Seal Press put out Expat: Women’s True Tales of Life Abroad years ago, and I’ve savored it with an essay here and there ever since. This collection of essays pokes at your brain without over-romanticizing life abroad. Actually, tales of foreign flings may be the only thing lacking.
In the context of their respective host countries, these writers pull out their past like a slide in a magnifying glass. Some take the reader very close and others keep a safe distance, but they all dissect a time when the day-to-day often entailed being lost, shocked and awed.
As with any collection, some essays resonated with me more than others. Tonya Ward Singer (A Taste of Home) is in China when she gets a craving for roasted chicken. Never mind that she’s never had the urge to cook this dish for herself before. She sets out to a market only to discover that buying meat in China is not the wrapped-in-plastic clean and convenient experience she’s used to. This quest to re-create something familiar that was never fully appreciated at home is pretty funny.
Leza Lowitz (13 Ways of Looking at a Blackboard) gives an amusing lament about teaching English literature at a university in Japan. Upon arriving, she learns that attending university is synonymous with a few years of constant partying before submitting to a disciplined life of all work no play. Lowitz spends much of her time trying to draw out her students so they’ll express an opinion. It was only when she yielded that a miracle happened and they began making casual observations about how stories reflect life. Success!
Emily Wise Miller shares without shame her love of cheesy American movies as comforting reminders of home. I couldn’t relate (lie) and have never enjoyed a Van Damme movie ever (lie).
Foodies will adore Mandy Dowd’s piece (A Mediterranean Thanksgiving, Take Two) on a Mediterranean Thanksgiving and the differences between American and French feasts. In reading it, I had to give points to her French friends who didn’t understand why we work so hard to put all of the dishes on the table at the exact same time. You and I know it’s for the glory of getting a little taste of everything on the same forkful, but they didn’t get the appeal.
Dowd explains how the French do their feasts in courses with plenty of wine and conversation in between. Hmmm. I’ve always wanted to share a holiday meal in courses so it will take almost as long to eat it as it does to prepare it. I will try to try this, but will probably get out-voted by my brutish sisters. (“Out-voted” is a civilized way of saying we arm wrestle for things and they are freakishly strong.)
Angeli Primlani’s essay (When the Skinheads Start to Grow Hair, It’s Time to Leave Town) about living in Prague surprised and angered and saddened me. Czechs mistook her for Romani so she experienced much of the blatant discrimination and threats Romani in the Czech Republic dealt with daily then (I think she said it was the 90s). This was a time when the hate party began winning seats in office. Primlani wrote that 90% of the Romani population in the Czech Republic were wiped out during the holocaust. Violence against the Romani continues to this day in parts of Eastern and Central Europe – several incidents in Hungary made headlines this year.
Fun highlights of the book include Laura Folken’s piece (Watching Them Grow Up) on child rearing Egyptian-style: much more relaxed and free, they consider parenting a communal activity, one of watching not raising.
Juleigh Howard-Hobson’s (Never-Never) takes you from her childhood in the heavily Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn to a surprisingly happy life in Australia, to a semi-reluctant life in California. Sort of written like a love letter to her time in Austrailia, her story waxes nostalgic about the quirks of Aussie speak and odd foods (yes, she ate vegimite). Really enjoyed this one, but I was shocked that she neglected to praise the Lamington (Tuck Shop in NYC has the very best).
Emmeline Chang (Beautiful New World) tells of living in Taipei as a young American-Taiwanese and trying not to be a tourist. She struggles to express herself in a new language, and has a quiet moment of finally realizing that she’s surrounded by visions of beauty – Taiwanese movie stars, models and rock singers – that looked like her. This note touches on something many children of immigrants seem to express:
I could not return to my parents former lives, but by crossing over to see what the other trajectory had yielded - and by living in this place – I could triangulate back towards some vision of the place we all come from.
These essays do a lot more than re-hash travel tales. Many give you a sense of what it was like to be a foreigner in the respective country with all of fears and confusion that come along. If you enjoy eclectic travel essays, you’ll like this book. It’s also handy to have in your head should you need to segue a conversation to Jean-Claude Van Damme’s filmography or the dire need for more wine at dinner.