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Passion plays

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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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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Ring my bell

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 come from a land of Earth Mothers. On trips back to the West Coast — Northern California, Oregon — I note many hip young women are proud of their soft, rounded bellies, a more feminist 1970s standard of womanliness than the anorexic aughts. Like them, to me “being grounded” has meant a low center of self-gravity. Being solid in yourself. Tapped into the source. Unflappable.

personal compass by A.Ashman

personal compass

There’s a problem with concrete though. It cracks over time, in quickly changing conditions, and sometimes even under its own weight. Settling into a life choice or a mindset that feels right today can suddenly be unsatisfactory two minutes into Tuesday. Ever a joined a group only to realize you simply wanted partial-membership in it?

So I’ve been thinking about fluidity. Imagine being a bobbing buoy, tied to a point deep below the surface of changing options.

By putting some distance between me and my center of gravity, I have room to be in a wider orbit around the inner me.

The winds and waves take me to new realms of myself. Life phases, bad hair days, culture shocks. Friend, colleague, wife. Turkish resident. Foreign employer, American daughter-in-law. Inspirational (or incomprehensible) online acquaintance. They’re not always the same person and they don’t want to be.

A related post by artist Rose Deniz questions how one’s worldview literally shifts as a result of location. Just like the hybrid self, living a hybrid life to its fullest extent may require us to toss the concrete plan.

In a new expat+HAREM real-time discussion series launching February 28th, Deniz will curate a live-recorded conversation spurred by this notion. Ten international women will gather at the cross-roads to ponder the freedoms of blurry boundaries, and reveal the anchors of their multifaceted lives.

What determines your present orbit, and how does it change your self-view?

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Self mute

When I was a girl I had an office — and a mailbox. Besides filling order forms we’d salvaged from local companies going out of business, what I loved most were the messages I’d trade with my sisters. Plus, my grandmother nicknamed me “motormouth”.

Years later an astrologer pointed out Virgo in my Third House of communication, a sign ruled by Mercury, the very planet of information transfer. Mercury also rules Virgo, some kind of communication double whammy.

But loving to communicate is not the same thing as communicating well. Nor does it mean that communication comes easily.

Missent to Bangkok by A.AshmanAccording to family lore my first sentence was a complete one at the advanced age of two. Developmental specialists — yes, they checked me out, mute toddler — concluded I wasn’t comfortable with my own baby talk.

So imagine the paradox of studying eight languages. Traveling to more than 30 countries. Choosing a world-flung life that often surrounds me with people who don’t speak English. I remain language-resistant. I’m the monolingual American you hear so much about, and the muted presence so many of the people around me perhaps don’t hear at all.

Today fellow writer Amanda van Mulligen’s post at expat+HAREM hits home. She questions how self-expression can pierce a language barrier, especially if you’re shy. That would be me. Shy to speak like a baby.

What are you drawn to in life that doesn’t come easily to you?

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Magical thinking

I’ve been thinking about magic. Even though I’m reading Joan Didion’s memoir about the year she spent pondering how she might reverse her husband’s death, I don’t mean that kind of magical thinking.

black cat by A.AshmanI’m talking about context. In its absence, everything looks like magic.

David Blaine’s recent TEDmed talk reveals the training behind the endurance-artist’s 17-minute feat of holding his breath under water. Rather than illusion, the magician relied on science.

“What will the world be like 10 years from now?” asks the Shorty Awards interview. (I’m honored to be nominated this month for producing 140-character, real-time content). I’m afraid the future will be divided: digital-natives and -immigrants on one side, and the other group mystified how we know so much.

In much the same way, philosophies about our interconnectedness will also separate us. Look at the release of marketer Seth “tribes” Godin’s latest book this week. Among a hundred positive ones by people who donated to the Acumen Fund to receive advance copies — resulting in a slew of pre-publication synergistic footwork among his tribe — the top critical review on Linchpin’s first day suggests the Amazon review system has been gamed.  Shillery.

When we invest in research and relationships (with online alliances even more invisible to the unconnected) our results can seem like wizardry.

Which magic are you going to think more about?

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Last week I was honored to be included in a group of Cross-cultural and International Bloggers to Watch in 2010. This week as the guest curator in a review series at SheWrites, I’m pleased to note a few fellow expat bloggers. Members of the Ning network’s blogging group can read it here.

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?

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