Welcome to Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang’s monthly column about Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields, Lisa herself being a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she recently debuted her one-woman show about being a TCK, which I had the pleasure of seeing during its too-short run in New York City in September of last year: stupendous!
Happy new year, readers! Let’s start today’s interview by plunging right in. My guest is Laura Piquado, a professional actress based in New York who grew up in six countries, including Egypt, where we were drama classmates in high school.
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Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Laura. It’s wonderful to reconnect with a Cairo classmate! I know you grew up as the daughter of a pair of teachers who were full of wanderlust. Can you give us a run-down of the countries you lived in as a kid?
My mother always told me that her earliest dream memory was of wanting to move to Africa. And as soon as she graduated from university in Canada, that’s what she did. She met my father in Sierra Leone in the mid 1960s. He was there with the Peace Corps, while she was being sponsored by CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas)—a Peace Corps-style organization. They left when my mother was six months pregnant with my brother. My mother is tall, almost 5’11”, but at that time weighed only 120 lbs. I think having parasites, or the occasional bout of malaria was commonplace, but the risk to her health became too great.
After my (healthy) brother was born in Washington, DC, my parents decided to go overseas again. The first job my dad got was as an English teacher in a small village in northern Newfoundland, where I was born. Less than a year later, we moved to Beirut, Lebanon. Four years after that, when war broke out, we were evacuated to Shahin-Shahr, Iran, for almost four years. War broke out again, and we were evacuated again. The next stop was São Paulo, Brazil, for two years. My mom and dad hated the city, and we left every other weekend and holiday to get away from it. Consequently, my memories of Brazil are of travel, and of everywhere but São Paulo. After Brazil, we lived for four years in Bontang, Indonesia, which is in the province of East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. After seventh grade we moved again, to Cairo, Egypt, where I graduated high school. That’s where you and I first met! My parents then moved on to Ecuador and China for 16 more years.
My parents loved being overseas, and at no point did they yearn to “come home.” They wanted their lives to be as teachers in international schools, and for 40 years that’s what they did. They retired a few years ago to a small town in New Hampshire.
A hard landing into adulthood
How did you feel about living in so many places?
I loved it, actually. Adjusting to new environments, new friends, new cultures, languages, was never difficult for me. I don’t know why. Perhaps I just got used to it. But I don’t think you ever get used to leaving friends and people you love—that’s always hard.
As an adult, do you find yourself drawn to other TCKs?
I definitely identify with other TCKS, though it’s not always a given we will hit it off. In fact, I used to be magnetically drawn to anyone who was a visible minority. “You’re from Indonesia?! I used to live in Indonesia!” “Hey, you’re Alexandrian! I lived in Cairo for 5 years!” I was always wanting to make a connection with a world that was no longer mine—and maybe never was mine, if I adhere to the rules of 3rd culture. But just because someone grew up all over the world as I did, or just because they are an actor like me, doesn’t guarantee I’ll be friends with that person—but it’s a starting point. And if a person grew up in different countries, at least their eyes won’t glass over when I answer the question, “Where are you from?”
You now live in New York City. How do you find life in the USA?
I’ve lived in the United States longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. Yet it’s the first place I’ve ever lived that doesn’t feel like home. For the first 20 years of my life I played with my friends, explored the jungle, hiked the Andes, swam in the Red Sea and the East Timor Straights, climbed salt flats, made forts in the desert, went horse-back riding around the Great Pyramids, woke to gibbon songs and the muezzin’s call to prayer. And then I came back here to go to school, get some degrees, get a job, and try to figure things out… I had this exhilarating childhood, and then this less-than-thrilling transition to adulthood.
Does your identity revolve around any one particular culture that you’ve lived in?
I am Dyak and atheist, Muslim, Christian, Bahá’í, Jain, Egyptian, Italian, Canadian—there is nowhere in the world that has ever felt foreign to me. I am all of these things, and none of them. After moving to the United States for the first time for college, being able to be all of them at the same time was what mattered the most. I was striving to understand who I was and what my life had been, and trying to share that with others, even if I couldn’t articulate it to myself. It’s taken a long time, and I suppose I’m still working at it. That said, I love meeting the kind of person who, unlike me, was raised in the same town he or she was born in, and still goes back there for family visits and holidays. I am attracted to the sense of being anchored somewhere, to a particular place. That perceived sense of belonging somewhere: it’s something I just don’t have; I don’t know what it feels like.
From an actor on the global stage, to an actor on a real stage
Tell us what you studied in college and how you made the leap to pursuing an acting career.
I did my master’s degree in Islamic Studies at McGill University in Montreal. I wanted, as an adult, to understand the cultural, political, and social environments in which I grew up. On some level I was looking for a path that would take me overseas again, which I was aching to do. I wanted to work in the development of women’s education in post-conflict societies because it was work that I was passionate about.
Just as I was finishing my degree, and thinking about streamlining into a doctoral program, I went back to Cairo. I hadn’t been back since high school. For a whole month I walked through the streets of my old neighborhood, saw my friends, went to mosques and bazaars and the Red Sea, and smelled and ate and absorbed Egypt again. It was glorious. But something changed in me after that, and made it okay for me to move on.
When I came back to Montreal, I started applying to drama schools. Although I had been involved in theatre since I was a kid, I hadn’t wanted to study it as an undergrad. There were other things in my life that I needed to address before I embarked on that.
But now I was ready for drama school—I enrolled in the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. At LAMDA, I felt like I was flying. I was so happy. To allow myself the ability to change horses mid stream, and for it to feel natural and fluid and right—that was tremendous. I don’t think any of us is just one person, and we aren’t the same person at 15, 25, 35, 55. We have multiple loves and lives and wants, and finding ways to marry them all, if we’re lucky enough to know what they are in the first place, can be overwhelming.
How did your family react to your decision to pursue an acting career?
I’ve only ever had a supportive family. So instead of calling me a flake, or accusing me of lacking any sense of stick-to-itiveness when I told them I wanted to go to drama school, they became, again, my most enthusiastic supporters.
I think our peripatetic childhoods trained us to be actors—to observe, listen, and adjust our behavior to our surroundings. Do you agree?
I do agree, for the most part. But I also think personality has a lot to do with it. Just because you grew up all over the world doesn’t de facto make you a keen observer, or an astute listener, and not all kids who move around a lot are able to adjust to their changing environment. On the other hand, if you have had a peripatetic life, and you also happen to be a good listener, observer, etc., it seems it can only enrich your depths as an actor (and certainly as a human being). For me, adaptability became a defining aspect of my personality.
I think that for us TCKs, the challenge of convincing a casting director that you truly can be this other person is made easier because of all of those things we bring to the table—listening, observing, adjusting, maybe even having lived or known the character’s life. But also for that reason, many of us find it even harder to put up with being typecast.
Which sorts of roles are you attracted to, and do you think your upbringing influenced this?
I’m usually attracted to damaged characters, or quirky ones. And accents are always juicy! I’ve always been a mimic, and am grateful for that gift as it makes it easier to play a variety of roles. Why I’m drawn to quirky characters is less apparent. Does it have something to do with my upbringing? That’s an interesting thought. I’ve never made that correlation, but it makes complete sense.
So which parts have been your faves?
I loved playing Goneril in King Lear with the Texas Shakespeare Festival. I’ve always thought that she’s been inappropriately maligned as a character. Lear is not the easiest father—demanding, impulsive—and to require his daughters to prove, to prove, their undying love for him—for the sole purpose of measuring it against their inheritance—makes him something of a jerk in my book.
Playing the painter in Ionesco‘s The Painting with the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble was pretty great as well. Aside from the play’s absurdism, the part was perverse because of the the vocal and physical qualities we decided on. It’s not often that you get to play grotesque and obsequious, mismanage your voice, throw out your back, and sprain your jaw because the part demands it. Fantastic! 🙂
And a role on the damaged front, I suppose, was Charlotte in Sharr White‘s Sunlight, for its world premiere with the New Jersey Rep. While I’m less attracted to straightforward, modern dramas (though in truth, I love it all), the whole premise for who Charlotte is, for what motivates and oppresses her, is her having been in the Towers on September 11th and losing her child as a result of the trauma. And while that’s not what the play’s about (thank God!), it defines who she is able to become (or not become) in the ensuing decade.
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Wow, that’s an impressive list! Thank you, Laura! I wish you the very best in your career and hope to see you on stage and/or screen soon. Readers, please leave questions or comments for Laura below.
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, from our Global Food Gossip!
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