Category Archives: Expat Life

Long Distance Mourning

How do you mourn someone from half a world away?

In the U.S., mourning rituals tend to center around being with your family, or the family of the bereaved. In my experience, there’s often some generic cold cut trays and veggie platters. People are somber and sad, or feel like they should be, even though in very big families it might be the first time you’ve seen your cousins in months, if not longer, and it’s hard to resist the joy of just being together. People share memories of their loved one, or maybe look at old pictures together.  But what do you do when you can’t be there?

Before we moved here, Micah and I talked about what situations would justify a flight back to the States.  We are unfortunately missing some big events while we are here- a graduation, a wedding, and a new nephew’s birth- but a funeral felt different.  We had agreed that a funeral would be important enough to make the 30-hour trip back.  At least for one of us.  The cost would make it difficult for us both to go. But one of us would go. Probably. I imagine every expat has thought about these questions and made decisions in advance about what circumstances would require a trip home. It’s not easy. And it’s difficult when they are merely hypothetical questions and you don’t have the context to make the decision properly.

And then, it was suddenly a real question rather than a hypothetical for me. My grandmother passed away on 25 November, in Massachusetts.  She had lived in a nursing home the last several years, and the several years before that she was living with one of my aunts.  She had dementia and I think she thought was a teenager staying in a hotel, on vacation with her parents.  (Though I wouldn’t choose living with dementia for anyone’s grandmother, reliving happy years might not be a bad way to spend your last months.) She had been in declining health, and I knew it was likely she would pass away while we were here, but it still somehow snuck up on me.

We visited her last summer before moving to Malaysia.  She was holding a small nun doll, it looked like the nun from the Madeline children’s books.  She held it up to Micah and I and said, “How do you like my lady?”  Of course we recognized it as a nun, but since she introduced it to us as “her lady” we felt we should continue calling it that.  Micah said, “I like your lady.  Tell me about her, where did you get her?”  And, in typical Grandma fashion, she said, “Well, she’s a nun!  But of course you wouldn’t recognize that because you aren’t Catholic.”

Grandma grew up in Boston. She firmly believed that Irish Catholics (Boston Irish Catholics in particular) are morally superior to everyone else, and didn’t have a problem making her opinion known. Even with her devout faith, none of her children or grandchildren shared her religious fervor. (Perhaps that should read because of her devout faith…?) My family decided on a small, graveside memorial service, with no mass. As difficult as it has been to figure out how to mourn Grandma from half a world away, I am truly thankful to not have to rush back for a week’s worth of formal mourning.  This really helped make my decision about whether to return or not.

Thanks to the horrendous winter the Northeast experienced, my family wasn’t able to hold a memorial service until this week. In November, I was set to fly back. I even had a list of what clothes I needed to pack and what clothes I would need to borrow or acquire once I got to Massachusetts. But now that I’ve had some time to process and mourn on my own, I decided not to go. For one reason, it doesn’t feel quite so urgent to go back as it did several months ago. For another, our circumstances have changed quite dramatically and it’s much more complicated for me to fly back now.

I will admit that I feel a little guilty about not being there, but I know it’s the best choice for me, personally. So while my family gets together this week and no doubt shares their favorite Grandma memories, here is one of mine.

She loved the Celtics and the Red Sox, though I remember her following the Red Sox more.  She told me about going to the ballpark when she was little to see Ted Williams- the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived.  (And his teammates, of course, but she always only talked about Ted.) I inherited my own love of the Red Sox through my grandmothers on both sides of my family.  She had retired to Florida while I was still a kid, and as an adult I had thought about taking her to Spring Training at some point.  In 2003, at my college graduation, I told her the outline of my plan:

Me:  Grandma, I’m thinking about going to Spring Training next year to see the Sox.
Grandma: And I suppose you want to stay at MY house?  (Typical Grandma!)
Me: No, I thought you and I could go together.  We’ll stay at a hotel close to where their games are and go to a couple of them.
Grandma: Oh, I would like that!
My mother: I want to go, too!

We both turned to look at her and said simultaneously, “But you don’t even like baseball.”  My mom said, “I’ll pay for the hotel and buy the tickets!”  So my mom, who didn’t even like baseball, was invited on the trip with us.  And she did pay for the hotel and buy the tickets!  (To my mom’s credit, she did follow the team that year, the year they won the 2004 World Series, reversing The Curse of the Bambino.)

That trip was the first time I had ever had true “adult” time with my grandmother, and it was really nice.  My mom was battling cancer and her energy levels ebbed and flowed.  We were having dinner at some generic chain restaurant after an afternoon at the ballpark, I think it was a Bennigan’s, and my mom’s energy hit the floor.  We had already ordered, and she didn’t want us to have to skip dinner, so she went out to the car to nap.  I had ordered a beer, and their happy hour promotion was “buy one get one free.”  I assumed my second beer would come after I finished the first one, but the waitress brought both of them at once!  So here I am with two beers, eating dinner with my grandmother, who, as far as I could remember, didn’t drink.  I don’t even remember her having wine with dinner. Ever. I felt really sheepish.

Then Grandma told me about a trip she and my grandfather had taken to the Jack Daniel’s distillery and how she really enjoyed their Lynchburg Lemonade!  And she had two of them while my grandfather was chatting with someone, and he didn’t know why she liked them so much!  I couldn’t believe it!  This was a side of Grandma I had never seen.  After we had paid the check, I asked if she was ready to go.  She said, “Did you finish both of those beers already?”  Again I felt sheepish and mumbled, “Yes.”  “That’s my girl!  OK, let’s go then.”  I remember thinking What just happened??

So there you have it.  A “typical Grandma” memory, about her jab for my inability to insist on a Catholic upbringing as a small child, and my favorite memory, about going to Spring Training with her and my mom.

SpringTrainingWM

A traditional Irish prayer for “times of sorrow”:
May you see God’s light on the path ahead
When the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear,
Even in your hour of sorrow,
The gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard may hardness
Never turn your heart to stone,
May you always remember
When the shadows fall—
You do not walk alone.

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Globalization, or Finding a Piece of Texas in Melaka

Melaka is about a 2 hour drive south of Kuala Lumpur.  It was the place where colonization of the Malay peninsula began (first from Sumatra, then from China, India and the Middle East, and then relatively late to the party was Europe- the Portuguese, the Dutch, then the English).  When the English came in, Melaka became part of their Straits settlement with Penang and Singapore.  I wanted to visit at some point because I am a sucker for historical stuff, so we took a quick day trip last weekend.

Melaka is easily accessible by bus, so that’s what we did- spending a whopping RM32.80 each way on a Super VIP bus for a more comfortable ride, for a round trip cost of about $20 USD.  For both of us.  On the cab ride into the historical area, Micah noticed a familiar sign.

DSCN5601WM

For the uninitiated, our adopted home state of Texas launched a very successful anti-litter campaign in the late 1980s.  Those signs look like this:

DMWT

We thought it was hilarious and really cool that Melaka adopted this now-iconic symbol of Texas, of all places.  Not only is the campaign slogan the same, but the two signs are practically identical!  The color blocking is the same, the font is the same, the iconography is basically the same but of course changed to be culturally relevant.  At the bottom, the outline of the state of Texas becomes the outline of the state of Melaka.  At the top, Texas’ Lone Star becomes the Crescent Moon and Star from Melaka’s state flag.  One would think this would be pretty clear grounds for a copyright infringement case, but it appears that Texas is in favor of the globalization of anti-litter.

I will say, from our single day in Melaka, they did seem to have their litter under much better control than what we’ve seen in KL.  Texas goes global for the win!

Who is an Expat?

My academic and professional background is in Linguistics (the objective study of language). I’m really interested in how language and identity are tied together, and I think it’s pretty clear that part of my own personal identity, currently, is being an expat. I’ve used that word, expat, as a word that has an easy and unproblematic definition. I’ve even played with it by calling ourselves “Tex-pats” (since we lived/will live in Texas). I have never considered that there might be a second meaning hidden within it. Someone in my social network shared the following article on Facebook recently and I’ve been thinking about it a lot: Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? The author argues the point that White/Europeans get to claim expat status, while other racial/ethnic groups have to claim immigrant status. I’m not sure I completely agree, at least as far as my experience in KL, but I do think there’s some merit to the overall claim. It does raise the question, What exactly is the difference between an expat and an immigrant?

A quick Google and check of various expat sites shows that, among the expat groups listed in KL, not all of them are White/European, but most are. (Disclaimer: There are some statistical sampling issues here as there could very well be groups listed in other places that I am just not aware of and/or didn’t show up on the first page of Google hits.)

The listing on expat.com for several cities in Malaysia includes some non-European nations, but it’s undeniably primarily White/European. This is the most diverse group, as well as the biggest:

  • US
  • Great Britain
  • France
  • Pakistan
  • Africa (yes, I’m aware this isn’t a country.  But the group is the “African Ladies Group” so that’s what I’m going with.)
  • Canada
  • Germany
  • Japan
  • Korea
  • Australia & New Zealand (in one group)
  • Netherlands
  • Switzerland
  • Scandinavia (again, not a country, but that’s what is listed in the group name.)
  • As well as a Welsh group and an Irish group

Internations includes many of the same national groups as Expat.com, though not as extensive a list.  It’s also much more heavily weighted to European/Western nations:

  • India
  • France
  • US
  • Italy
  • Canada
  • Great Britain
  • Germany
  • Australia
  • Spain
  • Netherlands

Finally, Meetup.com includes an Indian expat group by name, but doesn’t specifically include any other expat groups. There are plenty of other special interest groups, just none that have “expat” in the title.

The inclusion of Indian expat groups on both Internations and Meetup.com is interesting to me because KL has a large Indian population. Indians, along with Chinese and Malay, are one of the three primary ethnic groups of KL. I think this probably relates to what any expat seeks when joining an expat group: finding people who are in my shoes, more or less. The local Indian community will obviously have a different experience living in KL than someone who is here from Mumbai or Delhi for a year or two.

For me, I think “expat” refers to people who go somewhere for work for a relatively short time while “immigrant” implies something more permanent. For us, it’s a year. For others we have met, it’s 3-5 years. Most of us have intentions of going back home, regardless of where home is, at some point in time. Though I have met people who consider themselves expats who live in Southeast Asia more or less permanently, so I feel conflicted about my definition. And I know people who have moved to (or will soon move to) Southeast Asia for retirement and would likely consider themselves expats. But the “short term” requirement is really what comes to my mind first.

Privilege is certainly a large part of it. Among the other expats we have met at the hotel, the thing we have in common is working for big, multi-national corporations (or our spouses do). I clearly don’t know everyone’s salaries, but I can guess that no one here is working for minimum wage. We all have the ability to pack up our lives back home (where ever that is) and move over seas for some time. I would say we all share a certain amount of privilege in our home countries because of that ability. (We definitely share a certain amount of privilege here in KL…more than a “certain” amount to be honest.) In KL, I think this shared privilege is probably a more important distinction to “expat vs. immigrant” than a race or ethnic distinction.

For me, this article raised a lot of interesting questions to consider. Certainly some food for thought!