Tuesday, February 26, 2013

I shared Thom's blog with you guys a while back.  Now that "Argo" won Best Picture honors at the Academy Awards the other night, Thom's story is getting some impressive press coverage.  Talk about being "up close and personal" with history.

This is the teaser.  Read the whole article and watch the broadcast interview here.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Divorce and the Third Culture Kid

This was a difficult post to write, and even more so to share.  As humans we tend to keep our hurts to ourselves, licking our wounds in the privacy of our minds.  Maybe it’s a pride thing: we want the world to think we’ve got it all together and have no weaknesses.  By doing this, we are under the impression that we’re the only ones suffering, and the result is acute magnification of the pain. If, serendipitously, we come across someone else going through the same thing, the relief is palpable!  Sharing burdens makes them a little more tolerable.  Obviously … how else do you explain the phenomenon of group therapy? 

So while it’s risky to let others (especially strangers!) into your own private Idaho, it can also serve a purpose.  I am 100% certain that this post will resonate with many Third Culture Kids, and I don’t share it to air out my dirty laundry, but to reach out to others that may be plodding through life, needlessly carrying a burden that can be shared, and thereby lightened.

I wonder if there are any statistics about divorce and Third Culture Kids?  Do we get restless in our marriages just like we get restless about our places in the world?  The overwhelming majority of literature that I have found about TCKs says that we are LESS likely to get a divorce.  I suppose we latch on to the security of our marriages after a lifetime of moves and uprootings.  After all, it is said that the trauma of a move to a new place can have the same effect as a death or a divorce.  Why would we want to experience such a thing once we have found stability?

On the other hand, couldn’t it be said that when offered marriage we jump into it with the hope that this will be the end of the nomadic life?  For the first time, we attach ourselves to a seemingly solid foundation in hopes that the emotional upheavals and insecurity will stop.  Isn’t it true that we have so little experience with commitment (whether to a place or a person) that we may not realize that we may be marrying a person simply to satisfy the visceral need to belong to someone or someplace? 

I had no hometown, no roots, and no stability in my life.  I went to nine schools before I graduated from high school (two during my senior year alone).  When I went off to college in Texas, my parents were halfway around the globe in Singapore.  I got to call home once a month, maybe.  It was an exciting day when I found a blue aerogram from mom and dad in my mailbox.  When the dorm closed for breaks, I had to scramble to find somewhere to go.  One time it was a trip to the beach with a girl from my dorm, but who I didn’t know that well.  Another time I holed up in the spare bedroom of a friend of my parents’.  Ostensibly I spent the whole time working on a paper; that gave me the excuse not to come out that much.  I felt uncomfortable, an imposition.  After spending past home leaves staying in friends’ houses with my parents, I came to understand what an invasion that was.  Another time I spent a holiday with cousins who were indeed family, but whom I only knew casually from our once-a-year stateside visits.  I hate to keep bringing up that silly fish out of water, but you get the picture.

I latched on to the very first guy I met in college.  I was desperate to be loved; to be “established” and I’m sure that scared him away.  (The fact that that same guy is now my husband is beside the point.)  After college, dating was a kaleidoscope of men who came and went.  I would fall deeply in love after one date, only to wake up not long afterwards hating him and pushing him out of my life.  It was as if I was desperate for something solid, but not trusting in its solidity.  Each new potential relationship was like moving to a new place, being the new kid at a new school.  I had to try and figure out how to behave in order to fit in, and not always successfully.  I probably left a trail of truly bewildered fellows.

In the mid-1980s, I met my first husband: he was attractive, funny and spiritual.  I was drawn to his life, his cadre of friends from church.  He belonged to something, and I wanted to jump on that train, regardless of my feelings about that to which he belonged.  It was irresistible.  I tried at one point to back out, because I was afraid that my feelings weren’t “what they were supposed to be,” falling into that same defensive trap of dumping him before he could dump me.  Where was the manual telling me how I was supposed to feel?  Apparently I was absent when they handed it out.  I was desperate to be part of that something, but at the same time, afraid to.  We had a beautiful wedding.

I forged ahead, trying to make myself into the perfect partner, still trying to fit in at the school, metaphorically speaking.  We were married for over 20 years.  We had three incredible kids.  Then we adopted two amazing little girls.  I was proud of the fact that I had been a faithful wife; a good mom (never good enough in my mind) and that I had “roots”!  But restlessness never went away.  I never lost that “outsider” feeling.  No one in my new life got who I was, and I was sorely lacking in the tools to express myself.  I felt like I was playing a part on a stage, without a script.  I would mentally jump up and down, screaming “SOMEONE PLEASE LISTEN TO ME!” but there was never an answer.  I’m sure I developed a patina of arrogance.  I wanted to invite everyone into my head, to show them a movie about my life.  There was little interest in where I had been and how I had lived, it was all too foreign (pun intended).  Speaking of Asia and Europe made me feel like I was bragging.  After a while I stopped talking about it … too many glazed eyes and blank stares will do that to a person.  The real me had begun to slowly disappear, like an old photograph fading over time.

All my life I sought approval from the people I knew and loved.  Everything I did was to please others, to get a pat on the back, a check mark, to fit in.  I needed everyone to LIKE me. My own self-worth was dead last in the hierarchy.  I made excruciating decisions along the way that seriously damaged myself, but that made damn sure no one hated me!  I did enough of that on my own.  I did the same thing in my marriage. 

I knew that there were to be no rewards for leaving, that many people would be hurt, badly, deeply.  For a pleaser like me, this was anathema, the divine punishment.  The few friendships I had cultivated over the years were lost.  I would venture to say most of them ended.  There is no loneliness like what I experienced.  I don’t say this to invite pity or sympathy.  It was what it was, and for the first time in my life, I didn’t care; they couldn't have been true friends.  The fact was, I didn’t have to pretend any more.   

This begs the question: are TCKs always running away from something, or trying to run toward something?  Personally, I feel as though I am finally, finally, where I fit in, where I am real, accepted and understood.  Early in our relationship, my (now) husband ordered and read the book “Third Culture Kids” by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken.  Cover to cover.  The man is completely allergic to reading; the fact that he made this gargantuan effort was a colossal and genuine act of love.  He gets me.

I’ve stopped running.  I have consciously made the decision to stop playing a part, and I no longer accept hiding behind some kind of mask. 

If anyone thinks that the person who leaves a marriage does not grieve, they are grievously wrong.  Don’t ever think that we go trippingly into the sunset, laughing all the while at our newfound freedom.  We mourn the awfulness of the destruction we have wreaked … and at our inability to be the person that we thought we had to be.  It was a huge failure on my part, and I will regret the effects that it had on the people I love until the day I die.  I could blame my Third Culture Kid-ness for this, but that seems like an easy out.  Maybe I’m just a selfish, horrible person.  Should I blame Third Culture Kid-ness for that too?

Staying on the back burner for a very long time results in ashes and dust.  

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Sons of the Great Satan

Most folks look back on their high school days with fond memories: the hijinks that they sailed through unscathed (for the most part), and the feeling of that first puppy love.  They remember that tough teacher who, at the time, was evil, but with the rose-colored glasses of time and distance, they ended up loving the most because, while she was stern, she was effective.  They remember the championship season, when the team went all the way.  The parties, the sleepovers, the deep conversations.

TCKs remember the same things, but our experiences have a little of the exotic injected into them.  We went to places like Hong Kong and Taipei to play sports, rather than the next town down the road.  Field trips involved airplane trips into the deep interior of the tropic wilderness.  We lived under Martial Law.  Some of us lived in the midst of a revolution.

Tehran, Iran, during the late 1970s, is a time that we all remember through the newspaper stories of the dethroning of the Shah and the rise to power of the Ayatollah Khomeini.  I can still see the grainy pictures from the television coverage of massive crowds of protesters, Uncle Sam burning in effigy, and the angry anti-American slogans painted on walls and sheets.  I still get a cold chill in my heart when I think of the American hostages held captive (for 444 days!) at the Embassy in Tehran.  I recently went to see Ben Affleck’s movie  “Argo” (and which I talked about a little while ago) and it was too real, too raw, too close to home. 

The summer before I went to college in Texas, I lived in London with a British family, babysitting their children and taking a class at a nearby college.  My class only had three students enrolled.  One of the students, according to our professor, was a prince from the royal family of Bahrain.  She told me, one day when he was absent, that assassins sometimes will act when their target is in school, blowing up the entire classroom.  Comforting.  He used to blow by me in his souped-up Camaro Iroc-Z, while I stood, in the rain, at the bus stop.  When I was in college in Texas, I actually went on a date with a man who was a nephew of the Shah’s wife, Empress Farah Diba Pahlavi.  He was tall, dark and handsome, and drove a really nice car. One time I landed in Dubai on the way home from Asia.  Such is my total experience with the Middle East. 

“Sons of the Great Satan”, written by Anthony H. Roberts, is a fictionalized account of Anthony’s experience as an American teenager in Tehran during the days leading up to the revolution.  Each chapter is titled after a rock/disco/funk song of the times, Dream Weaver, Toys in the Attic, Hot Blooded, Jive Talkin’; songs that are emblematic of the teenagers of the day, across the board.  There’s lots of cussing and “boy” teasing amongst the young protagonist, Joey Andrews, and his buddies.  They smoke a lot of hash and spend carefree times camping up in the mountains outside of the city, unaware of the brewing turmoil nearby.  Joey befriends an Iranian teenager who lives next door, and who attends his school.  Lots of plot twists and characters are intertwined throughout the narrative, which jumps from Joey’s point of view to his parents’, to an anti-Shah terrorist-in-training and a shady cab driver, to an elderly couple trying to escape the country, and to his Iranian friend’s father, who plays a part in the book’s climactic end.  While the ping-ponging chapters may leave the reader a little confused about what is going on, they all come together in one final crescendo. 

Joey and his friends skirt the law with their drug use; most of us would be horrified to walk that thin line, especially in Iran, the land of beheadings and stonings.  (Teenagers in the Philippines did the same thing; maybe, like us, they thought they were immune from being caught.)  Roberts gets inside the mind of an Iranian patriot, one who despises the Shah and whose mission is to do his small part in overthrowing the regime.  A supporter of the shah, an elderly Iranian professor, sees the country he loves falling into the hands of the religious fanatics, and knows that he and his beloved wife have to escape.  Their perilous journey through the snowy mountains reminds me a little of the book “Not Without My Daughter” by Betty Mahmoody.  

This story could only have been told by someone who lived it. “Sons of the Great Satan” is a gripping narrative of the last days of Iran under the Shah, through the eyes of a Third Culture Kid.  Roberts found himself yanked out of the high school that he loved, as the Shah’s regime fell around him.  Most of us TCKs can relate, many of us having been yanked out of our schools, but rarely under circumstances quite as dire.  There was no time to say good-bye to friends, and there was fear about his Iranian friend left behind.  Anthony and his buddies were cast to into the wind, landing scattered about the world, like most of us TCKs at the end of high school.  Roberts’ book is a testimony to all of our journeys and an example of our witness of global events of extraordinary significance.  

Anthony Roberts

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Gun Debate Goes International

In this Friday, Jan. 18, 2013 photo, a Japanese shotgun enthusiast takes a test to renew his license on a shooting range in Ooi, at the foot of Mount Fuji. In this country, guns are few and far between. And so is gun violence. Guns were used in only seven murders in Japan - a nation of about 130 million - in all of 2011, the most recent year for official statistics. According to police, more people - nine - were murdered with scissors. (AP Photo/Eric Talmadge)

Around the World Gun Rules Vary Wildly (Click link to read article)

As the gun control debate rages on, new opinions pop up every day.  As a Third Culture Kid, my mind wanders outside of my own borders, instead of looking at it from a one-dimensional perspective.  This article by AP’s Eric Talmadge talks about gun regulation in Japan, Switzerland and Brazil.  Of course there are huge variables in play: different cultures, different histories, different constitutions.  Perhaps by looking at the issue through global glasses we might be able to find some answers.  We aren’t the only ones dealing with this issue. 

The Philippines used to be an American “protectorate” and there are many facets of the Philippine culture that bears an American trademark.  Like its gun culture.  The Philippines hasn’t been immune from gun violence: In 2010 a disgruntled former policeman took a busload of tourists hostage in a misguided attempt to get his job back.  The outcome was tragic: eight of the hostages killed, the gunman killed, many more injured. 

Members of the Philippine national police force display their taped-up gun barrels in Manila, intended to prevent any the gunfire that has plagued the country every New Year. The taping will ensure that any policeman who fires his gun into the air on New Year's eve will be found out, said the national police chief.
I invited a classmate from IS Manila, Chris Frondoso, to give me insight into the present debate in the Philippines about gun violence.  It’s important that we broaden our thought process.  I still posit that it is more than just guns in play here; it’s a complex issue, not black and white like many try to make it.  Among many other things, like crime and drugs, there is a huge mental health element that needs to be addressed:

Chris Frondoso
Ever since the Connecticut incident the pro and anti gun lobbyists have been arguing in America about whether there is a need for firearms in civilian hands. There have been numerous warnings that the newly re-elected Obama administration may be working on plans to ban certain firearms and limit the capacity of magazines. This has received worldwide attention.

On the other side of the world across the Pacific, in the former US administered territory which is now the Republic of the Philippines, a similar debate is now raging. The question of private ownership and the carrying of firearms, and the system that regulates such, is once again under scrutiny.

There is no constitutional or statutory grant of the right to have arms in the Philippines. It is considered a legal privilege, with each firearm having to be licensed and registered with a process that requires an applicant to present clearances from different government agencies such as the police, the prosecutors and the courts. One must also be psychologically fit to possess and use.  To carry a firearm in a manner similar to the CCW (Concealed Carry Weapon) practice, one must have a permit to carry. Sports men and target shooters may also acquire transport permits to carry their arms to hunt or target shoot. All these permits must be renewed periodically.

Generally as long as you have legal employment and no criminal record you are deemed fit to hold and possess firearms, provided you comply with the legal process.  The regulation and enforcement of the firearms laws is handled by the Firearm and Explosive Office of the Philippine National Police, which is the successor of the US-established Paramilitary Constabulary.  A percentage of police revenue comes from licensing and registration fees.

On a comparative basis with regards to the implementation and practice of firearm control, the Philippines is stricter than the State of Texas but more liberal than New York City, Washington DC, and Chicago, Illinois.

The debate here in the Philippines recently began anew right after the New Years Eve festivities when a little girl was shot and later died because of a stray bullet.  It is thought that the bullet was fired by a New Years reveler who shot into the air.  There were reports of many other victims hit by random gunfire.  The authorities investigated the case by checking the ballistics of registered firearm holders in the vicinity of the girl’s residence. The media reported that there was no match and law enforcers have said that the gun was illegally possessed.

The next incident was a shooting rampage in which a man who was a former district official of a town known as Barangay Kagawaad shot his friends and neighbors, killing ten people and wounding seven.  The shooter and shooting was an incident waiting to happen.  The man, who was killed by responding police, reportedly also fired his gun during the New Year’s festivities.  He was reported to the local district but the police did not act on the reports.  As per the media, further investigation into the subject revealed that he only reappeared recently in the town.  He had disappeared for a year, since he was the defendant in a legal case for possessing drugs, had been investigated for two unsolved killings.  He was also reported as a wife beater.  As a former government official, he was entitled to possess firearms, and in fact in the police database had three listed in his name with expired licenses/registration.  He chose to shoot the victims with an unregistered 45, locally termed as a “loose firearm,” which could not be traced to him or anybody else. 

Many say there was a failure of the system to see a red flag. Concerned legal firearm dealers and officials of Pro-gun (which is the local lobby group for firearm holders) sent representatives to the wakes of several victims to offer legal and financial assistance.  The families of the victims stated that there were forces at play trying to sweep this under the rug since it may call attention to the drug trafficking in the area and the corruption that goes with it.

A strange peculiarity is that during the election period (which covers the first half of 2013), the Commission on Elections (Comelec) dictates who can carry firearms. High government officials and their security details can carry firearms.  The police, military, other law enforcement and accredited government and private security groups are also allowed to carry.  The average civilian is not allowed to carry even for reasons of self-defense. What is ironic is that there are numerous reports of crimes and violence and Pro-gun reports that there have been 300 plus violent incidents with 157 injured and 313 fatalities for January 2013.  They say the criminals know many people have no means of defense when traveling in the street.  (Italics are mine … Liz.)  http://progun.ph/content/epic-failure-comelec-gun-ban-2013-shaping-be-bloodiest-philippine-history.

While many think banning the carrying of firearms or even banning firearms outright is the answer, the Philippines is plagued by many social ills that give rise to these violent incidents.  Add to this the corruption, incompetence and the limited resources of the police and legal system. What a frightening scenario this is.

Outside the urban areas, where lawlessness is common, rural areas are like the Wild West.  Political groups, criminals, ideological rebels … etc., are a strong presence and will use force to get what they want.  In the past civilians have been restricted from carrying firearms, which had little or no effect on criminals since there was lack of enforcement and considerable corruption in the legal system.

One problem is that many of those in power, the military and the police and other security forces, have a long history of abuse.  Human rights abuses ranging from violation of civil rights all the way to killings have been ongoing.

It has been said that the gun is being used as a scapegoat. In the Philippines what we need is to clean the social system and government. Instead of ban the gun let us instead work on jailing the criminals.

Chris is a 1989 graduate of the International School in Manila.  He has worked in the media, public relations and legal fields.  

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Help

I have to get dressed to go pay the gardener. 

My noblesse oblige is not being properly acknowledged by the servants.

My gardener’s suggestion that my cilantro peach salsa is not “authentic” has me wondering if he really is from Mexico.

It’s naptime and my housekeeper is not done cleaning.  How will I sleep?

Unrelated but still funny:  The increased legroom they have in First Class means I have to stand up to get my inflight magazine from the seat pocket in front of me.

"Maids Are a Problem Everywhere"  (click to read article)

Read this article twice: once as “just” a Westerner, then again as a Third Culture Kid.  The first time you will laugh and roll your eyes. A non-TCK will immediately send it to “First World Problems”.  As a TCK you will nod with understanding of what your mother went through all those years overseas. 

The article is oozing with that “je ne sais quois” that is part of a TCK’s DNA.

In Manila, my parents had doorbells installed on the wall behind their bed.  (No, they didn’t “have” them installed, they were already there.  I know what you’re thinking!)  All mom had to do in the morning was reach up over her head, without even having to sit up, and push the button.  Shortly after that our maid would come shuffling into the room with Mom’s coffee on a tray.  I don’t think my dad ever rang his bell, but then again, he was hardly ever home.

We went through a long procession of maids.  The first ones came with our house.  My dad was promoted to run the Manila office after his predecessor died.  (That is a story in and of itself.  Death and dying in Manila is an adventure.)  Our house was a mish-mash of ornate gaudiness, with an entire wing made up of three maids’ bedrooms, a maids’ bath and their own kitchen.  (We wouldn’t want the maids cooking in the same kitchen as ours now, would we?)

Our first maid started putting on weight pretty quickly.  It wasn’t long before we realized it wasn’t because of her cooking, but that she was eating for two.  To our knowledge, she wasn’t married.  Exit maid one.  The second maid told us she needed to visit her family in “the provinces” and could she borrow some money?  She never came back, nor did the money.  There was always drama going on in some shape or form; our own Downton Abbey.

Mom “tried” to instill some sort of responsibility in me.  She asked the maids not to clean up my room while I was in school.  I would leave it in a scattered shamble on my way out the door, socks strewn, clothes wadded on the floor.  When I got home, everything was neatly folded and put away.  This might explain my present lack of housekeeping skills. 

We had a series of gardeners who kept our yard manicured to the nines.  The landscaping was a work of art: bougainvillea, palm trees, miniature bushes, grass cut into basket-weave patterns.  (Not to mention the two courtyards between the living room and the bedrooms.  One with a pond.  With a statue of the Mannequin Pis doing his thing into the pond.) One gardener, Reuben, an elfin little man, wore an enormous straw hat (a salakot), and giant rubber boots.  It seemed to me, that he pruned the flora with a pair of nail clippers.  He and our dog Sheba didn’t get along.  One time she had him by the hem of his pants; I have a vision of him trying to shake her off: “Mum, de dog please, mum!” 

I never stopped to wonder how our maids came and went.  Was there some sort of “maid agency” that my mom went through?  Or was it strictly word of mouth?  Were the expat women always on the hunt, stealing their friends’ maids behind their backs?  In our case, a dear friend of mom’s moved away, and her maid, Pacita, came to be with us.  She was a gem; always jolly, and very good at what she did.  I have a memory of a stuffed fish, complete with head and fins, that was absolutely delicious.  Mom had a tiny brass bell (in the shape of a Korean woman in a hoop skirt) on the dining room table, to be rung when dinner was over.  Pacita would come running to whisk away the plates.  Even when her own house was under several feet of water after a typhoon, she came to work.  My mom was shocked when she found that out, and made her go home.  Pacita was so loved, mom looked into having her come with us to Singapore.  To this day, we pretend to ring a bell and call for Pacita to come clear the dishes. 

The last maid was always the best; it’s almost like you hated to get attached because inevitably that is when you got transferred out of the country. 

In Japan it was the same way.   Our first maid, Masako-san, slept in what I thought was a closet right off the kitchen.  Her little nook had a sliding door, and she popped out whenever I was walking by, scaring the bejeepers out of me.  I was afraid of her.  When we moved out of our apartment into a house, my nanny was Saiko-san, whom I loved dearly.  I had an ear infection once while my parents were out, and Saiko-san tended to me like I was her own.  Once while she was giving me a bath, the six year old me got curious about belly buttons.  I asked her to show me hers (kids say the darndest things!) and she cleverly told me she didn’t have one.  The devil had come in the middle of the night when she was a child, and stolen it away.  The things that stick with you from your childhood.

Our last maid, Yamamoto-san, was a cook and housekeeper extraordinaire.  We had a naughty little dachshund named Oscar, who came to us one Christmas.  When he misbehaved, my mom would make excuses for him, “He’s just a puppy, Yamamoto-san!”  Yamamoto replied, “He been a puppy TOO LONG!” 

Yamamoto-san was very patient with me.  While she prepared dinner one night, I shadowed her every step, chattering away in my little girl manner.  To keep me out of her hair, she gave me a bowl and some utensils to play with.  I mixed up a green slimy concoction of everything I could find: milk, spices, hot sauce, you name it (remember I was seven).  She gamely took a sip, and I’ll never forget the look on her face.  I still feel bad about that one.

Living in a foreign culture forces you to adapt.  Everyone in Manila and Japan had maids.  It wasn’t that we were privileged or, far from it, rich.  Our servants lived on a measly monthly pay and a 40-pound bag of rice.  And they had pretty nice quarters to live in, compared to their actual homes.  Some of them became dear friends; if they were valuable to us, the rewards, for both, were limitless. 

I have heard that the Philippine economy depends on service jobs.  I will never know if our maids muttered under their breath about us, complaining about the rich folks, or if they served us happily, grateful to have a job.  I truly believe that having lived that privileged life gave me an appreciation for those less fortunate than I.  I never took these ladies and men for granted.  I even feel uncomfortable in the Vietnamese nail salon.