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

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Survey: Calling All Native English Speakers Residing in Japan

And I have been a very busy woman these past few months.  Graduate school is taking up most of my time.  I wrote and submitted my papers for the first term and not only did I pass but I did very well.

Once that was done I started working on my Masters dissertation.   I am doing my research here in Japan and I have put together a short survey of native English Speakers living in Japan.

If you are a native English speaker who happens to live here in Japan, I'd be very grateful for your participation in my survey.  It's pretty short and most folks can complete it in under 5 minutes.  The survey is completely anonymous and you can skip any questions you don't like.

And, if you participate and send me an email with your email to,  I will share the results of the survey with you once the survey is closed.

Here's the link:

Native English Speakers Residing in Japan

Please feel free to share this link as widely as possible.  I am sure there are forums, blogs and websites out there that those of you who have lived in Japan much longer than I know well. :-)

Take care, everyone, and I hope to get back to posting again real soon.



Sunday, March 27, 2016


A week of Unfortunate Events here in Brussels.

I have no words to describe what has happened.  I'm not even sure how I feel about it - as if my feelings mattered on whit here which they most assuredly do not.   Let's just say that I'm still reflecting and leave it at that.

Today we went down to the center of the city - to the shrine (can I call it that?) in front of the Bourse. A rally was scheduled and then cancelled at the request of the authorities but people still showed up today at 2:00.

It was lovely. Very moving.  And a bit tense.

A fascist group tried to crash the event and were sent scurrying by the riot police and their water cannons.  Now THAT was satisfying to see.

A few photos. Enjoy today and your Easter Monday.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The US Overseas Voter - Finally Getting Some Respect?

I've posted a lot recently on the US election and for those of you who could care less I promise to get back to writing about other things soonest.  Yes, all you Clinton/Sanders/Trump supporters, there are other things going on in the world that are just as (if not more) important as one election in one country which is not even the country most of us are living in, right?

But I did want to note that US overseas voters have been in the news recently and there are some good articles out there that explain why the homeland candidates and voters should pay attention to US citizens living in one or more of the other 190+ nation-states around the world.  Because in some very close races, overseas voters have managed to push a candidate over the top which has led to some very unexpected election results.

Exhibit A is the election in 2000 between George Bush and Al Gore. Aside from all the controversy over the validity of certain ballots, overseas ballots handed the victory to George Bush in Florida which meant a Bush presidency.  And for those of you who are under the illusion that overseas voters are almost always Democrats, well, where is the data that confirm that?  If you live in a country like France where Democrats abroad is very active, you might have that impression but go to countries in Asia and the picture looks very different.  How many Democrats versus Republicans are there in Singapore, for example, or Tokyo?  Even the conventional wisdom that says overseas civilians are Democrats and overseas military are Republican is questionable.

Donald Inbody's research (Grand Army of the Republic or Grand Army of the Republicans) on the military vote showed that enlisted military voters (85% of the military) were "as likely as the general American population to identify with the Republican Party" and were  "half as likely as the general American population to identity with the Democratic Party";  but they were "about four times as likely as the general American population to report themselves as independent or as identifying with a party other than the Republican or Democratic party."

All this makes overseas voters something of a crapshoot for either party. No one knows what impact we will have, only that there will probably be an impact.

Here are some recent stories about overseas American voters in the press that were passed along to me via Facebook.  If you have more, let me know and I will add them.

Americans Abroad Walk into a Bar, and Vote (Michael Forsythe, New York Times):
"While most 'Super Tuesday' voters were still sleeping, voting in the presidential primaries was well underway. 
In Hong Kong."
America's Overseas Voters are Not Impressed (Therese Raphael, BloombergView):
"Though it is undersized (and voter turnout generally even lower than domestic turnout), the vote potential of Expat Man no longer draws dismissive sniggers. Delayed overseas ballots helped give the 2000 election to George W. Bush (an event that Democrats Abroad says led to a tripling in registrations). Voting from abroad also arguably affected other close election contests, including a 2009 New York Congressional race that gave a narrow victory to Democrat Scott Murphy and the 2008 Senate race in Minnesota in which a Republican incumbent, Norm Coleman, was defeated by a wafer-slim margin by Democratic challenger Al Franken."
"Anyone who’s sceptical about the impact of expat voters needs only to think back to the 2000 presidential election, when overseas ballots provided the push that finally put George W. Bush in the White House. As we write in our report, had that election been decided on the ballots that arrived by the 26 November deadline, Al Gore would have won the state of Florida, and therefore the presidential election, by 202 votes."
Some of the first to vote on Super Tuesday were U.S. expatriates in 41 foreign countries (Karla Adam, Washington Post)
"Mike Heffron, a spokesman for Democrats Abroad based in Canberra, Australia, said that some expats prefer to vote in the “global primary” as a way to raise attention for issues that aren’t as important to their friends and family back home. 
A key concern for expats are tax laws, he said, which are thought to be a big reason behind the growing number of Americans renouncing their citizenship. Unlike most countries in the world, the United States imposes taxes based on citizenship, not residence."

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Donald Trump - A View from Abroad

"But what I do argue is that recognizing them frankly for what they are would instantly and automatically dissipate the indignation caused by their present abominations, and that the disappearance of this indignation would promote the public contentment and happiness. Under my scheme there would be no more false assumptions and no more false hopes, and hence no more painful surprises, no more bitter resentment of fraud, no more despair.

Politicians, in so far as they remained necessary, would be kept at work - but not with any insane notion that they were archangels."

H.L. Mencken essay on Being an American

There are these moments in every migration journey when an American expatriate looks at her country of origin from abroad and has this queer feeling that she no longer recognizes the place. Detached from the taken-for-grantedness of the American life and swimming in very different cultural and political waters, many things in the homeland now strike her as bizarre, even frightening.

Bizarre is exactly the word I would use describe the Donald Trump campaign.  In some ways it's pure entertainment.  Trump is genuinely funny and so off the wall that people all around the world are mesmerized by his antics. 

If you don't care much for politicians his humiliation of the Republican establishment (and his potential for pulling the same trick on the Democrat candidate) will make you cackle with glee. About time someone pulled back the veneer of respectability and highmindness and revealed the US presidential race for what it is: a dance of hypocrites and liars.  The tragedy of every election is that people have such hope that this time things will be different and Something Will be Done.  These hopes are almost inevitably dashed when the candidate takes office and goes about the messy business of actually running the country.   

That said, is Trump the Republican candidate good or bad for Americans abroad?  On the balance, putting aside my amusement and looking at it very coldly, I think it's bad for us.  I speak only for myself but the two things I really care about in this election are:  FATCA/CBT and US foreign policy.  Diaspora, not national issues.  My take, for example, on a hot domestic topic like immigration comes from my experience as an American emigrant. Frankly, I don't see what the fuss is about back in the Old Country.  And having to listen for years to the anti-immigrant rhetoric in my host country (France),  these days I really don't have much patience for it anywhere.

Concerning Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) and citizenship-based taxation, I do not see a statement by Trump anywhere about where he stands on FATCA repeal or mitigation, or what he thinks about moving to a residence-based tax system.   The Republican party establishment has made efforts to address the concerns of Americans abroad.  There is a lawsuit (FATCA Legal Action) and calls to repeal the law by Republican lawmakers.  All things that I want to hear in 2016.  But Trump as candidate threatens to undo all that good work because he's running against the establishment, the very people who are ostensibly on our side.

As for foreign policy, as an American abroad I remember what it was like to have a US president who was viewed with contempt internationally and considered to be a blustering incompetent fool. American homelanders can dismiss this with a sniff and a refusal to watch or read the international media.  However, when you are living outside the US it is an extremely unpleasant experience that one can't escape so easily - not when these things are being discussed at work, at the local bar, or at home over dinner.  That the nationals in the host country dislike your president is one thing, that they think he is a figure of fun and not to be taken seriously is another.  Trump is already all of those things and he hasn't even been nominated, yet. 

The wonderful thing about Trump is that he reveals the farce that is the US presidential race, and invites us to see it as a comedy.  On some level we are all enjoying the show.  However, the fun ends when one realizes that supporting him is really not in one's best interests.  That is the conclusion I've come to:  I think Trump would be disaster for me and my fellow Americans abroad and it frightens me to think that he might have a chance.  

As for the homelanders, I don't think he's good for them either.  His supporters are making the same mistake that Mencken wrote about in 1922;  they confuse him with an archangel, and they are making false assumptions and raising false hopes. Trump is now a politician which means that one day he will inevitably disappoint even the most ardent of his supporters. 

No, homelanders, Mexico won't pay for the wall, 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Democrats Abroad Town Hall

Late last month Democrats Abroad held a Global Town Hall with former Secretary of State Madelaine Albright speaking for the Hilary Clinton campaign, and Bernie Sanders speaking for himself directly to Americans abroad.  Have a listen and add what they had to say to your reflections on the US presidential race.

I've posted a great deal about the activities of Democrats Abroad recently.  That's because they have put together some very useful and interesting material that is easy to share with others on-line.  I would be more than happy to do the same for the Republican side.  So all you Republican Overseas out there, let me know what you've got and I will include it.

For the record I have a a Menckenesque take on all politicians.  I believe in keeping them employed (and in their place) but I don't trust them very much and if it were up to me I'd like to see every indignity that is inflicted on the American worker applied to them:  cameras in the workplace, access to their email, and regular drug tests.

Enjoy the videos and leave a comment if you feel inspired.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

What Software Are You Running Today?

A couple of weekends ago I joined my flatmate and some friends on a guided tour of a neighborhood here in Brussels that has become notorious following the November attacks in Paris:  Molenbeek.

Molenbeek is a densely populated commune on the outskirts of the city that became a working-class neighborhood during the Industrial Revolution and is known in our time as an immigrant ghetto - mostly Turks and Moroccans.  Seven people from this area were arrested in connection with the recent Paris attacks.  The Guardian referred to it as "Europe's jihadi central."

Brukselbinnenstebuiten (Brussels Turned Inside Out) is a Flemish non-profit that organizes guided tours of Brussels with local guides who know the city intimately because it's been their home for many years or their entire lives.  A walk through Molenbeek is one they offer and I sincerely recommend it to you if you happen to be visiting.

Wear your sturdiest walking shoes and bring an umbrella because this tour is over 6 hours and the guide, Eric, will take you through every nook and cranny of this district with a commentary that ranges from the historical - why are there clocks on the buildings at many intersections? - to the sociological: What's going on with identity in this neighborhood?  Who lives here and why do they stay? How do the old working-class residents, the immigrants, and the Trojan Horses, the upwardly mobile middle-class residents responsible for gentrification, all rub along with each other?

I once heard that to criticize without love is to do great violence to a person or a community.  Eric spoke so eloquently about this neighborhood pointing out the things past and present that were beautiful, interesting or inspiring without hiding or glossing over the massive social problems like poverty and unemployment,   This was his place and truly he knew it inside and out.

Erik was a resident of Molenbeek and his personal history said a lot about the neighborhood and about Brussels.  The son of a Flemish native and a Spanish immigrant parent, he was educated in French schools. He speaks all those languages plus English.  What I found most interesting about him was his way of looking at his own identity - how he resolves all the different elements that come together to make him what he is and how he is able to affirm everything and deny nothing.

Software, he said.  I just think of it as software.  Depending on the context, he's able to run whatever programs are appropriate.  That day in Molenbeek he was running his English software.  In another context he might run his French, Flemish or Spanish software.  Occasionally, he admits, some of these things need upgrades.  But they are saved in his brain ready to go and all he has to do is fire them up and run them when he needs them.

That's an interesting way to look at it.  For one thing, he's saying that these things, these multiple, identifiable identities aren't his core identity.  His identity as an individual - the true self - is one thing that sits at the center, and all the other identities are attached to that.  Some of his programs were loaded by others (family and school) and some were ones he chose for himself.

What I loved about this is how it allows for a kind of personal neutrality toward some identities that arouse great passions and become the sources of contention within an individual and within communities.  Forget the language wars or the autochtone versus the migrant and just say, "Today I am running French software because that's what is most useful in the context.  But tomorrow I may load my Spanish or immigrant or native son software because that would be the most appropriate in this or that situation."

However, I think we can all agree that some identities, once loaded, are deadly.  There is, Eric says, jihadi software that has spread like a virus through Molenbeek.   And how exactly are we and this community to deal with that?

If this is software then what is the solution?  An anti-jihadi program?  An "uninstall" button?  And how can anyone prevent deadly upgrades -  the ones that say time to take up arms and passer à l'acte?

I don't know but it seems to me that it is imperative that we try. The merit of the "identity as software" approach is that it might keep us from falling into an equally dangerous frame of mind - one that confuses the people with the program.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Americans and Cross-border Relationships in France and Japan

A few days ago on Facebook someone posted a link to a blogpost where an American man described his "discovery" of European women and then went on to rant about American women and how he didn't think much of them.  Similar articles can be found all over the Internet.  It took me about 10 seconds find this one.  Such anger, resentment, and specious comparisons.  These gentlemen are definitely not "bien dans leurs baskets," I say to myself and then I move on.

When I come across this sort of thing, I have to get past my visceral reaction to paint these guys as idiot adolescents and admit that I am very poorly placed to criticize someone who looks for love across borders. If this American man didn't marry a compatriot, well, neither did I.  And while I certainly don't write angry posts about the failings of American men (nor am I carrying some sort of grudge against them) I dated, married and had two children with a European, not an American.

So I need to check my reaction and be sure that I'm not the pot to their kettle.   Looking at it more broadly, I do think there may be a double standard operating here.  Or at least a kind of refusal to look at the larger picture.  I've lived and worked in two countries where I think I see it.  Perhaps you see it differently but let's have a look together.

When I moved abroad I moved to France and married a Frenchman.  But even before I left the US, my friends, family and the women at work (many of them married) had pretty much the same reactions:  "How romantic!" they said.  And there was a lot of talk about how lucky I was to be actually living their fantasies of being swept off one's feet by a charming sensual Frenchman and going off to live in France, a country where women were adored and treated with Old World courtesy combined with passion and romance.  In those reactions were there not judgements and stereotypes? Absolutely.  And in those first few years in France I noticed there were quite a few American women married to French men, but relatively few American men married to French women.  I think that has changed somewhat in 25 years, but the pattern is still more American women with French men and not usually the reverse.

Fast forward a decade or so and I found myself in Japan and found a completely different cross-border marriage pattern back in the first decade of the 21st century.  In Japan (and in Asia overall) one is more likely to find an American man married to an Asian woman.  Fair number of sterotypes and judgements operating there too with some men in the US congratulating these fellows on their luck at finding women who are sensual and know how to treat their husbands or boyfriends right.  My goodness, change the gender and doesn't that sound familiar?

And here too the pattern has changed a bit with more North American and European women marrying Japanese men and settling in Japan. Or Thai men which is actually a return to an older marriage pattern.  Eric Cohen notes his essay in Sex and Tourism:  Journey of Romance, Love and Lust that "Until the 1960's, intermarriage of Thais with Westerners was limited in extent, 'except for those involving members of the Thai elite' (Smith, 1971:128).  Such marriages typically involved Thai men and foreign women (Smith 1971:128) rather than the opposite, currently dominant pattern."  So American men who extol the virtues of Thai women versus American women on the Internet should be aware that Thai men have a long history of finding American women to be very attractive marriage partners. A bit ironic, isn't it?

So here we have Americans abroad and two countries with very gendered 21st century cross-border marriage patterns. There are some interesting  dynamics going on here that merit further research.

Clearly, education and socio-economic status are (or were) important here.  I have never met an American woman married to a Frenchman who didn't have at least a university degree and I've walked into women's clubs where there were quite a few women with Masters degrees or even PhD's. The American men I have met in Japan are far more diverse with a range from a high school diploma to some college to a university degree (usually a BA).

Most of the American men in Japan that I've met found their wives while they were in the military. The civilians on the other hand came as English teachers or academics during the Japanese economic boom, and they met their spouses while they were on short-term teaching contracts.  This is also true of the civilian women I know in Japan who are married to Japanese men.  The American women married to French who live in France usually met their husbands at university or in study abroad programs, or as tourists, or when their future spouses were expatriated to the US for business or study.

The global hierarchy of nations is also, I think, a factor here. France, Japan and the US are all rich developed OECD nations and there is a lot of tourism, international student migration, and labor migration going on among them.  Yes, much of the labor migration falls into the Highly Qualified Migrant category but that's a very broad label that includes someone with a four year degree - something that doesn't buy a graduate as much as it did in the US. In this hierarchy France probably wins the race since both Americans and Japanese have a very high opinion of French culture.  Also Japan doesn't have that "American in Paris" imaginary that makes for successful expat novels and memoirs.  I think the "American in Tokyo" does exist but it's fairly recent and may have reached its apogee in the Japanese boom period.

Perhaps I am making too much of this but I notice that when an American abroad says that he or she lives in France, the reactions are very positive and other Americans abroad or in the US don't ask why that person is living in the Hexagon - it's just assumed that it is a great place to be and isn't that person lucky to be there?  Japan is seen as exotic and interesting but long-term American residents get more questions about why exactly they would want to live there for so many years.

And finally, let's talk about race - the American Original Sin.  I think some of that is at work here as well.  American women and men who marry French men and women are assumed to be European-Americans marrying Europeans.  And that means fewer comments and criticisms because it's taken for granted that like is more or less marrying like and the only differences are cultural which can easily be overcome by an effort at integration. Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Native-Americans  are invisible.  Which is ridiculous.  African-Americans have been "Americans in Paris" for a very long time.  Centuries, in fact.

In Japan and the United States race is perceived to be one of those major differences that make American and Japanese couples kind of problematic.  They are certainly far more visible and I think that they face much harsher judgement, or at least much more scrutiny.  When Americans talk about marriage fraud, for example, (someone marrying an American citizen to get a Green Card) the foreign spouses are almost always said to be from Asia or Latin America.  In contrast to the articles that I mentioned earlier in this post about the attraction of Asian women compared to American women, there are also quite a few articles that sternly warn the men that they are being taken for a ride by their Asian girlfriends or wives and their only value to these women is their money, their exoticism, or their access to the United States.

Frankly, I have never seen a headline in a major American newspaper insinuating that Western Europeans pose this sort of problem or threat.   Or that American women marrying Frenchmen should be extra careful lest they be taken advantage of.  In that light, could we not view some of the articles by American men about the superiority of relationships with Japanese (or Asian) women as a defensive maneuver?  They, unlike American women who marry French men, must explain themselves and justify why they are in relationships with women of a different culture and race.  At its ugliest some comments and perceptions come perilously close to viewing American women who marry Europeans as marrying up, and American men who marry Asians as marrying down.

To those who argue that Japanese are well-perceived in our time and what is the problem, let me remind you that there is a long and terrible history of discrimination against Japanese in the United States and I personally think that anyone who says that this has completely disappeared is dreaming.  It's probably much better than it was in the 20th century, but I would argue that it is still not completely gone. Especially on the American West Coast.

Those are a few of my thoughts on this based on what I've observed living in both Asia and Europe.  Feel entirely free to disagree with me.  It's something I am genuinely curious about and try to make sense of from time to time.  More information or a different perspective would be very welcome.

What makes me concerned is that I see a kind of American gender war carried abroad.  There are judgements being made about cross-border relationships based on hierarchies of nations, race, and socio-economic status. It is really dangerous to say that a spouse of this or that nationality is superior in some way to other nationalities or even one's own, and that one derives (or loses) some sort of status based on some very racist, sexist, and class-based sterotypes about one's wife or husband.

Perhaps American men and women abroad might like to work on this one together.  Fundamentally, we all have very similar problems when we marry outside our culture:  problems with language, deskilling, divorce, custody battles, legal residency, bi-cultural families and the like.  It is truly unfair to cast aspersions on, question the motives of, or exalt a fellow American just because he or she married this or that person and lives abroad.  It is also not helpful to tell someone whose cross-border, cross-cultural relationship went down in flames, We told you so.

How about we all start with making a very different assumption?   That our compatriot has met an individual man or women who is not a stereotype, a representative of his or her nation, but a person.

How very fortunate, we could say, he or she is to have found love so far from home.  There may be disappointments and challenges along the way but isn't that just as true as of marriages that don't cross cultures or national borders?

And then we simply wish both of them a long and happy life together.