Today I find myself in the enviable position of having to introduce my co-blogger and good friend, Kate Allison. As one of the founding members of the Displaced Nation, she needs no introduction to our regular readers, many of whom are as awestruck as I am at her ability to churn out well-crafted, entertaining episodes of Libby’s Life week after week, month after month.
For the uninitiated: Kate’s stories center on Libby Patrick, a thirty-something stay-at-home mum who has trailed her spouse, Oliver, from their native UK to Woodhaven, Massachusetts—a small New England town that, in Libby’s own words, “makes Stepford look like inner city gangland.” The Patricks live there with their three small children: preschooler Jack and infant twins, Beth and George. (At one point they also had a dog, Fergus—don’t ask.)
Libby keeps a diary of her expat adventures, and during the past two years, Kate has churned out a whopping 76 entries, an average of three per month.
In consequence, a number of us (even those who aren’t trailing spouses with families) have become certified Libby addicts—always looking forward to the next installment!
If we need a “fix” between episodes, we can go to Kate’s companion site dedicated to Libby and all things Woodhaven, where not only do we receive more information about Libby and the characters she encounters in Woodhaven, but we can also read additional posts from the other characters’ points of view!
And now there is another exciting development: Kate has just self-published the first year of Libby’s expat life in a single volume, Libby’s Life: Taking Flight. I highly recommend this aggregated version to anyone who is new to the Libby phenomenon…
And you’ll never guess what? We are giving away two copies!!! (Details below.)
But before we get to that, let’s visit with Kate and find out more about her. Having visited with her non-virtually, I can report that she really does live in a small New England town similar to Woodhaven.
What inspired her to create the lovely and loveable Libby, and what possessed her (I don’t think it’s too strong an expression) to commit herself to the potential folly of writing a novel online? Her temerity cannot be underestimated, I think you’ll agree…
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Why did you decide to write a book about a trailing spouse, and how long have you been at this?
I first started “Libby’s Life” on my own blog (now extinct) just before Displaced Nation launched, a little over two years ago. I published three episodes there, and then transferred Libby to The Displaced Nation.
Libby didn’t start out as a book; she started out as a fiction blog because I found it difficult to blog about my personal life which, frankly, isn’t very interesting to anyone else. It’s easier for me to mesh snippets of facts into the fictitious world of Woodhaven. I was uncomfortable writing about my own family members—just because I like writing doesn’t give me the right to invade their privacy—but every now and then, certain incidents in Libby have happened in real life.
For example, when my son was a toddler, he was obsessed with toy cars, just as Jack is now. And the episode about Winter Storm Alfred, when Libby loses power for several days because of a freak snowstorm at Halloween, is based on a real situation. We were without power for four days ourselves after that same storm.
Fortunately, unlike Libby, we don’t have a man-eating landlady who lets herself into our house to sniff my husband’s sweatshirts.
Have you found out anything new about yourself, your own feelings of displacement, in the process?
Libby is at the beginning of her displacement journey. I’m quite a few years ahead of her, and have had to trawl through old memories to imagine how she would feel in certain situations. So the fact that I have to do that suggests I’m not terribly displaced anymore and I’ve come further than I thought.
Turning to Libby, what is her most displaced moment?
Probably when they first moved into their temporary apartment, next to a Limey-hating NRA supporter who liked shooting air soft pellets at the rhododendrons in the back garden. Poor Libs! She was quite traumatized. And also last year, when she went back to England for the first time and everything felt foreign—a reversed displacement.
What is her least displaced moment?
I think it was fairly recently, when she met Willow Reeves. Willow is from Brooklyn, very no-nonsense. She’s the first American friend Libby has made outside the expat Coffee Morning Posse, that hasn’t been via an introduction. It’s a sign that Libs is starting to fit in.
According to a recent article in the business section of the New York Times, serialized fiction, where episodes are delivered to readers in scheduled installments much like episodes in a television series, has been the subject of an unusual amount of experimentation in publishing in recent months. You seem to be ahead of the game in that respect. What have you learned from your two-year-long experiment?
I’m amazed at the number of people who do seem to follow the episodes, and yes, it is like a TV soap opera. I think Aisha at Expatlog commented a while ago that it filled the EastEnders void for her. But I didn’t intend it to be like that when I first started, envisaging instead a few blog posts dealing with certain aspects of moving abroad. I certainly hadn’t envisaged me still doing it two years later.
The main thing it’s taught me is that when I have to write a story because I’m on the Displaced Nation schedule to do so, I can do it. Novelist Peter De Vries famously said:
I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.
It doesn’t matter what type of writer you are—his philosophy is a good one.
What has been the most challenging part of the book-writing process?
Thinking up new topics for story lines. Every now and then I’ll put out a plea for ideas. A friend of mine jokingly said she’d like to see headlice as a Libby topic, and lo! There were headlice.
I now keep track of all the characters and story lines on a timeline program. I can see the last time a character came in, in which story line, in which episode, and I can plan ahead.
Theoretically, anyway. My actual way of planning is to sit in front of the blank screen and panic about a post that’s due in two days’ time. But I’m getting better. I even know what is going to happen in September.
What made you decided to publish the first year of Libby’s Life as a book?
I ended Libby’s Life: Taking Flight ends with Libby’s first Christmas in the United States because that was a natural break in the story. Libs had just started to spread her expat wings at that point, hence Taking Flight.
What do you intend to follow it up with?
The next one will be called Cargo Hold. Well, she’s pregnant with the twins, you see.
What audience do you intend for the Libby books?
It probably falls in the unflattering genre of “hen lit” — chick lit for the more mature woman. It seems most popular with women from thirty onwards, but then again, a friend of mine, a man who is now in his 70s, is an avid fan, so who am I to say?
What aspect of it is proving the most popular—any surprises?
Regarding the audience’s nationality, I expected it to be most popular with English women who had moved around a bit, but it turns out that one of Libby’s greatest cheerleaders is an American lady who is a keen armchair traveler. That’s pretty encouraging. (And thank you—you know who you are!)
Are you working on any other writing projects? (When’s the next book coming out?!)
At the moment I’m rereading/rewriting the 2012 episodes so I can turn them into either one or two short ebooks later this year. Additionally, I’ve gone back—yet again—to the WIP that triggered a lot of Libby characters. Woodhaven, Maggie, Melissa, Patsy, and all the Giannis were around in my imagination and in draft form long before Libby came along. The WIP is the story of Maggie’s daughter, Sara, a Woodhaven native now living in Somerset, England (my own native neck of the woods). Much of it is set in the 1980s, so you get to meet Maggie, Melissa et al when they were younger. Not sure when it will be finished…but making it public through this answer is a good spur.
10 Questions for Kate
Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits: Last truly great book you read: There are two I’ve read several times in the last few years and each time thought “Damn, I wish I’d written that”: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson. Favorite literary genre: Sigh. Call me predictable. Women’s fiction and travel. Anything by Joanne Harris is a great combination of the two. Reading habits on a plane: Either some piece of fluffery from the airport bookshop or a book I’ve already read from my Kindle. My Kindle is stuffed with classics, free ebooks, and review copies for TDN. But I have to have a paperback for the times you’re required to Turn Off All Electronic Devices. If I don’t have a paperback, I’ll write in a notebook, and chances are it will be notes on a conversation taking place near me. I’m a compulsive eavesdropper. Be warned. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: ML, I really hate getting into politics! Pass! Favorite books as a child:Anne of Green Gables; E Nesbit books, especially The Railway Children; Enid Blyton‘s Malory Towers; Sadlers Wells series by Lorna Hill; anything by Noel Streatfield; the William stories by Richmal Crompton. Favorite heroine(s): Maggie Tulliver (George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss) and Emma Woodhouse (Jane Austen’s Emma). The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet:Roald Dahl. I really would like to know for myself if he was as sick-minded as his books are. Your reading habits: In bed. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: I’m looking forward to Robert Redford’s version of Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods. And I’d love to see one of my favorite books in question #1—Behind the Scenes at the Museum. But it would have to be set in the English city of York, as it is in the book, not Americanized and set in Philadelphia or wherever, as so often happens. The book you plan to read next: My “to read” list gets ever longer. At the top is The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. At the bottom, just added, is Hilary Mantel‘s Wolf Hall. And a whole lot of others in between.
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Thanks so much, Kate! Long live Libs!!!
Readers, now it’s your chance to ENTER OUR DRAW TO WIN A FREE COPY of Kate Allison’s first Libby book. Kate is giving away TWO FREE COPIES and will favor comments that offer storyline ideas for future Libby posts, which will also get included in Libby at some point!!!
The winners will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch on June 1, 2013.
STAY TUNED for the next episode in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby! (What, not keeping up with Libby? How could you resist after reading this interview?!?!? Sign up NOW for our Displaced Dispatch and you’ll receive the first three chapters!!!)
At the height of my own repeat expat experience—when I had a foot in Asia (Japan), Europe (UK) and North America (United States)—I often thought of this line from Shakespeare’s King Lear:
Who is it that can tell me who I am?
—King Lear (Act I, Scene 4)
Prone to being somewhat melodramatic and hyperbolic (yes, I know I don’t have three feet!), I decided I’d peaked out too early. After all, Lear was an old man when he cast himself out and then had to grapple with what it feels like not to have a home or identity, whereas I was still a young woman.
It’s a good thing I was never a Third Culture Kid, or TCK—that’s all I can say, or else we’d be in for some MAJOR drama on this site. Instead we can leave that to someone much more suited: the actress Elizabeth Liang, who is the subject of today’s post. A self-described Guatemalan-American business brat of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, Liang was brought up by peripatetic parents in Central America, North Africa, the Middle East, and Connecticut.
Having faced the existential question of “Who are you when you’re from everywhere and nowhere?” practically from the moment of birth, Liang has channeled her thoughts into the creation of a one-woman show, Alien Citizen, which will have its world premiere in Los Angeles with performances this coming Friday and Saturday, May 3-4 (closing June 1). It’s being presented by Liang’s own company, HapaLis Productions, in association with the Multiracial Americans of Southern California.
Any TCKs reading this post (and/or their parents) should be happy to hear that Lliang’s play is not a tragedy. According to the press release, which she shared by email last night, Alien Citizen has both funny and poignant moments:
It weaves humorous stories about growing up as an Alien Citizen abroad with American commercial jingles providing [Elizabeth's] soundtrack through first love, language confusion, culture shock, Clark Gable, and sandstorms.
Hmmm… Clark Gable?
Though Liang is busy preparing for Friday’s opening, she was kind enough to answer a couple of my questions. Naturally, I wanted to hear more about why she’d written the play and the audience she had in mind for it. Here’s what she told me:
I wrote Alien Citizen for my fellow global nomads and TCKs, because we rarely see our stories portrayed on stage or screen. I also wrote it because I kept being asked if I was from the Midwestern USA and I wanted to set the record straight: my story is unusual, and, I hope, interesting. The play is about identity, which everyone grapples with, but I especially hope that everyone who has lived a cross-cultural life—anyone who has felt like a bridge or an island or both—will relate to it.
Aha, I knew it! It’s for the likes of me as well! And probably you, too, reader, if you’re a Displaced Nation regular. We could use a little drama in our lives…
A few choice lines from the drama
I also asked Liang to share some lines from the play. She obliged with the following list:
“We’re Guatemalan when I’m little.”
“Nobody on TV looks like me…except maybe Spock on the Star Trek reruns.”
“Fairfield County, Connecticut. With four whole seasons, including winter! And the people are even colder than the winters.”
“Morocco is like the moon to us at first.”
“I love Egypt so much in that moment, it knocks the wind out of me. And I’m just this useless teenager from… Well, I’m not from here.”
“And I make friends! Because in the theatre, everybody’s weird.”
“I’m not from a place, I’m from people.”
I must say, I like that one about everyone in the theatre being weird. Maybe I should have tried my hand at acting after repatriating? (Except at this point I’d choose to be a Korean soap opera star—yes, I know I’m displaced!)
Questions for Elizabeth, calls for encores? (Should we invite her to submit a post on how the play was received?) Please leave them below. And on Friday evening LA time, let’s all shout out, from wherever we are in the world, “Break a leg, Elizabeth!”
Call us zany, but when we first started this site two years ago, someone (no, not me!) had the bright idea of picking a literary or historical figure and using that person as a source of inspiration for a month-long series of posts.
You’ll never guess which one of these themes proved most popular: why, Alice of course! What international traveler or expat hasn’t experienced the sensation of stepping through the looking glass or falling down the rabbit hole? Like Alice, those of us who venture beyond borders must furiously navigate the new environments we uncover. Also like Alice, we are prone to feeling lonely and a bit sorry for ourselves on occasion.
Most expats can also relate to Alice’s gradual loss of self-identity. As she confesses to the Caterpillar:
“I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir, because I’m not myself, you see.”
In today’s post, I propose to revisit Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece for themes that are worth exploring from a creative angle. Here are six that I find myself thinking about a lot, when trying to parse my own expat experience (an American, I lived first in England and then in Japan). WARNING: Tongue-in-cheek, but only somewhat!
1) The old adage about trusting your gut doesn’t always work when it comes to your actual gut.
ALICE PASSAGE: In Alice’s Wonderland, a jar labeled “Orange Marmalade” is not actually a jar full of orange marmalade. APPLIES TO: Expats in Japan, who are always biting into pastries in the hopes of tasting chocolate and tasting azuki bean paste instead. Indeed, should you ever be in need of an Alice-like culinary experience, Japan has got to be your place. There’s the wasabi Kit Kats, of course. And how about the time when Carole Hallett Mobbs’s friend in Tokyo bought a sandwich with a lumpy filling? As Carole reported in her guest post for us:
A gentle squeeze sent a whole cooked potato shooting across the room.
ANOTHER ALICE FOOD PASSAGE: Fearing the contents of the “Drink Me” bottle may be poison, Alice is pleasantly surprised:
it had, in fact, a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast.
APPLIES TO: International travelers who venture to remote spots and are pleasantly surprised by the local cuisine. Actually, you don’t even have to be somewhere remote. Tokyo was where I developed a fondness for hirezake (hot sake with fugu fin) — talk about poisonous cocktails! And travel author Janet Brown told us she dreaded trying fried grasshoppers while living in Bangkok, only to find she liked them as much as popcorn! But even dedicated locavores, such as Jessica Festa, can have an Alice moment from time to time. I’ll never forget the story about her first experience eating cuy (guinea pig) in Ecuador. As she tells it, she saw it on the grill and thought it resembled her childhood pet, Joey. Repressing her better instinct not to eat anything she grew up playing with, she took a bite and said: “Holy crap, this is delicious!”
2) Communications with others and in general are far from satisfactory.
ALICE PASSAGE: When Alice is “opening out like the largest telescope that ever was, saying good-bye to her feet, she cries “Curiouser and curiouser!”—and then feels surprised that “for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English.” APPLIES TO: Native English speakers living in a non-English speaking country. Their English inevitably morphs into the version the locals speak; spelling, too, deteriorates, and doesn’t come back.
ANOTHER ALICE MISCOMMUNICATION: Alice repeatedly offends the creatures in Wonderland without even trying. APPLIES TO: Anyone who finds themselves “tone deaf” in Bangkok, as the aforementioned Janet Brown once did. (NOTE: Applies equally to those struggling to learn other Asian tonal languages such as Mandarin Chinese.) As she explained in her interview with us:
The most common mistake for foreigners is to tell someone their baby is beautiful, while actually announcing that the infant is bad luck.
3) Committing to another country can sometimes mean altering your body size (or wishing you could).
ALICE PASSAGE: When Alice first lands in Wonderland, she finds herself too large for the doorway out of the dark hall into the beautiful garden. APPLIES TO: Anyone over 5’5″ living in Japan, Korea or Southeast Asia, who has to keep their head down when entering traditional dwellings for fear of getting a concussion.
ANOTHER BODY-CHANGING ALICE MOMENT: At the instruction of the Caterpillar, Alice tries eating portions of mushroom he’s been sitting on, which make her grow and shrink. APPLIES TO: Repeat expats, or rex-pats, who find themselves going back and forth between the obesity epidemic in United States and almost anywhere else in the world, where people simply eat less and walk more. While living in Tokyo I soon reached my lowest body weight ever without even trying: all those meals of clear soup, rice, veggies and fish. Now that I’m back in America, I weigh ten pounds more, while in England I was somewhere in between…
4) People in other countries have their own relationships with Father Time.
ALICE PASSAGE: Alice experiences the full gamut: from the White Rabbit dashing about with his stopwatch for fear of being late for an important date, to the slackers at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, who waste time “asking riddles that have no answers.” APPLIES TO: Repeat expats, or rex-pats, who’ve had the chance to live in Southern Europe, South America, or other places notorious for their laid-back approach to time, as well as in Germany, Switzerland or Japan where people pride themselves on their punctuality. Compared to Japan, I found England a Southern European country. When I was living in Tokyo and visiting the UK during summers, I was always late to appointments because I’d forgotten that trains don’t run on time (or at all). And most of the time, I had their sympathies. Whereas in Japan, I swear a White Rabbit must be in charge of public transport. You can set your watch by the trains! No excuses for lateness…
5) The laws and practices of another land can take some getting used to.
“No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first—verdict afterwards.”
“Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!”
APPLIES TO: Anyone who displaces themselves to a country with a radically different life philosophy. For instance, as an American I found that one of the biggest challenges of getting used to England and then Japan, the two small-island nations where I lived, was that I could never quite accept the natives’ stoicism. As I wrote in the first of my “Lessons from Two Small Islands” posts:
Where the citizens of each of these countries saw grace, strength, endurance, and perseverance, I saw passivity, masochism, fatalism and pain. “Why is everyone bowing so readily to their fates?” I would ask myself repeatedly.
And, though I never committed an act of “queue rage” while standing in line at the post office in the English town where I lived, I came pretty close—especially when watching others who’d come in after I did get served before me.
On those occasions, I felt like crying out: why don’t we try a serpentine line instead?
And what about all those expats living in countries with byzantine immigration laws? Apparently, Alice’s own home, the UK, is among the worst. As we learned from interviewing New Zealander Vicki Jeffels, it essentially tells any wannabe immigrants: “Off with your heads!” Even if you’re from the Commonwealth! Still, at least they no longer discriminate… (Jeffels sorted out her visa problems in the end but has since repatriated.)
6) “Pool of tears” moments eventually build resilience.
ALICE PASSAGES: Alice goes from “shedding gallons of tears, until there was a large pool all round her, about four inches deep” to holding her own in Wonderland (see #5). APPLIES TO: Well, really all of us. In the previous incarnation of the Displaced Nation, I had a Random Nomads column in which I would interview expats or veterans of international travel and ask them to describe their “most displaced” and “least displaced” moments. Many had difficulty with the former request, I guess because they felt uncomfortable going down the Rabbit Hole and examining their hearts more closely. The American Brian MacDuckston, though, was the rare exception. His “pool of tears” moment was his very first day of work as an English teacher in Japan. He somehow managed to get on the wrong train (every foreigner in Japan’s nightmare) and ended up in a “depot storage yard with an attendant yelling at me in a language I didn’t understand.” He was late for his first class and wanted to quit. Since then, however, he has emerged as one of the leading experts on Japanese ramen. Last we heard, he’d been offered a few gigs on Japanese TV shows as a “ramen reporter” and successfully pitched his first magazine article about a best-of-ramen list. Way to go, Brian, in treating that screaming railway worker as a Jack of Spades!
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So, are you ready to inject a bit of Alice into your Great Work on the voluntarily displaced life? And can you think of any more inspirational passages from Lewis Carroll? (No doubt there are more, and I will think of some of them as soon as I post this.)
Meantime, the Displaced Nation will continue its tradition of awarding “Alices” to writers who capture the curious, unreal side of the displaced life—only we will now be awarding one per week, via our Displaced Dispatch. What, not a subscriber yet? CLICK HERE NOW—or off with your head! Recommendations of posts (your own, other bloggers’) for Alices are also warmly appreciated. Please send to ML@thedisplacednation.com.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another in our Old World/New World series.
We dedicate today’s interview with distance runner Amy Chavez to those affected by the Boston marathon bombings. Our hopes and prayers and encouragement are with you.
When it comes to long-distance running, I couldn’t put it better than the American cowboy Will Rogers once did:
We can’t all be heroes because someone has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.
I simply haven’t got the necessary strength, both physical and mental, for that kind of endurance test.
Is it any wonder, then, that I’m feeling intimidated by the prospect of talking to Japan-based expat Amy Chavez about her 900-mile run around Shikoku Island? We’re talking ultramarathon here.
The redoubtable Amy hails from Ohio but has lived in Japan for many years, where she is a well-known writer and columnist for the leading English-language newspaper, the Japan Times.
In 1998, she spent five weeks during March and April running the traditional pilgrimage on Shikoku Island. In essence she ran a marathon per day (sometimes more). And although the weather and conditions were pleasant enough—it was cherry blossom season—it was cold at night, and there were many mountains, though the roads were the worst part “because pavement is hard on the feet, knees, etc.”
But first I want to find out more about what motivated her on her epic—and energetic—journey, including any challenges she faced in writing her book.
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So, Amy, I understand you decided to run the 900-mile-long Shikoku Pilgrimage after being laid off by the university where you were teaching in Japan. What made you think that running vast distances might be the answer?
Physical challenges have a certain appeal. I was interested in the physical journey, as I think most foreigners are when they walk the pilgrimage the first time.
But you didn’t walk it; you ran it!
For some reason I have never discovered the joy of walking. I dreaded the thought of walking 900 miles, the distance from San Diego to Oregon. But running is somehow different. When people go running, it’s not unusual to run 10 km or more, three or four times a week. People hardly ever do that walking. Instead, they walk around the block and come back. Runners don’t do that. We’re in for the long haul.
Did making this journey allow you to see Japan in a new way?
I was able to see Japan much more objectively. I went from being in my own little world where everything was centered around me—thus when my world crashed, so did I—to being an observer of Japanese culture in the framework of the pilgrimage. So there was a fundamental shift from being a part of the university, where the students and the university relied on me, my teaching skills, and my commitment, to being part of the pilgrimage that didn’t really care whether I did those things or not. The pilgrimage doesn’t care whether you show up or not, whether you complete it or not, whether you understand how it works. In other words, it’s not about you at all. So suddenly you’re on the other end, trying to understand what it is that the pilgrimage is trying to give you, on its own terms, and what you can learn and take away from it.
What was your most displaced moment on the journey?
I’d never felt displaced in Japan until I lost my job. It was a very big thing for me because I had put so much time, effort and love into that job. Suddenly, without warning, I was let go, all because I was a foreigner. I just couldn’t get my head around that. So the journey started as a result of this unnatural feeling of being displaced. The people who had treated me like family had suddenly tossed me out on the street. I was searching for ways to deal with my feelings toward Japan and Japanese people.
“The person who starts the race is not the same person who finishes the race.” [Marathon sign]
How did your feelings toward Japan evolve once the journey got underway?
I was able to see the pilgrimage as this microcosm of Japanese culture. If you’re ever wondered why the Japanese do things or act a certain way, you can find out through this historical context of Buddhism, and the Shikoku Pilgrimage which has been walked for over a thousand years. The purpose of the pilgrimage—to reach enlightenment—has never wavered over the centuries.
You became less and less displaced?
Doing the pilgrimage is often referred to as entering a mandala. You have to leave your safe, secure world and cross over into an unknown world where you are no longer in control. Once you accept this, and surrender yourself to the pilgrimage, you will no longer feel displaced.
Wise words! How long did it take before you surrendered?
It happens for different people at various parts of their pilgrimage but for me, this happened about one third of the way through, or two weeks into, the pilgrimage. Suddenly everything fell into place. I had finally learned to go with the flow and let things happen to me rather than trying to control things that happened to me. We are so used to taking control of our lives: we plan our trips down to the finest detail, we budget monthly, weekly and even daily, we get the right job. But life doesn’t care how much you’ve planned. Life continues to throw us curve balls—your car dies, you come down with an illness, you lose your job. Despite our steadfast planning, that’s not how life works.
It’s is not how the pilgrimage works either. Despite your intentions to do something a certain way, the pilgrimage will constantly present you with challenges—things you’d never planned on. Once you surrender to the ways of the pilgrimage, you no longer feel displaced. You no longer struggle with the elements, the terrain or nature. Instead, you become one with them.
Not surprisingly, this is one of Buddhism’s life metaphors as well.
Another ultramarathon—writing the book
I believe you chronicled your Shikoku adventure in the Japan Times?
Actually, I wrote six columns for the Japan Times. I also kept a diary, but that was separate from the columns.
Once you’d decided to write a book about the experience, what was the greatest challenge?
Time. It takes an enormous amount of time to write a good book. It’s all consuming, a full-time job. On top of that, I still had my weekly deadlines for the newspaper and other publications I write for.
Your book is coming out 15 years after you made the pilgrimage. Why the delay?
It’s not unusual to have so many years between a story and a published book. There’s the year (or longer) it takes to write, there’s the year-long (or longer) search for a publisher, the six months negotiation with the publisher(s), and then the two-year process from book contract to published book. So already five years has passed, and that’s with no bumps along the way.
Then there’s also timing. No one was really interested in my story at the time I did it. But things have changed drastically since then. NHK has had a popular TV series about the pilgrimage, previous books about the pilgrimage have run their course and gone out of print (thus creating a demand for something new), and ultra-running has become one of the fastest growing sports in the world.
Did you derive any new insights from revisiting the adventure?
That’s another reason I think you see so many books that are published a decade or so after they happened is because people often need distance before they can really understand their own journey. How can you talk about how an experience has changed you, or changed your life, if you haven’t had time to prove that it really has? Time gives one perspective. And with time comes wisdom. I was just reading a book the other day and couldn’t help but think it would have been so much better if the writer had waited a decade or so tell his story. He, nor his writing, had matured yet; his book had no arc, it offered no wisdom.
So while I wish my book could have been published a long time ago, I know it’s a much better book because I waited.
What audiences do you intend for the book?
There are three: those interested in Japan, those interested in Buddhism, and those interested in running. The book was officially released in March, and the reviews are just beginning to come out, so it’s too early to tell if those are the audiences the book will attract.
How about people who don’t know Japan—would they enjoy it, or would you be running circles around them?
You would have to have some innate interest in other cultures to get the most enjoyment out of the book—which I think most Displaced Nation readers have. But even if you are only interested in people’s amazing feats and accomplishments, you should enjoy the story, too. It is an adventure travel story about a girl who ran 900 miles that happens to take place in Japan.
Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage sounds like a hard act to follow. Are you working on any other ambitious travel projects that will one day be books?
I have an original hand-written diary of my great-great grandfather’s journey through Japan’s Inland Sea to the Philippines on a ship in 1900. In 2004 I decided to trace his journey in a sailboat. Unfortunately, the trip was cut short when we had to be rescued at sea, and we lost the boat. Determined to finish the trip, however, we bought another sailboat and set out again in 2012. This time we finished the trip despite dodging four typhoons, two tropical storms and running into a reef. I haven’t decided whether the title of the book should be Little Titanic or Storm Girl.
What do you think?
Love it! (Hmmm … the limb doesn’t fall far from the tree.)
10 Questions for Amy
Finally, I’d like to ask a series of questions that I’ve asked some of our other featured authors, about your reading and writing habits: Last truly great book you read: Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. It’s always the last great book I read. Favorite literary genre: Adventure travel, memoirs. Reading habits on a plane: E-books only. Whatever is stacked up still waiting to be read. I also read tons of magazines. The one book you’d require President Obama to read, and why: Any book on the current farming industry and feedlots. Save the cows! Favorite books as a child: Anything about horses. Favorite heroine: I admire Nora Ephron. The writer, alive or dead, you’d most like to meet: I’d like to go fishing with Ernest Hemingway. Your reading habits: Mostly non-fiction. More and more creative non-fiction. A little bit of fiction. The book you’d most like to see made as a film: I’ve learned that books and film are completely different genres, so don’t dare compare them. The book you plan to read next: Right now I’m reading The Annotated Reminiscences of Lafcadio Hearn. Next I’m going to read Strength Training Past 50. (Hey, you asked!) Oh, I might read Waging Heavy Peace, by Neil Young, before the strength training one, but I haven’t decided yet. Oh, I just remembered, my Dad wants me to read A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, by Thomas Sowell, so I better read that one next.
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Readers, now it’s your chance to ENTER OUR DRAW TO WIN A FREE COPY of Amy Chavez’s book. Please leave a comment telling us about a physical challenge you’ve set for yourself, preferably in an international setting, and what it taught you. Extra points if you’re a Displaced Dispatch subscriber!!!
The winner will be announced in our Displaced Dispatch on May 2, 2013.
Readers lucky enough to live in the LA area: Amy will be signing books and meeting readers at the LA Times Festival of Books April 20 held on the USC campus, Los Angeles. Look for her in the Kinokuniya booth from 12:00 to 1:30 p.m. Copies of her book also available for purchase. April 21, she will be speaking at the Koyasan Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo from 1:00 p.m. Public welcome.
Images: Amy Chavez; Meditating Cat (a character in the book); and Daruma Doll (drawing by Deborah Davidson)—all supplied by Amy Chavez, with permission granted by Davidson. The other two images—of the running feet and the cherry blossoms—are from morguefiles.
Ahoy me hearties! Two years ago on Monday, The Three Pirateers — how I like to refer to Anthony Windram, Kate Allison and myself, the Displaced Nation’s founding contributors — swashbuckled our way into this site and declared it a home for ourselves and anyone else who has ever felt “displaced”.
Land ho! we cried, thinking we’d finally found a place to settle our poor, restless souls. No foolin’! (Hm, I wish I were sometimes!)
But as time went on, we were less confident about the nomenclature we’d selected:
And do the people who lead “displaced” lives but don’t necessarily identify with the rest of us need to walk the plank? (I’m thinking of author and self-publishing guru Joanna Penn, who didn’t reveal her expat status until she decided to return to the UK and wrote a post about what “home” means.)
Our debates always ended with one of us saying: “Let’s drink grog before the fog.” And a bottle of rum would be passed around … after which we’d conclude that even if we couldn’t find a satisfactory descriptor for our state of mind, international travel had changed us into a bunch of scallywags.
By that I mean, people who’ve taken the road less traveled by — which, ironically, means we’ve traveled more than most. Certainly more than our kith and kin. Indeed, a significant number of us come from families where we are the only ones leading the so-called displaced life.
Our not-so-hidden booty
We were so busy navel (hahaha) gazing for our first two years that we missed the treasure that was right in front of us.
It wasn’t even buried!
Our treasure, of course, consists of those creative geniuses who’ve produced something remarkable out of the displaced life — be it a novel, a travelogue, an artwork, a business or a social enterprise.
Blow me down! We are a site for international creatives, that’s what we are.
Blimey, how come it took so long for us to figure it out?
Our second incarnation
“Aaaarrrrgggghhhh!” I can hear some of you saying. “I don’t give a crusty stocking for your second incarnation. I like the Displaced Nation just the way it is.”
To which I may respond: “It ain’t healthy fer a ship to sail too long without off loadin’ some cargo, lest it start to fester, aye?”
That said, to call this a second incarnation may be going a tad overboard.
Particularly as we still have a category “just for laughs.”
Indeedy deed. We will continue to shelter anyone whose travels have helped them to cultivate a cutlass-sharp sense of humor.
We’ve still got our black pirate hearts…
Besides, we aren’t clearing the deck completely. That wench Libby — and her crawfish! — will still be here. But on the weeks when she isn’t published, we will have posts full of observations on England versus New England (the stuff that matters when navigating the globe!).
And we’ll still have Capital Ideas — only the treasure hunts will be even richer.
And we’ll of course have even more writers and artists on board.
Last but far from least, we’ll be rolling out some new columns. I’m not giving anything away here, but one of our new mateys is the infamous Cap’n Jack! (Now if that isn’t a hook, I don’t know what is!!)
Aye, plenty of booty for ye!
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Okay, I’ve got two pistols, one plank and I’m out of patience. Any questions?! Seriously, if you have comments or suggestions as we proceed into our third year, let us know! And every time you run across a creative work by a displaced person, please email me (or one of my mateys)! I don’t know about the rest of ‘em, but I can be reached at ml [at] thedisplacednation [dot] com.
Until then, may fair winds and good grog come yer way — and never forget that from now on, ye know where “home” is!
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, some musings on the fine art of photography in an international travel setting by Andy Martin.
As some readers may know, before the Displaced Nation, I had my own blog, called “Seen the Elephant” — which I used as an outlet while struggling to readjust to life in America after having lived abroad, in England and Japan, for quite a few years. (The name for the blog came from the expression used by Victorian travelers: “Been there, done that, seen the elephant.” Which is how I felt…)
And when I found out she was a Frenchwoman living in Chicago, I was intrigued. What did she make of the city of broad shoulders, jazz, and deep-dish pizza?
I asked her this and a host of other questions in an interview for my blog. For starters, she said that she and her family — her husband is a French diplomat and they have two young daughters — were gradually finding their feet in Chicago. (She did not, however, mention she was planning to write a book of that title!) She didn’t entirely approve of America’s throw-away society and still cooked every day for her family — she even offered her recipe for “real” vinaigrette in the comments. She also reported she’d seen plenty of elephants while living in Sri Lanka (her husband’s second assignment, after Norway).
Véronique leads life in the fast lane. A little over three years since our conversation, I find that she has written the definitive expat guide to Chicago: Finding Your Feet in Chicago — The essential guide for expat families (Summertime, 2012). And she is already putting her feet down in a brand new city, one of the world’s trendiest… Here is our exchange:
Bonjour, Véronique! When we last spoke, toward the end of 2010, you told me you’d arrived in Chicago with hopes of getting a job, but then the recession hit, so you’d started up your own writing business. When did you hatch the plan to write a book for expats in the Windy City?
I was already thinking about it when we connected. After witnessing several incidences of culture shock at my daughters’ school, I realized I wasn’t alone in having troubles. Several families from different parts of the world had moved to Chicago around the same time. All of us were in need of information and advice. Meanwhile, I’d started up my blog, Expat Forever, to share my experiences about Chicago — tips on where to settle, which schools to choose, etc. I looked around for local guidebooks to recommend — but there was nothing. So I decided to write one myself.
That reminds me of the famous quote by Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” How long did it take you to produce the book?
From the idea to holding the book in my hands, it took one year and a half! Writing the book directly in English was difficult at the beginning, since English is not my native language. But after a while, I got used to it.
Besides writing in English, what was the most challenging part of the process?
Editing the manuscript. I decided to hire an editor to help with the task.
I know from our previous conversation that having fresh, healthy food is important to you — after all, that’s part of being French! I also seem to recall that you were not a fan of Chicago pizza. You said it was too heavy. But did you cover it in your book?
Of course! I have a chapter dedicated to “Having fun in Chicago,” which includes a section on family-friendly dining out. Before giving my top 10 Chicago child-friendly restaurants, I explain what the Chicago specialties are and insist that children (and their parents) MUST try them. That includes Chicago-style pizza and Chicago-style hot dogs.
What has been the response thus far?
Rather good, I think. I’ve gotten only five-stars comments on Amazon!
Which sections are the most popular?
Readers say they like having so much practical information on family-related topics — not just the advice itself, but all the personal anecdotes and testimonials I include from expat parents. I talked to lots of them and wrote up their stories as “blog posts” or interviews. The stories really speak to the kinds of anxieties most expats have — and they make the book an easy, fun read.
And now your husband has moved on to a diplomatic post in Shanghai! Tell me, does ANYTHING about China remind you of the United States, or are these two countries poles apart?
The United States and China are definitely different cultures — but one similarity struck me right away. Both are consumerist societies. In the US, everything is done to make you purchase and there are plenty of opportunities for you to part with your money. Here in Shanghai, it seems that the only occupation is “shopping.” It’s the only activity people urge you to do from the moment you arrive — visit malls, markets, supermarkets and so on. And I can tell you they have tons of malls, tons of markets (from traditional, the kinds that sell crickets and flowers, to modern, selling electronics, furniture, shoes, and so on), and many, many supermarkets.
How did you prepare yourself and your two daughters for the move?
We didn’t have the chance to make a look-see visit. But six months before moving to Chicago, I’d gone to Shanghai on business, so I had a picture of what to expect: a very urbanized and polluted city. That is also why we decided to settle in the new and “green” development area of Shanghai that is called Pudong.
Did your daughters have any idea of the change they were in for?
My husband and I found some videos about the city on the Internet for them to watch. Fortunately, they’d studied some Mandarin at their American elementary school, so already knew a lot about Chinese traditions and stories. To be honest, I think we learned as much from them about cultural matters as they learned from us on the practical aspects. It was real team work!
I know it’s still early days, but what have you enjoyed the most about living in Shanghai?
Perhaps surprisingly, the fact I can bike! In Pudong, there are a lot of protected biking trails, so it allows me to discover independently this part of the city, and it’s much faster than by foot. But I don’t bike in Puxi (the other side of the Huangpu River, which divides the city into two regions: Pudong, where I live, and Puxi, the city’s historic center). It’s too dangerous.
What is the feature you enjoy the least?
Shanghai is extremely urbanized and I miss greenery. Also, it is very polluted, though less so than Beijing.
What is the top piece of advice you’d give to anyone thinking of becoming an expat in that part of the world — particularly a trailing spouse?
I have five — and actually, they’re for anywhere, not just Shanghai:
1) Learn the language.
2) Get involved in your local community.
3) Keep doing your (or start new) hobbies and/or sports.
4) Discover your surroundings little by little, and you’ll eventually come to know the city as well as the content of your pocket.
5) If you are an accompanying spouse and cannot work locally, go back to school and get new skills, or volunteer to do something you can use professionally upon returning home for good.
And now I have to ask you the obvious question: any plans to write Finding Your Feet in Shanghai?
Many people have indeed asked me that question. And I must admit, the idea was in the back of my mind when I first started my book for expats in Chicago. I thought to myself, this can be the first in a collection, and the next one will be about the city where my husband gets posted next. But at least at this point, I don’t think I’ll write an expat guide to Shanghai. One reason is that there are already lots of books, magazines as well as Web sites for expats in this city. There isn’t the same need as there was in Chicago. But another reason is that my time here is so limited. My husband’s post is for just three years. I’d have to spend all of my time doing research and interviews, getting to know the city like my pocket. And that’s before I can start writing. My book on Chicago was released a couple of weeks after I left to fly to Shanghai — which didn’t give me any time for promoting it locally. I found that very frustrating and wouldn’t want to repeat the experience. Books these days have to be promoted like crazy, and although you can do a lot of it online, I don’t think online promotions can replace interacting with readers in person.
But surely you’ll write another book?
I may not write another book for expat families living in Shanghai, but I already know I will write another book about expatriation. Actually, I have already started it. But I cannot say much more. It is too early.
I didn’t think seriously about fashion and beauty until I, an American East Coaster, became a resident of two small islands: Britain and then Japan.
Both London and Tokyo are fashion capitals, and living in each of these cities, I found that every so often I really enjoy thinking about striking clothing combinations, make-up, and self-pampering.
Would I have discovered this love of what America’s Puritan founders would call frivolity had I stayed in this country? It’s conceivable, especially if I’d moved to New York City, where I now live as a repatriate. (NOTE: While I do not have Puritan ancestry, I was raised to be a bluestocking, not a girl in rhinestone-studded pantyhose.)
But in the event, I discovered fashion and beauty through my travels — and from learning about how women in other countries clothe and groom themselves.
So what, you may ask, were my key take-aways from this relatively speaking decadent period of my life? No specific beauty products or fashions, but these five guiding principles:
1) To get an English rose (or any other perfect) complexion, you have to be born with it. Nevertheless, skin care is worth it.
As a Caucasian woman, one of my beauty ideals was that of the English rose: a woman with flawless porcelain skin and rosy cheeks that look as though they’ve been produced by good bracing walks in the countryside wearing sensible shoes and tweed skirts.
When I first moved to England and encountered some actual English Roses, I wondered: is it because of the climate, the cosmetics from Boots the Chemist, the diet? (How do I get me one of those?)
My research soon revealed that diet has nothing to do with it. Not in a country where people grow up eating chips and crisps.
And as nice as the No7 products are, they can’t work miracles.
So maybe a glowing appearance is the result of England’s unique climatic conditions: a paucity of direct sunlight and the moisturizing drizzle that almost always seems to be in the air?
I hardly think that can be the case, as there are plenty of Britons with problem skin…
Trying not to turn pea green with envy (hardly a flattering shade!), I could come to only one conclusion: you have to be born with it.
But, not to despair! Once I reached Japan, where women are obsessed with their skin — some even use whitening lotions to obtain a creamier complexion — I learned that of all the things you can do for beauty, skin care is the most worthwhile.
Ladies, if you protect your skin, you might find yourself turning into an English Rose when you get a bit older — the Last Rose of Summer, so to speak. While some may swear by Crème de la Mer, I go with the regime I picked up in Japan: sunscreen, a hat and a parasol.
I’d also recommend befriending your dermatologist, who knows a lot more about skin care and sun protection than the woman behind the cosmetics counter…
2) Don’t be afraid of experimenting with your hair: it can add some spice and life to your image.
In the UK one of my English rose-complexioned friends favored a chic bob — but with a streak of blue, green or red in it.
As an American fresh off the boat, I was rather scandalized. Why was she ruining a perfectly good hairstyle?
Over time, however, I came to realize that when you live in a country where skies are often the color of lead, adding a bright color to a strand of hair can brighten up your day.
By the time I left England, I could no longer understand why any woman, once she reached maturity, wouldn’t dye or highlight her hair. She doesn’t know the fun she’s missing out on! And, even though I have yet to streak my hair in an outrageous color, it’s definitely on my bucket list.
In Japan, too, I got some kicks from playing with my hair — this time, by adorning it with the kinds of hair ornaments that have been popular since the times when women wore kimono and kanzashi: combs, hair sticks and pins, hair bands, and fancy barrettes.
I did not have particularly long hair when I first reached Japan, but as long hair is the signature of Japanese ladies — and they were my new role models — I soon had locks long enough to make the most of such accessories. My favorite was the snood — I had one that was attached to a barrette covered with a bow. What a great way to keep long hair out of one’s face.
3) Gemstones and pearls are a girl’s best friend.
Sorry, Marilyn dear, but after living in the UK and Japan, my BFFs are gemstones and pearls. Is this because I went to England in the era of Princess Diana, with her (now Kate Middleton’s) 18-carat sapphire ring?
My relationship with colored gemstones only deepened after I moved to Japan and went on several sojourns into Southeast Asia, land of rubies and sapphires, among others.
My engagement ring is a ruby (purchased by my hubby in Tokyo!).
In Japan itself, I fell for pearls and now have quite the collection of necklaces, earrings, rings, and bracelets, mostly from Wally Yonamine’s in the Roppongi area of Tokyo. The owner, Jane, wife of Wally (a professional baseball player who played with the Yomiuri Giants) is a displaced Japanese Hawaiian.
4) Youth is the time to have fun with fashion.
In the UK, I was taken in by the spectacle of punk and post-punk kids and their strange fashions, while in Japan I found it mesmerizing to watch the Lolita fashions of the Harajuku kids, on a Sunday afternoon.
Eventually, instead of thinking they were weird, I regretted never having had my own equivalent of wearing Doc Martens with a Laura Ashley dresses … sporting long, back-combed hair, pale skin, dark eyeshadow, eyeliner, and lipstick, black nail varnish, along with a spiked bracelet and dog-collar … dressing up like a Victorian boy …
It just wasn’t the done thing, in my stiff, conservative American circles, to wear outlandish garb. And now it’s too late, of course. Youth is the time when you can get away with it. After that, you have to wait for Halloween. (Unless, of course, you want to come across as “mutton dressed as lamb,” as the English say…)
5) Last but not least, my top beauty tip, reinforced by both of these countries: A bath is much preferable to a shower.
At the beginning of living in England, I missed the American shower so much. I was convinced I would never be clean again. But then one day I woke up and realized I’d been brainwashed into believing I needed to have a shower every day. In fact, daily showers dry out the skin. As one dermatologist puts it:
Most people wash far too much. Using piping-hot water combined with harsh soaps can strip the skin of its oils, resulting in dryness, cracking and even infection.
That was around the same time I opened my mind to the possibility that baths — which tend to be favored over showers in the UK (at least in my day) — might actually be preferable. Nothing like a long hot bath with a glass of wine and a book, my English friends would say. Or, as one British beauty site puts it:
A nice bubble bath is the closest you can come to having a spa-like relaxing experience in your own home, without much effort or without spending a lot of money.
Too true! Plus the English shops sell such wonderful bubble bath creams. My favorite was the Perlier Honey Miel (actually from Italy).
Still, I didn’t mind giving all of that up once I reached Tokyo — not the bathing but the bubbles. In the land of the communal bath, you scrub the skin first and then have a long soak in clean hot water, in a tub (ofuro) that is deep rather than long.
Indeed, Japan was where I learned the benefits of exfoliation: I ended up sloughing off dry skin from parts of my body I didn’t know existed. And then the immersion in clean hot water: bliss! Like returning to the womb…
For a Japanese who works long hours, bathing is a sacred time, a ritual. While I haven’t quite converted that far, I have a Pavlovian reaction every time I hear bath water running. Time to go into Total Relax Mode!
I even have a Japanese bath here in my apartment in NYC, and the thought of sitting in it is what keeps me going … That said, I must confess that I sometimes put bubbles in. What can I say? I’m displaced.
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So, readers, what do you make of my five beauty principles? Have you picked up any of your own in the countries where you live? I’m all ears — only please excuse me for a minute while I make sure the bath water isn’t running over. (I don’t want my downstairs neighbors knocking on my door at 3:00 a.m.!)
So tell me, how did a bloke from Basingstoke end up in the lovely harbour city of Sydney?
As much as I like Basingstoke, displacement came easy! I always had a burning desire to experience life in a country different to my own. I wanted to explore new environments, opportunities and activities. I was initially drawn to Canada as my grandfather was Canadian, and I had a long-held desire to explore this great country. I left England in 2003 in pursuit of less stress, more emphasis on the greater outdoors, and for a healthier and fuller way of living life. In Canada I lived by mountains and the snow. I blame my Australian wife for the subsequent move to Australia — she wanted to come back home for a while, and knew I was a soft touch for living by the ocean. These days, when spending every available minute doing something, anything, by the beach, I blame her and curse her and blame her some more…
Is anyone else in your immediate family “displaced”?
My grandfather is my opposite number. He met my grandmother while serving with the Canadian Army in Europe during World War II and married her while based in the UK. He returned to Canada several times but ultimately lived out the rest of his life in England.
And wasn’t your wife also displaced at some point? Otherwise, the pair of you would never have met…
Yes, my wife was working in England for a year, while also spending time with her English family (her mother is English and moved to Australia when she was 12). We met in my home town at the gym of all places — she always used to go to the same classes as me.
It sounds as though you’re living the dream in Sydney, but I can imagine you’ve had your displaced moments. Which one stands out?
It occurred just after we arrived in Sydney with our two dogs. I was walking them at a small park opposite our rental house. The younger pup was playing under a tree with his ball when I noticed something dangling out of the tree immediately above him. As I got closer, I realized said dangly thing was a humungous python wrapped around a branch, with its head swinging perilously close to my dog’s own. Thankfully, he’s an obedient little guy (my dog, not the snake) so he came to me as soon as I called. I remember standing there muttering over and over to myself: “What have I done? Where have I taken us? Did I just see a python hanging from a tree?” It became even more surreal when an elderly couple strolled past the tree while out for their morning walk. “Watch out for the python!” I called out. “Oh, don’t worry about him,” the white haired gent replied. “He’s just a harmless diamond python.” I knew then that I was truly displaced … and a lonnnnnnng way from Kansas, Dorothy.
When have you felt the least displaced?
The moment last November when our son, Elliot, was born. Australia was now his place of birth and it suddenly had a new, much more personal, meaning for me. This wild and rugged, unashamedly and devastatingly beautiful country will always be his home, wherever we are as a family in the future. He is an Australian first and foremost — and I’m incredibly proud of having provided that for him.
I’ve seen some of Elliott’s baby pix on Facebook and I must say, he’s adorable! No wonder you’re a proud papa! Besides your wife and new baby, you may bring one precious item or curiosity you’ve collected from the country (or each of the countries) you’ve lived in to The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase? From Canada: A bowl of poutine — a bowl full of french fries coated with brown gravy and topped off with curd cheese (which is a strange thing to be carrying in your suitcase and no doubt illegal to carry on your travels, but there you go). I’ve always had a penchant for the odd hot chip or fry. When I landed in Canada and somebody introduced me to this delightful French-Canadian dish, I knew I’d found my manna from heaven. Poutine. The very word itself makes me salivate. From Australia: Probably a pair of budgie smugglers, which, though I’ve never worn — I can never quite get my head around the concept of wearing — would remind me of Oz as the majority of Australian men over the age of 40 wear them. FYI, the budgie smuggler — otherwise known as the “tighty-whitey” or “banana hammock” — is Australian slang for men’s tight-fitting Speedo-style swimwear. It’s something I shall never be seen wearing unless on a desert island by myself.
Don’t even think about it once you’re inside The Displaced Nation. We like to keep a sense of decorum. Next question: Can you donate any words or expressions from your travels to our displaced argot? From Canada: It has to be “eh?”. “Canada, eh?” is something of a legendary sentence! “How’s it going, eh?” Used often and everywhere, it’s cute, quaint and so very Canadian. I also adore the way Canadians say “out”. Next time you’re near a Canadian, ask him or her to say it and you’ll see why. From Australia: I’m going to avoid the “g’day” and “no worries” stereotypes and go with “ah yeah” — which I’m told I say all the time and which my friends tell me sounds very Australian. I think I probably used to say it in Amazingstoke, but years later, with the Aussie twang, it sounds less Jude Law and more Steve Irwin.
Let’s move on (or back) to food. You are invited to prepare a meal for the Displaced Nation, based on your travels. What’s on the menu? No poutine, please, we’re displaced! Appetizer: From Canada — okay, no poutine but possibly a serving of waffles with Canadian maple syrup. I know, it’s not all that healthy and it’ll fill you up as a starter, but it was either that or the BeaverTails (fried dough pastry that resemble a beaver’s tail). Main: I’ll revert to my current Australian habitat and chuck a couple of steaks with a few prawns on the barbie. (I know it’s an overused cliche — but one I’ve found to be true of life in the land down under.) Dessert: I’ll whip up a key lime pie — a taste acquired from my short period of time working in the US. The pie was served on my arrival and, after seven hours of cattle-class airplane food, was quite easily the most delicious thing I’d tasted all day. Drinks: I could share a few schooners of Australian lager, but instead I’ll opt for a jug of iced tea for the non-alcohol drinkers out there — I used to consume it by the gallon when living in Vancouver.
A theme we’ve been exploring this month, in honor of Valentine’s Day, is cross-cultural love. Thanks to your Aussie wife, you qualify! Tell me, what’s your idea of a romantic evening for two — and has it changed since the time when you were an unattached male who hadn’t yet left Britain?
It’s quite similar to when I lived in Britain: i.e., dinner for two, flowers, chocolates, a card and so on. In other words, fairly traditional. The difference now is the setting. In Sydney we’ll sit by the water at a local restaurant, maybe at the edge of the sand on one of the Northern Beaches. The sound of the ocean can be quite soothing … but is it an aphrodisiac, I hear you ask? Next time, I’ll order the oysters and let you know!
Our other theme of the month is film, in honor of the Oscars. Can you recommend any films that speak to the situation of expats and their displacement?
A film I watched recently that I’d thoroughly recommend and which completely spoke to the expat situation was The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It’s a British comedy-drama about a group of retirees who travel to India to take up residence in what they believe is a newly restored hotel. The most interesting part for me was the way in which the different characters deal with their displacement, especially to such a polar-opposite country to their own. Some cope well, others not so. And the parallels with everyday expat living are apparent throughout.
That’s actually one of the films we nominated for this year’s Displaced Oscars — results to be announced in our Dispatch on Saturday! We’ll be sure to register your vote before then.
So, readers — yay or nay for letting Russell Ward into The Displaced Nation? Among other contradictions, he’s an Aussie citizen but can’t seem to cope with nonpoisonous snakes and refuses to don a budgie smuggler. And he claims to be loyal to Basing/Amazingstoke, but wants to serve us Canadian (sweet) iced tea. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Russell — find amusing!)
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a review of Jeff Jung’s new book on mid-life career changes involving travel and the expat life.
Images (top to bottom): Banner from Russell VJ Ward’s blog; with his wife on Sydney Harbour (2010); photo he uses for his blog — taken in Launceston, Tasmania, in 2011; wearing Canadian mittens on Avalon Beach, Sydney, just before the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics — his way of showing his Canadian friends that he was supporting their athletes: “You should have seen the looks I got from the locals; it was a 35 degree Celsius day and I looked like a madman!”
Don’t miss our 4 polls below! Results to be announced in March 2nd Displaced Dispatch! Enjoy!
When I first repatriated to the United States, I relished the chance to watch the Oscars again. For some reason — I’m not sure why, particularly as I was never a big movie buff — I regretted missing out on the pinnacle of Hollywood glamour during my years of living overseas, first in England and then in Japan.
It did not take long, however, before the novelty wore off. I grew bored with the dresses — they all seemed so same-y. And a tux is a tux is a tux.
I also grew bored with the selection of films. Typically, Oscar-nominated films take place within a single country’s borders — and when people cross these borders, it is in the service of maintaining them (IT’S WAR!!!). Apart from when Sofia Coppola was singled out for her Lost in Translation screenplay, the plots do not exactly speak to me and my prior situation of displacement.
Case-in-point: 2013 Oscar nominees
A great example of what I’m talking about are the two historical — or, more accurately, historically informed — movies that are up for this year’s Oscars:
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln — the quintessential American biographical period piece that the Academy loves (it is predicted to win five Oscars, including best director for Spielberg).
Les Misérables, the film of the musical theatre adaptation — which in turn is based on an historical novel by Victor Hugo (1862), depicting life in the aftermath of the French Revolution. (Les Mis is likely to win for its score, sound mixing, makeup and hair styling, and best supporting actress for Anne Hathaway.)
Actually, make that three historical films, as Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (up for best picture, cinematography and best original screenplay) can come under that rubric as well. The first half is a mock Western and the second, a mock-revenge melodrama about slavery. At least, though, it has one foreign character: German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Posing as a dentist, he gallivants around Texas, speaking perfect English. And you’ll never guess what? He’s a villain. He does have manners — but does that mitigate or enhance his villainy? One can never tell with Mr Tarantino…
Likewise, Argo (likely to win best picture along with some other prizes) and Zero Dark Thirty (likely to win for best original screenplay) depict epic events in the — albeit much more recent — American past. And although each of these films portrays Americans abroad, it shows them acting in the service of president and country — with the aim of protecting other Americans. Nothing too displaced about that.
Perhaps the best of this year’s films for anyone with a proclivity for venturing across borders is Life of Pi (likely to win for best original score and visual effects). The story is about an Indian family that is emigrating to Winnipeg, Canada. Yet, as even those of us who haven’t seen the film know by now, Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) gets stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific with a Bengal tiger. (That’s after the steamliner carrying his family’s zoo is pulled underwater during a freak storm.)
Over the course of months, the two unlikely castaways must depend on each other to survive — a scenario that provides an occasion for reflecting on cross-spiritualism, not cross-culturalism. (Pi, who was born a Hindu, loves Jesus and practices Islam.)
It also provides an occasion for displaced Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee to try his hand at 3D storytelling.
Why are we trying so hard to fit in when we were born to stand out?
WELCOME TO THE 2013 DISPLACED OSCARS. If we don’t fit into the Hollywood version, we may as well host our own event. We invite you to vote on your favorite films in the four categories we have created below. Preliminary results were announced in the Displaced Dispatch that came out on Saturday, February 23rd. Final results will appear in the Dispatch that comes out on Saturday, March 2nd. Be sure to sign up if you haven’t already!
1) Best Film Exploring Themes of Interest to Expats & International Travelers
This category honors the films that put cross-cultural themes right at the center. And the nominees are:
1) Shanghai Calling (2012, dir. by Daniel Hsia) SUMMARY: Manhattanite Sam (Daniel Henney), an arrogant young lawyer, is transferred to his firm’s Shanghai office. He bungles his first assignment and finds his career in jeopardy. With the help of his beautiful relocation specialist, among others, he just might be able to save his job and learn to appreciate the wonders that Shanghai has to offer. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: How often do we get to see Shanghai on the big screen? That said, the plot is somewhat shallow and fails to make the most of Sam’s background as a Chinese American.
2) The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012, dir. by John Madden) SUMMARY: A group of British retirees — played by British acting greats like Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy — have outsourced their retirement, attracted by the less expensive and seemingly exotic India. They are enticed by advertisements about the newly restored Marigold Hotel and given false dreams of a life with leisure. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: At the 2012 Mumbai Film Festival, the film was honored for showcasing Indian filming locations — a view not necessarily shared by viewers outside the subcontinent. Some of us feel that India was slighted by being treated as the shimmering background to a story about retirement-age self-renewal.
3) The Imposter (2012, dir. by Bart Layton) SUMMARY: Thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his home in San Antonio, Texas, in 1994. Three and a half years later, he is allegedly found alive, thousands of miles away in a village in southern Spain with a story of kidnapping and torture. His family is overjoyed to bring him home. But all is not quite as it seems. The boy bears many of the same distinguishing marks he always had, but why does he now have a strange accent? Why does he look so different? This British documentary concerns the 1997 case of French serial imposter Frédéric Bourdin. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: By common consensus, The Imposter is one of the year’s most provocative pictures. Certainly, Displaced Nation writer Anthony Windram found it that way. In one of our most popular posts of last year, he mused that Bourdin’s story is not entirely unfamiliar to expats, all of whom have chameleon-like qualities.
CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!
2) Best Foreign Displaced Film
This category honors films about displacement that take place in non-English speaking countries and therefore require English speakers to read subtitles while learning about other cultures. And the nominees are:
1) Tabu (2012, dir. by Portugal’s Miquel Gomes) SUMMARY: The action in this experimental fiction ranges from contemporary Lisbon to an African colony in the distant past, in what was Portuguese Mozambique. First we are introduced to a cantankerous elderly Portuguese lady with a gambling addition. Then we flashback to her youth as a beautiful young woman living a kind of White Mischief existence at the foot of Mount Tabu, where she falls in love with a handsome adventurer…(Notably, the film’s title references the 1931 German silent film of that name, which took place in the South Seas.) WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: The film shows what happens to expats who live too long — there are no remnants of “paradise” left. But some — e.g., A.O. Scott of the New York Times — have faulted the director for glossing over the issues of colonialism in the film in favor of simple aestheticism.
2) Clandestine Childhood (2011, dir. by Benjamín Ávila) SUMMARY: A cinematic memoir drawn from Ávila’s own experiences, the film paints an unsettling portrait of families affected by military dictatorships. The year is 1979, five years after Perón’s death, and the family of 12-year-old Juan, who have been living in exile in Cuba, returns secretly to Argentina. Juan’s parents are members of an underground organization and for sake of their cover, he must assume the name of “Ernesto” and pretend to be a newcomer from northern Argentina. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Juan’s parents aren’t fleeing the law because of their past misdeeds but are trying violently to overthrow a current dictatorship. The film therefore raises the question: do urban guerrillas make good parents? After all, they are asking their son, a Third Culture Kid, to act the part of a native in the homeland he never knew, for the sake of their political ideals. But while this question is intriguing, the story is driven almost entirely by clichés. As one critic remarked:
[T]he writing needs to be sharper to avoid feeling like a generic coming-of-ager.
3) Let My People Go (2011, dir. by Mikael Buch) SUMMARY: French immigrant Reuben (Nicolas Maury) is living in fairytale Finland — where he got his MA in “Comparative Sauna Cultures” — with his gorgeous Nordic boyfriend Teemu (Jarkko Niemi). He works as the mailman in a neighborhood whose colorful houses look like Scandinavian Skittles. Then, after a misunderstanding involving a parcel full of Euros, Teemu casts his lover out of Eden, sending him back to where he came from: Paris. WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Ruben’s return to Paris — where he finds his family weathering various crises as well as emotional instability — demonstrates why he left in the first place. (Aren’t most expats escaping something?) However, the scenes with his wacky, feuding family members soon become tedious. As one critic puts it:
The movie’s labored attempt at creating comedy mostly means lots of scenes with Ruben cringing as relatives shout.
CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!
3) Most Displaced Director
This category honors the director who has shown the most chutzpah in raiding the literature of other cultures to make a commercially successful movie (note: they do not cast the natives!). This year’s nominees are:
1) Joe Wright for doing a British version of Anna Karenina (2012), casting his muse (Keira Knightly) in the titular role WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Some enjoyed Wright’s bold new interpretation of this classic Russian novel, while others felt that he did Tolstoy a terrible injustice — for instance, New Yorker critic Richard Brody had this to say:
Wright, with flat and flavorless images of an utterly impersonal banality, takes Tolstoy’s plot and translates it into a cinematic language that’s the equivalent of, say, Danielle Steel, simultaneously simplistic and overdone.
2) Tom Hooper for casting a bunch of Aussies, Brits and Americans in Les Misérables WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Since Hooper previously won the Best Director Oscar for the terribly English drama The King’s Speech (historical drama, yay!), many found it odd that he would choose to take on this sprawling French story, and beloved musical, to create what he calls “an oil tanker of a picture.” But for what it’s worth, Hooper had no qualms about directing a film having to do with French history instead of his own. He is persuaded that Victor Hugo’s story speaks to issues of concern today:
Hugo’s story of populist uprising in 1832 Paris resounds in an era of the Arab Spring, the Occupy protests and general frustration over economic inequality.
3) Korean director Hur Jin-ho for making an Asian version of Dangerous Liaisons (2012) — which was originally an 18th-century novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclosset — and setting it in 1930s Shanghai WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Many have complimented Hur Jin-ho’s decorous adaptation, saying it was clever of him to swap the insular, decadent world of de Laclos’ book, which takes place pre-French Revolution, with the similarly gilded cage of Chinese aristocrats just prior to the Japanese invasion. But the film isn’t particularly sophisticated on a political or historical level. As one critic writes: “It’s all just window-dressing: pretty, but substance-free.”
CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!
4) Most Displaced Actor/Actress
This category honors the actor who has performed this year’s greatest feat of playing a role that requires them to take on a whole new nationality. We’re talking Versatility Plus! And the nominees are:
1) Daniel Day-Lewis, the Anglo-Irish actor who portrayed Abe Lincoln in Lincoln WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Apparently, there was no American actor good enough to play one of the most exceptional presidents the nation has ever known as critics have had nothing but praise for Day Lewis’s performance. Here is a sampling:
His Lincoln is tall and tousled and bent over with the weight of melancholy responsibility in the fourth year of the Civil War.
[Day-Lewis] manages to inject so much quiet humour into what could have been a very reverential portrait.
[The actor] inhabits the ageing figure of the 16th President of the United States with exquisite poise, intellect and grace.
2) Anne Hathaway for playing saintly prostitute Fantine in Les Misérables WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Many find it impressive that Hathaway, cast as the tragic Fantine, sings the show-stopping “I Dreamed a Dream” in one take. (Tom Hooper’s contribution to the genre was having the actors sing rather than lip synch.) And some say that her willingness to have her locks shorn off on screen shows her commitment to her craft. That said, her performance is not to everyone’s taste. “Rarely have the movies seen such an embarrassingly naked plea for applause,” writes Australian film critic Jake Wilson — the implication being the Victor Hugo’s Fantine would have had more dignity.
3) Swedish actress Alicia Vikander for taking on two non-Swedish roles: Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (she served as Queen of Denmark and Norway in the 18th century) in A Royal Affair (2012); and Kitty in Anna Karenina (2012) WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Vikander’s “moxie” is apparently what landed her both of these parts. According to A Royal Affair director Nikolaj Arcel, every actress in Denmark wanted the role of Mathilde, but only Vikander had the requisite “regal quality.” She even went to Copenhagen two months before shooting began to learn to speak Danish fluently. Likewise, Anna Karenina director Joe Wright saw in her the qualities to play Kitty, a flirtatious young woman who believes the dashing Count Vronsky is her Prince Charming, only to find love with a kind-hearted farmer named Levin. It is not uncommon for movie-goers to remark that she outshines Kiera Knightly’s Anna.
CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!
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Are we missing out on any films/categories? Please leave your suggestions in the comments below.
Place of birth:Croydon*, South London, United Kingdom Passport: Australia (My UK passport expired a few years ago.) Overseas history: Australia (just outside Perth, Western Australia): 1998 – present. “I live five minutes from the beach!” Occupation: Writer of steamy historical and paranormal romance for Penguin and Ellora’s Cave. Cyberspace coordinates:Christina Ashcroft: Welcome to my dark world of archangelic eroticism (author site) and @ChristinaAsh_ (Twitter handle).
*I always get very excited whenever I see Croydon mentioned in a book (which isn’t very often!)
Before moving to Australia, you lived in England all of your life. What made you take the leap to Down Under?
My husband and I were high school sweethearts — he, too, comes from South London (Upper Norwood). We had talked about moving to Australia off and on for several years. We used to watch the programs on the TV of expats, and it all seemed very exotic and exciting. The decider came when my brother made the move to Perth, WA, in 1994. We visited him in ’96 when he got married (to the girl he’d gone to Uni with in the UK). Despite being chased by the biggest cockroach in the history of cockroaches, we fell in love with the country. We arrived home in early January to ice and snow, and within a couple of weeks we filed our application! We moved out here with our three kids.
So your brother is also “displaced”?
Yes, he, his wife and two daughters live about an hour from us.
In your 15 years in Oz, when have you felt the most displaced — apart from the time when you were literally displaced by that cockroach?
Only when there’s a big family get together in the UK and we know we can’t make it. We used to have great family parties and I really miss them. Apart from that I’ve honestly never felt displaced, except for the first month or so when I did get a bit homesick…
When have you felt the least displaced?
When I’m spending time in front of my laptop, lost in the mystical worlds of my characters. I’ve made a lot of writer friends online but I’ll never forget the first time I met up with my two critique partners (CPs) in the “real world.” It was just magic. I had found my tribe, and even though I’d had to travel to the other side of the world before we found each other, it was completely worth it. Funnily enough one of my CPs is also an expat from the UK who moved to New Zealand, but now lives in Australia. The other one is an Australian who was living in the UK when we first met online but she has now moved back to Oz.
It sounds as though you credit the move to Australia with your decision to become an author.
I’ve often wondered whether my career would have followed the same route if we’d stayed in the UK. While I’ve always loved writing it wasn’t until we moved to Australia that I decided to to write with the aim of publication. The support, encouragement and friendship I’ve found in the Romance Writers of Australia has been phenomenal. I also don’t think I would have met up with my CPs, and they are the ones who originally suggested I should try writing erotic romance.
Wow, congratulations! And don’t you write historical romances as well?
My historical romances are set during the first century when Rome invaded Britain. There are sexy warrior heroes, magical Druid heroines and powerful goddesses.
You may bring one curiosity you’ve collected while living in Australia into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase besides your books?
Well, I’ve not brought a suitcase, I’ve brought a traveling basket with my three adorable kitties! I’d always had cats in England, but we were here for 12 years before I finally adopted two sisters. One of them had four kittens but unfortunately only one survived. We spoil him terribly!
You are invited to prepare a meal for the Displaced Nation, based on your travels. What’s on the menu?
It would have to be a barbeque, of course! Not only can you cook practically anything on the BBQ but it always tastes a lot better than having to cook it in the kitchen. Plus it means I don’t have to actually do any cooking, since my husband and son take over with tongs and fork — always a bonus!
Since lamb is very popular here, we could have lamb and capsicum kebabs with salad and fresh crusty bread, washed down with a local wine and cold beer. Seeing as I’m from the UK, I should only ever drink warm beer, but I have to confess I’ve joined the Dark Side on that one!
For dessert — what could be yummier than a mango cheesecake?
Can you donate an Aussie word or expression to the Displaced Nation’s argot?
One of the best expressions in Australia is “No worries.” While my children take great delight in telling me I still sound “so British,” I do love saying “no worries.” It’s just so laid back and zen and also rolls off the tongue very easily!
Returning one last time to this month’s Valentine’s Day theme, what’s your idea of a romantic evening for two? Has it changed since the time when you were still living in Britain?
Room service in a fabulous hotel with a gorgeous view of the ocean. We’d eat our meal on the balcony as we watched the sun set and later we’d crack open a bottle of bubbly in the private spa. Although we’ve only managed this romantic getaway a couple of times in recent years, we never did anything like it in Britain.
Readers — yay or nay for letting Christina Ashcroft into The Displaced Nation? She drinks cold beer yet her children accuse her of being “so British.” And, though we might enjoy her erotic tales of fallen archangels and the women who capture their hearts around Valentine’s Day, would we benefit from a steady diet of this out-of-this-displaced-world fare? (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Christina — find amusing!)
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, another in our “Capital Ideas” series — focusing on one of the world’s most romantic cities (but of course!).
img: Christina Ashcroft looking a little bit displaced(?) at the Romance Writers of Australia conference held in August 2012. Christina says: “My critique group call ourselves the Tiara Girls, so we take along our tiaras and wear them at the Friday night conference cocktail party. It’s just a bit of fun!”
MAY BOUNTY!!! Not one but TWO giveaways:
1) 2 copies of Libby's Life: Taking Flight, by Kate Allison; details here.
2) 3 copies of Coffee and Vodka, by Helena Halme; details here.
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About The Displaced Nation
The founders of The Displaced Nation share a passion for what we call the "displaced life" of global residency and travel -- particularly when it leads to creative pursuits, be it writing, art, food, business, social activism, or even (especially?) humo(u)r. Read more about us.