The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

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

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

—ML Awanohara

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Until then. Prost! Santé!

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

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

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For this up-and-coming visual storyteller and lover of travel, a picture says…

Jamie March 2015 collage

Canon zoom lens, photo credit: Morguefiles; Jamie in Bangkok, Thailand, for the Loy Krathong festival (November 2013).

James King is back with his ever-popular “A picture says…” column. English by birth, James is now semi-retired in Thailand. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

My March guest is 22-year-old Singaporean Jamie Chan. She shares stories and images from her travels on her blog, No Foreign Lands, while shooting or writing for clients in the photography, lifestyle or travel genres.

Ever since she started photography in 2009, Jamie is rarely seen without a camera. Named one of Singapore’s 10 Best Young Photographers, she is an ardent traveler and enjoys documenting local cultures and lifestyles.

A specialist volunteer for Singapore International Foundation and various animal welfare groups, Jamie also finds time for good causes.

In addition, she sings in Schola Cantorum Singapore and plays the cello. She has clearly been allotted more hours than me in a day!

* * *

Hi, Jamie, and welcome to TDN. I’ve been looking forward to this interview since I first saw your street photography. For one so young you have travelled a fair bit and captured some great images. Can you tell us where you were born and when you spread your wings to start travelling?
I was born and raised on the sunny island of Singapore. My first solo trip was to Indonesia, when I was selected to be a photojournalist delegate of Singapore for the ASEAN Cultural Youth Camp of 2011, held in Yogyarkarta. At the time I was doing my final year project for my degree in Visual Communications (I majored in photography). After the camp finished, I decided to spend an entire month travelling around and documenting the culture and lifestyle of the peoples of Central Java. It was a big learning curve and stretched my photographic skills. I did not have the luxury of an editor to tell me what to look out for, and it was hard to get feedback from my lecturers because getting a wifi spot with Internet was like hitting the jackpot. The experience taught me to reflect, make decisions and work with what I had. I had to figure out how to shape and edit down my stories.

You were only 19 then. How did your parents feel about your decision to travel solo?
They were of course worried sick but came around eventually and even joined me for some parts of the trip. After all, what better way to spend time with your parents than on the back of a motorcycle going at God-only-knows what speed—’cause the speedometer was broken!

That must have been some trip! So once you caught the travel bug, where else did you go?
As a visual storyteller, I am always on the lookout for subjects that would make interesting photo essays. My blog, No Foreign Lands, started as a way to tell my mother that I was still alive while on the road. It has now become a platform for me to tell my stories and share my images with the world. Asia is one of my favourite places to travel. There is an incredible amount of interconnected history among the various countries. I am always learning.

I agree. Asia is a treasure trove for us storytellers and photography buffs. I only wish I had started my travels at an earlier age. So which countries have you visited so far?
There is a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson that goes:

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. The great affair is to move.

When I got back to Singapore after my Indonesia trip, I could not keep still. I was hooked on travelling, exploring and waking up to something new every day. I needed to move; soon after I graduated I booked my next trip—and I’ve never looked back since. Off the top of my head, I’ve been to Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Nepal, Indonesia, India, China and Australia.

That’s eight countries in less than four years; a lot more than most people visit in a lifetime. So tell us about where you are right now and why.
I’m actually back home in Singapore! I’ll mostly be based here for the remainder of 2015. That said, I can never stay put for long—I’ve taken three trips out of the country this year and it is only March! I am in the midst of getting a certification for my Japanese-language studies which I hope to finish by next year. Once that’s done, I intend to work and stay in Japan if possible.

“As a person who deals with visuals before words…”

I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you. I do believe Japan is a beautiful country which offers photographers some great opportunities. So now let’s see a few of your photos that capture some of your favourite memories.
One of the first stories I did in Indonesia involved visiting various “home industries” for a glimpse of what villagers do for a living. This man was performing a rather mundane job cranking out tiles with this old machine. It requires so much strength (I tried turning it and it barely budges):

Indonesia_machine

This Central Javenese man makes 500 tiles by hand every day using a cranky manual machine; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

I photograph Thaipusam, a Hindu festival celebrated by Tamil communities, almost every year in Singapore; I took this picture in 2014. There is something about the spirit of the festival that never ceases to amaze me each time I document it:

The unforgettable Chetty Pusam in Singapore; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

Singapore’s unforgettable Chetty Pusam; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

I was very fortunate to be able to make it down to the final few performances of the Melbourne Docklands Blues Festival and photographed a set by Jimi Hocking.He is an incredible musician and performer and this image just reminds me of Guitar Gods and their worshippers:

Can Jimi the Human be real? Photo credit: Jamie Chan.

Can Jimi the Human be real? Photo credit: Jamie Chan.

My favourite places to take photos so far are India, Nepal and Australia—but picking three pictures to illustrate this was really hard as each of these countries has so many amazing places to shoot… Anyway, let me start with the Great Ocean and its apostles. While it may seem like a tourism pilgrimage, when you actually stay and watch the light, you will see that every moment reveals a new side to the gorgeous apostles:

The Great Ocean Road in Australia; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

A couple of the Twelve Apostles along Australia’s Great Ocean Road; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

This is a stunning picture, Jamie. You have made a simple composition with no clutter and very imposing subjects. I love it.
Moving on to Kathmandu. Where do I begin? Within the valley wherever you are, the Himalayan mountain line is always watching you. I felt a sense of peace throughout my stay in Nepal. It is kind of hard to describe the feeling. I recommend you go there yourself. Here is one memento:

Kathamandu; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

One of Kathamandu‘s peaceful oases; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

Ayuthaya in Thailand is incredible. I was fortunate enough to gain access to its inner chambers to photograph some of the world’s oldest paintings—an incredibly humbling moment. Here’s an external shot of the ruins that were left after the Burmese invasion:

Ayuthaya; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

The ancient Siamese kingdom of Ayuthaya; photo credit: Jamie Chan.

The more-than-a-thousand-year-old Khmer temples of northeast Thailand are really impressive and give us a glimpse of how the Khmer Empire stretched from Cambodia into what is now a large area of Thailand. Tell me, do you feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious of you doing so?
I try my best to observe and read a person’s body language. My camera is always with me and there is always a silent communication of sorts whenever I lift it to my eye. But there is actually nothing to feel reserved or shy about as the most that can happen is that your subject will say no or even hit you(!) if you are really obnoxious.

“I also happen to speak two and a half languages. The half language is Mandarin.”

I mainly do landscape but when I do shoot people I am the same. I hate to take “posed for” photos so I hardly ever get into a discussion. I take the pic or I don’t. Do you ever ask permission before taking people’s photographs? How do you get around any problem of language?
Since I am always reading a person’s body language before I shoot, I generally do not ask for permission. If I do ask and do not speak their language, I rely on improvised sign language—pointing to my camera and nodding with a big smile on my face. It’s worked so far.

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?
Yes, most definitely. As cliché as this may sound, the camera allows us to stop time for a split second and record the moment, preserve a memory.

So when did you realise the power of photography, and how has it changed you?
It happened by accident, like so many things in life, while I was looking through old photos of my family. I realised then that if no one had taken these photos, I would never have remembered how my mum looked like all those years ago.

“Who says the iPhone can’t photograph the moon!”

I know what you mean. For me, a picture is a diary of an event in visual form. The photographer “writes” about it in a way no one else could.Now for the technical stuff. What kind of camera and lenses you use?
I work with a rangefinder, the Leica M-E. My 35mm Summilux lens is stuck to the camera body most of the time as it is just such a beautiful focal length which allows me to respond quickly to different situations. On certain occasions, maybe twice a year, I will use the 50mm Summilux just to get a tighter shot. Other than that, my iPhone 5s takes wicked macro shots.

That’s interesting because although I have become attached to the versatility of my 18–55mm Canon lens there are times when I can’t get in close enough, so I need to add say a 70–200mm to my kit. And now I need an iPhone 5s!!!!! And which software do you use for post-processing?
I use Lightroom for post processing as I shoot entirely in raw image format.

“The perfect camera is the one with you.”

Join the club. Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
I’m not sure what advice I can give for wannabe photographers, though that hoary old chestnut “Don’t quit your day job” has just now floated into my mind. I say that because I sense that the golden age of photography is mostly over. Having said that, if you have the passion and perseverance to live, breathe and eat photography, press on and live it. But also remember that technology has made it so much easier to learn a new creative skill. Try your hand at video, writing or music. Use your creativity, mash them all together, and see what you come up with. At the end of the day, as long as your art moves someone and you are able to live comfortably with what you have, you know you are on the right track.

I actually think that is very good non-technical advice Jamie and I’d like to thank you for taking the time to tell your story so far in this interview. I am sure you will, undoubtedly, inspire other young and maybe not so young people.

Editor’s note: All subheds are excerpted from Jamie’s blog.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Jamie’s experiences? If you have any questions for her on his travels and/or photos, please leave them in the comments!

If you want to get to know Jamie and her creative works better, I suggest you visit her photography site and check out her posts on her photography/travel blog, No Foreign Lands. You can also follow her on twitter and Instagram and/or like her blog’s Facebook page.

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: When what happens in a third culture refuses to stay there: Allen Kurzweil’s “Whipping Boy”

Booklust Wanderlust Collage

Left: Oleh Slobodeniuk (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0); right: Beth Green (her own photo).

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 rather unusual selection: a memoir that reads like crime fiction. The author, but of course, is an international creative. Enjoy!

—ML Awanohara

Hello again, Displaced Nationers!

Our Booklust, Wanderlust roundtable series left me with such a wide selection of books to read that I’m only just now coming up for air. This month I’d like to tell you about Whipping Boy: My Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully, by the bestselling novelist Allen Kurzweil—which our own ML named as one of the books on her radar in early 2015.

Well, Whipping Boy is out, and it’s a cracking (so to speak) read!

"Allen Kurzweil Wiki2007," by Allen Kurzweil - an image provided by Allen Kurzweil. Transferred from en.wikipedia by SreeBot. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

TCK author Allen Kurzweil & his memoir. Photo credits: “Allen Kurzweil Wiki2007,” by Allen Kurzweil – an image provided by Allen Kurzweil. Transferred from en.wikipedia by SreeBot. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Kurzweil has produced a memoir that deals with deep emotions dating back to his displaced youth—but that still manages to flow fast and fun like an international thriller. As marketing whiz Kat Gordon put it in a recent tweet:

Hanging on every word of @AllenKurzweil memoir “Whipping Boy.” A whodunit + fairytale in one.

In the fairy tale portion, we watch as our hero, age ten, attends a British-style boarding school perched on an alpine meadow high above Geneva. All goes well until he meets the dastardly Cesar (full name Cesar Augusto Viana), who torments him mercilessly. When our hero grows up, he resolves to track down and confront his childhood nemesis, however long it takes…

The whodunit starts the moment Kurzweil discovers that Cesar has become a leading figure in an international fraud scheme. At that point he converts into an investigative journalist, leaving no stone unturned in his quest to find out how many victims the adult Cesar has racked up.

Before saying anything more about the book, I should point out that Kurzweil is an adult Third Culture Kid. His parents were Jewish émigrés from Vienna to New York City. The family relocated to Milan, Italy, when Kurzweil was young, but he spent his teen years back in New York. He got his education at Yale and the University of Rome and then worked for ten years as a freelance journalist in France, Italy, and Australia before settling back in the United States with his French wife and son.

Kurzweil’s previous works include two novels and a children’s book inspired by his son’s preschool bully. The Whipping Boy has also been excerpted and condensed in the New Yorker.

“In 1971, I met a boy who changed my life forever.”

Kurzweil roomed with Cesar—a burly Filipino rumored to be the son of Ferdinand Marcos’s head of security—at the exclusive Aiglon College, in Villars, Switzerland, for the better part of a year, while Kurzweil’s mother was “test-driving her third husband.” (Kurzweil’s father died of cancer when he was five.)

Kurzweil loved the idea of the school—his deceased father had adored the Alps and mountaineering. But he hated boarding, particularly at night, when Cesar and his stooges would subject him to all manner of hazing. They forced him to eat hot pepper sauce, stole his things (including his most prized possession, his father’s Omega Seamaster watch), taunted him with anti-Semitic slurs, and at one point whipped him with a belt while playing “The 39 Lashes” from Jesus Christ Superstar (Kurzweil was Jesus).

Some form of bullying in schools is universal, but when the kids are internationals, and boarders—dealing with the losses of worlds they have loved (which in Kurzweil’s case was tied to the loss of his dad)—things can get even more intense, something non-TCKs may not appreciate.

Fortunately, though, Kurzweil has a sense of humor. In this book he never misses a chance to point out that life, even when traumatizing, has its comic moments.

“It didn’t take long to shed the habits I’d picked up in Switzerland.”

After a year at the school, Kurzweil moves back to New York City, and quickly re-acculturates:

“[My mother and I] returned to New York, where the plimsolls, anoraks and rucksacks I wore at Aiglon reverted to sneakers, parkas and backpacks. I no longer had to address my teachers as sir and ma’am.”

But while Kurzweil displays the TCK’s resilience in adjusting back to life in the U.S., happy to get rid of the crossbars on his “7s” and scuttle his schooner-sail “4s”, he cannot let go of his memories of Cesar so easily. He harbors an obsession, which grows worse with the years, even (especially?) after he finds success as a writer.

When he learns that his boyhood enemy is most probably a con man working for a shady “royal”-family-led corporation named Badische (pronounced “Baddish,” Kurzweil notes slightly gleefully) that runs investment “schemes” for hard-up New York one-percenters, Kurzweil becomes unstoppable:

Obsessives tend to have obsessions. Cesar wasn’t my first fixation, and I’m sure he won’t be the last. Baseball cards, Matchbox cars, Pez dispensers—I’ve always been a collector…my point is I tend to go overboard. I investigated Cesar and Badische the same way I collected Lincoln pennies—intent on filling every void.

“…I began to acknowledge the obvious: Cesar had taken over my life.”

His investigations span decades and continents, and throughout it all he is haunted by memories of Cesar:

At the back of a dingy bar in Alice Springs, a pair of drunks playing foosball recalled my ex-roommate’s unstoppable bank shot. In Vienna, hanging on the wall of the Kunsthistoriches Museum, a Flagellation of Christ reinvoked the musical whipping. Hot sauce, Andrew Lloyd Weber tunes, Ferdinand Marcos, Montblanc fountain pens, and more than anything else, vintage Omegas, had me reaching for the journal.

The Ubiquitous Cesar. Photo credits (clockwise from left): “Flagellation-of-christ-Rubens” by Peter Paul Rubens (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons); foosball, byrev via Pixabay; Omega watch, ephotographythemes via Pixabay.

Kurzweil shares with the reader his mixed emotions when he at last finds Cesar, wondering what to say to someone who may not even remember him. And then the fear returns—the fear that he experienced as a shy boy being whipped with a belt in his dorm room…only now it is morphing into an adult fear as Kurzweil realizes he has tracked down an actual criminal:

Fake knights. False banks. Imaginary kingdoms. These guys travelled on bogus passports. They hosted lavish dinner parties at five-star hotels. They performed knighting ceremonies. (When I interviewed the assistant U.S. attorney who filed the initial charges, he summed up the crime as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels meets Clue.)

“So, basically, I’m being blamed for your memories?”

Whipping Boy was a quick, satisfying read. I loved the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction details that Kurzweil unearths about Cesar and his company’s schemes.

I loved his humor.

I also enjoyed the quiet pauses when Kurzweil would describe personal moments having nothing to do with the hunt for Cesar: for example, when he met his wife in outback Australia:

A French anthropologist named Françoise Dussart spotted me wandering toward a sacred site off limits to visitors. Concerned for my safety, she drove up and warned me away. She was sitting in the cab of a Toyota Land Cruiser and cradling a baby kangaroo. How could I not fall in love?

And then:

She flew west, from Alice. I flew east, from New York. We met each other halfway, in Paris, broke and in love.

Juanchito via Pixabay[http://pixabay.com/en/kangaroo-australia-jump-creature-250873/]; talitaraquel via Pixabay[http://pixabay.com/en/eiffel-tower-paris-france-tower-350453/]. License: CC0 Public Domain[http://pixabay.com/en/service/terms/#download_terms]

From kangaroo love to love in the City of Light. Photo credits: Australian kangaroo, Juanchito via Pixabay; Eiffel Tower, talitaraquel via Pixabay. License: CC0 Public Domain

I further appreciated his candor in admitting that two people can remember the details of an event differently, particularly when one of them is a psychopath with a chip on his shoulder. As Cesar puts it when they finally meet up again for the first time:

“I recall a lot… But just in bits and pieces. There are some things that people have told me about that I really don’t remember. You might need to prod me a bit.”

I would particularly recommend the book to those who like stories about heists or con artists—the movie American Hustle has some parallels—as well as to anyone who has harbored a fantasy of facing down a childhood bully.

Kurzweil may be beaten but he isn’t conquered, and that’s an inspiration to victims everywhere.

But most of all I appreciated Kurzweil’s understanding that for us TCKs, what happens in a third culture doesn’t always stay in a third culture. Some readers may wonder why Kurzweil couldn’t leave his bullying experience behind, particularly as it happened overseas, in a country to which he had limited personal ties. But for Third Culture Kids, the floating world of the expat is as real as it gets. And, as Kurzeil’s story shows, what happens there can have a life-long impact.

* * *

Fellow TCKs, do you have a Cesar or other skeletons in your cupboard dating back to your school days, at an international school or boarding school? Do tell!

Till next time!

Editor’s note: All subheds are quotes taken from Allen Kurzweil’s New Yorker article.

Beth Green is an American writer and English teacher 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, and she is about to launch a new site called 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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LOCATION, LOCUTION: British expat author Carl Plummer turns his gaze upon his adopted home of China

Columnist JJ Marsh (left) talks to Carl Plummer,

Columnist JJ Marsh (left) talks to Carl Plummer, a writer of historical adventure fiction.

We welcome JJ Marsh back to the Displaced Nation for this month’s “Location, Locution.” If you are new to the site, JJ, who is a crime series writer, chats with fellow fiction writers about their methods for portraying place in their works. Her guest today is Carl Plummer, who writes World War II adventure spoofs under the pen name of Robert E. Towsie. Born in Hull, England, he lived in Cyprus, Paris and Libya before moving to his current home of China, where he works as a university lecturer. Today he does something unusual for this column: describes the place where he’s living right now.

—ML Awanohara

JJ MARSH: Once in a while, Location, Locution likes to surprise you. Remember the Paulo Coelho piece on monuments that immortalise cities? If not, go read it now. Is it any surprise this man is an international bestseller?

This month, I tracked down an author I’ve admired for a long time. Carl Plummer writes as Robert E. Towsie, in a classic comic style, setting his capers around Europe against the backdrop of its dramatic history.

But what interested me about Carl/Robert is where this expat creative lives. China. A place I find fascinating, mysterious and sometimes a little scary. So this month’s Location, Locution is his take on China, its people and and how he sees it. Enjoy.

* * *

CARL PLUMMER: In 2004, after a stint in Libya, I arrived in China and started a job at Nanyang Normal University to teach British and American literature. The city of Nanyang (pop. 1,000,000) in Henan Province was proud to boast ten lao wai, foreigners.

Every minute, on every street, in every shop, I was reminded I was a foreigner. Some reminders were harsh, nationalistic and racist with the “go back where you came from” we associate with racism in England.

Other reminders were through curiosity, the wish to speak English to and even touch a foreigner, the assumption all foreigners are American and a sense of me being something exotic, something new and different, and most of all—rich.

I wasn’t rich, am not rich. Teachers are the poorest working travellers of the world. We are the intellectual navvies from the western world. We are not businessmen with expense accounts; we are not oil people or wheeler and dealers. But we are approachable because we have to mingle, use the buses and the metros, and the trains. We do not have company cars with around-the-clock company drivers.

During the rainy season in a small coal-mining town near Pingdingshan the streets would run black when it poured and families would come out to shower beneath the torrents thundering off awnings.

What made me rich to such people? I had an apartment with a shower and I could afford the water it used—I didn’t have to wait for the rain.

In China, the iron rice bowl has long gone.

Why am I talking about money instead of garnishing the text with tales of magnificent walls, gaudy ancient temples or food conjured up with every living creature imaginable? Well, that’s all been done before.

I’m talking of money because poverty is not romantic; it never has been and it never will be. It is cruel and it doesn’t discriminate; there are no deserving and no undeserving poor.

That cradle-to-the-grave surety of Communism is a generation ago, but that generation brought up in it is still around. It is my age, brought up in the 60s and 70s, taught to root out the treacherous intellectual bourgeoisie, taught to spy on parents and teachers, taught to love the state above all else.

It worked in theory for a while because the state cared; it looked after your every need as long as your toed the line, as long as you never asked questions. Now it doesn’t. Now there is no line to toe.

The young are asking questions. That is their hope.

I meet many young people, in their 20s, who have something hanging around their necks; cultural and domestic demands, greatly exacerbated by the growth of capitalism and the cracking of the iron rice bowl.

Education is expensive in China, as is being healthy. Young people have shown me lists, lists almost like invoices saying: we spent this much on your upbringing and this is what you must pay back to us. It is easy to get the sense parents have children for one reason: someone to take care of them in their old age. Babies, especially boys, are glorified little emperors, smothered and mothered—especially grandmothered—to the extreme; but once in their teens they are seen as future life-support systems.

Rich CEOs and husbands framed

Haozhi Chen (CEO of Chinese mobile powerhouse Chukong), by Jon Jordan via Flickr; “Wedding couple in the clan house,” by shankar s. via Flickr. Both photos are licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

Boys are expected to become CEOs and girls are expected to find rich husbands. All are expected to become members of extended families because extended families are safer, more secure. Individualism and independence is dangerous.

The average salary in China is still about 2000 yuan a month (about 200GBP) for a ten-hour-day and a six-day week. Millions of workers live in dormitories more akin to barracks, and send home half their salaries to support families back home. Young people must pay back the money they owe their parents. This is how it is for the majority of young people in China. The majority has to save because everyone has to pay.

When the future is precarious you have to save.

When I lived in the Bai Yun district of Guangzhou (Guangdong province, in Southern China), I used to cycle through a huge housing estate (apartments by the thousand) and cut through the grounds of Jinxi Nanfang Hospital.

Those middle-class apartments sell for about 3,000,000 yuan each, rented out for between 3,000 and 4,000 a month.

From the higher balconies you can see the rows of beggars in the streets around the hospital. These are not the beggars we expect—those in shop doorways with mangy dogs for company.

These beggars are lying in makeshift hospital beds, out in the open, with drips hanging from stands. These beggars are families trying to get the 500 yuan a night needed for hospital treatment, or even the 100 yuan just to see a doctor.

Dontspend$$youdonthave

Lesson for all SL-ers, by Laurence Simon via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

This is why so many Chinese people are savers, not spenders.

And those apartments—the richer you are, the higher up you live. The higher up you are, the farther you can see across the hospital surrounds where the aged and sick lie in the shadows of a hospital they cannot afford to enter. It is a world where education and health is a luxury, not a right.

For the growing middle-class it is different; for the Chinese aristocracy—very different. There is a Chinese aristocracy; it’s the cushioned group of party members—the 5 percent. (Google “My father is Li Gang”* if you wish to know how that works.)

The growing middle classes do not live with the fearful uncertainties of old age. They do not fear the need to see a doctor or the need to stay in hospital for a few days. They can send their children to good schools; send them to the UK, the USA or Australia to continue with their studies. They can send their children out into the world to be whatever they wish to be—something so many westerners take for granted. They do not need their offspring to look after them in old age. They can be spenders and savers.

I’d rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle.

"Cargirl," by Xuan Zheng via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); (bottom) "Shanghai cyclists," by Gwydion M. Williams via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

“Cargirl,” by Xuan Zheng via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); “Shanghai cyclists,” by Gwydion M. Williams via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

How about the girl who said on a TV show “I’d rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle”?

Yes, she was condemned and ridiculed, but she does not have the luxury of choice, the luxury of hope; the safety net is not yet there for her.

I believe and hope it will be for her children. Already, there are newly middle class young people who not have to choose between the BMW and the bicycle. Educated women are buying their own BMWs, their own apartments. They do not have to get married as soon as possible in order to be secure.

And more importantly, their individualism and prosperity is running alongside a new sense of social justice, political justice, and an awareness of the needs of others.

Religion, philosophy, or just simple humanism, whatever it is—the humanity is breaking through.

Twenty years ago, capitalism was raw in China; it was Darwinian and brutal, but it is slowly coming around, perhaps in the way it eventually did so in Britain until it was scuppered by the bankers who played with money as though it was Monopoly money.

We started with the Bounderby style of capitalism where Britain was the richest country in the world, populated by the poorest masses.

That is where China has been, perhaps still is, but it is moving through that. Communism denuded the soul, evicted compassion and turned the people into soldier ants. Capitalism came along to lift people out of poverty, but it did not fill the spiritual vacuum—the vacuum of feeling and compassion.

Christianity is becoming ever more popular in China. Confucianism is being taught again. The vacuum is being filled. The younger capitalist—who is not from the spoilt 5 percent—has a sense of social responsibility, the idea of giving back.

Mr Cameron’s “long-term plan” is but a sparrow’s sneeze in Chinese terms.

It’s a long process, but China has a long history and has always been about long processes.

The hope is, and I am confident about it, is the young; they have enough to eat, will have roofs over their heads, but more importantly, they can afford to be more thoughtful, more caring—they can afford humanity. Breaking free from poverty allows kindness to flourish (kindness in individuals and kindness from the state) if it is not smothered by the unacceptable face of capitalism or the dehumanization of totalitarianism.

I believe it will get there. But we cannot think in European terms; European terms are far too short. And remember why you can afford your cheap TV, cheap mobile phone and cheap computer; it is funded by cheap labour.

There are still millions and millions with a standard of living we would find totally unacceptable; but the fear of starvation has gone and the idea of a health service free at the point of use is slowly becoming more than just a dream. For most young people, going to university is still a dream.

It is changing. The young people are making it change.

* * *

Readers, if this interview has piqued your curiosity about Carl Plummer and his Robert E. Towsie books, we encourage you to visit his author site.

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

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Et tu, France? Fiddling with that fine American classic, the Caesar salad?

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

* * *

I have been known to comment on France’s dedication to the classics when it comes to food—or fashion for that matter. (As some readers my recall, I’m a fan of France’s LBD, seeing it as a cure for obesity.)

Actually, there are times when my latest adopted home’s refusal to contemplate a bit of culinary iconoclasm baffles me. But then I come from the UK, which seems obsessed with putting a “twist” on classics or, if not that, then “fusing” apparently disparate food stuffs in a desperate search for novelty.

Much of the time, though, I admire the conviction that as French is best, why fiddle around with something that works well?

Let’s talk about the mille-feuille/Napolean/cream slice

My favourite treat, for example, is a mille-feuille (known as a Napoleon in the US and a cream slice in the British Isles). I can find one in any decent patisserie and know it will be excellent and exactly what it should be: buttery flaky pastry, a rich cream filling and a topping of glacé icing.

I never have to worry that some bright spark will have tried to deconstruct it, spin it or twist it. It remains comfortingly indulgent, mouth filling and ever-so-slightly decadent while also keeping within the bounds of good taste.

If you understand my love for the mille-feuille, it should help you see why I’ve chosen to gossip this month about France’s treatment of the Caesar salad. Clearly, the protection France affords to its own food classics does not extend to those that hail from other shores. I hesitate to suggest a conspiracy, but I have noticed an alarming tendency among the chefs in this part of the world to fiddle with recipes from elsewhere.

Et tu, French chefs?

Some have claimed that there have been so may modifications of the poor Caesar salad over the years that the term “Caesar salad” has lost all meaning.

While I wouldn’t go that far, I would like to point out that this American classic has been treated with reckless disregard here in France. I’ve been trying to puzzle out this very un-French behavior. Is it because of the salad’s humble origins—it was invented in Tijuana, Mexico—not to mention its current status as a menu staple in the steakhouses of Las Vegas?

If so, then the French need to know that this salad is more Grace Kelly than high-kicking showgirl. Much as the Philadelphia-born star brought some film star gloss to Monaco without the tawdry Hollywood tat, the Caesar has much to offer the European Continent. Neither colourfully brash nor tartily sweet, it shows Europe that America can do class, too, and do it well.

So what else has this poor salad done to deserve the indignities heaped upon its noble Roman name? It appears on countless French menus the country over, but I have yet to find one that comes close to those I have enjoyed in America. What is going so terribly wrong?

The classic Caesar vs. the French Caesar

The classic Caesar involves Romaine lettuce tossed in a dressing made from egg yolks, oil, lemon juice, parmesan cheese, a dash of Worcester sauce, maybe a dash of Dijon mustard and topped with croutons, possibly a sprinkling of bacon, and more parmesan. That’s it. Perfection. Leave it alone.

Yet the one I had in a bistro on Cours Mirabeau here in Aix yesterday involved tomato quarters, a poached egg, slivers of raw carrot and a mixture of leaves including frisée. Frisée! (Endive if you will.) What sort of abomination is that? The bitter flavor fights the smooth creaminess of the dressing, and the springy dry texture takes over the salad’s delicacy.

In any event, here is what I beheld on my plate:
NotQuiteCaesarSaladinAix_pm
We’ve already discussed the tomatoes and the endive. Let’s move on to gossiping about the dressing. How can France of all places not get this right? A country where it is not considered suicidal to indulge in raw meat and egg.

Readers, while I was condemned to a hygienic, bottled, nondescript white dressing lacking in any flavour much least of egg—its sole being to lubricate and aid the passage of frisée down my protesting neck—I happened to glance at the main at the neighboring table. And you’ll never guess what I saw? He was enjoying a steak tartare topped with a whole raw egg!

Never lose an opportunity for culinary enhancement!

And this is not the only scandalously wasted opportunity for France to show America how its food can be better done. As American devotees of the Caesar will know, there is an ongoing and passionately fought debate over whether or not the newcomer ingredient of the anchovy is too inauthentic to tolerate or a delightfully salty addition to the rather bland romaine leaves.

(The original salad included anchovies only insofar as they are an ingredient in Worcester sauce. They were not blended into the dressing, nor did they appear whole amongst the leaves and croutons.)

Now, anchovies, I’ll have you know, are found everywhere in France, in all forms, and they are very, very good.

Which is why I simply don’t understand why French Caesars ever omit them from the Caesar salad. (I suspect my tartare-eating neighbor had some on his plate, too.)

Why am I such a fault-finding gossip?

Readers, at this point you may wonder why I felt compelled to report on my apparently doomed search for an authentic Caesar salad here in the South of France.

British anthropologist Kate Fox put her own tribe under scrutiny and reported on the findings in her 2005 book, Watching the English. She suggests that the English complain as it draws us together in adversity. If we do not complain about our lives, we risk being self-satisfied show-offs keen to prove that our lives are perfect. As we place great value on dealing well with any adversity life throws us, optimism can appear smug.

Just think, if I had written that the best Caesar salads are to be found in France and only France and how happy I am that discovered this fact, my life would seem too intolerably pleased with itself for any of you readers out there to tolerate.

And perhaps for that reason I take pleasure in knowing that while the French can produce the perfect mille feuille, they are a little challenged in the salad department. In this way I can love France, because it isn’t intolerably perfect. Voilà!

Or is this whole thing just a sign of my competitiveness?

French author José-Alain Fralon has characterized the relationship between the French and the British by describing the British as “our most dear enemies”.

There must be some truth in what he says. Because before ending this month’s gossip session, I feel compelled to tell you a story about how, when I was back in Blighty recently, I arrived very late in the town of York. A Weatherspoon’s pub was still serving food. I went in and ordered a Caesar salad. Now, Weatherspoons is not a chain renowned for fantastic food, but as you can see from this photo, they understand the requirements of croutons, parmesan, romaine lettuce and a creamy (albeit not very eggy) dressing with some hint of Worcester sauce:
CaesarSaladinUK_pm
I was delighted to see that tomatoes were absent—the only addition to the classic being chicken, which seems the accepted standard now.

Not to be invidious, but if Weatherspoons can get the basic elements right, then why not an Aix bistro?

* * *

Readers, we invite you to continue the food gossip! Have you noticed any abominations of your previous home food classics similar to what Joanna has observed with the French Caesar? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

STAY TUNED for our next fab post!

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DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: Has it really been six months? How time flies when you’re writing full time

DiaryExpatWriterAn American expat newlywed in Hong Kong, Shannon Young took the momentous decision last summer to quit her day job and launch out as a full-time writer. She’d given herself until Chinese New Year to see if she could make a living. And now the Year of the Sheep is here—baa baa—is she a lost lamb or making the most of life apart from the herds? Let’s find out, shall we?

—ML Awanohara

Dear Displaced Diary,

It has been six months since my last confess—oh wait. It has been six months since I posted a video about how I quit my day job as an English teacher in Hong Kong to write full-time (and also cut 18 inches off my hair):

For those who haven’t been following: it was now or never. Before going all in as a writer, I had been writing seriously for about four years in my free time and had several books out, or in the process of launching. I had been working on drafts for a four-book post-apocalyptic series, and I wanted to devote myself full-time to getting those titles out into the world.

Financially, I was also in a better place. I paid off my student debt in December 2013 and had spent eight months saving up the money I’d previously put toward loans, which meant I could live without a day job for a while.

My goal was to see whether I could make it as a writer, both financially and in terms of lifestyle: could I stay productive without much external structure?

I gave myself until Chinese New Year to see how it was going.

And now for the moment of truth!

It isn’t really a moment, it turns out, but a process, during which:

  • I figured out ways to create structure for myself.
  • I learned more about my own productivity habits.
  • I improved my endurance (I’m having more and more five-hour writing/working sessions).
  • Most importantly, I developed a better sense of how long each project takes, which allows me to set accurate goals.

There have been some hard moments along the way. The first book in my series. Seabound, has sold fairly well, but it hasn’t taken off like a shot.

My entire strategy has been to build a readership slowly with a series of four books, but I have to keep reminding myself of that while sales of the first volume are still modest.

My revisions on Book 2 have been kind of painful. The rough draft has actually been finished for a long time, but it has been hard to get going on the final revisions.

On the other hand, I’ve done two drafts of the prequel now and I think it’s the best book I’ve written so far.

Giving myself pep talks and jealously guarding my time

I also have to give myself pep talks more often and train myself not to get discouraged.

Back in the days when I was a teacher, I would get lots of positive feedback from my students. Even though it had nothing at all to do with writing, I had 300 kids pretty much worshiping the ground I walked on every day. It was much easier to maintain a positive attitude.

Now it’s just me and Starbucks and the Amazon reviewers. I love the coffee shop time, and I’m never happier than when I’m hammering away at my laptop, but thoughts of strangers reading my books and giving them harsh critiques still creep in.

Ironically, even though I have more time available to me, I’ve been reducing the time I spend on other commitments. That’s something I didn’t expect.

When I had a day job, my schedule was broken up anyway and it wasn’t a big deal to answer emails here and there. Now that kind of thing can really break my focus, so I’m trying to say “no” more often to protect my work time.

Six-month report card

The past six months have been a roller coaster, with higher highs and lower lows than I’d anticipated.

I’m bringing in money every month, though I haven’t yet reached my income goals.

On the whole, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’ve published two books and one audio book, and I have four projects in progress.

It’s time to make a decision.

Dun da da da!

And now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Here’s what I’m planning to do:

To sum up, I’m giving myself until April. My savings are holding out and I plan to launch Seaswept around my next deadline. (If you want to see the cover image, sign up for my mailing list; I’m doing a secret reveal soon.)

Yesterday I completed another non-fiction piece for my primary pen name. Hopefully when I see how the books do I’ll be in a position to make my next big decision.

As always, I’ll keep you posted.

Thanks for following along on this journey! I really appreciate your words of encouragement.

Yours,

Shannon Young/Jordan Rivet
www.shannonyoungwriter.com

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

* * *

Readers, as they say in the Basque country, the lost sheep can be recovered, whereas the lost time cannot. It seems to me that Shannon has approached the Year of the Sheep having made the most of her time as a full-time writer! Do you have any thoughts or words of encouragement about her extension? Let her know in the comments!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: No apfelstrudel? Try some Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte!

CST apfelstrudel collageToday we welcome a new columnist, H.E. Rybol, to the Displaced Nation. The product of a German dad and a French mom, H.E. has lived in the United States, Luxembourg, England, Spain, Switzerland and Singapore. (She currently resides in Luxembourg.) After 16 years of the Third Culture Kid life, she feels well equipped to handle any culture shock challenge that may come her way, and recently compiled these tools in an e-book. In her column for us, H.E. will be sharing some tips for handling the inevitable through-the-looking-glass moments every international faces—albeit with a certain finesse—through excerpts from her own writings and interviews with other cross-cultural experts.

—ML Awanohara

Thanks, ML, and greetings, Displaced Nation readers!

Today I’m going to be talking about how our expectations shape our experiences. While that is something we all might know, we may not always be aware of it when it comes living life in other lands.

I am reminded of when I spent a bit of time in Dortmund, Germany. I spent my afternoons writing in a small boat-like cafe: blue sky and fluffy clouds were painted in the “portholes” on the back wall and ceiling, there were railings, two fake palm trees, maritime decorations carved out of wood: a seagull, a lighthouse, a sailboat.

Corny maybe, but I loved it.

One day, two women walked in with immaculate haircuts and fancy jewelry, conversing. They seemed excited, as if they’d really been looking forward to this moment. They ordered, merry faced and with their arms firmly planted on the table….an apfelstrudel.

The waiter, a young German-Egyptian, seemed bewildered: “A what?”

Apfelstruuuudel.”

Apfelkuchen?”

“No, no!” The women insisted.

This place offered an array of creamy and luscious cakes, but not apfelstrudel.

The women were incredulous. They turned to me, and said: “Apfelstrudel is SO German! How can they not have it?!”

They tried a different cake but kept shaking their heads in disbelief. They were disappointed. It seemed like in their minds, a cafe in Germany that didn’t serve apfelstrudel just didn’t fit.

Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with this scenario. We have all had moments where we set our minds on something we didn’t get. Consider this though: How would the experience of the two ladies that afternoon have changed, had they let go of their idea and simply embraced what they had found?

Dear readers, may I ask what would you would do in this situation?

Toolbox Time!

Now, were any of you at all inclined to select the first answer? Be honest! Because it’s time for me to get out my toolbox.

Why is it a good idea to leave preconceived notions behind?

1. (She powers up her blowtorch.) It’s more exciting! Of course it’s a good idea to prepare, but once you’re on the plane (train/bus/bike), let go of those ideas. Replace expectations with anticipation.

2. (She exchanges vise grip pliers for needle nose pliers.) Let go to avoid disappointment. I think it’s a great idea to try local specialties and show interest in another country’s culinary traditions. But be flexible. If there’s no apfelstrudel, try a black forest cake (Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte) or any other local specialty. (Or if your heart is still set on apfelstrudel, why not ask people on the streets or in shops or restaurants for apfelstrudel recommendations?)

3. (She picks up the crescent wrench.) It helps us be more open. We don’t travel to confirm an image that we have. We travel to learn and grow as human beings. We travel to connect. In order to do that we have to let go of stuff we don’t need…such as preconceived notions. It helps us embrace new experiences and see things we wouldn’t notice otherwise.

4. (She turns on the overhead light.) Reality is often so much more interesting and stimulating than what we picture in our minds….and if we cling to the picture, we miss out. Culture shock is already a lot to deal with, we don’t need to add roadblocks by clinging to preconceived ideas.

5. (She invites a German-Egyptian carpenter to do a demo.) As travelers our expectations shape our experiences, but we should remember that the reverse is also true. Other people’s preconceptions also have an impact. Be open, flexible and learn from each other.

I hope that has you fixed until next month.

Prost! Santé!

* * *

Readers, what do you make of H.E.’s advice about developing some flexibility from those times when you’re feeling displaced? Or is that too tall an order when you had always pictured yourself eating apple strudel in a boat-themed German café?

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

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TCK TALENT: Rahul Gandotra, Oscar-shortlisted filmmaker

Rahul Gandotra CollageElizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her column featuring interviews with Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields. Lisa herself is a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about growing up as a TCK, which receives rave reviews wherever it goes.

—ML Awanohara

Hello again, dear readers. Today’s interviewee is filmmaker Rahul Gandotra, whose short film, The Road Home, has played in over 60 festivals around the world and won over 20 awards, including the Student Film Academy Award and British Independent Film Award, and was shortlisted for the 2012 Oscar nominations.

The film beautifully depicts a Third Culture Kid story; it also catapulted Rahul into the shortlist of up-and-coming filmmakers.

RoadHome_posterHere is the film synopsis:

Growing up in England, ten-year old Pico never wanted to go to boarding school in the Himalayas, and despite the beauty there, he struggles to fit in. When he’s bullied for insisting he’s British in spite of his Indian heritage, he runs away, determined to return to his home in London. As he journeys through a country foreign to him, Pico encounters others who mistake him for an Indian boy, forcing him to face the painful truth that the world does not see him the way he sees himself.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Rahul. I understand that you were born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and grew up in eight countries across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas. Why did your family move so much, and to which countries?
A lot of my moving around happened because of my father’s job—he was a doctor looking for new opportunities in different parts of the world. While it gets complicated with all the cities I’ve lived in, the general overview is: after being born in Belfast, I spent the first six years of my life in all four parts of the UK (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales). Then we moved to Saudi Arabia, where I spent three years before attending a boarding school in the Himalayas (in Northern India) for seven years.

How about college and beyond?
I received my undergraduate degree in the United States, where I lived for eleven years. After that I was in the Czech Republic for one year. Since moving to London for my graduate degree, I’ve been in England for the last ten years.

“If you want to see the Himalayas, they’re that way.” —Pico to a British couple touring India

Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time, and if so, why?
Tough question. My happiest memories stem from when I was living in Saudi Arabia from age 6 to 9. Perhaps it was because I was a child? Perhaps it was because I was still with my parents (my mum was a homemaker) before I went to the boarding school in the Himalayas?

I just remember having happy memories in Saudi Arabia. I think my time at my boarding school was also quite enjoyable after I adjusted to life there.

Come to think about it, I’ve had good memories in places where there was a TCK-like / international environment. The more monocultural the environment was, the less I enjoyed the place.

What led you to become a filmmaker, and did it have anything to do with your peripatetic upbringing?
I don’t know if my moving around pushed me into filmmaking. I think the moving around has given me many gifts that I use in filmmaking. The ability to see things from different points of view, for example, helps me in seeing an actor’s point of view—especially when it’s different from mine.

Looking back, I learned a lot of my storytelling from my mother with all the stories she told me. I guess the patterns and rhythms of storytelling just seeped into me, as she recounted one story after the other!

At what point did you pick up the technical skills that turned you into a filmmaker?
That came from a combination of “doing it myself,” formal education, and a lot of reading!

“But I don’t feel Indian inside!” —Pico to an Indian taxi driver

Have you found that “your people” tend to be other Adult TCKs in creative fields or does it really depend on the individual and what s/he evokes in you, whether it’s a resonance that’s artistic or political or personality-related or life-experience related, etc.?
I seem to gravitate to people who are either TCKs or people who have done a significant amount of traveling. They don’t necessarily have to be in the creative fields though.

Congratulations on all the accolades your short film, The Road Home, has won! What inspired you to tell this story?
The plot was a fiction but the themes were autobiographical in nature. The idea of looking like you belong to a particular region because of your skin colour but feeling inside that you belong somewhere else is something that I wanted to illuminate in the short film.

Here is the trailer:

And if your readers would like to watch The Road Home, they may do so here.

I understand you are now making a feature-length version of The Road Home. Where are you in the pre-production phase?  
I’m in the financing stage where I’m hoping all the investments will be in place so I can shoot the feature film soon. (If there are any interested investors, please do contact me!)

“Why not speaking Hindi, huh? Important your knowing your mother tongue.” —Taxi driver to Pico

Are you working on other projects?
My screenwriting partner and I have been writing other screenplays but those are bigger in scope, and we’ll present those to the world when I’ve completed my first feature.

You’ve been directing commercials. Where are they airing and can we see them online?
I’ve just started directing commercials. Some of them have aired in the UK, while others have aired in India. The funny thing is that the commercial that was shot in the UK aired in India. And the commercial shot in India aired only in the UK! Here is one that was shot in India, for Rajah’s garam masala:


You can see more here.

Congratulations again, Rahul, on the success of The Road Home, all of the commercial work you’ve been doing, and the screenplays you’ve been writing. You’re a true “ATCK creative” and we’re hereby nominating you as Best Up-and-Coming Director for our Displaced Oscars!

Readers, please leave questions or comments for Rahul below.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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For this dreamer of dreams, artist at heart, and American Russophile, a picture says…

Steve Hague Collage

Canon zoom lens, photo credit: Morguefiles; Steve Hague and his Russian bride at St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Kazan, Russia, on their wedding day. The ceremony was followed by a reception where the happy couple danced, ate, laughed, toasted, and kissed—every time the guests shouted “Gorko, Gorko, Gorko!” (Kiss the bride!).

Writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King is back with his ever-popular “A picture says…” column. Born in England, James is now semi-retired in Thailand. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

My February guest is 58-year-old American national Steve Hague, who a few years ago left everything behind to start up a new life in Kazan, Russia.

Steve says that although he is American in the mind he is Russian in the heart. He keeps a fascinating blog, Life in Russia, which is aptly subtitled “The bridge between two countries”. Steve has put a lot of time, research and energy into bringing us information, both written and visual, about his adopted homeland, in an enthusiastic way.

He also belongs to the ranks of what the Displaced Nation calls “international creatives.” Besides being an avid photographer, he is currently writing a novelette called Under the Blood Moon.

Today I hope he will convey some of the enthusiasm he has about his new life and pursuits, along with sharing a selection of his photos.

* * *

Hi, Steve. We have been following each other’s blogs for a while now, and I am very pleased that we have the opportunity to meet in this interview. Let’s start with some background on you, shall we—beginning with where you were born and when you spread your wings to start travelling.
Well, the hospital where I was born almost refused my mother admittance because she had high cheek bones and dark skin, like a Native American Indian. My father managed to convince the staff she was white, and my arrival into the world occurred in Grand Junction Hospital, Colorado. Because my father worked for the government, my family moved every four years or so. I think we moved back and forth between Colorado and Maryland six times. Eventually, my mother put her foot down and we all graduated from high school in Boulder City, Nevada. But my father had itchy feet, and I appear to have followed in his footsteps, so to speak.

And in your adulthood you’ve become quite an experienced traveller. Tell me more.
I’d love to say I’ve traveled the world but it just isn’t so. I’ve traveled a lot within the United States. Thanks to my family, I’ve seen nearly every major national park in the United States, and in my early adulthood I did a lot of traveling on the West Coast. This stone finally stopped rolling in Portland, Oregon. Exploring the great Northwest was a wonderful experience.

But you didn’t venture outside the country?
Like every brave American I visited Canada several times. My best trip was to Prince George in British Columbia in the dead of winter. I guess I was preparing for exploits outside of the States without knowing it. And there were a couple of forays into Mexico when I was younger, before it became Gangland Я Us.

What about your working life—how did that evolve?
I started my career as an architect, back in the 1970s. That evolved into studying naturopathic medicine, which lasted approximately ten years until I founded the precious metals business, which I turned over to my partners before coming to Russia. Here in Kazan I found my niche in teaching English. Honestly, I never thought there was much value to being a native speaker; that only came after escaping America. Today along with teaching I write, which has been in my heart since childhood. It find it adds balance to my life.

Что ни город, то и норов (Another city—another temper). —Russian proverb

So Russia was your first time out of the United States? That was quite a leap! What led you there, and how did you cope with the cultural and language differences?
Yes, I met my wife through a dating website, and now Russia is my home (until I get itchy feet again). Some people may have thought I was crazy but with her by my side I felt more secure about living somewhere else. And what an experience it’s been! It’s truly opened my eyes to what it means to be a global citizen. In fact, where we live we resembles any major city in America minus one thing: the sidewalks are terrible here. Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same—malls, grocery stores, McDonald’s, the movies, it’s all here. There’s one oddity though. I see a greater variety of cars here than I ever saw in the States.

You have also really embraced Russia itself.
I believe I can trace my first love of Russia back to my childhood. My father brought home a record, How to Learn Russian Easy—I was probably only 11 years old at the time. The only word I learned was здравствуйте (hello). Later in high school I wanted to learn the language, but the choice was either French or Spanish. I chose French but never went to the class.

I know from my experiences in Thailand how valuable having a local partner or wife is. However, it can make you a little lazy on the language front and ultimately more dependent. But I’m sure that’s not the case with you, Steve! How often do you travel out of Russia to explore other places?
My wife and I love travel, and since moving here I’ve had the opportunity to visit Cyprus and Israel, both fascinating countries with incredible beauty and charm. I’m sure I will get to other places as well, eventually. Right now we have a couple of trips planned, one to the Altai Mountains, where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together, and the other, hopefully, to Europe. If anyone out there is into adventure travel, we’ve invited a small group to join us on the Altai trip. There’s still space.

Now let’s see some photos that capture a few of your favourite memories.
This first photo shows the canals of St. Petersburg. I took it during the blue hour of the summer solstice, close to midnight:
SH_StPetersburg_canals

The next photo is of the ancient town of Bolgar, which is located on the Volga about 75 miles away from Kazan—for me, it captures the essence of the place (which I found hard to do!):
SH_Bolgar

For the next one, I happened to be walking by the lake near my home when the fog started to lift. I saw the stump sticking up out of the water, the fog in the background, and the changing colors of the leaves. I knew this was one of those moments I would never see again. More than any other photo it changed how I viewed my photography:
SH_near home in Russia

The last one is indeed a lovely capture and I agree such moments aren’t ten a penny. Now I’m keen to see some of your favorite places for photography and hear about why you found them so inspirational. Let’s have a look.
The next photo shows the type of scene I love to capture. I was in Suzdal and just happened to be standing on a bridge looking over the river, towards one of the many churches within this small, historic town:
SH_river&church_Russia

While in Israel we traveled all over, from Haifa to the Sea of Galilee. We got to see Nazareth (which I didn’t like), Tel Aviv (much like any big city), and then Jerusalem, a fascinating city of culture, history, religion, and much more. We even made it to Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, at the northern tip of the Red Sea, which is a beautiful in its own right. I took many pictures of scenery, but here is a view of Haifa:
SH_Israel

Also in Israel, I snapped a few photos of people. One that stands out to me is this one, of a homeless man. I captured it on the sly and unfortunately came out blurred but it still speaks volumes to me:
SH_Homeless_in_Israel
I can understand why this one is special. It’s that beady eye watching your every move. I can forgive the blur when it has so much meaning for you.
Another photo that stands out for me is this one of a Druze woman. She was preparing food for us in an outdoor oven in what felt like the middle of nowhere, on Mount Carmel:
SH_DruzeWoman

It’s a lovely, natural picture. Tell me something, do you feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious that you are doing so, and do you ask permission before taking people’s photographs?
I will look at them and try to understand their mood. If I can see a smile, I’ll just go ahead and take a picture; if not, I’ll ask permission. Then at other times if I can’t detect a mood, I’ll ask permission or try to take a picture without attracting attention. Sometimes it works; other times it doesn’t.

Всяк глядит, да не всяк видит. (Everything has beauty but not everyone sees it.) —Russian proverb

From your descriptions, it sounds as though photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique, which will never be seen again, is a powerful force for you.
Photography and art have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. There have been times when I dreamed of becoming a professional artist or photographer. Then I came to understand that the reason I love photography so much is the freedom I feel when I manage to capture that special moment or scene. I wait for my eye to tell me: here it is, your model or subject. Relying on my inner instincts brings a sense of wonder and happiness to my soul. Being a professional would rob me of that freedom. And this way I am also free to share my photos with others.

That’s an interesting, and unselfish, perspective. From a technical point of view, some readers will want to know what kind of camera and lenses you use.
All my images so far have come from my Canon EOS 10D, I use long-range and mid-range lenses and occasionally a fish-eye lens when I feel it will capture what I’m looking for. There’s nothing really special. The post processing software I use is Picasa since it’s free and does most everything I need to do.

So all in all, it’s a simple and uncluttered approach that works for you. Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
Enjoy where you’re at, don’t worry about the subject matter (each one is a lesson), and don’t let anybody tell you to take lots and lots of pictures.

I must say I agree with what you just said, assuming you mean taking loads of shots randomly in the hope that you might get a good one. That’s a lazy approach that seldom works. It’s not a good way to learn the art, and it also means you have a lot of sorting and deletions to do. I only take a lot of shots when I’m doing blurs. Sorry, I interrupted. You were saying?
Explore different angles, walk around your subject looking for the right look, imagine it, see it in your mind, then shoot. A camera isn’t a shotgun; it’s a finely tuned instrument ready to capture whatever you want. A camera is nothing more than a fancy paintbrush. You the photographer are free to decide the final look and feel. The world is your subject and the photo your canvas. Good luck!

Sound advice, Steve. I’d like to thank you for taking the time to tell the story of your exciting journey and for sharing so much interesting and useful information in this interview.

* * *

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

If you want to get to know Steve and his work better, I suggest you visit his blog (which you can read snippets from his novelette, Under the Blood Moon), follow him on twitter and/or friend him on Facebook.

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

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Kiwi-Brit author team produce first in eco-thriller series spanning continents where they’ve lived

JJ LN Collage

Columnist JJ Marsh (left) talks to Lambert Nagle, Kiwi/Brit co-writers of international thrillers.

Today we welcome JJ Marsh back to the Displaced Nation for this month’s “Location, Locution.” If you are new to the site, JJ, who is a crime series writer (see her bio below), talks to fellow fiction writers about their methods for portraying place in their works. We’re excited that her guest today is the better half of a husband-wife team who have composed an eco-thriller that takes place all over the world, including places where they’ve been expats.

—ML Awanohara

Lambert Nagle is the pen name of co-authors Alison Ripley Cubitt and Sean Cubitt. They write thrillers set in sunny climes.

Sean’s day job is Professor of Film and Television, Goldsmiths, University of London. He has been published by leading academic publishers.

Alison worked in TV and film production for companies including the BBC and Walt Disney but her passion has always been for writing. She is an author, screenwriter and novelist.

Serial expats, Lambert Nagle have lived in Malaysia, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and are now based in leafy Hampshire.

Now let’s find out how they perceived the connection between location and locution for their debut novel, Revolution Earth. (Alison is answering for the pair.)

* * *

Which comes first, story or location?

We knew that Revolution Earth had to have a circular structure as one of the themes is that an event in one part of the world will have an impact in another. We needed a major global city for the inciting incident as well as the conclusion and we chose the one we know best—London. Sean was once a bicycle courier and he knew what it was like to have to dodge potholes and taxis in Soho and still get the delivery there on time.

We wrote the New Zealand section after we’d reluctantly left my native land and moved to Melbourne. It was a bit of a love letter to a place we adored but needed to leave in order to pursue professional opportunities abroad. In southeast Australia we were thrilled to find that there was an oil refinery—identical to one we had driven past in Cheshire years ago, which inspired the story.

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

For the Antarctica portion of the story, Sean had spent four years in Canada as a post-graduate student. The memory of cold is something that never leaves you, so we drew on that, starting from the physical experience and expanding out into the visual side of things.

Photo credits (clockwise from top left): Kakadu in the Australian outback, by Muireann Ní Cheallacháin via Flickr; book cover with photo of Snowy Mountain region of New South Wales, Australia, taken by Alison Ripley Cubitt; lady bicyclist in London, by Danica via Flickr; Alberta, Canada, by davebloggs007 via Flickr (all Flickr photos CC BY 2.0).

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

Revolution Earth was originally a screenplay. As a screenwriter you have to know a place extremely well before you’d dare use it as a setting. Film is a literal medium and your job is to give very clear instructions about an actual place—as a camera has to be able to film the location exactly as you’ve described it. So we went to extremes: including a trip to a uranium mine in the Outback, thousands of miles from where we lived in Australia.

Eventually we realised we needed to write a novel first, before we could interest film-makers. But by then, we knew we couldn’t get to every location and would have to inhabit some places purely through imagination. The important thing is that the imagined places have to be just as detailed, just as carefully tuned to the physical experience of being there, as the real ones. Something really familiar like a dusty, disorganised office in a backstreet in the East End of London should be as deeply felt as battling a storm in a leaky boat in the Southern Ocean encircling Antarctica. As someone who goes green at the mention of the phrase “rough seas,” this is where the imagination comes in as well.

The liberation of cresting the top of a hill on a bicycle before swooping down towards the valley is the same everywhere, but knowing the twists of the road, the steepness of it, how it burns up your lungs before filling them with joy, is all the richer if you can take your reader into what is special about this road, this time of year, for this character.

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

Whether it’s real or imagined, a place comes as a feeling first. Then you identify the elements of that feeling: what can you hear, smell, see, taste. How do people talk? Hot, cold, windy or still? What plants and animals, how personal or impersonal, what sense of the past, ancient or recent, does it communicate and what are the things that carry that sense—things like the absence of birdsong or the sound of a kettle boiling. Sometimes you reach out to the reader to share an experience, but sometimes you have to lead them into an experience they have never had, and then it’s often the emotion of the characters and scene that drive the description rather than its physical elements.

Can you give an example from Revolution Earth that illustrates place?

Great mountains of blue-white floating in a sea caught between the colour of the sky and the fresh green of young pine forests under mid-summer sun. Between them, smaller floes drifted about aimlessly, as though in some kind of trance. On the horizon she saw, thanks to Novak, a steep rise of endless white cliffs. This must be where the glaciers came down to the sea, where the icebergs calved. It was as alien a place as she had ever seen, more alien even than a science fiction film because it was right there, illuminated for her in the startling clarity of dazzling sunshine.

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

For Sean, Dickens immediately comes to mind: hardly a scene goes by that isn’t redolent of a life lived in it—stuffy banqueting rooms, Essex marshes, debtors’ prison… I admire Tim Winton who writes about his home state of Western Australia in such a way that I just want to jump on a plane and go there. He’s as comfortable describing what life’s like for the struggling poor living in beachside shacks as he is showing the reader what the inside of a wave looks like from a surfer’s point-of-view.

* * *

Readers, if this interview has piqued your curiosity about Lambert Nagle and the Cubitts, we encourage you to visit their author site.

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

STAY TUNED for next month’s Location, Locution, with Carl Plummer, who lives in China and writes comic thrillers as Robert E. Towsie.

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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