I have a great affinity for stories about female expatriates because I used to be one myself. Some of my happiest adult memories are of being an expatriate in Mongolia and Korea during the first decade of this century. Little brings back memories of that experience more strongly than looking at old photos I took from back in those days.
Mongolia memories come back the most strongly for me. For some reason, looking at those old photos make me remember the smell of Mongolia more than anything else. Mongolia has a wonderfully evocative smell. It's clean and dry and bright and real. I remember the smell of the markets, the Naaren Tuul shopping district, the smell of aarul, goat cheese, juniper branches, incense, outhouses, fresh meat,... each smell pared back to a very delicate aroma because the high, dry, Mongolian air does not allow smell to grow easily. Looking at the pictures I know why smell is such an important part of Mongolian tradition. Mongolians smell each other on each cheek the way Westerners kiss each other. For Mongolians a sniff can be just as intimate as a kiss. An American friend of mine described how she once dated a Mongolian man. During one secret embrace outside her apartment the man inhaled the scent of her hair deeply while holding her close to him and she found the gesture "really sexy." Later she tried to repeat the gesture with a British tourist she hooked up with in Ulaanbaatar. "I held him close and smelled his neck, y'know?" she told me later, "And he was like, 'Could you not wipe your nose on me? Thank you!'"
Dating foibles are just the name of the game for female expatriates living abroad. Actually, dating mistakes happen to both genders of expatriates but for some reason women tend to relive instances of voluptuous humiliation on their part overandoverandover again in a way that men do not. It's probably one of the reasons why I know more about my female friends' most embarrassing dating moments than I do about the other far more important moments in their lives. I've had friends with Phd.s and book contracts worth thousands of dollars give me excruciating details about a bad date while letting their career triumphs languish with few conversational descriptives. "Well, Random House bought the manuscript and now they want me to sign a contract for two more books but OMIGOD, let me tell you about this jerk I met last night!!!!"
This isn't a slam against women. It's more a fact of human nature that people are more interested in stories about people than stories about careers and monuments and landscapes. You can breeze through a whole bunch of photos of monuments from someone's year abroad... but I guarantee you that the only photos you'll remember are the photos that have a couple people in them. Because of this I'll try to share a few photos of people from my own expatriate days a few years ago when I lived in Asia.
Beijing, by the way, is the most gay-friendly city I've ever visited. For real! And this is from someone who used to live in Los Angeles! I saw gay advertisements, gay couples, gay parks, and gay shopping areas. Everyone who thinks homosexuality is purely a Western phenomenon is completely in the dark!
I love all these photos because these photos are clearly more about people than about backgrounds. It's why memoirs like Miller's Breathless are so fascinating. It's about people, not buildings or landscapes. Currently I'm wading through Jonathan Raban's Passage to Juneau. Passage is another memoir where Raban describes his boat journey from the city of Vancouver up to Alaska. Unfortunately Raban's book really sinks into the mud with endless descriptives of whirlpools and eddies and tide changes and depressions and whatnot. The story only picks up speed when Raban starts to discuss human events: the death of his father, the conflicts with his daughter, and the fights between Captain Vancouver and his fractious crew back when the British were exploring the Western coast of Canada in the late 18th century. Reading Passage to Juneau is an exercise of fitful narrative starts and stops where fascinating accounts of Raban's recollections involving meeting his father for the first time in 1945 are interrupted with unnecessarily boring descriptions of Raban threading his boat through a few islands while playing with his compass and describing each wavelet and ripple around the hull in minute detail. The second part is boring because it doesn't involve any people. I'm about two-thirds of the way through Passage to Juneau and feel that two-thirds of this book could have been cut out and left in the waste-paper basket. This could have been such a wonderful travel memoir with Bill Bryson, but Raban unfortunately is no Bryson.
I've traveled a lot in the past and I hope to travel a lot in the future. This past year has been hard because I've been in stasis. In every respect I've gone nowhere and it's incredibly dispiriting. I hope to travel again, perhaps as soon as next year, and certainly move somewhere with Roy. And blog about it too, of course. There are too many narratives about twenty-something female expatriates. Where are the essays from thirty-something female expatriates?! Looks like I'll have to start a trend!