Monthly Archives: June 2010

On blogging

I absolutely loved this post on blogging and sponsorship, and I thought it would provide me with a good opportunity to make a related point. Different bloggers have different aims, that I know. But here’s mine. This is supposed to be fun. This is not my job. I sometimes write things late at night and I sometimes write things after I’ve had a glass or two of wine or even just when I’m not concentrating because it’s the weekend and I’m lazing around on a Saturday afternoon in my pajamas. I sometimes mis-spell words and use incorrect grammar because it’s all a bit stream of consciousness. Because it’s for fun. Not my job. I have to write a lot in my job, and I have to proofread and grammar check and spell check and ensure that the sentences are all interesting and that I haven’t used the same word three times in the same line. But I don’t do that here. I tend not to go back and edit even when I do see things that, on re-reading a post the next day, make me roll my eyes at myself. But that’s okay to me, because this is for fun. Not my job. Just my creative outlet, a place to vent a bit, and more importantly of late, a place to interact with other human beings, many of whom have also moved from one country to another.

And I don’t want this to be like a job. I don’t want to have a “blog brand” or to worry about search engine optimization or any of the other things that seem to come up at the “blog conferences” or in blog books. Yes, it makes me happy when people do read what I wrote. Yes, I smiled when the site stats counter passed 100,000 visits in the time it’s existed. Of course I love it when there are comments but if there aren’t, that’s okay too. Because I do this for me. For fun. Not work.

And because of that, I don’t do things that are commercial here. I certainly don’t talk about my real work. I don’t have advertisers or sponsors or anything like that. I don’t solicit free things and then review them here. Those sorts of things, to me, all make it feel like a blog is work. That it’s something other than a person just being themselves, just using a public forum to write about something from their own point of view. Further, this is creative writing. This is not CNN.com. I reserve the right to embellish, to use creative writing devices to tell a story. If you don’t like that, I’d suggest that this is not the blog for you. As I have said before, after years of letting all comments through, no matter what they said, I decided earlier this year that I only let comments through if they are not mean. And I’m okay with that policy and I feel like this makes my blog a good read compared to the days when there were rather vicious exchanges in the comments. But if you’re not, if you want to see me getting beaten up over my little musings, then again–this is not the blog for you.

In addition, I’m not using this blog as a way to advertise my services. I am already a writer in that I write (technical things, mostly) for my job. I know many bloggers who are writers or who want to be writers, and that’s fine with me, but that’s not why this blog exists. If I was trying to launch a writing career from this platform, I would probably be more careful about my grammar and edit my ramblings! But that’s not why I’m here. You’ll not see me participating in blog memes that are associated with creative writing prompts. I know some people do that, and that’s fine for them, but that’s not me. This is purely, 100%, my own little documented (if occasionally ever-so-slightly embellished) story of my life as an American in England, including my travels, my musings, my feelings, my reactions to things I see in the real world or on the web. I write when I have something to say, which can mean twice in a day or no times in two weeks.

I may or may not take the time to put this little “badge” on the sidebar or I might just leave it here in this post, but I do quite like it. It spells out my thoughts and my intentions in a pretty straightforward manner. And now, I must get back to work. Writing, of course.

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On language (again)

I found this article in Newsweek, about the emergence of a language called “Globish” (a simplified English) to be very interesting. It came in a strange couple of weeks where there were some calls (in an admittedly politically-one-way-and-not-the-other newspaper–see how far I’ve come, I know now the way to read the British press) against the “Americanization” (Americanisation?) of “The Queen’s English” here in Britain, stories here and here.

I found myself (as I often do, thank goodness) at a dinner party tonight with an American couple here temporarily, along with myself here nearly 4 years (already?) and a colleague from Northern Ireland. (NB This was after having spent the hours of the US-England Soccer/Football match Saturday night with a group of mixed couples plus me, all of whom had lived in both places but where the men happened to be British and the women happened to be Americans living in the UK. It was great fun as no one could divide their loyalties perfectly and we were all just interested in the match, and probably we were all happy with the 1-1 draw.) But I digress. The American couple new to, and temporarily in, the UK had plenty of questions for me, the long-term transplant, and my colleague, the native (UK but not English) son. It was a fascinating evening.

My American colleagues were not yet used to the diversity of accents that exist in the UK and beyond, and for this I recommend listening to the audio clips of English spoken (with the same paragraph) at the Speech Language Archive. Having lived abroad for a number of years, I can now pick out countries–roughly–but am still not able to discern the regional accents within the UK (aside from Glaswegian, which I still find difficult but distinctive). When I listen to the audio clips on the archive, I’m comforted by the Minneapolis sound, expectant at what I’d hear in Brooklyn or Boston and I know the South a bit when it comes to the US. I still find the Irish accent easier to understand than anything traditionally ‘British’ and I’m sure there are historical reasons for this in the US.

But my point, and I do have one, is that the English language is fluid. English may be named for England, but it is a language that has emerged in the global marketplace as something that we can all speak with each other. Trying to protect the ‘Queen’s English‘ is a mistake, as is trying to guard against ‘Americanisms’ in the language since the point of ALL language is communication. If this means that we all settle on the lowest common denominator and speak some form of ‘Glob-ish’ I’m all for that. Although I work hard to instill in my younger charges a sense of grammar and punctuation that fits with the old rules, I am happy to concede to a language that allows for the most broad and encompassing of communication skills and I hope that we can all do the same.

I don’t wish to see languages die, and I know that that is a problem in the global language marketplace. But having lived abroad, and having learned new words and new expressions even within my own language (two countries separated by a common language and all of that), I wonder if the best only comes about when we all can communicate with each other and perhaps that involves some simplification. I’d be happy to know that my straight-forward American-ish comments were received in the spirit in which they were offered, free of the nuance that comes with language in it’s mature form. I make mistakes all of the time in this context–I offend the English unintentionally due to my manner of speaking. For this reason, I welcome a back-to-basics “Globish” form of communication, should it actually exist, if it meant that we just used a small vocabulary to express simple concepts across country lines. There may be reasons to salvage more nuanced versions of a language for communication within groups, but how nice would it be to see the less nuanced language flourish for the benefit of the global economy?

Scenes from China, part 5

One of the more interesting aspects of being in China for nearly two weeks was in being completely shut out from most conversation. Very few people spoke any English at all. And why should they? I was visiting their country. It was my problem to not speak their language. Thank goodness for my sister’s Chinese fluency, I don’t know how anyone could travel in China without having a fluent guide. For this reason, there were tour groups (both international and domestic tourists) in matching hats everywhere, often affiliated with cruise ships. If you ask me for my own unique definition of hell, it would involve matching hats, organized tour groups on tight schedules, being ferried on and off coach buses, and cruise ships. Not my style at all. So kudos to my ever-patient sister for being an awesome guide and translator and allowing me to see China without having to take part in my own greatest nightmare. Don’t get me wrong, if your only choices are “see China in a tour group” or “don’t see China” I’d go for the former, I just felt fortunate to be able to see China with the flexibility and planning oversight unique to being in a duo with a fluent Chinese speaker involved. Even if I felt like an idiot most of the time just sitting smiling while she had long conversations with the locals.

The younger generations are mostly learning English in school, and it was they who were most bold: especially in the more off-the-beaten-path parts of China, it was not unusual to be the only Caucasians around for miles and for young Chinese people to walk up to us and say “Hello.” If we said anything back, or even smiled in their direction, it caused fits of giggling. The young ones who did speak some English were, in these circumstances, incredibly likely to ask if they could have their photograph taken with us, as though we were some strange foreigners (which we were) but I admit it made me feel sort of like an exotic zoo animal. Our rule of thumb became to say yes to the photo requests from young (University-aged) girls practicing their English, but as two young females we decided that some of the requests for photos from older guys were just a little bit creepy.

Being immersed in this enormous vat of humanity with whom I could not communicate, I became slightly obsessed with learning some rudimentary Chinese. It’s a remarkably difficult language to learn, since the spoken and written languages are essentially independent, and the spoken language is tonal. I got as far as “hello” and “thank you” with the spoken word, and no farther. But I did start to recognize a few of the characters that appeared on many signs, like the names of the cities we visited, the cardinal directions, just simple things. My first character was this one:

China is, of course, the People’s Republic of China, the currency is called the People’s money, and our first hotel in Shanghai was in People’s square. So this one was everywhere, and it was useful for me to remember. After seeing some Bronze-age inscriptions at the Shanghai Museum I became obsessed with understanding how modern Chinese characters evolved from early Pictographs, and I found a few great books to bring home with me. So I can casually indulge in this fascination over the course of the next few months, as I reflect on my trip.

Since I’ve been back in my own bed, my dreams have mostly been set back in China. Clearly there was a lot to see and process, and my brain is still working hard on it. But with the language difference, comes the inevitable funny translations, so I’ll leave you today with one of my favorite giggle-inducers. Hey, I’m sure if I tried to translate something into Chinese the results would be equally hilarious.

China changed me

China was not on some big “places I want to visit next” list for me, but a great opportunity that arose because of the fact that my remarkably talented sister was living there. So before I went there, in spite of the work I did with my guidebook helping to plan our touring options, I really had no expectations. I somehow didn’t even realize that the great wall was so steep and that it was more like mountain climbing than like strolling.

Your intrepid blogger and her sister having a little rest on the climb. Note the fantastic footwear.

So there were a few things about China that really surprised me. Really surprised. Me. Culture things. Economics things. People things. Especially on my return to Britain and the world in which we live. Now my aim here is not at all to make any political judgements, it’s merely to pass along some information that has caused me to stop and think in a different way about problems currently facing Britain.

Thing 1, energy and the environment

A colleague recently introduced me to the concept of the Guardian’s 10:10 campaign, in which people in the UK (and the rest of the west, by example) pledge to reduce carbon footprints by 10% in 2010. I’m not here to argue against this campaign, or to suggest that being aware of one’s own energy consumption is a bad idea. But after visiting China last month, it’s really hard for me to see how this sort of thing can make any sort of a difference at all, beyond good PR and perhaps self-back-patting.

China was, as I have mentioned before, a shiny disco nightclub. Take Piccadilly Circus, or Times Square in NY, and cube it. And again. And again. And again. For a while, ad nauseum. And then multiply it, proportionally speaking, with the number of cities in China with populations over 1 million. There are 60 and you’ve probably not heard of most of them.

I visited the bustling city of Nanchang on my tour, which falls well in the upper half of this list but which is probably off the radar of most of those in the west. Nanjing, where my sister lives, is higher on the list and slightly more well-known to the west but still not the commonplace city that most westerners would have heard of. My sister, who has lived in Asia on-and-off for the parts of the last decade, has noted how the light pollution means that you cannot see much in the way of stars. (Pollution does not help either, of course.)

One of the things that was most striking to me on my visit was the lights outside of the main districts. Even a poor hole-in-the-wall restaurant with plastic chairs and tables inside (those that would be normally for outdoor picnics in the west) had neon signs and a well-lit visage. And I’m not criticizing in any way. As far as I could tell, bright lights and neon were a sign of “modern” China and thus something that was aspirational in the true sense of the word.

But it seems to me that, after having seen this almost unbelievable aspect of China, a few tens of millions of Brits shivering in the dark during “Earth hour” or reducing their carbon footprints by 10% is unlikely to make a big change in the global sense. I pass no value judgements here. I’m not in any way suggesting that we should not be aware of our carbon footprint, and I’m in favor of trying to be as energy-efficient as possible in all situations, as good stewards of this fantastic planet that I love to explore. But I think it’s time to admit that until we figure out how to handle the developing world, including the very modern shiny disco nightclub that is China, we’re not likely to make a difference in the grand scheme of things but introducing war-like energy austerity measures in the relatively tiny UK.

Thing 2, labor and the workforce

Taking the train from Nanjing to Shanghai on a rainy Sunday afternoon, it was hard not to notice the army of workers out in rain-suits working on the railroad tracks. Now admittedly it was only weeks before the opening of the Shanghai Expo, so this could have been a huge anomaly. But compared with everything else I saw in China, I’m guessing it wasn’t. The shops were open all day, every day. Important tourist sights were filled with security officers along with the plentiful souvenir shop and food stall workers. Whenever it was raining, people magically appeared at the entrances to the shopping malls to hand umbrella-shaped plastic baggies to all who entered, to keep the floors from getting wet and slippery. Everything was remarkably clean. All garbage bins had sections for recycling and they were never overflowing, even on the wicked-steep sections of the great wall. We actually saw a great wall cleaner lady, who was remarkably fit considering her age (greater than ours) walking along, picking up trash, and emptying the great wall garbage bins. (I admit I had no idea that there would be great wall garbage bins…) But that’s getting away from my main point.

Everywhere you looked, people were working.

I returned to the UK on my (thankfully) strike-unaffected BA flight, to a world where the flight attendants are striking, over and over, arguing about money and benefits that would seem amazing to the average Chinese person. There are over one billion of them in China. And surely the recent outcry over immigration reform and “British jobs for British workers” is being carried out in the face of the knowledge that there are many hard-working people in less fortunate countries who would really be quite happy to do jobs, such as BA flight attendant duties, at a fraction of what the current workers are fighting about.

I admit it, in this case I was not so keen on the BA strike even before I headed to China. Striking in a recession seemed a bit foolhardy to me, and that was BEFORE the volcano gods started frowning on European air travel. Surely there are also plenty of people out of work here in Britain who would be happy to take those jobs. But if not, there are a whole lotta other people out there who clearly would.

In summary…
China changed me. I had read about it for a long time. I was familiar with the economic situation and how quickly it has changed in the last decade or two. But seeing it in person was something else entirely. Reading about a billion people did not mean much until I spent two weeks in those crowds. Reading about the developing economy did not mean much until I saw the shiny disco lights and the people employed to do the most small of tasks, like handing out plastic umbrella bags.

China has itself changed, and quickly. Any economist is familiar with this concept but it’s amazing how visible it was to the casual tourist. But my overall impression was definitely one of, “There’s a new world order, it’s about to start changing in the west, so start bracing yourself now.” I can’t help but think that we are missing the elephant in the room when it comes to globalization, and although I had read that many times, it didn’t mean a thing to me until I saw it. I’ve started learning Chinese characters after my trip. (Admittedly with a fun iChinese app on my iPhone.) I’m convinced that the world, it is a-changin’.

Feeling Foreign

It happened again yesterday. I’m sure she meant no harm. And I could have chosen not to react at all.

I bumped into a junior work colleague, a relatively new addition. She asked in a friendly voice about my weekend and what I did, etc. I commented on sleeping in and on the triumph of having made whole wheat bread that was actually edible–a first for me in many years of trying. She said, “You make home-made bread? Oh your kids someday will love you!” Here’s the part where I could have just smiled and nodded and walked on. But I didn’t. I spoke the truth. I said, “Nope, no kids, no plans.” She was stunned. Clearly it had never occurred to this young dear that someone would choose such a path in life. The conversation continued for a bit. I talked about my love for my job and my desire to focus on that and my love for travel and generally did a poor job of explaining all of the many reasons why I made this decision (a very long time ago). I mentioned that I was not alone, in that several other women in our office had made the same choice. In response to the typical “But you might change your mind some day” comment I responded that I’m going to be 35 on my next birthday and have really come to the crossroads on this one and am very comfortable with my decision. She was very unsettled and muttered something about re-thinking her career choice and wandered off.

I say “It happened again” because this conversation has played out for me over and over and over again. I’m usually pretty up-front on this issue and also tend to be on the offensive, letting people know my views when we first start to be friends so I can head off possibly awkward conversations. I’m always slightly mystified that people feel the need to comment on my decision. Or to try to convince me to have kids when I clearly don’t want to. I’ve been called selfish by near-strangers. I’m mystified why my stance would upset others so much but it seems to, perhaps they see it as a value judgement on their own lifestyle which it most certainly is not–it’s just the choice that’s right for me. And I am very close to being the last one standing, I have several pregnant friends at the moment probably because of the age we’re at. I have a few other friends who are professed to be childless by choice, including several peers within my profession and also some wonderful friends of the family who I have known for 25 or so years. I talk to them about this issue a lot, as it’s hard not to worry a bit when conversations such as the above-mentioned one do play out over and over. I know of people who HAVE changed their minds and done IVF at 45 or adoption around the same age. So it’s important to me to feel sure about this now. And I am.

So this whole concept of feeling “foreign” was familiar to me before I moved countries:

foreign (comparative more foreign, superlative most foreign)

1. From a different country. foreign students

2. Belonging to a different culture.
Eating with chopsticks was a foreign concept to him

3. Of an object, etc, in a place where it does not belong.
foreign body

In groups of women who have made choices different from mine (and thank feminism that we all have the right and the option to make our own choices–this I applaud!) sometimes I feel foreign. My culture involves work and travel and not diapers/nappies or schools. But sometimes I don’t feel so foreign. As I’ve started to get to know some of the other expat bloggers over the last year and a bit, I’ve felt very much the opposite of foreign. Here were friends who have had similar experiences to mine and with whom I got along great from the very moment we all met.

And then came Cyber Mummy.

Cyber Mummy is the upcoming blogger conference in London in about a month. It turns out that of all the expat bloggers I know, most of them are going to go to this. Up until the hubbub started, I didn’t think of the expat bloggers as falling into two camps, those who were cybermummies and those who were not. But now I do. And guess which group wins on numbers alone? Not mine.

I think Iota had the most eloquent commentary on this particular event. And the buzz lately hasn’t been only about the conference, there’s also been the MADS. But it’s been an in-my-face, all-parenting, all-the-time few weeks of blogs and twitter and the like. And this weekend my exasperation hit a high point and I sent out a relatively desperate tweet. That I thought I should explain. So here we are.

There’s a deeper layer to this. I think my feelings about Cyber Mummy and the like tie in with my expat experience. The fact that there is a year of maternity leave allowed in this country is something that I am luke-warm on. I see how it’s wonderful from the Mummy perspective but I think it’s a bit of a disaster from the career perspective. My concerns were best summed up by the UK’s Donald Trump (i.e. host of The Apprentice on TV), Sir Alan Sugar, in his comments about not hiring women of child-bearing age. I don’t find the concept of a “Career woman” to be as common here as in the US, so it seems to me that there is a natural progression to an equation where inevitably,

Women = Mummies

So when I look at the Cyber Mummy agenda, and I look at the BlogHer agenda for their upcoming meeting in New York, I feel sad and homesick. In some ways the topics covered at the two meetings are not that different, what’s different is the focus on mummies versus females more inclusively. I, like Iota, don’t know that there are actually that many things of interest to me at either event, but if a big group of my friends was going to something more like BlogHer than like Cyber Mummy I would probably go along for the fun and friendship.

As it happens, it doesn’t matter how I feel about this as I’ll be just flying back from the US while Cyber Mummy is taking place. I’ll be heading up to Norwich the following day for Boudicca’s Feast, run by one of the very few other non-Mummy expat bloggers. And I do hope my bloggy friends have a wonderful time at Cyber Mummy. They are all wonderful people, and as far as I can tell, wonderful mothers. But I really wish this whole thing had never come up and I could continue to feel like one of the gang instead of the outsider. I worry I’ll never quite go back, and I really didn’t need another reason to feel foreign in this country.