Tag Archives: expat life

The Old World

I always loved going to the East Coast. I never failed to be taken by the sense of history that envelope those cities. There are the obvious landmarks, of course, the walk along the Freedom Trail in Boston, the marathon of the National Mall in DC – where significant sites are piled one on top of another. But it goes beyond that. There is just this incredible feeling of well-wornness, of character, of being through shit that we do not have on the West Coast. It permeates the streets, the buildings, the people most of all.

That aspect of Boston resonated with me when I lived there. The parts of the city that looked like they had seen better days. Street cars that screeched like nails on chalkboards, and ran 15 minutes late with regularity. People who lived with a constant chip on their shoulders, probably from having to shovel snow for months on end. I’d expect the drainage system to deal with rain better but it didn’t. It was just good enough. And that was the city. There was an element of survival, of endurance ever-present. Boston was painfully worn in.

I like to describe Tokyo as the living vision of the future we once imagined in the 1980s. I see Europe, conversely, as a throwback – a stalwart of the 18th century. I offer many caveats. I have only lived on the continent for nine months. I reside in a city and a country that each occupy unique spaces even within the European sphere. And I am well aware that Europe is a continent and therefore less amenable to any sort of umbrella characterization than a city or country. But I offer one nonetheless. It’s like time moved on, but Europe did not. For better and for worse.

I am likely infusing my feelings of places with broad swaths of world history. Boston HAS seen better days. Tokyo WAS the future in the 80s. Europe’s heyday WAS the 18th century.* But feeling and historical reality are inextricably linked. Ultimately, there is something about Europe that feels like a continent trying to protect, or perhaps recapture, its past. It is an active anachronism, but notably does not appear effortful or defensive in the process – Europe being too self-assured for either.

*I use “18th century” symbolically, as I am too ignorant to pinpoint the relevant period du jour. I’m an American, after all.

Europe has a presence. It’s not intimidating, though it can be. Rather, it stands coolly confident, with an identity that is almost if not completely common across the continent. Each city gives off a vibe akin to what I experience from the East Coast, but with a far more amplified sense of history and character and sense of comfort. Every place is as well-rounded as the next, as though they operate in their own bubbles, with slight but perceptible variation across various dimensions betwixt them.

Being shallow, the physical features strike me first. The majesty of the train stations. The overwhelming castles and churches. The statues and busts to spare, not only in museums and outside parliament buildings but at intersections and fountains and neighborhood parks. Indeed, it is precisely the everyday that I find most captivating. Every building, almost without fail, memorable in its balcony or roof or windows or windowpanes or ivy on walls. Modernity conspicuously absent, quietly rejected.

The past permeates every part of every city, but in a manner that somehow accentuates history rather than age. Charm is never lacking: in the decidedly mom-and-pop restaurants where the space seems slightly off and none of the tables are quite aligned, the boutiques resting on the ground floor of apartment complexes that never seem to open for business, even the street signs that curiously seem to prioritize vanity over practicality, for instance being located on building sides instead of free-standing.

It is more fundamental than the physical, however. The very way of life in Europe often appears stubbornly set in the past. Upon arrival, I could not help but notice the carefree way in which people stroll, chat, lounge, as though unencumbered, even unconditioned by modernity and the clock. It was especially pronounced coming from Tokyo. People are so at ease here, and what is more, they are at ease being at ease, whether on a balcony or restaurant patio or at the park. Even service seems to come at its leisure.

There are oddities associated with the past that manifests also, reinforcing the temporal displacement of the continent. I listen to a presentation from a man named Bernd sporting a bowtie as if any of that is a normal occurrence in the year 2017. I find water fountains with beautiful lion heads as taps at every other intersection but never a metallic 20th century concoction at a public venue. I interact with waiters who act so uptight as though they were preserving the sanctity of dining itself.

Of course, there are frustrations in inhabiting a world and a time that do not feel like my own. As with Japan, I do not wish to romanticize Europe. There are times when I wish I could get in and out of a restaurant in 40 minutes, places I wish would be open after 7 pm weeknights or anytime Sundays, environments I wish could adopt a space on the continuum away from their formality and stuffiness and towards my roughness around the edges. Yet, it is hard not to romanticize a place that literally harkens back to the Age of Romanticism.

Indeed, the sense of history and character and charm is never lacking. Like I said, I always did love going to the East Coast. And living on the European continent is akin to that, only amplified: richer, deeper, and more memorable. Ultimately, it is older – and I’m grateful for it.

The Whole Wide World

In the midst of my grandmother’s final days, I couldn’t help but think about how different her life had been from mine, how everything she had been through had made things possible for me, my sister, our cousins. I received the news of her passing in Porto, on New Year’s Day. It pained me to be on the other side of the world, away from family in both the US and Hong Kong, away from friends even. Yet at the same time, I thought about how far we had come, as a family, that I was able to be there, a spur of the moment trip to Portugal over my holiday.

My grandmother never left China, never left Hong Kong really. Growing up, even after my parents moved with me and my sister to the States, our vacations were rare, and quite modest. A few road trips to Las Vegas and San Francisco, once to Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park. Our big getaway was New York and DC – to deal with immigration paperwork. That was the extent of it. My parents always provided for us, and I never was left wanting of anything. But luxury was unknown to us: we rented instead of owned, moved around a bunch to save. And we rarely traveled.

I was at a museum in Paris when I received what turned out to be my last call from my grandmother. I was spending the holidays there with my best friend – she a half-Spanish French native whom I had met in Tokyo. About a week later, I reflected on the moment, the trip, and I thought too about my last couple of months working in Geneva. I had been to Brussels and Rome, spent a weekend with a good friend over in Barcelona. I didn’t think about this in a self-indulgent way. Rather, I thought about the fact that I was able to see so much, and experience so much, on behalf of my grandmother, on behalf of my parents.

I never once took for granted what I had gained because of my family’s move to the US. Still, I don’t know that I ever envisioned what my life was going to be like when I grew up. Until the point of graduate school, I never really thought about what my life could be like. Even as my personal travel expanded, it never quite seemed like real life. Things only felt different, I think, when it was my studies – my work – that opened up the world. Conferences in Chicago and New Orleans, in Seoul and Berlin. Field work in New York, Geneva, and Vienna. The world simultaneously became bigger and smaller, less bounded but more accessible.

I have admittedly struggled with expat life at times, as has been well documented on these pages. These recent weeks in particular have provided plenty of triggers. Missing the holidays, the milestones, the passings. Just watching La La Land this past weekend, and seeing the spirit, the hope and beauty, the melancholy of the city I grew up in, captured onscreen – it made me yearn for life back “home,” for the experience of being there. But I don’t think I would prefer that alternative, don’t think that I would be happier being in LA, or even the US. In fact, at this stage of my life (however long it may last), I can say resoundingly that this is not the case.

Perhaps it has to do with my tendency to settle, to be comfortable. Even in Japan, in a shoebox apartment with a modest fellowship stipend, with no hope for professional progress and almost no love life, I was a little too content. Maybe the inherent discomfort of being an expat is the very thing I need then. A friend suggested once that expats are people who are in search of something, who lack something in their lives. I suppose I’m still  searching. But what I’ve found so far has propelled me a bit in my life, has challenged me in ways I could never have conceived.

The people I’ve met – they’re the core of it. I have learned so much, from one-off dates and fleeting encounters, but especially from the kindred souls I will forever hold close to my heart. I have a friend in Hong Kong who still tells me regularly she misses our days as graduate fellows in Boston. A Japanese friend in Singapore who checked in on me every time he was in Tokyo, even if he had to meet with luggage in tow. The couple who I spent a full week with in a studio in Paris, nonstop, on their holiday; the aforementioned best friend who took me to all her family functions. They are in my life because of a confluence of coincidence*, but also fundamentally because I moved from comfort.

*”Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world”

When I told my mom about my trip to Rome, she asked how long the flight was from Geneva. She asked a few more questions about Italy  – something my sister and I both picked up on. They, along with my brother-in-law, were to visit me in Switzerland later this year. After the conversation, my sister put Rome and Venice on their itinerary too. I think about that, and the hundreds of places my sister has been to in her life. I think about my mom, a homemaker until we moved to the States, who then – and to this day – would have to wake up before the crack of dawn six days a week for her blue-collar job. And I think about her being able to see Italy and Switzerland and France and Japan.

I think about my grandmother.

Leaving Los Angeles was the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Being an expat continues to be the privilege of my life. I know it. I just have to remind myself of it sometimes.

(Photo by bm.iphone, uploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

By the Lake

I should experience the summer, I’m told. This in fact has been an almost universal refrain from denizens in Geneva, with the implicit – and sometimes not-so-implicit – suggestion that the other seasons are generally forgettable here. Quiet. Sleepy. Boring. It’s the general thrust of the city’s reputation. A colleague who has lived around the edges here for more than a decade could not name a restaurant within city confines that he frequented regularly. A collaborator now in Vienna volunteered she spent “a year in a month” here, chuckling as she asked how I was coping so far. I have met plenty of people who like the city, to be sure, but with reservations. Again, I should really experience the summer.

It is impossible for me to look at my three months in Geneva without doing so through the lens of the last place I resided – Tokyo, Japan. From that regard, my life is already so different that the idea of the cities being classified as the same species – let alone genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom, or domain* – is an almost laughable proposition. My 20.35 square meter shoebox in the world’s hippest neighborhood has given way to a ridiculous 90+ square meter apartment in one of the world’s sleepiest. Shops close at 7 pm instead of seemingly never, crowds are the exception rather than the norm, and overall vibrancy is contained to a special event, a block or two, an evening or two. We’ve shifted to tortoise from hare.

*Because high school biology shouldn’t be wasted

But it is precisely the drastic character of the change that I don’t mind at all what Geneva has been so far. This is not Tokyo revisionism. I continue to miss the constant buzz and excitement, the pure visceral and frenetic nature of it all. I miss the comfort of familiarity with the space I had carved out, in an environment defined by its absence of boundaries. I miss my best friend (understatement). Still, I have alluded to the fact that my life in Japan did not seem sustainable – for my liver certainly, or my state of mind. I did feel compelled to hike just about every week, almost necessary to preserve my sanity. It would have been too easy for me to get lost there, in this contradiction of the familiarity of the surreal.

Geneva in some ways then stands as a perfect detox to Tokyo, a near antithesis that straddles the line of being an international city and sleepy suburb. This is not the most flattering image I am painting, I realize. But short of Seoul and a select few other locales, the down-scaling from a metropolitan population that nearly reached 39 million to any other was always going to be a move that was intrinsically a return to the ‘real world.’* And Geneva – on its own merits – has plenty of positives. It feels and is culturally rich and diverse, with a sense of history and even a couple of sports teams. The presence of so many international organizations, and the accompanying influx of young professionals and expats, lends it an aura of liveliness, even if only in spurts. Life overall appears sustainable, real – more often at least.

*an estimated 485,000 in Geneva

It is a running joke that residents flock to the train station and the airport to leave the city on the weekends. But the idea that this is an indictment on Geneva itself seems a patently unfair judgment to make. The public transportation system that links Geneva to all parts of Switzerland is a credit to the country, a cheap means to a nearby day hike, a jazz festival in Lausanne, a weekend in Zurich or Bern. After all, I too used Boston as a springboard to explore the Northeast Corridor. I left Tokyo regularly to see more of Japan than any non-local possibly could, to spend holidays (twice!) in Southeast Asia. The proximity of Geneva to any number of European capitals should stand as a point in its favor, not against.

The other day, a colleague offhandedly insulted Lexington, Kentucky, a place neither he nor I had ever been to. And I found myself being a bit offended by it. It seems silly, seeing as how I’ve eliminated half the US from the list of places where I want to work. Maybe it’s easy to be self-righteous and indignant in theory. But a few years ago, I spent two weeks in Syracuse, New York, for an extended academic workshop. I was quite dismissive of the experience then. Looking back now though, I went to a minor league baseball game, checked out a food festival, and took a day trip to Cooperstown. If I lived there now, I would find hikes, local shows, a farmer’s market or something. With university students around, it would have approached vibrant, I’m sure. I would bet Lexington has its charms, just as I can see now that Syracuse did too.

Perhaps then this is a matter of personal maturity, and an interrelated comfort level with my own needs and hobbies. What does it mean for a place to be boring, after all? What does a person want from the place where they reside? In Geneva, I have walked a weekend flea market (regularly), checked out a couple of art exhibits, sat for a hockey game and a play, and ate and drank through a street food festival and a beer festival, respectively. I’ve gone on a few hikes that started within the confines of the city, even gone for a swim lakeside when the weather permitted. This weekend, I’ll likely go to a Christmas market and a photo exhibition in Nyon (a 15 minute train ride away) in lieu of a concert orchestra at the United Nations. Next weekend, I’m off to Barcelona.

Okay, so Geneva itself is low-key, quiet. But boring? I don’t think that’s right. More to the point, I don’t think I want to be that dismissive of any place anymore, even if only in theory. Yeah, Geneva is certainly different from Tokyo or Boston or Los Angeles. But isn’t that the point of living anywhere?

To Be Continued

I’m always reminded of how small the world can be when I get on a plane. I ask myself why it is that I haven’t visited home in so long. Why it is that I don’t travel more often. It takes ten hours, maybe 12 or 13, and I can easily be on the other side of the world: my sister’s home, my mom’s apartment, in a city or in a country that I’ve never visited before. Less than a day – nothing in the grand scope of things. I suppose money is the primary deterrent. Still, as privileged as I am, it still seems like an excuse.

It’s incredible though how much life can change with a plane ride. With a moment, really. For about six months, I lived with an increasing degree of uncertainty, knowing only that my future would very likely not rest in Tokyo. Then, I received an email. For about three weeks after that, I lived with the certainty that I was moving to Geneva. The fear of an unknown future barreling down on me shifted to that of a concrete future barreling down on me, my world suddenly one in which I simultaneously faced the reality of leaving a life behind while preparing for one that had thrust itself on the horizon.

The finality of leaving Japan struck me time and again. Perhaps it’s a feeling that expats more experienced than I have become accustomed to. But the particular circumstances of my farewell certainly helped to prolong it, forcing me to confront the end of this chapter of my life at an almost comedic level. My supervisor went on an extended vacation about a month previous, prompting an official farewell lunch and after-work drinks then. My best friend went on a long-planned vacation two weeks after that; her departure preceded by an emotional and reflective week of gatherings and conversation.

A week after that was when I actually left my job – the first real workplace I’ve been a part of, and the source of essentially all my relationships the past two years. It was accompanied by more meals and drinks, naturally. On top of all that, an unexpected wait for a visa pushed me to abscond from my apartment and shack up with a buddy for a week – thus providing a literal manifestation of my now-transitory existence in Japan, my purgatory of sorts. Visits to the immigration bureau, the ward office, and the Swiss embassy underlined the gravity of the chain of events set in motion. It all felt so real, yet so surreal also.

I don’t know that it hit me until I got on the plane, and perhaps not even then. Fact is, a week into my new life, I’m not sure it’s quite hit me yet. I’m too busy being overwhelmed – by the big things, the first days at the new job, the in-progress apartment hunt, but also the little things, the denominations of coins and cash, the instructions at the Laundromat where I sit writing this – to have my feet fully underneath me, to be able to truly process everything that has happened in the span of the past month or two. I can’t help but be aware of the most painfully obvious elements of the move, of course. There’s the smallness of the city, its corresponding and welcomed manageability. The pace of life, the rhythm and space, the diversity and liveliness, all plain as day.

But the physical traits of my new surroundings matter less than how I choose to perceive them, how I choose to interact with and engage them. And that is yet to come. After all, my life changed with a plane ride, but not simply due to the physical act thereof. Rather, it changed and will change because the ride has put me in a place where I must define and redefine myself: my life and career, my path and future direction, my hobbies and interests, my friendships and relationships. Not all of that is entirely under my control – it never is. But the assessment, the reevaluation, even the confrontation: it’s not the worst thing in the world. Maybe it’ll get me to the place where I want to be, inside.

Home and Away

It is home, but not anymore – not really. I’m an intruder, an interrupter. One friend flies down from San Francisco to see me for the weekend. Another sneaks in a dinner and chat at the beginning of her workweek. I take up a former professor’s lunch hour. And my mom – well, she asks for a couple of days off to accompany me 120 miles south to see my sister. I appreciate it all, of course, more than I could ever express. But at the end of the day, this is their life, their world, while mine – improbably – awaits me in Tokyo.

I needed this trip for my soul. It had been fourteen months and four days since I left the United States, and other than a week-long sojourn to visit relatives in Hong Kong, I had spent the entirety of the time in the land of the rising sun. My patience was wearing thin. I missed the West, desperately. I scoured Tokyo for burrito joints, I cooked lasagna at home, I bought American flag shorts, and I even declared to strangers how amazing the U.S. was, unprompted.* On the verge of – if not quite a breakdown, then something close, I took a flight home.

*“What’s the second best country, huh? What’s second?” I was the quintessential obnoxious American.

The trip doesn’t cost much – only miles – and it doesn’t take long – thanks to tailwinds. I struggle to reconcile the ease of travel with the severe isolation I have felt over the course of the past year plus. It is surreal. The night before I left the U.S., I had a drink on a rooftop bar downtown with three of my closest friends; one took me to the airport immediately following. It still feels like yesterday. But before I know it, I walk past the perpetually grumpy customs agents and into the Los Angeles night, into the clusterfuck that is LAX. My life feels unpaused. Or perhaps, paused.

Freeways aside, the city feels a lot less congested than it used to. Compared to Tokyo, how could it not? I go to an antiques market in Santa Monica and am amazed. There are dozens of people there, at most hundreds – rather than the thousands upon thousands that would surely attend a similar event in the Far East. I wander, meander, linger, all without fear that I might be engulfed by a sea of humanity, by crowds four-, five-, six-deep. Meanwhile, public trash cans are everywhere. No need to sort, recycle, combust. I toss with glee, with abandon.

Little things underline the differences between where I was and where I am, where I live and where I visit. I wait in line outside a downtown club at 2 am (ultimately unsuccessfully), and a police cruiser circles a few times, ever-vigilant. Right, I tell myself. Because crime exists here. The homeless are everywhere, and not only that, but they dare to approach, ask for money outright. I have to tip at places again, hesitating at restaurants and bars to try and figure out what constitutes a fair percentage. And I drive, because it’s Los Angeles, and of course you do.

But it is at Target that it hits me. I stare, mindlessly, at the directory.

  • “Can I help you?” A friendly employee.
  • “I’m just looking.”
  • “I can tell you where it is.” He offers with a smile.
  • “I’m not sure what I’m looking for.”
  • “Don’t know, huh?” He chuckles as he finishes my thought. “Give a shout if you need some help.”

That’s the exchange. No struggle, no awkwardness. As I walk away, I don’t cry, but I want to, and my heart swells with emotion. I don’t even know how to explain it. But in that moment, I am reminded that this exists. This, where I can feel like I belong, without any effort. A fucking Target in Pasadena, California.

I don’t do much with my trip. I eat at a bunch of places I wanted to eat. I watch a bunch of movies I wanted to watch. I see a bunch of people I wanted to see. It’s incredible in some ways. But it’s terrible in others. A close friend has set a wedding date. Another has been working at a new job for the past couple of months. My own sister got engaged. And I haven’t been there for any of it. Their lives have moved on. Life has moved on. And I’m stuck on the other side of the world.

By the end of the ten days, I’m ready. Like I said, I feel like an intruder, an interrupter. Truth is, I kind of am. My life awaits me in Tokyo. My job awaits me in Tokyo. I have bills to pay, sake festivals to attend, friends to play with, even a girl to see about (maybe). They’re there in Japan, waiting for me to unpause. I’m glad it’s not forever, of course. But for the next couple of years, for the moment at least, where I belong is not a Target in Pasadena, but Tokyo, Japan. Improbable as it may be.