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?

What Expat Bloggers Are Made Of

I was honored to be included in a group of Cross-cultural and International Bloggers to Watch in 2010. As the guest curator in a review series at SheWrites, I'm pleased to note a few fellow expat bloggers. I'm drawn to the subject matter of these writers (and many others who I hope to highlight in the future). Posts seem compelled by the daily negotiation of expat/immigrant/exile identity. Shaped by unfamiliar environments. Inspired by moments when belief systems are challenged or uprooted.

You'll recognize fiction-writer Catherine Yigit as a contributor to the Expat Harem anthology and the group blog expat+HAREM. In Skaian Gates, the Dublin native writes with a wry sensibility about “living between the lines” of culture and language on the Straits of the Dardanelles. She takes us through the gauntlet of getting a Turkish driving license. Although prepared for the exam, she discovers she'll have no control over the vehicle since her examiner has a lead-foot on the dual-control pedals! Even if we learn the rules and practice the gears in our lives abroad, we often sense we're not in the driver's seat and we have to be okay with that.

Professionally-trained artist Rose Deniz lives in an industrial town near the Sea of Marmara, a body of water named for its marble-like surface. Her spare blog reflects deep ideas and personal geographies, like the trouble with being the kind of person who visualizes color, numbers and forms in the midst of a chaotic Turkish family setting; and finding the art in life outside the studio. Her real-time, online 2010 discussion series in which "art is dialogue and the studio is you” will be hosted at expat+HAREM.

Petya Kirilova-Grady, a Bulgarian who lives in Tennessee with her American husband, writes about bi-cultural misunderstandings and shares her embarrassment over a recent gender role snafu. The only way to explain why  the progressive young woman “couldn’t be bothered to do a ‘typically male’ task” in the domestic sphere is because Bulgarians are traditionalists at home. Petya writes of the realization “I can’t remember the last time I felt as Bulgarian.”

Expat bloggers flourish when we face a fresh appreciation for not only where we are but where we come from -- and what we're made of.

Who are your favorite expat bloggers and why?

The Twinge Of Heritage: Ghostly Urges Of A Post-Immigration Life

Since the Ottoman royal harems were filled with women from the Mediterranean and the Baltic -- Italian families even casting their daughters on the Adriatic to be picked up by the sultan's sailors -- my Turkish husband jokes he finally brought me back to Istanbul where I belong. I don’t know, anything's possible. The Turks were also laying seige to Eastern Europe and my Lithuanian family name, echoing a town and river on today’s Belarus border, sounds a lot like the imperial Turkish bloodline of Osman.

For New World types like me the mysteries of our extended lineage often crop up as synchronicity. Wanderlust. Quirks of taste, like ghost urges from genes and culture long ago severed.

Why does this Northern California girl raised on turkey burgers crave the beet soup borscht? When I feel kinship with my Ukrainian, Estonian, Jewish, Italian and Greek friends, what do their wide brows or brown eyes, their stoicism or talkative personality, remind me of? Do they mirror the mix that is me?

You could call me a fourth generation immigrant. My parents and their parents and their parents before them each left their homes in search of safety and opportunity. Moving to Europe in 2003, I completed what we know of my family’s loop. When I slather Aegean olive oil on a spicy bed of wild arugula, I’m enjoying a harvest like a distant Italian ancestor must have -- yet one my closer relatives did not, as my grandmother served Spam in Chicago and my mother laid tofu taco salad on the table in Berkeley.

What ethnic or regional mystery reverberates in you? +++ I remember meeting a blueblood American at a Thanksgiving dinner in Bedford Hills NY and within a minute he had already inquired where my people were from and we’d established that I had only a general idea. As a Californian, a person from a state of reinvention, I remember thinking it was an odd thing to get hung up about. For him, it was a way to know who he was dealing with.

I was just talking with a friend on Twitter about these ethnic stirrings…for many of us it seems nationalism (especially for melting pot nations like America) has been a way to calm those feelings by lumping us together with others who happen to share passports or places of birth — but ultimately it’s superficial to who we are.

Guest Hosting #LitChat On Twitter On Topic Of Expatriate Literature

Anastasia Ashman hosts #LitChat on topic of expatriate literatureOn May 29 at EST 4pm, I will guest host #litchat, an open discussion series founded by a fellow author (@litchat), on the topic of expatriate literature. (#litchat is an hour-long open discussion on a topic, three times a week. You can follow it in Twitter search or on using the term “litchat”.)

I’ll be guiding the hour-long live discussion, soliciting opinions and offering my own based on this view:

Expatriate literature may be stocked in the travel section, but does it deserve a shelf of its own?

Living for extended periods in foreign locales, expatriates struggle to reestablish themselves and find meaningful access to their new home.

Travelers passing through often have the luxury to avoid the very issues of assimilation and identity that dominate the expat psyche.

We’ll talk about the unique depths this can bring to expat lit’s combination of outsider-view-from-the-inside and journey of self-realization.

See for more info.


See the transcripts of my expat #litchat event here.