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

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Now We Are "Endorsing Tax Evasion"?

A few days ago Ms. Rebecca Wilkins, executive director of the Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency Coalition, wrote an ill-considered and insulting editorial in support of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act which was published in The Hill, a blog for politicians and their staffers in Washington, D.C.

She really put her foot in it and she's still smelling her shoe - angry comments and emails are flying at her from all around the world pointing out the unintended consequences of this very broadly written extra-territorial law.

Her claim that being against FATCA is akin to endorsing tax evasion is about as silly as me claiming that she is for FATCA because she's a shill for the compliance industry (FATCATS of another sort).

I will put this as plainly as I can, Ms. Wilkins, FATCA is a very bad law with a slew of unintended consequences. It is not a well-designed net,  it is a fine-meshed trawl that indiscriminately hauls in the minnows and the plankton along with the whales, leaving devastation in its wake.

Somehow it escaped the notice of Congress, President Obama, and now you, Ms. Wilkins, that there are 7 million Americans working and living abroad, most of whom work as teachers, translators, and artists.  FATCA makes no distinction between "wealthy Americans [who] hide their assets and use offshore accounts to evade tax" and English teachers in Eastern Europe or France or Korea holding basic savings and checking accounts and the local equivalent of an IRA in the country where they actually live.

FATCA falls on the just and the unjust alike (but the unjust have better lawyers).  Right now it's everyone's  foreign-to-the-US-but-local-to-them checking, savings and retirement accounts abroad that are in peril because of FATCA.  The choices that Americans abroad are having to make as a result are ghastly:  your house or your US citizenship;  your retirement savings or your US citizenship;  your marriage or your US citizenship.

This is why Americans abroad, Ms. Wilkins, get a little testy when you write something that extols the virtues of FATCA and say that anyone who is against it is in cahoots with the criminals.  Those are fighting words these days.  Opposition to the law has united Americans abroad all over the world and you are hearing their voices from Canada and China, France and Finland, Vietnam and Venezuela.  These minnows are not "for tax evasion", they just want the country they have been loyal to to fix the mess you and other homeland zealots created.

They are asking for something you should understand very well because you say you are for it too:

Justice.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Hafu

There are a lot of expat/migrant memoirs out there written in the first person singular.  But the "I" they use incessantly (and that itself says something about the culture they came from) is misleading because every individual living outside his home country is, in fact, entangled in a new network of friends, family, and colleagues in the host country.  

So the question I always have when I read them is:  What would a memoir written by the native spouse or the children of this bi-cultural/bi-national union have to say?  Especially the children.

One powerful and illuminating read from this perspective is Franz-Olivier Giesbert's The American. In this memoir, FOG talks about growing up in France with a French mother and an American father- a US military veteran who landed on Omaha beach in Normandy, France on June 6th 1944. It is a brutal read.  Mixed in with the stories of his difficult relationship with his immigrant patriarch are his experiences as a child of two cultures in the Hexagon and his impressions of the other country in his life, the United States:  this place where he was born that loomed large in his imagination, but where he did not spend his formative years.

I was talking to a friend this morning and she mentioned a film that came out just a few years ago about bi-cultural, mixed-race children in Japan.  Now Giesbert's father was a European-American and so the mix was not obvious to the eye.  The children of European and other ancestries in Japan are called Hafu and are mixed-race in addition to  being bi-cultural and/or bi-lingual.  This means that difference is visible.  

Hafu is a documentary about these visible products of migration and is told from their perspective.  I'm going to try to see the film and give you my impressions.  In the meantime, here are a few videos I found on the Net that I thought were interesting and worth watching.  Enjoy and if you have a moment, please share your comments about them.




Friday, March 27, 2015

While We Wait for Spring

This is from James and I am posting it here for those of us who are living in northern climes where spring is just the barest promise.

Below is The Floating Flower Garden - an interactive space you can visit in Tokyo with "2,300 Suspended Flowers by Japanese Art Collective teamLab" (video and description by Johnny Strategy up on Colossal).

Virtual, but mighty pretty, too.

Before viewing perhaps this excerpt from M. J. Lermontov's poem Demon will put you in that sultry, spring-like state of mind until the much-awaited season's kaleidoscope of colors finally bursts forth in your corner of the world:

"With richest colours, like a carpet, shot,
Of earth the choicest, fairest, happiest spot.
Enchanted castles, crystal streams, that strayed
Mid jewelled pebbles and sweet music made;
Bowers of roses, where the nightingale
Sings to his mate unheeding of love's tale,
The sycamores with ivy crowned, the glade
Where timid hinds at noontide seek the shade.
The rustling leaves, the breath of myriad flowers.
Murmurous with bees, the glow of sultry hours."


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Three Cities, Three Memories

Seattle, USA - sometime in the 1980s

Disco had died and grunge was just getting started.  The socially inept, and those of us pretending to be serious students, could still play speed chess at coffee shops like The Last Exit on Brooklyn.  We sipped our coffee while skipping classes because we had far more important things to do like prove our intellectual prowess in endless polemical debates, and throw about whatever names we had picked up in the few classes we actually showed up for.  If we could score at the same time, all the better.  More than one scruffy long-haired gentleman or Birkenstock shod damsel did very well with the opposite (or same) sex on the basis of the ability to spin a good argument and reference the approved literature - mostly dead French philosophers.  

People in Seattle were very serious about not taking things seriously.  Tucked up in that little northwest corner of the United States, it was far enough from Washington and the Wicked East so that everyone felt pretty safe sticking their finger in the eye of authority and having some fun doing it.   The real enemy was California and all those awful immigrants fleeing Lotus Land and driving housing prices through the roof.  A columnist in the local newspaper led a campaign to convince them to stay home where they belonged;  but his ire had a tongue-in-cheek tone to it and we all had a good laugh while we sold our houses to them for wildly inflated prices.

I worked at being a sexy Seattle student:  I haunted the bookstores, smoked my clove cigarettes, and shopped at Goodwill (or Nordstrom) like every young female in my age cohort; but that didn't mean I was above resorting to animal-tested chemical products.  When my Nordic genes lost the battle and my hair went from blond to dirty dishwasher brown, I started dyeing it.  Following the code of not-so-serious delicious difference, I didn't just color it (so middle-class) I had to have a short flaming auburn do, a tail of many colors, and a white streak flowing along my bangs from the part to my ear highlighting the three fake gold stud earrings on each side.

The man who made this possible, who made me, in fact, look far better than I deserved, was my hairdresser at Chris' hair salon on Capitol Hill.  The prices were good but the company was even better.  Like the coffee shops, it was a place where the chatter never stopped and the clients and the stylists happily interrupted each other's conversations to make a point or a throw out a witty riposte.  What the client walked out with was the result of a collaboration between the client and the stylist.  I told Roger what I had in mind and then he gave me his opinion and we went back and forth until we were mutually satisfied.

"Relax.  It's hair.  It grows out."  Such reassuring words for an insecure young woman with an intellectual superiority complex - one who wanted so desperately to be different like everybody else, but who also wanted someone to hold her hand while she was plumbing the depths of la Différence.

Suresnes, France-  sometime in the first decade of the 21st century

Suresnes, a city of 45,000 people on the outskirts of Paris:  a banlieue that was both too close and too far from the big city.  Too close to afford a house and a garden;  too far to be able to see a movie, go to a museum or have a coffee on a nice tree-lined boulevard.

Some of the architecture was interesting, most of it resembled upscale versions of the HLMs (low-income housing) in the poorer suburbs.  The denizens all dressed alike.  For work the men wore dark suits, and the women wore short black skirts and white blouses with blazers - the chador would have been a fashion revolution, and would have at least added an element of interest to this bleak and boring style parade.

It was a middle-class city which meant the worst of all worlds.  A little more money would have bought luxury, a little less might have meant some fun.  The middle gets neither of these things - just inconvenience, avarice and insecurity.

It was a place with a lot of  implicit rules enforced mostly with sharp glares and sniffs.  When that didn't suffice, the indirect agressive approach was used - the appeal to authority.  Put the bike or the laundry out on the balcony and one could expect a visit forthwith from the gardien.  Not his idea, but always the result of a complaint from someone in the building who wasn't brave enough to knock on someone's door and talk to them directly.  

These rules, never openly outlined for a newcomer, had to be learned though torturous negative feedback.  I removed all but one of the stud earrings. I bought black skirts, white blouses and heels in order to blend better.  I learned to walk at a fast clip down the street, looking straight ahead and never smiling or starting a conversation with anyone.  And when I was about to lose my mind in that intellectual desert, I went into Paris and walked the streets dreaming of coffee-houses and chess players.

One cultural academy where this young migrant picked up some of those unwritten laws was the hair salon.  This is where I learned that the customer is an idiot.  Here is the expert coiffeur standing behind the client who knows nothing and can be counted on only to make very bad choices and must be educated.  "I'd like it short, please," says the timid young American woman with roots that must be covered before the job interview.  "No, Madame! You'll look like a boy." cries the coiffeuse.  "But I like it short, " says the American woman who has the mistaken impression that what she wants matters here.  (She was also thinking that if having short hair meant she looked like a boy then the men she has met so far in France are gay.)   "I won't cut it that way," snorts the hair stylist, and that was the end of that.

Yesterday in Osaka, Japan 

Osaka is a big city in the Kansai region of Japan.  Looking at it from above, it's a concrete jungle - grey and Stalinesque.  Go down to street-level, however, and it's filled with shops and bustling, busy streets.  Since it's flat walking is easy but watch out for the bicycles.  These people are demon drivers and when one hears the "dring" of a bell behind, it behooves the poor pedestrian to move quickly to the left.

I've only been here two months which is far too short a time to say much more.  But yesterday a haircut and color was necessary.  My natural color of muddy-brown hair is only a distant memory now, and what remains when I dare to look closely is salt and pepper.

I made the appointment in the morning and arrived at 3:30 sharp in the afternoon.  The receptionist whisked away my purse and coat and I was ushered immediately  to a chair where I met the stylist, a very competent English speaker.  And there I refound my whimsy and desire do things a little differently.  "Red," I said.  "And short, please."  To my delight he agreed and then he deftly steered me to a color he thought was right for me.

Appeased, I stopped thinking and started enjoying the experience.  It was beautifully coordinated with one person adroitly picking up where the other left off.   At every step in the process I was asked if I was comfortable and was there anything I needed.  I was a bit startled by this and couldn't think of anything.  Sometimes just having someone listen is everything.

So now I'm a redhead with boyish short hair.  It's not the same cut as I had in Seattle, but then I'm not in Seattle and I am not 20 years old.  I'm here, loving where I'm from and trying to bloom yet again where I've been planted.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Magnificent Minoo Park

Monday, I was a woman with a mission.  Wearing my brand new Asics Fieldwalkers, a friend and I hopped a train out of Umeda station to our target destination:  Minoo-shi, a small city north of Osaka, population 129,000.

We weren't there to see the city, we went to hike the Minoo Park Trail.  The Internet sites I consulted said it was an easy one and they were right - about 3 kilometers over easy terrain.  There were a few steps and some steep inclines, but overall it was pretty smooth.  There were grandmas on the trail with us who were doing just fine (and, sad to say, some of them walked faster, too).

None of the sites I consulted, however, conveyed just how glorious the park was.  Even in early early spring before the trees begin to bloom, it was beautiful and filled with things to stop and admire.

If you want to see the park in its glory (spring, summer, and early fall), there are many pictures posted on the Internet for your viewing pleasure.  But if you want to see what it looks like now, take a glance at a few of the many photos I took as we ambled along.  Even in the off-season, Minoo Park was magnificent.









To my surprise (and after I had taken that picture of the "say no evil" monkey) I started seeing live ones everywhere grooming themselves on the rooftops and sitting in the trees next to the waterfall staring down at us with a kind of evil intelligence in their eyes.

The next day when I was getting my nails done (and if you have never had a manicure done in Japan, put that at the top of your list of Things to Do because nobody does it better), I told the lovely young woman that I had been to Minoo Park.  She grimaced and spat out, "Monkeys!"  From that I gather that I am not the only one to find them a bit off-putting.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

FATCA: Silence, Supplicants, and Scaffolds

The American Diaspora Tax War continues.  Nearly five years after President Obama signed the HIRE Act and the now infamous Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) into law, Americans abroad still struggle to be heard in the homeland and still suffer the negative unintended consequences of this nasty little piece of extra-territorial legislation.  The most serious repercussion is discrimination on the basis of national origin.  Banks outside the US are denying basic banking services to individuals for no other reason than their US nationality or some connection to the United States .

Americans in the homeland argue that Americans abroad ought to be paying taxes to the land of the free because we are said to be under the protection of the mighty United States in our host countries.   We are still waiting to see what that "protection" consists of.  When banks can post notes on the Internet that say "We do not offer our services to US citizens"  and the US government does not respond, how are we to interpret the silence?  Without descending into utter paranoia, one conclusion is that we are citizens not worth defending.  This conjecture does not inspire us to that unflinching loyalty we are expected to demonstrate in our words and by our conduct living abroad.

But conjecture is all we have.  We read tea-leaves and consult oracles. If this goes on much longer we'll be sacrificing small animals and making predictions from the entrails.

A few weeks ago yet another group of supplicants went forth and walked the halls of Washington.  This annual pilgrimage by Americans abroad organizations is called Overseas Americans Week - a Je vous ai compris affair where the politicians make polite noises and get to feel all international meeting people who live (imagine that!) outside the United States.  What do we get out of it? More cryptic messages from the heart of the beast,  Something about how they can't do anything until they have more information?  How interesting.  That's what they said last year.

At least Senator Elizabeth Warren was more forthcoming in her reply to Donna Lane Nelson.  She gets points for honesty.  Yes, the letter says, it is a pity that FATCA is causing problems for US Persons, but it's worth it.  For her a potential 100 billion in tax revenue trumps 7 million Americans abroad hands down.  And that should be all any American abroad who votes in her state needs to know.

And if that elusive 100 billion in lost tax revenue turns out to be a chimera?  A wild ass guess thrown out in a meeting in Washington, D.C. years ago that has been repeated so many times it has become gospel truth?   We must admit that it makes for a fabulous sound bite, but where are the studies that prove that this number is true?  Where is the hard data that makes this number credible?  And yet Warren takes them at their word (Treasury says so, so it must be true) and pronounces FATCA a necessary tool in the fight against overseas tax evasion.

But Warren won't take the word of her constituents abroad in this matter and the US government wants Americans abroad to get cracking and prove they are being discriminated against with hard data:  something that it absolves itself from providing to citizens.   Frankly all anyone needs to do to find "No US citizens need apply" banks around the world is Google.  

What happens next if the coffers are still empty and all the US government has managed to do with their revolutionary system of information exchange is to alienate millions of American citizens around the world and lose many of them to other countries?    That is just as likely a scenario as the one that giddily promises homeland Americans that America's fiscal future and way of life will be saved if some unknown unquantifiable population out there in the world gets frisked by foreign financial institutions.

Or, put more eloquently by Edgar Quinet:  "How long will you go repeating this strange nonsense that all the scaffolds were necessary to save the Revolution, which was not saved?"

********************************************
And here is Mark Twain over at the Isaac Brock Society with a link that traces the provenance of that 70/100/150 billion figure that everyone's throwing around:  The Source of the Standard Offshore Lie.  A must read.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Weekend in Kyoto

"Kyoto was planned on a grid pattern with wide avenues crossing each others at right angles.  Between those avenues, and parallel with them, ran narrower lanes.  Wooded hills enclose the city to the east, north and west;  and it originally lay between the Kamo and Katsura rivers.  Kyoto, too, has had changes of fortune during its twelve centuries of existence, but it has never been merely a large town.  With its distinctive charm, large population, and general busyness it has remained one of the world's perennial cities."

A History of Japan:  Revised Edition
R.H.P. Mason & J.G. Caiger

Kyoto is the city where you go to see your fantasies of Japan come to life.  Small streets and stately shrines, young women in brightly colored kimonos and  older women in somber but elegant ones, are but a few of the visual delights the city has to offer.

There is surely more to the city than just living anachronisms and yet the temptation to pretend that time has stopped here is not easily resisted.  Perhaps the casual visitor is better off not trying. Fantasy, after all, is not a thought crime;  pleasure is not a modern mortal sin.

We belong to a France/Japan friendship society and last weekend the organizers invited us to spend a day in this city which is a mere 30 minutes by fast train from its sister metropolis Osaka.

The day began at a very reasonable morning hour at the main gate of the Kennin-ji temple.  About twenty Japanese, one French and one American shivered in the cold air and huddled under umbrellas to escape the chill rain before our guide arrived to lead us to one of the sub-temples.  Shoeless but not coat less, we were left to admire the garden while the organizers went to inform the temple clergy that we had arrived.


Once we had filled our senses (and taken many pictures) we were gently encouraged to enter a large room filled with cushions overlooking the garden.  Instructions were provided beforehand (in French) and a good thing, too;  only one person in the group had any experience at all in Buddhist temples and knew the rituals and customs.


Once we were seated, the vice-abbot Toryo Ito arrived to lead us in a hour of guided zazen meditation.

It all began with a very low bow to the sensei.  He completed our initial instructions with his own How It Works:  the bell, the incense, the posture(s) and the stick.  The stick?  

Oh yes.  If we found ourselves unable to just be - to stop our minds and seek that still place - we could signal the master and he would come over and give us a couple of sharp raps on the shoulders.

Some were brave enough to be struck.  Most of us just tried to sit as still as possible, and clear our minds. (Keeping them clear was surprisingly difficult.)  When we heard the bell ring, we were done.

Then it was out the temple and down the street for lunch at Tsu Da Ro:  an Edo period tea house that now serves as a restaurant. We were enjoying each other's company so much that we continued down the road after lunch to a coffee shop where we caught a glimpse of a Shinto wedding party.  The young woman we saw climbing the stairs to the second floor wore white and looked like this:

Photo from www.pinterest.com

After we reluctantly broke up the party in the late afternoon, my spouse and I walked along the river for a time, and then took a taxi to our hotel Nenrinbo, a Japanese-style hotel nestled in the foothills of the mountains that surround the city.  It was the off-season so I had the onsen, the communal bath, all to myself.

We slept on futons and came down to breakfast the next morning in our slippers and yukatas.  It was a copious, delicious meal but it lacked one item that we Franco-Americans found we couldn't do without:  coffee.

So we checked out and had the taxi driver drop us off at a coffee shop near our train station in the center of town.

Fortified by our caffeine shot, we got on the train and headed home.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Love, Bloom, Be and Belong

If there had been a test for Personality Type Most Likely to Succeed Abroad, I would have flunked it. Prone to depression with a strong tendency to self-flagellate, this subject has low tolerance for uncertainty and a high need for approval from external sources.  Yes, professor, that sounds about right.

This was the baggage of the mind that I brought to my new life in my new country. And these were the things that kept me awake asking existential questions at 3 o'clock in the morning.

But chances are that everything you or I have ever felt, every situation we have ever encountered living abroad, has been experienced by at least one of the 232 million other migrants/expatriates in the world today.

That number says that we are not alone or unique. Every one of those 232 million people went abroad and had to find ways to survive long enough to thrive.  Transplants, every one.  Just like you and me.

Here is what I would say if I could go back in time and talk to the 24-year-old woman from Seattle that I was.  Three things.  The first is about my relationship to where I came from;  the second is about coping in a new country; and the third is something positive I can do to affirm my identity when I feel lost and isolated.

Love Where You Are From:  Every place has its merits and demerits, but where you came from has a huge place in your heart.  Maybe that country has terrible politics,  limited economic opportunity and is guilty of a million awful "isms" - it is still where you came from, where life began for you.

You will never be able to shake all the original soil off your roots and you will do yourself enormous psychological damage if you try.

(And never let anyone tell you that you can't love it because you left it.)

Bloom Where You Are Planted:  How does a weak and fragile human transplant become a sturdy shrub?  By recognizing that it can't grow in the dark.  That sooner or later it has to put down roots.

We need other people the way plants need sun.   Assume goodwill and connect, connect, connect in any way you can.,  Consider the people you meet in the new country as shy snakes - they are probably just as uncertain of you as you are of them.  Always say "yes" when people reach out to you. Train yourself to not worry too much about what other people are thinking; it's not really your business, nor is it all that important.

There is an ecosystem out there.  Join it.

Do a Daily Identity Exam: This  idea comes from Amin Maalouf and it's the perfect exercise for countering that loss of identity and sense of isolation.
"I search my memory to flush out the maximum number of elements of my identity, I put them together, I align them, and I deny none of them. Each one of my adherences connects me to a large number of people; however, the more groups I belong to, the more my identity proves to be specific. 
Thanks to all my adherences, taken separately, I have a certain relationship with a large number of people like me; thanks to the same elements, taken all together, I have my own identity, which can never be confused with any other."
Yes, you will always be your very own unique tree which will never prevent you from being part of many forests.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Invention of Tradition

A curious title of a book I picked up a few days ago.  It caught my eye as I was trolling for my next read in the usual places.  When I saw that it was edited by Eric Hobsbawm, I bit the hook.

How can a tradition be invented?  The word implies continuity - something we do today that has its roots in the past.  It's supposed to be an unbroken chain from our ancestors to us and our job is simply to cherish it and pass it along to the next generation.

Saying that a tradition is invented is to call into question its authenticity.  It's no longer something we receive as a gift from our forefathers, but an artificial construct shaped and sold to us gullible moderns in order to further a social or political agenda.

That is exactly what Hobsbawm and company are saying:  that many traditions we hold dear were deliberately created for a particular purpose.  And that purpose was not at all about honoring the past;  it was about shaping the present.

Old countries that gradually became nation-states reached back into their pasts to find rituals that could be manipulated to give an illusion of continuity.  David Cannadine's essay about the British monarchy between 1820 and 1977 shows how the coronation ceremonies of the monarchs changed over time in response to modern realities.  When the political power of the monarchy was still formidable, a coronation was a more or less private event attended by the ruling classes:  the aristocracy, the church and the royal family.  It was their tradition, not that of the common people.   At that time (with one exception under George IV) there was no interest in making this ceremony a grand public occasion.

Cannadine talks about the sheer incompetence of the clergy in the performance of  ritual and the low quality of the music.  "For the majority of the great royal pageants staged during the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century oscillated between farce and fiasco."  Drunk coffin-bearers, fights, gate-crashing and general ineptness made these ceremonies something far less than solemn and dignified.  Following much self-flagellation, the consensus at the time was that the British people had no talent whatsoever for pomp.

Tell that to the millions of people who watched the glorious, glittering and flawlessly-executed wedding of Di and Charles in 1981.  Today the ceremonies around the British royal family are a kind of gold standard for public pageantry.  What happened?  Cannadine argues that as the real power of the monarchy waned, and political and social instability rose, "the deliberate ceremonial presentation of an impotent but venerated monarch as a unifying symbol of permanence and national continuity became both possible and necessary."

What we see today on television bears no resemblance to what the same ceremony would have looked liked in the early years of the nineteenth century.  And if we went farther back than that who knows what we might find?  Yes, there is continuity here in the sense that the methodology for anointing a new monarch has been around forever, but the ceremonies broadcast for the viewing pleasure of the masses are a fairly recent innovation, not a tradition.

Compare this use of tradition with that of new nation-states:  ones that are young and don't have much of a collective past to draw on or those that want to distance themselves from a past they don't like.  It's not just countries like The United States, Australia or Canada, but also France and Scotland.  Bastille Day is an invented tradition that began in 1880, almost 100 years after the actual event.  The custom of wearing the kilt (philibeg) was, according to Hugh Trevor -Roper, the invention of an Englishman in the early 18th century.

Part of making Americans (or Canadian and Italians) was coming up with unifying symbols and rituals that everyone could participate in and rally around.  They were all invented at one time or another. Think of the power of Thanksgiving in the U.S.  In 2014 46 million U.S. citizens filled the airports and the highways to go home and have a meal with their families. (Just think of the carbon footprint.)   The day did not even become a national holiday until 1941, but the tradition is taught in schools and is presented as a recreation of a seminal event that occurred in the 17th century, years before the United States came into existence as a country .  (And somehow I really doubt that the Pilgrims  made green pea and pink marshmallow salad the way my grandmother did.)

Why is cherry-picking the past so powerful?   Because whatever our claims to being modern and enlightened, we are susceptible to an emotional appeal to the past.  Conservatives, take heart!  There is still reverence for the old ways.  They are hardly alone in perceiving anachronisms as virtuous - just try taking away some of the rituals and symbols that are part of the civil religion of secular nation-states and listen to the collective howl.

Even people with very new ideas point to the past for legitimacy.  We have a tradition of  [insert idea here] in this country.  People use this argument in support of such diverse concepts as multiculturalism, religious tolerance, bi-lingualism, mono-lingualism, and secularism.  A solid strategy in support of such causes but also a dangerous one because there are simply too many unsavory ideas that others can point to and say that these too have been the custom of the country since time immemorial.

The thing that holds people together in a country is definitely not "the rational calculation of their individual members." That said, do we work with the irrational or against it?  I agree that there are "great forces in heaven and earth that man's philosophy cannot plumb or fathom."  One of those forces is that we are hardwired to want continuity to counter uncertainty.  I would go so far as to say that in so many ways we are better when we feel part of something larger than ourselves.  We need rituals, symbols, customs and traditions and when we don't have them in our lives, we make them up.  It's not a bad thing, it's a human thing.  Or so I think.

What I am more skeptical of, after finishing this fine volume of essays by nit-picking academics, are efforts to manipulate the past in order to further an agenda which may serve an interest but not necessarily a positive collective one.

So when an American politician starts using the "Founding Fathers" as an appeal for some cause that he espouses, that's a sign that we should be extra careful about what he really wants from us.  This holds true everywhere powerful symbols from the past are being evoked.  They may have a more recent pedigree than we think.   And we can perfectly well continue to genuflect in their direction while asking sharp questions of those who would use and misuse them.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Telling Our Stories in Our Own Words

Mawuna Koutonin's article in The Guardian was the perfect catalyst for me to re-examine my own feelings about those words and my own life trajectory.  When I was a college student I had no intention of leaving Seattle.  I assumed I would travel because that's something my family does.  But I never anticipated packing up and moving to another country.  Not in my wildest childhood dreams did I think that the words migrant or expatriate would ever apply to me.  How did it happen?  It was just one damn thing after another that led to one move and then another, and now here I am in Osaka, Japan.  

Koutonin's words touched a nerve in me and thousands of other people.  The words we use to describe ourselves are a signal to the world about how we interpret our experience and what kind of person we think we are.  When someone uses a word we don't like to describe us, we get really bent out of shape.  We have this horror of being misunderstood or misinterpreted - of having someone pin a label on us and make assumptions about our motives and who we are.  

Putting aside the arguments over the precise meanings of expatriate, migrant and immigrant/emigrant, another way to approach it is for each of us to explain what we are trying to say when we apply these words to ourselves.  This is not about right or wrong - this is Allow Me to Show You What I Mean by Telling a Story.  So let me tell you the story of how I've used those words (which I realize has never been consistent).  And then I'd like to hear yours.

When I first left my home country, I was very young and scared.  I had just finished university in my hometown and the only trips out of the US I had ever made were to British Columbia, Canada.  The ideas that I had about France and the French were informed by the language classes I took, the one or two French citizens I'd met, and the many books I read.  The word I might have used at the time was adventurer - here I was going off to this exciting, exotic place to live with high (and as it turned out) unrealistic expectations.  I would not have used the word expatriate to describe myself.  

Expatriate, in my mind, meant famous people like Hemingway, and this young woman from Seattle could not even pretend to be in that class of individual.  I was simply off to have a fine adventure and I didn't want to think too much about what that meant at the time and would mean to me over years.  

Migrant or immigrant would not have worked either because that implied to me an intention to stay in that country and make it my home. Even after I landed in Paris, I simply was not ready to make a long-term commitment.to a place I knew so little about. I was young and in love, the family was more than welcoming and I thought the country was beautiful.  Good enough.


The differences between my vision of France and the reality became apparent quite quickly and the awareness of just how hard it was going to be to make a life there was almost overwhelming. I would describe my feelings at the time as alternating between anxious and angry.  Finding a job was difficult since my French was poor and my credentials frequently misinterpreted.  Obtaining my residency card meant going to a clinic that resembled a factory processing cattle for a medical exam - the sheer humiliation of being part of a human assembly line waiting to be x-rayed and being asked intrusive personal questions by the immigration officials.  I may not have called myself an immigrant but I was treated as one and that was that.

And then there was the sense that my entire world had turned upside down and I could no longer do anything right. Life seemed to be an endless series of encounters where I was corrected or admonished for using the wrong words, not doing the proper thing or simply not understanding fast enough for the people around me. In this sea of uncertainty I clung to what I was, an American abroad, with all the desperation of the survivor of a shipwreck clinging to a lifeboat.  

Things got better.  I learned to revel in being different and I finally started expressing some of my repressed anger.  If the French weren't going to allow me to integrate (and that was the impression I had) and I had no chance of becoming one of them, then I was going to give them exactly what they seemed to want.  The word I used at the time with a sort of perverse pleasure was Exotic Beast and even guest:  this was a statement of superiority and an in-your-face expression of difference. 

That didn't last because who wants to live forever separate from the people around her?  It takes a lot of energy to keep saying to everyone, "I'm not like you."  Feelings aren't facts and I admitted to myself that maybe I misinterpreted the native citizen's motives. The resentment washed away and in its place was a strong attachment to the country and its people. I started thinking about becoming a citizen and eventually made my way down to the prefecture to ask about it.  It was at that time that I began to call myself an immigrant or migrant.  This was me saying that I was ready to make the commitment I avoided so many years ago.  

It was also an expression of solidarity - an admission that I am no different from all the other people from Algeria or China or Canada that I meet in the prefecture   I am not special, my experience is not unique.  Talking with them as we wait for the wheels of the French bureaucracy to spin,  I've learned that we have a lot in common. 

Yes, that was a revelation to me and who the hell did I think I was to assume otherwise?  And it is this experience that made Mawuna Koutonin's article so meaningful to me.   Yes, I've done that - the distancing dance.  And I directed it both toward my fellow migrants in France and against the native French as well.   It came from a place of anger and insecurity.  It was driven entirely by fear.

Today I'm living in Osaka, Japan.  This was something of a surprise but here we are.  My spouse is an inter-company transfer and we will be going home (that means France) at some point.  This is temporary and that changes everything for me.  I don't feel angry or anxious.  I'm not worried about integrating.  I will learn as much of the language as I can but it's not a matter of survival because I can't work here.  

My expectations are low and I'm learning to just accept what the universe offers me every day.  The word I use to describe myself now is expatriate which to me means temporary resident for a limited purpose and on someone else's dime.  And I feel a sense of deep relief when I use that word because it means I can relax.  I have nothing to prove here and I can kick back and enjoy the ride.

Reading over what I have written, I can see that the way I use the words guest, expatriate and immigrant is always dependent on my personal context and whatever meaning I was trying to convey at the time.  I went from thinking of an expatriate as an Ernest Hemingway when I was a 24 year old college graduate, to using it to describe myself at 50. I won't even try to convince you that it makes any sense at all.

It's just my story and I'm sticking to it.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Immigrants versus Expatriates

“The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad."

Mark Twain
The Innocents Abroad


One of the most asinine acts of those who go abroad from developed countries is this attempt to dodge terms. People who come from less exalted nations are immigrants; we are expatriates.

A recent article in The Guardian by an African journalist made that point in no uncertain terms, and it was about time, too. There is nothing neutral here; "immigrant" and "expatriate" are loaded with meaning.  Reflecting on why one would choose one or the other (or why we allow other people to use one or the other when referring to us) reveals not just global hierarchies that promote privilege for some, but also our relationships with both our home and host countries.

Distancing Starts at Home:  Mawuna Koutonin challenged developed countries and their migrants on how they use these terms as distancing tactics: "Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’."

As hard as that it is to hear, he's right.  The starting point is the attitude toward immigrants in the country of origin;  the world in which they were the natives.  In developed countries there is always an archetype of The Immigrant - usually someone who comes from a developing country.  Talk about immigration in the US, and it's all about people from Central and South America  In France, it's the image of someone from North Africa.

The general perception is that immigrants are a problem to be solved and that is just as true of the citizens who are ostensibly pro-immigration as it is of those who are adamantly against letting them in in the first place.  This position of privilege is taken for granted and is justified by any number of questionable rationalizations of which the most common is simply the "we were here first" argument.

Signalling the Host Country:  When a first world person moves to another country, all the images and perception of immigrants informed by the home country debates travel with him.  On top of those come the host country attitudes toward immigrants which may be hauntingly familiar: debates about integration, the burden on the social service networks,  and competition for jobs.  What the developed country migrant is trying to convey toward host country citizens when he uses words like "expatriate" and "guest" is:   I am not a problem and your internal immigration debates have nothing to do with me.

It is one group of migrants agreeing with the native citizens that immigrants are a problem and then trying to get themselves put in a different category in order to get better treatment. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. Koutonin talks about certain groups enjoying "the privileges of a racist system" and he's right that this happens.  However, the granting of such privileges remains in the hands of the host country nationals and can be something of a crapshoot.  Strenuously insisting on superior difference can be a sign of insecurity - having left the relative safety of the home territory, all migrants are unsure how they will be treated in the destination country.

Signalling the Home Country:  There is another reason why someone from a developed country might prefer "expatriates" to "migrants" and this comes from the fact that the home country is developed and relatively powerful in the world.    Powerful enough to reach into another country and make demands of its nationals there.  Some of these countries are not happy at all with citizens who leave and they try to discern if these migrants/expatriates are just sojourning abroad for a time or if they really have immigrated and are living permanently in another country.  Home country government and citizens tend to react badly to the latter;  it calls into question their own superiority in the hierarchy of nations.

In this context "expat" sends a very different signal than "immigrant".  It implies that the migration is a temporary thing and that the individual has some intention of returning at some future time.  It has an open-endedness that is very different from the term "immigrant" which is used in a lot of countries (especially in countries of immigration like the United States)  to mean permanent settlement and the path to citizenship.  It is the rare developed country expatriate/migrant who wants to openly tell the home country, "I am migrating and I am not planning on coming back."  There is a hint of danger in that, and fear that a powerful country might decide to act against the emigrants in some way.

It's hard for citizens of developed countries to be stripped of citizenship but that does not mean that the home government cannot indirectly force the issue by making policies that encourage its emigrants to give it up or return home, more or less voluntarily.  And there are other repercussions that are entirely within the power of a powerful nation-state to inflict on people whose behaviour it doesn't like.  It is a delicate dance and it might surprise Koutonin to know that citizens of developed countries are very wary of their own governments and feel the need to hide their true intentions behind ambiguous language.

 Koutonin pulled no punches in his piece which generated over 2000 comments.  This is just the beginning of the conversation and let's hope that it continues. If those of us from developed countries living abroad started eschewing the term "expatriate"  and started using "migrant" instead, we could do a lot to challenge home and host country assumptions about immigrants and strike a powerful blow against racism wherever we live. The next time we hear someone claiming something about "those damn immigrants"  tell him or her that you are one and quietly ask him what his problem is.  Do not let him or her off the hook when he replies, "Well, I'm not talking about you."

Oh yes, sir, you are.

**********************************************
Flophouse post from July 2013 about this very topic  Expats, Exbrats and Guests.

Friday, March 13, 2015

One Good Read Leads to Another

If I don't pay attention my entire time in Osaka will be spent reading in my blue chair.  Not that having my nose in a book is a bad thing but the muscles tend to atrophy if I don't get out of the house and walk every few days.  Same for the social skills which degrade through want of contact with other human beings.

When I was a kid, I did exactly the same thing.  I'd sit in my room all day reading until my father would come up and kick me out of the house mumbling something about getting outside in the fresh air and playing with the neighborhood kids.  Which I did, and even enjoyed.

But I wasn't happy in my own skin and other kids made me feel awkward and socially inept.  At 50 I do not have a single friend from my childhood days.  I don't even remember their names.

But I do remember the first time I read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein.  I reread that one in paperback until the cover fell off.  So it's fair to say that my best friends, the ones I've kept for decades, are stories written down on dead trees.

According to my Goodreads list I have read 116 books this year.  Don't get too excited because not all those books were hard reads.  I'm an eclectic reader and my tastes range from paranormal romance to scholarly works on international migration.  It's all good because within each genre there are authors who shine so bright.  Whenever I read something by Nalini Singh I sigh and say to myself, "God, I wish I could write like that."  I am in awe of the research done by Nancy Green or Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels and their ability to produce books that are readable and enjoyable for a non-academic, general reader like myself.

Out of those 116 books which ones are my new friends and which ones were people I wish I'd never met?  I won't waste words on the latter.  In fact I don't think I've ever written a review panning a book I didn't like.  I just can't do it.  Writing is hard.  Putting yourself out there is painful.  Anyone who has that kind of courage has my admiration even if I don't personally care for the result.

So here are a few I liked (where one book led to another) and I'll do my best to explain why.

Cultural Amnesia:  Notes in the Margin of My Time by Clive James.  This man is a brilliant essay writer - every single one is well-crafted.  So well-crafted that I can't read too many of them at one time - it's like standing in the sun too long. I started this book over a week ago and I'm only halfway through.    In each essay James talks about a person - famous, infamous, and someone he thinks should be pulled out of the obscurity that was his or her lot when died died.  It's in alpha order and if we peek at the M's, for example, we'll meet Norman Mailer, Michael Mann, Chris Marker, Czeslaw Milosz, Montesquieu and a few others.  "Meet" is the correct word here - we can't pretend to know these people or their work through James' words.  He's just telling us what he thinks of them and what they accomplished in their sometimes very short lifetimes.  It's up to us to further the acquantaince.    So far I've been moved by James to read two books that I had never heard of:  one by an author I know a little about and another by someone completely unknown to me.

The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald (edited by Edmund Wilson).  In my time The Great Gatsby was required reading in high school.  I have no idea if that's still true but having been forced to read it as part of my American Catholic convent school education,  I never picked up another book by Fitzgerald until The Crack-Up - though I did re-read The Great Gatsby last year and still don't get why it is claimed to be one of the Greatest American Novels Ever Written.

I did not enjoy most of The Crack-Up (the book).  In particular his letters to fellow authors and friends were boring.  Yes, they were well-written but I'm not at all interested in reading Gertrude's Stein's letter to him telling him how wonderful he was.  Two things saved the book for me:  the actual essay called "The Crack-Up" in which Ftizgerald lets it all hang out: depression, anger, self-loathing, sense of failure.   "In the dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning, day after day."  Yes sir, it most surely is.

The other was a poem at the end written by his friend Edmund Wilson and I have read these lines over and over again:

"The hour of utter destitution
When the soul knows the horror of its
loss
And knows the world too poor
For restitution.

Past three o'clock
And not yet four-
When not pity, pride,
Or being brave,
Fortune, friendship, forgetfulness of
drudgery
Or of drug avails, for all has been tried,
And nothing avails to save
This soul from recognition of its night."

Beautiful.

Journey Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg.  This is the memoir of a woman who was arrested during Stalin's purges in the 1930's and sent off to prison and camps where she languished for 18 years.  I'm assuming (though Amazon does not say) that this is a translation.  It's a good read - the prose style is a perfect match  for the story.  This is her personal catastrophe where she lost everything - work, spouse, children, reputation -  and she describes how it happened simply and with such clarity. A pleasure to read and I did so in one sitting.  

I really sat up and paid attention during the part of the book that described her arrest, interrogation and trial.  Nearly 90 years later and totalitarian systems may be long gone, but the totalitarian impulse is alive and well.  Worlds where the law is what the powerful say it is and can be changed arbitrarily (or applied in some cases and not others), where accusations of wrongdoing are rampant and innocence is irrelevant, where people get caught up in a political or bureaucratic machine that simply spins and spits a broken person out, where those lucky enough to escape it say to themselves that there is no smoke without a fire and X must be a terrorist or an "enemy of the state"  because the powers-that-be are basically benevolent and wouldn't do this to someone who is blameless?  Seen any of this around lately?  I have.

All those people who end up no-fly lists for no reason that they can discern and no one will tell them?  Citizens who get deported even though they have proof that they are citizens?   Millions of people presumed guilty of criminal activity and lumped into a group labelled "tax evaders" (the new "enemy of the people").  Protests are met with sly statements that if they don't cooperate in the "war of the day" then they clearly have something to hide.

And just as the loyal, "I will die for the Party" Ginzburg was stunned to be labelled an evil counter-revolutionary based on no reason she could find, so are ordinary people astounded to wake up one morning and discover that they are awaiting deportation, signing away their rights, and being refused travel or basic bank accounts.  Granted, in our day none of these things is a death sentence or 20 years in a work camp but I get the impression that there are still plenty of  True Believers out there who are nostalgic for the Good Old Days of the 20th century.

These books led me to other books which filled my to-read folder very quickly.  And isn't it pure joy when that happens?  Reading Fitzgerald reminded me that I hadn't read anything by Robert Graves in years.  So I added Count Belisarius and started reading last night.  So far I find it disappointing.  Can anyone tell me if it is worth soldiering on and giving it a chance?   The Demon by M.J. Lermontov is also on the list.  And one that James mentioned about the life of Lady Hoshokawa Gracia which I can't find (a play written by a Catholic priest?) but it looks like there are many books about her and if anyone can recommend one in particular in a language I understand (French or English), I would be most grateful.

 I don't want to give you the mistaken impression that I have some sort of impossible standard that I'm trying to meet when I read.  I'm just not that virtuous (or pretentious).  When I pick up a book I am hoping for a future friend, not someone whose name I can drop.  

So let me balance the above with a few other books that I am reading or desperately want to read:    The Courage to Write by Ralph Keyes (self-help for writers), Dark Instinct by Suzanne Wright (x-rated paranormal romance), Magic Shifts by Ilona Andrews (brilliant urban fantasy) and The Blood Mirror by Brent Weeks (publication date is 2016 and I want to kill the son of a bitch for making me wait so long for volume 4 in this fantasy series).

I am going to stop there and give you a chance to tell me what you are reading. Have a great weekend, everyone.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Others

A recent op-ed by a Japanese author  is making its way around the world.  Ayako Sono is a well-known novelist and a Person of Cultural Merit here in Japan.  The opinions she expressed in her article touched on topics that are controversial in many countries:  immigration and race.

Whatever she was trying to convey to her own country, the message quickly slipped the leash and was received in a multitude of contexts that nevertheless have a common theme:  the national debates found the world over about how to manage migration and integrate migrants and their children into host societies.

The outrage over her remarks marks the boundaries of what is and is not acceptable in the public debate over immigration in so many countries.  Segregation has terrible connotations for a very good reason: it's been tried and the repercussions of such policies still haunt some countries and their citizens today.  Of the many criticisms that can be directed against her commentary, lack of originality is surely the easiest one to make.

Ms. Sono has been asked to expand on her comments or give interviews to explain her position and how she came to the conclusions she expressed in that rather short opinion piece.  She has refused. Perhaps a better way to approach her would be to ask her to do what she evidently does best:  write a novel.

But a bad idea is still a bad idea whether it's propagated though fiction or an op-ed piece!  Fair enough.  And yet wouldn't it be interesting to know what she thinks Japan might look like if people were indeed sorted by race into residential areas?  How would that differ from countries where such a thing already exists and is an unfortunate fact on the ground?  And finally, what does she imagine is going on in the minds of native citizens and migrants alike that leads her to believe that both would find this a better state of affairs?

In fiction an author can conduct a thought experiment on just about any controversial topic.   Fantasy, in particular, is good for this because it gives us even more distance to examine ideas and events as they play out in an alternate universe.  A good example pertinent to this discussion is Anne Bishop's fantasy series known as The Others.

In her books Bishop indirectly addresses migration, colonialism, discrimination, integration, separatism and even genocide.    Impossible to know her personal opinion about those things, but it is interesting that her most sympathetic characters in this imaginary world are ones that hold beliefs that we would find horrendous if we heard them on the street or read them in an op-ed in The New York Times.  I am still a bit bemused that I made it through three volumes without noticing that I was rooting for those characters who were contemplating the extermination of another sentient species:  human beings who The Others refer to as "the clever meat."  And one of the questions I am still asking myself is this:  why does mass murder seem palatable, and even rational, when those espousing it have tails and use telepathy to communicate?

Because it's just a story, right?  And here we see the power of good fiction that beguiles us into revisiting old ideas in fresh guises.  We may still come down against them in the end but we are forced to work for it and that's always a useful exercise.

It's a pity that Ms. Sono put her ideas in an tweetable opinion piece.  A more thoughtful expression of her opinions that used her talents as a novelist might have elicited more thoughtful responses, and started a conversation as opposed to shutting one down.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Shoes Fit

What's up with the list thing on the Internet?   "10 Things" this and "Top 20" that.  The format certainly catches our attention (and it's all about attention)  if for no other reason than these titles assure us that whatever the content, it will be limited to those 5, 10 or 20 items and not one more.  If it's good, it's easy to remember; and if it's dreadful, the pain and boredom is limited.  A futile attempt at time management in the time sink that is the on-line life?

A few days ago a reader posted a link to such a list entitled The 10 Gaijin You Meet in Japan.  Gaijin is a Japanese word for "foreigner" and it's not a nice word.  I used it once to refer to myself in a conversation and my Japanese drinking buddies reacted badly.  "Don't use that word," they said.  "Why not?" I replied. "You use it."

In the spirit of linguistic and cultural appropriation, we foreigners own that word now and use it freely when we talk to or about each other. And this list is all about one gaijin talking about other gaijins for general edification and amusement.

It is a diverting list in a Paul Fussell sort of way.  Fussell was a keen and cruel observer of  human grandiosity and he did the witty, cutting, ego-deflating smack down quite well.  The fact that he was a class-conscious snob (and an ass to boot) has never lessened my pleasure at his genuinely funny and erudite commentary.

The 10 Gaijin is not that funny or well-written.  But that doesn't mean it isn't worth reading.

How many of us approached this list hoping that we would be entertained by the folly and bad behaviour of other people?  Because, of course, none of us ever acts abroad in a way that might bring blushes to the cheeks of our compatriots or fellow foreigners.  Nor do we have anything in common with each other besides the visas in our passports.  We are original, authentic people having an original and authentic experience and our behaviour is just fine, always, and beyond even the gentlest mockery.  

My own sense of specialness took a blow when the mild amusement I was feeling reading the list was abruptly cut short by a flash of recognition at  #8, the "My-Japans".  Replace "Japan" with "France" and the shoes fit.  That's an uncomfortable admission to make and my first reaction was to take off those sexy black pumps and throw them at the author's head.

Not so fast. The author may own his own words on the Net but he's not responsible for my reaction to them. And why, pray tell,  am I reacting to them with such indignation?  Because I can see myself here and I don't care for the reflection.

There is a sense of pride that we long-term expats/migrants feel after spending years integrating into a new country and culture and by God, we want points for the effort (because we sure aren't getting much applause from the natives).  Nothing is more aggravating then the newly-arrived, puppy-dog earnest, inexperienced compatriot who doesn't give us the recognition that we think we are due. And so we shut them down or attempt to cut them down to size.

As recently as a few months ago I engaged in this kind of mindful malice at a party in Paris.  When a person with less time in France informed me that she loved her Parisian neighborhood because there were no Americans in it, I took a perverse pleasure in gleefully pointing out that I had American friends living right next door to her.  Fussell would have been proud.

Am I the only long-term expatriate/migrant in the whole wide world who ever did such a thoroughly obnoxious thing? No, and I know this because it was done to me when I first arrived in France and it made me feel small and stupid. And I really resented it at the time.   Fast forward about 20 years and here I was inflicting it on someone else.

That appalling bit of self-revelation made The 10 Gaijin worth the read for me. As an old lady trying to get into Heaven now (also known as trying to clean up her act in anticipation of the day she gets the definitive answer to the question Is There a God?) it's good to have one's bad behaviour exposed while one still has a bit of time to do better.  For this I thank the author.

I cannot speak to the other elements on his list but perhaps someone here would care to take them on?

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Trailing Spouses in the 21st Century

"I abhor the term trailing spouse. I think it derogatory in a million different ways. I assume it's the new politically correct way of referring to what used to be known as the "expat wife", changed to take into account the growing number of men moving overseas due to the work of their partners. But nonetheless, I hate it. It might be a little less evocative of the expat wife stereotype of doing lunch and drinking gin in the afternoon, but it's no less loaded."

Rachael Green
Don't You Dare Call Me a Trailing Spouse

Much ado about nothing? No, the terms we use to define other people or ourselves have power. Green is correct that "expat wife" and "trailing spouse" are not neutral - the stereotypes associated with them have been around for decades and are still tainted with sexist assumptions.

How tainted? Exhibit A is my own reaction to the news that we were being expatriated to Japan. I guess my Women's Studies classes at university didn't take because I was filled with self-contempt and fear at the idea of joining this particular club of women abroad. Or perhaps those classes (and the feminist culture I bathed in as a youngster) did have some influence because here I was trying to deal with what felt like a dissonance between my high-minded feminist principles and an act that seemed to contradict them.

What this reveals is my own collusion with a stereotype that denigrates women. By feeling that there was something deeply wrong with me becoming a trailing spouse, I was also passing judgement on those who have done it. That is, I think, a deeper betrayal of feminist principles. Crapping on other women and internalizing negative stereotypes is about as far from solidarité as one can get.

Stereotypes are the epitome of "contempt before investigation" - the complete antithesis of the Beginner's Mind. So let's clear our minds and take another look at the "trailing spouse" (a term that leaves much to be desired but is a decent descriptive term if we suspend judgment).

It's a category of expatriates who live in another country primarily because their partner has a job or position there. In the 21st century this group includes men as well as women, gay couples as well as straight (heterosexual) ones. And right there we see the stereotype start to unravel.

Yes, women are probably still the majority of trailing spouses (for now) but any assumption you make that starts with the premise that it's always a woman following her male spouse is likely to come back and bite you in the ass when you least expect it. Like when you meet the nice couple at a party in Tokyo and, after you have said to the wife how lovely she looks, you ask the man what company he is with and could you have his business card. And it turns out that she's the highly-placed executive at L'Oréal and he's taking a sabbatical to learn a foreign language and spend more time with the children.

Because the world has changed and the trailing spouse population has a different sort of diversity about it, we now have an opportunity to compare experiences across gender and see what shakes out. 

I found one small study that took a shot at it.  It's a dissertation called  Adaptation of Trailing Spouses: Does Gender Matter? by Anne Braseby.  There are surely others and please let me know of any you have come across.  This one is relatively recent (2010) and compared the experiences of two groups of American trailing spouses of company transfers, one in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and the other in Brussels, Belgium.  There were 7 men out of just over 40 subjects.  It's an interesting read and I'll give you a few of her findings I found thought-provoking.
All of the male spouses who relocated with children were on their first posting and were stay-at-home fathers at least two years before they relocated.  Consequently none of the male trailing spouses had given up a career to relocate, they were either stay-at-home fathers or in non-career track jobs. In contrast only 40 percent of women who relocated with children were stay-at-home mothers before they relocated... The majority of women had given up what they considered a career to become trailing spouses.
Isn't that interesting?  The sample size is too small to be definitive but isn't it curious that she didn't find even one lawyer, finance director or executive who quit his job and put his career on hold to follow his wife abroad?  To be investigated further and let's not jump the gun and say that we know why.   Stop and consider other possibilities.  One I came up with was my realization that I have never seen a woman manager offered an expatriation contract where it was known by the company that her husband had a career and a position equal to or greater than hers.  Is there a sexist assumption here that a man in that position wouldn't give all that up for his wife and so he's not ever given the opportunity?  

And even more interesting finding had to do with seeing expatriation as permission to do something that the individual wanted to do anyway but found uncomfortable or difficult to do in the home country.  It has to do with the juggling act between paid employment and family and some of the expectations around them.    Oddly enough some of the career women and the stay-at-home fathers were in a similar place facing the low status Americans confer on people who take care of children.

For some (not all) of the women who gave up their careers to follow husbands abroad, it was a solution to a very common dilemma.  As much as they loved their jobs and careers, they also wanted to spend more time with their children and were exhausting themselves trying to do it all.
"Giving up work in the U.S. was something they would not do, but relocation gave them a reason or “permission” to become stay-at-home mothers without some of the social stigma they perceived they would feel in the U.S."  
As for the stay-at-home fathers, Braseby had this to say:
"What is interesting is that for them, following their wives to another country where the visa issues would not allow them to work, these trailing husbands were moving to a more
socially acceptable status than they were accorded in the U.S. They had a reason for why
they were not working, while in the U.S. there is the expectation that men go to work and
not to stay home with the children."
This meant, Braseby says:
"an enhancement in their self-esteem. Their role became not a role based on lifestyle choice (in which the male stay-at-home caregiver would easily be seen as avoiding the proper breadwinning role), but a role accorded to them by their circumstances. They had to stay at home because government policy did not permit them to work. They no longer had to justify their choice of parenting over work, reproductive over productive labor. After relocation they were afforded an excuse for their choices and, in fact, claimed a good deal of admiration from many of the women trailing spouses. Their self esteem increased because the community recognized them for the job they are doing (i.e. supporting their wives and in many cases looking after the children) rather than the job they are not doing."
I'll stop there knowing that some Flophouse readers will take exception to Braseby's conclusions and I hope to hear your objections, corrections and clarifications in the comments section.  

Again, this is a very small qualitative study but I found it a good place to start busting stereotypes around "trailing spouses".  Let's apply some  21st century reality to that 20th century thinking, folks, and see what happens.