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Notes and fears on living an expat life in the digital age

imageSome loose thoughts on expat life in the digital life, partly inspired by a Frank Bruni article in The New York Times:

Note 1: The late night scribblings on a post-it note of a random neurosis

That being away from my home country for a prolonged period only serves to make me an oddity there, and that as time moves forward the image that I have of home is from when I emigrated. Everyone and everything else has moved on. Me: obsolete, anachronistic, no longer conversant in the local idiom, a visitor from 2007. I’m still operating Britain iOS 6 when everyone else have updated to Britain iOS 7.

Note 2: Recent Article I read

“Traveling Without Seeing” by Frank Bruni. Published in The New York Times on September 2, 2013. In it Bruni laments the digital world we live in, how it alters our ability to experience travel in a foreign country.  What does this say about expat living? What is it to be an expat in a digital world? How dangerous can the “cocoon” Bruni writes about be?

“Before I left New York, I downloaded a season of “The Wire,” in case I wanted to binge, in case I needed the comfort. It’s on my iPad with a slew of books I’m sure to find gripping, a bunch of the music I like best, issues of favorite magazines: a portable trove of the tried and true, guaranteed to insulate me from the strange and new.

I force myself to quit “The Wire” after about 20 minutes and I venture into the streets, because Baltimore’s drug dealers will wait and Shanghai’s soup dumplings won’t. But I’m haunted by how tempting it was to stay put, by how easily a person these days can travel the globe, and travel through life, in a thoroughly customized cocoon. . .

I’m talking about our hard drives, our wired ways, “the cloud” and all of that. I’m talking about our unprecedented ability to tote around and dwell in a snugly tailored reality of our own creation, a monochromatic gallery of our own curation.”

Note 3: Availability of media: finding the Test score

Bruni downloads The Wire. Expat living need not be terrifying in the digital world, you need not let go. My apartment and digital habit is a curation of my own making, one that ties me to a notion of Britishness that I wouldn’t, other than a PBS viewing habit, have been able to maintain with as much ease twenty years ago. With only a cursory knowledge of technology it is possible to keep watching British television. British newspapers are easily available. In The Lady Vanishes there is a running joke about a buffoonish double-act on a train across Europe who in vain try to find out what the Test Match score is. I watch highlights on YouTube. If I don’t let go, am I actually an expat?  Am I no better than those British expats that sit in the Spanish sun drinking McEwans and eating eggs and chips? My media diet remains resolutely British in a way that wouldn’t formerly have been possible.

Note 4: Recollection of a joke heard on a podcast

The current England football manager, Roy Hodgson, has had a long (and varied) career managing abroad. When he returned to the UK to manage in the Premiership I remember a joke being made on Football Weekly, a Guardian newspaper podcast that is a regular feature in my digital cocoon, that Hodgson’s voice was that of an old cockney gent, the sort of voice you never encounter in London anymore but that was ubiquitous in the 50s and 60s. The inference was that the UK had moved on and in returning Hodgson was like a time traveller coming from Britain’s recent past. Is that the lot of the expat? You move somewhere exotic, but also find yourself stuck in aspic at that moment you left? Does that digital “cocoon” help or does it make it worse? This is that random neurosis again (see Note 1).

Note 5: Breakfast, Southern California, August 2013

Staying in a hotel in LA. Pleasant chat with some British tourists over the hotel’s breakfast buffet. Alarmingly they don’t believe me when I say I’m British, too. I’ve never had this before. They mention some pop culture references I do not get and talk about the Olympics. Realize they are talking about a shared experience I didn’t share in. Maybe they were right to be disbelieving about my nationality. After all, I’ve politely engaged tourists in conversation – how un-British can you get?  Digital cocoon breaking?

Note 6: 30,000 feet above Greenland, September 2013

Embarking on what will be the first trip home in nearly three years. Wonder if anyone else, like the tourists, will not think me British.

Note 7: Passport control, Heathrow, September 2013

I carry my baby daughter through passport control. I hand over her UK passport.

Note 8: Kings Cross, September 2013

imageFirst trip “home” in nearly three years. Struggling with suitcases into lift (writing that rather than elevator feels more a grumpy affectation than a reflex now) at King’s Cross. Press button for . . . “mezzanine level”. Mezzanine level? King’s Cross has a mezzanine now? Walk out of lift onto this mezzanine. wanting to discover more This is not my grimy King’s Cross. All that digital curation and this passed me by. The station has been poncified.. Wonder where the prostitutes  hang out now.

Note 9: Gregg’s

When did all the Gregg’s bakeries appear? There seems to be one on every street corner now. I know they’ve been around a while, but they seem to have been multiplying like rabbits.

Note 10: Coffee shop, London, September 14, 2013

I’m waiting for my order to be taken. It’s one of those moments where the term “inordinate” seems to be appropriate. An actual look at my phone (one of those devices that allows my curation and that had been tricking me into thinking I was still au fait with home) reveals that it’s only been three minutes, but that feels inordinate when you’re at the counter, the only customer, waiting to be served and two servers chat amongst themselves and do other tasks rather than make eye contact and acknowledge me. Not even a “sorry about the wait, we’ll be with you in a moment.” This is that British customer service foreigners used to tell me about and I thought they were exaggerating about. God, I’ve never felt so American as at this moment.

Note 11: Rhythm is a dancer . . . you can feel it everywhere

You notice that you are out-of-step, not in line with the rhythm of your home. You’re off the pace, don’t know the right moves. Of course, that would come in time. This is a dance you can relearn, but, for the moment, does it make you feel foreign.

Note 12: Living without seeing

Bruni’s piece (Note 2) is concerned with the traveler – “traveling without seeing”. My worry is living without seeing. A willful effort to cocoon myself away from the culture I find myself in, and attempting to curate that which I’m from. It leaves me an outsider to both.

Note 13: Passport control, SFO, September 2013

I carry my baby daughter through passport control. I hand over her US passport.




“Unenthusiastic about enthusiasm”: On Sarah Lyall, the relief of being a returning expat, and never getting over the feeling of cultural discombobulation

CulturallyDiscombobulatedFor today’s post ML Awanohara (doyenne of this particular piece of the interweb) suggested that Sarah Lyall‘s recent piece in The New York Times (“Ta-Ta, London. Hello, Awesome”) might provide me with a suitable topic to chisel out a post for the Displaced Nation.

I’ll be honest and admit (though I never articulated this to ML) that I was rather resistant and a tad unenthusiastic to the idea. I’d previously skim-read Sarah Lyall’s book, The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British, and found myself irritated by her observations about her life as an American transplant to London.

In short, I didn’t enjoy it. I was left uncharmed and felt it had about it an omnipresent smug tone.

Bill Bryson did it best

Recently, I’ve had a similar reaction with British academic Terry Eagleton‘s new book, Across The Pond (goodness, even the title sounds like another sub-Bryson knock-off), about his thoughts on living in America.

So I’m an equal-opportunity offender on this matter.

Perhaps foreigner-writing-about-their-adopted-home is a sub-genre that is not for me, which is unfortunate considering that’s the very subject of my personal blog, Culturally Discombobulated (now that I think of it, it sounds like a sub-Bryson knock-off, too). Having read Lyall’s article, I suppose she would call this attitude typically English: at once self-loathing and arrogant.

So I decided I would ignore ML’s suggestion and instead write another Capital Ideas post. As I was about to start writing it (well, start thinking about writing it, if I’m going to be entirely honest), I noticed in my inbox an email from my wife telling me to read this article.  Like Sarah Lyall, Mrs W is an American who has spent time living in London before returning to the US.

Putting my initial reservations to one side, I decided to see just what I was missing.

I must admit, Sarah’s right about L.G.

First, a little bit of background: Sarah Lyall has been The New York Times London correspondent for 18 years. Her article this week was about her repatriation to her home country.

I’ll be honest. Unlike when I read her book, The Anglo Files, I found myself more charmed by her writing and observations. This could be the result of the shorter form of a newspaper article, my mellowing, or far more likely our common enemy that is Loyd Grossman—Sarah’s wish on first moving to the UK was that she wouldn’t end up sounding like her more famous compatriot.

Readers who have not spent any considerable time in the UK are probably oblivious to L.G.’s existence. A television presenter (who was host of the original MasterChef, which other than name bears scant resemblance to Fox’s Gordon Ramsey vehicle) as well as a range of pasta sauces (I’ve no idea why, given that he’s not a chef), Loyd Grossman is in possession of the oddest transatlantic accent. It’s preppy New Englander meets Sloane Square yuppie, and just hearing it makes you want to declare class war.

For all of us in clear and present danger of one day developing a transatlantic accent, Loyd Grossman is a stark and terrifying cautionary tale.

…and about us?

Sometimes when I am reading a foreigner’s perspective on the British, I am struck by how awful we sound—a complete bunch of miserable bastards that have developed a carapace of irony and delight in popping positivity like it were a balloon at a child’s birthday party.

Is it any wonder Sarah got a bit fed up with our lack of enthusiasm:

…Britons are not automatically impressed by what I always thought were attractive American qualities—straightforwardness, openness, can-doism, for starters—and they suspect that our surface friendly optimism might possibly be fake. (I suspect that sometimes they might possibly be right.)

Once, in an experiment designed to illustrate Britons’ unease with the way Americans introduce themselves in social situations (in Britain, you’re supposed to wait for the host to do it), I got a friend at a party we were having to go up to a man he had never met. “Hi, I’m Stephen Bayley,” my friend said, sticking out his hand.

“Is that supposed to be some sort of joke?” the man responded.

The pursuit of happiness may be too garish a goal, it turns out, in the land of the pursuit of not-miserableness. After enough Britons respond with “I can’t complain” when you ask them how they are, you begin to feel nostalgic about all those psyched Americans you left behind.

After reading this piece, my wife said that she’d forgotten that so much of my personality was cultural. “I thought,” she said, “that it might be time for you to have some therapy, but then I realized you’re just British—no amount of therapy can fix that.”

* * *

I’ve not experienced what it is like to repatriate yourself back home. I do know, however, that many of you have. Do let me know in the comments below what struck you about moving back and what you missed about the adopted country you left.

Are Brit international creatives better than their Yankee counterparts?

NYC_Awindram_pmWhen Chariots of Fire screenwriter Colin Welland won his Oscar in 1981, his acceptance speech began with him somewhat obnoxiously and ungraciously proclaiming: “The British are coming!”

Unlike Paul Revere, this wasn’t intended as a dire warning to fellow Americans, but was rather a British boast about perceived creative superiority over the transatlantic cousins.

Ultimately, the renaissance of British cinema that Welland envisaged did not materialize, but though that particular “British invasion” did not in the end occur, the US has since . . . oh, let’s say since 1812 . . . endured a number of British invasions: from Dickens’s arrival in Boston in 1842, to Oscar Wilde’s statement to a US customs officer that he had nothing to declare but his genius (which I would certainly not advise anyone that they should try to use that line in JFK), to the Beatles’ first performance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 (considered the beginning of the British Invasion in music).

If David Carr’s recent column in the New York Times, entitled “British Invasion Reshuffles U.S. Media,” is correct, then we may be in the grip of another one. The genesis for this piece has been John Oliver‘s recent, perfectly competent portrayal of a bamboozled substitute teacher on The Daily Show.

Carr’s contention is that at the moment “everywhere you look in the United States media landscape, you find people from [Britain]”:

Piers Morgan came from Britain to take over for Larry King, the Wall Street Journal is edited by Gerard Baker, a British newspaper veteran, and the chief executive of the New York Times is Mark Thompson, who spent his career at the BBC. Anna Wintour has edited Vogue for more than two decades and, more recently, Joanna Coles took over Cosmopolitan, which defines a certain version of American womanhood.

NBC News recently looked to the mother country for leadership and found Deborah Turness, the former editor of Britain’s ITV News. ABC’s entertainment group is headed by Paul Lee, also formerly of the BBC, and Colin Myler, a Fleet Street alum, edits the New York Daily News.

The list goes on, but the point is made: when it comes to choosing someone to steer prominent American media properties, the answer is often delivered in a proper British accent.

But, as the title of this post asks, the British better at being international creatives than their American counterparts? Are we more fearless?

The examples that Carr puts forward are compelling, even if we may have to suspend our imagination and hope our stomachs do not turn too much in allowing Piers Morgan to be considered a “creative.”

However, I am unconvinced in a post-Leveson world that there is inherently anything better or more attractive about British media operators when set alongside their American counterparts.

Of course, that does not alter that it is inarguable that New York media finds itself with a number of prominent Brits.

Carr hits on one of the main reasons for this — London:

“Los Angeles, New York and Washington all have their domains, while in Britain, there is only London, a place where entertainment, politics and news media all live in the same petri dish.”

In an increasingly international world, a world in which the super elite can be found in a select number of super cities, it is only to be expected that large New York media empires would be selecting from a fairly small pool. They’ll look to New York and London — the two major English-speaking super cities.

It is perhaps a complete misconception that for the purposes of this question we think in terms of America and Britain, as if to make out an otherness between each party, when they share status as super city elites.

The true “other” would be the newspaper man from Minnesota or the TV station manager from Louisville. I know from my own anecdotal experience of MBA grads from top US business schools that the majority that I know are in New York or London. This is just the new normal — it is hardly surprising that it is reflected in New York’s media executives.

It is also noticeable to anyone who has spent any time in the UK that while a struggling, gasping industry, print media is more alive in the UK at present than it is in the US.

The result of this is that they are a large number of British candidates that would be attractive to US companies in the position to headhunt a new executive.

A final factor is the attraction of “success” in the US for Brits. I don’t say this lightly, but take a look at Piers Morgan’s twitter account . . . I know, I know . . . awful, isn’t it? However, a quick look through a random selection of Morgan’s twitter will soon reveal a man who enjoys boasting — or if I’m being more generous, teasing — other British celebrities who have no profile in the US.

Success in the US seems greater, somehow. There is a pull there that is irresistible. There is romance to it. “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere.” What do all the many American CEOs heading boardrooms in London get to sing to themselves?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, an interview with our featured author of the month, Rosie Whitehouse.

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