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

Monday, April 27, 2015

Dress Codes

We went back to Minoo Park north of Osaka this weekend and walked the trail up to the waterfall and back.  It was a beautiful 25 degree day and not too humid.  Still, halfway up the hill I bought a bottle of Evian water and took off my jean jacket.  My pale Norwegian skin started soaking up the sun and I could feel a slight breeze around my sweaty neck.  My shoulders were bare and the straps of my tank top were so thin they couldn't hide the green and indigo bluebell tattoo on the left side.

It was such a relief to be relieved of the extra clothing that it took me a few minutes to realize that I was the only person on that trail showing that much skin.

Most of the women wore shirts with sleeves covering their elbows, which looked both uncomfortable and poorly adapted to the heat.  A few (very few) women wore t-shirts with sleeves.  All of us wore jeans, pants or skirts that covered our knees.

Culture is more implicit than explicit.  It's not so much about what people say - the should's and ought to's - it about what people do.  There was a cultural dress code on that slope and I was in violation of it.  Not that anyone said anything - they didn't need to.  It was all in the looks and the looking away.

Now at this point a woman like me, forged in the fires of Western individualism tempered by feminism, and provoked by the feeling of discomfort that comes when one senses judgement, lets her mind off its leash.  The first feeling is defiance and the first thought is:  I can wear whatever I damn well want.

And that simply isn't true.  Wherever I have lived or travelled there are dress codes for men and women.  Even countries that are fairly liberal about appropriate attire have some hard limits. A Frenchman in Paris doesn't wear a thong to work at the bank and an American in Seattle doesn't wear a miniskirt to a corporate job interview.  A woman can go topless on vacation on the beach in Brittany, but she's expected to have something covering the area below her navel and above her upper thighs.

In France, Canada and other Western countries there are actually moves to ban certain forms of dress for women.  This is societal disapproval so strong that they want to make explicit rules and laws with the means to punish people for their deviant dress, and that says that citizens no longer trust their own cultural forces to do this important work for them.

So the reality is that I don't get to wear whatever I want, wherever I am, unless I am willing to accept the consequences.  It is not really about the Japanese dress code for women - it is about my trying to import a French dress code to Japan, and then masking the attempt under appeals to Western individualism and feminist principles.     What I damn well want is to not change, and I resent the new cultural forces around me that are ever so gently trying to nudge me in that direction.

 There is a great question that one can use to get though these moments of angst and anger when swimming in new cultural seas:  Do I want to be defiant and angry, or do I want to be happy?

That's easy to answer:  I want to be happy.

Time to go shopping....

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Rivers of Experience

"Nothing has changed, but it feels so strange. I can't quite put my finger on it. Everything looks the same, but it feels different."

Chris Brinlee, Jr.

That is exactly what I was feeling last week about Tokyo. Everything about it was familiar - the shops, the streets, the subway - and at the same time everything was off.

Because Tokyo had changed in eight years and so had I. When I left Japan nearly a decade ago I pulled myself out of one moving river and dived into another halfway across the world. And while I was gone the city and the people I knew moved on and became a different city and different people.

And part of me was not happy about it. At all.

This is not the first time I've felt this eerie combination of familiar mixed with strange. Returning to Seattle a few years after I had moved to France,  I flew in from Paris to the local airport and my brother drove me into town. When I saw that they had torn down a large sports stadium that had been a prominent part of the city skyline since I was a small child, I was filled with such rage. "How dare they do that," I thought, as though Seattle were a part of my personal patrimoine and the denizens needed my permission before they so much as clipped a hedge or painted a wall. Even now, as irrational as it sounds, I deeply resent any changes to my hometown.

But life is a moving river of experience and the harder you try to make things stand still, the more they slip through your fingers. The moment you trap the water in your mind, it ceases to be the real river and becomes still water in a plastic jug.

Nothing that lives and breathes is static, not even our own insignificant precious little selves. Not only do we live in moving rivers, but the "I" itself is one. Next time I head for Tokyo, I resolve to accept it as the city it is in 2015, and not resent it for ceasing to be the city it was in 2007. And I will try to accept as well that I am not the person I was eight years ago.

Clearly, I need the practice because while I am dipping my toes in the waters of another dynamic city, Osaka, another place - the city of Versailles where I have my home and my beloved garden - is moving merrily along without me. And when we return in a few years, the things and people I knew will be as off to me then as Tokyo was just last week.

Flophouse Garden, Versailles, France. April 2015
Photo by Michael Staubes

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Trotting Off to Tokyo

Tomorrow, I am hopping on a shinkansen and heading for Tokyo - one of my favorite cities.

I will be there for a few days and staying in the Ginza area.

So if there are any Flophouse readers who would like to get together Thursday or Friday, just let me know at

Doing Something about FATCA: Same Country Exception, Repeal, and Legal Action

Stephen Mopsick has reposted an article by Charles Bruce of American Citizens Abroad (ACA) proposing that the US "Treasury Department should promulgate rules permitting individuals to elect, if they wish, to have their local financial accounts, in effect, exempted from FATCA."

This proposal is not new and is known under different names: "Same Country Exception" or "Safe Harbour Exemption." Here is what the different Americans abroad organizations have to say about it:
American Citizens Abroad
"ACA, Inc. proposes a FATCA Same-Country Exception for accounts of US taxpayers resident abroad. If implemented, this would help alleviate the problem of financial services lock-out currently being experienced by Americans resident overseas. In a letter to the Treasury Department (Oct. 2013), ACA, Inc. has asked that this rule be applied for bank accounts held by American citizens in their country of residence."
Association of Americans Resident Overseas-Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas
"Short of repeal, the same country exception, also called “safe harbor” in Washington, has been AARO’s position concerning FATCA. The idea is that we are bona fide residents of another country than the US and the accounts in that country are our domestic accounts. We would like the US to consider them as domestic accounts and not foreign accounts. To do this would require regulatory change in Washington, which, given the frigid relationship alluded to before, will not happen without congressional mandate. It would also require the banks where we live to agree to it.
Democrats Abroad:
"When a safe harbor exemption is applied to FATCA, the law would treat the financial accounts of Americans abroad in their country of residence the same way as it treats the US accounts of Americans residing in the US. In brief, foreign financial institutions would be exempt from filing FATCA reports on the accounts of US-tax compliant Americans residing legally in the same country. A FATCA safe harbor exemption would only exempt accounts held in the country in which the account holder is legally resident."
All of the Americans abroad organizations (with one exception) support it as the solution most likely to be accepted and implemented by the US government.  As much as Americans abroad would like to see FATCA disappear, these organizations argue that this is not realistic and that FATCA won't be going away any time soon.   That is the consensus and, separately or together, all of them have lobbied Washington for several years now in support of this idea.  

There is one organization that is taking a different stance and that is Republicans Overseas.  They want to repeal FATCA and the Republican National Committee passed a resolution in 2014 to that effect.  
"RESOLVED, The Republican National Committee hereby presents this Resolution to each Member of Congress and urges the U.S. Congress to repeal FATCA, to defend the livelihood and increase the competitiveness of Americans overseas, to remove inappropriate invasions of Americans citizens’ privacy, and to allow those U.S. citizens who renounced their citizenship due to FATCA to regain their U.S. citizenship..."
The Republicans have also launched a lawsuit - FATCA Legal Action - against FATCA (Flophouse post here).  They say that FATCA is not only detrimental to Americans abroad but it also violates their consitutional rights.   

US citizens living outside the United States, these are the proposals, actions, initiatives on the table right now. This is what these organizations are asking (or fighting) the US government for on your behalf and in your name -  "We represent the interests of the 7 million Americans abroad...."  That means YOU and YOUR interests.

I urge you to take a few minutes to follow the links above with an open mind - please don't let preconceived notions about "women's clubs",  "Republicans', or "Democrats" get in the way.  

Read each organization's proposal carefully so that you understand what they mean by "Same Country Exception", "Safe Harbor", "Repeal FATCA" and "FATCA Legal Action". If there is something you don't understand, ask.  If there is something you don't agree with, say so.     

And once you have done your due diligence and made up your mind, there is one last question to ask:  
What can I do to help?

Monday, April 20, 2015

A New American Emigrant Tells His Story

Colm Fitzgerald's article Why I left the US to Seek My American Dream in Hungary is a look into the mind of a recent US emigrant.

It's a thoughtful piece with no bitterness or anger that I could detect.  Nor was leaving the US something that he decided to do one day on a whim.  He and his spouse weighed the pros and cons and made their decision.  And he's very honest about his ambivalence now: "Every day since arriving here in Hungary I’ve questioned my decision."

Why did Fitzgerald and his wife leave the United States for Hungary?  To find the American Dream, he says.  And what does he mean by that?

Property:  He and wife dream of owning a home and land but it’s expensive in California and they are not willing to go into debt to finance that dream. “However, the idea of working for 30 years to pay thousands of dollars a month for a home sounded like a prison sentence to me. I’ve seen firsthand how a family’s whole world falls apart when someone can no longer pay that crippling mortgage.”

Independence:  Owning property outright (no debt) means taking back some control over their lives.  It is protection against larger impersonal forces moving in the world.   Having a piece of land, he says, means having “ a place we could grow our own food, raise animals and try our best to lead a more grounded lifestyle. To be independent of worldwide financial markets, politics and a system that fails us in favor of corporate profits at every turn.”

These are two dreams with a long and noble pedigree in North American history.  How were my French ancestors enticed into going to Canada in the 17th century?  Land.   They were given land they could own outright and farm.  As for self-sufficiency, that ideal runs through American literature from the books of  Laura Ingalls Wilder to the essays of  Henry David Thoreau.

Fitzgerald is not saying that he can't have these things in the United States;  he's saying that the price he is being asked to pay is too high, and the risks are too great.  Working for a corporation to reimburse the expensive mortgage on a piece of land isn't freedom, it's just another form of slavery.

Hungary, however, just might be a place where flexible work, affordable land, and independence can be had on better terms.  Fitzgerald has cast himself on that distant shore with the one thing all migrants all over the world share:  hope.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Nakanoshima Park

It was sunny and warm and not too humid today in Osaka. It would have been a crime against nature to stay inside.

So forget the pile of dirty laundry, ignore the crumbs on the living room floor, and pay no mind whatsoever to the dirty bathtub.  Any guilt I might have felt was cast off as I recalled the immortal words of Ed Ricketts:
We must remember three things: 
Number one and first in importance, we must have as much fun as we can with what we have. 
Number two, we must eat as well as we can, because if we don't we won't have the health and strength to have as much fun as we might. 
And number three and third in importance, we must keep the house reasonably in order, wash the dishes and such things.  But we will not let the last interfere with the other two. 
Once I had my priorities in the right order, we walked up to Nakanoshima Park-  one of the most pleasant urban parks I have ever had the pleasure to see.  I strolled through it a month or so ago when the weather was ugly, the trees had no leaves, and the rose canes were cut down to mere stubs.

What a difference a few short weeks makes. Here is the park in all its exuberant post-sakura spring glory.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Bi-cultural Couples: Conflict, Culture and Character

One of the hardest parts of a bi-cultural marriage is determining if a conflict is rooted in culture or character. 

Culture is simply one variable among others that make up a person’s behavior, beliefs, and personality; and yet, it’s the part of our identity that informs to a very large extent how we see the world.  The cultural seas that we swam in in our formative years taught us what it meant to be a Good Spouse, a Good Parent, and an upstanding member of the community.  For all of the multi-cultural training we may have had as part of our education, many of us still didn’t truly understand that there were other grasshoppers in other fields.  It was only after we went out into the world that we learned the hard way that our way is just one of many ways of being all those things.

Or we can learn this when the grasshopper comes down the stairs in the morning and pours us a cup of coffee.    Some bi-cultural couples are hyperconscious of cultural difference and are quick to pull the culture card to explain just about every conflict.  It’s because he’s French or she’s Japanese and that’s just what they’re like.  In others there is a deliberate attempt at indifference:  a refusal to see the person as anything other than a unique individual whose cultural origins are simply irrelevant in the context of the marriage.
Both of these strategies are dangerous.  Treating a spouse as if he or she were an Exotic Beast is to turn that person into a caricature of Frenchness or Japaneseness and makes him both a stereotype and a second-class citizen in his own home.  But going to the other extreme, treating differences as irrelevant and unimportant, is not necessarily the neutral, egalitarian act it is purported to be.  On the contrary, it can be an insidious indirect way of imposing the one spouse’s culture (usually the native citizen’s) in the family and keeping one spouse comfortable at the expense of the other.  It can mean never allowing the other culture to be alive and present in a person in the very place (home) where both spouses should have an equal right to express who they are.

Avoiding both extremes is very difficult, especially when there is a serious conflict over something that matters so much that it provokes strong emotions and visceral judgements.  How could you do that?  What’s wrong with you? That’s not the way a Good Spouse or a Good Parent behaves.    

 A very good portrait of a bi-cultural couple in conflict can be found in the novel Native Speaker by Chang Rae Mae.  In the book Henry (Korean/American) and Lelia (American) come very close to divorce, and one reason is cultural difference.

In the book there is one particular conflict that illustrates these strategies for dealing with cultural difference in a marriage.  It begins when Lelia asks Henry to tell her about the Korean housekeeper who raised him.    Lelia is very upset to find out that her spouse knows nothing whatsoever about this woman; not even her name. 

Listen to Henry’s interior monologue:   “I don’t blame her.  Americans live on a first-name basis.  She didn’t understand that there weren’t moments in our language – the rigorous regimental one of family and servants-when the woman’s name could have naturally come out.  Or why it wasn’t important.” 

Henry excuses his wife’s reaction by generalizing about her culture and turning her into a living stereotype.  It’s not her fault – it’s is her culture and her ignorance which explain her behavior and feelings.   Both of these things may be true to some extent, and yet the generalization - It’s because she is an American - is condescending.   Furthermore, Henry has an explanation which he does not share with her.

Lelia tries to express why it bothers her, and it is not at all what Henry thinks it is. 

“I just wonder, that’s all.  This woman has given twenty years of her life to you and your father and it still seems like she could be anyone to you.  It doesn’t seem to matter who she is.  Right?”
“And it scares me,” she said.  “I just think about you and me.  What I am…”

On her side, Lelia is oblivious to her spouse’s home culture.  Even though she has met his father and the housekeeper, and knows that Henry is bi-lingual/bi-cultural, it does not occur to her at all that culture may have something to do with why Henry doesn’t know the housekeeper’s name.  Instead, the issue is one of individual character - the kind of man her husband is.  And a man who does not know the name of the woman who cared for him as a child is not a Good Person, and is potentially not a Good Spouse.

Is there a middle road a bi-cultural couple can take that avoids being hyperconscious of culture on one hand and dismissing it as irrelevant on the other?  I’ve thought about this for years and I haven’t come up with a satisfactory solution for myself, much less one I can offer to you.  Something tells me that we have all been “culture is everything/culture is nothing” at one time or another in our bi-cultural marriages. Especially those of us who have been living with our grasshoppers for many years and assume that, through years of trial and error, we’ve got them – their characters, cultures and languages - all figured out.

Maybe an answer, or at least another strategy, can be found in examining more attentively our assumptions about ourselves and the men and women with whom we share our lives.  Why do I think doing this makes me a Good Parent or a Good Spouse?  Why do I get so angry or disturbed when my spouse says or does something that does not conform to my standards for what is Good?

We could do worse, and learn something at the same time, if we stopped assuming and started asking.  Even after 20 years of marriage, we might be genuinely surprised by the answers.