ME, A RANDOM NOMAD
Early March I was contacted by ML Awanohara who asked me to answer a few questions for The Displaced Nation.
Here's my interview...
RANDOM NOMAD: Lei Lei Clavey, Australian Expat in New York
Place of birth: Melbourne, Australia
Passport: Australia + USA
Overseas travel history:France (Paris): 2005; USA (Santa Barbara, California): 2008-09; USA (New York, New York): May 2011 – present. Current occupation: Host at Peels Restaurant on the Bowery in New York City.
What made you leave your homeland in the first place? I’ve had the travel bug for as long as I can remember. A lot of it came from my parents, who took me around the world shortly after I was born. The excitement of being in a different country, immersed in a new culture and environment — it’s something I now crave.
Of course, travel is one thing; living in a place for an extended period is another. To make a home amongst strangers takes you out of your comfort zone and tests your courage in new ways. I enjoy the challenge. I always learn new things about myself as I open my eyes to different people, perspectives, and ways of life.
Was anyone else in your family “displaced”? My father is what you might call permanently displaced. Born in Chicago, he attended Colorado State University and then left the US to live in Taiwan and study Chinese language and herbal medicine. Taiwan was where he met my mother, who was likewise displaced (she is Chinese Australian). My parents lived in Taipei for five years and then moved to Mainland China for two more years before settling permanently in Melbourne, Australia, where my mother was born and grew up — my father now practices there as a Chinese herbal doctor. (Incidentally, The Displaced Nation interviewed my mother, whose name is Gabrielle Wang, last summer about a book she had written on a half-Chinese, half-Aborigine girl who lived in 19th-century Australia.)
A couple of my cousins share my passion for travel and have recently embarked on an adventure in the UK, where many Australians choose to live (the two-year work visa for Australians under 25 is a relatively straightforward process).
Another of my cousins recently shaved her head and embarked on a solo, life-changing adventure in India. I have yet to hear her tales firsthand. All I know is that she has more guts than I ever will to have done that by herself.
Describe the moment when you felt most displaced since making your home in New York City. I don’t believe anything could surpass how I felt on my first night in New York City. Before leaving Australia I had arranged to stay with a friend of a friend for a month. He told me: “When you arrive, come to 10th, between A and B, and up to the third floor.” A and B: what country uses letters as street names? Surely they must be abbreviations for something!
Image: Delirious New York, Rem Koolhaas
It was close to midnight by the time I arrived at East 10th Street between Avenue A and Avenue B (thank you, taxi driver, for clearing that up!).
But then I had another challenge. I was exhausted and ready to collapse after my 22-hour plane flight from Melbourne to LA and another five hours to New York City. After dragging my 32kg (70lbs) suitcase up three flights of stairs — yes, it was a walk-up! — bed was the only thing I had in mind. I knocked and waited. No answer. I knocked again. Still no answer. I sat on my suitcase and was feeling very sorry for myself, wondering why I had ever decided to move to NYC, when three young men walked up the stairs. They were surprised and a little bemused to see me sitting outside the door to their apartment. After exchanging glances, they informed me that I was on the 4th floor, not the 3rd. (In the US there is no such thing as a “ground floor” like we have in Australia. The ground floor is the first floor.) So I struggled my way back down one flight of stairs and walked into an artist’s hazy East Village apartment.
People, music and smoke filled the room. It was community open-mic night, held weekly in this man’s apartment in exchange for rent (a great deal, I now realize!). The owner was asleep on the couch, despite the noise of someone playing the Asian zither.
My eyes scanned the audience, and then I saw Will, the friend of my friend. I could finally relax.
I had entered an alternative universe, an environment utterly foreign to me. But I knew at that moment, my New York adventure had begun and my life would be changed forever.
How about the moment when you have felt least displaced? When I first came to New York City as a tourist, in 2008, it was as if I had lived here before, perhaps in a past life. I loved the city’s multicultural feeling. So many different faces, cultures and languages — I immediately felt at home. Since coming to live in the city ten months ago, I will occasionally bump into the few people I know in the street. That this can happen even in a city of over eight million gives me a buzz.
You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from each of your adopted countries into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase? From Paris: The 2-hour lunch break. Unlike Parisians, New Yorkers work too hard and I believe with no better results than if they were to have a decent break, get refreshed and go back to work. Australia, unfortunately, is following in America’s footsteps. Surely, citizens of The Displaced Nation could enjoy a reasonable work-life balance?
From New York City: The concept of convenience. For most New Yorkers, it is only a short walk to the grocery store, bank or coffee shop. In fact, I have all three on my block — I love it! On the other hand, New Yorkers like to push those convenience boundaries and have EVERYTHING delivered. Convenience has never been so lazy! The Displaced Nation should find a way to have convenience without the laziness.
From Santa Barbara: The practice of recycling. Santa Barbara does a great job of keeping the University of California-Santa Barbara campus, city streets and beaches clean. They understand the need for it and how trash impacts the environment. I cannot stand how dirty the streets are in New York City. I would therefore urge The Displaced Nation to institute Californian-style recycling policies (if you haven’t already!).
Image: Inge Morath’s A Llama in Times Square (1957)
You are invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other members of The Displaced Nation. What’s on your menu? My menu is inspired by New York City brunches*. I always crave a nice weekend brunch when I fly back to Australia on holiday! Appetizer: Shrimp and grits, based on a recipe from Peels** with two (allegedly) secret ingredients: a little Budweiser and a lot of tasso, a Cajun-spiced ham. Main: Fried chicken sandwich, with chilli lime aioli & pickled egg on sweet-potato focaccia with hand-cut fries — based on a recipe from Diner in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Dessert: Chocolate sundae consisting of vanilla and malt ice cream, hot fudge, whipped cream, brownie bites, nuts, and pretzels — based on a Peels** recipe. Drinks: Traditional Bloody Mary, a solid brunch favorite! *This is an imaginary meal so ignore the high calorie count and just enjoy it! **Peels is an American diner with a Southern-inspired menu in NYC’s East Village. I host there.
And now you may add a word or expression from the country where you live in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?From New York: Debbie Downer, slang for someone who frequently adds bad news and negative feelings to a gathering, thereby bringing down the mood of everyone around them. I hear it being said all the time in the streets of New York. (It was also the name of a fictional character from Saturday Night Live.) From Paris:La ziqmu/la ziq (music) — an example of verlan, which, similar to Pig Latin, transposes syllables of individual words (la musique) to create slang words (la ziqmu, often shortened to la ziq). Verlan combinations are endless and have become a part of everyday French, especially for younger people.
This month we are looking into beauty and fashion. What’s the best beauty treatment you’ve discovered while abroad? New Yorkers are crazy about spa treatments, facials, massages, manicures and pedicures. It seems to be everyone’s de-stressing fix, and I have to agree there’s something very relaxing about someone picking dead skin off your feet. Last September, on the weekend when Hurricane Irene was threatening to hit NYC, can you believe that the places that were most packed out were the nail salons? (Besides liquor stores and bars, that is.) There are also speciality barber shops for men in New York. Australian men, take heed! Men in this city have no shame in caring about their looks as much as women do: they see it as a masculine thing.
What about fashion — can you tell us about any beloved outfits, jewelry, or other accessories you’ve collected in your adopted country or countries? Living in New York and having worked at an online fashion magazine, I’ve been exposed to the the cutting edge of weird and wonderful styles. Really anything goes, unlike in Australia! No matter how far-out the boundary you feel you are pushing, someone else will always out-do you. I love that! The city has inspired me to accessorize more: to jazz up an otherwise regular outfit with hats, statement jewelry and/or shoes. Also, New York is a walking city, so clothing also has to be practical — a hat to keep your head warm in winter or the sun off your face in summer, and shoes you can actually walk in (more than cab-to-curb, that is!).
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