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According to the Tibetans, today is Buddha’s birthday. A prince with everything in the world, he set off on a quest to discover the truth of life. I’m remembering a mindfulness adventure I had this week, fifteen years ago:

borneo buddha by A.Ashman

Bornean Buddha by A.Ashman

In Borneo, I felt bored and restless at a luxe, manicured Shangri-La resort favored by fugitive rogue traders. Wandering past the watersports shack I asked to go to an outlying island in the South China Sea. No notice to the people I was traveling with, no drinking water, food or cellphone.

The white-uniformed sailor dropped me at the random spot I’d picked from his laminated map. A decrepit picnic bench sagged in the shade of a steep cliff carpeted in greenery, where faceless monkeys screeched. No facilities, no stand selling lunch, no people. Just plastic flotsam and slithery tracks lacing the sand. The hotel boat fishtailed away.

Did they write down where they left me? Lawsuit waiting to happen. Already thirsty. Wait, six-inch wide tracks. From what scaly beasts?

No way I’d approach the trees where those squiggly trails led. I was frying in the tropical sun. Unnerved to cool off in the translucent green water. What if I suddenly ‘had trouble’ swimming, or a shark came? Maybe I could flag down a passing boat to take me back. But these were pirate-infested waters.

Silly overreaching hotel guest, I was going to die on this wild island.

I picked up a 5-liter water jug and started filling it with cones and olive shells glinting among seaweed and garbage. Good stuff. My best vacations were spent shell-collecting in the Gulf of Mexico…Sanibel Island in Florida.

Heavenly new finds here. A true Shangri-La paradise. Zebra-striped scallops. Glossy limpets. Spiky orange coral.

That day as I ringed the tiny island — is that a chickpea cowrie? – I turned the corner on my own nature’s bitter edge.

On this birthday week of Buddha can you name a mindfulness experience you’ve had?

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Matador network recently published  “what not to do in Istanbul.” Suggestions to avoid crowds, tourist traps, deal with time constraints and low budgets, partake in local customs. It can be an overwhelming city and a list of what not to do is very helpful.

After seven years in this surprising megalopolis I agreed with very few of the suggestions.

I rarely contribute travel pieces anymore — focusing more on cultural identity work and pursuing hybrid entertainment — but since the tourism season approaches here are the points I see differently:

Emirgan Grove by A.Ashman

Emirgan Grove by A.Ashman

Ø   *Skip Dolmabahçe*. (It’s a 19th century European-style palace and if you’ve ever seen one of those, this won’t be news). No exhibits and you can’t wander by yourself.

√   *Don’t skip Topkapı Palace* and don’t skip the separately ticketed harem tour. (Just go early after a big breakfast like I suggest here). It’s worth seeing the treasury, and the tiled kiosks at the far end of the compound, as well as the kitchens. Also you can pop into the stupendous archaeology museum on the grounds.

√   *Do stay in Taksim* if you want to experience a more authentic Turkish scene. Istiklal is perfect for dining, bar-hopping, strolling, people-watching, cafe-sitting. Some hotels are on raucous streets (travel with earplugs), but not all of them. (Sultanahmet may be close to the historic sites but it’s shark-bait touristy, and lifeless at night.) Taksim is on the Metro line, with a funicular that puts you on the tram to Sultanahmet. The most painless commute in town. Plus, the trek back and forth between old town and Beyoğlu, across Galata bridge, is one you’ll enjoy having to make as my walking tour for National Geographic shows.

√   *Do take a Bosphorus cruise*, just not the overpriced tourist traps from the Eminönü dock. Catch a lovely one hour $5 ferry from the landing behind the Ortaköy mosque like I describe here.

Ø   *Skip the Princes Islands* if the reason you’re getting on a boat is for the views and breezes.  The high speed boats that carry you to the Sea of Marmara have scratched plastic windows you can’t see out of, and you’re not allowed on deck.

Ø   *Don’t accept tea* if you don’t want to spend your time with a particular person, or in a particular place. Don’t confuse a tourism sales tactic with the fabled Turkish hospitality. As a traveler in a big city, it’s still your time, and your choice who you drink tea with. If you’re interested in chatting or shopping, fine. If not, politely decline and keep moving. When hawkers in the bazaar and tourism district are unrelenting a clucking of the tongue and upward roll of the eyes is Turkish for “no, and don’t ask me again”. Plus, apple tea is only for tourists. If you aim to drink tea in a traditional manner, ask for normal black tea.

What would you suggest we *not* do in Istanbul, and why?

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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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Expat Harem has a new global niche.

The Expat Harem — a concept I coined in 2004 with Jennifer Eaton Gokmen and brought to life in 2005 and 2006 in the foreign women in Turkey anthology Tales from the Expat Harem — has always been about a modern and virtual community of cultural peers.

windows into the expat harem by Leslie Dann

Now the (softly) relaunched ExpatHarem.com is expat+HAREM, the global niche and aims to bring its community to life online as a neoculture hub for global citizens and identity adventurers as well as travelers and culturati, fans of the anthology, and Turkophiles.

Re-imagining the role Expat Harem plays in the cultural conversation, this new venture acknowledges the permanent liminality of today’s multicultural, global existence. Like the nation of Turkey itself — its struggles are both personal and universal, self-perception East yet also West, looking toward Europe or Asia, ancient empire persisting under the surface of new republic. In some small or large way, all of us are coming or going, crossing threshold after threshold but never arriving.

I’m looking forward to engaging with you about the crossroads and dichotomies of our hybrid lives….

  • modern existences in historic places
  • deep-rooted traditions translated in mobile times
  • limiting stereotypes revisited for wider meaning
  • the expat mindset as it evolves from nationalism to globalism

COLLABORATION WELCOME: Guest contributors are invited to make this global niche their own. Peruse the (very basic) guidelines.

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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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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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