Lost in Translation: are we meant to transcend language?

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What would humanity look like if humans did not use language to communicate? What if we possessed a more advanced, let’s say telepathic way to communicate information through images?

I recently watched  Lost in Translation again, one of my favourite films of all time. For those who have not seen it, Lost In Translation is a delightful journey through Japan’s urban culture and traditional imagery. But what makes the film truly great is the way it uses its spectacular photography to surpass dialogue.  In fact, the whole movie is a demonstration of how awkward,  inadequate and redundant verbal communication is compared to image. The sophistication of the vernacular is demystified and reduced to mere incoherent utterances and comical mishaps . Throughout the film there is a persistent communication fail that leads to the gradual deconstruction-the death- of language.

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Powerful images effortlessly replace words. Communication in Lost in Translation resembles telepathy, or if you prefer, a  soul connection than allows instant knowledge without employing words. The two protagonists do not connect so much with speech (which has the habit of bringing unwanted aspects of their personal lives into their present reality) but rather by surrendering to their surroundings, almost transcending time.

There is somehow the instant knowledge that their surroundings depend on their inner truth. The couple creates their own external reality, whose chaos is a reflexion of their own inner chaos.

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Undoubtedly, communication through image requires a new perception of reality, and a new purpose. Instant access to an image would mean instant access to the purpose and the intention behind it. This requires honesty and truth, both of which are obstructed by the formalities of language. An image is clear. “One picture is worth a thousand words.”

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An image is non linear. By this I mean that it encompasses information that is absorbed in  random order, and in diverse ways. Indeed, we use a different part of our brains to process an image than we do for speech and language. An image doesn’t require a  logical or moral response. Instead we “feel” or even experience the image’s message as a whole, and as a type of encoded hologram. (hologram: greek word holos (whole) and gramma (message).) We can have a psychological, mental or spiritual response instead of a logical response. But in order to achieve this, one would also need to develop a form of telepathy.

Lost in Translation is a great example of communicating through images, and accessing information through visual stimuli instead of a narrated storyline. Hyper-urbanised , futuristic Tokyo is the ideal backdrop, offering a glimpse of what communication will look like once humanity moves past the Age of Reason.

Thinking about relocating abroad as a “trailing spouse”? Some things you should know

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I may use it in the title but I dislike the term “trailing spouse”. To me it describes someone who lets her or himself be carried abroad like a another piece of luggage and from there lives trapped in a semi-stigmatised existence, confined in the role of the housekeeper and the emotional supporter. It might be true that once (you know in the olden days) when couples relocated, the wife was not expected to do much other than support the husband’s career, volunteer in the local community with women in similar situation, and attend weekly get togethers with expat women so she can vent about her expat life.

Nowadays, however, with globalisation having transformed completely the international work dynamics, a spouse should be able to do better than that. First of all, finding work abroad is much easier and much more common. People can work remotely with a laptop and a good internet connection. There is much more mobility, diversity and flexibility. So theoretically the life of the “trailing spouse” has become much easier and uncomplicated.. Right?

In my experience I have met some pretty amazing people living abroad, trying to support their partner’s career while they work hard to find their own decent place in the new society. It usually takes a lot of courage, strength, and dedication to make things happens. Often it is a huge blow to the pride. But you have to work with your self and the personal issues that every one has and find your way.

I know because I am one. Having lived abroad several times for my own sake and ambitions this was the first time I let my partner’s career goals decide where I will be.

Here is the list of things that in my opinion you should consider before deciding to take the leap:

Your motto: good research.

The Country: The country where you relocate can make or break your success story. Being “abroad” in one part of the globe will not be the same as being “abroad” in another. In short, don’t just jump with excitement in the prospect before researching the place. If you move for example in Paris, France you will have a completely different life from if you move in Oslo, Norway. Which means that if Paris is what you have fantasies for and you move in Oslo to have a similar “european” experience you will be disappointed. (the opposite is true as well, desiring to live in the woods and find yourself in the middle of a big chaotic city). Of course in this example i use extremes, Parisean lifestyle is lightyears away from Scandinavian. I know that it does not depend on the “trailing spouse” where the relocation will be but I am only highlighting patterns you should avoid. At the end of the day the connection you personally have with the country and its people will determine your willingness to work hard to integrate.

The Country: Romantic Ideas vs Real facts. You may have already visited the place and find it charming, romanic, refreshing… Only because you have seen it as a tourist. You have done all the cool stuff and somehow that makes you feel that your life there will be like that, a constant amazement. Almost every place in the world can look charming when you are a tourist. But think that once you move there you might not live in the cool city centre because the rents will be just out of reach. You might find yourself in a suburb away from amenities and attractions. When the initial newcomer’s excitement fades, would you like to live in THAT place permanently? Will the transport be convenient to use on a daily basis? What do the people do for entertainment and does that match your expectations? Are you attracted to the culture, people and society?Remember you will be a newcomer there, you need all the conveniences you can get. Is this place what you think it is or a beautiful holiday memory?

The Language: This one is a HUGE HUGE factor. Do you speak the language of the country you are going? If not ,are you willing to learn it? I mean really learn it, beyond ordering “a big cappuccino please”. Your partner will probably be fine speaking in English at work but the same unfortunately will not be true for you. In certain parts of the world many people will look at you in shock,bewilderment and even contempt if you don’t address them in their language. Think that learning the language is not optional when you relocate and especially when you have not already secured a job.

The job: Getting a job in the new country might be easy or difficult. it depends on the place you are, the language, your own field and skills, and in many cases nationality, ethnicity, race etc. (Sad but true. ) If you plan to work asap try to find out what people in your shoes generally say about their experience. Don’t take things for granted. You might be hot stuff in one country and in another get constant rejections. Be prepared, disappointment might come. While volunteering at a swedish shelter I met a girl , a rather fierce go getter from Spain who had moved to Stockholm because of her Swedish boyfriend. She wanted to get a job the next day. You could see she was like a lion in a cage, she was not ready to take the blow to her pride and surrender to the new hard reality where her CV did not get her any interviews. Even the simple task of handing food to the homeless had become for her a competitive task where she had to prove herself. Only a few months later she moved to Germany to work in her field. Having said that there are many well educated professionals who endure much longer than that in order to be with their partners. The reason why I think this example is important is because many people today, especially if they have invested a lot in education and personal growth, lose their sense of identity and self worth once they are removed from their jobs and careers and thus feel lost and disorientated.

Money. This is something you will probably need to sort out with your partner. His or her salary might sound alluring in dollars or yuan but once you calculate your expenses according to the cost of life in the new place you realise that your lifestyle might actually worsen. Plus his salary, if you have no job will be used to support the whole family. Will you be happy to live in a smaller apartment, have no car and depend on your partner for pocket money?

I don’t mean to sound too discouraging. At the end of the day each of us is different and will take the decision considering what they have to give up and what is important to them on a personal level. But you have to be well informed-know what you are in for.

Living abroad can be a very rewarding and unique experience. Plan your “escape” wisely.

And if you try and fail don’t beat your self up. Always kudos to you for having tried.

thinking life as a sitcom

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Life has taken me to very different places. When I was much younger I used to think that moving countries around the world would always be fun, challenging and exciting. I remember someone telling me before my last move “Yet another move, I wonder how you cope!”

At the time I thought the comment was funny. Lately I think I get what it implied. But the truth is that life is journey whether you decide to relocate or not. There are always times coming and going, things forgotten and things imprinted forever in your heart and mind. There is always people you meet, you connect and travel with. A human relationship reaches its climax and then subsides, transforms or fades.

In many ways other people are my personal journey as my life’s “setting” has been ever changing. The people I have met and shared moments with. And the people that have made a deep impression or impact on me, and of whom I think about almost daily even though I never see.

I think now I understand why people get so hooked with sit-coms like the Big Bang theory or Two and a Half Men. (just to mention two of my own favorites). Life happening in the same unchanged snug setting of a Malibu Beach House or in a book swamped PhD student apartment (with a surprisingly pleasant upmarket living room view), creates the most beautiful illusions for the human mind: the security of consistency and purpose. Personal conflicts, challenges and dilemmas all in the end resolve with a shared order in Thai meal and the company of the same gang in that same homely living room. There is nothing that can shake or challenge the existence of that ideal space: It is in fact the center of life itself: it feeds and keeps relationships alive.

“I don’t want to own anything until I know I’ve found the place where me and things belong together. I’m not quite sure where that is just yet. But I know what it’s like…. It’s like Tiffany’s….” Holly Golightly says in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. That vague ideal place that Holly dreams about is where you simply live. It is your aesthetically compatible microworld where life simply happens and you lose the desire to relocate or travel. In a certain way you are that place.

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This ideal permanent space serves as a point of reference. It might be difficult to understand this if you have not relocated a fair number of times. In our little rented furnished apartment in Sweden for example, (where the majority of things are not ours and where we listen to four languages throughout the day) I realized I used Peppa Pig as a point of reference for my daughter: Every morning while she eats her breakfast I put Peppa Pig on (the original British, no funny dubbing). Very often it is the same episodes where I already know all the dialogues. It can be very boring for me. But strangely enough I am rarely happy to change the show. I want it to be one of the things that do not change in her baby life, at least I can guarantee that as long as I am there and as long as an internet connection exists, Peppa Pig will be playing on the tablet in the mornings.

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Life is not a sitcom. But just as we allow our babies to immerse themselves in magic worlds where everyone is happy, loved and cherished (and who it return loves and cherishes everybody else) to delay the hard truths of adulthood, so we as adults need from time to time to allow ourselves some of this fleeting feeling of consistency. Consistent love, joy and magical transformation.

Life is not a sitcom, but it would be nice if it were.

If I don’t see you again before Christmas Merry Christmas everyone and have a magic holiday!

Cultural Talk: There can only be one Hong Kong

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Lately I have been following closely the debate surrounding the Hong Kong Occupy Central movement. Labeled as a struggle against China’s anti-democratic administration by the western media it has gained popular support in the western world as a fight for freedom.

It drew the attention not only of the media but of the international watchdogs, who quickly seized the opportunity to lecture the Chinese about democracy and begin to suggest various democracy monitoring mechanisms. I am not going to quote all the reasons why democracy is one of the most abused words masking western political hypocrisy or why permitting third parties to interfere and stick the democracy-meter in your mouth is a bad, bad idea. As a Greek and national of a country that in the last years has been shaken with tear gassed demonstrations, illegal taxation and vast unpunished political corruption and still this country is democratic, I feel like today’s sense of democracy leaves a lot to be desired.

But in any case the young Hong Kongnese have their cause and what motivates them night after night to take the streets is basically the desire to be free to denounce the alignment with China’s administration and policies. In every relationship, after all, a person has the right to voice their desires and intention and act upon them.

What however remains a question is after a hypothetical “divorce”, what would the new alignment be, since the UK has long now resigned from its former active role . To fully answer this question one must examine the identity of the Hong Kongnese people, who they are and who they identify with most.

To me the Hong Kongnese identity can be compared to that of an adopted child that is taken from its biological mother at a very young age and raised by a another mother. The child’s uniqueness, charisma and beauty is a combination of its upbringing (thanks to the foreign mother) and its natural charisma (thanks to the biological mother.) You cannot isolate either side to describe her. A grown up now, she is trying to get used to her birth mother’s ways and realizes that their newly found co-existence is much harder than she had expected.

Behind Hong Kong’s uniqueness there are some interesting facts . Here are few that culturally underlie the debate about Hong Kong:

Hong Kong was Chinese territory taken by the British
. Described as scattered fishing villages before its occupation by the imperialists, it was Chinese soil built and developed by the British. As a British crown colony needless to say it also did not enjoy democracy at a time where colonialism was still in effect.

Hong Kong was a gateway and entrepot to China before its opening up by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. The special interest the West had in Hong Kong was closely linked to its proximity to China and the trade potential attached to it.

After China’s opening up Shanghai has been gradually replacing Hong Kong’s role as an international port. The dynamics between the relationship of the mainlanders and the Hong Kongnese have rapidly changed. Now it is the mainlanders that are financially ahead and are calling the shots. This has been a huge blow on native Hong Kongers sense of self and pride.

Desired by both “mothers” Hong kong has been also neglected by both. When leaving in 1997, The British failed to supply the Hong Kongnese with full British citizenship as perhaps they ought to have done to support their growing feelings of identity loss. At the same time the Chinese have been gradually trying to rapidly integrate Hong Kong to what it has been interpreted as erosion of identity.

Hong Kong is a small place and China does not pretend to care about Hong Kong’s identity. Neither China was ever obliged to be oversensitive about an ex British colony.

However it should.

Hong Kong is a unique place built from scratch as a hybrid identity city state. It has been the ground for bold urban architectural experimentation: highrises and skyscrapers built on the steep and hilly topography of Hong Kong island, elevated roadways and a record of escalators, as well as sights skillfully integrating nature and hyper urbanism. Hong Kong’s international airport is one of the busiest airports in Asia built on large artificial land that was created by leveling two islands.

Even though the population is in majority ethnic Chinese, it has been home to different nationalities that prospered in different trades. It prides itself on a variety of authentic international cuisine available and high standard English speaking touristic services. It is a truly global city and a jewel to be carefully preserved by the Chinese.

But mostly for all the above it is a true piece of history. It is a reference to the past and a leap to the future. And for the Chinese who have invested millions in creating replica European cities like Venice or Paris, Hong Kong is the real thing. In fact there cannot be a second Hong Kong. But what will keep the flame alive is proudly declaring a Hong Kong identity that deserves to be voiced and preserved.

Hong Kong’s value as a unique historic global city and cultural investment will only increase with time if China allows it. It is loved by millions around the world, Chinese or not. It is a symbol, and just like everything precious there is a duty attached to it to protect and preserve.

Living Abroad: Are you an Immigrant or an Expat? Cultural Talk

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A thing that has puzzled me for a long time since I left my native country is stereotypes regarding the identity of foreigners and the popular terms Immigrant and Expatriate. In London this was not completely an issue. Every other person I met was a foreigner with a different story and circumstances. You could not describe lots of people with just one term: the human mosaic was too intricate and the relationships too complex. At the same time, like everywhere else, people often valued others based on individual judgments related to nationality and popular stereotypes related to nationalities, career and earnings, looks, religion etc.

In Sweden I find things are more straightforward. There is a well defined line between what is Swedish and what is not, and officially foreigners are perceived as belonging mainly in one group: they are Immigrants. There are of course cultural reasons why the average Swede could warm up to an expat more than he/she would to an immigrant. Also there are subconscious classifications of different immigrants that make some more desirable than others.

Let me explain.

An immigrant is described as “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country”.
The Immigrant is different from the migrant; the latter defined as “a person who moves from one place to another in order to find better living conditions”.

Even though these two terms have a different definition they are usually used as having the same meaning. Culturally the word migrant often brings in mind images of desperate people escaping war and conflict and trying to reach a safe first world country. The word immigrants evokes more peaceful images, but still is closely linked to poverty, low paid jobs and life in ghettos.

An expatriate is a “person who lives outside their native country”. Another definition that I found online is “an employee who is sent to live abroad for a defined time period”. An expatriate therefore is not perceived as someone who is planning to spend his whole life abroad or get a pension abroad. It is rather someone whose identity abroad is somehow linked to his role in his native country.

An expatriate is usually culturally perceived as someone whose financial potential abroad could well exceed the financial potential of many locals of the country he visits. The word expat brings in mind popular images of white people socializing while sipping gin tonic in membership clubs. Expats don’t really need to learn the language of the country they live in as they work in another formal language and can leave the country whenever they wish. They are very mobile too. Another stereotype about expats is that in majority hold strong passports from financially and culturally “important” countries: the locals can indeed benefit from their presence. (As opposed to the presence of immigrants, whose “foreign cultures” could be seen as a nuisance rather than a benefit).

These silent classifications no matter how inaccurate, superficial and stereotypical underlie the relationships of people. As a foreigner in Stockholm I have been surprised by the various classifications of immigrants and clichés that I have encountered. For example, when I first got here, I was talking to a friendly Swedish woman who was once married to a Portuguese man. When I identified with her experience being married to a foreigner myself (and one that comes from another continent too) she retorted: “But it is not the same! You two are both Latin!” (I am Greek, he is Mexican).

“Latin” therefore is perhaps another definition for the “darker colored Christian immigrant coming from a poor country/hit by crisis with nice beaches to visit on holidays”.

Or maybe it’s much more complicated than that. I never take offense in these observations as I believe we all have our subconscious classifications of people whether they have to do with wealth, career and prestige, gender, beauty and looks, nationality, religion etc. I have seen people in China stop the traffic to let the Scandinavian looking boy pass, staring in awe.

It is a very real and sad aspect of human existence.

The time that it does bother me however is when it messes with my right to compete on equal terms. When I had the job coaching with Arbetsförmedlingen I was promised to be treated like a professional and in the end the person doing the coaching saw no harm done suggesting I became a cleaner. I have the utmost respect for people who clean to make a living a have friends who have done it. But I am not going to enroll myself in a four month job coaching program just to be told in the end that my options are reduced to that. If I need this type of job I can very well get it without fancy ipad coaching.

So even though I absolutely abhor stereotyping I asked myself one day:

“Am I an expat or an immigrant?”

The job coach who read my arbetsförmedlingen post replied in an angry message that I am the latter and came here to steal Swedish jobs. (Ironically she was not Swedish!)

But I, just like so many other people I have met here, I am a number of conflicting things. I am this and that. I am a traveler, a visitor. But I don’t live in a ghetto. I don’t socialize only with people from my country. I am married to a foreigner. Am I here to stay forever? No. Do I have a cleaner and a nanny? No. I live in a one bed 55 square meter apartment.

Living in Sweden as a foreigner you may ask yourself who you are and where you belong. I tell myself I am a hybrid, and other hybrids can feel my identity.

Hong Kong: The Perfect Hybrid Place

Since I first visited Hong Kong back in 2008, I felt like a part of me did a quantum jump and stayed there permanently. Despite my aspirations, it only remained in that parallel universe and did not extend in the Universe I live now: I visit Hong Kong as a tourist, always trying to grasp the essence of its magic.

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For me, Hong Kong’s success lies in its hybrid character: Once a British colony it has been a famous mix of British and Chinese Cultures and later attracted a variety of ethnicities and populations, creating a mosaic of colors, tastes and images. It has been famously branded an Asia World City because of that vibrant, multicultural character. If there is a word that comes in mind when I think of Hong Kong, that word is definitely potential. Walking the steep hilly streets and slopes of the Hong Kong Island you can feel that potential and the energy that comes from its unique landscape and architectural unconventionality. (One of its quirks being the world’s longest outdoor escalator, Central-Mid-Levels, that carries you to the higher levels of the island so you don’t have to climb the steep hill)

Central-Mid-Levels Escalator

Central-Mid-Levels Escalator

Hong Kong residents take pride in the fact that its unique energy comes from using Feng Shui -the Chinese geomancy-, which has shaped the architecture and lifestyle of the city in accordance with the principles of energy flow, health and prosperity. In this sense Hong Kong is futuristic. Not because of its jaw dropping skyline and aesthetics of hyper capitalism, these are only by products of its positive energy flow. It is rather by creating potential and enabling opportunity that it has liberated itself from strong national and political elements.

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When I first stood at Tsim Sha Tsui gazing at Hong Kong Island, an afternoon six years ago, I felt free and overwhelmed by a sudden feeling of potential. It is that rare feeling that comes to you not so often when you feel like new horizons open in front of you, truly a sense of empowerment. You are suddenly inspired, injected with “life shots” as you grow and you expand and feel limitless. It is a feeling similar to falling in love for the first time.

This is more affordable

This is more affordable

That night I was going to sleep in a hostel in Tsim Sha Tsui and a box room that had no windows or natural light. (Very typical is the city’s lack of residential space where people are vertically squashed in overpriced tiny apartments). Even that did not disturb my sense of freedom. Life in Hong Kong is outside and is calling for you to live it, young, free and adventurous.

View from the Peak

View from the Peak

Maybe I will always be in love with Hong Kong and perhaps just like a high school crush it will always be there, beckoning from another universe like another self. Or perhaps I will only be nostalgic of that early summer afternoon I stood in Victoria Harbour gazing at Hong Kong Island, South China Sea between us, Life in front of us to be conquered and lived to its full potential with no regrets, doubts or second thoughts.

View from Victoria Harbour

View from Victoria Harbour