The venom of the expatriate’s choice


In a corner of my office, next to a shelf containing such diverse items as a biography of Willie Mays, Quirk and Greenbaum’s “A Grammar of Contemporary English,” and Carole Bloom’s “All About Chocolate,” sits a polyethylene snake, 45 cm tall.

To be precise, it’s a golden cobra poised for attack, with fangs bared, hood flared, and ruby eyes glowing with demonic intent.

“Holy Jeee. . .hosaphat! What’s that!?” So saying, my guest hotfoots it to the other side of my office. Where my other bookshelf is protected by a visitor-attuned model of R2D2.

“That,” I tell my guest. “Is my grandmother’s snake.”

The snake is perhaps more tacky than it is menacing. To others, it shows only that I have poor taste in decoration. To me, it symbolizes much more. It signifies the choice I have made in opting to live my life in Japan. An eternal reminder that I am snake-bitten.

“Get rid of it,” says my son.

But I can’t. The snake, in its evil coil, is a scaly link between my two homes, one here and one in the States. Which of these is “abroad” now, I cannot say.

My grandmother was pretty much a typical grandmother. She crocheted doilies. She kept knickknacks. She circled her favorite programs in the TV Guide. Idiosyncrasies? Well. . . she chain-smoked. And she liked snakes.

She kept a few around her Lazy-Boy. Some were slithery rubber. Others were slinky contraptions of wood. But the big cobra ruled them all.

When we returned for a visit, many months after my grandmother’s death, my older son, around 10 perhaps, saw the snake and said, “Cool!”

The response from my mother and sisters, who had boxed away all my grandmother’s stuff? “If you want it, it’s yours.”

So we brought the snake across the sea. It was pre 9/11 and a plastic viper the size of a dog drew nary a blink as a carry-on.

The son soon discarded the snake as his aesthetic sense improved. His little brother thus had a hand-me-down serpent that he too one day placed in the trash. But there was no way I would let it go.

I didn’t make it back for my grandmother’s funeral. The call came in the dead of night and already everything was arranged. If I rushed to the airport and if all connections were razor sharp, I might be lucky and arrive in time for internment. I gnawed on that possibility until the first light of morning and decided not to try.

So it has gone. Important days for my Stateside family have come and passed and in rare, rare exception, I have missed them all. Funerals? They hit too soon. Weddings and graduations? They always occur right when my Japanese work schedule says they shouldn’t.

Oh, three times I have made the shock trip to Narita. When I just jammed clothes in a bag, withdrew a wad of money from the ATM, and took whatever flight I could get. Once came when my step-dad hovered near death and twice came when a son was suddenly hospitalized.

All three times my bag of clothes held mostly underwear. Post 9/11 these were picked through meticulously, as if they cloaked some sort of dirty bomb. Meanwhile I shuffled my feet and worried if I would make it “in time.”

Of course, I did. The three emergencies passed without disaster. But my grandmother’s snake knows that time is not measured in emergencies but in minutes, hours and days. Moments gained here but lost there.

It is the lonely venom that somehow poisons every expatriate. By selecting this world, I have relinquished hold on the other. I miss the high points, I miss the low points, and I miss the all-important in-between points. And no amount of phone calls, E-mail or occasional journeys back can make up the difference.

The snake is always poised to strike. Reminding me that I am too often on the short end of a compromised life. That I have been repeatedly remiss on familial matters. And that there will always be another dead of night phone call, when once more I will be too late.

“You have to look at all you have gained as well. The equation is not full until you balance it out.”

The speaker could be my wife or my Stateside family. Or even my own wracked conscience.

But it could not be the snake, whose gleaming red eyes forever dare me to be a better son and brother.

Get rid of it? How could I? It is my grandmother’s gift. A cunning remembrance of not where I am, but from where I have come.

So it lends my office a dash of chintz. So what? It’s a seasoning I appreciate.

And if I want some sugar and spice, I can always turn to R2.