The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: My writing process, now being applied to a shiny new book series

DiaryExpatWriterAn American expat newlywed in Hong Kong, Shannon Young took the momentous decision last summer to quit her day job and launch out as a full-time writer. She’d given herself until Chinese New Year to see if she could make a living but has now postponed the decision—something we’re actually rather glad about as her expat writer’s diary can continue!

—ML Awanohara

Dear Displaced Diary,

It’s a hazy, jet-lagged time for me right now. Ever since I returned to Hong Kong from London last week, I’ve been awake through the night and struggling out of bed at noon or later. One advantage of setting my own schedule is that I can afford these late starts and still get plenty of work done during the afternoons and evenings (and in the hours past 3:00 a.m., it turns out). On the other hand, I don’t have a boss and a required start time to get me back on track—so could be on London time for a while yet.

But the work goes on no matter what time it is or where in the world I happen to find myself. I’m currently waiting for Seaswept, the second book in the Seabound Chronicles, to come back from my editor.

The cover for Jordan Rivet's latest book

The cover for Jordan Rivet’s latest book

As soon as it arrives I’ll jump into the final stages of proofreading and publication.

In the meantime, I’m working on my next book series.

That next book will be the first installment, which I’m aiming to release upon completion of the Seabound Chronicles.

It has been a while since I began an all-new project with all-new characters set in an all-new world. I’m trying to apply the same writing process I’ve been using for the Seabound books to the new idea.

So far it’s going well!

Since you, Dear Diary, are the vessel for my intimate thoughts about the writing process, today I want to share with you how I approach a new book. I developed this method while working on the four books in the Seabound Chronicles. As you know, all four are now completed—but in vastly different stages. Book 1 is published. Book 2 is finished and with the editor. Book 3 (the prequel) is in the third draft. Book 4 is a rough draft.

You may think I have too many projects on the go at once, but this in fact is the key to my writing process, as you’ll soon see.

"Emptying the NaNo bag at last," by  Anne-Lise Heinrichs via Flickr ().

“Emptying the NaNo bag at last,” by Anne-Lise Heinrichs via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

STEP ONE: The Idea

You can’t force yourself to come up with an amazing concept for a new book, but you can help the inspiration process along. Before producing Seabound, I knew I wanted to write a fast-paced story with high stakes and cool world-building, probably science fiction or fantasy, but I needed an idea. Then one day I hopped on a boat and spotted the cruise ship that inspired my post-apocalyptic Seabound series. It took more than just seeing a cruise ship, of course, for the concept to take hold. It took leaving my mind open and not forcing things, so that my subconscious could oblige.

With the Seabound Chronicles under way, the hope entered my mind of coming up with another fantasy project to work on; but this time I wanted an original take or some kind of cool mash-up. I held that thought for months and cycled through various ideas (a secret agent in a fantasy world? a fantasy apocalypse?); but none of them felt quite right. Then, suddenly, the idea was there when I arrived at my usual Starbucks. I could see it plain as day. I was actually supposed to be working on Seaswept edits, but instead I opened up a new Word doc and hammered out notes for several hours.

STEP TWO: Characters and Worlds

Once I had the concept of the world, the characters followed quickly on its heels. For some of these characters, I used a method similar to the one described above, where I had a general sense of what the person should be like, and then when I saw someone who matched the idea in my head, fleshed out my portrayal. (I spotted “Esther” walking down the Mid-Levels escalator with a camera around her neck that became a pair of storm goggles; “David Hawthorne” walked into one of my regular coffee shops dressed like an investment banker and wearing memorable black-framed glasses.)

"Mid-levels escalator blur," by Maureen Didd via Flickr.

“Mid-levels escalator blur,” by Maureen Didde via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

For other characters, I started with people I’ve encountered as a jumping off point to develop key aspects of their personalities, appearances, and roles they would play in the story. I spent several writing sessions scribbling notes on the characters and describing the basic structure of the world they inhabit. I held off on writing the first chapter for as long as possible because I wanted to give the ideas time to mature. I also worked out the world’s magic system, which I’m treating differently than in a typical fantasy novel.

STEP THREE: The Rough Outline

As my ideas for the story became more concrete, I wrote a rough outline of the plot. This is a back and forth process. As I developed more ideas for the story I’d go back and flesh out the existing characters or create new ones. My outlines typically follow a three-act structure and they absolutely must include the main conflict and climactic scene. Outlines are essential for my process, but I don’t do a strict chapter-by-chapter plan at this stage.

For the new fantasy project, I’ve now written a very rough outline for a five-book series. Even so, I’ll have to get further into the first book before I know whether the story will support all five books in the plan.

STEP FOUR: The Rough Draft

I am now 16,000 words into the rough draft for my newest book. I’m a huge believer in writing fast, messy first drafts.

I wrote three of the four rough drafts for the books in the Seabound Chronicles during three consecutive National Novel Writing Months. I didn’t worry about whether they would be any good at this stage. I told myself I can always take things out and rewrite as needed. This method really helped me keep up the story’s pace.

Seaswept is the only one of the Seabound books for which I wrote the first draft over a longer period (about six months, during which I took a break to rewrite my memoir, Year of Fire Dragons). The edits for this volume were actually more difficult than for the other titles.

Writing the first draft is a bit like watching a movie play out—it’s best if you can do it without too many gaps.

STEP FIVE: Rest and Repeat

As soon as I finish a draft I put it away, something Stephen King recommends in his book On Writing. The work needs to sit for a bit and I need to get some distance from it before I can rewrite effectively. But I don’t stop writing. At this stage, I’ll start the next book.

Go back to Step One and repeat!

STEP SIX: Read and Rewrite

With another rough draft under my belt, I’ll go back to the first one, print it out, and read the whole thing. I’ll make tons of notes as I go, but I won’t rewrite until I’ve completed a full read-through.

At this stage, I also create a more detailed outline. My rough drafts follow a basic plot structure, but sometimes they take unexpected twists, and I like to leave room for those in the new outline. Other times, I find gaps or pacing issues that I’m not aware of until I step back and look at the book as a whole.

When I do my first read-through, I plug the events of the rough draft into a storyboard. I use this one, which covers a classic plot progression over twenty chapters. I write the basic plot points in where they occur, paying attention to gaps in the storyboard. Then I may plan additional chapters for my next draft.

Stories are actually quite similar in structure, so the books often fit quite neatly into the storyboard with only a bit of tweaking. I don’t like doing this at the outset because I want to leave room for those unexpected twists—let the ideas come out once I’m really living in the draft.

After I’ve worked out what changes need to be made based on my read-through and storyboard, I rewrite the book from the beginning. I do all this in the same document and keep a lot of the first draft, but I also add thousands of words, fleshing out scenes and filling in chapters. At this stage, I’m still not worried about how neat the actual writing is.

STEP SEVEN: Rest and Repeat

I put that new draft away and then go back to do the second draft of the second book. Or the first draft of the third book. Or the third draft of the last book in the last series. You get the picture. It gets complicated from here, and this is why I have so many books on the go at once. Each time a draft needs to rest, I’ll have something else to work on.

And so on!

My process continues like this, and the books get better with each draft. I also become a better writer with each draft. By the time I wrote the final draft of Seaswept last month, I was far better writer than when I wrote the first draft in early 2013.

After I’ve done at least two, usually three, drafts, I ask other people to read the book and give me feedback. Then there will be more notes, more drafts, more hours spent sitting in the chair and refining the story and the prose.

Some problems are just easier to solve on the second (or third or fourth) rewrites.

I estimate that each book goes through five or six drafts before I send it off for editing. I’m hoping that as I become a better writer it’ll take fewer drafts to get the book where I want it, but the important thing is that I try not to get bogged down by worrying whether any one draft is good enough. Taking this approach is liberating, and it allows me to get a lot of work done.

"Edited Version of First Book," by Joanna Penn via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

“Edited Version of First Book,” by Joanna Penn via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

So, Dear Diary, this is my writing process as it exists so far. I’m having fun applying it to my shiny new project.

Seaswept will be out soon and then I’ll be doing another draft of Burnt Sea, the prequel, but in the meantime it’s exciting to have another series on the go!

Thanks for following along on my writing journey. I hope this glimpse at my process might be helpful for another budding writer or two. It is certainly helping me get my brain back in order so I can get back to work

I remain yours,

Shannon Young/Jordan Rivet
www.shannonyoungwriter.com
JordanRivet.com

* * *

Readers, Shannon has graciously shared her writing process with us this month. By breaking it all down, she almost makes it seem easy! (You can tell that she’s been a teacher.) So, what do you think—any responses to her methods, questions, words of encouragement for her next endeavor? Do let her know in the comments!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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For this Salzburg-based New Englander and fine-art photographer, a picture says…

Kosovo selfie by Dave Long

Morguefiles; Kosovo selfie by Dave Long.

Hello, Displaced Nationers! I am standing in for A Picture Says… columnist James King, who unfortunately can’t be with us this month. James left the choice up to me, so I’ve extended an invitation to Dave Long, a U.S.-born photographer living in Salzburg, Austria. I discovered Dave through his involvement with under a grey sky…, the personal Web site of Paul Scraton, a Brit living in Berlin, Germany. Paul plans to produce a quarterly journal called Elsewhere, as reported in a recent Displaced Dispatch.

(What, not a subscriber to our esteemed Dispatch? Get on the list NOW!!)

Dave specializes in commercial and fine-art photography, with an emphasis on dramatic landscapes, extreme sports and historical architecture.

I was further intrigued upon visiting his photography site, where I discovered he has just self-published a book called Daheim Away from Home, available on Blurb.com. Daheim is German for “home”, and Dave explains that after 15 years of living in Salzburg, a “city full of cultural and historical wonder,” he “has finally come to terms that this truly is his new home.”

He also says that he wrote the photo captions in a “mix of English and German that is the reality of everyday life for an expatriate.”

And now it’s time to meet Dave and hear which of his photos he thinks speak at least 1,000 words.

Hmmm… But are these speaking in German or English—or both?! Let’s find out, shall we?

* * *

Welcome, Dave, to the Displaced Nation. Let’s start as James usually does, by asking where you were born and when you spread your wings to start traveling.
I was born and raised in Massachusetts, USA. My folks split up when I was ten and I bounced between two houses every other day/weekend for several years. I think that set me up for the flexibility you need when traveling. After hosting an exchange student from Switzerland who ultimately became a great friend, all I wanted to do was go abroad and learn a second language. By the time I got to college, I was already looking into semester programs in Europe. After a few adventurous bus trips across America, I finally left U.S. shores in 1999. With snowboarding as a top priority in those days, I wound up in Austria.

“High on a hill was a lonely goatherd…”

Is that where you’re living now?
Yes. Fifteen years later, two new languages and my own tricultural family, I am living in Salzburg, a small city nestled into the northern ridge of the Alps.

I think we’ve all heard of it thanks to Julie Andrews and The Sound of Music. But I’m curious, why did you choose Salzburg as your base?
The city is bursting with cultural flair, historic relevance, architectural splendor and immediate access to crystal clear lakes and imposing mountains. Not to mention the best of all four seasons. Basically everything a budding photographer could dream of. My wife, also from elsewhere, found a great education here, and we’ve both been fortunate to find good jobs. We’ve never had a reason to leave.

Wow, it sounds as idyllic as it looked in the film! I understand you’ve lived in Austria for 15 years. How many other countries have you visited during that time?
Nearly every country in the EU plus Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania and Tunisia. And, though I’ve only lived in Austria since leaving the United States, I’ve spent extensive time in Switzerland and in Kosovo on account of friends and in-laws.

“I’ve always longed for adventure/To do the things I’ve never dared…”

And now I’m excited to get into the substance of our interview, the photos, especially as I’ve been to your photography site and find your work pretty amazing. Let’s start off by having you share with us three photos that capture some of your favorite memories of the so-called “displaced” life of global residency and travel.
I’ve often traveled the Balkans, visiting friends and more recently, in-laws. I took this first shot in Prishtina, Kosovo, in 2007. It captures the moment when I realized that I would never have seen a United Nations SUV that had been dirtied by actual service in a war-torn region,had I failed to venture beyond my small town in New England.

“Peace Keeping Is Dirty Work,” by Dave Long

Definitely a “You’re not in Kansas any more” moment! What’s next?
High in the Alps, at a friend’s cabin in the forest, our mixed group of Austrians and Americans ultimately turned to light-painting after more than a few rounds of local Schnapps. I’ve found nostalgia to be a rare, but welcome, companion during my life abroad.

“Austria—Schnapps and Nostalgia,” by Dave Long

Having been abroad for as long as you, I can really relate to the nostalgia so wonderfully expressed in this shot. And your last one?
Playing lead guitar with an Austrian brass band to rowdy crowds at rural beer tent festivals was definitely not something I envisioned when I left home years ago. Had I known how much fun it is, I probably would have left even sooner.

"Austria—On Stage at Beer Tent," by Dave Long

“Austria—On Stage at Beer Tent,” by Dave Long

What a fabulous photo!

“These are a few of my favorite things…”

Moving on: Tell me the top three locations where you’ve enjoyed taking photos thus far—and can you offer an example from each place?
I love taking photos no matter where I am! If I had to choose, though, it would be:

  1. The Balkans, for their mysterious mountain landscapes, breathtaking shores and a tragic history you can often read from the walls of buildings;
  2. New England because I spent the first 20 years of my life there and now return as a traveler who views everything through the eyes of a photographer;
  3. And finally Salzburg, because it’s nearly impossible to take a bad photo here.

And now for the examples. Here is Struga, Macedonia, in the late afternoon, which brings out the raw beauty of this historic lake town.

“Struga—Raw Beauty,” by Dave Long

Next I’ll share a photo of Lowell, Massachusetts. Growing up nearby, I never paid much attention to the red brick factories. Now they seem like original backdrops in Hollywood films about the industrial revolution or working-class boxing legends.

"Lowell—Brick Reality," by Dave Long

“Lowell—Brick Reality,” by Dave Long

Finally, I offer two from Salzburg. Here is one of an Austrian girl in traditional dress reaching out across space and time to grasp the hand of a boy from an immigrant family. (Unfortunately, that’s a politically sensitive topic here, and all over Europe, these days.) I captured it while testing a new lens at Salzburg’s version of the Oktoberfest (called Ruperti Kirtag).

"Salzburg—Time and Space," by Dave Long

“Salzburg—Time and Space,” by Dave Long

The second one is a staged photo shoot with an athletic friend of mine showcasing not only the unique layout of the city but the quality of life for those who live here. My friend claims it’s more fun to run through the cobblestone streets Mozart once roamed than on a treadmill in a stuffy fitness studio. (I don’t run so can only take his word for it.)

“Salzburg—The Runner,” by Dave Long

I love seeing the range of the places where you’ve been—definitely speaks to the displaced life! Okay, time to move on an ethical question. I know the last photo you shared was staged with a friend, but I wonder: do you ever feel reserved taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious of your doing so?
I’d be concerned about a photographer who didn’t sense the importance of a subject’s privacy. That said though, some of the best street photos are those that capture a person’s candid nature. This sort of photography is difficult in Europe because the laws are extremely restrictive. I’ve found the best approach is to take the photo you see, then approach the subject in a friendly way, explain you’re a photographer and that the person has just created or been part of a unique/beautiful/extraordinary moment that you captured. If they ask, share the photo and if it works out, ask them to sign a model release so you can publish the photo later.

“How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?”

And now over to the technical nitty gritty. What kind of camera and lenses do you use?
From 2005 to 2008 I was the editor in chief and co-founder of “packed magazine,” a free bimonthly magazine distributed at hostels all over Europe. We wound up acquiring a Sony a100 for the magazine, the first SLR Sony released after taking over Minolta. I’ve been a Sony man ever since, having owned the a700 and a77. I’ve also stuck to prosumer lenses from various brands because so far that’s all I’ve ever needed to get the job done. It’s always been important for me to have the full focal range from 8mm fish-eye up to 300mm tele in various forms of primes and zoom (those are aps-c focal lengths). I love my kit, but I’m keenly looking forward to building a new set based around Sony’s compact full frame a7 line of e-mount cameras and lenses. I’m slowly and stubbornly learning (admitting) that full frame bodies simply produce a level of quality that just isn’t possible with an aps-c sensor.

I’m not sure I followed that last part, but I’ll leave it to others, more technical than I am, to work out. What about post-processing software?
I only shoot in RAW format and post-process in Camera Raw, Photomatix Pro and Photoshop.

“I have confidence in confidence alone…”

Finally, can you offer a few words of advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling the world or living abroad?
For the traveler: Just do it! Seek the unknown. But also be open to the possibility of staying in a place that seems like it’s trying to keep you if it feels right. For the photographer: Enjoy the mid-day hours by not planning on taking any photos. At the most, snap some candid street photos and macro stuff as it comes. Explore the destination by day and keep track of places you’d like to shoot later during the golden hour or early next morning (with your tripod!). Also never return to your hotel/hostel/etc the same way you left!

Editor’s note: All subheds are lyrics from Sound of Music songs.

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Readers, what do you make of Dave’s experiences? If you have any questions for him about his European adventure and/or photos, please leave them in the comments!

If you want to get to know Dave and his creative works better, I suggest you visit his photography site. And don’t forget about his book, Daheim Away from Home.

(If you are a travel-photographer and would like to be interviewed by James King for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.)

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Is humankind getting too fussy to share food, one of our most basic bonding rituals?

Global Food Gossip April 2015

Joanna Masters-Maggs (supplied) and three forbidden foods: Wheat , by Rasbak via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); dairy, by Stefan Kühn via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); and peanuts, by Daniella Segura via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Joanna Masters-Maggs was displaced from her native England 17 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself in the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “global food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”

* * *

Dost thou think there shall be no more cakes and ale
Because of thy wretched bowels?

—Paraphrase of Sir Toby Belch (Twelfth Night: Act 2, Scene 3)

Readers, I hope you will indulge me in this dramatic, and admittedly somewhat unseemly, turn of a Shakespearean phrase. Not long ago, I was planning a simple supper for a few couples and had just received a third text informing me of various food allergies. The relaxed and convivial supper I had imagined was rapidly becoming a nightmare of compromise and unsatisfactory substitutions.

Somehow I had to come up with a delicious menu that didn’t involve dairy, flour or meat.

I should have known not to invite a bunch of people I barely knew, but I was feeling expansive at the time. I’d also been envisioning a pleasant few days pottering through familiar recipes in my kitchen—only to find myself feeling cross, taken for granted and somewhat overwhelmed.

As those of you who are cooks will know, “simple” suppers never take less than days to bring off in the desired relaxed and blasé style—so one really needs to enjoy the preparation. Frankly, getting ready for this particular dinner was beginning to feel like a challenge on a brutal reality show.

I also felt I could empathize with the nearly 100 restaurateurs in Britain who last month signed a letter protesting the new EU rules requiring restaurants to audit their menus for allergens from lupins to eggs. These allergens must be flagged on menus. Failure to do so could result in a $5,000 fine which, for most restaurants, could be the difference between survival and going to the wall. They rightly point out that having to undertake such work will also reduce the spontaneity of their menus and reduce creativity.

Modern etiquette requires hosts to ask guests if there is anything they don’t eat.

SirTobyBelch

Toby jug (named after Sir Toby Belch), by Graham and Sheila via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

This is when the guest can mention any genuine allergies—not their likes and dislikes. I might feign polite interest, but I don’t really care to hear about your digestive issues.

Of course, I do want to know if you are actually c(o)eliac. Curmudgeonly as I can be, I get that this is a very real health issue and I will go to any lengths, happily, to accommodate it.

If I have to jump through culinary hoops because you “really feel that you have more energy since you gave up wheat,” I am, frankly, annoyed.

I once entertained a guest and made the mistake of including in a recipe an ingredient he had repeatedly informed me caused a severe allergic reaction.

To this day I cannot explain how I so deliberately included it; however, when I realized my mistake, it was with a heart-stopping thump in the middle of the night. I agonized for hours, caught a moral maze of whether or not I should call and confess my reckless stupidity or not. As dawn broke, so, too, did the suspicion that if this had been a true allergy, I could have expected some drama before the end of the evening. If I am going to get careless while entertaining an allergy sufferer, I expect the subsequent experience to include severe anaphylactic shock and hysterical calls for an ambulance…

Sure enough, by lunchtime I had received the text thanking me for a lovely evening. The experience has left me deeply suspicious of subsequent allergy stories.

It can’t be fun living with an allergy, but neither can it be everyone else’s responsibility and expense.

During the time when we lived as expats in Malaysia, my children were at school in Kuala Lumpur. Peanut butter was not banned. How can you ban it in a country where peanut oil is a major component of the air? But if your child took in nuts or peanut butter to school, it was their responsibility to sit with kids with who claimed peanut allergies, so that the latter wouldn’t feel isolated.

How severe could such allergies be, I wondered? Indeed, at that time, and probably to this day, Malaysian Airlines tested the peanut-withstanding ability of all those entering the country by serving peanuts with the aperitifs—long after other airlines had bailed.

(While on this topic, it’s worth noting that, according to the latest medical studies, those who consume a greater amount of peanuts have about a 35 percent reduced risk of coronary heart disease. This effect is a result of the peanuts’ ability to lower cholesterol and its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components.)

When you are invited to eat at someone’s house, you are being asked to share with the family.

dinner party quote

Dinner party, by Elin B via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

As we expats know better than anyone else, the dinner party is an age-old, worldwide gesture of hospitality and friendship. We must take every measure to protect this prized human tradition.

Listen, it is even possible to desensitize ourselves to allergies. I recently saw a documentary about a little boy who showed extreme allergy to a new dog brought into the family. Instead of re-homing the dog, the family decided that the positive aspects of owning a pet were worth making an effort for. They began a desensitization programme at a local hospital and, in time, the boy could begin a wonderful relationship with his dog.

It’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?

* * *

Readers, we invite you to continue the food gossip! To what extent has food fussiness become an item in your social circle? Are you a victim, or do you agree with the curmudgeonly Joanna, that fussy eaters are making dinner parties and other group meals less fun for the rest of us? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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EMERALD CITY TO “KANSAS”: Lynne Door on seeing the Wizard of Expat Life and returning home too early

Lynne Door Emerald City to Kansas Collage

The Ruby Slippers (CC); corn path (Morguefiles); Lynne Door portrait, taken in her home (supplied).

Welcome to “Emerald City to ‘Kansas,'” a series in which we focus on expatriate-into-repatriate stories. Today’s subject is Lynne Door, a graphic designer and self-proclaimed “typophile” who runs her own business specializing in branding, web design and print. Originally from New England, Lynne is now based in California, but she also managed to squeeze in two years living, working and studying in Singapore. Let’s hear about how that overseas experience affected her life.

—ML Awanohara

To Oz? To Oz!

My boyfriend (now husband!) and I had been dating just a little over a month (I had known him for a year before that), but we knew there was something good between us. So when he received an offer from his company to work in business development in Singapore, we had an open and honest conversation and agreed it was something we both wanted to do together. We said: “Why not do this? Let’s have fun, let’s go do this and experience it together!” We couldn’t think of any reasons not to move, and if our relationship didn’t work out in the process, it would be okay, I would just fly home. At least we’d given it a shot. That’s why we were both willing to take the chance.

Follow the yellow brick road…

Well, the first feeling was, “Uh oh, I’m not a local anymore!” That felt weird and a little scary. I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb. Especially since I only knew English. Luckily, Singapore is Asia for Beginners insofar as one of the main languages is English. At least I could navigate down the yellow brick road so to speak and converse with the people I encountered along the way.

What have you learned, Dorothy?

I had the pleasure of both working and going to school in Singapore, so my experience was very broad. I worked for a local Singaporean advertising/design company while also attending LASALLE College of the Arts to continue my studies towards a graphic design degree. Every day I would go from encountering people within a corporate business environment to hanging out with a group of young, artsy students. I had never lived outside of the United States before and was completely enthralled. The whole experience gave me a much broader perspective on myself and others. Ultimately what I learned was no matter where you are on the globe, we’re all human and ultimately we all go about our day with the same intentions. It’s only geography—and a smile goes a long way!

Oh dear! I keep forgetting I’m not in Kansas!

While working for the Singaporean company, I did experience an unusual business practice. “Scolding” is where managers shout at employees for doing something wrong in front of other colleagues and/or behind closed doors. For the manager it’s a way of getting everyone’s attention and reminding employees who is in charge and why mistakes won’t be tolerated. I remember my scolding like it was yesterday, the repeated shouts of “Why did you do this?”, “How could you do this?” and “What were you thinking?”. I was absolutely speechless. I felt perplexed and completely thrown off by such aggressive managerial behavior. After the incident, I told him I would have responded more positively had we sat and calmly talked about the situation with the team. Looking back, I think we both realized we had a significant culture clash.

I feel as if I’d known you all the time, but I couldn’t have, could I?

LynneDoor_Singapore

Lynne with her Singaporean student friends at LASALLE College of the Arts, a cherished photo (supplied).

I made some great friends at the design school and discovered the world isn’t such a big place. I keep this photo of me with my classmates on my desk. I just love it! It was an amazing time for me and hold them all so dear to my heart.

Going so soon?…Why, my little party’s just beginning!

We stayed in Singapore just two years. While it felt good to return to California life, I don’t know if I’d agree that there’s no place like home. In the comfort of being “home,” I went back to my usual routines, shutting out my surroundings. Whereas in unfamiliar territory, you need to be present every moment: observing, exploring, absorbing, learning about all that’s around you, making decisions. That’s the beauty of travel, expat life and experiencing new places, it opens up the mind completely. It’s invigorating and stimulating in every way—mentally, emotionally and physically. I miss those feelings! And I believe it can’t happen any other way but when traveling to new, unknown places!

LynneDoor_PalmSprings

Lynne with her husband, Jim, at their favorite Mexican restaurant in Palm Springs (supplied).

* * *

Thank you, Lynne, for being willing to be Dorothy and show us the yellow-brick-road you experienced in Singapore, as well as your mixed feelings about returning home. Having lived in Japan, I think I can relate to the “scolding” experience that took place in your Singaporean office. Definitely a Wicked-Witch-of-the-West moment! Readers, any questions for Lynne? If you’re curious about her design work, be sure to visit her design site, where you can peruse her personal collection of “wanderlust” photos. You can also follow her on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. Finally, if you need a cover for that book you’re writing, Lynne can help you with that as well! (She designed the cover for HE Rybol’s Culture Shock. HE Rybol is of course our Culture Shock Toolbox columnist.)

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CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: How to be a diva in another culture–by not being one!

Culture Shock Toolbox April 2015 Rossi Columnist H.E. Rybol never saw a culture clash she didn’t want to fix. She calls herself a “transitions enthusiast” and credits her Third Culture Kid upbringing for giving her a head start in that department. That said, H.E. is always looking for new tools to add to her kit, and toward that end has been interviewing other displaced creatives about their culture shock experiences. Today she speaks to Kristen Rossi, a New Yorker who is on a mission to spread the Golden Age of Broadway/jazz throughout Asia. Okay, H.E. and Kristen, time to paint the town and all that jazz!

—ML Awanohara

Hello, Displaced Nationers! Today I am delighted to introduce Kristen Evelyn Rossi to Culture Shock Toolbox readers. Kristen is an American actress, singer and voice over artist based in Southeast Asia. Besides being a talented performer, she is an entrepreneur and, while living in Bangkok, has co-founded two organizations: Broadway Babe, an endeavor to bring Broadway style to the Thai capital, and Musical Theatre for KIDS, which offers Broadway musical and theatre workshops for Asian youth.

I was lucky enough to catch up with Kristen recently and ask her a few questions about her somewhat unusual life of crooning her way around Asia, while also teaching others how to traipse the Broadway boards. I can see from the YouTube videos on her Website that she has racked up many successful performances; but I wanted to know: have there been any cultural flops?

Here’s what she had to say…

* * *

Hi, Kristen, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. Can you tell us which countries you’ve lived in and for how long?

I have lived in London (UK) for just under a year; about seven years in Bangkok, Thailand; Hanoi, Vietnam for the past four months; and I will call Macau home in May.

That is quite a few cultural transitions! You are a singer, so I’m not sure if this is the right question, but did you ever put your foot in your mouth? Any memorable stories?

As an entertainer I meet people from all over the world. One common mistake I make is in judging a guest’s nationality. In particular I find it hard to tel the difference between Japanese and Koreans. Sometimes I can tell the difference and sometimes it is hard, especially when they come in their business suits! Several times I have said, “oh are you from ___” and they will just say “no, we are ____” and then look at me very seriously. Awkward.

Another occasional mistake related to nationality is that I don’t always know what the people of a country are called. I remember the first time I was speaking with a diplomat from Qatar. I was about to refer to the people…and hesitated. It made me feel a little embarrassed. (Of course I know now it’s Qatari!)

How do you usually handle these situations?

I try to quickly move on to something I do know and like about the country or culture in question. For example, with Koreans I always say, “Oooh, I just love makgeolli (an alcoholic beverage native to Korea).” Once I say this, I usually get smiles and “ooooh!” and laughs. I’ve found that it helps to learn a few positive facts about the nation and its culture—so you can always change the subject quickly.

In general, how do you think you have handled your many cultural transitions?

Most of my transitions have been positive and quite easy I think because I’m a performer by nature. I just get out there. I walk around, I interact, I am patient, I smile a lot. I figure out how to make the best of the situation.

If you had to give advice to someone who just moved to a new country, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first and why?

Engage with the culture. I can only speak on behalf of Southeast Asia/Asia, but what I have found is people want to share their culture with you. They want to be good “hosts”; embrace this. Ask your colleagues or new friends to show you their favorite local artists (music, gallery, etc). Ask them to take you to their favorite coffee spot or their favorite place to get their favorite local dish. Most of the time, they will be flattered you are interested in them, happy to share their culture—and you’ll probably end up making new friends. Another important tool is language. Make an effort to learn even a few words in the local language. You can practice simple words at home and then go into the office and ask your local colleagues if you are saying the words right. They will LOVE IT, I promise!

Thank you so much, Kristen, for taking the time to share your experiences. It’s wonderful to hear that a Broadway diva knows when not to be a diva. And I think you’ve hit the nail soundly on the head in advising that the best way to handle culture shock is to engage with the culture head on. Show interest and ask questions; learn the language and ask for feedback.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Kristen’s advice? Do you agree with my impression that she’s brought some of the energy of the “city that never sleeps” to this column?

If you like what you heard, be sure to check out Kristen’s site and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Well, hopefully this has you “fixed” until next month.

Until then. Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin and Goodreads. She is currently working on her new Web site and her second book.  

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Canadian writer Lee Strauss uses busy, multicultural Dresden as setting for romance

Location Locution_LeeStrauss

LOCATION, LOCUTION: JJ Marsh (left) talks to author Lee Strauss about the craft of setting contemporary romance novels in foreign locations.

In “Location, Locution” expat crime series writer JJ Marsh chats with fellow displaced fiction writers about their methods of portraying place in their works. Her guest today is contemporary romance and speculative fiction writer Lee Strauss. Born near Chicago to Canadian parents, Lee might have grown up a California girl had it not been for Vietnam, which caused her parents to retreat back to Canada. At age 22, she married Norm Strauss, a Canadian folk rock musician—and signed up for a life of adventure. They have traveled extensively overseas and live part-time in Germany.

—ML Awanohara

Lee Strauss is the author of the Minstrel Series, a collection of contemporary romance novels set in the singer/songwriter world, taking place in Germany and England; the Perception Series, a trilogy of young adult dystopian novels; and several works of YA historical fiction. Under the alter ego of Elle Strauss, she writes fanciful younger adult stories about time travel, mermaids and fairies.

Lee is the married mother of four grown children, three boys and a girl. Because of her husband’s job as an indie folk musician, she has traveled to twelve European countries, Mexico, fourteen states, and six Canadian provinces. Currently, the couple divide its time between Kelowna, a town in British Columbia’s temperate Okanangan Valley, and Dresden, Germany. When not writing or reading Lee likes to cycle, hike and do yoga. She enjoys travel (but not jet lag :0), soy lattes, red wine and dark chocolate.

Now let’s talk to Lee about how she has woven European settings into several of her books.

* * *

Which came first, story or location?

It was a simultaneous decision. My singer-songwriter husband and I spent some time brainstorming on how we could merge our two worlds, indie publishing collaborating with indie music artists, and the idea for the Minstrel Series was born. (Each of the books has accompanying music.) The first two books, Sun & Moon and Flesh & Bone, are song titles of music used in the books. We live part of the year in Dresden, Germany, and I just knew that the books had to be set there, right in our neighbourhood.

Minstrel Series Set in Dresden

Cover art from first two books of the Minstrel Series; (middle) view of Dresden’s historical center, from the same spot where Canaletto made his famous painting.

I’ve also written a WW2 historical novel called Playing with Matches, about a group of boys growing up in Hitler Youth. The story takes place in Passau and Nuremberg. Traveling to both cities made a huge difference in getting the setting and ambiance right.

Playing with Matches Collage

Clockwise, left to right: Cover art; Nuremberg citiscape; view of Veste Oberhaus, a 13th-century fortress in Paussau, in lower Bavaria, Germany.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

Nothing like living in the middle of it! The street and building in Dresden where we lived are featured in great detail in Sun & Moon and Flesh & Bone. Many readers comment on how they feel like they visited Germany while reading my books.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

All three. I share a lot of Dresden images on Tumblr, including not just landscape but also food and the local culture.

Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?

Here’s a passage from the Minstrel Series, describing a scene in Dresden:

Katja stood in one of the cutaways on the old stone bridge over the River Elbe that joined the Altstadt with the Neustadt, the old city with the new.

She shivered despite her winter jacket and the scarf wrapped around her neck and strummed her guitar with fingerless gloves. The limestone dome of the Frauenkirche—the Church of our Lady—peaked out over the city’s ancient, baroque skyline. Like all the buildings in the historic center, it had been completely demolished during the Second World War. The entire city was rebuilt to look much like it had before it was destroyed. In essence, the old town was now the new one, and the new town the old one.

It was majestic and awe-inspiring to look upon.

Most days.

Katja’s guitar case lay open at her feet. She’d thrown in the few cents she’d found under the sofa cushions, hoping to lure other donations.

The cold wind kept people hunched over and moving at a fast pace across the bridge, most with chins tucked down and hands shoved into deep pockets. No one took the time to stop and listen, much less drop money in her case.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?

Spending time living there is the absolute best way. There’s so much you see and learn about a place over time. The second best is to visit in person. After that, talking to people who have lived or visited there along with research and Google Earth.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

Maeve Binchy has a wonderful way of pulling the reader deep into Ireland. (My next book in The Minstrel Series will be set in Ireland and Boston, where I’ve lived.) Susan Grafton does the same for Southern California with her Alphabet Mystery series, set in the fictional city of Santa Teresa, based on Santa Barbara.

* * *

Readers, if this interview has piqued your curiosity about Lee Strauss and her creative array of fiction works, we encourage you to visit her author site.

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

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The Displaced Nation’s 4 wishes for birthday number 4 (no foolin’!)

Happy 4th Birthday to the Displaced Nation!

Photo credit: “Today I’m 4 years old,” by Emran Kassim via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Greetings Displaced Nationers, old and new.

How many of you have been with us from the beginning, could I see a show of hands?

Hmmm… Are there one or two hands out there? Thanks for sticking around! We’ve come a long way together since the Displaced Nation’s humble beginnings on April Fool’s Day 2011.

Actually, can you believe it’s been four years and we still haven’t run out of things to say about the displaced life?

We can’t!

Still, today is not for introspection. It’s a special occasion, a day to celebrate with cake!

Photo credit: AlainAudet via Pixabay

Photo credit: AlainAudet via Pixabay.

And, although it’s not customary to do so, I’d like to reveal my four wishes for the coming year:

1) Reach a new milestone of 500 followers on Facebook.

For some reason we never tried very hard during these four years to get FB followers, and our numbers reflect this insouciance: we are now at 467. If any of you can help us find 33 more “likes”, we’d deeply appreciate. Of course we’d like to have even more than 500, but we’d be happy with that milestone for now. (We post on FB twice a day, and always strive to be amusing and/or thought-provoking…)

2) Have more people discover the new and much improved (if we say so ourselves!) Displaced Dispatch.

If you’re a subscriber, you’ll know that we’ve already celebrated our birthday in last Sunday’s issue by sharing the Danish idea of April Fool’s (no fooling’). Seriously (actually, I am serious), the Dispatch is now like chunky ice cream. It goes down smoothly but also contains six tasty morsels:

  • What to celebrate this week: Holidays and other commemorative occasions around the world.
  • While we were all on social media: New book releases and other milestones in the lives of international creatives.
  • TDN updates: Our past week’s posts.
  • Alice Obsession: Our latest discovery about Alice in Wonderland, whom we see as our muse.
  • Matters of debate: Contentious issues raised by various expat and travel bloggers over the past few weeks.
  • Surprising discoveries: Stuff we didn’t know before sifting through said sources. (Turns out: there’s a lot we don’t know!)

3) Deliver a fitting commemoration to Alice in Wonderland on behalf of the 150th birthday of Lewis Carroll’s celebrated book.

One hundred and fifty years, really? That puts our four years in perspective! As long-time readers will know, the Displaced Nation has treated Alice in Wonderland as our special muse from the very start, beginning with Kate Allison’s brilliant “5 lessons Wonderland taught me about the expat life, by Lewis Carroll’s Alice.” For the past three years, we gave out monthly Alice Awards to a number of international creatives. For that matter, we also have a thriving Alice in Wonderland Pinterest board. But for this special year in Alice’s life, we are planning a special “wonderlanded” series, to be rolled out starting this month. (Know anyone who would be game to channel Alice from the perspective of someone leading a life of global residency and travel? We are open to suggestions. Send to ml@thedisplacednation.com.)

4) Introduce a new look to the site.

Good news: I already have a theme picked out! Not-so-good news: I can’t seem to find the time to transfer the contents, resize the photos, and so on. (Blame the day job!)

* * *

And assuming I get another wish, to grow on, that one will be that we can always have a rich crop of international creatives as columnists.

Speaking of which, I’d like to give the first pieces of our birthday cake to Beth Green, Lisa Liang, JJ Marsh, Joanna Masters-Maggs, HE Rybol, and Shannon Young: The Displaced Nation would have little to celebrate were it not for the seven of you!!!

And if anyone out there is still with me, you deserve some cake as well. Thanks so much for your support.

Photo credit: blickpixel via Pixabay.

Photo credit: blickpixel via Pixabay.

Bottoms up, cheers, kampai—oh and thanks for all the prezzies! What prezzies, you may ask? Well, I assume that from now you’re going to:

And with that final pitch, I’m off to fetch another glass of champagne. Huzzah!!

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DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: Shifting base to literary London, where it all began

DiaryExpatWriterAn American expat newlywed in Hong Kong, Shannon Young took the momentous decision last summer to quit her day job and launch out as a full-time writer. She’d given herself until Chinese New Year to see if she could make a living but has now postponed the decision until the end of next month—which we’re actually rather glad about as it means she’s still with us!

—ML Awanohara

Dear Displaced Diary,

It’s a blustery morning here in London and time for another update on my life as an expat writer. You may remember that I do not, in fact, live in London. I’m taking a break from my writing life in Hong Kong for a visit that combines the Easter holidays with my husband’s business trip.

I am still making the most of not having a day job by staying in the UK for nearly three weeks.

Of course the work never stops for a working writer. I spent the first four days of the holiday finishing up the final revisions of Seaswept, the sequel to my post-apocalyptic adventure at sea called Seabounda job that can be done anywhere, really!

Jordan Rivet in London

Shannon Young aka Jordan Rivet showing off her first book on a tea break in London; photo credit: Shannon Young.

As I mentioned in my last post, the revisions on Seaswept were a bit of a slog, but I really got into the groove by the final pass. I have to admit it was kind of magical to wake up with the sun (or clouds) in this famous literary city, write for a few hours, go for a walk, and then do a bit more writing before the jet lag knocked me out. London has always been a source of inspiration for me, and the setting somehow seemed right for ending my work on this book.

In addition to the beautiful buildings, blue historical plaques, and bridges (have I ever told you, dear diary, how much I love bridges?), I’ve found another source of inspiration in London: a friend from Hong Kong.

Expat connections are everywhere

As Displaced Nation readers know, we expats have a tendency to move on often, either to a new country or back to where we came from. Expat life is a constant rotation of hellos and goodbyes. While it’s sad when friends leave, it’s pretty cool to acquire connections all over the world.

A friend from my writers’ group in Hong Kong returned to the UK nearly two years ago, but she has maintained her link with the group and her role as true cheerleader for my work. Recently, she decided to embark on a similar literary adventure by taking time off work to write!

I met up with her at the cafe and bookshop run by the London Review of Books and spent nearly four hours writing and talking about writing together. (I also ate hummus on toast that came with real worms on the side, but that’s another story.) It was a joy to have a friend in a city thousands of miles away from both my home country and my country of residence, all thanks to this expat life.

The day I sent the final draft of Seaswept to my editor, my Hong Kong friend took me on a literary tour of Highgate and Hampstead—and, of course, a trek across the rain-soaked trails of Hampstead Heath. In between breaks for tea and hot cross buns, she showed me the home of Samuel Coleridge (and the alley where he bought his laudanum), a garden straight out of a Jane Austen novel, and a pub visited by many notable figures throughout its 200-year history. As we walked, I was reminded again and again of just how old this city is and just how much has happened in its streets. It’s the setting for some of my favorite novels, novels that made me want to be a writer myself.

Photo souvenirs from Jordan Rivet's London walks. At bottom: Hampstead Heath with a view of Kenwood House, a former stately home.

The houses of Highgate and the expanses of Hampstead Heath, with former stately home Kenwood House in distance. Photo credit: Shannon Young.

As my writing journey continues across the globe in Hong Kong, it’s nice to remember its origins and to soak in a bit of history in the company of someone who is just as excited about it as I am.

Beginnings, revisited

During my time in London, I’m also revisiting the origins of my own expat life. As you may recall, Dear Diary, I met my husband in London during a semester abroad. We ended up in Hong Kong, but our early romance took place here. The memories have been flooding back over the past few days as we walk by all the places where we shared sweet moments: first meeting, first date, first kiss.

I wrote about our romance in the first book I ever started, Year of Fire Dragons. It’s mostly about Hong Kong, but I can’t tell my Hong Kong story without starting in London.

Hong Kong tends to change very quickly, with restaurants and shops going in and out of business all the time. Buildings are torn down and rebuilt completely in the space of months. But London seems largely the same. Back in this place with this man, it’s easy to remember why I decided to follow him across the world.

LondonKiss+Year of Fire Dragons

A firey romance in London led Shannon to the land of Fire Dragons and her first book, a memoir (photo credit: pixabay).

What’s on the horizon?

Well, the sun is breaking through the clouds over the city. I’d better head out to make the most the sunshine before the rain and wind return.

I have two weeks to go in London. During that time, my editor will be working on Seaswept, which should be ready to launch by April 30th. Meanwhile, I’m looking ahead to my next project: the prequel to the Seabound Chronicles. Then it will be time to finish Book 3.

But I’m already working on my next series. I’ve written a rough outline and the first 10,000 words. While I’m enjoying the flood of inspiration and nostalgia in London, perhaps I’ll tap out a few more chapters. If there’s one thing I’ve learned on this expat writing journey, it’s that places have power. I don’t want to miss out on anything London has to offer in the next few weeks.

Thanks for following along on my writing journey around the world.

Yours,

Shannon Young/Jordan Rivet
www.shannonyoungwriter.com

P.S. If you like dystopian fiction and writing Amazon reviews, shoot me an email and I’ll send you a book or two!

* * *

Readers, Shannon’s diary post this month has made me nostalgic for my own days of living in London. Sigh! It sounds as though she’s making the most of her time in the Big Smoke with walks on the Health and so on, but if you have any further recommendations for her remaining two weeks (any bridges you think she should see?), do let her know in the comments!

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TCK TALENT: Maya Evans, Poet, Writer, Teacher, Translator, Consultant & Transition Facilitator

Maya Evans for TDN

Maya Evans (own photo)

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her column featuring interviews with Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields. Lisa herself is a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about growing up as a TCK, called Alien Citizen, which premiered nearly two years ago and is still going strong. In fact, she is now raising funds to take the production to Valencia, Spain, and Capetown, South Africa, later this year.

—ML Awanohara

Greetings, readers. Today’s interviewee is Maya Evans, a poet and writer, transition facilitator, international education consultant, and translator based in Boston, Massachusetts. She is also my fellow ATCK author in the anthology Writing Out of Limbo, in which her poem “Le Français” appears. Currently, she is working on a memoir about her extraordinary life, which took her from the Middle East to Europe to South America and finally to her current home of the United States.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Maya. I understand that you were born to a Francophone Jewish Egyptian-Hungarian family in Alexandria, Egypt, and that you grew up there and in Caracas, Venezuela. Please tell us why your family moved.
My family moved from Alexandria, Egypt, in 1958 after what history termed the Suez Crisis, which is to say the nationalization of the Suez Canal. Built by the French in 1869, and jointly controlled by the British and French until 1956, the Canal was of strategic importance to Western powers. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser‘s actions to nationalize it provoked a brief war—a lot like the wars carried out presently in the Middle East. Nasser wanted to end Egypt’s colonization. We left because Jews were no longer welcome in Egypt. The revolutionary government confiscated Jewish properties and bank accounts, even expelling some Jewish people holding French or British passports. My father was demoted, the bank where he worked was taken over by the authorities, and clearly his career was finished. His brothers, sisters, and their families mostly went to Brazil, although some ended up in France, but none in Hungary, where they’d come from originally. (At the time, Hungary was occupied by the Soviet Union.) When we left, I was 12-and-a-half—and still have vivid memories.

Did your mother’s family leave as well?
My mother’s family, rooted in the area for generations, did not leave. My grandmother refused to leave her house. My uncles and one of my mother’s sisters, who were very close, all stayed, not daring to contradict their mother.

Where did your family end up going?
For a brief time we lived in Paris, scattered among relatives. We also stayed in Genoa, Italy, for a couple of months waiting for my father to clear his affairs and obtain a visa for emigrating to Venezuela. We were “stateless” at the time, having left Egypt with a travel document valid for one trip with no return. My father had managed to “transfer” money out of Egypt to Switzerland, which was needed to buy our passages to South America. This is a story on its own, one I’m attempting to describe in my memoir.

Achieving happiness in the midst of displacement

I find your story moving as it’s about exile, not the usual voluntary migration for TCK families (voluntary for the parents at least). Still, your moves from North Africa to Europe to the Americas is very relatable for this ATCK. Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time?
I can recall the exact time when I realized I was truly happy. It was at Brenau College (now Brenau University), in Gainesville, Georgia. It took one year to convince my father to allow me to go to college in the U.S. He thought that a girl had to stay home and go to the university nearest to where her family lives which in my case would have been the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), a 15-minute ride from our home in Caracas. The problem was that the Venezuelan government did not recognize my high school degree from Colegio Internacional de Caracas (CIC)—the school is only accredited in the United States. Besides, my Spanish was not at a high enough level for the entrance exam. A solution would be to transfer to the UCV from an accredited school in the U.S., after a year of university-level courses. Reluctantly, my father agreed as long as I went to a “girls only” school, properly chaperoned during my trip to the States. I was fortunate enough to meet a trustee of Brenau College at a tea sponsored by the American Association of University Women. She traveled with me from Caracas to Atlanta, and drove me to her college. For a variety of reasons, among them the lack of money, neither my father nor mother could have made the trip at that time.

What was it like being in a small southern town after living in Caracas?
At Brenau, I was one of a handful of international students. Besides Venezuela, there were also girls from Norway and Taiwan. Luckily, two Hungarian sisters from Venezuela, in their third and last year of college respectively, took me under their wing. Both were intelligent and poised, which made me a “cool girl” by association. Suddenly, there was no need to explain why French was my native language but I wasn’t French, etc. It was easy to say: “I am from Venezuela.” Period. I had a distinct identity, foreign but also exotic. It was also wonderful to be far from the dramas of home. I had postponed the moment of reckoning, which would occur upon my return to Venezuela, when I would find out what it would be like to be a university student in Caracas who had attended an American high school full of students with tenuous ties to the country.

Maya Universities

From studying at Brenau in Georgia to getting a degree at Universidad Central Caracas Venezuela to working at Harvard…

Eventually, though, you moved back to the United States. Why was that?
I was just starting to feel Caraqueña (from Caracas)—finding my bearings as a journalism student at the UCV by night and as a bilingual assistant in an export company by day, enjoying 80-degree Fahrenheit weather year-round, living in a beautiful apartment facing the mountain—when I met my husband, an American. (We met in Caracas.) We moved to the States in the early 1970s. His job moved us to Boston; then to Stanford, Connecticut, where our first child was born; and then back to Boston.

Allow me to bridge cultures, people and dreams…

At what point did you start your career…or careers I should say, as I know you’ve had more than one.
After the birth of my second child, I was determined to find a job that would link me to the Latino community, or better yet, send me on frequent trips to Latin America. I found that job at Harvard, in a department facilitating studies in the United States for professors and business executives from Latin America. I traveled all over Latin America, and in the mid-90s, was assigned to a project in Venezuela sponsored by Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) to train a cadre of executives for studies in the United States. I left Harvard shortly after and worked directly as a consultant for PDVSA. I also trained as an interpreter, working for the Massachusetts courts, and taught Spanish at the University of Massachusetts.

Consultant, trainer, interpreter, teacher: your careers seem to have been influenced by your peripatetic upbringing…
True. I would slide in and out of professions just as I slid in and out of countries, and adjust like the chameleon I’d become. I was always being uprooted but then would find ways to adapt. This in turn led me to my life’s “calling”: to facilitate transitions for others. Whether working with foreign students at American universities, or with international researchers trying to find the right department to pursue their research, or with companies wanting to train their personnel to live somewhere else, I would bridge cultures and languages in an effort to help others ease into their new surroundings.

Who am I? Where am I from?

Have you found that “your people” tend to be Adult TCKs or other cross-cultural people?
Undoubtedly, I feel comfortable with other Adult TCKs as well as multicultural people. I am actually uncomfortable with monocultural, monolingual people, regardless of their education level or accomplishments. I find that I have little in common with them, or that I have to “explain” myself again—and at a certain stage in life, it gets tiresome. I also feel a kinship with artists and people who are a bit out of the mainstream. Like Adult TCKs, they tend to look at the world from the outside. For the longest time, I felt outside, looking in. Even now, that feeling hasn’t left me completely.

Not only for your sake but for the rest of us ATCKs, I’m happy you are now working on your memoir, a few parts of which I was privileged to hear you read. What inspired you to start writing it, and how far along are you in the process?
Thank you for your kind words. It’s been a long and tortuous road. For the longest time, from my days as a journalism student, I wanted to tell stories. Stories I heard around the world, and stories of my relatives who happen to be an eclectic bunch of multinational people. But I am always escaping into work, travel, poetry writing, whatever other excuse I can find. Now I’ve decided to work less and, while I still can conjure the memories, dedicate more time to writing what I like to call a “romanticized memoir,” with characters loosely built on the stories I heard about Egypt and on the memories I have of the places where we lived. I am still at the beginning of the process, and need to speed it up, lest it get buried alongside other writings.

Attempting to “capture all the voices in my head without sounding schizophrenic”

On top of all of this, you are a published poet. Is there a particular poem of yours that expresses your feelings of transience or loneliness or instability—or freedom or curiosity or love of travel—that you are most proud of? If so, could you share it with us?
Two years ago, a poem of mine I like the best, “Voz Ajena” (“Alien Voice”), was published in Spanish in the New England Translators Association’s newsletter. Although I translate other people’s work, I cannot translate my own. I don’t hear it in any other language but Spanish. In that poem, I attempted to capture all the “voices” in my head without sounding schizophrenic. To me, it is interesting to note that I can do this only in Spanish, which was the third language I acquired, after which it became my “go to” language. Even though French is rooted in me, Spanish carries Latin America with its music and colors, which trumps all others! I’ll give you that poem, but for those who don’t read Spanish, I’ll first give you a poem I wrote in English:

Notebook with a Missing Language

Only English is missing
in these familiar lines
that stretch quietly on a
tidy little notebook
filled in French with spatters of Spanish;
scents of places and of people long gone
leaving behind tender thoughts,
silent melodies, objects of desire,
histories of exiles and commencements
of lenities and humiliations,
of successes and exonerations;
tales of lost places, warm embraces,
mute voices, empty houses,
doors shut on bygone worlds.

door_shut_maya_poetry

The last line of “Notebook with a Missing Language,” a poem by Maya Evans

 

And now for those who read Spanish:

Voz Ajena

Le preguntó un día por su acento opaco,
esa manera que tiene ella
de tropezar con las erres,
saltar continentes al azar,
atar letras sin más sabor
en un ritmo extraño, ritmo de blanco.

Son recuerdos de otras voces,
las vivencias de mi memoria
de crêpe georgette y chantilly,
dijo ella con voz de seda, voz de sirena.

Yo no sabía de los fantasmas que te habitan,
No sabía de Egipto, España,
Francia y Hungría,
No sabía que te comían noche y día,
ocultándote la luz, clamando por aire,
y todos con ese afán de ser.

Y más aún le dijo ella,
tocan tambores y hacen ruidos,
se contorsionan en las tinieblas
por estallar en mil estrellas,
dejar arañas y demás vainas,
ser lentejuelas, champaña fino, jamón ibérico,
Ravel de fuego, Maria Callas reencarnada,
vistiendo toga, comiendo astros, tragando mundos.

Maya
Boston, 19 de abril de 2010

* * *

It’s been a pleasure, Maya, hearing about your many professional accomplishments and “romanticized memoir” in progress. And thank you so much for sharing two of your poems! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Maya below.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Tired of constant adjustments? TCKs and expats, just be yourself!

Olivia Charlet for Culture Shock ToolboxIt’s turning into Third Culture Kid Week at the Displaced Nation! Today our newest columnist H.E. Rybol, who has a German dad and a French mom and is a self-described “transitions enthusiast,” interviews a fellow adult TCK, with a French dad and a Belgian mom, about the tools she used to face the inevitable culture shocks during her family’s many moves. Later in the week, TCK Talent columnist Lisa Liang will be interviewing the poet Maya Evans, who was displaced from Egypt as a child. And you know something else? H.E. recently interviewed Lisa on her own blog. Though not a TCK myself, I always learn a lot from this rather tightly-knit group. I expect you will, too.

—ML Awanohara

Hello, Displaced Nationers! This month I am proud to introduce my first guest to the Culture Shock Toolbox column: Olivia Charlet, a fellow adult TCK and the founder of TCK Dating, a site that explores how our multicultural backgrounds influence our relationships. Olivia is fascinated by questions like: Are we TCKs happier with partners who share a similar nomadic background, or do opposites attract and we gravitate towards those who’ve lived in the same place their whole lives?

Today she has kindly agreed to answer my questions about the culture shocks she has experienced, along with tools she has used to overcome the feeling of not belonging. Here’s what she had to say…

* * *

Hi, Olivia. Thanks for joining me. First, can you tell us a little more about your background: which countries you’ve lived in and for how long? 

Sure! I was born in Tokyo, Japan and lived there for my first four years. I then lived in Düsseldorf, Germany for two years. We later moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, for six-and-a-half years. Finally, I spent middle school in Vienna, Austria, for almost four years. I completed my last two years of high school in Hamburg, Germany, and then went to university in Boston, Massachusetts, for three years, after which I lived in Auckland, New Zealand, for six months. I have now been living in London for around five years. 

That’s a lot of moving! And now we should move on to the topic of my column: cultural transitions. Can you recall any memorable occasions where you “put your foot in,” so to speak, during your many moves?

I still feel like I’m doing that, as an adult TCK here in London, especially when spending time with people who grew up in this part of the world. When I’m with a group of internationals, who are often my friends, this doesn’t happen as often since there’s this shared understanding that we all have slightly different cultural backgrounds. Let’s see… I think it mostly happens when I’m simply being outspoken—when I say things like “I love this!” or “This is amazing” or “It was terrible.” I picked up these expressions from American schools, I think. British people tend to be more understated. They’re more likely to say things like “Yeah, it’s alright” or “She’s nice.” It’s not so intense. 

How do you tend to handle those inevitably awkward situations when you feel people may have misinterpreted you?

When I was younger I would have tried to mold into what they believed to be “normal” or “appropriate” behavior. But unfortunately (or fortunately?), I’ve become less and less likely to do this as I’ve gotten older. I want to be able to me. And express my difference. I don’t like pretending and I need to be authentic. If I’m trying to please them by saying what they want me to say, I won’t be genuine. Growing up outside of my passport country, I spent years learning how to adapt quickly and meet new friends. However, every year that goes by in London, I realise I can find people in the city that won’t expect me to be something else. They’re just fine with me being me (crazy mix of customs and all!).

Looking back, can you recall any situations that you handled with surprising finesse? Why do you think that was? 

Well, that’s really my point. Having grown up moving around so much, I became really good at mimicking customs and behaviours—but not because of any natural ability. I just wanted to fit in. For instance, I played on a German football team in high school, and none of the girls spoke a word of English. They saw me as one of them after only a couple of months. Likewise, while attending university in the United States, I honed in on what the American students and professors needed to see for me to blend into their culture.

If you had to give advice to TCKs or new expats, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first?

Strangely, I don’t think I would have said this six months ago, but basically my advice is to truly know yourself. Who are you? What do you love to do? What do you not like to do? How do you like to behave? Are you loud? Are you soft-spoken? Extroverted? Be you. Because really, as much as we try to fit into another world, the truth is you’ll find people in no matter what culture who “get” you and understand you just the way you are. The more you try to change and adapt to what other people want you to be, the more you’ll lose a sense of who you are. And the most important thing (at least for me) about living in a different country is to not lose your core of self. What are your goals? What is your purpose? Who are you? That’s what should matter. And with that will follow meeting people who match that.

Thank you so much, Olivia, for sharing your stories and reminding us that, regardless of where we are, we’ll meet others who “get us.” In a sense your tool consists of putting away the toolbox when it’s a question of remaining true to ourselves.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Olivia’s advice? Hopefully, it has you “fixed” until next month!

Until then. Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin and Goodreads. She is currently working on her new Web site and her second book.  

STAY TUNED for Lisa Liang’s interview with Maya Evans.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation—and much, much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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