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

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Border Patrol by John Oliver

Oliver is back from vacation and his latest is an expose on the US Border Patrol.  Interesting piece.  I learned a few things.

Yes, I can believe that it's a pretty boring job.  Dangerous, too.  Not sure what to think about the charges of poor hiring practices and corruption.  And what about the Northern border?  Same or different issues?

I would love to hear your take on it.

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Cat Cafe

Oh, what we do to please our children.  The Frenchlings shanghaied their mother into taking them to a Cat Cafe.  Damn it,  I have cats and they are ungrateful little kibble gluttons.  I sure don't need to pay 1200 yen for an hour with someone else's fractious felines. Even if I am bribed with Mango Milk.

We went.  I drank the milk (but not the kool-aid) -  it was just as silly as I imagined it to be (grumble, grumble, grumble).

But a few minutes into the experience I started to relax.  I will even admit that maybe I enjoyed myself. The cats were remarkably well-behaved.  (Well, except for the one that was in heat and was acting like a shameless hussy though the boys were having a fine, if frustrating, time.)

And they were cute.  And that, mes amis, is why we keep the little critters.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Sorting the Citizens from the Non-Citizens: Checkpoints within US Territory

This video appeared on my Facebook feed this morning.  It was filmed by a family that was travelling within the borders of the US when they were stopped by border agents  (not at the border mind you) and asked about citizenship:  "So..... Are you a US citizen?"

To her credit the driver, a teacher in San Diego, refused to answer the question and had a few of her own.  Good ones.

And yet, I found that I wasn't particularly shocked that she and her family were stopped.  Where I live  (France) the authorities do have the right to stop me at any time and ask for my papers.  It's never happened and I do have to wonder why that is. Oh, hell, let's be honest here, I don't need to wonder at all since I have gone through checkpoints in the Paris area in the past and duly noted that almost all the people who were being forced to produce their papers were from Africa.  Me, they just looked at my clothes and my legs, smiled at me, and waved me through.

I'll let you watch the video for yourself and if you are so inclined I would love to hear your thoughts.

In particular, if you are a migrant/expatriate or a naturalized citizen I'm curious to know if you have ever been stopped by the immigration authorities or law enforcement in your host country.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Festival of the Gods

Last night I met the younger Frenchling at work and we walked for a time with the gods.

Yesterday was the Osaka Tenjin Matsuri festival.  It starts at a local shrine with a procession through the city streets.  There were dancers in Heian era costumes, Shinto priests on horses, and mishoko, portable shrines that carry the gods.  At the river they piled into barges and the procession continued up and down the river. There was one boat that resembled a penteconter and it fascinated me because it was powered by master oarsman who could turn on a dime.    A spectacular sight.

According to the Japan Guide: "Tenjin Matsuri is the festival of the Tenmangu Shrine and honors its principle deity Sugawara Michizane, the deity of scholarship."

How fitting, I thought.  And if I had not already given my heart and soul to the Lady, this is one deity I would be honored to serve.

Here are a few pictures:

Monday, July 24, 2017

Some Musings about History

"The sources of collective memory range far beyond personal recall, but these sources too resist correction by others.  Since we alone understand the legacy that is ours, we are free, or even bound to construe it as we feel it ought to be.  Those who share a communal legacy must accept some mutual notion of its nature.  But each sharer treats that corporate bequest as his own; like personal memory, it remains barred to outsiders." (page 314)

The Past is a Foreign Country - Revisited by David Lowenthal

Americans sometimes fall into this seductive trap when they go abroad and marvel at ruins.  They exclaim with admiration: "How wonderful! We have nothing as old as this at home."   Statements that are both true and false.  True in the sense that the Parthenon is unique to a particular time and place but false because it utterly erases the history of the first inhabitants of North America who migrated from Asia anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 years ago.  To accept the argument that "civilization" on the North American continent only began with the arrival of Europeans is a lovely fable which may please Europeans and European-Americans alike but is utterly without foundation.

History as the subtraction of facts which do not fit the narrative.  Well, no nation is exempt from such attempts to shape and sanitize the past.  Not only does the past as we feel it ought to be confer legitimacy on the present day inhabitants of a territory, it makes us feel as if we own something that is beyond the reach of the tourist or migrant. History, says Clifford Geertz, is one of those "primordial loyalties"  along with "[a] sense of the "givens" of social existence -- speaking a particular language, following a particular religion, being born into a particular family..."  I do not doubt that such things are felt by millions around the world. It requires considerable effort on the part of the state, communities and individuals to sustain a common language, culture or history when one has only to talk to one's elders to learn that the taken-for-granted "primordial" is an invention of the present.

My sense is that we seek the "primordial" at times when we realize that we were born in the middle of a moving river and we would very much like for someone to close the floodgates so we can float for awhile in this moment.  Since that is entirely outside our capacities, we instead attempt to anchor ourselves in the past against the current.  We may not know where we are being taken but surely we can find something in the usable past that will slow us down.

The more I move around, the more I question the history of my home country and what is being presented to me as history by the various host countries I've wandered through.    I have learned to be skeptical of their "primordial" narratives both for what they have left out (a lot) and for what has been invented (also a lot).  To accept the US as a English-speaking country or France as a Francophone one since time immemorial requires that I ignore the distinctly un-French accents of old Breton farmers, the tales my mother-in-law tells of hearing languages other than French spoken in her village, and the stories of my German and French-Canadian ancestors in the US who happily spoke French and German across generations.

But it's not simply about debunking the facts, it is also about holding an awareness that the past is indeed a foreign country and that a 21st century French or Japanese or American is born into exactly the same place with regards to their own history and that of other peoples.  No, there is no gene for history or language or culture and the past not a personal memory.  On the contrary,  we all start from zero in terms of language, culture, and history when we are born and then what we acquire as we grow up is what people in the present think we ought to know.

Going beyond that (questioning the "givens") means grappling with more complicated and less ethnocentric narratives that call into question the "ownership" of things dear to the heart of the locals.

Is Notre Dame a symbol of French architectural genius beloved to the French of our time or is it  an edifice among many in a worldwide network of Roman Catholics and a concrete example of the universality and longevity of the faith?  A symbol of France?  Or a symbol of a multinational living faith that has existed for thousand of years and still serves the faithful in the same way as, say, St. Patrick's in New York or the Grand Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of Osaka?  To see it as one and not the other would be to leave quite a lot out.  Better, I think, to know both and to seek out other interpretations to see how it has been incorporated into many narratives over the centuries.  For is it so hard to imagine that the people who constructed it were as unlike a 21st century Frenchman or woman as we of different nations are to each other today?

As we travel and marvel at the wonders of different places my modest suggestion would be to be extremely cautious about the historical narratives being trotted out for your edification.  Consider that the locals may not know any more than you do.  They had to learn the facts and narratives just as you do, and unless they are highly inquisitive it is doubtful that they will do more than parrot what they were taught in school or on their own guided tour.

Be aware that there are other narratives foreign and domestic (and the latter is not necessarily superior to the former) and that viewed from another context their cultural ownership of something may be highly questionable.  They were not there when the event occurred or when the edifice was constructed and their relationship to it is as distant as yours. If these things are the reflection of any genius, it is limited to the people who lived and breathed and built then.  What their supposed ancestors think of them now is all about how they feel about the present and may simply be another manifestation of trying to stop the river of time.

And then go back and apply all of the above to the past of whatever country you call (or once called) "home."  I guarantee you'll find there is a lot more there there than you ever dreamt.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

An Insignificant Short Timer

Himeji Castle
"You feel small, whether as a courtier or an artist or a historian, because you recognize your insignificance in an infinite universe.  You know you can never yourself rule a kingdom, or capture on canvas everything you see on a distant horizon, or recapture in your books and lectures everything that happened in the past.  The best you can do, whether with a prince or or a landscape or the past, is to represent reality:  to smooth over the details, to look for larger patterns, to consider how you can use what you see for your own purposes."

The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past
by John Lewis Gaddis

Over the past three years I have had a most excellent opportunity: my host versus home country paradigm became a triangle - US, France and Japan - and then a quadrangle with the addition of Belgium as a fourth point of reference  For someone who as a callow youth could hardly imagine a life outside the Pacific Northwest of the US, I can only look back as I pass the half-century mark and marvel at how I ended up here or there and how completely unprepared I was for each trip.  I was a green water vessel shoved out into blue water hoping to dock at a friendly port on the other side of a vast ocean.  So far, no shipwrecks.  Which, I assure you, was not at all due to my skills as a navigator.

A very small vessel, indeed.  Insignificant, in fact, in the larger scheme of things.  Every day millions of people set off on their own journeys to distant shores.  It has been both a pleasure and a relief to turn my attention to them and not spend my days pondering my own small part in the late 20th/early 21st century migration flows in this globalized world of ours.  Looking for the larger patterns allows one to return to the Self with a sense of connection, relieved of the burden of thinking that one is special or unique.

I have been an emigrant and an immigrant. I have also been an expatriate.  Twice, in fact.  Both times in Japan.  My first time here was spent in Tokyo where I worked for a French multinational.  This, my second time around, has been dramatically different.  I am what is referred to as a "trailing spouse" and a couple of years ago that term and the circumstances around our move to Osaka did not sit well with me. And I did not hesitate to say so (and other people did not hesitate to tell me that I was being something of  a pill and a killjoy which was hardly helpful.)  

There is some truth to that but looking back I have compassion for the woman I was.  At the time I was still recovering from treatment for cancer and I was considering how to get back into the French workforce.  I was nervous about being so far from my oncologist and I wondered what a few more years not working would do to my future job prospects.  All very legitimate concerns.  And I really have to wonder why they were not taken more seriously.  I suspect that they would have been if I had been a man.  Surely one of my spouse's co-workers would not have touted getting his nails done on a regular basis as one of the benefits of the expat life.

Once I got over "living in the wreckage of the future" I finally got the gumption to make something of my time here and there.  The most visible accomplishment of my time here was my research which led to me getting my MA in International Migration.  But there have been other less tangible benefits which I only became aware of when I realized that our time here was getting short.  

Top of the list would have to be enjoying Japan.  The first time I was here (in Tokyo) I was working long hours and traveling to Korea and China.  There was no time for much else because I had a project to run and deadlines to meet.  This time  around I have had all the time in the world to travel around Japan. I have been back to Tokyo but I also visited Okinawa, Miyajima, Hiroshima, Kyoto, Nara and numerous other places in the Kansai region.  I have hiked in the mountains, slept in a temple guesthouse, visited markets, wandered through many fine museums and fought my way through the crowds to see the magnificent floats at festivals.  And, of course, there are the gardens which make my heart sing.  At every one I took mental notes for my own little bit of earth back in Versailles.

Koko-en Garden

Tourism?  Absolutely.  And the very best kind to boot because there was no rush, no plane to catch in a week.  Unable to see everything in one trip?  No matter because there was always time to return.  I've been to Nara at least four times and each visit was a revelation though there was some continuity because I always stay at the Nara Hotel which is, hands down, the finest hotel I've ever stayed in.

Nara Hotel, Kyoto
But that's not all.  I realized at some point that I could relax and just enjoy the ride.  There was the complete absence of the kind of stress that I felt in France as an immigrant.  I have heard many Anglophone migrants here talk about their integration issues large and small and I completely understood where they were coming from (albeit in a different country).  But here I really am just a guest, a temporary visitor with no plans to stay and so I feel no pressure to integrate.  Only a subtle sense that I should do certain things a certain way (such as properly sorting the garbage) which is no hardship at all.  

No one ever asks if I work (or insinuates that I should be working), there are no tense interviews with the public administration, no struggles to fit in because I don't need to fit in here except in the most superficial way.  With only a few very rare exceptions people are civil and pleasant.  And if they are bothered by my inability to communicate in Japanese, the only sign that they care one whit is the real pleasure and surprise on their faces when the younger Frenchling steps up and starts translating.  

Integration where I actually live is something else.  It is indispensable because I have to meet certain expectations in order to get a job, have friends, be on good terms with my neighbors, go to mass and confession, enjoy a dinner party, read contracts, deal with civil servants and so many other things big and small. This is the pebble in my shoe and I am subtly reminded of it every hour of every day in France. 

Granted it's a very very small pebble these days because, well, time has ground it down to next to nothing.  And I would never have noticed, I think, that it was still there if I hadn't remarked on its complete absence here in Japan.   So it has been something of a relief to be in a place where expectations are low, low, low given my status as a short-timer.   Never has my own insignificance felt so good.

Just a few more months and this vessel will sail once again (Air France will do the navigating): one small unimportant craft in a sea of over 200 million migrants in the world today.  Looking forward to being back full-time in my first country, the country of my heart (that darn pebble be damned).   Japan has served its purpose and home is just over the horizon.  Vive la France!

My Garden in Versailles

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Lazy Days

Minoh Park, Japan
As I write this it is hovering around 30 degrees (86 F) with the humidity at 72%.  There is almost no breeze and so it feels hotter than it is.  The high today will be about 32 degrees with storms predicted for the afternoon. When I go out later this morning I will be carrying my trusty parasol and wearing as little as possible within the constraints of what public modesty requires for a woman of my age in Osaka.

I do not like this weather.  I am a child of temperate zones but I suppose that it is a sign that I have acclimated since 30 degrees does not seem too bad to me now.  When it climbs closer to 40 then I'll really start complaining.

The heat and the humidity sap my strength.  Even reading takes effort though a good part of the day is still spent in my blue chair (and I always seem to have a blue chair wherever I live) with my e-reader under the air-co.  I just started reading The Past is a Foreign Country-Revisited by Lowenthal but I haven't read far enough to pronounce judgment.  That said, the author spent (wasted in my view) time enumerating his accomplishments which irritated me.  Not only did this not add anything useful to his introduction of the work but it muddied the presentation of his argument.

Out of curiosity, and because I miss university, I am trying out Amazon's Audible, a service that offers audio books and lectures.  I selected one that looked interesting  Herodotus: The Father of History which is a lecture series taught by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver, Professor of Latin and Classics at Whitman College in Washington state, USA.  I am on lecture 3 or 4 and it's quite extraordinary.  Vandiver is an excellent lecturer with good diction and a delivery that makes her subject come alive.  Only someone so knowledgable about her subject could present it so clearly and cogently.   This one I definitely recommend.

These are lazy days indeed when I have all the time in the world to read or listen to lectures. Not nearly as congenial as sitting inside next to a nice fire in my Godin listening to the rain on the roof but it is what it is.

I am, to be honest, eager to be home in my house in Versailles.  I have spent the past year travelling in a triangle:  Osaka, Versailles, Brussels.  The garden is being ably maintained by our house sitter but yearn to be back to a place where I can work outside with my hands in the dirt.  I've walked a lot of Japanese gardens and I have ideas for my own that I desperately want to realize.  Japan is lovely but I have no desire to make it my home.  I want to hear French, not Japanese (or Korean and Chinese) when I walk down the street.  I want to enjoy a steak-frites at a bistro.  I want some good strong coffee.  I miss my neighbors and my friends, the farmer's market in Porchefontaine, and running along the Avenue de Paris.  I am homesick, mes amis, and more than ready to return.

My neighbor, a Finnish woman who lived in the same building as I here in central Osaka, is already home in the UK.  She recently posted this: 9 not so obvious things I miss about Japan.  I am sure that I will have a similar list once I am home. (Though I think she is mad to include "high heels" in hers.)

Perhaps that is the lesson of return.  It' hard to see a place or a people clearly when you are in it and surrounded by them.  You have to leave for a time and live somewhere else to get clarity on what you experienced.  And yet when you go back to a place, it's not the same.  The time I spent in Osaka is a snapshot of the city  at a particular point in time and if I return in 10 years it will be something different.  But the person I was has been irrevocably changed by my time here and I won't be the same person when I walk through the door of my house in Porchefontaine, a community that has lived its own life as I've travelled about.

All this to say that Heraclitus was right: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.”  But I like to think that I've spent that time gadding about profitably.  And we shall see what I make of "home" when I return with all the gifts God saw fit to bestow on me.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Anglophones in Japan Survey - Commentary and Analysis by INOUE Eido

Sakura, Osaka 2017
As some of you might know last year I did a study on Anglophones in Japan: a survey and over 30 follow-up interviews .  The data I collected was used for my Master's dissertation. I cannot thank the participants enough for their time; their answers produced a rich data set for analysis.  As promised, I sent the survey results to the participants who wanted to receive them.

I also have to thank those who were instrumental in spreading the news about the survey and encouraging people to participate.  I could not have reached so many people without their help.

One very helpful person was Inoue Eido, a naturalized Japanese citizen who writes for the excellent blog Becoming Legally Japanese.  This is a site in English where you can get very solid factual information about how to naturalize in Japan.  The FAQ is particularly useful because it answers some of the more common questions about things like Japanese naturalization laws and dual citizenship, and Why would anybody want to become Japanese?  

For those of you who are following the rising number of renunciations of American citizenship (which, to look at it more positively, means achieving citizenship in the country of residence) 10 of the blog contributors are former Americans.  Note, however, that there are also contributors from Canada, Great Britain, Nigeria, Ecuador, and Bangladesh.  This provides, I think, a better overall context for understanding renunciation/naturalization as a phenomenon that is hardly unique to US citizens.

Inoue-san was kind enough to promote my survey on the blog.  And after he had received the survey results, he asked if he could post them with his commentary on the site.  My response was, "I sent it to you because you and others were kind enough to participate and if you want to in turn send the survey results to your friends, your family or write up a response to it, you can."  To be very clear the results that I sent are the raw numbers and contain no identifying information. whatsoever. Also these were the survey results only and do not include any data about the interviews.

Inoue-san has published his post and you can read it here: Analysis of "Native English Speaker in Japan Survey" Results.

Fascinating commentary.  I particularly appreciated his remarks on how the questions could have been refined.  As for the analysis, there are things I agree with and things I don't but that's perfect because it's the start of a conversation.  I was also very amused by his generalizations of the Anglophones who came to Japan in different eras:

"1945+: Those that came in the fifties and sixties came for their country (the Allied forces [U.S.] military).
1970: Those that came in the seventies came for God (missionaries).
1984: Those that came in the eighties came for the money (the "bubble era").
1993: Those that came in the nineties came for the women (relationships)
2001: … and those that came after the millennium came for the animé ☻."

I think very similar (and equally amusing) generalizations over time could be made of Americans and other migrants in France, the UK, Brazil, Canada or any other country.  Not only are the reasons for migrating multi-causal but they change with time.  Societies simply aren't static; human beings are odd, unpredictable creatures.  Americans used to go to France to study medicine; today it's argued that they are more likely to be marriage migrants.  In the future, perhaps we will see an increase in American scientists and entrepreneurs heading for the Hexagon to study climate change.  Who knows? 

A study is a snapshot in time.  This one was conducted at the end of 2016.  I have wonder what this Anglophone population in Japan might look like in 2026 as the world changes:  Brexit, the healthcare debate in the US, income inequality, technology, changes in the structure of the English as a Foreign Language industry.

I make no predictions.  I just hope that I'll be around long enough to see how the story unfolds.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Marriage Migration and Integration

"[C]ross-border marriage migration is understood as migration that results, at least in part, from a contractual relationship between individuals with different national or residency statuses.  Cross-border marriage either changes the immigration status of one partner (for example, by increasing their entitlements to reside or to access the social or economic benefits of the country they are residing in), or it enables one partner to enter and to set up home as a non-citizen spouse in a country foreign to them." (p. 5) Williams, L. (2010). Global marriage: Cross-border marriage migration in global context. Springer.

"Marriage migrant" is an interesting category of migrant.  Williams' definition is both accurate and democratic: it can be applied without reference to country of origin or destination.  Here are two people from two (or more) different countries who establish a contract that the states concerned recognize for immigration purposes.  You could almost say that being the spouse of a citizen confers a sort of demi-citizenship on the foreign spouse.  In many countries a foreign spouse can jump to the head of the immigration/naturalization queue simply by virtue of marriage to a native.  It's a very seductive path (in all ways) and where immigration laws are strict it can be the easiest way to enter a country or stay.

Note, however, that it is not as easy as it was.  Some states have been tightening up the requirements in order to limit or control it.  There is a lot of concern (and press coverage) of  fake marriages - ones that are contracted solely for immigration.  There are interviews by the immigration authorities to determine if the marriage is a "real" one.  The US and the UK have imposed minimum income/asset thresholds on the citizen spouse who is required to show that he/she can support the foreign spouse.  France interviews the spouses before the marriage and upon arrival there is an evaluation by the authorities and the migrant signs an integration contract with requirements for classes in civics and language that must be respected.  The French authorities can refuse a residency card to a migrant who does not attend the classes and is not seen to be sérieux about the process  So the "right" to join a spouse in his/her country is a qualified one and, personally, I believe that more countries will try to use these strategies in order to limit marriage migration and to have more control over which spouses are allowed to enter or stay in the country.

And this is an interesting development because I think there used to be an assumption that marriage itself was a kind of integration program.  The citizen spouse was trusted to 1. contract a legal and legitimate marriage based on feeling and not for financial/instrumental reasons and 2. would see to the integration of the spouse based on, among other things, the assumed power differential between the citizen and the foreigner.  For the state to intervene here is as much a lack of faith in its own citizens as it is suspicion of foreigners.

Are states right to be suspicious of citizens and their foreign spouses?   To a certain degree there has always been wariness.  Take, for example, the military based on foreign soil.  My sense is that even today they are not exactly encouraged to bring home foreign wives and husbands.  After World War I there was a debate in the US over the desirability of French war brides who were seen as a little too Catholic for Protestant America.  In Japan I've talked to foreigners who experienced a very chilly reception when they first met their future Japanese in-laws.  My own French mother-in-law was over the moon when she found out I was Catholic.  

But whatever the reception, once the spouse arrived and became part of the family, I think most assumed that the family would push the foreign wife/husband in the direction of integrating into the larger society.  Or perhaps they didn't think it mattered where the public face of the family was usually a male citizen who was presumed to have control of the family's public and private life.  And if the wife wasn't integrated?  Well, that just meant that he had even more of a mandate to speak for the family because she couldn't.

That is speculation on my part but I think it would be worth looking into.  There are two questions I would ask:  Do marriage migrants integrate better in the host country than other migrants?  and Is there a difference between the overall integration of male marriage migrants versus female ones?

For these questions, I can see arguments for and against.  Assuming that the citizen spouse has more power in the relationship then one might expect to see him/her making more of the decisions about what language to speak in the home, where the children will be educated, where the family goes on vacation and so on.  The culture and language of the foreign spouse can be crowded out if it is allowed to exist at all.  I knew an American woman whose husband simply refused to allow any English in their home.  I know many migrants who would have preferred a bi-lingual education for the children but the spouse was not very supportive of that and given the expense in many cases it would have been a financial stretch.  So those things would probably lead to greater integration.  The more the family publicly and privately conforms to the larger society, the more the outnumbered foreign spouse must comply.

On the other hand I can see situations where the foreign spouse is not encouraged to integrate.  It may be because the citizen spouse does not see this as his/her responsibility.  Having a foreign spouse speaking a foreign language is an advantage for the children and so he/she is encouraged to speak it at home even if the rest of the family uses the local language.  There can be a perception that the foreign spouse can't integrate and will simply mess things up if he/she is sent down to the city office to take care of family business.  Children can be embarrassed by a foreign parent who is visibly different and has an accent.  Read The American by Franz-Olivier Giesbert which is about his relationship with his immigrant American father.  And, finally, let's face it the less integrated the foreign spouse, the more the citizen spouse has power within the relationship.  And where the foreign spouse is a man in a culture where men generally have more power within the family, the citizen wife may like a marriage where she has more power than if she had married a native man.

So, yes, I think there are reasons to wonder if marriage to a native citizen is or is not conducive to greater integration.  Whether the state needs to step in to correct this is a judgment call.  On one hand I can see that treating a marriage migrant as an individual and not as spouse could be beneficial for integration, especially in a case like France where the state will help.  Insists on it, in fact, regardless of what the French citizen spouse thinks.  However, what are we then to make of the laws which give preferences to spouses for entry and the right to remain?  Let's be very clear - they are allowed to enter or stay on the basis of a relationship, not on their other merits.  Make the relationship irrelevant and many migrants could not, in fact, migrate or obtain residency status.

I wonder if we are not moving in that direction.  I can see a world where marriage migration is legally possible (those "family values") but there would be so many qualifications that it would be practically impossible for most people.  Marriage wouldn't be irrelevant but it would simply be one criteria for admission trumped by others like finances, literacy, health, and country of origin.  

And let's face it, where there are fewer international marriages, there will be a lot fewer people to integrate. 

Problem solved.

Monday, June 26, 2017

This City Was Made for Walking: The Higashi-Yokobori River

Osaka is flat and I mean FLAT.  It's great for walking or bike riding.  As I mentioned in an earlier post it's hard to get lost if you know more or less where the canals and rivers are.
This morning I set out early and followed the Higashi-Yokobori River all the way up to Nakanoshima Park where the Okawa River meets the Tosabori and Dojima Rivers (no. 9).  As you can see from the map the waterways in central Osaka form a square.  Once upon a time there were smaller canals within the square and merchants could move their products around or out of the city.  I read that most of the canals were gone by the late 1960s but there are still many small businesses and warehouses in this area though goods are now moved by truck.

The Higashi-Yokobori River route must have really been something in its day.  Every few blocks there are small bridges - some of them quite beautiful.  Alas, someone decided years ago that this was the perfect place to put an elevated freeway.  What was a nice tree-covered promenade along the canal has been closed off to the public and is untended along long stretches.  What a darn shame. The city has projects for improving it (Aqua Metropolis Osaka) but I think the freeway isn't going anywhere unless nature intervenes.  I sure wouldn't like to be anywhere near it during an earthquake.   Remember Kobe?

Here are a few pictures from this morning.  There is a happy ending to the walk - another beautiful rose garden.

The pylons for the freeway are sunk into the middle of the canal

One of the many small bridges over the canal

An old house surrounded by apartment buildings
More pylons and still water

And finally here is where the canal meets the rivers.
And here is the happy ending - the rose gardens at Nakanoshima Park

But the freeway continues....

Friday, June 23, 2017


After I published yesterday's post I received an email from a reader who expressed surprise that weightlifting was my preferred sport.  But it is, my dear Flophouse readers.  No lie.  I love the weights.

Now I agree that watching weightlifting (or American football) is about as interesting as watching paint dry.  But lifting itself is a sport that is not only extremely gratifying; it's an excellent way to counteract some of the worst side effects of my cancer treatment.

I first learned about lifting in France,  Yes, the land of wine drinkers and cheese lovers is also one that is very sportif.  For one of the best shows in town, I invite you to go stand somewhere near the Eiffel tower in the morning and watch the local fireman out for a run.  A not-to-be-missed sight for tourists and residents alike. Furthermore, my French spouse has been lifting for years, is an avid Crossfitter, and recently did the Spartan Race in Tokyo.  He had a very good score but I still winced when I saw all the bruises.

I started lifting about 7 years ago.  About the time I stopped drinking and before I was diagnosed with cancer.  I began with a Jane Fonda tape and what  you might call the "baby bells" - small dumbbells ranging from 1 - 6 kilos.  Consistency meant that I outgrew the small weights and went looking for something a little harder and I found Stumptuous, a site run by a Canadian woman lifter with advice, encouragement and challenging routines.  That was my entry into the world of Ladies who Lift which is still a tough one because sterotypes abound.  As Mistress Krista writes, "You see, dear milennial babies, there was a dark and silly time when old men in suits decreed that girlpeople could not lift heavy things at the Olympics, because lo, their uteruses would explode and all males present would spontaneously be emasculated."

That attitude is alive and well and it goes something like this: "don't lift heavy weights because you might get muscles and that's so unattractive in a woman.  The phenomenon appears to be cross-cultural; a Japanese Crossfit coach I know sometimes despairs of ever getting Japanese women into the gym because they would rather be skinny as opposed to having the beautiful muscles of a ballet dancer.  Something that is entirely within their reach, mind you, but they prefer to believe that dancers look the way they do because they eat nothing but lettuce morning, noon and night.  Right.

But forget the dancers and have a look at these lady lifters.  They are amazing.

I still enjoy Stumptous but I found my joy with The New Rules of Lifting for Women: Lift Like a Man, Look Like a Goddess by Lou Schuler, Cassandra Forsythe, and Alwyn Cosgrove.  The one bit of advice I read there that has stayed with me?  Women almost always underestimate how much weight they can safely lift.  Always go a little bit heavier than you think you can manage because, chances are, you will be pleasantly surprised.  There is a lesson in there for women and life in general and I'll let you consider the connection for yourself.

So I moved from baby bells to bigger and bigger dumbbells and finally, with Crossfit, into the world of Olympic lifting:  squats, deadlifts and so on.  My front squat still sucks but I now have a bar and weights at home so I can work on it.

Why do I like it so much?  Well, I can lift just about anywhere - at home or in a box.  Crossfit, by the way, is often criticized but one thing they do very well in the boxes I've been to in Belgium, the US and Japan is welcome women without any condescending crap.  Asshattery is not permitted in a well-run box.

Another reason is that the results are very pleasing regardless of where you start. Age is certainly no impediment.  In Seattle there was a 75 year old man and women of all ages and fitness levels in the box and, damn, was I impressed.  They could lift far more than I and with better form.  I've been thin for most of my life but I can't say that I was fit or that I am at the peak of personal fitness now.

What I can say is that around 40 beating my body into submission with a starvation level diet and cigarettes just didn't work anymore.  I was writing checks my body could no longer cash.  I was starting to get things like flabby skin under the arms.  I like that I have muscle tone in my arms and legs.  I look good in a pair of jeans (all those squats and lunges).  At 52 I can wear shorts and show off my long legs and tattoos. :-)  I can lift heavy boxes off the floor and head home from the supermarket with big bags of groceries in hand.  I can run up stairs in the metro.  I can walk for miles without getting tired.  I just feel good when I lift.  It's a huge confidence-builder to know that you are strong and not just skinny.

Most importantly, I can EAT.  You don't build muscles with lettuce and water.  You need a balanced diet with lots of protein.  Your actual bodyweight is not terribly significant so to hell with the scale. As Schuler and Cosgrove say, "The scale doesn't know what you looke like, much less how strong you are or how good you feel.  It's just number detached from context." As for this notion that you have to be fanatical about food, you learn when practicing any sport that food is primarily fuel and the effects of poor eating habits have immediate consequences;  I feel weaker when I lift after a few days of fast food or baked goods.  And the cherry on the cake I will regret eating?  I have osteoporosis and lifting and running/walking are perfect ways to combat it. Lifting is, in my case, oncologist approved.

So there you have it.  I really recommend it as a sport.  Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove just published a new lifting book for women called Strong.  I'm at Phase 1, Stage 2 in the routine and I love it. There are planks, Romanian deadlifts, goblet squats and lots of push-ups and inverted rows. It's a huge kick to watch your progress from week to week as you add plates to the bar.

As you can tell I'm pretty happy and motivated to be a lifter.  If you have liked what you have read so far but you are still on the fence about exercise in general and lifting in particular, just listen to Mistress Krista:

"Lifting weights is not rocket science. Find a heavy thing and pick it up. Put it down. Pick it up again. Rest a while. Pick it up and put it down again. Next week, try a heavier thing. Occasionally, pick up your right foot and put it in front of your left foot. Repeat with other side. Perform this alternating motion for 20 minutes a few times weekly."

"Look, honey, you only get one container. And you get what mom and dad gave you. You can make it the best possible container it can be, and love it for what it is, or you can waste your life pissing and moaning about something that isn’t possible. Control what you can control, change what you can change, and forget about all the other stuff. Celebrate health and living free of pain. Stop obsessing about BEING and LOOKING, and start DOING."

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Brexit Podcasts

My reading about current events is sporadic.  Some days I do a full pass of the newspapers and websites and some days I'd much rather dedicate the day's reading entirely to actual books with bibliographies.  Think of it as carbohydrates versus protein - an analogy that may not speak to you but makes sense in the context of my favorite sport:  weightlifting.

One topic that I do try to stay on top of is Brexit which hits so many of the themes I like to think about:  migration, citizenship, borders, integration, and disintegration.  It was also a topic mentioned by British participants in my study of Anglophones in Japan.

However, I would go blind if I tried to read all the words on the screen that have been published on the Internet and since the story is still unfolding I mistrust the books that are available.  Too soon for a deep, intelligent analysis of even why they voted to leave.  As for where Brexit is going all we have is speculation.

So I've turned to podcasts.  I like the sense of being privy to a discussion without having any obligation to contribute to it.  And they tend to be longer than an article (15 to 30 minutes) but still short enough that the contributors have to make their points clearly and succinctly.

The one I've been following for a few weeks now is The Guardian's Brexit Means....  The most recent discussion (June 19) is organized around the question:  What can we expect as the Article 50 talks begin?  At about 7:30 they touch on citizen's right and the rights of non-EU spouses. (Note that there is another, earlier podcast entirely devoted to EU citizens' rights.)  At 12:52 they talk about the Irish border.

Another that I've started following only recently because it is very new is BBC Radio 5's Brexitcast.  Their first offering is very similar to the latest one from The Guardian so you get two discussions from a UK perspective on the same topic.  Theirs is called Brexit Begins.

And this morning I found the Inside Politics podcasts on Brexit from The Irish Times.  Ireland definitely has a dog in this fight because they are in the EU and they have a very sensitive border with the UK.  The Irish Times doesn't have a Brexit series but the topic, as you can imagine, comes up often.  The latest is an interview with Fintan O'Toole, an award-winning Irish author/journalist who just received the Orwell prize for journalism.  Hell of an endorsement and I will take the time to read his work. And I call your attention to the DUP 2017 manifesto which O'Toole refers to.  It outlines their approach to Brexit on pages 18-19.  

Here is the O'Toole interview which I recommend highly to you:  Fintan O'Toole on Brexit, English Nationalism and the DUP

And now back to my books.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

From Osaka to Brussels to Canterbury

Public Domain,

"He only is a well-made man who has a good determination.  And the end of culture is not to destroy this, God forbid! but to train away all impediment and mixture, and leave nothing but pure power.  Our student must have style and determination, and be a master in his own specialty.  But, having this, he must put it behind him.  He must have a catholicity, a power to see with a free and disengaged look every object."

The Conduct of Life by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Doubt is a great impediment to determination.   The mind is not a friendly neighborhood, but a ghetto of pitfalls weighed against possibilities.

I re-entered the academic life in middle-age with a career behind me and a number of uncertain paths ahead.  I had a passion for a subject and I was content for a time just reading and writing about it in this blog. To do more would have meant choosing one path over the others with no guarantee of success.  This was the paralysis of analysis where the mind constantly explores the possibilities and ultimately rejects them all, only to revisit the matter the next day with the same result.

But as I sat still, my world changed around me.  I saw my preferred options narrowing if only for a predetermined period of time.  I began to pay attention to other voices that had been telling me for years that academia and I might be a good fit. So I applied to the school of my choice in the specialty closest to my heart, and to my surprise I was accepted as a student.

Thus began my time as a graduate student at the University of Kent Brussels School of International Studies.  I went to study International Migration but that wasn't the only education I received. I learned, for example, that my unruly mind that lived in the wreckage of the future simply didn't have the capacity to imagine all the possibilities open to me and greatly underestimated my ability to do things I had never done before.  Guided by a friend in Paris, I found a place to live and a flatmate who turned out to be one of the most delightful women I have ever met.  I could pay my rent, cook for myself, explore the city,  Perhaps at this point you are laughing - of course a grown woman can do those things.  But consider this:   at 50 I had never lived on my own.  I missed my family but I gained confidence in my ability to take care of myself.

I also learned that the voices were correct.  I could do the classwork, I could finish the required reading (though sometimes it was a struggle), I could participate in seminar and I could write those papers in the proper form with an argument and sources cited as they should be    A great deal of that success was due to humility.  I hadn't darkened the doors of academia in 30 years and that was in the American system not the British one. When I didn't know what I was doing, I asked and my professors were more than happy to help, particularly my program director, Dr. Klekowski von Koppenfels, who was very patient with my never-ending inquiries.  From here are my research questions, are any of them promising? to what citation system should I use?

Less doubt meant more determination.  Nevertheless, I was still very worried about my dissertation. I did my fieldwork in Japan and I started doing the research and setting up the study as soon as I could.  That was another exercise in humility because studies that involve human beings meant understanding research ethics and submitting the study format and questions to an ethics review board.   Graduate students are not simply loosed upon the world to ask questions of anyone, anytime, anywhere. There are rules and there is supervision.  I had no idea.

Last step was writing it up.  14,000 words more or less, a research question, an argument, data I spent weeks reviewing, literature review that places this work within a context of other works and the absolutely necessary but truly dull business of citing sources and compiling a bibliography.  Ever day was filled with anxiety watching the deadline approach and counting down the number of days I had remaining.  I was up at 5 or 6 AM every day and went to bed at 10:00 PM when I was so exhausted that my vision was blurry and everything I wrote was utter crap.  The family was kind and ignored my grumpiness; they took over the household duties and proofread when asked.  I even had a weekly skype with my thesis advisor who finally gently gave me this bit of advice:  "There are perfect dissertations, Victoria, and there are finished dissertations."

I submitted a day before the March 22nd deadline.  Still consumed with doubt I tried to reread what I had already sent and when I found a spelling error on my first pass, I decided that the insanity had to end. I closed my text and let it go. Factum es.

Since the beginning of June I have been waiting to hear if I passed or not:  checking my school email every day.  Last night the verdict appeared in my inbox and it said:  "I am pleased to inform you that you have satisfied the Examiners in the examinations for the above degree at the appropriate standard."  And not only did I pass but with "Distinction" - the highest of the three grade categories (pass and merit are the other two).

So sometime at the end of November I will be in Canterbury Cathedral in Kent for the graduation ceremony.  I never attended the one for my BA so long ago but for my MA?  I wouldn't miss it for the world.  And let's be very clear, an MA doesn't make me a master of my specialty but it has made me a better observer and researcher in all the areas that interest me.  But above all, it represents to me the triumph of determination over doubt.  I honestly did not know if I could do it.  But I did.

With a great deal of help and encouragement.  The acknowledgements in my dissertation take up nearly an entire page.  Some of them may not even remember what they said that made a difference and are oblivious to how much it stayed in my mind until I was ready to act on it.  Thank you for having faith in me.

And now, on to other things.  The gardens awaits.  The job hunt begins.  And we'll see what this middle-aged woman can make of herself now.

A suivre.....

For anyone who is interested, I feel comfortable circulating my dissertation about Anglophones in Japan.  For those of you with more experience with academia, is there a place I can upload it?  Do I have the right to do so or do I have to ask my school?  If not, just send me an email ( and I'll send you a copy with one caveat which is that I would like your thoughts and comments in return.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Bac 2017

Oh yes, it's that time again.

High school students in France are taking their final exams for their "Bac" (le baccalauréat) It is a grueling exercise that is stress for children and their parents. I lived through it twice and I am so glad I am done.   The elder Frenchling passed in 2011 and did so well that she was accepted by McGill University in Montreal.  We were and are so very proud of her.  The younger Frenchling passed in 2013 and also went off to Canada for university. We've been singing O Canada ever since but there are some days I wish we were all back in France playing on the beach in Brittany.

Le Monde has published the subjects for the June 20, 2017 exams for the Bac S, ES and L:  Physics/Chemistry, Economics and Social Sciences and Literature.  Have a look.

Bac 2017 : les sujets de physique-chimie, d’économie (SES) et de littérature

Could I answer these questions?  Not a chance, but perhaps some of you might do better.

The Meandering Path of an Eclectic Reader

I have been chided in the past for the diversity of topics on the Flophouse.  The most vocal critic died recently and I miss him.  He said that he saw potential (always gratifying to hear) and he gave me tips on how to improve this site - advice that I did not take.

My writing comes from experience married to my reading and if I were to restrict myself to one or two topics than I would feel obliged to see my experience through the prism of just a few topics and I would have to devote more of my reading specifically to them.  I suppose I do have some meta-topics in my head - some questions that I am always seeking to answer.  I do maintain two reading lists Citizenship and International Migration and the American Diaspora after all.

But I like having the liberty to discover new books, new authors and new topics, Reading widely means being able to make connections and no genre is out of bounds here.  Yes, I know that there are only so many hours in the day and I do occasionally consult lists of this or that prize-winning novel or non-fiction but I refuse to restrict myself to the opinions of the gatekeepers/critics, nor will I listen too much to those who say that a genre is "trash" and should be avoided lest one's intellectual credentials be forever tarnished.  I prefer to let one book lead me to another; I am an avid reader of bibliographies.

Just for fun today I'll tell you what I've read recently;  what led me to the book, what I thought of it, what I took away from it and where it's taking me next.

Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425 by Kyle Harper. I watched a video of a conversation between Bill Maher and Dr. Michael Dyson and I found it so intriguing that I bought and read Dyson's latest book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.  At the end of that one Dyson had a list of further reading and I went looking for them but I was frustrated because they weren't available on Kindle and hard copies would have to be ordered from the US.  But as I was looking I stumbled on Harper's book about slavery in Rome and thought Why not?  It turned out to be a very good read.

Harper says there is a difference between a slave society and a society with slaves. The late Roman Empire was the former as was, it is argued, slavery in the US.  Harper is also very clear about the paucity of sources from that era and does a thorough job of listing what does exist and its relative merits and demerits.  If you, like me, had the impression that slaves were mostly agricultural workers, think again.  In Roman times, the evidence shows that slaves could be of almost any profession:  doctors, architects, teachers as well as skilled and unskilled labor.  Think on that for a moment.  In another time your skills or knowledge would have simply upped the price for your person in a slave market.

The big question at the end of this book is Why or how did slavery end? and there are theories but no definitive answers.  Having finished that one I then went in two directions:  one toward fiction and the other toward more history.

The Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor.  This is a mystery series set in Republican Rome. The protagonist is a plebeian citizen known as Gordianus the Finder. Rollicking good reads.  It's fiction but Saylor did his research and you learn quite a lot about such things as how the Romans in this era kept time.  It's also a world where slavery is taken for granted and even a poor citizen has a slave or two. Now that one requires quite a leap of imagination because of the cultural and temporal distance. But I think of it in the light of what Raymonde Carroll says about cultural analysis:

"a method of seeing as 'normal' something that I see in people of a different culture that I initially find 'bizarre' or 'strange'. To do this, I must imagine a universe where this act that shocks me is normal, has meaning and may not even be noticed. In other words, it means that I must try to penetrate for a brief moment the cultural imagination of the other."

If indeed the past is a foreign country (as the title of a book on my to-read list suggests) this is not a bad way to approach it. Keeping in mind, of course, that an attempt to understand the past should not lead to its misuse in the present. Slavery is not somehow better because it was practiced in times past by no less than the illustrious Empire of the Romans.  "History is all things to all men.  She is at the service of good and bad causes.  In other words she is a harlot and a hireling, and for this reason she best serves those who suspect her most." (The Whig Interpretation of History.)  

Butterfield also said that "all history perpetually requires to be corrected by more history" and that led me to...

The History of Rome (books 1-5) by Livy.  Some 30 years I was forced to read excerpts from Livy but never the full text. Easier to read than I remembered but the version I selected has a good translator.   The previous books on this list made reference to things I vaguely remembered and it's nice to get the full story of Romulus, Remus and the Wolf.  I am still reading this one and I'm at book two which is also something of a revelation  You can't read it and not reflect on the state of democracies in the world today.  Some things like the disagreements between plebeians and patricians are eerily familiar as is the blood shed in the service of one political cause or another.  It's almost too close for comfort and so from time to time I need a break (a palate cleanser, if you will) and last week I turned to....

The Pheonix Pack series by Suzanne Wright.  An excellent paranormal romance series featuring a pack of wolf shifters.  (Think of what Romulus might have been had he merged with the wolf instead of simply being suckled by it.  It might have made an ever better story , but perhaps that was a bridge too far for the Romans. )   I love the series for its dysfunctional Alpha males and its very strong female protagonists.  It's pure fun - great dialogue, interesting stories, a bit of romance and some truly lurid sex scenes.  There is, in fact, one in the first book of the series which is much admired and widely-known for its eroticism but I'll let you discover it for yourself.  :-)

And there you have it, folks. That's more or less how reading works for me.

 What's next?   Well, there are 20 books on my to-read list today and I will certainly drop some and add others.  But I'm thinking about some of the descriptions of Roman building material, volcanoes and earthquakes and so maybe back to geology with The Planet in a Pebble.   Or I could continue thinking about history and the past with The Past is a Foreign Country -Revisited.  Or I could circle back and try to find a local copy of  The Peculiar Institution (Amazon Japan would have to order it and they say delivery will take 1-3 months).  Or something just might pop up as I read something else that will send me off in yet another direction.  

If you feel inspired, let me know what you're reading.  Maybe you can send me down another path.  I'd be grateful for a signpost or two.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Twilight Express

I was awake at 5 AM this morning thanks to the crows.  One bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios in me and a cuppa coffee in front of me, I am easing into the morning.  Having finished my morning reading, I'm ready to write something that you can peruse over your breakfast.  This one is for my stepfather, the man in my life who has a passion for trains.

The Japan Times reports that the new Twilight Express Mizukaze, a luxury sleeper train that leaves from Osaka, is finally on the track and taking passengers.  "The train accommodates only 34 passengers in 16 rooms. A one-night tour with a room for two costs between ¥250,000 and ¥1.25 million ($225 and $11,300), with suites starting from ¥750,000."

The last time I saw a train this luxurious it was parked in Train World, a train museum in Brussels. Just goes to show you how little I know - luxury trains are not solely a 19th/early 20th century form of elite travel.   This site has a list  of  elegant 21st century train travel possibilities from the Al Andulus in Spain to  the Tsars Gold Trans-Siberian (China, Mongolia, Russia).  Pick one at random and dream a little on a Monday morning.

And then, if you like, you can go to the Twilight Express website and watch their video (a nicely done advertisement). But, personally I much preferred  this bit of reporting from Japanese television (February 2017) which not only takes you on two tours of the interiors of the cars but has reactions and commentary.  You don't need to speak Japanese to share in the appreciation and pleasure.  Enjoy.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Osaka: Utsubo Park

"Osaka is notorious for its lack of green, quiet spaces."

Osaka’s west side story by Eric Johnston, Japan Times, 2004

Indeed, Osaka is a pretty gritty city.  Think commerce and industry.  Think working-class.  Walk down almost any street here and count the small warehouses and mom and pop businesses.  Go for a run or walk in the early morning and expect to share the sidewalk with people headed to work.  Drive a friend to the international airport KIX and pass by industrial scenes worthy of a Mad Max movie.

In Paris I orient myself around the metro stations.  In Osaka I use the canals.  This map of my neighborhood is from the Meiji period and, yes, the canals are still there as are many others around the city.
1877 (Meiji 10) Map of Osaka: 1. Nagahori; 2. Shinsaibashi; 3. Dotonbori; 4. Ebisubashi from
Is Osaka a beautiful city?  Not if you're looking for old architecture. Old Osaka and her inhabitants were heavily bombed by the United States (my country of origin) in 1945 and once they put out the fires and buried the dead, this is what was left:
But they rebuilt and the result is an interesting city.  I run and walk the streets here at all hours and I am never ever bored.  People nod and say "Good morning."  They seem amused by this middle-aged American out running in the heat (or the cold). And I in turn watch them.  The very attractive and well-muscled young Japanese man bidding farewell and bowing to a a lithe and lovely lady of the evening.

And then there are green spaces which are all the more magnificent for being relatively rare.  There is Osaka Castle, Nagai and Nakonoshima parks and there is not a week that goes by where I don't walk one of them.  And, finally, there is Utsubo Park which is a jewel with trees and paths and a rose garden so beautiful that it breaks my heart. Here, too, its existence owes something to an earlier, deadlier time:  it was constructed on the site of a former U.S. army airfield.  Today, it is quiet and green and has fountains and streams. 

I will leave you today with a few pictures of my last visit.  Bon weekend, everyone.