Saturday, February 7, 2009

The expat and the immigrant experience

image I listened to Tom Ashbrook’s interview with filmmaker Wayne Wang this morning: he created “The Joy Luck Club” and is now releasing two independent films mirroring the Chinese-American experience.  I was surprised at all of the ways that this conversation resonated with me.  Their immigrant experiences were a mirror to many of my expatriate experiences, and, in turn, I understand the nuances of their stories much better than I ever did before moving overseas.

I understood immigration through the myth of the Melting Pot, as an extended process of assimilation. People learn the new language, come to understand the culture, raise their children to be part of their new communities as they abandon their traditional practices and extended families.

But the show helped me to realize that first-generation immigrants never fully assimilate: there is always a tension of merging their past and future lives, synthesizing or partitioning practices, making decisions about what to keep and what to discard.  They always stand apart, outside their adopted culture, forever separated by formative experiences guiding  their perceptions and actions.

My own experiences in the Netherlands are similar inside / outside experience.  The people are welcoming and the culture is open to me, and I navigate it easily and feel comfortable in it.  But I still am not a part of it, and never will be.  While the obvious gap is language, a subtler part is missed social cues and shorthands, and there is always going to be a root difference  from having a different heritage.

Ironically, I felt outside of American culture too, not as interested in sports and pop culture, more likely to embrace travel and reading, almost complementary to the in/out qualities here.

It’s an odd separation to have persist, because the gap between Americans and Dutch is much less than the gap between Americans and Chinese.  Still, it exists. DeTocqueville was the first to describe it, but I think that we all  note the many differences and wonder how they came to be.  We were a common people four generations ago, and America began as an extension of the intellectual, cultural, and social traditions practiced on the Continent for centuries.  The US still identifies strongly with its European heritage.  Even so, we are different: less class conscious, but more material; living on a larger scale, yet willing to change perhaps too fast.

I think that a lot of that came from the westward expansion: as settlers broke out of the New England communities they encountered the vast prairies and mountains, unlimited open space and resources so unlike home.  And it changed them, led to a more ambitious and individualistic culture and economy.

Listening to the Chinese-Americans tell their stories, I realized that the reality must be more complex. Immigrants come from unique subcultures, each bringing different perspectives and traditions.  Which communities would they identify with; which traditions would shape their actions in new societies?  Life in a new land is not lived in  isolation, it is a stage play watched by new neighbors and by distant relatives.  How do immigrants reconcile disparate views of what their ‘right’ behavior should be?  Children are not rooted in the prior culture and don’t struggle with the cultural blend that their parents see. Their totally different experiences must create gaps and estrangement as parent’s conflicts seem irrelevant and outdated?

The conversation ranged over all of these questions, and I needed to pause several times to think about my own answers. I know that I do carry my American practices among the Dutch, despite people complementing me on how well I fit in.  I suspect that while I take on some local guidance, I always wear it more lightly than I (or they)might think.

I struggle with the provincialism of people in the US who argue for me to join their ideal communities, but I’m sure that I am equally incomprehensible to them. Last month, one confessed to feeling sorry for me, away from the big house, friends, and familiar things.  It set me back: I never felt that way about the living here.

I like being the parent or uncle who lives differently in distant lands and hosts exotic holidays. But that distance is also a source of disengagement, perhaps headed ultimately towards alienation?   If the shared experiences are rare, and the stories lose their relevance and resonance, do I also lose engagement as perceived by friends and family?

Barak Obama famously consulted Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” to draw on lessons of past administrations to shape his own.  Similarly, I think that there are ideas in immigrant stories that that are relevant to making sense of our own expatriate experiences.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Peering around Poznan

Poznan 11 I’m on the Lot flight back from Poland, inexplicably put at the back of the plane with ten rows of empty seats in front of me before the rest of the passengers.  Since this might be an honor reserved for select guests, I haven’t objected.

Besides, it gives me some quiet time to organize photos and thoughts without someone dropping their seat into my lap.

I expect Poland to be a stone-cold country of monolithic block buildings. 

I made that self-acknowledgement as I arrived, then set out to deliberately look for ways to prove myself wrong.  I’m happy to say that Poland did not disappoint: there was lots to experience and to learn about.

So, a few pictures and observations from the two days;

The people were delightful.  They took time to show us the city and to guide us through the local food and shops.

Poznan 35 The weather was warmer than the Netherlands, cool with a light dusting of snow.  I loved the gaunt trees against the grey sky in the parks: I can’t help thinking of spy novels.

Unfortunately, there was heavy fog most of the time that

The businesses only turn on lights when they have to, leaving hotel lobbies and streets dark until well after dusk.

The hotel staff took cigarette breaks outside my room at the end of the hall: it was impossible to sleep for long.

Poznan 31 The meaning of everyday signage is impenetrable.  It’s a bit like Asia, where there are no shared roots in common words.  Dual-language guidance was very rare.

Food tended towards sausage, dumplings, cabbage, soups, but meals were hearty and good.  As in Italy, the local quality is much higher than the ‘ethnic neighborhood’ quality you get for similar food elsewhere.

The ‘egg on toast’ variant served for breakfast was pretty terrible, though.

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Amidst the unfortunate examples of concrete-brutalist architecture are a lot of red-brick buildings with black ironwork.  The city is being renovated on all sides, but I hope that they preserve these treasures.

The architecture around the Market Square was amazingly Dutch.

Poznan 13 The old brick churches are unique, and the ever-present statures of Pope John-Paul remain a deep source of national pride.

The local currency, the zloty, has declined 40% against the euro during recent months, causing huge increases in the cost of imported goods.  It really illustrated the impact that the financial crisis is having within the EU, and the risks of remaining outside the shared currency.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Stray thoughts for a Wednesday

…along with some photos from local art galleries

* DSC05266 I haven’t had a vacation in far too long.

Last summer we were closing the company, the future was uncertain, I needed a new situation by September, so it didn’t happen. Then autumn was filled with the move; early winter with business travel and the holidays.  ‘always something, as people close to me are known to sigh.

So, I settled in with airline route maps and SkyScanner, looking for cheap flights to paradise.  The places that are cheap (Venice, Sardinia) look cold and shuttered, while the places that promise sunshine (Madeira, Tenerife) are astronomic.  Driving is the most practical way to take a city break, but offers little scope for finding warm hills and beaches.

So, nothing yet, but I need to find a break this month.

DSC05262 Stitch * “Talk as though you know you’re right; listen as though you know you’re wrong.”

I’m midway through a class  Stanford’s Center for Professional Development, online access to their regular business school classes.  Courses yield credit towards specialty certificates, and the quality is really good.

My Organizational Theory class is a gem: Prof. Robert Sutton postulates that most business theories and books are poorly grounded, and that evidence-based logic is as relevant to management as it is to medicine.  He debunks the conventional wisdom that drives thoughtless leadership, and takes a research-driven approach to developing more effective strategies.

I love being a lifelong learner, keeping up with changing technology and medical knowledge and putting my experiences into context and perspective.

DSC05265 * I discovered that our division president, running a 1.5 billion dollar organization, is 41 years old.

There are generations spread across the layers of most large companies.  The Board is typically in their 60’s, business unity leadership is in their 50’s.  Up and coming leaders take on product or development leadership roles in their 40’s, while project managers get seasoned in their 30’s.

Jumping the queue either sends a message of  ‘change’ into the organization, or tests someone with exceptional promise.   In this case, I think that there was an intent to promote  new thinking, different faces, and to ‘shake things up’.  The dangers are that sharp analytic skills don’t get honed with real experiences, rapid rotations don’t accumulate relationships, and the consequences of actions aren’t given time to fully develop.

I think that they know this: outward confidence is accompanied by actions that hint at insecurity.  There is a tendency to belittle specialist knowledge, to trumpet their ability to make ‘hard decisions’, and to foster a relentless competitiveness for both organizational and market supremacy.

DSC05264 * 25 steps back / 25 steps forward

I’ve been finishing my year’s personal goals,and have been tagged for a “25 things about me” list on Facebook,  I suppose that they are two sides of the same reflection, I’ll hope to get that posted by the weekend.

‘Off on a business trip to Poland, with limited Internet connections.  It’s my first trip to Eastern Europe: I’ll try to bring back some good photos and impressions.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Seeds for spring in the chill of winter

DSC05276 Its started snowing again: I think that the weather has actually gotten worse since I moved down from Arnhem.

Expatica recently reported that this has been the coldest winter since 1997, although the coldest temperature, –20.8 C  in Weert (Limburg) still seems warm at –5.4 F compared to what the upper Midwest has been experiencing.

The southern parts of the country have also received more snow, totaling 10 cm, than other regions of the Netherlands.  Happily, it’s also one of the sunniest Januaries on record as well.

February 1st, as planned, I pulled the trigger to start work on a new activity, sowing seeds that will hopefully blossom in the coming months. It should be both challenging and instructive, opening some new opportunities that I’ve been thinking about for a year.  And it will all remain a Dutch adventure, relevant to the themes of my essays here and breaking some new ground for me in the Netherlands.

I’ll look forward to sharing progress as my plans come together.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Carnivale in swing

DSC05290 February is usually a wretched month in the northern US.  Christmas and New Year’s celebrations are over; the weather is at its coldest and wettest.   February started with snow showers here in Maastricht as well, obscuring the views and confusing the gulls.

But the sound of drums and bagpipes broke the midday calm and the February gloom -- Carnivale crossed the river and rocked the Wyck.

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There were (inexplicably) Scottish marchers and Devo singers and men in spangled hats with long feathers.  A camel was hoisted up the lamppost to cheers and toasts: the police assured me it would be there for three more weeks.


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This shows a lot of promise for the month: the store windows are filling with green-yellow-red bunting; party stores are stocking with masks and feathers.  I’ve bought some braces and a boa…still holding out on the silly hat though.  It starting to feel like a great celebration… ’refreshing start to a generally miserable time of the year.

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Backups and synchronization

BackupRecovery The best advice to give anyone with a computer is to make backups.  Hard drives crash, laptops are stolen, personal items need to stay off of company computers, so the pictures, videos, music, and email archives need to go somewhere.

I’ve been saved more than once by a timely backup, but the process of making them and keeping them current is hard.

At first, it seemed like The Cloud was the answer. I chose, a well-regarded service that automates the entire process.  For $35 per year, MozyHome first backs up all of your files to their servers, then updates a series of incremental backups, saving new material whenever the computer is idle.  If I need to restore a file, I can download individual files or request a DVD with everything.

I paid for the service and struggled with it for six months. It won’t back up removable drives and the connection is slow: the initial backup took weeks and if drive letters changed, whole archives were deleted.  Their tech support was very responsive, but the service wasn’t reliable for me.  And I worry about trusting everything to a third party.

So, I bought a one terabyte (1000 GB) USB hard drive and copied my entire hard disk to it with Norton Ghost.  This is a great solution for making simple backups, and for moving files from an old computer to a new one.

SyncBack My documents and pictures are more dynamic, and I want to save them more often, sychronizing working directories between my main disks and the USB drive.  SyncBack is a free utility that compares two directories and adjusts the files to match, quickly updating the backups. I like the flexibility and backups can be scheduled; a low-cost pro-version adds additional features.

My last problem is that if a file is corrupted on my working drives, it overwrites the good copy on my backup. So, I scan for zero-length files before synchronizing, but it’s not a good solution yet.

Finally, there are times when I’ve been doing a lot of work in big archive folders like Pictures: moving, deleting, renaming, and organizing.  I want to do a more selective sync between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ versions of the work, comparing differences between folders and files and merging work without losing things.  Beyond Compare is a wonderful utility for this job: graphical and intuitive.


I buzzed through a huge job of bringing my photo folders up to date with it yesterday, merging picture archives from other computers and getting everything backed up to the removable drive. Once complete, I created a new SyncBack task to maintain it: woo hoo, the photo archive is off my worry list.