Asia

Expat Images: Unrecognizable Vs. Iconic

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

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

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

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

Soon enough I was as unrecognizable as my new world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rolling Stone: How Are You Shaped By The Places You've Been?

I'd been on the move for a decade when I reviewed Pico Iyer’s Tropical Classical for the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asia’s pioneering newsweekly magazine closed by its owner Dow Jones in 2009. …first I’d escaped the radical provincialism of my hometown by shipping off to a ruggedly urbane college; traded suburban Philly rhythms for the pulse of Manhattan; sought relief from the big-city crush by moving to big-sky LA, and finally enticed to boomtown Asia. As one person put it, "taking the geographical cure."

Iyer's a travel writer, Third Culture Kid and global nomad, an ethnic Indian raised in California, settled in Japan. He reasoned in his 1997 collection of essays about society, culture and the human spirit that if nowhere in the world is home, all the world is home.

The happy syllogism -- or is it rootless predicament? -- resonated with me as I jockeyed for a foothold in Asia. I wondered if my acclimation was helped or hindered by a progressive Western upbringing laced by traditional Eastern influences: Kodokan judo instructors, Asian-American summer camps, ‘Asian-cluster’ classrooms. I knew far too much about the East to ignore it for my Western convenience but that didn't make me Asian.

A decade later PEN American Center’s World Voices festival of international literature asked panelists (Iyer among the writers-in-exile) “How do we define the places we live and how do they define us?”

Where I’ve lived has made the world more accessible but leaves me craving opposing aspects of other places and other mes. New York, California. East, West. Country, cosmopolis. Even though 2009 marks the longest I’ve stayed in one spot for 20 years Istanbul won’t remain my base forever.

How have the places you've lived defined you, and shaped your idea of home? Do you feel at home now?

Decomposing Self: Misplacing Your Most Valuable Expatriate Possession

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

Sense of self is my most valuable expatriate possession.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Travelers: Find Your Historical Context

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

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

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

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

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