From a recent edition of the weekly web journal Brigada Today, I found out that there’s a photography conference, “Depth of Field,” coming up, February 7 and 8. It’s designed for pro photographers, but I’m thinking that means amateurs could learn even more from it. And it’s in New York, but the “Main Stage” and “Exposure Stage” presentations will be live streamed. (By the way, if you’re not familiar with Brigada, you might want to check it out. It’s a great place for receiving and sharing all things related to cross-cultural work.)
Why is a conference for photographers relevant to you, dear readers? Because I know some of you like to take photos, and some of you are rather good at it, too. And for those of you, I have a favor to ask. Could you help out us cross-cultural bloggers? It’s not easy finding good photos for the kind of topics that show up in our writing, and, frankly, it can end up adding a last level of stress before we hit the publish button. (Is it really what I’m looking for? Is it appropriate? Has it been used here before?!!)
Take, for instance, the picture at the top of this page. You may have noticed that it’s the same photo as the one I used for my post in July. Or you may just be thinking, “Ugh, another generic plane-wing-out-the-window shot.” Either way, it’s not ideal.
But that’s what we need, some “ideal” photos of, by, and for cross-cultural workers. You may already have your own ideas. If not, let me plant some seeds in the fertile field of your creativity. You’ll no doubt recognize some of these tried-and-true images, but I’m asking for an increase in quantity and quality: quantity, so that we don’t have to reuse the same photos again and again (see above), and quality, so that it doesn’t seem as if we’re using photos again and again (ditto). So when you read “more” below, think “more and better.”
Oh yeah, and free. Free, as in creative commons or public domain.
So more and better . . . and free.
For instance, there aren’t enough photos of world maps and globes. We need more photos of unique maps and globes, antique maps and globes, and maps and globes labeled in non-English languages.
The following is a compilation of several posts that I wrote for ClearingCustoms.com. I gathered them together to publish them at A Life Overseas:
Over the years I’ve created a collection of new terms for old things—things that are common to traveling and living overseas but that haven’t had common labels. Most of them have come to me while I’m in the air, looking out the window or thumbing through an inflight magazine.
I’ve posted these before on my blog, but I’ve yet to hear anyone use a single one in casual conversation, so I’m thinking they need a broader audience. I hope that some of these can make their way into your vocabulary. I’ll keep my ears open.
bait and glitch You find a cheap plane ticket online and go through all the steps to buy it, double and triple checking all the details, and then when you select “confirm,” you get that encouraging message that says, “The fare you’ve selected is no longer available.” Maybe it’s because the search site wasn’t up to date or because someone else recklessly grabbed the last seat while you were prudently making up your mind. If it’s the latter, it just proves the old standard, “Time flies when you’re choosing flight times” (or something like that).
direct flight to the dog house This is what you receive after you proudly show the money-saving itinerary—that you just booked—to your spouse, and said spouse points out that it includes a 14-hour layover (also known as a “wayover”) and that you and your four children will need to collect all checked baggage between each of the five connecting flights. Travel to the doghouse does accumulate frequent-flyer miles, but they can only be redeemed for undesirable trips, such as to overnight stays on the living-room couch.
metapacking Carrying a suitcase in a suitcase so that you can bring back more stuff than you take. This can be as simple as a duffle bag inside another piece of luggage, but in its purest form, it is a checked bag precisely fitting inside another checked bag. The term metapacking can be extended also to encompass using a cheap or broken suitcase to transport items one way and then disposing of that suitcase after you arrive. Seasoned travelers always keep a broken suitcase lying around.
eurekathing Something you find inside your luggage when you start packing—something you haven’t seen since your last trip. Discovering it brings out such responses as “Oh, that’s where that is,” or “I do have one of those.” A wad of ten-dollar bills is eurekaching, a piece of jewelry, eurekabling.
tetrisness The feeling of accomplishment one feels after packing every necessary item just right in a suitcase. A landmark study out of the University of Gatwick-Hempstead shows that tetrisness activates the same portion of the brain as when one successfully folds a fitted sheet.
TSAT The TSAT (pronounced Tee Ess Ay Tee or Tee-Sat) is an oral exam in which family members yell questions and answers from room to room concerning Transportation Security Administration regulations:
Is it the 3-1-1 rule or 1-1-3 . . . or 3-2-1 or 9-1-1? Does deodorant count as a liquid? What about wet wipes? Or snow globes? Or chocolate-covered cherries? Can I take nail clippers in my carry-on? What about tweezers? Duct tape? Scotch tape? Chopsticks? Toothpicks? Javelins?
fortnightlies Countless requests—for coffee, a get-together, or a meal—made by friends who have just realized that your departure for a long or permanent stay is only. two. weeks. away.
vontrappish How you feel when you’re ready for bed the night before a morning flight, with all your luggage placed neatly (more or less) next to the door—lined up like the von Trapp family ready to sing “So Long, Farewell.” You may have mixed feelings, and you may or may not sleep. In extreme cases, you hear yourself humming the tune.
flotsam and jetsam and thensam The abundance of things that people give you and your children right before you leave for the airport or get on the plane. This includes gifts, souvenirs, snacks, word-find and sudoku books, coloring books with a four-pack of crayons, and those faces with metal shavings that you form into a beard with a magnet.
disafearance Leaving your tightly locked up (?) house thinking you might have left the iron on (even though you don’t remember having done any ironing) is one thing, but watching your hand zip your passport into the front pocket of your backpack and then just two minutes later checking to see if it’s actually there because you’re afraid that you didn’t in fact zip your passport into the front pocket of your backpack but instead, due to a muscle spasm, may have opened the car window and tossed your passport onto the shoulder of the highway—or what if it just spontaneously combusted, leaving no smoke or ashes? That’s disafearance.
duffling Upon hearing the counter agent at the airport say that your checked bag is three pounds overweight, you feign frantic action by grabbing zippers, patting your pockets, turning in circles, and saying things such as “I could . . . ,” “Well, I . . . ,” and “What can . . . ,” hoping that the ticket agent will take pity on you and say it’s OK. Be careful that your duffling isn’t too aggressive or the agent will actually let you follow through on solving the problem.
terminal fowliage Birds that have somehow gotten into an airport and fly around amongst the rafters and indoor trees. Birds stuck inside a place where people come to fly. Sense the irony?
flaggle A flaggle of tourists is a group of middling to senior travelers, led by a tour guide with a flag and bullhorn. The flag is akin to the kind I and my friends used to bolt onto our banana-seat bikes when we were kids. Oh, if only we’d had megaphones, too. You can tell that the flaggle is on the return leg of their trip when you see them bringing home food and souvenirs packed in large, branded gift bags or boxes with tied-on handles.
making a this-line’s-not-for-you-turn After standing patiently in an airport line for fifteen minutes and realizing that it doesn’t lead where you need to go, you nonchalantly walk away—as if standing in lines is simply your hobby and you’re now looking for another place to queue up for more pleasant amusement. (Aren’t you glad you came early?)
shuftle The standing-room-only shuttle bus at some airports that shuffles passengers on the tarmac from plane to airport terminal (or vice versa). This word can also be used as a verb.
Sadow-Plath effect Happens in the moment when you accidentally kick a pulled carry-on with your heel and it flips onto one wheel and mo.men.tar.i.ly balances before flipping completely over or wobbling back to both wheels. This brief pause at the top of the carry-on’s arc is actually a tiny breach in the space-time continuum, caused by the rapid upturn of the luggage in combination with the forward motion. The effect is named after Bernard D. Sadow, inventor of the wheeled suitcase, and Bob Plath, creator of the rollaboard.
glizing Glizing is the act of experiencing the wonderfully smooth exponential forward motion as you stride confidently on an airport’s moving walkway. This only happens when you’re not in a hurry, in part because, as studies show, the walkways do little to speed you up, and often slow you down.
BlackNSquare When you try to describe your piece of luggage at the lost-luggage counter, all you can remember is that it’s part of the BlackNSquare line made by the Yuno company. Question: “What Kind of luggage do you have?” Answer: “Yuno, BlackNSquare.” Yuno also makes the upscale models BlackNSquare with Handle and BlackNSquare with Wheels.
preseating To sit down, with plenty of time before boarding, able to relax because your bags are checked, you’re definitely at the right gate, and a quick look shows that your passport is right where it’s supposed to be. You take a deep breath and contemplate the hopeful possibilities of your trip. You can charge your phone, read, or people watch. You’re free to walk about and might grab a cup of coffee, browse the bestsellers in the bookstore, or window shop expensive luggage and watches . . . and on the way, you can go glizing.
passenger of imminent domain This is the person directly in front of you on a plane who, upon sitting down, immediately pushes their seat back as far as it will possibly go. Intuiting that something must be hindering it, they try to force it back farther, again and again. There. Must. Be. Something. Keeping. The. Seat. From. Reclining completely flat (possibly your knees). Finally, leaving the seat fully back, they lean forward to watch a movie.
chipillow The bag of snacks that you bring from home that bloats up once you reach higher altitudes. With care, it can be used to rest your head on, due to the fact that it’s in the same food group as the neck croissant.
FASL Flight Attendant Sign Language. Includes such specialized hand maneuvers as indicating the exits by extending the arms to the side, palms forward, pointing with two fingers, Boy Scout style, and mimicking the pulling of life-vest inflation cords using the crook of the thumb and first finger with the other fingers fanned out, subliminally showing that everything will be “OK.”
single-entré seating The rows in the far back of the plane where you no longer get a choice between the brazed beef medallions over a wild-rice pilaf and the broiled fish and mashed potatoes. You get the fish.
cartnering This is the act of hovering next to the food cart as it’s making its way down the aisle. Timing a trip to the bathroom with the distribution of meals is truly an art form, and it is best done passive-aggressively (such as by wearing a smile while dancing from one foot to the other).
Silent Gotcha Port The “SGP” is the small screw hole on the seat armrest that looks as if it must be the place where you plug in your earphones.
Queen Ramona’s Veil The dark mesh curtain that separates business class from coach. Its main purpose is to protect those in the front of the plane from projectiles thrown by the riotous mob behind, who are known to catapult dinner rolls at each other using slingshots fashioned from their airline-provided sleep masks and who sometimes divide into teams for prolonged games of ultimate Frisbee. In small planes, the curtain, only a few inches across and resting next to the cabin wall, is known as Queen Romana’s Veilette. Its purpose is purely psycho-social.
The term “Queen Ramona’s Veil” comes from the name commonly used for the wood-and-iron gate employed by the overly paranoid and little-known British Queen Ramona II to separate her highness from the filthy hordes sometimes present in the steerage portion of her royal sailing ship. Mention of the barrier is made in the English dirge “The Death of Queen Ramona at the Hands of the Filthy Hordes.” (Can you tell that I rarely get to fly business class?)
seatemic (pronounced see-uh-tehm-ic) Your connecting flight is delayed and you have no time to spare so when it lands you run as fast as you can (and by “as fast as you can” I mean a combination of running, jogging, speed walking, walking, stopping, and wheezing) across the airport and arrive at your gate just as they’re closing the door and you speed down the gangway and board the plane and force your carryon into something close to an available slot and find your seat and quickly strap in so the plane can take off. . . . Now all you can do is sit still, sweating, with your heart racing and your veins coursing with adrenaline. Your body is in a fight-or-flight response but something tells you this is a different kind of flight. If you are suffering from these symptoms, you are seatemic.
no-watch list Movies on this list are not allowed to be shown in-flight. The list includes Red Eye, Airborne, Non-Stop, Flightplan, Snakes on a Plane, Quarantine 2: Terminal, and Plane of the Living Dead. And, yeah, some of these shouldn’t be shown on the ground, either.
altivism Gazing out of an airplane window, seeing the new landscape below, and feeling joyfully overcome with the real and imagined possibilities.
post-ping che-klatches The sound of seatbelt buckles popping open the instant the plane stops at the gate and passengers hear the OK-now-you-can-get-up tone. This allows those in window seats to immediately grab their carryons, put them where they were just sitting, and wait, hunching under the overhead bins.
welwelwel-ke-come This is the glorious sound of the immigration agent thumbing through your passport looking for an empty page—and then adding the stamp that says you’re free to enter.
dyslistening The condition by which your over preparation for answering an expected question in another language overwhelms your auditory senses and you answer the query you’ve anticipated, no matter what is actually said, as in responding to “How many would you like?” with “Yes, but no ice, please.”
visatrig The act of trying to predict which agent in the office will be the most likely to give you your visa or other important document and then conducting complex calculations concerning the number of people in line in front of you to see if you will get the agent you hope for. A domestic version of this is sometimes encountered in the DMV.
unchewing The physical and mental reaction that occurs when you realize that the chocolate-covered, cream-filled donut that you just took a bite of in your host country is in fact not a donut and that’s not chocolate and the filling might very well have gristle in it.
I’m so glad we got to say Hi a while back, but sorry we never made it to your house for dinner. When we landed three months ago it seemed like we’d be here forever, but then the time went by so fast. We’re all busy with so many things, and we had so many places we needed to be.
You asked about us getting together for coffee next week, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it. We’re kind of booked up with so many last-minute things to take care of, and then we’ve set aside a couple days to get away and catch our breaths before we head out. I’m afraid coffee will need to wait until next time.
And you wondered about seeing us off at the airport. That’s so nice of you, but we’re trying to get our goodbyes done before we pull up to the curb and have to fix our minds on tickets and luggage and passports.
An imagined but quite possible day in a life overseas . . .
This morning I woke up with my to-do list waiting for me on the nightstand. Item number one was Get out of bed (I’d written that one down so I could start the day by crossing it off). Number two said Copy document. That’s because yesterday at the county government office, when I went to get my resident permit renewed, the lady behind the desk told me I needed to bring a copy of my registration letter to leave with them.
I was more than ready to get that taken care of and move on to the other, bigger, better, more important things on my list. It was an impressive list. I had quite the day planned.
After a quick shower and a slice of toast for breakfast, I grabbed my permit documents and walked the four blocks to the bus stop and took the bus to the copy shop, about 15 minutes away. But when I stepped off the bus I saw that the copy shop wasn’t a copy shop anymore. Instead, sometime over the weekend, it had been turned into a KFG Chicken restaurant. (That’s right, a KFG not a KFC. This one had a big green smiling rooster on its sign.) I called my teammate to get her advice, and she said I could get a copy at a bank. There was a bank down the street, and after going there and standing in line, I asked the teller if she could help me make a copy. She said that was impossible.
On the way back to the bus stop, I called another teammate, and he told me to try the photo shop next to the new high school. I decided to take a taxi there to save time, but the only cash I had was a large bill and I figured the driver wouldn’t have change for it, so I walked back to the bank to withdraw some money from the ATM. But then the ATM ate my card and wouldn’t spit it out no matter how many buttons I pushed. I went back into the bank to retrieve it, but they said that was impossible—at least until after two business days.
I’ve always wondered about the “heat index” and “chill factor,” ways to say, “We know how hot or cold it is, but here’s how it feels.” Obviously there are scientific factors figured into the calculations, but it makes me think we could also have a “Great Grandma Gordon Index”: “I’m telling you, it’s at least 125 degrees in the shade!” or a “Guy Who Lives Down the Block Index: “It’s so cold I can’t feel my left foot!”
When you travel, you see how much weather standards aren’t standardized around the world, either. For people in hot climates, the winter parkas might come out when the temperature dips below 60°F, or for those where cold is routine, when they register the same temp, it’s time to put on shorts.
But keeping track of relative weather norms isn’t the only concern when going abroad. There’s also that finances thing. You want to know how much money you’ll need to spend while spending time in another city—in terms that make sense. So you might be thinking “How much does, for instance, a Big Mac cost there?”
Well, funny you should ask.
One of the most well-known economic indexes has the answer. Taking its name from the classic McDonald’s sandwich, the Big Mac Index was developed in 1986 by The Economist “as a lighthearted guide to whether currencies are at their ‘correct’ level.”
“Burgernomics,” says The Economist “was never intended as a precise gauge of currency misalignment, merely a tool to make exchange-rate theory more digestible.” But the Big Mac Index has gotten a lot of weighty attention, garnering coverage in textbooks and academic studies. In fact, the index is taken seriously enough that a New York Times article postulated in 2011 that Argentina was artificially keeping its Big Mac prices down to influence its place on the scale. And Computerworld reported this year that the malware Fatboy, a ransomware-as-a-service (software that locks up a computer and demands payment to decrypt its data) uses the Big Mac Index to determine how much ransom needs to be paid for a particular location.
The Big Mac Index is based on the idea of purchasing-power parity. I’m not an economist, so it’s easy for me to get lost in the weeds on economic theories. But rather than use it as a rigorous currency-valuation metric, I see it more as a quick-and-dirty cost-of-living index.
If you have a hunger for that type of thing, too, I’m glad to tell you there’s much more on the menu than just the Big Mac. Here’s a list to whet your appetite:
The Tall Latte Index Also called the Starbuck’s index, this is another iteration from The Economist, comparing prices from the coffee chain.
The KFC Index
Because McDonald’s has restaurants in only three African countries, the Big Mac Index doesn’t work very well on that continent. Therefore, Sagaci Research developed an index based on KFCs, which are present in nearly 20 nations in Africa. The metric is based on the price of an Original Recipe 15-piece bucket.
The Mini Mac Index Invented by Benn Steil and Emma Smith of the Council on Foreign Relations, it compares the global prices of iPad Minis.
no country with a McDonald’s has ever rejected humanitarianism on ideological grounds. It is in those states where the economic and political influence of the west still has space that all components of the west’s foreign policy are accepted: both McDonald’s and INGOs.
The Coca-Cola Index This analysis branches out a bit more, showing the relationship of Coke consumption with quality-of-life factors. Using UN figures, The Economist (those guys sure are busy), shows that countries’ higher rates of Coca-Cola drinking correlate with higher wealth, health, and political freedom. Have a Coke and a smile?
The Happy Planet Index
Speaking of smiles, the New Economics Foundation publishes this global ranking of “how efficiently residents of different countries are using environmental resources to lead long, happy lives.” (I really wanted to find a “Happy Meal Index,” but so far, it hasn’t been created yet.)
And while we’re on the topic of quality of life, we have
Numbeo Indexes The Numbeo site describes itself as “the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries worldwide.” Not only does it have an overall cost-of-living index, it also includes indexes that compare property prices, crime, health care, pollution, traffic, quality of life, and travel costs.
In May of 2004, explorer Ben Saunders completed a solo, unsupported trek to the North Pole—on foot. He set out on his trip from the Russian side on March 5, reached the Pole on May 11, and was picked up by plane on the Canadian side on May 14. So here’s a repost, in honor of the thirteenth anniversary of his return.
Also, today is notable because it’s Mother’s Day, and point #9 below is a shout-out to moms, including a very emotional and very long-distance telephone call. Have you called your mum today?
In 2004, 26-year-old Briton Ben Saunders became only the third person, and the youngest ever, to ski unaccompanied to the North Pole. As it turns out, there are a lot of ways that making a solo trek to the North Pole is a like moving to another country. Here are 11 things that the two adventures have in common, all taken from Saunder’s February 2005 TED Talk, “Why Did I Ski to the North Pole?”
Luggage is a drag
Saunders describes his specialty as “dragging heavy things around cold places.” He says, for his trip to the North Pole, “I was dragging all the food I needed, the supplies, the equipment, sleeping bag, one change of underwear—everything I needed for nearly three months.” That sounds like trying to put every necessary item in your carry-on bag, just in case your checked luggage gets lost. (If you think your bags are heavy, Saunder’s supply of food and fuel weighed 400 pounds.) Sometimes your destination has harsh conditions. And sometimes it doesn’t have chocolate chips. How many bags of those should you bring? Can’t be too prepared.
It can be lonely out there
One of the challenges of Saunder’s voyage was that he had to make it alone. Very alone. When he arrived at the northern-most point on the globe, he was the only “human being in an area one-and-a-half times the size of America, five-and-a-half thousand square miles.” Most of us don’t go to such remote places, but even if you’re in the biggest city, surrounded by millions of other souls, you can easily feel all by yourself.
No, Virginia, there isn’t a Santa Claus When Saunders got to the top of the world, he didn’t find Santa. No Santa’s workshop. No elves. In fact, he says, “There isn’t even a pole at the Pole. There’s nothing there, purely because it’s sea ice.” When you go to another country, expect the unexpected. Don’t be surprised when what you find doesn’t match the photos in the magazine article. “I’d read lots of books,” says Saunders. “I studied maps and charts. But I realized on the morning of day one that I had no idea exactly what I’d let myself in for.” Photoshopped and cropped pics don’t do us any favors. If GPS and street signs say we’re in the right place, don’t waste time—or emotions—trying to find something that doesn’t exist.
Sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back According to NASA, during the year of Saunders journey, the ice conditions were the worst on record. Ninety percent of the time he was skiing into headwinds and the drifting ice pulled him backwards. “My record,” he says, “was minus 2.5 miles. I got up in the morning, took the tent down, skied north for seven-and-a-half hours, put the tent up, and I was two and a half miles further back than when I’d started. I literally couldn’t keep up with the drift of the ice.” When you’re in a new place, learning the language and culture, get used to those backward drifts. But always keep your compass set on your true north.
The only constant is change
Because the ice is constantly drifting over the North Pole, Saunders says that if he’d planted a flag there, it wouldn’t be long before it would be heading toward Canada or Greenland. Like Saunders, don’t be surprised when the emotional flags you plant aren’t permanent. The ground may not move under your feet (earthquakes not withstanding), but other kinds of landscapes certainly will. Find a special restaurant that serves your favorite dishes? Wake up the next day and it’s become a plumber’s shop. Make friends with some other expats? You may soon have to say goodbye. But, repeat after me, “Change can be good. Change can be good. Change can be good.” Maybe, just maybe, that plumber’s shop will end up being exactly what you need.
Culture stress can be a bear
Literally. On his first try at the North Pole, Saunders went with a partner, but they failed to reach their goal. Saunders says that from the outset “almost everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. We were attacked by a polar bear on day two. I had frostbite in my left big toe. We started running very low on food. We were both pretty hungry, losing lots of weight.” Yup. Sounds like culture stress to me.
Coming back can feel like the bear wins When his first attempt fell short, Saunders says he “was physically exhausted, mentally an absolute wreck, considered myself a failure, in a huge amount of debt personally to this expedition, and lying on my mum’s sofa, day in day out, watching daytime TV.” His brother texted him an encouraging quotation from Homer Simpson: “You tried your hardest and failed miserably. The lesson is: don’t even try.” Repatriation can feel that way. Maybe all the people who’d said you shouldn’t go were right. But Saunders didn’t let his failure define him. Instead, three years later he made history.
People aren’t sitting around waiting to hear your stories
When Saunders reached the North Pole, he got out his satellite phone. After warming up the battery in his armpit, he made three calls: “I dialed my mum. I dialed my girlfriend. I dialed the CEO of my sponsor. And I got three voicemails.” OK, that’s unfair to say they didn’t want to hear what he’d done. They were just busy at the time, that’s all. But . . .
Some people really do want to listen “I finally got through to my mum,” says Saunders. “She was at the queue of the supermarket. She started crying. She asked me to call her back.” There are special people who will make time to listen—when they can focus on your story without distractions. Thanks, Mum.
Don’t let others draw boundaries on your map
When Saunders was 13, he got a school report that said, “Ben lacks sufficient impetus to achieve anything worthwhile.” Saunder’s response—”I think if I’ve learned anything, it’s this: that no one else is the authority on your potential. You’re the only person that decides how far you go and what you’re capable of.”
One of the three most important questions will always be “Where is the bathroom?” Saunders gave his TED Talk to answer three questions:
(1 ) Why?
(2) How do you go to the loo at minus 40?
(3) What’s next?
That second question is very important at the North Pole, because it seems that “at minus 40, exposed skin becomes frostbitten in less than a minute.” Your question number two will be more like “Where’s the bathroom?” or just “Bathroom? Bathroom?” Then, once you see the facilities, you may ask yourself, “How?”
As for the answers to those question, in short, Saunder’s responses go something like this:
(1) “For me,” says Saunders, “this is about exploring human limits, about exploring the limits of physiology, of psychology, and of technology. They’re the things that excite me. And it’s also about potential, on a personal level. This, for me, is a chance to explore the limits—really push the limits of my own potential, see how far they stretch.”
(2) That’s a trade secret, no answer here.
(3) Antarctica. Saunders and Tarka L’Herpiniere are currently on the first leg of their trek from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back again—1,800 miles in all—unsupported and on foot. You can follow Saunder’s daily blog posts here. Why the South Pole? See answer number one above. Somebody’s got a severe case of wanderlust. [Saunders and L’Herpiniere completed their expedition on February 7, 2014.]
When my wife and I and our four children stepped off the plane in your country, with our 12 carry-on bags—and all our plans, enthusiasm, expectations . . . and naiveté—you welcomed us. In fact, the customs agent greeted us with a smile. And during the following years that we lived among you, we lost count of your kindnesses.
We weren’t refugees, we didn’t arrive on your shores having been forced out of our homes, we weren’t stranded. We had chosen to come. You didn’t find us naked and bloodied at the side of a road, but still you were often good Samaritans to us. When you saw us sitting on the curb, so to speak, facing roadblocks or not sure where we were headed, so many of you did not simply walk by on the other side.
For this we thank you.
To our language teachers who patiently, ever so patiently, led us through vocabulary lessons and guided us on the nuances of your culture, laughing with us but not at us, thank you.
To the food-cart vendors who listened to us practice the names of what they were selling and cheerfully rewarded us with wonderful tasting snacks and meals, sometimes putting something extra in with our order, thank you.
To the policeman who loaded up our family in his patrol car and took us home after we got lost on a walk, even though we ended up being only three blocks away from our apartment building, thank you.
And to the people near our home who didn’t think the worst of a family, who, for some reason, was riding in a police car, thank you.
My son pointed me to The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, where John Koenig creates words to name before-unnamed emotions and ideas. Many of them are melancholy, such as amenuerosis, “the half-forlorn, half-escapist ache of a train whistle calling in the distance at night”; and chrysalism “ the amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm. . . .”
Others are more on the humorous side. For instance, a reverse shibboleth, is “the practice of answering a cellphone with a generic ‘Hello?’ as if you didn’t already know exactly who was calling . . .”; and lalalalia is “the realization while talking to yourself that someone else is within earshot, which leads you to crossfade into mumbled singing. . . .”
Expats have their own feelings and experiences that are yet to be named, and I think this needs to be remedied. So while I don’t have Koenig’s talent, here are a few of my offerings:
dyslistening the condition by which your over preparation for answering an expected question in another language overwhelms your auditory senses and you answer the query you’ve anticipated, no matter what is actually said, as in responding to “How many would you like?” with “Yes, but no ice, please.”
welwelwel-ke-come the glorious sound of the immigration agent thumbing through your passport looking for an empty page—and then adding the stamp that says you’re free to enter.
gazing out of an airplane window, seeing the new landscape below, and feeling joyfully overcome with the real and imagined possibilities.
the act of trying to predict which agent in the office will be the most likely to give you your visa or other important document and then conducting complex calculations concerning the number of people in line in front of you to see if you will get the agent you hope for. A domestic version of this is sometimes encountered in the DMV.
the physical and mental reaction that occurs when you realize that the chocolate-covered, cream-filled donut that you just took a bite of is in fact not a donut and that’s not chocolate and the filling might very well have gristle in it.