Malaysia

What Crazy Thing Did You Build? How Did It Go?

Villa Langsat: I built this house outside Kuala Lumpur. My father designed it for me.

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 3.18.22 PMScreen Shot 2014-07-11 at 3.17.31 PMScreen Shot 2014-07-11 at 3.18.05 PM

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 3.17.56 PMI planted 100 plants in the garden and stocked the fountain with tropical fish.

(This is the same fountain an Indonesian workman washed his latex paint brushes in, thinking it'd somehow just go away.)

A tiny blue kingfisher took just an hour of diving to clear out the pond of all swimming things. An afternoon of expensive sushi for the little bird with the oversize orange beak.

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 3.18.14 PMIt was supposed to take 3 months to complete. That was before the contractor saw the plans. Construction lasted for 2 years.

It's all slate inside, stays cool in the equatorial heat. Cool! Not cool: the roof leaked for the first 7 months.

What crazy thing did you build? How did it go?

My Artwork Selected For International Museum Of Women Exhibition

Anastasia Ashman - artwork selected to appear in International Museum of Women's art exhibition on Muslim topics, 2013I heard from Yasmine Ibrahim, a fellow on the museum’s next online exhibition which launches in 2013 and will explore Muslim Women’s Art & Voices.

The International Museum of Women asks to highlight my image of a door from the Topkapi Palace Harem that I've been using as my profile background all around the web for several years. For me it signifies the liminal state of being an expat woman in Turkey, a multiculturalist, a hybrid soul.

I took the original photograph in 2004 when my coeditor and I toured the harem before embarking on our creation of the Expat Harem book. Then I manipulated the image in Photoshop.

I entered it into a gallery exhibition of Istanbul photographs by members of the International Women of Istanbul and American Women of Istanbul photo club in 2005 and it was the first image of the show to sell. Penang, 1997, Original Artwork by Anastasia Ashman Even though I'm not a Muslim woman so technically may not fit the specs for this exhibit, Ibrahim writes, "Your image was selected because it is related to Islamic art. Personally it is my favorite image because it is abstracted and joyful. As a Muslim, I felt that it symbolizes many aspects of Islamic culture."

The image seems a cousin to a photo of a 19th century mansion I took in Penang, Malaysia in 1997 and also manipulated in Photoshop.

Tech Makes The Global Citizen, or Repatriation = Relocation With Benefits

San Francisco may be a tech-forward location but that's not why I've increasingly been turning to technology to help me be where and who I am today.

As a globally mobile individual, I rely on tech because of all the moves that came before this one. I rely on tech for my total, global operation.

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This originally appeared in The Displaced Nation, August 22, 2012.

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  (123) 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.

Expatriates Are Experts In Resilience

A few excerpts from interviews I've given and articles I've written:

Being an expatriate, you’re naturally a person in transition.

Your worst days can leave you feeling unmoored and alienated. Your best days bring a sense of your agile nature and the qualities that make you unique from the people who surround you and the people back home.

Working toward an understanding of what it will take for you to feel your best in your environment I think is extremely worthwhile. Your answers perfectly define you and the more closely they are incorporated into your business plans the better chance you have of career success abroad.

After five years in Malaysia and 8.5 in Turkey, I've made the limbo state of expatriatism (not belonging to your surroundings but having to navigate them in culturally appropriate ways AND honor the truth of who you are at the same time) a strength instead of a weakness.

 

With my career disrupted by international relocations and watching the traditional media business being disrupted by digital and social media, my particular m.o. has evolved into gate jumping. That’s a combination of reaction to obstacles in my environments, and a commitment to not be hindered by “what is”.

Gate jumping can work for expats of all kinds.

Here’s how I do it: Fearlessly operating without borders instead of accepting my off-the-grid, situation-mismatch as a paralyzing disadvantage.

Time zones, language barriers, geographical distances, old-school thinking and collapse in my industries of media and entertainment, these things don't stop me.

 

Being an early adopter of Twitter, I use it for continuing education like virtually attending conferences and entering high level discussions in my topics of interest, to networking and meeting my peers around the world.

One of the reasons I founded GlobalNiche.net is that I have noticed that the majority of expats disappear when they go abroad rather than come to local and international prominence through their expat lives as I have done.

Even fewer women expats accomplish this in Muslim countries or have managed to raise the voices of multiple other women in a country known for its censorship. See the details of this particular adventure in my piece The Accidental Anthologist.

I don't think any of this is easy to achieve. But I do think it's integral to surviving, and thriving.

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Linda Janssen has written a book on this topic called The Emotionally Resilient Expat. Jo Parfitt's Summertime Publishing is releasing it in 2013.

Cleopatra For A Day: Expat Beauty & Fashion

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

This appeared in The Displaced Nation, March 19, 2012.

Screen Shot 2013-06-09 at 5.18.36 PMContinuing 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.

The Global Niche Muse: Out Of Place And Mistress Of Her Domain

Take a plunge into metaphor with us as we explore the meaning behind a graphic muse you'll recognize from Dialogue2010 Mapping the Hybrid Life podcast and the Hybrid Ambassadors blog-ring. At GlobalNiche.net we love this image -- part photograph, part 2nd generation photocopy, and part Photoshop -- a whimsical pioneer woman peering out from the center of her own personal compass point. We've incorporated her into the logo for our new work-life initiative, and below we discover exactly how she embodies creative enterprise for the global soul.

(You can see this story of how I made our mystery woman in my isolated Kuala Lumpur office in 1998, where she comes from, what she's survived -- and also, circumstantially, why she's so well-coiffed -- in the proper Tweet-and-commentary format at Storify.com)

  • I spotted this whimsical woman on a fading coiffeur signboard in Sarawak, Borneo

Photography is a now-not-so-secret love of mine, and it was a saving grace of my first long-term expat stint in Southeast Asia. Seeing everything with a photographer's eye made my surroundings endlessly fascinating and ripe with opportunity, no matter what else was happening or how I was feeling. It was also a key to orienting myself, following leads, making connections between the past and the present cultures.

The quickly-disappearing antique commercial signboards of the Straits Settlements (Penang, Malacca and Singapore) were a particular favorite of mine. You can imagine when I landed in the East Malaysia state of Sarawak I went straight to the old town to see the remnants of what establishments had once flourished there.

Although the inevitable lag of fashion around the world might be at work here, from her hairstyle I guess the sign went up in the 1930s-40s.

  • the compass superimposed over her eye (self-image, get it?) is from an around-the-world cruise line ad

...and with her eye on the world, the image represents her unique perspective.

  • the round-the-globe ad was published during the Golden Age of Travel. I found it in the National Archives of Malaysia

I was an absolute microfiche *bandit* at the National Archive....here you can see some of the Straits Settlements newspaper gossip items and police blotters I captured. Hilarious, tragic, telling stuff no matter what the subject (whether it was Somerset Maugham's buttoned-down planters going nuts/running amok, or infectious diseases being passed around by the Chinese laundry services, or opium dens being fined for admitting ladies, the place was off-the-hook).

The steamer-trunks-and-servants Golden Age of travel was also an interest piqued by the region, and I explored it for a web venture Flaming East.

  • in land of White Rajas (Conrad's early heartofdarkness?), she seemed 1) out of place 2) possibly mistress of her domain
  • The White Rajahs were a dynasty of Brits who ruled Sarawak for about a hundred years during the mid-19th-20th century.

Joseph Conrad, author of the novel Heart of Darkness, had earlier written Lord Jim, which may have been based in part on the pirate-filled sea experiences of the first White Rajah James Brooke.

To that setting of personal, mini-empire building, add the coiffed nature of this woman and you get someone who seems like she's holding it together somehow. She's managing to take care of herself.

At GlobalNiche.net we're not all about personal grooming -- nor are we conquering anything except perhaps our situations (setting up our own private rajs?).

...but this specific and historical background was swirling around the image of the coiffed lady when I snapped it as a displaced Western woman in the tropics myself. To me, the context was captured along with the image.

Being yourself *and* at home in a place very different than what you've known or been prepared for -- out of place, and mistress of our domain -- that's the GlobalNiche combo!

  • GlobalNiche's muse is a woman in the wild following her personal compass where ever around the world it might take her

And in conclusion...just as the Golden Age of Travel revolutionized the possibilities of exploring the world with confidence

at GlobalNiche.net we're operating globally with the ease of digital nomadism and with the precision of a unique sense of who we are

...suddenly our incidental heroine is thoroughly modern, and appropriate for today's unbounded age.

  • our muse is a #pioneer centered by her personal compass in an age when traveling with speed/style/grace is perfected

Tell us what you see in the wild-but-coiffed woman of Borneo. What name would you give her? (I think we're going to need one!)

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"

Being Global Gives Writers Unique Voices

The writer and cultural curator Rose Deniz asked us what happens to our writing when worlds and languages collide.

Our language choice and vernacular will never be the same.

 

Even if I don't use Turkish words, the syntax is bound to slip in... like "make shopping" instead of "go shopping", and "arrive to" instead of "arrive at or in".

I know my adoption of the Malaysian "air-con" replaced the American "A/C" and remains hard to shake more than a decade since I lived there.

For globalist writers, like Rose and me and so many of the Expat Harem bloggers, I can only think it adds to the unique definition of our voice.

Bornean Buddha: A Mindful Horror Story

According to the Tibetans, May 27 is Buddha’s birthday. A prince with everything in the world, he set off on a quest to discover the truth of life. I’m remembering a mindfulness adventure I had, fifteen years ago on that day. In Borneo, I felt bored and restless at a luxe, manicured Shangri-La resort favored by fugitive rogue traders. Wandering past the watersports shack I asked to go to an outlying island in the South China Sea. No notice to the people I was traveling with, no drinking water, food or cellphone.

The white-uniformed sailor dropped me at the random spot I’d picked from his laminated map. A decrepit picnic bench sagged in the shade of a steep cliff carpeted in greenery, where faceless monkeys screeched. No facilities, no stand selling lunch, no people. Just plastic flotsam and slithery tracks lacing the sand. The hotel boat fishtailed away.

Did they write down where they left me? Lawsuit waiting to happen. Already thirsty. Wait, six-inch wide tracks. From what scaly beasts?

No way I'd approach the trees where those squiggly trails led. I was frying in the tropical sun. Unnerved to cool off in the translucent green water. What if I suddenly 'had trouble' swimming, or a shark came? Maybe I could flag down a passing boat to take me back. But these were pirate-infested waters.

Silly overreaching hotel guest, I was going to die on this wild island.

I picked up a 5-liter water jug and started filling it with cones and olive shells glinting among seaweed and garbage. Good stuff. My best vacations were spent shell-collecting in the Gulf of Mexico...Sanibel Island in Florida.

Heavenly new finds here. A true Shangri-La paradise. Zebra-striped scallops. Glossy limpets. Spiky orange coral.

That day as I ringed the tiny island -- is that a chickpea cowrie? – I turned the corner on my own nature’s bitter edge.

On this birthday week of Buddha can you name a mindfulness experience you’ve had?

Shophouse talk: architecture as a reflection of a place, its history and people

At a global nomad dinner party -- guest list drawn up virtually by a mutual friend who met the diners all over the world -- I had the pleasure of chatting with an artist and his architect wife. Seattle-area residents, they spend a third of their time abroad in places like Kerala, India and the Neapolitan island of Procida, creating public art and advising governments on historic preservation and ways to make it a sustainable choice.

A year before I moved to Penang, the couple was based in that Malaysian state. Patricia worked with local officials on a conservation plan for the Georgetown city center, a collection of vernacular architecture unmatched by other Southeast Asian nations making it a candidate for UNESCO's World Heritage status. In modernizing, hot-to-trot Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore leveled most of their shophouses. (The New York Times highlights one Singapore restoration this week.) She inventoried a thousand shophouses. These two- or three-story rowhouses mostly built between the 1890s-1930s with a shared five foot-wide covered arcade were both places of work and home, ensuring 24/7 vibrancy in the tropical port city.

To me, shophouses embodied the equatorial island's melange of cultures and its exotic mercantile history.

I marveled at the crumbling lime facades and the multilingual signs that reflected the city's waves of traders, immigrants and British administration. A native majority saw $$ in tearing them down, so openly loving these decrepit structures under threat was my foreigner quirk.

Here's Patricia on the merging of Chinese, Malay, Indian and European styles in Penang's shophouses:

From the Chinese came the courtyard plan, the rounded gable ends and the fan-shaped air vents; from the Malay came the carved timber panels and the timber fretwork; from the Indians, urban construction techniques, including a hard-wearing plaster; from the Europeans, French windows and decorative plasterwork.

How does architecture influence your understanding of a place, its people and history?

Talking About Commitments To Work, World, & Myself

Excerpt of interview with Expat Harem editors and the women's website CommitmentNow.com, "for women committed to their work, their world, their soul mate, their children, their friends, themselves." 1. Tales from the Expat Harem is a collection of essays by Western women living in Turkey. Where did you get the idea for this book?

Anastasia Ashman: Jennifer and I met at an American women's social group in Istanbul, formed a writing workshop with some of the other members and soon realized we were all writing about our Turkish experiences. We thought they might begin to piece together the puzzle that is Turkey, so we brainstormed an anthology proposal that would encapsulate our work. We imagined the Expat Harem concept as foreign women in Turkey constricted not by physical walls of the harem, but virtual walls. For instance, a lack of language skills, undeveloped understanding of the culture, the ethnocentricities we cling to. The Expat Harem is not a negative thing, necessarily. Most expats will identify with its survival technique. The title also positively reclaims the concept of the Eastern harem. It's been a victim of erroneous Western stereotypes about subjugated women, sex slaves, orgies. In fact, the harem is a place of female power, wisdom and solidarity. Like the imported brides of the Ottoman sultans, we consider our writers inextricably wedded to Turkish culture, embedded in it, though forever foreign. We put out the call for submissions - to groups of women, writers, travelers, expatriates, Turkey expats, and Turkophiles. We heard from more than 100 women in 14 countries who felt their lives have been changed by Turkey. They came pursuing studies or work, a belief, a love, an adventure: an archaeologist, a Christian missionary, a Peace Corps volunteer, a journalist. Thirty stories spanning the entire nation and the past 40 years share how they assimilated into friendship, neighborhood, and sometimes wifehood and motherhood, and reveal an affinity for Turkey and its people. Not everyone is Western. We have one Pakistani contributor, along with writers from Ireland, the UK, Australia, Holland, Guatemala, and the US.

3. In "Water Under the Bridge," Catherine Salter Bayar laments that although she knows that she, an independent American businesswoman married to a Turkish man and now living in Turkey, would have to adjust to small town life in Western Turkey, she "didn't realize that adjusting to life in a house of fifteen would be a one-way street." Do you think many of the foreign women who have made Turkey their home have found that their adjustments are one-way?

Anastasia: No, I don't think so. It's certainly not the case in my life and for most foreign women I know. If anything we're in a constant state of negotiating which way the street is going at any given time to accommodate both our instincts and those of the people around us! Also, keep in mind Catherine's in-laws are from a rural village in the far east of Turkey with a low level of formal education and that background factors in to their world view and their ability to be flexible to new ways of thinking and doing things. There is a huge spectrum of society in Turkey, all with their own quotients of modernity and comfort with Western traditions. My Turkish family is secular, modern to the point of being trendy, and highly Europeanized. Everyone's mileage varies.

6. In your essays, you discuss your parents' reactions to your decision to marry and live in Turkey. How would you describe their feelings and have they changed over the years?

Anastasia: My mother worried she wouldn't be able to wear pants in Turkey and my father was hung up on news reports about the black market in kidneys, and the reverence in which Turks hold the military. In liberal Berkeley these things seemed suspect. Coming to Istanbul and meeting my Turkish family they were shocked to find a sophisticated, world class city and modern people wearing whatever they wanted. There's a lot to absorb about this complex nation and I think my parents are now better attuned to the limited information circulating about Turkey than they were before. One story, one view does not cover it!

7. Anastasia, it seems as if you acclimated easily to Turkish traditions and customs, perhaps as a result of the fairy tale wedding to your Turkish husband. What is it that you most love about Turkey?

Anastasia: I wouldn't credit my acclimation to a fairy tale wedding! The fact it went so smoothly was an indication of the depth of cultural sensitivity I strove for and my ability to collaborate with my husband. I continue to draw on many hard-earned lessons from my five years as an expat in Southeast Asia in the 1990s, from basic expatriatism techniques to melding with a Eurasian (Turkish) family. However I don't mean to say it's not a fairytale, because it is.

I love Turkey's heavy history overlaid with vivacious new layers of lives and dreams. Modern-day Turkey has more than its share of fabulous places, people and events -- using its breathtaking Roman amphitheatres, Byzantine basilicas, Crusader castles, Ottoman fortresses for cultural activities like concerts, exhibits, festivals. There is no mistaking that this is an important place of power and energy and ideas, and has been for centuries. Istanbul's historical significance as the center of the ancient civilized world is never far from my consciousness and I find that inspiring.

8. How did you decide to make Turkey your home?

Anastasia: My husband and I were living in New York, in what became Ground Zero after September 11th. Transport, basic shopping, air quality, employment: they were all affected badly by the attacks, the dotcom bust and the bottom dropping out of the New York media market. Meanwhile he'd been running the tech side of his brother's Turkish company for years, and when the cellphone work ramped up we decided to give Istanbul a try. The mobile scene here was so much more advanced than in the USA., it gave him more cutting edge opportunity. He was born in Istanbul but moved to Belgium as a toddler when his father took a job at N.A.T.O., so it promised to be a similar adventure for each of us. With my portable writing career and a degree in archaeology it wasn't hard to say yes to a stint in ancient and fabulous Istanbul! We came with the intention to evaluate our options in two years and recommit or make a change. So far nowhere and nothing has been able to top our experience in terms of quality of life: Spacious apartment with an unobstructed view of the Bosphorus and the hills of Istinye which look like Switzerland, organic groceries delivered weekly from the farm to our door plus the secretly-stupendous Turkish cuisine, all kinds of family and community support, holidays on the Aegean and around Europe, a more leisurely pace of life. It's kind of hard to beat.

9. Many of the women in your anthology write about the way women are treated in Turkey - from the role of a daughter-in-law to the rules regarding dating. Do you think being a woman in Turkey is more difficult than being a man?

Anastasia: We might ask that same question about any country in the world. Turkish men have gender and cultural expectations placed on them as well - and expat men here certainly labor under their own set of macho constraints. Although we do enjoy some leeway for being foreign, Western women in a liminal East-West place like Turkey have special confusions - what becomes of our homegrown gender markers of a modern woman like sensible shoes and unadorned faces, doing our own home repairs, not being a docile servant girl? The biggest culture clash we face may be the definition of femininity and the levels of our particular embrace of those definitions. In general I find Turkey full of pro-woman surprises. For instance, the positive attitude about motherhood and breastfeeding here puts America to shame. Cabbie driving too fast? Tell him you're pregnant and presto, he's a model citizen of the road. Several of the country's biggest business titans are women - groomed and promoted by their dynastic families, while female executives abound and women make up the majority of university professors. Turkey's had a female head of state, and awarded women's suffrage fifteen years before France. Is being a woman in Turkey more difficult than being a man? Probably. How much more difficult will depend on your socio-economic background, your family makeup, and your educational opportunities.

Flaming East: How Do You Share Uncensored Awe About A Place?

The fresh perspective of an outsider-on-the-inside releases energy from all directions. What strikes us about a place — and may entice our fellow country-people  – often does not resonate to the same degree with the average native.

I was pleased to meet an expat woman entrepreneur on LinkedIn last week who was once a director at the American-Malaysian Chamber of Commerce. She now advises the Malaysian Tourism Ministry, sourcing products developed by foreigners so I’ve been revisiting a feverish amusement from a decade ago when I lived in Kuala Lumpur.

To enjoy the Newly Industrialized Country where hand-woven palm frond baskets were fast being replaced by pink plastic bags, I conceived a signature line of Southeast Asian travel mementoes, and a database of purveyors of exotic experiences like this on the island of Langkawi, on the island of Penang, and outside Kuala Lumpur.

I called the venture first Cool Arts South Sea and then Flaming East.

Cool Arts South Sea self-image

Inspired by history but not tethered to it, my Flaming East concept embraced the original wonder of the region’s watery crossroads, from the Renaissance’s Age of Discovery (with its empire-building and search for trade-routes) to the steamer trunks-and-servants Golden Age of Travel. All spiked with the delirium only a good bout of malaria could provide....

homepage

By the 1990s we were missing the boat, I moaned in my business proposal:

“The part of the world that lies around the South China Sea,” as one European narrator so circuitously referred to it, was once immersed in an illustrious mystique.  Pirates and monsoons held sway on the seas while headhunters and mosquitoes did their part in the interior. Yet for several centuries an international set of adventurers, traders, colonizing industrialists and pleasure travelers risked the tropical hazards. Along with Asiatic goods and unimaginable riches, fanciful tales filtered home: of ancient races, shining temples and blue, impenetrable jungle. Even the air was different here, the east wind apparently laden with the aroma of silks, sandalwood, spices and camphor. Well, no longer.”

To be honest, Southeast Asia’s enveloping assault on the senses continued. But colorful naiveté and uncensored awe were in short supply where I came from. Writing about the past of the place caused my politically-correct, Pacific Northwest spellchecker to protest. I was flaming the East! Didn’t I really mean “cinnamon” when I typed “Chinaman”?

Have you envisioned a tourism campaign, service or product for a locale where you're the outsider-on-the-inside? What does it show about the place, and you?

Publishing And The Digital World Citizen

I once opened a can of ebook whoop-ass on Stephen King. “No interactivity, no extra benefit for readers!” I scolded the usually imaginative novelist back in the go-go days of Y2K. From my desk on New York’s Silicon Alley where I had the publishing beat at an internet industry magazine, King’s self-publishing experiment The Plant – a flow of static installments lacking flexibility, community and collaboration – was a lackluster leap of faith.

I was used to doling out tough-love to content owners peering across the digital divide. After previous stints in media and entertainment, intellectual property rights and audience concerns were also familiar to me but my exuberance came from a new media clean slate of the expat sort.

I'd just parachuted into the dotcom boom from Southeast Asia.

For five years my Malaysian office was minutes from Kuala Lumpur’s Multimedia Super Corridor, a futuristic zone advised by Bill Gates and Intel’s Andy Grove. Like the rest of the Newly Industrialized Nation, I was plagued by weekly power outages and wrote by candle light. While my attention span shrank to the length of a Compaq battery life, expatriate skills included patience to wait one month for a government-issued phone line. Waiting for internet access expanded my endurance to a couple of years.

When I finally got online the possibilities of global and real-time connection revolutionalized my estranged expat life.

A decade later I’m dipping into the professional fray from 6,000 miles to the East. I’ve been a writer and producer of cultural entertainment in Istanbul since 2003, and continue to live here. My first book Expat Harem took a conventional route: lit agent, Turkish and American publishers, road trip book tours, an electronic release for Expat Harem on Kindle (aff) and Sony eReader. My second effort — an edgy nonlinear memoir of friendship — requires a complete rethink. (Three months to set up our 49-day 10-state road tour across America, three years to recover from? Wouldn't do that again!)

Geographic disadvantage demands I compete in my home market virtually. With the economic crisis, collapse of traditional publishing and fresh hope pinned on the social web, my global audience is also now virtual.  I’m shifting to new school thinking in distribution, promotion, and sales.

Like internet access equalized my ‘90s expat reality, now social media closes the professional morass as my Tweetdeck columns resonate thought leadership across publishing, technology, and marketing. (Follow my Twitter lists of  300+ publishing professionals and 200+ interactive media people, transmedia visionaries, digital storytellers and marketers.)

I’ve got Web 2.0 and 3.0 plans for my second book -- see Digital Book World, the publishing community for the 21st century -- not only because as a contemporary author abroad I must connect with readers and offer dynamic interaction with me and my material, but because as a digital citizen I can.

Building community around the healing power of friendship – the memoir’s heart — promises to bring my writing world even closer to who I am and what I care about, making where I am viable. Exactly where I want to be.

Have you been culturally or geographically challenged in your career? How has the playing field shifted today?

A version of this essay first appeared in former editor of Writer's Digest Maria Schneider's Editor Unleashed, 2009.

See more images relating to this story here and here and here.

Speaking Of Western Women With Eastern Mates

When I’m in China, I tend to turn a lot of heads, especially in the countryside — and that’s not just because I’m a foreigner. It’s because I’m often seen holding hands with my Chinese husband," writes Jocelyn Eikenburg in "On the Rarity of Foreign Women and Chinese Boyfriends/Chinese Husbands" at her blog Speaking Of China. "It’s true — the sight of a foreign woman and Chinese boyfriend or Chinese husband is much rarer than its counterpart, the foreign man and Chinese woman," she writes.

I am so happy to find this blog discussing issues I never had anyone to talk to about in the past, especially when I was living in Asia.

My response:

I grew up in a progressive American town with traditional Asian male role models (my judo instructors). That makes me unusual, I know.

However, I cannot think of a combination more prone to heartache than a typical Western woman and a traditional Eastern man.

You note how hard it is for the Easterners to accept the Western woman. It’s also a real trial for the Western woman to *become acceptable* in the eyes of her Asian mate, and often goes against the grain of everything she’s been taught about her independence.

I spent 6 years with a man of Chinese origin, five of those years in Asia. Hardest thing I ever did. But many of the lessons I learned have helped me meld with my Eurasian (Turkish) husband’s culture and family.

Decomposing Self: Misplacing Your Most Valuable Expatriate Possession

Happily at home in Istanbul in 2007, I flipped through Unsuitable for Ladies. Edited by Jane Robinson, this anthology of female travel writing crisscrosses the globe and stretches back into ancient history. Complete candy for me. Around the same time I was ruminating in an essay for a global nomad magazine why I've come to employ a defensive strategy for my expatriatism.

Sense of self is my most valuable expatriate possession.

During my first long-term stint overseas in the '90s my boundaries were over-run by circumstance and culture. Language and cultural barriers prevented me from expressing my identity. I'd tell Malaysians I was a writer. They'd reply, "Horses?"

I was mistaken for a different Western woman in Asia. A crew of Indonesian laborers working at my house wondered when I was going to drink a beer and take off my shirt.

Like leather shoes and handbags molding overnight, expat life on the equator made me feel my sense of self was decomposing at time-lapse speed.

A thunderbolt from Robinson: "Southeast Asia has more than its share of reluctant women travelers."

She compiled Wayward Women, a survey of 350 female travel writers through 16 centuries so her conclusion about Southeast Asian travelers is drawn from a massive canon. In that moment, my hardest-won lessons of expatriatism felt vindicated.

What happens to your unique travel or expat experience if you consider yourself part of a continuum?

Check out some of expat+HAREM's favorite hybrid life reads here.

Reading Travelers: Find Your Historical Context

"Can you share a travel secret?" asked an online travel site for women prepping its annual feature of tips from women writers worldwide. "Read the women who went before us," I replied. "Or, read about them."

For this expat/ archaeologist/ writer/ traveler, cultural wisdom pools at the intersection of women and travel.  The romance and grit of historical travelogue connects me to the land -- and reminds me of travel's transformative force in the lives of women. Reputation-risking. Life-threatening. Culturally redeeming. Personally empowering.  (My post about a related controversial history.)

Adventurous Women in Southeast Asia (Oxford-in-Asia), a selection of traveler sketches by historian John Gullick, gave my own struggling expatriate experience new meaning when I was sweating it out for 5 years in the Malaysian jungle. Playing an attitudinal extra aristocrat on the 1860s filmset of "Anna and The King" with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun Fat in 1999 (next to a pig farm during a swine flu outbreak, but that's another post!), I appreciated learning about the dark side of the iconic governess to the Siamese court. Foster may have played Anna Leonowens prim, proper and principled but actually the lady was a scrappy mixed-blood mistress of reinvention. There was hope for me!

If you plan a trip to Turkey maybe Cultures in Dialogue holds similar promise for you. The print-on-demand series resurrects antique writings by American and British women about their travels in Turkey (1880s to 1940s), along with surprisingly political writing by women of the Ottoman empire. Contempo analysis by spunky scholars Reina Lewis and Teresa Heffernan refreshes the context of a region in transition.

Any favorite antique travel reads? What draws you to by-gone reports? +++++ Check out some of expat+HAREM’s favorite hybrid life reads here.

Expat Personal Branding For Career Success Abroad

In a two-part interview with Career by Choice, a blog run by expat career coach Megan Fitzgerald in Rome, this week I talk about the lessons of Expat Harem in forging my expat writing life. Answering questions about personal branding and career success abroad, I explain how writing about my life overseas and editing Expat Harem connected me to a worldwide band of peers, and gave my career and conflicted expat mindset a new cultural context. Part one Part two

Kuala Lumpur By Night For National Geographic Traveler

For the National Geographic Traveler cities roundup, I wrote about the Malaysian capital, emphasizing the seductive energy of the city as well as the echo of its natural setting. When equatorial Kuala Lumpur awakes from its heat-of-the-day slumber, the late shift throngs sidewalk restaurants and markets to vie over noodles and durian.

Humanity swirls around the geometric pylons of the Petronas Twin Towers, blazing as they pierce the sky…businesspeople crisp from air-conditioned work, perfumed shoppers, sandaled sightseers from nearby jungle villages and far-off countries.

We all reel from the amperage of the Malaysian capital, drawn like moths to a flame.

My Expat Philosophy: Why Two Life-Abroad Experiences Are Night & Day

Thoughts I shared in an expatriate group: About a decade ago I lived in South East Asia 
for five years. I know some of you are longtime, veteran expats and
 hope you'll indulge me when I share my developing philosophy
 about being an expatriate.

My two life-abroad experiences have been like night and day, and I'd
 like to think the main reason is that in Malaysia I identified my 
boundaries after the fact (by having them badly over-run by
 circumstance and culture, among other things) and that in Turkey, I 
have protected them much more from the outset....my sense of self
 being my most valuable expatriate possession.

I have found the more that I honor what is meaningful to me, the 
more my expatriate life takes care of itself.

For instance, when I
 moved to Istanbul from New York City, I was committed to writing a
 memoir. Soon it was supplanted by another literary project which 
helped me not only create a solid foundation for my life here, but 
incidentally, for the travel memoir I have now returned to.

Along
 with a fellow American expat, I edited a collection of true tales of 
cultural conflict and discovery written by foreign women from seven 
nations about their lives in modern Turkey.

Compiling the anthology has helped me as an expatriate in many ways.

It's put my Turkish experience into perspective, brought me
 quickly up to speed on the region's culture, connected me with my 
foreign and local peers and other personal and professional
 communities of interest, and has fueled my writing career.

This is a 
result miles away from the disenfranchisement I felt in Malaysia,
 languishing in the jungle, attending social events with people
 marginally related to me and my interests, never quite being myself,
 never sure how I was going to fit in or if I even wanted to.

I am grateful for the hard lessons I learned in the tropics, they 
have proven that devoting oneself to being personally fulfilled –
rather than aiming to somehow contort to fit in-- in foreign 
surroundings can lead to feeling comfortable where we are and being
accepted by those around us.

A Colonial Tale Of Vengeance & Deceit

(This appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal, January 2000) Review of MURDER ON THE VERANDAH: Love and Betrayal in British Malaya by Eric Lawlor, 260pp, published in 1999 by Harper Collins Publishers, 77-85 Fulham Palace Road, Hammersmith, London W6 8JB.  L17.99

In Kuala Lumpur in 1911, an adulterous British woman shot and killed her cheating lover, scandalizing the town and sending reverberations throughout the Empire.

Now her shocking behavior -- famously fictionalized by W. Somerset Maugham in his 1926 short story "The Letter" and portrayed by Bette Davis in the 1940 Hollywood film -- is examined in an entirely new and perceptive light, at once sympathetic to the Eurasian murderess and damning to the rigid Eastern protectorate in which she found herself captive.

Although Eric Lawlor's Murder on the Verandah is ostensibly the true story behind the notorious Ethel Proudlock case, within a few chapters his account morphs into a withering social history of British Malaya. For prurient interest, especially to residents of modern Malaysia, it doesn't disappoint.

However, Proudlock herself remains a cipher in spite of Mr. Lawlor’s admirable (albeit hypothetical) efforts to flesh her out. Unable to procure even one likeness of the woman, the author instead is pressed to supply photos of clubs, activities and locations which have only peripheral bearing on her story.

It is understandable that Ethel Proudlock was actively erased from the lives and memories of those who knew of her.

In race- and class-conscious British Malaya at the turn of the twentieth century, Proudlock appears doomed from the beginning.  Mr. Lawlor surmises she was born illegitimately to a low-ranking Briton and a native woman, then treated coolly by her father's European family, and hastily married in 1907 to the undistinguished and naive young teacher, William Proudlock.  Ethel was most likely pregnant with her only child at the time, born on the honeymoon trip to England.   "So much in her life reeked of deceit," notes Mr. Lawlor.

Even though she was a minor figure about town and dogged by ill-health, Proudlock apparently dreamed of being noticed: she was both a clotheshorse and an aspiring actress.

These qualities cannot have been rewarded in a society which had recently traded in its freewheeling pioneer atmosphere for a distinctly suburban, timid conformity.

"Malaya no longer felt like Malaya," was the nostalgic lament.  "It had been domesticated, and where once tigers had roamed, now there were tennis courts and cricket creases."

Racial purity was also being increasingly emphasized, with nascent movements to exclude Asians from the civil service and to segregate train cars.

In this climate, Proudlock’s mixed bloodline would have resulted in further ostracization.

When Proudlock's audacious actions finally captured the ultimate limelight in her murder trial, "people who saw her on the witness stand remarked on how self-possessed she looked."

She enjoyed playing an upright woman who had killed defending her honor, as she claimed William Steward attempted to rape her.  Only when sentenced to hang for the murder of the tin mine manager did she lose her composure.

A debate raged in both England and Malaya over the virtues of the case and her supporters looked for a way to reverse the decision.  It was mostly a matter of appearance, however, as the British liked to believe they cut exemplary figures in Malaya.

Eventually she was pardoned by the Sultan of Selangor and exiled to England. If the shame weren't enough, her husband's public denunciations of the trial proceedings effectively ruined him too.  He was forced to resign as headmaster at the Victoria Institution and his inquiries were rebuffed ever after by the Colonial Office in London.

Murder on the Verandah succeeds as a masterful negative-space account of the woman and her vengeful crime, supplying us with context,  the pressures and the expectations under which Proudlock and her husband must have labored.

It also paints the portraits of a large cast of characters who lend their thoughts and life experiences to Mr. Lawlor's points: among them newspaper editors, estate managers, civil servants and their wives.

Mr. Lawlor's dark perspective specifically vindicates Maugham's acerbic view of Malayan planters and district officers, even though Maugham’s unwitting subjects uniformly insisted that they had been defamed.

The revealing retrospective continues through a host of ills suffered by the British in Malaya, as well as the hardships of Asians at the hands of their insensitive British masters.  Exploring the cruel indentured servitude of Tamils on rubber plantations and the perception of Chinese rickshaw pullers in town, Mr. Lawlor exposes just how alienated the British managed to make themselves.

So unnerved at surrendering control even for a short ride across town, they believed a rickshaw puller "used the opportunity not just to avenge every wrong he had suffered at their hands, but to avenge as well every wrong done to every member of his race."

Paranoia, perhaps.

Yet, as Ethel Proudlock knew to her core, revenge is the province of the dispossessed.