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Archive for the ‘taboo’ Category

This blog **HAS MOVED** to expat+HAREM, the global niche, where my cultural producer posts now appear in a new series called Founder’s Desk.

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Thanks for spending time at Furthering the Worldwide Cultural Conversation this past year — it’s been a year this month! — I appreciate it.

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All this talk about finding your tribe. It’s so rewarding to connect to people with similar world views. True peers.tribe of women by A.Ashman

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?

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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.

Sousse 2009 by A.AshmanThis week Dialogue2010 participant Elmira Bayraslı shared 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.

Today 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?

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I don’t see death every day, but I hear it.

From where I sit, in my home office overlooking a little Bosphorus bay, the day is punctuated by recess at a large school below. Sometimes through the din I think I hear a high-pitched pain cry echoing in the valley. An intermittent wail. Out on the balcony I listen, some primitive hackle raised. The source: the government hospital on the waterfront. Not a patient. Someone realizing a loved life is over.

Yesterday I caught a grief panel live-webcasted from The Women’s Conference 2009, America’s foremost forum for women as architects of change. California’s First Lady Maria Shriver — whose mother and uncle died recently — and other high profile grieving women talked in raw terms about love and loss. Tremulous voices….courageous for getting on stage in front of an audience of 25,000 for what is usually a private conversation.

Buttoned-down American culture is “grief-illiterate”, they agreed, one woman appreciating the Middle Eastern tradition of ululating which she saw as stress relief. Celebrity means they mourn in the public eye.  Shriver’s iconic clan has had a lion’s share of public bereavement — it’s practically the Kennedy family culture — yet she counted it as a benefit: people treated her gently, strangers transformed into supporters.

Many of us grieve in private, our mourning unnoticed outside of networks of family and friends. Restricting who we talk to about it can cut us off from people unafraid to hear about death, perhaps those even able to console us.

I know when my best friend died — 15 years ago today — I was on the opposite side of the planet from everyone who knew me, and her, which muffled my pain cry and made the isolation I felt even more acute.

What do you hear about death? What do you want to hear? What do you share?

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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 Chicken Soup volume released today — 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?

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“Manners are your passport to the world,” the Gilded Age writer of American etiquette Emily Post once opined. The mid-century sage also said etiquette isn’t a strict code of socially correct behavior we need to memorize — it’s simply how our lives touch other people. Respect.

Although more a proponent of Miss Manner’s sharp-humored good sense, I’m intrigued by the premise if we behave thoughtfully, politely, discreetly we might float around the globe in a delicate cloud of social grace, doors opening everywhere.

Yet, are manners culture blind? Can the deportment of one society truly transcend the culture of another? Just like etiquette isn’t a code, what passes for propriety in one place may not have the same meaning in another. We need a non-formulaic equation for the cultural layer in these global times.

A recent tip by Cindy King about not appearing too self-centered in international situations caught my eye.

Isn’t “self-centered” culturally relative? For a person like me born under the sign of the ruler in both the Western and Chinese zodiacs and raised in “the Me Decade” of California, it can sometimes seem like the definition — and curse — of life itself. If one aspect of my demeanor is going to doom me worldwide, it’s this one.

King, a cross-cultural communications coach, presents a series on the role of respect in building trust. “Self-centeredness can be perceived as a lack of respect to others,” King writes. Her advice: become more curious about the other person’s perspective. Individualistic Americans will have to work over-time.

Which manners travel best for you? Where in your disposition, and on the planet, do you need to improve?

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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

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

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?

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It’s that time of year — for what’s euphemistically called “Romance on the Road.” Getting your groove back in foreign zipcodes. Shirley Valentine’s Day.

In 2006 I reviewed for Perceptive Travel a somewhat academic book about the controversial practice of “sex pilgrimage”, traveling for the purpose of sexual adventure. I’m no proponent of behavior that often falls outside the bounds of a traveler’s own culture as well as severely straining mores at international destinations. I warned the assigning editor he probably had more optimistic reviewers in his stable of cutting-edge travel writers. But he couldn’t find anyone who wanted to be associated with the dense “history & how-to cum memoir”. Shipping it from Nashville, Tennessee to Istanbul was his best option.

Viewing the situation from the sex-toured Near East and my five years in South East Asia, it’s clear that one forgettable fling has the power to affect systems far larger than the person, family, village or region which witnessed and absorbed the behavior. Plus, the environment of sexual predation many Western women face overseas is bound to be heightened by the wanton choices of sex pilgrims. Travelers and expatriates like me strive to modulate our behavior to find social acceptance with native friends, families and colleagues, aware we must differentiate ourselves from sexual opportunists who don’t have to lie in the messy bed they’ve made.

Which cultural product are sex tourists exporting? Is the practice of hot-and-bothered globetrotters empirical evidence that Western culture is morally corrupt?

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I’m looking forward to attending TEDGlobal in Oxford next month especially since the conference’s theme is “The Substance of Things Not Seen”.  Invisibility, hiddenness, misapprehension – all are threaded  through my own work.

Consider Expat Harem‘s anachronistic, titillating concept. It taps into robust yet erroneous Western stereotypes about Asia Minor and the entire Muslim world: a forbidden world of cloistered women. When infused with a modern and virtual positivity — the Expat Harem as peer-filled refuge and natural source of foreign female wisdom  – a masked reality emerges: the harem as a female powerbase. This is an Eastern feminist continuum little known in the Western world.

“Help people talk about what they’re most afraid of,” is a mantra I’ve been hearing a lot from thoughtful personalities in my life. But first we have to surmount our own resistance to the topics.

I’m discovering with my latest book project, a forensic memoir of friendship, that taboo has an unintended cloaking effect. Societal taboos may be meant to protect us from harmful practices yet banishing from our thoughts the most unimaginable and unspeakable human acts only makes us blind to them happening in our midst.

By finding it so unthinkable, we make possible for taboo behavior to continue in our communities.

Name a taboo from your life.  When you hear it mentioned, what’s your reaction?

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For an anthology* I recently wrote an essay about why the practice wasn’t cool in my Berkeley family — even though our 1969 Volkswagen bus was a hitch-hiker’s dream, even though it seemed everyone in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970s was hitch-hiking. My parents were big city people who didn’t buy the hitch-hiking compact.  Plus, hitch-hiking was at the heart of serial killer lore for this California kid –  the Zodiac Killer’s San Francisco, the Hillside Strangler‘s Los Angeles.  One September 1978 day my family’s mindset — and a half a mile — separated me from a teenage girl who was mutilated after sticking out her thumb.

*In 2005 Tom and Simon Sykes produced No Such Thing As A Free Ride? in the UK, serialized by London Times and named Travel Book of the Week by the Observer. The new volume aims to capture what hitch-hiking means to Americans, and America.

What did hitch-hiking mean to your family (and your community) when you were a child and how did it affect your practices when you reached adolescence/adulthood?

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