The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Giving thanks for expat and repat writers whose novels have an international flavor


Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), is back with several recommended reads!

Hello again, Displaced Nationers!

This week is Thanksgiving in the USA. Many Americans abroad skip this holiday for one reason or another—one main reason being the cost of frozen turkey (a friend in Thailand recently posted a picture of one selling for $200 at the expat grocery store!).

But I always try to do something a little bit special. The way I see it, there can never be enough occasions to sit down with friends to a table full of good food!

In addition to planning for Thanksgiving and the holiday season, I’ve been cruising through the rest of my 2015 To-Be-Read list. This month, I’ve been feasting, so to speak, on three books by current or former expats who write fiction set against international landscapes. Two of them are first-time novels and the other is a thriller. One came out with a small press, and the other two are self-pubbed. Take a look!

1) Summer on the Cold War Planet, by Paula Closson Buck (Fomite, 2015)

Summer Cold War Buck

A first novel about expats in late 1980s Berlin, written by a former Fulbright fellow who has written poems and short stories about her travels? Sounds like a perfect choice for the Displaced Nation! Paula Closson Buck directs the creative writing program at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, and is currently at work on a novel set in Venice—keep your eyes open for a review of that book, too, when it publishes.

Summer on the Cold War Planet tells the story of Lyddie, a young American woman who is living in Berlin a few years before reunification and studying architecture. She encounters a trio of German artists/activists and also meets her future husband, an American botanist named Phelps.

Most of the action takes place, as the title suggests, the summer before the Berlin Wall falls. At that time, Phelps disappears while conducting botanical research in Kurdistan and so Lyddie, now pregnant, returns to Berlin to examine her feelings for the absent Phelps—and rediscover who she is.

Buck brings the period to life through gorgeous details such as:

In the simple way the young East German at the border touched Lyddie’s face, tipping her chin this way and that as he scrutinized her features in relation to her passport, Lyddie felt she understood the meaning of Cold War. He returned her passport with a hint of a smirk and nodded her release.

But, although I was transported to the intense atmosphere of 1989 Berlin, I often felt at arm’s length from Lyddie, I think because, especially in the flashback scenes, she seemed to be letting others make choices for her.

Later, when the action shifts to the Cycladic Islands in Greece, Lyddie becomes more relatable. My favorite character in the novel, I’d like to add, is another point-of-view character, a Greek painter who learns to paint canvases underwater. A new thing to try next time I go scuba diving!

2) A Decent Bomber, by Alexander McNabb (November 2015)

McNabb Decent Bomber

This book also ticked two boxes for inclusion in this column—an expat author and an internationally relevant plot. Alexander McNabb is a former journalist who has lived abroad—mostly in the Middle East—for about 30 years. He is author of several other international thrillers, including the “Levant Cycle” books, all three of which were featured on the Displaced Nation.

The action of McNabb’s previous international thrillers centers on the Middle East, but he sets A Decent Bomber in Europe, mostly in Ireland.

Now, I find it fun to read thrillers (“fun” in that kind of macabre sense), and this one has an enjoyable premise. A retired, reformed bomb-maker for the Irish Republican Army reluctantly agrees to build new bombs, this time for African terrorists—and then tries to save the day before his bombs explode. McNabb keeps the pacing tight, the action scenes believable, and the violence just on this side of gruesome.

Perhaps because of recent current events, I was also impressed with how delicately he handles the multiculturalism of present-day Ireland, as well as the long, contentious history between the English and Irish. Take, for example, the following scene, set in a mosque in Northern Ireland:

“Welcome. I am Abdelkader Ul-Haq.”

“Hello, Father. My name’s Pat.”

Abdelkader hobbled to behind the desk and lowered himself into the wooden armchair. “I am not your father. May I sit?”

“Of course. I’m not holding you up. And father is we call our priests.”

“I know. I was joking with you. It is always best to joke with men who have guns, I am finding.”

“What gun?”

“I know the shapes guns make in clothes, Mister Pat. I come from a troubled place.’

“Well you’ve certainly hopped out of the frying pan into the fire.”

“Belfast? It is peaceful now. Before, there were troubles. No more. How may I be of assistance to you?”

Lest you be put off by the idea of following the adventures of a lone cowboy (indeed, Pat is such a cowboy that he actually owns cows), I should mention that our hero is rarely alone. He is joined on the chase by his college-student niece along with a group of police officers and politicians from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, all of whom provide moments of comic relief. As we know from the Displaced Nation’s previous encounters with McNabb, he has a sense of humo(u)r.

3) I Have Lived Today, by Steven Moore (October 2014)

I have lived today Moore

I included this book in this particular round-up because of the author’s international credentials, and because it has received 130+ five-star reviews on Amazon. Steven Moore is the man behind the visually stunning travel blog, Twenty First Century Nomad (he also has an author site). He has been working and traveling abroad for at least twenty years. He now lives in Mexico, and one suspects his adventures aren’t over yet!

But, now, let’s burrow into the pages of Moore’s book, his first. Although the novel does have scenes both in the UK and in New York City, it is principally a coming-of-age story about a boy whose travels have to do with discovering his own conscience. I Have Lived Today takes place in the 1960s and follows the turbulent journey of Tristan Nancarrow, a boy so badly treated by his alcoholic father that he was never allowed to attend school.

Tristan’s mother is forced to run for her life, and not long after, Tristan makes his escape from the isolated island where the family lives. He spends the bulk of the book trying to reunite with his mother—having plenty of adventures, along with his share of small triumphs and bitter tragedies, along the way.

I especially enjoyed the parts of the novel when Tristan discovers what he was missing out on while under his father’s control. One of the first things he does after escaping is go to a bookstore and buy an atlas:

Tristan turned the pages delicately, as if he was looking at a priceless and ancient manuscript. To him it was an object of beauty, a treasure from a museum, and indeed the musty old store had a museum feel about it, or at least that’s how Tristan imagined a museum would seem, having never been to one.

There are times in I Have Lived Today when the tone takes on a moralistic edge and the pacing becomes steady and unrushed in a manner reminiscent of a Grimm’s fairy tale (though, to be sure, without any witches or other supernatural beings).

Our hero, Tristan, despite his father’s brutal abuse, remains an innocent who chooses to embrace a white-knight moral code even as the world shows him how cruel it can be. Through switches in point of view, Moore lets the reader peek into other characters’ motivations, but the focus is always on Tristan and his choice to reject his personal demons. This hero has resilience—the quality that we expats need—in spades.

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, if you’re lucky enough to have a few moments to yourself over Thanksgiving or before the holiday season gets into full swing, you might want to check out these three books. They’re as different as the sides at a potluck Thanksgiving, and no less delicious for that!

p.s. And, since it’s Thanksgiving, may I say a hearty thank you to my readers! Please keep in touch and let me or ML know if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see reviewed here! Last but not least, I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

Beth Green is an American writer living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes. She has also launched the site Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Upon repatriation, a chance to hatch my first farm-to-table plan (the coop came first!)

Global Food Gossip 062315
Serial expat—and now repat—Joanna Masters-Maggs is back with some tasty global food gossip to share—this time a rather entertaining chicken-and-egg story (but the coop came first).

“Right, that’s it, no more chickens,” muttered my husband darkly as he finished putting in the last stake supporting the electric fence which now circled a large part of our garden. “You’d think these eggs were gold plated.”

I had always wanted chickens and, returning to the English countryside after nearly twenty years of living abroad, I seized the opportunity, investing in a proper, farm-style coop. No silly Dutch barns or Irish caravans for me—this was to be serious stuff.

“What kind of chickens do you keep?” asked the friendly guy from the animal feed shop from whom I was buying a vast bag of hay and a substantial sack of layers meal (poultry feed).

“Er, well,” I muttered with embarrassment.“I don’t actually have any yet…but soon.”

“Well,” he smiled kindly, “you’d do worse than looking up Andy at Oak Farm, he’s got all sorts.”

The chickens arrived a week later. All went well, two more arrived and the eggs began to come….until…

The Girls...minus poor Abby (supplied).

The Girls…minus poor Abby (supplied).

Why did the chicken cross the road? (Don’t ask…)

One afternoon, I went out to check on my girls, to discover that one, Abby (a Wyandotte), was missing—and so too was Sophie, my gorgeous German Shepherd.

Nearly hysterical by now as I couldn’t possibly contemplate life without Sophie, I ran up and down the road in front of the house and down the lane calling and calling the dog. She always comes.

But this time it took fifteen minutes. When she at last emerged from the ditch behind the hedge—quiet but gleaming and bright eyed—I knew.

We never found traces of Abby and it was easy to convince ourselves that a fox had stolen the unfortunate bird, but, hours later, my husband caught Sophie, red in tooth and claw, with Keira, a light Sussex.

Dinner that night was chicken. “It’s not Keira, honestly.”

The atmosphere was bleak. Something had to be done and so the electric fence was organized. We now rest easy that Sophie won’t help herself to another expensive free-range chicken lunch. She clearly remembers her meal with relish—and I still occasionally catch her gazing wistfully at The Girls. But she now knows, and an electric shock serves to reinforce the lesson.

But the flavor? Just eggs-traordinary!

The eggs are worth all the trouble. Unless you have tasted an egg straight from nesting box to plate, you have not, I am sad to say, tasted egg.

A feast of poached eggs on toast at Joanna's house (supplied).

A feast of poached eggs on toast at Joanna’s house (supplied).

In England it isn’t easy to buy battery eggs any more. Free range is the thing in all supermarkets; many only stock free range.

Should you decide to stand firm against spending extra for your eggs, you might feel it prudent to hide the box under some curly kale as you complete your perambulations around the aisles, such is the disapproval you might attract.

Hardly a nest egg…

Yes, I have eaten my share of free-range eggs and so feel myself qualified, albeit poorly, to make two observations:

1) A free-range egg from a supermarket is not the same as the eggs The Girls produce. I think it may have more to do with freshness than free-rangeness. Freshly laid, my girls produce eggs with thick whites, which do not spread when they are cracked. It is very easy to poach them perfectly since they hold together well. Of course, it goes without saying that the yolks are deeper in colour and of a more unctuous texture.

2) It’s simply not clear how free-range eggs can be produced for any profit, even at the prices supermarkets charge. I have—thank you, Sophie—nine chickens. I am lucky if I get four eggs a day. Four. I have to feed these girls both regular feed and little treats and put cider vinegar in their water for strong shells. Then I must buy them straw, which I like to change daily both for hygiene and for their comfort and dignity—they are ladies, please. Then there is the cost of the coop and galvanized feeders and water dispensers. Then, of course, the electric fence. My girls aren’t even close to paying me back in eggs. Not close.

I suppose if I was of a suspicious mind, I would question how free range does a chicken need to be for her eggs to be sold as such. Does she range wantonly over the garden trampling peonies and pecking at pyrocantha with shameless disregard, or she rather more constrained? If so, exactly how constrained? Does she live outdoors, indoors? I just don’t know. The frightening thing is that, like so many others standing in the egg section of Waitrose, I’m not alone in not knowing what, precisely, is meant by “free range”.

There is also the matter of the moulting season, during which hens lay few eggs in order to conserve all protein for the growth of a new winter feathers. As my friends said, “Moulting season? But there are always eggs in Waitrose.”

He makes a fair point. How does that work? I’ll tell you how it works in Hambridge: I get no eggs, but I carry on caring for the princesses.

Still, let’s not brood over it!

Happily, like my chooks, I don’t have to exhaust myself worrying about these things. I have The Girls, the eggs, the sheer joy of feeling connected to food production albeit in such a small way. It feels so wholeseome to watch my family enjoy our own eggs. It is so snobbishly gratifying, too, to know we are eating probably amongst the world’s most expensive hens’ eggs.

Where’s is the champagne, darling?

colorful bountiful eggs

* * *

Readers, we invite you to continue the food gossip! What do you make of Joanna’s eggs-perience? Of course if you’re American your thoughts will be turning to turkey at this point, but surely you, too, can spare a few moments to think of the humble chicken? Let us know in the comments…

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 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?”

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Newbie expats, to keep waves of culture shock from crashing over you, practice the art of tacking

Culture Shock Toolbox Beth Green

Beth Green at a Buddhist temple in Cebu City in the Philippines, during Chinese New Year (supplied).

Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol is back with her latest interview guest.

Ahoy, Displaced Nationers! This month, fellow Displaced Nation columnist Beth Green takes us on a brief tour of her extensive, initially aquatic travels. You know how children test the waters? Well, Beth got to do that quite literally. That’s right, Beth spent her childhood on a sailboat! Doesn’t that sound mouth-watering? Though I must admit that with my predisposition for motion sickness I’d probably spend most of the time with my head over the railing.

Anyhoo, Beth now lives on land—in Prague, the Czech Republic—where she works as a freelance writer and English-language coach. She is also a member of the Sisters in Crime mystery writers’ association. Upon discovering she is a traveler, bookworm and lover of spookiness, I knew I had to interview Beth for this column! And luckily for us, she kindly agreed to share her culture shock stories.

Join us as we talk about opening a conversation with an apology, cringing at our own meltdowns, sending stuff back in restaurants (or not!), and working weekends to make up for weekday public holidays (say what?!). You never know, you may pick up a few items for your culture shock toolbox!

* * *

Hi, Beth. Welcome to my column! As a TCK and an ATCK, you’ve led a peripatetic life. Tell us a little about where you’ve lived…

I’ve never lived anywhere for very long! As a kid, I traveled with my parents on a sailboat. We were in the Caribbean for seven years and the South Pacific for two, with stops along the coastal United States in between. I went to high school in Alaska and to university in the continental USA, but my junior year of university I went to Spain on exchange for a year. That experience inspired me to move to Europe when I graduated and work for a bit. I lived in the Czech Republic for three years, where I met my now-husband (who’s Australian…of course!). Then, we moved to China together to teach English. We were there for four-and-a-half years all together—but with a break in the middle when we did a long backpacking tour of Southeast Asia and India that included living on an island in Thailand for five months. After touching down briefly in the Philippines and Thailand again, we’ve been back in the Czech Republic for the past two years.

In the course of these many transitions, have you ever ended up with your foot in your mouth?

Oh, sure! The first time I moved to the Czech Republic I quickly realized I needed to start every conversation in Czech with an apology. That way I could make up for the inevitable times when I forgot to whom I should give kisses on the cheek rather than shake hands, or failed to greet everyone properly (as is customary in many more situations in Central Europe than in other cultures—you say “hello” and “goodbye” even to strangers in elevators). China as well was a tricky place to stay on the right side of etiquette. Speaking of which, I can recall an embarrassing meltdown I had once in China after being served a mango-papaya smoothie (what I had actually ordered, I realized later) rather than a melon smoothie like I thought I was getting. I lost all kinds of “face” that day.

Art of European Cheek Kissing

Photo credit: Women kissing at bus stop in Paris, France, by Steven Depolo via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

How should you have handled that situation? What if any tools have you developed to adapt to this kind of scenario?

What I should have done—and what I learned to do later when I inevitably ordered the wrong thing due to either fanciful names on the menu or my ham-tongued attempts to speak and understand Mandarin—was just to give my smoothie to someone else and order another one. In certain cultures, you just can’t send stuff back in a restaurant! In other words, I had to get better at tacking: that’s when you zigzag back and forth with your sailboat instead of sailing right into the wind. I had to reminding myself constantly that expect the unexpected and not to make too many waves. Like the time in China when I was told that we would all work on Saturday to make up for a public holiday on Monday. What? That’s considered normal? Well, this will be a fun story later! And, I’d better make a note to check my next contract veeerrry thoroughly!

Smoothie debacle collage

Photo credits: (Top) Charm- and confidence-boosting smoothie, Ghangzhou, China, by Cory Doctorow via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Breakfast (Shanghai, China), by Martin Slavin via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); dissatisfied character via Pixabay.

Can you think of a situation you handled with finesse, and why do you think that was?

I feel like my latest move, back to Europe from Asia, went well because I made a decision not to hard on myself when the waters got choppy. I also decided to take measures right away that past experience had taught would help lower my stress; for instance:

  • hiring someone to help with my visa paperwork (instead of doing on my own);
  • asking for help finding an apartment instead of taking the DIY approach;
  • joining a co-working space right off the bat (even before the apartment) so that I had a quiet place to work even when everything else was up in the air; and
  • enrolling in a refresher language course.

Of course, I’m lucky that I had the option to do all of those things—not everyone will when they move cultures.

If you had any advice for someone moving abroad for the first time, what tool would you suggest they develop first and why?

This advice is easy to give and hard to follow: develop patience and also trust in yourself: you will make progress eventually. Patience for yourself for not “catching on” quickly to situations (I find that culture shock seems to lower your IQ a bit at first!), patience for local people who might not understand your expectations (even though they’re crystal clear to you), patience for the culture shock itself. If we go back to our sailing metaphor: By tacking, you move into the wind gradually. But the zigzagging doesn’t necessarily slow you down. You can learn to tack efficiently—that’s what I tried to do when seeking help for some of the more stressful challenges of settling back into life in Prague. Use your first few months wisely, and eventually your culture shock will go away! Tacking is the Blu-Tack of the culture shock toolkit.

Tacking is the Blu-Tack

Photo credits: Tacking upwind, by Tom Purves via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Old blu-tack packaging, by Clive Darra via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Thank you so much, Beth, for sharing your experience with us! Like you said, if you develop the sailor’s tacking skill, soon it’ll all be water under the bridge. Plus, as you also pointed out, you’ll have great travel yarns to share! In the end, it’s the situations that are most difficult to navigate that make for the best lessons, right?! That’s what I love about culture shock: the lessons we learn and the way our horizons shift as a result.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Beth’s advice? If you like what she has to say, I recommend you visit her Booklust, Wanderlust book review column here on the Displaced Nation, as well as her personal site. And as those who frequent her column know, she’s a social media nut: find 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 recently launched a new Web site and is now working on her second book.  

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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TCK TALENT: Donna Musil, Writer-Director, Lawyer, Activist & Proud Army Brat

The uber TCK-talented Donna Musil. Photo credit: Ray Ng.

The uber TCK-talented Donna Musil. Photo credit: Ray Ng.

Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her latest interview guest.

Welcome back, readers! It’s been awhile. But I think the wait will be worth it as my latest interviewee is the super-talented writer, filmmaker and social change agent Donna Musil. Donna is also a fitting choice for the month when America celebrates Veteran’s Day. She made the award-winning documentary BRATS: Our Journey Home, narrated by Kris Kristofferson, about what it is like to grow up in a military family and the long-term impact it can have on a person’s adult life.

She is also the founding director of Brats Without Borders, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing awareness and support for military brats and other Third Culture Kids.

Donna’s interest in the subculture of military brats is personal. Born into a career Army family, she went to 12 schools by the time she was 16 and never had a hometown. Her family moved almost every year until she was seven, from Fort Benning, Georgia, to two other bases in Georgia (Athens and Macon, the latter when her father was serving in Korea and Vietnam); then to the enormous Army installation in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and to Charlottesville, Virginia, where her father was doing something at the university. They moved overseas twice: to Germany (Bad Kreuznach), followed by Fort Mason in San Francisco; and to South Korea—Yongsan Garrison in Seoul and then Camp Walker in Taegu (now Daegu), after which they were stationed in Fort Knox, Kentucky. Donna’s father died in the summer of 1976, two months after she turned 16, and her family had to leave base housing. They moved to Columbus, Georgia.

Talk about talent! BRATS was Donna’s very first directing effort. I had the privilege of getting to know her as one of my fellow authors in the TCK anthology Writing Out of Limbo.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Donna. Even though I’ve met and have interviewed plenty of Adult TCKs, my head is still spinning at the number of moves you experienced as a youngster. Once you reached young adulthood, did you settle in one spot or keep moving?
I stayed in Georgia for college, earning a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a law degree a few years later (the time in between I traveled and worked as an on-air radio newscaster). After law school, I practiced union-side labor law in Washington, DC and Atlanta. In the late 1980s, I quit practicing law to pursue a writing career, my childhood dream. After a few years in Atlanta, I moved to Los Angeles to “pay my dues” in the film business, but when the 1994 Northridge earthquake struck and destroyed half of my possessions, I stored the other half at my sister’s and moved to Dublin, Ireland, for two years to write. When I ran out of money, I returned to Georgia and began making the BRATS film. I lived in a crooked, old family lakehouse, which became my “base.” During the ten years it took to make and distribute the BRATS film, I also worked as a technical writer and/or attended writer’s residencies in Denmark, Spain, Paris, Taos, and Port Townsend (Washington).

Where do you live now?
In 2010, I moved to Denver to be near my sister and her family, and have lived there ever since, except when I’ve been on writer’s residencies—in France, Chicago, and San Francisco. (I’ll be living at a writer’s residency in Chiang Mai, Thailand, this coming winter.)

Donna Musil, already displaying her talents in Korea, 1975. (Photo supplied.)

Donna Musil, already displaying her talents in Korea, 1975. (Photo supplied.)

Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time?
I was happiest when we lived at Fort Mason in San Francisco when I was 11 to 13 years old. Interestingly enough, it was one of the least “military” of all of our assignments, just a block away from the famed Ghirardelli Square, overlooking the bay. I attended public schools, populated by an eclectic array of children, whose parents were everything from authors to restaurant owners to ballerinas. The racial makeup of the student body was about a third Chinese, a third white, and a third black and brown. I loved it!

I can imagine you thriving on the diversity. Was there anything else that made that time special?
Yes, swimming! I joined the Presidio Swim Club after watching Mark Spitz bedazzle the tragic 1972 Olympics, and began dreaming of my own (albeit unlikely) Olympic run. I walked to school every day and to swim practice every afternoon. I think I still hold the Marina Junior High School record for the most pull-ups for a 13-year-old girl—12! I loved everything about San Francisco—the culture, the diversity, the hippies on the beach. It was also the last year before my father got sick, so I suppose it was the end of my innocence. The next year, we moved to Seoul, Korea, for six months and then to Taegu, where there was no swim team, and my dreams of Olympic glory evaporated. My freshman class had ten students, total. We were surrounded by jaded, war-struck soldiers on their way to or from Vietnam, bars, prostitutes, and easy access to drugs and alcohol. You can imagine the results.

Because everybody needs a place to call home…

Let’s talk about BRATS. For readers who aren’t familiar, here is the trailer:

Were you surprised by what a hit BRATS has been with adult military brats and ATCKs? 
The reaction to BRATS: Our Journey Home has been interesting. I initially made the movie to figure out “who I was and where I was from,” but it quickly became apparent that it was less about me and more about the brat/TCK culture in general. I had been separated from the military life for twenty years when I began filming so was somewhat surprised to discover that most of the issues the movie discusses are just as relevant today as they were when I was a child—particularly the emotional and trauma-related issues.

In your essay in Writing Out of Limbo, you mention a teenaged boy who loved the documentary because it was the first time he had seen a family like his portrayed on film. You state: “I would do it all over again to hear that one comment. To make a difference in just one child’s life—no honor, award, or monetary compensation could ever compare.” That’s tremendous! But let’s also talk about your goal of affecting change within the military itself. How has the military responded?
To be honest, I would have to say that the military-as-a-whole has not welcomed the film or the research of Brats Without Borders (or any other “brat” groups) with open arms, nor have they helped us implement programs or provide resources to current and retired families that address the emotional needs of military brats/TCKs. There have been pockets of institutional and corporate support for a related art exhibit and workshops, as well as the film distribution costs, and Armed Forces Network has broadcast the film multiple times. The reactions have always been universally positive, but we could be doing so much more (with so very little).

So there are no military groups who have interpreted the film as a call to action?
In general, the military clergy and soldiers have been most supportive of our work and the military educational system and spouses the least supportive. It took me a while to realize that it must be hard to hear that the life you’ve chosen for your family (often a life better than your own childhood) also has its flaws. Many (high-powered) spouses are willing to hear and promote the positive legacies of growing up brat/TCK but tend to gloss over the painful legacies and attribute them to bad parenting instead of institutional pressures, traditions, or combat trauma. As a result, nothing much changes, and (as it has always been), brats/TCKs are forced to take care of their own emotional needs. Nowadays, people talk a little bit more about the sacrifice of military kids and groups give them free “stuff”; but they’re still not addressing their emotional needs (among other things) or considering what institutional changes might be made to ease their transitions and difficulties.

You must find that frustrating.
It’s particularly frustrating when I hear the institution and the media talk about the “lack of research” in this area, because it’s simply not true. We have the research. We’ve had it for 25 years. They just don’t always like what the research says. The military wants to downplay the negatives and the media wants to downplay the positives. Meanwhile, millions of dollars are being thrown into programs for military kids that are designed by people who haven’t walked the walk, or whose loyalties lie more with the institution or perpetuating their own existence than they do with the children. That may seem harsh, but I think it’s the truth. Perhaps one day actual brats and TCKs will be invited to the table and given substantial support, but I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, we’ll just keep helping ourselves!

“Like many brats,…I could talk to, but didn’t trust, anyone.” —Donna Musil in Writing Out of Limbo

Let’s move on to talk about the TCK experience. Many of the sections in your essay for Writing Out of Limbo resonated with me; for instance, when you said: “There are lessons each of us has to learn in our lives, and the more we avoid learning a particular lesson, the harder God will knock us down, until we have no choice but to learn it (and move on to the next lesson….). Still I didn’t learn.” You mention trust issues, inability to handle disagreement or confrontation, and more traits that are common among ATCKs, for which you needed to learn healthier coping mechanisms. Has making and touring BRATS helped you deal with this? Or do your old TCK survival mechanisms still crop up from time to time (like mine do even though creating Alien Citizen helped me a lot)?
For good or ill, I think all of my TCK survival mechanisms are alive and well! I’ve just learned to manage them better, with experiences from the BRATS film, my new film projects, some very good therapy, a lot of reading, and a very kind, understanding, and patient fiancé.

Has making and touring BRATS helped Donna to deal with some of the TCK issues Donna describes in Writing Out of Limbo? (Cover art; poster art, supplied.)

Has making and touring BRATS helped Donna to deal with some of the TCK issues she describes in Writing Out of Limbo? (Cover art and poster art, supplied.)

Are you tempted, for example, to run away from confrontation/disagreement?
Yes, I’d rather flee, move, break up or leave. I’ve learned to temper that impulse by isolating myself and dealing with it after I’ve calmed down. I also still have a visceral reaction to mean-spirited, unjust, authoritative, or self-centered people, but instead of confronting them like I used to, I try to avoid them. I’m much less black-and-white about things—but perhaps that’s just the wisdom of age. I do make people earn my trust instead of instantly bestowing it, and vice versa. There are so many ways “growing up brat/TCK” still affects my life today; it probably shapes almost everything I do. As I get older, though, I try to build on the positive aspects of my youth and temper the less-than-positive legacies, which is often much easier said than done!

Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures, or with people who have similar interests and perhaps similar cross-cultural backgrounds?  
I don’t identify with any particular culture or ethnicity, other than the brat/TCK culture. I don’t even have any real nationalistic tendencies. I don’t think America is “the best country in the world.” I think all countries and all people have their good points and not-so-good points; it just depends on what you’re most comfortable with. That said, I am definitely the quintessential American—independent, strong-willed, feisty, rebellious. Daniel Boone was my (great-great) uncle, his oldest brother Samuel my (great-great) grandfather, so I come by that spirit honestly. But my political sensibilities are more Scandinavian, like my grandmother’s side of the family. I enjoy being around other curious, open-minded “outsiders,” many of whom tend to have cross-cultural backgrounds. I try very hard not to consider myself, or any group to which I feel I might belong, “special.” That kind of thinking is the source of most of the world’s ills.

Do you have “itchy feet,” which still make you want to move frequently? Or would you prefer to have a home base and only travel for pleasure?
My poor fiancé. He was an educator brat—but basically grew up in one town in Germany. When we first started dating, I’d tell him all of the places I dream about living in: Vancouver, Canada; Austin, TX; San Francisco, CA; Chiang Mai, Thailand; Asheville, NC; and Paris, etc. Like any man, he wanted to give me what I wanted, but he couldn’t pin me down on what I actually wanted (one of the banes of being a brat/TCK). I was born and raised to be geographically and intellectually curious (the best legacy of growing up brat/TCK!). I like to stay somewhere until I want to go somewhere else—and my fiancé is okay with that, too. I don’t have any children, and his are grown, so it’s possible for us to live this way. Perhaps we’ll settle down in one place in the future. Denver is a nice town. We like it—for now.

Donna’s next act(s)

Returning to your work: I believe you are making another documentary? Tell us about it.
Yes, the film is called Our Own Private Battlefield. It’s the first documentary about the intergenerational effects of combat PTSD on military children, and how one Marine family is using art to help heal the long-term wounds of the Vietnam War. I still have a few more interviews to shoot. I’m hoping the lessons learned from this family will help generations of current and future military families deal with the traumas of war, both here and abroad.

Battlefield sounds amazing.
It’s actually a byproduct of the combined efforts of Brats Without Borders and Marine brat Lora Beldon’s organization, Military Kid Art Project, which teaches customized art classes to military children.

Your mention of art reminds me: I think an art exhibit is one of your other projects?
Yes, Lora and I founded the BRAT Art Institute this year and will host our first Military BRAT Art Camp in 2016, in conjunction with Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, VA. Right now we have a museum exhibit currently touring the country, called “UNCLASSIFIED: The Military Kid Art Show.” It won a Newman’s Own Award in 2012 and features over fifty years of military brat and veteran art from around the world, historical artifacts, and films about using art to heal trauma. The art camps will be part of a larger research effort to study how art can help military children deal with the traumas of war and multiple deployments.

Do you have any projects that don’t relate to the military?
Yes, my personal projects are much more eclectic. Besides a TV show based on brats in Korea in the 1970s, I’m also shopping a children’s animated film script based on African folktales (with a producer from Ghana) as well as a feature film screenplay about a modern-day union campaign at a small-town nursing home. My current writing efforts are focused on a murder mystery, based on (what I believe) is an unjust incarceration of an innocent man for over thirty years.

How can we follow your progress?
People can see my brat/TCK projects at Later this year, I will be putting up a personal page,, for my non-brat/TCK projects.

* * *

Thank you so much, Donna! I think I can speak for the entire Displaced Nation in asserting that you’ve blown us all away with all the important and necessary work you do for military brats, veterans, and TCKs. Congratulations on your many extraordinary achievements! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Donna below.

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is a prime example of what she writes about in this column: an Adult Third Culture working in a creative field. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she is an actor, writer, and producer who created the solo show Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey, which has been touring internationally. And now she is working on another show, which we hope to hear more about soon! To keep up with Lisa’s progress in between her columns, be sure to visit her blog, Suitcasefactory. You can also follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Trish Nicholson, a writer whose talents have blossomed in unusual places

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

My guest this month, Trish Nicholson, is something of an exotic plant—the kind one discovers flowering profusely in a far-flung part of the world.

Trish’s birthplace, the Isle of Man, sounds remote to many of us—but not so for Trish, who, despite being half Manx (a mix of Celtic and Nordic), wasn’t able to bloom where she was planted. Following in the footsteps of some of her intrepid ancestors, she left her birthplace and hasn’t looked back.

Her first destination was the UK, in pursuit of higher education and a career. Trish is also half-Scottish, but, though she lived in Scotland for 12 years, her roots did not prove deep enough and she moved on to Europe and much further afield…transplanting herself to Papua New Guinea!

Yes, Trish was stationed in the West Sepik (Sandaun) Province of Papua New Guinea for five years working on aid and development projects while also serving as Honorary Consul for the British High Commission. Rest assured, conditions here were exotic enough for Trish not only to put down roots but to blossom and thrive. As she attests in the travel memoir she published last month, PNG contains the wildest places in the tropics. Among other challenges, she had to contend with crocodiles (the book is titled Inside the Crocodile), sorcery and near-fatal malaria.

Photo credits (clockwise from upper left): Mooragh Park Lake, Ramsey (Isle of Man), by Tony Hisgett via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Trisha Nicholson (supplied); Explosions (in PNG), by Taro Taylor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

Photo credits (clockwise from upper left): Mooragh Park Lake, Ramsey (Isle of Man), by Tony Hisgett via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Trisha Nicholson (supplied); Explosions (in PNG), by Taro Taylor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

The so-called Land of Surprises must have been a hard act to follow, but Asia Pacific being Trish’s most nurturant habitat, she soon found other challenges—the next one being to direct the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) operations in the Philippines while completing her doctorate in social anthropology. After the Philippines, she obtained a research grant to study indigenous tourism in Vietnam and Australia.

And I mustn’t forget to mention that along the way there have also been frequent trips to South America and Africa, along with treks in Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal.

Trish did return to England eventually—only to decide the time had come to try transplanting herself to the “winterless” far north of New Zealand, where, as she says in her blog:

native trees grow even more in winter than summer because they have more moisture.

Hmmm… sounds a little like Trish?

And now let’s talk about Trish’s body of works. A compulsive scribbler, she has produced plenty of what she calls “creative nonfiction”—from articles for mainstream media to a book on responsible travel tourism—as well as short stories during her twenty years of wandering the globe.

More recently, since moving to New Zealand, she has published a series of e-books on her travels—one of the most popular of which is the illustrated travelogue Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. And now there is the aforementioned Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals.

Trish’s nonfiction output also includes a volume on creative reading/writing as well as a guide to becoming a non-fiction author. And let’s not forget the historical anthology of storytelling, which she intends to sit down and write now that she’s settled on a quiet New Zealand hillside. That’s when she’s not hiding in her tree house or blogging. Her blog is called, appropriately enough, “Words in the Treehouse.”

* * *

Welcome, Trish, to Location, Locution. I know that your travels have led to much of your writing, but which tends to come first, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine.

It depends on what kind of writing I’m doing, of course. For short stories it’s usually character that comes first for me, but it’s close because characters are an integral part of their setting. In building up the story, character and setting feed upon each other. Location can affect a character’s mood, sometimes their whole outlook on life, and a change of location can be a turning point. But, as I said, it’s a two-way influence; people can also have an impact on their surroundings.

For my travelogues, experience of location came first, but the same principle applies: people feed off setting and vice versa. In this case, of course, the “characters” are actual people I met along the way.

Notably, you were right in saying that my travels led to my writing. I did not set out to write a book at the beginning of either of the two travelogues I have produced. I was inspired to visit Bhutan by an article in a 1914 National Geographic magazine my aunt had left me in a box of dusty old books. It was full of the most amazing photographs of mist threaded mountains, exotic architecture, and distinguished looking men wearing what appeared to be navy blue dressing gowns with broad white cuffs… Papua New Guinea, as you explained in your introduction, was a five-year work assignment, fulfilling a teenage dream to work overseas. Only afterwards did these locations compel me to write about them.

What techniques do you use for evoking the atmosphere of a place? After all, you’ve faced the challenge of describing places very few of the rest of us have visited.

I’m not sure if it’s a technique because it’s not something I do consciously as I write, but your question made me think about it. It’s not so easy to explain, but I seem to identify a feature that is characteristic of a particular place and use my senses to link to it emotionally—trying to recreate in words what I felt when I was there. It’s not simply “place” though, but more a series of “moments-in-place.” The atmosphere of a place changes depending on time of day, seasons and events. It’s possible to keep track of these changes if you maintain a detailed journal as I always do—scraps of information about everything I see, hear, smell and feel. With buildings and landscapes, for example, I record how light and weather affect them. A grey stone wall, for instance, may look hard and forbidding in Scotland, but under a tropical sun it feels surprisingly soft and warm. I note sounds and snippets of overheard conversation, clothes, colours, rhythms of people’s movements—all of which suggest place. Scribbling is a bit of an obsession with me, perhaps a way of hanging on to something I don’t want to end. My other obsession is photography, probably for the same reason. In my early travelling days I used Kodachrome but film was expensive; now you can take large memory cards and click away without a thought. When I’m writing, I scroll through my images and they recall whole scenes for me. The jottings and photographs aid my memory for those sensuous details that I believe evoke atmosphere.

Two of Trish's tools for capturing the details of places. Photo credits: (top) Notebook collection, by Dvortygirl via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Kodachrome, by Pittaya Sroilong via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Two of Trish’s tools for capturing the details of place. Photo credits: (top) Notebook collection, by Dvortygirl via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Kodachrome, by
Pittaya Sroilong via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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

They all can, of course, depending on the story and a writer’s personal interests. I’m certainly no foodie, but even I can feel the tropical heat of Papua New Guinea when recalling drinking kulau (Tok Pisin for “juice from a young green coconut”) straight from a young coconut—the rough, dry shell on my lips, the smooth sweet coolness dribbling down my chin. Language, too, has always been a significant feature for me. Many writers avoid using dialect or foreign words in dialogue so as not to stress the reader, but there are ways of making it easier, and readers enjoy a little challenge. I write dialect or local language in short stories and in travelogues because it draws readers closer to people. And if I want to create the sense of a very specific location, I focus on whatever features are found only in that one place—for example, in Bhutan, the painted red bands around a building that tells you there are sacred relics inside, or in Australia, the surreal landforms of the Bungle Bungles that seem to stride across the landscape enacting their own primordial drama.

Which of your works provides the best illustration of place, and can you give us a brief example?

From Inside the Crocodile, a jungle moment on the hair-raising trek from Oksapmin to Lake Kopiago:

The heavy shower was reduced to drizzle under the canopy and it invigorated the forest; every shade of green was intensified, glistening and vivid. Lazy drops of water glided along leaves, dripping silently onto moss beneath. Fine hairs on the ribs of fern fronds, usually invisible, were lit-up by tiny twinkling water droplets like miniature fairy lights. And the air was filled with the fecund mustiness of moist earth seasoned with the tang of wet foliage … the forest stood in strange, expectant silence, muffled by the press of growing, spreading vegetation all around us. Yet every surface, especially the dark underside, was teeming with life we could not see, or would not recognise if we did, and we couldn’t see beyond the next tree trunk or veil of hanging moss. The sense of being enclosed, entrapped within an unknowable multitude, was overpowering.

Photo credits: (top) A frog inside the papaya tree, one of many critters found in PNG; one of many disintegrating bamboo bridges in PNG (by Trish Nicholson, supplied).

Photo credits: (top) A frog inside the papaya tree, one of many critters found in PNG; one of many disintegrating bamboo bridges in PNG (by Trish Nicholson, supplied).

And if I’m allowed another little one, from Journey in Bhutan, my journal entry the evening after we visited the ancient temple of Kyichu Lhakhang:

… I want to remember how it felt when I first entered the lhakhang – the dark wooden floor, polished and worn into grooves by centuries of calloused feet; distant chanting heard through a haze of incense; Buddhas lustrous in the flickering light of butter lamps – thirteen centuries of reverence are distilled in that room creating an almost palpable sanctity. I feel the balm of its atmosphere as I write – it’s almost like a presence.

Photo credits: (clockwise from top left) Rinpung Dzong, a large dzong (Buddhist monastery and fortress) found in Paro District, Bhutan; book cover art; ancient religious relics inside the lhakhang (all photos supplied by Trish Nicholson).

Photo credits: (top) Rinpung Dzong, a large dzong (Buddhist monastery and fortress) found in Paro District, Bhutan; book cover art; ancient religious relics inside the lhakhang (by Trish Nicholson, supplied).

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

This is a particularly interesting question because I believe one can be in a location too long. The point is not how much time is spent in a place, but how well we “see” it. In an urban setting, I can spend an hour leaning against a wall on a street corner, or a day walking the streets at random, and gather a huge number of impressions and factual details. In remote areas it takes longer because the changing elements have a greater affect on atmosphere. But this may be enough for the setting of a single story. Obviously, for a travelogue, longer immersion is necessary to reach a depth of understanding across time and seasons. But it depends also on how one writes about a place, the scope of the account. I was in Bhutan for a month, much of that time trekking, so although I included monasteries and temples, and carried out a lot of research on cultural and historical background, Journey in Bhutan focuses on the trek rather than trying to cover the whole country superficially. So, how long is too long? After a few years in Papua New Guinea I noted in my journal:

I’m losing all sense of “normal”.

I began taking for granted what seemed extraordinary to a visitor. Fortunately, I had recorded early events that revealed my astonishment and joy and alienation as a greenhorn during those first months. Without the journals, Inside the Crocodile would have lacked that perspective on the location because, after a while, we cease to “see” so clearly.

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

Hard to pick a few from so many: Vikram Seth for his depiction of India—but his first book, From Heaven Lake, was a vivid travelogue of Sinkiang and Tibet; he was still a student but the novelist is already burgeoning in those pages. Khaled Hosseini, who so cleverly weaves his characters into the texture of place in The Kite Runner, and Nikolai Gogol, especially in Dead Souls, where his detailing of personal possessions in a room reveals not only a distinctly Russian steppes atmosphere, but also a character’s past and present. And one more: Ruth Rendell appears to break all the “rules” in The Keys to the Street by opening with almost two pages describing London’s ornamental iron railings—but in such a way that with the first paragraph we are already anxious about those spikes.

Trish's picks for writers who have mastered the art of writing about place.

Trish’s picks for writers who have mastered the art of writing about place.

Thanks so much, Trish! I can easily see why one reviewer described you as “full of humour, adventure, and iron determination…”

* * *

Readers, any questions for Trish Nicholson? Please leave them in the comments below before she disappears back into her treehouse.

And if you’d like to discover more about Trish, why not visit her author site. She also chirps on twitter at @TrishaNicholson.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

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Photo credits (top of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: Still reeling from reaching the end of my 4-book series in 3 years!

Diary of an Expat Writer
American expat in Hong Kong Shannon Young quit her day job a year ago to become a full-time writer. Here’s the latest entry in her expat writer’s diary.

Dear Displaced Diary,

Yesterday I finished writing the Seabound Chronicles. It’s hard to wrap my head around that sentence:


I first got the idea for this series, set on a post-apocalyptic cruise ship called the Catalina, three years ago. I wrote the first words on November 1st, 2012. The series has been my primary writing project ever since, influencing what I read, research, and think about on a daily basis. And now it is complete.

The total word count for the series is 322,000. That works out to 80,000 for Seabound, 73,000 for Seaswept, 73,000 for Burnt Sea, and a whopping 96,000 for Seafled.

Photo credit: Chart via Pixabay.

Photo credit: Chart via Pixabay.

I’ve spent hundreds of hours in this world…

The characters have become increasingly real to me as I’ve figured out how they think, what happens to them, how they react. I’ve lost count of how many dreams I’ve had set on cruise ships. They never take place on the actual Catalina or include characters from the books, but they are often incredibly vivid.

I’ve been walking around for the past day trying to figure out how I feel about this ending. To be honest, I feel hazy, almost hung-over. My reactions are a little slower, lights are a little too bright, and I’m not sure what to do with myself.

Part of this is likely because my week writing the final draft was very intense. I taught five days at two schools far out by the Chinese border. In order to meet my deadline, I stayed at Starbucks until closing several nights that week, and spent eight straight hours writing on both Wednesday (a public holiday) and Sunday.

Except when teaching, I was totally disengaged from the real world. I’m sure I still owe some people some emails.

Trying to get my head around how this feels…

I’m reminded of when I graduated from college. I honestly feel like the three years I spent writing this series was akin to getting a degree. I now have a Masters in Writing Seabound. And like many degrees (my double major in Classical Studies, for example), it’s something I’ll never use again. At least, not directly.

Photo credit: Graduation—my masters degree, by Sarah Stierch via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Photo credit: Graduation—my masters degree, by Sarah Stierch via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Soon, I’ll be able to look at the lessons I learned from this series and apply them to the next one, which is already in progress.

Soon, I’ll be able to step back and remember that the series isn’t really finished because I still have to format and upload the final book.

Soon, I’ll be able to appreciate that my readers are still deeply engaged in this world and there are more of them out there who haven’t discovered it yet.

Soon, I’ll be able to break this down into a nice takeaway message or two.

But today, I am just absorbing the feelings…

There’s some joy, some sadness, some melancholy, some triumph. Right now all I can do is feel and process. And maybe even write down those feelings. Isn’t that what diaries are for?

Thanks for listening.


Shannon Young
AKA Jordan Rivet

The Seabound Chronicles is a post-apocalyptic adventure series set on a souped-up cruise ship. It features a prickly female mechanic named Esther. The first three books are out now under the pen name Jordan Rivet. The final book, Seafled, launches on November 30th.

Photo credit: Cruise ship via Pixabay.

Photo credit: Cruise ship via Pixabay.

* * *

Wow, that’s quite a milestone, Shannon—congratulations! It makes sense to me that you feel both happy and relieved as well as numb and somewhat bereft. It’s been an intense three years! Readers who are also writers, can you relate to Shannon’s mixed emotions? Please share your own experiences in the comments. ~ML

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WORLD OF WORDS: She spoke in Italian to me, I spoke in English to her, and we had a perfect conversation

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about words?

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about French words?

Columnist Marianne Bohr, whose first book, Gap Year Girl, came out in September with She Writes Press, has a story for us about one of the pleasanter linguistic surprises that occurred during year-long travels. Naturally, it happened on an Italian train!

Sometimes the basics of another language are all you need.

For this month’s post, I’d like to share a story about the time when my husband, Joe, and I were on a train from Naples to Sicily.

* * *

All aboard!

We board the train in Naples behind a pack of uniformed, fully armed carabinieri—images of the Italian Wild West, Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano dancing in our heads. We picture the potential for some seriously illegal transactions on this particular itinerary: Naples bound for Sicily.

Photo credits: Train station sign, by jm3 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); La Muerte Tenía un Precio, by jablagu via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0); Man with shotgun in Sicily[], by archer 10 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Photo credits: Train station sign, by jm3 via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); La Muerte Tenía un Precio, by jablagu via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0); Man with shotgun in Sicily, by archer 10 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Our train travels down the boot to its toe and eventually on to Taormina, our Sicilian destination. The trip will take seven hours including the two-mile ferry trip to the island across the Strait of Messina. We discuss the merits of building a tunnel but it makes no seismic sense, our guidebook says; the earthquake-prone region categorically rules out the possibility. But then we read the real reason is that organized crime controls the crossing—and they like the status quo.

Next station stop: Villa San Giovanni (after which the train will board a ferry to the island of Sicilia!)

We stop at Villa San Giovanni, the town at the western tip of mainland Italy. She, Italian, 30-something, boards the train with great flourish and an oversized valise.

Joe and I are in deep conversation about the logistics of our arrival in Taormina and simply say, “Buongiorno,” after helping her hoist her bag onto the rack overhead.

We finally arrive at the terminal where they split the train into two and roll the cars onto rails in the ferry’s cargo hold. This impressive engineering feat can take some time and during the process, our carriage loses power (no lights or air conditioning), adding an element of the sinister to the experience.

Photo credit: Train ferry to Sicily[], by Michael Cannon via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Photo credit: Train ferry to Sicily, by Michael Cannon via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Joe, a ship engineer, ever interested in anything marine, goes off to observe the transfer logistics. I stay in our darkened train compartment to chat with the young woman sitting across from me.

Once it’s just the two of us, she asks brightly, “Dove alloggia lì Sicilia?” She wants to know where we’ll stay once we arrive on Sicily.

“We have a hotel in Taormina,” I reply, “the Bel Soggiorno.” And just like that, we establish an understanding for the conversation that ensues. She will speak in her melodic Italian and I will respond in English, each of us knowing just enough of the other’s language to understand but not speak.

She gushes that she loves the Bel Soggiorno, telling me the views of Mount Etna are spectacular and the terrace looking over the sea is so romantic.

“I’m happy to hear that,” I respond, “because our room is only $80 and I was afraid it would be a bit dumpy.”

“Oh no,” she tells me in Italian. “It’s just that it’s early March and rates are very low.”

Her name is Carolina, the Italian version of our daughter’s name, so I like her right away. She’s of that breed of seriously overweight women who don’t behave like they’re heavy: she’s confident, has perfect makeup, is dressed to the nines in bright colors, wears high-heeled suede boots, and carries herself with panache. She knows what to do with what she has, maximizing her assets, as the Italians like to say, in true Italian bella figura style.

Photo credit: Untitled[], by Maegan Tintari via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) [].

Photo credit: Untitled, by Maegan Tintari via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Our conversation is a particularly satisfying lopsided exchange because we manage to share so much in spite of our Italian-English volley. I fill her in on Joe’s and my gap year traveling through Europe, she teaches me the lovely, lilting Italian pronunciation of Sicily (Sicilia–See-CHEE-lya) and I explain the geography of the States.

Like many Europeans, the two places she is most anxious to visit are New York City and California. She asks if she can see them both in a week. I smile, draw a map on the back of her ticket and explain just how far apart they are, suggesting she needs at least three weeks to see them properly.

“It’s almost 3,000 miles from New York to San Francisco,” I tell her and California is a big state.

She responds with a laugh, “Allora, mi prendo tre settimane!” Then I’ll take three weeks!

Passengers may now go on deck to view Straits of Messina…

We leave the train for a quick look at our passage across the water, but the wind is fierce, kicking up whitecaps, and we quickly return to the dim warmth of our compartment. I learn that Carolina lives in Naples—she’s a native Neopolitana—and works in an art gallery. She is headed for a long weekend in Taormina to visit her boyfriend. She makes the trip once a month and he travels north with the same frequency to see her.

I ask if she thinks she’ll marry him and she tells me with a wink that she hopes they’ll get engaged this weekend.

“Bravo,” I respond with a giggle and a clap and then ask about a luna di miele—a honeymoon.

Before I finish asking, she says, “Capri,” accent on the first syllable. “Andiamo a Capri.”

I mentally say a quick thank you to my French and Spanish teachers over the years. Knowing these two Romance languages paved the way for this delightful conversation in Italian.

Photo credit: More gossip[], by DncnH via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) [].

Photo credit: More gossip, by DncnH via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Next stop: Taormina, Sicily

Joe finally returns to his seat once the train is reconnected in Messina for the last leg of our all-day journey. After another twenty minutes, we descend with Carolina onto Taormina’s platform as she drags her bright pink, hard-shelled suitcase, the travel of choice of so many young Italian women, behind her.

She kisses my cheeks, turns and waves, warbling, “Goodbye,” and I call, “Arrivederci!

She embraces her beloved and then ducks into his red sports car.

I follow Joe to the taxi stand, imagine a honeymoon on the horizon, and soon we’re winding up the hill to the Bel Soggiorno.

Photo credits: Wedding (inside restaurant on Capri)[], by Moyan Brenn (CC BY-SA 2.0);Waving goodbye[], by The Jones via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Volcano Etna at sunset[], by gnuckx via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) [].

Photo credits: Wedding (inside restaurant on Capri), by Moyan Brenn (CC BY-SA 2.0); Waving goodbye, by The Jones via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Volcano Etna at sunset, by gnuckx via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

* * *

Thank you, Marianne, for this enchanting story! I must say, I admire the way you reach across linguistic barriers and find words in common. In situations where others might give up, you are undaunted. I guess that’s the advantage of living in a world of words?

Readers, have you ever, like Marianne, enjoyed a conversation with someone even though you were both speaking in different languages? We’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Marianne C. Bohr is a writer, editor and French teacher whose book, Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, was published in early September (She Writes Press). She married her high school sweetheart and travel partner, and with their two grown children, follows her own advice and travels at every opportunity. Marianne lives in Bethesda, Maryland, where after decades in publishing, she has followed her Francophile muse to teach French. She has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: In “The Porcelain Thief,” ATCK and expat writer Huan Hsu assembles shards of his Chinese heritage


Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), is back with a new recommended read!

Hello again Displaced Nationers!

After a long absence (in which I got to satisfy some wanderlust, go me!), I’m resuming my column just in time for the crisp autumn weather that is conducive to some serious reading.

This month I’m excited to tell you about one book in particular I uploaded to my Kindle since we last met: The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China—a memoir of a journey through Mainland China and Taiwan by Chinese American journalist Huan Hsu.

Photo credits: Top third of an antique Chinese vase (Pixabay); cover art; Huan Hsu's author portrait by Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen.

Photo credits: Top third of a Chinese antique porcelain vase (Pixabay); cover art; Huan Hsu’s author portrait, by Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen.

Hsu currently lives in Amsterdam and teaches creative writing at Amsterdam University College, but he grew up in Utah. His parents had immigrated to the US from China via Taiwan. Hsu had never set foot in Asia until, as an adult, he started investigating the family legend that sparked this book.

I think one of the reasons Hsu’s account of his travels within China resonated with me so much is that I returned to the United States this summer after a two-year absence and, as usual, felt disoriented. In my case, of course, it was reverse culture shock. I just couldn’t get over the novelty of understanding everything. I started eavesdropping on conversations not because I wanted to but just because I could! Sometimes when people asked me questions, I would stare at them blankly before realizing I could understand what they were saying and respond. I found all the signs and labels, which I often tune out in my life in Prague, distracting. Man, counter culture shock can be tiring!

But whereas I was going home again, Hsu was recounting his very first journey to his homeland, another kind of (and more challenging, I think) Through-the-Looking-Glass experience.

Hsu goes to Shanghai ostensibly to work in an uncle’s semiconductor chip business, but really he wants to interview his grandmother to see what she knows about the family tale of his great-great grandfather having buried a vast collection of prized antique porcelain just before he and his family fled the town of Xingang, on the Yangtze River, to escape the Japanese occupation.

In a place he’s never been—but which many people expect him to regard as “home”

In Shanghai, Hsu finds himself in a place he’s never been—but which many people expect him to regard as “home.” Coming to China without fluent Mandarin, he’s just as much at-sea as many other American expats; but the people he encounters treat him differently than they do other foreigners. In fact, they don’t really consider him an “expat”; rather, they see him as “Chinese”—as much as he would have been if his family had never left that part of the world.

Invisible foreigner in Shanghai

Photo credits: “Just a ‘Small Crowd,'” by Kyle Taylor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); invisible man (via Pixabay); middle third of Chinese antique porcelain vase (via Pixabay).

This honorary insider status frequently works to Hsu’s advantage as he tries to uncover the truth—if any is to be found—about the complicated events that led to his ancestor burying his precious porcelain pots before taking flight and becoming displaced.

To be honest, I would have been perfectly happy if Hsu’s entire book had been about his experiences as an American-born Chinese exploring China. As Hsu himself says in an essay published earlier this year just before The Porcelain Thief came out, “while books about the Chinese-American experience in America are plentiful, … the story of Chinese-Americans in China remains unstudied.”

It is a story that interests me personally as my now-husband, who is half Chinese, and I once lived in China, where he could pass for Chinese as long as he didn’t talk too much, whereas I was the visible foreigner. (Now that we live in Prague, our “visibilites” are reversed.)

Hsu talks about the times he had it easier adjusting to China because of his ancestry (fewer stares, more acceptance in some areas), but I was happy to see him also address the down side of this situation:

“…(F)etishization of Westerners was perhaps the most exasperating part of being an ABC [American-Born Chinese] in China…the Chinese still regarded laowai [foreigner] as an ethnicity, not a nationality, so we lacked the necessary skin tone and hair color.”

Likewise, other expats fail to see him:

“…I felt wounded when a fellow expat’s gaze passed over me without acknowledgment. Non-Chinese foreigners seemed to always notice one another on the street, sharing a knowing, conspiratorial glance, and when I tried to catch their eyes, they probably regarded me as just another impolite, ogling local. Though I stood out to the local Chinese, I was also invisible to many of my countrymen.”

Hsu’s refreshing honesty about the difficulties of living in China

One of the dangers of many travel memoirs (one that I sometimes fall prey to in my own writing) is to only write about the trip’s highlights. But perhaps because of his journalist background, Hsu is refreshingly honest. He calls it as he sees it:

“To face the absurdities of daily life, expats in Shanghai keep a mantra: This is China. The Middle Kingdom was not so much a foreign country as it was a parallel universe that managed to offend all five senses plus one more—common.”

Hmm… As I can attest from my own experience, it’s not only expats in Shanghai who feel that way!

And if he is honest about the difficulties of living in China, Hsu is also honest about the difficulties of studying Chinese. Anyone who has signed up for language classes after a move abroad will identify with this passage:

“Their Mandarin sounded familiar, and their speech didn’t seem fast to me, and sometimes I could even understand a good number of the words. But I couldn’t comprehend a thing because I was missing all the important ones, so I would hear something like, ‘Okay, and now we’re going to talk about [blank] and why you [blank] and [blank] because [blank] [blank] [blank] [blank] [blank] [blank] otherwise [blank] [blank] [blank]. Any questions?’”

Good memoirs are a little raw; this one is. Just as Hsu doesn’t pull any punches when describing China, he is equally blunt about owning up to his family’s quirks and talking about his own difficulties surmounting culture shock. Regarding this last, he writes about people having “the same personal space as puppies” on public transportation, and about his cringing embarrassment when he sees people drying their laundry on telephone poles in less-affluent areas of the city. I think anyone who has been an expat in China has made a similar list of initial observations. I can remember doing so after moving to China in 2006.

So much more than just a TCK-experiencing-Culture-One memoir

But in the end, the book is so much more than just a TCK-experiencing-Culture-One memoir. Tsu also introduces the reader to the art of Chinese porcelain, which serves in turn as a kind of symbol of modern China, a nation of fragments.

Photo credit: Chinese antique porcelain vase (Pixabay).

Photo credit: Chinese antique porcelain vase (Pixabay).

In fact the bulk of the book is devoted to Hsu actively searching for any remaining pieces of the family treasure. He flies to Taiwan and Hong Kong to locate the heart of the old porcelain industry. He finally visits the old family property that his great-greats had fled and in so doing turns up long-forgotten shirttail relations.

In the course of this quest, Hsu pieces together beautifully imagined scenes of his family’s escape from the Japanese into the Chinese diaspora.

I enjoyed The Porcelain Thief on all kinds of levels: as memoir, travelogue, art history, and social history. I’d particularly urge anyone who has lived as an expat in China, or who is thinking of doing so, to give it a try.

* * *

So, readers, have you ever had the experience of being an “invisible” expat or know someone who has felt that way? Let us know in the comments. And if you have ideas for books to review for this column, please leave a comment or let me know on Twitter! Last but not least, I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

Beth Green is an American writer living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes. She has also launched the site Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

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CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats, when it comes to culture shock, it’s best to measure your progress in increments and be patient

Photo credit: Cecilia Haynes at Cappadocia, Turkey (supplied).

Photo credit: Cecilia Haynes at Cappadocia, Turkey (supplied).

For her column this month, transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol interviews a fellow Adult Third Culture Kid and freelance writer, Cecilia Haynes.

Hello, Displaced Nationers!

I’d like to introduce you to this month’s guest: fellow Adult Third Culture Kid Cecilia Haynes. A self-described “state department brat,” Cecilia is the product of a Chinese mother and an American father. As she writes on the About page for her blog, Unsettled TCK:

Moving is all I have ever known.

Cecilia tells a number of stories about herself in one of her blog’s most popular posts, 10 TCK Quirks. I really like the first one, when she says she’d rather not admit how old she was when she discovered that “Visa” didn’t simply mean “that thing in your passport that allows you to go to different countries.” She says it took her a long while to realized it was a credit card brand as well. For me, this anecdote beautifully illustrates a line I keep seeing on social media that reads:

Collect memories, not things.

As an adult Cecilia continues to travel the world while making her living as a freelance writer, photographer, web moderator and editor. She’s the co-host of the awesome biweekly TCK chat on Twitter where participants discuss all things TCK. Her work has been published in The Worlds Within Anthology, The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35 and Among Worlds.

Cecilia has kindly agreed to share some of her culture shock stories. Read on to find out where this seasoned traveler has lived, what she’s experienced—and the tools she recommends for others who are going through cultural transitions…

* * *

Hi, Cecilia. Welcome to The Displaced Nation! As a TCK and an ATCK, you’ve lived all over world. Tell us a little about those places…
I was born in Hong Kong and then we went to Calcutta, India, before moving to Taipei, Taiwan, for two years and then to Beijing, China, also for two years. That was before going to New Delhi, India, and then Mclean, Virginia, USA, each for four years. Then it was back to India (Chennai) for three years, and then on to Manila, the Philippines, for one year, where I graduated from high school. After high school I went to the University of Virginia for four years before moving to Hong Kong for a year and then backpacking around the Tibetan Plateau and northern India for about a year, after which I spent a year in Alanya, Turkey before finally moving to Florida, where I currently live.

Wow, that’s a lot of transitions! Did you ever accidentally transfer the wrong customs or behaviors to a new culture, thus ending up with your foot in your mouth?
I was brought up in so many cultures that weren’t my own that I was pretty culturally sensitive from an early age. Even in Hong Kong where my mom’s family lives and in Ohio where my dad’s family lives, I’m an outsider. I sometimes have this internal awkwardness as I feel out a new cultural situation. Take off shoes or leave them on? Eat with hands, chopsticks, or knife and fork? Moment of silence before eating—does that mean I have to pretend to pray or say amen? But I can’t really think of a truly humiliating cultural transition story where I acted out of turn. That said, I do have plenty of hilarious misadventure stories, such as sitting between two of the nastiest toilets you can imagine on a third-class train in southern India for eight hours(!).

Say amen take off shoes

Photo credits: (top) The big yawn, by Ali Edwards’s sister via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Please take off shoes when reading the paper, by antjeverena via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

It sounds as though you fit in everywhere you go, even on an Indian train! What tools do you use?
I model my toolbox on those around me. I observe the local people and mimic their actions. If I am truly confused, I will just ask since it’s better to err on the side of caution than make a social blunder through being overconfident. My number one rule is to be respectful of other people’s customs.

Indian train misadventures

Indian Railways, by Grey Rocker via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Absolutely, respect is paramount. Can you think of a situation you handled particularly well? 
Since I am a mix/hapa, I can blend into much of Southeast and East Asia, which means that local people often assume knowledge I don’t have. When you’re an invisible immigrant, you need some special tools. For instance, I’ve developed a certain finesse for handling the times when people approach me speaking the local language, asking for directions, or even just attempting to bond over food or jokes. Inevitably, they are disappointed when they think I have lost my cultural heritage and become “Americanized”—so I hasten to clarify I’m an outsider to their culture because I am only partially from the United States, the other part being from Hong Kong.

hapa predicament

Parsons Chameleon, by Leonora Enking via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

If you had any advice for someone moving abroad for the first time, what tool would you suggest they develop first and why?
I would tell them to develop patience. Maybe you need a folding ruler to measure your progress in stages. Be patient while you adjust to your new home as it won’t be the same as your old one. Be patient as you adjust to the customs of the local community because they are likely VERY different from what you are used to. The pace can be slower or faster, you may have access to less, and people’s ideas of personal space vary widely—those are just a few examples. And, most of all, be patient with yourself. It will take you a while to navigate and feel comfortable within a new cultural landscape.

Photo credit: Folding rule via Pixabay.

Photo credit: Folding rule via Pixabay.

Thank you so much, Cecilia! Observing and mimicking are two great tools to smooth over cultural transitions. Plus that’s part of the fun, in a way, to experiment with other kinds of behavior. Who knows? You might change your behavior permanently and maybe even your sense of identity if enough of the culture resonates. And three-pronged (for your home, the culture and yourself) patience will definitely help bring down any walls that may be preventing you from becoming a part of your new community. I love the idea of a folding ruler for measuring progress in increments: great tool!

* * *

Readers, what do you think of Cecilia’s advice about practicing patience and not trying to do everything at once? If you like what she has to say, I recommend you visit her professional site,, where you can find her blog, Unsettled TCK. You can also, of course, get to know 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 recently launched a new Web site and is now working on her second book.  

STAY TUNED for the next fab post.

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Wonderlanded with Rosie Milne, Asian Books blogger and author of a new historical novel about two early expat wives

Alice goes through the looking glass[], illustration by John Tenniel, uploaded to Flickr by Central Asian (CC BY 2.0); book cover art; Rosie Milne in Singapore with her papier-mâché Alice (supplied).

Alice goes through the looking glass, illustration by John Tenniel, uploaded to Flickr by Central Asian (CC BY 2.0); book cover art; Rosie Milne in Singapore with her papier-mâché Alice (supplied).

Welcome back to the Displaced Nation’s Wonderlanded series, being held in gratitude for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which turns 150 this year and, despite this advanced age, continues to stimulate and reassure many of us who have chosen to lead international, displaced, “through the looking glass” lives.

This month we travel
the hole with Rosie Milne, an Englishwoman who has lived in various places, mostly within Asia, but right now can be found in Singapore.

I first discovered Rosie Milne through an article she worte for Telegraph Expat about romantic novelists who’ve been inspired by their expat surroundings. I noticed in her bio blurb that she runs the Asian Books Blog.

Then recently I had the pleasure of her getting in touch with me to feature a description of the Displaced Nation for the Blog’s Sunday Post.

As Rosie and I began backing and forthing by email, I spontaneously decided it might be fun to be wonderlanded with her.

Now, having spent many years living in Asia myself, Singapore, where Rosie lives now, isn’t exactly my idea of wonderland. I know it comes out tops for expat destinations on various surveys, but for me Singapore is a nice place to visit (great food and shopping) but for living? Much too safe and predictable; Asia Lite.

But Rosie has lived all over Asia, including in my former home of Tokyo (Asia Heavy!). She has also thought deeply about what it’s like for women to “pass through the looking glass” into Asia, having just completed a novel, Olivia and Sophia: a fictionalized account of the adventures of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, as seen through the eyes of his first and second wives. (It’s due out in November from Monsoon Books.)

We’ll get to read a couple of excerpts from that work in the next post, but first let’s find out what it’s like to be wonderlanded with Rosie!

* * *

Rosie Milne: Thank you, ML, and greetings, Displaced Nation readers. To give you a little more of my background: I was born in London. I worked in publishing there before moving to New York, where I wrote my first novel, How To Change Your Life, about an editor of self-help books trying to follow the advice in a self-help book.

I then moved to Hong Kong where I wrote my second novel, Holding the Baby, about four sisters with differing attitudes to motherhood—one of them, unable to have biological children, adopts from China.

I then had short spells in Sydney and Tokyo, before moving to my current home, Singapore, where I wrote my new novel, Olivia & Sophia, which features two early forerunners of a type of modern expat woman: the trailing spouse.

“I don’t understand you,” said Alice. “It’s dreadfully confusing!”

In Tokyo language was impenetrable—I did try to learn, but more-or-less never got beyond being able to give my address. There was a big earthquake within a few days of my arrival. There were young adults on the streets dressed as cartoonish characters. I had my first, and last, taste of sashimi chicken – the most revolting food I ever tasted….

Lost in Tokyoland. Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Untitled[], by Bernat Agullo via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)[]; Japanese city at night[], by Takuma Kimura via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Untitled[], by Kyle Hasegawa via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)[]; 鶏のたたき (chicken sashimi),[] by yoppy via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)[].

Lost in Tokyoland. Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Untitled, by Bernat Agullo via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Japanese city at night, by Takuma Kimura via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Untitled, by Kyle Hasegawa via Flickr (CC BY 2.0);
(chicken sashimi), by yoppy via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

“Consider anything, only don’t cry!” said the Queen.

I think expats, amongst the luckiest people on the planet, should resist succumbing to pools of tears.

“No,” said Alice. “I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is.”

I am quite often wary about fish, but usually, when I try the dish, or fish, in question, I enjoy it.

Recipe for a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

I would serve vodka and gherkins. As to the guest list…how about Jesus, and Richard Dawkins. The Buddha and Darwin. The Ayatollah Khomeini and Einstein…should make for interesting conversation, although language might be a bit of a problem.

Language might be a bit of a problem at Rosie Milne's tea party. Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Ice cocktail[] via Pixabay; Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Illustrator: Rackham, 1907) The Mad Tea-party[], by Special Collections Toronto via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)[]; Sad pickle[], by John Bell via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)[]. Insets: Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921[]; Ayatollah Khomeini[], by Alain DeJean—both images via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)[].

Language might be a bit of a problem at Rosie Milne’s “tea” party. Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Ice cocktail via Pixabay; Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Illustrator: Rackham, 1907) The Mad Tea-party, by Special Collections Toronto via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Sad pickle, by John Bell via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Insets: Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921; Ayatollah Khomeini, by Alain DeJean—both images via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0).

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

I am terrible at giving advice.

Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible…

If I hadn’t lived in Singapore I doubt I’d have written Olivia & Sophia—an account of the life of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, told through the fictionalised diaries of his two wives. Olivia & Sophia predate Alice, but they must often have felt wonderlanded. In an era when the voyage from Europe to Asia took anything up to ten months, when letters were the only means of communication with Home, when Europeans died like flies in the East, their sojourns abroad saw them fall down the rabbit hole far more comprehensively than any modern expat. I hoped to use the novel to explore parallels between an early age of globalisation, and our own age, between the effects of a financial crisis then, and of the recent crises in the global economy, between the lives of expats then, and expats now, and so on…

Bonus: Alice as manga character

Why not make Alice Japanese? She could cultivate kawaii. And the white rabbit could be kawaii, too. The setting could be Tokyo, the rabbit hole could be the Tokyo subway…

Photo credits: Tumbling down the rabbit hole…[], by LuxTonnerre via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)[]; Pink bunny-shaped roadblock (Narita)[] via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)[]. Inset: Through the Rabbit Hole[], by Jenni C via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)[].

Photo credits: Tumbling down the rabbit hole…, by LuxTonnerre via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Pink bunny-shaped roadblock (Narita) via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0). Inset: Through the Rabbit Hole, by Jenni C via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

* * *

Thank you, Rosie! Being wonderlanded with you was a curious experience, that’s for sure! Readers, please leave your responses to Rosie’s story in the comments. And stay tuned for her writing samples showing what it was like to be wonderlanded back in the day of Sir Stamford Raffles! ~ML

STAY TUNED for the next fab post: an example of how Rosie writes about a wonderlanded experience.

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