The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats, don’t wear ear protectors when neighbors offer advice, and confidence works like a charm!

Clockwise from top left: Rashmi Dalai author photo (supplied); one of her kids’ Bali t-shirts (for sale online); toolbox (Pixabay); and cover of Dail’s cookbook.

Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol talks to a star writer for Wall Street Journal Expat for this month’s column.

Hello, Displaced Nationers!

Today, I’m introducing you to Rashmi Jolly Dalai, a writer and communications strategist who divides her time between New York City and Singapore. Rashmi writes about cultural diversity, identity, Third Culture Kids and more on her blog and for Wall Street Journal Expat. One of her most popular articles for the latter concerns the addictive nature of expat life (yes!).

Rashmi grew up in rural Pennsylvania, the child of Indian immigrants. She claims she hasn’t retained much of her Indian heritage, calling herself in a recent blog post

“an ABCD, American Born Confused Desi, someone who should hang on to her culture but didn’t.”

Her own two children, both under age nine, have parents from America and India, grew up in China, and now live in Singapore. While raising her son and daughter, Rashmi has published a rhyming bilingual (Chinese-English) picture book called Mika the Picky Eater, followed by a bilingual collection of recipes for kids of all ages called The Picky Eater’s Cookbook and another bilingual children’s book, Sasha the Stubborn Sleeper.

And now she has helped her children launch a creative project called Smiling Designs for Kids. “The kids designed their own t-shirts in Bali and have started selling them online,” she explains. “It’s the modern-day third culture kid version of a global lemonade stand, complete with a social mission. They donate 25 percent of the proceeds to Pencils of Promise, a charity that builds schools around the world.”

Rashmi also serves on the board of Kundiman, an organization “dedicated to the creation and cultivation of Asian American literature.”

She kindly took the time out of her intense schedule to share some of her culture shock stories with us. Join us as we talk about not listening to your neighbor, good luck charms and more…

* * *

Hi, Rashmi, and welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox. Tell us, which countries have you lived in and for how long?

Outside the United States (my home, as you explained), I’ve lived in London (two years), Shanghai (seven years), Indonesia (six months) and Singapore (since August of last year). We moved to London for my work, to Shanghai for my husband’s work, to Singapore for both of our works. Our son suffered from a lot of pollutant-related respiratory issues in Shanghai, so that explains our stay in Indonesia for six months. We took him to Bali to get healthy. Plus, I wanted to live there.

In the course of your many cultural transitions, have you ever ended up with your foot in your mouth?

Sure, I’ve had many awkward cross-cultural moments. Like most Americans, I’ve made the mistake of calling trousers “pants” in London—“pants” means underwear in British English. When learning Mandarin during our stay in China, I frequently confused the word “four” for the word “dead”. People rolled their eyes, laughed a bit and corrected me. I find that people are very forgiving of strange foreigner behavior, especially when it’s not badly intentioned. I also once spent a month eating tofu and spinach to lose weight—blithely ignoring my Chinese neighbor’s warnings that the combination can cause kidney stones. It did.

How did you handle that situation? Would you handle it any differently now? What are the tools that you think are most useful for adapting to this kind of scenario?

If given a second chance, I definitely would’ve listened to my neighbor’s advice about the kidney stones.

Photo credit: Spinach-Tofu, by Kenneth Lu via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Right! Did you hear that? Don’t wear ear protectors if it means tuning out advice from local residents. Rashmi, can you think of a situation you handled with finesse, and why do you think that was?

While in Bali, I learned how to drive stick shift. This was no small feat as the roads are dangerously busy and narrow, but I was determined to experience the island on my own terms. I think my positive attitude acted like a good-luck charm. I managed to drive a local van for six months without knocking over a person or damaging the car—total wins under the circumstances.

I like that story! If you had any advice for someone moving abroad for the first time, what tool would you suggest they develop first?

Don’t take yourself too seriously. Ask questions before you judge. Learn, learn, learn. And make sure you consult with locals about which tools to use for coping with unfamiliar foods and living conditions.

Photo credits: (top row) Scooter, by Frank Douwes via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Shiva shell charm via Pixabay (it transforms and mutes negative energy); (bottom row) An all too common sight in Asia, by Rollan Budi via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Good old stick shift, by Matt via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Thank you so much, Rashmi, for taking the time to share your culture shock stories with us! We travelers can always use a reminder about the need to take our cues from local residents, or else we may need to invest in a new tool—a pop-out punch to get rid of those kidney stones?! And adding some good luck charms, such as positivity and humo(u)r, to our toolboxes is particularly welcome advice for the Displaced Nation. We’re a site that prides itself on not taking cross-cultural tensions too seriously and finding a path to a more relaxed expat life.

* * *

Have I got that right, Displaced Nationers? How long did it take you to realize the importance of seeking out, and heeding, local advice? And how about humor: has it played an important role in helping you manage intercultural situations? I’d love to hear your stories! Share them in the comments below…

If you want to learn more about what Rashmi Jolly Dalai has to say, I recommend you visit her author site and keep an eye out for her Wall Street Journal Expat posts for further inspiration. You can also like her Facebook page and follow her on 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 and the newly published Reverse Culture Shock. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin, Goodreads, and, of course, her author site.  

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

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