The Displaced Nation

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CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: How to pry open your mind to new cultures—and keep them all sorted

Yelena Parker for CST Displaced Nation Columnist H.E. Rybol never saw a culture clash she didn’t want to fix. A “transitions enthusiast,” she credits her Third Culture Kid upbringing with giving her a head start in this department. That said, H.E. is always on the lookout for shiny new tools, and toward that end has been interviewing other displaced creatives about their culture shock memories and coping strategies. Today she speaks to Yelena Parker, a Ukrainian expat, executive coach, and writer who, through her many international moves, claims to have mastered the art of “moving without shaking.”

—ML Awanohara

Hello, Displaced Nationers! I’d like you to meet today’s guest, businesswoman and author Yelena Parker. Yelena is Ukrainian but has lived in the United States, Switzerland, Tanzania and now the United Kingdom, and has conducted business in many more countries. Last year she published a book titled Moving without Shaking, which made the Displaced Nation’s “Best of 2014 in Expat Books” list. Described as a “guidebook-meets-memoir,” it aims to help women “who are interested in building their new global life styles whether through working, studying, volunteering or simply living abroad.”

One of Yelena’s contentions is:

Once you are on a serial expat path, new relocations get easier.

Can we take this to mean it’s possible to get better at handling culture shock?

Let’s find out by asking Yelena to describe a few of her own culture shock experiences. She may advocate for moving without shaking; but how does that line up with her own adventures? Has she never shaken like a leaf at some point during her various international moves?

* * *

Hi, Yelena! First can you please tell us which countries you’ve lived in and for how long?

I came to California from Ukraine in my 20s to get an MBA and ended up living there for more than nine years. I didn’t make it till the very end of year 10 as an opportunity came along to relocate to Switzerland for work. After two years in Geneva I moved to London to continue working in tech. I’ve now lived in the UK for four years, only interrupted by a four-month volunteering stint in Tanzania, with a Kilimanjaro climbing break in between.

You’ve certainly made your fair share of cultural transitions. Did you ever put your foot in your mouth? Any memorable stories?

I travel to Moscow frequently for work. During the last trip the taxi driver asked me where I was from. This question is always complicated since, like many here at the Displaced Nation, I now feel as though I’m from everywhere and nowhere in particular. I tend to focus on the most recent location when giving an answer. To be polite, I share where I am coming from literally (versus where I am from). On this occasion, the last port of call was St. Petersburg, which in Soviet times was known as Leningrad. Some wires in my brain must have crossed as I blurted out: “From Leningrad.” The driver said “Really???” We ended up engaging in a much longer conversation, about my Soviet childhood in Ukraine and so on. I think I had a reverse culture shock reaction after being away from where I grew up for so long.

What lessons can you offer to the rest of us from this story?

It’s a bit of a strange example, but what I am trying to get across is that keeping your life truly connected to multiple worlds is very difficult. You are bound to lose some of your identity, forget the basics, replace them with new realities and then, perhaps, come full circle as you find yourself back in your good old comfort zone. You and your memories have many layers now. It can be challenging to keep them sorted. That toolbox of yours needs to have quite a few compartments!

Looking back on your many cultural transitions, can you recall any situations that you handled with surprising finesse?

Moving to Tanzania, I was surprised at how quickly I embraced the pole pole (slowly-slowly) way of life. Until I went on this amazing adventure, I had always been a workaholic. But then I found myself living enjoying the most beautiful sunsets and spending a lot of time talking to people in front of me instead of using various digital ways to connect with people remotely. I didn’t complain about the lack of speedy or efficient services anywhere as I no longer expected that kind of thing. I was not rushed or overwhelmed so wasn’t concerned about being late or other people being late or not showing up to meetings. I just enjoyed every moment of this new experience: no deadlines, no crazy work hours, only things I truly wanted to do. You could say I felt burnt out after working non-stop (or being in school) for 23 years. I do believe, however, that something in that culture was appealing to my natural preferences, which had been suppressed by years of working in the corporate world. I also realized that I wanted to teach again. My first career was in teaching English at a university level in Ukraine—work I’d chosen to abandon when I took a degree in business. That said, I am back on the corporate path again.

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

I guess it would be some kind of crowbar to pry open your mind to new experiences, no matter how many times you relocate. Learn everything you can about your new home country. Explore it thoroughly. If you end up moving back home, you will regret that you didn’t do enough. If you stay, the more you learn, the easier your assimilation into your new life is going to be.

Thank you so much, Yelena, for taking the time to share your experiences and reminding us that keeping an open mind and a willingness to learn about other cultures can be effective tools, sometimes in unexpected ways! I love your example of becoming immersed in an East African culture and learning more about your own (suppressed) natural preferences as a result. And I of course love the idea of moving without shaking! That’s what this toolbox is for…

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Yelena’s advice? Have you ever found yourself having a Rip-Van-Winkle moment like hers? How about discovering your “true self” in a vastly different culture? Do tell!

If you like what you heard from Yelena, be sure to check out her author site and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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

Until then. Prost! Santé!

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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

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

Global Food Gossip April 2015

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SirTobyBelch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dinner party quote

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

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

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

It’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?

* * *

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Happy 4th Birthday to the Displaced Nation!

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

Greetings Displaced Nationers, old and new.

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

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

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

We can’t!

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

Photo credit: AlainAudet via Pixabay

Photo credit: AlainAudet via Pixabay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) Introduce a new look to the site.

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

* * *

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

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

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

Photo credit: blickpixel via Pixabay.

Photo credit: blickpixel via Pixabay.

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

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

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

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

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

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

—ML Awanohara

Dear Displaced Diary,

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

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

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

Jordan Rivet in London

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

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

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

Expat connections are everywhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beginnings, revisited

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

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

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

LondonKiss+Year of Fire Dragons

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

What’s on the horizon?

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

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

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

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

Yours,

Shannon Young/Jordan Rivet
www.shannonyoungwriter.com

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

* * *

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

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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

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

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

—ML Awanohara

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Until then. Prost! Santé!

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

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

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

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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.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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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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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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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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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: 2014–2015 books recommended by expats & other international creatives (2/2)

Globe Bookshelf Part TwoHello Displaced Nationers! As those who caught Part One of this post last week will know, we are continuing the party we had at the end of last year in publishing a Best of 2014 in expat books list by soliciting various international creatives and other “displaced” contacts for more recommended books.

In Part One, several of my bookworm friends from a previous blog, Novel Adventurers, along with ML and JJ Marsh (JJ writes the Location, Locution column for Displaced Nation), revealed their favorite 2014 reads.

In Part Two, below, kicking off with yours truly, we talk about releases we’re hotly anticipating this year.

A “forthcoming reads” roundtable, if you will.

—Beth Green

* * *

BETH GREEN: I actively search out books by Elizabeth George, the American author of the Inspector Lynley mystery novels set in Britain, and Elizabeth Gilbert, who achieved fame with her travel memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. 2015 is a great year for me as both Elizabeths have books coming out.

A_Banquet_of_Consequence_300s_coverA Banquet of Consequences (Inspector Lynley Book 19), by Elizabeth George, due out in October.
Synopsis: Lynley and Havers are drawn from Cambridge to London to the windswept town of Shaftesbury during one of their most complex cases yet: the murder of a feminist writer and speaker.
Why I’m excited: Though actually not in the “expat” realm, I have to confess it’s the book I’m most looking forward to reading. I’m a huge fan of George’s diverse characters and elaborate stories.

BigMagic_cover_300Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, by Elizabeth Gilbert, due out in September.
Synopsis: Gilbert digs deep into her own creative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity.
Why I’m excited: As some readers may recall, I reviewed her novel The Signature of All Things last fall for this column. It seems that Gilbert is now turning her hand to self-help/motivational books for us creatives. I’m intrigued, and I figure other international creatives should be as well.

Three other upcoming books, by authors I’ve not come across before, have also caught my eye:

Displacement_cover_300Displacement, by Lucy Knisley, due out February 8th.
Synopsis: A graphic-novel-style/comic-book travelogue reporting on a cruise ship trip to the Caribbean Knisley took with her grandparents.
What interests me: Even though I seldom read graphic novels, I’m curious to pick it up, especially given its title(!). Knisley has two previous travelogues in graphic form: French Milk (her six-week trip to Paris to celebrate a milestone birthday) and An Age of License (her all-expenses trip to Europe/Scandinavia).

Meet_Me_in_Atlantis_cover_300Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City, by Mark Adam, due out in March
Synopsis: A few years ago, travel writer Mark Adams made a strange discovery: everything we know about the lost city of Atlantis comes from the work of one man, the Greek philosopher Plato. Then he made a second, stranger discovery: amateur explorers are still actively searching for this sunken city all around the world, based entirely on the clues Plato left behind. Adams decides to track these people down. He reports on what he learns from scientists and amateur historians who all share his curiosity about the facts and fiction surrounding the “lost city.”
What interests me: Count me in that curious group!

The Porcelain Thief: Searching for the Middle Kingdom in Buried China, by Huan Hsu (forthcoming in March).
The_Porcelain_Thief_cover_300Synopsis: The author, raised in Utah, goes back to his ancestral homeland in China, in part to look for porcelain and other treasures his great-great-grandfather may have buried before the family fled the Sino-Japanese War.
What interests me: As a former expat in China, I love anything about this part of the world, and this displaced family saga sounds particularly fascinating!


ML AWANOHARA: I am always on the lookout for books that could be of interest to the Displaced Nation readership. (Whether I end up reading them or not is a different matter!) I’m sure this is just the tip of the iceberg, but thus far in 2015 I have my eye on one novel and several memoirs.

First, the novel:

The_Art_of_Unpacking_Your_Life_cover_300The Art of Unpacking Your Life, by Shireen Jilla (forthcoming in March)
Synopsis: A million miles away from their daily concerns, on a safari in the Kalahari Desert, two women who were once best friends see if they can reconnect.
What interests me: We featured Jilla’s first novel, Exiled, on the Displaced Nation shortly after we started the site as we were curious to as to why, after her own expat life in New York City, she had produced such a dark, dysfunctional family psychodrama concerning a British expat family living on the Upper East Side of New York. (Her answer was extremely satisfying!)

As to memoirs, here are three that were issued in January:

Leaving_Before_the_Rains_Come_cover_300Leaving Before the Rains Come, by Alexandra Fuller (came out in January)
Synopsis: A child of the Rhodesian wars and daughter of two deeply complicated parents, Alexandra Fuller is no stranger to pain. But the disintegration of her own marriage leaves her shattered. Looking to pick up the pieces of her life, she finally confronts the tough questions about her past, about the American man she married in hopes of being saved from the madness of her early life, and about the family she left behind in Africa.
What interests me: I so enjoyed Fuller’s first memoir, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, about growing up in a white family during the Rhodesian Bush War, I have come to think of her as a modern-day displaced heroine, or goddess: larger than life, an extraordinary mix of beauty and brains, out of this displaced world… (Hmmm… No wonder her marriage to a mere mortal didn’t last.)

Russian_Tattoo_cover_300Russian Tattoo: A Memoir, by Elena Gorokhova
SYNOPSIS: In her first memoir, A Mountain of Crumbs, Gorokhova detailed her life growing up with an iron-willed mother in Soviet-era St. Petersburg. In this follow-up, she escapes both mother and country by entering into an unsuitable marriage with an American. When her husband first brings her to live in Austin, Texas, the culture shock is extreme. He then ships her off to Princeton to live with his psychotherapist mother. There she meets her second husband and a happier future.
WHAT INTERESTS ME: Maybe because I lived abroad for so long and then had to readjust to life in the U.S., I identify very closely with immigrant stories. And for personal reasons, I’m always attracted to stories that revolve around the challenges of cross-cultural marriage.

Whipping_boy_cover_300Whipping Boy: The Forty-Year Search for My Twelve-Year-Old Bully, by Allen Kurzweil
SYNOPSIS: As a 10-year-old American shipped to a Swiss boarding school, Kurzweil endured a year of torment. Years later he set out to search for the chief bully, Cesar, who, it turned out, had gone to prison twice, having become a professional con man. In circling the globe to find Cesar, Kurzweil stands up for all who’ve been the victim of bullies.
WHAT INTERESTS ME: As we’ve always recognized on this site, some of us who are “displaced” have gothic tales to tell. Thank goodness in this case the villain picked on a man who was destined to become a world-class writer, hence able to exact an exquisite revenge.

Finally, I just now heard about another memoir whose title alone has me panting to know more: The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Ex-Pats and Ex-Countries, by litblog founder and book reviewer Jessa Crispin, who moved to Berlin in 2009. It’s due out in September; no book cover yet.


JJ MARSH, crime series author and Displaced Nation columnist (Location, Locution): I have a novel and a poem on my list, along with one publishing house.

A_Spool_of_Blue_Thread_300A Spool of Blue Thread: A Novel, by Anne Tyler (forthcoming this month).
Synopsis: It’s not an expat story but rather the opposite: a domestic family saga. The family, Whitshanks, have lived in Baltimore for several generations.
What interests me: Tyler wrote The Accidental Tourist (about the ultra-insular Leary family, who also live in Baltimore) and I’m curious.

“Sentenced to Life”, by Clive James (James, for those who don’t know, is an Australian writer and personality who has long lived in Britain.)
Synopsis: It’s one of James’s recent poems, published in May of last year, and can be read in full on her author site.
What interests me: I heard James on the radio talking about writing poetry about facing death and it humbled me.

I also look forward to whatever Galley Beggar Press puts out because they’re exciting and adventurous and try things other publishers will not. This strategy paid off with their Baileys Prize success of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride last year.


The_Tutor_of_History_cover_300HEIDI NOROOZY, adult TCK, translator and author (@heidinoroozy): This year I’ve resolved to read more books in translation and stories from far-flung parts of the world. And, as I enjoy novels set in foreign locations that are told in local voices, I’ve got these two on my list:

The Tutor of History, written in English by the Nepali author Manjushree Thapa
SYNOPSIS: One of South Asia’s best-known writers, Thapa follows the lives of a variety of characters in the lead-up to local and national elections in a small town in central Nepal.
NOTE: This novel came out in 2012, but I haven’t gotten round to reading it yet.

The_Little_Paris_Bookshop_cover_300The Little Paris Bookshop, by the German author Nina George (forthcoming in English in June).
SYNOPSIS: Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. The only person he can’t seem to heal through literature is himself…but will he manage to do that on a mission he takes to the south of France, with an Italian chef as his companion?
NOTE: I already read the novel in German. In Germany it spent over a year on the bestseller lists.


My_Fellow_Prisoners_cover_300KELLY RAFTERY, translator and writer: In 2015, I am looking forward to being able to read Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s collection of short stories entitled My Fellow Prisoners. Already available in Europe, it is due to have its U.S. release in late February. Convicted on thinly disguised, politically motivated charges, Mikhail Khodorkovsky went from being Russia’s richest man to a labor camp inmate in Siberia. In the decade of his incarceration, Khodorkovsky scribbled short sketches of the men he encountered, jailers and prisoners alike.


SUPRIYA SAVKOOR, editor and mystery writer: In the last roundtable, I mentioned having recently read two gripping memoirs: Not My Father’s Son, by Alan Cumming, and A Long Way Home, by Saroo Brierley. In 2015 I’m looking forward to more books that surprise me as these two did, particularly ones in which the new stories are intertwined with the old ones and make me see the grander scheme of things.


Rebel_Queen_cover_300ALLI SINCLAIR, world traveler and novelist (www.allisinclair.com): I’m a huge fan of Michelle Moran’s books and any book of hers is an automatic buy for me. Moran has an interesting story. Born in Southern California, she was a public high school teacher before becoming a writer, using her summers to travel around the world. It was her experiences as a volunteer on archaeological digs that inspired her to write historical fiction. Moran’s upcoming work, Rebel Queen, will be released in March. It’s about Queen Lakshmi—also known as India’s Joan of Arc because she stood up to the British invasion of her beloved Kingdom of Jhansi. The queen raises two armies—one male and one female—and they go into battle against the well-prepared British.

Moran’s books are rich in historical facts but the stories are so enthralling it never feels like a history lesson. Another reason I’m a fan is because she usually chooses the point of view of someone not so well known. For example, in this story the main character is Sita, one of the Queen’s trusted soldiers and companions, a device that serves to paint a less-biased picture of the more famous Queen Lakshmi.

* * *

Thank you, ML, JJ and guests! Readers, do you have any further 2015 recommendations? Please leave a comment below. And then let’s get our noses back into our books!

Finally, please be sure to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has a Recommended Read every week. You can also follow the Displaced Nation’s DISPLACED READS Pinterest board.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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