The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Tag Archives: Reality bites

Dear Mary-Sue: Tempted to make invidious cross-cultural comparisons

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

Dear Wallace-sensei,
As a Japanese expat living in New York, I’m finding myself becoming increasingly unsympathetic to my adopted city. Don’t get me wrong, Wallace-sama, I love it here. It’s just that I’ve found the hysteria surrounding first the earthquake and then Hurricane Irene a little hard to take considering the natural disasters Japan has had to deal with this year. Any advice for how I could stop these uncharitable thoughts that I am having?
— SY, New York City (originally Tokyo)

Dear SY-san,

Let me tell you a little story. There was once an attractive, physically fit young girl. She wasn’t from anywhere exciting, just a small town girl from West Virginia. Her father was a police officer in the town. When this young girl was 10, her father was shot and killed when apprehending a robbery. The girl was sent to Montana to live with her uncle. She didn’t like it in Montana, certainly not on the sheep farm her uncle owned. She tried to run away, to where she didn’t know, she just knew she wanted to be anywhere but Montana. But as she ran she witnessed something awful, the lambs from her uncle’s farm being slaughtered for market. She heard their cries, she still does, SY. She still does — when she dreams. It didn’t stop her running, though — she kept running this small girl.

The girl spent the rest of her childhood in a Lutheran orphanage. It was okay, though she still dreamt of the lambs. The girl was smart, though: she had gumption, she had tenacity and she was able to enroll into the University of Virginia on a full scholarship. When she left college, she applied to the FBI’s training academy. It was the late 70s, it wasn’t easy being one of the only women in the academy. But this girl got on with it. She was uncomplaining, and she was the best, she knew that. None of that sexist bull sticks when you know that.

On completing the training, this girl, now a young woman, joined the Behavioral Science Unit. She was part of a team that traced down serial killers — tried to get in their heads, think like they think. She was sent to a Baltimore asylum for her first interview, to meet with a serial killer who just might be able to help her with the case she had been assigned…

…Sorry, I digress, but the point, SY-san, is that that young girl was, in fact, little ol’ me. Yes, hard to believe, I know. I wasn’t always an agony aunt. Anyhoo, the point is some serious s**t went down. Some really creepy, really heavy stuff. So when I get invited round to Valerie Johnson’s for our book club meeting (second Tuesday of the month — we’re reading The Help at the moment; FABULOUS, you MUST read it), and Valerie starts recounting how she thought there was a robber in her garden the other day and she feared she was going to die — even though it just turned out to be Miguel, her 60-year-old Hispanic gardener — I just bite my tongue. Of course, I want to tell Valerie that she doesn’t know fear until she’s been trapped in a house with a serial killer knowing only one of you is going to get out of there alive. No, that would be rude. So I just sip my raspberry lemonade and nod politely as Valerie talks. New York, dear SY, is your Valerie Johnson. Tolerate her, SY, no matter how much you’d like to wring her neck.
— Mary-Sue

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 share your fave meatloaf recipe with me (yum! yum!). As they say in Italy, “ciao!” — or, as my (still!) unmarried youngest son (he’s nearly thirty, I despair of him, I really do) might say: “See you on the flip.”

Mary-Sue is a retired travel agent who lives in Tulsa with her husband Jake. She has taken a credited course in therapy from Tulsa Community College and 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, or by adding to the comments below.

img: Close, by Corina Sanchez.

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, on the wide variety of vehicles that have been used for road trips.

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The Displaced Nation observes the 10th anniversary of 9/11

Two members of The Displaced Nation team, ML Awanohara and Kate Allison, were living in the United States at the time of 9/11 — Kate as an expatriate from the UK, and ML as a recent repatriate. In commemoration of Sunday’s 10th anniversary, they recount where they were on that day, as well as the impact it’s had on their lives for the past 10 years.

I moved to New York City about a year before the 9/11 attacks occurred. Though an American, I’d spent a big chunk of my life abroad, in England and Japan.

But on that fateful day, just as the planes crashed into the towers, I was sitting at an outdoor table at a hotel on the island of Santorini, sipping retsina and savoring the sweetness of the tomatoes in my salad while admiring the hotel’s cliff-perched views of the sea.

The man who would become my second husband and I had gone to Crete for vacation. We’d traveled to this extraordinary cycladic island by ferry for the day.

After lunch, we made our way through the winding streets of Fira to the cable car station — we had to take the cable car back down to the beach to catch the ferry back home to Crete. We decided we needed more film and went into a little souvenir shop near the cable car entrance. The man behind the counter said something excitedly in Greek and gestured at the little TV on his wall.

The screen contained a surreal image of a plane crashing into the twin towers and billows of smoke.

I then had to do one of the hardest things I’ve ever done: get on a ferry for six hours, without any way of finding out what was going on. By the time we reached Crete, I had worked myself up into a state of panic over my sister and her young family, who were living in Battery Park City, right next to the twin towers. (Fortunately, my sister and her two-week-old baby were evacuated.)

We spent the rest of our holiday glued to CNN. On the occasions when we ventured out, many Cretans would offer words of sympathy. I remember in particular talking to the proprietor of one of the many open-fronted shops on Souliou Street, in the old quarter of Rethymno. She confessed to me how frightened 9/11 had made her feel. “If they can do that to America, then how can any of us be safe?” she said, gesturing at her wares, mostly hand-made sweaters.

Dogs, buses and other neuroses

In the aftermath of 9/11, I got my very first dog — a black-and-tan cocker spaniel, whom I named Cadbury for his sweetness (that was before I knew he had moods).

There’s nothing more comforting than a pet when undergoing trauma, and like everyone else in New York, I felt traumatized by the knowledge that there were people out there who hated our country enough to target civilians.

I also started riding the bus home from work. In the months following 9/11, there were constant rumors of threats against the subway. I’d lived through the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, and didn’t fancy another round of underground terror.

I liked the bus culture and have been taking buses ever since.

The attacks also deepened my interest in politics and foreign affairs. I understood for the first time how vulnerable cities are in general, and New York in particular. Shouldn’t the opinion of New Yorkers, who are on the front lines, count for more than those of people who live in states that aren’t vulnerable to terrorism? Especially when it comes to choosing our nation’s leaders…

That said, city politics are no better. How many city officials does it take to construct a 9/11 memorial? In fact, fewer (or none at all!) would have been more effective.

But I think what I found most disturbing was the role of religion in international affairs. What was all this talk of “holy wars” and crusades? Were we back in the Middle Ages? No doubt I was influenced by all my years of living in the polytheistic Far East, but I just kept thinking: this monotheism embraced by the West and the Middle East has a lot to answer for. (Give me Buddhism any day!)

A noisy anniversary

We’ve made it 10 years, and that’s a relief. At least, I assume that’s why so many people, along with the mainstream media, are making such a loud noise over this. (Are all ten-year anniversaries commemorated this vociferously?)

What I crave right now, to be honest, is some quiet time, away from all these celebratory undercurrents.

When I first came to NYC in 2000, I lived in Greenwich Village. Whenever I looked down 6th Avenue, the twin towers loomed in the distance, helping to orient me in the right direction.

I now live in the East Village, but perhaps I’ll head toward 6th Avenue this Sunday with my two dogs (Cadbury now has a younger companion) and reflect on my lost landmark.

I may also reflect on the snippet of Zen wisdom that appeared in The Displaced Nation’s Monday post, on road trips:

The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.


Summer 2001 marked our five year anniversary of living in the USA. Nine months before the attacks, we moved from New England to Leesburg, Virginia – a busy, rapidly expanding town about forty minutes west of Washington DC. I loved our new location. There were fields, and cows, and rolling hills; narrow streets and brick houses in the town. It was, dare I say it, very English.

September 11 started as a normal, beautiful, sunny day. I put my eight-year-old on the school bus, and went back home with my preschooler.

A little before 10 a.m., a friend phoned me. We chatted for a moment, then she asked where my husband was; since he worked with her husband, and they both traveled abroad in their jobs, this question wasn’t unusual. It’s what expat wives with traveling spouses talk about.

“At the Virginia office this week,” I said. “Yours?”

“India. He left yesterday from Dulles…thank goodness.”

Here, I should explain that I’m not a big TV watcher, especially when it comes to daytime programming, so the TV wasn’t on. If it had been, most likely it would have been tuned to Teletubbies.

“Why ’thank goodness’?” I asked.

Silence at the end of the phone, then “Haven’t you heard? Turn your TV on. It’s unbelievable.”

So I turned the TV on. I stared at the picture of the Twin Towers, not quite comprehending. I heard the announcement that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon, just forty miles away. The plane was believed to have taken off from Dulles – the airport my husband, his colleagues, and our friends flew from every week. There but for the grace of God.

“World War Three’s just started,” said my friend.


My memories of the rest of that day are disjointed. I tried several times to phone family in England to let them know that we were safe, that no one was traveling this week, and eventually, after many busy signals, I got through. My husband came home from work and I breathed more easily. I didn’t want to be alone with just a four-year-old for company while this was going on.

Reports were vague, rumors rife. There were eleven hijacked planes in the air, there were six hijacked planes in the air. The USAF had shot some down; another two hijacked planes were on the way to Washington. Thirty thousand had died in the towers.

What was clear, however, was that airspace was gradually being cleared, and all planes had to land.

The silence from the skies as this happened was deafening. You don’t realize how much noise comes from overhead aircraft – particularly near a busy airport like Dulles – until the noise isn’t there.

In the early afternoon, rumors were still circulating about a rogue flight on its way to the White House or the Capitol. I went outside into our garden for a moment, and was panicked to hear aircraft engines overhead, because by this time all planes in US airspace had been grounded.

Only later did I discover I had heard Air Force One and its accompanying fighter jets, bringing the President back to Washington.

Our daughter returned from school and wanted to know what was going on. Something was going on, she said; she knew it was, because her teacher was being much nicer than usual and had let the kids draw pictures all day.

How do you explain something like this to a child? For the first time, I wondered at the wisdom of bringing children into this world at all.

Two weeks later, still pondering this question, I discovered we were expecting our third baby. Perhaps it was the answer I needed.


Déjà vu

No one we personally knew died that day, but because of where we had lived in the US, close to both attacks, many people we knew lost friends or relatives. Their grief makes me uneasy when I see movies being made about 9/11. It’s too soon, too raw. I’m not sure when it will ever be anything else.

Something I was asked a lot in the aftermath – Will you be coming back to live in England after this?

The answer was always No. I grew up in Britain during the 70s and 80s, when IRA bombings on the mainland occurred all too often. These things can happen anywhere.

This attitude was somewhat justified four years later, on July 7, 2005. I was in London that day, having arrived at Heathrow the night before. Had I not been jet lagged and so overslept, my children and I could have been on one of those trains that were torn apart by suicide bombers – we had planned some sightseeing that day.

Like I said before – there but for the grace of God…whatever you conceive Him to be.

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, when we return to the theme of road trips.

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img: Remember — a September 11th memorial image (the New York skyline is reflected in the eye from a silhouette placed on a window), by David Hepworth.

What the Finnish Spring can teach us about expats and politics

SPECIAL TREAT FOR TDN READERS: Anu Partanen, though she’s currently on the road, has promised to “come in” and respond to your comments and questions over the next few days. So, ask away!

Anu Partanen has done the impossible. She has made me care about the Finnish Spring, and I’ve never once been to Finland.

No, we’re not talking travel here, though I’d love to go to her country someday and see the ice melt and the vivid violet sinivuokko push their way through the leaves.

Rather, I refer to Finnish politics. Partanen wrote an op-ed that caught my eye in the May 13 edition of the New York Times. It was about Finland’s parliamentary elections, which took place with the arrival of the sinivuokko, on April 17 — the outcome of which, she claims, is the Finnish equivalent of the Arab Spring.

No, the Finns did not have any armed uprisings, just a quiet, proper democratic election. But the results were just as revolutionary:

Overnight, Finland seemed transformed from possibly the most sensible, even boring, country in Europe — known for excellent schools, zero corruption, gender equality, and a pro-European Union approach to politics — into the nationalistic, populist, Euro-skeptic home of the True Finn Party.

The only thing is, I haven’t quite decided yet what to make of the True Finns. According to Partanen, as an American, I “might consider them the equivalent of Tea Partiers (if they didn’t support the welfare state, that is).”

Most significantly, the True Finns will do anything they can to block Finland from contributing its share to bailing out bankrupt European countries — Portugal being the latest example, following on the heels of Greece and Ireland.

Notably, Partanen, too, admits to some ambivalence about the European experiment, for the first time in her life:

Myself, I’ve benefited a great deal from the European Union — I’ve studied abroad, traveled easily, enjoyed a strong euro. … Yet I was shaken when I learned that we Finns were supposed to lend money to Greece. It didn’t seem fair that my taxes would go to a country that had been living beyond its means.

Political voyeurism

But another big reason why I’m so captivated by Partanen’s take on Finnish politics is that she’s an expat based in the United States. Currently living in Brooklyn, she continues to work as a journalist for several Finnish publications. In addition, she is writing a memoir about being Scandinavian in America.

Partanen told me in an email exchange that the book is still in the early stages. I’ll be curious to see what it has to say about the challenge of participating in home-country politics from a distance.

That was something I used to think about a lot during my own expat years. If you care about the politics of your home country — as Partanen clearly does, as I did — then why aren’t you living there? Unlike me, Partanen keeps a foot in Finnish politics by continuing to write articles for the national media.

Still, it must be strange for someone as highly politicized as she is to be in the United States while an important debate is taking place about what kind of country Finland is, and wants to be.

In her Times op-ed, Partanen mentions that although she has offered her couch in Brooklyn to friends from home who would like to become political refugees, as yet no one has taken her up:

…my friends in Helsinki seem to be deciding that this is no time for retreat. Instead they’ll stay to help determine the future of their country.

Hmmm… Is that a reason why, despite my love of living overseas, I eventually bit the bullet and came back to the United States?

Politics not as usual

By the same token, Partanen shows us that living abroad can help you see your own country’s politics, and those of other nations, in a new light. Domestic politics can be very village like, and in my experience, it’s not until you step away from the village tribe that you begin to discern your own beliefs.

As already mentioned, Partanen has discovered since leaving Finland that she has developed some sympathy for the idea of setting limits on how much of its wealth Finland should share with other Europeans.

In her Times article, Partanen suggests that her position may have something in common with that held by the Americans who’ve expressed a reluctance to contribute to universal health care. Noting that America is twice the size of the European Union, she says:

It’s not quite parallel, but if Finns were asked to contribute to the health care of the Greeks, the Irish, and the Portuguese, they might feel a little like the Americans.

My experience is rather different from Partanen’s: I was an American living abroad, first in England and then in Japan, which meant listening to everyone excoriate the United States. But like her, I found that getting physically outside of my country was a stimulus to thinking outside the box and deciding on my own core truths — never mind what the mainstream parties and their media outlets (the village elders) kept telling me to think.

Also like Partanen, I moved further to the right (I hope she won’t mind me using that term) — but not on universal health care. I benefited from socialized medicine in both the UK and Japan so can be counted as a fan of Obamacare, though I do wish it included a public option.

What I came to appreciate much more fully was the tough role the United States has been assigned in world affairs. I can’t tell you how many times I felt like saying to the European and Asian critics who accosted me: “You try policing the globe, and see how much you enjoy it!”

(There were of course far more European critics than Asian ones. The Japanese, though they don’t relish the thought of our Marines continuing to be based on Okinawa, see it as their best hedge against, among other things, the wacky North Korean leadership.)

Now, that’s a true political awakening — call it an Expat Spring.

* * *

Question: How about you? Are you an expat, and if so, what’s your relationship with your home country’s politics — do you remain involved, and have you adjusted any of your basic political beliefs since going abroad?

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DISPLACED Q: In the words of The Clash, “Should I stay or should I go?”; When reality bites in your adopted country, are you more — or less — determined to stay as an expat?

In our post on March 20, When in doubt, have a pint of Guinness, we drew attention to the Britons who resolutely stayed in post-earthquake Japan rather than fleeing with the majority of their expat countrymen back to the UK. Despite the danger of the nuclear situation, one man interviewed by the Telegraph said

“I actually feel a bit of a duty not to leave.”

Friends in need

Although this person’s mother couldn’t see his point, I understand this mentality. The events of September 11, 2001, so close to our home in Virginia, made me defensive of my adopted country, and outraged at such an audacious attack. To leave at this stage was unthinkable. That would mean we were just fair weather friends of the USA.

Instead, we taped a small American flag to our mailbox, as the rest of our neighbors did to theirs. It couldn’t help the 3,000 who died that day, but it showed our sympathy and solidarity, which didn’t go unnoticed: a neighbor made a point of telling me how touched she was that I, a foreigner, had done this.

Yet I suppose expats here did leave to go back home after 9/11, because it’s human nature to think the grass is greener – or safer – on the other side.

More trolls, not greener grass

It’s not greener or safer, of course. I know this from years of frequent news reports of IRA bombings.  The Spanish know this from decades of Basque separatist attacks. 2009 saw 10,999 terrorist attacks worldwide, and while 60 percent of these occurred in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, that still leaves over 4,000 to be shared by the rest of the globe.

As chance had it, I arrived at Heathrow the day before the 2005 bombings of London’s transport system, and had planned to take the tube into the city the following morning to do some sightseeing with my children. Had we not been tired from jetlag and therefore overslept on July 7th, we could easily have been on one of the trains that were destroyed.

Was I as upset by 7/7 as I had been by 9/11? Undoubtedly. Yet there was something else, too – a feeling of deja vu, of “here we go again” or – dare I say it? – resignation.

Whether you run or stay, there is a difference between enduring atrocities in your own country and suffering them on another’s turf.

Not all disasters are manmade

It doesn’t have to be a terrorist atrocity, as our friends drinking Guinness in Tokyo can testify. Perhaps you were an expat in Christchurch, New Zealand during the last two earthquakes; perhaps you were posted to New Orleans just before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. Only two days ago, Joplin, Missouri was devastated by a deadly tornado.

The world is a dangerous place. There are no certainties, especially when it comes to safety. To quote The Clash again:

“If I go there will be trouble

And if I stay it will be double.”

So, tell us:  What’s an expat to do when disaster strikes?

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In the jaws of political or natural disaster: When reality bites for expats

Lately I’ve been thinking about plot lines for movies based on adventure travel. The one I like the most involves a round-the world traveler spotting a shark while scuba diving in the Indian Ocean…

In the hands of the right director, I could see it becoming a remake of Jaws.

Speaking of which, did you notice that first prize for the Matador Network’s “When Travel Goes Wrong” photo contest went to a young woman whose travel bag — containing passport, wallet and cell phone — fell down a Swiss sewage drain and got fished out by a kind, thin stranger. Now that has real Jaws potential!

Unfortunately, however, travel is not today’s focus. Rather, my goal is to highlight some of the mishaps that occur when a global voyager becomes a global resident.

“Boring!” I can hear you say. And having been an expat myself twice over, I have to admit, at some level, you are right.

They’re a privileged set, those expats.

Privileged with insider knowledge. You’re not going to catch them on the street with the open sewers.

Privileged with accommodation. Not for them a stay in Fawlty Towers, or the equivalent.

Still, reality has a way of impinging even on the most glittering expat lives, and in my experience, global residents tend to be even more traumatized than their short-stay counterparts when something goes badly amiss.

(Is that because they’re spoiled? I’ll let you decide…)

Gothic horror redux

In case you haven’t been tuning into The Displaced Nation of late, our posts have been exploring cases where individual expats have had their lives turned upside down, or worse (see “related posts” below).

My colleagues and I have put forth incontrovertible evidence that the expat life, like any other, can have its gothic moments.

Lest any skeptics remain, may I draw your attention to the Friday May 13 incident in Spain’s Canary Islands. A homeless Bulgarian man stabbed and hacked off the head of a 62-year-old British resident of Tenerife, after which he paraded into the street, holding his “treasure” up by the hair for all to see.

According to one eyewitness, who, too, is a long-term British resident of the Canaries:

When I saw the man holding the head, the first thing that popped into my mind was the scene from “Clash Of The Titans,” where the hero holds up the Gorgon’s head — but his was real.

Disruption en masse

Now let’s turn to the instances where the expat life gets disrupted en masse by natural disaster or political upheaval.

Emily Cannell, an American who’s been living in Tokyo with her family since last year, paid a visit to The Displaced Nation as a random nomad last Thursday. She told us about what it was like to be in that city when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11. In just a few moments, she went from a woman whose biggest worry was driving to car pool on time, to wondering if her kids were alive or dead.

And let’s not forget Tony Roberts, who was an honored guest on our site several weeks ago. His story, now written up in the form of a novel, is about what it was like being a teenager in Iran in 1979, just before the revolution took place. The trauma came when his family was given just 24 hours to evacuate back to their home in Kansas, and he had no time to say good-bye to his friends. For some time afterwards, this Third Culture Kid suffered from General Anxiety Disorder, “with feelings of unresolved anger,” as the psychologists put it. He tweeted recently: “Revolution will do that.”

Snatched from the jaws of [domestic terrorism]

I myself had an experience of this ilk towards the end of my stay in Japan, when the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo attacked the Tokyo subway with sarin gas — killing a couple of people in the station just down the street from my house. In all, 13 people died, and thousands more suffered from after-effects. It was and remains the most serious incident of this kind in Japanese history.

As I struggled to come to grips with the idea of nice, safe Japan being populated by terrorists, quite a few thoughts raced through my head; for instance:

1) This place is weirder than I’d realized.
I’d never before heard of the kind of cult where the adherents are well-off, educated young people and their leader, a bearded mystic with a destructive political agenda. (Needless to say, I hadn’t heard of al-Qaeda. But even if I had, Japan is the Far, not the Middle, East.)

2) Do the authorities know what they are doing?
From what I’d observed of the Japanese police, they seemed pretty wimpy, precisely because the country doesn’t have a high incidence of violent crime. Did they really have the chops to capture Shoko Asahara and put an end to his madness? (The attack on the subway took place on March 20, and they didn’t find him until May 16. He was hiding inside the wall of a cult building in the group’s compound near Mt Fuji, dressed in purple robes and in good health.)

3) Who’s looking out for us foreigners?
I suspected that we foreign residents would be the last to know if further incidents were likely to take place. (For weeks following the subway attack, rumors of imminent attacks were rife, and I didn’t know whom to believe.)

Though I eventually got on the Tokyo subway again, the incident took its toll on how I felt about living in that city. Little did I know that I would one day be working in New York City and reliving many of the same emotions — ignorance, disenfranchisement, and vulnerability — in the wake of 9/11.

I discovered, however, in comparing these two incidents that when reality bites in one’s native land, it’s not nearly as unsettling as when it happens abroad.

After 9/11, I wanted to stay in NYC and carry on — it was a way of fighting back. Whereas after the subway attack in Tokyo, I started to fantasize about leaving Japan.

* * *

Are there any world travelers out there who’ve stuck with me throughout this catalogue of woes? I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve come to the conclusion that your nomadic life, even with its many dangers, is preferable to that of most world residents.

Or perhaps you’re feeling a touch of envy? In that case, you may wish to check out Bootsnall’s virtual tour of the top 10 shark-infested beaches in the world.

Question: Have you had any experiences of large-scale disasters during your stay abroad, and if so, how did it affect your perceptions of your adopted country — did it make you feel any less “at home” there?

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RANDOM NOMAD: Emily Cannell, Housewife & Mother

Born in: Houston, Texas
Passport(s): USA
States/countries lived in: Pennsylvania (Philadelphia): 1989-1990, 1993-1997, 1999-2004, 2006-2010; Louisiana (New Orleans): 1990-1993; Washington (Seattle): 1997-1999; Arizona (Scottsdale): 2004-2006; Japan (Tokyo): 2010-present
Cyber coordinates: Hey from Japan — Notes on Moving (blog)

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
My husband’s company offered him a job in Japan. We were living near Philadelphia at the time, our fourth “tour of duty” in that city. We jumped at the chance to go somewhere new — location wasn’t that important. Unlike most citizens of the Displaced Nation, I’d never lived overseas. I should point out, though, that in the American vernacular “expat” is often used to describe a person who moves beyond a 50-mile radius from where they were born. By that standard, I’ve long been considered an expat, with Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Washington state on my resume. At one point, back in the days when I was working as a jack-of-all-trades in the pharmaceuticals industry, I commuted to New Jersey — which in dog years counts as exile in Siberia.

Is anyone else in your immediate family a “displaced” person?
My father is a displaced Canadian living in the US. Does that count? Seriously, he was born in Edmonton, Alberta. After attending medical school, he left to do his residency, internship, and fellowships in the US, which had more cutting-edge techniques and offered more advanced studies than the Canadian system. Eventually, he became too involved in academia to return to Canada, although he still goes back and forth.

Describe the moment when you felt most displaced over the course of your many displacements.
It probably won’t surprise you when I say that the earthquake on March 11th produced one of the worst feelings of displacement — literal as well as psychological — I’ve ever experienced. I was in a small grocery store in Tokyo at the time, trying to read the back of a ready-mix pancake box. The rest of the boxes on the shelves started falling on me, and I could hear glass breaking as wine bottles fell to the floor. The other shoppers, who were mostly Japanese housewives, and I made a beeline for the door. As we reached the street, I saw a man holding on to a street lamp that was swaying back and forth, the top almost touching the ground at my feet. I remember thinking: “These 40-year-old buildings are going to fall on top of me. Where do I go to stay alive?” I headed toward the intersection, stumbling as I went — it was like running on a trampoline with someone else jumping on it. Once I reached the middle of the intersection, I stood there watching and saying nothing while vending machines crashed down, plants fell off balconies, and bikes toppled over. In that moment, I wondered how my biggest worry went from driving car pool on time, to staying alive so I could find my family — alive or dead. (Fortunately, they were all safe.)

Describe the moment when you felt least displaced.
One activity that remains consistent no matter where we live is the kids’ participation in track. Since track meets are an all-day event, my husband and I pitch tent and settle in as though we were on a campsite. This year, just like every other, we hammered in the stakes, opened the cooler, and fed or watered every kid on the track team. And our kids referred to us as “Mr. and Mrs. Noddin’” — not our real names.

You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from the country where you’ve lived into the Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
I’ve been toying with the idea of bringing a ninja for their home security value, but once gunpowder was introduced to Japan, the profession went into decline. Besides, the poor man might suffocate if he had to be packed in my suitcase. So instead I’ll carry in these wonderful carved wooden fish I discovered in a Tokyo antique shop. Two fish are looped together with ropes to which big hooks are attached — ideal for hanging pots in the kitchen.

Speaking of the kitchen: you’re invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other Displaced Nation members. What’s on the menu?
I can make a mean plate of fried green tomatoes, fried okra, collards, corn bread, fried chicken, and black eyed peas. To that I’ll add two dishes that are popular in the Western U.S.: 1) grilled salmon on a plank and 2) fajitas with homemade guacamole. For starters, there will be a choice of Louisiana gumbo (for which I’m famous) and tuna sashimi with ponzu sauce — yes, I’m learning how to “cook” Japanese! Please note that I haven’t chosen to include any of the traditional Amish-country foods despite my many years as a Pennsylvania resident. I can’t make any of the good stuff, and the bad stuff — especially scrapple (pon haus) — is really bad. Residents of The Displaced Nation should not be eating pork scraps if they can avoid it — though I understand your numbers include a dog named Fergus? But dogs are rather spoiled nowadays, and I suspect Fergus may turn his nose up, too.

You may add one word or expression from each of the countries you’ve lived in to the Displaced Nation argot. What words do you loan us?
From the South: Hey. It’s the most common greeting. By adopting this term, you’ll have an easy way of knowing if someone is an outsider. Do they say “hello” or “hi”? Then they’re not from these parts.
From Pennsylvania: Goomba, meaning a male friend. Use it often, and it will detract the kinds of visitors you don’t want.
From the Southwest: Ride ’em hard and put ’em away wet — referring, of course, to how one rides a horse. My husband and I approach parenting in a similar manner.
From Louisiana: Le bon ton roule! Cajun for “Let the good times roll!”
From Washington state: Chinook — a type of salmon. You gotta know your salmon (also true in Japan, of course).
From Japan: So desu ne — meaning “Oh, is that so?” It’s a way of showing that you’re listening when the other person is talking — and I suspect that some Displaced Nation citizens could use some help in that department. I mean, all of us expats want to tell our stories, but how much do we want to listen?

Question: Readers, tell us what you think: should we welcome Emily Cannell to The Displaced Nation and if so, why? (Note: It’s fine to vote “no” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — Emily included — find amusing.)

img: Emily Cannell deciding whether to put her carrier bags down and use the facilities in Tokyo’s Harajuku station.

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Burglars alarmed

Canine vigilantes were too much for two burglars who tried to break into expat Gerard Carroll’s house in Pruna, Spain.

When pinned to the ground by the homeowner’s specially trained guard dogs, the thieves had no option but to call the police to help them out of their predicament.

Gerard Carroll told The Olive Press that he had bought the dogs after his house was robbed a year ago. He considered the police action at the time to be less than satisfactory, and burglaries in the area had continued.

But taking the matter into his own hands seemed to have worked, he said.

At the time of the article in The Olive Press, one of the burglars was still receiving hospital treatment.

Source: The Olive Press


Displaced by choice, architect comes to aid of compatriots displaced by fate

The word “displaced” connotes being forcibly removed from one’s home or homeland. Fleeing from war or natural disaster, displaced people have little in common with the expats we encounter at the Displaced Nation, most of whom have voluntarily chosen a life of displacement and adventure.

Japanese architect Shigeru Ban belongs in the tradition of Japanese fashion designers and other creative people who have chosen to live outside their native land, gravitating to artistic enclaves in Paris or Manhattan.

But if Ban is displaced by choice, he does not hesitate to help his countrymen who’ve been displaced by fate. When an earthquake struck Kobe in 1995, Ban was there, building emergency housing for survivors with beer-crate foundations and walls made of recycled cardboard paper tubes. (The paper tube is a Ban speciality. He got the idea of using paper tubes after observing the solidity of rolls of fax paper and experimenting with the idea for several years.)

And now Ban is in Japan again, lending a helping hand to those made homeless by the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. He is building simple partitions to place between families who have been evacuated to gymnasiums and other large-roof facilities. He hopes that by enjoying more privacy, they will experience greater peace of mind.

Ban prides himself on the ability to work quickly and well when the exigency of circumstances demands it. Asked in a March 24 New York Times interview to comment on why in the wake of disaster, innovative ideas designers present for shelters never get built, he said:

We don’t need innovative ideas. We just need to build normal things that can be made easily and quickly. A house is a house.

And if you’re lucky enough to land in one of Ban’s shelters, it’s a house that brings you one step closer to having a home again.

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When in doubt, have a pint of Guinness

The Dunkirk spirit appears to be alive and well in Tokyo, according to an article by Nick Allen in the Telegraph.

Despite employers’ offers of repatriation and pleas from worried relatives in Britain, a small number of stalwart Britons are ignoring warnings of radioactive winds, and instead are drinking Guinness in the Mermaid pub.

One of them, Michael Summons, has elected to stay “because he loves the country,” while Martyn Terpilowski, a 34-year-old investment broker, says he feels it’s his duty not to leave.

His mother, however, disagrees. He should not put money before his health, she says.

It will probably be little comfort to her to know that, according to Ann Coulter’s blog:

“There is, however, burgeoning evidence that excess radiation operates as a sort of cancer vaccine.”

The exodus of expats from Japan, however, suggests that most people would prefer not to discover at first hand if Ms. Coulter’s theory is correct.


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When tragedy strikes, should you listen to the home government?

Not if it’s Japan, apparently. More and more foreigners are opting to leave in the wake of the nuclear radiation threat — even those who aren’t being relocated by their companies.

A 22-year-old Aussie explained his decision to abandon his home in Fukushima and get on the next Qantas flight, as follows:

My message is don’t listen to the Japanese media, don’t listen to the Japanese Government because they’re trying to keep Japanese people calm, which I completely understand, but I don’t think that they’re giving the full truth. I think that by not telling people the complete truth, people aren’t able to make rational decisions, and the only rational decision at the moment is to get out.

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