Monday, December 31, 2012

A Third Culture Kid Thinks About Guns

It’s happened again.  This time it was innocent little kids who were slaughtered, along with their teachers who were trying to protect their charges.  Who wasn’t horrified, disgusted, sickened?  They were little babies!  Senseless!  People are asking, “Where was God?”  Why do these things happen?  Why?  I have a dear friend from the adoption community whose daughter was a student at the Sandy Hook School.  This beautiful little girl, born in China, was in the fourth grade, and escaped, but her trauma is real, excruciating.

More recently it was a movie theater.  Before that a grocery store.  A college campus.  A shopping mall.  A military base.  A restaurant.  The absolute last places to which any of us think twice about going and fearing for our safety.  The knee-jerk reaction is that we should make guns illegal.  Sounds good on its face.  But doesn’t it then follow that only criminals will have the guns, and we law abiding citizens won’t?  As Susanna Hupp says in the video above, all of the incidents happened in “gun free” zones. 

The Philippines that I knew in the mid-1970’s was a country under martial law.  Martial Law is supposed to be a temporary fix for times of civil unrest or political turmoil; however, in Manila it lasted from 1972 until 1981.  Nine years.  Martial law means the suspension of most civil rights, and puts civilians under military courts of justice.  It suspends the rule of habeas corpus, which protects prisoners from unlawful imprisonment.  It’s a scary concept, which, in its most literal sense, puts all citizens at the arbitrary mercy of the government. 

Credit: Aaron J. Jackson Crabb
What it meant for us was curfew (1-4 a.m.) and lots and lots of armed military police everywhere.  Our school was surrounded by a very tall stone and iron fence, and there were security guards at every possible entrance.  (Somehow we kids knew how to break out, but I daresay we weren’t tempted to break in).  They checked and re-checked IDs before allowing anyone to pass.  They called ahead to the office to let them know who was coming.  Going to the bank, we had to pass a guard with a very large rifle (although I noticed once that the gun had no trigger).  There were signs at restaurants, stores and art galleries that read “Please deposit firearms here”.  I guess it should have been a scary place to live, but I was never afraid.  That may have been naïveté on my part, but I never saw fear in my parents either.  I pretty much had free rein to come and go as I wished (well, for the most part!)  I never gave it a thought, but I probably felt safe because there was no danger of being shot at in a public place.  If I had been a Filipino citizen, I would have had to ask myself if the tradeoff of losing my civil rights for being safe from being shot was worth it.  Gun control in Manila didn't help Imelda Marcos much when a deranged man attacked her with a bolo knife.  

I didn’t grow up in a “gun” family.  When I think back to my early childhood in Louisiana, I remember my dad used to go duck hunting.  I think it was a business thing, and he only did it because he had to schmooze with customers or higher-ups in the company.  He had an enormous pair of waders that I used to play in.  We did have a shotgun that made many moves with us, but for the most part it stayed wrapped in its leather case, hidden in a closet.  I’m pretty sure it was illegal for us to have it in the Philippines.  I don’t know the whole story but there was some clandestine transfer of the gun to someone who disposed of it. 

Fast forward to the present: My husband has taught me to shoot.  I’m pretty good at it, at the gun range, and I have a healthy respect for fear of The Gun, but I’m not comfortable with The Gun.  I don’t even know if I could shoot a 400 pound gorilla who might break into my house.  That said, if I was ever in a situation where a lunatic was on the loose, I would want to stand very close to my husband, who can shoot with deadly accuracy.

Which brings me to the point: who is doing these killings?  Mentally ill people.  By definition they must be mentally ill – who in their “right mind” would do such a thing?  Do we really want to disarm ourselves, leaving the deranged and the criminals with the guns?  Do we want to be at the mercy of the next psychotic break?  And if you extrapolate that idea to us, the people, being unarmed, and the government-slash-military being the ones who are armed, is that a viable option?  As Susanna Hupp says, the original intent of the Second Amendment was for us to be able to protect ourselves from THE GOVERNMENT. 

This isn’t a gun issue.  It is a mental health issue.  No matter how many people try to de-stigmatize mental disease, it remains an enormous stigma.  We recoil at the word “schizophrenia” and “bipolar” and “autism”.  Most of us turn away, thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  For those who are in the thick of it, it is a living nightmare.  As the parent of a child with a form of autism, I can’t begin to tell you how many times I found myself at his school, asking, insisting, then begging to have him tested, begging for help, begging for accommodations, and was made to feel like I was a hysterical helicopter parent.  One school, a private parochial institution, asked us to leave, saying “We can’t do anything with him”.  The memory of that one still stings in a major way. 

At one parent meeting at the new public school, I sat in front of a semi-circle of stern-looking teachers who, one after the other, told me all of my son’s shortcomings, telling me “what he needs to do” and “if he would only” and “you need to”.  I could only get one word out before the tears started falling.  Not a single one of those ladies reached out to pat my arm, hand me a tissue, nothing.  They just sat and stared at me as I blubbered.  It was humiliating.  If it was humiliating for me, you can only imagine the humiliation my child suffered every day in his classes.  Not to say that all teachers are heartless, I know there are very good ones out there, but where were they for my child?  The other kids labeled him “odd.”  I cried inside as other kids asked his brother to play.  When I suggested that my other son might like to come too, the reply was, “Do I have to invite him too?” 

This son is now in his early 20’s.  He has a job, lives in an apartment with two roommates and is doing great.  I could not be prouder of him.  He is only mildly affected; many people are surprised to know that he has Asperger's.   An amazing therapist encouraged him to embrace his differences instead of fighting them.  She gave him valuable tools to begin his life as an adult.  I can’t imagine the pain of those whose kids have really big problems.

Mental illness is for the most part invisible.  We as a society make it invisible.  We brush these people under the radar, looking the other away so we don’t have to deal with them.  When one falls through the cracks, listens to voices in their head and starts shooting people, we don’t look at the mental illness, we look at the guns. 

I confess that I am a fan of the British Royal family.  (Make all the jokes you want).  Every day these people go around the country, making public appearances.  One day it could be a tire factory or a boat launching, but on another it is at hospitals and facilities for the elderly, the physically or mentally disabled or the terminally ill.  They are patrons of a multitude of charitable organizations who care for these folks.  Look at the long list of charities which Princess Alexandra, a cousin of the Queen, supports:  Alzheimer's Society, St. Christopher's Hospice, Royal Navy Nursing Service, Mental Health Foundation, Cystic Fibrosis Trust, and many others.  And she is just a “minor” royal!

Princess Alexandra opens Mental Health Foundation's New Office

Many dismiss the royals as archaic and medieval, time for them to move on.  But think about it: by publicly supporting these institutions, which take care of the most marginal members of their society, they are acknowledging these people’s existence, validating their illnesses and their very difficult lives.  We could all take away a lesson here.  Remember how Princess Diana hugged the child with AIDS?  Look  how far we’ve come from the days when AIDS patients were treated like lepers.  Google “mental health cuts in the US” and you will, as I was, be shocked at the number of articles, just in the last month.  Louisiana.  Texas.  Maine.  Ohio. 

There is a joke about a man standing under a street light, looking for something.  Another guy comes along and asks him what he’s doing.  The man replies, “I lost my wallet.” The other man asks, “Where did you last see it?”  “Down the block,” is the reply.  “Why are you looking here?” the guy asks, incredulous.  “Because there is more light here.”  Maybe we are all looking for solutions in the wrong place.  

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Thoughts on Boxing Day

An Expat in America’s Thoughts On Boxing Day

Boxing day?  As in Ali, Frazier and Sugar Ray?  Uncle Joe and Cousin Billy Bob getting into it after too much eggnog?  Nope!  The British Day After Christmas when the servants were traditionally given boxes of money.  Or perhaps the opening of the alms-boxes in churches, to spread the money amongst the less fortunate.  If you've been a fan of "Downton Abbey" you remember the servants' ball, where the Lord of the Manor dances with the lowliest of scullery maids.  Seeing as all these folks probably had to work on Christmas Day, it seems only fitting.

My mom, the Anglophile, has always tried to preserve many British Christmas traditions that have been bowdlerized by the Americans.  My gifts from her usually include a jar of Devon cream, lemon curd or Crosse & Blackwell Branston Pickle.  Christmas Eve morning, the household stops for the broadcast on the BBC of the Lesson in Carols from the Kings College choir at Cambridge University.  The sound of the first plaintive notes of "Once in Royal David's City" still gives me chills.

Mom insists that Christmas BEGINS the day OF Christmas.  As in the twelve days of.  As in, December 25 is the day that the partridge and the pear tree arrived by UPS.  Christmas continues until January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, which is the purported day the Wise Men arrived at the stable.  (Only 12 days across the desert on a camel?  I think not!)  My question is, after all that time, was there STILL no room at the Inn?  Surely there would have been a room by then?  Mom tut-tuts at all the forlorn Christmas trees lying in the gutter on December 26.  But since most Americans put up their trees on Thanksgiving Day (a full MONTH) before Christmas, they most likely need to do this to reduce the risk of conflagration!

For years, my family has had Crackers on the table for Christmas dinner.  (Not the Ritz kind, but those shiny wrapped bundles that you pull apart to open them with a bang).  I was intrigued to learn that the tradition of wearing fancy headgear harkens back to the Saturnalia celebrations.  Christmas after all historically encompasses many of the pagan winter holidays like Yule, Solstice and Saturnalia.  Our unsuspecting dinner guests would be required to wear the silly tissue hat all through the meal.  And Mom wonders why they never accepted another invitation from us?  It warms my heart that you see crackers pretty regularly in the U.S. these days.  Maybe mom's mission to Anglicize us all is working?

Fear not: Mom is an equal opportunity critic.  Even the American traditions aren't safe.  She takes it upon herself to inform hapless sales clerks that the reindeer in "The Night Before Christmas" is NOT named Donner (that would be the name of the group in the 1800's that  got stranded in the Rocky Mountains in a blizzard and ended up eating each other to survive).  Furthermore, mom points out, the poem is really called "A Visit from St. Nicholas."  Get it right people.  The reindeer in the original poem was named "Donder" which is close to the Dutch word for thunder.  Which makes sense since "Blitzen" is the word for lightning.  After a little research, I found that the GERMAN word for thunder is indeed "Donner" so she's only partly right.  But Clement Moore (who wrote the poem) called him Donder, so Donder it should  be.  The poor lady in the Brighton store the other day didn't know what had hit her.

Bless her heart, Mom has good intentions.

Merry Christmas to all .. the turtle doves are in the mail.  

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas Post 2011

Well, okay I'm going to rehash an old post anyway.  I'm proud of this one!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Displaced Christmas

Same lyrics, different melodies: Coping with an expat Christmas

Read this interesting blog about not being "home" (wherever that is) for Christmas.  I found it a little cynical .. although I understand.  Everyone who celebrates Christmas seems to have their own idea of a "genuine" Christmas, i.e. what it should be, what it means, what accouterments should come with it.  (I think it's called "tradition" haha).  Maybe it's based on that one perfect Christmas from childhood where everything came together in a symphony of smells, tastes, sensations, and thrills.  For me it was the magic of going to bed with a few paltry gifts under the tree, only to wake up to find the living room practically strewn wall to wall with silvery wrapped presents.  See, there really IS a Santa Claus!  Even if his handwriting was eerily similar to my father's, I chose to believe.  My mom's initials are S.C., so even if the cards were signed from "S.C.," I ignored the irony and chose to believe they stood for "Santa Claus".  Even though I loathed going to midnight mass at church, and sat sleepily through the service, yawning as if my jaw would come apart, that memory goes down with the whole Christmas package (pun intended).

My ideal Christmas is located in New England (think Currier & Ives) with snow on the ground, getting a sled and a breathtaking Scarlet O'Hara doll from Santa.  My mom was in a choir that year that performed in gold paper dresses (don't ask me how they pulled THAT off) doing great hits from Andy Williams and Herb Alpert.  One of my favorite Christmas songs is the great chart-buster "The Bell That Couldn't Jingle" and I love it because of its obscurity.  Another favorite was Alan Sherman's "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (not the usual one!)  (All these songs traveled with us on my dad's reel-to-reel tape deck).  I think of my parents dressing up, dad in his red sweater and Santa tie, drinking a cup of tea while waiting for mom to come out, in a great whiff of Chanel No. 5, her ears sparkling with gold earrings and her wrists tinkling with bangle bracelets.

So how are we to live up to that New England standard, living overseas?  New traditions crept into the family lore.  In Japan of the early 1960's it was hard to get Christmas wrapping, so the cry on Christmas morning was "SAVE THE BOWS!" Gifts were unwrapped carefully and the paper was carefully folded into squares, saved for next year.  I was in a performance at school, dressed in a hula skirt, and we danced to "Christmas Island".  We used to go to some enormous banquet Christmas Eve, which was really more like New Years' Eve, with noise makers and music that went on into the wee hours of the night.  That was the Japanese equivalent of midnight mass for me.  I was so worried about getting home in time for Santa to come!

Brussels came in a close second for "Ideal Christmas".  We made weekend trips to Germany (the REAL home of Christmas!) and stocked up on ornaments and decorations from there.  Mom still re-uses tags from those days, with glitter and pictures of old Europe on them.  There was snow on the ground, and we went to the dreaded midnight mass at a British Anglican church.  So the agony became a little more bearable because it was done with an English accent.  Very little.

Then came our move to the Philippines.  The first obstacle, other than the weather, was finding an acceptable Christmas tree.  We brought in a pathetic looking tree that may or may not have been in the pine family.  Mom, against all odds, actually decorated it and made it look quite presentable (again, pun intended!)  It wasn't the New England Christmas tree, but it, like Charlie Brown's tree, became part of our family history.  Midnight Mass in Manila involved sweating and fanning, but I still yawned and loathed it.  Check.  One year it involved a typhoon.  Okay, liquid snow; close enough.  I'm pretty sure we had turkey too.  Served by our maids in their Christmas aprons.  Now there's a tradition that I'd like to bring back.  These days, when we're all stuffed to the gills and the dirty dishes and cooking detritus spreads out towards the horizon, mom and I lean back and yell, "PACITA!" as if she would come running in her slippers and clean it all up.

All in all, we made do wherever we were, appreciating the unusual customs, incorporating the culture of where we were into making new traditions.  We never wished we were back in the states, because, while that was "home" to most Americans, wherever we were was "home".  And that was okay with me.

Friday, December 21, 2012

It's All About the Light

Christmas is almost here again!  I thought about rehashing some of the earlier blog posts I have written about Christmas around the world, and the various ways my family adapted our own traditions to the places we were living.  But some thoughts came to me, like visions of sugarplums dancing in my head.

This is a year when my children will spend Christmas with their dad in North Carolina (we rotate years).  They did spend Thanksgiving with us, and we had the chance to exchange gifts and enjoy that holiday as a sort of hybrid.  My soul was warm and fuzzy, surrounded by my five (not so little) chickens.  We ate ourselves into an L-tryptophan turkey coma, and went to see the Cirque du Soleil Christmas show at the Long Center.  We were just together, and to me, that was the culmination of the Christmas spirit, right there, a little early. 

For the past few weeks, I have watched my neighbors put up Christmas lights (some of the displays are gargantuan, over the top!)  As I go off to sleep at night I can hear the carols booming from a house that has its lights synched with a radio station.  Lines of cars slowly make their way down the road, children excitedly leaning out the windows taking in the sparkle and glimmer.  As for me, I have my little tree in the front window, although I only used lights this year, no ornaments.  I did wrap some lights around the back porch railing, so we do look somewhat festive.  In honor of my husband’s Jewish heritage, I like to embrace Hanukkah (the festival of lights!) as well, and have fallen in love with the a cappella group “The Maccabeats” who have made a name for themselves in YouTube world. 

I work in retail, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the bling and the swag that decorates our store and the ones near us.  Williams-Sonoma is always putting out samples of goodies, and I often wander down there for a taste.  Their store is the epitome of Christmas tastiness and I love just wandering around, even though I can’t afford half of the things in there! 

My mom and I are planning to go to a Christmas Eve service near her house, and my husband and I will have dinner with her Christmas night.  Other than that, our holiday will be muted.  But I don’t feel like I’m missing anything.  I feel that without all the trappings of Christmas this year, I am feeling the real meaning of it.  No last minute dashes to the mall to “even up” the present count. No staying up til the wee hours of the morning to assemble a toy with instructions written in Japanese.  No mountains of discarded wrapping paper.  No soldiering through the day, eyes grainy with lack of sleep.  No cooking for hours in the kitchen, then having the meal gone within minutes.  No stacks of dirty dishes.  No looking at the decorations still up in February, thinking, it may be time to get on with it. 

Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ, who, for many, is a beacon of light in a dark world.  History and archaeology have shown that Jesus wasn’t necessarily born on December 25, and there are stories that the date was really a pagan holiday that the early church used to encourage converts.  Never mind that shepherds didn’t have their sheep in the fields at this time of year, and never mind all the skeptics who put Jesus in the same category as Santa Claus.  It is a time when we can appreciate that no matter how dark the world gets sometimes there is still light.  If Jesus is that light, then so be it.  Jesus or no, there is still good in the world, and I truly believe that goodness will always outshine evil.  Next time you go to the movies and some dipstick turns on his cell phone to check his messages, you will appreciate how any light, no matter how small, will illuminate the darkness. A physicist could explain all the mathematical reasons why darkness is merely the absence of light.  To me, darkness is only the temporary absence of light.  As my dad used to say, "It's darker than the inside of a hat!"  Take off your hat, and there will be light!

I have a friend whose daughter was a student at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown.  This beautiful little girl survived the tragedy, but there are so many families whose lives are indeed very dark right now.  I don’t know how much light would be needed to dispel that darkness, but it is good to see how many people all over the world have reached out to try and help in their own way.  I like Ann Curry’s plan to commit one act of random kindness in honor of each person that died that day. 

For me, this year, Christmas is all about light.  I feel closer to the light this year than ever before.  Much like the Grinch who realized that even though he stole all the material things in Who-Ville, Christmas still comes.  As long as there is light, there is hope.  I will never lose hope and confidence that goodness will prevail.  In whatever fashion you celebrate this season, be it the winter solstice, Yule, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Christmas, I hope you will always put your faith in the light.  

Friday, December 7, 2012

Do You Know the Way to Oaxaca?

This is one of the more hilarious, tongue-in-cheek blogs that I follow.  I was rolling on the floor reading this entry about how we mis-pronounce names around the world.  Having spent so much time in Jolly Olde Englande, I particularly enjoyed the ones from there.  I remember a car trip one year with my mom and our English friend Judith, jumping from one small, obscure Cornwallish and Devonish town to another, staying at Beds and Breakfasts (some quaint and charming, some not so much) making history with our mispronunciations.  One exquisite little town was called "Mousehole" (how much more adorable can you get?) which is pronounced "Muzzle".  What, is it too much trouble to open your mouth for the long vowels?  We also purposely mis-pronounced some signs: "No Through Road" became "Naw Throff Road".

Imagine the embarrassment of asking for the way to Phuket, Thailand.  Be careful, be very very careful with that one!  I can't even mention the name of an Austrian town that is beset by British tourists who keep stealing the road signs.  (Okay, here's a link if you must).

There is a town south of me called "Buda" which always made me think of my young years in Tokyo.  But no, it's pronounced "Byoo-da".  That little town east of Austin on 290?  Is it Elgin or Eljin?  Don't ever say "Palestine" when you mean "Palesteen" Texas.  The only way to tell if you're a native of New Orleans is to know the proper pronunciation of Tchoupitoulis (not to mention the spelling!!) and Terpsichore.  "New Orleans" itself has been butchered by thousands -- please, I'm begging you, don't ever call it "New Or-LEENS".  Unless, of course you're talking about Orleans Parish or Orleans Street.  They like to keep you on your toes down there, sha (the correct pronunciation of "cher" or dearie).  Don't come down with your fancified knowledge of French and think you're going to impress anybody.  My mom insists on calling a "po'boy" a "poorboy" and we all cringe in unison.

For some strange reason I am offended on behalf of the citizens when people mis-pronounce the names of their countries.  The biggest offenders, unfortunately, are we (us?) Americans.  I can't tell you how much I have shuddered over the past twelve years, when I hear "EYE-ran" and "EYE-rack".  It should be "EE-rahn" and "EE-rock".  And yes, I admit I have been obnoxious and have tried to correct a person or two at times, only to be told, "Whatever."  Would we be as blase if someone from overseas came here and started pronouncing Arkansas phonetically?  I think not.

Get your mind out of the gutter.  It's Pen-i-sten.
I guess growing up as I did gave me a double, no triple dose of respect for the cultures into which I was dropped.  To me, it's an insult to take a name, be it a town or a country, and recreate it to match your own cultural identity.  It's like meeting a guy named David, and taking it upon yourself to call him "Dave".  (My first husband, much to his chagrin, deals with this all the time).  It's just rude.  On the other hand, we Americans tend to be Hooked on Phonics, and are only trying to do our best with Worcestershire (a mouthful!) and Gloucestershire.  

So how do YOU pronounce this?

However, it may be a function of no one taking the time to tell us how to correctly pronounce a word.  How many times have we listened to a song on the radio and mis-heard the lyrics?  Remember the Elton John classic, "Hold me closer, Tony Danza"?  Could the fear of an embarrassing mis-pronunciation be the reason some are so hesitant to speak a foreign language to a native speaker?  Could be.  Who wants to be immediately marked as a "tourist" by asking where the train to Green-wich is (rather than Gren-ich).

Does this all really matter?  My kids are always rolling their eyes when I attempt (emphasis on the "attempt") to correct their pronunciation or grammar.  I can't even resist the urge to correct them online.  It's a terrible terrible vice.  I could write a whole 'nother post about apostrophes and semicolons; you get the picture.  I guess it's my feeble attempt to slow the whole societal slide into the abyss of ignorance.  It's a Sisyphean effort.  Indeed, but don't ask me how to pronounce it.

**Y'all do know to click on the word "this" to get to the link don't you?  My mom didn't.  

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Tokyo Memories

Yours truly and Albert Matano, picture was in the ASIJ yearbook in 1968.  I still remember being taken out of class to have this picture made, on a cold, cold day.
My mom found a copy of this poem amongst her "stuff" today.  She asked me if I wrote it; I'm pretty sure I didn't.  But I can certainly add to it.

1966-1969 TOKYO WAS

A flower vase in a taxi with a swinging door
The unannounced splatter of a bucket at any time in front of a shop
A lightly pressed palm suppressing a self-conscious giggle
A soba horn on a deserted, sleeping street
A Chrysler Imperial with lace curtains and a feather duster
A yukata with a cake of soap and a blue plastic basin
Yakitori on a stool and yakiimo on a cold street
A cyclist with a stack of soup bowls on a tray
A black umbrella holding hands with a little red one, running across the street
A hot towel before a meal
The clomp of clogs on the pavement at night
A Frank Lloyd Wright hotel
Gold fish on a cart - or in a plastic bag
Drains in the bathroom floor
A rice paddy with a three-wheeled truck
A policeman with a dim candle lantern
A gauze mask
A mouth full of teeth and one of them gold
A lunch box at Kabuki, and an invisible stagehand in black
A souvenir shop at a shrine
Six lanes of cars at a stoplight on a two land road, requiring daring at intersections, sometimes with results ... rear view mirrors on the front fenders ... reminding yourself, "Keep to the left, gaijin"
A yellow flag to cross the street
A panel truck that reads, "Dry Cleaning and Linen Suppry"
A farewell at the airport with banners
Five tangerines in a mesh bag
A carousel in a department store rooftop
Swan Lake with bowlegs
A thoroughfare that becomes a canyon of repair at night
A tea ceremony at the Silk Gallery

We flew BOAC a lot .. 
My additions:

The smell of Oriental Bazaar ... rice paper and lacquer
Irises at the Meiji Shrine
The cream on the top of the bottle of milk in the cafeteria at ASIJ
The lights of the Ginza
Wasabi, osimbe, dried squid
The chocolate ice cream at the Tokyo American Club (okay, not Japanese, but ...)
A giant water tower in our back yard
Japanese baseball players across the street, who gave me rides on their motorcycles.
Riding a bicycle, alone and unafraid (at age 7!), in Nishihara-cho, down to the machi
Yamamoto-san, Saiko-san
The smell of diesel exhaust
Long bus rides from school, falling asleep
The Imperial Palace, and the huge carp in the moat
Wizened old men in yukatas; eyes having seen who knows what
Student demonstrations that created huge traffic jams
A urinal in the bathroom
A lady at the bottom of the escalator at Takashimaya, holding a cloth to clean the hand rail
The slides of pearl divers in a hotel gift shop (with naked breasts!)
A small store selling candy and plastic toys
A baby strapped to its mother's back
Skiing in Nikko and KEEP ...
Giant Buddha at Kamakura
Blonde curly hair in a sea of black.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Finding Lisa

Today is my sister Lisa's birthday.  It is also the 40th anniversary of her death.  I have thought over the years that it's better that she died on her birthday; at least there is only one day of remembering and grieving.  Small consolation, I know.  At times, it seemed that this day was my mother's day.  My dad used to call me every year around this time and "remind" me that the 27th was coming, and "be sure and call your mother."  As if I would ever, ever forget.  It made me a little angry that it all seemed to be about my mom. That it was all her grief, her loss.  Didn't my father lose a child too?  It seemed that my grief and my loss was secondary.  Which, I suppose it is, because how can you ever compare losing a sister to losing a child?  Indeed, how can you compare an apple to an orange?

It is not such a searing pain these days, as 40 years can scar over just about anything that ails you.  But it's still there.  She was, as you can see, beautiful, and, according to my mom, "She was everything."  Her talent was singing.  One of the last memories I have of her before the accident was of her singing a solo in church.  Standing up in the front in her green skirt.  She sang solos in school recitals.  She was in all the musicals, Carousel, Spoon River.  When we lived in Brussels, she would bring her friends home with her, and they would take over the living room with their 12-string guitars.  My dad would set up microphones and record their jam sessions on his reel-to-reel tape recorder.  I would peek in from the kitchen.  A few years ago I had those tapes converted to CDs and listened to her voice again.  I thought it would be hard, but it wasn't.  I actually thought to myself, "Well she wasn't THAT good!"

Lisa, front & center, as a cheerleader at the American School in Japan
She was funny.  Sometimes at the dinner table, when we had very important guests from my dad's company, she would look over to my sister Debi and make a hand signal that said, "I cut one."  Then it was up to Debi to maintain control and not fall on the floor laughing.  Debi remembers a time at a Hallmark store, reading all the funny cards and cracking up.  They went to an Elton John concert and Debi talks about the pure joy and excitement of just being there.  They ran up to the stage at the end, while Elton played "Crocodile Rock".  When they were driving together in Debi's Volkswagen Beetle, Lisa used to reach over and turn off the ignition.  Debi was scared to death, but Lisa thought it was hysterical; she was the epitome of mischief.  

My memories of her, from the perspective of the bratty little sister, include my constant refrain of "Those two get to do EVERYTHING!!"  I remember banging on Lisa's bedroom door, begging to be let in while she had her friends over.  I got into her makeup, and listened to her records.  To this day, "Madman Across the Water" and Cat Stevens remind me of her.  Especially the song, "Sad Lisa".  Crosby, Stills and Nash (and sometimes Young) remain one of my favorite groups to this day, partly because they are amazing, and partly because they are emblematic of my sister's teenage years.  

Being a high schooler in Brussels was magic.  Over spring break Lisa went skiing in St. Moritz, Switzerland with a group from school.  While she was away, my parents bought her a moped.  I remember her arriving home, her face tanned from the slopes, and her excitement about the moped.  It was "cool" to ride the motorbike to school with her girlfriends, rather than ride the bus.  Mom and dad always insisted that she wear her helmet.  Often the school bus would pass her and her posse of moped riders, and I would look out the window to see her hair flowing in the wind, the helmet strapped to the rack on the back.  It wouldn't do to arrive at school with helmet-hair, I suppose.  

My father became ill, necessitating our move back to Louisiana.  Right before we left, Mom and Dad let Lisa and Debi take a trip to Spain with Lisa's boyfriend and his best friend.  Alone, unchaperoned.  I guess Debi was the chaperone. Ha!  I was left behind while the movers came.  My father had to be transported to the hospital one day, while strange men packed up our house.  I was alone and afraid.  

I know it was hard for Lisa to leave the magic that was Brussels.  I was miserable too.  In the early days back in Baton Rouge, I remember Lisa waking me up for school one day and I reflexively slapped her.  She slapped me back.  We were both deeply angry, and we took it out on each other.  She started her senior year at a new school, Tara High.  She was well on her way to recreating herself, and had been selected to join an elite chorus group.  She was looking at colleges with music programs.  She had the world by the tail.  

I was twelve years old when "the accident" happened.  It was a tender age for me, already damaged by the move and my father's illness, and I couldn't figure out if my later adolescent angst and confusion originated with losing my sister or being a Third Culture Kid.  We moved to the Philippines two years after the accident.  In the strange new place, I felt incomplete, unformed, awkward.  I never fit completely in at school.  I was on the fringes, trying hard to be Lisa, trying to recapture her spirit, her enthusiasm for life.  Her joy.  

I try not to fixate on my loss, but to celebrate her life.  I named my first daughter after her, and in many ways, their personalities are similar.  My mom said, over and over during the days after the accident, that she didn't want people to forget her.  It's much easier to laugh about her antics these days.  Yes, there will always be sadness, but it will be peppered with a lot of joy.  

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Last Days of Tehran American School

Notebook:  The Last Days of Tehran American School
By Tori Egherman
5 November 2012

"Everyone wants to go back," says one former student.
62057_534598313221368_656369302_n.jpg[ feature ] In 1978, the Tehran American School closed its doors after 24 years in operation. J. Thom McInnis, a high school senior at the time, had a part-time job working for Pan Am. "I remember evacuating many of my schoolmates and their families those last days when I worked at the airport," he says. "I remember fathers throwing their children over the heads of the crowds at the airport in a bid to get closer to the front of the line for those limited seats out of the country."
For Anthony Roberts, author of Sons of the Great Satan, the sudden departure from Iran came as a shock. "I was angry. I was pissed off. I didn't understand it because I was a teenaged boy. Now that I am older, I understand it was the loss that really made me angry." Overnight, his whole world abruptly changed. He was separated from his closest friends and uprooted from the place he'd come to call home.
When I left Iran, I didn't know what happened to any of my classmates for 30 years.... It wasn't like so-and-so went off to this college and so-and-so went off to that college. It was like 24 hours. You can pack one bag. You have to leave now. Nothing set up on the other end. You're just going home to set up with relatives and go on from there.
Social networking brought the former classmates back together. They started reaching out to one another and now have several active groups on Facebook. Roberts says, "For some of us there were tears. It was like a 30-year-old weight lifted from us."
Paul Stevenson, who now teaches linguistics and grammar in Iraqi Kurdistan, was excited to go to Iran as a teenager. He was interested in language and enjoyed the chance to learn Persian. He talks about the special dynamics of the students at the Tehran American School. "The intensity of our relationships was stronger because we didn't have the rest of American society to live our American lives. School was a very, very big deal. It was a lot of fun being there. We'd get there early. There were plenty of after school activities."
He explains that, like most teenagers, he was too absorbed in his own life to notice the growing political unrest around them.
"If you really wanted to know what was going on in Iran at the time, you needed to talk to the elementary school kids," says Jonathan Lee, who was "a very mature 12" at the time he lived in Iran. Many of his classmates had parents in the State Department who worked closely with the Shah's government. Adults spoke in front of them, he explained. They thought they were too young to understand. "We'd get on the bus every morning and compare notes."
Despite his young age, Lee explored every corner of Tehran using his father's expense account to hire taxis. "For some odd reason, Iranians thought I looked like a young Cassius Clay. We had doors opened up for us because everywhere we went people saw this young black American kid who looked like Muhammad Ali. Everywhere I went, a crowd gathered."
When American Bell International (now AT&T) evacuated its employees and their families, Lee was excited to return to the States. Soon after he started school, however, things changed. With the hostage taking at the U.S. Embassy in November 1979, Iran became Americans' enemy number one. Lee states, "I was not an American kid who lived in Iran; I was the Iranian. I got picked on constantly."
T. Lilly Littlewater's father was in the U.S. military. Her neighbors were families with people who worked for the Shah. "I hate to think of what happened to the people we left behind," she says. When she was older and asked her father what had happened to them, he wouldn't tell her. "You don't want to know," he said.
"My father really believed he was serving his country. When we left Iran, he was a changed man. He never recovered."
Despite the fact that most led lives fairly isolated from Iranian society and had few if any Iranian friends, many of the former students of the Tehran American School developed life-long ties to the country. "I feel exiled from what I consider my second home," says Littlewater.
What they miss about Iran is not all that different from what any Iranian in the diaspora misses. They miss eating labu, roasted beets, sold on the side of the road. They miss the mountains, hiking and camping. They miss bread cooked over open flames in ancient ovens. They miss their friends and the community they formed together.
Lee comments, "Why do people fall in love with Iran? Anyone who has spent time there will say it's the people and the country."
Littlewater adds, "Both my parents were American Indians. One of the reasons Iran was so relatable to me was because it is so ancient, like my culture. Our cultures aren't really similar though. The similarity is in how ancient and how valuable ancient cultures are to this world.... I felt very comfortable there."
As a teenager in Tehran, Anthony Roberts listened to Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones, dosing himself with readily available hashish and rotgut alcohol. "The good old Tehran daze," he says. He and his friends found ways around restrictive parents, tense family situations, and the unfamiliarity of their surroundings. In many ways what he describes is not unlike what many urban teenagers experience today. "I get freaked out when I see these young Iranian kids playing Pink Floyd and stuff like that. Because I think they are in the same emotional state we were in back then," Roberts says. "Depressed. 'Woe is me.' That music is kind of the freedom of it, too. Of course, they are more depressed than we were. We didn't get depressed until we felt unsafe."
The collapse of the Shah's regime came as a surprise to many of the students of the Tehran American School, and their parents as well. They had witnessed growing social discord, but nothing that made them feel the society was on the brink of revolution. Littlewater remembers what her family's Iranian housekeeper, who she describes as a gentle woman, said to her one day, "We are going on to the streets, and we are going to protest the Shah. We are going to kill the Shah."
Roberts recounts the day the man who ran the neighborhood store started ignoring him. "He had turned that corner. He was done with Americans. He wasn't going to be rude to me, just pretend I wasn't there."
Because of his (un-American) love of soccer, the young McInnis made many Iranian friends at neighborhood pick-up games. He learned to speak fluent Persian in the homes of his new buddies, and even helped to make huge cauldrons of ash (porridge) for the Shia celebration of Ashura (pictured below). When his father was transferred out of Iran in the spring of 1978, he managed to convince his parents to let him stay behind to graduate. It wasn't until that autumn that he noticed a change and the "friendly people" he knew became openly aggressive.
JthomMcInnismakingash4Ashura1977.jpgOn Facebook lately, the alumni of the Tehran American School have been talking about Argo. Who's going to see it in Atlanta? Omaha? L.A.? Chicago? They long for a glimpse of the lives they left behind, even if it's sensationalized. They want to see their own experiences reflected in the film. Online, many share their stories of harried evacuations, some noting the kindness and protection offered by their Iranian neighbors.
After leaving Iran, McInnis joined the military and was quickly given the task of using his fluent Persian and knowledge of Tehran to track the escape of the group of State Department employees featured in the film.
I fielded calls from Iranians, friends, and former employees of the U.S. government and American companies still in Iran.... Using my knowledge of the streets and bus systems of Tehran, I plotted the group's day-to-day and house-to-house movements on a large map until they finally reached the relative safety of the home of a Canadian diplomat on November 10, 1979.
All of the alumni with whom I spoke, even those who had experienced anti-American hostility firsthand, shared warm memories of the country and its people. Littlewater calls her time in Iran "a gift." In social encounters, she often speaks about her experiences living there and every once in a while even changes a negative opinion or two.
In an essay on his experience in Iran, McInnis writes,
It's easy for many to condemn what they do not know or understand. But for those of us that lived there and became friends with the people, their music, their food, their customs and their country, we know that there are many good people in Iran, and we hope for the day when peace and sanity will prevail and the doors to their homes will once more open to us.
While their online message boards reflect an array of opinions on all things Iran-related, including Argo, sanctions, and the prospect of war, the former students I spoke with long for nothing more than peace and a chance to return to a country that left a deep mark on them. "Everyone wants to go back," Lee says.
Roberts shares his wishes for Iran:
I wish they could celebrate their poetry and their culture and play rock and roll without hiding. I wish young girls could go out on the streets without being stopped about their hejab. I wish they didn't have to go through all that.... I don't want to see war. I don't want to see these sanctions. To me they are just another form of war. Economic warfare. It's a blockade. Where will that lead?
Follow Tori on Twitter @ETori.

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Get Out Any Way You Can

After I finished "Born Under an Assumed Name", I found that Sarah Taber's father, Charles, had written a short book about his experiences in Vietnam before Saigon fell to the communists in 1975.  He had been the part of the CIA there, running a propaganda radio station called House Seven.  When it looked like the fall was inevitable, he realized that all of his Vietnamese employees (KIPs ... or "Key Indigenous People" in CIA-speak) were in very real danger.  Charles Taber wasn't about to leave them behind.  We all know what happens to collaborators in war.  

Against incredible odds, Taber arranged for the evacuation of more than a thousand people, the employees and their families, to a remote island off the Southern coast of Vietnam, Phu Quoc.  They camped at a former US military base there.  Over several days the people had been ferried to the island on American C-47's.  Tabor negotiated with an American merchant ship, the American Challenger, to take the group to safety to Guam and Hawaii.  Of course it wasn't a matter of the folks showing up at the dock and sauntering on board.  In the middle of the night, a Landing Ship Utility or LSU had to make three trips out to the ship, anchored five miles offshore, carrying more than 500 people at a time.  

An LSU (Landing Ship Utility)
The book is short, but is filled with suspense and danger.  Out of radio communication with Saigon, Taber didn't know moment to moment if the scheme would play out.  There were road blocks at every turn: A signature needed by an absent Vietnamese official; trying to 'sneak' 1300 people to a beach under cover of night without arousing suspicions of the local authorities; fitting 1300 people on the open decks of a freighter.  There was another refugee camp near the base where the CIA employees were encamped.  There was a real risk that if the refugees at that camp caught wind of what was happening, there would be an uncontrollable panic, much like what had happened just a few days earlier at Da Nang Air Force Base.  Somehow, miraculously, Taber pulled it off.  I wonder how many other stories like this one have been lost in time?
We were living in Manila when Saigon fell.  Most of my memories of the time are of the news coverage of the American POWs landing at Clark Air Base near Angeles City, on their way back home.  Pictures of elated families rushing to meet their loved ones are seared permanently on my brain.  We heard of the "Boat People" who threw themselves at the mercy of the sea to escape their fate in Vietnam.  Too many of these poor souls met their end in the ocean when overloaded boats sank, or were overrun by pirates, the women and girls raped and killed.  Unspeakable things happened to these people. In our cushy American lives, can we ever relate to such desperation?  I think not.  

One of my dearest friends from the Philippines, Lisa Andrews, arrived in Manila for the fall semester in 1975.  Her father had been with the Asia Foundation in Saigon, and was the commencement speaker at our graduation in 1978.  Lisa's brother David was my date to the Christmas formal in 1977.  Neither spoke to me of their experiences leaving Saigon until just the other day. 

My friend, Lisa Andrews.

 "Actually, Dave and I were on the last commercial flight out of Saigon on April 3, 1975. He and I flew to Guam for an overnight alone and then went to San Francisco to be with relatives. David was overjoyed to be in the US with everything 'American' and easily blended with our cousins. I had a horrible transition having left my first boyfriend (I never saw him again ) and my very best friend in the whole world (she and I are still in touch). The most devasting realization was that NO ONE wanted to hear about Vietnam. There was a resounding negative sentiment in this country about the US involvement in the war, since the country had fallen to the "Communists" the loss of American lives had seemed in vain. The US media portrayed a very different perspective than we had known, which consequently has left me jaded since. The documentary featured on PBS showing the Fall of Saigon is a small camera lens of insight into the magnanimous event that occurred. There was absolute hysteria in that city and that sense of forboding stayed with me for years, even after we moved to Manila. David and I finished the school year in an American public school. It was hard to transition from the Phoenix Study Group in Saigon, where I did homeschooling with a few other high school kids. The group remained close knit and has a Facebook page called Phoenix Study Group.  The most memorable aftermath of leaving Saigon was the profound loneliness that following because NO ONE (including adults) understood the journey other than those of us who had been evacuated as a Third Culture Kid. The irony is that in my adulthood, I have met several people who have similar stories....leaving Iran, leaving Cambodia, leaving Pakistan (my dad and his second family experienced that after 9-11).  The most serendipitous part of leaving Saigon is that my brother had a Vietnamese best friend. The parents were law professors in Saigon and my dad facilitated their 'departure'. Years passed and lo and behold, Koi, Dave's pal, is my mom's cardiologist here in California. Truly amazing!!"
I don't know how much warning the Andrews family had that they were going to be evacuating Saigon.  (Remember Lisa and David at that time were around 15 and 14 years old.  Flying out on the last commercial flight.  Alone.)  Like the teenagers at Tehran American School, they left in the face of a revolution.  No quiet talk at the dinner table from dad, "We're moving again!"  It was a matter of life and death.  It was "Get out any way you can."  Sudden grief ... like a sudden death, not a long lingering one.  A traumatic amputation.  

As I dig further into what comprises the soul of the Third Culture Kid, I find that there are too many untold stories.  Usually we are reluctant to share these stories, either because they are too painful to revisit, or we are certain that no one wants to hear them.  Who in the world would ever relate to us?  We're all too familiar with that "glazed over" look in our non-TCK listeners when we start reminiscing about the past.  It is only by sharing these things with each other that we can put the sadness and the grief in their proper place.  Not to put them behind us, or to negate them, but to acknowledge them.  

David Andrews and yours truly at the 1977 Christmas formal.
I am reminded by my own mother who, when I start talking about my hurts from the past, keeps asking me why I can't let it go?  Why can't I go to Home Depot, buy a ladder, and get over it?  (She's so funny!)  It's because these things are a part of our identity, our history, our very souls.  It's not possible to put it behind us, because it is who we are.  When we talk about it today, the hurt of the past is very much in the present.  However, along with the pain there are flashes of joy and amazement.  There is realization that our lives, while often filled with challenges, were unique and, on so many levels, blessed.  Start sharing folks.

Lisa today with her husband Mark, and two of our classmates, Fouad Assad and Steve Assad.