The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats, know when to put a clamp on your native mannerisms, and remember: patience works


This month our transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol has found a remarkable polyglot (not unlike herself?) and multi-country expat to quiz for culture shock, and reverse culture shock, advice.

Buongiorno, Displaced Nationers!

How have you been? This month, I’m introducing you to the lovely Claudia Landini. She is the founder of Expatclic.com, a treasure trove of resources for expat families, provided in several languages.

A native Italian, Claudia speaks Italian, English, French, German, Spanish and (what she remembers of) Portuguese, and thrives on coming up with creative ways to communicate in languages she hasn’t yet mastered. She has lived all over the world and has had some pretty intense experiences that have taught her many things about culture shock, which she has kindly agreed to share with us today. Along the way, she learned to dance salsa and to cook Balinese fish, among many other skills. She is most proud of her two sons, whom she sees as living proof that “growing up changing countries, languages and homes is absolutely beneficial to the person and to the world at large.”

Like many of us, Claudia is often glued to her computer, which she says she loves almost as much as her sons. She manages four websites, including a blog and a platform for her online courses. When not staring at the screen, she might be found with her nose in a book. Like me, she is a bookworm and prefers reading paperbacks.

And Displaced Nationers should note that she’s keen to encourage creativity. In fact her latest article for Expatclic, written in French, is about a Frenchwoman in Indonesia who has mastered the art of batik. It’s called Créativité sans frontières.

Now let’s talk to Claudia about the difficulty of overcoming one’s own, deeply ingrained cultural habits, the possibility of having one’s native mannerisms misinterpreted, and the importance of developing meaningful personal projects to help ease the trauma of moving from one country to the next.

* * *

Hi, Claudia, and welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox. I understand you’ve lived abroad for over twenty years. Which countries have you lived in and for how long?

The short answer is that I’ve lived in four African countries, two Latin American ones, Israel (Jerusalem), and am presently in Jakarta. The long answer: Indonesia, where I am at the moment, for 1½ years; Jerusalem, 4½ years; Peru, 6 years; Honduras, 4 years; and Africa, 7 years: Congo (Brazzaville) 2½, Guinea-Bissau 2½, Angola 1 year, Sudan 1 year. When I was very young, before meeting my husband, with whom I lived in all the above-mentioned countries, I spent one year in London to improve my English.

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

You know, as much as I strive to remember, I can’t seem to come up with anything really interesting, which is surprising given the sheer number of foreign cultures I’ve come in contact with. Like anyone else, I have the typical stories of cross-cultural misunderstandings when greeting people (such as offering hands to men in Sudan and Palestine, to be met with cold stares or looks of pity). In general I’ve had to control my overly expansive Italian manners, which are not always interpreted in the right way by other cultures. I have to control my spontaneous reactions, those gut instincts that come from my own deeply ingrained cultural frame. Sometimes I am too open and warm with people who perceive this as a violation of their privacy. Sometimes I talk too much, when the local norm would require discretion and silence.

Recently, and despite all my cross-cultural experience and my work as an intercultural trainer, I rushed to kiss my Indonesian maid good-bye. She was so shocked I thought she would resign. Indonesians do not appreciate close physical contact and intimacy, especially in a well-defined hierarchical situation.

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?

Well, I have learned that when you do something that clearly violates local cultural rules, and you realize the extent of the offense you may have committed, it’s sometimes worse to try to take out that toolbox right away and try to mend the situation. In the case of my maid, I simply turned around and went away, knowing she would soon regain her composure (as a matter of fact, when I came back from Italy to Jakarta, she was the one who kissed me!).

Other tools I use to control my spontaneous reactions, those gut instincts that come from my own deeply ingrained cultural frame, include counting to three before I speak, and observing myself from the outside before acting. These techniques help me quite a lot.

In other words, there may be times when we expats and international travelers might need some light-duty clamps to keep us from saying or doing the wrong thing. So can you think of a situation you handled with finesse, and why do you think that was?

I don’t know if we can call this finesse, but all the times I left from the Tel Aviv airport, I lied with embarrassing nonchalance… Israeli authorities are hard on people who admit to living in occupied Eastern Jerusalem and to having Palestinian friends. After a few months, my ideals gave way to the fear of being searched and interrogated in isolation by the airport authorities, so I lied about where I lived and who my friends were. I had gained quite an insight on Israeli culture and understood what was okay to say and what wasn’t. I even had a list of Israeli names I used as my dear friends, and I was so convinced when I recited them, that sometimes I even felt a rush of affection for these people who did not exist…

That’s quite a story! If you had any advice for someone moving abroad for the first time, what tool would you suggest they develop first?

Patience. It takes time to get to know a culture and to feel confident enough to move around in it. It takes moments of loneliness, confusion and isolation. Of course, if you can give it that time, it pays back in the end. Be patient and know that the moment will come when you’ll feel familiar with what is going on around you, and you’ll be able to relax and enjoy it because you no longer have to worry about getting things wrong, or will know how to fix things when you do. Sometimes it’s better to leave well enough alone instead of pulling out our tools and trying to fix things right away.

And since you are also familiar with reverse culture shock, can I ask: Do any experiences stand out for you?

When we had to leave Congo in ’97 because the civil war suddenly broke out, I spent two years in Italy waiting for the next mission abroad. It was awful. Not only had all those years of living in Africa changed me a lot, but I also had the traumatic experience of having to say good-bye to country and friends in a matter of hours, knowing I was leaving them behind in a horrifying situation. People in Milan tried to be sympathetic but simply could not understand the magnitude of what I was going through. I felt very isolated. Besides, after having had such powerful experiences (not only the war, but also all the other amazing things I had gone through in Africa), life back in Italy seemed sort of dull. I did not want to offend anyone, so I kept that to myself. It was a pretty rough time.

What tools have helped you to cope with reverse culture shock?

Three things helped me a lot:

  1. Realizing that if I was going through such a terrible time “back home,” it was because my experience in Africa had really touched my deepest core. That made me proud and gave a lot of value to my life abroad. It reinforced my conviction that living outside my passport country was a strong and valuable experience, and that it was okay to pursue it again.
  2. Being able to identify a few people who showed interest in my stories and with whom I felt I got along well. It was clear I should invest in those relationships.
  3. Hanging onto projects I had started back in Africa that were meaningful to me. Being able to continue gave me a sense of structure, and helped me through some very confused times.

 

Thank you so much, Claudia, for giving us the bonus of your repatriate advice! I can relate to that sense of isolation you describe when you returned to Italy. And I like the idea of building meaningful personal projects with the tools you’ve picked up in a new country. Those are the kinds of activities that can sustain you during the transition back home, or when moving on to the next culture.

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, do you ever have to clamp down on some of your “natural” traits for fear you may offend others, and do you know when to leave well enough alone? Do tell!

And if you want to learn more about what Claudia Landini has to say, I recommend you check out:

You can also check out her blog and her online courses, and you can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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 next week’s fab post.

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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Photo credits: All photos supplied by Claudia Landini or else from Pixabay, with the exception of the two women greeting each other in the second collage, which is from Flickr: TED Fellows – The arrival[], by afromusing (CC BY 2.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Deborah Lawrenson’s latest novel is inspired by the beautiful and dramatic Algarve coast—plus she’s giving away a copy!

Tracey Warr is back with her latest interview guest, the novelist Deborah Lawrenson, who started out life as a diplomatic kid (in America we call them “foreign service brats,” with “brat” being used in a good way). **NOTE: Deborah is giving away a copy of her latest book, 300 Days of Sun. Details below.**

My guest this month is British novelist Deborah Lawrenson—who, as the child of diplomatic service parents, was displaced from an early age, spending her childhood moving from Kuwait to China, Belgium, Luxembourg and Singapore.

After graduating from Cambridge University, Deborah worked as a journalist in London, the highlight of which was working under gossip columnist Nigel Dempster, until she built up her confidence to start writing novels. She has now produced eight, including:

  • The Lantern, a modern gothic tale set in the lush countryside of Provence, in the tradition of Daphne de Maurier’s Rebecca; has been a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic; featured on Channel 4’s TV Book Club (watch discussion HERE).
  • The Art of Falling, which was chosen for the prestigious WHSmith Fresh Talent promotion (2005)—set mostly in Italy, past and present.
  • The Sea Garden, consisting of three novellas set in southern France.
  • Songs of Blue and Gold, a love story set in a lush, richly imagined Corfu, inspired by the life of British writer Lawrence Durrell (incidentally, ITV recently screened a hit drama series based on the Durrells’ expat life in Corfu).

Deborah’s latest novel, 300 Days of Sun, which came out in April, is an atmospheric tale of spies and lies set in Portugal.

Deborah lives in Kent with her husband and daughter—though the family spends as much time as possible at a crumbling hamlet in the Luberon region of Provence, France.

* * *

Welcome, Deborah, to Location, Locution. Can I ask which came first, story or location?

In the case of my new novel, 300 Days of Sun, it was definitely location (though this isn’t always the case with my books). I went to Faro, in southern Portugal, to accompany my 17-year-old daughter when she enrolled in a two-week Portuguese course in the town. While she got to grips with a new language, I wandered around the old town with my notebook and camera, and let my imagination flow. Once I was inspired by the setting, I began to research the history of the country—and was drawn to the fascinating years of the Second World War when Portugal, as a neutral country, was a cauldron of intrigue, spies, enemies, opportunists and double-dealers. Since then, the beautiful and dramatic Algarve coast has become known as a wonderful, friendly place to spend time in the sun—three hundred days of it a year—but there have been some dark events there too, in particular, a notorious case of child abduction.

What techniques do you use for evoking place in your stories? After all, the action takes place long ago.

I’m quite a visual person, so I will always try to paint a vivid picture of the landscapes and immediate surroundings of my characters. Recently someone very kindly—and perceptively—told me that when I evoke a sense of place, it should more accurately be termed “the senses” of place. That is what I try to do: to write sensuously, to make the narrative conjure up the sounds and feel, and the smells, of the story. It’s the details that help the reader feel immersed in a place or time, and I do carefully research to make the transportation as accurate as possible.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

It’s all of these. You could argue that they are all interlinked anyway, as the culture of a place develops from its unique landscape. Whether that’s the harsh pragmatism of a people scratching a living from the soil of the Provençal uplands, or the geographical situation of Portugal that made it an historically outward-looking seafaring nation and the last escape hatch of Europe during WWII, the physical attributes of a place will influence the character and achievements of its inhabitants. If there was one unifying factor in the novels I write, it would probably be that. And food is simply another aspect of it: fish by the sea; cheese in the mountains from the goats and sheep that are the most viable form of livestock; endless variety in the melting pots of the great cosmopolitan cities.

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

Here are a couple of paragraphs setting the scene in Faro, from the opening pages of 300 Days of Sun:

“My first few days in the country, I was astonished by how many Russian tourists there were here, chattering in the shops and streets. Then I realised: to the uninitiated, Portuguese sounds like Russian. The language is nothing like the soft singsong of Spanish or Italian. The sounds shush and slip around like the shining, sliding cobblestones under your feet.”

“The temperature was climbing. The air was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara that fell like a sprinkling of paprika powder over the town’s white sills and ledges. I walked down to the ferry, needing to get out over water to catch some fresh wind. As the boat ploughed through green salt marshes, I did breathe more easily.”

"The air [in Faro] was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara..."

“The air [in Faro] was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara…”

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

Obviously, knowing a place well will give a novel real depth, as I hope I achieved in The Lantern and The Sea Garden, both set in the South of France, which is my second home. However, I do think it’s possible to visit somewhere relatively briefly but to look hard and use what you see as the basis of a setting, so long as you do some decent research as well. After all, the characters in a novel might only visit a particular place once, and in that case, first impressions will be very useful.

The Lantern and The Sea Garden are both set in the South of France, Deborah's second home.

The Lantern and The Sea Garden are both set in the South of France, Deborah’s second home.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

For me, Lawrence Durrell is the undisputed master. I also love the way Mary Stewart and Daphne du Maurier combined evocative locations with romantic suspense.

Deborah's picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Deborah’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Deborah.

* * *

Readers, any questions for Deborah? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you would like to discover more about Deborah you can visit her author site and blog, where she writes not only about her books but all things inspired by the South of France. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

BOOK GIVEAWAY*******************************
Deborah is offering a free copy of her new novel as a prize. To enter the competition please “Like” Deborah Lawrenson’s Facebook page. Then find the link on her page to this interview and enter a comment underneath.
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À bientôt! Till next time when my guests will be a Canadian husband and wife team who write novels together about a pair of unusual sleuths in an 18th-century Kent village, and who are themselves displaced inhabitants there.

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! I note that one of the Channel 4 reviewers raved about Deborah’s first book for its “extraordinary description of place and descriptions of smell”; and readers have asked her if they can get the perfume, Lavande de Nuit, she describes in that work. (As it turns out, it exists only in her imagination!) —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels and her forthcoming novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in the autumn.

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, with weekly updates and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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Photo credits: Top of page: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). All other photos supplied by the author, apart from those of Kuwait and Cambridge, which are from Pixabay.

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: In honor of Mother’s Day, three books by and about strong international women

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! For this month’s column, Beth Green has some eclectic picks for displaced reads—all of which feature women who transcend national boundaries.

Hello again, Displaced Nationers!

Mother’s Day is coming up in the United States on May 8 (the UK celebrated its mums in March). As an American who lives abroad, I am marking the occasion by reading the beautiful, intriguing A Mother’s Secret, by Renita D’Silva, which came out in early April.

renita and a mother's secret

Now living in the UK, D’Silva grew up in a coastal village in South India. Reflecting that background, D’Silva’s debut novel, Monsoon Memories, was about an Indian woman who has been exiled from her family for more than a decade and is living in London (it was a Displaced Nation pick for 2014).

Her latest work, A Mother’s Secret, which came out in early April, tells the story of Jaya, the British-born daughter of immigrants. Jaya struggles with the unexpected death of her mother, Durga, followed by the loss of her baby son in a tragic cot death. Looking through her mother’s belongings, Jaya finds diaries that unlock the secrets of her mother’s unhappy past, before she emigrated to England. Part of the story is told by Durga, through diary excerpts, and part by Kali, a mad old lady who, like Durga, was doing her best to survive and succeed in traditional Indian culture.

I haven’t finished A Mother’s Secret yet—and hadn’t even planned on reviewing it—but I’m still willing to recommend it on the strength of D’Silva’s mesmerizing descriptions of India, along with the finely woven mystery connecting Jaya to her mother and to Kali. In D’Silva’s hands, the the India of several decades ago becomes a place of lush, gothic beauty. Take, for instance, her description of a ruined mansion feared by the villagers and rumored to be haunted:

“Oh there’s a curse all right,” the rickshaw driver huffs. “No boy child survives in that family. Everyone associated with that mansion is cursed with unhappiness, insanity, death. You must be out of your mind to go there, and I have warned you plenty. But it’s none of my business, as long as you pay me three times the fare like you promised.” The rickshaw driver’s hair drips with sweat as his ramshackle vehicle brings them closer and closer to the ruin, which looms over the earth-tinged emerald fields, painting the mud below the dark black of clotted blood.

While on the theme of women’s lives, allow me to segue into another book I finished recently, My Life on the Road, by American feminist activist Gloria Steinem. (It was on the Displaced Nation’s Best of 2015 list, and also a pick by fellow Displaced Nation columnist HE Rybol for a 2016 read.)

Gloria Steinem portrait and book

As one doesn’t automatically associate with Steinem with travel, I was surprised to learn how much time she has actually spent “on the road.” Her childhood, I was fascinated to discover, consisted of a series of road trips across the United States with her nomadic parents, who made a living selling antiques. She credits these childhood travels with shaping her later talents as a journalist and organizer. And although she no longer leads a peripatetic life—she bought property and established a home base—she estimates she spends more nights out of her house than in it.

Steinem writes:

Taking to the road—by which I mean letting the road take you—changed who I thought I was. The road is messy in the way that real life is messy. It leads us out of denial and into reality, out of theory and into practice, out of caution and into action, out of statistics and into stories— in short, out of our heads and into our hearts. It’s right up there with life-threatening emergencies and truly mutual sex as a way of being fully alive in the present.

Notably, one of Steinem’s formative experiences came after her graduation from Smith College, when she won a fellowship to study in India for two years. Living in India broadened her horizons and made her aware of the extent of human suffering in the world. India was also where she learned about the “talking circle”—an intimate form of storytelling “in which anyone may speak in turn, everyone must listen, and consensus is more important than time.”

The book isn’t a chronological history of this 82-year-old iconic figure’s travels in America and abroad, but rather a (sometimes disjointed) collection of thoughts about why she enjoys constant movement, and a series of vignettes about the people—and personalities—she’s met along the way.

One of the biggest personalities is her father—a larger-than-life figure from whom Steinem has inherited a love of the nomadic life:

I can’t imagine my father living any other life. When I see him in my mind’s eye, he is always the traveler, eating in a diner instead of a dining room, taking his clothes out of a suitcase instead of a closet, looking for motel VACANCY signs instead of a home, making puns instead of plans, choosing spontaneity over certainty.

When I first picked up the book, I was a little apprehensive that it would be all about Steinem’s political views. (Given that this is an election year in the United States, I’m getting my quota of political reading from the daily news!)

Naturally, Steinem does write about politics—after 40 years devoted to leading a revolution for women’s equality, how could she not? For example, Steinem was at Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and she drops the usual names you’d expect from that era.

But the majority of her stories are what the title suggests—tales about ordinary people she has encountered on the road, such as taxi drivers or people she met at roadside diners or in airports while on her way to conferences or political events. An example:

Our older driver is like a rough trade character from a Tennessee Williams play— complete with an undershirt revealing tattoos, and an old Marine Corps photo stuck in the frame of his hack license. Clearly, this is his taxi and his world.

The friendships she forges with people across the country, particularly with Native American activists, enliven the book and underscore Steinem’s interest in getting to know local communities—though I sometimes got the bittersweet feeling that, given her restlessness, she will never be more than observer of these grassroots circles. In one such passage, Steinem details a trip she once took to a Native American site in Ohio with the author Alice Walker and Walker’s assistant, Deborah Matthews:

That night we join Deborah’s mother, her eighty-six-year-old grandmother, and teachers and neighbors at a community potluck supper in the school gym. It’s a welcome for us. With the slow-paced humor and warmth I’ve come to cherish, they talk about the history of small-town Ohio, and are delighted that we are interested. Deborah’s grandmother has lived her entire life near Adena mounds that may be even older than the one we just saw. They reminisce about everything from romantic outings in the Great Circle Earthworks to the connection they feel to people they just call “the ancients.”

In short, I’d recommend My Life on the Road not only to anyone interested in Steinem herself and the 1960s American feminist movement, but also to anyone with a passion for travel. (That said, if you’re fed up with hearing about American politics already this year, you might wait until after November to start reading!)

Before I sign off for this month, a book I’d like to mention to any readers thirsting for some armchair adventure is Displaced Nationer and current expat Jennifer S. Alderson’s Down and Out in Kathmandu, which came out at the end of last year and was in my to-be-read pile for 2016.

Jennifer Alderson and book cover

The first in a planned series of international thrillers, the book introduces us to protagonist Zelda Richardson, a burnt-out Seattle-based computer programmer who is heading to Nepal for a volunteer teaching gig.

Teaching English in Nepal is nothing like Zelda expects—relationships with her host families are fraught, facilities are limited and the students are less than impressed with Zelda herself. While struggling to deal with the strange culture and her unruly classroom, she crosses paths with Ian, an Australian backpacker who is on a teaching sabbatical and simply searching for the best weed he can find.

And then, of course, as often happens when you link up with backpackers, Zelda finds herself entangled with an international gang of smugglers who believe she and Ian have stolen their diamonds. They also cross paths with Tommy, a shady Canadian in Thailand…

Alderson’s next Zelda book, The Lover’s Portrait, is set in Amsterdam and is due out at the end of next month.

* * *

Until next time, happy reading!

As always, please let me or ML know if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see reviewed here! And I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

Beth Green is an American writer living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes. She has also launched the site Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

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TCK TALENT: Benjamin Jancewicz, missionary kid, socially responsible graphic designer and pioneering vector artist

Photo credits: (top row) Kawawachikamach Band (flag) of the Naskapi, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); (middle row) Ben Jancewicz self-portrait (supplied); (bottom row) Lights, Camera, Action (Fed Hill), by Bill Mill via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0), Zerflin logo.

Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang‘s guest this month is an adult Missionary Kid (and Third Culture Kid) who expresses his creativity as a visual artist.

Welcome back, readers. Today’s ATCK interviewee is artist, illustrator, and graphic designer Benjamin Jancewicz. Benjamin grew up in Northern Quebec, on the Naskapi Native American Reservation of Kawawachikamach, to an Irish-American mother and Polish-American missionary father who is a linguist and Bible translator to the Naskapi Native Americans.

His Twitter blurb says he was raised “Native, Interracial, MK” (MK being Missionary Kid).

Benjamin’s parents met tobogganing at a Youth Group in their hometown of Norwich, Connecticut, and Ben was born in Connecticut. He now lives in Baltimore with his wife, Tamika, where he runs his own graphic design company, Zerflin (the name belonged to a cartoon alien Benjamin drew as a kid) and creates original vector artwork, which has been exhibited in galleries, cafes and homes around the United States and Canada. His current show, Who Said What, is, in his own words,

a collection that combines my love for engaging people in the creation of my art as well as my desire to reimagine quotes that move people to live better lives. The creation process begins with a call for quotes to be submitted. I then do careful research and select a unique photograph of the quote’s author, typically in their youth, imagining them as my peer. Using the reference image, I draw the piece itself inspired by 1950s and 60s screenprinting, interior design and album covers. Each piece has a unique color palette and font from an up-and-coming typographer.

You can get a taste of the work, and the vector art process, of which Ben is a pioneer, from this short video:

* * *

Welcome, Benjamin. I understand your family traveled quite a bit before settling in the Naskapi Native American Reservation.
Yes, my family moved to Chicago (where my parents went to school), Texas (where they had training), Mexico (where they had field testing), and Sherbrooke, a city in southern Quebec (where they learned French), all before I was four years old. I remember bits and pieces of that time and I’m told I picked up Spanish, but I ended up losing it and learning Naskapi, French, Innu and English instead.

Those are some very peripatetic early years (not to mention impressive multilingualism on your part). Did the traveling continue after you moved to the Reservation?
To raise support for the work, my parents had to travel to the States almost every summer. So there was a lot of visiting churches and road trips through the states, listening to my Father give slideshow presentations about what our family was up to. He continues that to this day in a blog I built for him: http://bill.jancewicz.com. We also moved quite a bit on the Reservation (we call it “the Rez”) as well. We stayed at people’s houses, either with them or when they weren’t there. Eventually when I was older we moved to the nearby town, but living on the Rez was some of the happiest time of my life. Summers filled with bike riding, exploring the woods, swimming in the lake…it was heaven.

“You never find yourself until you face the truth.” —Pearl Baily

What drew you to art and illustration?
I always drew as a kid. As I got older, life on the Rez got harder. Kids got involved in drugs and alcohol. Their parents being absent for the same reasons took a toll. I began losing friends to suicide, overdose. And as TV crept into the Rez, so did an attitude of treating white people differently. I was singled out because I was different. Bullies began attacking me more and more frequently at school—until my parents pulled me out and homeschooled me for a few years. I ultimately went back to the Rez school for most of secondary school, but drawing, computers and piano were often how I dealt with depression and loneliness.

It’s striking, how many ATCKs’ creative pursuits begin as—or become—coping mechanisms during childhood/adolescence. I’m very sorry you were bullied and am glad you found creative outlets to help you handle it. Did your interest in art and illustration evolve naturally into a career in graphic design?
I never really considered art and illustration to be a viable career, and originally went to school for engineering. After two years, I began to learn more about graphic design and after much deliberation, I switched majors. I didn’t find out until later that my father had done graphic design when he was younger as well. Once I switched, I had to do a lot of extra work to catch up, and started my design company, Zerflin, while still in class.

Creation of Zerflin

Photo credits: (top row) Camp amérindien MANTEO MATIKAP, by Guillaume Cattiaux via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); (middle row) screen shots of Ben; (bottom row) Zerflin logo and banner.

That’s impressive!

“Power & control will never outweigh love.” —Jada Koren Pinkett Smith

In college, did you identify most with a particular culture or cultures, or with people who had cross-cultural backgrounds similar to yours?  
While I was in college, in a small town in the States, I was bullied again, this time in the dormitories, and again for being different. But this time it was because I was Canadian, because I grew up on a Rez, and had perspectives that were considered strange by my white dorm mates. I sought refuge in a place on campus called the Rafiki House, a house dedicated to helping TCK and international students adjust to life in the US (rafiki means “friend” in Swahili). I ended up being the first freshman ever to live in the house. I stayed there all four years, getting involved in the protests and fights for its survival when the college tried to shut it down.

I’m sure many current TCKs and international students at the college are grateful for the House’s existence. What made you decide to move to Baltimore?
Baltimore was only an hour-and-a-half drive from college, so I’d often come down with friends to explore, and Tamika and I would come on dates. We fell in love with the city and decided to stay. Tamika originally wanted to teach in the public school system, and I got a job working at a non-profit in DC. Baltimore is much cheaper to live in, so we bought a house here.

“If you have an opportunity to use your voice you should use it.” —Samuel Leroy Jackson

As an ATCK, do you now have “itchy feet,” or do you prefer to have a home base and only travel for pleasure?
I have a very strong wanderlust, but the Recession pretty much killed any opportunities to travel. I try to travel as much as I can with my business, and now have art shows in L.A. that I frequently travel for. We organized with a group of friends and traveled to South Africa for the first time this past winter, which was amazing. It was the first time off the continent for me. Baltimore is really feeling more and more like home, though. Getting involved in the local social justice movements has given me life, and I’m glad to have a base here.

Per your design agency’s website, Zerflin’s staff “champion underdog clients and believe running a company without being evil is paramount.” This is admirable! Did your TCK background influence this mission/vision/value, or did something else, or were there a combination of influences?
Growing up on a Rez, there’s a certain amount of “wokeness” that just comes with living and experiencing how white people in town would treat my friends differently. And as someone who looks white, it was crazy hearing some of the conversations other white people would have about African Americans and Africans, Natives, Latinos, and Asians. As I got more and more involved in social justice on campus and began reading more and more books from black nationalist, feminist, womanist, and social justice authors, I knew I wanted to be involved in that work in some capacity. I also recognized that most companies (especially in design) are more large-client focused. As a social justice action, I wanted to do something different.

Congratulations on your show, which I understand will be at Impact Hub Baltimore for most of May into early June. Are you working on any more big art projects at the moment?
Continuously. I’ve been doing a lot more with art over the past couple years, which is strange for me. I knew some artists in college, and the way they acted really turned me off to art. I already felt looked down upon just being there as a TCK, but artists really seemed to take it to the next level. Tamika greatly encouraged me to pursue art, and as it took off, I’ve been getting more into illustration as a profession. You can see more of my work here.

Ben Jancewicz’s artwork. (Clockwise from top): Trumpeter plays the blues (hand-drawn, digitally rendered); West African Girl, available for purchase at Zerflin (Etsy shop); screenshot of Oprah work at Who Said What exhibition; Fayette Regina Pinkney, commissioned portrait.

* * *

Thank you so much, Ben. Congratulations on your successful business and ongoing artwork! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Benjamin below. Besides checking out his art site, you can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter. You can commission his artwork here and buy select pieces (on paper or canvas), including from the current show, here.

Editor’s note: All quotes are taken from the artwork in Benjamin Jancewicz’s current show, Who Said What.

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is a prime example of what she writes about in this column: an Adult Third Culture Kid working in a creative field. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she is an actor, writer, and producer who created the solo show Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey, which has been touring internationally. And now she is working on another show, which we hope to hear more about soon! To keep up with Lisa’s progress in between her columns, be sure to visit her blog, Suitcasefactory. You can also follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.

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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.  

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THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT: A privileged and always fascinating life in the Middle East

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT
Today we welcome a new columnist, Indra Chopra, to the Displaced Nation. Born in India, Indra embraced the life of a trailing spouse as the means to become an international creative, as she will explain. ML Awanohara

Growing up, I fantasized about being an expat one day. In the words of travel writer Pico Iyer:

“…travel is, deep down, about the real confirmation of very unreal dreams.”

My early dreams were about becoming a successful novelist/journalist/writer, of traveling the world and penning my thoughts. I must have inherited my wanderlust from my father—he’d traveled to Europe by the P&O liner in 1959,

By the time I was born, my family had settled in the sleepy, but culturally and politically rich, town of Allahabad, on the banks of River Ganges. Ours was a business family, which necessitated staying in one place and one residence, a family property. I envied my friends whose fathers had transferrable jobs, moving to different cities, within India or abroad.

The solution was to immerse myself in books, no limits on genre, waiting for the day when I, too, could have the world in the palm of my hand.

A couple in a rush

My opportunity for travel came with marriage (1978), when I took up residence in New Delhi. My husband and I covered the length and breadth of India and Nepal in the first year of our marriage; we were dubbed a “couple in rush”.

Looking back, I feel nostalgic for those lazy, somnolent train travels of the 1980s. Yes, the stations were often grimy and the train washrooms unhygienic, but it was so much more romantic than our later air travels. Flying somehow negates the mesmerising sheen of the unknown.

With the arrival of children, my travels became less frequent. Long journeys were replaced by vacation travels to surrounding hill stations and family outings to my hometown.

The family that lived in a shoe

Family that lived in a shoe
But then the chance to live as an expat came when my husband accepted a five-year assignment in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman, an unknown land in the Middle East. I had no qualms about becoming a “trailing spouse”—a term that was coined in 1981 by the Wall Street Journal’s Mary Bralove. By that time I had already opted out of full-time journalism for a life of freelance writing, reading, and exploring with friends.

Oman was an unknown, shoe-shaped land; our son, then six years old, told us he refused to live in a shoe, probably thinking about the “Old Woman Who Lived In s Shoe”.

The country was a challenge—ironically because of its similarities to India, which were facilitated by the historically close ties between Oman and India. Indeed, India and Oman have had trade and people-to-people ties for several millennia, and Oman had “one foot in India” (to continue the shoe analogy) during British rule in the subcontinent. Today Oman is home to a large Indian expatriate community and counts India as an important trading partner.

Muscat was an enclosed city with no main street—just a maze of narrow winding alleys leading to a central compound with heavy wooden gates that would be closed at night, about three hours after sunset. Only authorized vehicles were allowed and pedestrians were let in through a small door in the main gate. Until 1970, when the current Sultan became ruler of Oman, after the gates were closed, you had to carry a lantern to light your face or you would not be allowed in.

The discovery of oil in the 1980s had led to economic progress and modernization. Today’s Oman is a fast paced, stable and peaceful country under a benevolent Sultan.

A life of luxury…

Oman luxury life

My husband’s position as general manager of his company—he was also on the Management Committee of the Indian School in Muscat—afforded us all the luxuries and privileges the city had to offer.

School holidays took us to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Cyprus; we also traveled within Oman while my husband jetted off to USA, Europe and the Far East on work. Life was on an even keel. Our daughter finished high school and left for the USA, to attend college in Massachusetts, and our son followed four years later when he was accepted to Purdue University.

…and creativity

creative life oman
When I wasn’t traveling, I spent my time in libraries pouring over books, reading about Oman and its close ties with India. In my free time, I would walk the souks and the lanes, the beaches and restaurants and parks, meeting with other expats and reveling in the cultural life, especially concerts and art exhibitions.

I took a freelance writing assignment with the English-language daily Khaleej Times (Dubai), and this opened up opportunities to meet with Omanis. I found the women friendly, but as with Eastern men, they kept a respectful distance. I was both intrigued and impressed at how they managed their restrictions and found work opportunities. Though women did wear the abaya and covered their heads, it was not a purdah nation, where women are physically segregated. They enjoyed the freedom to work and to drive. Also, being the first or fourth wife did not frighten them as I gauged after my conversation with a young girl soon to be the fourth wife of a rich man: she said she was looking forward to enjoying a life of luxury. (There must be other sides to the story.)

The five years we spent in Oman, 1995–2000, were a period of change for our family. Our daughter finished high school and left for the USA, to attend college in Massachusetts, and our son followed four years later when he was accepted to Purdue University.

When my husband and I at last returned to India, we were empty nesters starting anew, as well as repats hoping for another expat assignment.

* * *

Thank you, Indra, for sharing your story. We look forward to hearing the next installment. Where did you accidentally go next? —ML Awanohara

Indra Chopra is a writer/blogger passionate about travel and curious about cultures and people. Present status is that off an accidental expat writing to relive moments in countries wherever she sets home with her husband. With over twenty years of writing experience Indra has contributed to Indian, Middle Eastern publications and online media. She blogs at TravTrails

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Photo credits: Photos of India and Oman are from Indra’s collection or from Pixabay.

THE PERIPATETIC EXPAT: Can I go “home” again?

Displaced creative Sally Rose: Is she coming…or going?!

Once upon a time, Sally Rose was happily settled in Santiago, Chile (as described in her wonderlanded interview for this site). But then five years passed, and she got itchy feet. She took a half-year sojourn in Europe trying to figure it out. So, is Santiago still “home”? Let’s see how Sally feels upon her return to Chile. —ML Awanohara

From my spacious flat in Edinburgh to my 16th-floor dollhouse of an apartment in Santiago, I have culture shock all over again.

I arrived back in Santiago last Friday. It’s now Monday and my suitcase is still not unpacked. After living out of it for six months, I haven’t had the energy to face it yet, so I dug out my toiletries and some underwear and have let the rest slide.

The laundry pile is reaching critical mass now. A visit to the 19th-floor laundry room will be in my near future because, unlike in Edinburgh, my little aerie in Santiago doesn’t have a washing machine. My view of the Andes mountains mostly makes up for that.

APARTMENTS WITH A VIEW—of the River of Leith (Edinburgh, top) and the Andes (Santiago). Photos supplied.

APARTMENTS WITH A VIEW—of the Water of Leith (Edinburgh, top) and the Andes (Santiago). Photos supplied.

My swansong, so to speak

From my apartment in Edinburgh, my view was the Water of Leith. I used to watch the birds swimming there. In particular, there was a pair of swans that I saw every day last fall.

When I returned from my holiday trip to Barcelona, one of them was gone. Since swans mate for life, I wondered what had happened to the second one.

Did it die? Did it fly away for the winter? Would it fly alone, leaving its mate behind?

I don’t know anything about bird behaviors, so all I could do was watch as he swam alone, or with the ducks, all winter.

I became nostalgic, seeing that lone swan and thinking of his mate that might have been thousands of miles away. It reminded me of far-flung friends in various places that I’ve lived.

The 1970s Seals and Crofts’ song “We May Never Pass This Way (Again)” popped into my head and stayed there. As it repeated itself, like the proverbial broken record, I kept reflecting that a hazard of being a “proper traveler” is that I will always be leaving someone behind.

THE LONE SWAN: A metaphor for the peripatetic expat? Photos supplied.

THE LONE SWAN: A metaphor for the peripatetic expat? Photos supplied.

Am I happy to be back? Yes and no.

Am I happy to be back in Chile? I’m happy to connect with my Chilean friends again, but sad to have left the friends I’d made in Scotland.

I will miss my writing groups. I will miss the dreich weather, the gloom that is actually conducive to my creativity. I will miss my guilty pleasures—salt-and-vinegar potato chips and sticky sweet French cakes.

Of course, in Chile I have other guilty pleasures—cheap, delicious wines and tart, ice cold Pisco Sours, among others; but it’s going to take a bit of adjustment to jump back into Living in Spanish.

For example, everything here gets dialed forward by an hour or more. Dinner will be at 8:00 or 9:00, instead of at 6:00 or 7:00.

No more visits to the pub on Sunday evenings to hear the Jammy Devils at 7 o’clock. Here, in Chile, the music starts by 10:00 or 10:30. Maybe. In Scotland, I was home by 10:00, after the Jammies had finished their second set.

A STUDY IN CONTRASTS: Yet each city has its guilty pleasures... Photos supplied except bottom left: Santiago-196[https://www.flickr.com/photos/33200530@N04/], by CucombreLibre via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)[https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]

A STUDY IN CONTRASTS: Yet each city has its guilty pleasures… Photos supplied except bottom left: Santiago-196, by CucombreLibre via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Tip of the cultural iceberg

Life here starts and ends later. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Living in Spanish not only means living in a country where Spanish is spoken, it means living with different cultural norms.

The Scottish culture is far more similar to my US background than is the Chilean culture. In a given situation, I can tell you what a Chilean might do, but even after five years of living here, I still have no idea why they’d do it.

THE CULTURAL ICEBERG: Hidden depths of misunderstanding are more rife in Chile than in Scotland. Photos from Pixabay or supplied.

THE CULTURAL ICEBERG: Hidden depths of misunderstanding are more rife in Chile than in Scotland. Photos from Pixabay or supplied.

It doesn’t all have to make sense, though, does it? That’s part of the adventure. Time for me to join Answer Seekers Anonymous, giving up on the “why’s,” and working on accepting that it is what it is. Acceptance is not my strong suit, but travel is a persistent teacher.

She’s also an excellent matchmaker. I’m talking about making new friends wherever I go. During my UK odyssey, I made many new friends and I was lucky enough to meet several author friends in person whom I had previously only met “virtually” in Internet writing groups.

I consider having international friendships a confirmation of being a “global nomad.” I didn’t don that mantle lightly, nor willingly, but I’m wearing it more and more comfortably these days.

Yesterday, I met up with my American friend, Cheryl, whom I’d met here in Santiago, when she and her husband lived here. They moved back to the US two years ago, but had returned for a brief visit.

Though great to see her, it felt odd to be meeting a friend from the US, back in Chile, when I’d just returned from Scotland.

Global nomad reunions

Maybe I’d better get used to that “down the rabbit hole” feeling because, in Edinburgh, I had a visit from Anna, a friend from the US, who was my neighbor in Chile. She happened to be bouncing around the UK at the same time that I was.

Then, my BFF from Brooklyn, whom I met at work when I lived in New York, joined me in Barcelona for her vacation.

The reunions didn’t end there. In Ireland, I visited with John, an Irish friend, whom I’d met when he vacationed in Chile two years ago.

Last but not least, in London, I met up with Bob, whom I met in Chile last year. He’s from the UK and lives in New York.

SMALL WORLD: Friends made in one place pop up in another...

SMALL WORLD: Friends made in one place pop up in another… Photos supplied, except for bottom right: It’s a Small World, by HarshLight via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

The Chileans have a saying, “El mundo es un pañuelo.” Literally translated, it means, “The world is a handkerchief.”

Disney was right. It’s a small world after all.

Signed~
Perpetually Perplexed

* * *

Thank you, Sally, for sharing those reflections. Readers, will Sally settle back down in Santiago? How long will she stay? Like me, I’m sure you look forward to the next installment! —ML Awanohara

Born and raised in the piney woods of East Texas, Sally Rose has lived in the Cajun Country of Louisiana, the plains of Oklahoma, the “enchanted” land of New Mexico, and the Big Apple, New York City. Then she fell in love with Santiago de Chile and has been “telling tall tales” from that long, skinny country since 2009, and living in that city for the past five years. But where will her next act take her? The author of a memoir and a children’s book, Sally has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Scottish expat writer Clare Kane’s novel immerses readers in 1930s Shanghai—plus we’re giving away her book and Donna Leon’s latest!

New columnist Tracey Warr arrives with her first interview guest, the displaced Scottish writer, Clare Kane. **NOTE: Help celebrate her opening column by becoming one of the lucky readers to win Clare’s book and Donna Leon’s latest. Details below.**

My guest this month is novelist Clare Kane. She was born in Scotland but has lived most of her life elsewhere. After studying Chinese at Oxford and working as a Reuters journalist in Madrid, she is currently living in Shanghai, where she works in marketing for TNS (she has a fellowship with WPP, the world’s largest communications services group). She spends her free time exploring the city’s past which she vividly evokes in her debut novel, Electric Shadows of Shanghai.

(And when she’s not writing about the past or researching markets, she’s writing about fashion and why we wear what we wear.)

Electric Shadows of Shanghai creates a fascinating world populated by British diplomats and wives, American journalists, glamorous stars of the Chinese silent film and Russian taxi-dancers turned ballerinas. It poignantly captures how the dreams and desires of these expat and Chinese inhabitants of the city lead them to interact and clash.

Electric-Shadows-high-res-cover-400x

Clare and I share a publisher, Impress Books, but have never met.

Let’s meet her now and hear her views on location, locution.

* * *

Welcome, Clare, to Location, Locution, and thank you for agreeing to be my very first guest. Can I ask which came first, story or location?

Location without a doubt. I’ve always been fascinated by China, and most of my short fiction writing is set there. But time also plays a part. As you pointed out in your introduction, my novel Electric Shadows of Shanghai is set in the 1930s, a particularly rich era in Shanghai’s history when as a free port it attracted people from all over the world: Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, White Russians escaping the Bolsheviks and plenty of adventurers looking to make their fortune.

The story couldn’t have taken place anywhere but Shanghai in the 1930s. Plots are built on conflict and the tensions that existed then helped shaped the story. China was pushing towards modernity, women were bobbing their hair and young men were returning from overseas educations to promote foreign ideas of democracy but these advances were overshadowed by political tensions, the constant threat of Japan and inequalities between rich and poor.

I knew I wanted to write about Shanghai, which has long been my favourite place in the world. Prior to living here each visit was a jolt to the senses, a reminder I was alive. The novel was also driven by my interest in Ruan Lingyu, a silent film actress from the time popular for her modern fashions, progressive ideas and films tackling tough social realities. I also wanted to write about the Russians who came to Shanghai, aristocrats who found themselves working as bodyguards and nightclub dancers (and those were the lucky ones). And I’d long had an idea in my head about a British couple coming to the city and it tearing their marriage apart (as it still does to this day). I pulled these various threads together into one plot and that is Electric Shadows of Shanghai

What techniques do you use for evoking place in your stories? After all, the action takes place long ago.

First, I have to get a hold on the atmosphere myself. With Shanghai it’s easy: I live here. Evoking the past is harder, but not impossible. The city is full of Art Deco haunts almost unchanged from their glory days in the 1930s, where for a moment you can feel like you’ve travelled in time. I also think that despite all the changes that have taken place over the last century, Shanghai probably feels very much as it did in the 1930s. A place of possibility, drawing eclectic characters from around the world. The seedy underbelly that existed then is still here now. And the clash of high and low living—cocktail bars next to noodle stalls—is still very much present.

But I don’t think you should bore the reader with lengthy descriptions of place. It’s about building on any impressions they may already have of a place by weaving in details to the narrative and letting their imaginations do the rest. No reader is a blank slate and I’ve found that even people who have never been to Shanghai nor given the place much thought have an impression of exoticism and glamour when they hear “Shanghai”. It’s my job to build on that, encouraging certain ideas and tearing down others.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

Tapping into senses other than sight is vital. Descriptions of buildings and landscapes get dull very quickly. I find it’s the snippets of sound, the wafts of smell, that really build a place in the mind. But the people are perhaps most indicative of a place. Not in terms of what it looks like on a map but in how it shapes people. When I look at the characters in my novel many of them are striving, determined to build something in the city, while others are more dissolute, giving in to the sleaze and losing themselves to the night. Each type—and no character is completely clear-cut—reflects their surroundings in their actions.

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

These are the opening lines of Electric Shadows of Shanghai:

Over a million women in Shanghai and one in thirteen a prostitute. Another myth of the Orient, Will thought, when Rollo told him a couple of hours earlier. But he recalled it now on the threshold of the Paradise, its neon promise reflected on the cobbles of the alleyway darkening in milky dusk. They were right on the edge of the International Settlement now, where the sombre society of the Bund gave way to the sweet tang of the night that made the two syllables of Shanghai so thrilling to the foreign ear.

I wanted to plunge the reader into Old Shanghai right away, and I tried to do this both through literal description and by inviting the reader to recall their own impressions of Shanghai (“so thrilling to the foreign ear”).

You live in Shanghai and describe yourself as a Chinese history geek. IN general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

I have written about places I’ve never visited and I don’t think writers should rule somewhere out just because they aren’t personally familiar with it. Writing is about imagination, after all. It depends on how key place is to the story, how much knowing where this street meets that one impacts on the plot. You run the risk of offending people if you misrepresent a place and doubly so if you’ve never even been there. But if it’s the mood of the place that matters—the bustle of New York in the 1980s, the bleakness of the North Korean countryside—rather than the reality of it, I don’t think we should be precious about places. But research is always key. If you’re not going to research a place, why use it? Just invent a place instead.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

One of my favourite authors is Janice Y K Lee, who has written two novels about Hong Kong. Both are incredibly evocative. She captures the place on every level: the physical look and feel of it and the society that populates the islands. She very gently unravels all the tensions of the place and I love that in her latest book, The Expatriates, she does that through the stories of various women living there.

I’m also a big fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I know absolutely nothing about Nigeria but she brings it to life with every word. She makes the reader feel totally comfortable, unveiling place and history as part of an engaging story. I love that she weaves the stories of everyday people into huge historical events. She humanises history. And like Lee, place is key to her novels. They couldn’t take place anywhere else.

Clare's picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Clare’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Thanks so much, Clare.

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Readers, any questions for Clare? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you would like to discover more about Clare, you can visit her author site. You can also follow her on twitter.

*******************************BOOK GIVEAWAY*******************************
To celebrate the launch of this new series of interviews, I am giving away:

1) A copy of Donna Leon’s new Brunetti novel, The Waters of Eternal Youth, the 25th in this excellent series, available for the first two readers (US addresses only for this one I’m afraid!) to email Tracey with the names of Brunetti’s wife and children. Answers to traceykwarr@gmail.com

2) A free ebook (via Apple iBooks store) of Clare Kane’s Electric Shadows of Shanghai for the first two readers (anywhere) to email Tracey with the name of the main river that flows through Shanghai. Answers to traceykwarr@gmail.com
****************************************************************************

À bientôt! Till next time when my guest will be an English novelist living part-time in France and writing about Portugal in her new novel.

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey! Shanghai in the 1930s was its own kind of displaced nation, so what a great choice of author/book to kick off the series. And that giveaway—it’s fabulous! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels and her forthcoming novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th century Wales and England, will be published by Impress Books in the autumn.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab post!

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Photo credits: Top of page: (LOCATION ROW) Author photo and book cover (supplied); The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). (LOCUTION ROW) “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); 24 Shanghai street scene, by mksfca via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); Shanghai street scenes 1, by Wolfgang Staudt via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: A tale of two names, Shannon Young (expat writer) and Jordan Rivet (hipster expat writer)

Diary of an Expat Writer
The last time we heard from American expat in Hong Kong and aspiring writer Shannon Young, she was hatching some big plans for 2016. So, how many books has she managed to crank out since? Prepare to be amazed…!

Dear Displaced Diary,

As you may recall, two months ago I laid out my goals for the beginning of 2016:

  1. Finish and publish Ferry Tale, a love story set in Hong Kong, under the name Shannon Young.
  2. Compile and publish a box set of the Seabound trilogy.
  3. Finish and publish Duel of Fire, the first book in my new fantasy series, under the name Jordan Rivet.

I’m happy to report I’m right on track:

#1 Ferry Tale launched in ebook and paperback just in time for Valentine’s Day. It’s a classic romantic comedy with a modern twist, featuring an American woman and a Chinese Canadian man. Here’s the cover, designed by James at GoOnWrite.com:

Ferry Tale_cover

#2 The Complete Seabound Trilogy Box Set launched in March, along with one of my most successful promotions to date. This is a compilation of the post-apocalyptic adventure set at sea that I released over the course of 13 months, starting in November 2014. (I’ve reported about my progress on this in previous diary entries.)

#3 Duel of Fire is finished, edited, polished, and formatted. It went on sale last Friday, April 1st, right on schedule (no fooling!). Here is the cover from Deranged Doctor Design. PLEASE NOTE: It costs $0.99 for the first week, so definitely pick up a copy SOON if you like sword fights, magic, adventure, and a hint of romance!
Duel Of Fire - Jordan Rivet_cover

I’m currently hard at work on the sequel, King of Mist, which will come out in May.

What’s in a (pen) name, really?

You might notice that these books are published under two different names. Shannon Young is the name given to me at birth, and I picked my pseudonym, Jordan Rivet, myself.

Have you ever wondered about that, Dear Diary? Were you thinking I might have a dual personality?

The simple answer as to why I write under two names is branding. Looking at those two book covers, which hopefully communicate their genres at a glance, you’d never know the same person wrote the books. They are not similar in any way, so you would never scan past Duel of Fire in a listing of books on Amazon and think: “It’s another Shannon Young book! I have to stop and click!”

Ferry and Fire covers

You probably wouldn’t even be looking at the same lists. Although some readers enjoy both epic fantasies and romantic comedies (I like to read both, after all), for the most part these books are targeted to distinct groups.

To some, I am known as Shannon Young

The Shannon Young “brand” is already quite eclectic. It includes a bit of travel, a bit of romance, some stuff about being an expat, and some stuff about being a millennial. These bits and pieces are a reflection of my writing journey—and myself as a person. However, they haven’t established me as a type of author in the way that, say Nicholas Sparks, Jodi Picoult, or Malcolm Gladwell are understood to represent a particular type of book.

Indeed, although my Shannon Young work represents me as a growing and changing person, my first love as a reader has always been fantasy and science fiction.

Diary, I seem to be evolving in the direction of a Nora Roberts. Roberts is of course known for one type of fiction (romance), whereas her pseudonym, JD Robb, is famous for another type (futuristic scifi police procedurals). Except that I’m approaching it the other way around: building a brand around my pseudonym first, as my Jordan Rivet books outsell my Shannon Young books by a significant margin. Launching the Jordan Rivet name meant launching an income-generating career.

Enter: Jordan Rivet

When I started the Seabound Chronicles, a post-apocalyptic adventure set at sea, I already knew it wouldn’t match my existing books. My readers wouldn’t necessarily follow me quite that far across a genre divide. I also knew I’d likely write some high fantasy when I became a good enough writer to try my hand at my very favorite genre of all. Since I’d be starting from scratch with my readership, I figured I’d go the whole way and create a new Science Fiction & Fantasy (SFF) brand.

The Jordan Rivet name has never been a secret identity (unlike JK Rowling’s Robert Galbraith), but I had fun choosing the name and thinking about how to present the brand. It was a creative exercise just like developing a character for a novel. I wanted a name that was:

  • gender ambiguous (hello, scifi readers!)
  • uncommon enough that I’d no longer be confused with all the other Youngs out there (they are legion).

And the name I settled on even pays homage to one of my favorite fantasy writers (RIP Robert Jordan).

I like to think of Jordan Rivet as the cooler, sexier version of myself. She works harder, writes faster, is better at writing dialogue, and takes more risks than the more introspective Shannon Young.

Shannon meet Jordan

You expats will likely recognize this split-personality complex. You probably feel like a different version of yourself depending on which country you are in at any given time. And you know what it’s like to resume an old role when you return to your home country for a visit and pick up right where you left off as soon as the holiday ends.

Surprisingly, it’s possible to do this as a writer as well.

Two publishing paths diverged in a narrow . . . hipster neighborhood?

Diary, as you may have gleaned from my previous entries, there’s a further way Shannon Young and Jordan Rivet differ: in their publishing paths. I’ve only ever queried agents and publishers and signed traditional book deals as Shannon Young. It’s very much a hybrid name and includes some small press titles, an audiobook deal, a Kindle Single, and some self-published work. As Shannon Young, I’ve been able to speak at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and present the traditionally published “stamp of legitimacy” that some outlets still require.

But Jordan Rivet is an indie name all the way. I’ve never submitted a Jordan Rivet story to an agent. I publish the books when they are edited and ready, not when someone tells me I can. It has been incredibly empowering to take this path, and it has prompted me to improve my writing and to pay more attention to the market.

And you know something, Diary, I have a good feeling about Duel of Fire, a book that wouldn’t exist yet if I were still waiting for the Seabound series to make its way through the traditional pipeline.

Obviously, different methods are right for different books and different types of writers. But indie publishing has allowed me to take my work to the next level, and I can’t wait to see the outcome of the launch that began this past weekend. Don’t forget to pick up your discounted copy pronto!
Duel April 1

So, Diary, that is the story of why I write under two different names. When people ask me what I write in real life, small talk gets a bit complicated—a bit like when a Third Culture Kid being asked where they’re from! (My author pages on Amazon make a lot more sense!)

Until next time,

Shannon Young
AKA Jordan Rivet

p.s. to Diary Readers: Do you have experiences you can share where you’ve adopted different personas in different situations? Do these personas come with different names too?

* * *

To answer your question, Shannon, I definitely think we expats and former expats are candidates for multiple names. We’re after all the kind of people who like to live out our fantasies, and some of us even write about them. Thanks for being one of them, Jordan!:) ~ML

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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Photo credits: Photos of Shannon and her books were supplied.

5 lessons from 5 years of running an expat & international travel-themed blog

cake-five-years
The Displaced Nation is five years old today, hooray! Who ever dreamed, when we originally formed a more perfect union for expats and other internationals with a creative bent, we’d still be around half-a-decade later?

And no, it’s not an April Fool’s joke—though as I recall, the other two founders and I thought it would be quite a good wheeze, and a bit of a hedge, to start up a collective enterprise on April 1st.

At some level, we regarded our mission of carving out a space in the already overcrowded expat and international travel realm as rather foolhardy. But we persisted because of our belief that expats and other internationals needed a space where they could be free to express both the bad and the good of what it feels like to be displaced, living in someone else’s culture, eating their porridge (okayu, or congee, for those of us who’ve lived in Asia), sitting in their chairs (or on floors, ditto), and sleeping in their beds (or on futons, ditto).

And as the years passed, we wanted to celebrate those who created something out of experience, whether that was a memoir, a novel, a play, or a set of paintings…

Are we any wiser now? Or, I should say: Am I any wiser now, as the other two founders have since retired…

Here are five lessons from the past five years:

1) Even a site that prides itself on encouraging eccentricity and humo(u)r, especially of the self-deprecating variety, isn’t immune to blogging trends.

We blog less frequently than we used to; less interaction happens around our posts than before because of the rise in popularity of social media; visuals have become more important; and our most popular posts are lists. Indeed, one that I wrote in the first year of the Displaced Nation’s life, “7 extraordinary women travelers with a passion to save souls,” continues to be one of our most popular to this day. One social media trend we’ve resisted, by the way, is Instagram—but can an Instagram account be far off? We shall see…

2) Changing with the times doesn’t mean letting go of the past.

We’ve had pretty much the same site layout, and banner, since we started. Hm, but will we opt for a fully responsive design, the kind all the big kids are playing with, in 2016?

3) As predicted by the blogging coach we consulted at the beginning of this enterprise, a collective blog can work if one person serves as editor. It helps to have a house style.

That would be me. And, because of that, I post much less often than I used to. As Displaced Dispatch subscribers will note, I tend to show some of my eccentricity and humo(u)r in our weekly e-newsletter. Check out a recent issue here—and get on our subscriber list NOW. A weekly newsletter is a major commitment. Who knows how much longer I’ll be able to keep this up?

4) Friendships and alliances of the nurturant kind can happen through the blogosphere.

In an age when we are becoming obsessed with the ways technology has enabled terrorists to spread their messages of hate and fear, I think it’s worth remembering, as tech journalist Nick Bilton put it in his last New York Times column of yesterday:

[Technology] connects us to people who are not with us, geographically or physically, and make[s] us feel a little less alone in this big confusing world.

At this point in the Displaced Nation’s life, I feel I know all of our columnists quite well, despite having met only one of them in person. Likewise for our frequent commenters. I love the way we’ve connected through our writing about common experiences. The circle we’ve created over the years is precious. On days when I need to know there are others out there who feel as displaced as I do, it keeps me going.

5) When you can pick your blogging launch date, make it a memorable one.

I’m afraid I must disagree with Bruce Feiler, another New York Times columnist, who tweeted today:

Au contraire, my good man, I continue to find it amusing that we started up the Displaced Nation on April 1st. I like that it gives me an annual chance to tweet/say/announce: “No foolin’!”

After all, in a world where too many people have had displacement forced upon them, it can seem incredible that there are people like us who choose to occupy this kind of life. But it makes sense when you realize that for most of us it is, as we indicate on one of our Pinterest boards, an enchanted realm.

* * *

Thanks so much, readers, for staying with us—and if you want to give prezzies, here’s what we’d like:

Huzzah!!

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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