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Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Consciousness of Difference

Last night I went looking yet again for books written by expatriates/migrants in Japan and nothing I found on Goodreads or Amazon attracted me.  Not that there weren't books to be had, mind you.  Last week I downloaded and read Donald Keene's Chronicles of My Life:  An American in Japan which I found interesting but ultimately unsatisfying.  (Though I did note that Keene was on Attu and Kiska during WW II as was my grandfather.)  I may have to give this one another go when I am feeling less cranky.

Expatriate/migrant memoirs abound but the ones I appreciate the most are those that explore with brutal honesty what happens to an individual's identity when it is transplanted into an unfamiliar culture.  Eva Hoffman's Lost In Translation is the best example I can give you of what I look for (and if you haven't read it, I urge you to do so.)  Here is the frustration that she dubbed immigrant rage - the sheer fatigue of being unlike the people around you, having that difference pointed out and remarked upon incessantly (however kindly and well-intentioned the commentary may be), and resenting being defined solely by that difference wherever you go and whatever you do:
“I don’t want to be told that ‘exotic is erotic’ or that I have Eastern European intensity or brooding Galician eyes. I no longer want to be propelled by immigrant chutzpah or desperado energy or usurper’s ambition. I no longer want to have the prickly, unrelenting consciousness that I am living in a specific culture. It’s time to roll down the scrim and see the world directly, as the world. I want to reenter, through whatever Looking Glass will take me there, a state of ordinary reality.”
The last time I had that "prickly, unrelenting consciousness" of difference was 25 years ago when I first arrived in France as a young bride.  It is maddening to be reliving it now decades later.  Moreover this is not a world where I can hide difference because my physical appearance gives me away instantly.

The mind (as Sauve pointed out) is an unruly unreliable beast.  I no longer remember precisely  what happened in those first weeks and months in France 25 years ago.  All I know is that one day I was sitting on the bus and I felt "normal" and "at home" again.  Since the culture I found myself in surely had not changed one iota on my behalf, that meant that the change took place entirely in my own head.

That is what I'm looking for in an expatriate memoir:  the contents of someone else's head.  Not to get tips on "how to" live in Japan/France/China/Brazil but to hear stories and identify without judgement.

Native citizens and politicians seem to think that integration is like cooking:  follow the recipe, shake, bake, and out pops a citizen (or a resident with manners).  Expatriates/migrants themselves seem to have standards by which they measure how successful someone is in the role of "American in Paris" or "Expat in Japan (or Asia)."  (And I am mighty curious about the latter - could someone clue me in?)   

Piffle.  Since every individual is unique, and when, where and how he resolves his difference vis a vis the host culture will be unlike any other, there is potentially an almost unlimited number of original expat autobiographies. The ones I like best are a combination of personality and "a brain worth exploring."

It's not so much intellectual ability as it is awareness of the self and a willingness to expose it even if it forces the author to stray from the Life Abroad formula in ways that might disturb or destabilize the reader. Art, not reporting.

With that in mind, any recommendations, folks?

12 comments:

Sauve said...

Good morning Victoria! You asked if someone had any suggestions for living in a very different culture. I am going to tell you what happened to me and what I am doing.

After marrying my husband we moved to France in May 2002. You may recall that French in the states were not welcomed at that point in time. My husband's career it rather limiting. A video of him last year describing his machine.
We moved because we had to. Long story and who really cares. But I made the same mistake that Mike Jones writes about here. After about 6 months of hardly ever leaving the house I began a French language coarse in the local college. There were students from ever imaginable culture there. I felt at ease where everyone else was suspended in a foriegn culture not their own. Our diversity were our shields and allowed us to absorb the shared revelation of French culture through each other's humor and wit.

Unfortunately that came to an end when the surgery on my ankle could no longer be delayed. What happened then is 10 days in a hospital where either nobody could speak or refused to speak English. I felt very vulnerable and isolated. Followed by months in bed, learning to walk again, months of rehab, and finally the realization that even after 2 years I would remain at a point that limited me for the remainder of my life. The realization that I would no longer be able to work in my chosen career field again, even if I wanted to, was a rude awakening. Perhaps it was the most difficult because I felt I had lost not only my family still in the USA, but my value as human woman. Then a second surgery because the first had not healed properly and the same routine convalescence all over again. What little French I had learned in school and on my own had come to a standstill. It was only since last year that I have resumed. I began by reading books related exactly what I was interested in, landscaping our new house, written in English about speaking to French contractors. Then it dawned on me the easiest way to learn French is reading, reading, reading. I decided to start with children's books. The side benefit was I would absorb grammar, but what I absorbed was the formation of culture. I confess I didn't and don't like books written by authors who describe their experiences living in a different culture. Your blog and French Word-A-Day is the only expat blog I follow. All the other blogs are by French in French. But I found that reading French books translated into English and reading French subtitles on English language movies had already prepared me for a bit of culture transfer. Combined with the children's primers I learned the basics of the French culture nearly effortlessly.

I can only imagine trying to learn a language where the sounds are very different, as is understanding the word's value, and the recognition factor absolutely different. I know you didn't ask specifically for this, but I suggest you read some Japanese-to-English books that really have nothing to do with displaced Americans, but (if you haven't already considered it) I also suggest that you read and study at least one children's beginning reader book for the Japanese child, every week. I found this technique slows me down enough to avoid frustration as I move through the culture I am becoming part of as long last.

multiculturalmeanderings said...

No recommendations except that you may wish to write one!

Inaka Nezumi said...

Hi Victoria,

Sorry to hear it sounds like you are having a tough time of it. I think the process of my settling in here was similar to yours in France, where after years of banging my head against the wall I realized at some point that I felt comfortable and normal. I suspect it took even longer for me here than it did for you in France, because learning to read here is, as you have noted, a much higher learning curve, without even having a writing system in common, much less cognates.

I don't know what the standards should be for a successful expat life in Japan, and I have never read any expat memoirs. As you say, it is all up to the individual what will make them happy in their situation. I would suggest, as Sauve does, that you focus on things you would be interested in anyway. Perhaps activities through the church? Something gardening related? (Hard in an apartment -- perhaps take ikebana classes instead?) Not sure what else you are interested in. If you are at all into history, you are near the heart of the beginnings of Japanese history, so there is plenty to explore and study around you: Kyoto, Nara, Asuka... On another tack, any sporting activities you like?

Feel free to ask for advice, if I can be useful for such. Unfortunately, I don't live anywhere near you, so I don't know much about specific suggestions for your area. But I'd be happy to help with general questions.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear of your struggles. I am a former long-term immigrant who has now returned to my (original) home country, so I can empathize.

I got a fair amount of 'where are you from?' when I was an immigrant. Over time I never really felt the 'rage' you mention -- perhaps more of a slight irritation -- but I recognize the concept. But oddly, now I am no longer an immigrant I find that I actually miss the enquiries.

Worse still, I interact a lot during the day with many people who are immigrants into my country. As the (now) born-and-bred local this makes me feel somehow less... um... interesting than I used to when I was the immigrant. Strange.

Anonymous said...

Hello,

I read a long time ago an interesting biography of an Irish man who lived in the US (New Orleans) and then moved to Japan at the end of 19th century. He married a Japanese woman. He was a teacher including at a university if I recall (Tokyo). This book is not about expat experience per se but it is still relevant (although it covers a period at the beginning of modern Japan, 100+ years ago!).
Title is: "A fantastic journey, the life and literature of Lafcadio Hearn". by Paul Murray, University of Michigan Press, 1993. On the back cover, it says the book got a 1995 Japanese price for most original contribution to understanding of Japanese culture...

I also recall reading a book about expat experience in Japan from an american reporter T.R. Reid. See trreid.net. Title is:
"Confucius lives next door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West (2000).
I used to listen to him sometimes on NPR, many years ago.

Cordialement,

un Francais du Colorado

Inaka Nezumi said...

Thinking about it some more, I think it is important to have some activities that have nothing to do with being a foreigner. For example, hiking, skiing, fishing, biking -- or closer in to town, something like swimming, tennis, ping-pong, ice skating. Maybe some team sports, like volleyball or softball? Anything that gets you engaged with your surroundings, without the whole emphasis being on your foreign-ness. Take part in neighborhood festivals or clean-up activities. Participate in neighborhood watch patrols. Volunteer at an animal shelter.

(Then in your spare time, study kanji like crazy!)

Just some ideas.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Sauve, Thank you for your story. It is a perfect example of what I'm looking for. It's not easy to pack up and start anew in a new place. It isn't going to be smooth sailing all the time. Being honest about that and talking about it is rare. Why is that?

An important difference between today and 25 years ago is that back then I didn't talk about it. I didn't have enough self-awareness to be mindful of how I felt and what was happening. I just muscled my way through it and denied that there were any problems at all. Pride prevented me from talking about it.

Today I am mindful of how I feel and how I react to things. I don't feel the need to pretend (or lie) that everything is wonderful. I can talk about what ails me and ask for help. This is progress.

@Nezumi-san - Yep, there are ups and downs. Yesterday after I wrote the post I realized that I was sick. Last night I had a fever and this morning looks like I have a bad cold.

Thank you for the suggestions and for the offer of help. I will take you up on it. Strangely enough things are picking up. I've made several contacts and am involved in AA here and that's been great. Today some folks from my spouse's work wrote and asked if I could spend some time with them for language and culture exchange.

But as I wrote above to Sauve, this time I am not going to pretend that it isn't a struggle to adapt. And this time through the blog I will have a record of what I went through and what I did to settle in.

The trick will be to balance the bad days with the good ones. :-)

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@anonymous, I know what you mean. It's kind of fun to be the exotic beast sometimes.

@The Frenchman in Colorado - thank you for the book recommendations. I will check them out. They sound interesting.

@Andrew - thinking about it. A book. Wouldn't that be something?

Anonymous said...

Hello,

As you speak fluent French, you (et/ou peut-etre votre mari) may be interested in contacting the local Alliance Francaise in Osaka. I found the following link:
http://www.consulfrance-kyoto.org/Instituts-et-Alliances-francaises,59
In it see:
► Centre franco-japonais - Alliance française d’Osaka
大阪日仏センター=アリアンス・フランセーズ

Imamura bldg. 9F, 2-2-11 Tenjinbashi Kita-ku Osaka 530-0041
530-7391 大阪市北区天神橋 2-2-11今村ビル 9階

Téléphone 電話 : 06-6358-7391
Fax ファックス : 06-6358-7393

Site Internet ホームペッジ : www.calosa.com
Adresse électronique 電子メール : info@calosa.com
-----
The website calosa.com is not working (for sale!) but I would expect the alliance may still be active, hopefully.

Myself over the years I have participated in some of the AF activities in Denver (see afdenver.org, event schedule for an example).

Main goal of Alliances is to teach French but they typically offer diverse cultural activities involving french speaking people, Americans, French, Europeans, etc...
So it may be worth checking?

Note also that the French consulat link above has also diverse practical information on Japan, etc... (paid by French taxpayers :), a good thing! ).

Also I suppose that in Japan you can subscribe to US and French TV via cable or satellite. Myself here I get TV5 via dishnetwork and I like some of their news and entertainment programs (including Telematin).

Un Francais au Colorado

Rosemarie said...

Just to tell you that I'm really gladd you're keeping the Flophouse going despite all the cultural changes you've been going through ! Haven't commented much these days but am reading with interest. Good luick with your new life! But are you coming back to Versailles ??

Vagabonde said...

I have been spending quite a while reading many of your past posts which I found fascinating. The comments are good too. I hope you find what you need to be happy in Japan – I would think it must be quite an adjustment. I really related to the phrase “the sheer fatigue of being unlike the people around you” – I have been in the US for decades but still have a French accent – a week does not go by that someone asks me where I am from (as my accent is not that strong, but I have one.) I came to San Francisco speaking English so I did not have a problem and at the time I came to the US, not many French people were coming, so I got my green card from Paris very quickly (quicker than I needed it really as I was coming just to travel, alone, for 2 years I thought at the time, but needed to work.) I did not feel that foreign in California where I lived for 10 years, but I did in Georgia, and still do, after decades here (where I never speak French as I don’t know a single French person here.) So, one subject that I had never heard about is this FATCA business. I am a dual citizen but when my mother past away I placed some money in a bank in Paris. I wonder if this FATCA concerns also French citizens living in the US, and I hope not.

I think coming from France and living in a large city in Japan will be easier for you than being in a small town somewhere. I believe the reason I had no problem in the US at first is that coming from Paris to San Francisco was a smooth transition – but going to a small town in Georgia was/is a different matter …. To return to your title “The consciousness of difference” I can say, that after 54 years (oui, vous avez bien lu) I still feel different here in the US. But, even though since 1961 I have returned to Paris more than 60 times, France does not feel the same either - it also feels different. I agree completely with Alfred Polgar, the German journalist (1873-1955) “The emigrant’s destiny: The foreign country has not become home, but home has become foreign.” Maybe it was easier for you in France, but I have not found it easy in the US.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@anonymous - Thank you for the links to the AF. I will definitely check it out. For info there is also a France/Japan Kansai Friendship organization which has events once a month. It's mostly Japanese who have a French connection - visited France or who speak French. We went to a dinner and it was lots of fun. There were a few French as well - one gentlemen who has been in Japan for 30 years!

@Rosemarie - Good to hear from you! Yes, the Flophouse is still around and I'll be writing from Japan as much as I can. We are not here permanently and will be going back to Versailles at some point. When? Inchallah... :-)

@Vagabonde - Thank you so much for visiting the Flophouse and for your very kind comment. You made an excellent point about small towns versus big cities. I talked to one French couple from Paris who ended up in a small town in Wisconsin and boy was that an adjustment.

Yes, life goes on in the other place and sometimes that almost breaks my heart. Seattle is like a foreign world now and that is very hard. How has France changed for you over 54 years?