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Posts Tagged ‘Asia’

Numerous primitive and tribal cultures believe a person’s soul is stolen when they’re photographed. I wonder if a photograph shows a soul being drained.

I’m delving into mental and photographic snapshots of my 12 year expat experience for a colleague’s blog: one highlight, one lowlight. The lowlight will be hard to choose.

My five years in Asia in the ’90s would amount to great adventure for most people, yet the evidence clumps together in my least favorite albums.

Off-camera life losses — separation from family, friends, language, community, the death of my best friend, the theft of my puppy, you name I lost it during my first longterm stint abroad — are reflected on-camera. Stripped of my cosmopolitan composure. Confident clothing. Gleaming skin. Chocolate curls. Toothy smile. Layer by layer, country by country, year by year I deplete and erode.

There are some monstrous stunners here.

Sweaty and sun-damaged with unschooled fluffball haircut, captured in the gracious gardens of Raffles Hotel. I’d given up sunscreen, as well as hair products and all hope of finding a stylist who understood fine and curly.

On the Great Wall of China, scowling Westerner in unladylike Doc Martens and baggy seersucker shorts (the only ones in the shops, I swear!), surrounded by svelte Chinese girls in platform shoes cheerfully waving tour company flags.

Thankfully these days the likelihood of snapping a picturesque portrait has gone way up even if my background doesn’t always match me.

What do your bluest images depict and how do they reveal the soul’s resiliency?

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This weekend’s live-recorded call in the Dialogue2010 series left me reeling. Ten women scattered in Turkey, the Czech Republic, Italy and four U.S. states came together to discuss mapping the hybrid life, moderated by Rose Deniz.

Orchid

Orchid by A.Ashman

The hour was early for those of us in Europe and Asia so we could catch the late night callers in Washington and California — but that’s not the reason for the ringing in my ears.

The 90-minute talk, touching on what we hold on to and what we leave behind and the qualities we rely on to live in several different worlds at once, was so resonant it felt like being part of a carillon.

Bells were going off with each speaker’s comment, one percussion setting off the next.

We represented wildly different notes: a Third Culture Kid with a parent in the United Nations who grew up on airplanes, the daughter of Turkish emigrants in New York who was thrilled to start school and join a wider community, a Dutchwoman grappling with a new size of the world in the Pacific Northwest, an American who suspected she was destined for something far outside of her Midwestern suburbia but didn’t know exactly what until she went to China.

A surprise chord struck during the call: we all write and do other creative work, and everyone credited this self-expression as a survival tool, a way to process the high-definition drama of hybrid life.

I wonder about this breed of kindred spirits: were we born with some kind of hybrid gene? Obviously predisposed to compassion for other cultures like the Turkish emigrant, or more subtly drawn to the exotic like the suburban Midwesterner?

What comes first, the hybrid self or the hybrid life? Are our most resonant peers made or born?

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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 this week.

…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?

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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. 

Travelers and expats: What happens to your unique experience if you consider yourself part of a continuum?

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“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.)

on set of "Anna and the King"

on set of "Anna and The King"

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.

Next post, more titles which add new dimension to travel. Any favorite antique travel reads? What draws you to by-gone reports?

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