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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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I dream of GenY

If you’re over 30 you probably don’t yearn to recapture 20-something days of gritty uncertainty. It’s even less appealing if you’re from the tail end of the Baby Boom like me.

This week a visiting friend and I reminisced about our salad days in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Now Sex and the City types fill its fashion showrooms, art galleries and wine vaults but in the late ‘80s — when our loft went Hollywood in the film Fatal Attraction and Madonna launched her naughty picture book from the basement nightclub — it was a no man’s land of motorcycle gangs and transvestite prostitutes.

Meatpacking District party invite circa 1987

Our lifestyle and career struggles seemed par for the course. We didn’t realize birth year alone meant we’d always occupy an entry-level position in our cultural generation.

I post today at expat+HAREM, the global niche about being my very own generation gap, and how the 20-somethings of GenY bring the status quo rebellion I seek.

How about you? Ever felt in synch with a different generation?

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We resolve to be different. Fitter. Pay off debt. Volunteer. Clean out that god-forsaken garage. Stepping into a fresh calendar year seems like a chance to try on a colorful persona, yet new year’s resolutions are so often based on territory (and self-images) we already know.

Instead, surprising facets of ourselves are evoked by a novel landscape and our metamorphosis chooses us.
moths by A.Ashman
This year I took charge of my own web presence. A major undertaking requiring vision and planning — but it didn’t rate an end-of-’08 resolution. When I set down a tiny microblogging footprint with Twitter 18 months ago I didn’t foresee 2009’s curated-webpath to my interests and intentions.

Suddenly I was virtually attending conferences like the interactive SXSW and participating in live webchats on branding, innovation, and literature. I became a joiner and a beta-tester, signing on for a month-long experimental blogging course and volunteering for a conference-call-based life design course for expat women entrepreneurs.

I’ve become a full-feathered indie blogger, and a player in the digiventures of others: founder of the group blog to build on hybrid Expat Harem themes so many of us are living, a new media guest blogger, a location-independence blog carnival participant, administrator of a LinkedIn group for creative entrepreneurs using social media, and the curator of a year-long 2010 webcarnival to celebrate Istanbul.

Being proactive in the blogosphere is an epiphany, a 2009 reawakening of my inner student….a time to learn exactly what I need to know — as a writer and publisher, a global citizen and cultural creative in Istanbul  — and contribute to the future of my communities.

What’s your surprise metamorphosis of 2009? Who did you become this year?

[Gratitude to everyone who taught me something in 2009!]

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Nostalgic baggage

There’s so much talk of movement these days, the advice on everyone’s lips. Personally I’m charmed by the elegant momentum of agile living.

A young woman posed a question at TravelBlogExchange this month, asking round-the-world travelers and serial expats how they face their homesickness. She wants to be an expat one day soon, she wrote, but how can she leave her family and everything she knows?

Being abroad for long stretches — some of us looking at forever — sure we get homesick, I told her.

packing for the Grand Tour

packing for the Grand Tour

But it’s actually deeper than that. With each passing day the things we miss change and we end up pining for something that no longer exists. The more we move around, the less home is one place. A bittersweet price of going out into the world. What you gain is a new way of seeing yourself, your family, your home, your nation, the planet.

It’s quite possible all of us — from the young woman whose family and current surroundings define her world to long-term travelers toughened by life on the road — are so enamored with our present reality (good, bad or indifferent) we’re reluctant to let go for something that will stretch us past our idea of ourselves.

That future-travel-blogger may yearn for a wider experience, but in a few words she expressed a poignant desire to stay right where she was. At least for now.

If each tiny, agile step is a shift away from something else — guaranteed not to be there forever, trustily waiting for our return– we need to consider with extra care where we are headed and when we choose to go.

How do you keep what you love in your life as you move forward?

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Shophouse talk

This week 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.

Penang shophouse

Penang shophouse

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?

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Since the Ottoman royal harems were filled with women from both 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, in the span of history and forgotten connections of family, anything’s possible. My Lithuanian family name, echoing a town and river on today’s Belarus border, also sounds a lot like the imperial Turkish bloodline of Osman.

family name derived from this town

As a fourth generation immigrant, I’m so far removed from who and where I come from I’m visited by ghost urges from genes and culture long ago severed. Today I post at expat+HAREM, the global niche about how the mysteries of our extended lineage often crop up as synchronicity, wanderlust, and quirks of taste.

For instance, 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?

What ethnic or regional mystery reverberates in you?

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I asked that question during a week of live #litchat on Twitter when I guest hosted this spring. Here are highlights from three hours of conversation with 40 readers, writers, travelers, expats, Third Culture Kids and emigrees weighing in from around the globe. The unattributed comments are my own.

WHAT’S EXPAT LIT?

The interpretation of another culture by someone of our own. — M. Dominique Benoit

An expat writer draws on a collective cultural consciousness to talk about a different locale. An outsider’s view from the inside: when it’s good, it’s the best of both worlds.

A thoughtful expat will question and analyze his own cultural biases. The reader can do this vicariously. — Deborah Davidson

EXPAT LIT COMES OF AGE

So many globetrotters, so many identity issues when home keeps changing. — Jennifer Eaton Gokmen

EXPAT LIT VS. TRAVELOGUE

Travel may open your eyes but does not change your identity. Expatriation sure does! — Emmanuelle Archer

Expat lit is not travel literature since writing about life from outside a homeland does not mean writing from a state of travel. We’re coping with extended life in a foreign culture, navigating subtleties, adapting to find harmony. Personal assimilation/identity issues dominate expat writing, and filter their world. If travel writing is a chance to travel vicariously, expat lit is a chance to live abroad vicariously.

FEMALE VS. MALE WRITERS

Female expat writers do more with identity and assimilation, I find. — Nassim Assefi

EMIGREE/IMMIGRANT VS. EXPAT

If the subject is primarily your homeland and you live abroad as an emigree, that’s emigree lit. If you’re living outside your home culture writing about where you are, and even the rest of the world, that’s expat lit. 

THIRD CULTURE KID VS. EXPAT

Third Culture Kid lit has more multi-faceted identity issues versus the writer who becomes an expat as an adult. The adult expat writer already has an established identity that gets challenged as adult. TCK has been challenged with identity all his life. — J. Gokmen

TCK often means not knowing where home is. Citizenship or nationality become irrelevant. TCK lit can be the epitome of expat lit, a “twice-removed” look at the culture. — E. Archer

AUTHORS, TITLES MENTIONED (travel, expat, TCK, emigree literature, historical and contemporary)

Adam Gopnik – Paris to the Moon//Anthony Burgess – Malay Trilogy//Bill Bryson//Carla Grissman – Dinner of Herbs//Chris Stewart – Driving Over Lemons//Christopher Isherwood//David Sedaris – Nuit of the Living Dead//Ernest Hemingway – Death in the Afternoon//Firoozeh Dumas – Funny in Farsi//Freya Stark//Gertrude Stein and the Lost Generation//Henry Miller//Isabella Bird//Jamie Zeppa – Beyond the Sky and Earth: A Journey into Bhutan//Karen Blixen//Lawrence Durrell – Alexandria Quartet//A. J. Leibling – Between Meals: An Appetite For Paris//Malcolm Lowry//Marlena De Blasi – A Thousand Days in Tuscany//Mary Blume – A French Affair//Mary Lee Settle – Turkish Reflections//Milan Kundera//Peter Mayles – French Lessons//Pico Iyer//Sarah McDonald – Holy Cow//Sarah Turnbull – Almost French//Somerset Maugham – Far Eastern Tales//Stanley Karnow – Paris in the Fifties//Tahir Shah – The Caliph’s House//Tales from the Expat Harem//Three Cups of Tea//Vladimir Nabokov//William Dalrymple

Does expat lit deserve its own genre? Which writers and titles do you consider expat lit, or why not?

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