Expat Images: Unrecognizable Vs. Iconic

On my first serious expat stint, Southeast Asia in the ‘90s, I achieved a state of photographic oblivion. When I set out from Los Angeles I was already solidly unemployed, unproductive, and unmotivated. I had a capricious romance to see me through.

In Asia, life losses piled up: heirlooms ransacked at the container yard, the cruel theft of a puppy, the unfathomable demise of my best friend.

I did not write about any of these things. Too much shock, no support. Turns out capricious romance isn’t the best fallback in a crisis.

LANGUAGE AND CULTURAL BARRIERS PREVENTED ME FROM BONDING WITH THE CHINESE, MALAYS, TAMILS AND THAIS AROUND ME. My reactions were miscalibrated: I laughed when introduced to a person with the name of a celebrated American boxer -- a common moniker in Malaysia -- and took offense at the quickly-retracted handshake of a traditional Malay greeting. I expected dinner party banter at gatherings that instead seemed to focus on the scarfing of food in silence.

Soon enough I was as unrecognizable as my new world.

My own body was erasing me. A spongy, knee-less Southern Italian genetic inheritance asserted itself with the help of a greasy local diet while my hair frizzed mercilessly in the tropical air.

Friends who knew me during cosmopolitan past lives in New York, California, and Italy wouldn’t identify me as the 30-pounds heavier creature with the ill-fitting clothes and unschooled haircut photographed in jungles and palaces.

Uprooted from my milieu, in a harsh climate and surrounded by perpetual strangers, I was desperate to locate comfort whatever the cost.

My Asia photographs are stowed, an expat adventure distressing to recall, impossible to frame. Yet, scraping bottom (especially on the far side of the world) has a benefit. It’s easy to see which way is up.

My 12-time zone couch surf back to New York was like a Phoenix’s ascent from the ashes

RECENTLY I'VE BEEN PICTURED MONSTROUS AGAIN. Breathe easy: happily married, in possession of a hard won sense of self. This particular snapshot of expat life is a mantle piece pride. There I am in 2005 commandeering the lens, the microphone, the printing press in Istanbul as Turkish newspapers and television discuss my expat literature collection by foreign women about their lives in modern Turkey. Tales not universally known, many writers never before published. All of them minority voices in a Muslim nation with a reputation for censorship.

The celebrity-studded book launch is a blur, except for my unauthorly leather pants and shiny rock star coiffure -- those are in fine focus in my mind’s eye! I haven’t often been so polished before or since, nor managed to squeeze into the lambskin trousers, but no matter.

As a coiner of the concept of the Expat Harem virtual community -- feminine storytellers making sense of life’s evolutions through the filter of another culture -- in a flash I became iconic.

A positive image of an expat to others, and to myself.

THE FLEETING, PICTURESQUE MOMENT CAPTURES AN ENDURING TRUTH ABOUT MY EXPATRIATISM. In a wide world of strangers I’ve finally found my perpetual peers, and a theoretical home for both my literary career and my life abroad.

Now I have a way to nurture and sustain my most valuable expatriate possession -- my sense of self -- no matter where I am, or what heights or depths I face.

What image captures you at your most unrecognizable  -- and your most iconic? What was happening in your life in that moment? +++++ This post originally appeared in Amanda van Mulligen's blogseries "Expat Images"