Monday, May 17, 2010

Guest Post Series: Expat Images: Unrecognisable vs. Iconic by Anastasia Ashman

On my first serious expat stint, Southeast Asia in the ‘90s, I achieved a state of photographic oblivion.

When I set out from Los Angeles I was already solidly unemployed, unproductive, and unmotivated. I had a capricious romance to see me through. In Asia, life losses piled up: heirlooms ransacked at the container yard, the cruel theft of a puppy, the unfathomable demise of my best friend.

I did not write about any of these things. Too much shock, no support. Turns out capricious romance isn’t the best fallback in a crisis.

Language and cultural barriers shielded me from bonding with the Chinese and Malays and Tamils and Thais around me. My reactions were miscalibrated: I laughed when introduced to a person with the name of a celebrated American boxer -- a common moniker in Malaysia -- and took offense at the quickly-retracted handshake of a traditional Malay greeting. I also mistakenly expected dinner party banter at gatherings that focused on the scarfing of food in silence.

Soon enough I was as unrecognisable as my new world. My own body was erasing me. A spongy, knee-less Southern Italian genetic inheritance asserted itself with the help of a greasy local diet while my hair frizzed mercilessly in the tropical air.

Friends who knew me during cosmopolitan past lives in New York, California, and Italy wouldn’t identify me as the 30-pounds heavier creature with the ill-fitting clothes and unschooled haircut photographed in jungles and palaces. Uprooted from my milieu, in a harsh climate and surrounded by perpetual strangers, I was desperate to locate comfort whatever the cost. My Asia photographs are stowed, an expat adventure distressing to recall, impossible to frame.

Scraping bottom (especially on the far side of the world) has a benefit. It’s easy to see which way is up. My 12-time zone couch surf back to New York was like a Phoenix’s ascent from the ashes.

Recently I’ve been monstrous abroad again. Breathe easy: happily married, in possession of a hard won sense of self.

This particular snapshot of expat life is a mantle piece pride. There I am in 2005 commandeering the lens, the microphone, the printing press in Istanbul as Turkish newspapers and television discuss my expat literature collection by foreign women about their lives in modern Turkey. Tales not universally known, many writers never before published. All of them minority voices in a Muslim nation with a reputation for censorship.

The celebrity-studded book launch is a blur, except for my unauthorly leather pants and shiny rock star coiffure -- those are in fine focus in my mind’s eye! I haven’t often been so polished before or since, nor managed to squeeze into the lambskin trousers, but no matter. As a coiner of the concept of the Expat Harem virtual community -- feminine storytellers making sense of life’s evolutions through the filter of another culture -- in a flash I became iconic.

A positive image of an expat to others, and to myself.

The fleeting, picturesque moment captures an enduring truth about my expatriatism. In a wide world of strangers I’ve finally found my perpetual peers, and a theoretical home for both my literary career and my life abroad. Now I have a way to nurture and sustain my most valuable expatriate possession -- my sense of self -- no matter where I am, or what heights or depths I face.

California-native Anastasia Ashman is a writer/producer of cultural entertainment in Istanbul and the founder of expat+HAREM, the global niche.


rose deniz said...

I love how in this post, Anastasia, you look closely at that disorienting feeling of being abroad, of being an expat, and then remind us that its possible to regain a sense of self despite what our image looks like on the outside.

Photography, unlike other forms of art, allow us to peek back in time to see what we looked like, and don't always mirror what we thought or felt at the time. Sometimes I've been shocked to realize I looked healthy, normal and happy in photos during a particular difficult time in my life. I agree wholeheartedly that our image changes as time goes on, and it is affected by places we inhabit both physically and mentally.

anastasiaashman said...

Thanks Rose. I'd agree there can be a lag time between what we feel and how it shows up, but also a disconnect between how we see ourselves and how we present to others. Reviewing old photos can be a (good or bad) shock....especially for expats whose experiences can swing so dramatically simply by relocating to another country.

bazaarbayar said...

A compelling post, Anastasia, on the challenging subject of self-image. I’ve never been very good at connecting how I see myself and how others may see me. I’ve always felt fairly positive about myself. Whether out of a genuine feeling of self-worth or unwillingness to dig too deep into certain aspects of myself - I’ll admit it’s a mixture of both. So I’ve had the opposite shock from what Rose has experienced, that of seeing a photo in which I don’t resemble the sophisticated, pulled-together person I thought I was presenting to the world.

And BTW, it’s vivid in my mind too how iconic you looked at that book launch!

Anastasia said...

Thank you Catherine, that's right, you were there at the launch!

As for feeling more together than you look: that's another reality twister for you.