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

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 vmf2@kent.ac.uk,  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.

Bises,

Victoria




Sunday, March 27, 2016

Brussels

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.






Wednesday, February 24, 2016

What Software Are You Running Today?

A couple of weekends ago I joined my flatmate and some friends on a guided tour of a neighborhood here in Brussels that has become notorious following the November attacks in Paris:  Molenbeek.

Molenbeek is a densely populated commune on the outskirts of the city that became a working-class neighborhood during the Industrial Revolution and is known in our time as an immigrant ghetto - mostly Turks and Moroccans.  Seven people from this area were arrested in connection with the recent Paris attacks.  The Guardian referred to it as "Europe's jihadi central."

Brukselbinnenstebuiten (Brussels Turned Inside Out) is a Flemish non-profit that organizes guided tours of Brussels with local guides who know the city intimately because it's been their home for many years or their entire lives.  A walk through Molenbeek is one they offer and I sincerely recommend it to you if you happen to be visiting.

Wear your sturdiest walking shoes and bring an umbrella because this tour is over 6 hours and the guide, Eric, will take you through every nook and cranny of this district with a commentary that ranges from the historical - why are there clocks on the buildings at many intersections? - to the sociological: What's going on with identity in this neighborhood?  Who lives here and why do they stay? How do the old working-class residents, the immigrants, and the Trojan Horses, the upwardly mobile middle-class residents responsible for gentrification, all rub along with each other?

I once heard that to criticize without love is to do great violence to a person or a community.  Eric spoke so eloquently about this neighborhood pointing out the things past and present that were beautiful, interesting or inspiring without hiding or glossing over the massive social problems like poverty and unemployment,   This was his place and truly he knew it inside and out.

Erik was a resident of Molenbeek and his personal history said a lot about the neighborhood and about Brussels.  The son of a Flemish native and a Spanish immigrant parent, he was educated in French schools. He speaks all those languages plus English.  What I found most interesting about him was his way of looking at his own identity - how he resolves all the different elements that come together to make him what he is and how he is able to affirm everything and deny nothing.

Software, he said.  I just think of it as software.  Depending on the context, he's able to run whatever programs are appropriate.  That day in Molenbeek he was running his English software.  In another context he might run his French, Flemish or Spanish software.  Occasionally, he admits, some of these things need upgrades.  But they are saved in his brain ready to go and all he has to do is fire them up and run them when he needs them.

That's an interesting way to look at it.  For one thing, he's saying that these things, these multiple, identifiable identities aren't his core identity.  His identity as an individual - the true self - is one thing that sits at the center, and all the other identities are attached to that.  Some of his programs were loaded by others (family and school) and some were ones he chose for himself.

What I loved about this is how it allows for a kind of personal neutrality toward some identities that arouse great passions and become the sources of contention within an individual and within communities.  Forget the language wars or the autochtone versus the migrant and just say, "Today I am running French software because that's what is most useful in the context.  But tomorrow I may load my Spanish or immigrant or native son software because that would be the most appropriate in this or that situation."

However, I think we can all agree that some identities, once loaded, are deadly.  There is, Eric says, jihadi software that has spread like a virus through Molenbeek.   And how exactly are we and this community to deal with that?

If this is software then what is the solution?  An anti-jihadi program?  An "uninstall" button?  And how can anyone prevent deadly upgrades -  the ones that say time to take up arms and passer à l'acte?

I don't know but it seems to me that it is imperative that we try. The merit of the "identity as software" approach is that it might keep us from falling into an equally dangerous frame of mind - one that confuses the people with the program.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Americans and Cross-border Relationships in France and Japan

A few days ago on Facebook someone posted a link to a blogpost where an American man described his "discovery" of European women and then went on to rant about American women and how he didn't think much of them.  Similar articles can be found all over the Internet.  It took me about 10 seconds find this one.  Such anger, resentment, and specious comparisons.  These gentlemen are definitely not "bien dans leurs baskets," I say to myself and then I move on.

When I come across this sort of thing, I have to get past my visceral reaction to paint these guys as idiot adolescents and admit that I am very poorly placed to criticize someone who looks for love across borders. If this American man didn't marry a compatriot, well, neither did I.  And while I certainly don't write angry posts about the failings of American men (nor am I carrying some sort of grudge against them) I dated, married and had two children with a European, not an American.

So I need to check my reaction and be sure that I'm not the pot to their kettle.   Looking at it more broadly, I do think there may be a double standard operating here.  Or at least a kind of refusal to look at the larger picture.  I've lived and worked in two countries where I think I see it.  Perhaps you see it differently but let's have a look together.

When I moved abroad I moved to France and married a Frenchman.  But even before I left the US, my friends, family and the women at work (many of them married) had pretty much the same reactions:  "How romantic!" they said.  And there was a lot of talk about how lucky I was to be actually living their fantasies of being swept off one's feet by a charming sensual Frenchman and going off to live in France, a country where women were adored and treated with Old World courtesy combined with passion and romance.  In those reactions were there not judgements and stereotypes? Absolutely.  And in those first few years in France I noticed there were quite a few American women married to French men, but relatively few American men married to French women.  I think that has changed somewhat in 25 years, but the pattern is still more American women with French men and not usually the reverse.

Fast forward a decade or so and I found myself in Japan and found a completely different cross-border marriage pattern back in the first decade of the 21st century.  In Japan (and in Asia overall) one is more likely to find an American man married to an Asian woman.  Fair number of sterotypes and judgements operating there too with some men in the US congratulating these fellows on their luck at finding women who are sensual and know how to treat their husbands or boyfriends right.  My goodness, change the gender and doesn't that sound familiar?

And here too the pattern has changed a bit with more North American and European women marrying Japanese men and settling in Japan. Or Thai men which is actually a return to an older marriage pattern.  Eric Cohen notes his essay in Sex and Tourism:  Journey of Romance, Love and Lust that "Until the 1960's, intermarriage of Thais with Westerners was limited in extent, 'except for those involving members of the Thai elite' (Smith, 1971:128).  Such marriages typically involved Thai men and foreign women (Smith 1971:128) rather than the opposite, currently dominant pattern."  So American men who extol the virtues of Thai women versus American women on the Internet should be aware that Thai men have a long history of finding American women to be very attractive marriage partners. A bit ironic, isn't it?

So here we have Americans abroad and two countries with very gendered 21st century cross-border marriage patterns. There are some interesting  dynamics going on here that merit further research.

Clearly, education and socio-economic status are (or were) important here.  I have never met an American woman married to a Frenchman who didn't have at least a university degree and I've walked into women's clubs where there were quite a few women with Masters degrees or even PhD's. The American men I have met in Japan are far more diverse with a range from a high school diploma to some college to a university degree (usually a BA).

Most of the American men in Japan that I've met found their wives while they were in the military. The civilians on the other hand came as English teachers or academics during the Japanese economic boom, and they met their spouses while they were on short-term teaching contracts.  This is also true of the civilian women I know in Japan who are married to Japanese men.  The American women married to French who live in France usually met their husbands at university or in study abroad programs, or as tourists, or when their future spouses were expatriated to the US for business or study.

The global hierarchy of nations is also, I think, a factor here. France, Japan and the US are all rich developed OECD nations and there is a lot of tourism, international student migration, and labor migration going on among them.  Yes, much of the labor migration falls into the Highly Qualified Migrant category but that's a very broad label that includes someone with a four year degree - something that doesn't buy a graduate as much as it did in the US. In this hierarchy France probably wins the race since both Americans and Japanese have a very high opinion of French culture.  Also Japan doesn't have that "American in Paris" imaginary that makes for successful expat novels and memoirs.  I think the "American in Tokyo" does exist but it's fairly recent and may have reached its apogee in the Japanese boom period.

Perhaps I am making too much of this but I notice that when an American abroad says that he or she lives in France, the reactions are very positive and other Americans abroad or in the US don't ask why that person is living in the Hexagon - it's just assumed that it is a great place to be and isn't that person lucky to be there?  Japan is seen as exotic and interesting but long-term American residents get more questions about why exactly they would want to live there for so many years.

And finally, let's talk about race - the American Original Sin.  I think some of that is at work here as well.  American women and men who marry French men and women are assumed to be European-Americans marrying Europeans.  And that means fewer comments and criticisms because it's taken for granted that like is more or less marrying like and the only differences are cultural which can easily be overcome by an effort at integration. Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Native-Americans  are invisible.  Which is ridiculous.  African-Americans have been "Americans in Paris" for a very long time.  Centuries, in fact.

In Japan and the United States race is perceived to be one of those major differences that make American and Japanese couples kind of problematic.  They are certainly far more visible and I think that they face much harsher judgement, or at least much more scrutiny.  When Americans talk about marriage fraud, for example, (someone marrying an American citizen to get a Green Card) the foreign spouses are almost always said to be from Asia or Latin America.  In contrast to the articles that I mentioned earlier in this post about the attraction of Asian women compared to American women, there are also quite a few articles that sternly warn the men that they are being taken for a ride by their Asian girlfriends or wives and their only value to these women is their money, their exoticism, or their access to the United States.

Frankly, I have never seen a headline in a major American newspaper insinuating that Western Europeans pose this sort of problem or threat.   Or that American women marrying Frenchmen should be extra careful lest they be taken advantage of.  In that light, could we not view some of the articles by American men about the superiority of relationships with Japanese (or Asian) women as a defensive maneuver?  They, unlike American women who marry French men, must explain themselves and justify why they are in relationships with women of a different culture and race.  At its ugliest some comments and perceptions come perilously close to viewing American women who marry Europeans as marrying up, and American men who marry Asians as marrying down.

To those who argue that Japanese are well-perceived in our time and what is the problem, let me remind you that there is a long and terrible history of discrimination against Japanese in the United States and I personally think that anyone who says that this has completely disappeared is dreaming.  It's probably much better than it was in the 20th century, but I would argue that it is still not completely gone. Especially on the American West Coast.

Those are a few of my thoughts on this based on what I've observed living in both Asia and Europe.  Feel entirely free to disagree with me.  It's something I am genuinely curious about and try to make sense of from time to time.  More information or a different perspective would be very welcome.

What makes me concerned is that I see a kind of American gender war carried abroad.  There are judgements being made about cross-border relationships based on hierarchies of nations, race, and socio-economic status. It is really dangerous to say that a spouse of this or that nationality is superior in some way to other nationalities or even one's own, and that one derives (or loses) some sort of status based on some very racist, sexist, and class-based sterotypes about one's wife or husband.

Perhaps American men and women abroad might like to work on this one together.  Fundamentally, we all have very similar problems when we marry outside our culture:  problems with language, deskilling, divorce, custody battles, legal residency, bi-cultural families and the like.  It is truly unfair to cast aspersions on, question the motives of, or exalt a fellow American just because he or she married this or that person and lives abroad.  It is also not helpful to tell someone whose cross-border, cross-cultural relationship went down in flames, We told you so.

How about we all start with making a very different assumption?   That our compatriot has met an individual man or women who is not a stereotype, a representative of his or her nation, but a person.

How very fortunate, we could say, he or she is to have found love so far from home.  There may be disappointments and challenges along the way but isn't that just as true as of marriages that don't cross cultures or national borders?

And then we simply wish both of them a long and happy life together.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco died.

Damn.

I received the news from Al-Jazeera, my main news source these days, and I was filled with sadness.

I read The Name of the Rose many years ago and saw the movie (the book was better).  But then I went on to read  some of his other works: Foucault's Pendulum and his essays. Oh, he was a superb essayist.   I devoured Travels in Hyperreality and Kant and the Platypus.  Over the years, if I saw one of his works on the shelf of whatever bookstore I happened to be in, I always bought the book because I knew it would be a great read.  Eco never disappointed.

A few days ago in one of my classes I asked the class TA (an Italian) if she knew anything about Eco's How to Write a Thesis.  She hadn't heard of it and she wondered if the advice would be applicable to writing a thesis at a British University.  Something tells me that even if it doesn't directly apply, I would benefit from reading it.  Because Eco was not only brilliant but he could write about anything and make it fun and lively while slipping in life lessons like the importance of humility, persistence and hard work..  His advice to aspiring writers was to not take themselves too seriously.

And I plan to ask him more about that when I see him in heaven.  And, yes, I am absolutely positively sure he'll be there.  He was a "gift from the heavens" and now God has taken him back.

Requiescat in pace. Amen

And here is part of an interview he gave last year (h/t to Open Culture ).






Sunday, February 21, 2016

Marriage Penalties for Bi-National Couples

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.


William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116

What would Shakespeare make of the growing number of impediments placed before two people from different countries who fall in love and wish to marry and settle in a country?  Bi-national couples are very common in our era of globalization and mass migration.  French students in Canada, German businessmen and women in the US, British expatriates in Thailand or Australian English teachers in Japan are very likely, during their sojourn abroad, to do something very human - to meet the man or woman of their dreams and to build a life together in one or the other country of citizenship.

Those of us who practice this rather extreme form of exogamy take our right to choose the person we wish to marry, and to live together in either country, for granted.  We shouldn't because it is not as easy as it was. More and more governments are placing conditions on or barriers to the right of bi-national spouses to be together and start families.

Family reunification immigration policies and laws exist because not only is the right to family life guaranteed by international human rights law, but because most of us have a moral compass that says that husbands and wives should be together (if they wish) and that keeping children separated from their parents is deeply deeply wrong.  If there is any commitment to families in a country than family reunification would seem to be so obviously consistent with those "family values" that politicians everywhere claim they support.

Why has family reunification has become much more controversial in recent years?  One answer is that states are responding to native citizens' demands to reduce immigration.  Since family reunification represents one of the largest flows of new immigrants in so many countries (2/3 of all legal immigration in the US)  it would be very hard, if not impossible, for governments to reduce the overall number of immigrants without looking at family reunification migrants and trying to keep them out.

That is one motivation but there are others.  To be very frank,  not all spouses are "quality foreigners" in the eyes of a state and its citizens.  Depending on the country of origin there are accusations of fraud and claims that some spouses are unlikely to assimilate or that they will become dependent on the social welfare systems of their husband's or wife's country.

For example, both the UK and Thailand have minimum income requirements that UK and Thai citizens must meet before they can apply for visas for their spouses.  In the UK the citizen-spouse must earn at least £18,600 a year and in Thailand the entire family must show an income of at least 40,000 baht per month from all sources.

Supporters of such measures point to the need to protect local social welfare programs and reading some of the headlines from Thailand, you can certainly understand the problem.  The Bangkok Post reported in 2011 that public hospitals  regularly admit foreigners (mostly Europeans) who are destitute. One hospital alone "spent 1.3 million baht treating 17 penniless foreigners. It was the third consecutive year that the hospital had logged unpaid bills." 

With that in mind income requirements may sound reasonable but is there not another way to look at the matter?  To be very blunt, are bi-national marriages only for the solidly middle and upper-middle classes?    The poor, the young just starting their careers, or the old on fixed incomes must be deprived of the human right to marry and live with the person of their choice for the greater good of society just because the bride or groom is a foreigner .  That does not seem at all reasonable to me.

But income requirements are only one strategy designed to better control or reduce marriage migration.  There are others.   France requires a language test and adherence to the "values of the Republic" before the spouse of a French man or woman can move to France. And, as I write this, the EU is contemplating a most interesting directive designed to strike fear in the hearts of all marriage migrants and their EU spouses living in Europe or abroad.

The forthcoming directive concerns spouses of EU citizens who are third-country nationals (citizens of USA, Canada, Japan, China and many other countries).  The EU wishes:
"to exclude, from the scope of free movement rights, third country nationals who had no prior lawful residence in a Member State before marrying a Union citizen or who marry a Union citizen only after the Union citizen has established residence in the host Member State. Accordingly, in such cases, the host Member State's immigration law will apply to the third country national."
What does this mean exactly?   Well, one interpretation of this would directly and adversely impact a Frenchman who marries a Canadian in Canada.  He can apply to bring his wife to France but because she was not a resident of France before they married, she would have no right to free movement with him within the European Union.  So, the couple could not move to Germany or Belgium - or, to be more precise, he could but she would have to stay in France.

It could also apply to a case where the groom or bride arrived in Germany on a tourist visa, got married to a German citizen and then applied for residency.  No prior residency means no right ever to free movement within the EU unless, of course, the foreign spouse becomes an EU citizen.

All measures to  reduce migration have unintended consequences and marriage migration is no exception. Did the nice young Frenchman I met in Japan who married his anglophone Vietnamese wife in the Kansai region check beforehand the requirements to bring her over to France once his expatriation contract expires?  I doubt it.  When you are young and in love, checking your country's immigration laws is the last thing on your mind.

Would this brilliant beautiful multi-lingual Vietnamese woman have accepted his proposal knowing that she would have to take a language test and subscribe to the values of the French Republic before she would be allowed entry into France?  Who knows?

What would both of them make of the restrictions on their freedom of movement as a couple if they return together to Europe?  I imagine they would be just as shocked as I was.

The end result of all this may very well be a refusal to return.  The Frenchman who marries a Canadian may stay in Canada, the German who marries an American may stay in the US, the British married to a Thai may stay in Thailand. Or any one of those couples could look for a third country that would be happy to receive both of them.

Countries and regions should be very careful before taking such couples to the "edge of doom". The result of these impediments may be a permanent loss of their own citizens who have very strong "family values" and place being together with their spouses and children above all other considerations.

Love, like life, will find a way.  

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Lifestyle Migration

When I first heard the term Lifestyle Migration I really didn't know what to make of it.   "Lifestyle" in English implies something rather frivolous and even pretentious;  something that must be the province of the rich global elite and not within the reach of regular folks.  What I discovered when I looked into it is that this is actually a very broad category into which a few migration scholars have poured very disparate people:  international retirement migrants, sojourners in India, small entrepreneurs running bed and breakfasts in France, and foreign spouses of nationals.

In a 2009 article Michaela Benson and Karen O'Reilly wrote, "As we perceive it, lifestyle migrants are relatively affluent individuals of all ages, moving either part-time or full-time to places that, for various reasons, signify, for the migrant, a better quality of life." And there the trouble begins.  What does "relatively affluent" mean?  All middle and upper-class Europeans, North Americans and a few privileged Asians? Or can it be applied to any migrant from any country who is richer and better educated than her compatriots in the home country and nationals in the host country?  It appears that the phenomenon is very much about people from the Global North moving to other developed countries or the Global South which makes it suspect in my mind.  Why is a middle-class Canadian woman with a B.A. in Political Science who moves to Berlin a Lifestyle Migrant, while a woman from Morocco with a Masters degree in Engineering who moves to Paris is an Economic or Highly-Skilled Labor Migrant?

The difference, say the Lifestyle Migration scholars, is intentions.   The Canadian women is looking for the intangible - that better quality of life - and her move is informed primarily by a social imaginary of her target destination. This is essentially a romantic project, freed from the crassness of corporate ladders and the necessity of earning a living in ways that she feels are inauthentic.

Intentions alone are, I contend, a very poor basis upon which to differentiate migration flows.  The Moroccan woman may be just as motivated to emigrate by visions of Paris as a cosmopolitan global city as she is by the job opportunities there.  And the Canadian woman once she lands may be very preoccupied by the necessity of getting a visa and earning a living in her new home.

In Global Migration Governance, Caroline Olivier gives this definition:  "The term 'lifestyle migration' is applied to a growing number of migrations that are largely undertaken for lifestyle reasons and which do not fit into the existing policy categories of migration."  My counter-argument is that migration is always undertaken for a variety of motives and most Lifestyle Migrants can fit very comfortably within the existing migrant categories:  Family Reunification, Retirement, Labor (skilled and un-skilled) and others.

Some Lifestyle Migrants even share an important characteristic of less exalted migration flows:  they are "illegal migrants."  Foreigners (many of them from the West) in Thailand are forced to become "visa runners" because the Thai authorities won't give them residency.
"While exact numbers aren't known, it is suspected that tens of thousands of Westerners reside in Thailand using this combination of back to back visa waiver stamps and / or tourist visas. They comprise a diverse bunch with several major sub-groups. There are English teachers whose employer has not or will not provide them with a work permit and 1-year visa. There are digital nomads for whom their work is location independent and for whom South-East Asia's combination of warm weather, friendly people and low cost of living make an ideal base. There are plenty of economic refugees, those who can't afford to have much of a life in the West, or those who choose to live here because they can have a higher standard of living than they could in their homeland." StickmanBangkok 
Many migrants from the Global North work under the table doing translation work or teaching their native languages. In some countries they are tolerated because they bring money in at a very low cost to the host countries:  a retired American in France on U.S. Social Security is not doing any harm and may even be doing some good since the money is coming from outside France and is being injected into the local economy.  Similar reasoning applies to French retirees in Morocco.  Some countries have designated retirees "quality foreigners" because they have a regular income (unlike many of the teachers, writers, and translators) and they offer special programs to draw these migrants in.  The Malaysia My Second Home program seems to be very popular and the Japanese government was actively promoting at one time "overseas ikigai towns".

Every time I take a tour of Lifestyle Migration and the attempts to define it as different from other migrant flows, the more I think this is a distinction without a difference.  Migrants from developed countries (all social classes and income levels by the way) who say they are seeking intangible things that cannot be expressed in monetary terms are still migrants.

That does not, in my view, make their motives selfish or suspect - something that I have always felt is implied in the term "lifestyle."  Is there something illegitimate (or exalted) about wanting to get a better job, seeking a higher quality of life, fulfilling a dream of owning a business, stretching one's pension, or raising children in a country that has a better education system and more opportunities for social mobility?  These are just a few of the aspirations of all migrants from all countries and from all socioeconomic classes.

The danger of lumping all these people together under a tent called Lifestyle Migration and glorifying their pure intentions is twofold.  The first problem is that it ignores the very concrete social problems faced by more and more people in developed countries: lack of opportunity, high unemployment rates for the young and the old, the precariousness of national pensions, debt, lives ruined by the Great Recession, and cuts in government programs.  Le Monde noted in this article from 2014 that the flow of young people leaving France was on the order of 60,000 to 80,000 a year.  Is it not easier to paint these young emigrants as having a fine adventure abroad gaining skills that they can bring back to France (because, of course, it is unthinkable that they might not return) as opposed to addressing the high unemployment rates experienced by the young in the Hexagon - an impetus for their leaving in the first place?

The second problem is that Lifestyle Migration as defined by scholars of the Global North is described as personal growth projects entirely based on individual choice and, some would say, a certain égoïsme.  This is almost guaranteed to raise the hackles of people in their home countries who might excuse a few of their compatriots having an temporary overseas adventure  but who begin to cast a suspicious eye on those who succeed brilliantly in their host countries.  That suspicion turns to outright anger when their temporary migration becomes permanent and they do not return.

In all fairness sometimes developed country migrants have a discourse that is not terribly kind or understanding of the people back home.  It does not help matters when a migrant describes his life outside the home country as an "escape" or when she treats people in the homeland as boring and unenlightened.  This is unnecessarily provocative and unfair - moving to India to live in an ashram or to France to start a gîte does not make anyone morally superior or special.

So I am hoping that the term Lifestyle Migration goes out of fashion very fast.  I don't think it's accurate or useful, I find its reliance on a global hierarchy of nations absurd, and I think it's potentially dangerous because it paints all developed country migrants as rich, privileged, egotistical, quasi-traitorous escapees - something that invites reactions like diaspora taxation or limitations on dual citizenship.

What would be far more helpful here, in my opinion, is to broaden every one's understanding of migrants and migration.   Instead of showing how these Lifestyle Migrants are different, how about looking at all the things they have in common with other migrants?

Developed country migrants who accept a migrant identity and identify with their fellow migrants (and who refuse to let academics stroke their egos) could go a long way in convincing the 97% of people who don't cross borders that migrants are not scary threatening aliens from destitute (but exotic) locales but people doing normal things like raising families, working jobs, going to school, making the most of their retirement.  And the only difference is that migrants just aren't doing those things in their countries of origin.

Would it not be a much better world if everyone everywhere  recognized that a migrant could be a daughter (or son), a parent, a childhood friend, a colleague, a parishioner from church?

I think so and I encourage all of us wherever we come from and whatever shore we've landed on to make it so.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Flophouse American Diaspora Reading List

“Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools.”

Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

Time for an update of the Flophouse American Diaspora Reading List - the best books and articles I've read recently about American citizens and communities abroad.  New books are in green.  As always, please feel free to add to the list.  

This list has three sections:  Upcoming titles - Books that have not been published yet but that I plan on reading; General books/articles - the larger view.  Some talk about specific issues (like citizenship), others are studies, portraits or serious research about Americans abroad;  Expat autobiographies - Accounts of Americans in different countries.  These are not books that tell a potential American migrant how to live abroad.   These are personal accounts that talk about what happens to American identity when it gets transplanted somewhere else for a year or two, or for a lifetime.  

Upcoming Titles:

The Citizenship of Americans Living Abroad: Democracy and Those Who Leave by Katya C. Long.   According to Amazon this one still has not been released.  The pre-order price is 145 USD which means I need to feel a lot richer before I 1-Click this one...

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General books:

Unofficial Ambassadors:  American Military Families Overseas and the Cold War, 1946-1965 (2007) by Donna Alvah. American civilians abroad tend to ignore the presence and experiences of American military families abroad.  There are many sterotypes of these families that show them living in American ghettos and never getting out and having contact with host country.  That may be true in some countries but certainly not all.  Where there wasn't enough base housing these families had no choice but to live "on the economy" in local towns.  In this period the US military in Europe and Asia encouraged the spouses (mostly wives) to become unofficial American Ambassadors which meant learning the language and culture. These women started friendship clubs and tried to create places where host country nationals and American military families could informally interact and learn something about each other. Alvah does a superb job of describing the lives of these families, and reveals the contradictions behind these attempts to partially integrate into the host country in the service of their country.

Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite (1995) by Robert D. Kaplan.  Kaplan is one of my favorites.  I don't always agree with him but he writes beautifully and he does his research.  This books has excellent portraits of the American communities in places like Lebanon in the 19th and early 20th century.  They were not just missionaries, they were educators, explorers and advocates.  Kaplan draws a line between that American expatriate "localitis"  which was passed down to their intellectual heirs in the late 20th century, and the diplomatic debacle behind the first Iraq war. 

Revoking Citizenship: Expatriation in America from the Colonial Era to the War on Terror (2015) by Ben Herzog.  Not as good a book as Sovereign Citizen by Patrick Weil, but still a fine read. The US has a fine tradition of making and unmaking citizens.  Who was not worthy to remain an American citizen?  In one era it was race, in another it was having the wrong ideology, and in our time it is support for terrorist organizations.  Herzog quotes extensively from Peter Spiro's work and argues that it is the duals who are the most vulnerable today because, he posits, we are living in a period where dual citizenship is merely tolerated, not accepted.

American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates in the Civil Rights Era (2008) by Kevin K. Gaines.  In 1957 the British Gold Coast colony in sub-Saharan Africa became the independent state of Ghana.  A number of Americans of African descent left the US at the time to live, work, or simply lend their support to the new state.  People like Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Richard Wright.  The Civil Rights Movement in the US had an international dimension and many activists saw their fight for rights in the United States as part of the larger context of African national independence movements.  An amazing story with a not so happy ending - a military coup took down the regime in 1966.

The Sovereign Citizen: Denaturalization and the Origins of the American Republic (2013) by Patrick Weil.    Really superb book. Excellent research into the un-making of American citizens in the 20th century. 

The Other Side of the Fence:  American Migrants in Mexico (2010) by Sheila Croucher.  A book that came out of a study that Ms. Croucher conducted on US citizens residing in Mexico.  This is not a definitive book about Americans in Mexico in the first decade of the 21st century. It's a sketch that leaves out a lot and once we have that firmly in our minds, we can look more closely at some of her arguments and the questions she asks about the meaning of this group in the larger picture of regional migration on the North American continent. Flophouse review here.

Round-Trip to America:  The Immigrants Return to Europe (1996) by Mark Wyman.  Fascinating look at the immigrants who came to America and then turned around and went back home.  How many?  Hard to know but in the brief period where the US government tried to track it (1908-1923) the inflow to America was nearly 10 million and the outflow was 3.5 million of which 88% were Europeans. Wyman notes that these remigrants represented an important connection to the United States and were viewed as "americani" and "Yanks" when they resettled in their countries of origin.  Worth reading to remind us all that migration is not an aller simple.

The Other Americans in Paris: Businessmen, Countesses, Wayward Youth, 1880-1941 (2014) by Nancy L. Green. I was really looking forward to this one and it did not disappoint (gave it four stars on Goodreads).  The American community/colony in Paris has always been far more diverse than one might think:  businessmen (and women), lawyers, doctors, dentists as well as students and artists and writers. Green does an excellent job of broadening our perspective about this community which has existed since before the American Revolution.  I highly recommend this book and all of Nancy Green's work.

Civic Myths: A Law-And-Literature Approach to Citizenship (2007) by Brook Thomas.  There is citizenship as the law of the land which defines who is legally "in" (or "out") but there is also the social context around it which influences how we feel about that citizenship.  Thomas shows how the "good citizen" or the "immigrant citizen" were portrayed in popular American literature.  The most interesting for me was his discussion about the very famous essay The Man Without a Country which may still be influencing how Americans feel about expatriation (renouncing or losing US citizenship).

Citizenship Without Consent: Illegal Aliens in the American Polity (1985) by Peter H. Schuck and Rogers Smith.  My review is here.  This is a book that argues against the rather broad application of US jus soli citizenship laws.  I think it reads very differently for an American living outside the US who is aware that these laws have created something that is being referred to now as an "Accidental American." 

What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France (2013) by Mary Louise Roberts.  Well-researched and has so much information in it that I was in awe as I was reading it.  However, I'm not so sure about the conclusions she drew from that research.  I think I need to read it again before I can give it a fair review.   If you have read it, let me know in the comments section what you thought. 

Migrants or Expatriates?  Americans in Europe by Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels. This one came in 2014 and is THE book to read if you are interested in knowing something concrete about just who those absent Americans (7 million or so of them) are:  socioeconomic status, political affiliations, host country, integration, identity and so much more.  Short Flophouse review here and an interview she gave about the book here.  

The Citizenship Revolution: Politics and the Creation of the American Union, 1774-1804 by Douglas Bradburn.  This came out in 2009 and it examines the development of US citizenship in the post-Revolutionary War period.  Fighting over citizenship in this newly independent state was influenced by what was going on in Europe (the French Revolution), the arrival of yet more immigrants and the naturalization question, and expatriation (how to give up US citizenship).  For the last look no further then the fascinating case of one Gideon Henfield, an American who, when accused of privateering, invoked his "right to expatriate" and informed the court that he was no longer an American, but a Frenchman.  He was acquitted in 1793 and allowed to leave and go about his business. 

Beyond Citizenship: American Identity After Globalization by Peter Spiro (2008).  This one is already on the Flophouse Diaspora and International Migration Reading List but it definitely should go here as well.  What has happened, in his view, to US citizenship in a globalized world?  I am planning on re-reading it with my American abroad eye taking into account what has happened in the world to US citizenship since 2010.

Expatriation, Expatriates, and Expats: The American Transformation of a Concept by Nancy L. Green.  This article (available on-line) was published in 2009 in the The American Historical Review. Great essay about American expatriation in the legal and cultural senses.  How did the right to expatriate (the right to leave) go from a mechanism for "nation-building" to one of excluding Americans from the nation?

Americans Abroad: A Comparative Study of Emigrants from the United States by A. Dashefsky et al. Published in 1992 this is a study of Americans migrants in Australia and Israel (Canada is briefly mentioned as well).  It asks provocative questions about motives for leaving, adaptation in these countries, and why the migrants stayed, returned to the US, or decided to move on to a third country.  In the final chapter are some interesting conclusions and proposals for policies around this emigration one of which is: "Deter efforts to force migrants to change citizenship or otherwise make a permanent, formal commitment to one society or another."

Published in 2007, a very interesting book that re-examines the "American Dream" in the light of American emigration.  Talks about Americans in Canada, Israel, Australia and New Zealand.  It's one of the few I've found that includes African-American emigration and women migrants.  Some good statistics (or at least estimates) at the end of the book.

The Unknown Ambassadors: A Saga of Citizenship by Phyllis Michaux.
Published in 1996, this is the story of how Americans abroad organized around issues of particular importance to Americans living outside the US:  citizenship for the children of Americans who were born abroad, voting rights, and many other issues like Medicare from the 1970's to the 1990's.  This is the diaspora going to the homeland government for recognition as a distinct group with particular interests.  It's a battle that is still ongoing but this book is important because it's the only one I know of that gives the the history and the context behind today's efforts.

"Gilded Prostitution": Status, Money, And Transatlantic Marriages, 1870-1914 by Maureen E. Montgomery.   The title is a bit off-putting but if you are an American woman married to a foreign national this is a good one.  The marriages examined here are between elites (U.S. and U.K.) over a century ago and yet some of the negative (and positive) attitudes about women who marry foreigners and leave America are all too familiar.  Under it all, of course, were questions of citizenship (should women lose their citizenship because they marry "out") and taxation where money followed these women abroad.

Americans Abroad, How Can We Count Them? This book which came out in 2010  is the transcript of a hearing held in 2001 by the U.S. Congress House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, Sub-committee on the Census,  on the feasibility of including Americans civilians abroad in the census.  This is the diaspora meeting the homeland government directly and the interplay between homeland interests and the interests of Americans abroad is fascinating.  In particular the testimony of the representative from the U.S. State Department shines a light on the relationship between the US Embassies/Consulates and the American communities in the host countries.  

Diaspora Politics: At Home Abroad by Gabriel Sheffer. This is a general book about diaspora politics but I include it here for two reasons: 1.  It will put the efforts for recognition in the three previous books on this list in a much larger context.  There are patterns, general strategies that all diasporas use or try to use as they attempt to manage the relationship with the homeland over different issues and 2.  He examines the question of whether or not the American communities abroad (some of which have a history that goes back to the American Revolution in the 18th century) constitute a true diaspora. 

A Gathering of Fugitives:  American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (2002) by Diana Anhalt. a fascinating portrait of American political expatriates, a "small group of controversial Americans who found refuge in Mexico during the late 40's and throughout the '50's..." Flophouse review here.

This book focuses on one of the largest and most visible group of Americans who live and work abroad: teachers. Zimmerman talks about the distinct differences between those who went abroad in the first half of the 20th century and those who left in the latter half. Though the social, historical and political frameworks changed over time, he notes that there has always been a diversity of opinion and a debate about just what these Americans were doing (or supposed to be doing) abroad. There are things in here that will make Americans wince - not just how some Americans viewed the countries where they worked (especially those that were a part of the American empire like Puerto Rico or the Philippines) in the first part of the 20th century, but also how this continued with a different twist in the second half of the century.

A beautiful book about American women abroad - the photography is stunning.  These are ordinary women who have done (and are still doing) extraordinary things outside the US: Jean Darling (Ireland), Yuzana Khin (Thailand), Gillian McGuire (Italy), Kim Powell, (France), Lucy Laederich (France), Marcia Brittain (Uruguay), and Jane Cabanyes (Spain) to name just a few. The book came out of a FAWCO (Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas) project and is the work of two members: My-Linh Kunst (photography) and Charlotte Fox Zabusky.  A longer Flophouse review of the book can be found here.

The Transplanted Woman by Gabrielle Varro
Gabrielle Varro is a CNRS researcher in anthropology and sociology who has studied bi-lingualism, immigration and the sociology of mixed-marriages. This book came out of a study that she conducted with AAWE of French-American marriages and families over generations.  Some of it is about the dynamics of cross-cultural marriages but it also looks at American identity as it is transmitted through the American wives of French men.  A Flophouse discussion of Varro's work can be found here.

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Autobiographies:

The Dead Ladies Project:  Exiles, Expats and Ex-Countries (2015) by Jessa Crispin.  Another American who left the US as a tourist with a project after the Great Recession, and from  what I can tell she is still abroad and living in Europe (Berlin) - the quintessential "Accidental Migrant." She's a fine writer and I enjoyed the book very much.  I wish, however, she had done a bit more research into the expat/migrant community in Berlin before passing judgment on them: "...the artistically spent, those trapped in the waning of careers, of inspiration, of family relations, and of ambition."  David Griffiths and Stella Maile, for example, have done research on Britons in Berlin in the context of "Lifestyle Migration" - a term I loathe and yet the shoe fits in Crispin's case.

Unsavory Elements:  Stories of Foreigners on the Loose in China (2013) by Tom Carter.  The contributors here are a mix of American and other nationalities and their stories make for an excellent read.  Surprise!  Foreigners in China (or anywhere) do not always behave well (employment problems, prison, drugs and alcohol, prostitution) and it's a relief to hear people admit that in some very well-written short stories. The editor of this collection, Tom Carter, is an American writer and photographer who has lived in China for about 10 years. He wrote the introduction and the last story in this book, Unsavory Elements, and the latter triggered a controversy:  Carter and friends found an rather interesting diversion for a Canadian friend who was leaving China "having utterly failed here" - a trip to a Chinese brothel.  The tone of the piece is light-hearted and makes fun of everyone involved and that did not sit well with some who found the entire business extremely offensive.  I'll let you read it and decide for yourself what you think of it.

At Home in Japan: A Foreign Woman's Journey of Discovery (2010) by Rebecca Otowa.  I was not impressed by the first half of the book and almost put it down.  But I persevered and the second part was all that I could hope for.  Flophouse review here.

Foreigner in My Own Backyard (2014) by Travis Casey.  I found this when when I was looking for a copy of Bill Bryson's book.  The author is an American who has been living in the UK for 20 years (he's a dual US/UK citizen) and who has had to come back to the US for a short time to care for family.   These are his first impressions of life back in the homeland.  It's funny (and sad sometimes).  Some of his stories show just how ambivalent Americans in the US are about Americans who leave.  If you are an American abroad and have ever toyed with the idea of going "home" for an extended visit, I think you will enjoy this one.

The American (2007) by Franz-Olivier Giesbert.  A rather dark book but with a unique perspective.  The author is an Accidental American in France who wrote about his relationship with his American father.  Flophouse review here.

Second Skin (2012) by Diana Anhalt.  Some stunning poetry from the author of A Gathering of Fugitives. She writes about her host country (Mexico), languages (English/Spanish) and much more.  One of my favorite lines from her work:

"Today I speak Spanish to survive,
but I write in English for its punch,
for the way it slices through excess, draws blood,
attracts sharks. (They know this voice and come to me.)"
All about the trauma of losing identity and forming a new one in a new language and country.  Very honest account of how she felt during the process.  A longer Flophouse review of the book is here.

The musings of a "redneck socialist" which are mostly about homeland politics but there are some excellent essays in this book about his time in Belize. His political views are pretty clear:  "Capitalism is dead," he said, "but we still dance with the corpse." Really engaging writer and his expat perspective is one you don't come across everyday.  Just have a look at his bio.  

Tales of Mogadiscio by Iris Kapil
This is a series of essays written by an American woman in a cross-cultural marriage (her husband is Indian and they got married in the 1950's).  She was a serial expat but this book is about the two years the family spent "on the economy" in the capital city of Somalia in the 1960's.  Beautiful descriptions of what that city was like before the country descended into chaos and became the epitome of a "failed state."  Kapil has a fine blog called Iris sans frontières.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Flophouse Book of the Week: Dealing in Desire

Last night I finished Kimberly Kay Hoang's Dealing in Desire:  Ascendancy in Asia, Western Decline and the Hidden Currencies of Global Sex Work.

Kimberly Hoang is a Vietnamese-American scholar, an associate professor at the University of Chicago.  Dealing in Desire is the product of years of research into the sex trade in Ho Chi Minh City.  She spent 7 months in Vietnam in 2006/2007, and then returned in 2009 for another 15 months.  She actually worked in the bars and hostess-clubs so that she could observe and conduct interviews over a period of time.   She finished her dissertation and published her book in 2015.

The sex trade is a very controversial subject.  Countries like Thailand and Vietnam are not necessarily thrilled to be known as great places for sex tourism, and there certainly has been a lot of criticism of this trade coming from the West with concerns about trafficking, women's welfare, and the spread of some deadly diseases.

However, Hoang is very respectful of the women and men who work in this business and went to great lengths to determine if this was a choice that the women were making.  She contends that it was - at least in the bars and clubs where she did her research.  And she succeeds in doing a very fine analysis which looks at this as a business with niches, opportunities and risks at a time when the Vietnamese economy was booming.  According to the World Bank they are still seeing GDP growth at about 6% in 2014 and the country is classified as "lower middle income."

How the economic and social mobility opportunities are leveraged in the sex trade is fascinating because as Hoang shows they are framed by:  nationalisms; Asian, pan-Asian and Western identities; and socioeconomic status.  In short, these entrepreneurs know their customers.

Hoang identifies these three niche markets in the sex trade in Ho Chi Minh City which range from the high-end, the most exclusive and expensive clubs, to the lower end which caters to the tourist or the marginal Western migrant/expat on a budget.

Exclusive Bars/Clubs:  This is the high-end where a client only gets in if he's invited by another client.  They are frequented by elite local Vietnamese businessmen who sometimes invite their counterparts from China, South Korea or Japan. These are places where men make deals and contacts in a relaxed and informal atmosphere:  expensive whiskey and beautiful elegant Vietnamese women.

The bar where Hoang worked "generated around U.S. $150,000 a month in revenue from alcohol sales alone." (Hoang 2015:41)  The women, who ranged in age from 16 to 22, did not earn a salary but were paid in tips:  about 2000 USD a month for serving and entertaining at the bar and about  150-200 USD if they left the bar with a businessman. (Hoang 2015:42)

Viet Kieu Bars/Clubs:  A level down are clubs that cater to overseas Vietnamese - migrants who left Vietnam (or their parents did) and have returned.  Unlike the high-end bars Westerners were more welcome (sort of).   At the bar where Hoang worked Viet Kieu with reservations got in immediately and everyone else had to stand in line outside to be seated:
"Though the length of the queue primarily depended on capacity, it was an unspoken rule that Western men generally had to wait in the queue unless they were accompanied by a group of overseas Vietnamese or local Vietnamese men.  The symbolic and systematic denial of Western men from these bars made Lavendar one of the most attractive sites for Viet Kieu men." (Hoang 2015:43)
This looks very much like some of the clubs in Tokyo where Westerners are met at the door with a "Japanese only"and denied entry.  And I do wonder if the motivation is similar - the creation of a space where Western people get to experience a little of the discrimination that Asians have perhaps felt in Western countries.  In Ho Chi Minh city, says Hoang, "Viet Kieu men displayed a class-based transnational masculinity by consuming alcohol and sex in spaces that were often explcitly unavailable to white men." (Hoang 2015: 68)

The Western Expat Bar:  The lower-end.  These are the bars where mostly Western men congregate.  The owner of this type of bar Hoang says, opened it "in 2008, to capitalize on the growing number of Westerns transnational businessmen who had suffered during the 2008 financial crisis and traveled to Vietnam to rebuild their professional lives." (Hoang 2015: 46)  The women don't make nearly as much money (about 250-300 USD per month which is about 10 times less than the high-end bars) but they have other ways of generating income.

Hoang calls it "benevolent remittances."  The sex workers at this end of the market convince Western men to give them money for projects or for their families.  As one worker explained: "If you make them feel sorry for you as a poor Vietnamese village girl, they will give you a lot more money." (Hoang 2015: 62)

If you are from Europe or North America you may have read this far and have the sense that the world has turned upside down ( perhaps you are simply offended by the blatant discrimination). Maybe you are asking yourself:  Since when did white male Westerners lose some of their privilege in Asia?  And the answer is:  Since Asia got rich.  The larger frame to this story, Hoang argues, is how Western investors were replaced by Asian investors and entrepreneurs, and this was particularly obvious in Vietnam just after the Great Recession.
Between 1995 and 2005, Australia, Canada and the United States were the largest providers of FDI in Vietnam.  However, by 2009, Western nations played a much smaller role in Vietnam's market economy as countries within the Asia-Pacific region began to take over.  And by 2010, the six leading contributors were Taiwan, South Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong." (Hoang 2015:8)
There is a great story (or one that might make you wince) in the middle of Hoang's book that goes like this:  after an evening at one of the high-end bars the businessman host pulled out his credit card and said "'Oh wait.  These things don't work anymore. Americans broke the [global credit] system." He leaned back, grabbed his briefcast, pulled out a wad of cash, and instructed me to count out VND 42,000,000 (U.S. $2,100).  Then he pulled out another wad of cash and tipped each woman two crisp VND 500,000 bills (fifty U.S. dollars). (Hoang 2015:54)

That reorientation toward the nationalities and classes that are perceived to have the most money is undoubtedly true of a lot of sectors (cars, pharmaceuticals, luxury goods, department stores in Paris, shopping centers in Osaka and so on) and so it should not be a surprise that the sex industry has done exactly the same thing.  And, as Hoang notes, this has really destroyed the image of Western masculinity dreaming of "the world order modeled on older tropes of Western global power..." and allowed another image, an Asian one and equally masculine, to come forward. (Hoang 2015: 60)

Cynthia Enloe says that a gender analysis is not just about asking Where are the women?  It's also about asking Where are the men?.   So, how have the Western male migrants/expatriates in Vietnam reacted to this?  Hoang interviewed those who hung out at the bar where she worked and she found an interesting mixture of resignation and defiance.

Most had lost their jobs in their home countries in the recession and came to Asia because they were offered work.  One of the expats/migrants Hoang interviewed said:  "None of the guys will ever say this, but we all sort of know it...The guys who are working here in Vietnam are men who for the most part couldn't make it in New York, Hong Kong, or Shanghai." (Hoang 2015: 64)  There were also scenes she witnessed where the men made cringeworthy attempts to get the Vietnamese women sex workers to say that Western men were better in bed than Asian men. On the Vietnamese side Hoang saw Vietnamese men portraying Western men as poor and cheap (not willing or able to tip well).

These competing masculinities must have been very amusing to watch.

Back to the women.  Hoang goes into great deal of detail about the women's lives and their aspirations.  It's not a fairy tale profession, by any means.  The women can't necessarily save as much as they would like; some tried to turn a client into a boyfriend or husband and were deeply disappointed; and they experienced negative reactions from people in their home villages when they went back for a visit.

And finally there is the problem of age.  In the high-end clubs the women are relatively young, in the lower-end bars there were women in their 30's.  But at some point the women are too old to work in the clubs or bars and Hoang doesn't go into details about what happens to them if they haven't saved enough money to invest in other businesses except to note that some are able to back to the village and get married.  Some.

A very fine book on a subject that I have always shied away from or mentally shelved under "trafficking" or "sex tourism."  Hoang does not glorify their work but she's not judgemental about it, either.  At the very end of the book she talks more about how she felt doing this research - some of the biases she had, and some of the problems.  For example she found it impossible to behave as a stereotypical submissive Asian female (in her role as sex worker in expat bar) with the Western men because "I was far better educated than many of them..." but some of them tried nonetheless to put her in her place.  I'd say that with the very public exposure of their comments in this book, she has achieved a delayed but very sweet revenge.

I recommend and if any of you pick it up, I would love to know what you think of it.