News from North Korea

While Expat Lingo is on leave in China, the (North) Korean Central News Agency has taken up its patriotic duty to fill-in with what you soft, imperialist boot-lickers call a “guest blog post.”

We take this opportunity to extol Kim Jong-un’s (unanimous and uncontested) “reelection” as Chairman of the National Defense Council!

The citizens of our great country are exuberant. We have captured the following glowing words on the Respected Marshal from typical “men on the street”:

North Korean Men on the Street _


Can you not see how we Koreans are warmed by the glow of our Respected Marshal? Fingers crossed his sunny disposition will increase rice production as we really miss the concept of lunch.

Must dash! Time for another mass rally followed by loops of the Pyongyang subway as faux passengers to impress foreign visitors!

Over and out from the Korean Central News Agency.


Notes from Expat Lingo:

Watching the train wreck that is North Korea has turned into a rather dark recent hobby of mine. I’ve already praised the novel The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. I’ve also just completed reading Barbara Demick’s fascinating and harrowing page-turner Nothing to Envy which describes the lives of North Koreans in the 1990s and early 2000s. The section on the famine in the late 1990s is especially horrifying. Both are incredible reads.

The rather unbelievable “man on the street” quotes from North Korean citizens are from an official (North) Korean Central News Agency article, “DPRK Citizens Rejoiced at Kim Jong Un’s Reelection as First NDC Chairman,” published April 10th of the year Juche 103 (known as 2014 by most other people). The photographs are from the Associated Press and are of North Koreans, some taken using super-telephoto lenses from China looking into North Korea from across the Yalu River.

There is no way an average citizen potato farmer would actually say things like this, right? And if he did, how many hours and hours of “political classes” must he have sat through when he would have rather spent his time scrounging up food to stave off starvation?

But how can one expect anything sane to emerge from a country where top military brass flaunt their badges like this:

North Korean military badges

You know you’ve “made it” when badges start creeping down your arm. When they start creeping down your leg, however, you’d best watch your back: those too powerful might find themselves executed like Kong Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek.


Return to Shangri La

Return to Shangri La

Expat Lingo and her clan are on leave in remote China.

Following on from their earlier “Mythic China” trip, they will explore even further reaches of Yunnan Province.

Superlatives will abound!

This hardy foursome, including, as always, a three-year-old and seven-year-old, will:

Ascend to higher altitudes!

Devour greater quantities of lamb!

Endure extremest car sickness!

Tromp through deeper mud!

Spend longer hours wandering the Kunming Airport!

Gape at snowier mountain ranges!

Search more aggressively for their emotional resilience!

Poke things with even longer foraged sticks!

Struck! By The Curse of the Expat Wives!

Manga Tennis Star and Me _

I sat down on one of the many flourescent-lit, blue plastic chairs. The man across from me glanced at my head, stood and left the small waiting room. I briefly wondered whether he was uncomfortable sitting with a gweilo, but then my name was called and I walked across the hallway to the x-ray room.

The technician asked me to remove my headband. As I reached up to do so, I noticed that my hair felt oddly stiff, as if someone had unloaded an aerosol can of Aqua-Net in a ring around my head. This thought passed quickly as the technician tilted my head this way and that before scurrying behind the lead wall to trigger the x-rays.

Then I wandered the linoleum-clad corridor and stepped into the ladies’ room. Looking into the mirror, I saw a large bandage covering my blood-dappled forehead. That was expected. Then I saw that my hair was sticking out at odd angles. Turning my head, I could see that it was entirely caked with dried blood. I was a Halloween costume in April.

Earlier that day I had been playing tennis. I wasn’t actually playing since I don’t know how to keep score or really serve. I was in a tennis lesson with a great friend. A friend I shall call, “Manga Tennis Star” in honor of her tall, slender stature and the very short tennis skirt and knee-high leg warmers that she wore that day.

Manga Tennis Star and I were fighting our way through our warm-up drills when she smashed her tennis racket into my forehead at full strength while following through on her left-handed, forehand swing.

“Mother fucker!” I called out (in violation of the club’s code of conduct) and grabbed my forehead.

Within seconds, blood was trickling down my arm. When I pulled my hand away to assess the flow, blood spurted out from my head. Manga Tennis Star and the coach looked at me; their chins dropped to the court surface and their eyebrows pulled up to their hair lines. Rackets hit the ground on courts one, three, four and five as league players noticed the developing blood bath on court two.

One player present was a nurse who swiftly took charge. Her authoritative and reassuring voice brought everyone into purposeful action. I was told to lay down. She called for the first aid kit and pressed down on my forehead to stop the bleeding. Looking at the depth of the gash and volume of bleeding, she instructed someone to call an ambulance.

Sometime later, after an ambulance languidly arrived and delivered me to the nearest accident and emergency department, Manga Tennis Star and I waited amongst the ill pensioners in a public hospital in Tai Po, Hong Kong. The gushing bleeding had stopped and we had already switched from racing-adrelenine-mode to bored-waiting-mode. Hungry, Manga Tennis Star wandered to the vending machine and found it to be stocked exclusively with surgical face masks and Ritz Crackers.

We were at the hospital from 10 am to 4 pm to so I could be observed to rule out a concussion. When not alleviating boredom by taking photos of my head or inspecting the partition separating us from the “fever zone,” Manga Tennis Star and I did our best to convince the staff to take care about my facial stitches to minimize scaring:

“Can the person stitching use very small stitches,” I asked, “since it’s on my face?”

“It’s not on your face. It’s on your forehead. Your face is down here,” the doctor responded, gesturing below his eyebrows.

“I’d rather not end up like Frankenstein,” I prodded.

The doctor laughed awkwardly and indicated that our conversation was finished. 

Shortly thereafter, I stared up at the ceiling and listened to screaming echoing from down the corridor while a nurse cleaned the wound and stitched up my head.

Manga Tennis Star was horrified that her blossoming tennis swing had done this.

But it wasn’t her fault.

I had tempted fate by disparaging the term “expat wife” in a post last week only to stride onto a court and smugly attempt to play the expat wife’s central game: tennis. The Goddess of Expat Wives had simply avenged my slight.

But the last laugh is mine.

They are still trying to scrub the blood stains out of court two:

“Out damned, spot! Out I say!  . . . What will these [courts] ne’er be clean? . . . Here’s the smell of blood still! All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this [artificial grass court surface].”

~ Vengeful Goddess of Expat Wives channeling Lady Macbeth


Picture sources: “Expat Lingo” is as depicted by my daughter several hours after the incident. “Manga Tennis Star” is as depicted on a random Japanese Manga fan site (original artist unknown).

Stomping on the “trailing spouse” moniker: 5 options

Trailing spouse _

I despise the term “trailing spouse” and yet even I begrudgingly use it as lame shorthand way of explaining my situation abroad. “Trailing spouse” makes me feel like an uncooperative cat on a lead. But even with that baggage, it’s still a step above the clubby, musty term “expat wife.” Using either, however, causes me to noticeably wince.

Are there alternatives?

My husband recently forwarded an email to me from the powers that be at his company. In it, I was referred to as a “stakeholder at home.” While graciously admitting that I like the way it recognizes my personal stake in the matter of our corporate relocation (and conceding that it is miles above “bitch in the house”), it still makes me want to punch someone in the mug.

At the recent Families in Global Transition conference, the keynote speaker, Dr. Rey Leki, called for the term “spartner” to replace “trailing spouse.” I can’t, however, puzzle out what “spartner” is supposed to summarize. Supporting partner? Sympathetic partner? Sidecar partner? Superhero partner?

As a person who moved abroad in 2005 because I wanted an international adventure, I don’t much like being summed up and fenced in by any of these terms. I have worked abroad. I am studying abroad. I am raising little Third Culture Kids abroad. I am not a “trailing spouse” that gets moved about like a gin and tonic swigging end table.

Let’s consider the following “trailing spouse” alternatives:

1. Conjurer of Worlds. Reminds me of the flexibility required to build (and re-build) an international life. Applies especially well to situations in which one unearths the only birthday cake mix in Zhuhai, China or discovers a fresh career path. I also like the sorcery vibe.

2. Willing Wanderer. Hints at the lack of choice one might have in some relocation decisions, while admitting that this odd journey can still be terribly amusing.

3. Corporate-Funded Adventurer. Gives a nod to the financial backing for many international lives abroad. At the same time, it makes one sound like a tool.

4. Expat. Sweet, simple, easily understandable. “Expat” is to “trailing spouse” what “Ms.” is to “Mrs.” After all, why should anyone’s international identity relate exclusively to his or her marital status?

5. In the end, I might personally lobby for “Internationalist.” I like the vagueness. I like the Cold War, “cloak and dagger” feeling. I like that one could use it forever and not just while actually living abroad.

Top it?

Red Banner Sister’s assault on Hong Kong luxury stores

As shopping mall after shopping mall in Hong Kong fell into the grips of the luxury market, Red Banner Sister knew she had to take action to liberate the city from Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Bvlgari, Armani, Rolex and Dior. Her strategy was to launch an outrageous new fashion trend. A trend that fused the anti-fashion of Seattle Grunge with the no-nonsense style of Hong Kong’s older workers and retirees. And so she created “Grunge阿叔风格” or “Grunge Uncle Style.”

Grunge Uncle Style faux magazine spread _

First page of the now-famous “Grunge阿叔风格” fashion spread.

To launch the trend, Red Banner Sister furtively changed the multi-page fashion spread in one weekend’s South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine. Instead of including the latest expensive designer collections, it featured “Grunge阿叔风格.”

Security cameras located in Causeway Bay have verified that once Red Banner Sister completed her late-night changes at the Post‘s offices, she repelled from the third floor of 1 Leighton Road and jumped onto the back of a passing double-decker tram. Dressed all in black and gripping the window frame, a succession of cameras show her grinning widely as the tram wound through Hong Kong’s dark streets.

Grunge阿叔风格 skin care faux magazine spread _

Third page of the now famous “Grunge阿叔风格” fashion spread.

Within one week, Hong Kong shoppers stopped patronizing sterile malls filled with shiny luxury good stores. When, two weeks later, the People’s Daily republished the “Grunge阿叔风格” story, Mainland Chinese citizens also embraced the trend.

It was a coup de grace with multiple consequences:

Intended positive outcome: Luxury retailers left Hong Kong. Grocery stores, sporting goods stores, drug stores and reasonably priced clothing and accessory stores, moved in to fill their places.

First unintended positive consequence: Hip Hongkongers started buying the shirts off of the backs of the retired and working poor, providing a valuable new source of income to Hong Kong’s many low-income elderly. They paid premium prices.

Second unintended positive consequence: Mainland Chinese realized that they could buy the same fashions directly from the working class in their own towns. Nouveau riche Chinese cut sharply back on shopping visits to Hong Kong. The Mainland Chinese tourists who did continue to visit were interested in Hong Kong’s scenery, historic sites, culture and uncensored internet usage. They were all really cool.

Unintended negative consequence: Entrepreneurial Mainland Chinese started carrying into Hong Kong huge bundles of brightly colored, used plastic bathroom sandals to re-sell. “Grunge阿叔风格” had created a boom market. Trains going in and out of Hong Kong from China remained as crowded as ever.

Job done, Red Banner Sister disappeared back into the crowd:

The most recent available photograph of Red Banner Sister. Location has been identified as Tai Wai in the New Territories of Hong Kong.

The most recent available photograph of Red Banner Sister (with red backpack). Her location in this photograph has been identified as Tai Wai in the New Territories of Hong Kong.


A few notes:

To learn more about Red Banner Sister’s historic exploits see:
Learn from Lei Feng: Expat Lingo becomes “Red Banner Sister”
Exclusive Interview: Red Banner Sister
Guangbiao Chen is no Red Banner Sister: Business Cards for the Fantastical

The two photos used for the mock fashion magazine spread were taken by my talented mother, Linda A. Brown aka elbeimagery. The photo of Red Banner Sister in Tai Wai was also taken by Brown.



Juche ideology for the expat soul

Rolling about in the angry mud of expat-martyrdom causes one to focus on the darker aspects of life abroad. As I slowly climb out of my self-pity wallow, I am gaining the perspective necessary to reflect on the many varied stages of expat life. After all, didn’t I start this expat blog with the quote, “Aren’t we the lucky ones?

What has helped me pass through this dark tunnel? Three things: (1) Bruce Lee, obviously; (2) the book The Emotionally Resilient Expat by Linda A. Janssen (a free e-copy of which had been serendipitously given to me for review purposes); and (3) Adam Johnson’s phenomenally thrilling, Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the horrors of life in North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son (the best book I’ve read in years).

But first a little honesty: I almost stopped reading The Emotionally Resilient Expat after only a few pages. I downloaded the book in late January, after just being informed of our potential surprise move. I was in a very dark place. A place not receptive to having an open mind about self-help books for expats. I didn’t want to be helped. I didn’t want to told about positive visualization. I was deep in sticky, dark mud and I wanted to be miserable.

It was a very specific quote by Janssen, however, that I found infuriating enough to stop reading. She tells the story of her husband coming home from work and presenting a surprise job opportunity that would require moving to another expat destination on short notice. Janssen, an American, had established a life in the Netherlands. Janssen and her husband had just promised their daughter that she could finish high school at her current school.

Janssen’s mind was buzzing with details, but, as she describes it, she noted her husband’s enthusiasm and replied simply:

“Why… why that’s t-terrific, honey, … Geneva? Huh. Wow. How great would that be?”

I read this, screamed, accused Janssen of being an overly sunny American “Pollyanna” and turned off the Kindle.

At that dark moment, I found I could relate more easily to Sun Moon, a fictional character in The Orphan Master’s Son, a woman who is a favorite of Kim Jong-il and the go-to lead actress for his epic films of revolutionary fervor and North Korean Juche ideology. At one point in the story, Sun Moon explains the martyr’s role that she acts in every one of the films she stars in:

“There is no twist. The plot is the same as all the others. I endure and endure and the movie ends.”

This is how I felt: I move to another country, I try to make a new life that I never quite finish building, then we have to move again and I say goodbye and start all over. I endure.

Original photo via "Kim Jong-il Looking at Things"

Original photo via “Kim Jong-il Looking at Things

In the weeks since my dark moment with Janssen’s book, I have transitioned through the stages of grief:

Denial: We will live in Hong Kong forever, the locals will all start speaking Mandarin (which I understand) and not Cantonese (which they actually speak), housing rental prices will go down, and all the air pollution will turn into marshmallows and fall from the sky.

Anger: I despise my husband’s company. I despise being an expat. I despise losing control over my own choices.

Bargaining: Bruce Lee, you are my only hope! Teach me how to know when to flow like a river and when to crash like a wave!

Depression: I don’t want to speak to anyone. I just want to read The Orphan Master’s Son and be horrified at the concept of North Korean prison mines that no one ever emerges from.

Acceptance: Well, there’s nothing for it. Suppose I’d better get on with the details. Let’s have a look at the websites for those potential schools again.

As such, I have now been able to return to The Emotionally Resilient Expat with kinder eyes. Eyes that understand that Janssen was being a good sport in responding to her husband and that many detailed discussions followed her initial cheery reaction. I’ve now read her book through and found it quite beneficial.

Hands down, the highlight of Janssen’s book is the many personal stories she has gleaned from expats all over the world. Reading the experiences of others moving through difficult times and learning to adapt, was relatable, fascinating and informative. I also really enjoyed her description of what she calls, “The Clash Roulette” — “should I stay or should I go?” — a time in spring when “[e]xpats of all stripes begin the dance, circling tenuously around the question of whether they (or their friends and colleagues) will be moving on, repatriating or staying put.”

Janssen also discusses methods for building one’s own reserves of emotional resilience as a means of preparing for the storms ahead. I am on my fourth expat move, and I haven’t ever explicitly thought about the importance of emotional resilience, but this latest potential move has been a trial and I’ve needed every ounce of resilience I could muster (and will for the foreseeable future). Her suggestions for building emotional resilience, taking care of oneself and for helping children transition, are all very helpful. My only reservation about The Emotionally Resilient Expat, is that, when read straight through, it can feel a hair repetitive and could be trimmed here and there.

So, if you are an expat who wants to refine your personal strategies for dealing with the difficulties of transition or simply enjoy reading stories of other expats, then you will find The Emotionally Resilient Expat to be an interesting and useful read and also a handy reference.

The Emotionally Resilient Expat cover

If you want to immerse yourself in a great book that will draw you completely into another world, a world much worse than your own, a world that will force you to forget your own petty problems, read the thrilling and surprising The Orphan Master’s Son, an epic work of dark totalitarian humor.

Screen Shot 2014-03-18 at 10.14.49 PM

Expat uncertainty fuels speed

Expat uncertainty fuels running speed _

I don’t know exactly which continent I’ll be living on after this summer.

This uncertainty has not improved my general mood.
This uncertainty has not improved my parenting.
This uncertainty has not improved by Chinese language studies.
This uncertainty has not improved my relationship with my spouse.

This uncertainty has vastly improved my running.

Yesterday morning, after arguing with my husband (across time zones via text message) about trivialities related to our potential fourth international move, I ran like I’ve never run before. I was the wind and nothing could slow me down as I sprinted 14k around Hong Kong’s Tolo Harbour from Ma On Shan to Sha Tin and back again.

I serpentined around the wheelchair-bound Cantonese pensioners being pushed about by maids from the Philippines.

I bounded over small coddled dogs wearing sweaters and their deposits of dog shit.

I disobeyed pedestrian crossing signals and flustered groups of fan wielding Tai Qi practitioners by cutting through their ranks with grim determination.

I was lightning. If thoughts could be visualized, a storm cloud of considerations and possibilities would have zapped from my head as projections onto the low clouds hanging in Hong Kong’s murky grey sky.

This typical plodder was a nimble gazelle.

Eventually continental decisions will become clear. Until then, I run. And I run faster than I ever thought I could. Result.

Flowchart: What school should my expat child attend next year?

And now begins the time of year when expats talk of moving.
All parents apply for school places in cities where they might or might not relocate.
All schools ask parents whether they might or might not withdraw their child.
No one wants to reveal their position until the last possible moment.

It’s the musical chairs of the expat world and no one wants to end the game without a proper school chair for their child to sit in next autumn.

I am playing this game right now. I have applications submitted to schools on two separate continents. I have not told my expat child’s current school about our future plans because I myself don’t know what they are. Everyone is hedging.

In the meantime, a helpful graphic: a flowchart on how to decide which school your expat child should attend next autumn (click through for a larger, more legible version).

Int'l school decision flowchart _

Be water, my (expat) friend

Be water, my friend (Bruce Lee) _

There comes a time when all expats must face the music and decide whether to stay or go, and if they go, where to go. This hot mess of a decision is complicated by all sorts of things like employers, families, visas, money and heart-strings.

When the decisions get tough, it helps to turn to a power beyond ourselves. For some this might be a heavenly being*. I, however, have settled on Bruce Lee.

Lee was a fount of inspirational quotes, including this one:

Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

Strictly speaking, Lee was talking about the practice of martial arts. His words, however, are quite applicable to a hell of a lot more including the situation of the expat-in-limbo or expat-in-transition.

At the moment I don’t know whether I’m staying or going and, while I have a hint where I may go, nothing is settled. I am in a state of expat limbo.

And so, I am being water: formless and adaptable, but also strong enough to carve through a mountain (of negotiations, language barriers, paperwork, transitional loneliness, red tape, culture shock, and HR hassles).

Be water, my friend.


*If any heavenly beings happen to be out there, please focus your efforts on curing malaria, increasing female literacy, saving the wild tiger and infecting Kim Jong-un with avian flu.

Pictures of strangers

People watching Aya Sofya _

When I was a child, my mother always said that she enjoyed watching the people at the zoo more than the animals. I have inherited her tendencies. While touring historic sites is intrinsically interesting, observing other people touring historic sites is a guilty delight! (And one that I liberally indulged in while in Istanbul.)

The woman dressed in all-orange at Aya Sofya (above) drew my eye immediately. Can you see her shimmery crystal hair clips? Have you noticed that her backpack is the exact same shade of orange as her winter suit? Watching her was interesting. Watching every single other person in Aya Sofya watch her, was fascinating.

I not only people-watched my way through Istanbul, I also started taking pictures of other people taking pictures. Partially this is due to me having a new fab camera that allows me to “shoot from the hip” using a swivel LCD screen. Partially this is because I fancy myself an amateur anthropologist of global humanity (like Jane Goodall with the chimps, only I don’t go deep enough to pick out ticks).

With little useful news on my “where next?” expat question, I instead present my odd gallery of photographs of strangers taking photographs in Istanbul. Are you serendipitously featured? Do tell!

Videoing lamb in clay pot presentation

Stranger taking a picture of the “lamb in clay pot” table-side presentation at our table (buy your own “signature” lamb dish freeloader!)

Posing in front of tram

Stranger striking a bold pose in front of the tram to Taksim

Taking a selfie  in Aya Sofya

Stranger taking a selfie in Aya Sofya

Woman smiling for photo in Blue Mosque.

Stranger smiling for photo in Blue Mosque

Boy taking family picture in Blue Mosque

Stranger taking family picture in Blue Mosque

Taking a picture of Jesus in Aya Sofya

Stranger taking a picture of Jesus in Aya Sofya

Taking a picture of a friend in Aya Sofya

Stranger taking a picture of a friend in Aya Sofya