Monday, May 30, 2011

Bloggers Unite! Celebrate World No Tobacco Day

I love the idea of Bloggers all around the world uniting around a topic to effect positive change. If I learn new ideas from the countries I visit that I can take home, one of the things I can do is bring ideas from my country that have worked and would be helpful to other people.

Today bloggers are uniting around the idea of "No Tobacco." If you would like to read the entries of other bloggers who are advocating for no tobacco, click on my title.

Since both of the countries I have lived in as an expat LOVE their tobacco, I repost a post from last year that celebrated one thing my country and specifically, my government, did well. The American government began a campaign to teach citizens how life-threatening tobacco is to smokers and the people they love. It began over 40 years ago, and today, America has one of the lowest smoking rates in the world. Here's my post:

I moved to Prague in November of 2008. It was the day after the Presidential election so I left full of hope and excitement for my country's future. The preceding month, however, with the credit crisis and the bank bailouts pretty much drove American belief in the fairness of our system out the window. It would have been so, so easy to give up in cynicism. I was grateful to be in Prague where I would be avoiding the continual depressing drumbeat of economic calamity in American news.

When I came to Prague, I discovered Czechs had their own cynicism about democratic politics. I'm not talking about before 1989, but after. Immediately after the Velvet Revolution, Czechs felt all of the assets of the country were stripped away in a big "grab" by politicians and carpetbaggers.

I don't want to be cynical. It's not my nature and cynicism never advanced the cause of humanity. So as I made my transition to living in a new country, I vowed to celebrate one wonderful thing about my government and the Czech government so that I could keep cynicism at bay. In my next post, I'll talk about one wonderful thing I admire about Czech government, even though there are actually many things (just as there are for America). Today, I'd like to celebrate my own government's actions. It actually ended up saving my life.

A typical sign
that conveys how socially unacceptable
smoking is in America.

I am grateful to the United States government for providing leadership in my country on the elimination of smoking as a socially acceptable practice. This wasn't a grass-roots movement from the people pushing up but a top-down campaign from the Surgeon General of the United States (our top public health official) to the people.

In 1964, the Surgeon General declared that "smoking causes cancer." That took real courage to say back then because 46% of American smoked. They smoked in cars, elevators, planes, offices, and their homes. The 1964 report was issued on a Saturday, so great were the worries about what it would do to the American stock market.

The news that smoking causes cancer finally sank into my brain in 1991 when I was 31 years old. Up until that point, I smoked more than I care to admit (okay, I'll admit it: 3-4 packs a day).

When I came to Prague, I had never seen so many smokers! Not even when I was 17 years old and thought smoking was cool. Just walking down one of Prague's very lovely streets, one has to be careful not to get a cigarette burn in one's coat because people are actively walking and smoking at the same time! I once chatted up a young Czech college student who was smoking and he was astonished by the idea that anyone would want to quit. "It relaxes me." I don't even think he knew it could kill him. And it's not just Czech young people who smoke.

Most educated people in the USA have educated themselves about the danger.  In America, the majority of smokers left have less than a high school education. I've entered salons frequented by Prague intelligentsia where nearly 100% of the people had a PhD. But they are uneducated about the dangers of tobacco. The air was so thick with smoke you could see it move!

I  was mystified by how unlikely it would be that my country led on this and the Czech Republic lagged on this. After all, in a socialist health care system, wouldn't the government want to eliminate preventable chronic disease because it would eliminate expense? Wouldn't Czech people resent their neighbor's smoking if that drove up national health care costs and their taxes? Isn't it in a socialist government's fiscal interest to change this smoking culture?

Maybe the taxes raised on cigarettes more than cover the cost of the increased disease and people who smoke are used for financing public budgets. I don't know. I will occasionally razz, with a joking smile, my smoking friends who are huddled outside for warmth where they've been banished nationwide in America: "hey taxpayer, thanks for paying more than your fair share through your smoking. You make it easier on the rest of us. But you don't have to kill yourself in the process - why not just mail in the money if you're so insistent on paying these extra taxes?" One of my young coworker has taken to calling his smoking breaks "paying everybody's taxes."

Why did my country lead on curtailing smoking culture when we had a giant tobacco industry that was hugely powerful, created tons of jobs, and lots of export income? The government continually, over and over again, did the right thing despite all that. We have all kinds of industries back home that sway the government from doing the exact thing in the best interest of the public as a whole. I would love to understand why the American government was so terrific on this issue when the government didn't even bear the health care costs of increased smoking, insurance companies did. What do you think, Americans? How could this sort of extraordinary leadership on an issue be reproduced? We sure could use an awful lot more of it.

I am so grateful to the Surgeon Generals of the United States for saving my life. Thank you for continually reminding the public that we were killing ourselves. And since all movements have a drum leader, I would like to take a moment to honor the individual human beings who have led this movement in my country. Thank you!

American Surgeon Generals from that period onward:

Leroy Edgar Burney (first federal official to state that smoking causes lung cancer)
Luther L. Terry (commissioned landmark 1964 report on smoking)
William H. Stewart
Jesse L. Steinfeld
Julius B. Richmond
C. Everett Koop (led a campaign to create a smoke-free society by 2000)
Antonio Novello
M. Jocelyn Elders
David Satcher
Richard H. Carmona
Regina M. Benjamin

See, it's not so hard to keep cynicism at bay! Next post I will talk about what I most admire about the Czech government.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Dental Overreach

 Disclaimer - Not my teeth - someone else's
Anyone who has ever moved knows what a job it is to reestablish all of the relationships that are necessary to daily life.  The church, the school, the gym, the doctor, the dentist, the shoe repair man, the list goes on and on. As an expat the burden is even greater because it's hard to compromise on the standards you want for yourself.

Recently, I decided I needed my teeth cleaned because it had been 18 months since my last cleaning.  I had an amazing dentist in America with a fantastic staff.  I loved visiting his office, so much so that the one thing I did when I was home in America was make sure I got my teeth cleaned there. My dentist's office was full of information about he and his wife being in the top 1% of cosmetic dentists.  Everything was fantastic about that office from the wonderful friendly staff, to their expertise, right down to the terrific bird feeders out his window for me to watch. 

So I asked friends I trusted for a terrific dentist recommendation in my Istanbul neighborhood, went and checked out the office beforehand and inquired about prices, looked around and was sufficiently impressed that it was both upscale and thoroughly modern to international standards. Today I went for my appointment.

The dentist didn't know that it had been 18 months since my last cleaning.  He used those little dental mirrors to look at my teeth.  "You don't need to be here. Your teeth don't need a cleaning. There is nothing to clean." he said. "It was nice to meet you."

I was completely flabbergasted.  My dental hygienist back home wanted me in every four months.  She wanted me to buy a WaterPik.  She wanted me to buy tools that would stimulate my gums.  She said without quarterly cleanings and daily tools my teeth would really suffer. Now they guy is telling me after 18 months of benign neglect they look fine?

This appointment was a perfect example why America consistently runs up medical bills that outpace the world without better outcomes to show for it. France spends a mere 11% of GDP on health care.  America is at an unsustainable 16%, predicted to hit 19.5% in five years. For all the money we spend, we are 42nd in the world in life expectancy. We are the only industrialized, first-world nation without health care for citizens and we routinely leave 50 million of our fellow citizens uninsured.  Yet, we spend all this money and for what?

Why do we keep doing what we're doing in America? Overtreating? Each year that we don't fix this pointless spending, other nations get to invest that money on something else.  The 5% difference in what we spend on health care and someone else doesn't spend on health care then gets compounded every year.  Their investments in their countries build and make all kinds of exciting projects possible.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

What Creates Compassion?

"If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it" ~Atticus Finch, "To Kill A Mockingbird"
All around the world today, bloggers are uniting to celebrate our human quality of compassion.  I love participating with other like-minded souls on a project like this because it then also becomes a celebration of the new kinds of connection that the internet makes possible. You can find other blogs on compassion by clicking on the "May 15 - Day of Compassion" badge to the right.

Compassion allows us to sublimate the feeling of "other" that we see in people and instead find out how we are alike.  To really feel compassionate, we have to do what Atticus Finch, the fictional hero of "To Kill A Mockingbird" suggested to his daughter Scout. We need to consider life from the other person's point of view.

How do we do that when the "other" is "the other?" If a group of people is unknown to us, and we fear them, we don't know any of them, we haven't talked to any of them, we will probably let fear of them grow in our mind.

I suggest the quickest way to grow compassion for others that we do not know or understand is to consume each other's literature and media.  My country would be a different place if the American people had access to Al Jazeera and could see the Arab point-of-view.  My country would be a different place if it would choose to have a more global appetite for media, and not just consume home-grown American books, TV shows, and movies. I believe we would literally be nicer.

The useful thing about consuming media of "the other" is that it is not threatening.  We can hear the opinions, emotions, feelings of those who disagree with us or see things differently without having to instantly react.

I remember when I saw the movie "Cesky Mir," a thought-provoking Czech movie describing how Czechs were working to end a possible American-installed radar system on their land.  What stunned me was not the arguments against the missile system, but the knowledge the Czechs had about how corrupting all that American money floating around would be to their tiny little democracy.  I believe Americans are so used to that wash of money over our government we can hardly see its influence anymore - it seems normal.

In the movie Cesky Mir, one old village lady asked, "how can we trust the Americans? You see the kind of crap they send to our country for our young people through their movies!" Yikes, that cut me to the quick because I knew it was true. We do create a lot of crap movies! I acknowledge and agree with her point-of-view.

Could that be the future? Citizens of one country getting citizens of another country to question how they do things through media? This could be the start of mass grass-roots diplomacy!
Maya Angelou

One area where I feel that I have a lot of compassion and where my country has grown a lot of compassion is in race relations.  That has been the work of my generation of white Americans: opening our heart to the full participation of African-Americans in American life. I have consumed untold quantities of African-American literature, music, and movies. I defy anyone to read Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" or Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" and remain compassion-less.

Ralph Ellison
This is why literature is so incredibly important and why I am so proud of my profession of librarianship.  It heals society. It strengthens our heart muscles and makes them more daring and more loving. I have scads of African-American friends because I feel comfortable with them because I am comfortable with their outlook on life (as much as one can generalize about a whole group of people) through the consumption of their media.

I can see both the good and the bad in African-American culture just as I can see the good and the bad in my Caucasian culture.  What is so healthy in my country is that we can laugh at ourselves and each other and discuss all of these things publicly. We are listening to each other and enjoying each other. I would hate to think of what my country would be like if we never choose to become more accepting of each other. I think it would be similar to this parallel, non-touching existence of Coptic Christians and Muslims that a famous Egyptian blogger describes in his blog "Rantings of a Sand Monkey" here.

In contrast to how comfortable I am with African-American culture, it was recently announced that America is now 16% Hispanic.  I have consumed hardly any Hispanic literature, hardly any Hispanic music, and hardly any Hispanic movies.  I tried to think if I had any Hispanic friends (one may call me on it later, we'll see).  I couldn't think of any. That doesn't surprise me since I have opened no window into their culture other than food.

I had never been inside a mosque until I moved to Turkey.  It has been so darn healthy for me to come form my own opinion of Muslim societies rather than stick with the image Osama Bin Laden thought I should have. The more I learn from Turks about who they are and what their culture is about, the less distance I feel between me and them.  It is impossible for a group of people to be "the other" when you can see yourself in them and feel what they are feeling.

If I could ask something of you today, gentle reader, ask yourself: "whom do I fear? Whom do I resent? Or who is invisible to me because I choose not to see them?" Then go out and find their best literature, movies, or music.  Start a relationship with an entire culture.  You may end up with wonderful friends who will enrich your life.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Who Was Atatürk?

If an expatriate is going to live in Turkey, this book is almost required reading because it is about the person most beloved throughout the nation: Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic.  I enjoyed this book because it was interesting to see how one person with vision saw enormous opportunity in the decline of the Ottoman Empire and created something completely new.

The average leader could get get bogged down in mourning the loss of territory, wealth, and power the Ottoman Empire was experiencing.  Atatürk shrewdly knew what was defensible and what was not.  He literally "rebranded" an entire nation, calling it "Turkey" and defended it against the Allied Powers.  Today, the Turks are proud to be the only Islamic country that has never been colonized.

Coming from America, which now celebrates multi-culturalism, this book helped me understand why Turkish people find multi-culturalism so threatening.  At the time of the War of Independence, Turkey was threatened with being "nibbled away" by various ethnic groups claiming "Turkish" land for "their people." With Atatürk's leadership, the land mass known as "Turkey" is one piece and one nation.  The Turks have begun updating their dated thinking on multiculturalism with the beginnings of a more liberalized attitude toward the Kurds, but there is a long way to go yet. Turkish attitudes towards ethnically-diverse groups within Turkey are similar to where mainstream white America was on the subject in the 1950s: "Aren't we all Americans? Aren't we all Turks? Minorities should conform to the culture of the majority." Turks are coming around very, very slowly, like we did, to the idea of "Yes, but....there is nothing wrong with celebrating our varied heritages." 

There are a couple things that totally impressed me about Atatürk. He excelled at all martial and diplomatic strategic activity. He had the forgiveness and detachment one sees within great leaders like Mandela toward his former foes.  For example, when given the opportunity to walk on a Greek Flag to celebrate a Turkish victory, he refused. His neighboring examples of how to run a country were Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, and Mussolini's Italy, yet when other party members wanted him to put his party above the nation, he refused.

Atatürk was superb at cutting losses at what wasn't working, such as the Turkish Arabic-style alphabet and Ottoman-era Turkish language infused with many foreign words, simplifying the whole language with a Latin alphabet. The librarian in me was fascinated by this decision. The agony of cutting off all heritage literature from current and future readers is so momentous! Mango points out though that only 10% of the population was literate at the time of the change so it was less of a risk than first imagined. The hard part remains that only the select few who understand the old script can read it for themselves.  Everyone else has to rely on what "experts" say the old writing says. 

Atatürk wanted women to be liberated to be their best. Turkish women were granted the right to vote in 1930 - compare that with Swiss women who didn't achieve it until 1971!

Atatürk made government secular within a land that was almost 100% Muslim. Rather than be cowed by worries of offending religious sensibilities, he pursued Western-style education and knowledge for his people. He constantly communicated to them his belief that they could make their own destiny. To this day, Turks carry that feeling within them.

Mango's book is considered the definitive source for English-language speakers.  It's a little scary how completely Mango dominates the reading list for English-language readers on all things Turkish.  He have been enormously productive and his output is extensive.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Blogger Censorship Finally Ends

This week, the Republic of Turkey's censorship of the Blogger domain ended where I live! Yea! It's nice to be able to see my blog and not just reach it from the back end.

The Nobel prize-winning author Nadine Gordimer says that “censorship is never over for those who have experienced it. It is a brand on the imagination that affects the individual who has suffered it, forever.”

Even though censorship happened at the domain level, it is really hard not to feel it personally when it happens to you.  I do feel less free to speak my mind.  I don't think it can be healthy for the creativity of a people to be prevented from self-expression. I'm glad it is over.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Checking Out the History of Dissidents: New Vaclav Havel Library to Open in 2013

A Force for Good
Vaclav Havel

Modeled after the American Presidential Libraries, the new Vaclav Havel Library will be a repository for Vaclav Havel's published works and unpublished papers. Unlike Presidential Libraries, this Library will carry the samizdat of years of repression and the official papers of years of expression.  The unique gathering of that collection makes for an interesting juxtaposition and the final triumph of Prague dissident voices from repression - to rule  - to Presidential level archives. It's a fairy tale, really.  A political fairy tale.

Click on my title to read more about the project.

Monday, May 9, 2011

So, Are You Thinking About Becoming an Expatriate?

 New this week:
"Expat Women Confessions"
by Andrea Martins
and Victoria Hepworth

 When I was thinking about becoming an expatriate, I had no idea what was involved or how I would do once I went overseas.  I was very lucky to find the Expat Women website because their monthly newsletter, collection of expatriate blogs by women from all over the world, and website features gave me the courage to dream. Expat Women was probably one of my very first information points about everything involved with being an expat.  Reading other women's experiences gave me courage! 

As anyone knows who begins down the path of a research-heavy dream, it can consume a lot of hours poking around on the web to find answers to the thousands of questions involved in any new endeavor.

Luckily, experienced expats Andrea Martin, Director of Expat Women, and Victoria Hepworth, manager of the Blog Directory that is contained within the Expat Women website have teamed up to answer some of the most commonly asked questions women have about what is involved in an overseas life.

This week, these two accomplished ladies are launching their new book: "Expat Women: Confessions." Their one-stop guide to issues related to expatriation covers topics such as how to settle in and deal with culture shock, how to handle a crisis such as medical issues or death abroad (heaven forbid!), what are some of the money and career issues common to expatriates, and most importantly: how will expatriation affect one's relationships with significant others, aging parents, and children.

Andrea and Victoria know what questions people would ask and want answers to before they leap! Andrea talks to expats all the time not only through her web site but also through her professional speaking to expatriate groups.  Victoria wrote her Master's thesis on 'trailing spouses,' the phenomenon where spouses whose other half has been offered an overseas opportunity that decides a couple's path.

They will undoubtedly cover a topic that seems unnecessary before you jump.  I never thought I would need to know about sudden repatriation, but I did.  I wish I had known about that before it happened. That's the beauty of this book.  Expat Women: Confessions answers questions we think to ask and those we don't.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Things My Mother Taught Me

Me and my Mom
on a Rocky Mountain Hike in 2008
I'm lucky to have one amazing mother and to be the mother of two amazing daughters.  I love my Mom and all that she gave to me growing up, most especially, a fun, exciting and secure childhood. Today I was thinking of lessons my mother taught me. There are thousands.  I'll just mention one.

I grew up in a university town.  My mom always used to tell me, "remember, all people are equal. Both the janitor and the university President should be the same in your eyes because each one of them has something to teach you if you just listen.  Just make sure you are listening to both.  You always want to be the kind of person who can relate to everybody, not just people at one end of the occupational or earning spectrum."

I have always lived and loved that advice.  It would be so damn boring and limiting to only enjoy people who are just like me.  Now as an expat, I'm living that advice in even more extended ways: learning from people who have a different geography, nationality, and faith.  They have so much to teach me too.

Mom, here is a gorgeous bit of prose I learned from people in Turkey.  I think it describes a mother's love exactly:
"Even after all this time the sun never says to the Earth, 'you owe me!'
Look what happens with a love like that.  It lights up the whole sky."
        ~Hafiz, Islamic Sufi poet

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

World Press Freedom Day: Lara Logan Breaks Her Silence

Today, May 3rd, has been designated as World Press Freedom Day by UNESCO.  Blogging has made me acutely aware of the toll bloggers and journalists all over the world have paid for bringing stories to their communities.  Here's the toll from just one country, Bahrain: one publisher & one blogger killed, 68 journalists and bloggers arrested or fired, and 20 investigated.

Do you know a journalist you can thank today for bringing you the story? If it was a dangerous story, please thank them for the risks they took.  If it was a meeting that went on for three hours at night and they're attending it rather than tucking their kids in at night, a little appreciation would go along way.  Journalists provide the sunshine on democracy and human endeavor.

This World Press Freedom Day I am in awe of the courage shown by one South African journalist reporting on behalf of the #1 TV news magazine in America.  Her name is Lara Logan.  The name of her show is 60  minutes.  She agreed to do one interview only about what she experienced trying to bring Americans the story of the Egyptian Revolution. The courage this woman displayed in breaking the code of silence on sexual assault is a gift to women everywhere. May the rest of her life be truly blessed. Click on my title to see her interview and remember, hug a journalist today. Tell them they make a difference.

Turkish Government issues list of 138 forbidden words on websites

Wow, if I wasn't having problems enough getting around the Turkish censorship of Google's blogging platform (the censorship hasn't stopped in my area but it has been lifted intermittently in other locations around Turkey), news comes today that Turkey is going to ban any website with 138 different words.  One of the first on the list is "passionate." I guess that would rule out the discussion we expats had this weekend over at Displaced Nation about the Royal Wedding and the institution of Monarchy.  The moderating bloggers chose to title the post: "Two writers with passionate views of Royal Passion." They probably didn't know that it would keep a potential 70 million people in Turkey from reading it! If you want to write about being "blonde," "overweight," or making "homemade" cookies, you are also out of luck at reaching a Turkish audience. Click on my title to see what else is censored. 

Sunday, May 1, 2011

What Did You Think of the Royal Wedding?

 The Royal Kiss

We're having a big discussion over at The Displaced Nation. Come in and contribute to the conversation. Jane Green, chick lit author and ABC News Royals Correspondent is celebrating the traditional fairy tale. I'm asking the question that formed in my mind while visiting the Swedish Royal Palace gift shop: how could women get all the story, fashion, glamour, and romance of the royal wedding without the existence of monarchy?  There has to be a way. Contribute your thoughts!

Photo and links were added at a later date due to Turkey's ongoing censorship of bloggers.
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