A few months ago, I was in a conversation about British sports vs American sports (brought on by watching a Cubs game) and my American friend, said “It’s like your wars… as if I was part of the “your” of the British. I put on my fake offense face, and said, “Wait, do you think I’m British?? I grew up in Texas!” He was shocked and confused, then a bit apologetic; I had a bit of a laugh pretending I was actually upset.

But he was not alone: many times in the past year or so that I have been back in the states, new acquaintances have assumed I am not American. They hear my voice, and ask, “where is your accent from?” I tell them I’m American, grew up in Austin, and sometimes they still insist I sound foreign. Some have recently guessed I was Australian, English and otherwise vaguely foreign. I say things like “bin,” and occasionally pronounce tomato with a long ‘a’, marking me as not entirely local. I explain to my confused audience that I lived in Hong Kong and Turkey and am married to a Brit, and they nod their heads, “ah yes, that’s why.” The stint abroad has apparently unalterably marked me as different.

Yet after living in Chicago for over a year, I don’t feel like a foreigner anymore. I have a consistent group of friends and colleagues, who are no longer shocked by my origins; I have gotten used to the bottomless diner coffees; I have the once a week grocery shop down to a science; I know the local brews; I can get around town without a map; I’m used to the wide streets and long highways; I know where to buy odd knick knacks and where to find specialty foods. The quirks of American culture have become normal again. This is part of why I haven’t been blogging as much of late: I haven’t noticed anything particularly culture-shock-esque. I’m enjoying living nearer to my family and (American) friends and enjoying being ordinary, to a certain extent.

"You made it" written on a post, mid hike. Did I? Really?However, Mr Waters is still a foreigner (and often reminded of it), and, thanks to our cross cultural marriage, one of us (at minimum) will always be an expat, an immigrant and a foreigner. Someone will always make a comment about accent (“I love it when you say ‘cheers!’” as the waitress at a local diner exclaimed) or will try to guess where one of us is from. Sometimes people compare his English accent to any other commonwealth accent as if they are the same (“you sound just like a man we met the other day from New Zealand!” as one pub-goer claimed). Because we’ve adopted our own amalgamation of accents at home (for example, we say both ‘courgette’ instead of zucchini and ‘eggplant’ instead of aubergine), economizing on syllables over time, we both occasionally have to rephrase to be understood. I have trouble code switching sometimes: I never know whether to say “soccer” or “football” and occasionally mix my dialects in a single sentence.

Of course this can be an advantage in some cases—it helps us appear more interesting than we really are—but it also feels a bit odd to be in my passport country constantly reminded of our combined foreignness. These tiny markers of difference mean one of us (or both of us) will always be a little bit of a foreigner, even if we start feeling local. When I’m in the UK I get frequently mocked (gently) for my lack of colloquial knowledge (“toad in the hole”  proved particularly difficult), as Mr Waters does when he is in the states. This is both encouraging and discouraging at the same time. No matter where we go, there will always be something new to explore, something to learn, but it can at times be exhausting to be an outsider.

Our combined immigrant status is a constant: we miss things from different homes we’ve known, we use idioms foreign to the country in which we live, we carve out our own sense of home. At home, of course, we rarely have to explain anything; everything is ordinary to us from the hand signal numbers from Hong Kong to the amalgamation of English accents we use. We miss the things we found local while in other places (we frequently bemoan the lack of “Little Chilis”, our favorite Szechuan restaurant in HK). We carve out our own space with our own ways of interacting with the locals.

I can’t help but feel this will always be the case. Wherever we live, the US, England, or anywhere else in the world, we will continue to be immigrants. We will always have friends across the globe whom we may see once every few years; we will always have to discover new oddities about our local place;  we will always miss aspects of our previous homes; we will always accumulate artifacts, language and friends from the places we move to and from.

Unless, of course, we ever stay in one place long enough to blend in.


Lining up, waiting in line, queuing, is vastly different across the globe. The most extreme form of orderly queuing in my personal experience is in Hong Kong. If there is a line, many people will join it just because they assume they should be in the line. At bus stops and taxi stands, there is normally an orderly queue during peak times, so it really is first come first serve. If there is a free give-away at McDonalds or Starbucks, there may even be a neat single file line around the block. In the UK, where the word queuing originates, you often have neat, orderly lines, though there definitely aren’t clear queues around bus stops during rush hour when there’s a tube strike. In Turkey, queuing was a little more haphazard, slightly nebulous, less personal space than in the states, more personal space than in Hong Kong. In Egypt you might pay someone baksheesh so you can avoid the queue entirely. In Taiwan, there are orderly queues for the MRT at all times, and people are even incredibly polite as they shuffle into the train.

In the States, it is everyone for themselves, unless there is a roped off guideline for the wait or a ticketing system. Everyone seems to always think they are the exception, and should definitely be treated first. There is also a lot of variation for courtesy–sometimes a man will let a woman on the bus in front of him, sometimes people will let the wheel chaired passenger board first, sometimes a person will say they have 5 minutes before their flight, which boards in 20 minutes, and try to get in front of you in airport security when your flight is literally on its last call because of your late connection (real life example!).

In airports you tend to get all sorts of cultural queuing strategies: people who seem like they’ve never seen a queue before and wander into the gaps between at the front, people who place a family member in one line and another in the next line to hedge their bets, people who are all too used to air travel and pick the line with the officer who looks most efficient. This is the sort of thing around which it is easy to develop stereotypes after years of travel. One might refer to it as the queuing scale–from the extreme rigidity of Hong Kong queues, where I once had to get a number to wait for a document even though I was the only person in the room, to the seemingly near chaos in the Cairo airport.

Having taken a brief hiatus from blogging due to travel and what not, this may not seem like a particularly important topic. Yet, queues can often be fun little microcosms of society (see academic paper on queuing as society). Orderly queues are manifestations “distributive justice”, wherein your effort/cost should be proportional to the reward. Queuing properly can be a moral act, with prosocial motivations, while disrespecting a queue could demonstrate a lack of altruism, or respect for social norms. Differences in queuing culture may even be influenced by faith in one’s culture’s infrastructure and is definitely influenced by social structures. Queuing may seem incredibly democratic, but in every culture there is a way to avoid the line, usually with money or connections.

As interesting as queues are, the unfortunate truth is that normally the thing for which you are waiting is actually quite unexciting, whether it be talking to an immigration officer, taking a driving test at the DMV or purchasing a ticket to a football game. Hopefully the final outcome will make all that time pay off.

Texas and the many cultures in America

The scale of distance changes drastically from city to city and town to town in America. We spent the last week in Texas, San Antonio and Houston, and we rented a car for the second time this year. Even though we were going to be in urban centers, we needed an automobile to get around. In Chicago, something is close if it’s a ten-minute-walk. In Houston something is close if it’s under a 20 minute drive.

Zoning makes it so everything is separated. You drive 4 miles to the grocery store, you drive 3 miles to the restaurants near you, you drive 5 miles to the mall, the hardware store and everything else. My relatives were surprised to learn that neither I nor Mr Waters own or use a car on a regular basis. We, in fact, walk to the grocery store. There are 4 good grocery stores within 15 minutes walk of our apartment, among the other easily accessible resources: comedy clubs, restaurants, bars, book stores, florists, bakeries, rug stores, nail salons, barbers etc. We don’t have a car because walking or taking the train or bus is easier. The lifestyles in Chicago and Houston seem mutually foreign to each other.

There is public transit in Houston, busses and a light rail, but most people drive. Highways accommodate the masses with four lanes, sometimes expanding to seven. Giant interchanges soar over the city, with flyover ramps about ten stories high. To limit traffic congestion city planners expand the roadways, add tollways and access roads. The scale increases to adapt to the use. People drive everywhere, because it is how the city works, and vice versa. Of course, this isn’t just Texas, this is a wider thing throughout the country. I need to be reminded that Chicago, New York, Boston, and a few other cities are the exception to the driving rule.

Driving culture also encourages having your own private house and yard. Outdoor space is more often private than public. Whereas in Chicago we have a balcony garden and might go to the lakeshore park for a picnic; Texans (and most Americans) might have a barbecue on their back porch, swim in their in-ground-pool or spend an afternoon mowing their own lawn. And it is fantastic to have that space.

wpid-wp-1434918744241.jpgWhile sitting in my Aunt’s backyard in San Antonio, we talked about what we would do with a garden that size, how it would be to maintain, what vegetables we’d grow, whether we’d have a dog. But we also talked about how our lifestyle just wouldn’t work with that kind of space. Having a house in the suburbs, or in urban sprawl, requires lifestyle adjustment: driving everywhere and giving up the multipurposeness of urban neighborhoods. In our apartment we can have a 6×3 foot balcony garden (1×2 meters) and enjoy growing most of what we want, while still having the benefits of public transit and active, accessible neighborhoods. I’d rather be able to walk down the street to choices of cafes or a brewery or grocery stores or book stores, than have a massive yard and have to drive to those things.

This doesn’t mean I won’t one day live in a house with an orchard, but it does indicate to me how much difference there is within one country, and how adjusting to a different environment might be a challenge. America has so many different cultural units, and even Chicago alone has many different cultural enclaves, that it is impossible to understand it as a single unit. I grew up in Texas, and my family only ever lived in places where we needed cars. It seems odd that I should forget what that’s like in many ways, but now driving culture surprises me and seems vaguely foreign.

For the past 8 years I’ve lived in relatively urban areas, and relied on public transit rather than cars. I imagine that if I’d moved somewhere less urban and more car focused when I repatriated, I would have had a much harsher culture shock than I felt in Chicago. It seems that whether you’re in a city or suburb or rural area matters more to lifestyle than what country you’re in.

American Skies

Blue sky gradientThe sky is bigger and bluer in America. It’s true. Even though I’m in a city filled with high rises and skyscrapers, the sky is obviously clearer and larger [than Hong Kong specifically, and other places generally]. This may seem like just an aesthetic quality, but let me assure you it is not. There are two unexpected implications of this clear, blue sky: sun damage and pollution.

There are two reasons for the bigness and particular blueness of the sky: the geography of the mid-west in the states (flat) and the different air quality. In Hong Kong the sky was often greyish with smog and also covered by buildings, mountains and trees. looking over Victoria Harbor

This meant that running in Hong Kong, though doable with a variety of trails and parks, was also often hurting your lungs. I would check the AQI for my neighborhood, and if it was over 100 (in the Orange range of “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups) I wouldn’t go out jogging. Even when it was nice out, I would often feel tired and short of breath quickly. On the occasions when I was back in the States, if I went for a run, I would feel amazing and be able to go miles further without noticing any tiredness. Running in HK felt like mild asthma. Some friends’ asthma worsened because of the pollution, and when they left the country for a place with better air quality, their symptoms mostly disappeared, and they no longer required regular inhalers. Simply put, pollution is bad for you.

Living in Chicago, I no longer check the pollution before leaving my bed. I check the temperature, because that is incredibly unpredictable (variations of 40°F day to day), but I don’t check the air quality. I get up, I go for a run, and my lungs feel good according to my cardio vascular health rather than according to whether there is a public holiday in China.

There is one downside to this new sky, however.

I went running in a tank top in May, and when I returned my shoulders were red. 30 minutes in the sun in Chicago will actually cause sun damage. In HK, I would wear sunscreen if I was going to be out for hours hiking or boating or lounging at the beach, but I wouldn’t really worry about it on a run, because I never had a problem. The layer of haze, counter intuitively perhaps, actually seemed to offer some protection from severe sun damage. Now, there is no such layer. If I intend to be outside, I have to sunscreen up.

When you’re used to one climate and transplant to a new one, no matter how much you’re prepared it will surprise you. I’ve moved from polluted tropics with typhoons, to a clear aired seasonal city with tornados and blizzards. The major climate changes, like the bitter, bitter cold, people will tell you about. But small habits also take some awareness to change. Sun set

Going to the Cinema

Things have changed in movie theaters. I learned this two weeks ago, and up to that point I hadn’t been to a film in America in over 3 years. I only realized this gap in my experience when it occurred to me that I wanted to see Avengers: Age of Ultron, and didn’t know how I should buy tickets. I had a brief moment of anxiety in my ignorance, but was quickly helped by another exexpat friend who suggested we buy them in advance. The rest would be discovered shortly.

In the States, I had never bought tickets in advance of seeing a film. In America of four years ago, I would usually drive to a theater buy tickets for the film 2 minutes before the start time (or 2 minutes after start time, avoiding some commercials). In Turkey and in Hong Kong though, it was more common to book your tickets in advance so you could pick the best seat. Only rarely would we buy tickets just before the show. If you waited, you ran the risk of being forced to sit in the front row or break up your group into smaller parties, scattered throughout the auditorium.

Now, wanting to see a film with some friends, I wondered if things had changed. Did America now have assigned seating? Would a theater be sufficiently crowded to justify advanced purchase? Could I bring alcoholic beverages to a showing? Would 2D still be an option? It turns out the answers are: yes, yes, you can buy beer in some theaters and yes. At least in the fancy shmancy theater I went to. But there was still more to discover.

We bought our tickets at the theater’s website, and were able to download a mobile ticket without the need to check in at the theater. We were running late, so not needing to print anything out or wait in line was quite helpful. We rushed in just as some raptors were rampaging across the screen for the new Jurassic Park trailer. Then there were 3 more trailers.

To generalize every non-America country I’ve seen films in the cinema: you buy in advance, show up on time, see a couple ads and one preview and the film begins close to the start time. I’ve even been to a theater that had no ads and no previews, starting within 30 seconds of the listing. In America, however, there are probably 15 minutes of previews. You can be late without fear of missing any of the opening credits and any easter eggs therein. I knew this, of course, from my previous experiences, but it was still a little surprising.

This was not the only novelty: the seats were amazing. We discovered that we had about 6 feet of leg room, individually separated armrests, a small retractable table for popcorn and snacks, and individually electronically adjustable footrests on the reclining leather lounge chairs. This was entirely unexpected. Gone are the days where you have to make everyone in your row stand up to let you into the middle section, thanks to the extra 4 feet of walking space between seats. No longer do you have to jostle for the armrest with a stranger sitting next to you. No more balancing popcorn bags on your leg and wanting to put it somewhere so you could relax and watch the film. Your legs will never fall asleep in a film again if you don’t want them to. You only have to push a button to adjust the reclining angle and the height of your feet.

There are such seats in some theaters in HK, I believe, but the tickets are more expensive and harder to get. This was just default in our local theater for a 2D blockbuster flick. I doubt these upgrades have been made at every cinema in the area, but this will encourage me to go back, answering the question of how cinemas can reach more customers. Just make it high-tech and more comfortable than your sofa at home.

In conclusion, things are not so different in the States when it comes to the experience of the cinema. There is nothing to be afraid of. But we also learned from some confused looks that referring to the venue as “the cinema” will probably not be understood in American dialects. If you are inclined to other English dialects, best translate the British expression to “movie theater” for the locals.

Coming home is a new country

I have a problem. I don’t know this city very well. I have been living here for over 8 months and I cannot identify many neighborhoods on a map, including neighborhoods where I have been. I haven’t found the perfect burger or steak; I haven’t gone to all the pizza places (only 2 or 3); I don’t have a favorite café; I haven’t been to Chinatown; I couldn’t find a great place to dance in River North without help; I only have one running route with two variations (north or south); I have yet to locate a butcher; I don’t know hidden, hole in the wall, tea shops that serve amazing deserts halfway up a hidden staircase; I don’t take my laundry to the same family run Laundromat every week and have cheerful, stilted conversations with the owner; I don’t have a go-to rooftop bar for warm nights and great views; I don’t have a favorite store for clothing. In short: I have not explored effectively.

Moving to America has allowed me to become lazy about exploration. I have amazon–with free two-day delivery–to bring me anything from books to plants to shoes. I don’t need a specialty store for my staple groceries. My apartment is so big that I don’t feel claustrophobic staying inside all day. I can walk to a hardware store, a liquor store, a brunch place, a brewery, many, many cafes and bars, and I know that when I get to these places I will be able to ask for help in finding something I need. I don’t have to rely on word of mouth from other travelers to help me find the hidden gems, good food to order, best views. I can do it myself. It’s too easy, so what is the point? What is the challenge? Things are at my fingertips on the internet, so why would I go outside? Therefore, I do not.

This is not entirely true.

I do know a few good thrift stores. I have been to multiple Cubs games. I have a preferred Asian foods market for noodles, oils and eggplants (more tasty than the inflated American variety). I have gone to a board game bar multiple times. I know where to get good donuts. I have many cobblers to choose from. I can take visitors to amazing restaurants, which I have tried before. I can tell you whether a neighborhood (some of them anyway) is a good place to live. I have a mental list of places I have been meaning to try. I have been to a few fantastic dive bars. I go to a local pub for live blues.

Photo curtesy of Alan Olson

Photo at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted curtesy of Alan Olson 

Yet I feel like I do not know this city. I know about it, I know how to get by in it, but I am not integrated.

Is this just a normal thing to feel at 8 months into living in a place? Probably. But I can’t help feeling I haven’t been aggressive enough about my acculturation.

When you are living in a foreign country, there seems to be more urgency. You have to learn the crevices of a place quickly to survive, to find your people, your things. It is a huge victory to get an order right at a restaurant, to complete a casual interaction at a check out counter without misunderstandings, to mail a post card to a friend across the globe. But now, these things are quotidian. Of course I can order my curry with extra spice or reject pickles on my burger. Of course I can fax something to a bureaucratic institution without the help of a coworker. Of course I can mail a box to a friend. I speak the language, I know how it’s done.

The lack of challenge and urgency takes away some of the seduction of exploration.

Every time I go out in a country where I don’t speak the language, it feels like an adventure. Either I will have to overcome a new challenge, or the lack of challenge is because of a past victory in navigating an unfamiliar system. When I go out in Chicago, I am not conquering new ground. I am merely going somewhere else, doing something else. Furthermore, knowing the ins and outs of a city is not an accomplishment here. If you’re new in town, not knowing is simply a weakness you’ll have to overcome. If you’re local, of course you know everything, you’ve lived here all your life. It’s natural.

Knowing the places to go—the place that has the best whisky sour for less than any of the snobbier bars, the good noodle place for fast spicy food, the best place for a classic burger or steak—is an accomplishment when you’re an expat. It’s a mark of skill, of worldliness. It shows you’ve been in the place long enough to have some respect from the old hats.

When you’re an expat, knowing the places to go is an accomplishment, but it is also more doable. You can read guidebooks, try things out, and you easily become an expert. In your home country, however, you will never be the authority. Your community is no longer mostly other foreigners, instead it is the entire city who has lived here forever and will always know the city better than you.

Thus I feel it is essential to shift one’s attitude. When you move to your home country, don’t stop being an expat. Living in Chicago is still a new country, and I need to get to know it and explore. Though I do speak the language, and I have an Illinois ID and a Chicago phone number, I am not a local and I am not from here. I will continue be an outsider whether I’m here for 10 years of just 3.

Every part of the country is different. Living in America can be full of exploration, and getting to know your city is the first part. I don’t need to compare myself to friends who are locals, I don’t need to compare myself at all. I just need to enjoy the project of exploring the town.

This train of thought is just in time for the weather warming up (coincidence? definitely not) and thus I shall enact it immediately. Summers in Chicago are legendary with free film screenings in the park and food, beer and music festivals, and I plan to enjoy it, and maybe I’ll even find a butcher and some quality dim sum.



Every day I’ve had Turkish class for the past two weeks, a Good Humor ice cream truck has been playing ditties on the adjacent street. This ice cream truck is not targeting children or high school students, but University of Chicago students. One classmate finds them creepy, one friend was surprised they were real, having only seen them in films. But these university students are clearly buying ice cream.

When I was a kid in Texas, we would run to our moms for money and race after the ice cream truck if we heard one. We were excited for the unusual appearance of traveling treats. Our summer was a combination of playing games of tag, cops and robbers, capture the flag, and explorers in the neighborhood and finding ways to stay cool. We would play in lawn sprinklers, try to eat ice pops fresh from a freezer before they melted entirely, take water breaks at our houses’ garden hoses, run inside for lemonade before running back out to play tackle-the-dude-with-the-ball or bike to the pool. The ice cream truck epitomizes the summer project of staying cool while running in games.

It also reminds me of track practices in the spring in high school when every couple of weeks a truck would appear after our workouts. We would buy Drumsticks and munch as we waited for our rides home, or rode in each others’ cars. Even then the ice cream truck had a touch of nostalgia. It wasn’t for us, it was for elementary school kids, and we bought the ice cream because it was novel, and like our childhoods.

In Hong Kong this trampoline park opened just as I was moving away, with kid specific hours, and 15+ specific hours. A friend of mine held a party there, jumping in yoga pants and tutus. Doing gymnastics as a kid was a feeling of power and invincibility that is nearly impossible to recapture as an adult. I saw my brother climbing a tree a few years ago, and my first reaction was worry that he would fall. Can one regain this invincibility and power of childhood in a trampoline park? Perhaps.

Missing the feelings of past eras and places drives us, and though currently I am not missing my childhood, I am missing some foods. I miss the restaurant on the corner of my block in HK where I could get dan dan mien for the equivalent of 2$; I miss the Italian restaurant with a 3 course set meal including wine for 20$; I miss dim sum at Tim Ho Wan; I miss easily found raw beef phở; I miss Turkish breakfast and good mantı. When this happens I go find the food as much as possible. More often than not, it is slightly disappointing. I’ll go to a Chinese restaurant only to find that the kung pao chicken isn’t quite as smothered with dried chilis and there isn’t a bone to be found. I’ll order phở, and the broth is bland, and the beef is tough and pre-cooked, and they don’t add fresh basil or chilis. Drinks, however, tend to be reliable. Vietnamese Coffee at Noodle Co.

Sour yogurt drink you probably won't likeWhen I live anywhere, I miss the things of everywhere else. If I’m homesick for America, I’ll go to Starbucks and order a chai latte or go home and make a big pot of Texas Chili. If I miss Hong Kong food, I’ll cook up a spicy stir fry, or go to a thai restaurant and order vietnamese coffee (even though it might be more accurate if I could find milk tea). If I miss Turkey, I find a kepapçi or a restaurant. Though I haven’t yet had mantı or pide or poğaça outside of Turkey, one can always find kepap, tea, coffee and often ayran.

Global markets and realities of diaspora mean that you can always find a product you’re looking for. You can order it online, go to specialized shops, and in extreme situations make your own or find friends with embassy connections. In these ways one can find Chinese eggplants and Vietnamese fish sauce in America, Oreos and bacon in Turkey, pork sausage and British ale in Egypt, Pop Tarts and Dr Pepper in Hong Kong.

There are also global chains that ensure the same tastes anywhere in the world: Starbucks and McDonalds. If you want a latte, Starbucks will always taste the same, guaranteed. Even though I rarely go to Starbucks in the states, it has come to be a comfort drink for me. If I want something familiar, I will go to Starbucks. These nostalgic products are not necessarily aimed at my feelings of nostalgia, and yet this is why I buy them, as is the case with many immigrants and third culture kids.

The real aim of all of these things, whether intended by the seller (ice cream trucks, trampoline park) or not is to recreate the atmosphere. This of course is not possible. I can’t go have dim sum with 8 friends in Hong Kong, because I am not there. I can’t go have unlimited brunch kahvaltı in Bahceli with my colleagues because I am not there. It is also because many of my friends and companions also moved. Some stay, some go.

People who move often in their adult life, people who are expats, tend to become friends with like minded people. My friend groups for the past few years mostly consist of people who have lived all over the world and debate between moving to Beijing or Paris (real life situation). They move where the job is, and a pre-requisite for that place is that it be interesting, that it allow them to experience new things. If you live in a place for a few years, you will have a core group of friends, and some of them will cycle in and out as they relocate, travel and change careers. Consequently, my closest friends move all the time. Even when I visit a place, it is likely that many of the people I associate with that place will be somewhere else. We all constantly seek new experiences, and often miss the old ones.

Nostalgia makes me purchase things–mostly food stuffs–because I want to remember more tangibly the feeling of being with these people and enjoying our lives. Buying ice cream from a truck reminds me of running down the street in a desperate attempt to catch the ice cream truck quickly disappearing around the corner. Going to a trampoline park makes you relive the excitement of risky play as a kid. Drinking beverages and eating foods from places I have lived creates the smells and tastes of those places, bringing me back to a birthday in a cafe, to a hung over brunch of dim sum, to a noisy street meal with good friends.

This nostalgia is, in fact, a luxury. I love leaving places and getting to know new ones. I love traveling 4 hours to see a friend because they’re in the same country for a weekend. When things are always changing, it makes the things that stay the same more valuable: talking with a friend you haven’t seen in three years, visiting a place you used to live, running into an old acquaintance in an entirely different country. The new things–making new friends in new places, finding new favorite restaurants, learning how to navigate the live music scene, getting introduced to a friend of a friend of a friend and making a lifelong connection–are somehow more exciting knowing your old friendships remain in spite of international borders and knowing that your past experiences were just as thrilling.

The new experiences are also less scary knowing you can always make chili that tastes of jalapeños and buy a chai latte that tastes of Starbucks.

Ex-expat thoughts on race: it’s my problem now

Part 1: race abroad

As an expat, the problems of your nationality country are distant, and the problems of your resident country are not your fault. I saw things from afar; news in America was distant and even foreign. When I moved back to the states, one thing I knew would change is that I would no longer be a minority. I would also be a part of the community, and its problems would become more my responsibility.

I am a tall, thin, white woman. In America, I have a lot of societal norms on my side. When I am in non-ethnically-European countries, be it Turkey, Egypt or Hong Kong people assume I do not speak the language; I look different; I don’t belong; I am not in the conversation.

Race is treated strangely everywhere, and framed differently in other contexts. A worryingly consistent trend in the places I have lived is that the lighter your skin, the better. To illustrate commercially: I have seen whitening creams sold in pharmacies in both Hong Kong and Turkey; I probably made more money in Hong Kong because I looked foreign. Parents specifically request white tutors: one of my friends didn’t get a job because she “didn’t look American enough”, meaning, because she was half Asian. In Egypt the paler ethnically Egyptian was preferred over the darker Sudanese citizen, assumed to be an immigrant or refugee. Minority groups always face some difficulties, whether their skin color, religion, gender etc. But race is the easiest to determine.

In Hong Kong, stereotypes, sometimes damaging, were along national boundaries: British “failed in London tried Hong Kong”, Aussies are fun, Filipinos are helpers, Mainlanders are gaudy, Japanese are polite, Americans are obnoxious. Racial lines, which tend to melt with money, still follow a hierarchy: paleness is preferred over darkness. If you go to a job interview and there are 4 qualified applicants the rank might be thus, depending on the language fluency requirements: White, Chinese, Indian, Black. This is unfair, obviously, and yet it happens and is often acknowledged and verbalized.

Compared to the States, other nations can be more overt about their racism. In the places I have lived, this is partly because of the overwhelming ethnic homogeneity. In Turkey, diversity comes from mostly Kurds or foreigners, and in Hong Kong it is all from foreigners. I would often be the only white person, or with the only other foreigners, on the bus or train or restaurant. 93% of people who live in Hong Kong are Chinese and 75% of people who live in Turkey are Turks. Nations often define themselves along ethnic lines. Then, when they talk about race, it is often entwined with conversation about immigration. Consequently governments often do nothing about racial discrimination, other than change an immigration policy in favor of xenophobia.

In Hong Kong, this is most salient in the immigration status of domestic helpers: Filipino and Indonesian maids come to Hong Kong to work for a pittance, live in tiny rooms with their employers, get one government mandated day off per week, and go home once a year to see their families. They are legal residents, but they are not treated the same as other legal residents according to immigration law because Domestic workers are not eligible for permanent residency. There are routine cases of abuse, verbal and physical, and little recourse for many of these vulnerable women. They provide an invaluable service to many families, enabling full time day care so both parents can work, but these women are often just seen as a luxury good.

Yet, this was not my problem. I couldn’t vote, I had no place to petition the government. what could I do about it? I talked about it with students, encouraging diverse viewpoints. I talked about it with friends, but I also got annoyed at crowds on Sundays, most helpers’ day off, and hired a maid myself for 2 hours a week. Other expats who cared responded by treating their helpers well, but not much else. I was living there, but I was not responsible for the way society functioned. What could I do in the face of systematic social problems, in a place I was not a citizen, or even a permanent resident? All I could hope to do is share information.

Part 2: coming home

When I moved to the States again, became a resident of the place wherein I voted, these things would become my problems. Compared to my life in Hong Kong and Turkey, I knew that the US would be dramatically different when it came to race. American airports are noticeably diverse compared to the rest of the world. In other countries diversity tends to come from immigration, and America is a land of immigrants.

So when I moved to Chicago there was significantly more diversity, and yet Chicago is an incredibly segregated place. I ride the red line in Chicago with frequency, which travels from the far south side to the far north side of Chicago. There is a line at Lake where the train car goes from being 80% black passengers south of Lake to 80% non-black passengers north of Lake. This is, of course, a non-scientific observation. Historically, the south side of Chicago was the place where black families settled upon leaving the south, and where abusive mortgages prevented sustainable homeownership, creating lasting community damage. How could I be majority in one part of town and a minority in another? I was used to being the minority everywhere I went, actually visibly different. I was excited to be in a place with diversity, but found myself in a place that was instead an inconsistent spectrum. This segregation also leads to inherent inequality.

There are so many ways that racial minorities, especially black Americans, are kept out of success. In school black students are more likely to be suspended, prisons are overpopulated with mostly black men who receive longer sentences, years of discriminating housing policies, whether redlining or blockbusting, prevent homeownership and stable communities. Structural problems, hold-overs and legacies from centuries of enforced discrimination and oppression, keep minorities out of the higher echelons of economic and social success.

In addition to these structural problems, I think one of the important themes in minority relations is exceptionalism and representation. If you are a minority, you suddenly represent all people of that minority. This is, I think, well represented in the context of women in math by this comic. Further, if you excel in an area in which you are supposed to fail according to racial, gender, and cultural stereotypes, you are the exception. Stereotype threat exacerbates this; if you are reminded of your race, gender, stereotypes, you are more likely to adhere to them. Being told you are supposed to fail or to succeed, to be a criminal or a lawyer is an active factor in making you fail or succeed. Expectations help determine outcomes.

Thus stereotypes are perpetrated, in many ways, increasingly damaging wider society. While we were discussing a novel, a professor referenced Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil,” who said, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” Racism in our society is thus. Most people are not maliciously racist, (though there are malicious racists), but rather choose not to engage. They ignore it, sometimes claiming we’re in a “post racial society.” People justify their choices by using other words, “he’s aggressive,” or “she’s less competent”. It is difficult to overcome people’s subconscious biases, especially when they won’t admit these biases to themselves.

But the problems aren’t even just in individual choices. When you are surrounded by poverty because of entrenched social policy, it is nearly impossible to escape. Without many resources of time, money, community stability, powerful family connections, etc, it is difficult to get beyond one’s lot at birth. There is so much talk of the American Dream, but often it is just talk. Because economic success relies on these things, and we have no viable social safety net, social stratification is calcified.

The US is supposed to be the “land of the free” and the “land of opportunity”; one is supposed to pull oneself up by ones bootstraps. Yet the victories for equality that came out of the 20th century did not in fact fix all the problems, or come close to “leveling the playing field”. The assumption that they did prevents us from addressing the current problems. Americans try to keep our race problems hushed and covered. But it is not working.

The United States does not define American-ness on racial lines, or at least it should not. When we talk about race, we aren’t just talking about immigration, as other countries may be, but we are also talking about Americans whose families have been here for generations. US society is supposed to be open to all people, all races and immigrants included. At least, this is what I was taught in my American schooling, but it is clearly not the case.

The protests and riots in Baltimore and Ferguson happen because of the systematic problem with race in our country. A system that targets a group of people makes them vulnerable continuously. Some individuals are mourning their friends and families. Some individuals are worried about their own safety. Some are begging for change, some demanding it. Some are raging mad. These are responses to trauma. Non-violence in response to trauma, in response to violence against your community, is hard. Especially when society is attacking you every day. Attacking you by keeping you out of good schools, by keeping you in substandard housing, by putting you in prison, by ultimately causing the deaths your friends.

The outcries in response to deaths while in police custody, or during arrests, mostly shows that there is a problem in our society that needs to be remedied. In many ways the rioting has shown the desperation of the problem. If someone condemns a protest against police brutality because of violent outbursts, they should immediately also condemn police brutality. As my college roommates posted on Facebook the other day,

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.” Martin Luther King, Jr., 14 March 1968 

Part 3: Can we act?

Now this is my problem.

I live here, it is my problem, so why aren’t I doing more? This affects my community, and it affects me. I write about it, I talk to friends and family about it, I occasionally write an email to a senator, I donate a little money here and there. But that is it. This is more than some people and less than others. The protests have been largely homogenous, and what results have there been? Even though I vote here, I participate in the conversation here, I don’t feel like I can actually do anything to change it. I also have other things going on. I get busy, and I don’t prioritize social change. I don’t prioritize figuring out how to help. When I do try to figure out how to participate the advice I get ends up looking like this:

  1. Learn about the problem
  2. Donate money to reputable organizations
  3. Write your representative or local government
  4. Record police interactions (or know how)

This still doesn’t feel like participating. I can learn, I can donate, I can write, but I am still sitting on my sofa. I don’t see any change because there isn’t any change. Even though it is my problem I am now faced with the monolith of bureaucratic government, and the tyranny of the lazy majority.

I spoke with some friends the other day about protests in Chicago. How many of them ended up being protests for 8 different causes—placards with disparate slogans, many groups attempting to unite as one—rather than one clear message. And protests are easily ignored.

Even though I am here, even though I consider this my problem, I don’t feel effective. In Hong Kong, I could talk about it, here I can talk about it and talk to my government and vote. How can all of the people who care about this make a difference? Is all we can do tell our representatives, and hope they take our advice? When there are state governments actively increasing discriminatory policies, like voter ID laws, it feels like my voice will just be ignored. Do I need a pro-equality lobbying group? Should I focus on my own immediate surroundings, live in neighborhoods where I am a minority, volunteer my time to tutor at-risk-youth?

Ultimately, whether you live in a place where you are a citizen, or whether you are an immigrant, there seems to be the same level of helplessness. This helplessness is felt more by the oppressed than by the majorities. There is a crisis in our country, and we need to implement education and reform. Can we do this by changing minds, one at a time, a Sisyphusian task, or by top down governmental action, with strict enforcement? The thing that is certain is that we must take positive actions, no matter how futile they seem.

As the president said last week, “America needs to do some soul searching.” Are we a nation where inequality is perpetuated generation to generation? Or are we a land of opportunity, open to all? We should strive for the latter, whether or not it feels like Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill.

Beer: brewing and drinking

In Hong Kong I had an American craft beer subscription that brought two six packs of miscellaneous American imports, mostly from the west coast or Hawaii, to my door once a month.  This saved me from the monotony of cases of Carlsberg or PBR or Tsing Tao at the grocery store, and was less expensive than buying the fancy imported beer at the high end grocers. Many pubs around town had great imported bottles from all over the world, but they were always more expensive. There had been a brewpub, but it stopped brewing before I moved to the country. This was still an improvement over drinking in Turkey which was mostly Efes. All the beer I drank was imported, whether from China, Thailand, England or America.

Then I bought home-brewing supplies for my then boyfriend for Christmas. We began to brew occasional 1 gallon batches. The local brew shop, one of two in HK, delivered both materials and pre-measured recipes for our brewing and drinking pleasure. A whole new world of enjoyment opened up.

DSC04227It was messy, it was smelly, it took up square footage, but it was great. We shipped our supplies to follow us when we moved to Chicago, rather than buy a new set (which, let’s face it, would have probably been cheaper), and recently found a place to furnish out ingredients. It was not difficult. We go to Brew Camp for our brewing needs now and mix our own blend of wheats.

However, it took us a while to get started in our brewing here. Chiefly because there are so many other ways to get good, fresh beer. Unlike Hong Kong, there are microbreweries and not-so-microbreweries all over the city: Goose Island, Dry Hop, Arcade Brewing, Half Acre, Revolution, to name a few. We have local beer anytime we want it, and an incredibly easily accessible retail market. Binny’s even has beer from Mr Waters’ hometown in England.

wpid-wp-1429990208273.jpgAmerican beer culture is so saturated that there is no struggle to find good beer. Some people may stick to their Bud Light, but it is so easy to find good, flavorful ale. Obviously this is not a new trend, great local breweries are everywhere, and they are growing.

So what is the benefit to brewing beer at home?

  1. It’s fun and your house smells of beer. There is nothing like boiling wheat on your stove for an hour, and getting to know the mechanisms that make your beer taste like beer. As a bonus to the learning the smell is glorious.
  2. You get to personalize your flavors and carbonation. I love under-carbonated beer and cask ales that you find more often in the UK. Americans in general prefer their beer bubbly. Who knows why. When I’m making it myself, I get to use just a little sugar to carbonate to give it the pressurization but not so much that all you taste is fizz. You also can control the malt, the hoppiness, the added flavors–I personally love adding a hint of grapefruit. Whatever kind of beer you like, you can tailor it to your own tastes, and you may learn why you like it.
  3. Fresh beer is better.
  4. Recycling. You use the same bottles over and over, you can reuse the spent grains in homemade breads, and thus everything in your home benefits from the process. You don’t have to go buy more beer, you create less waste, and your food tastes better.

I am enjoying the richness of American beer drinking culture, and the enthusiasm evident in the proliferation of breweries. It is so great to be in a place that really enjoys its beer. This is one aspect of reverse culture shock that was really just quite nice.


It is finally over. There are flowers out; our balcony garden is sprouting; I can go running in shorts and a t-shirt. The thaw started in earnest in March, but April has started to get genuinely warm. Plants, no longer terrified of the sudden surprise cold snap that could destroy their spring buds, have begun to flower and leaf. wpid-wp-1429371739899.jpg

I didn’t realize how stressed the cold made me until it went away. In January and February leaving the house required donning armor and the train was full of people twice their normal size, surrounded by bulky wool and down. The process of getting dressed was long: warm sheath underlayer, thick second layer of trousers and sweaters, a warm scarf, hat, gloves, thick coat. Then outside your face may still be cold, the wind may catch you off guard, the bus may take 15 minutes to arrive leaving you in 10°F for an unplanned duration. Shoulders high, head down, you trudge through the snow and wind to the next meeting or errand, counting down until you can be indoors and remove the hat and gloves and coat. At home at the end of the day, removing all these layers in the warm apartment is another project, ensuring that you will not leave the house again that day.

Now that it is warm again, leaving the house just requires keys. You get off the couch, put on your shoes and step out the door. No armor required. The cool lake breeze can be cutting, but the temperature in your house and outside the house is almost the same, so your light jacket, hoodie, or cardigan is enough. Now the restaurants, cafes, and pubs are putting out their patio furniture, announcing the outdoor spaces to encourage more guests. The joggers and bikers and roller bladers are crowding the lakeshore trail on Saturdays and Sundays, and even in the mornings before rush hour. The train isn’t quite as crowded; people’s shoulders aren’t quite as broad.

After living in a city in perpetual summer, this experience was unexpectedly harsh. I had done winter before, living in Boston for 4 years and spending 6 years in the North East before that. But one’s body forgets what it’s like to be cold.

In Hong Kong the weather, being warm at all times, is somehow more pervasive. Everyone gains a hobby of meteorology. You watch the pressure systems and typhoon tracks, predicting when the rain will come, whether you will get a morning off in a T8, observing the 2 degree difference throughout the day, checking the pollution levels before going out of the house. You know the patterns: on holiday weeks or when the wind blows from the south there is less pollution from China, in the winter everyone will wear winter coats when it is 10°C (or really anything under 18°C), typhoons will destructively harass Taiwan and the Philippines but leave HK untouched. You watch the weather apps for weather warnings: black rain or T8 keeps everyone home. When the weather goes wrong you don’t leave the building: it changes suddenly and could be dangerous.

In Chicago you look at the weather to see how many layers you need to wear. But otherwise it doesn’t matter. Life continues. Whether there is a blizzard dropping 18 inches or a sunny day at 90°F, people behave exactly the same, except in the summer day one may eat outside or be more likely to exercise. The weather is an observation, but doesn’t actually affect how one goes about the day. You brace yourself, you change your clothes, and you go. You comment on it to your acquaintances. The only difference is whether you enjoy being outside.

Now it’s spring and Chicago is exactly the same, except more fun.