The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Wonderlanded in Phnom Penh with serial expat writer, artist and sometime photographer A. Spaice

A Spaice Wonderlanded Collage

Tea in Bangkok and Yellow in Phnom Penh. Photo credit: A. Spaice.

Curiouser and curiouser! Residents of the Displaced Nation have always had a deep affiliation with Lewis Carroll’s Alice. We can identify with her experiences of falling down a rabbit-hole and stepping through a look-glass into a world where one doesn’t know, can’t even guess at, the rules of the game. Alice’s sense of discombobulation—which of us hasn’t had at least one pool-of-tears moment after moving to another culture?

By the same token, which of us hasn’t grown, and been stretched, in new and unexpected directions by our displaced lives of global residency and travel?

This year, to celebrate the 150 years of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I am hosting a new “Wonderlanded” series, beginning with today’s post.

Our very first Wonderlanded story is from A. Spaice, who has led a life of remarkable transitions after falling
d
o
w
n
the hole.

Spaice grew up in a rich Western country to be an engineer-artist, disappointing a lot of relatives who insisted (without invitation) that a more “normal” career would make life easier.

But this just pushed her to resent all sorts of social mores, sparking a journey that would never stop anywhere for more than six years. Her path cut a line to the Far East, looped Western Europe, and now, as we hear the details of her Wonderlanded story, Spaice writes from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, having assumed a few new layers to her creative identity as she continues to insist on looking inward to work out Alice’s big question:

“Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!”

Without further ado, I give you A. Spaice!

* * *

Greetings, Displaced Nation readers! I look forward to telling you my story of how I became wonderlanded. But first, a few details about me. Before taking this new name, A. Spaice, I’d been happily writing under my own, mostly first-person essay style accounts and often set in foreign lands. It was fine. I got places. I enjoyed it. But then, I hit bricks. Through my writing, I’d wanted to tell my story and when that was done, I realized it was okay to stretch a bit, to try new things, maybe even third person. Crazy! So after a long time of not knowing one phase could end and a new one begin, I feel a reinventing going on, from within. This propels me, and it’s been a while since I’ve felt that kind of inward push, and I know this is the kind of thing you need to have if you want to get it done and make it good. So I’m happy to make the transition, and let go of the old style.

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Along the way I got surprised about something. My major in college was engineering, and I worked in architecture firms for a while, so it’s been fun playing with new concepts in my work, like torque and momentum, or the radiation heat transfer equation, that kind of thing. I’m going to have to find a way to use ! for factorial. I’m terribly excited, and I hope this energy will reverberate through in my just-born, about-to-become-something N+1 series. (Mathy, right? I kind of dig it.)

“I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?”

A year ago at this time I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I had no idea what I was going to do for work or how I was going to “make it,” or if I’d need to abandon some old idea about what that even means, or something else. Among my possessions was an old copy of You Can’t Go Home Again, which, if you are traveling Asia and the kind of person who sizes people up by the amount of luggage they have, you wouldn’t have given me an ounce of attention because this thing is cement.

You Can't Go Home_Thailand

You can’t go home again; you’re in the Kingdom of Wonder! Photo credit: Book cover art; A. Spaice.

Thomas Wolfe was pretty roundly criticized, it says in the back notes of the book, for not being able to edit stuff himself and relying on people to help him cut things into a story-like form. But wow. His writing. It’s just…it’s so lovely and right on.

It was there with me in the suitcases, and it is here with me now, as I write. It’s been a comfort. I didn’t know anything about what was ahead (a bus ride to Siem Reap, then another to Phnom Penh, a welcome from some people social media introduced me to, and then, falling in love with Cambodia in an abstract way, because of the whole “Kingdom of Wonder” thing, but also, in general, its aesthetics (architecture, attention to symmetry, detail, and something… something I’m working on trying to capture and will stay until I can name). Ask me about the tuk tuk driver whose floor’s decked out with astroturf. A humor, a style, something else. Unpretentiousness, perhaps? Directness? Reality? Maybe it was this that made me feel, “Yes. Stay.”

But the book, that book being with me, that’s been an anchor. I keep it for comfort. I read it for love. I look to it to remember that yes, the road is ahead of you, that you can’t go back, that you just can’t fall upon some idyllic picture that isn’t real. Snap! You Can’t Go Home Again. And accepting that, right there, in the middle of the wondering, in the enchanting early evening hour of arriving on that long road from Chiang Mai to Phnom Penh, with sun reddening this sky, I knew. Something would work out. “I’ve got this. This is going to be just fine.”

An early “pool of tears” moment

Ireland. 2000. I was plonking myself into the countryside “indefinitely.” There were times out there on the farm in southwest County Cork that I wondered, “What the heck was I thinking?” I was still young then, and feared I was missing something. The city, the lights. A more familiar variety of arts and culture. What did I have in the hills? Views, rainbows, sheep, the grass-fed cow’s milk and Kerry Gold butter, sometimes shared by friends and neighbors in Union Hall and Dunmanway. Lots and lots of partying, but the honest kind, with board games and stories and singing and the craic. This was before the Internet era, so I have my doubts it would be the same now. But little by little, sticking around three years and a bit, you got to know the place and the people, and they got to know you. (A part of me is Irish, you know. From West Cork, like, so.)

“But I’m not used to it!” pleaded poor Alice in a piteous tone.

bathroom slippers anime

Through the Utsunomiya looking glass. Photo credit: Toilet Slippers, by Lloyd Morgan (CC BY-SA 2.0); Alice in Wonderland anime doll.

When I was in high school I did a Youth for Understanding exchange to Utsunomiya, Japan. I knew some things, like how you were supposed to bring omiyage so I had one small item each for my host brother, sister, father, and mother. I felt cool knowing you were supposed to leave your shoes in the genkan and wear slippers around the house. What I didn’t know was that when you go to the bathroom you change into special bathroom slippers.

I saw those, put them on, but forgot to change back into regular non-bathroom slippers and so entered the dining room, excited about all the new kinds of food. My host family was horrified. Awkward, but they made a printout of house rules, which they left on the kitchen table the next day. “Bathroom slippers are for the bathroom.” When I realized what had happened, I was redder than the cherry tomato atop the last night’s dinner salad.

“Well, I’ll eat it,” said Alice.

Iced tomato smoothies. Saigon.

Recipe for a successful Mad Hatter’s tea party

I’d host it in a place with lots of windows, preferably floor-to-ceiling, maybe on the second floor of a well-maintained building with high ceilings. There would be just 16 people—I find this to be a magical number for gatherings, you can arrange guests in pairs and then change it up, into four sets of four. Also cozy. I love having people shift about when I throw a party, it changes up the energy, and gives it a tint of surprise. I would invite people of all ages and career types because there tends to be a lot of silos out here. There would be tea for everyone, and later, an impromptu concert, with an opera singer, and then, champagne. (The opera singer and champagne part actually happened once here, magic!, so I’d have that for my guests for sure.)

champagne and opera

This mad hatter entertains with champagne and opera. Photo credit: Champagne via Pixabay; singer via Pixabay

“Oh, I’ve had such a curious dream!”

I think it’s weird when I go to California, say, and see people eating salads out of boxes. Noticed myself wishing there was more rice around San Francisco. I wondered, quite out of character, why women don’t cover their skin, especially when swimming. Isn’t that funny, when you’ve grown up in the West? Yet there are also the nice parts: people understand one hundred percent of what I say, and vice versa, and I can joke around, and it’s received, and I feel like my “old” self again. Remarkable.

“I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”

But I also see now that I’m interested in other kinds of things and that my experiences have taken me to far edges, the kinds of edges that aren’t photographable, and these make me feel like I get along better with a traveled set, not necessarily those from a particular country, or style, or personality, or something else. I like the everykind, the mixitup. I like the sense of possibility and connect with those who also want to keep it open, not box it in. Maybe that’s why I’ve lost interest in identifying with a certain country, or any other kind of label, come to think of it, too. Disorientation is part of it, but it’s precisely because of the crisscrossings that I’m figuring out, slowly, who I am. And it’s this feeling, this waking-up feeling, that is why I wanted to connect with Displaced Nation because it’s here I see it’s not just me in this big pot of “Wait. What just happened?”

Advice for those who have only just gone through the looking glass

Trust the process.

“Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.”

Okay. Well, moving from essays in high school to papers in college to, later, writing that has to go out on deadline, I’m finally able to say: I’ve got my voice. I know who the writer in me is. I’m confident, too, that this writer really wants to grow and stretch beyond previous boundaries, and that’s where this new thing, this thing I’m calling “N+1”, came from. A series of short books, based on the people I’m meeting in real time in the places where I go for three weeks or maybe two months at a time.

"In Bangkok" by A. Spaice; cover art for A. Spaice's short book, Bangkok

Creative output from Bangkok. Photo credit: “In Bangkok” by A. Spaice; cover art for A. Spaice’s first short book, Bangkok.

I’ve spent my whole life observing and taking notes, but it’s not the notes I’m referring to anymore. It’s not the pretty turns of phrase that I can feel like I can put in there, just, there!, or things I used to think made a person go, “I’m a writer!” No, it’s other stuff. It’s knowing that something you’re saying actually resonates. Connecting deeply with other people in small moments of sharing—that’s important to me. Words have a brilliant potency to make that possible, but they’re just one way. Knowing it’s the connection that I write for now, instead of the “art,” I’m moving into a different channel. I trust this current, because it feels good. It moves, it flows. Sometimes, when I’m lucky, it even likes to dance.

After Bangkok I’ll publish a new piece set in Dalat. It’ll be the first thing I’ve written in third person. My best friend, and my go-to editor, is listening to me read this aloud, and nodding, and smiling. Switching gears, writing different. It’s a good, happy change.

* * *

Readers, how did you enjoy spending time being wonderlanded with A. Spaice? Did you find her story a curiosity or could you relate?

STAY TUNED for the next fab post: an excerpt from A. Spaice’s short book Bangkok!

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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2 responses to “Wonderlanded in Phnom Penh with serial expat writer, artist and sometime photographer A. Spaice

  1. Helena Halme (@helenahalme) May 6, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    What an interesting life and post. I too came to be a novelist in a roundabout way, so it was great to hear you story. Good luck and thank you for sharing. http://helenahalme.com

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