Malaysia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Global Niche: An Interview With Today's Zaman Newspaper

American reporter in Turkey Brooks Emerson asked me about the foreign edge, and the challenges of finding my niche in Turkey for his series on expat success stories in national English-language newspaper Today's Zaman. In the far-ranging interview, Emerson asks me what the initial impetus for my success as an expat was, and how I've evolved.

No surprise to those who know me, foreign language adoption has not played much of a role -- once I realized that taking business meetings and doing live television interviews in Turkish literally was rendering me mute! But mentoring in all realms of my personal and professional life has been a "secret weapon" in the creative entrepreneurship of self that I aim to practice.

Emerson asks me how the environment affects the outcome of an expat's endeavors. I tell him how sense of place can inspire a sense of self.

"Anastasia says that she has always been attracted to places with an amalgamation of people and cultures. However, the biggest pull is “the idea of crossroads … like Rome, where [she] studied in college … and now here on the Bosporus,” where she senses a positive energy and vibration for self-discovery and reinvention.

"Anastasia believes that working and living abroad is an excellent way to discover new self-potential."

Read Emerson's entire July 2011 interview "The global niche of Anastasia Ashman" online.

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"

Bornean Buddha: A Mindful Horror Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cool Arts South Sea self-image

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

homepage

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

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

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

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

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.