Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Some thoughts about integration

A few years ago here in Japan a friend and I were standing outside a bus stop in Kyoto trying to orient ourselves in order to find the temple we wanted to visit.  My friend is a fluent speaker of Japanese and has lived in Japan for over 20 years.  A Japanese couple came over and, in English, asked if we needed help.  My friend replied in Japanese, but the couple continued to speak English.

Fast forward a few months to another continent where another friend and I were in a restaurant in Paris.  We are both fluent French speakers but now matter how many times we replied in French, the French waiter insisted on using English.

Oh, the shame, the horror, of being taken for a tourist.

These may appear to be trivial examples (the native citizens were just trying to be kind and helpful) but the underlying message they convey is not trivial at all:  you are not culturally competent and you are not one of us.

Some might say that the problem is our attitude.  Shrug it off, let it go, focus on the intention and not on the personal feelings it provokes.  There is some merit to that.  A migrant cannot spend her life in a state of anger and resentment if she is to stay sane and find happiness in her host country.

Nonetheless, it's asking a lot to accept it for 10, 20, 30 years.  Attitudes are followed by actions with real consequences:  not being able to rent an apartment just anywhere you like or not getting a raise because, well, you should be grateful we hired you at all given that you are a foreign woman with a family.  To ask a person who experiences these things to just swallow it and move on is to ask us to be saints. (For the record, I didn't take it; I quit.)

With time and experience I've come to see such things in a broader perspective.  These interactions (the trivial and the not so trivial) are negotiations.  We, the long-term residents are asserting our right to belong to the society in which we live.  We use the language, know the culture, own property, marry nationals and raise our children in the host country.  These things, we say, show a desire to belong and give us a moral claim to acceptance in the societal waters in which we swim.

For many of us who come from countries of immigration that is the way it works back in the home country (or is supposed to work).  Integration is not necessarily easy but as Milton Gordon said of America a person is said to be integrated once he can "get along in the country."  He can speak the language and do the day to day things required of everyone. And it's OK if he wants to belong to the Sons of Norway club and speak Norwegian at home.  This is not to say that integration works perfectly in the US or any other country of immigration, but that is more or less how citizens from multicultural countries see the ideal process of integration.  If the migrant has the will and makes the effort, all will be well.

Not all countries see it that way.  True belonging in some places is based in part on what Clifford Geertz called "primordial ties."  It's not so much about how many years you've been in a country, but how many generations.  It's not the fact that you've mastered the language and cultures, it's the fact that you had to learn what a child born in this society learned far earlier than you and from her parents and local schools no less.  It's not that you look different (there are differences in phenotypes in all societies) but that you are different in a particular way (you are a European or African in Asia or an Asian in Africa or the Middle East) and it's easy for native citizens to point a finger and say, "Aha! Not from here."

This is frustrating for those who come from countries of immigration because the answer to "What does it take to belong here?" is a shrug and a "Well, nothing. And why is that a problem?  You chose to come here, and if you don't like it you can go home."  That's a pretty cruel response.  Leaving the country can mean leaving minor children behind or a spouse or a business.  These may not be "primordial ties" but they are important connections, maybe the most important connections in a person's life.   To ask someone to cast those off is, in my view, unrealistic and immoral.  That's not a fair choice that anyone should be coerced into making.

I have seen different reactions in France and Japan to this.  They range from:  a denial that there are any barriers to belonging at all; a weary acceptance that this is just the way things are; or assertions of belonging in the face of every perceived attempt small or large to deny it.

I don't have an answer for which strategy is the most successful and I certainly won't make any recommendations.  What I will say is that I dislike intensely efforts by migrants to put the blame for barriers to belonging back on their fellow migrants.  Well, if other migrants behaved better or learned the language more quickly or did this or that, then we would be accepted.  It's always those vague "other people," isn't it?  This is a very egotistical perspective.  It presumes that belonging is all about the individual who has control over what the native citizens think and believe.  In my wildest alcoholic-driven dreams I never had the illusion that I could control the feelings of 60+ million Frenchmen and women.

There is no easy answer here.  Only the day to day lives of migrants trying to carve a place for themselves in a new land as best they can.



Monday, March 27, 2017

Anglophones in Japan

The Jesuits have a saying, "Give me the child for the first seven years and I'll give you the man."

And what does one get after a middle-aged woman goes to graduate school?   An older, wiser, humbler women, I would say.

My coursework is finished and it is all in the hands of the examiners now.  There are papers scattered all over my dining room table here in Osaka.  The files on my computer are a mess.  Books are stacked in a huge pile next to my chair.  My head is aching and my hands hurt from all that typing.  It was a full-time job and now I feel as though I've been laid off.  A friend is taking me walking tomorrow.  It will be good to see sunlight.

The very best part of this experience was the fieldwork.  Since I was working toward a degree in International Migration and I just happened to be living part-time in Japan I chose to study native English speakers living in Japan.  I had no idea what I was going to find but 20+ years living outside of my home country gave me a good idea of what questions to ask.  I prepared a survey (Native English Speakers Living in Japan), published it, and over 600 people responded.  From there I was able to do 31 interviews with people from all over Japan.  I am so grateful to all the people who answered the survey and those who gave me an hour or so of their time to talk about their lives in Japan. It was an incredible experience.

The survey results have been sent to the participants who wanted them.  I will not publish them here but I will tell you a few things I learned from the data that I found interesting.

Native English speaker:  When I hear that term, it brings to mind a Canadian or an American or a British.  And, yes, those nationalities were in the top 10.  However, Singapore, France, Germany and Japan also made the top 10.  There were also respondents originally from Zimbabwe, India, and Mexico among many others.  Native English speakers in Japan come from all over the world.

Second citizenships:  The number one second citizenship was the UK, followed closely by the US and Australia.

Naturalized Japanese citizens:  The top 3 former citizenships of naturalized Japanese citizens were:  US, Canada, and the UK.  It's not just Americans renouncing.

Home ownership:  60% of those who answered this question did not own their own home in Japan and 40% do own a home here.  That is the exact opposite of the Japanese:  60% of them do own their own homes in Japan.

Mobility:  61% of those who answered the question about mobility said that yes, they came to Japan, left and then came back.  The top 10 countries they visited, lived in or went back to were:  US, UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, France, Germany, South Korea, and Thailand.  This a group that travelled and it showed that their move to Japan was not always an aller-simple.

Gender balance:  57.5% were men, 41.6% were women and .8% were transgender/transgay.

Older:  Over half the respondents were over 40 years of age.

Year of arrival:  66% of those who answered this question came to Japan between 1980 and 2000.

Married:  68% of those who answered the question about relationship status were married.  Another 9.2 were not married but were in a long-term relationship.  Less than 20% were single.  And this one really surprised me.

Missionaries:  Religious activities was 7th in the top 10 reasons for initially coming to Japan.   Yes, missionaries still come here.  It was a small percentage compared to the first reason (work) but it's still interesting to me.

There were 26 questions in the survey and these are just highlights from a few of them. Fascinating stuff.  I hope that this information will be of use to the participants - that it will give them a context for understanding their own experiences in Japan.

And it shows how even an old lady like me can learn a lot if she puts her mind to it and listens. Those Jesuits really need to update that saying....

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Survey: Calling All Native English Speakers Residing in Japan

And I have been a very busy woman these past few months.  Graduate school is taking up most of my time.  I wrote and submitted my papers for the first term and not only did I pass but I did very well.

Once that was done I started working on my Masters dissertation.   I am doing my research here in Japan and I have put together a short survey of native English Speakers living in Japan.

If you are a native English speaker who happens to live here in Japan, I'd be very grateful for your participation in my survey.  It's pretty short and most folks can complete it in under 5 minutes.  The survey is completely anonymous and you can skip any questions you don't like.

And, if you participate and send me an email with your email to,  I will share the results of the survey with you once the survey is closed.

Here's the link:

Native English Speakers Residing in Japan

Please feel free to share this link as widely as possible.  I am sure there are forums, blogs and websites out there that those of you who have lived in Japan much longer than I know well. :-)

Take care, everyone, and I hope to get back to posting again real soon.



Sunday, March 27, 2016


A week of Unfortunate Events here in Brussels.

I have no words to describe what has happened.  I'm not even sure how I feel about it - as if my feelings mattered on whit here which they most assuredly do not.   Let's just say that I'm still reflecting and leave it at that.

Today we went down to the center of the city - to the shrine (can I call it that?) in front of the Bourse. A rally was scheduled and then cancelled at the request of the authorities but people still showed up today at 2:00.

It was lovely. Very moving.  And a bit tense.

A fascist group tried to crash the event and were sent scurrying by the riot police and their water cannons.  Now THAT was satisfying to see.

A few photos. Enjoy today and your Easter Monday.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The US Overseas Voter - Finally Getting Some Respect?

I've posted a lot recently on the US election and for those of you who could care less I promise to get back to writing about other things soonest.  Yes, all you Clinton/Sanders/Trump supporters, there are other things going on in the world that are just as (if not more) important as one election in one country which is not even the country most of us are living in, right?

But I did want to note that US overseas voters have been in the news recently and there are some good articles out there that explain why the homeland candidates and voters should pay attention to US citizens living in one or more of the other 190+ nation-states around the world.  Because in some very close races, overseas voters have managed to push a candidate over the top which has led to some very unexpected election results.

Exhibit A is the election in 2000 between George Bush and Al Gore. Aside from all the controversy over the validity of certain ballots, overseas ballots handed the victory to George Bush in Florida which meant a Bush presidency.  And for those of you who are under the illusion that overseas voters are almost always Democrats, well, where is the data that confirm that?  If you live in a country like France where Democrats abroad is very active, you might have that impression but go to countries in Asia and the picture looks very different.  How many Democrats versus Republicans are there in Singapore, for example, or Tokyo?  Even the conventional wisdom that says overseas civilians are Democrats and overseas military are Republican is questionable.

Donald Inbody's research (Grand Army of the Republic or Grand Army of the Republicans) on the military vote showed that enlisted military voters (85% of the military) were "as likely as the general American population to identify with the Republican Party" and were  "half as likely as the general American population to identity with the Democratic Party";  but they were "about four times as likely as the general American population to report themselves as independent or as identifying with a party other than the Republican or Democratic party."

All this makes overseas voters something of a crapshoot for either party. No one knows what impact we will have, only that there will probably be an impact.

Here are some recent stories about overseas American voters in the press that were passed along to me via Facebook.  If you have more, let me know and I will add them.

Americans Abroad Walk into a Bar, and Vote (Michael Forsythe, New York Times):
"While most 'Super Tuesday' voters were still sleeping, voting in the presidential primaries was well underway. 
In Hong Kong."
America's Overseas Voters are Not Impressed (Therese Raphael, BloombergView):
"Though it is undersized (and voter turnout generally even lower than domestic turnout), the vote potential of Expat Man no longer draws dismissive sniggers. Delayed overseas ballots helped give the 2000 election to George W. Bush (an event that Democrats Abroad says led to a tripling in registrations). Voting from abroad also arguably affected other close election contests, including a 2009 New York Congressional race that gave a narrow victory to Democrat Scott Murphy and the 2008 Senate race in Minnesota in which a Republican incumbent, Norm Coleman, was defeated by a wafer-slim margin by Democratic challenger Al Franken."
"Anyone who’s sceptical about the impact of expat voters needs only to think back to the 2000 presidential election, when overseas ballots provided the push that finally put George W. Bush in the White House. As we write in our report, had that election been decided on the ballots that arrived by the 26 November deadline, Al Gore would have won the state of Florida, and therefore the presidential election, by 202 votes."
Some of the first to vote on Super Tuesday were U.S. expatriates in 41 foreign countries (Karla Adam, Washington Post)
"Mike Heffron, a spokesman for Democrats Abroad based in Canberra, Australia, said that some expats prefer to vote in the “global primary” as a way to raise attention for issues that aren’t as important to their friends and family back home. 
A key concern for expats are tax laws, he said, which are thought to be a big reason behind the growing number of Americans renouncing their citizenship. Unlike most countries in the world, the United States imposes taxes based on citizenship, not residence."

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Donald Trump - A View from Abroad

"But what I do argue is that recognizing them frankly for what they are would instantly and automatically dissipate the indignation caused by their present abominations, and that the disappearance of this indignation would promote the public contentment and happiness. Under my scheme there would be no more false assumptions and no more false hopes, and hence no more painful surprises, no more bitter resentment of fraud, no more despair.

Politicians, in so far as they remained necessary, would be kept at work - but not with any insane notion that they were archangels."

H.L. Mencken essay on Being an American

There are these moments in every migration journey when an American expatriate looks at her country of origin from abroad and has this queer feeling that she no longer recognizes the place. Detached from the taken-for-grantedness of the American life and swimming in very different cultural and political waters, many things in the homeland now strike her as bizarre, even frightening.

Bizarre is exactly the word I would use describe the Donald Trump campaign.  In some ways it's pure entertainment.  Trump is genuinely funny and so off the wall that people all around the world are mesmerized by his antics. 

If you don't care much for politicians his humiliation of the Republican establishment (and his potential for pulling the same trick on the Democrat candidate) will make you cackle with glee. About time someone pulled back the veneer of respectability and highmindness and revealed the US presidential race for what it is: a dance of hypocrites and liars.  The tragedy of every election is that people have such hope that this time things will be different and Something Will be Done.  These hopes are almost inevitably dashed when the candidate takes office and goes about the messy business of actually running the country.   

That said, is Trump the Republican candidate good or bad for Americans abroad?  On the balance, putting aside my amusement and looking at it very coldly, I think it's bad for us.  I speak only for myself but the two things I really care about in this election are:  FATCA/CBT and US foreign policy.  Diaspora, not national issues.  My take, for example, on a hot domestic topic like immigration comes from my experience as an American emigrant. Frankly, I don't see what the fuss is about back in the Old Country.  And having to listen for years to the anti-immigrant rhetoric in my host country (France),  these days I really don't have much patience for it anywhere.

Concerning Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) and citizenship-based taxation, I do not see a statement by Trump anywhere about where he stands on FATCA repeal or mitigation, or what he thinks about moving to a residence-based tax system.   The Republican party establishment has made efforts to address the concerns of Americans abroad.  There is a lawsuit (FATCA Legal Action) and calls to repeal the law by Republican lawmakers.  All things that I want to hear in 2016.  But Trump as candidate threatens to undo all that good work because he's running against the establishment, the very people who are ostensibly on our side.

As for foreign policy, as an American abroad I remember what it was like to have a US president who was viewed with contempt internationally and considered to be a blustering incompetent fool. American homelanders can dismiss this with a sniff and a refusal to watch or read the international media.  However, when you are living outside the US it is an extremely unpleasant experience that one can't escape so easily - not when these things are being discussed at work, at the local bar, or at home over dinner.  That the nationals in the host country dislike your president is one thing, that they think he is a figure of fun and not to be taken seriously is another.  Trump is already all of those things and he hasn't even been nominated, yet. 

The wonderful thing about Trump is that he reveals the farce that is the US presidential race, and invites us to see it as a comedy.  On some level we are all enjoying the show.  However, the fun ends when one realizes that supporting him is really not in one's best interests.  That is the conclusion I've come to:  I think Trump would be disaster for me and my fellow Americans abroad and it frightens me to think that he might have a chance.  

As for the homelanders, I don't think he's good for them either.  His supporters are making the same mistake that Mencken wrote about in 1922;  they confuse him with an archangel, and they are making false assumptions and raising false hopes. Trump is now a politician which means that one day he will inevitably disappoint even the most ardent of his supporters. 

No, homelanders, Mexico won't pay for the wall, 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Democrats Abroad Town Hall

Late last month Democrats Abroad held a Global Town Hall with former Secretary of State Madelaine Albright speaking for the Hilary Clinton campaign, and Bernie Sanders speaking for himself directly to Americans abroad.  Have a listen and add what they had to say to your reflections on the US presidential race.

I've posted a great deal about the activities of Democrats Abroad recently.  That's because they have put together some very useful and interesting material that is easy to share with others on-line.  I would be more than happy to do the same for the Republican side.  So all you Republican Overseas out there, let me know what you've got and I will include it.

For the record I have a a Menckenesque take on all politicians.  I believe in keeping them employed (and in their place) but I don't trust them very much and if it were up to me I'd like to see every indignity that is inflicted on the American worker applied to them:  cameras in the workplace, access to their email, and regular drug tests.

Enjoy the videos and leave a comment if you feel inspired.