.
Mary-Sue Wallace, The Displaced Nation’s agony aunt, is back. Her thoughtful advice eases and soothes any cross-cultural quandary or travel-related confusion you may have. Submit your questions and comments here, or else by emailing her at email@example.com.
Well, this month I’ve been asked to deal with your food-based queries. That’s pretty easy for this gal! I love to chow down. Not in a Paula Deen kinda way, you understand, but I sure do love a refined meal and am pretty well known on the Tulsa culinary scene.
Fermented salted herring — how does that sound to you as a national dish? [Not great. Think roadkill cooked up in the finest Ozarks tradition sound preferable, if I’m being honest – M-S] As an American living in Northern Sweden, I have yet to acquire the taste let alone abide the smell. However, a friend at my new church has invited me to a party where they’ll be serving surströmmingsklämma — that’s a sandwich made with slices of surströmming (the name for this fish — quite a mouthful, too, though at least it’s not fermented!) between two pieces of the hard and crispy kind of bread they love so much up here. The bread is buttered and there is a further layer of boiled and sliced or else mashed potatoes.
What to do? Do I accept my friend’s invitation or pretend to be busy “settling in”?
– Mary-Louise from Umeå, Sweden
You don’t have to pretend to be Anthony Bourdain if you don’t want to be. Look at Samantha Brown, she travels all the world and never once leaves her comfort zone or experiences something new.
Also, you’re in Sweden, not some village in the third world where they are honoring you by offering you a slice of roast anteater rump. I’m sure you won’t be insulting anyone by politely declining. Just be graceful and say you’re not big into fish.
I know you’re very pro-USA, but as an English expat who has just spent his first summer in the United States, I haven’t been able to get the hang of some of your summer desserts.
Take, for instance, strawberry shortcake — overly sweetened strawberries on a sweet biscuit, which should actually be called a scone. Whose bright idea was that? I guess that person hadn’t heard of strawberries and cream?
Moving right along to that traditional American Girl Scout favorite, s’mores. The chocolate and graham crackers are fine, but a roasted marshmallow — that’s OTT. Please, sir, can I have no-more?
I could go on about the American obsession with eating ice cream in a wide variety of sickening flavors, when there’s absolutely nothing wrong with chocolate and vanilla (okay, strawberry, too, if you like) — but I’ll stop there.
Here’s the thing, old girl [??????? M-S]. I would love to tell my various American hosts that nothing beats a tall glass of Pimm’s on a summer’s day, and a slice of summer pudding, but I’m guessing that wouldn’t go down too well.
Nigel of Nevada
Old girl??! Why, aren’t you a little slice of honey pie? I’d certainly like to beat you with a tall glass of Pimms. It actually isn’t too difficult to get hold of a Pimms cup here in the land of the free. As for the rest of your letter: yeah, we like our desserts to be sweet. What a surprise!
I’m originally from Winnipeg, in Manitoba, Canada, and am teaching English in Korea. The other day one of my students went so far as to tell me that the reason the Korean economy has gotten strong is because they all eat so much kimchi.
I wanted to tell him that I think there’s something strange about a nation being so obsessed with what is essentially spicy fermented cabbage.
I mean, can’t they think of anything else to brag about?
– Sally from Seoul
First Mary-Louise’s problems with fermented fish and now this. I don’t know what it is with foreigners and fermentation — seems crazy to me. The Mary-Sue rule is that unless you’re fermenting something that I can make into a mimosa or margarita, then it’s best not to bother.
My hubby, Jake, is always going off to the Korean barbeque in town. If the owner is sending back all the money he makes off dear ol’ hubby, well, it’s probably that that’s keeping the Korean economy strong.
Oh. My. God. Do people really eat this stuff? I’m an American student staying with a British family as part of a semester abroad, and they SERIOUSLY just offered me the most foul-tasting stuff imaginable on toast. I thought I was going to spit it out. I mean, it was soooo salty! And then they presented the jar to me as a GIFT! What am I supposed to do with it?!?!?!?
– Patti in Plymouth
I’m assuming you’re talking about Marmite. I wouldn’t worry too much, it probably won’t make it past customs when you return to the land of milk and honey.
Anyhoo, that’s all from me readers. I’m so keen to hear about your cultural issues and all your juicy problems. Do drop me a line with any problems you have, or if you want to talk smack about Delilah Rene.
Mary-Sue is a retired travel agent who lives in Tulsa with her husband Jake. She is the best-selling author of Traveling Made Easy, Low-Fat Chicken Soup for the Traveler’s Soul, The Art of War: The Authorized Biography of Samantha Brown, and William Shatner’s TekWar: An Unofficial Guide. If you have any questions that you would like Mary-Sue to answer, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by adding to the comments below.
CLICK HERE TO REGISTER for THE DISPLACED DISPATCH. It's delivered to your inbox every other Sunday and features:
* new works by expats or other international creatives;
* debate-worthy topics in the expat realm;
* a few surprising discoveries expats have made; &
* a couple of the latest Displaced Nation posts. SIGN UP NOW. (NEXT ISSUE: December 4)
.. FOR, BY & ABOUT DISPLACED CREATIVES
We have interviewed many displaced creatives: memoirists, novelists, entrepreneurs & artists of various kinds. Check out the collection for possible soulmates!
About The Displaced Nation
The founders of The Displaced Nation share a passion for what we call the "displaced life" of global residency and travel—particularly when it leads to creative pursuits, be it writing, art, food, business or even humo(u)r.