Anastasia Ashman

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.

Psychic Location Independence: Optimizing Life In Spite Of Where You Are

The website Location Independent Professionals asked why we want to be location independent. "Whatever you're looking for you can find where you are." It's simply not true. We can get what we want and need where we are -- but not with a local solution. Try a psychic one.

Take my short and balmy trip to Manhattan. I acted as a technology mule, bringing iPads to poor, under-served early adopters here in Istanbul, and reconnected with friends doing work I admire on scales and with methods I aspire to. My peers.

Right up my alley. But I may never live there again.

Most of us cannot (always) go somewhere on the ground where all our people and our perfect lifestyle exist. We must find that psychically -- our "global niche".

The meaning and purpose of location independence and digital nomadism is to live and work autonomously. Although it evokes mobility, it's especially crucial for long term living situations: to find a way to get what you want and need despite the limitations of your location.  Much like the cross-national quandary posed at expat+HAREM -- "are you a global citizen by choice, or necessity?" --  out of necessity to live and work to my abilities I aim to be independent of my specific location.

Are you location independent by choice, or necessity? Where and why?

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?

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?

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]




Great (Avatar) Expectations: Who Decides Our Best Look?

A longtime friend messaged me on Facebook to alert me I need to change my profile photo to a more flattering one. I snapped it in my sunny Istanbul kitchen on my iPhone. I’d just had my hair done -- and a facial, so not a stitch of makeup. I look somewhat natural, and somewhat my age of almost 45. I liked the image for that reason. An actual unvarnished look rather than the airbrushed Turkish portraits in my book publicity materials, my playful Photoshop-manipulated avatars on social media sites, or the pound-of-make-up glamour shot from my Today Show TV appearance in 2008.

The pic is not the only way I can look, and I’m not cementing it as my favorite of all time. There are some surprising wrinkles, but also a touch of grey in my eyes I'd forgotten. The image makes sense at the moment, relates to creative work I am doing to be my authentic self, and I am proud of who I am in it. I’m using it across the web.

When my Facebook friend and I first met (before she rushed me to the hospital with a high fever), she looked me over in my sick bed and told me all I needed was "a little eyeliner".

For two decades I’ve cherished that line as her special brand of caustic Southern comedy. She was raised in places where American women have been known to sleep in their makeup – just in case. Even if I enjoy a little maquillage and lighting magic too, I’m from a rather stripped down area in Northern California. It's only natural at our core we have different sensibilities about female presentation.

Delivered with love and true concern, yesterday's message was a reminder to me.

Only we can determine what our best self looks like.

What do portraits (and self-portraits) demand of us? Which version of yourself do you want to show the world today, and why?