Tag Archives: expat life

The Long Roads, Flights, & Tracks Home

Michael BrownA year ago, my husband and I watched the streets of Ferguson erupt in horror. We watched pictures and videos of the lifeless body of one of our young brothers fester in the street for hours and heard about the culprit’s, an officer of the law, flee from the scene.  We learned that Mike Brown, a recent high school graduate,  was struck six times with bullets, at least once with his hands raised in surrender, and later heard the trigger-puller’s legally justifiable defense was that he looked like a “demon.” (How can one be executed for looking like a mythical creature?) Our eyes widened and spirits were awakened and angered as we witnessed the unfolding of a war zone in Ferguson. Gas masks, full artillery, violent and silent protests, arson, police antagonists, and antagonizing police officers, all painted a vivid and horrific picture that resembled that of which we’d seen in visuals after the King riots, both Rodney and Rev. Dr.

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We waited like the rest of Black America for some semblance of justice in the name of the fallen. We waited, though we had still not recovered from the verdict in the trial of Trayvon Martin, who was posthumously convicted of his own death. We waited, though we’d be told of the imbalance of Ferguson’s demographics in terms of police vs. residents, and its sordid history because of it. We waited though the media had already begun assassinating the character of the victim before his body had even been removed from the scene of the crime. We waited like viewers wait for the moment in a scary movie for the running, screaming, female character to get caught. We hoped for the best, but we all knew she would fall and fail. And, so did justice in this instance. I watched Mike Brown’s mother, Leslie McSpadden wail and weep and scream out of agony. Then, I watched her transform and become swathed with a supernatural strength. She reminded me of Sybrina Fulton. She reminded me of Wanda Johnson. She reminded me of Mamie Till Mobley. She reminded me of too many black mothers that have buried their children due to senseless violence that’s sanctioned by the government that should protect them.

We sat in silent reverence, imbued with fury, and watched images of our home country burning from the comforts of our _79245004_024867989-1foreign home in Singapore. We watched, just as we had watched the marches, protests, and riots after Trayvon Martin’s injustice unfold while being surrounded by the opulence and newfound freedom of self-expatriation.  We felt, for the first time in our lives, disconnected from our people as though we’d absconded from the plight and constant terror that it means to be black in America. We decided, with much reluctance on my part, that we needed to move back to the states; that despite the intoxicating and unfamiliar feelings of privilege, entitlement, and freedom, true uninhibited freedom to live and be who we culturally are without judgment or persecution, we needed to commit to our life’s work of helping to restore and rebuild black communities for the sake of our children and our people.  We needed to sacrifice the contentment of our bubble in Asia where we had helped to establish a vibrant black community to begin the Back to Black List that my husband authored where it was needed most. We had to do more than use words to empower. We had to be examples and SPEAK with our actions. The decision was less noble than necessary.

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A year later, our feet are on the ground. We’re back now. We’ve used this entire summer to live as nomads in different states as we researched our selection of cities to live. We gave ourselves the freedom to choose exactly where we wanted to live instead of being mandated by a professional position. (See another post that I’ll find the time to write one day.) Our original list of five plus one had been narrowed to two and a possible by the time we landed on U.S. soil for the first time in two years, but we kept all options open for discussion and consideration.  New Orleans and Oakland were both individual choices vetoed by the other for various reasons. [Insert sigh.] The wonderful city of Chicago which offers all of the culture, food, arts, and opportunities to build and restore is just too cold for too many months out of the year for this Southern girl and this adapted N. Minneapolis snowbird. My flashbacks from living in upstate NY for one year kept haunting me.  That left Dallas, Atlanta, & S. Florida as possible contenders.

map1_dallasOur first choice of Dallas was a practical one. The primary reason for moving back more urgently was because of my mother-in-law’s crippling illness and my sister-in-law’s need for assistance in her care. Living in Singapore made any necessary trips to visit very difficult and even scheduling phone calls could be a nuisance with the time difference. We needed to be in the same country to be able to reach them when needed. They both reside in Dallas. Dallas also boasted of thriving predominantly black suburbs [read communities], a once thriving black community in South Dallas that could be restored, and many fellow FAMU graduates that we knew would be willing counterparts in the process of rebuilding.  Though I’d never been, I encouraged the decision to have all of our items from Singapore shipped to Dallas as a gesture of my commitment to both the Back to Black List and to my mother-in-law and husband.

Atlanta is Atlanta. Those who get that just do. I love just about everything about my native city and I’ve converted a man who once denounced the very thought of visiting to possibly considering it as a place to settle.  We knew it’d be easy to a certain degree to just plug into the well established black network we have there. There are many like-minded people of all races that live in the city and many upper middle-class and affluent black families that haven’t forgotten that they are and the responsibility that comes with that. But, it’s still in Georgia; red state, redneck, red clay, historically black lynching Georgia. So, there’s that.

South Florida is all things tropical and beautiful. Who wouldn’t want year-round summers, mango and avocado trees in your backyard, free daily lessons in a foreign language, and access to the beach whenever? The king’s company, logowww.madalihair.com, also has its main large clients and distributors in Miami. But aside from the aesthetics and his professional benefit, it proved not to offer much for black families in general and didn’t feel as though our vision would be well-received.

Surprisingly, Tampa, my maternal families’ home base made an addition to the list after we arrived. We used it as our home for the summer, renting an airbnb home from a wonderful couple who lived just two doors down from us in the newly gentrified West Tampa. We caught wind of some exciting and new opportunities in the area and were reminded of how wonderful it is to be near family and a familial support system, especially when raising children. There were definitely pros and cons as with each location. We had all the offerings of tropical life and there are many avenues for rebuilding, but the black community is built around elite organizations, historic churches, or childhood allegiances that are all difficult to penetrate for transplants. I went to high school in Tampa and I’m a member of one of the elite organizations and a former member of one of the historic churches, and I still feel like an outsider at times. We needed a city that would welcome newcomers as people migrated to help implement the Back to Black List and one that offered varying commercial industries for those who’d seek employment rather than create it. Tampa became possible, but not likely.

224We spent time in each of the cities searching for homes to either rent or buy, looking for black schools, black banks, and black neighborhoods that could be the foundation for black communities.  We were repeatedly disappointed in them all, but especially Dallas initially because that’s where we put the most effort. Our first visit there in June proved to be surprisingly underwhelming. The article we’d read about one of Dallas’s suburbs becoming the new Black Wall Street was a bit misleading, or perhaps we misinterpreted. Black Wall Street was replete with black businesses that were supported and employed by black people in a community built around strong black schools. I think we are collectively and mistakenly interchanging community and neighborhood. Black Wall Street was a community. The black suburbs of Dallas appear to be black neighborhoods. Communities have their own economies and a sense of collectivism. Neighborhoods are just people who share the same zip code or grocery store. We didn’t find the former there.  [Please let us know if we overlooked something Dallastons.] More importantly to me, the school that we fell in love with proved not to be the best fit for our daughter.

Very long story short, or written in another post, that’s not going to happen. While in Dallas on our last visit, a sister friend reminded me that we have the power to manifest the desires of our heart when in the will of God. She challenged me to write

540x293_20140102_8b7da98709a1ab48d447479d93832c18_jpg down exactly what I wanted, not my husband or children, and to be as specific as possible. All summer, we were leaning on the kindness of others or spending far more than we should to ensure that we, our children especially, were comfortable as we scoured the internet, traveled the highways, and rested in airports in search of our next home. I knew I wanted an African-focused accelerated educational venue for my daughter where I too could contribute my educational experience and knowledge. I knew I wanted a community that spawned from that school, neighboring schools like it, and like-minded people and families. I knew I wanted to finally find a church that espoused the beliefs and understanding that Africans throughout the Diaspora are disenfranchised and that we can be liberated through our faith and collective actions. But, those things weren’t specific enough. So, I made it plain.

I want:

-to live in my native city this year.

-to have my daughter enrolled at the African-focused school of my choice there in Kindergarten or based on her aptitude and social development instead of age.

-to have a support system of like-minded people.

-to live in a house in the actual city limits, within 20 minutes of the school.

-to have at least three bedrooms in said house.

-to have a church home within the community.

-to begin working together with others to implement the Back to Black List as soon as possible.

-peace.

In one day, after many days of tirelessly searching and being disappointed repeatedly in multiple cities, we have finally found a place to call home and truly begin to work towards the liberation and advancement of the disenfranchised. That’s putting a lot on it as my husband would say, but we’ve already put a lot on the whole decision to move back to the U.S. As soon as I decided to envision and ask for exactly what I wanted, the path became clear and easy. I found a house in the exact area we wanted to live. It was available, move-in ready, and we were able to negotiate all of the terms we wanted in less than a week. I’m able to enroll my daughter in her proper placement in the African-focused school of my choice, and I’ll be surrounded by people of all backgrounds and ethnicities who understand the importance of elevating those who’ve been oppressed. And, we both have family there, so that’s built-in babysitters!!

All is not final. We will still be living out of suitcases and boxes for a while, but we’ll be in our own space soon enough ready to do more than watch the plight of those we love. After much indecision, insight, trials, and prayer, we are moving to……….A-T-L-A-N-T-A!!!

Our New Home

Ticking Clock

calendar-numbers-dateThe end is near, and I’m not ready. April 30th marks my husband’s last day working for the company. We have one month afterwards to leave before the police come knocking. Singapore does not allow foreigners to just live here without a commercial purpose that benefits the country in some way. Basically, it’s count down time, but I’m far from prepared.

This should be the time of deciding and finalizing, planning and organizing. Months before our move to Singapore, we had checklists by the week to complete. We were excited about our transition and became mission oriented and strategic as soon as the move was confirmed. Now, we’re <<I’m>> ambivalent and procrastinating the inevitable. Without a mandated location, the plethora of options has become a weight rather than a relief.

imageIf it were just my husband and I….if all of our family members were well and secure….if “ifs” were worth entertaining, we’d probably move to Ghana, or SouthAfrican-schoolroom Africa, or hop from country to country or state to state three months at a time to avoid frigid winters. We’d buy rental properties in each place and use the passive income to build a network of African-centered schools to eradicate the educational inequities that plague the disenfranchised across the globe, especially in the pockets of urban America.

We’d be frivolous and hire a personal nutritionist, chef, and trainer that traveled with us to ensure our longevity and make love in every country code. You know, just to stay in shape. I’d write novels, short stories, and plays while sunning in the sand and stick WritingBeside-theBeach-960x565my toes in the waters of every beach, while he’d find every hut, shack, or family-owned restaurant that served the cultural delectables of the city that hosted whichever jazz, hip hop or soul concert he was attending at the time. We’d perform in backwoods churches and overflowing theaters three or four times a week just to spread the message of hope, resilience, and Coming-to-Americarevolution. We’d truly take our freedom papers, multiply them, and spread the spirit of freedom all over the world. We would get it in!!! IF…..

But alas, it is not just he and I. It’s he, she, he, and me.  We both have aging parents and in the books of failing health, we have one and a possible. We’re already at the stage of caring for our children and our elders simultaneously. Truth is, we only had two years when we didn’t have both. Heeding to the twin bellows of obligation and responsibility, we’ve decided it’s time to go back to the U.S.; a decision I’m torn about daily…..

 

Have a Seat at My Table

There are two older women cooking in my kitchen, and neither is my mother, grandmothwomanandchildcookinger, or close aunt. Considering the fact that for many southern American women such as myself, the kitchen is a sacred place where traditions are continued, future generations are pruned, and recipes are kept in furtive volts of the heart, to offer your haven to another without close supervision is both an honor and sort of a ritualistic trust exercise.  Though reluctant to pass the baton initially, I welcome this reprieve now with raised feet, a much more swollen baby belly, and a newfound confidence in the current keepers of the holy grail that is my book of recipes.

It’s been one week since our new home assistant, (“helper,” Foreign Domestic Worker) started, and I’m already living a completely different life. We’re on week two of training. (Of course my OCD forced me to develop a training and work schedule complete with tentative meal plans, emergency task lists, and duties outlined by the hour, day, week, and month. A bit much?) She spent this last week helping me reorganize my kitchen after we found a termite infestation (insert gag reflex) in one of the cabinets, (one of the many oversights of our previous assistant), and learning the tasks outlined in the training manual.

Today, she is enhancing her Western culinary skills by studying under the tutelage of another FDW who’s employed by friends of ours. I did not even waste the time, energy, and money to “invest” in my previous assistant in this way because the capacity just wasn’t there. To fully understand the contrast between the two, you’ll have to revisit the past eight months.

The Process of Getting Help

We hired *Joylyn after a debacle with *Mae (see “The Help(er) Part III” from Sept. 2013).  After a stream of crazy interviews that usually ended in tears and sob stories that bordered on deplorable and outlandish, we finally decided to hire Mae. Before we could even begin the process of completing the paperwork, she sent us a barely coherent text message stating, to the best of our understanding, that her employer wouldn’t release her from her contract.

Mae worked for a traditional Chinese family that employed very rigid restraints and practices; some of which included rationing her food portions, forcing her to sleep on the kitchen floor, and only allowing her to have one day off a month. This was just one of many sorrowful tales we were told as we interviewed dozens of women looking for an escape from their despots. Some spoke of abuse and compelled me to cry myself; others made me think they were vying for an Emmy for their role on “As the Teardrop Falls.”   Mae appeared more honest and less of a whimpering damsel who could cry on cue. We thought we were freeing her in a sense by offering her a much more amiable position that would bring her closer to her sister who lives just a few floors up as an employee of friends of ours.

So, when we got the text and realized she was unwilling to fight for her right to be transferred, we became a bit desperate. *Joylyn was one of two final interviewees, and was only selected because the one we preferred was in a similar predicament as Mae. We didn’t want a repeat repeal.

Please, Have a Seat

Her first night, she came to us one late stormy evening, hauling her life’s belongings in a single, bulging, weathered suitcase up the concrete flight of stairs leading to our condo building, instead of taking the elevator that would place her at our door step. I opened the door to her bright smile, as damp, limp, wiry hair clung itself to her forehead and cheeks like a fitted veil.

IMG3147-LJoylyn was twice the height of my two-year-old by a wayward hair, and probably no wider.  After first offering to sit on our floor, she timidly agreed to sit at our dining room table to discuss the employment contract and duties. My husband was out of the country, so it was just she and I, equally nervous, trying to grasp and make an ample first impression.   I made mine and broke the ice by pouring us both a glass of white wine; an unusual gesture that had a lasting effect.

Day 1

She was awake before we were, waiting for instruction. That was a good sign. I gave her a brief tour of our home and explained the morning tasks again. She mentioned in the interview that she was familiar with cooking and could follow recipes, so I was eager to see what she could do in that area. I needed someone to at least serve as an assistant chef when I didn’t have time to make dinner or when I needed help with preparation. Having worked for a Chinese family for four years, and a British family for only six weeks, she claimed to be well-versed in Asian cooking and somewhat comfortable with Western dishes as well. To our dismay, we soon found this to be one of the greatest misleading fabrications since hearing, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman…” As kind as she is, Joylyn could hardly pour water, let alone boil it to make anything when she first arrived.

Whole_No.15_Chicken__96994_zoomThe first and last meal she prepared for us without guidance was steamed chicken and rice. The chicken was dry, chewy, and unseasoned, and it still looked raw in color. The rice, well the white rice (we eat brown or black rice), was perfect in texture, though bland. We soon learned that making rice in a rice cooker was her only specialty, and really, the only thing she liked to eat aside from chicken feet and fish heads.

She also claimed to be experienced with young children, but we found that this experience actually hindered her.  The original family she worked for used her in the capacity of a full-time nanny for their infant daughter until she was four-years-old. By nanny, I mean full-time servant. According to Joylyn, the child was not encouraged to do anything for herself and the parents were not involved in her care. Joylyn shared a room with her, fed, bathed, clothed, and obeyed (yes, obeyed) her every request. She was constantly appeasing her and acquiescing to every command from the pampered toddler. This type of servile behavior did not bode well with any of us, especially the kibibi, whom we’ve taught to be more independent and respectful.

Joylyn was constantly trying to appeal to our daughter. Sometimes against my instruction, she’d offer her certain sweet treats or allow her to speak to her in a manner that I did not tolerate or excuse. I’ve seen this type of behavior with other children and their assistants, and I’ve always winced at it. I actually had to intervene once when a young boy of about seven years, screamed at and struck his assistant repeatedly because she said it was time to leave the playground. This type of occurrence is not uncommon. It’s just something we cannot allow in our home.

I remember once, when the three of us took one of our first trips to the library, I left Joylyn and Lil’ Bit to charportrait_ivyread in a corner while I sifted through bookshelves to find at least one or two books with characters that reflected our family. After weeks of explaining to Joylyn that she must be firm with Lil’ Bit and uphold the boundaries we’ve set, she finally tried flirting with the word “no” to a request for pretzels.  By this time, my little one knew how to play the fiddle, and the request turned into a command. I didn’t witness it, but I was told by both, that when another “no” was uttered, my sweet, angelic, cherub morphed into a tiny torturous tyrant and snatched the pretzels before smacking Joylyn with them and stating through gritted teeth, “You don’t tell me no!”

Well, let’s just say, my child lost every bit of her precious mind in that moment and I, in turn, had to match crazy with berserk right there in the children’s corner of the public library in front of an audience of docile Asian women and children, grasping their books and dropping their jaws in awe. Nothing like that ever happened again, but I was constantly intervening to assert some discipline when Joylyn failed to assert herself. It confused my child, as it would any child. She hasn’t mastered giving respect even when it’s not expected or worse yet, when it’s rejected.

Joylyn’s deficiencies began to outweigh her usefulness over time, and my patience an2954269188_Bad_Cook_answer_4_xlarged tolerance began waning increasingly once I became pregnant. Simple blunders like going to the market to get “Cheerios” and instead retrieving “Oh’s,” or “Corn Flakes” instead of “Corn Pops,” began to gnaw at my nerves; especially considering I’d write down the exact name, brand, and its location in the store, and I’d text her an exact picture of the item I needed. I also noticed Lil’ Bit became less enthused to do things when Joylyn was involved and would ask for “Mommy and me moments” more often when Joylyn was near.  My husband was growing more annoyed by her adaptations to my recipes or alterations to meals I’d already prepared that she simply needed to heat and serve.

As much as we enjoyed her colorful stories about her Filipino upbringing, or her current events about what was happening in the Philippines or in the park on Sundays, we were not entertained at all by the fact that we were paying for services that just weren’t being provided. I was still handling a great deal of the domestic work and missing time with my daughter because of it. I found myself more frustrated with her presence than relieved by it. Because, as employers, we are completely responsible for the salary, food, shelter, medical care, insurance, dental care, and overall well-being of our employee, Joylyn became more of a burden than a blessing.  It was time to make some moves.

To Be Continued….

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My Today is Your Tomorrow Part I

My Day is Your Tomorrow Part I

Sunday, August 25, 2013, 6:30 AM 

After four weeks in Singapore, I still don’t feel completely “home.” I honestly can’t tell you why or what that means exactly. It could be because I still have boxes packed with no sure place to unfurl or that as Westernized as it is, I’m still getting slapped in the face, (or literally nudged by passersby), with the reminders that I’m not “home.” I’m told this feeling is typical and actually will come in waves over the next year. The next year?!

Nothing you read or research can fully prepare you for living outside of your home country the first time, especially if the new country is literally on the other side of the world. So, yes I’m a little green. And, I tried to read it all: blog posts, books, news reports, the omniscient Wikipedia; I got my “Living in Singapore for Dummies” book and everything. Buuuuuuut, as soon as I stepped on that plane, which was really a four-star resort where the stewardesses dressed like they were graduates of the “Miss Asia Beauty and Charm School” while serving you lobster and turning down your bed (yes, bed on the plane), I knew I was in for more than I read. This was not Kansas anymore, (see “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” blog post).

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I literally time-traveled to get here and landed a day earlier than it was back home in Florida. When I called my parents upon arrival and really realized that they were still in yesterday, my whole “this isn’t really that big of a deal. People do this all the time. It’ll be just like moving within the states,” theory jumped off the roof. From there, the differences in how everything and everyone moves throughout the day continue to jolt me back to reality. On the surface, it looks very similar. It’s bright and sunny most of the time with chance thunderstorms that seem like the world is coming to an end for the ten minutes they last. Just like home. There are, surprisingly, a myriad of people (a beautiful mix of Chinese, Indian and Malaysian cultures, but LOTS of expats from everywhere) moving back and forth, coming and going in hurried or sluggish paces. Just like home. A plethora of tourists’ attractions, eateries, cultural activities, and enrichments are at your fingertips. Just – like – home.

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My daughter said, “mama, that’s Poo Poo,” when I cut this “dump”ling open for her.

Then, there’s everything else. They say, “the devil’s in the details.” And, if the devil is feeling like a nomad in a strange land, then the devil is in every ingredient in every dish I’ve eaten, every subway ride or walk I’ve taken, and every transaction I’ve made.

The food, that needs its own blog post (See “Fine Dining & Dirty Diving” coming soon), is anything but typical for me. The sticker shock alone will turn your stomach. But, once you’re passed the fact that you might as well leave them with your dominant hand when you pay, you have to get over the fact that you probably ate something that was alive ten minutes ago (freshness is a plus), but that you may not be certain of what that “something” is. Very few meals are completely identifiable by every ingredient. Even the rice and vegetables are typically cooked and mixed with “something.” When I ask, sometimes they just say, “meat” which I eat sparingly and selectively. Um, oooook. This is why I had some, let’s just say, issues the first two weeks. Thank God for a friend’s referral to “Yakult.”

One of the great differences about living in one of the most expensive cities in the world is that it is very clean and beautiful, in most spaces. Now, there are certainly beautiful landscapes back home, but I literally am surrounded by beauty and cleanliness, most of the time, here. I love opening our curtains every morning and just seeing litter-free greenery all around me. Even the air feels and looks cleaner, fresher. This is less about good home training and more due to the fact that the penalties for making a public mess are near unbearable. The government is less like Big Brother and more like, your crotchety older over-protective grandfather. Just see these mandates below cited from “www.hotelclub.com/blog/singapore-weird-laws,” (I told you I read the blogs):

           “1. It is against the law and a public caning offense to not flush the toilet after      using it. Again, that’s common sense, but in Singapore you might be getting a large fine for that, too, as the police officers randomly check on public checkrooms.

          2. You Litter You Pay-Big Time. A litter law dating from 1968 is the country’s way of keeping clean. Disregard the law, drop trash on the ground in this Southeast Asian city, and you’ll pay $1,000. On top of that you’ll also be forced to do community forced labor. And if you do it three times, you’ll have to wear a “I am a litter lout” sign. Along the same lines, it looks like Singapore has a law saying that relieving yourself in an elevator is particularly forbidden.  

           3. Chewing gum sales forbidden. if you had some garlic and on your way to a meeting or a date, you may be out of luck if you plan on having some chewing gum to get rid of the scent. Apparently Singapore prohibited the sale of gum after authorities have noticed a prolific amount of chewed gum being stuck in subway stations and on cars. As weird as it may sound, Singapore allows you to actually chew gum. Just make sure you stick it at the trash can, otherwise great fines apply.”

Now, I’ve personally seen several just down right nasty and disgusting bathrooms where it looked like they not only forgot to flush, but also forgot to aim. And, I’m talking about the women! So, I can’t vouch for number one, but the other two have me scurrying to pick up anything my daughter mistakenly drops on the ground and sucking on mints instead of the Trident gum I used to love. (See ending in Part II).