The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

HERE BE DRAGONS: The expat life as fuel for fantasy writing

Serpent Map Collage Drop Shadow

(Clockwise from top): Detail of the medieval map Carta marina; the Speicherstadt (warehouse district) in Hamburg, Germany; Andrew Couch (photo credit: Andrew Couch).

Welcome to the Displaced Nation’s very own Game of Thrones. To be eligible, you simply have to be, or have been, an expat or world traveler of some kind, and open to seeing the connection between the international life and fantasy fiction. Andrew Couch, an American expat in Germany, will be our coach (no pun intended!). Though he has not been playing the game for long, having published his first fantasy novella only last month, he is already dancing with dragons, and thinks that you should be, too…

—ML Awanohara

Living as an expat in another culture forces you to interact with the world in a different way. You cannot rely on the habits of your home and things around you are strange—sometimes really really strange.

Yet they are perfectly normal to the locals.

This echoes my experience of reading (and now writing) fantasy fiction. I didn’t really think about it that way until I started writing this post, but I guess it should have been obvious all along.

Trip the “expat life” fantastic

I’ve always loved the fantasy genre, ever since I could read. The first book I remember was Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis, although I certainly delved into Tolkien’s The Hobbit very early on as well. Both are fantasy but also involve travel. As a child, I was drawn to the imagery of the strange places depicted in these books.

Maybe that feeling of diving into fantastical worlds is what led me to a life of travel as an adult, and ultimately to the life I now have in Germany as an expat.

The characters in fantasy novels accept their world as it is. They might accept that magic exists in a specific form—or that elves, trolls and ogres wander the street selling sausages.

Is this really so much of a stretch from what we accept as expats sometimes?

After living for six years in Germany, I almost take for granted how orderly everything is: I like knowing that the tram will come at an exact time. I’ve also come to appreciate being able to sit in a restaurant all evening without anyone shoving the bill at me to pay and leave.

I do notice, though, that the more I integrate with the local life, the more I crave a creative outlet. Several years ago, when I’d been living in Freiburg for a couple of years, my apartment lease was running out and I had to decide: should I find a new place to live, or was it time to move on? In the end, I decided to buy my own apartment, which tied me still more closely to the wonderful town of Freiburg. I was happy but also felt that doors were closing, and I needed to seek other outlets. I ended up starting a blog, Grounded Traveler: Expat life in Germany and still seeing the world. I tried writing fiction, too, but must not have been ready.

Just last year I made a career shift. For 13 years I had worked as a Web developer for an employer, but I decided to leave and start my own freelancing business. Being my own boss has given me the freedom to do what I want when I want, but there are limits on that freedom as I must constantly be on the lookout for projects.

QueenOfCloudPirates_coverCraving the fantastic once again, I started writing a series of fantasy novellas. I self-published the first episode, Queen of the Cloud Pirates, in March and am working on the next one now, based on the inspiration of living and traveling abroad.

Thinking of blue almonds (Polish for “daydreaming”)

Much of my inspiration for writing fantasy comes from the places my wife and I visit on our travels. My follow-on novella to Queen of the Cloud Pirates (I’ve just finished the first draft) is set in a fantasy port city.

Not long ago, my wife and I traveled to Hamburg for a few days and spent time in Speicherstadt, an area of the city full of canals and towering brick warehouses with elevators and cranes around them. On that occasion I let my imagination go, wondering what a sword fight among the ropes and narrow stairs would be like. This has driven a fair amount of the book’s setting.

Of course inspiration can come from anywhere, not just from a city’s wonderfully distinct architecture but also from more mundane settings. For instance, here is a snippet I wrote after glimpsing an unusual face on the subway in Berlin:

A man sat hunched over in the subway seat, his chin piled on top of both hands steadying himself on his cane. A white fluffy mustache flowed over the side of his hands like a cascade of falling clouds. His oh-so-attentive eyes, in contrast to his nearly decrepit body, watched from beneath equally fluffy eyebrows that flowed up in the same way the mustache floated down. Was this a visitor from the realm of clouds come to watch us on earth? I pondered the significance of seeing this man underground as I got off at my stop and watched him through the window as the train sped away.

I am constantly collecting such snippets and images on my travels. In fact, I’m now half-way through another story based on a mis-heard subway announcement about the train ending and needing to transfer to the “elephants”—well, that’s not what the conductor said but it’s how I heard it. I have been thinking about the story so much I can’t really remember the original line, but I expect I heard something about transferring to bus line 11 (elf in German) and, despite being fluent in German, thought of elephants.

Here Be Dragons (in Latin, Hic Sunt Dracones)

Readers, do you collect thoughts and ideas when traveling to, or living in, strange surroundings? And if so, are you inclined to turn these snippets into stories?

While I have a fantasy-oriented imagination, and tend to see dragons or other fantastical beasts when venturing into new territory, I imagine that such snippets could support any genre of writing.

I look forward to seeing you next month, when I will continue exploring how encounters with different landscapes, cultures, cities, architecture, and people can stimulate the imagination in some strange and wonderful directions. Let me know in the comments if you’re fantasizing about any particular topics, and I’ll see if my imagination can stretch to accommodate.

Andrew Couch has been a fantasy book nut since childhood; he really has not grown up much since then. After struggling to write his own games for years, he is now creating fantastical worlds in a series of novellas that echo the TV shows, anime and role-playing games of his youth. Beyond fantasy he is an avid blogger and a world traveler who resides in Germany. To learn more about Andrew, check out his blog, Grounded Traveler, and follow him on Twitter: @groundedtravelr.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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For this intrepid Irish “ruin hunter,” a picture says…

Ed Mooney 1,000 words Collage

Canon zoom lens; photo credit: Morguefiles; Ed Mooney in front of the ruins of Ducketts Grove, County Carlow (photo credit: Ed Mooney).

Welcome to our monthly series “A picture says…”, created to celebrate expats and other global residents for whom photography is a creative outlet. The series host is English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King, who thinks of a camera as a mirror with memory. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

My guest this month is 38-year-old Irishman Edward (Ed) Mooney. His story is quite different from previous guests for several reasons, the main one being that he is not an expat. On the contrary, he travels within the confines of his native Ireland.

That said, Ed does cross boundaries, at least in a temporal sense. He loves nothing more than to immerse himself in an obscure historical site, exploring Irish history, lore and mythology while also photographing the surrounding ruins, to keep a record of what remains from generations past.

I really like the name Ed has given to his hobby: “ruin-hunting”. Ed tells me that ruin-hunting merges Past, Present & Future. By researching the history behind a place, he pays tribute to the Past. By writing about the experience, he brings it into the Present. And by posting his article, along with his photos, on his blog, he preserves his findings for the Future.

I have been following Ed for some months and love the way he weaves historic research into (mostly) black-and-white images.

* * *

Hi, Ed. Thanks for joining me at the Displaced Nation. I know you live with your young family in Kildare, but where were you born and what gave you the urge to travel around Ireland photographing ancient ruins?
I was born in Dublin, where I lived until flying the coop at 17. I moved to Kildare for work. I only got into photography seriously three or four years ago. With a young family, I don’t get to go abroad very often. But I am fortunate enough to travel within Ireland itself, which with its rich heritage offers an abundance of fascinating sights. And the crazy thing is, the majority of them are relatively unknown and rarely visited. It is these off-the-beaten-track places that I tend to concentrate on while traveling the country, attempting to capture them with my DSLR camera.

“I love everything that’s old…” —Oliver Goldsmith

You seem to have found an interesting niche. Can you tell us a little more about this “ruin hunting” hobby of yours?
It all started in 2011. I had just gotten my first DSLR and joined the local camera club, but had very little opportunity to get out and about shooting. I wasn’t into wildlife or landscape photography like some of the other club members. I guess I was searching for my niche, as you put it. One day a flyer came through the letterbox, which had an image of a nearby historical site called the Rock of Dunamase, in County Laois. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was the beginning of what would become an obsession. A few days later, I located Dunamase and went exploring. Now, looking back at the photos, I cringe—but at the time I thought they were the best shots I’d ever taken. Around this time I had starting blogging and decided to post a brief essay on the history of Dunamase, along with the images. Next thing I knew, I was spending all of my spare time searching out new sites. Now that the kids are a little older, I have been able to take them on some of my trips. To date I have explored sites in nine counties with plans for many more over the coming months.

When you said “a flyer came through the letterbox…,” I immediately thought of a WWII fighter pilot. I would love to know more about what inspires you to spend so much of your spare time visiting historical places.
My inspiration comes from my deep love of history. In my early twenties, I joined what was then known as the Heritage Awareness Group, or HAG. We visited sites such as Newgrange, Tara and Baltinglass Abbey. Nowadays my favourite ruins are castles and Neolithic sites such as stone circles and cairns, although I am forever coming across many ecclesiastical sites which are interesting in their own right and make for some stunning shots. It’s quite hard to find the locations so I’ve created maps for each county, and make a point of recording every site I visit on my blog along with an interactive map showing the exact location to assist other travellers.

It’s great that you record your findings in so much detail and include exact locations in case others are inspired to follow in your footsteps. Ireland is a small country, unless you get lost. Tell us, where are you now, how did you end up there and what is life like in that part of the world?
We have been in Monasterevin, Kildare, for almost seven years now and absolutely love it. It’s a different way of life to Dublin. If I didn’t have to commute daily to the City to work, I would probably return there rarely. The great thing about Monasterevin, besides the relaxed atmosphere and close community, is that I am situated almost in the centre of Ireland. I can travel to any part of the country in two to three hours, which is great considering the amount of travelling involved in “ruin hunting”.

Rock of Dunamase. Photo credit: Ed Mooney

Rock of Dunamase. Photo credit: Ed Mooney

I’ve never been outside Dublin but I hear the countryside is beautiful. Other benefits are that you never run out of Guinness and you just won the Six Nations rugby! Thank you for sharing some of your photo shots which capture a few of your favourite memories. Can you describe the story behind them and what makes them so special?
These three are from recent shoots. The first, of the Rock of Dunamase, is a special place not just for the stunning views and fascinating history but also because it’s where my journey started.

Church ruins in Laois; photo credit: Ed Mooney.

Church ruins in Laois; photo credit: Ed Mooney.

The second photo is of another site I discovered in neighbouring Laois, which, with its stunning views, constitutes a ruin hunter’s paradise. This one is special on a personal level as well, being the first ruin I visited with all three children. In the chancel to the rear of the church is an old iron gate blocking the entrance to a vaulted mortuary chamber. Ryan, my eldest, had an interesting observation on the chamber: “Daddy, that’s where the Vampires live.” Now how the heck did he come up with that? Have you ever tried convincing an eight-year-old that something doesn’t exist?

Skryne Hill Church; photo credit: Ed Mooney.

Skryne Hill Church; photo credit: Ed Mooney.

The third is of the church that sits on Skryne Hill, the site of an early Christian settlement. To this day my memory of Skryne remains vivid. The tower is inaccessible due to a very heavy iron gate that on examination appeared to be rusted shut. I shone my torch through the bars on one of the windows. Inside were a number of interesting stone artifacts that I wanted to capture. So I set up my flashgun and shot through the bars. On the second or third flash something physically grabbed my camera strap and pulled it into the tower. It all happened so fast, but somehow I managed to pull that camera away from the window while shouting a few expletives. At first I wondered if it might have been a draft of some kind that had caught my strap, but it could not have been as I was pressed right up against the opening and there was no wind to cause a draft. Then I thought that maybe someone was inside, but there was no way for a person to get in or out of the tower. To this day I still can’t explain what happened. But it certainly left a lasting memory.

“Memory, in widow’s weeds, … stands on a tombstone.” —Aubrey de Vere

Great memoriesand that last story is quite eerie. But I suppose you would expect the odd ghost or two in buildings so old? Now, out of these many destinations, do you have any that stand out as your favorites?
If you haven’t already guessed, old ruins are what attract my attention, be it a crumbling castle, a neolithic stone circle or standing stone, or an ancient church overgrown with ivy. Here are three of my favorite places:

Brownshill Dolmen, County Carlow; photo credit: Ed Mooney.

Brownshill Dolmen, County Carlow; photo credit: Ed Mooney.

Ballymoon Castle, County Carlow. Photo credit: Ed Mooney

Ballymoon Castle, County Carlow; photo credit: Ed Mooney.

Cillbharrog Church & cemetery; photo credit: Ed Mooney.

Cillbharrog Church & Cemetery; photo credit: Ed Mooney.

Can you explain why these particular places inspire you?
It’s kind of hard to explain but once I set foot on the site of an ancient monument, something about the atmosphere affects me, and a flip switches in my head. I feel as though I’m stepping back in time. The modern world disappears for a while and I get to experience something really special. With my photography I try to capture that experience and hopefully portray it to the viewer. Mood, atmosphere and a sense of the past are the most important elements for me to enjoy shooting at a location.

I can assure you, Ed, that, for me, you usually achieve it. Your photos make me feel as though I’m there, not you. I know people aren’t a part of your ruin hunting but I want to ask you all the same if you ever feel reserved about taking photos of people on your travels, particularly when they are conscious you are doing so?
I still enjoy getting out and doing some street photography from time to time and I have never really had an issue with shooting people, but then again I have had plenty of experience ranging from large events in Dublin down to small country festivals. I guess at the start I was a bit shy and unsure of how to approach shooting strangers, but once you learn how to engage with a subject it becomes fun. Some of the best shots I have taken were the result of strangers coming up to me wanting to have their pictures taken. Parades and street festivals are probably the best for doing this as everyone is relaxed and having a good time.

Do you ask permission before taking people’s photographs?
Most times I don’t have to. I find it amazing how people start posing once they see a camera in your hand. Obviously, with children you have to be really careful these days and should always get parental permission.

“Ireland’s ruins are historic emotions surrendered to time.”—Horace Sutton

Interesting—that last point would never be considered in Thailand, where I live. So would you say that photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique which will never be seen again is a powerful force for you?
Absolutely, I would say that most photographers constantly strive to get that once-in-a-lifetime shot. In my case the deeper motivation is to capture historic sites for posterity. As in many other countries, Ireland’s local and national heritage sites continue to disappear for good. Most people don’t care and the government is only interested in money. Take my home town of Tallaght, a suburb of Dublin. There were several castles in the area up until about 40 years ago. Now only a part of one remains. This scenario recurs with alarming regularity. So if I can capture the essence of a place before it is wiped away for good, I have done my job.

I see you use the word “job”. But I see it more as a calling and you, as a preservationist and historian. Either way you are doing an excellent “job”–one that incidentally reminds me of my last interview subject, Gaetan Green. He is trying to record China’s traditional landscapes before they fall to the forces of modernization. So when did you realize this deeper purpose?
Right from the start. The need to preserve the past was a major factor in motivating me to choose this path for my photography.

Now for the technical stuff at which I am far from proficient. What kind of camera and lenses do you use? And which software do you use for post-processing?
I still use my trusty Nikon D40 with kit lens. Yes it is outdated by today’s standards, but it has served me well over the last few years and taken a lot more punishment than it should have. I am planning to upgrade later this year and hopefully the D40 will be converted to shoot Infra Red, which is something I really want to experiment with. For my raw images ACR is a must, but my one stop shop for post processing has to be Photoshop. I currently use CS6 and it does everything I need. I still have various other programs sitting on my desktop but these rarely get a look-in.

Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
If I was starting photography now I would say take the time to enjoy what you do and most importantly, research, research, research. Find out as much as possible about the place you are travelling to. Look at as many images of the place as you can, take inspiration from them and don’t go and shoot the same scene as everybody else. Look for a new angle or view. Don’t be afraid to get creative.

Thank you, Ed. It has been a real pleasure to interview you. Your story so far is fascinating. I say so far because I know one day you will run out of ruins in Ireland and you’ll be dreaming up your next historical project in places further afield.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Ed’s experiences and his photography advice? And do you have any questions for him on his photos and/or experiences? Please leave them in the comments!

And if you want to know more about Ed Mooney, don’t forget to visit his excellent photography site. You can also like his Facebook page, follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, or shoot him an email.

(If you are a photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, the start of a brand new column on travel and fantasy writing, by Andrew Couch.

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Andrea Cheng, award-winning children’s author

Author photo: Andrea Cheng

Author photo: Andrea Cheng

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Andrea Cheng, award-winning author of  books for children and young adults.  

Cheng’s first novel, Marika, was selected by the city of Cincinnati for “On the Same page,” a citywide reading program.  Honeysuckle House, Anna the Bookbinder, and Shanghai Messenger received Parent’s Choice Awards.  Grandfather Counts was featured on Reading Rainbow. Where the Steps Were, the first book that Cheng has both written and illustrated, received starred reviews in both Publisher’s Weekly and Kirkus. The Year of the Book, a Junior Library Guild selection, was reviewed in the NY Times and was followed by The Year of the Baby (2013 May). Cheng’s most recent title is Etched in Clay.

Some of Cheng’s books draw on her background as the child of Hungarian immigrants as well as the background of her husband, the son of immigrants from China. Others draw on the lives of her children growing up in inner city Cincinnati where she and her husband now live.  Andrea studied Chinese at Cornell University where she received a Masters degree in linguistics.  She and her family have traveled to both Budapest and Shanghai to get to know their extended families.

Which came first, story or location?
I think character comes first in my writing, followed by location, atmosphere, etc.  Plot or ‘story” come later.  I usually start with a character at a particularly salient moment in a specific place, and go from there.

Year of the Book

Cover art: The Year of the Book, by Andrea Cheng

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
I have to have spent a fair amount of time in a place before I can evoke the atmosphere.  I have to know how it smells and tastes and looks and feels.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
Everything!  I think I focus a lot on language, the way people talk. I think it would be very hard for me to write a story that takes place in a location in which I cannot speak the native language of the people who live there.

Can you give a brief example of your work which illustrates place?
This is from my chapter book called THE YEAR OF THE FORTUNE COOKIE, coming out with Houghton Mifflin in May 2014.  It is for grades 3-6.  The main character, Ana Wang, is in Beijing:

It starts to rain.  The sky is almost dark, and the air smells like gasoline and charcoal.  We turn down an ally and wind our way behind some buildings.  “This is my home,” Fan says finally, opening a door with her key.

Inside the light is dim.  Her brother is watching television and her mother is cooking on a hot plate.  “This is my friend from America,” Fan says.  

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
I have to have spent time in the place and I have to understand the language of the people there.  The more time the better.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I just read Jhumpa Lahiri’s new novel, Lowland.  Although I think the book has some problems, I love her sense of place.

Next month’s Location, Locution:  Jill interviews James Ferron Anderson – weaver, glassblower, soldier, and now writer.

 * * *

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.


Author photo: J J Marsh

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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TCK TALENT: Lisa Liang performs “Alien Citizen” before fellow aliens

Alien Citizen Collage_dropshadowThis month Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang takes a break from interviewing fellow Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields, to tell us about what it was like to perform her one-woman show about being a TCK as the closing keynote at last month’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference.

Hello again, Displaced Nationers! I was excited and anxious about performing my solo show, ALIEN CITIZEN: An Earth Odyssey, as the closing keynote at the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference, held March 21-23 in Virginia.

Excited because the FIGT audience comprises ATCKs, global nomads, TCK parents, and various professionals (cross-cultural experts, therapists, school administrators, etc.) who help expat families with issues specific to their lifestyles—in other words, my target audience. I hoped that if conference participants liked the show, it could lead to more bookings.

But if I was excited, I was also anxious. What if my work didn’t resonate with the FIGT crowd? That would signal a massive failure on my part as performer/writer.

On the other hand, what if it resonated with them too much? Maybe the FIGT participants would be looking for something light-hearted by the end of two-and-a-half days. While my show uses humor, it also goes to some dark places. Would it make people uncomfortable?

Of course I never know how my shows will be received, but I felt more was at stake at FIGT. As with other performances, I wanted people to laugh, but I also wanted them to be moved.

* * *

Here’s what happened:

1) The audience was quiet at first. I couldn’t tell if they were bored or listening intently—we were in a ballroom and I was on a platform, not close enough to see anyone’s expression. But I didn’t want to lose sight of the storytelling so charged ahead as usual.

2) To my relief, they started laughing at the right places, including lines I like but that don’t always get laughs, such as:

“So I sit in the back until I make friends with another misfit. Also known as an Australian.”

3) They listened intently. I began to realize this about twenty minutes in, which gave me the confidence to tweak some lines. The majority of the audience were my generation and older, so I sensed that if I said “I first fell in love with [Clark Gable] when I saw Judy Garland sing to him in THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT on our Betamax,” they would laugh. Normally I say “on video” because anyone younger than I am has no idea what a Betamax is.

4) I got a standing ovation as soon as the lights came up at the end. It felt warm and sincere and lasted a while.

The keynote of my keynote: Special effects

I hoped the FIGT audience would be pleasantly surprised by the show’s video projections and sound effects, since those are unusual elements in a conference setting.

Everything I attended at the conference was fascinating and of excellent quality. But my piece was something else, something purely theatrical. At the show’s beginning, the room fades to darkness as you hear David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and then see a projection of the moon flashing past the Earth. The lights come up and I’m standing on the platform with kooky headgear and a bobbly alien headband, grinning at you.


One of my favorite memories of the whole experience was the Q2Q (or cue-to-cue) rehearsal the day before. The hotel staff were busy setting tables and preparing for the following day’s events. Several of them seemed bemused as they watched me performing excerpts so that the projections and sound cues could be rehearsed.

My brother John was my techie, running the cues off of my laptop in the back of the room while telling the hotel’s A/V technician when to fade down/up the lights.

John hadn’t worked in a theatre booth in something like 25 years, but you would never have guessed. And as my brother was taking on the mantle of stage manager/techie, the A/V guy started telling us how he could do some sound mixing during a tricky part of the show.

Then another hotel staffer offered to give me some background lighting to enhance the effect, until the A/V guy told him it wouldn’t be possible to run light cues, so the staffer said he could at least set up the lights to have a nice glow for me from the start.

To our delight, there were showbiz folks among the hotel staff. They loved having something to do other than give people mikes and set tables and were jazzed about what they saw, which boosted my confidence.

After the show, shows of emotion and gratitude

My brother said that when the lights came up there were people who were trying to compose themselves before they stood for the ovation. For the next half hour, people came up to thank me. Some talked at length about how the show affected them, while others just gave me big hugs. A few ATCKs with swollen eyes lodged a complaint: they felt it should have been mandatory to have a box of tissues at every table!

I recall one woman thanking me for “coming out” with my painful adolescent experiences, saying she had experienced the same when growing up in a foreign country.

Another one said the show had changed her mind about theatre—she had no idea it could be moving and transformative. That’s a compliment to my director, Sofie Calderon, who made the show far more dynamic than I could on my own.

Several parents of TCKs told me the show had given them a lot to think about, and one said she could now appreciate some of the issues she ought to be dealing with on behalf of her kids.

To my relief given my initial trepidations, the response was overwhelmingly positive. I also felt, and continue to feel, gratified that people have continued discussing their impressions on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and email. This confirmed what I’ve learned since the world premiere and through the show’s international tour: the story is relatable and interesting; it’s a testament to TCKs’ strength; and if a story is told with humor, people will listen to the darker side of it, and empathize.

As I had hoped, FIGT has led to a new booking: I’m performing excerpts at the gala dinner for the World Bank Family Network, to be held in Washington, DC, on May 13. That’s right after my San Francisco premiere at the United States of Asian America Festival, sponsored by the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center, on May 10.

Hey, if the show has antennae, it also has legs!

Also, since I posted about ALIEN CITIZEN: An Earth Odyssey a year ago on the Displaced Nation, my dream of taking it Off Off Broadway came true this past September. And my goal to take it on the college circuit has come to fruition: I’ve performed the show or excerpts at Princeton, M.I.T., and CSULA, and today, April 10th, I’m taking it to my alma mater, Wesleyan University.

Another desire of mine was to perform the show at international schools, and this, too, is beginning to be fulfilled: right after FIGT, I performed excerpts at two international schools and the U.S. Embassy in Panama.

I’ve also led workshops on how to create a solo show / memoir / personal essay at Princeton, CSULA, FIGT (in 2013 and 2014), and in private classes in Los Angeles.

I’m astonished, thrilled, and humbled by the show’s life and hope to take it all over the world.

* * *

Thank you, Lisa! Your experience at the FIGT conference sounds out of this world (figuratively as well as literally), and it’s wonderful to hear news of all the progress you’ve made since this time last year, when we first “discovered” your talent! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Lisa below.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Home is where the hearty food is

global food gossipJoanna Masters-Maggs, our resident repeat-expat Food Gossip and Creative Chef, is back with her column for like-minded food lovers.

This month: Joanna despairs over the modern inability to enjoy the simple foods in expat life.

UPDATE: Due to popular request after this post first went live, Joanna has included her recipe for the Beef and Guinness Pie she made for her St. Patrick’s Day party. Read on!

* * *

“It’s a bit samey,” said The Husband as he cast his eye over this latest piece. “Just you telling everyone how we ex-pats are up our own arses over food.”

Fair point — but I can’t help grinding the same old axe.  I think that there is a lot of up-arseness the world over when it comes to food.  Am I alone in being so irritated by people who call themselves “foodies” as though there is some sort of originality in their love of eating?

The truth is everyone loves good food, but not everyone is lucky enough to get it that often. Have you ever met someone who smugly tells you that they have expensive tastes, as though no one else has ever wanted an Aston Martin or a Chanel suit? The very reason these things are desirable is because they are expensive and out of the reach of most. “Foodyism” isn’t much different. “Foodies” are just a bunch of people trying hard to be special, but they’re no different from anyone else.

The sad result is that we have lost the confidence to love regular everyday food that speaks, truly speaks, of the place where we find ourselves.

Drizzle with pomegranate coulis. Post photo to Facebook. Serve immediately.

It’s the same the world over. No one cooks simple food for one another anymore. If we cook, it has to be restaurant worthy, or at least it has to look it. Those who can’t cook that way get hopelessly behind and become the kind of people who never invite back for a reciprocal dinner at their place.

The more cookery programmes there are on our screens, the less we cook. These shows present cooking in a way that sets us up for failure. Recipes and presentation are so dauntingly complicated that often we don’t bother at all. When we do successfully follow a complicated recipe, we are so proud of ourselves that we post photos of it on Facebook (along with other irritating posts charting our kids’ successful routes to medical school.)  We know it annoys others but we just can’t help it. “Look at me! look at me!”

The expat is particularly prone to Food Narcissism. It’s just too easy and too tempting to show off unusual items we have seen in far-flung places. Or the exotic meals eaten in little places we have found in some unfashionable part of town. No one back home is going to know that the food stall we just happened upon has been featured in KL Expat Today, or Foreign Workers in Caracas, or some such publication.

Gosh, I even irritate myself and it takes an intolerable level of smugness to be able to annoy yourself.

Comfort food shouldn’t be a source of discomfort

A few weeks ago I decided to get in touch with my Irish side and host a St Patrick’s day party. I agonized for a long time over what to serve. Many of my guests surprised me by not knowing what St Patrick’s Day celebrations entail. There was even a soupçon of concern over where to find green cocktail frocks, which only served to intensify my preoccupation with the menu. Although I reassured my guests that they were to wear anything green that they could find at home and were absolutely not to go out and buy a fancy frock, I realized I too was complicating what should be a fun and easy supper. It was horrible to realize that I was afraid to serve Irish food in case it was too simple and that my cooking might be seen as a bit dull, basic even. There I was, actually trying to tart up the Irish recipes to a degree where they would be indistinguishable from French ones. Little piles of salmon on delicate rounds of soda and individual servings of boxty (a sort of Irish rosti) piled up and garnished with drizzles of sauce.

It was in dealing with the matter of the emerald-green silk dress hunt that I realized where my own lack of confidence in real food was landing me. How ridiculous. Instead of serving simple and comfortable food, I was trying to turn it into something fancy.

The question hung in my mind in Green, Orange and White letters: “Why?”

Why indeed?

Giving myself a metaphorical slap around the chops, I got a grip, squared my shoulders, and returned to basics. I would serve the food I grew up with. Irish Stew, Soda bread with salmon, and Beef and Guinness pie.

Oh all right, not the pie. My mother wasn’t keen on making pastry at all, citing hot hands as her excuse, but actually we all knew she would rather settle down to a glass of Guinness and watch a simple stew take shape than hand-make pastry. But the rest, you get my meaning. The memories flooded back. The stew in a big, cream enamel pan on the hob, the warm soft “stocklike” aroma of cooking lamb on its bone with plain old carrots and potato punched up with plenty of pepper, white pepper, and of course the resulting condensation on the kitchen windows.

Culinary childhood in a bowl.

When in Rio, shop and cook as the Cariocas do

We expats often live behind a two-way glass where we do not socialize with the people around us. Barriers — language, cultural, time, work —  impede us. Yet the rare glimpses into the everyday life of the places where we live create the most special and evocative moments. Food produces some of the strongest memories. Memories of great restaurants are one thing, but home cooking is another thing altogether, being a part of the fabric of everyday life.

I was lucky enough to have a maid when I lived in Brazil. At the time I thought I was lucky to have someone to help with the housework and kids, but in retrospect, I realize that she represented so much more than that. She made a Maria-shaped hole in the glass I lived behind, bringing some of the everyday world of a Carioca (someone born in Rio) into my kitchen. Every Monday, Maria would arrive ready to cook up a few days’ supply of black beans. These shiny black nuggets were blasted soft in a pressure cooker, then cooked with onions, a large pile of garlic and a few bay leaves then cooked long and slowly into rich and satisfying stew.

The secret to getting a great flavor into these beans is the addition of salted pork extremities to the mix. Ears, trotters, tails, you name it, are all used. As they break down in the cooking they have a thickening effect too. I had seen great piles of waxy, white and vaguely familiar items in the meat sections of supermarkets, but had given them a wide berth. Under Maria’s tutelage, I got over my silliness and grew to appreciate their value as they became an intrinsic part of my shopping list.

The best times were when couve was available. Couve, or collard greens, deep green palm-like leaves, which she would roll up and finely slice and stir fry with garlic and seasoning and nothing else. A pharmacist once told me that folic acid isn’t really needed for expectant mums in Brazil. The combination of the beans with the couve produces a cocktail of minerals easily absorbable by the body and priceless in reducing the risk of spin bifida. Is there anything not to love in Brazil’s national dish?

The black bean memory doesn’t include a fancy restaurant to boast of. No little food stall tucked away in the back of a very “local” area of town. Here was just a woman producing basic home food with the intention of filling an empty belly until the next day. These memories are more evocative of life in Rio to me know than my endless photos of Christ the Redeemer or Sugar Loaf Mountain. Maria made my experience of the place.

Cooking is for life, not just for Instagram

So, despite all my talk, I haven’t been able to circumvent the curse of expat “showing offness”. For what I seem to be saying is that anyone can book a couple of weeks in Rio and see the sights on a safe and comfortable air-conditioned bus tour, but to have really experienced the place you need memories akin to the memories of childhood. Maybe; or perhaps the truth is a little kinder? Simple home cooking is an everyday experience. There is no need to photograph it or put it on Facebook because it happens all the time. It’s as common as teeth-cleaning or walking the kids to school. Because of that, we experience it directly and fully, since we are not watching from behind the tiny lens of a camera, video, or smartphone. Instead, it is the comfortable and expansive background of life which seeps into us, unnoticed, to become a collection of memories; memories that can be triggered by a kitchen aroma, or by the way a woman holds a knife to crush a bulb of garlic.

After all, if a plate of madeleines inspired seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past, perhaps I can be forgiven for the sameness of my own little bits of writing.


“So,” I expect you are asking, “how did the Irish food go down?”

Well — since you ask — rather well, actually. All eaten and, I hope, enjoyed, particularly the beef and Guinness pie. It a good thing that hot-hands skipped a generation. So I raise my glass of black velvet (Guinness and Champagne – a disaster for both drinks, but much fun) to simple home cooking. Slap a pan of stew on your tables, and put out a couple of bumper size pies and let everyone dig in.

I, for one, will be repeating the experience.

* * *

Beef and Guinness Pie My Way

(“My Way” includes metric measures — if you prefer to measure in cups or ounces, this conversion website will be useful.)

First make a beef and Guinness stew. This needs to be done a day in advance.

  • 1kg grams stewing beef
  • 30 grams flour
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 2 large chopped onion
  • 2 large chopped carrot
  • 500 ml of Guinness
  • 300 ml of stock – a good homemade beef stock will pay you dividends
  • but water will do if needs must.
  • Handful of stoned prunes, chopped finely (finely) these will add depth of flavor but, ideally, not change the texture of the stew.
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper
  1. Cut meat into 2.5cm cubes and roll in seasoned flour.
  2. Heat oil and quickly sear the meat in batches putting the sealed meat on a plate to one side.
  3. Heat a little more oil and add onion to pan. Cook slowly and gently until the onions almost caramelize
  4. Return the meat to the pan and add any left over flour with the carrots, Guinness, stock and bay leaves.
  5. Bring the whole to a boil then cover and simmer for two hours. Traditionally this would have been cooked on the hob, but I think it is easier to pop the stew into a casserole with the lid firmly in place and cook at 140°C or 275°F for at two hours. At this point add the prunes, stir well, recover and cook for a further half hour or until the stew is thick.
  6. When the stew is ready, remove from the oven and wait until it is cool enough to place in the refrigerator overnight.

The Pastry

I used to make a puff pastry for this pie, but I recently tried a Nigella Lawson recipe for pastry, which she gives for her chicken pot pie. It is a firm textured, but buttery pastry, which is ideal for a robust beef pie.

  • 375 grams of plain flour (all-purpose)
  • 226 grams of cold butter
  • 3 eggs (one will be used for gluing and glazing purposes only)

(This mixture will make two medium size pies or one large one. I like to make a double quantity and freeze for another time.)

  1. Put the flour and cubed butter into a metal tray and shake to evenly distribute it over the metal surface. Place in the freezer to chill for 10 minutes (Nigella exhorts us not to skip this stage since this is the step that makes the pastry so easy to handle and so delicate. She’s so right!
  2. While the pastry is chilling, beat two of the eggs with two tablespoons of cold water and place in the fridge.
  3. Next, place the flour and butter into a processor and pulse until you have a fine mixture. Do this quickly, don’t be tempted to overwork the mixture as the texture will suffer. Add the eggs while the processor works until the mixture starts forming a ball, then stop.
  4. Now you can divide the dough into two, press flat, cover with cling film and chill.

This mixture will make two medium size pies or one large one. I like to make a double quantity and freeze for another time.

Putting it Together

This is the part I like most, putting my homespun stew between two sheets of the Divine Ms Lawson’s pastry. I have yet to become bored by the idea.

  1. So, roll out the pastry to line whichever tins you wish to use. Please do use metal dishes, as you will neatly side-step the problem of a soggy bottom.
  2. Fill with the cold stew.
  3. Use the remaining egg to seal together the bottom and top of the pie and to brush the top.
  4. Place on a metal tray in an oven pre-heated to 200°C (400°F) for 20 minutes. You can protect your pie from burning, until the last minute, with foil, or you can pop it in naked and white-knuckle it.

I really hope you enjoy it!

* * *

Joanna was displaced from her native England 16 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself and blend into the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “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?”

Fellow Food Gossips, share your own stories with us!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Images: All images from Joanna’s personal photo albums, and used here with her permission

And the March 2014 Alices go to … these 3 international creatives

 © Iamezan | Used under license

© Iamezan |
Used under license

If you are a subscriber to our weekly newsletter, Displaced Dispatch, you’re already in the know. But if you’re not (and why aren’t you? off with your head!), listen up.

Every week, when that esteemed publication comes out, we present contenders for a monthly “Alice Award,” most of whom are writers or other kinds of international creatives who appear to have a special handle on the curious and unreal aspects of being a global resident or voyager.

Not only that, but this person tries to use this state of befuddlement as a spur to greater creative heights.

Today’s post honors March’s three Alice recipients. Starting with the most recent, they are (drumroll…):

1) CANDACE ROSE RARDON, travel writer and sketch artist

For her interview:  “Watercolouring Her Way Around the World,” on Linda Fairbairn‘s Journey Jottings blog
Posted on: 14 March 2014

“In a way, my sketchbook also helps create the moments I record in it. I might head to a café to draw a street-scape, start talking with the man next to me, and then jot down a line or two from our dialogue on the sketch itself. Sketching has become both my muse and medium on the road—it creates the very stories I love to tell, stories of connection and serendipity, and I now can’t imagine ever travelling without my sketchbook.”

Citation: Candace, we think we should invent a new award for you: a “Poppins.” Your watercolors look so inviting that we want to jump right into them and share in your adventures, just as Mary Poppins jumps into Burt’s chalk drawings. (Incidentally, we refer to the animated sequence in the movie, of which P.L. Travers did not approve, only to be overruled by Walt Disney.) Poor Alice doesn’t go down the rabbit hole because of its visual stimulation; quite the opposite! She goes down the hole due to boredom with her sister’s book “without pictures or conversations.” Our sense is that, were you to receive an “Alice,” it would need to be presented by the Mock Turtle, art lessons having played a role in his superior education:

“Well, there was Mystery,” the Mock Turtle replied, counting off the subjects on his flappers, “—Mystery, ancient and modern, with Seaography: then Drawling—the Drawling-master was an old conger-eel, that used to come once a week: HE taught us Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils.”

Though he doesn’t mention “water” art, it seems likely he would sanction it. Definitely he would not be a fan of our alternative suggestion unless we agreed to call the prize a “Puffins” instead of a Poppins. But enough of these qualifications; suffice it to say, we are in awe of your ambition to “watercolour” your way around the world. You paint, girl!

2)”The Expat” in Korea

For his post: “The Reincarnation Lottery,” on
Posted on: 18 March 2014

We may be dogs, but we are dogs with memories. Memories of where we came from. Memories of hot summer days, clear blue skies, people smiling, people laughing, wind slicing through large trees with leaves whisking and shimmering in the sun like waves washing over a million shiny round stones. We are four dogs with memories of home, and somehow, we are all going back. This is what we wail about during the pitch black nights and all we dream about during the hazy grey days.

Citation: The Expat, we have been around the world a few times so are well aware of South Korea’s proclivity for dog meat consumption. This may be why we find your description of yourself and your three mates as a pack of four large wailing dogs on a dog farm “in the lonely cold mountains and valleys of the Korean countryside” alarming. But no more alarming, we suppose, than Alice’s own sense of transformation as she progresses through Wonderland:

Alice took up the fan and gloves, and, as the hall was very hot, she kept fanning herself all the time she went on talking: “Dear, dear! How queer everything is to-day! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, THAT’S the great puzzle!” 

A good thing she doesn’t prolong her stay in Wonderland, that’s all we can say. Can she be far off from imagining herself as a caged rabbit that is about to be thrown into the cauldron of pepper soup being stirred by the Duchess’s cook? In any case, we really appreciate your honesty in telling the story, in such a creative way, of four American men arriving in Korea in hopes of a fresh start as English teachers, only to end up “starting over and starting lower.” We can certainly see why you aspire to returning to our “dog eat dog” society here in the West. Only please promise that between now and then, you won’t land in a bowl of Korean soup, which, needless to say, will be a great deal more firey than the Duchess’s.

3) ALEX BAACKES (aka Alex in Wanderland), freelance writer and New York native on the move

For her post: “My Top 8 Animal Encounters Around the World,” on Michael Hodson‘s Go, See, Write blog
Posted on: 20 February 2014

Today, I seek out encounters with animals that are willing participants in sharing their space with me; one where everyone walks—or swims—away happy. . . . While I’m still not quite sure how sailors once mistook manatees for mermaids, I can now attest to the fact that these bulbous creatures move with a surprising amount of grace. Braving the chilly winter waters? Worth every shiver to share a swim with these beauties.

Citation: Alex, we are struck by how quickly you have come to the realization that, while it can be fine, even fun, to encounter other human beings on your travels, you should not miss out on the opportunity to interact with new kinds of mammals—relationships with whom could end up being much more therapeutic, especially if they’re the kind you can swim with. Alice, of course, had no qualms about swimming with the Wonderland creatures:

It was high time to go, for the pool was getting quite crowded with the birds and animals that had fallen into it: there were a Duck and a Dodo, a Lory and an Eaglet, and several other curious creatures. Alice led the way, and the whole party swam to the shore.

But in Alice’s case, she was swimming in a pool made of her own tears. We congratulate you on being much more sensible in heading Crystal River, near Orlando, which plays host to the migrating manatees from October to March.

*  *  *

So, readers, do you have a favorite from the above, or have you read any recent posts you think deserve an Alice Award?  We’d love to hear your suggestions! And don’t miss out on the shortlist of Alice contenders we provide in each week’s Dispatch, which are sources of creative thought if nothing else! Get on our subscription list now!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

Writers and other international creatives: If you want to know in advance the contenders for our monthly Alice Award winners, sign up to receive The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with news of book giveaways, future posts, and of course, our weekly Alice Award!. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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THE LADY WHO WRITES: Even before you write the last word of your novel, start rehearsing the book trailer!

LadyWhoWrites_brandApril blossoms (and showers) are here, which means it’s time to welcome Meagan Adele Lopez, aka The Lady Who Writes, back to the Displaced Nation. Meagan is a repeat expat in the UK (last time Bristol, this time London). Besides writing, her talents include acting, blogging, and crafting ads for social media. In this monthly column, she is doling out advice to international creatives who are contemplating writing a novel about their novel, shall we say, life experiences.

—ML Awanohara

Hello again, Displaced Nationers. I wonder, how many of you caught ML’s interview with British screenwriter Tim John, posted at the end of last week? Tim spent seven years as an expat in LA chasing the dream of selling scripts to Hollywood studio executives and producers. Reading about his (mis)adventures got me thinking about my own Hollywood days—as well as about book trailers, a pet topic of mine.

Like Tim, I tried to make it in Hollywood for a time: first as an actress and then as a casting agent. I poured what I learned from this experience into creating Dell, the heroine of my first novel, Three Questions: Because a quarter-life crisis needs answers. As anyone who has read it will know, the novel is about the developing love between two young people who have only met each other once, by chance, on a night out in Las Vegas. The love interest, Guy, is from England, while Dell is from America. And the complication is that neither are willing to give up their life plans. Dell is on route to Hollywood to seek her fame and fortune, while Guy is heading to Africa in search of adventure.

Perhaps this portion of my background also explains why, the first time I saw a book trailer, I knew I had to have one for my novel. The trailer was for One Day, by English novelist and screenwriter David Nicholls. By my count, Nicholls actually created a total of four “One Day” book trailers. Here is one of them:

I had never seen a book trailer before, and this one made a strong impression on me. I thought: Gosh, this book I’m about to read is going to be turned into a film—and I’m one of the lucky few who gets to read it before the movie comes out.

In fact, when the movie did come out—with Anne Hathaway playing the female lead—it was a flop, even though Nicholls had also written the screenplay. (The consensus among critics on Rotten Tomatoes is that the movie “lacks the emotion, depth, or insight of its bestselling source material.”)

What the *&%$ is a book trailer?

Good question. A book trailer is akin to a movie trailer. It’s an advertisement for the book in visual form. I saw it as another way to reach my audience—another way to inspire and motivate potential readers to buy the book.

But now that I’m in the position to hand out advice to wannabe novelists, I recommend you start thinking about your book trailer even before you finish writing.

Many writing coaches will tell you to read your book aloud before submitting it to an editor for review. It gives you a sense of where you need to improve the dialogue, shorten sentences, change words, and so on. (See Joanna Penn’s post: “7 Reasons Why You Should Read Your Book Out Loud.”)

But I would add that acting out your book trailer in advance can also be helpful. Book trailers are generally scenes, or splices of scenes acted out from the novel. Preferably, the book trailer will end on a cliff hanger. If no one wants to know more, then what’s the point?

By the way, should you feel a tad peculiar acting out scenes from your novel, be sure to remind yourself that Charles Dickens, who was drawn to the theatre and dabbled in acting, had no qualms about acting out the characters he was writing in the mirror and then describing what he saw in his novels.

Should you actually make a book trailer?

Some of you may be nearly finished with your Great Work and wondering: what’s the ROI (return on investment) for a book trailer? “Investment” is exactly the right word. Your trailer will need to be high quality. If it looks like a cheaply made home video, no one will care to learn more. What’s more, they won’t share it with their friends, which is the way to best way to clock up more sales.

I did a lot of research but never found any studies that make the ROI case for book trailers. Similar to billboard advertisements or TV commercials, there is no solid way to measure why people bought your product or how many took action after seeing an ad. As one of my favorite author bloggers, Allison Winn Scotch, has written:

No one knows what the hell sells books.

In fact, I can’t see any demographic data (besides the country they are from) on the purchases made on my novel. (I wish Amazon would change that.)

In the end, though, I decided to spend $1,500 on my book trailer (used from the money that I raised on Kickstarter for turning my book into a film). I researched how much the big companies were charging compared with the indie companies, and got my number.

Perhaps because of my background in film, I knew that I wanted a book trailer as a marketing tool in addition to everything else I was doing: guest blogging (including on this site!), email marketing, social media marketing, book signings, giveaways (including on this site!), PR, etc.

I had a secondary reason for making one as well—I figured it would be a great way to get the eye of a publishing house or agent. All they have to do is click “Play” and watch for two minutes to see if the story intrigues them.

If I were measuring purely on book sales, I can tell you that my book trailer currently has 921 views so far. If every single person who watched the trailer bought my paperback book, I would have made my money back.

Perhaps it’s just another tool for making a book stand out from the crowd. Or maybe I just really enjoyed making it… But I should let you judge for yourself:

And now, without further ado, here’s Novel Writing Tip No 3 for International Creatives:

While in the process of writing your novel, ask yourself: Which scenes would go into my book trailer? And don’t be afraid to act them out, even if you have to play all the parts.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of this book trailer idea of Meagan’s? Do you see the value in having one, or at least in rehearsing as though you might have one someday? And do you have any further questions for Meagan, THE LADY WHO WRITES, any topics you wish she would cover in future columns? Please share in the comments…

Meagan Adele Lopez grew up in the U.S. with a Cuban-born father and American mother, and at one time enjoyed an acting/casting career in Hollywood, something you can detect in the beautiful trailer for her novel, Three Questions. Her day job these days is in social media advertising. To learn more about Meagan, go to her Web site.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s announcement of our March “Alice” winners!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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EMERALD CITY TO “KANSAS”: Linda Janssen on seeing the Wizard of Expat Life and returning home

Linda Janssen author photo; the Ruby Slippers (CC); corn path (Morguefiles).

Linda Janssen author photo; the Ruby Slippers (CC); corn path (Morguefiles).

Welcome to “Emerald City to ‘Kansas,’” a brand new series in which we focus on expatriate-into-repatriate stories. To kick it off, we are delighted to have Linda Janssen at the Displaced Nation for the first time. As many of you know, she blogs at Adventures in Expatland and is the author of  The Emotionally Resilient Expat. Until recently, she was an expat in the Netherlands. Without further ado, here is Linda’s riff on the classic tale.

—ML Awanohara

Follow (your own) yellow brick road…

For me, moving abroad has always been a matter of “not if, but when”simply a natural evolution of how life has unfolded. I’m married to an adult Third Culture Kid, and we both have studied and worked in and around the international arena throughout our careers. We always looked for an opportunity to take the next obvious step of moving our family overseas to live in another culture.

I can certainly see The Wizard of Oz as an apt metaphor for what we were seeking (i.e., the movie’s characters searching for brains, courage, heart and home). We wanted to soak up as much knowledge, information andmost importantly—firsthand experiences about this incredible world we live in, and our place within that. We wanted to go beyond the “what if” stage of dreaming about making such a move, muster our courage to go outside our comfort zone and just do it. There was such a strong emotional pull to embracing the wayfaring soul within us, we felt compelled to heed this call of the heart.

Unlike Dorothy, though, I had a growing sense that home is wherever you make your life, and I looked forward to learning how that might carry over in a different culture.

“You’ve always had the power, my dear, you just had to learn it for yourself.” – Glinda

Throughout the years we lived in the Netherlands and during these early months of repatriation, I’ve reflected continually on lessons learned—many of which will reverberate for the rest of our lives. In that respect, I think the overarching insight I’ve taken away from our cross-cultural experience is that lessons are never simply learned and put away. We learn and relearn and learn anew from our life experiences; like the turning of a kaleidoscope, the prisms offer us alternative perspectives and new ways of viewing ourselves and our lives.

Living in another culture afforded wonderful opportunities to learn to live more in the moment amid the barrage of new experiences, a deeper sense of our common humanity despite nuanced differences, and even some difficult challenges. It taught me about a tiny slice of our world, but also so much more about myself and my place in it.

Another lesson that echoes is the importance of relationships, not only of family and friends, but of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone to make the connections with others which ground you in your life. It’s easy for us to fall into the trapoften unconsciouslyof feeling as though we’ve got these social/emotional connections covered. It’s when we’re complacent about developing new relationships that we risk being blindsided by loss of people and places which matter to us, or of biding our time until the next move.

There’s no place like home?!

In some ways, yes, absolutely, there is a sense of belonging experienced in returning to our own culture. But there can also be moments of alienation and feeling apart from or not in synch with aspects of that as well. We’ve found treating repatriation as we would a new cross-cultural experience has helped, because both we and the people/culture around us have changed in the intervening years, and I think that’s a healthy attitude to have throughout life.

Returning to the United States has deepened my understanding that while home does have elements of place within it, it is our loved onesfamily and closest friendsthat make a place “home.” We feel that this is our home-base, where we want to be and return to, from which we will launch ourselves on new adventures in the years ahead. We’re part of a larger global community, and that’s reflected in our connectedness with others here and around the world, and my husband’s and my recent decisions to pursue careers in international consulting.

“Not in Kansas any more” feelings?

So far, there haven’t been any particularly cataclysmic events to speak of, more a series of small moments when we’re reminded we’re in new territory. After all, life is a series of cross-cultural experiences, isn’t it?

* * *

Thank you, Linda! And thanks for being so willing to trade the Alice in Wonderland meme (something your blog has in common with ours) for the Wizard of Oz! Readers, any comments or questions for the extraordinary Linda? After reading this, I am harboring the suspicion that Linda is actually Glinda—the Good Witch of the expat world! On that note, be sure to check out her book, The Emotionally Resilient Expat, which is chock full of material about how to engage, adapt, and thrive across cultures.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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For this Swiss ethnographer with a fondness for remote parts of China, a picture says…

Gaetan in China Collage

Canon zoom lens; photo credit: Morguefiles. Gaetan Green doing fieldwork in Xishuangbanna, a region of Southwest China squeezed between Laos and Burma; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

Welcome to our monthly series “A picture says…”, created to celebrate expats and other global residents for whom photography is a creative outlet. The series host is English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King, who thinks of a camera as a mirror with memory. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

My guest this month is 33-year-old Swiss national Gaetan Green, who has spent the last 12 years between China, Europe and North America. After graduating university, Gaetan studied and conducted ethnographic research in remote parts of China. He went back to do field work in the country’s ethnic borderland when pursuing a master’s degree in geography at a university in Vancouver.

For the past three years Gaetan has lived in one of China’s mega-cities, but he always grabs the opportunity to travel in the countryside, where he can indulge in his current passion for the  ancient and ethnic villages of south and southwest China, with a “minor focus on Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta.”

Gaetan keeps a fascinating blog, Travel Cathay. He posts about his off-the-beaten-path travels to parts of China most of us wouldn’t know existed.

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Hi Gaetan. I have been following your blog for a while now and am very pleased to have the opportunity to interview you for the Displaced Nation. Let’s start with some background on you, shall we? Where were you born, and when did you spread your wings to start traveling?
I grew up in a ski resort in the middle of the Swiss Alps and I started travelling as soon as my parents would allow it. My first trips were to Southern and Eastern Europe with classmates—that started when we were around 16 years old. But my travels became a lot more serious when I left Switzerland for my first trip around the world, at age 20. This trip changed my life for good.

So your wanderlust dates from an early age. Why do you think that was?
There were essentially two things that inspired me to travel. The first was a map of the world that I discovered at home when I was an inquisitive eight-year-old. The map made me realize the world was much bigger than the valley surrounded by big snow-capped mountains where we lived. I was itching to discover the reality behind all the exotic place names. The second source of inspiration was my home country. With its pure air, snow-capped mountains, green valleys and quaint mountain villages, Switzerland is beautiful—but way too small. The boy I was then saw a world so big, I knew I had to leave.

Which countries did you travel to?
Besides southern and eastern Europe, I visited Australia, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore. And of course, eventually, China.

And now China has become a second home for you.
Although I have traveled to other countries, China is the one I know best because that is where I have spent most of my time so far, and I have only five provinces left to discover. My love story with China started at age 20: I spent three months of my round-the-world trip traveling within its vast terrain. When I returned home, I started to learn Mandarin (some of my friends thought I was seriously deranged!!). Then one thing lead to another: I studied for two years in Chongqing (a city of 15 million people in central China), worked as an ethnographer in remote parts of Yunnan province, taught English in Kunming, and conducted academic research between Vancouver and Xishuangbanna. Although China is a country, it gives the impression of being a continent because it is very diverse. Contrary to what many people think, China does not have a monolithic culture. I speak Mandarin, so that makes travel easier. I can venture into the countryside knowing I’ll be understood.

“Let’s all go up to the mountain to be close to the flowers and songs.” – Dong folk ballad

I’m sure that speaking the language gives you a huge advantage. Tell us more about the life you now lead in China.
I am currently working as a sourcing agent and living in one of China’s megacities. Recently I have developed mixed feelings about the megacity life. Megacities can be convenient places to live, providing easy access to food, entertainment, communication and transportation; but I find them overcrowded. Dangerous levels of pollution and food hygiene are growing concerns and also the reasons why some of my expat friends have already left.

Old woman in a Tibetan Catholic community; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

An elderly woman pushing barley alcohol in north Yunan; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

Some friends of mine have recently moved to China to work in Shanghai but they refuse to live in the city for the same reasons you mention. But let’s get away from the megacity and take a look at your first three photos, which take us far away from that scene. Can you tell us what makes each of these photos so special?
This first photo reminds me of the time when I was doing ethnographic research about Tibetan Catholic communities in remote regions of north Yunnan province. On that particular occasion, I had the opportunity to witness a ceremony during which villagers prayed that it would rain on the graves of French missionaries who’d been assassinated at the beginning of the 20th century during anti-Christian violence in the region. There was a steep hike to reach the graves. At end of the ceremony, this woman started giving everyone barley alcohol in a paper cup. I remember going back to the village half-drunk after she challenged me to a second glass of firewater.

Wind and Rain Bridge, Tondao. Photo credit: Gaetan Green

Blown away by the Puxiu Wind and Rain Bridge in Tondao; photo credit: Gaetan Green

The second photo was taken after I’d missed the last afternoon bus and got stuck in the small town of Tongdao (southwest Hunan province), which I’d never heard of. I eventually ended up hiring a taxi driver for the afternoon to show me around. We went to a few ethnic villages and by 4:00 p.m., we had arrived by this amazing covered bridge, which is an example of a “wind and rain” (fengyu) bridge common to the Dong ethnic minority region. Missing my bus was the best thing that happened to me that day.

Taoist Temple, Macau; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

The Jade Emperor’s generals on their joss paper thrones; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

The third photo records the time I got lost in Macau somewhere between the Ruínas de São Paulo and the Camões Garden, I went to a Taoist temple. In one hall, I noticed that some statues had uneven stacks of joss paper (spirit money) under them. I asked the temple caretaker: “Why?” He explained that there were, in that particular hall, the statues of the 60 heavenly generals who help the Jade Emperor to supervise human life on earth. There is one heavenly general for each birth year, and the more joss paper there is under the statues that matches your birth year, the luckier you will get. I decided to boost my luck and bought stacks of joss paper to boost my heavenly general higher. The temple caretaker gave me three sticks of incense to burn; he said a long prayer in Cantonese and gave me a red talisman. I definitely enjoyed doing business with the gods, though I didn’t feel any luckier afterwards.

“Who can rob me of the songs I learned?” – Dong folk ballad

I love all three photos, and, yes, you are right, missing the bus and staying in Tondau must have been divine providence. Now, I’m keen to know where your favourite places to take photographs are, and why these places inspire you and how that shows in your next three photos?
Now that I live in a big Chinese city, the places that inspire me the most are the ethnic and ancient villages. In the cities, many historical buildings and old streets have been knocked down to give way to shopping malls and skyscrapers. Ethnic and ancient villages are real windows on the past and the cultural diversity of China. I chose the next three photos to make this point.

Cizhong Catholic Church; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

A Roman Catholic Church in an unexpected spot: by the Lancang (Mekong) River at Cizhong; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

The first is of the Catholic church at Cizhong, a remote village of north Yunnan province that is home to a community of Tibetan Catholics who were converted by French missionaries more than 100 years ago. The church seems out of place in this land of Buddhism. The mountains surrounding the village make it a picturesque spot.

Yunnanyi Gaetan Green

If these walls could talk: Yunnanyi village on the Tea Horse Road; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

The second photo is of Yunnanyi village, in Yunnan province, which was an important stop on the Tea Horse Road that linked Southeast Asia to the Tibetan plateau. Horse caravans carrying tea, spices and other goods stopped in Yunnanyi. In 1936, the communist armies of Mao Zedong stopped in Yunnanyi to rest during the Long March. Then, during WWII, the rice fields behind the village were transformed into a U.S. airfield. Planes that had flown from India over the Himalayas (to avoid the Japanese-controlled Burmese airspace) landed in Yunnanyi with supplies for the Chinese armies. The history of this unknown village is inspiring. The mud-brick courtyard houses have seen a lot. I wish these walls could talk.

Stepping back in time in Qianyang; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

Stepping back in time in Qianyang; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

The final photo is of Qianyang, in Shaanxi, an ancient regional political centre that has been forgotten in China’s rush to develop. The streets are lined with dozens of temples, an ancestral hall, and courtyard mansions that belonged to local officials. Most of the city’s walls and four out of fives gates are still standing. There were no tourists when I visited. It felt like stepping back in time and taking a walk in China’s past.

What I find amazing in these pictures is the beautiful architecture and the pristine condition of such old buildings and the cleanliness of the streets. Tell me something, I notice that many of your photos are of buildings or streets. Do you feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious that you are doing so?
I do feel reserved about taking pictures of other people so I rarely do. The exception is when I have the opportunity to witness a ceremony or special event.

I know this is a similar question but do you ask permission before taking people’s photographs and how do you get around any problem of language?
Since I now travel mostly in China, I ask in Chinese. If I am in a region where people do not speak Mandarin, a hand gesture is usually enough.

Would you say that photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique which will never be seen again is a powerful force for you?
It is indeed. I would add that photography also has the ability to monitor change. In a country like China where everything is growing and changing so fast, photography can be a tool to record how the landscape is transforming.

That’s a very pertinent point, particularly when applied to China. Was there a particular moment when you realized that?
I thought about it a lot while on a business trip to Ningbo, a city of nine million people that is just a couple of hours by train from Shanghai. I had been able to take an afternoon off and wander in the city. I discovered an entire neighbourhood of stone houses built during the late Qing Dynasty (late 19th century), all of which were empty. They were going to be knocked down to build a shopping mall and high-density residential buildings. In China I am constantly thinking that what I see today may be different or not even exist tomorrow.

If someone wants to learn from me, I’ll teach him songs as melodious as cicadas.” – Dong folk ballad

I know exactly what you mean. It almost feels like you are running out of time. I have many old pre-digital photos (35 years old and more). I didn’t realise until now how precious they are. Moving on to the technical stuff (I’m not too good at tech but getting better). Some of our readers will want to know what kind of camera and lenses you use.
I use a very simple point-and-shoot Sony camera.

I must say it works really well and the shooter has a good eye! Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
I think I am in the same position as you. I need advice.

Gaetan, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to tell the story of your exciting journey and for sharing so much interesting information. You may not consider yourself to be a good photographer, but your “point and shoot” pictures embellish your narrative beautifully. Keep following your way and I am sure you will inspire other young people to travel the globe as you are doing. I, for one, will be checking your progress.

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Readers, what do you make of Gaetan’s experiences? Do you have any questions about his photos or his travels? Please leave them in the comments!

And if you want to know more about Gaetan, don’t forget to visit his excellent blog, Travel Cathay. You can also follow him on Twitter: @TravelCathay.

(If you are a photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s fab post!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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TCK TALENT: Heidi Durrow, Afro-Viking Renaissance Woman and Award-winning Novelist

Heidi Durrow Collage Drop ShadowElizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her monthly column about Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields, Lisa herself being a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about being a TCK, which will be the closing keynote at this month’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference, “The Global Family.”

Today I’m excited to introduce Heidi Durrow, the author of the New York Times best-selling novel The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (Algonquin Books), which received writer Barbara Kingsolver’s 2008 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Heidi grew up in Turkey, the USA, and Germany. She and I first met at the Mixed Roots Literary & Film Festival that Heidi co-founded, which celebrates storytelling of the Mixed racial and cultural experience.

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Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Heidi. As the TCK child of an American Air Force dad and a Danish mom, you’ve lived in North Carolina, Turkey, Washington state, and Germany. Can you tell us a little more about the chronology of the moves?
I was born in Seattle and moved to Turkey at the age of six months. The next years until I was 11, I was in North Carolina and Germany, with summers and holidays in Denmark. Since college, which was at Stanford, I have lived in NYC for grad school, Connecticut for law school, and now I split my time between the East and West Coasts.

Do you remember being happier in one place in particular?
I was pretty happy in all the places where I grew up—I was still very young. I never felt out of place or unwelcome.

Repatriations can be the hardest moves of all for TCKs, and repeated repatriation can be particularly tough, so I’m curious to know if this was true for you whenever you returned to the United States.
I had never thought of the moves as “repatriations” but that’s interesting. I think when I was very young I wasn’t aware of a lot of difficulties. But when we finally moved back to the States when I was 11, it was very difficult.  I was at an age of awareness. I felt more like an immigrant. It was so interesting to me that I had an idea of what America was when I lived overseas, and I learned quickly that America didn’t operate the way I’d imagined it from far away.

“We family.”—African-American proverb

Tell us about your summers and holidays in Denmark with your mom’s family.
It was awesome for me—in particular because my mother raised us speaking Danish and English. I am forever grateful that I have both languages. It made me infinitely closer to my aunts and cousins, whom I adore. As an adult, it’s been interesting to see how Denmark is changing. I remember going back when I was in college. I hadn’t been in ten years. My cousins had Copenhagen boyfriends, and they’d laugh whenever I talked. It wasn’t because they didn’t understand what I was saying, but they found my country accent strange. I guess I sounded like someone from Birmingham, Alabama, visiting NYC. It’s English, but it sounds very different. For years after that visit, I have often wondered whether certain traditions or sayings I learned were in fact Danish or just my mom’s own quirks.

Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures? Or are you like many TCKs who are more likely to identify with people who have similar interests and perhaps similar cross-cultural backgrounds? (And of course it’s not a given that we’ll identify with them, either.)
I identify myself as an Afro-Viking—that is a small but growing demographic, by the way! In terms of who I am most likely to identify with—well, I think for many years in my adulthood I was very interested in finding other “mixed” friends. I wanted to know how they negotiated being multiracial and multicultural. I have found that I still have that affinity, but now I am more drawn to people who have the same career interests, who are moving on the same path at the same rate.

Studies have shown that TCKs have similar identity issues and struggles to children of mixed heritage. You and I are TCKs of mixed heritage, which makes our identities more layered than most, and makes for quite an identity struggle during adolescence. And sometimes there are shifts. I was culturally Guatemalan when I was very little, but that hasn’t been my main identity for decades.  
I haven’t shed any of my identities—I feel like I’ve added on to them over time. I remember in college I was essentially “passing” as Latina. I lived in the Hispanic-theme dorm, took Spanish classes and became the second-vice-chair of the Latino Electrical Engineering Society. I liked the idea that in latino culture they had already thought about the idea of the mestizo. So I added that on to my identity. And then when I moved to NYC I found that people thought I was what they were. Bangladeshis thought I was Bangladeshi, Puerto Ricans thought I was Puerto Rican, Greeks thought I was Greek. I’m not any of those things, but I feel like the fact that people see me as part of their own tribes has added another layer to my identity: a layer of belonging.

“He hath need of his wits who wanders wide.”—Old Norse proverb

I can relate: I was very pleased to be mistaken for Turkish when my husband and I honeymooned in Turkey. As an adult TCK, do you ever suffer from “itchy feet,” which make you want to move (locations, jobs, etc.) frequently?
You got me. I actually live on two coasts—flying back and forth every few days. I fly more than 100,000 miles per year. I can’t stay still. The same has been true for my career: I’ve been a Hallmark greeting-card writer, a journalist, a lawyer, a life skills trainer to NFL and NBA players, a podcaster, a festival producer and now a writer. Who knows what’s next?!

I often wonder if ATCKs who pursue writing careers do so because the story is entirely in their hands as opposed to the experienced upheaval of their peripatetic childhoods. Meanwhile, a peripatetic childhood fosters so many incredible experiences and thus stories to tell! Did your TCK upbringing influence your desire to become a writer?
My TCK upbringing has been great fuel for my writing, but it’s not the reason I wanted to become a writer. I do remember having a special feeling about writing as a child because of my upbringing—I loved to write letters. I’d write letters to the friends I moved away from and to my family—they were always far away. I was the kid who would save money to buy stationary and stamps.

girl-who-fell-from-sky-coverBut isn’t it fair to say that your choice of topic for your debut novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, was influenced by your TCK upbringing and mixed-race heritage?
The story is autobiographical only insofar as it is about a biracial and bicultural girl growing up in the Northwest. I guess that is to say: the confusion of the character is a confusion I experienced. But the story—about a girl who survives a family tragedy—well, that was inspired by a real story I’d read in the news many years ago.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky was fantastically well received. Did you learn something pivotal about yourself and your TCK upbringing in the process of writing it?
Oh gosh. I learned so much. I am still learning—in particular as the book reaches students in high school and college as required reading. I’m always so interested in the ways in which readers identify their own “displacement” with that of the main character, Rachel. I think the TCK experience is one of being an outsider in all places—and, strangely, that feeling is universal, familiar even to those who have grown up in one place their whole lives.

On your author site and your blog, Light-Skinned-ed Girl, as well as on your Mixed Experience Podcast, you mention that you’re working on a second novel. Can you tell us anything about it?
The new novel is still a work in progress. I’m on the verge of finishing a good complete draft at last! All I can say about it is that it’s about my obsessions again—about identity, and race and culture and grief; it’s about beauty and connectedness. Hopefully it’s something folks can relate to.

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Thank you, Heidi! I wish you all the best in your endeavors, and feel confident you’ll soon be repeating your amazing successes. I understand you’ve got the Mixed Remixed Festival coming up in mid-June here in LA, which will celebrate the stories of the Mixed experience through films and books—something Displaced Nationers would love to hear more about. Readers, please leave questions or comments for Heidi below.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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