The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

TCK TALENT: Esther Williams Kalbfleish, Military Brat with a Heart for Theatre and a Mind for Teaching Other TCKs

Esther & Leon collage

TCK BELLS: Esther with her ATCK husband, Leon Kalbfleisch, on their wedding day six years ago. The couple originally met at the International School in Bangkok. Photo credit: Vikki Goodman.

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her 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 has developed her own one-woman show about being a TCK, which was the closing keynote at this year’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference and will be staged in Europe for the first time this August.

—ML Awanohara

Greetings, readers! Today’s guest is Esther Williams Kalbfleisch, an actress who also works as an ESL teacher in Alhambra, California, teaching kids from around the world whose families have migrated to the USA. I hope you enjoy her TCK Tale as much as I did!

* * *

Hello, Esther, and welcome to The Displaced Nation. I know you grew up in a military family, which gave you automatic admission into the ranks of us Third Culture Kids. Is it true that your dad worked as a spy at one point?
Yes, my dad was an army officer who served for 33 years, and while we were in India he was assigned to the Diplomatic Corps and worked as a spy!

So what did your mom do?
She was a housewife. Besides being a Cub Scout Den Mother and Girl Scout Leader, she assisted my dad with all of the entertaining that was necessary in his position.

I understand you were the youngest of four TCK siblings and the only girl, and that only one of your brothers traveled with you the first time you went overseas.
Yes, John was my only sibling to go overseas with my family after I was born; he was four years older and was born in Germany. My two eldest brothers, Wynn and Dennis, were from my dad’s first marriage and had gone overseas with him years before I was born. Wynn was 17 when I was born; Dennis was 13. Wynn attended West Point for a year and then served in Germany and Vietnam—my first memory of him would be from years later. By the time we went to India, Dennis had enlisted in the army.

Hey, we serve, too!

Tell me about all the moves and transitions you experienced as a kid.
We moved about every two years after I was born at Fort Eustis in Virginia. At that time my family was living off post, in a town called Lee Hall. Eventually we moved on post, to housing on Fort Eustis, and then to Springfield so that my parents could attend a foreign language school in D.C. in preparation for my father’s next assignment, in India. I remember my mom and dad bringing home films to give John and me an idea of what was to come. They also taught us how to count and say some simple phrases in Hindi. We moved to New Delhi when I was six, where I attended an American school. After two years we were transferred to Travis Air Force Base, in California, where we were one of the few army families. My dad was MATCO (Military Air Traffic Coordinating Officer)—his job was to organize and send materials to Vietnam and other places overseas. We moved to Thailand when I was in my last month of fourth grade. I enrolled in the International School of Bangkok, where I stayed and graduated from high school. My dad retired in Thailand, and my parents continued living there until 1976, when they moved back to the States.

When did your love of acting start?
Like many other military brats, I was raised in a very strict environment. My parents taught us that as Americans living overseas we were mini-ambassadors for the USA. Country, God, and family came first, especially country. When outside the home, we had to be polite, quiet, and respectful to all, and it was like that at home as well: no heated discussions or emotional outbursts. But then I got cast as Princess Lonelyheart in the second-grade play. Princess Lonelyheart stomped her feet when angry, cried when sad, and jumped up and down for joy. I had no idea one was allowed to react to the world in such a way—and thus began my life-long love affair with the theatre. I helped to found Thespian Troop 1163 at my high school in Bangkok, and performed or worked on over 12 productions.

The drama of choosing an acting career

But you went on to earn an education degree?
When it came time for college I was torn. My parents (who paid for my college, bless them!) considered theatre to be impractical and frivolous. And I had to struggle with my own feeling that acting was basically selfish. It didn’t fit in with my sense of duty to others. But even after I enrolled at the University of Colorado to study education, I couldn’t resist the pull of theatre. I continued to take classes and work with local theatre groups, both in college and immediately afterwards. I taught for three years in Dallas, Texas, before deciding to quit and study acting full time. I earned a second degree, in theatre, from the University of Texas.

So you got a second degree in theatre?
Yes, and eventually a master’s degree, from Cal State L.A.

It sounds like you really were torn.
For my entire adult life, I’ve been going back and forth between teaching and acting, struggling to find a place where I can best “serve” my community. After pursuing a career in theatre in the Chicago area, I moved to the L.A. area, where, for a time, teaching took over as my second love. For three years I was content to teach—there is nothing quite like watching a spark of understanding flit across a child’s face. But then one morning I woke up and vowed to find a theatre community. I learned that Theatre of NOTE was holding auditions the following day. I dragged out some monologues and went to the audition. For the next 24 years, Theatre of NOTE would be my artistic family. Due to my teaching demands I have now become an associate member. I still struggle with my choices.

Give me someone who has lived in another country…

Like many other ATCK artists I’ve talked to in this series, you’ve lived among worlds—first quite literally, when growing up in different cultures; and then professionally, as you found yourself torn between acting and teaching. As an adult TCK, have you also struggled with your cultural identity? And do you tend to gravitate towards people with interests or backgrounds similar to yours? 
To this day I have a particular fondness for the Thai people and their culture. Like most TCKs, I imagine, I identify most closely with people who have similar interests or who have lived abroad. I was a bit of a snob when I came back to the states for college. I couldn’t believe everyone was discussing Homecoming. I was far more interested in the latest Thai coup d’état… Give me someone who has lived in another country and I can LISTEN, as well as talk, for hours.

Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time? 
I have fond memories of each place I’ve lived in, but I think India captured my curiosity. I was 6–8 years old when we lived there—old enough to be curious and yet not old enough to be set in any particular way of thinking. For me, India was a great mystery just waiting to be discovered. As I was always accompanied by my brother, John, I had nothing to fear. We would wander the streets of Dehli together or with friends, having adventures.

“The worst thing about being a military brat is not being a military brat anymore.” —Marc Curtis

As an ATCK, do you have “itchy feet” or do you prefer to have a home base and only travel for pleasure?
For many years I had “itchy feet”—I moved to different states or apartments every two to three years. Then someone asked me, was I running away or towards something. That got me thinking! I had three older brothers, all of whom were married with kids. I realized I was in search of something similar, a sense of community and family. That’s when I stopped moving and bought my own place. I realized I had to learn the skills to keep friendships and relationships going. There are wonderful people everywhere, but it is making the time to be with them that creates enduring bonds.

Have you kept in touch with friends from your TCK days?
One thing I’ve done for many years is to attend reunions of the International School in Bangkok, which are held every two years in different locations in the United States and even sometimes in Thailand. What is unique about the reunions is that they are for all graduating classes at the same time. I’ve attended almost every one since 1984. It has been great to reconnect with old friends and create many new ones.

I understand your husband is an old friend from the international school in Bangkok.
Yes! I re-met Leon at the 2000 reunion in Virginia—we had worked together on some plays in high school and were in choir and a couple of shared classes, but there had been nothing romantic between us. During that particular reunion we enjoyed a few nice chats. Fast forward to the next reunion, held in Arizona, in 2002. I had just returned from a magical, month-long trip to Kenya, and when I saw Leon, there was a little flutter in my stomach. It’s a long story, but for a while we had a long-distance relationship, after which he moved to California. We got married six years ago. We both enjoy traveling, but our first priority is visiting family and friends. We still attend the reunions every two years.

A good teacher is a good actor

What drew you to teaching?
The 1974 documentary film Hearts and Minds, which is about the Vietnam War. I came out of that movie believing that if everyone could learn to love and respect others as they love and respect themselves, no one would need to “react” out of fear, and we would no longer need war. It’s a somewhat naive thought, of course, but I can’t let go of it. I hold it in my heart each day when facing my students.

Do you think your international upbringing makes you particularly well suited to be an ESL teacher?
Definitely. As you mentioned at the outset, the students I work with are recent arrivals to the USA. Together we share what it is to leave your own country, family, and friends and try to create a new world for yourself in a new place. I’m currently working with high school students. Besides culture shock, they have the usual teenage angst about boyfriends or girlfriends left behind… Because I lived overseas and constantly moved around as a kid, I can easily relate to what they might be feeling.

Do you use both acting and diplomacy skills as a teacher? 
I think all teachers are actors to some degree. Especially working with high school students, one needs to react in a calm and thoughtful way, even if you’re not feeling that way inside. Teens will try to unnerve you if they can. I am constantly using both my acting skills and my diplomatic skills to create an environment of mutual trust and respect. One thing that drew me to the ESL students is that because their English is so limited, they don’t use language to hide what they need or want; they are too busy trying to make their meanings clear. Their needs are laid right out there for all to see. I find my ESL students to be especially honest and compassionate.

Our time is nearly up, but let’s give acting the final word. Are you performing anything soon? 
I’ll be performing in the New Short Fiction Series, L.A.’s longest running spoken words series, on Sunday, October 12, at 7:00 p.m. at the Federal Bar in North Hollywood. I’ll be presenting a new work of short fiction by a featured West Coast writer. Anyone who is passing through LA at that time is welcome to attend. You can sign up for tickets at www.newshortfictionseries.com.

* * *

Thank you, Esther! Readers, please leave any questions or comments for Esther or me below. I’ll see you in September, after I’ve returned from Iceland. As ML mentioned above, I’m kicking off a global theatre tour of Alien Citizen on August 20 and 22 at the amazing Tjarnarbíó creative center in Reykjavik! Thanks to all those who supported my Kickstarter campaign.

STAY TUNED for next week/month’s fab posts!

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6 responses to “TCK TALENT: Esther Williams Kalbfleish, Military Brat with a Heart for Theatre and a Mind for Teaching Other TCKs

  1. ML Awanohara August 1, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    Thanks, Lisa and Esther, for that fascinating interview. It made me remember my first teaching job—in fact, it was on an Air Force base in England. I was a grad student then and somehow landed a teaching assignment from the University of Maryland European Division, which had the contract for teaching college classes on the bases. I had a friend, an Englishwoman, who taught at the same time, and we would often go together to the ladies room before class to fix our hair and make-up. “I need to put on my face,” my friend would say, because she considered teaching to be a form of acting. (She was teaching Sociology 101, and always said the base was a “sociologist’s field day.”)

    Esther, your point about teaching being somehow less selfish than acting is one we debated a couple of posts ago. I was being provocative in pointing out that acting could be narcissistic, but then Lisa and her ATCK actor friends countered by saying that acting could be a powerful way of opening people’s hearts and minds. (Still, I’m not surprised you feel torn. It’s great you’ve somehow managed to do both.)

    Finally, I find it interesting that your older brothers (not sure about John?) went into the military whereas you chose teaching and acting. It seems that their TCK experience led to a belief in the need for America to use hard power, whereas you’ve embraced more of a soft power approach. Is that a fair assessment? How do you feel about the military nowadays?

    • Esther Kalbfleisch August 2, 2014 at 8:00 pm

      Thanks for sharing your overseas teaching experience. I agree, acting can be a powerful tool to open “people’s hearts and minds”, but most people who go see theatre already are rather “enlightened”. The experience is more of a reminder to themselves of what they think and feel. The students I teach are teenagers and are just starting to make decisions about who and what they are. They struggle to organize their thoughts and to not be overwhelmed by their emotions. They are the ones that need “great” theatre and literature to develop their “hearts and minds”.

      My two oldest brothers were born during WW II and grew up during the Cold War. I think that greatly influenced their decisions to serve in the military. John is a born diplomat and intellectual, I don’t think the military ever had much af a pull on him, though, like me, he has a deep respect for those who feel the “calling”. The military provided me with a fairly stable up bringing and many different opportunities. It also instilled in me a sense of pride in America. As I’ve grown, I see our role a little differently. As a country, I wish we could focus on the humanitarian role we might play more than the military position we seem to need to maintain. In today’s unstable world I respect the military but despise the need for violence.

      • Lisa Liang August 4, 2014 at 3:48 pm

        I agree re: most theatergoers, and I’m sure your students are very positively influenced by you. Also agree with “As a country, I wish we could focus on the humanitarian role we might play more than the military position we seem to need to maintain.”

  2. Lisa Liang August 1, 2014 at 7:59 pm

    Great questions, ML! I look forward to Esther’s answers! (What did you teach, ML?)

    • ML Awanohara August 1, 2014 at 10:21 pm

      I taught English 101, which was no picnic (let alone a field day!) as most students had entered the Air Force as enlisted personnel. They came from pretty deprived backgrounds (why my sociologist friend was having a field day). They needed remedial reading and writing. Eventually, I came to the decision that I wasn’t a born teacher as I prefer the kind of students who are largely self-taught!

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