I am puzzled by Canada. It’s where I was born and raised but I no longer understand it. This nation of peace and abundance and stunning natural beauty has somehow turned into a depressing place. I look outside and see lakes and mountains and summer flowers, but inside the TV continuously blares out the latest wars and acts of terror and murders and sex crimes and missing children and diseases that we are all probably going to get and foods that will likely poison us and insects that we must not be bitten by and stories of fallen heroes and hatred and fear and greed and filth and poverty and drugs and misery and alienation and ugliness. Apparently, it is not a priority to promote enjoyment of the lakes and mountains and summer flowers and I find that very sad. When did we become so willing to immerse ourselves in the fears and problems of others?
Why can’t we focus on life rather than death? On beauty rather than ugliness? On the strawberry rather than the tiger? Happiness is important, as pointed out in this story that was told by the Buddha:
“A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He ran but the tiger followed him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.
Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away at the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How delicious it tasted!”
I love that story! Each and every one of us is being chased by the tiger. There is no escape. But rather than living in fear and worry, why not enjoy the strawberry…
I was twenty years-old and excited at the prospect of studying French for an entire summer in the south of France. Until I met my teacher. “Mademoiselle La Blonde”, said she, “you speak French like a vulgarian”.
“Repeat after me”, she ordered. “Mardi. No, not like that! Mardi! Encore – Mardi!” Over and over my Quebec accent infuriated her. Finally, I could stand it no longer:
“Tuesday”, I shouted. My classmates laughed.
And that is when the epiphany came. I had no aptitude for learning foreign languages – absolutely none. Nada. Rien. And I had just wasted fourteen years of my life trying to cram French into my head only to be labelled a vulgarian. I was stung. Why had my Canadian French teachers sent me out into the world to be attacked and ridiculed? In hindsight, it’s obvious that my summer school teacher must have been jilted by a lover from Montreal — but she was right. My French was horrible.
Never one to squander my resources or throw good money after bad, I decided to change my approach. Why bother studying languages that I would never master? What was the point in being able to ask a question if I couldn’t understand the answer? Why did I want to be distracted by conversations taking place at restaurant tables around me or know when I was being insulted? When I heard a friend being told by a Parisian store clerk that his shop didn’t sell clothes for “les elephants”, I was convinced. Much better if I remained unilingual.
I admit that speaking only one language can be a challenge, especially in Asia. One must become hyper-observant. To get home from work when I lived in Tokyo, I had to look for the train with the upside down hat over the one-legged stickman. Once it cost me huge taxi fare when I accidentally got on the train with the two-legged stickman — but generally, my technique worked fine.
There are also times when confusion arises. When I first took up jogging in the Philippines many years ago, I was surprised to find people waving at me and calling out “asshole”. Well, that’s not very nice, I thought. Again and again old ladies and young children called me an asshole as I passed their huts on jungle trails. Maybe jogging is tabu in the Philippines, I speculated. Only later did I realize they were referring to my dog who was my running companion. Dog in Tagalog is “aso”.
Now I am not recommending that anyone else follow my example. If you can, learn as many languages as possible. But if there is someone out there who is as linguistically challenged as I am — it IS possible to survive with English only.
Dangerous animal-crossing signs are often written in English, enabling us to avoid being fatally trampled while going about our daily business. Fortunately, the word ATM is universally recognized, as is the gesture of raising one’s index finger and pointing it at an empty glass. As long as you have money and drink, what more do you need?
My camera and I have been in Rome for two days now and I’m still wondering why. This is not my normal sort of vacation or photography destination — usually I’m drawn to remote parts of the world like Africa or New Zealand or Antarctica. There’s nothing I dislike more than large crowds or huge swarms of buzzing tourists.
But Rome has been calling me for more than two years. I know that sounds strange, but it really is true. For absolutely no reason at all, thoughts of Rome became more and more insistent: I really should go to Rome. I need to get to Rome. I MUST go to Rome. Eventually, I gave in and bought a plane ticket. Now I am here.
Can a place really call a person? Why would Rome call ME?
I’ll let you know if I find any answers…
No trespassing! Keep out! Beware of Dog! We westerners do love our walls. I’m as guilty as anyone else. I wish I were more laid back about privacy, but the desire to define my territory is just too strong. “Don’t touch that, it’s MINE”. “Stay on YOUR side of the fence”. That’s me. Even my dogs seem to be more territorial than their Filipino counterparts. When we go to the beach, they quickly stake out their patch, which usually ends up being pretty much the entire beach.
I don’t like to generalize about Filipinos. Having said that, I live on an island that is considered part of “the provinces.” Most people here don’t have a lot of money or education. Their attitude toward private property can often be summed up like this: “what’s mine is mine, and because you’re a rich foreigner, what’s yours might become mine also”. Which is why a lot of expats have built a lot of walls around their houses. Many of these houses resemble penitentiaries, with their massive concrete walls topped off with barbed wire and jagged glass. Our need for so much security makes me sad. We’re human beings, aren’t we? Shouldn’t we at least aspire to operate on a higher level than dogs?
It just so happens that I received a rather mysterious message from an Indian Swami in Bali on this very topic:
We had just moved into a new house, one that had appeared to be surrounded by secure concrete walls — until the day we moved in and had a good look. A small child could step over the wall’s lowest sections. Within twenty-four hours most of my orchids had been stolen and one of our dogs had escaped into our new and strange neighborhood and could not be found.
Two days later an orchid vendor stopped at our house, selling, among other things, my stolen orchids. I bought them all back. That same day I received a text message that our missing dog had been sighted in our old neighborhood, five kilometers away.
“This is terrible”, I shouted. “I can’t live like this. This is the Philippines, for god’s sake. What kind of fool would build a house with no walls? We’re going to be picked clean!”
Days later I was in Bali, attending a yoga retreat that I had booked long before we had decided to move. All week I fretted about our lack of walls. How could we make them higher, I asked myself over and over. I sketched diagrams and vowed to begin construction as soon as I returned home.
The day before the retreat ended, our teacher announced that a swami from India was in Ubud and would be giving a talk at someone’s home. Would anyone like to go along with her?
“Sure”, I said. “I’ve never seen a swami. I’d love to go”.
We arrived a little late and the swami was already speaking to the small group of people assembled. We quietly placed our cushions well off to the side of the room. The swami discussed Hindu gods and goddesses and how to live a happy life. Then, out of the blue, he turned his body toward us, looked directly into my face, and said,
“You know, it’s possible to live very happily in a house that has no walls”. Then he smiled, turned back to the center of the room and moved onto a completely different subject.
I couldn’t believe my ears! The doubter in me briefly tried to pass it off as a coincidence, but I knew that wasn’t true. This was clearly a message for ME. Chills ran up and down my chakras.
When I arrived home the next day my partner asked, “so what did you decide to do about the walls?”
“I’ve changed my mind. Swami says we don’t need walls”.
And for the past eighteen months, we have lived very happily without walls, living peacefully alongside our Filipino neighbors. The occasional goat wanders in and chews up the plants and the neighborhood kids help themselves to mangoes from our trees. But that’s okay. Our roaming dog is happy with the low walls, and comes and goes as he pleases.
Now I’m definitely not recommending that you rush outside with wire cutters and a sledge hammer to knock down your walls. Sadly, the fact is that walls are a big part of expat life in this part of the world. I fully expect that our next house will have substantial walls. I just wanted to share what I consider to have been a rather strange and mystical experience in my Asian life.
Many years ago I received a text message from an unknown number: “You are a white beach” it said. I hadn’t been long in the Philippines, so it took me hours to figure out that someone was accusing me of being a white bitch.
“Why are you angry at me?” I wrote back.
“Sorry Ma’am it was a miss-send.”
Being a western woman who lives in Asia is sometimes tricky. World War 2 brought an end to colonial rule, the often romanticized era when European countries sent “sahibs” and their wives to rule over the “natives” and build empires.
Things are different now. I’m not here to spread mashed potatoes throughout the Philippines. We don’t call Filipinos “natives”. My sahib ran off with the maid years ago. I don’t drink gin and tonic and I let my yacht club membership lapse when we sold our sailboat three years ago.
I am definitely not a memsahib — but I am absolutely, undeniably a Ma’am. When I first moved here I was told that it was important to hire locals to work around our house. “Your neighbors need jobs, Ma’am,” I was told. And so I have become accustomed to having others clean my house, work in my garden, drive me where I want to go, carry my groceries and change my lightbulbs.
This is not always a good thing. I have watched myself grow soft and lazy. I get angry if I have to carry my own suitcase from a taxi to the hotel lobby. I suffer from culture shock when I leave Asia. I admit that whenever I arrive back at an Asian airport, whether it be Manila, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong or Singapore, I walk into the terminal and breathe a huge sigh of relief. I know how to be a white woman in Asia. I’m more at ease here than I am in Canada. In Asia I know what’s expected of me. I know how to behave and what role to play. I’m comfortable with this life, it’s WHO I AM — for better or for worse.
And I have come to understand one very important fact: I have watched how other expats treat the locals and have seen some shockingly appalling behavior. The bottom line is that the more arrogant and disrespectful YOU are, the less respect you are given in return. It’s much better (and safer) to be nice. Just ask the British…
In the thirteen years I’ve lived in the Philippines many (mostly retired male pensioners) expats have come and gone. People leave for various reasons. Some go for medical reasons, others because they have children who need a better education than this country can provide. Quite a few depart permanently and are laid to rest in our local cemetery.
But many leave for a most unfortunate reason: they never bothered to learn the value of a hole. Yes, I’m serious. One of the first things I learned when I arrived here so many years ago is that Filipinos know the exact monetary value of everything imaginable. How much will it cost to paint that wall? They know. How much for an under-the-table driver’s license? They know. How much for a three-hour boat trip to a secluded beach with a picnic lunch? They know. And they seem to know this en masse.
If I ask ten separate Filipino men how much it will cost to dig a hole that is two feet deep, three feet wide and four feet long, each one will stand quietly for a moment, scratch his chin and then produce the identical price as the other nine. How they do this is a mystery to me. But there is a definite value to digging a hole.
If we expats want to live successfully here, we must also learn the value of everything. Why? Because the favorite response of Filipinos when asked to name a price is “How much do you want to pay?” This isn’t just a random question. This is a test. If our answer is too far off, proving that we don’t know the value of a hole, we will be dubbed a foreign fool — and that label guarantees that we’ll be ripped off by every Filipino we meet forever after.
I have seen western men arrive and flaunt their money shamelessly. They were chewed up and spat out in no time flat. Others arrived with a large chunk of cash from selling their house or business back home. They left with barely enough pesos to buy a cup of coffee at Manila airport’s departure lounge.
And me? So far I’ve managed to live here quite happily, remaining inconspicuous, showing respect for the local rules — and most importantly, having learned the value of a hole.
I’m a sucker for the underdog — literally. I’ve never been able to resist a pair of soulful brown eyes. And so I take in whatever finds its way to my front door: stray dogs, abandoned kittens, even a sulfur-crested cockatoo, aptly named Rocky.
The Philippines is an animal lover’s nightmare — a national epidemic of homeless cats and dogs giving birth in an endless cycle. Tags and licenses – are you joking? Poop and scoop – give me a break. Vaccinations? Dream on. Spaying and neutering — only for the wealthy.
It’s sad that so much beautiful potential is wasted. I remember the day I spotted a tiny black and white kitten about to crawl into a busy street and, without thinking, I snatched him up and took him home. He survived his filthy, scrawny start to life and became Poncho-cat, one of my best buddies for the past seven years.
Not everyone approves of my collection of waifs and strays. “You can’t change the world” is my partner’s favorite comment whenever I bring home a kitten I’ve found in a garbage heap. “It’s not your country, you can’t worry about it,” he says. And he’s right. But should the fact that we can’t change the world or even make a significant difference stop us from trying?
I found the answer to my question in Cambodia. In the midst of a country whose soil is still tainted by the blood of murdered millions, there is a lovely little restaurant called the Starfish Cafe, part of an ambitious project aimed at helping Cambodian street children learn job skills so they can move off the streets and into happier lives. There are only small miracles here — the child might become a waiter or a cook or a cashier — but a lucky few homeless children learn a marketable skill, earn an income and work in a beautiful place. The number of Starfish Project kids is a drop in the bucket compared to the huge numbers who remain impoverished and on the streets. But still they try.
What I love is that the Starfish Project was named after this wonderful Buddhist parable:
A Buddhist monk was on the beach with his apprentice the day after a fierce storm. Thousands of starfish had been washed up and stranded on the shore. Stooping down, the monk carefully lifted a single creature and returned it to the sea. His young apprentice wondered aloud why his master bothered to do this when it made little difference to the mass of helpless creatures. As they walked along, the monk picked up another single starfish and replied, “It makes a difference to just this one.”
And so the next time someone asks me why I bought a Siamese fighting fish who was living in half an inch of water in the bottom of a plastic cup, I have the perfect answer: “Because it matters to him.”
When you choose to write memoir you can’t be afraid to look closely at yourself in the mirror. And that’s not always pleasant. When I first began writing my anthology essay, “The Rainiest Season”, I had to come to terms with some difficult facts about myself. The essay, which describes the aftermath of my discovery that my husband has been having an affair with our housemaid in the Philippines, forced me to revisit that horrendous time in my life. And it wasn’t much easier to write about it ten years after the fact than it was to live through the experience in the first place.
Much of my first draft was deleted because I realized it wasn’t honest enough. To get that story right, I had to cut through to the core of myself. I had to peel away the persona that I present to the world and expose myself to a harsh and unforgiving light. And I don’t like doing that — which is exactly why I hadn’t noticed he was having the affair in the first place.
Another thing about memoir is that strangers will read your story and judge it. Which means they’ll be judging YOU. Because unlike fiction, where characters are born in your imagination, in memoir the “hero” is usually YOURSELF. And we are not always the heroes we wish we could be.
“How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia” is now available in paperback and e-book form at Apple, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and Amazon.
For the past twenty-four years I have been a woman without an official country of residence. I’m a Canadian citizen, but have not been a resident of Canada since 1990. I married an American but never got a green card. I’ve lived in the Philippines since 2001, but remain on tourist visas. This lack of permanent resident status has caused more than one discussion at Canadian border crossings, especially when I’m carrying newly purchased computer and camera gear which would normally be subject to large import duties. But Canada says I now belong to the Philippines. The Philippines says I’m just a foreign tourist. I pay U.S. taxes but I’m nothing to the Americans at all. And me? I have loved all these years of belonging to nobody but myself, happily slipping through bureaucratic cracks in the machine.
But alas, the time has come when it now makes sense to pick a team. I love the Philippines and have no plans to leave, but who knows, maybe I’d like to retire in Hawaii some day. Or Guam. Or American Samoa. Should I become a permanent resident of the Philippines OR should I get my U.S. green card? I’ve debated a little, but not too much.
My almost quarter century of invisibility is about to end. My green card is being processed…
As of June 10th, “How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit?” will be available in paperback and all e-book formats. This is an anthology of real life stories by twenty-six expatriate women living in Asia. Each story is uniquely beautiful and I can honestly say that I am very proud to have been a part of this anthology project. I’m looking forward to meeting Shannon Young and many of the other writers at the launch party in Hong Kong later this fall.