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

Friday, June 23, 2017


After I published yesterday's post I received an email from a reader who expressed surprise that weightlifting was my preferred sport.  But it is, my dear Flophouse readers.  No lie.  I love the weights.

Now I agree that watching weightlifting (or American football) is about as interesting as watching paint dry.  But lifting itself is a sport that is not only extremely gratifying; it's an excellent way to counteract some of the worst side effects of my cancer treatment.

I first learned about lifting in France,  Yes, the land of wine drinkers and cheese lovers is also one that is very sportif.  For one of the best shows in town, I invite you to go stand somewhere near the Eiffel tower in the morning and watch the local fireman out for a run.  A not-to-be-missed sight for tourists and residents alike. Furthermore, my French spouse has been lifting for years, is an avid Crossfitter, and recently did the Spartan Race in Tokyo.  He had a very good score but I still winced when I saw all the bruises.

I started lifting about 7 years ago.  About the time I stopped drinking and before I was diagnosed with cancer.  I began with a Jane Fonda tape and what  you might call the "baby bells" - small dumbbells ranging from 1 - 6 kilos.  Consistency meant that I outgrew the small weights and went looking for something a little harder and I found Stumptuous, a site run by a Canadian woman lifter with advice, encouragement and challenging routines.  That was my entry into the world of Ladies who Lift which is still a tough one because sterotypes abound.  As Mistress Krista writes, "You see, dear milennial babies, there was a dark and silly time when old men in suits decreed that girlpeople could not lift heavy things at the Olympics, because lo, their uteruses would explode and all males present would spontaneously be emasculated."

That attitude is alive and well and it goes something like this: "don't lift heavy weights because you might get muscles and that's so unattractive in a woman.  The phenomenon appears to be cross-cultural; a Japanese Crossfit coach I know sometimes despairs of ever getting Japanese women into the gym because they would rather be skinny as opposed to having the beautiful muscles of a ballet dancer.  Something that is entirely within their reach, mind you, but they prefer to believe that dancers look the way they do because they eat nothing but lettuce morning, noon and night.  Right.

But forget the dancers and have a look at these lady lifters.  They are amazing.

I still enjoy Stumptous but I found my joy with The New Rules of Lifting for Women: Lift Like a Man, Look Like a Goddess by Lou Schuler, Cassandra Forsythe, and Alwyn Cosgrove.  The one bit of advice I read there that has stayed with me?  Women almost always underestimate how much weight they can safely lift.  Always go a little bit heavier than you think you can manage because, chances are, you will be pleasantly surprised.  There is a lesson in there for women and life in general and I'll let you consider the connection for yourself.

So I moved from baby bells to bigger and bigger dumbbells and finally, with Crossfit, into the world of Olympic lifting:  squats, deadlifts and so on.  My front squat still sucks but I now have a bar and weights at home so I can work on it.

Why do I like it so much?  Well, I can lift just about anywhere - at home or in a box.  Crossfit, by the way, is often criticized but one thing they do very well in the boxes I've been to in Belgium, the US and Japan is welcome women without any condescending crap.  Asshattery is not permitted in a well-run box.

Another reason is that the results are very pleasing regardless of where you start. Age is certainly no impediment.  In Seattle there was a 75 year old man and women of all ages and fitness levels in the box and, damn, was I impressed.  They could lift far more than I and with better form.  I've been thin for most of my life but I can't say that I was fit or that I am at the peak of personal fitness now.

What I can say is that around 40 beating my body into submission with a starvation level diet and cigarettes just didn't work anymore.  I was writing checks my body could no longer cash.  I was starting to get things like flabby skin under the arms.  I like that I have muscle tone in my arms and legs.  I look good in a pair of jeans (all those squats and lunges).  At 52 I can wear shorts and show off my long legs and tattoos. :-)  I can lift heavy boxes off the floor and head home from the supermarket with big bags of groceries in hand.  I can run up stairs in the metro.  I can walk for miles without getting tired.  I just feel good when I lift.  It's a huge confidence-builder to know that you are strong and not just skinny.

Most importantly, I can EAT.  You don't build muscles with lettuce and water.  You need a balanced diet with lots of protein.  Your actual bodyweight is not terribly significant so to hell with the scale. As Schuler and Cosgrove say, "The scale doesn't know what you looke like, much less how strong you are or how good you feel.  It's just number detached from context." As for this notion that you have to be fanatical about food, you learn when practicing any sport that food is primarily fuel and the effects of poor eating habits have immediate consequences;  I feel weaker when I lift after a few days of fast food or baked goods.  And the cherry on the cake I will regret eating?  I have osteoporosis and lifting and running/walking are perfect ways to combat it. Lifting is, in my case, oncologist approved.

So there you have it.  I really recommend it as a sport.  Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove just published a new lifting book for women called Strong.  I'm at Phase 1, Stage 2 in the routine and I love it. There are planks, Romanian deadlifts, goblet squats and lots of push-ups and inverted rows. It's a huge kick to watch your progress from week to week as you add plates to the bar.

As you can tell I'm pretty happy and motivated to be a lifter.  If you have liked what you have read so far but you are still on the fence about exercise in general and lifting in particular, just listen to Mistress Krista:

"Lifting weights is not rocket science. Find a heavy thing and pick it up. Put it down. Pick it up again. Rest a while. Pick it up and put it down again. Next week, try a heavier thing. Occasionally, pick up your right foot and put it in front of your left foot. Repeat with other side. Perform this alternating motion for 20 minutes a few times weekly."

"Look, honey, you only get one container. And you get what mom and dad gave you. You can make it the best possible container it can be, and love it for what it is, or you can waste your life pissing and moaning about something that isn’t possible. Control what you can control, change what you can change, and forget about all the other stuff. Celebrate health and living free of pain. Stop obsessing about BEING and LOOKING, and start DOING."

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Brexit Podcasts

My reading about current events is sporadic.  Some days I do a full pass of the newspapers and websites and some days I'd much rather dedicate the day's reading entirely to actual books with bibliographies.  Think of it as carbohydrates versus protein - an analogy that may not speak to you but makes sense in the context of my favorite sport:  weightlifting.

One topic that I do try to stay on top of is Brexit which hits so many of the themes I like to think about:  migration, citizenship, borders, integration, and disintegration.  It was also a topic mentioned by British participants in my study of Anglophones in Japan.

However, I would go blind if I tried to read all the words on the screen that have been published on the Internet and since the story is still unfolding I mistrust the books that are available.  Too soon for a deep, intelligent analysis of even why they voted to leave.  As for where Brexit is going all we have is speculation.

So I've turned to podcasts.  I like the sense of being privy to a discussion without having any obligation to contribute to it.  And they tend to be longer than an article (15 to 30 minutes) but still short enough that the contributors have to make their points clearly and succinctly.

The one I've been following for a few weeks now is The Guardian's Brexit Means....  The most recent discussion (June 19) is organized around the question:  What can we expect as the Article 50 talks begin?  At about 7:30 they touch on citizen's right and the rights of non-EU spouses. (Note that there is another, earlier podcast entirely devoted to EU citizens' rights.)  At 12:52 they talk about the Irish border.

Another that I've started following only recently because it is very new is BBC Radio 5's Brexitcast.  Their first offering is very similar to the latest one from The Guardian so you get two discussions from a UK perspective on the same topic.  Theirs is called Brexit Begins.

And this morning I found the Inside Politics podcasts on Brexit from The Irish Times.  Ireland definitely has a dog in this fight because they are in the EU and they have a very sensitive border with the UK.  The Irish Times doesn't have a Brexit series but the topic, as you can imagine, comes up often.  The latest is an interview with Fintan O'Toole, an award-winning Irish author/journalist who just received the Orwell prize for journalism.  Hell of an endorsement and I will take the time to read his work. And I call your attention to the DUP 2017 manifesto which O'Toole refers to.  It outlines their approach to Brexit on pages 18-19.  

Here is the O'Toole interview which I recommend highly to you:  Fintan O'Toole on Brexit, English Nationalism and the DUP

And now back to my books.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

From Osaka to Brussels to Canterbury

Public Domain,

"He only is a well-made man who has a good determination.  And the end of culture is not to destroy this, God forbid! but to train away all impediment and mixture, and leave nothing but pure power.  Our student must have style and determination, and be a master in his own specialty.  But, having this, he must put it behind him.  He must have a catholicity, a power to see with a free and disengaged look every object."

The Conduct of Life by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Doubt is a great impediment to determination.   The mind is not a friendly neighborhood, but a ghetto of pitfalls weighed against possibilities.

I re-entered the academic life in middle-age with a career behind me and a number of uncertain paths ahead.  I had a passion for a subject and I was content for a time just reading and writing about it in this blog. To do more would have meant choosing one path over the others with no guarantee of success.  This was the paralysis of analysis where the mind constantly explores the possibilities and ultimately rejects them all, only to revisit the matter the next day with the same result.

But as I sat still, my world changed around me.  I saw my preferred options narrowing if only for a predetermined period of time.  I began to pay attention to other voices that had been telling me for years that academia and I might be a good fit. So I applied to the school of my choice in the specialty closest to my heart, and to my surprise I was accepted as a student.

Thus began my time as a graduate student at the University of Kent Brussels School of International Studies.  I went to study International Migration but that wasn't the only education I received. I learned, for example, that my unruly mind that lived in the wreckage of the future simply didn't have the capacity to imagine all the possibilities open to me and greatly underestimated my ability to do things I had never done before.  Guided by a friend in Paris, I found a place to live and a flatmate who turned out to be one of the most delightful women I have ever met.  I could pay my rent, cook for myself, explore the city,  Perhaps at this point you are laughing - of course a grown woman can do those things.  But consider this:   at 50 I had never lived on my own.  I missed my family but I gained confidence in my ability to take care of myself.

I also learned that the voices were correct.  I could do the classwork, I could finish the required reading (though sometimes it was a struggle), I could participate in seminar and I could write those papers in the proper form with an argument and sources cited as they should be    A great deal of that success was due to humility.  I hadn't darkened the doors of academia in 30 years and that was in the American system not the British one. When I didn't know what I was doing, I asked and my professors were more than happy to help, particularly my program director, Dr. Klekowski von Koppenfels, who was very patient with my never-ending inquiries.  From here are my research questions, are any of them promising? to what citation system should I use?

Less doubt meant more determination.  Nevertheless, I was still very worried about my dissertation. I did my fieldwork in Japan and I started doing the research and setting up the study as soon as I could.  That was another exercise in humility because studies that involve human beings meant understanding research ethics and submitting the study format and questions to an ethics review board.   Graduate students are not simply loosed upon the world to ask questions of anyone, anytime, anywhere. There are rules and there is supervision.  I had no idea.

Last step was writing it up.  14,000 words more or less, a research question, an argument, data I spent weeks reviewing, literature review that places this work within a context of other works and the absolutely necessary but truly dull business of citing sources and compiling a bibliography.  Ever day was filled with anxiety watching the deadline approach and counting down the number of days I had remaining.  I was up at 5 or 6 AM every day and went to bed at 10:00 PM when I was so exhausted that my vision was blurry and everything I wrote was utter crap.  The family was kind and ignored my grumpiness; they took over the household duties and proofread when asked.  I even had a weekly skype with my thesis advisor who finally gently gave me this bit of advice:  "There are perfect dissertations, Victoria, and there are finished dissertations."

I submitted a day before the March 22nd deadline.  Still consumed with doubt I tried to reread what I had already sent and when I found a spelling error on my first pass, I decided that the insanity had to end. I closed my text and let it go. Factum es.

Since the beginning of June I have been waiting to hear if I passed or not:  checking my school email every day.  Last night the verdict appeared in my inbox and it said:  "I am pleased to inform you that you have satisfied the Examiners in the examinations for the above degree at the appropriate standard."  And not only did I pass but with "Distinction" - the highest of the three grade categories (pass and merit are the other two).

So sometime at the end of November I will be in Canterbury Cathedral in Kent for the graduation ceremony.  I never attended the one for my BA so long ago but for my MA?  I wouldn't miss it for the world.  And let's be very clear, an MA doesn't make me a master of my specialty but it has made me a better observer and researcher in all the areas that interest me.  But above all, it represents to me the triumph of determination over doubt.  I honestly did not know if I could do it.  But I did.

With a great deal of help and encouragement.  The acknowledgements in my dissertation take up nearly an entire page.  Some of them may not even remember what they said that made a difference and are oblivious to how much it stayed in my mind until I was ready to act on it.  Thank you for having faith in me.

And now, on to other things.  The gardens awaits.  The job hunt begins.  And we'll see what this middle-aged woman can make of herself now.

A suivre.....

For anyone who is interested, I feel comfortable circulating my dissertation about Anglophones in Japan.  For those of you with more experience with academia, is there a place I can upload it?  Do I have the right to do so or do I have to ask my school?  If not, just send me an email ( and I'll send you a copy with one caveat which is that I would like your thoughts and comments in return.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Bac 2017

Oh yes, it's that time again.

High school students in France are taking their final exams for their "Bac" (le baccalauréat) It is a grueling exercise that is stress for children and their parents. I lived through it twice and I am so glad I am done.   The elder Frenchling passed in 2011 and did so well that she was accepted by McGill University in Montreal.  We were and are so very proud of her.  The younger Frenchling passed in 2013 and also went off to Canada for university. We've been singing O Canada ever since but there are some days I wish we were all back in France playing on the beach in Brittany.

Le Monde has published the subjects for the June 20, 2017 exams for the Bac S, ES and L:  Physics/Chemistry, Economics and Social Sciences and Literature.  Have a look.

Bac 2017 : les sujets de physique-chimie, d’économie (SES) et de littérature

Could I answer these questions?  Not a chance, but perhaps some of you might do better.

The Meandering Path of an Eclectic Reader

I have been chided in the past for the diversity of topics on the Flophouse.  The most vocal critic died recently and I miss him.  He said that he saw potential (always gratifying to hear) and he gave me tips on how to improve this site - advice that I did not take.

My writing comes from experience married to my reading and if I were to restrict myself to one or two topics than I would feel obliged to see my experience through the prism of just a few topics and I would have to devote more of my reading specifically to them.  I suppose I do have some meta-topics in my head - some questions that I am always seeking to answer.  I do maintain two reading lists Citizenship and International Migration and the American Diaspora after all.

But I like having the liberty to discover new books, new authors and new topics, Reading widely means being able to make connections and no genre is out of bounds here.  Yes, I know that there are only so many hours in the day and I do occasionally consult lists of this or that prize-winning novel or non-fiction but I refuse to restrict myself to the opinions of the gatekeepers/critics, nor will I listen too much to those who say that a genre is "trash" and should be avoided lest one's intellectual credentials be forever tarnished.  I prefer to let one book lead me to another; I am an avid reader of bibliographies.

Just for fun today I'll tell you what I've read recently;  what led me to the book, what I thought of it, what I took away from it and where it's taking me next.

Slavery in the Late Roman World, AD 275-425 by Kyle Harper. I watched a video of a conversation between Bill Maher and Dr. Michael Dyson and I found it so intriguing that I bought and read Dyson's latest book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America.  At the end of that one Dyson had a list of further reading and I went looking for them but I was frustrated because they weren't available on Kindle and hard copies would have to be ordered from the US.  But as I was looking I stumbled on Harper's book about slavery in Rome and thought Why not?  It turned out to be a very good read.

Harper says there is a difference between a slave society and a society with slaves. The late Roman Empire was the former as was, it is argued, slavery in the US.  Harper is also very clear about the paucity of sources from that era and does a thorough job of listing what does exist and its relative merits and demerits.  If you, like me, had the impression that slaves were mostly agricultural workers, think again.  In Roman times, the evidence shows that slaves could be of almost any profession:  doctors, architects, teachers as well as skilled and unskilled labor.  Think on that for a moment.  In another time your skills or knowledge would have simply upped the price for your person in a slave market.

The big question at the end of this book is Why or how did slavery end? and there are theories but no definitive answers.  Having finished that one I then went in two directions:  one toward fiction and the other toward more history.

The Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor.  This is a mystery series set in Republican Rome. The protagonist is a plebeian citizen known as Gordianus the Finder. Rollicking good reads.  It's fiction but Saylor did his research and you learn quite a lot about such things as how the Romans in this era kept time.  It's also a world where slavery is taken for granted and even a poor citizen has a slave or two. Now that one requires quite a leap of imagination because of the cultural and temporal distance. But I think of it in the light of what Raymonde Carroll says about cultural analysis:

"a method of seeing as 'normal' something that I see in people of a different culture that I initially find 'bizarre' or 'strange'. To do this, I must imagine a universe where this act that shocks me is normal, has meaning and may not even be noticed. In other words, it means that I must try to penetrate for a brief moment the cultural imagination of the other."

If indeed the past is a foreign country (as the title of a book on my to-read list suggests) this is not a bad way to approach it. Keeping in mind, of course, that an attempt to understand the past should not lead to its misuse in the present. Slavery is not somehow better because it was practiced in times past by no less than the illustrious Empire of the Romans.  "History is all things to all men.  She is at the service of good and bad causes.  In other words she is a harlot and a hireling, and for this reason she best serves those who suspect her most." (The Whig Interpretation of History.)  

Butterfield also said that "all history perpetually requires to be corrected by more history" and that led me to...

The History of Rome (books 1-5) by Livy.  Some 30 years I was forced to read excerpts from Livy but never the full text. Easier to read than I remembered but the version I selected has a good translator.   The previous books on this list made reference to things I vaguely remembered and it's nice to get the full story of Romulus, Remus and the Wolf.  I am still reading this one and I'm at book two which is also something of a revelation  You can't read it and not reflect on the state of democracies in the world today.  Some things like the disagreements between plebeians and patricians are eerily familiar as is the blood shed in the service of one political cause or another.  It's almost too close for comfort and so from time to time I need a break (a palate cleanser, if you will) and last week I turned to....

The Pheonix Pack series by Suzanne Wright.  An excellent paranormal romance series featuring a pack of wolf shifters.  (Think of what Romulus might have been had he merged with the wolf instead of simply being suckled by it.  It might have made an ever better story , but perhaps that was a bridge too far for the Romans. )   I love the series for its dysfunctional Alpha males and its very strong female protagonists.  It's pure fun - great dialogue, interesting stories, a bit of romance and some truly lurid sex scenes.  There is, in fact, one in the first book of the series which is much admired and widely-known for its eroticism but I'll let you discover it for yourself.  :-)

And there you have it, folks. That's more or less how reading works for me.

 What's next?   Well, there are 20 books on my to-read list today and I will certainly drop some and add others.  But I'm thinking about some of the descriptions of Roman building material, volcanoes and earthquakes and so maybe back to geology with The Planet in a Pebble.   Or I could continue thinking about history and the past with The Past is a Foreign Country -Revisited.  Or I could circle back and try to find a local copy of  The Peculiar Institution (Amazon Japan would have to order it and they say delivery will take 1-3 months).  Or something just might pop up as I read something else that will send me off in yet another direction.  

If you feel inspired, let me know what you're reading.  Maybe you can send me down another path.  I'd be grateful for a signpost or two.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Twilight Express

I was awake at 5 AM this morning thanks to the crows.  One bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios in me and a cuppa coffee in front of me, I am easing into the morning.  Having finished my morning reading, I'm ready to write something that you can peruse over your breakfast.  This one is for my stepfather, the man in my life who has a passion for trains.

The Japan Times reports that the new Twilight Express Mizukaze, a luxury sleeper train that leaves from Osaka, is finally on the track and taking passengers.  "The train accommodates only 34 passengers in 16 rooms. A one-night tour with a room for two costs between ¥250,000 and ¥1.25 million ($225 and $11,300), with suites starting from ¥750,000."

The last time I saw a train this luxurious it was parked in Train World, a train museum in Brussels. Just goes to show you how little I know - luxury trains are not solely a 19th/early 20th century form of elite travel.   This site has a list  of  elegant 21st century train travel possibilities from the Al Andulus in Spain to  the Tsars Gold Trans-Siberian (China, Mongolia, Russia).  Pick one at random and dream a little on a Monday morning.

And then, if you like, you can go to the Twilight Express website and watch their video (a nicely done advertisement). But, personally I much preferred  this bit of reporting from Japanese television (February 2017) which not only takes you on two tours of the interiors of the cars but has reactions and commentary.  You don't need to speak Japanese to share in the appreciation and pleasure.  Enjoy.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Osaka: Utsubo Park

"Osaka is notorious for its lack of green, quiet spaces."

Osaka’s west side story by Eric Johnston, Japan Times, 2004

Indeed, Osaka is a pretty gritty city.  Think commerce and industry.  Think working-class.  Walk down almost any street here and count the small warehouses and mom and pop businesses.  Go for a run or walk in the early morning and expect to share the sidewalk with people headed to work.  Drive a friend to the international airport KIX and pass by industrial scenes worthy of a Mad Max movie.

In Paris I orient myself around the metro stations.  In Osaka I use the canals.  This map of my neighborhood is from the Meiji period and, yes, the canals are still there as are many others around the city.
1877 (Meiji 10) Map of Osaka: 1. Nagahori; 2. Shinsaibashi; 3. Dotonbori; 4. Ebisubashi from
Is Osaka a beautiful city?  Not if you're looking for old architecture. Old Osaka and her inhabitants were heavily bombed by the United States (my country of origin) in 1945 and once they put out the fires and buried the dead, this is what was left:
But they rebuilt and the result is an interesting city.  I run and walk the streets here at all hours and I am never ever bored.  People nod and say "Good morning."  They seem amused by this middle-aged American out running in the heat (or the cold). And I in turn watch them.  The very attractive and well-muscled young Japanese man bidding farewell and bowing to a a lithe and lovely lady of the evening.

And then there are green spaces which are all the more magnificent for being relatively rare.  There is Osaka Castle, Nagai and Nakonoshima parks and there is not a week that goes by where I don't walk one of them.  And, finally, there is Utsubo Park which is a jewel with trees and paths and a rose garden so beautiful that it breaks my heart. Here, too, its existence owes something to an earlier, deadlier time:  it was constructed on the site of a former U.S. army airfield.  Today, it is quiet and green and has fountains and streams. 

I will leave you today with a few pictures of my last visit.  Bon weekend, everyone.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

RBT Call Storm

I almost forgot to mention this one.

On June 15 (tomorrow for me) some Americans abroad are planning a mass call to Congress in support of Residency-Based Taxation (as opposed to the system we have now called Citizenship-Based Taxation aka the reason you must file a tax return in the US even if you live and work abroad .)

If you are unclear about RBT versus CBT have a look at this really nifty summary published by American Citizens Abroad (ACA)

So the idea behind a "Call Storm" is that you and other Americans abroad give your elected representatives in Washington, D.C. a call tomorrow and tell them what you think about CBT versus RBT (and while you're at it you can throw some FATCA fat on the fire).  If enough people call then, yes, they sit up and pay attention.

You can find the contact info for your reps here and your senators here.

I am going to keep this post strictly non-partisan and not mention either political party.  Certainly you don't have to be affiliated with one or the other to participate.

However, if anyone from either party happens to pass by the Flophouse  with helpful information and encouraging words, feel free to post them in the comments section.

Play Poker Not Privilege

The word "privilege" is one that I use with extreme caution in any context but especially when talking about migration. C. Lundström wrote an entire book about White Migration in which she argues that race is part of that Invisible Knapsack and it travels well. 

My thinking about "privilege" is evolving and by that I mean that I haven't come to any conclusions that satisfy me and I'm open to more information.  I'm also very wary of my own feelings and visceral reactions.  A part of me would very much like to be seen as "privileged" and bask in the notion that I am a special snowflake. Behold the wonderfulness of me! The saner part of me says, "Hey, kiddo, get real."  (And I can't tell you how many AA meetings it took to get that one straight in my head.)  

I'd say that "privilege" has so many negative connotations, is so relative, and so muddy that I prefer to reframe it and use Bourdieu's idea of "social capital" instead.  This terms captures what people are getting at when they use "privilege" but without evoking knee-jerk reactions.  To make it even clearer in my head I think of it as a poker hand.  Some people are born in a particular cultural, social and economic context with a lot of good cards (inherited social capital) which enables them to more easily accumulate other cards.  Some folks start with really bad ones and they struggle.  In between the two is a continuum where people hold mixed hands.

A good example of a card is citizenship.  In The Birthright Lottery: Citizenship and Global Inequality by Ayelet Schachar she argues that birthright citizenship in a developed country is an inherited privilege  that is undemocratic and unfair.  It persists, however, because it's a privilege of birth that benefits just about everyone within an affluent nation-state.  The poorest factory worker in France is automatically part of an exclusive club just by virtue of being born in France and having parents who were born or naturalized in France. He/she will automatically transfer that membership to her children. 

It is, as Schachar says, "The quintessential inherited entitlement of our time."  This matters she says because there are wide disparities in income, health, education and opportunity between the citizens of a developed country versus a developing one.  So it's definitely better to be born a French citizen as opposed to being born as a citizen of Mali.  In fact it may determine whether you live or die as an infant.  France has an infant mortality rate of 3.3 deaths/1,000 live births versus Mali which has 100 deaths/1,000 live births.  (All figures are from the CIA Factbook.)  And let's be clear about this - none of us had any choice about where we were born and the laws under which our citizenship was ascribed to us.  

But that's just one card, albeit a pretty important one.  We are born into families, We are born into groups.  We are born into hierarchies.  Our social capital or lack thereof is always a matter of context and I would argue that it's a combination of cards (inherited or accumulated) that determines our relative position within a particular society. And it would be idiotic of me to argue that these things don't make a difference in terms of opportunities.   However, I would be extremely cautious about taking a national conversation about things like race, class, educational attainment, language, or sex and making broader claims about other societies or all societies.  

Because I would contend that the cards a migrant brings to a new country can't be played in the same way in a new context.    Not only does the migrant not have the same rights as a citizen but he will be inserted into at least two hierarchies:  one that positions the migrant relative to other migrants (more desirable versus less desirable) and another that places her below the native-born citizen who has an inherited position in society.   

But other cards come into play here like education, skills, language, finances, race and gender.  But they don't necessarily have the same meaning in the new country.  Polytechnique is a big name in France and it confers enormous social capital.  Outside of France?  Not so much. But the degree itself may count for a lot.  Money may buy a very nice standard of living in one country but go to London or Vancouver and learn how little one has in a place with a very high cost of living. Or conversely, one can move to a country where even a small amount of money means a much better standard of living. English-speakers may believe the hype about it being a highly-valued "global language" and arrive in a country to find very few jobs for the monolingual.  And yet, they may find one and be very content.

As for race there are enormous variations in how it is defined locally.  People who are considered to be  (and consider themselves) "black" in the US , might not be in parts of South America.  I don't see that Poles in the UK get to be "white" in the same way as British "whites".  I have read arguments that say that being "white" is a always a good card wherever you are in the world.  Honestly, I think this one collapses under the impossibility of defining racial categories when there is no globally agreed upon definition of any of them.

What I am arguing for here is that if we are going to look at people's poker hands (social capital) when they migrate, I do not think it is sufficient to look at one card and pronounce a verdict of "privileged" or "underprivileged."  That's just laziness.  It's simply too easy to say "these people all have at least a BA, therefore they are privileged" or "those people migrated, therefore they are privileged (or underprivileged)." (The latter can go either way.)  I think that you need a lot more than that to support an argument for or against.  And if this is a serious exercise you have to be open to contradictory information and willing to dig into the context,.  

Perhapsa better response to someone who shouts "privilege" in your face is for both of you to gently place all your cards on the table and start asking and taking questions.  What it is about my cards that makes you think that I have an unfair advantage over you?  What is it about your cards that leads you to think that the deck is stacked against you?  And then no cross talk, no interrupting.  This is called a conversation and it can be quite enlightening when both parties are active listeners.      

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

John Oliver and Brexit

I don't know about you but I sure needed a laugh this morning.  This video from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver about Brexit was the delicious cream in my coffee, replacing my usual reduced-fat milk (The New York Times/Le Monde aka Al-Jazeera sur Seine).  Hat tip to Curtis for the link.

There are so many quotations and commentary from Mencken that are appropriate to all elections and particularly timely when applied to the shipwrecks looking for coastlines in the US and UK today.   But I will go with this one since it beautifully captures my sentiments after watching Oliver.

"Consider, for example, a campaign for the Presidency. Would it be possible to imagine anything more uproariously idiotic — a deafening, nerve-wracking battle to the death between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Harlequin and Sganarelle, Gobbo and Dr. Cook — the unspeakable, with fearful snorts, gradually swallowing the inconceivable? ...

But feeling better for the laugh. Ridi si sapis, said Martial. Mirth is necessary to wisdom, to comfort, above all to happiness. Well, here is the land of mirth, as Germany is the land of metaphysics and France is the land of fornication. Here the buffoonery never stops."

Monday, June 12, 2017

In Defense of Costco

One of two Costcos in Osaka
Ellen put up a very thought-provoking post the other day about Costco, that huge warehouse/store where one can buy all manner of things cheap and in bulk.  Costco is about to open its first store in France and that has evoked strong reactions from some Americans living in the Hexagon.

Costco is an export from my homeland - the Pacific Northwest of the United States - along with Microsoft, Amazon, RealAudio, and Starbucks.  Yes, the land of sea, salmon, and cedar also produces a healthy crop of capitalists.

That is one reason I can not pretend to be neutral on the subject of their products on distant shores.  There are good jobs in Seattle because of the success of these enterprises.  In 2017 the unemployment rate in the city hovers around 3%.

But there are other reasons I simply can't get too worked up about the arrival of Costco in France.  Frankly, I would have loved to have had one around when the Frenchlings were young.  We were a dual-income family with kids living in Suresnes at the time and we usually shopped for the week on Saturday morning at a French chain called Champion. But more often then we both liked,  we would run out of something during the week and one of us would have to make a run after picking up the Frenchlings from after-school care.   It was a cauchemar. A tired adult with two tired, cranky kids who just wanted to go home pushing the cart through crowded aisles, waiting at the checkout, and then having to bag the groceries herself.  Now there was a market in the center of town in addition to the chain stores but neither of us could frequent the market during the week and, in any case, whether we shopped at one or both, we had to carry our purchases back to the apartment.   We tried to buy staples in bulk (milk, for example) but we were limited to what was available and what we could carry.  (This was years before I took up weight-lifting.)

There was nothing particularly romantic about this aspect of French life.  It was "métro boulot dodo" like all the other families, French or foreign (or both), in our community.  My neighbor who had Wednesdays off took her children to McDonald's that day.  They liked it and she could relax and not have to cook on her day off.  I completely understood where she was coming from. And, in fact, when the Frenchlings began to spend their Wednesdays (no school that day) with my mother-in-law in Paris, she would often take them to McDonald's as well.

To those who find the presence of these things disturbing because, as Ellen says, "they see the arrival of Costco as importation of the worst of American consumerism, American products and so on. ."  I sympathize.  If these things bothered them in the US, than, yes, I'm sure they don't care for them in their adopted country. As for those of you reading this who do not live in France, perhaps you are feeling a bit disappointed at what I've written so far because that doesn't fit your image of a bucolic, unspoiled country and its "we work to live, we don't live to work" people.  However pleasant my French management was, no one was going to give me a morning off to hit the farmers' market.

Is it really so difficult to acknowledge that today an "authentic" French life includes things like chain stores and a struggle with issues like childcare and dual-income families?  The more traditional French life where the children came home for lunch every day, someone was available to shop in the market in the morning, and few families needed daycare was predicated on the fact that many women didn't work.  That has changed and I think this is a good thing.  No, my neighbor didn't have to take her children to McDonald's  but consider that four days a week she pulled a double shift and that we all had to get up early on Saturday to take the children to school. I'd say that anything that made her life (and mine) was greatly appreciated.  Would it have been better if she had taken them to Quick (A French hamburger-fries-shake chain)?

And what really is the difference between a Champion and a store like Costco?  The answer is simple:  the possibility of buying staples in bulk at low prices.  If Costco (or another chain) had existed we would still have bought the bricks of milk but in large quantities so that no one had to shop during the week.  And the threat of the cheaper stores like Costco (and other from the UK, Spain or Germany) has meant that the French supermarket chains offer more services like home delivery at reasonable prices and shopping via Internet - all of which would have been a godsend for me and my spouse when the Frenchlings were little.

As for "American consumerism"  I'm not sure such a thing really exists as a national export.  Can one country, however powerful it purports to be, force another nation to change its habits and mores against its will?  There is something in that accusation that implies that the French themselves are too foolish (or too cowed) to resist.  And that is simply not true.  The French show great powers of resistance and are not be riled because they will protest in ways that make Americans with all their guns look like petits joueurs (small players).  Perhaps even more threatening to Americans are the Japanese who take in a product, flip it around, make it better, and then sell a better version to American markets.

And lastly let's consider that the French are gifted capitalists inside and outside of France.  As Ellen notes in her post: "The fact that there are so many "hypermarkets" in France is a purely French phenomenon, not imported from anywhere else, and they have drained the life out of many town centers."

 I would add that there was a Paul's (a French bakery chain) here in Osaka right next to my spouse's office.  When I went to Shanghai I toured a Carrefour (French supermarket chain) and listened to a presentation on how they intended to conquer the market in China.  All over the world one will find French businessmen and women selling software, carbonated beverages, chain bakeries and supermarkets and even garbage pickup, all ably supported by the French Chambers of Commerce and Business France.  I should know because I worked for French companies that did those things and exported them quite successfully.

For consistency's sake, those who dislike the idea of a Costco in France should surely be equally aghast at a Carrefour in China.  I echo Ellen's question, "Anyone complaining about the imperialism?"  If you happy to be one of the complainers about "imperialism," then please explain the difference between the French and American versions and why you are not writing to Business France to tell them to cut it out.

Societies change for reasons that has something to do with the importation of foreign ideas, good, and services, but that's not the whole story.  Foreign companies don't succeed in a market unless they have something local people want.  Fundamentally, I think deeper societal changes make societies more receptive to imported things that solve genuine problems.  Costco will please them or it won't and it is up to the French to decide that.

But I will not cry for Carrefour or Champion any more than I will shed tears for a more traditional era when women were told to stay home whether they liked it or not.  And anything that makes life easier for working families has my vote.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Flophouse Policy on Comments (Help Needed)

When I set up the Flophouse, I had decisions to make about comments.  That's one I had to think about  very seriously because while I'm not into control and I love it when people speak their mind, sometimes people comment not because they want to join a discussion, but for other reasons. I'm talking about the trolls and the salesmen/women.  

I derive no income from this blog.  I've turned down all advertising.  I don't even use the Amazon widgets anymore.  The blog is not even meant to kick start a book or anything like that.  It is pure fun for me and I hope for you too.

A Troll is someone who stops by and leaves comments that aren't meant to further a discussion, they are just meant to piss people off to no purpose whatsoever except the amusement of the person doing the trolling.  That violates my rule about this blog being fun and/or interesting.  Trolls are neither.  They are boring and I don't see why any of us should have to suffer through that kind of nonsense.

The second category of "problem child" is the salesmen.  Since I write a lot about immigration, I get comments that have no content other than to steer people to some website that offers immigration/emigration services.  I don't know these people, I've never used their services and have no idea if they are reputable or not.  I'm not selling anything on this blog and I don't see why I should let anyone else do so either.

After a few years of moderating and approving the comments before they could be published, I stopped.  There wasn't any need for it.  I am one of the luckiest bloggers around because Flophouse readers are polite, interested, and often a lot smarter than I am. And to be clear a person who is passionate or very direct in his/her comments is not a troll, even if I or others have an equally passionate response to her point of view.  

I will never take down a post because I or others don't like what you have to say.  I don't have a problem with being wrong.  I do my best to check my sources but I'm not perfect and I don't mind anyone pointing that out.  

As for opinions, I'm not and never will be the last word on anything.  I say what I think and do my best to come up an argument that makes sense.  Anyone who comes here is free to disagree and to say so in no uncertain terms.

I stopped comment approval but I still read and try to answer each and every comment.  You take the time to pen something in response to a post (and I am deeply grateful every day that you do) and I try to show my respect for that by reading and engaging with what you had to say.

The issues (and they are big ones to me) is that sometimes readers post comments to older posts and I miss them.  The other is that Blogger seems to be randomly dumping some posts in the spam filter and I only see them after a few days.

This will not do.   

On my side I commit to checking that spam box at least once a day.  I should have started doing that earlier and I apologize.  I also commit to paying closer attention to older posts.

On your side, I would ask two things:

The first is I would like to know if it would be better if I posted every other day instead of every day.  That gives you more time to read, reflect, and then comment if you wish.    I sense that the posting rhythm isn't conducive to your participation here.  Please let me know.

The second is that if you don't get a response from me within a couple of days either mention it in a comment to a more recent post or email me at 

In fact, feel free to email me in any case.  Perhaps you have something to say that you would prefer not to have published on an open forum.  Or maybe you'd just like to introduce yourself and start a conversation.  I also like to hear suggestions for future blog posts - some of the material I use here comes from people like Tim who pass along links or who recommend books.   

The sun is shining here in Osaka.  Time to stop tickling the keys and get out of the house.

Bon weekend, everyone.


Friday, June 9, 2017

Macron Makes a Move to Attract Talent to France
Tim Smith sent me a link today to a new website meant to attract highly-skilled migrants to France. The title of the website is a riff off the US President's slogan "Make America Great Again" and it implies that Trump is a provincial person who doesn't care about the rest of the world and who has abdicated any claims to US leadership in this international fight against global warming. Very deft. Here's the link (and after reading the home page who wouldn't click on it if only out of curiosity).

Make Our Planet Great Again

It's well done.  Very VERY well done.  What makes it so in my eyes?  The first is the impeccable timing.  This is the right moment to strike when Americans are reeling over the US withdrawal from the Paris accord.  I'm amazed that they got it up so fast and coordinated it so well with a social media campaign which says to me that Macron has a very competent and well-organized communication staff.  The personal pitch itself is inspiring:  "We are ONE planet and Together, we can make a difference."  And it extols the virtues of France and positions her as a leader in a winnable fight for the planet. "France has always led fights for human rights. Today, more than ever, we are determined to lead (and win!) this battle on climate change."   And then at the bottom of the page is a big clickable field entitled "I want to make the planet great again."

After  Macron's pitch the site gently guides the potential migrant/expatriate interested in working on climate change though a series of open and closed questions.  I use the word "gentle" because none of the questions are complicated or require detailed information.  They don't ask about degrees or experience.  There's just a drop-down menu on the first page that asks if you are a researcher/teacher, entrepreneur, student, NGO worker, or other. And then a second field that asks what country (and in the case of the US, what state) you come from.

This is followed by open fields where you answer questions like "I'm fighting climate change because...," "I currently work on....," and "My dream is to..."  That's a rare chance for a potential migrant to make his/her pitch in his own words.   Nice.  And the final page takes you straight back to Macron's pitch for France, "Your new Homeland." And finally there is a big clickable button on the bottom of the page that says, "I'm coming to France."

Wow.  Talk about casting a wide net.  Talk about mad communication skills.  The other countries competing for the highly-skilled should take note.  I think it's better than 5 Reasons to Work in Sweden which I already thought was pretty good.

Have a look and tell me what you think.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Sommers Hypothesis

Otsuba Park, Osaka, Japan, June 2017
As I was doing my fieldwork in Japan I came across something that is referred to as the Sommers Hypothesis.  Scott Sommers is a Canadian who has lived in Taiwan since 1996 and before that he lived and worked in Japan and South Korea.  His website says that he is working on his PhD in Educational Psychology at Ming Chuan University in Taipei where he also teaches English.

I read the old posts on his blog from time to time and I enjoy them. He has eclectic interests, writes well, and he's a thoughtful man with a lot of experience living in Asia.

In his blog archives I found several posts by Sommers where he looks at the EFL industry in Asia through the lens of my passion, international migration.

Foreign English Teachers as Economic Migrants

The Economic Migration of English Teachers in Asia

The Issue of Social Class Among Foreign English Teachers

Sommers begins his inquiry with a puzzle.  Why is it that so many Anglophones from developed countries came to Asia in the 1980s and continue to come in large numbers today?  Some of this flow is Global North-North migration (Canada to Japan, for example) and some of it is Global North-South (UK to Thailand).    You have only to look at the Japanese immigration statistics for this population to see that this phenomenon is real.

Japan Statistics (see 2-14 Foreigners by Nationality and Age (Five-Year Groups) (1950--2005)(Excel:88KB)) show that in 1965 there were 12,685 US,  1,940 UK, and 1,460 Canadians in Japan.  In 1980 there were 18,590 US citizens.   In my MA dissertation Anglophone Migrants in Japan Mobility, Integration and the Secondary Labor Market  I took note of this in the larger context of increasing immigration to Japan:
  • "But with the rise of the Japanese economy, foreign labor was welcomed in the 1970s and 1980s (Douglass and Roberts 2003, pp.6–7). By 2008 the foreign population had grown from less than 1 million to over 2 million (Chung 2010, p.3). Most of the migration was from other Asian countries like China but the number of Americans, British and other English speakers grew too. In 1985 there were 25,170 US citizens in Japan (Statistics Bureau n.d.). In 2010 those numbers had risen to 50,667 Americans and 16,044 British (Statistics Bureau 2016a)."
So Sommers was absolutely on to something interesting.  And he was right to focus on the sector he knows the most about, the EFL industry, because I would argue that this was the "pull" that brought these Anglophones to Asia.  All of them?  No.  A majority of them?  I would say Yes.  My study seems to confirm it and there is research to support it (See D. Hawley Nagatomo's work, for example, or a close at the visa categories they used when entering Japan).

Sommers argues that any explanation of this migration must take into account "[t]he large and seemingly endless number of Anglo-Americans who are leaving their homes; its origin in the 1980s and "[t]he fact that they move almost entirely to those places in Asia where English teaching jobs are available without special training, the income is reasonably high and the standard of living is comparable with their mother country."

He is using a push/pull model where the "pull" is:  a good economy, jobs, decent wages, and a high standard of living with a minimum of professional credentials required. He is correct that EFL jobs can be had in Asian countries with only a BA in any subject.   On the ECC website two of the requirements are: 1. "Bachelor’s degree in any discipline from a recognized institution" and 2. that the applicant be a "Native speaker of English (grade 1 through completion of high school conducted with English as the main language of instruction)."  Compare that to teaching in a public school, say, in a province of Canada which requires a degree and certification.  Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in the public schools in the US has a similar certification process (depends on the state). 

That's the pull, but what was the "push"?  Why did they leave the US, UK, Canada, Australia?  It's all the more puzzling when one considers that these were mostly young, college-educated individuals. If you look at the country statistics they don't appear to be the least privileged members of their societies.  In 2015 only 33% of Americans had a college degree. So what's up?

Some people are satisfied with a very short answer:  it's all about the adventure  This is a "lifestyle" choice  (and let's stop the conversation right there.)  But Sommers isn't satisfied with that explanation and neither am I.  For one thing, "adventure" is a very broad term and means wildly different things to different people.  For another it's a self-reported state of mind, not (as Sommers points out) something tangible that you can measure.  If someone says to me "I'm moving to France to have an adventure" then I need to follow up with "What does that mean to you?" And when she returns (if she does) what are the indicators that say "Adventure achieved." (Or not, as the case may be.)  

At some point I suggest that you have to dig deeper and go beyond what people say and look at who they are, what they did at home, how they were able to move abroad, and what they do in the host country.  I personally believe that "adventure" is indeed one of the motivations, but is it the only one? Highly unlikely.  Migration is almost always multi-causal and there is no reason to think that Anglophones from developed countries are any different.  

And here is where Sommers raises hackles because he suggests that these anglophones are not just migrants, they are economic migrants.  In general, Americans, Canadians, Brits do not like that term and don't want it applied to them.  To them, it implies low status and puts them on the same level as the unloved and unwanted immigrants in their own countries.  I fully understand their position even though I disagree with it.   

In what sense, then, are they economic migrants according to Sommers?  It has to do with their relative position in the home country job market, the capital they left home with, and the positions open to them in the host country.  He speculates that :  "Anglo-american groups are represented in East Asia as English teachers in proportion to their disadvantage in their domestic labour markets."  

And what is this disadvantage he says they have? Their degrees.
  • "Since the late 1980’s, I estimate that close to a million Anglo-americans have taught English in East Asia; Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. Over a number of posts, I have developed the idea this is a direct result of the decline in workplace value of the BA (Bachelor of Arts). Graduates who are not able or willing to gain further merit through graduate studies or professional education have been marginalized. Without this merit, liberal arts graduates have been forced into underemployment in the ‘dead-end’ jobs of their mother country or to move to the margins of the industrial world where their language and cultural skills have been commoditized and are thus sellable."
In other words, when young people are unable to get jobs at home that are commensurate with their university-level education (and paid well enough to cover the cost of that education), they look to opportunities abroad that leverage their degrees and native-speaker English skills.  EFL companies in Asia actively recruit young, college-educated people from those "core" Anglophone countries.  

Very interesting hypothesis.  He points to studies in the 1990s that suggest that there has been a decline in the value of the BA in those countries.  I did a quick but not extensive search for more recent data and, frankly, I found a lot of studies but no firm conclusions other than general agreement that having a tertiary education is better than not having one.  There is a good 2016 article in The Atlantic about a study that would seem to support Sommers' point.  My own study suggests that, yes, it's mostly (not always) young people with liberal arts degrees that come to Japan to work in EFL.  It was definitely the top employer by far. 

Still that's just one study and it's not proof of "push." Most college graduates in the US and other countries stay home, even those with liberal arts degrees.  What is the difference between those who stay and those who leave?  And I don't think that this can simply be a difference between the "adventuresome" and those who do not want to take the risk.

Another way to look at it is through the lens of socioeconomic status (and a degree is often used a proxy for that but I'm starting to think that this is deceptive).   In addition to degrees we might want to take a closer look at other indicators like how they were able to finance going abroad.  I came across a very few cases in my study where the adventure was almost entirely financed by the family back in the home country or personal savings. They didn't need to work and could devote 100% of their time to making connections and studying the language and culture until they were ready to find a job, open a business, or go to a Japanese university.  I can't help compare their experience to that of those who came to work "on the economy" in local jobs where they were hired for their English skills.  Almost all had a least a BA, so the real difference could be one of resources.  In a couple of cases connections were important - they already had a family member living in Japan and they lived with them until they found their feet.

Why am I so interested in this?  Am I simply being a "spoiler of fun" and all around buzzkiller?  I would defend my interest (if I must) and Sommer's hypothesis for two reasons:  1. It's my passion and I really want to dig into migration puzzles like this one.  Sommers asks good questions and right now my answer to them is "I'm not sure but I'll take that hypothesis and run with it."  Even if it takes me into uncomfortable territory.  And that alone is good enough for me.  

But then there is the second reason which concerns all of us.  One of our (Americans abroad) arguments against the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) and for Residence-based Taxation (RBT) is that we are better characterized as working people with average incomes and assets, and not professional class or above, champagne-swilling, sushi-eating elite "expats."  We even write books that homelanders read about how how our experiences have greatly enriched us personally and professionally. And then we turn around and ask them to support us in our efforts to only be taxed in our host countries. It's not just the mixed message here, it's the fact that we have precious little proof that we are what we say we are. We know what we personally experience, we listen to our friends, but we know precious little about other Americans around the world or even in the next city.  And I think this matters a lot to how credible we are in this fight.

Sommers gives us one place we could start and he is to be commended for that.  But we need more data, more studies to support or refute what he has to say.  I would say that we need more studies about migrants from developed countries period.  A lot of government policies about immigration in the countries I have cited in this post are based on perceptions.  It's no different with emigration. We can kick back and listen to some politician or government bureaucrat tell us who we are (and grumble because we don't like it) or we can know ourselves and tell them with data to back it up.

And if it happens that the data show that some of us are, indeed, economic migrants?  So what?

It takes a lot of courage to pack up and leave and it takes a lot of hard word to build a life in another country with few resources.  We can be proud of ourselves for going where the work was, and there is nothing about that that says "failure" to me.

That's my unvarnished take on it, mes amis.  But I'm very interested in hearing what you think.  So fire away.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Bob Dylan and True Tales

The songwriter Bob Dylan was given the Nobel Prize for Literature a few months ago.  A few days ago his lecture was published on the official Nobel Prize website.

In my imaginary Dylan belonged firmly to my parent's generation.  I was born in 1965 and in my earliest memories one of my parents and her friends were dragging the sixties into the seventies.  (You can read more about that in A Hippy Childhood.)  Trying to be a rebel, to do something different in that context was frustrating.
  • "Taking drugs as a form of adolescent rebellion simply loses any meaning when the adults in your life have already claimed that territory. Other ways had to be found. So, one day I came home and informed my mother that I had joined the Young Americans for Freedom, a very conservative youth organization. To my disappointment my mother replied with something very mild and along the lines of, 'That's nice, dear.' My mother is no fool."
When just about anything goes, so goes the inter-generational game.   We were tricked.  Tricked, I say.  Damn them for their tolerance.  Hell, might as well take up with a Frenchman and go off and be a foot soldier for international capitalism.

But Bob Dylan was there on the edge of my consciousness.  I always knew who he was.  I couldn't own him in my mind for my generation but I did listen to some of his songs and read some of the lyrics of those songs which were pure poetry.

So his lecture was something of a surprise for me.  It's brilliant. He pays homage to who and what came before him.  He stepped into the moving river of migration himself when, as all migrants do, "I left home..."  That's it.  The first step of all travellers, tourists, migrants and expatriates; each and every one heading out into the world on a Hero's Journey.

Dylan connects the world of folk music to some of the great literature of the world and they are about travellers: books like Moby Dick that "make demands on you."  I know what he means.  I finished Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner a week or so ago.  This is a story of marriage and migration:  a trailing spouse and a native son; love, pride, hardship, catastrophe, and forgiveness.  It's fiction but it's still a "true tale" which eschews formulas and happy endings for something deeper and darker. I closed the book feeling changed.   I have to read it again and I will.  As I have reread All Quiet on the Western Front many times over the past thirty years.  Books like these just stick with you.  And it doesn't matter that they are fiction; they are still true.

Take the The Odyssey by Homer.  This is the tale of a travelling man who is not trying to make a home abroad, he's at the tail end of his journey there and he's trying to get home.  Dylan notes that it's not so easy to return.  Those of us who have been a long time away from "home" can certainly relate to this:
  • "In a lot of ways, some of these same things have happened to you. You too have had drugs dropped into your wine. You too have shared a bed with the wrong woman. You too have been spellbound by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies. You too have come so far and have been so far blown back. And you've had close calls as well. You have angered people you should not have. And you too have rambled this country all around. And you've also felt that ill wind, the one that blows you no good. And that's still not all of it.  When he gets back home, things aren't any better. Scoundrels have moved in and are taking advantage of his wife's hospitality."
Oh yes.  You go off to be changed and while you're gone the people and places you left behind move on.  In one of Dylan's songs Down the Highway he sings the perspective of those left behind and hints at how migration can be a chain:  one person leaves and then another decides to do the same.  Rural areas, small towns and villages all around the world empty out because of this.

"Well, the ocean took my baby
My baby stole my heart from me
Yes, the ocean took my baby
My baby took my heart from me
She packed it all up in a suitcase
Lord, she took it away to Italy, Italy
So, I'm a-walkin' down your highway
Just as far as my poor eyes can see
Yes, I'm a-walkin' down your highway
Just as far as my eyes can see
From the Golden Gate Bridge
All the way to the Statue of Liberty."

Here is the audio of Dylan's lecture.  Find a quiet place and just listen.  Then, and only then,  have a look at the transcript.  Heard or read, it's pure poetry.   And I like to think that because I did listen, Dylan comes a little closer in my mind to being a part of my experience in the US and abroad.  Like all great minds, great artists and great writers, I think he has something to express that transcends time and touches me deeply and personally.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Migrants and the Fantasy of Return

"Fantasies are real and true in themselves; they happen in our psychic lives and they are consequential in so much as all our thoughts influence our perspectives on life (and are influenced by our experiences). Fantasies affect our actions, to some extent, simply because of the discursive possibilities they open up (Moskowitz 1995, 552), whether or not we act upon them."

Bolognani, M. (2016). From myth of return to return fantasy: a psychosocial interpretation of migration imaginaries. Identities23(2), 193-209.

How prevalent is the myth or fantasy of return among migrant/expatriates?  I think it's very common. As content as we may be in our host countries, who has not mentally played out the "What if?" scenarios at different moments in our transnational lives?  For, as long as we retain citizenship, we have the option to return.    That fact that we do not exercise that option is irrelevant.  What matters is that we have a choice and every day we know that we have actively chosen to stay in our host countries. We are the actors, not the acted upon.

Two things interfere with the fantasy.  The first is that the longer we stay, the higher our personal investment in the place we call "home."  To choose to leave might mean selling the house or apartment, leaving behind a spouse and children, losing health and retirement benefits, walking away from a perfectly decent job.  There is a cost associated with return that can be higher than the price of the initial migration.

The second concerns government policies and public perceptions.  Yes, international law is very clear that any citizen has a right to return to a country of citizenship but there is no law that says they must encourage return and welcome you with open arms.  In a sense a returnee is viewed with the same suspicion as any immigrant.  What do you have to offer?  What benefit is it to us that you are now here and not there?  Will you be a burden and not an asset? Have you returned simply to reap the benefits of our social welfare system?

It's all about age and social/economic capital.  Migration policies tend to favor the young, the healthy, the well-educated and those with significant financial assets.  These are the citizens a country doesn't want to lose and these are the immigrants they want.  Rightly or wrongly, an older returnee to a developed country is likely to be less welcome than a young, single, migrant entrepreneur from a less developed one.  Unless, of course, she is bringing back money that can be invested to build a house, create jobs, and contribute something significant to the local economy.

At some point in our migration journey reality intrudes: our home countries are either indifferent to whether we return or not, or they might wince at the thought.  Our families do care but there are not enough of them to make much difference in the home country.

Exhibit A in our day is, of course, the British living in the EU who, because of Brexit, are in a very precarious position.  This is mirrored by the precarity of EU citizens in the UK.  All of them fear (and rightly so) that the choice to stay or not will be taken out of their hands.  The fantasy of return could become a nightmare of forced return or forced citizenship.  For all the soothing words that say that calmer heads will prevail, there are reasons to think that calm heads have already looked at it and like or dislike what they see according to national interests.

An article by Elizabeth Collett and Meghan Benton on the MPI website argues that there is an asymmetrical nature of the negotiations over these migrants.  They write:

"[I]t is clear that the United Kingdom may be negotiating on an uneven platform with a number of countries. From the available data, it is clear that more than half the British population in Europe’s sunniest climes—Spain, Malta, Cyprus, and Portugal, among them—are over age 50 (and one-third in Malta and Spain over age 65). This sits in stark contrast to an overwhelmingly youthful EU population in the United Kingdom, with just a handful of pensioners from Spain and Italy... Similarly, some of the countries that have donated their youth population to the British economy are keen to see them return, as in the case of Poland. Thus they have less at stake than a UK government happy to see its older UK nationals continuing to enjoy the sunshine elsewhere."

In other words, they are suggesting that EU countries send their young to the UK, while the UK is more likely to send the the retired or semi-retired.  Thus, "return" would not mean the same thing to the UK as it would to the EU.  Yes, they would be drawing their pensions in the UK and spending it in the UK but this ignores the potential costs of having them come "home."  They will need to find housing or places in retirement homes, they will need medical care, and they will most likely not be in the workforce and not paying into the social security system.  The younger EU migrants in the UK do both.

However,  expanding our view to the EU level, British retirement migrants (65+) are estimated to be about 189,000 out of 890,000 British citizens living in EU countries.  It's only in certain EU countries like sunny Spain or the south of France where the numbers of retirees are high relative to the overall migrant population. But remember that all EU countries have a say in the negotiations over Brexit. So the question is  How do France and Spain feel about UK migrants?   Overall, are they a benefit to these countries or not?  And the answer, I would think, would depend on what contribution the 20-64 population is making to these countries.  I'm sure that governments are running those numbers and taking into account the political landscape/public perception of the let them stay vs. send them back debate.

My take on it is that retirement migrants and migrants who "age in place" are extremely vulnerable and merit extra protection.    Whatever the fantasies a migrant may have had about returning, the reality is that they have built a life somewhere else and it becomes harder and harder every year they stay to go back.  To those who say that letting them stay is a "reward" for breaking the law or is somehow contrary to national interests, I would counter that with:  Ahem.  You were very happy to have them around to revitalize small towns, spend retirement money, keep your food cheap, teach, write code, or care for the elderly.  Behind each and every one of those activities is a human being who will, like you, grow old.   I believe that the number of years spent in a country and age should confer strong protection against deportation.  In some countries it does; in others not so much.

Reflect for a moment on the vulnerability of all migrants which varies with age, socioeconomic status, country of origin, and so many other things.  States still make the rules. So we dream of options that nonetheless narrow with time and, one day we may wake up to find that in spite of our citizenship, our preferred alternative has become impractical, if not impossible.  As for our staying on, how frightening it is to learn that is up to others to decide.  In migration we are not always the captains of our fate; the end of our migration story is not always ours to write.  But I still think the migrant life is one worth living and fighting for. 

“And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo, adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on, and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same..."

Sam in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien