The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Tag Archives: San Francisco

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT: Globetrotting between overseas assignments

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT
Columnist Indra Chopra is back. Born in India, Indra embraced the life of a trailing spouse to become a globetrotter. She also conforms to the image I have a “lovepat.” Because she is such a curious and creative person, the expat life (both the international and the domestic kind) suits her down to the ground, as I think you will see in this post. ML Awanohara

For an accidental expat like me, adventure is not so much reaching out for unknown as it is changing residences, and countries, every so often.

In my last post, I described my family’s move to Oman for my husband’s job. We returned to India at the end of 2000. Eight years later, we would have another country binge—but in this post I want to share with you what we did from 2000 to 2008, a time when our friends were constantly grumbling about needing an exclusive telephone diary for the Chopras’ constantly changing telephone numbers and area codes.

Within a year of our return to India, we were planning an extended trip to United States. My first visit had been in 1975 when, fresh out of college, I attended summer school in journalism at Stanford University, in Palo Alto. It was the era of the “Fs”: Flower power, Frisbee, Freedom…

Twenty-six years later, I headed to America again at an equally momentous time: the aftermath of the horrendous carnage of 9/11/01. My husband and I were visiting our daughter, who, having completed her undergraduate studies at UMass, Amherst, had enrolled in UMass Medical School, which is located in Worcester.

Grey and gloomy Worcester

Our port of entry was Boston’s Logan Airport. From there we made a two-hour train journey past New England landscapes to an unknown territory whose name is pronounced “Wuss-tur,” as in Worcestershire sauce (which originated in the English midlands town of Worcester).

Our brusque reception by the immigration authorities at Logan Airport had put us in a somber mood, which grey and gloomy Worcester—a “city created by and for the middle class,” as Adam Davidson put it in a recent article for the New York Times Magazine—did little to dispel.

During the late 19th century and after, Worcester had attracted fresh-off-the-boat migrants from Europe, Asia, and Africa who had left behind unwelcoming Boston to look for work in the cotton mills and steel works, some of them starting their own enterprises. The proximity to Boston helped industries to flourish, but World War II and rise of other industrial bases across the country led to the greyness we now saw all around us.

I recalled having read Daoma Winson’s novel The Fall River Line, a 90-year saga about the family of a New England matriarch who owns a Massachusetts-based steamship line running between New York and Boston in the late 19th century. But the city I saw before me was a mix of new and old three-decker rectangular homes alongside newer constructions of colleges and hospitals.

Imagine my surprise when, researching the city further, I discovered that out of its gloom had emerged something pink, lacy and romantic. Esther Howland of Worcester started up a business making valentines in 1857, the success of which earned her the epithet of “the mother of the American valentine”; you can see a large collection of her creations at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester.

Worcester can also claim the “Smiley” face, created by Worcester-born-and-bred graphic artist Harvey Ross Ball—another seeming contradiction; and there are many other firsts to the city’s credit:

  • the largest female workforce in the USA;
  • the first woman Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins (she served in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s cabinet and had grown up in Worcester);
  • the first Bible and first dictionary printed in America (by one Isaiah Thomas, in the 18th century);
  • the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, also by Isaiah Thomas;
  • the first monkey wrench, invented by Loring and Aury Coes in 1840 (just thought I’d throw that in!);
  • the first commercially successful envelope-producing machine, invented by Russell Hawes in 1853; and
  • WORC, the first radio station to play a Beatles song in the United States.

I suppose adversity bred innovation and, as far as the Beatles went, a “thumbs-down” to the Boston Brahmins.

Once settled, we walked around Worcester Commons and past the Burnside Fountain with its Turtle Boy statue; along the crowded downtown streets including Shrewsbury Street (where can be found Little Italy) and the tree-lined avenues where there are many houses dating back to the late 19th-century; all over the “modern” UMass Medical School campus; and even out to the suburban Auburn Mall (I had to shop in Filene’s). We also ventured out to the shores of Quinsigamond and Indian Lakes.

Lake Quinsigamond (or the Long Pond) reflects the sensibilities of the city. Though a favored destination for water sports, rowing and boating regattas, it misses out on aqua “vitality”.

Worcester Mass Collage 2

Bustling Boston (& vicinity)

Worcester’s saving grace, for me, is that it’s only a step away from Boston and its famous landmarks…no, I would not be one of those people who prefers Worcester’s slower pace!

My favorite Boston spots include Faneuil Hall/Marketplace, incorporating Quincy Market, the Freedom Trail, Harvard University, and, further afield: Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket the latter two accessible by ferry and good spots for celeb watching. I liked walking down Nantucket’s cobblestoned Main Street and gawking at the tony lifestyle and the boutique shops.

Boston and beach collage

There have been other visits to Worcester since then, in various seasons, as we continue our effort to appreciate small-town living. But on this first occasion, 15 days were sufficient, and from Worcester we jetted across to San Francisco to visit family. In this sense, we were conforming to the distinctive Indian habit of tagging family and friends across the globe to ensure hassle free board and lodging. (Thankfully, at least for the people doing much of the hosting, that concept is changing with Indian tourism opening up and more people traveling on their own.)

San Francisco, here we come!

San Francisco lived up to my “Alice in Wonderland” memories. Our days were devoted dawdling on Fisherman’s Wharf, trundling down Nob Hill in the cable car, watching the sunset from Golden Gate Bridge, driving around Palo Alto.

The quintessential university town had changed: there were more residences and start-up communities, shortening the distance between University and town. The path from Escondido Village (where I lived) to the journalism department (where I studied) did not appear intimidating as when I had first cycled on it.

San Fran Collage

The re-discovery journey had been pleasant except for an interaction with immigration officer on our return to Boston’s Logan International Airport. Having been assured by the travel agent of no extra charges, we had extended our return flight from San Francisco to Boston by two days. Hence our surprise when we were asked to pay $200 and, as we attempted to explain, the airline official countered with a complete dossier of our movements, the number of times we had cancelled our arrival to USA, the change we’d made to our flight schedule from San Francisco, etc., etc.

It was a case of pay the said amount or be barred from boarding the flight back to India. The disbelief came when I told my husband, in Hindi, to ask the name of the official or demand that we speak to her senior. She caught on and told us that we are most welcome, promptly giving us her name and declaring it would not change anything.

Left with no alternative, we promptly paid the contested amount and exited the country. Talk about “parochial” and “paranoid”! I suddenly remembered my Media and Broadcasting Prof. at Stanford, who, upon seeing me sit alone on the patio (I was finishing an assignment), apologised for the “parochial” attitude of my fellow students. (I told him I was fine.)

We did not stop visiting USA but, on the next occasions, we were prepared for the pat downs, security checks and x-rays. No hair sprays, body cremes, etc., and no loose talk. So, now when I am told “You have been selected,” I know it is not for a seat upgrade but for the body scanner.

Becoming Punekars

In 2004 we made another “small city” visit and, this time, a change of residence. There is no connection between Worcester and Pune, except that both are stress busters for concrete jungles: Boston and Mumbai, respectively.

Pune is an emerging “mega-city” said to epitomize the New India. It is also the cultural capital of the state of Maharashtra, celebrating Maratha arts and crafts, music, and theatre. It has a proud history as the seat of the Peshwas, who were the ruling figures within the Maratha Empire, which was established by the legendary Shivaji, the Hindu leader who challenged the mighty Mughals. He was later held up as a hero during the rebellion against English rule and bid for Indian independence.

But returning to the Pune of today: it is very much a city on the go, with mushrooming high-rises, malls, and hotels. Its already congested labyrinth of shops, roadside stalls, and disintegrating colonial architecture is constantly expanding, with new enterprises such as education centers cropping up, and more and more “steel ants” (mopeds and two wheelers) running along its narrow lanes and arteries. (Public transport leaves something to be desired.)

The one constant between former eras and today are the majestic banyan trees, with their nebbish roots adding a spidery effect.

The city is being invaded by professionals and tourists from neighboring cities and states. A true Punekar (aka Punaite) will argue that, despite the onslaught of so many people, their city has retained its elegance and charm typified by the “dragonfly” energy and the attitude of the female residents who cover their faces with a scarf and slice through the traffic. (For me, this unique sartorial style is a silent tribute to “girl power”!)

Upon our arrival, we visited the famous landmarks including:

Pune is the city for seeing Alphonso mangoes piled high on roadside carts and market stalls. The mango mania does not stop at simply eating the fruit but has invaded thalis (food platters), desserts, ice creams and shakes, literally adding color to the local cuisine.

What I relish most is the ubiquitous Vada Pav, a vegetarian fast food consisting of a potato fritter. I often purchase one from a roadside stall that, according to my friend’s driver, is the “best Vada Pav in town.”

The mesmeric effect of life in this part of the world culminated in our purchasing a property up in the hills, on NIBM Road in Kondhwa, a fast-growing suburb of Pune.

And now here I sit on our lawn, under blue skies, a rarity in the part of India where I’m from. Later I will watch the sun descend deeper into the surrounding hills while dreaming of new places where we might be based in near future.

Pune India Collage

Not surprisingly, the seven-year itch surfaced and in summer of 2008 we jetted our way to Hong Kong, another country and another accidental expat experience. The Sultanate of Oman and Hong Kong are on different trajectories: one a traditional nation and the other a place full of glitz, glamor and restlessness. Hong Kong’s mishmash of lingering British influences and Chinese opportunism must be what lures so many visitors, us included, to its crowded streets.

We came for a year and found ourselves queuing at the Immigration office to get extensions stamped for two, three, seven years—and then permanent residency.

But more on that experience in my next post…

* * *

Thank you, Indra, for sharing this continuation of your story. It was refreshing to hear about the United States from an outsider’s perspective, and to learn all about Pune. And now I am eager to hear what you make of Hong Kong! —ML Awanohara

Indra Chopra is a writer/blogger passionate about travel and curious about cultures and people. Her present status is that of an accidental expat writing to relive moments in countries wherever she sets home with her husband. With over twenty years of writing experience Indra has contributed to Indian, Middle Eastern publications and online media. She blogs at TravTrails

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, and SO much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Opening visual: Airplane photo and India photo via Pixabay. Second visual: (top row) Worcester, Massachusetts, by Doug Kerr via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); photo of the Beatles and of Worcester’s buildings via Pixabay; (bottom row) Turtle Boy, by Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Harvey Ball, by Michael Carroll courtesy Worcester Historical Museum; and Daoma Winston book cover. Third visual: Nantucket – Main St, by thisisbossi via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Quincy Market, by Smart Destinations via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Boston – Freedom Trail, by David Ohmer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Cape Cod scene via Pixabay. Fourth visual: Cable car, Stanford U & Golden Gate sunset photos all via Pixabay; Fisherman’s Wharf – San Francisco, California, by Doug Kerr via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Last visual: (top row) Mangoes for sale in Crawford Market, Mumbai, by Anuradha Sengupta via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); warrior statue via Pixabay; A Crowd Gathers – Pune, India, by Ian D. Keating via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) (same as bottom-row middle photo); Sunset at Sinhagarh, by Abhijit Kar Gupta via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); (bottom row) Sukhadia’s open vada pav, by Krista via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); [untitled – Banyan tree in Pune], by ptwo via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and Osho Ashram, aka Osho International Meditation Resort, by fraboof via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Top 10 diverting holiday posts for expats and world travelers

Top 10 diverting holiday posts 2015

‘Twas the night before the night before Christmas, when all through the house, creatures were stirring…because they had jet lag!

This is how I imagine many of you expats and world travelers may be feeling at this point in the holiday season. If that description fits—or even if you’re simply remembering with a mix of relief and nostalgia (as I am) how you once were in that category—the following “holiday” posts may give you a much-needed injection of Christmas spirit. At the very least, they may divert you long enough so that you can sleep again.

I’ve chosen some of them with the thought of bringing you back to Christmases past, when your world was more predictable; others because I think they help to provide perspective on your present life of travel and adventure; and still others to stimulate thoughts about what kinds of Christmases we globetrotters can look forward to in future.

Posts (pun intended) of Christmas Past

1) Dreaming of a white Christmas? Check this out, Lonely Planet, by Roisin Agnew (14 December 2015)
Are White Christmases becoming a thing of the past because of global warming? Some of us may be losing sleep over this question ever since the climate summit was held in Paris. Visions are now dancing in our heads of melting ice flooding the world’s major cities. Also keeping some of us awake is the strongest El Niño in 50 years, which has brought mild, humid weather to North America. Today, Christmas Eve, it’s 70°F in New York City! Meanwhile, the UK and Ireland have been experiencing the ravages of Storm Desmond. Don’t despair yet, though. According to Roisin Agnew, there are still a few places with a reasonable probability of snow this year. (Agnew is a journalist at Lonely Planet Online and founding editor of Guts Magazine, for new Irish writers.) Try this quiz before reading: Which is the one state in the United States with a near 100% chance of a White Christmas?

2) Rick Steves’ European Christmas (Rick Steves Christmas pledge special, published on YouTube May 14, 2014, but an evergreen, so to speak!)
In this hour-long TV special, European travel authority Rick Steves invites his American audience to accompany him back to the old country, to the original Christmas customs that various immigrant groups brought to the United States.

3) The Sweet and Sticky Story of Candy Canes, by Rebecca Rupp, National Geographic Online (22 December 2015)
How did candy canes come into being? We actually don’t know very much about them—but can make an educated guess that they’re a displaced European treat. Read this, and visions of sugar plum-flavored candy canes may dance in your head when you at last drift off…

Posts of Christmases Present

4) Americans Try Norwegian Christmas Food (A production of the Embassy of the United States in Oslo, 21 December 2015)
Witness the somewhat goofy reactions of staff at the U.S. Embassy in Oslo as they try traditional Norwegian Christmas dishes such as lutefisk, smalahove, cabaret and more. Comments Siobhán O’Grady of Foreign Policy magazine: this short video “looks more like it belongs on Buzzfeed than on the diplomatic mission’s YouTube channel.” Hey, but at least it fits with the YouTube tradition of posting videos about people sampling other cultures’ foods for the first time.

5) Rupert the Expat Reindeer (UKinUAE, 14 December 2015)
Another embassy video! This one is part of the British Embassy in Dubai’s effort to ensure that British expats in the UAE behave themselves in the run-up to Christmas. Inspired by the Johnny Marks classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the lyrics follow the story of a group of expatriate reindeer who get a crash course in getting to know the local laws, customs and climate the hard way. They learn about alcohol licenses, drinking in public, wearing appropriate clothing and the use of offensive language. No red noses, guys, okay?

6) “On a Christmas visit, expat thoughts turn to ‘going home,'” by Nicolas Gattig (Japan Times, 23 December 2015)
If you’re one of the expats who has gone all the way home for Christmas, will you also use it as an opportunity to consider whether you will go home for good: as in, repatriate? Nicolas Gattig has returned to San Francisco with with that in mind, only to find himself wondering whether he, and the city, has changed too much for a 2016 reunion…

Posts of Christmas Future

7) Life as a modern expat: Happy (virtual) holidays, by Melanie Haynes in the Local Denmark (14 December 2015)
Some expat families still choose to juggle complicated travel schedules—and will go to any length to set up a family Christmas tree, even if they find themselves rendezvousing in a place like Roatán (see Julia Simens’s recent post). But relocation expert Melanie Haynes has decided it’s time her child got used to celebrating virtual Christmases with his extended family. She and her husband are Brits but have become permanent expats in Copenhagen. Both sets of grandparents are expats, too—one in France and the other in the United States. She now arranges to have her son open his Christmas gifts from his grandparents on Skype “so they can share his delight firsthand.” The way she sees it, her family is simply building a new tradition:

As a child, my husband and I held Christmases that followed a very familiar and lovely pattern with all our family coming together for the day. Now, Christmas for us and our son is very different but just as special.

Is the Haynes’s virtual Christmas the wave of the future?
8) Happy Holidays! (BostonDynamics, 22 December 2015)
Now it’s time to look even further into the future, when technology leads us to the point where robots have inherited the Earth. How will robots, and the last remnants of homo sapiens, celebrate? According to a tech firm in Boston, Santa and his reindeer will still be delivering presents—but don’t be surprised if Santa is female!

9) Star Wars Should Give Power to the Dark Side, by Scott Meslow (The Week, 23 December 2015)
While we’re on such cosmic themes, it’s time to contemplate whether the universe portrayed in the new Star Wars, easily the biggest of this Christmas’s blockbusters, has enough moral nuance. As we who’ve traveled the world know perhaps better than anyone else, every country on Planet Earth has shades of gray, so why should other planets and galaxies be any different? Hollywood scriptwriters, however, remain blissfully unaware, having chosen to sustain a world where good guys have blue lightsabers and bad guys have red ones.

As Meslow puts it:

Compare Star Wars to Game of Thrones, which forces the viewer to interrogate their perspectives on heroes and villains until the lines between them barely exist. There’s no reason Star Wars can’t do the same.

Post of Christmas Past, Present & Future

10) A Christmas WISH LIST, by Cinda MacKinnon (22 December 2015)
Cinda MacKinnon and her novel, A Place in the World, have been featured several times on the Displaced Nation. As the book’s title suggests, anyone who grows up among several cultures, as Cinda did, or who has chosen an adult life of repeat expat experiences (as I have), may have trouble finding their place in the world, especially at Christmas. However, the final wish on Cinda’s list, for peace on earth, is one that belongs to all people, however displaced—and to Christmases past, present, and future. I for one am extremely grateful for that reminder, Cinda!

* * *

So, readers, if you are still reading at this stage and haven’t drifted back to sleep, does that mean you have other posts in mind that should be on the list? Do tell in the comments! And to all of you who celebrate Christmas: on behalf of the Displaced Nation team of writers, I’d like to wish and yours the happiest of times on December 25th. Oh, and don’t forget to extend the celebration into Boxing Day, a lovely tradition I picked up while living in the UK!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

For this adult TCK writer with an ocean-loving soul and a passion for travel, a picture says…

Canon zoom lens; photo credit: Morguefiles. Rita Gardner at home in California.

Canon zoom lens; photo credit: Morguefiles. Rita Gardner at home in California.

Welcome to our monthly series “A picture says…”, created to celebrate expats and other global residents for whom photography is a creative outlet. The series host is English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King, who thinks of a camera as a mirror with memory. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

My guest this month is 67-year-old Rita Gardner, who grew up on her expatriate family’s coconut farm in a remote seaside village in the Dominican Republic. Her father declared them to be the luckiest people on earth. In reality, the family was in the path of hurricanes and in the grip of a brutal dictator, Rafael Trujillo.

But if life was far from the Eden her father had envisioned, Rita developed a set of childhood passions that sustains her to this day: writing, traveling, hiking—and photography.

TheCoconutLatitudes_cover_dropshadowShe may no longer live in the Dominican Republic but she continues to dream in Spanish, dance the merengue, and gather inspiration from nature and the ocean. Her favorite color is Caribbean blue.

And now Rita has written a memoir about her life as a Third Culture Kid in República Dominicana. Due out from She Writes Press in September, the book is evocatively titled The Coconut Latitudes: Secrets, Storms and Survival in the Caribbean.

Rita contacted me because she is enjoying “A Picture Says…” I am pleased that she can be this month’s featured guest.

* * *

Hi, Rita, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. I’m delighted to hear you’re enjoying “A Picture Says…” and to have the opportunity to do this interview. Before we get down to the nitty gritty, can you tell me a little more about how your family ended up living in the Caribbean?
My father was an electrical engineer and traveled all over the world installing hydro-electric dams. I think my travel wings must have sprouted in the womb since my parents were in Uruguay on a job site when my mother got pregnant. They flew back to the U.S. so I could be born, and six weeks later we were on another plane, this time to an engineering job in the Dominican Republic. My parents fell in love with that Caribbean island nation, and my father quit his engineering job and “went off the grid” to become a coconut farmer on an isolated beach on the country’s northern coast. It became our permanent home for the next 19 years, and, as you already mentioned, our Caribbean life is the subject of my forthcoming memoir, The Coconut Latitudes.

I guess that being born into an expat family was a passport, so to speak, to a life of travel?
That’s true. It influenced me in other ways as well. I tend to travel “close to the ground,” getting to know the people where I’m visiting. I also travel light as I want to be free to immerse myself (to the extent possible) in other cultures, exploring commonalities as well as differences. Most of my travels have been within Latin America, where I’ve been able to put my Spanish-language skills to use.

And I gather that growing up where you did, on a Caribbean island, you sometimes encountered real adventurers? Did they inspire you as well?
Yes. Those who made it as far as our isolated coconut farm were pretty intrepid and would have stories to tell. Because they were so rare, these visitors made a big impression on me, and their stories made me thirst for the day when I could venture out into the wider world myself. In my new memoir I chronicle one such encounter with a group of strangers who shipwrecked near our farm, and turned out to be not who they appeared to be. Someone else who inspired me was my older sister. By the time she was in her fifties, she’d traveled to over seventy countries.

Wow, she does sound adventuresome. How about you—which countries have you visited?
Most of the islands in the Caribbean, several of them by sailboat, plus Mexico, Costa Rica, Argentina, and Uruguay. In Europe I’ve been to Italy (where I attempted to speak Italian but it came out Spanish), France, and Greece (island-hopping by small boat plus a side trip to Athens).

A day at the beach restores the soul…

South America is a part of the world I have never been but the three weeks I spent in Trinidad more than thirty years ago gave me an idea of what it may be like. I’m sure you have some wonderful memories and I look forward to reading them soon in The Coconut Latitudes. I see you now live in North America. Can you tell us where?
I’m in northern California, right on San Francisco Bay. I found my way here a few decades ago. I’ve always chosen to live near the ocean. Like most people, I had to earn a living, so travel was only an option during vacations. Luckily, I’ve recently retired so have more to time to travel, take pictures, and write.

RG1 Smoking Bride

The smoking bride; photo credit: Rita M. Gardner.


Photo credit: Rita M. Gardner.

Wading chairs; photo credit: Rita M. Gardner.


Photo credit: Rita M. Gardner.

A sitting duck; photo credit: Rita M. Gardner.

Speaking of taking pictures, let’s have a look at a few in your collection that capture favorite memories. Can you describe the story behind each one and what makes them so special?
I visited France for the first time last year with a dear friend, and one of our favorite things to do was meander about. We saw this bridal couple in Monmartre. The bride’s leg-baring gown and the cigarette struck me as being improper yet fun.

She obviously stepped out of the part for a while, which makes for a lovely scene—almost like an actor taking a break on a film set. What else do you have for us?
The next one is from Boca Chica Beach, in the Dominican Republic, whose pastel turquoise waters I had loved since the time I was a small child. I recently went back to the Dominican Republic to attend a friend’s mother’s 100th birthday party. A group of us decided to pay a visit to this beach. I liked the whimsy of the chairs in the shallows, as if they were bathing.

So you didn’t put the chairs there yourself?
No—it was un-staged! The third photo won “Best of Show” earlier this year in a camera club I belong to. If you look closely, you’ll see a small duck in the foreground, which I didn’t notice when I got the shot. The ship itself is one of the last Liberty ships that had been built for action in World War II by the Kaiser Shipyards, near where I now live. At the peak of the war, ships were being turned out at the rate of one almost every week! It’s now “mothballed”, and volunteers, some of whom saw action in that war, maintain it. They’re getting pretty old…

“Seas” the day!

That may not be such a small duck but it certainly is a big ship. And now can you share some examples of your favorite places to take photographs? What is it about these places that inspires you?
It’s a bit of a mixture really. One of my favorite subjects is nature. Growing up on a Caribbean island, I saw the entire range, from watching in awe as thundering waves destroyed our pier and pitch-poled fishing boats, to contemplating sunsets that painted calm seas with exuberant color, to enjoying the deep chorus of frogs announcing rain. To this day, I love to take pictures out of doors. I enjoy finding unusual patterns in nature and looking for images that are “hidden in plain sight.” My other favorite subject is people: I am endlessly curious. Sometimes I plunge into crowds in hopes of getting opportunities for candid people shots.

This photo was taken in the midst of a parade in Santo Domingo, where the child’s attention was riveted to the action beyond the scene.

Photo credit: Rita M. Gardner.

Out of this displaced world; photo credit: Rita M. Gardner.

I took the next photo, of leaf patterns, at nearby Phoenix Lake during a hike with friends. I love the variety of colors and shapes.

Photo credit: Rita M. Gardner.

Leaf patterns; photo credit: Rita M. Gardner.

This third photo, taking in Mykonos, combines my love of nature and people. It feels meditative to me; clearly the fisherman is at one with his environment.

Photo credit: Rita M. Gardner.

Fishing for serenity of mind; photo credit: Rita M. Gardner.

I particularly love the fisherman shot because I have had many wonderful holidays in Mykonos, where I’ve taken photos—but never witnessed a scene like this one. In fact it is one that most people would not associate with Mykonos. Moving on, I know some people feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious that they are doing so. What’s your feeling about this?
I feel respect more than reserve, and if it seems that taking pictures would not be a welcome experience, I back away from doing it.

In that case, do you ask permission before taking people’s photographs? And how do you get around any problem of language?
I’m a pretty friendly person, so if I’ve caught someone’s eye,I might engage them in a brief conversation and ask if it’s OK if I take their picture. I find smiles break through a lot of language barriers. Also, most people I meet like to practice their English, so language is not usually a problem. That said, some of the best photos are candid ones. Sometimes I try to capture a shot without the subject being aware—I don’t engage in conversation in those instances.

Would you say that photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique which will never be seen again is a powerful force for you and has changed the way you look at life?
I consider myself extremely lucky when I’ve managed to capture an image that is unusual and unlikely to be photographed again. I don’t think the experience changes me. My chief emotion is to feel grateful that I have an eye for images that others may lack.

Sea-ing the light

Photographers never tire of discussing cameras and lenses. What kind of equipment do you use?
I gave up my SLR and its array of lenses for the convenience of a small digital camera. I use a Canon PowerShot and my i-Phone. Both fit in pockets, so I can travel light. Also, I prefer to shoot in natural light rather than use a flash (unless it’s absolutely necessary). So I guess I could say I travel light, and I shoot “light.” How’s that for a quick summary of my style?

Well said! I see nothing wrong with using smaller cameras. Their power and versatility is improving all the time, so unless you need big images for printing they do a great job, sufficient for posting on websites and social media. What is your take on post-processing?
I don’t manipulate my photos other than with the standard tools for cropping, adjusting exposure, etc. I don’t use Photoshop or any the other software products available. Okay, I have to confess I just discovered some apps for the i-Phone camera which I’m having fun with, but mostly “what I see is what I get.” That said, I’m not a purist; I may get into photo software at some point in the future.

The results are good so don’t tell anyone!!! Finally, do you have any advice from your experiences for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
Given the ability to erase unwanted images on digital cameras, just shoot away, assuming you get a photo card with enough memory that it doesn’t fill up quickly. Always carry an extra battery and extra film card, because it does you no good to have those items tucked away in your suitcase, or wherever you are lodging! Oh, and do have a battery charger if you are on a long trip so you don’t have to worry about running out of juice. So to speak.

Thanks so much for all these practical tips and for sharing these photos, Rita, and may I take this opportunity to wish you the very best when you launch The Coconut Latitudes this coming month.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Rita’s experiences and her photography advice? And do you have any questions for her on her photos and/or travels? Please leave them in the comments!

And if you want to know more about Rita, don’t forget to visit her author site and like her author page on Facebook. You can also follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.

Last but not least, I would highly recommend that you pre-order a copy of Rita’s Dominican memoir, The Coconut Latitudes, from Amazon.

(If you are a photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.)

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Repeat expat Manal Khan lives in fact, in fiction–and everywhere in between

ManalinSpain

Manal Khan, taken by her husband on a day trip to Segovia.

The Displaced Nation is on a mission to celebrate the contributions made by borderless travelers and global residents to creative pursuits.

Owing to our Western bias, we tend to feature Westerners who have ventured to other parts of the world, but there are plenty of other internationals who, too, deserve kudos—I refer to our counterparts in the less developed world, many of whom flock to the United States and Europe for higher education and employment opportunities, and in the course of that, find their own creative paths.

Is that because they feel as displaced as we do?

Perhaps I’ll uncover some answers in today’s post. I’ll be talking to journalist, poet, essayist, photographer, and storyteller Manal A. Khan, who says that she lives in fact, in fiction—and everywhere in between. Born in Pakistan, Manal has a journalism degree from Berkeley and has worked for an independent news organization in New York City.

I discovered Manal’s magnificent blog, “Windswept Words.”, around the time the Displaced Nation started and have been eager to interview her ever since. But when I tried contacting her, she’d just repatriated to Pakistan. She did not see my request until recently, when she and her husband (also Pakistani) moved abroad again, this time to Europe.*

I am so pleased to be able to catch up with Manal in her latest port of call: Madrid, Spain. I predict that you, too, dear reader, will be as blown away, so to speak, as I was by her windswept words…

* Ironically, on the very day when Manal answered my request, she was awarded one of our Alices for a recent blog post that expresses, at one and the same time, her love for her native Pakistan as well as her discomfort with its social inequalities and excessive religiosity.

* * *

Greetings, Manal. It’s so good to have the chance to catch up with you at long last. I’d like to start by quoting from one of your poems, called “Foreigner”:

sometimes, i wish
i didn’t feel like such a foreigner
in my own country
among my own people
that i wouldn’t be polite,
embarrassed, awkward
that punjabi or urdu would flow from my mouth
as effortlessly as english…

What led you to compose these words?
I wrote “Foreigner” eight years ago, during my college days in my hometown, Lahore. Pakistan is an extremely socially-divided country. If you happen to be born “privileged,” chances are you will get the best lifestyle, the best education, and the best work opportunities that the country has to offer. And if you happen to be born outside of that tiny privileged class—the middle-class barely exists in Pakistan—chances are you will be struggling most of your life just to put food on the table. I happened to be born into the former class, and while I know that I was fortunate, that terrible divide is something I could never reconcile myself with.

And it was not just about money, or wealth. It was about culture, and language, and a sense of belonging. Pakistan used to be a British colony, and gained independence in 1947, along with the rest of the Indian subcontinent. But in many ways, we remain “colonized” by the English language. English is still the language of the powerful, of the elite, and a huge divider of class, culture and people.

So all these different things were swimming in my head when I wrote the poem. You could say that I felt “displaced,” even when I lived in my native country.

I can relate—and I was born in America! Another poem of yours I enjoyed was this short one: “Not Being,”. Allow me to share the first two lines:

If home is where the heart is, my heart is forever moving, a gypsy
If a piece of cloth and a stadium slogan is a test of nationalism, I have no nation…

“Not Being” was written in New York. It was inspired by many different things, but the theme of not belonging, or not quite fitting in—in this case, to Pakistani society—is similar to “Foreigner.” For instance, the definition of a “good” Pakistani, according to accepted norms, is basic and black-and-white: intensely patriotic, passionate about cricket, virulent about America, and careful about fasting in Ramadan and attending Friday prayers; somebody who is dutiful to family, loyal to friends, lives up to expectations, and sticks to his or her roots. I was getting a lot of pressure, directly and indirectly, to be this sort of person from people I knew back home, and from feedback on my blogs published in The Express Tribune. I felt confused. I didn’t agree with or conform to any of those norms, so did that make me a “bad” Pakistani? The poem was an expression of that conflict.

Was the audience you intended for these poems primarily Pakistani?
To be honest, I intended no audience. I published “Foreigner” on Windswept Words a few years ago—it had been sitting in an old notebook till then; and “Not Being” only reached my regular blog readers. But now you mention it, I may submit the poems to one of the Pakistani blog sites I write for. It would be interesting to see people’s reactions.

“Embrace the day with laughing heart…”

Did writing about these themes help you to process the peripatetic life you’ve led as a young Pakistani woman who went to j-school in California and has lived in New York City?
Not only the poems, but most of the writing on my blog over the past few years has revolved around these themes. It’s interesting to see how one’s feelings of displacement evolve over time. Initially, when you are “fresh off the boat,” a foreigner in a foreign land, you feel compelled to uphold a sense of distinction, your separate identity (see my post “When in America, do as the Americans don’t”). At another level, you also want to assimilate, because you don’t to be viewed as an outsider forever (“Change”). And then there is that other level, when you stop waxing nostalgic and start viewing your own country critically (“The Freedom to Be”).

Is writing therapeutic?
Oh yes, definitely. My experience living abroad has changed me inalterably, and writing about it helps to make sense of things, to sift through the good and the bad of places, situations.

LakeSaifulMalook_MK

Photo credit: Manal Khan

You also translate Pakistani stories into English: I’m thinking of your work-in-progress “The Legend of Saif-ul-Malook.” Can you tell us how that got started, and the audience you hope to reach with these tales?
Oh yes! Saif-ul-Malook is the name of a beautiful lake located in the Himalayas, in the northwestern province of Pakistan. It’s a breathtaking region, full of snow-capped mountains, lush pine forests, and startlingly blue lakes. When I was growing up, our family would travel to the mountains every summer, driving from the torrid heat of flat and dusty Lahore to the cool green valleys of Kaghan, Swat, Nathiagali. I first visited Saif-ul-Malook when I was 12 and fell in love with the place for its beauty and for the enchanting legend associated with it, a fairytale that has been penned in several local languages but never in English. So, the next time I went there (four years ago), I was sure to take an audio recorder and capture the full version of the story in the words of the resident raconteur.

This I transcribed, translated into English, and re-wrote with my own little additions (see “The Legend of Saif-ul-Malook Part I”). I have still to write the last part, the epilogue.

But the response I’ve received to the story has been truly wonderful, and so encouraging. English-speaking Pakistanis are thrilled to find this favorite tale of theirs in an accessible form.

I want to continue this sort of storytelling, translating and transforming Pakistani fairytales, many of them unwritten, into English, for an English-speaking audience. I have a few stories in mind, told to me in childhood by an old lady called Bua, who used to work for my grandmother and later lived with my family for many years. She was the quintessential storyteller, silver-haired and toothless, with fabulous tales at the tip of her tongue and a different twist each time she narrated one. (See my profile of Bua.)

Where did you meet your husband, and does he share your feelings of being between cultures?
I met my husband in Lahore many years ago. Like me, he grew up in Lahore, though his family is originally from a Pashtu-speaking tribal region of northwest Pakistan. He also studied in the U.S., and we both lived and worked there together, so, yes, he does share many of my feelings about being in between cultures. But he does not dwell on it as much as I do; he is quite at peace with himself, wherever he is and whatever he is doing. I, on the other hand, have to think and think and write and write before I am able to find that peace, that balance, the position where I stand and where I am comfortable! Still, it helps a lot to be able to discuss these things with him. He is also always my first reader!

“My heart is forever moving…”

In your search for that peace and balance, as you put it, do you recall one moment in particular when living in America that stands out as your most displaced?
I can’t think of any one moment in the U.S. when I felt especially displaced. I think it’s because I lived in such big, multicultural cities (San Francisco Bay Area and New York City), where people were mostly very tolerant and open-minded, and where there were always so many “ethnic” options. In New York if I missed Pakistani food, I could quickly hop over to Haandi or Lahori Kabab Restaurant on Lexington Ave for a hearty, spicy, almost-authentic meal; if I missed the music and dancing, there was no shortage of Bhaṅgṛā– or Bollywood-themed dance clubs; and if I missed Urdu conversation, Pakistani jokes, or just reminiscing about home, there were many lovely people from Pakistan whom I knew from before or had met in the U.S.; and we congregated quite regularly for these chai-biscuit sessions.

How about in Madrid?
In Spain, the experience has been a little bit different. There is hardly any Pakistani or Indian community in Madrid. The American or British expats mostly hang out within their own cliques. Madrilenos are very warm and welcoming, but language is the biggest barrier to cross before you can really feel like a part of the city. Still, we are very new, I’ve started learning Spanish, and we’ve already met some terrific people. So I am not too worried about settling in!

And during your repatriation?
During our recent year and a half in Pakistan, one thing I could not bring myself to get accustomed to was our culture of live-in servants. Even though I had grown up in that environment—and we were always taught to be extremely courteous with the domestic staff—it was very difficult to go back to it after living independently for so long. I think I experienced moments of displacement every single day, in my interaction with the servants in my parents’-in-laws home, where we lived. A part of me abhorred the idea of making a distinction between “them” and “us”—the employers, the masters. But the practical part of me knew that even the servants would consider it wrong, or strange and awkward, if I was to behave in any other way, outside of the conventional master-servant relationship.

I also remember certain conversations, with friends or family, in which somebody would innocently discuss: “Where should the new servant girl sleep? Not in that empty bedroom upstairs, no—she may steal something. Perhaps in the hallway?” To be followed by: “I bought a gorgeous new outfit from so-and-so designer’s store the other day—only Rs. 30,000 (US$280) on sale!”—probably ten times the servant girl’s monthly salary. I always felt so uncomfortable, and so out-of-place, for feeling uncomfortable—yet powerless to do anything or say anything that would make any difference.

What was your least displaced moment, when the peripatetic life made sense, and you felt as though you belonged in the Western world?
For me, feeling at home somewhere is all about making meaningful connections with people, and being free to be yourself. It doesn’t matter where you are, and it need not necessarily be the land of your birth.

One of the places I felt most at home at was the International House in Berkeley, California. A six-story dormitory for both American and foreign students at UC Berkeley, the I-house was a cozy, colorful, microcosmic universe in itself. There we were, young people from every corner of the world, each with our own unique culture, language, background, story, sharing the singular experience of studying and learning in a foreign land, a new place; a place that was beautiful and accepting of our differences, that celebrated our diversity. Even an ordinary meal in the I-house cafeteria—notorious for its tasteless food—was an adventure. I could be sitting next to a Lebanese civil engineer on one side, a Japanese-American graphic artist on the other; an Italian composer and a Korean mathematician in front; and conversation never ran dry. We laughed a lot, and learnt much from each other; and we never felt alone. That life wasn’t “real,” I know; it was and could only be a temporary phase. But I cherish those memories everyday. My one-year fellowship at Democracy Now in New York was a similar experience. We were a diverse, energetic team, united by a shared vision; and we all loved our fair-trade coffee and double-chocolate cupcakes!

How about during your recent sojourn in Pakistan: despite your conflicted feelings, were there moments when you felt entirely at home?
As for Pakistan—it is and always will be home, home at the end of the day. What I loved most during our recent sojourn was traveling within Pakistan. We explored the Karakorum Mountains, the Hindukush, the Himalayas, the Salt Range. We camped by flowing white rivers, under dazzlingly starry skies. We ate unbelievably delicious chapli kababs at nameless roadside restaurants, washing them down with steaming cups of sweet kaava. We tracked brown bears and chased golden marmots in the second-highest plateau in the world. We had tea with a jeep-driver and his eight daughters in their warm three-room cottage on the hillside. I discovered a Pakistan that I had never known before—a Hindu Pakistan, a Buddhist Pakistan, an animist Pakistan, the ancient Pakistan of the Indus Valley Civilization. A much richer Pakistan. And being outside of Lahore, outside of the noisy, constricted city, I felt at home. I felt like another character in the sweeping history of this aged and beautiful land that I loved, yet did not conventionally fit into.

A picture says…

Lahore_MK

Photo credit: Manal Khan

I understand you also use photography as a creative outlet. Can you share some examples with us?
I took this photo in the Old City of Lahore last summer. It was early evening, and the moon had just come up. All the different sources of light—the full moon, the halogen lights in the shops, the headlights of the motorbike behind the tonga—gave the scene a very magical, unreal feel. I love the lights, the shadows and silhouettes in this photo, as well as the depth of the crisscrossing cables overhead, fading away into mist.

 

 

 

Gypsies_MK

Photo credit: Manal Khan

I agree, it’s enchanting, and the cables are an amazing juxtaposition. I believe you have one more photo to share?
Yes, one that I took this summer in Deosai Plains, the second-highest plateau in the world, located in the remote Baltistan region of Pakistan. This region is also home to K2, second-highest mountain in the world. We were crossing the plains in jeeps, when we came upon a caravan of gypsies, traveling in the opposite direction with their children, mules, dogs and horses. I cannot find any information about these people, where they come from, what their destination is, even what language they speak. But they make the trek across Deosai Plains every summer. I love the clarity of this photo, the crispness of the colors; and generally I loved the mystery of these people, in this remote, unpeopled part of the world.

What are your writing plans for the coming year? Will you attempt to put some of your writings together in a book?
I wish! Writing a book, either a novel or a collection or short stories or essays, is definitely something I hope to achieve within the next five years. For the coming year, I want to focus on writing regularly on my blog, about my adventures and experiences in Spain, from multiple perspectives of displacement! I also want to continue the translation, or “transformation” of Pakistani fairy tales into English.

10 Questions for Manal A. Khan

Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits:
1. Last truly great book you read: Samarkand, by French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf
2. Favorite literary genre: Magical realism, historical and fantasy fiction, creative nonfiction, short stories
3. Reading habits on a plane: I always take one book with me, normally a novel, slim enough to stuff into a handbag, easily readable but thought-provoking: e.g., The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga.
4. The one book you’d require Mamnoon Hussain to read, and why: He is so new to the Pakistani political scene that I really don’t know much about him! But I would recommend every Pakistani leader to read Jinnah, Pakistan and Islamic Identity, a revisionist biography of Pakistan’s founding father, by Akbar S. Ahmed.
5. Favorite books as a child: The Anne of Green Gables series, by L.M. Montgomery; The Faraway Tree Stories and The Famous Five series, by Enid Blyton; Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis; all of Road Dahl; abridged versions of Jules Verne.
6. Favorite heroines: Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables and Scheherazade of The Arabian Nights.
7. The writers, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: Gabriel García Marquez, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ismat Chughtai
8. Your reading habits: I read mostly at night, before bed, or while traveling, or on lazy afternoons curled up on the sofa with a cup of tea.
9. The books you’d most like to see made as a film: One is a novella by celebrated Indian-Muslim authoress Ismat Chughtai, translated from Urdu as The Heart Breaks Free. The other is a collection of satirical short stories by Naguib Mahfouz, titled Arabian Nights & Days. I would love to see both these works as short films, and maybe even produce them myself one day!
10. The book you plan to read next: Don Quixote—because I am in Spain!

* * *

Thank you, Manal! I must say, I love how you combine the spirit and creativity of Anne of Green Gables with the story-telling power of Scheherazade! Like most gifted writers, you are still a child at heart!

Readers, do you have any further questions or comments for Manal? Once again, if you want to read more of her insights, be sure to check out her blog, Windswept Words.

STAY TUNED for Monday’s post, another episode in the life of Libby, our fictional expat heroine…

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Main image at top of page: Manal Khan, taken by her husband on a day trip to Segovia. All other images are by Manal Khan, and are posted here with her permission.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Paulo Coelho, on the monuments that immortalise cities

2010-26In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh talks with Paulo Coelho, the Brazilian best-selling author of The Alchemist, The Devil and Miss Prym, and The Witch of Portobello, among many others.

*  *  *

When I asked Paulo Coelho to take part in the “Location, Locution” concept, he was happy to oblige.

But he wanted to do it his way. So in a change to our usual format, here’s Paulo Coelho on place.

The moving monument

I have visited many monuments in this world that try to immortalize the cities that erect them in prominent places. Imposing men whose names have already been forgotten but who still pose mounted on their beautiful horses. Women who hold crowns or swords to the sky, symbols of victories that no longer even appear in school books. Solitary, nameless children engraved in stone, their innocence for ever lost during the hours and days they were obliged to pose for some sculptor that history has also forgotten.

And when all is said and done, with very rare exceptions (Rio de Janeiro is one of them with its statue of Christ the Redeemer), it is not the statues that mark the city, but the least expected things. When Eiffel built a steel tower for an exposition, he could not have dreamed that this would end up being the symbol of Paris, despite the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, and the impressive gardens. An apple represents New York. A not much visited bridge is the symbol of San Francisco. A bridge over the Tagus is also on the postcards of Lisbon. Barcelona, a city full of unresolved things, has an unfinished cathedral (The Holy Family) as its most emblematic monument. In Moscow, a square surrounded by buildings and a name that no longer represents the present (Red Square, in memory of communism) is the main reference. And so on and so forth.

Perhaps thinking about this, a city decided to create a monument that would never remain the same, one that could disappear every night and re-appear the next morning and would change at each and every moment of the day, depending on the strength of the wind and the rays of the sun. Legend has it that a child had the idea just as he was … taking a pee. When he finished his business, he told his father that the place where they lived would be protected from invaders if it had a sculpture capable of vanishing before they drew near. His father went to talk to the town councilors, who, even though they had adopted Protestantism as the official religion and considered everything that escaped logic as superstition, decided to follow the advice.

Another story tells us that, because a river pouring into a lake produced a very strong current, a hydroelectric dam was built there, but when the workers returned home and closed the valves, the pressure was very strong and the turbines eventually burst. Until an engineer had the idea of putting a fountain on the spot where the excess water could escape.

With the passing of time, engineering solved the problem and the fountain became unnecessary. But perhaps reminded of the legend of the little boy, the inhabitants decided to keep it. The city already had many fountains, and this one would be in the middle of a lake, so what could be done to make it visible?

And that is how the moving monument came to be. Powerful pumps were installed, and today a very strong jet of water spouts 500 liters per second vertically at 200 km per hour. They say, and I have confirmed it, that it can even be seen from a plane flying at 10,000 meters. It has no special name, just “Water Fountain” (Jet d’Eau), the symbol of the city of Geneva (where there is no lack of statues of men on horses, heroic women and solitary children).

Once I asked Denise, a Swiss scientist, what she thought of the Water Fountain.

“Our body is almost completely made of water through which electric discharges pass to convey information. One such piece of information is called Love, and this can interfere in the entire organism. Love changes all the time. I think that the symbol of Geneva is the most beautiful monument to Love yet conceived by any artist.”

I don’t know how the little boy in the legend would feel about it, but I think that Denise is absolutely right.

© Translated by James Mulholland

www.paulocoelhoblog.com

Read JJ Marsh’s 2011 interview with Paulo Coelho for Words with JAM magazine

Next on Location, Locution: Janet Skeslien Charles, author of Moonlight in Odessa

* * *

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Image: Paulo Coelho, 2010 – PauloCoelho.com, used with permission.

Repatriation is just relocation — with benefits

Today’s guest blogger, Anastasia Ashman, has been pioneering a new concept of global citizenship. Through various publications, both online and in print, and now through her GlobalNiche initiative, she expresses the belief that common interests and experiences can connect us more than geography, nationality, or even blood. But what happens when someone like Ashman returns to the place where she was born and grew up? Here is the story of her most recent repatriation.

I recently relocated to San Francisco. Three decades away from my hometown area, I keep chanting: “Don’t expect it to be the same as it was in the past.”

Since leaving the Bay area, I’ve lived in 30 homes in 4 countries, journeying first to the East Coast (Philadelphia Mainline) for college, then to Europe (Rome) for further studies, back to the East Coast (New York) and the West Coast (Los Angeles) for work, over to Asia (Penang, Kuala Lumpur) for my first overseas adventure, back to the USA (New York), and finally, to Istanbul for my second expat experience.

My daily mantra has become: “Don’t expect to be the same person you once were.”

With each move, my mental map has faded, supplanted by new information that will get me through the day.

Back in San Francisco, I repeat several times a day: “This place may be where I’m from, but it’s a foreign country now. Don’t expect to know how it all works.”

What a difference technology makes (?!)

Today my work travels, just as it did when I arrived in Istanbul with a Hemingway-esque survival plan to be on an extended writing retreat and emerge at the border with my passport and a masterpiece.

I knew from my previous expat stint in Malaysia that I needed to tap into a local international scene. But I spent months in limbo without local friends, nor being able to share my transition with the people I’d left.

This time is different. Now I’m connected to expat-repat friends around the world on the social Web with whom I can discuss my re-entry. I’ve built Twitter lists of San Francisco people  (1, 2, 3) to tap into local activities and lifestyles, in addition to blasts-from-my-Berkeley-past.

I’ve already drawn some sweet time-travely perks. To get a new driver’s license I only needed to answer half the test questions since I was already in the system from teenhood.

After Turkey’s Byzantine bureaucracy and panicky queue-jumpers, I appreciated the ease of making my license renewal appointment online even if the ruby-taloned woman at the Department of Motor Vehicles Information desk handed me additional forms saying: “Oh, you got instructions on the Internet? That’s a different company.”

One of the reasons my husband and I moved here is to more closely align with a future we want to live in, so it’s cool to see the online-offline reality around us in San Francisco’s tech-forward atmosphere.

It doesn’t always translate to an improved situation though. Just as we are searching for staff to speak to in person at a ghost-town Crate & Barrel, a suggestion card propped on a table told us to text the manager “how things are going.”

So, theoretically I can reach the manager — I just can’t see him or her.

So strange…yet so familiar

It took a couple of months to identify the name for what passes as service now in the economically-depressed United States: anti-service. Customer service has been taken over by scripts read by zombies.

When I bought a sticky roller at The Container Store, the clerk asked me, “Oh, do you have a dog?”

“No, a cat,” I countered into the void.

He passed me the bag, his small-talk quota filled. He wasn’t required by his employer to conclude the pseudo-interaction with human-quality processing, like, “Ah, gotta love ’em.”

What I didn’t plan for are the psychedelic flashbacks to my childhood. I may have moved on, but this place seems set in amber. The burrito joints are still playing reggae (not even the latest sounds of Kingston or Birmingham) and the pizza places, ’70s classic rock stations (Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like An Eagle,” anyone?). The street artists are still peddling necklaces of your name twisted in wire. Residents are still dressed like they’re going for a hike in the hills with North Face fleece jackets and a backpack.

A bid for minimalism

The plan is also to be somewhat scrappy after years of increasing bloat. My Turkish husband and I got rid of most of our stuff in Turkey in a bid for minimalism. We camped out on the floor of our apartment in San Francisco until we could procure some furniture.

If it was a literal repositioning, it was also a conscious one — for a different set of circumstances. We’d expanded in Istanbul with a standard 3-bedroom apartment and “depot” storage room, and affordable house cleaners to maintain the high level of cleanliness of a typical Turkish household. In California, I intended to shoulder more of the housework.

I was soon reminded of relocation’s surprises that can make a person clumsy and graceless. I should have kept my own years-in-the-making sewing kit since I can’t find a quality replacement for it in an American market flooded with cheap options from China — and now have to take a jacket to the tailor to sew on a button, something I used to be able to do myself.

When the lower-quality dishwasher door in our San Francisco rental drops open and bangs my kneecap, I recall the too-thin cling wrap and tinfoil that I ripped to shreds in Istanbul, or the garden hose in Penang that kinked and unkinked without warning, spraying me in the face.

New purchases

“We’re getting too old for this,” my husband and I keep telling each other as we shift on our polyester-filled floor pillows that looked a lot bigger and less junky on Amazon. (We were abusing one-day delivery after years of not buying anything online due to difficulties with customs in Istanbul. Cat litter can be delivered tomorrow! Pepper grinder! Then I read about the harsh conditions faced by fulfillment workers in Amazon’s warehouses and cut back.)

One of our first purchases Stateside was a television. Not that we’re going to start watching local TV, but we did flick through some satellite channels. It’s something I like to do upon relocating: watch TV and soak up the local culture like a cyborg.

Since I last lived in the US, reality shows like COPS — where the camera would follow policemen on their seedy beats — have gone deeper into the underbelly of life, and now there are reality shows about incarceration.

The Discovery Channel has also gone straight to the swamp. That’s where I caught a moonshiner reality show featuring shirtless (and toothless) men in overalls called “Popcorn” and “Grandad.”

It’s an America I am not quite keen to get to know.

But I can take these reverse culture shocks lightly because my repatriation is part of a continuum. It’s not a hiatus from anything nor a return home. I’m not missing anything elsewhere, I haven’t given up anything for good. Being here now is simply the latest displacement. Today is a bridge to where I’m headed.

ANASTASIA ASHMAN is the cultural writer/producer behind the Expat Harem book and discussion site.  The Californian has been on a global rollercoaster: fired in Hollywood, abandoned on a snake-infested island off Borneo, married in an Ottoman palace, interviewed by Matt Lauer on the Today show. She brings it all home in the “Web 3.0 & Life 3.0” educational media startup GlobalNiche.net, empowering creative, adventurous, self-improving people to tap into a wider world of personal and pro opportunity no matter where you are. Get your copy of the Global You manifesto here.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s episode in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Images: Anastasia Ashman (2012), her World Champions ring, and a view of the bridge to where she’s headed right now.

Staring at the sun — and 3 little “nothing” moments in my displaced life

Yesterday in San Francisco, at the corner of Folsom and 8th, I saw a middle-aged man holding up a sheet of dark glass and staring at the sun through it. “It’s beautiful,” he said to me as I passed him on the sidewalk, “so beautiful.”

I smiled in reply to him, secretly wary that he just another cracked, panhandling prophet in a city full of them.

“Do you want to look at the sun through it?” he asked, indicating his sheet of glass. I looked at him confused. “It’s welder’s glass,” he said by way of explanation.

Yes, he must be mad, I thought, and just before I was about to smile a “no, thank you,” and carry on walking, albeit at a hurried pace, he held the glass up at me, and through it, like some wonderful magic trick, the sun appeared as dark disc apart from a brilliant cresent of light at the bottom. That there was a partial solar eclipse had completely passed me by. I hadn’t been able to see the effect with the naked eye, the sun looked larger, a little hazier, but nothing out of the ordinary and it would have passed me by, but here on this particularly street corner was this happy, smiling man performing what at first seemed like a magic trick, and making sure that a small moment of joy wouldn’t pass me. So I took hold of this stranger’s sheet of glass and looked straight at the sun through it, and he was right — it was so beautiful.

This week, The Displaced Nation asked if I could write about three chance encounters experienced in my adopted homeland that I found moving or bittersweet. Moments like I experienced yesterday on Folsom and 8th.

This ties in with an idea that has long interested me, and inspires my personal blog, Culturally Discombobulated — it’s what I think of as little moments of nothing*. Moments that on the surface may seem mundane, or insignificant, but that move you or are the catalyst for deeper thoughts. My own little dipped madeleines.

As this is something I do at times on my personal blog, I am going to reproduce here three little moments of nothing that I have already been posted over there.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————-

1) A rock and a hard place

A garage forecourt in Kingman, Arizona is not the sort of place you expect to visit on a sightseeing tour. But a sightseeing tour is precisely what I am on, and a garage forecourt in Kingman, Arizona, is precisely where I find myself. In fact, this is the second time today I’ve found myself on this same depressing patch of asphalt.

To be fair, I should clarify that I have been on a bus tour of the Grand Canyon and now, late in the day, we are making our way back to Nevada. We’re certainly not stopping in Kingman for reasons of historical interest. We are not here to learn that it was in Kingman that Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were married. Gable driving the two of them all the way here from Hollywood in his cream-colored roadster during a break in the filming of Gone with the Wind. In the town they purchased a marriage license from a dumb struck clerk named Viola Olsen before being married by the nearest Methodist Minister they could find. We are not here to learn about the town’s connection with Route 66. We are not here to learn that it was in Kingman that Timothy McVeigh renounced his US citizenship, turned his home into a bunker and began making homemade bombs.

No, this is a purely pragmatic stop; a convenient place on the I40 to stretch the legs, grab a bite to eat, and empty the bladder. In the morning on our way out to the Canyon we stopped here. I bought a ham sandwich at a Chevron garage as I couldn’t stomach the thought of my other option — McDonald’s — that early. The women working in the garage were pleasant, hefty, corn-fed girls. All three had the same hairstyle, an architectural triumph of ringlets and hairspray piled high atop their heads, it looked like it belonged in a 1987 High School Prom. Once back outside on the forecourt a number of men tried to pan-handle me. There was, I thought, something off about the place. By its very nature, you expect a stop like this to be full of folks on the move, but instead there was an unsettling stillness. A number of the people gave off the impression that they’ve been standing around in this same forecourt all their adulthood. It could be that some of the sketchier elements in the town have a rough idea of what the sightseeing bus’s itinerary is — and they come especially and try and get some change out of the tourists.

And now after a long day, we’re back. A bus load of predominantly foreign tourists, here to pay a brief visit like some cut-price UN delegation: Japanese, Thai, Italian, Canadian, French, Australian and British make up our contingent. Some of us are loud and overbearing, and some of us think that everything needs to be documented by our cameras, and some of us have spent all day complaining, and some of us have spent all day gushing in delight, and some of us — if the snoring has been anything to go by — have spent all day asleep, and we are all thoroughly sick of the sight of each other.

Thanks to the evening breeze, the forecourt smells even more strongly of gasoline, pitch and fried grease than it did earlier. Off we all trot, against my better judgment, to the McDonald’s. Every night it’s a different cast, but it’s always the same show that the locals get to enjoy when the sightseeing tour stops here: a tired group of hungry tourists that mewl and bark and garble in their strange tongues and accents. We soon take over and overwhelm the McDonald’s; we create long lines for the toilets, even longer lines for the food along with a white noise of strongly accented English and misunderstood orders.

It’s all too much for one Arizonian. I think it’s one of the men that pan-handled me early in the day. He has a similar looking beard, the same sun-blistered complexion, and the same jittery demeanor.  He is angry with the Frenchman queuing behind him for what he perceives as an invasion of his personal space, and he is getting irate with how long it is taking the Turkish family in front of him to order, but their English is poor and they and the cashier are struggling to make themselves understood. When he finally gets to place his order and is waiting for his chicken McNuggets, he scans carefully all of the other people waiting in line, and scowls at these interlopers with their ridiculous anoraks and backpacks. He takes his McNuggets and barges his way out through the line, needlessly aggressive. As he passes, he elbows me. “F***in’ furriners,” he mutters.

——————————————————————————————————————————————

2) “In my father’s house.”

The shoes of the man sat opposite me on the “E” train are made from black leather, long since scuffed to grey. They are on the whole unexceptional, but for a large fleur-de-lis that has been embossed below the lacing. Their one time appropriateness for special occasions has been worn away.

On the subway and on the underground I often find myself staring intently at the shoes of my fellow passengers. It is not from a fetish, it is just that I keep my eyes on the floor, avoiding eye contact with those around me, or I keep my eyes on the page of a book I am reading. A few minutes before, when we pulled into a station, I stopped reading, put my book on my lap, and cast my eyes to the floor. Occasionally a glance is stolen, such as the one I make at the man wearing the fleur-de-lis shoes. He is a thin, middle-aged black man wearing a blue suit that like his shoes is faded by wear.  He sings “In my father’s house.” Well, he sort of sings “In my father’s house.” It is not the whole hymn that he regales the train with, it is just that one phrase — half-sung, half-shouted every thirty seconds or so. Looking up I see that most of the other passengers have their eyes to the ground, particularly when he sing/shouts “In my father’s house,” though every time he does that he looks around. I don’t feel he looks around for a reaction, but for recognition. Perhaps feeling that things have descended again into commuter quietness, he again sing/shouts “In my father’s house.” I put my eyes to the floor and look at the fleur-de-lis pattern.

Queens Plaza is his stop. As he leaves the train, he notices the book in my lap — God: A Biography, by Jack Miles. He seems happy with my reading material and looking at me, he sings/shouts “In my father’s house” as if I’m the only of his “E” train flock that understands the importance and virtue of his ministry. Then he leaves the train before I have time to explain that reading a book called God does not make me virtuous as he might think it does, and that the book is a critical look at the Old Testament. It considers God a literary character and so casts him in the light of literary theory. Not that I would have said that if I had the time.

————————————————————————————————————————————————–

3) Angels and iced tea

In this almost empty coffee shop three elderly women, lifelong friends perhaps, crowd round a table and converse over iced tea. They talk at length about their new pastor, about his energy and his youthfulness. They talk at length about angels, about their unwavering belief in them and their experiences of them. The loudest of the women, her hair an unconvincing shade of red, starts to talk about her youngest granddaughter — about how she’s as sharp as a tack, but hasn’t she started asking the trickiest of questions. The red-haired woman confides to her two companions that she has spoken with their youthful and energetic pastor about how to respond to these questions.

For instance, she tells the other two, only the other day the granddaughter had said, “Grandma, why do we have to go to Church?”

She was, she freely admits, flummoxed by how to answer, but then she remembered the pastor’s words. “Aw, sweetie, that’s a matter of faith.”

Yesterday, she continues, when she was driving her granddaughter home from school the girl had asked, “Grandma, why do we call trees trees?”

She once again patiently said to her granddaughter, “Aw, sweetie, that’s a matter of faith.”

In the almost empty coffee shop the three women gently laugh at the ridiculous things that children say, take a sip of iced tea, and start talking about angels again.

*The film director Max Ophüls once wrote about art: “Details, details, details! The most insignificant, the most unobtrusive among them are often the most evocative, characteristic and even decisive. Exact details, an artful little nothing, make art.” Most of my life I seem to spend in search of moments of little nothings that I end up attaching great importance to. It probably makes me a nightmare to deal with it as a friend or companion.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, an account of la dolce vita from a fresh perspective!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

CLEOPATRA FOR A DAY: Fashion & beauty diary of former expat Anastasia Ashman

Continuing our feature, “Cleopatra for a Day,” we turn to Anastasia Ashman, an American whose love of the exotic led her to Southeast Asia (Malaysia) and Istanbul, Turkey to live (she also found a Turkish husband en route!). Having just moved back home to California, Ashman opens her little black book and spills the fashion and beauty secrets she has collected over three decades of pursuing a nomadic life.

BEAUTY STAPLES

Like Cleopatra, I’m into medicinal unguents and aromatic oils. My staples are lavender and tea tree oil for the tropical face rot you can get in hot, humid places — and for all other kinds of skin complaints, stress, headaches, jet lag, you name it — and Argan oil for skin dryness. I take them everywhere. I also spray lavender and sandalwood on my sheets.

When living in Southeast Asia I liked nutmeg oil to ward off mosquitoes. (I know that’s not beauty per se but bug-bitten is not an attractive look, and it’s just so heavenly smelling too, I suppose you can slather it on your legs and arms for no reason at all.)

I didn’t even have to go to Africa to become dependent on shea butter for lips and hands, and I like a big block of cocoa butter from the Egyptian Bazaar in Istanbul for après sun and gym smoothing — less greasy than shea butter, which I usually use at night.

I’m not really into branded products. When you move around it’s hard to keep stocking your favorite products and I find companies are always discontinuing the things I like so I’ve become mostly brand agnostic.

I just moved from Istanbul to San Francisco, and I got rid of almost everything I owned so I’m seeing what basics I can live with. Because to me, basics that do a wonderful, multifaceted job are the definition of luxury. You’ve got to figure out what those basics are for you.

Oh, and when I am in Paris, I buy perfume. Loved this tiny place in Le Marais that created scents from the plants on the island of Sardinia. And wouldn’t you know it, the second time I went they’d gone out of business. Crushing.

My favorite perfume maker in Paris at the moment — very intriguing perspective, lots of peppery notes and almost nicotiney pungencies — is L’Artisan Parfumeur. I’ve got my eye on their Fou d’Absinthe.

In another life, past or present, I know I was involved with perfume…

BEAUTY TREATMENTS

Believe Cleopatra would drink them dissolved in vinegar? In Malaysia I used to get capsules of crushed pearls from a Chinese herbalist down the street from my house — apparently they’re good for a creamy-textured skin.

I’ll take a facial in any country. I like Balinese aromatic oil massages when I can get them, too, and will take a bath filled with flowers if I’ve got a view of the jungle. Haven’t yet had my chance to do a buttermilk bath. I also do mud baths and hot springs where ever they’re offered, in volcanic areas of the world.

Another indispensable: the Turkish hamam. It’s really great for detoxification, relaxation and exfoliation. When living in Istanbul, I’d go at least once a season, and more often in the summer. It’s great to do with a clutch of friends. You draw out the poaching experience by socializing in the steamy room on heated marble benches, and take turns having your kese (scrub down) with a rough goat-hair mitt. You hire a woman who specializes in these scrubs, and then she massages you with a soapy air-filled cotton bag, and rinses you off like a mother cat washes her kitten.

Soap gets in the eyes, yes.

I own all the implements now, including hand-crocheted washcloths made with silverized cotton, knitted mitts, oil and laurel oil soaps, copper hamam bowls (for rinsing), linen pestemal (wraps or towels), and round pumice stones. (For haman supplies, try Dervis.com.)

DENTAL CARE

I’ve had dental work done in Malaysia and Turkey and was very satisfied with the level of care and the quality and modernity of the equipment and techniques. I got used to state-of-the-science under-the-gum-line laser cleanings in Malaysia (where my Taiwanese dentist was also an acupuncturist) and worry now that I am back to regular old ineffective cleanings. I’ve had horrific experiences in New York, by the way, so don’t see the USA as a place with better oral care standards.

In general, I like overkill when it comes to my teeth. I’ll see oral surgeons rather than dentists, and have my cleanings from dentists rather than oral hygienists.

ENHANCEMENTS

Turkey apparently has a lot of plastic surgery, as well as Lasik eye surgery. One thing to consider about cosmetic procedures is the local aesthetic and if it’s right for you. I didn’t appreciate the robot-like style of eyebrow shaping in Istanbul (with a squared-off center edge) — so I’d be extra wary of anything permanent!

HAIR

I’ve dyed my hair many colors — from black cherry in Asia to red to blonde in Turkey — and had it styled into ringlets and piled up like a princess and blown straight like an Afghan hound. That last one doesn’t work with my fine hair, and doing this style before an event on the Bosphorus would make it spring into a cotton candy-like formation before I’d had my first hors d’oeuvre.

I’ve had my hair cut by people who don’t know at all how to handle curly hair. That’s pretty daring.

I looked like a fluff ball for most of my time in Asia, because I tried to solve the heat and humidity problem with short hair and got tired of loading it up with products meant for thick straight Asian hair.

Now that I’ve relocated to San Francisco (which, even though it’s close to my hometown of Berkeley where I haven’t lived in 30 years, I still consider “a foreign country”), I’m having my hair cut by a gardener, who trims it dry, like a hedge. Having my hair cut by an untrained person with whatever scissors he can find is also pretty daring!

FASHION

On the fashion front, I have an addiction to pashmina-like shawls from Koza Han, the silk market in Bursa, the old capital of the Ottoman empire and a Silk Road stop. I can keep wearing them for years.

I also have a small collection of custom-made silk kebayas from Malaysia, the long, fitted jacket over a long sarong skirt on brightly hand-drawn and printed batik, which I pull out when I have to go to a State dinner and the dress code is formal/national dress. (It’s only happened once, at Malacañan Palace, in Manila!)

I have one very tightly fitting kebaya jacket that is laser-cut velvet in a midnight blue which I do not wear enough. Thanks for reminding me. I may have to take out the too-stiff shoulder pads.

LINGERIE

I like state-of-the-art stuff that does more than one thing at once and find most places sell very backward underthings that are more about how they look than how they fit, feel, or perform. Nonsense padded bras, bumpy lace, and stuff that is low on performance and high on things I don’t care about.

I got an exercise racerback bra at a Turkish shop and had to throw it away it was so scratchy and poorly performing. No wicking of sweat, no staying put, no motion control. But it had silver glittery thread — and (unnecessary) padding!

JEWELRY

I like most of the jewelry I’ve acquired abroad and am grateful to receive it as gifts, too. All of my pieces have some kind of story — and some attitude, too.

From Turkey: Evil-eye nazar boncuğu pieces in glass and porcelain; silk-stuffed caftan pendants from the Istanbul designer Shibu; Ottoman-style enameled pieces; and an opalized Hand of Fatima on an impossibly fine gold chain. This last piece is what all the stylish women in Istanbul are wearing at the moment.

From China: White pearls from Beijing, pink from Shanghai and purple from Shenyang.

From Malaysia: I got an tiny tin ingot in the shape of a turtle in Malacca, which I was told once served as currency in the Chinese community. I had it mounted in a gold setting and wear it from a thick satin choker.

From Holland: A recent acquisition from Amsterdam are gold and silver leather Lapland bracelets with hand-twinned pewter and silver thread and reindeer horn closures. They’re exquisite and rugged at the same time.

WEARING RIGHT NOW

Today’s a rainy day of errands so I’m wearing a fluffy, black cowl-necked sweater with exaggerated sleeves, brown heathered slacks, and black ankle boots. They’re all from New York, which is where I’ve done the most shopping in recent years.

My earrings are diamond and platinum pendants from Chicago in the 1940s, a gift from my grandmother.

I’ve also got on my platinum wedding and engagement rings. They’re from Mimi So in New York.

DAILY FASHION FIXES

I liked FashionTV in Turkey, which was owned by Demet Sabanci Cetindogan, the businesswoman who sponsored my Expat Harem book tour across America in 2006.

The segment of Turkish society interested in fashion is very fashion forward. I enjoyed being able to watch the runway shows and catch interviews with the designers.

If I could draw and sew I’d make all my own clothes but I am weak in these areas. In another life, when I get a thicker skin for the fashion world’s unpleasantries, I’ll devote myself to learning these things and have a career in fashion design.

STREET STYLE

In Istanbul, Nişantaşi is somewhere you’d see some real fashion victims limping along in their heels on the cobblestones and Istiklal Caddesi, the pedestrian boulevard in Beyoğlu, would be a place to see a million different looks from grungy college kids to young men on the prowl, with their too-long, pointy-toed shoes.

TOP BEAUTY/STYLE LESSONS FROM TRAVELS

In fact, I’m still assimilating everything — and everywhere — I’ve experienced in terms of fashion and beauty, but here are a few thoughts:

1) Layering: I learned from Turkish women to layer your jewelry and wear a ton of things at the same time. Coco Chanel would have a heart attack! But the idea is not to wear earrings, necklace, bracelet and rings all at once, but lots of necklaces or lots of bracelets or lots of rings at the same time.

2) Jewelry as beach accessory: During the summer Turkish wear lots of ropy beaded things on their wrists during a day at the beach — nothing too valuable (it’s the beach!) but attractive nonetheless. Jewelry stands feeding this seasonal obsession crop up at all the fashionable beach spots. Dangly charms and evil eyes and little golden figures on leather and paper ropes.

3) A little bling never hurts: I’ve also been influenced by the flashiness of Turkish culture, and actually own a BCBG track suit with sequined logos on it. This is the kind of thing my Turkish family and I would all wear on a plane or road trip. Comfortable and sporty, but not entirely unaware of being in public (and not at the gym). Coming from dressed-down Northern California, it was difficult to get used to being surrounded by glitzy branded tennis shoes and people wearing watches as jewelry, but I hope I’ve been able to take some of the better innovations away with me. I know I’m more likely to wear a glittery eye shadow now that I’ve lived in the Near East.

4) The need for sun protection: It was a shock to go from bronzed Los Angeles to can’t-get-any-paler Asia and then to the bronzed Mediterranean. In Asia I arrived with sun damage and then had lots of people helping me to fix it — I even used a parasol there. Then in Turkey everyone thought I was inexplicably pale and I let my sun protection regimen slip a bit. I’m back on the daily sunblock.

5) What colors to wear: I also used to get whiplash from trips back and forth between California and Southeast Asia in terms of color in clothing. In Malaysia the colors were vivid jewel tones — for the Malays and the Tamils especially. The louder the print, the better. Around the same time I was living in that part of the world, I witnessed a scuffle between shoppers at C.P. Shades in my hometown Berkeley, fighting over velvet granny skirts in moss, and mildew and wet cement colors. That kind of disconnect wreaks havoc on your wardrobe, and your sense of what looks good. Right now I’m trying to incorporate bright colors into my neutral urges. I’m still working it out.

Anastasia Ashman is founder of GlobalNiche.net, a work-life initiative for cultural creatives and mobile progressives that she calls “creative self enterprise for the global soul.” (Global Niche recently held a Webinar “Dressing the Inner You,” featuring psychologist and author Jennifer Baumgartner talking about the cultural displacement that shows up in one’s dressing style.) A Californian with 14 years of expatriatism under her belt, Ashman was the director of the online neoculture discussion community expat+HAREM and coeditor of the critically- and popularly-acclaimed expat lit collection that inspired this community, Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey. Catch her tweeting on Pacific Standard Time at @AnastasiaAshman.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a contrarian perspective by Anthony Windram on this month’s fashion and beauty conversation.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Images: (clockwise beginning with top left): Anastasia Ashman holding her own with the ever-glamorous Princess Michael of Kent, in Turkey; with her sister Monika, rocking the traditional Turkish Telkari silver jewelry, Anatolian shawl and requisite deep Bodrum tan; displaying her hamam collection — including traditional silver hamam bowl and hand-loomed linen pestemal towels; and sporting ringleted hair (along with some fashion flair!) at the Istanbul launch of Tales from the Expat Harem.

BOOK REVIEW: “Asian Beauty Secrets,” by Marie Jhin

TITLE: Asian Beauty Secrets: Ancient and Modern Tips from the Far East
AUTHOR: Marie Jhin, M.D.
PUBLICATION DATE: July 2011
FORMAT: Paperback and Kindle e-book, available from Amazon
GENRE: Health, fitness & dieting, beauty
SOURCE: Paperback purchased from the Korea Society, New York City

Summary:

Drawing on her experience as a Cornell University-trained dermatologist, combined with a knowledge of Asian beauty remedies, both ancient and modern, Dr. Marie Jhin delivers an East-West guide to vibrant skin and beauty. Born in Seoul, South Korea, Jhin emigrated to Hawaii with her family when she was six (they settled eventually in New York City). She now lives in San Francisco, where she runs her own practice, Premier Dermatology. She has been rated as one of America’s top doctors for the past three years.

Review:

The first time I visited Seoul, my husband, who is Japanese, insisted that I try a spa treatment, as Koreans do this sort of thing better than other Asians, he said. Before I knew it, I was lying naked on a table with an older Korean lady scrubbing every inch of my body. Eventually, she took my hand and put it on my stomach. At first I thought I was touching a piece of terry cloth but no, it was my skin — it had come off in shreds!

I lay there thinking, “Can this be healthy?”

Having pondered these issues quite a lot — also during my years of living in Japan, where I could hardly fail to note how obsessed Japanese women are with skincare — I was intrigued to come across a new book on Asian beauty methods, by San Francisco-based dermatologist Marie Jhin.

Born in Seoul, Jhin is now settled in California. She is not an expat, which makes the title of this post a little misleading; but is she “displaced”? Yesterday she told me in an email exchange that while she doesn’t think of Korea as “home” any more, her birth country remains something of a lodestar. She specializes in Asian skincare, lived in Seoul for two years after college to teach ESL, and has been going to Korea on business of late.

But what really convinced me of Jhin’s “displacedness” is that like me, she was uncertain of the benefits of Korean skin scrubbing but unlike me, let it get under her skin, so to speak:

I grew up doing certain things beauty-wise that I wanted know the truth of. For example, … my mother used to take me to get my skin scrubbed at a Korean sauna. Back then I didn’t understand what the point was, but now, as a dermatologist, I realize that it was basically whole body microdermabrasion that they have been doing for centuries that is great for the skin.

(Good to know!)

Jhin called her book “Asian Beauty Secrets” because it covers the beauty habits of not only Korean but also Chinese and Japanese women. Her key finding is that while women in all three countries have been caught up in the quest to look more Western, they have plenty to be proud of in their native beauty traditions.

The influence of Western beauty ideals

The last time I visited Tokyo, I couldn’t always tell who was a foreigner and who wasn’t since so many Japanese youth had dyed their hair a reddish blonde (I no longer stood out in the crowd!).

Thus I was glad to see Jhin tackle the issue of Western beauty ideals. In addition to dying and streaking their hair, many Asians are getting plastic surgery in the quest to look more Western.

Jhin notes the popularity — especially in Korea, cosmetic surgery capital of Asia (and the world?) — of procedures such as blepharoplasty (double eyelid surgery), rhinoplasty (nose jobs) and surgery to correct what Japanese call daikon-ashi (radish-shaped calves).

And when Asian women do Botox, she says, it’s not to reduce wrinkles but to soften square jaw lines and/or to atrophy cheek muscles and thereby shrink a too-round face.

Jhin draws a line, however, between these procedures and the value traditionally placed by women in all three cultures — Chinese, Japanese and Korean — on having white skin. She cites Chinese Canadian consumer research professor Eric Li in stating that the preoccupation with whiteness predates colonialism and Western notions of beauty. In fact, the Japanese see their own version of whiteness as superior to the Western one!

What Asian women bring to the vanity table

We Westerners are notorious for mistaking one Asian culture for another. Jhin helps us negotiate this sometimes-fraught territory by listing some of their distinguishing elements when it comes to notions of beauty:

1) KOREA

  • Who’s the fairest of them all? In the Far East, it’s Korean women, by common consensus.
  • Korean women like to exfoliate the skin to keep it glowing and healthy.
  • Koreans have long revered the ginseng plant, a vital ingredient in health and beauty potions.

2) JAPAN

  • Going back at least to the Heian period, Japanese have celebrated long tresses — the record of that era being 23 feet! Their favorite conditioning treatment is camellia oil, thought to promote glossy hair growth without making it greasy.
  • Japan spa culture, which dates back thousands of years, favors the use of natural ingredients for cleansing the skin: eg, volcanic mud, wakame seaweed and even nightingale droppings(!).
  • Though Japanese are known for rushing around, they in fact have a tradition of enjoying “empty moments.” Such meditative practices contribute to well-being and bring out a woman’s natural beauty.

3) CHINA

  • In ancient China, pearls were a girl’s best friend: ground pearl powder was taken internally and applied topically. (Hmmm…did they get that habit from Cleopatra, or vice versa?)
  • Chinese have a saying that “a woman’s second face is in her hands” — to this day, Chinese women are meticulous about moisturizing their hands and feet.
  • Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) emphasizes certain foods for balancing yin and yang within the body. This inner harmony is thought to contribute to outer radiance.

There is also, of course, much overlap among the three cultures.. All subscribe to the belief that by eating healthy foods, releasing stress (e.g., by getting an accu-massage), and pursuing nature-based healing (TCM) on a regular basis, a woman can enhance her best assets.

The “skinny” on beauty tips and secrets

One of the reasons to pick up a book with the word “secrets” in the title is to find out what one is missing out on. On this score, Jhin’s book is a bit of a mixed beauty bag. Some of her suggestions struck me as being far fetched — and I have a reasonably high tolerance for Asian cultural quirks.

Bird’s nest soup or soup containing hasma (frog fallopian tubes), anyone? Both are ancient Chinese foods thought to nurture glowing skin (Jhin provides recipes). Um, thanks, but no thanks. I’d almost rather eat fugu (which likewise has stimulating properties).

Even more offputting is the Chinese custom of spreading sheep’s placenta on one’s face. (It’s a mercy they’ve moved on from ingesting human placenta, that’s all I can say…)

As for V-steaming one’s chai-york (Korean for vaginal tract) with medicinal herbs such as mugwort (common wormwood) — it will take more than a reassurance by a Beverly Hills doctor to convince me that such a practice doesn’t lead to other problems such as UTIs.

On the other hand, I might actually consider soothing my skin with a high-quality ginseng cream. That sounds nice. Or perhaps I’ll try facial acupuncture. It’s noninvasive and, according to Jhin, can have the effect of a mini-facelift.

Note: More secrets can be found on Jhin’s book site.

Verdict:

For me, the most interesting portion of Asian Beauty Secrets is when Jhin addresses her area of specialization: the conditions peculiar to Asian skin, such as eczema (they are more prone to it than we are) or sun damage that manifests itself not in wrinkles but in brown spots. I also found fascinating the chapter on the latest skin renewal techniques being pioneered by Korean doctors. Acupuncture meets nanotechnology with the “INTRAcel laser” treatment! (The laser reaches “deeper into the dermis for more lasting collagen production and overall skin rejuvenation,” Jhin explains.)

That said, I’d hesitate about recommending Jhin’s book to anyone who isn’t yet oriented (no pun intended!) to beauty practices in this part of the world. Instead you might try experimenting with some of the brands Jhin recommends — e.g., Sulwhasoo cosmetics (now being carried at Bergdorf Goodman here in New York) — by way of familiarizing yourself with Asian skincare methods. As it happens, I got some Sulwhasoo samples when I bought the book — and would be more than happy to report back on the effects, if anyone’s curious! 🙂

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment from our displaced fictional heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.).

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

12 NOMADS OF CHRISTMAS: Wendy Tokunaga, American Japanophile (2/12)

Current home: San Francisco Bay Area, USA
Past overseas location: Tokyo, Japan
Cyberspace coordinates: Wendy Nelson Tokunaga | Fiction writer and manuscript consultant (author site) and @Wendy_Tokunaga (Twitter handle)

Where are you spending the holidays this year?
At home, in the Bay Area.

What do you most like doing during the holidays?
Eating!

Will you be on or offline?
Good question. I spend so much time online (Twitter and Facebook mainly) networking with readers and other writers, but I do go offline when I’m on vacation. I’m thinking of foregoing social media between Christmas and New Year’s, even though I’ll be in town. We’ll see if I can hold out.

Are you sending any cards?
I used to love to send out Xmas cards and would give much thought each year as to which ones to choose. But now with keeping touch so much via social media, I’ve stopped sending cards and just exchange holiday greetings with people via Twitter, Facebook and email. My husband and I sometimes upload a holiday photo of the two of us. I have never in my life sent out the dreaded Xmas bragfest newsletter.

What’s the thing you most look forward to eating?
See’s Candies and my husband’s Xmas prime rib.

Can you recommend any good books other expats or “internationals” might enjoy?
I’m going to look so tacky here, but I’d like to plug my own e-book (blush), which is called Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband. It consists of interviews with 14 Western women involved in cross-cultural relationships. It’s a fascinating (if I say so myself!) glimpse into these couples’ lives and will appeal to anyone interested in international marriage and culture shock.

If you could travel anywhere for the holidays, where would it be?
Maui!

What’s been your most favorite holiday experience — when you’ve felt the true joy of the season?
I don’t know about the true joy of the season, but I do have a fond memory of spending Xmas in Tokyo and having it be a regular workday, which I quite enjoyed. I sometimes get weary of the constant pressure and obligation in the U.S. to have a family-filled Xmas and be happy and spend money. In Tokyo there are plenty of Xmas trees and lights (my fave parts of Xmas), but it is just a regular day and that’s appealing.

How do you feel when the holidays are over?
I actually like it. There’s a new, fresh sense of energy in starting a new year and anticipating exciting things to come.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love said to me:
TWO CANDY BOXES,
& AN IRISHMAN IN A PALM TREE!

STAY TUNED for Monday’s featured nomad (3/12) in our 12 Nomads of Christmas series.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

%d bloggers like this: