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

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Fall of Language in an Age of English

I arrived at the Worst Airport in the World  Friday night.  The bored official at French immigration took my passport, casually flipped it open for all of two seconds, and then handed it back to me.  He must have wanted to go home as badly as I did after a 12 hour flight from Kansai International to Charles De Gaulle.

It's nice and not so nice to be home.  The nice parts are:  listening to a language I understand and speak, being able to read street signs without mental effort, and seeing my house and garden in all their summer glory.  The latter will keep me busy the two weeks I am here because there is a lot of pruning and weeding and cleaning up to do.

The not so nice part is the reason I'm here:  tests all next week at the cancer clinic René Huguenin.  PET scans, bone scans, blood tests all culminating in a visit with my oncologist where we read the results together and I either get another 6-month reprieve, or I don't.  Inshallah.

My two antidotes for stress are gardening and reading.  Over the past month or so there were one or two books I read that really got the grey matter stirring. Books with ideas that keep coming back to me at odd moments - when I'm digging weeds or hacking away at an out of control fruit tree.

Minae Mizumura is a Japanese novelist with a fascinating personal history and a glittering resume.  Born in the 1950's in Japan, she moved to New York, USA with her family when she was 12 years old.  After surviving American high school she went on to study French at Yale University.  She returned to Japan when she was in her early 30's and embarked on a very successful writing career writing in her native language, Japanese. She has won many awards, taught at both Stanford and Princeton, and was the resident novelist at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

The Fall of Language in an Age of English is a deeply personal book.  Using her own life experience she describes what it is like to be a reluctant speaker of what she calls the Universal Language (English).  "There has never before been," she says, "a universal language of this scale, a language that is not confined to any one geographical location, however vast, but sits atop all other languages and circulates throughout the entire world."  The consequences of this for her personally and for other writers around the world who write in their native languages are many and not always positive.  If nothing else, her book makes this point with crystal clarity,  and her words cut like a knife through the insouciance (and sometimes outright smugness) of the privileged native speakers of English in an ever more globalized world. 

Mizumura is one who resisted English for many years.  She chose to learn French, she admits, because it was the anti-English, and because she could not see herself as a Spanish or Russian speaker.  That admission encapsulates a mental world where languages are ranked in a global hierarchy, and where blood and place of origin link an individual to the language or languages that one "should" or "should not" speak.  To be French means being a francophone; to be Japanese means to speak Japanese.  Out of this supposedly comes the national literature - the literary canon which defines a nation and makes for a shared conversation among its members.

It is really as simple and tidy as all that?   To accept the above as gospel truth a lot of things have to be ignored or forgotten: that until relatively recently many French in France did not speak French, that today one can be a French citizen with a French passport and not speak a word of the language of Molière, that some of the most competent French speakers come from other countries like North Africa, and that a few years ago a novel, Les Bienveillantes, written in French by an American won the grand prix du roman de l'Académie française and the prix Goncourt.

And in Japan there are many foreigners who have lived there long-term who speak, read and write exquisite Japanese in spite of the difficulty of learning that language and its multiple scripts. Most are not Japanese citizens but there are some exceptions.   Donald Keene, a veteran of the US Navy and Shincho Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature at Columbia University is a Person of Cultural Merit in Japan and has been recognized for his outstanding skill in and knowledge of Japanese and his promotion of that language with many awards and Japanese citizenship,

So if English supposedly sits at the top of the global language hierarchy (a hubristic notion worthy of wince or two) because it is both universal and exceptional - it has become completely disconnected from any one place or one people - it does not necessarily follow that all other languages are in the process of "falling" and becoming merely local languages with no prestige or attraction or usefulness. This is not to deny her arguments which are well-made, and her perspective which is as true as any other personal story told from where one sits and projects oneself out into the world.  

But they are not the whole story as any migrant or second-language learner knows.  And from my perspective as both of those things I find that I simply cannot agree with  Mizumura when she says:  "One's identity derives not from one's nation or blood but from the language one uses."  To that I would counter with the more subtle and wiser words of the eminent anthropologist Clifford Geertz:
“For any speaker of it, a given language is at once either more or less his own or more or less someone else’s, and either more or less cosmopolitan or more or less parochial - a borrowing or a heritage; a passport or a citadel. The question of whether, when, and for what purposes to use it is thus also a question of how far a people should form itself by the bent of its genius and how far by the demand of its times.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Third Place: Perspectives, Myths, Limits

For many many years my life was lived between two countries:  the United States and France.  All other places lived at the periphery of my vision;  they existed but they were not immediately relevant.  I was not interested or curious about how one might live or land a job in South America, or what it might be like to be married to a Russian a Chinese or even a fellow American.  Some choices, once made, are irreversible.  I can no longer be a person who never left her home country to live elsewhere.  I also cannot go back in time and choose another country as my first destination. For me it will always be France.

With the addition of a Third Place, Japan, and the breaking of the limited and binary US and/or France perspective, how has that changed the way I think about my past and present experience?

Three-point perspective:   With a move to France I learned that the world is much larger than just the North American continent.  With the move to Japan I see that the world is much much larger than Europe and North America.  At any time I can take a look at present and past experience from any point on the triangle:  American, long-term resident of France and short-term resident of Japan.  What does Japan look like from a French perspective?  From an American one?    In this way I can contrast and compare;  see convergences, see differences.

From an American standpoint France and Japan appear to be high-context (versus low-context) cultures.  An awful lot of what goes on in daily life in both countries has a hidden context that has to be learned over years of exposure and trial and error. Learning the language is a necessary, but not sufficient condition to be able to function in society since what is said does not necessarily correlate with what one is meant to hear or understand.   I read an argument to that effect many years ago in a book by E.T. Hall and mentally shelved it at the time as an interesting, but not terribly pertinent, proposition.   Dusting it off and looking at it again after 6 months in Osaka, I think Hall was definitely on to something.  

The act of mentally moving from one point to another on the triangle yields insights that simply can't be perceived from just one, or even two, perspectives.  I wonder what would happen to the triangle if it became a square with the addition of a Fourth Place?

Myth of uniqueness:  This, I am finding, is a very common ailment among long-term residents who come from developed countries and call themselves "expatriates."  I suffered from it for years in France and it was a huge shock to my ego when I finally met other Americans. Brits, Mexicans and other nationalities who came to France 20 years or more before I did, were also married to Frenchmen and women, and were well-integrated, worked and spoke excellent French.  It shattered my personal myth of uniqueness that held that my Hero's Journey was somehow different and that I was on the road less-traveled.  

I came to Japan with some vestiges of that (which I am not proud of).  While I was willing to concede in France that I was in no way superior or inferior to my fellow migrants/expatriates, I did start mentally positioning myself as different in relation to expatriates/migrants in Japan.  The process might have come to a hubristic conclusion if I had stayed in splendid isolation and not bothered to try and make contact with other migrants/expatriates.  It took just a few meetings and conversations with long-term  expats married to Japanese nationals to rightsize me.  Different countries and cultures?  Absolutely.  But very similar concerns, problems, and satisfactions.  Like learning a new language,  raising multi-lingual/multi-cultural children,  deskilling, cross-cultural marriages, life as the foreign spouse, immigration formalities, citizenship versus residency, the different status of men versus women in the host country.

I was stunned by how much we had in common and how much I learned from the differences we exposed to each other.  And ever since I have this fantasy where members of the Association of American Wives of Europeans fly in to Tokyo to meet the members of the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese; or folks from the Society of Writers, Editors and Translators in Japan flying into Paris to meet their counterparts in the Hexagon.    

The limits of knowledge and experience:  A life now split between three countries and yet I realize how little I know about any of them.  Though I spent my formative years in the US, I hardly know that country at all.  I know exactly two cities (Olympia and Seattle) and one region.   As for the rest of the country, I know next to nothing about the major cities like New York or San Francisco.  People who live in the South, the Midwest, the East Coast are foreign to me.  Even if I had never left the US and decided to migrate from one region to another there is no way I would have experienced every place or met every different kind of American.

Exactly the same is true of France after 20 years living there.  I have not seen every city or every region.  I know well only a very tiny percentage of the total population.  I will never know even a fraction of the 65 million people there, nor will I ever have the chance to live and integrate into every corner and sub-culture of the Hexagon.  It is simply not possible in one lifetime.  Not even for the native citizens themselves, which is a reason among others that the notion of "Imagined Communities" is still as relevant (and troubling) today as it was back in 1983 (the year I graduated from high school).

So I approach Japan with the recognition that however long I stay here, be it 3 or 30 years, I will never know everything there is to know about this country just as I don't know everything there is to know about France or the United States.  There will always be blanks and blind spots behind me wherever I go;  places I could have gone and people I might have met.

It took arriving in a Third Place for me to come to the rather humbling realization that if the world is a library, then I will only ever read a limited number of volumes.  I don't necessarily find that discouraging.  In my middle years I have learned that progress is all that is required, not perfection; and that life is always manageable and deeply satisfying if I just take it one book and one country at a time.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Izumisano Fish Market

Sunday morning the other residents of the Flophouse in Osaka wheedled me into a trip to Izumisano Fisheries Cooperative Open-Air Fish Market out near the Kansai airport.  Resistance was futile and after fortifying me with lots of coffee and last night's tempura take-out, they finally got me out of the house and into the car by noon. 

"What's the big deal," I thought. "I'm from Seattle which has the coolest fish market around."  So cool that it gave me right to be snooty about the Paris area which has no fresh fish markets worthy of the name.  

"And we have to drive out there," I grumbled.  Oh, the horror.  Actually, given the way my French spouse drives it is pretty horrible.    Ever see the way French drivers spin around the rond-point of the Arc de Triomphe at high speed cutting off other cars and flipping everyone off?  Like that.  He drives like that in Osaka.   When (not if) we are stopped by a Japanese traffic cop, I have a sad tale all ready to tell about how this dumb Americaijin was suckered into the car by this devious driving demon from Furansu.

The Izumisano fish market was worth it.  The market itself is on the ground floor and is small enough to feel cozy and not overwhelming.  The fish were so fresh that some of them were still twitching on the ice upon which they were so carefully and artfully laid.  Prices were good, too.  10 gambas (big shrimp) for 1,500 Yen (about 10 Euros).    


We asked the younger Frenchling to select a fish for her Going Away Dinner (she leaves this week).  We think it's tuna.  No matter because when in doubt I just use the James Beard method for cooking fish.  Works every time.


And to expiate his driving sins, we made the Frenchman clean it.

Next to the fish market is the marina with the Japanese fishing boats tied to the dock.  It was quite a sight - I had never seen one up close. 



A couple months ago the remains of a Japanese fishing boat was found floating off the coast of Oregon, USA near Ona Beach.  NPR reported that the vessel was one of many that cut loose and were lost after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.  There it was four years later on the US West coast "carrying a small diaspora of live yellowtail jack fish, native to east Asian waters..."

The remains of the boat, they said, were to be brought in to port and identified.  No mention, however, was made of what happened to the travelers after the biologists determined that "the attached organisms pose little threat to the Oregon coast ecosystem."  

The attached organisms?  They are called "fish," folks.  And I sincerely hope that someone had the good sense to take nature's bounty (the flip side of nature's wrath) home as we did this weekend and cook it up for dinner.

Friday, June 5, 2015

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 people 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.   A Flophouse reader says the Routledge website indicates that this one will be published on November 30th 2015.

*********************************************************
General books:

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.

**************************************
Autobiographies:

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 perservered 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.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Osaka: A Great Place to Get a Tattoo

When we were visiting Nara the other day, we stopped for a picnic lunch in a local park.  As I was chatting with one of my spouse's Japanese colleagues about her time in LA over some really awful white bread sandwiches, the conversation suddenly stopped dead..  I looked up and this nice young lady (and her little dog, too) was staring at the tattoo on my leg. "You have a tattoo!"  she exclaimed.

Well, yes, clearly I do, miss, because you are looking right at it. (And the young think us oldsters are slow.)

Feeling both perverse and amused, I rolled up my pant leg and gave her the full view.  And then I pulled my shirt off my shoulder and showed her the other one (my bluebells).  "Look, mom, TWO tattoos."

No, I didn't say that (but I wanted to).  Then the younger Frenchling got into the act and showed off her glorious cherry blossoms which run from her shoulder to the center of her chest.  We were having a fine time and then I went a bridge too far.  I turned to my spouse and said, "And he has..."

At which point my spouse (her boss) gave me a glare that said that right now would be a very good time for me to shut up.  So I did.

I have not been in Japan long enough to understand all the cultural baggage around tattoos.  The reactions I've seen range from horrified fascination to "So what."  I do know that places like public baths can refuse people sporting ink.  Has to do with organized crime, I hear.  I'm sure that some Flophouse Japanese near-native reader can clue us all in.

Some families have shared interests like camping, hiking, books, drawing each other's blood over the dinner table.  Our family gets tattoos.  We all have them (even Mr. I Am Gainfully Employed) and most were done in Seattle.  Mine were done at Two Birds Tattoo and Super Genius.  The latter had one artist, Ashley, who has become a favorite of the Frenchlings - she does amazing work.

So trust the Frenchlings to find a tattoo place in Osaka.  It's called Three Tides Tattoo and it's about a 20 minute walk from our house.

Last night we leisurely strolled over to that side of the neighborhood and walked into their studio.   I installed myself downstairs on a comfy window seat and the younger Frenchling bounced upstairs to get her fourth (or is it fifth?) tattoo.


Very nice.  So nice that her mom intends to go back for a consultation.  There is this scar, you see, that marks the spot where the chemo shunt was inserted and later removed. It's not pretty.  Not that I need an excuse, mind you.    This body of mine went through the cancer wars and emerged in its present state.  After everything that was done to it, what joy it gives me to have bright colors and pretty patterns imprinted on it by choice.

I am mindful of the cultural associations that go with tattoos - be they images of bikers, prisoners on parole or yakuza - but I don't lose any sleep over them.  As a former foot soldier for international capitalism, I learned a lesson long ago that the really Bad Elements don't advertise evil affiliations and intentions with tattoos or piercings or  baggy pants.  Sometimes they show up wearing suits and ties.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Earth Moved

About an hour ago as my daughter and I sat in the blue chairs reading and my spouse was watching his evening action movie, our 28-floor apartment building began to rock back and forth like a big creepy cradle.  The dining room ceiling light swayed.

"Earthquake,"  my daughter said.  And we all looked at each other and hung on for the ride which seemed to go on and on and on.

Low in intensity; but long in duration.

It finally stopped and we all leapt up and grabbed our me-machines to find out what the heck had happened and where.

A 7.8 and the epicenter was out in the Pacific Ocean (south of us).  The Japan Meteorological Society website has this map showing where it all began at 20:24 (x marks the spot).  Note that by the time it arrived chez nous, it was a 2 or 3 (maybe even a 4).

We were hardly alone in being jolted out of our evening routine.  This graphic from Fark Japan Quake map shows just how far and wide this one was felt.




Will the Fun Ever End? Possible New US Person Reporting Requirement

Some mornings I read some delightful missive in my inbox, and then I put down my coffee, walk over to the nearest wall, and knock my head against it.  Made for a very satisfying thunk back in Versailles where the walls were 1929 solid.  Not nearly as effective in my modern Osaka apartment since the room dividers are covered in cheesy thick white wallpaper which cushions the blow.

But I make do.

So what had me banging my head against a wall this morning?  A possible new US Person reporting requirement.

According to Allison Christians, a McGill University tax law professor and all around Fine Person (she loans me books and buys me coffee) based in Montreal, Canada, reports that the US Bureau of Economic Analysis  has decided to make its bureaucratic life easier, and by extension other people's lives much harder.

Their form (and isn't there always a damn dead tree form?) Benchmark Survey of U.S. Direct Investment Abroad, the BE-10a-d, was used by the BEA to gather information about US investments outside the Land of the Free.  It was voluntary;  now it's required.  The due date for new filers of this form is June 30, 2015 - the very same day millions of US Persons around the world must have completed their Fincen 114 reporting (aka FBARs).

Christians says that the now mandatory BE-10 filing concerns "any US Person that directly or indirectly held 10% or more of the voting securities ("US Reporter") of any non-U.S. business enterprise (a “Foreign Affiliate”). There are no de minimis exceptions: no matter how small your nonUS corporation might be (or have been-you must file for the year even if the corporation ceases to exist), you must report or face the penalty."

The penalty for non-filing is "$2,500 to $25,000 for nonfiling, plus $10,000, or a year in jail, or both, if the nonfiling was wilful."

That's the bare bones info.  I imagine that most of you have just one burning question and that is:  Does this filing requirement apply to US Person me, my investments, and my small non-US family business or consulting company?   Once my head stopped spinning from all that wall banging, I watched this BEA video and, for the life of me, I couldn't figure it out. Christians herself is looking into it, and if it isn't obvious to a professor of tax law, then no wonder little ol' me is confused.




Just out of curiosity, were any of you Costco (or local equivalent) shoppers out there aware of this?   Did anyone send you a note, give you a heads-up, cc you on the memo?    Or are you reading it here for the first time?

Because, setting aside for the moment the question Is this reporting necessary? (for some reason that escapes us peons) this highlights once again that there is a serious communication gap here between the homeland and Americans abroad.  Did the people at BEA think for two seconds that there might be 8 million US citizens and Green Card holders abroad (not to mentions those living in the US) potentially affected by this requirement?  And if those 8 million+ people were taken into consideration, might that not change how the requirement was designed, implemented and communicated to the population concerned?

It's not just the BEA but the entire US government that needs to get a grip on globalization and the fact that it has a Domestic Abroad, a population that does not live in the US and may never ever live there.  Yes, taking them into account makes things messy and harder to implement but if laws, policies and regulations are applied to these people regardless of where they live, and they run the risk of draconian fines or jail time for failure to comply, then, at minimum, government has an obligation to clarify and inform.

And don't give me that "ignorance of the law is no excuse" crapola.  According to one source, US Federal law has over 23,000 pages in 50 volumes.    The US tax code alone is over 7,500 pages written in the weirdest, obscurest language comprehensible only to a small, select group of scribes (some of whom charge 500 Euros an hour for the "translation").   With numbers like that ignorance isn't a choice, it's a chronic condition.

What to do?  Instead of roiling in fear and frustration one option is for us to start banging on their walls instead.  BEA has a contact email: be10/11@bea.gov and a phone number (202) 606-5566.  Ask for clarification and be sure to get them to put it in writing that you do or do not have to file this pesky form.  Let them know that you are not the only US Person abroad asking these questions and suggest that they provide additional information on their website pertinent to US Persons who do not live in the US. And then send everything to your US Congresspersons so that they are in the loop as well.

Maybe it will work and maybe it won't.  It's worth a try, if for no other reason than the possibility that sending those emails might just assuage some frustration and save a wall or two.

Update:  Professor Christian has updated her post and says that, as far as she can tell from the instructions, non-resident US citizens are not required to submit this form.  Between you and me, I would still ask them directly and extract an answer in writing.  Cover your ass?  Absolutely.