Toasting Seva Foundation's 35 Years Of Curing Blindness

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 12.16.48 PMPleased to join the Berkeley-based Seva Foundation in celebrating sight returned to 3.5 million people, at the Beaux-Arts Julia Morgan Ballroom in San Francisco, along with Bay Area luminaries like Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, men in tie-dye suits and women in saris. In keeping with the groovy beginnings of the foundation, each place setting had its own bottle of soap bubbles. The New York Times writes about the evening and the key role of Steve Jobs in helping to start the foundation with a $5,000 gift 35 years ago here.

Apparently 80% of blind people in the world can be cured with a 15 minute cataract surgery, which is what Seva set out to provide on a mass scale.

Seva was founded "by a group of medical professionals, counterculture activists, musicians, and compassionate individuals, all dedicated to the prevention of blindness around the globe" including public health expert Dr. Larry Brilliant, spiritual leader Ram Dass, and humanitarian activist Wavy Gravy.  Dr. Brilliant is the former director of Google's philanthropic arm

Actor Peter Coyote was the MC of the evening which was capped by a performance by the Blind Boys of Alabama.  I got chills when they asked the many ophthalmologists who donated their time and expertise over the past three decades to stand up and be recognized.

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 12.05.29 PM

A highlight of the evening was founder Dr. Larry Brilliant returning to Steve Jobs' widow Laurene Powell Jobs an Apple 2 which Jobs donated to the cause for use in Katmandu in 1982.

Good to meet young epidemiologist Jen Olsen who's manager of pandemics at Skoll Global Threats Fund established by eBay co-founder Jeff Skoll, where Dr. Brilliant is now president, and Amanda Marr Chung who was just finishing up her work with Seva.

Elections When You're A Digital Global Citizen

This appeared in The Displaced Nation, November 7, 2012. Screen Shot 2013-06-09 at 5.24.15 PMGlobal citizens follow the US elections closely; some even see American politics as a spectator sport. For today’s post, we asked Anastasia Ashman, an occasional contributor to the Displaced Nation, to tell us how she felt about the 2012 elections. An expat of many years and an active proponent of global citizenship, Anastasia recently repatriated, with her Turkish husband, to her native California.

Rather than drifting away from the American political process when I was far from my fellow citizens, it was during an expat stint that I became most deeply involved.

My involvement had a displaced quality, of course.

I have always been on the edges of the American experience, hailing as I do from the countercultural town of Berkeley, California. The first time in my life I owned and brandished an American flag was after 9/11. It felt like a homecoming after a lifetime of being the outsider.

Even now that I’m back in California, my political involvement continues to have a displaced quality because I know what it’s like to be a citizen on the front lines of our nation’s foreign policy. For most Americans, the issue of how the rest of the world perceives our country is distant, amorphous, forgettable — but not for those of us who’ve lived abroad.

Clark for President!

I’d discovered Wesley Clark on television after 9/11. A four-star general, he was talking about the world we’d suddenly plunged into like a polished, collected and thoughtful world-class leader. It was easy to feel a kinship with the philosopher general even though I’d grown up in a household that vilified the military. Instead of activist or escapist pursuits, I chose to join him in geopolitical chess.

During the months between September 2003 and February 2004 when Clark competed in the presidential primary to become the Democratic candidate, I campaigned for him from afar. My email inbox soon filled with security warnings from the U.S. Consul urging Americans to keep a low profile.

If I had been able to get my hands on a campaign poster back in 2003 and 2004, I wouldn’t have displayed it publicly in my Istanbul apartment window. We were invading Iraq, and Istanbul was the site of four al Qaeda-related terrorist bombings that November. Avoid obvious gatherings of Americans, the emails cautioned. No mention of red, white, and blue “Clark for Democratic Candidate” campaign posters plastered on your residence — I had to extrapolate that.

Instead, I became active in online forums and wrote letters to undecided voters and newspapers in numerous states for my choice, the former N.A.T.O. Supreme Commander Wesley Clark. That was all I could do.

Obama for Re-election!

I’ve now been back in the USA for a year and have followed this election cycle, like the last one, mostly via social media. Online is an ideal place to become disconnected from echo chambers you don’t resonate with, and to stumble into rooms you don’t recognize. Both have happened.

But for the first time in the American political process, I don’t feel displaced. I feel like I am right where I belong.

Maybe it’s the San Francisco environs, which, although they may not match my concerns, don’t rankle too badly. At least I’m not in Los Angeles being asked to vote on whether porn actors must wear condoms. (They should, obvs!)

I feel less displacement in this election because of the resonant connections I’ve made online in the last four years or more. I’m in open, deep geopolitical conversation with Americans, American expats and with citizens of other nations, all over the world.

During this election I’ve been using my web platform, my digital footprint, to gather political news and opinion, enter discussions, and raise awareness. I’ve been reconciling my patchwork politics by weaving together who I relate to, and what I care about, and what sources I pass on to my network and what conversations I start. I now know that I am

  • A woman from an anti-war town who campaigned for a general!
  • A Hillary supporter who’s backing Barack, and
  • An adult-onset Third Culture Kid who understands how and why Obama’s Third Culture Kid experience confuses the average American.

What I have chosen to share on social media during this election cycle is a processing of all that makes me a political animal. I feel I have participated in this election cycle as the whole me, and that is all I can do.

I’ve shared that I care deeply that

I am buoyed that these abominations are leaking out and being countered. I was edified to hear others share my disapproval of eligible voters who choose to throw their votes away.

I have been able to be an active digital world citizen during this election cycle, someone who votes for the bigger picture, not just at the ballot box, but in everything I do. And that feels like home to me.

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.


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.

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.


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…


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


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.


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!


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!


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

French Ladies: How My Sister And I Stopped Fighting By Becoming Foreign Women

This appeared as "Sibling Rivalry" at AOL's MyDaily/HUFFPOST WOMEN. +++

"Whoever gets a D in math has to sit in back."

That's how I'd call shotgun when it was time to squeeze our teenage bodies into the family's tiny Honda.

My younger sister Monika didn't appeal to my mother at the wheel. This cruel, impromptu rule was imposed by a straight-A sibling, and grades were everything in our California household.

She'd trundle into the backseat, probably hating life.

Our oldest sister, whom we called the "Queen of Mean," was away at college but present in spirit.

Family films show that sister pinching me, a swaddled newborn. Then the 2-year-old beams when she notices the cameraman.

In another reel, her golden curls flying in the wind, she's pushing me -- a pigeon-toed toddler -- off the back of her moving tricycle.

We've got no babyhood footage of me doing that kind of thing to Monika, 15 months younger. Bad behavior would become apparent later, during years of being pitted against each other in academics, sports, music.

Maybe our parents encouraged the fractiousness as a parenting technique.

We three kids must have been more manageable as rivals and informers, rather than allies and colluders.

By school age, we were experts in our household's reward and punishment system based on my father's experience in the Army. Misbehavior led to grunt chores like scrubbing bathroom tile grout with a toothbrush.

Accomplishments won us R 'n' R passes to slumber parties.

We sisters provoked each other for extra privileges. "Look, Mom, I'm being good and she's not."

Eventually we'd harass each other for pure sport.

"That shirt makes your teeth look yellow," Monika would happen to notice as I headed out the door for a junior high dance.

The moment was a far cry from our brown-haired toddler years, when Monika and I adored each other. Back then, our favorite pastime was playing a game we called "French Lady."

A cosmopolitan fantasy of drinking tea from a porcelain set, old lady handbags swinging on our forearms, we were two preschoolers speaking in French accents. Continental ladies-of-leisure must have been quite a stretch in late 1960s Berkeley, a town known for hippies and beatniks.

In college, Monika and I struggled to rekindle our "French Lady" rapport. Tentative, well-meaning contact was always a hair's breadth from implosion.

Visiting her at school in San Diego, I offered her a new hairstyle. I wanted to try a razor technique I witnessed as a model for a European salon.

I was not a stylist, and the only tool she had was a Daisy razor. Monika decided to trust me anyway. Having girlie fun, we disregarded the probability of disaster.

I pulled out a back curl and scratched at it with the pink plastic razor. A few strands caught and held on the narrow blade.

I increased the pressure and suddenly the entire lock gave way. The razor plunged to her scalp.

"What was that?" Monika reached up to feel the new concavity.

"It's -- nothing," was all I could say, overcome by a sudden fit of giggles.

I wanted to keep going, to fix it. But she was already across the room rooting in the dresser for a hand mirror.

"I'm dropping you at the bus station right now," she screeched. "I want you out of my sight!"

A 500-mile bus ride back to my parents, a truncated vacation with my sister. No.

But what were my options? I didn't know anyone in San Diego.

Except my older sister. She hardly talked to me.

The wounded creature in front of me had invited me in. If I wanted to stay, I'd need to change the drift of the afternoon -- and the entire course of our sisterhood.

Imagining what my friends wanted to hear from siblings who tortured them, I started: "I didn't mean to ruin your hair. I care about you."

The words sounded so formal and undefended. Unlike me.

"I want you to be happy," I heard myself explaining.

She stopped screaming. This wasn't just about the bad hair cut.

"I love you, and I'm sorry," I finally squeezed out, a surprise sob in my throat.

To admit how much I felt for this brown-eyed girl in a Hawaiian shirt put me in a sad, vulnerable place.

We stood looking at each other from opposite sides of her cinder block dorm room. Tears started to roll down our cheeks.

Monika came in for a hug, whispering into my ear, "I love you too."

From that day on, we relied on each other as sounding-boards for shared anxieties and revelations. We began to appreciate our kinship -- and our kindredship.

Later, I was living 9,000 miles away when Monika needed surgery. She wanted me to take care of her. Arranging a medical power of attorney, she gave me the right to have her unplugged if something went awry.

That's when it hit me. My baby sister now trusted me enough to put her life in my hands. Beyond accident of birth, we chose each other.

The month I attended her pre-op appointments, shopped and cleaned for her was the best time we'd ever spent together.

She was a grounding family presence at my wedding, and soon I was able to return the favor.

Monika's house burned down. Returning to a charred pile of rubble, she wasn't able to function. I was her first call and we puzzled through the devastation with the same analytical skills I once used to banish her to the backseat.

I was thrilled when she claimed to friends, "I borrowed my sister's brain to start rebuilding my life."

Socializing in genteel situations is still one of our favorite things, dressing up and affecting our best sensibilities. Sometimes we don't bother to dress up, or drink anything. When we get together, what's important is that we bring our best selves.

My Transmedia Wedding Project

....imagine “Meet the Parents” colliding with a grittier “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”! Transmedia ebook/screen adaptation of my Expat Harem wedding tale “Like An Ottoman Princess”, about bridging my radical West Coast family and traditional Near East in-laws at a palatial Istanbul wedding.

STORY EXCERPT Two families colliding. From different nations with textbook opposite cultures and traditions: An avant garde American family with a traditional Old World one. Secular Christians with secular Muslims. People from a famous anti-war community in the San Francisco Bay Area with a Turkish family steeped in military service and proud participation in NATO’s SHAPE, from a nation where the military is revered as the guardians of the republic. Bringing them together -- or is she keeping them apart? -- is a countercultural bride who may have arrived on this palatial doorstep through a lifetime of reinvention, but her past and her parents are somewhere else entirely.

More details to come about this and the counterculture family-themed prequel, THANKSGIVING WITH MARY JANE (featured on the homepage of the Red Room writing community, November 2010) and Chicken Soup for the Soul: All in the Family (2009).

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Your Tribe Is The New Segregation: Integration May Not Be An Improvement

All this talk about finding your tribe. It’s so rewarding to connect to people with similar world views. True peers. As we seek our global niche, we’re integrating across all sorts of out-moded boundaries. You could also say we’re segregating along the lines of our true selves.

Perusing a Berkeley Grade School Photos group at Facebook, I marvel at the sea of white faces in the hill school districts in the '40s to early '60s -- all those boys in their khaki Cub Scout regalia, an aggressive club requirement on picture day.  Although the town's schools were segregated simply by neighborhood, socioeconomic class lines also cut along race so Berkeley voluntarily desegregated itself, one of the first mid-sized American cities to do so. The integration program is reflected in a sudden appearance of multiracial group portraits.

Around the same time, the local government voted to rename its schools, exchanging African American civil rights leaders for the nation's founding fathers. In a major gilding of the lily, Lincoln became Malcolm X.

At 9, I was bussed to the flatlands to an institution still bearing the name of a gentle Yankee poet. Its yard littered in glass, a burned out car lodged in a stairwell on a Monday morning. A hardcore new learning environment, and new peers!

Perhaps my parents skewed the fuller lesson in ethnic and socioeconomic diversity by signing me up for the academically competitive Asian Cluster classes, which confined me to rooms where Japanese, Filipino and Chinese students gathered. Integration has its casualties too.

What casualties of integration -- or segregation -- litter the path to finding your tribe?

Passion plays: defending our identity and a future that looks like us

Passion fuels the lives we envision for ourselves better than discipline or elbow grease alone. However, a little bit of passion’s dark side -- anger -- may be the best defense of our identity, and a future that looks like us.

Dialogue2010 participant Elmira Bayraslı shared at her "Wonderment Woman" blog the anger that keeps her hybrid. Rather than assimilate or choose one social group to belong to, the daughter of Turkish immigrants in New York ferociously defends her hard-won ability to switch to independent American woman -- and back again.

As an expat I know this righteousness-to-be-hybrid. A defense mechanism not only kicks in but is kept in place by a low level anger about external pressures to live and be a certain way. It’s been a cornerstone of my survival, and for many people living between worlds.

I was reminded exactly how homegrown this righteousness is by a Facebook group of one-line jokes about Berkeley upbringings. How counterculture taboos affected childhood is dizzying:

  • boycotts of table grapes and iceberg lettuce make kids anxious when visiting un-PC families,
  • a sneaked McDonald’s meal draws punishment while smoking weed does not,
  • the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts are off-limits (pseudo-military!),
  • while the whitebread Brady Bunch and misogynistic Barbie are what’s wrong with the world.

Free Speech protests witnessed from baby strollers make this group a veritable Red Diaper Baby playdate.

Also glimpsed: the realization that  much of what characterized a Berkeley childhood thirty or forty years ago -- that is, the lifestyle and belief system of an alternative community, the anger that separated it from the rest of the nation -- has now become mainstream in America.

So, my righteous sisters and brothers, what are you going to keep being angry about when it comes to who you are?

Presented In Istanbul: Tiptoeing Through The Taboos

I was going to marry a Turk. But first I would face a cultural gauntlet meeting his family in Istanbul. My fiancé Burç stressed gaining approval from his influential mother Ayten, a pretty woman in her late 50s. She would be tricky to charm since Ayten treasured the central position she commanded in the lives of her unmarried sons, and spoke little English.

“She won’t be able to follow your accent,” briefed Burç. Yet he insisted the language barrier wouldn't impede my proper acquaintance with his polished and instinctual mother.

“It’s not what you say, anyway. It’s how you behave.” Way to freak me out.


HIS MOTHER'S CHARACTER WAS COMPLEX. A modern European sophisticate, she possessed vintage morals, frozen in nineteen-sixties Istanbul when the family relocated to Belgium for two decades.

Over the Atlantic heading to Turkey, Burç lightened the mood, regaling me with festive stories of Turkish dinner parties and moonlit boat trips on the Bosphorus. All were punctuated with belly dancing by paid entertainers and guests alike, men shaking it, women clapping.

"Whenever the generals came over for dinner they'd end up belly dancing," Burç recounted, digging deeper into his memories to the days when his father Süleyman worked for N.A.T.O.’s military command.

Resettling in Istanbul, the dignified septuagenarian was famous for unrestrained shimmying after polishing off a few glasses of anise-flavored rakı, the national liqueur.

This I had to see.

The plane set down on the outskirts of the sprawling, hilly city of Istanbul and we made our way across the Bosphorus Strait to Anadolu, the Asian side of town. Family introductions went smoothly in the leafy neighborhood of Şaşkınbakkal.

Süleyman supplied me lounging slippers, subtle acceptance.

When my father-in-law to-be donned the collared Banana Republic sweater I brought even though it was too small, his wife Ayten scoffed he was showing off his physique.

Ayten was  a tougher sell. She put away the Chanel bath products I gave her with a small nod of thanks.


SHE DOTED ON MY FIANCE, her hand on his shoulder as she set plates in front of him. I detected the shrewd instinct he had described. If she didn’t focus on me my importance would be minimized. We commenced with tea and meat pastry borek, in her mushroom-colored dining room dotted with crystal figurines and Lladro porcelains. Süleyman drew on his pipe while Ayten gossiped about the neighbors.

I sat looking pleasant. No hint of belly dancing on the horizon.

Two nights later we helped celebrate a local Turk’s 45th birthday party in the remains of a sixth century Byzantine cistern. Candles illuminated the rough-hewn bricks of the subterranean disco. An air of boredom permeated the affluent crowd in trendy sequined tops and business suits as they grazed from huge platters of nuts, cheese and grapes.

“After cake, we have belly dancers,” the pixie hostess revealed.

“Perfect for my husband,” she bopped to the music, glancing at her spouse who hadn’t moved a muscle all evening. Then with a shriek she ran to greet new arrivals.

A THRILL SHOT THROUGH ME, SECRET WISH GRANTED: to witness authentic belly dancing on the soil from which it sprang. Having a simmering fascination with the art since I was a young Californian peeking through the window of a Middle Eastern dance studio next to my Judo dojo, the mincing and shaking of the harem dance could be the ultimate seduction, something to learn. I had made it to the source, and belly dance’s dormant role in my life was about to change.

The DJ switched to a percussive track by Tarkan, a local pop star influenced by traditional music. Two scrawny, tanned Eastern European girls moved through the crowd, venally eyeing the men who would slip them tips.

There was nothing sensual about these performers, padded silver bra tops creating a semblance of cleavage on birdy chests, transparent pantaloons slung low on adolescent hips. Limber, their moves were more acrobatic than dancerly.

I’d seen better technique on a beach in Oregon, when my crafty cousin demonstrated her years of study, ample belly undulating like a stormy sea.

Good sports, the Turks clapped like robots.

“Excuse me, I will be sick,” announced one slender dark-haired guest as she pushed past.

“Kicked out of the gymnastics program in Belarus,” Burç whispered in my ear, our attention drifting. We leaned in for a kiss when a dancer whipped us with her blonde hair. Making clear it was no accident, she pivoted twice more at close range. We stopped kissing.


“THAT'S A NATAŞA FOR YOU,” Burç said, using the blanket term Turks have given female emigrants spilling into the country since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. They often fill jobs natives reject -- for instance, “No decent Turkish woman would put on a costume and dance,” Burç explained, sounding like the son of a decorous mother.

Point taken. Being 'Natasha' in Turkey was synonymous with foreign prostitute and possibly much, much worse -- trafficked woman. Major unfortunate. Mixed up with the mob.

The next night we were invited to dinner at a family's traditional wooden mansion overlooking the Bosphorus. Toward the end of a civilized evening, the jovial host, who I had met several times in New York, tried to draw me into a dance.

Süleyman did a few turns and retired to smoke his pipe. No other takers.

I stood there, the same extroverted woman the host had enjoyed in the States now watching him twitch his right hip, arms raised shoulder height, fingers snapping. It wasn’t much of a belly dancing move, easy to master. If I did it, my host would be delighted.

Yet, if behavior spoke more than words, appearing eager to belly dance might be deadly for a prospective foreign daughter-in-law with a Russian-sounding name.


I HAD ONE OPTION, PURE THEATRE. So I shook my head, bashful and refusing to imitate my host’s moves. A smiling Ayten patted the spot next to her on the sofa, where I joined her in respectable solidarity.

“Crazy, that one,” she said to me, shaking her coiffed head.

I’d have other chances to dance, ones that would cost me less.


Back in New York, the trip was judged a success. Everyone had found me presentable, including the primly modern Ayten.

She'd covered a lot of territory to reach a positive conclusion about me, I found out. Burç admitted when she first heard of me months before, Ayten thought my name was Natasha.

[This essay first appeared in Cornucopia magazine, 3/03]

Read what happens next, when we get married in a glitzy Istanbul ceremony.

+++++ What high-stakes cultural gauntlet have you faced and how did you maneuver your way through it?

Being Grounded Is Overrated: Getting Distance From The Inner You

I come from a land of Earth Mothers. On trips back to the West Coast -- Northern California, Oregon -- I note many hip young women are proud of their soft, rounded bellies, a more feminist 1970s standard of womanliness than the anorexic aughts. Like them, to me "being grounded" has meant a low center of self-gravity. Being solid in yourself. Tapped into the source. Unflappable. There's a problem with concrete though. It cracks over time, in quickly changing conditions, and sometimes even under its own weight. Settling into a life choice or a mindset that feels right today can suddenly be unsatisfactory two minutes into Tuesday. Ever a joined a group only to realize you simply wanted partial-membership in it?

So I've been thinking about fluidity. Imagine being a bobbing buoy, tied to a point deep below the surface of changing options.

By putting some distance between me and my center of gravity, I have room to be in a wider orbit around the inner me.

The winds and waves take me to new realms of myself. Life phases, bad hair days, culture shocks. Friend, colleague, wife. Turkish resident. Foreign employer, American daughter-in-law. Inspirational (or incomprehensible) online acquaintance. They're not always the same person and they don't want to be.

A related post by artist Rose Deniz questions how one’s worldview literally shifts as a result of location. Just like the hybrid self, living a hybrid life to its fullest extent may require us to toss the concrete plan.

In a new expat+HAREM real-time discussion series launching February 28th, Deniz will curate a live-recorded conversation spurred by this notion. Ten international women will gather at the cross-roads to ponder the freedoms of blurry boundaries, and reveal the anchors of their multifaceted lives.

What determines your present orbit, and how does it change your self-view?

Self Mute: Choosing A World-Flung Life When You're Language-Averse

When I was a girl I had an office -- and a mailbox. Besides filling order forms we'd salvaged from local companies going out of business, what I loved most were the messages I'd trade with my sisters. Plus, my grandmother nicknamed me “motormouth”. Years later an astrologer pointed out Virgo in my Third House of communication, a sign ruled by Mercury, the very planet of information transfer. Mercury also rules Virgo, some kind of communication double whammy.

But loving to communicate is not the same thing as communicating well. Nor does it mean that communication comes easily.

According to family lore my first sentence was a complete one at the advanced age of two. Developmental specialists -- yes, they checked me out, mute toddler -- concluded I wasn’t comfortable with my own baby talk.

So imagine the paradox of studying eight languages. Traveling to more than 30 countries. Choosing a world-flung life that often surrounds me with people who don’t speak English. I remain language-resistant. I’m the monolingual American you hear so much about, and the muted presence so many of the people around me perhaps don’t hear at all.

Today fellow writer Amanda van Mulligen’s post hits home. She questions how self-expression can pierce a language barrier, especially if you’re shy. That would be me. Shy to speak like a baby.

What are you drawn to in life that doesn’t come easily to you?

Spirit Of The Season(ing): Counterculture Recipe For Family Harmony

Blood and marriage draw families together but often whole worlds continue to separate us as individuals. Lifestyle choices. Generations. In-laws. Siblings. Achieving – and maintaining -- harmony is a challenge we all seem to face. Some clans need more help than others. Around our holiday table in 1979, my fractious relatives were gifted with a sudden ability to perceive each other as the loveable characters we truly are, every day of the year. Our secret ingredient for interplanetary peace? An unseen substance in the stuffing.

The basic recipe: Rivalrous teenage sisters. Strait-laced mom. Judgmental 70-something grandparents who abhor visiting funkytown Berkeley (“Nowhere to park the Oldsmobile! Don’t understand the furniture!”).

Add a hefty, home-grown Christmas present from off-the-grid Oregon satellites. Stir: New York Beatnik dad boasting he’s stuffing the turkey with the hippie herb.

At last minute toss in grandparents’ newly widowed neighbor, the sweet and fragile soul Mary Jane. Carve the bird, wait 20 minutes for cosmic family consciousness to settle. Serve in a rosy light.

When Chicken Soup for the Soul debuted fifteen years ago, to my ironic sensibility the upbeat anthology title sounded more like a Saturday Night Live “Deep Thoughts” skit than what would become the bestselling paperback series in the history of publishing. My Thanksgiving With Mary Jane”**, which appears in “All in the Family” --  the new Chicken Soup volume -- also seemed at the time more joke than enduring lesson about who and what we love.

Orthodox or not, care to share your holiday recipe for family harmony?

**READ FULL TEXT OF THIS THANKSGIVING WITH MARYJANE ESSAY ONLINE at RedRoom, November 2010 or here at expat+HAREM, where you can comment.



When you're a teenager there are a million places you'd rather be than at a family gathering. However when I was fifteen, Thanksgiving with my relatives was the best turkey day I've ever celebrated. My anti-establishment father put marijuana in the stuffing.

A week earlier the postman had delivered a package from our hippie uncle in Oregon, an artisan potter. Gathered in the kitchen my two sisters and I watched my mother open the Christmas gift from her younger brother. Inside was a witchy handbroom, a leather strap nailed to its handle for hanging at the hearth. Perfect for our 1916 bungalow's fireplace.

While we read the card wishing us a happy holiday in my aunt's blowsy writing, my real estate agent mother unwrapped another present.

A large freezer bag of homegrown Indica.

OUR EYES WIDENED. This was progressive Northern California and we'd seen weed before, but a massive stash had never dropped into our laps. A resinous, earthy green scent overwhelmed the yellow-tiled kitchen.

My mother froze, holding the illegal parcel from her off-the-grid brother and his part-Blackfoot wife. My grandparents bought the younger couple a house just so they wouldn't live in a tent on a Santa Cruz mountain, and stocked my wild cousins with cotton panties so they wouldn't run around without underwear.

Compared to that branch of the family tree, our household was conventional. Mom pursed her lips.

"How am I going to get some of that?" I was thinking.

My sisters were probably scheming to out-maneuver me, our sibling rivalry ingrained. Would our parents let us dip in, simply because it came from a relative? They'd never said we couldn't smoke pot. Only cigarettes were taboo. We girls would be popular at parties if we managed even a minute with the aromatic package. My sullen younger sister could use the social boost in junior high, and so could I in tenth grade with my never-ending mouth of metal. The blonde senior could fend for herself. She'd probably sell it for clothes.

My Bohemian New York father swooped in from the living room.

"I'm going to put it in the stuffing," he crowed, snatching the bag of bud from Mom.

"Oh Charles." My mother sighed as he sprinted up the stairs with the Christmas contraband. A capricious architect, my Lithuanian father liked to bait her about the in-laws.

MY TRADITIONAL ITALIAN GRANDPARENTS DID NOT EMBRACE MY FATHER. They were in the habit of warming to random, respectful young men in crisp, white, button-down shirts when in 1959 my father showed up on their middle-class doorstep an art-school Beatnik in a ripped t-shirt. Still closely shorn from his stint in the Army, where he'd met my mother on a French base, in no other way was he regulation. He snubbed social convention, burying his nose in political paperbacks during cocktail parties with my grandparents' keeping-up-with-the-Joneses neighbors.

Their proper daughter, an elementary school teacher, could do better.

Our nuclear family usually observed holidays at their San Jose ranch house on a cul-de-sac filled with cookie-cutter residences -- Dad gritting his teeth the entire time -- but this year my conservative Chicago grandparents had accepted our invite.

They didn't enjoy visiting "fruits and nuts" Berkeley, our feisty university town famous for sparking the Free Speech Movement and agitating against the government's foreign wars.

My grandfather complained there were never any spots on the hilly, busy streets to park his boat-like Oldsmobile.

Used to La-Z-Boys and sturdy American pieces in walnut at Mervyns, my grandmother found our French wicker chairs uncomfortable and the Joe DiMaggio giant mitt baffling.

"Who wants to sit in a baseball glove?" she protested about the cult classic some Italian designer thought up.

We may have lived an hour apart in the San Francisco Bay Area, but we really lived in different worlds.

Another reason my parents didn't host often: Mom wasn't a cook. In fact, my kitchen-averse mother was so grateful when my father offered to deal with a big bird she christened him the turkey expert and let him do whatever he wanted.

THE TURKEY WAS DAD'S RIGHTFUL DOMAIN, and my grandparents would be eating it. They were also bringing a recently widowed neighbor, Mary Jane.

I can't say I forgot about the surprise stash, but we all dismissed the stuffing threat. Crazy talk was my father's specialty.

On the morning of November 24, 1979 Dad got up at dawn, prepared his poultry and went back to bed. By noon my grandparents arrived with the sweet-natured widow. The eight of us squeezed into our places at the round butcher-block dining table, café chairs grinding against each other.

The turkey was nicely done, not dry. Polite conversation flowed due to the gentle outsider Mary Jane who asked a lot of questions.

I spied a big brown bud on the edge of my grandfather's plate, speckled with bread and celery. I glanced at my sisters to see if they had noticed. Pushing food around their plate with secret smiles, they had.

"Your stuffing is very spicy, Charles," effused the widow. "Is that sage?"

WE KIDS STIFLED GIGGLES. I couldn't look at my mother. Dad was poker-faced.

"Oh, I'm tipsy, it must be the champagne," tittered Grandma, leaning in to shoulder-nudge her neighbor like a schoolgirl.

After my finicky grandfather cleaned his plate he went to recline on the Italian baseball mitt. Soon he was sprawled across the giant glove like Fay Wray in King Kong's hand, snoring. The 70-something dandy in a mint green Qiana shirt and white leisure shoes looked comfortable -- and finally at home in our place.

We devoured the pumpkin pie and Grandma's anise cookies but didn't budge from our rosy circle.

For the first time I saw my family as individuals rather than role players.

In the lanky figure of Grandpa in repose, I recognized the easy character captured in a 1928 photo of him squatting in front of a baseball dugout.

Witnessing chummy Grandma, I understood her life-of-the-party image from a Wisconsin lake in the ‘40s, an arm slung around her ten younger siblings.

Inside my strait-laced Mom I sensed a woman appreciating her daredevil husband's off-kilter view of the world.

I realized my rebel father wasn't really antisocial if he brought us all together.

My sisters. Suddenly they seemed like fellow sojourners navigating teenhood -- simply worrying about braces and popularity and the gauntlet of the right clothes -- as well as my natural allies in this normal-slash-bizarre family. They weren't so bad.

WHEN THE THREE SENIORS SAID GOODBYE, our hugs were heartfelt. My father asked Grandpa which route home he'd take, a mellow and unnecessary exchange between the two men.

"Your family is lovely," the widow Mary Jane exclaimed, kissing each of us. "Today was the best since my husband died!"

As the five Ashmans gathered in the kitchen to do the dishes and review the day's events -- with uproarious laughter and genuine shock -- I found myself thinking of the untamed Oregon folk who couldn't be with us. Their holiday gift ensured they were here in spirit.

In that moment I grasped the meaning of family.

[This essay first appeared in CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL: All in the family, 10/09 and then as a Red Room original, November 2010]




Who Owns Polish -- And, Is Accessibility Superficial?

Growing up in a countercultural town, the presentation and packaging tactics of Madison Avenue and Hollywood, and the protocol of the diplomatic world seemed like subversive tools of the establishment. I often think of a brilliant local character known as a founding father of California’s rich architectural history who wandered the streets of Berkeley barefoot, his red beard and hair wild, beer belly protruding from a ripped t-shirt. Where might his speaking career -- and wind of Berkeley’s astounding architectural heritage -- have taken him, if he hadn’t appeared to be a vagrant?

Marketing futurist Seth Godin talked about the decisive role of cultural wisdom -- or sophistication -- in business, and asked why we don’t take it more seriously.

Is poor presentation a death sentence for a good idea?

I polled my online contacts.

LinkedIn said yes (66%), to be successful an idea demands professionalism. “Presentation is EVERYTHING!” effused one person.

Facebook was split, debating what professionalism means and the harm of over-marketing, with craftspeople and small business owners shouting “Hell no!” Commitment ranked as the top factor in success. One pragmatic man observed “Professionalism works in dull markets,” while a fellow Berkeleyan admitted we have to ”be able to engage with the status quo enough to be able to transmit a new concept.”

Here at the blog, 50% thought if the idea was winning people would forgive a shaggy package and one respondent likened presentation to the booster rocket that gets the Space Shuttle in to orbit.

Is superficial accessibility superficial? Or are movements we think of as “fringe” on the periphery not just because their beliefs are minorly held, but because they refuse to persuade from within general convention?

Uncool: A Hitchhiking Tale

I don’t hitch-hike for recreation or travel and never will.

Perhaps this is a strange position for me, a child of the radical university town of Berkeley, growing up across the bay from hippie-yippie San Francisco in the ‘70s.

But my big city New York and Chicago parents were more paranoid than many of our patchouli-scented neighbors.

“Who knows what they’re on?” my father would ask, when we passed a row of hitch-hiker desperadoes. Men in Army surplus jackets, bell-bottoms, scraggly beards and aviator glasses. Bra-less long-haired girls with guitars. People with bandana-wearing dogs and kids.

“What a dummy, that woman standing out here at night,” my mother would agree.

These were unpopular views in a time and place when it seemed like everyone was hitch-hiking.

Freeway on-ramps were lined with young and old, thumbs out, brandishing cardboard signs inked in capital letters with their destination.




It was a competitive scene. Some people tried to be funny with their cardboards, using popular song lyrics like the Dionne Warwick hit, “Do you know the way to ♪SAN JOSE♪?”

As a car game, my middle-school sisters and I read the signs people held up on the University Avenue ramp to the Bayshore Freeway, a stretch of road said to be the busiest in the entire state of California.

Sitting in traffic along that stretch, we relished spotting the new driftwood sculptures that popped up overnight along the Emeryville mudflats. Illegal art made from refuse, by who knows who.

Hitch-hikers were just another strange thing to watch from the back of the bus.

Cars would slow to pick up spontaneous passengers.

“Right on, man,” the hitch-hiker would seem to say, ducking to grab a rucksack.

I could see the driver rewarded with the hitcher’s burst of gratitude in the front seat, the toss of the bag into the back. Two voyagers united, conserving resources and saving the planet, like-minded kin identifying each other. Jocularity.

We got the finger.

Sometimes curses. Especially when we passed hitch-hikers on hot dusty roads heading to the Sierras, or a rainy winter day at the intersection of Shattuck and University when hopefuls looked -- and probably smelled -- like wet dogs.

Our car made things worse.The family’s white 1969 Volkswagen bus sent the wrong message about who we were and how we lived.

It was always being broken into and ransacked for non-existent drugs. Like that parent-teacher night in 1974, parked outside my fourth grade classroom.

When hitch-hikers spied our VW they must have calculated we were good for the ride -- unlike late model American cars, probably driven by uptight Republicans. Our noisy, white elephant of a car telegraphed we weren’t squares. We were communal folk -- even the German name “Volks-wagen” declared it. My bearded father in a black turtleneck at the big, horizontal wheel would not have dispelled this impression.

Then when we putt-putted past like we didn’t even see them with their “Get me back to BESERKELEY!” sign, suddenly we were responsible for all that wasn’t right in the universe.

We weren’t cool because our family didn’t believe in the hitch-hiking compact. Not in this screwed up world.

The disastrous potential for a hitch-hiker seemed clear to me from a young age. How many stories did we hear about children being lured by a stranger with candy and then abducted in a car? Voluntarily getting into an unknown vehicle didn’t compute. How could these hitchers ignore the reports of bodies found in the hills? The Bay Area’s Zodiac Killer. The Hillside Strangler down in Los Angeles. Hitch-hiking was the stuff of serial killer lore, a campfire staple.

As I hit puberty, classmates without hitch-hiking hang-ups quickly drifted out of my life and toward wherever those risky rides took them.

One afternoon in eighth grade I was sitting in an over-warm social studies classroom at West Campus. Bored. Sure something more exciting was going on outside.

At that same moment, around the corner and half a mile down University, a 15-year old Las Vegas runaway stuck out her thumb.

I read about Mary Vincent in the San Francisco Chronicle later, and saw her on talk shows, fitted with prosthetic arms, warning kids not to hitch-hike.

Lawrence Singleton, the middle-aged driver of a blue American van was described by his neighbors as completely benign.

He was convicted of Vincent’s 1978 kidnap, rape and mutilation. After he amputated her forearms with a hatchet he left the girl for dead. She wandered naked all night holding up her bleeding stumps.

Talk about a campfire horror story. Thirty years later, the image is still burned into my brain. The thought too: if I were cooler that could have been me.

Asked To Contribute To A Hitchhiking Anthology

I heard from Tom and Simon Sykes, editors of No Such Thing As A Free Ride?, a London-published 2005 collection of hitch-hiking anecdotes, essays and observations written by contributors from all walks of life and from across the globe. That book was serialized in the London Times and named Travel Book of the Week by the Observer. They also released Canadian and Australian "Hitchers of Oz" editions and now are aiming to publish a version of the book aimed at a US audience.

"It is clear that hitch-hiking enabled a great number of people to travel great distances, expand their minds and interact with others. Although hitch-hiking is an international phenomenon, we feel its place in American culture is significant and should be recorded."

I replied:

Given the place and time I grew up, I’m afraid my view of hitchhiking may not match yours.

As a young woman in Berkeley California, I was very much aware of disastrous potential outcomes of hitchhiking and they far outweighed any urge to see the world without the resources to do so safely.

One that sticks in my mind are the details that came out during the conviction of Lawrence Singleton for his 1978 kidnapping, raping and hacking off the arms of a 15-year old hitchhiker named Mary Vincent.

She was picked up in my town, on the same street as my junior high school and only a few blocks from where I was sitting at that very hour in my 8th grade classroom being conservative and not running away from home or hitting the open road or just trusting fate and getting a lift from a stranger.

That notorious driver described by his neighbors as completely benign could have picked up me, if I had been dumb enough or desperate enough to try hitchhiking.

In this day and age – as in that one -- I can’t recommend it with a clear conscience.

They replied that the books don't intend to whitewash hitchhiking. So I wrote a piece for them: Uncool.

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

Going On Record As A Travel Writer With Rolf Potts' Interview Series

Excerpt from a travel writers interview by Rolf Potts at his Vagabonding site, 2006. View the full interview here. How did you get started traveling?

My fascination with a wider world cropped up early.

As a toddler in countercultural Berkeley, CA my favorite pastime was "French Lady", a tea party with Continental accents.

I began traveling even further when I learned to read -- comic books.

Instead of poring over Archie & Veronica, perky storylines that revolved around characters who never graduated from high school nor breached the border of their staid hometown, I was entranced by the global expanse of history and people and culture revealed in the Belgian-made graphic adventures of Tintin.

Tracking a drug-smuggling ring in Egypt, discovering a meteorite with a Polar research vessel, surviving a plane wreck on an Indonesian island -- this was life!

Tintin's travel tales, and many others after them, remain reference points. Last fall at a museum in Nazca, Peru one long-haired, head-banded Incan mummy stirred a pleasant flashback to "The Seven Crystal Balls", as well as the awe of my twelve-year old self. It's no wonder I pursued a degree in archaeology.

How did you get started writing? AA: In the early  '70s I kept a journal on childhood road trips where I recorded preferences for the wildness of Baja's bumpy sand roads and discovering the mother-lode of sand-dollar graveyards in San Felipe to a sedate spin around British Columbia's Lake Victoria and a fur-seal keychain from the gift shop.

Later I was a correspondent, trying to explain my own culture to teen pen pals in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Malaysia, while I searched for clues about theirs hidden in precise penmanship, tarty vocabulary, and postage stamps with monarchs -- some butterflies, some queens.

During a slew of 20-something media and entertainment jobs I wrote and edited for years, whenever the opportunity presented itself, for a book packager and literary agency in New York, and for television, theatre and film producers in Los Angeles.

What do you consider your first "break" as a writer?

AA: Reviewing Pico Iyer's essay collection Tropical Classical: Essays from Several Directions for the Far Eastern Economic Review in 1997. The newsweekly magazine based in Hong Kong was equivalent to TIME in Asia. I was living in Malaysia and devoting more attention to my writing career, so it was a breakthrough to write for a major publication and huge audience about subjects which mesmerized me.

What is your biggest challenge in the research and writing process?

AA: Calling up facts. Seeing the larger story. Sitting down and doing the writing!

What is your biggest challenge from a business standpoint? Editors? Finances? Promotion?

AA: Publishers and acquisition editors and publicists seem to have narrow expectations for travel literature so for my next book I plan to devote a lot of energy to a detailed marketing plan which will accompany the manuscript in its rounds to publishers. Jennifer and I learned quite a bit about marketing to publishers with Tales from the Expat Harem, which was initially turned down by 10 New York houses who liked it but couldn't fathom its market (Turkey's too limited a subject, they said).

We've since determined that it addresses a multitude of distinct groups beyond the basic cells of travelers, expatriates, women writers and travel writers. In fact, we found enough specific target markets we were able to fill a hundred pages of our marketing plan with actual contacts of potentially interested people and organizations, like Turkish American associations, women's and Middle Eastern studies programs at hundreds of North American universities, and specific Turkophile populations like the alumni of the Peace Corps who served in Turkey.

And the beauty of a marketing plan which breaks down readerships is that a writer (or if you're lucky, a publisher) can contact all of these people.

Jennifer and I also compiled more practical subsidiary audiences for the anthology, like multinational corporations with operations in Turkey, and embassies and tourism organizations which might use the book as a cross-cultural training tool or a promotional vehicle. We were successful enough in our initial efforts in academic marketing that the book is currently used in at least three university courses and is stocked by more than 100 academic and public libraries worldwide.

Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?

AA: Always. Often my most satisfying work has been poorly compensated. I do believe that will change, eventually! Until then I continue to be a proponent of pursuing the work you love rather than the work which pays best.

An essay about a transformational subway ride which I wrote for an obscure website in 2002 not only led me to be quoted in the New York Times and brought me my literary agent, but it also now appears in The Subway Chronicles book published by the site's creator, alongside venerated New York writers like Calvin Trillin, Colson Whitehead and Jonathan Lethem.

What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?

AA: Recently I enjoyed Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz for its mix of historical research, personal experience, and contemporary journalism.

Historical travel writing also connects me to the lands I find myself in, and points to the parallels which still exist.

My steamy days in Kuala Lumpur were enriched by reading Somerset Maugham, whose Malayan fiction was entirely believable. A series of historical Asian travelogues and contemporary scholarship released by Oxford-in-Asia jogged my imagination and similarly, now that I am based in Turkey, I'll be turning to the Cultures in Dialogue series at Gorgias Press, which resurrects antique writings about Turkish life by British and American women travelers and refreshes them with contemporary academic analysis.

What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?

AA: Advice: Read the bulletin boards at A lot of very fundamental wisdom there about the life and business of travel writing. Warning: Don't post a word at Travelwriters until you've read the boards for a week or two and have a good understanding of what topics have already been covered, and how best to introduce yours.

What is the biggest reward of life as a travel writer?

AA: Sharing my view of the world with others. Adding to the conversation. Having every excuse to adventure.

Radical About Face: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the General

I want to see a general in the White House. For a woman born and bred in Berkeley, a leading community in any anti-war movement, this urge should generate an identity crisis. But it doesn’t. That disorientation has already occurred. In seeking the presidency, former Supreme Allied Commander Wesley K. Clark fused my conflicted self and brought me back to Democratic ground.

The general and I have a lot in common. Now living in Istanbul, the Turkish site of four recent terrorist bombings, and a former ground zero resident with a view of New York’s smoking pile, my world is a war zone. Instead of activist or escapist pursuits, I choose geopolitical chess.

After September 11 I worried I was turning into a Republican, practically an out-of-body experience. Longtime leftist friends marched in the streets while I was glued to the couch, waiting for the latest Osama tape on Fox.

I was already apolitical, having come unmoored from the leftwing in my twenties, when superficies concerned me most. Ineffectual packaging and delivery of a message, a typical province of radicals, seemed the ultimate self-indulgence and more about making statements than differences.

But then I saw myself acting like someone else. I was displaying the flag in my New York apartment window, on my lapel, and in the car, without a hint of irony and much emotion. Brandishing the flag was a homecoming after a lifetime of being an outsider. There was a time when I felt I couldn’t even buy one.

At a 1975 church rummage sale, my sister and I coveted a star-spangled banner as a bedspread, but the elderly seller chastised our disrespect. I was better educated about icons of Communist China than emblems of the nation, my progressive school abandoning the pledge of allegiance that year for an alternative morning ritual: calisthenics to a scratchy Chairman Mao record.

Most people can’t go home again, but I can’t even visit. My bohemian parents no longer recognize my political identity as an offshoot of their own. One Berkeley notion I’ve sloughed, illustrated by NATO generals at my wedding (groom’s side) is that the military is solely negative.

My Northern Californian childhood was steeped in a fundamental enmity for the armed forces, sinister wing of an objectionable government. Instead of tying yellow ribbons around gnarled oaks, neighbors papered telephone poles to get the U.S. out of Latin America. When my rebellious younger sister requested an Air Force brochure, the corruptive material was confiscated directly from the postman.

However alien in our mailbox and out on the scruffy streets, the service was familiar to me. Counter to Berkeley counterculture, and owing to my father’s drafted acquaintance with Army discipline, I was raised in a spit and shine household. Excellence was the only option, elbow grease the lone method, hierarchy unimpeachable, and punishment swift. Ever grunts, my sisters and I scrubbed bathroom grout with toothbrushes and grew steely with push-ups when afoul of regulations, while good report cards and judo promotions netted weekend passes for R’n’R sleepovers at friends’ houses. I trained seventeen years in boot camp, I discovered in college.  A first year West Point cadet described the climate he was expected to endure at the elite academy. “They take away basic rights and give them back as privileges,” he whined, trying to impress me.

That particular West Pointer failed to stir me, but crisp four star General Clark has. On television after 9/11, Clark anchored my attention with his magnetic and commanding presence, and drew me to his reasoned and reasonable commentary about Iraq, the war on terror, and the importance of the U.N. and NATO.  Later, the grassroots draft of the worldly and diplomatic warrior stoked hopes for a better world.  Eighty year old Midwestern veterans called the general back to duty, West Coast thirtysomethings pledged unemployment checks, and Europeans ineligible to vote declared “the world needs you”.  In announcing his Democratic candidacy, the brilliant strategist and Rhodes Scholar restored my place in that party. I recognize my complicated self in the Democrat he defines, a patriot forged from diverse life experiences and high-stakes demands of our time. Clark’s erudite defense of our Constitution reverberates in my idealistic Berkeley heart.

With the general in the White House, America is my home.

In a brainy, principled, comprehensive Clark world I’m not a traitor because I performed calisthenics to Chairman Mao, and intense athletic and academic achievements made me the stalwart character I am today. Clark’s well-delivered presentation of important issues is standard.

A liberal in conservative uniform, a peace-lover who knows how and when to prosecute a successful war, a thinking man of action whose own self-respect is a pleasure to esteem, Clark is where I’ve been headed my whole life.

Career Girl At Age 8

At the age of 8, my three favorite activities were:

  1. driving my car (which was actually a bookcase with a cardboard steering wheel taped to it)
  2. to a "French Lady" tea party with my sister (where all conversation was spoken with some kind of fru-fru accent)
  3. and then back in the car to my office where I shuffled papers, filled in some outdated, discarded forms we salvaged from a Dumpster somewhere, and sent and received mail with my sisters who were in their offices, for hours on end.

Playing with dolls was not a major occupation. I was a career girl!


That year for my birthday, I got a baby doll (the kind with the big bald plastic head) from my aunt back east who didn't know me at all.

Eerily foreign, I didn't know what to do with it.

Should I take it in the car to my tea party and to the office?

A baby had no place in my life.