Showing posts with label family. Show all posts
Showing posts with label family. Show all posts

Monday, October 17, 2016

Tell Me Stories: Your difficult immigration experience

I would like to write a blog post on 老人茶 about immigration issues affecting permanent foreigners, considering my situation (wanting citizenship and not being able to get it).
I'm interested in stories about that, or having children who could not stay (or not being able to stay yourself), or being concerned this might someday affect your kids for those of you with younger children. Stories on trouble finding non-teaching work locally, being unable to get an APRC would also work, as well as issues buying property and obtaining credit - the focus will be on the ways that Taiwan discourages foreigners from building a life here so it all ties together.
So many articles focus on just one issue - Taiwan-born "foreign" children, citizenship, work rights - but they are actually all related and reveal they hypocrisy of talk in Taiwan about wanting to be more international and move away from ethnic nationalism.
There is a lot already out there I can link to, but if anyone has something specific they'd like to add, please let me know. 

You can leave a comment with your contact information - I won't publish it but will get in touch. Or email me at a lovely burner account I created just for this: 
I would put my real e-mail here but I have been harassed before, Such is being a person with a vagina and some opinions on the Internet. 
I can't do much, but at least I can blog.

Monday, August 15, 2016

A time to break down


I've been working for awhile on a story-like version of this topic: true events told in a narrative about my time away from Taiwan in 2014 and 2015 and subsequent return. But recently two people I know (a friend and a friend-of-a-friend) have taken or will take similar flights, so I felt like writing something more essay-like about it now. Look for the story in a month or two.

Most recently, I returned to the US for one week in order to attend a family reunion, as well as pack up my entire childhood. The reunion and other family visits were especially important as I have two living grandparents, both of which are near 90 and neither of which is in good health. It is a painful fact that every visit I make home could be the last time I see either or both of them.

In 2012, a few years before my mom passed away, she had expressed an interest in the various old and attractive, but not particularly valuable, antique decorative items I'd purchased for my apartment in Taiwan: mostly old carved wooden panels used to decorate the tops of walls and under eaves in houses and temples. So, I bought her a similar panel with carved peaches (symbols of long life) and a stylized 'long life' (壽) character, as we were returning to the US for Christmas that year. It turned out to be our final family holiday together before she passed away in 2014. The irony of this does not escape me.

This past week, after learning that our dad planned to rent out our family home and the house I grew up in for at least a year, and potentially sell it after that time, I asked if I could have the panel rather than see it go into storage. It was an easy request as I'd purchased it to begin with.

With too much in the suitcase, including books, large photo albums and other items, the fragile wood of this panel just couldn't take the pressure. As I was closing the back, I heard a crack. The cut was not a complete severance and could be repaired, but I didn't want it in that suitcase. I put it in my carry-on as gingerly as possible, only for the breakage to complete itself as that bag, too, was overstuffed.

When I took it out of its (inadequate) padding back in Taipei, only to see it completely severed, I was reminded of a favorite song of my mother's which my uncle sang at her memorial service:

A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones
A time to gather stones together
I couldn't help but draw some weird symbolic analogies to my long-term expat life - literally as far away as it is possible to go from my hometown - and that antique wooden panel. Bought in Taiwan, gifted to my mother in the US, only for its hope of long life to be dashed in a few remaining years and to crack on the way back to Taiwan, as I leave the home I grew up in quite possibly for the last time.

As you know if you read this blog even semi-regularly, my flight home in 2014 was sudden: I'd planned on leaving for up to a year, maybe two, but wasn't scheduled to depart on the day I did. I knew as I left for the airport with a few hours' notice that whatever happened would not be good: I didn't know if I'd have a few hours, a few days, a few months or a few years with my mom, but no matter how long I did have, I knew I was flying back to the US to say goodbye. As it turned out, within two days, maman est morte

Less than a year later, just before I was set to return to help my father after his heart surgery, I lost my grandmother somewhat suddenly (we'd known it wouldn't be long but we didn't know it would be quite so soon).

What I've become more aware of in the intervening year and a half is that I am not nearly the only expat or immigrant who has experienced that situation. Many of us who live abroad long-term and likely some of us who don't stay for that long in the grand scheme of things take that same flight. They're lucky in a sense if they do: not everyone can. I could return for my mother but there was no way for me to have done the same for my grandmother, as much as I wanted to.

It's a part of expat life that few talk about: if you choose to live far away long term, there is a chance the next time you see your loved ones 'back home' might be the last time, that you might have to take an unplanned 12-hour flight to say goodbye, or that there is a chance you could be half a planet away knowing there is nothing you can do.

What is even less discussed is the feeling of breakage that comes from this time away. Many of you know I no longer consider the US to be my home. I haven't for awhile but haven't been able to articulate it until recently. We may not stay in Taiwan forever - let's see if this country can get its act together on immigration and labor reform - but if we leave it will be to go forward, to somewhere new. I am married to a Canadian citizen after all. But if you plan to go forward that necessarily means you won't be going 'back', though it feels cruel to put it that way. If you don't go back, a crack forms between your life before and your life ahead. Given time, and despite one's best efforts, the crack will eventually turn into a break. Even if you keep in close touch with people back home, the number of times you will see them again in your life is reduced by your living so far away, and the amount of time you will spend with them before they, too, leave either your life or this world is necessarily less.

Does that 'goodbye' flight make up for such a trade-off? You must go forward, or at least, I must. The answer is not to stay behind, but you must also be aware of the consequences. You do not know when your 'goodbye' flight will come, or if you will be able to take it. You don't know when the crack will form, or when it will turn into a severance. You can pack as carefully as possible, pad yourself against all manner of unfortunate events, but they will find you. None of us living abroad are exempt from the 'goodbye' flight. None of us are exempt from the breakage.

It is easy, while living a relatively charmed existence in Taiwan, where my salary (as much as I complain about it, with reason I think) affords a comfortable lifestyle of downtown living, further education and travel, to pretend that every time is a time to dance. To pretend that I am a 21st century Meursault - that we are all little dancing Meursaults staring at the sky or the sun or whatever - that nothing between humans matters as much as the immediacy of life and nature, that only the constant forward-moving pace of the universe makes sense and nothing else can be explained rationally.

But, whether or not there is truth in such absurdity, human relationships do matter. You make new ones abroad: it's fairly common to write about this positive side of expat life. You meet all sorts of interesting people, not least among them local residents of your new country. And we all know that our relationships back home may cool due to this distance. But we like to pretend that there is no permanent consequence to this moving forward, that good relationships can always renew themselves. Generally, they can, but only if the people you leave behind are still alive when you come back.

This is an acute feeling while you are actually home. Living in the US in 2015 was like functioning with my arm chopped off (left or right, depending on the day). I was still alive, in a great deal of pain but able to get through the day and even keep other peoples' lives together as I planned my mom's memorial service, but something was just missing. I wasn't able to function normally due to this missing thing, this absence where there should be presence. Living in Taiwan, it's easy to forget that it happened at all. Any given day now in Taiwan is no different from any given day before late 2014 when I might not have talked to my parents (we talked frequently, but not on a daily basis).

It would be easy to pick right back up as though life was as before. It's almost eerie how nothing in Taiwan has changed even as I know rationally there is no reason for it to have. That's the other side of the expat life coin: after a monumental change or loss where you come from, the only change you see when you return to your country of residence is in you.

Back 'home', things have changed quite a bit. Others feel your loss, or rather, that loss is also felt by others. Their possessions are still around, in many cases. Whatever they built in their life still is, too. People offer memories or sympathy. The place where they lived, where you come from, has changed, even if just a tiny bit. Return to your new home, and that loss is not felt by most others (in my case, my sister - also in Taiwan - and husband were mourning, too). They can't miss someone they never knew, and a place that person never set foot in obviously wouldn't change because they are gone.

It's tempting and easy to try and avoid returning to a place where you feel your arm has been cut off by staying in a place where you can be whole-bodied if you want to be. To pretend that the breakage you've suffered, the human relationship you've lost, doesn't have as big an impact because it doesn't impact the immediacy of life and sensation in your new home.

I can't do that though. I don't regret moving abroad (it would also be easy, but futile, to wallow in regret). It is natural to move forward. To seek your fortune, in whatever form it takes, wherever it can be found. Go East, young woman. 

In order to atone for all of the time I didn't spend where I grew up, that I didn't see my mother or grandmother, all of the times I wasn't there rolled up into one goodbye flight I could take and one I couldn't, and to acknowledge that the same circumstances will present themselves again at some point in the not-too-distant future, it sometimes helps to spend some meditative time with my arm, figuratively speaking, behind my back.

So, today I broke out my arts and crafts tools, including the appropriate type of glue to repair wooden items, and set about gluing that antique wooden panel back together so I can hang it in my apartment here in Taipei.

The break will always be noticeable: it's my own fault for trying to carry it to the US and back in the first place. But then if I hadn't gone abroad I wouldn't have bought the panel at all. My mom knew that my move abroad was my own move forward and, as hard as it was, supported it.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Some American Things Are Good (...but only some)

Awhile ago, I wrote a draft blog post about reasons why I'd never move back to the USA. It had stuff on it like "the pervasive gun culture makes me feel unsafe, as much as gun owners yammer on about how it's perfectly safe. Sorry, it's not" and "I LIKE HEALTH INSURANCE and America still sucks for that".

I never published it, having an inkling that something was up with my mom's health and that I may in fact have to move back for awhile - - and lo and behold (and unfortunately), I was right. I didn't want to look at my indefinite move home in a negative light: I wanted, and still want, to think of it in the most positive terms possible even though deep down I don't really want to leave Taipei for that long, at least not for the Hudson Valley (leaving Taipei for a year for an exciting destination like London or Hong Kong would be different) and without Brendan.

Please don't mistake this as not wanting to go home. I am thrilled that I can do this for my mom, and I truly want to be there. But let's be clear: that's for her. The region I'm moving to? Eh. Away from my husband for a year? WAAH.

That said, in wanting to think of this positively, I've compiled a list of reasons why moving back to the USA won't be so bad. Maybe someday I'll publish my more negative list, but not now.

1.) It will be a break from work and something new

I've never lived in the Hudson Valley as an adult, so that will be an experience. And there are college towns and antiquing days (I know, I'm a New York yuppie without the money or the address) and vineyards and hikes and such. And everyone needs a break from work, even when you love your work. That said, I'll be continuing many of my private lessons online. So it won't be so much a break from work as "something new".

2.) Seasons!

I'm not excited about the return of the Polar Vortex (I'm psychologically allergic to cold, which is one reason I moved away), but I am excited about things we don't get in Taipei, like fall foliage (if I'm there long enough), big fluffy sweaters, snow and distinct seasonal changes.

3.) Food

I can get almost everything I want in Taipei, but it will be nice go to back to affordable good cheese, a variety of olives, well-cooked Western food that I didn't make myself or get at Whalen's or Zoca, and a full-size oven. It will be nice to take trips to New York City and DC for food I can't get in Taipei, like South Indian (which I actually can get, but only at one place) and Ethiopian. I'm definitely not complaining about that.

4.) Access to friends

I do miss my friends back in the USA - I have maintained those relationships by visiting once a year, but it will be good to have the chance to hop on a bus or train to go see them a little more frequently (I have just one friend in the Hudson Valley, but I have many more in New York, Boston and DC).

5.) Crappy TV

Taiwan definitely has this, but it's a different sort of TV. One of my darkest secrets (okay not really) is that I have a morbid fascination with shit-tacular television. Think pap-smeared "and today Ellie Goldilocks will be teaching us how to use paper clips - yes, paper clips! - to make perfect Christmas bows. And then, Crumbles the Chimp will talk about his upcoming memoir, 'A Chimp's Life'" - morning shows, horrible reality shows in which eating-disordered women fight to marry a guy they don't even know, local can't get this crap in Taiwan and yet I find it so deeply, well, "entertaining" isn't the word, maybe masochistic schadenfreude-sort-of-entertaining?

6.) Clothes that fit!

Even when I go to plus size stores in Taipei (something I don't actually have to do in the USA, but here I'm like a giantess), nothing fits. It's all made for women less curvy and shorter than me: think older Taiwanese women. Forget underclothes. Just forget them. At least in the US I can shop in regular stores and buy things that fit in more flattering styles, patterns and fabrics.

7.) Being able to deal with things without time zones or international charges

You know who is not very friendly to expats? Student loan organizations. Just try paying them back from abroad: it's almost impossible to get ahold of mine internationally (it can be done but I am usually on hold so long that I give up), and they won't accept payments from foreign bank accounts so I have to send money home frequently. It's a pain in the butt, and other institutions are not much different (just try getting something that needs to be notarized by an American notary to the USA, or getting people to send your mail to the right place, or dealing with anything where they ask you to fax something, which still happens, surprisingly). It will be nice to be able to take care of that stuff from within the USA and without the pressure of time.

8.) Having at least some not-outdated knowledge of American pop culture. 

You know when I found out 'basic' was a thing? Like two weeks ago, after it was brought back into cultural consciousness. Not that I am a better person for knowing what it is, but I find out about everything like six months after it's passe. Which is OK, I don't need to be on-trend, but I at least like to know what trends I'm ignoring!

And yes, I am kind of basic, except not. I do like crap TV and flavored lattes after all.

* * *

Well, that's about it.

Only 8 things.

Better than none, right?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Queens of Kingston

I figure I'll say this now, so I won't have to worry about it later.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about choosing to stay abroad, as an expat with an established life, despite my mother's battle with cancer (endometrial that, despite a hysterectomy, spread to her lung over a decade later). I can't find that post now, but when I do, I'll link it. With a prognosis of "we have many treatments and it could be several years", it made sense to stay, and to prioritize visiting at least once a year, if not always at the same time of year.

Well, that's changed. The treatments were all successful - for a time. She had proton therapy, and it took care of the cancer in her lung. She felt great. We all were high with hope that she'd be around for another decade or more.

But it came back - this time in her lymphatic system. All treatments with a hope of remission have been exhausted, now there's only palliative/stabilizing treatment. Is there an outside chance it could truly stabilize? Sure. Is it likely? Well...

Anyway the prognosis is "about a year" - maybe a little more, maybe a little...less.

So, I've made the choice to move home. Not permanently, but still, I'm going to have to find work etc. and get used to life in the Hudson Valley. I'll probably end up working in Poughkeepsie, Kingston, White Plains...who knows. I'm going to leave just before Christmas.

At least, everyone else seems to think it's a choice. I have a husband, a career, an apartment and two cats in Taipei: I suppose theoretically I could have made the decision to stay and just visit. But I don't see how that's a viable option - moving home is the best of a raft of choices made under terrible circumstances.

Brendan will stay in Taipei and look after the apartment and cats - he'll probably get a roommate for our lovely, but tiny (and yet surprisingly outfitted with storage) guest room to help with rent. So, uh, if you know someone who needs a furnished room, especially if they don't want to stay very long term but are here to study Chinese or something, send 'em our way.

I'll be back...whenever I'm back. Between the cats, the apartment and the double unemployment, I don't see how we can both make the move right now, when we intend to continue our life in Taipei. We'll try to figure out a way for him to visit a few times, although it's going to be hard, as we're basically draining our savings to send me home, right at a very inopportune time. Well. We started from scratch after Turkey (we needed to take that trip - not only for my lifelong dream of going to my ancestral homeland on Musa Dagh but also to get our CELTA certificates). We can do it again. If there is one thing we are both good at doing, it's finding and pressing the reset button.

My sister will also be moving home - who knows for how long.

So what about me? And, for the purposes of this post, what about any settled expat who finds themselves in this situation?

Well, I find it really helps to:

1.) Look at the one more-or-less good thing to come out of the whole nightmare. If you have more than one thing, great. For me, it's that rather than a hellish surprise, we have a "prognosis". What that prognosis is is a sign saying, "this is literally the worst thing ever, but you get to know in advance so you can spend time with your loved one". At least I have this year. A tragedy like a car accident is horrible in that you just don't know - you'll never know when you say goodbye if that's the last time you'll ever see that person. A prognosis means that you have the time to make a decision and to make the most of the time. I'd much rather that than a phone call in the middle of the night.

2.) Own your decision. I am not doing this for work, and I'm certainly not doing it for my marriage (although that is strong - very strong, probably one of the strongest ones you might come across. If there's one thing I have 110% faith in, it's that Brendan and I will be okay). I have to put my education on hold. My sister and I are doing this so that we can treat our mom like a queen for the next few months, and have family time we would not have otherwise gotten. Knowing that, when I say "own your decision", I really mean it. My job prospects are better in New York, where I could easily get a job in a language center. I wouldn't be any sort of New York elite but I could live on that. But what "own your decision" means isn't "decamp for New York City because the Hudson Valley has terrible job prospects for my qualifications, and I don't want to work in Kingston anyhow", but "I'm doing this for my mom, so I need to be near my mom". And that means the Hudson Valley if at all possible - not New York. That means living at home if I can. If I have to wait tables or scrub floors, I will (although it is a truly unfortunate restauranteur who hires me to wait tables - I'm a terrible waitress). You can't half-ass something like this. To quote the ever-quotable Simpsons, you've got to use your whole ass.

3.) Don't overthink it. It is not possible to "do the math" and think of an optimal time to come home, because that's not how prognoses work. You just have to pick a time and do it, and not think too much about the variables, because you can't predict them. You can't predict if it'll be 8 months or 2 years. You can't predict exactly what kind of work you're going to do or how you're going to get there (my biggest worry is transportation - I'm not a confident driver and we don't have an extra car anyhow. My sister is going to try to source one, and we're going to do our best to carpool). You can't know exactly how much money you'll need - you just have to do what you can and figure out what's possible from the options life hurls at you at any time. I'm lucky - I know my family will give me a roof over my head and food in my stomach, and that my sister and I will stick together through this - which mostly involves my making sure she is financially okay, and her making sure I have transportation as I'm not a confident driver. Not everyone is so lucky, but it really is about accepting a level of ambiguity in how the future will play out, and being ready to re-evaluate at any time from the options at hand.

4.) Don't expect much. This is an offshoot of "don't overthink it". Life hasn't handed you the option of finding a job you like near your family that will allow you to save money, until it does, if it does. It hasn't handed you a graduate school scholarship, nor has it handed you (okay, me) tuition for Delta Module 2 in New York. So it's unproductive to expect that those things will fall from the sky for you, or that you are entitled to them (if someone reading this is ever in my situation, you probably aren't that concerned about Delta Module 2, but I am). As above - if your priority is your loved one, then own that, and everything else can be compromised on.

So, what else?

Well, I will be back. Don't give up on my little blog just yet.

In order to keep some sense of normalcy until I go, I'll keep doing what I usually do, so you can expect updates here.

I'll occasionally blog while I am away, but it might be largely quiet. I do want to maintain some sort of connection to Taiwan.

And, does anyone know where I can confirm for absolute certain that I can leave Taiwan for up to 5 years without losing my APRC? It used to be 6 months. I need to know, as I may well be gone for more than 6 months (I would be heartbroken to be away from Brendan, but overjoyed at getting more time with my mom if so - with emotions like that, it's hard to feel anything other than numb).

Oh yeah, and:

5.) Know that you are making the right decision. If you're an expat with a terminally ill close family member or loved one, what would you regret more: spending the time you have with that person, creating lots of memories, or staying abroad, knowing you may only see them once more, if ever again? Most likely you'll regret the latter more than the former. You could make an argument for staying - I think a lot of people with families, even if they don't have children, might - but, hey, I don't know about you, but I know I'd regret not going.

Oh, hey, and if anyone knows of any good ESL teaching jobs in the Hudson Valley, send 'em my way.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

On Family Pressure and Female Expats

Now that I'm married, there is less expectation that I'll move back to the USA, but I still get asked...a lot.

Something I have noticed after years in Taiwan -

While there are fewer women than men living abroad long-term, especially single women (by "single" I mean "unmarried/not in a very long-term marriage-like partnership"), among those I know there seems to be a trend that isn't visible among men.

That trend is the pressure of family - specifically, the pressure expat women feel (you could call it "pull" for a less negative connotation) toward their families back home, or that is put on expat women by those families. This is not a personal post - although I admit that my family is more vocal about pressuring me to move home than my in-laws are, I think that has just as much to do with family culture (mine being vocal and opinionated with a tendency to overstep a few boundaries when expressing themselves, though I love 'em anyway and I readily admit I do it too - nurture over nature methinks) as it does with me being female. This is an observation of a trend.

When talking to female expats I know, especially those who have been here for over a year, I hear similar lines again and again - "my parents are bugging me to move home as usual", or "they're supportive of my travel but they'd really prefer I live closer to home" or even "my folks sure lay on the guilt trip about me living so far away, I think they want me to come home, marry a nice local boy and live less than an hour away for the rest of my days". They get asked more when (not if) they're moving back, they get more admonitions, or hear more worrying chatter, about how "dangerous" it is to live abroad - don't even try explaining to most of these worrywarts that Taiwan is not only extremely safe, but safer than the USA and possibly/probably safer than their native country, all they envision are white slavery markets, "Not Without My Daughter", "Brokedown Palace", rapists and robbers, or at least kung-fu movie-style Triad gangsters, passport thieves, drug mules and pickpockets.

I know many will say "but this is normal, all parents worry", and they do. I am sure the parents of all those male expats worry too. The difference is that they either don't worry as much or don't express it as much. They may not worry as much (even as they think they worry plenty) because there's an implicit narrative in most cultures that grown men move away, build lives, start their own homestead, go independent, and that that may take them to faraway lands - and that's OK, because they're Grown Men and they can Handle It. Early explorers were men. Early settlers were mostly men (women did come along, at least eventually, but almost always as the relatives or spouses of male colonists and settlers). Until very recently men held the jobs, bought (or built) the homes, earned the money, built the family. It's expected in our culture to foster this independence, to expect it, and when that independence takes a Grown Man Far Away, it's...OK.

Or they may worry, but not express it - a parent or grandparent worrying over a daughter far away will get lots of cooing sympathy noises. A parent or grandparent worrying over a son far away will get some sympathy, but there's an implicit cultural expectation that they have to Let Go because their son is a Grown Man and has his own life. The worry is reflected upon and then set aside, rather than repeated to friends, other relatives or the grown son himself.

Women, on the other hand, until very recently lived at home until they married and moved away only when their husband's job required it - of course, exceptions exist, but we're talking general social trends here - and lived as a helpmeet to the person who made it all happen. There might be talk of "building a life together" but it was quite well understood who did the building and who made it pretty. While single women did move away, it was more rare, and it was generally not quite so far away. Women explorers? Ha - can you name one? (If you can, please say so in the comments, I'd love to hear it). Women colonists? Look at this roster of people on the Mayflower. There were women, but they were all companions/relatives, wives and children of men. I see plenty of men coming independently on that list, and not one woman. Women expats? There are plenty, but not as many as there are male expats (see linked article at the top). Stories of women going abroad in the age of colonialism and sea travel are rife with wives, mothers and sisters accompanying or visiting their male relatives/spouses abroad. I can only think of one - fictional - account of a woman going abroad by herself without any male companion at the outset or destination (whether or not she found one later - well, I won't spoil it). Compendia of travel writing by women, or fictional stories about women abroad without men, tend to be modern.

You may disagree, but I see this as pretty compelling evidence that women just aren't expected to go that far from home by themselves, and so their families back home are granted more leeway by society to bray for their return. There's even a saying: "a son's a son until he takes a wife, a daughter's a daughter all her life". That's about marriage, but I'd argue that it opens a window into how society expects men to flee the family nest, possibly to remote locations, and for women to stick as close to home as possible. It's not difficult to see how this would impact female expats, especially single ones.

Usually this is couched in the very real language of "we miss you", and parents of children of both genders certainly do. It's quite rare that parents come right out and say "a single woman shouldn't be so far away" or "you should be home, you should get married, that's what good young ladies do" in their entreaties, but you know what? I've heard this too. The parents in question were extremely religious living-out-West-in-pure-evangelical-Republican territory and had Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum-like views of the world, but still. It's not unheard of.

The pressure gets pretty intense, too. I have heard female expats talk about family who wants them to return to help care for ailing relatives in a way I've never heard male expats talk - although I suppose the "anecdata", such as it is, may be skewed by the fact that fewer male expats may wish to share such confidences about family. Female expats, from my observation, tend to spend more time on Skype or on the phone with family back home, and the conversations tend to be more emotional in the "we miss you!" department. My husband is an exception, he e-mails his parents more often than I do mine, but my e-mails are longer.

I can say from firsthand experience that this changes once a female expat marries. I still get asked when (not if) I'm coming home, but less often now, and with more acceptance that I may stay. Now that I'm married, the expectation seems to be that I'll "settle in", and it's more acceptable for me to do that abroad, as long as the settling happens. It gets better - but not that much better.

All of this, plus other issues (see again the link at the top) create more pressure on women to return home, and so it's no surprise that they often do, often more quickly than men. If I had not ended up in a relationship I might've returned home, too.

So what to do if you're a female expat and you're feeling pressured by family to come home?

First, validate. Their feelings are important, and they deserve acknowledgement. "I know you miss me, and I miss you too" goes a long way. They want you home because they love you - don't brush that aside.

Second, be conscious. Understand that this is going on - if you know what's happening, and if you seen the attempt at a slow attrition of your desire to live abroad by people back home, the best way to prevent guilt from getting the better of you is simply to realize it is happening, and keep your stores of inner confidence well-stocked. In fact, being conscious - seeing clearly the areas where your gender affects how society views you and what society expects of you - is the most basic and in some ways most effective weapon in any feminist's arsenal. Use it.

Third, be firm and be clear. You can prevaricate if you want - sometimes that is the better solution if a direct "no" or an answer that the person doesn't want to hear is going to cause an argument and not get the guilt-tripping to stop. That said, in most cases it's better to just get right to it, even if you feel the question is starting to push boundaries. Let the tone of your voice and the sparse words you choose close the conversation for you. A simple "No, this is where I live now" or "I have no plans to move home" or "I feel settled here" or even "This is my home now" will go a long way towards getting people off your back. Also, stay on message. You are your own one-woman PR campaign for why your life does not require the intervention or worrywart meddling of others (and I say this with love - again, they wouldn't worry if they didn't love you, unless your family is totes dysfunctional).

Fourth, don't let the exchange go on forever. As with all debates (and this is a form of debate, if the discussion goes on and on), saying more than you need to get your point across either buries the point too deep, or provides too many openings for people to jump on and discuss/argue over (whether it's a discussion or an argument depends on your family, and in some families the line isn't very clear). "Taiwan is very safe, Nana, there is very little crime compared to the USA" is a far better reply than a list of statistics on low mugging, gun violence, murder and other crime rates compared to the USA. "National Health Insurance is fantastic, Mom, don't worry" is better than "I won't get sick, jeez! First of all..." followed by a long list of reasons why it's easier to care for your health in Taiwan. It's a discussion, not a blog post.

Be honest but keep it positive. That doesn't mean feign happiness or say everything's "fine" when it's not - it means, be honest about your life, but speak about it using positive words and a tone of voice. If your tone isn't positive, and you can't think of anything upbeat or optimistic to say, maybe you should be questioning why you live where you do. That goes for anywhere, not just Taiwan or abroad. I wonder all the time why expats I hear whining about how much everything in Taiwan sucks, constantly, don't consider leaving...or just leave (it's one thing to have the occasional rant or acknowledge the occasional sucky thing - that's normal. It's another to always have something to complain about and very few good things to say).

Bring photos and think of cool stories - this won't convince the most hardcore conservative "ladies should live at home!" families, but it has really helped with my somewhat more accepting one. Create a 30, 60 or 90 (after 90 it gets boring) photo slideshow, depending on how long you've been abroad and how good a photographer you are, load it onto your device of choice, and offer to show it, with some very short comments you can make as it plays. Throw some music in there. Go for wild, wacky, won't-see-this-at-home photos. In Taiwan, think temple festivals and moutain and coastal scenery. Have a few stories on hand to tell - think them through beforehand so they actually go somewhere - about the amazing experiences you've had. And if you can't think of any? Expand your horizons, brah. Make it happen.

Find ways to keep in touch more - they may just get off your back a bit more if you take more time to stay in touch. Write a few extra letters or e-mails (Grandmas love letters, don't you ever forget it). Skype more. E-mail photos, or for the technologically challenged ("I can't open photos embedded in e-mails" "You have a Mac, just drag them to your desktop" "I don't have a desktop!" was a real conversation I had with a relative over Christmas) have them printed and mail them. Make it feel like you are closer than you are, and they may relax a bit. After all, what they really want is to see more of you.

If you can afford it, try to visit home once a year - I know some people can't, but making that annual trek home makes it feel as though maybe you just live on the opposite coast, not on another continent. A daughter in California would probably only visit her New England hometown once a year, so a daughter in Taiwan won't feel that different if that's what you do, right? I know this is not always feasible, and a post on how male expats are often more able to do things like this as they're more likely to be over here on business, not teaching kiddie English or studying (and how freakin' unfair it is) is in the offing.

Anyway, that's all I've got for ya.

Have more, better or different advice, or an experience with family pressuring you to move home? Leave it in the comments, I'd love to hear from you!

Monday, December 31, 2012

Stewed and Cubed Improvisation

I'm going to tell a story. Bear with me if you like, it does evolve into something. It's not just a rambling narrative of the events leading up to Christmas.

Two days before Christmas, my parents held a holiday party.

We arrived almost a week before that, loud and happy - as happy as you can be when your mother is sick - hugs at the airport, promises of a renovated bathroom (no more fighting over who gets to go first!), a prediction of snow, on our way to get a real tree, with real tree smell and pine needles and everything. We'd decorate! There'd be a party on Saturday at a friend's and a party on Sunday at ours, then Christmas.

Of course several issues threatened to bring the whole thing down like a cat latched to a flimsy curtain - some health issues in the immediate family that I won't disclose in full, but I can reveal that basically, my mother will soon be back in chemotherapy, on a different drug. That brought a lot of stress and uncertainty to the holidays. And with it...medical bills.

My parents are having the downstairs bathroom re-done, to make it usable for the first time in years. The work was almost not finished in time, and while it was going on, the well pump broke. We had to have that replaced along with paying the expected renovation bills.

Then, the furnace motor went. It started making an odd sound on Friday, and by Saturday morning it was dead. We found a tech who would come fix it, but the part had to be ordered and wouldn't be in before Christmas. That meant no heat up to and on Christmas Day. Whoopty-freakin'-do. Also, waiting for the tech (who was actually great, this wasn't his fault) on Saturday meant our planned Christmas shopping trip was cancelled. No, I did not get all of my Christmas shopping done, but in the end it didn't matter. At least we have a fireplace.

So...far less money than expected, no heat, medical problems, and the party was on Sunday. I was set to help clean and to cook a few dishes on the day itself, and I'll be honest, I didn't really want to do any of it in a cold house when I was already stressed. To be more honest, I wanted to cancel it.

But Mom, the one who was so insistent we would have a good holiday, was adamant that we had to soldier on. Intractable, even. I did not share her enthusiasm and, as a further confession, did not even try to pretend to. I did, however, agree to woman up and just do what needed to be done if she was so immovable on this. I figured I'd be cleaning in my coat, scarf and gloves (I was right, except for the gloves).

My husband said "this is like one of those Lifetime holiday specials in which the family is subject to trial after trial and problem after problem until the whole house goes up in a ball of flame" (which would have been warmer, anyway, and with all the blown fuses from our many space heaters, seemed to be a distinct possibility. I say: good riddance). "...and at the end, on the eve of the holiday, the family learns the true meaning of Christmas."

Me: "Fuck the true meaning of Christmas, I want heat."
Friend: "You know, Jenna, in those specials, the cynical one always has the biggest change of heart."

For the record, I want Mom to be well more than I wanted heat, but "I want heat" was a funnier thing to say, and since there is no star in this chaotic entropy-verse I can wish upon, hoping it's the eye of a nonexistent God, that will make that happen without the help of modern science (and I do pray to modern science), I may as well say what I please.

So leading up to the party I busied myself helping - I managed to get out of the house to do Mom's Christmas shopping so she could clean. Win-win. Then I came home and started making my various dishes, cold hands and all. One dish - muhammara, which I make regularly - exploded in the far too small blender (no, the tiny food processor is not big enough, and I have no idea why anyone thought we could make hummus, babaghanoush and muhammara, three blended dips, in it in an hour or so). Someone else finished it. I admit I pulled the brat card - you want muhammara at this party, well, this is a disaster, you want it, you finish it, I'm done with it.

What I did make and finish was my beer-stewed beef cubes, which can be prepared as a stew, casserole, toothpick'd appetizer or something you eat with bread or over rice. It's a stew of herbs - mostly dill, but also rosemary, garlic and thyme - beef cubes, beer, grainy spicy mustard, shallots, some butter, and some additions (I'm fond of bell pepper, mushrooms and walnuts personally). Grumble bells, grumble bells, I grumbled all the way to the stove - which had to be lit with a lighter, the pilot was acting up - and started working. I cut the melting butter with olive oil to make the whole thing a tad healthier (ho ho ho, as though that's possible), gently toasted the herbs along with salt, pepper and paprika and added shallots into the fragrant, frothy pan. and browned the beef. Some people began to arrive. My junior high school music teacher was there, some family friends, some of my sister's friends (none of my friends live in the area anymore), a girl who commented that it smelled "gross" (whatever, girl, it's delicious). I dumped in the bottle of beer and mixed the whole thing together. I left briefly to set up some Christmas music on my iPhone. I added a generous dollop of hot, grainy apple cider vinegar mustard and mixed that in. I adjusted for flavor (good ways to improve top notes in this recipe while keeping it rounded is to add orange juice, orange zest or apple cider. For bottom notes, add some toasted nuts, beef boullion, well-toasted paprika or use a darker beer.

I stewed it all together and added the vegetables in order from longest-cooking to shortest (carrots first, then bell peppers, then mushrooms, like that). Really, you can add almost any vegetable. You could throw spinach, cauliflower, squash, potatoes, whatever into there. You might even be able to get away with lentils, Brussels sprouts or zucchini. You can add any herbs as long as you've got dill. You can change the type of mustard or beer. A pilsner and a light, hot English mustard will produce a very different dish from a winter lager with a mottled dijon. You don't even need to use beef, although I hold that a red meat is best. If you make it as a stew you can add butter squash late for chunkiness, or early so they'll disintegrate into the casserole and add more base flavor. In a casserole, I slather fat, soft breadsticks with mustard and place them on top at the very end - it's done when the tops crisp - but you don't have to.

In short, you can improvise. You can do whatever you want. The end product's just got to come out alright.

Finally, I made this dish for my in-laws (fresh dill, butter squash in a casserole with breadsticks), and it was quite different from the one I made for my parents (dried dill, no butter squash, mushrooms, in a stew). In the end, it was the same dish. It was still me. Each time, I improvised. I didn't know the squash would disintegrate, but it came out OK.

I realized as I was cooking it that that's really all we do - we improvise. Mom gets cancer, and we make do. We do what we can, we research, we plan, but in the end, we kinda make it up as we go along. We fight, we make up, and we know we always love each other, even though it's too easy to revert to adolescence when at home, and yes, parents can be just as annoying to adult offspring as those same offspring were as teenagers. The furnace breaks, and we improvise. I huddle under blankets and offer to go Christmas shopping for Mom so she won't have to (NICE WARM SHOPPING MALL), and Brendan does whatever he can, including shoveling snow with a garden spade, to help ease the stress on my chaotic and stressed-out family. Grandma L. calls every day, even though it accomplished nothing other than to stoke her worries.

As an expat, I improvise. As an expat with a parent battling cancer, I improvise. I do the best I can - even when "the best I can" basically means I decide to stay in Taiwan and visit from there, because I can make more money to enable me to visit there than I could doing the same thing at home (and yes, I am experienced and certified, it's not as though I teach kiddie English for $590/hour), and do something I enjoy rather than selling my soul for an office job. I save money as well as I can, I visit in the winter even though I hate the cold, and I try to be supportive even as I'm fighting the impulse to act like a teenager, slamming doors and proclaiming that I hate everyone and nobody loves me anyway waah waah. (I didn't do that, but I kinda wanted to. I don't hate everyone, though). It's cheaper and easier to visit in January, between Christmas and Chinese New Year when work is dead, but I visit at Christmas because it's important. I don't always make these decisions in advance. I want to cancel a party, but I don't 'cause Mom wants it to happen. So I improvise and dance around my bad mood and cold fingers. I made a dish I didn't even really want to make that night, in that cold kitchen.

Life as an expat is a life of improvisation - with an unknown audience, in an unfamiliar theater. Life as an expat whose mother has cancer is a life of improvisation, cubed. You stay abroad and you stew in it - I should be home, I should be there, but I can make the money I need to be supportive here, and anyway here is where I want to live. My life is also important, but I feel selfish for even thinking it. You come home and you stew in it - everyone's emotional, everyone's stressed, you love them but you really want to slam that door. You just want people to acknowledge that it sucks that it's so cold, but instead you get "it's not that cold", "it's fine", "the fire's warm", "the fire makes it pretty OK, don't you agree?" No, you don't agree, it is that cold, can we all please just stop pretending? So you improvise, you stew in it, and you go to the mall.

I even asked if we could just go to Grandma's for the whole deal. Nope...we had to have Christmas at home. That's fine, it's what Mom wanted, but deep down, I wanted heat, and no I did not think the fireplace would be sufficient. We stayed, we improvised. We woke up on Christmas morning, achy, just wanting it to be warm for Chrissakes.

We woke up to snow - a white Christmas, indeed. We started a fire, I made a hot coffee cocktail with cream and Irish Mist and dunked Christmas cookies into it. We opened gifts and it was fun. It was that cold, but we could basically ignore it. I'd like to say I dropped my cynicism and it was all lovely and Christmas special-y, with a soft-focus and white portrait filter, but it wasn't. It was fine, but mostly, we improvised. I was happy to be there, but no, it wasn't rose-tinged and perfect.

We did what we had to do, and for as long as I live abroad and my mother has cancer, we'll continue doing what we have to do, and we won't always know what that is until it happens.

Mustard Cubed Beef

I was going to include a recipe for my beef cubes, but anything I could put on here is something you can add your own flourishes to without much problem. Even I change it up.'s a rough outline of the recipe, but the scant information is deliberate:

Melt some butter in a pan with olive oil, on low, add lots of dill, some rosemary and some thyme along with chopped garlic, salt, a red chili if you like, maybe some orange zest, maybe some paprika. Add chopped shallots, and then beef. Brown. Add a can of beer - dark is great, but pilsner or ale would be fine. Mix and add a few dollops of mustard. Add other vegetables - carrots, chopped bell pepper, mushroom. Add walnuts if you like, or any other vegetable that you think would work. Cook, add cornstarch to thicken if needed. Or cook as a casserole with potatoes, squash etc. with mustard-slathered sliced bread at the bottom, and mustard-slathered breadsticks on top (add breadsticks 15 mins before it's done, it's done when they crisp and brown slightly on top). If you make as a casserole, still brown the beef in the herbed butter, but use more shallots.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Best I Can

from here
Those of you who are my friends on Facebook know that I'm currently trying my hand at a windowsill potted herb garden. I bought two kinds of thyme, rosemary, basil, sage, two kinds of mint, catnip, a raspberry bush, bergamot, tea tree, verbena, chamomile, two kinds of lavender and oregano. This in addition to the plants already out there: two orchids, a huge bougainvillea, a small poinsettia and two plants I can't identify that the former tenant left us along with aforementioned bougainvillea.

I'm not much of a gardener, but I try to check them every day and add a bit of water whenever the soil looks too dry or they look a bit wilted, and am cautiously beginning the task of learning how to add fertilizer - which kinds, how much and how often. I'm not very good at it, but generally speaking, I've been able to keep my plants more or less alive. I figured it would be like expat life - a bit shaky at first, a few brown leaves and wilted stems here and there. Then it would get a little easier and require less watchfulness. Then a bit easier after that, and then something approximating normal and natural. Living in Taiwan has become like that. Most things do. Gardening should follow that paradigm too, no?

Not many of you know that my mother is an excellent gardener. Growing up we always had fresh produce mixed among the staples from the grocery store, herbs growing like weeds, profusions of flowers and a landscaped front and side garden. Lilacs would perfume the breeze blowing into the kitchen window. I loved it, even as I chided my mother for doing things like running outside in a rainstorm brandishing a knife because "I need to get a squash for dinner!" I felt, growing up, that all she had to do was look at those plants and they'd just sprout for her, like fecund, green little servants. She knew exactly how much and how often to water them and while she had failures, she had enough successes that we didn't notice.

But all of you do know that we're currently dealing with a serious family illness, and now I feel I can say that the illness we're facing is my mother's. I'm going to reveal a bit here, not because I'm generally in the habit of talking about family illnesses but for two other reasons: first, it will help you better understand what I'm going to write below; and second, this might be useful for anyone reading who is dealing with the reality of living on the other side of the globe while a close family member faces illness, and the reality of how to approach expat life in such a situation.

So, basically, my mother has cancer, it's not the kind you can "cure", it's metastasized, and while chemo is working for now, eventually all cancers become immune to any available chemo drug after it's been used long enough on the patient. She's healthy now, and things are basically OK...for now...but as you can probably extrapolate from the above information, it's not going to be OK forever, and not even necessarily for very long. The only bright side is that it's not one of those "you have six months" types of cancer.

While, of course, my mother's health is first priority, it does raise the question of what we should do.

My sister has a cram school job that she doesn't even like and a pre-furnished apartment - although she adores Taiwan - and she's 25. So, when she's ready, she can chuck the job and move back home without any major or long-term life consequences. My career is here, my cat is here, my entire social life (except for a smallish group of good friends in DC, New York and Boston whom I've hung on to) is here, my wage earning potential and strongest employability is, if not here, then in a country where English is not the native language. I'm thinking of this also in terms of disposable income. I could possibly find work in the USA, but would have significantly less to spend after taking care of the essentials, and disposable income is, honestly, a very useful thing to have when dealing with a family illness and the reality of visiting often.

After a long conversation with my parents - perfectly ready for my mom to say "please come home as soon as you can", and perfectly ready to act on that, because she's my mom and we're now talking years, not decades - we all agreed that for now, we'd stay.

I would not have made this decision without the blessing of my family. I simply would not have. I could not have, as much as I really do want to stay in Taipei. As much as it's my home - really my home. As in a home I like rather than merely tolerate as so many expats seem to. This is the only thing that keeps me from leaping into a pit of "Jenna, you are so selfish". We all agree that this is what's right for my and Brendan's lives and careers, and that visiting every six months, especially for the holidays, is an acceptable solution for now. This is why disposable income is so important: we can afford it. This is why tending to your career is important: I have the flexibility to do this.

And having most of your social network around you is important, too: I know my friends back home would be there when I needed them. My direct experience, though, has been here: and as upset as I have been these past few weeks, I can say that people have come through. All I've really needed recently is a few sympathetic ears (talking about it helps - this is what I learned from the last time we went through this and I was more secretive, and it affected my physical health), and I've gotten them. A friend cut out of work for a few hours to keep me company the day after I found out (I thought I'd be OK, so I hadn't asked my husband to take off work). Another friend, who is generally a difficult fellow in other respects, came through for me in the evening when I still needed company. A few friends have told me their own stories of family illness, reminding me that as horrible as I feel right now - as much as I fight back tears and my stomach sinks when I think of the future - that everyone has a sad story to tell. Nobody gets a perfectly green garden under a perfectly blue sky.

We also agree that the time will come when something may have to change. I don't fear this in terms of the changes it will bring to where I live and what I do (although I can't lie: those worry me too), but more in terms of knowing that when that time comes, it will be near the end. It fills me with tears, weeks after hearing the first bit of bad news, to think that I might reach that time, look back, and regret the decision we've made now. Will "every six months" seem like it was enough? Probably not.

All I can say is that we're making the best decision we can now, for the situation we're in now, and as much as I might regret it, I will at least have this. I'm doing the best I can.

I used to think of the Pacific Ocean as an annoyingly wide but otherwise surmountable thing. Now I think of it as a deep, unending pit of separation. And yet, I'm doing the best I can.

Students and local acquaintances tell me how great it is that I live here, and have this idea that expat life is this magical thing in which all foreigners are rich and happy and having adventures and have better lives. I say nothing, but there's tension right between my shoulder blades. Do they know the price I'm paying to stay? No, because I've chosen not to tell them. But it is a hefty price, and it sits right there in that knot below my neck. The one that hasn't gone away since all this started. And still, I'm doing the best I can.

I'm jealous of my sister - she can chuck it all and move back home. I can't do it nearly as easily and I'd suffer real consequences.

She's jealous of me because she can't afford to go home every six months, nor does she have the job flexibility. She doesn't have the luxury of choosing to stay. Choosing it, for her, brings consequences I can somewhat avoid.

Today dawned cool and lightly overcast - not the interminable dark gray of winter but a lighter, cleaner grayish blue. It was almost welcome after two days of sweating under a hot blue dome. I parted the sheer blue curtains on our living room window to see how my herb garden was holding up.

Well, it wasn't. My tea tree and bergamot are basically withered stalks (although the tea tree has some straggly hope). My raspberry bush and oregano have noticeably dead brown spots. My thyme is completely gone - this surprised me: isn't thyme a Mediterranean plant? Can it not survive heat spells? The other plants are dangerously wilted. Even the mint was very unhappy - I thought you had to basically actively kill mint to get it to die - what gives? My basil looked sad.  The sage was floppy and hanging off the edge of the pot rather than standing up straight. The chamomile is half gone, not looking like anything I want to harvest for cooking. Only the rosemary, orchids and lavender (surprisingly) are soldiering on, and one of the lavenders isn't quite happy.

I gave the whole lot a good watering, and I see some improvement, but all in all I'm worried. Will my plants make it? Will I be able to continue making pastas, drinks, sauteed meat dishes and stews with my own fresh harvest? I'm doing my best, but will my best efforts pay off?

Was I ever guaranteed a happy ending in which all my plants were luscious and green, and Taipei was eternally a great place to live, without having to worry about life back home? Could I ever really have counted on a green life under a blue sky - no brown spots, no bits that didn't quite work out, no issues that could not be resolved satisfactorily despite my best efforts? Did I really think I could do my best and that it would pay off, always, every time?

Finally, what makes me sad as I survey the blasted heath that is my window garden, is that I know deep down I started it in part because it's something my mother would do - not that she'd ever live in the middle of a big city as I so enjoy doing - but that she finds a way to grow plants wherever she is. She'd have the ability to make those plants thrive. I think I was hoping against all rational hope that I'd cultivate that ability too: a little piece of my mother in Taipei that lives on in the green thumb I am determined to inherit, whether it is my rightful legacy or not.

It really saddens me that, so far, I'm failing.

And yet I will continue to water my plants and hope hope hope - because I do not pray - because I'm doing the best I can.