The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Category Archives: Cool Columns

WORLD OF WORDS: On a Mary Morris-inspired kick down in Mexico, writer Marianne Bohr feels entirely at home

Marianne Bohr in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris—is she reading or indulging in reveries about words?

Columnist Marianne Bohr in her World of Words

Cinco de Mayo is fast approaching, a holiday that is virtually ignored in Mexico but, for some reason, has evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage in the United States. Here, Marianne Bohr tells a rather different story of heading to Mexico to celebrate her Mexican heritage in situ—an adventure that of course involves immersing herself in a world of (Mexican Spanish) words. —ML Awanohara

Me llamo Mariana Cañedo. My name is Mariana Cañedo.

“Did you know that Mayan Indians have crooked fingers?” my grandmother asks as she rubs my oddly shaped adolescent pinky. “It’s true,” she says as I wince and look at her quizzically.

“Your grandfather was born in Mexico, so you never know. You could be an Indian princess.” She gives a quick laugh that ends in her characteristic snort.

My Midwestern grandmother has a penchant for coming up with all sorts of interesting, random tidbits of information.

“Don’t cha know,” she says, “one day you’ll go to Mexico and find out for yourself.”

* * *

Going to San Miguel de Allende is a calling. The city has been tucked away in a cobblestoned corner of my imagination for 25 years. Mary Morris’s courageous chronicle Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone put it there. Her soul-baring tale of living in San Miguel, 6,400 feet high in the Sierra Madre of central Mexico, captured my heart and gave me even more courage than I already had to travel alone.

And now I’m finally here, lucky girl that I am, on my own for a week-long writer’s conference.

Mary Morris’s soul-bearing tale of living in San Miguel captured Marianne’s heart at an early age.

The place is everything I’d pictured, painted in vivid, brilliant color: greens and golds; mango, mustard, and lemon; and of course, every shade of red imaginable—burgundy, cayenne, paprika and raspberry. Ceramic pots filled white, purple, and blue blossoms set off the pueblo colors.

Brimming with boisterous gardens and with a temperate, year-round climate of brisk mornings, warm afternoons, and cool evenings, San Miguel is eternally spring. With more than 140,000 residents, it can certainly be labeled a city, but deeper down, at its heart, it’s a delightful, lively village.

There are many places in the world others consider lovely but leave me feeling cold. San Miguel, on the other hand, embraced me the moment I arrived. I feel I belong here, with these people of my tribes.

“The place is everything I’d pictured, painted in vivid, brilliant color…” (Photos supplied.)

At home with her two tribes

One tribe is the writers I commune with during the day—novelists, poets, essayists, playwrights, memoirists, and screenwriters. And when I escape into the long shadows and crystalline light of the late afternoon to wander narrow lanes between high, painted stucco walls and monumental wooden doorways, I find my other tribe, the people who look like my father and my grandfather before him.

The men are short and the women shorter. Just like my Dad and just like me. I recognize my siblings’ body types in those of the flower vendors and musicians on the square in front of the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel. The features set in their silky brown complexions—heavy-lidded eyes and full lips—are the very same features that look back at me and my easily tanned white skin in the mirror.

These people are my ancestors, those in the sepia picture of my grandfather’s 1906 First Communion, his mother and his sister beside him, multiple aunts and cousins in the background.

Yes, indeed, I feel at home here.

The faces of people in San Miguel remind Marianne of the photos of her ancestors. Photo credit: San Miguel de Allende, by Christopher Michael via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

What if my Mexican grandfather…?

I stop for breakfast one morning on San Miguel’s central square. I choose a table in the shade, the breeze already warm. My mouth waters as a beautifully arranged platter of fresh fruit is set in front of me—mango, melon, banana, pineapple, and papaya, with a dollop of yogurt and a sprinkling of granola.

The waiter could be my brother with his sturdy Cañedo silhouette. My years of Spanish classes serve me well as he and I chat, even though I admit: “Comprendo mucho, pero hablo solamente un poquito.” I understand a lot but I speak only a little.

Fruit juice drips from my chin and my thoughts drift to a “what-if” of my family tree. What if my Mexican grandfather and my American father after him, hadn’t both married Irish women, Mae Duffy and Mary Darby? I would likely look just like her, this woman who passes by in a hot pink dress and turquoise apron—traditional dress worn to help sell the handmade dolls and woven flowers spilling from baskets looped over her arms. My long, dirty blond hair, while still long and straight, would be lustrous and dark, just like hers. Mi hermana mexicana. My Mexican sister.

My new friend clears my empty plate and asks if I’d like more coffee. “No, gracias,” I answer and smile. It’s time to get back to my other tribe—my writing tribe—but I’m reluctant to leave this comfortable spot where it’s so easy to watch the world of San Miguel pass by. I pay la cuenta and leave a tip worthy of family.

“Hasta mañana?” he asks as I swing my bag over my shoulder. Will I see you tomorrow?

“¡Claro que sí, señor, hasta mañana!” Of course you’ll see me tomorrow!

I step from behind my table, my crooked pinkie waving goodbye in the sunshine.

* * *

Marianne, I understand that San Miguel has thousands of Canadian and American expatriate residents as well as an untold number of snowbirds in the winter months, many of whom simply use English, which is widely spoken in the city. I love it that you went to that part of the world for creative purposes and to explore your roots. And of course you spoke in Spanish! (I’d expect nothing less…) —ML Awanohara

Readers, have you ever had the experience of recognizing the faces of your ancestors in a foreign country? Do tell in the comments!

Marianne C. Bohr is a writer whose book, Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, was published in September 2015 with She Writes Press. She married her high school sweetheart and travel partner, and with their two grown children, follows her own advice and travels at every opportunity. The couple has taken early retirement in Park City, Utah, where Marianne is now working on Book #2. She has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The biweekly Displaced Dispatch, SO much more than a round-up of posts from The Displaced Nation. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top of page: Marianne Bohr (supplied); world map via Pixabay. All other images via Pixabay except the one of red tape: Tied up in red tape, by James Petts via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats & TCKs, take the measure of the new location first and, as far as reentry goes, pack a roadmap


Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol is here with her final guest in her Culture Shock Toolbox series. We’ll miss her, and her column, dearly but wish her well in starting a new life in Montreal. (Hélène, don’t be a stranger!)

Happy April, Displaced Nationers!

For my last Displaced Nation column, I’d like you to meet Cate Brubaker. Some of you might know her from her website, Small Planet Studio, which focuses on addressing re-entry challenges. As the banner announces:

MAKE GOING HOME
THE BEST PART OF GOING ABROAD.

Cate first experienced reverse culture shock as a teenager when she returned home after spending a year as an exchange student in Germany right after the fall of the Berlin Wall. All she could think about was going abroad again. She majored in German in college so that she could spend a year abroad in Stuttgart, and then she became an English teacher after graduation so that she could spend another year abroad. Her next move was to enter graduate school, which, because she was earning a PhD in German Applied Linguistics, gave her the perfect excuse to continue living and traveling abroad.

As much as she thrived on her time overseas, Cate had a lingering feeling that something wasn’t quite right. She began asking herself questions like:

Who am I if I’m not living abroad?
What does “global” mean to me at this point in my life?
What’s most important to me right now?
Who am I and what do I want?
What is it about traveling and living abroad that makes me feel so alive?
If I move abroad again, what do I want the experience to be like?

It took some time, but she finally resolved her re-entry issues and is now helping her fellow global adventurers thrive before, during and after they go abroad. Toward that end, she recently published The Reentry Relaunch Roadmap: A Creative Workbook for Finding Happiness, Success & Your Next Global Adventure After Being Abroad. As the title suggests, it’s designed to help expats navigate reverse culture shock but still retain their love for the global life.

Cate’s other creative projects include a website launched last year called International Desserts Blog, where she invites visitors to join her as she bakes her way around the world (she offers two free e-books,  Easy Mini Tarts and European Christmas Cookies); and a young adult novel that she just started writing. Although fiction, it is heavily based on her year as an exchange student in Germany.

Cate kindly took time out from her busy life to share some of her culture shock and reverse culture shock experiences with us.

* * *

Hi Cate, and welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox! Can you tell us which countries you’ve lived in and for how long?

I’ve lived in Germany for four years as well as in three very different regions in the US. I’ve also worked, traveled to, and had extended stays in many other countries within Europe, Central and South America, and Australia.

In the context of cultural transitions, did you ever put your foot in your mouth?

So many times!

Any memorable stories?

Here’s one I’ll never forget. I was enrolled in a German university, and it was the beginning of the semester. My literature professor announced he was trying to organize a weekend class trip. He went around the room asking our opinion of the plan, and when he got to me I said “I don’t mind” in German…or so I thought. From my classmates’ gasps and chuckles, and the dismayed look on my professor’s face, I realized that the phrase I’d used had came off as sarcastic and flippant rather than relaxed and agreeable. Oops!

How did you handle the situation?

I tried to quickly rephrase and hoped that they’d forgive me as I wasn’t a native speaker. The problem was that by that time, my German was pretty good, which meant that people who didn’t know me well would assume I meant exactly what I said and was in control of my tone.

Looking back, can you recall any situations that you handled with surprising finesse? Why do you think that was?

Not so much particular situations but I was able to finesse my overall approach. Before I went abroad the second time, I made a conscious effort to reflect on the challenges I’d encountered during my first stint abroad and how I could do better in future.

If you had to give advice to new expats, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first and why?

I guess I would tell them to take out their tape measures. Don’t judge until you take the measure of what’s going on and have more information—and you’ll also need to figure out culturally-appropriate ways to gather that information.

Yes, and sometimes you have to get used to a new way of measuring things, literally as well as figuratively.

If the shoe doesn’t fit at first, don’t worry! It just means you need to take the measure of your new location.

Let’s move on to reverse culture shock, which has had such a big impact on your life.

It was simultaneously easier and harder than I expected. Easier in that I actually enjoyed the first few weeks of being back home with my friends and family. I easily adjusted to the visible aspects of reverse culture shock (food, language, cars, etc). I had a much harder time with the invisible aspects I felt but couldn’t articulate.

I like that you make a distinction between the visible and invisible aspects. Feeling conflicted seems to be at the heart of most re-entry experiences. Do any of your reverse culture shock experiences stand out for you?

There was one that occurred when I first returned home after a year abroad a teenager. As my family sat down at the table for our first dinner together after my return, I found my brother sitting in “my” seat. He tried to convince me that it was “his” seat at the table, as he’d been sitting there all year. I got really upset and ran off to my room. Through my tears, I kept telling myself, “It’s just a chair, it’s no big deal”; but in my heart it felt like a really big deal. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but that one experience summed up how I was feeling in re-entry…as though I no longer fit in with my family and friends or at “home” in general. My life back home felt a size too small. I was conflicted because, while I was happy to see everyone at home, I missed the life I’d led in Germany. I was also questioning everything: my identity, my future plans, friendships, expectations…everything!

Did you develop any tools to handle these feelings?

Unfortunately, I didn’t have any tools or people to help me navigate re-entry or reverse culture shock, so I didn’t handle it as well as I could have. I mostly relied on the so-called 3 Cs: crying, complaining, and contemplating my escape. 😉 That’s ultimately why I created the Re-entry Relaunch Roadmap workbook. I want other global adventurers to have an easier time than I did!

Indulging in the 3 Cs? Then it may be time to invest in Cate’s creative workbook!

What kinds of tools do you offer in the workbook?

As mentioned, I wanted to find a way of imparting my own experience to readers. At first I gravitated towards people who had spent time abroad, and then I sought the solution of going abroad again and again. Finally, years later, when I knew I’d be spending a good amount of time in my home country and couldn’t up and leave when I felt reverse culture shock closing in, I started to reflect very deeply on how being abroad had changed me: what had I learned from living in another country, and what do I want my life to be like going forward? I decided I wanted to live a happy, meaningful, global life. That’s how I was able to identify my Global Life Ingredients: the five things I must have in my life in order to feel happy, satisfied, and global, no matter where in the world I live. I rebuilt my life around those ingredients—which, as you said at the outset, currently involves baking ingredients. I’ve started up a blog where I share recipes for international desserts. Now, instead of feeling like I’m just biding my time at home until I go abroad again, I love my life everywhere!

I really like the idea of deep reflection as a reverse culture shock tool. By delving into the facets of our experience that enriched us, we can go from being a collection of loose patchwork pieces to becoming a beautiful patchwork quilt, strong seams and all! Thank you so much, Cate, for taking the time to share your experiences with us. Oh, and can you please pass me a slice of that Bienenstich (German Bee Sting Cake)?

* * *

How about you, Displaced Nationers? What are your Global Life Ingredients? Let us know!

And if you like Cate’s prescriptions, be sure to check out her website, Small Planet Studio, where she occasionally blogs and also holds (online) events for expats and travelers who are looking to find their next global adventure. While you’re at it, don’t forget to check out her creative workbook on repatriation. You can interact with Cate on Small Planet Studio’s private Facebook page or on Twitter. Oh, and don’t forget those international desserts! Finally, Cate is serving as a Webinar coordinator for Families in Global Transition (FIGT) so would love to hear from you have an idea for one. Please contact her at webinars@figt.org.

Well, hopefully this has you “fixed” for a good long while as I bid farewell to this column…but not to the Displaced Nation! (Thanks, ML.)

Prost! Santé! Thank you all for being such great readers!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox and 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 posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a biweekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: All photos supplied or from Pixabay, apart from the “complain” photo in the last collage: [untiled], by ttarasiuk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

TCK TALENT: Journalist Alison Cavatore has crafted lifestyle magazine for those who consider the world their home


Columnist Dounia Bertuccelli is back with another super-talented Adult Third Culture Kid guest.

Hello, readers, and welcome to this month’s interview with Alison Cavatore—founder and editorial director of Global Living Magazine, a lifestyle publication for expats worldwide. It features exclusive content for expats by expats, including articles on living and working abroad, expatriation and repatriation, Third Culture Kids, culture shock and adaptation, international business, world-class cities, travel, and more.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to an American mother and a Spanish father, Alison is an ATCK who grew up in the United States, Holland and France. As an adult, she has lived in Canada, Switzerland and the United States. Currently she is based in Arizona with her French/German husband and their six-month-old baby girl. Even though Alison hasn’t been an expat for several years, she still feels very connected with that life and looks forward to the day when she and her young family cross borders again to travel and live.

Fun fact: Alison and I graduated together at the American School of Paris, and serendipity reconnected us through expat/TCK communities over ten years later! We are living proof of the value of such communities.

* * *

Welcome, Alison, to the Displaced Nation. Due to your father’s job, you grew up largely in Europe, and now you’ve repatriated to the United States. Let’s start by talking about your travels as a young adult. How did you end up in Canada after Europe?
I went to McGill University in Montreal, Canada, for my undergraduate education, where I studied psychology and sociology. I chose McGill because it’s a great school and I loved the city of Montreal—it was the perfect mix of North America and Europe, something I really appreciate even to this day because of my background. Having just lived in France, I found it a good middle step to getting back to the United States (I eventually ended up in Miami). The university is also extremely international, which suited me well having attended international schools for most of my life.

And then you went to Switzerland?
After finishing McGill in 2007, I took a year off and then attended Webster University in Geneva, Switzerland, for a master’s degree in counseling. While there I got involved in magazines, interning at Swiss Style magazine, which caters to expats within Switzerland, and decided I wanted to switch my graduate studies to journalism. That’s how I ended up back in the United States: I headed to the University of Miami (Florida) for a master’s in journalism, which I completed in 2011.

Starting up Global Living Magazine is a huge achievement. What gave you the idea in the first place?
While studying at the University of Miami I was involved in numerous publications and decided I wanted to work in magazines and focus on content I was passionate about: living abroad and the expatriate lifestyle. I created the prototype for Global Living Magazine for my master’s thesis; a month after graduating I founded Global Living and began working on the first issue, published in May 2012. I wanted to start my own publication so I could shape the narrative and focus on topics I see as important for the expat community as a whole, whether you’re an expat in Dubai, Chicago, Kenya or Australia. There is no other publication dedicated to expats worldwide like Global Living Magazine.

It sounds like your TCK upbringing played a big role in creating GLM.
Definitely. Having lived abroad for so much of my life, I was back in the United States and feeling a bit like an outsider in my own country. When I was thinking about starting my own publication, I wanted to make sure I was publishing content that could be useful to those who shared some of these feelings, who, like me, are so strongly connected to the expat community that they would appreciate and benefit from having a new resource.

Nearly five years have passed since the magazine’s launch. How has it evolved?
The magazine has evolved in many ways, both creatively and in terms of content. When I started Global Living I had a strong expat focus but also incorporated a lot of travel articles into the publication. I subsequently cut down on the travel component as I watched the positive response to the expat component grow and take on a life of its own.

As we TCKs know, global living can be glamorous, but it can also make you feel displaced. Does the magazine reflect these two sides of the coin?
Global Living presents a realistic perspective on international living: we present the good, bad and ugly aspects of expat life. While one person’s experience in one country may have been extremely positive, I think it’s also important to share a less positive experience because it’s reality—some assignments go well, some don’t. There are so many different aspects to expat life and Global Living touches on as many as possible in each issue so there is always something for everyone.

Print magazines are having a tough time these days.
Yes, when it started, Global Living was exclusively available in print-on-demand editions through MagCloud; but it can now be read (for free) in the Global Living app. Taking this step to make GLM more accessible worldwide has significantly grown our audience and made it more appealing to expats who are often on the go and can access all our issues on their smartphones or tablets.

Has GLM helped you process your upbringing?
Watching the expat community embrace Global Living has helped me accept my TCK upbringing as something positive. It has given me a foundation I didn’t always feel I had growing up. The magazine has also been an amazing way for me to stay connected and in tune with what is going on in the expat community. The people I have met and worked with through the publication have shaped it (and me) in ways I couldn’t even imagine when I first started. Expats are, in general, a fearless, adaptive, open-minded, accepting, forward-thinking group of people and that has ultimately been my motivation every time I put together a new issue. The response to Global Living has been so inspiring and rewarding as I hear from expats that it has been a wonderful addition to their life, making them feel less alone.

You’re currently based in Arizona, but before you were in DC and Miami. Do you see yourself going abroad again and resuming the expat lifestyle?
My husband is now the expat in the family, as a French/German living in the US. We moved to Arizona based on his job, which could subsequently move us pretty much anywhere in the world. We’d love to have our daughter, Victoria, experience expat life. Most of our immediate family lives outside the United States. I’m sure they would love to be closer to her at some point, too, if that happens.

Ultimately, do you think you might settle somewhere or will you always get “itchy feet”?
Ideally, I’d like to establish a “home base” somewhere in the US to which we could always return—preferably in Washington, DC, which I personally associate the most with “home.” I definitely still get itchy feet when we’re in one place for too long, though, a common TCK and expat experience. When we’re in the States we miss things about Europe and when we’re in Europe we miss things about the US.

“I want GLM readers to feel connected and ‘rooted’ in a global community,” Cavatore says.

Lastly, what are your hopes and future plans for GLM?
I want, and have always wanted, Global Living Magazine to be more than just a form of entertainment for readers—I hope it can be a resource and guide to the expat life. It can be a disorienting life to have many homes and the purpose of Global Living is, in part, to provide a sense of community and identity for those who struggle to find one while immersed in countries away from their “home”. I want people to read through the pages of Global Living and say, “Oh, I know exactly how he/she feels” or “That’s an interesting way to look at that experience” and feel connected and “rooted” in a global community. As far as the future goes: Global Living will continue to explore the latest issues that arise within the expat community and to invite new writers to provide fresh perspectives. Expat experiences vary so vastly, it’s important to include as many perspectives as possible to present a realistic view of living abroad, and repatriating.

Thank you so much, Alison!

* * *

Readers, please leave questions or comments for Alison below. Also be sure to check out Global Living Magazine, which is published every quarter (October, January, April and July). Current and past issues are available for free in the Global Living app. At GLM online, you can read magazine content, extra articles and the popular My Expat Story section. And of course you can follow the magazine on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram.

Born in Nicosia, Cyprus, to Lebanese parents, Dounia Bertuccelli has lived in France, UK, Australia, Philippines, Mexico, and the USA—but never in Lebanon. She writes about her experiences growing up as a TCK and adjusting as an adult TCK on her blog Next Stop, which is a collection of prose, poetry and photography. She also serves as the managing editor of The Black Expat; Expat Resource Manager for Global Living Magazine; co-host of the monthly twitter chat #TCKchat; and TCKchat columnist for Among Worlds magazine. Currently based on the East Coast of the United States, she is happily married to a fellow TCK who shares her love for travel, music and good food. To learn more about Dounia, please read her interview with former TCK Talent columnist Lisa Liang. You can also follow her on Twitter.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for the biweekly Displaced Dispatch, a round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and much much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Interviewee photo and magazine covers were supplied. Photos of Geneva, Paris & Montreal, and the vector of roots are from Pixabay.  Photo of Miami: “South Beach The Carlyle dusk,” by Dan Lundberg via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

LOCATION, LOCUTION: After spending summers in rural France, Stephen Goldenberg uses Villefranche as setting for murder mystery novel


Tracey Warr is here with a fellow British novelist Stephen Goldenberg, with whom she’ll soon be appearing for a book talk in Villefranche-en-Rouergue. It’s one of France’s most beautiful villages and the setting for Goldenberg’s latest mystery novel.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is fellow novelist Stephen Goldenberg, who was born, and has lived most of his life, in London. He now lives for a portion of the year in south-west France, a location that inspired his latest novel, Car Wheels on a Gravel Drive.

Goldenberg studied Law at Oxford University; but because of his love for reading great literature, he went on to train to be an English teacher. For the next 35 years he taught English in London secondary schools and became one of the first school teachers to introduce the subject of Media Studies.

Since taking early retirement, Goldenberg has written and published three novels and renovated an 18th-century stone-built farmhouse in the village of Calcomier in the Aveyron, a region of southern France named after the Aveyron River. He and his partner, Sue, have lived in the house for around five months a year for the last ten years. They try to be as involved as possible with the community, including helping out at the annual village fete. The house, Stephen says, is a perfectly peaceful place to write, especially on the small shaded terrace down by the river.

In addition to Car Wheels on a Gravel Drive, which came out last year and, as mentioned, is set in rural France, Goldenberg has self-published two other novels of suspense, both set in Britain: The Lying Game (Matador, 2012) and Stony Ground (Lulu, 2007). He says that his latest book reflects his fascination with the laid back rural French lifestyle and the lives of the many British expats who live there permanently.

What’s next? Goldenberg will be back on his home turf. His next novel, The Autobiography of an Invisible Man, takes place in London and is based on the life of a man who occasionally modeled for the displaced Irish-born British artist Francis Bacon.

* * *

Welcome, Stephen, to Location, Locution. Which comes first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

For Car Wheels on a Gravel Drive it was definitely location. For my other novels, it’s been the story first followed by the assumption that it’s automatically going to be set in and around London because that’s where I’ve spent the vast majority of my life. But it was my partner, Sue, who suggested that I should set my next novel in south-west France since, by then, we’d had the house near Villefranche de Rouergue for six or seven years and were beginning to feel at home.

Your main characters are English expats?

Once I had my location, it was obvious to me that my main characters would be English expats who had relocated to rural France from London. And then, I decided that they would have made this move for the wrong reason—namely, because they were having troubles with their relationship and decided that a dramatic change of location and lifestyle would solve their problems. Also, at about the same time, the murder of an English expat, Jacqueline Wilson, who lived not far from us, had hit the headlines and gave me the idea of writing a murder mystery novel involving an Englishwoman who had recently relocated to the area.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?

For me, sense of place is always created through a very light touch approach. I’m not one for masses of detailed description or massive amounts of research. A cumulation of small details can create a strong atmosphere. I particularly like to include the slightly quirky or unusual. For example, my use of a real café/restaurant in Aurillac called L’Abside, which is in a strange building grafted on to the side of a church.

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

Much as I’m a lover of food, especially the cuisine of south-west France, it doesn’t play much of a role in my novels. In the case of this novel, it was very much about culture—especially the experience of expatriates trying to adapt to the language and culture of their adopted country in circumstances that are far from ideal. As far as the landscape is concerned, I wanted to write something that reflected my experience as a big city dweller getting used to the radical difference in moving to a small village in rural France.

Can you give a brief example of your latest work that illustrates place?

Jeremy had lost track of what day of the week it was until he drove into Villefranche at lunchtime and saw that the restaurants were crammed full. Of course. Thursday. Market day. He zigzagged around the stallholders in the Place Notre Dame packing their produce into vans, skipping out the way of the municipal dustcart hoovering up the fruit and vegetable detritus. He climbed the steps up to the terrace on the far side of the square and surveyed the café’s outdoor seating area, firstly to check that there was no-one there that he knew and, when he was sure of that, to find an empty table.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?

If it is the main setting, then the answer is very well. Even though I don’t include that much description in my actual writing, I need to have a clear sense of exactly where my characters are. However, I do not believe in doing too much research for novels and, sometimes, I slip in settings that I hardly know at all (e.g., Decazeville in the present novel) just because it was the most convenient town between Villefranche and Aurillac.

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

Location isn’t something that particularly attracts me in choosing which novels to read and often, I find writers who are too heavy on atmospheric description off-putting. But there are two writers who, I think, use location really well. Thomas E. Kennedy is an American who lives in Copenhagen and sets his novels there. It’s a city I’ve never been to but, thanks largely to his writing, I hope to pay a visit soon. And then there’s one of my all-time favourite writers, Richard Russo, whose novels are set in small town upstate New York. I visited the area a couple of years ago and, because of his writing, found it strangely familiar.

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

Thanks so much, Stephen, for your answers. It’s been a pleasure.

* * *

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

As ML mentioned at the outset, Stephen and I will both be talking about our recent novels in Villefranche-en-Rouergue, France. The event takes place on 21 April 2017 at the English Library. All Displaced Nationers are welcome! For further details, please contact me at traceykwarr@gmail.com

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Stephen Goldenberg and his novels, I suggest you visit his author site.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Stephen! I find it intriguing that Stephen tries not to over-research location, even when using an adopted home as a setting. He is right that it’s a balance, and authors can get carried away describing place. —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published three early medieval novels with Impress Books: Conquest: Daughter of the Last King (2016), The Viking Hostage (2014), and Almodis the Peaceweaver (2011), as well as a future fiction novella, Meanda (2016), set on a watery exoplanet, as well as non-fiction books and essays on contemporary art. She teaches on creative writing courses in France with A Chapter Away.

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 biweekly posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo, supplied; London street scene via Pixabay.

All other visuals use photos supplied by Stephen Goldenberg or book cover art.

DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: How to generate more writing ideas than you can handle (expats, you have an advantage!)

Diary of an Expat Writer
It’s been much too long since we’ve heard from Shannon Young, an American expat in Hong Kong who recently achieved her dream of becoming a full-time writerThose who have been following her diary from the beginning won’t be surprised to learn that she’s been extremely productive in the interim. About to finish her five-book fantasy adventure series and begin the next, she shares some proven methods of generating story ideas.

Dear Displaced Diary,

Forgive me for letting so much time pass since my last entry. As you can probably guess from my previous entries, I’ve been busy! Nearly a year ago—on April 1, 2016—I published the first book, Duel of Fire, in my second fantasy series, called Steel and Fire. It’s a five-book series, whereas my first series, Seabound. was a trilogy. As the title suggests, I’ve been writing an adventure series; the Seabound books are dystopian fantasy. Also, from the start, the Steel and Fire novels have done much better than my first set, which I hope can be taken as a measure of my success as a budding writer.

The last time I wrote you, I was about to finish Book Three in Steel and Fire. I’d also set myself the goal of launching Book Four by the end of 2016: achieved! Then in January I wrote the rough draft of the fifth and final Steel and Fire novel.

As I wrap up this series and gear up for the next, I thought it might be an opportune moment to tell you about how I get my writing ideas—something we haven’t really gone over before.

Here are my four main techniques for generating story lines:

1) Draw on life experience to build a new world.

As a science fiction and fantasy author, I am challenged over and over again to build a world that is different to everyday reality.

Expats like you and me have a serious advantage. We have literally transplanted ourselves into a new world already. Viewing people, customs, vocabulary, clothing, and architecture as a newcomer or outsider already puts us in the mindset for developing a compelling world for our stories.

The more you work with a world, the more you can push the boundaries beyond what you already know about it. It’s not so much creating a world as it is excavating one—an idea I lifted directly from Stephen King’s On Writing. As King says, it’s easier to expand upon and discover ideas than to think them up cold. Build outward from an initial concept, and the ideas almost write themselves.

In my dystopian Seabound series, for example, I chose a post-apocalyptic ocean setting and developed my ideas from there. I gave the characters entire vocabularies that revolve around nautical terms. All of my similes had to be relatable for people who have lived on the ocean for sixteen years. “Salt” and “rust” became swear words. I created an oil rig that is a central meeting place, versus a market.

2) Don’t forget about the story—and the power of contrast in telling it.

As anyone who’s written fantasy will know, it’s easy to get so bogged down in the details of a world that you forget about the actual story. Travel writers know this, too: it’s not enough to describe a cool place. You have to take your readers on a journey through it.

One way to come up with a story idea is to set up an inherent contrast. Two characters from different social classes fall in love. A by-the-book detective has to work with a rogue. A normal girl teams up with a paranormal being/secret agent/feisty old woman to defeat a bad guy. Use the built-in tension of contrasting characters to help figure out what your conflict should be. Again, starting with the seed of an idea and building outward is easier than thinking up a whole story from scratch.

3) Read other books for inspiration.

Another way to think up story ideas is to seek inspiration in other books. You shouldn’t copy another author’s ideas, but reading an engaging story can be a great way to get the juices flowing in your own mind. For example, you might be sitting by the fire enjoying the school antics of Harry Potter when—BAM!—you think to yourself: what would it be like if the whole thing took place at a boarding school in space? There’s your idea. Bonus points if you can bring an old idea into a new setting— think Firefly’s country western in space or iZombie’s murder mystery series with a zombie sleuth.

You can also get fiction ideas from reading non-fiction. You might be enjoying the latest expat memoir about your soon-to-be adopted home when it occurs to you things could get really interesting if someone got murdered or an EMP destroyed the electrical grid in the middle of the expat author’s adventures. Don’t be afraid to take someone else’s plot and add a new twist. Just run with it!

4) Live with a cold idea for a while, until it heats up.

I come up with my very best ideas while I’m working on other projects; but what happens when you have a general idea of what you want to write about, and you’re not sure how to move forward? How do you get more specific ideas on which to build a story? My favorite method is to walk around with the idea for a while. It helps if you can give yourself some parameters, such as “I want to write about a murder in the city where I live.” Don’t think too hard about it; just go about your daily life occasionally remembering that you’re looking for a particular story line. You may find that you see or overhear something that connects with the question in your head and hits you straight between the eyes with a great story idea!

This method works for problems within stories as well. Often the necessary solutions will come to you when you least expect them, but only after you give yourself an initial question to mull over. (This is why getting ideas in the shower is common among writers.) Don’t forget to keep a notebook handy so you can capture those ideas the moment they arrive.

Okay, your turn!

In closing, I’d like to pose a question to the readers of this diary entry. What are your tried-and-true methods of coming up with story ideas? Do you usually start out knowing what you’re going to write or discover it along the way?

Happy writing in either case!

And thank you, Displaced Diary, for your continuing encouragement!

Yours,

Shannon Young
AKA Jordan Rivet
www.shannonyoungwriter.com
www.jordanrivet.com

* * *

Shannon, it’s great to have you back at the Displaced Nation, and once again, I’m impressed by your ability to convey so many helpful ideas for the rest of us would-be book writers. You are what the Japanese side of myself would call a sensei, a compliment rarely bestowed on one so young! ~ML

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a biweekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats & TCKs, when the culture shocks pile up, pull out the manual or consult an expert


Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol is back with her first guest of 2017.

Happy February, Displaced Nationers!

Meet my fellow ATCK Diahann Reyes-Lane. You might know her already from Elizabeth Liang’s lovely interview for TCK Talent. If you don’t, Diahann is a former CNN journalist and Hollywood actress who now works as a coach for writers and artists.

In her own creative life, Diahann is a blogger, writer, and performer. In Stories From The Belly, her blog about “the female body and its appetites,” Diahann addresses feminism, body image, identity culture, food and travel. Her poems and essays have been published in WriteGirl anthologies Emotional Map of Los Angeles, You Are Here and No Character Limit. She has written a number of chapbooks: Howl Naked Raccoon the Moon; Moon Goddess; and Basketball Dome of Tears. And she has performed at the Hollywood FringeFestival and read her stories at Beyond Baroque in Venice. Currently, she is working on a memoir as well as a solo show.

Diahann lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their five cats. She kindly took the time to share some of her cultural transition stories with us. Join us as we talk about TCK burnout, courting customs in Manila (just in time for Valentine’s Day!), and various forms of therapy.

* * *

Hi Diahann, welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox! So where on our beautiful blue planet did you grow up?

I was born in the Philippines. I learned to speak my first language, English, with a Kiwi accent at age one when my dad’s company moved us to New Zealand. We lived there for almost two years before moving back to Manila. When I was eight, we moved to Argentina for two years. Buenos Aires is still, to this day, my favorite city where I’ve lived. Two years later, we landed in Pakistan, where I spent the fifth grade. We stayed for a little over a year before migrating to the US. This was supposed to be our final move, but when the Marcos regime was overthrown, my father moved us back “home” to Manila in 1987.

How well did you settle down once you found yourself back in your passport country?

Our repatriation to the Philippines was brief. It was less than a year before my dad’s company moved him to Indonesia. I spent my senior year in Jakarta before moving back to the United States for college. I’ve been here ever since—going on 27 years now. I consider my long stay in this country a far more exotic adventure than moving countries all the time, which had been my norm for so long.

That’s very interesting. You mean you found staying in one place more exotic than travel?

Yes, learning to live in the same place has been a bigger adventure because moving, I knew how to do. Going to a new school, I knew how to do. Moving out/into a new apartment/house/neighborhood, I knew how to do. It was what my family did the whole time I was growing up. Until I turned 18, I moved to a new school, if not country, almost every year. I had no idea what it was like to have friendships that lasted beyond a school year. My sophomore year at UC Berkeley was a challenge because I didn’t know how to have ongoing relationships and I had to learn how to do that as a young woman. I used to think “what if”, mourning the losses of friendships and budding romances that surely would have blossomed if only I didn’t have to move again. I now know that sometimes, even when you live in the same zip code with people, friends drift apart and romances die for reasons beyond geography.
moving-i-knew-how-to-do

I hear you. And that’s a lot of moves. I’m guessing that, for you, like many of us Third Culture Kids, your most difficult re-entry shock occurred when you returned to your birthplace?

Yes, since Manila was “home”, I assumed there would be no transition. I thought I’d be like everyone else, for once, since I was no longer a foreigner. To my dismay, I still was an outsider. I didn’t know the customs or social rules any more than I did when I’d moved to the other countries. I was hard on myself about this because I assumed that I should know because I was a Filipina citizen.

Did you ever put your foot in your mouth when you were back “home”?

One example that springs to mind occurred during junior high school in Manila. A boy from another school was “courting” me. This was the eighties, so I’m not sure if courting is still what kids do nowadays. Basically, he was wooing me to be his girlfriend. But I wasn’t interested in him and I didn’t want to lead him on. I told the guy straight out—nicely, in my opinion—that I just wanted to be his friend. That’s what I would have done had I still been in living in the United States or studying at an international school. When I told my classmates about what happened, they made clear that this was a breach of etiquette. They said I should have allowed him to keep courting me until he finally asked me to be his girlfriend. Only then should I have let him down. Instead, I’d embarrassed him.
courting-in-philippines

Would you handle that kind of situation differently today?

The woman I am today would have handled the situation exactly the way I did then. But at 16, and after so many moves from country-to-country and school-to-school, I just wanted to fit in—especially because the Philippines was my country of origin. After that incident with the boy, I made more of an effort to abide by Filipino etiquette, including never calling guys and not taking the initiative when it came to expressing interest in a boy. Adapt, assimilate, and conform became my way of coping. I wish I could have told my younger self back then: “Just be yourself and honor your values. Who you are is enough. Your perceptions and choices aren’t wrong.”

Any “tools” you can recommend for the rest of us who are feeling some of these emotions?

Reading books about culture shock and re-entry culture shock helped. I discovered I wasn’t the only one having these experiences and my behavior, reactions, and mental and emotional state because of all the moving was normal. Until that point, I thought I was losing my mind. I couldn’t stay grounded in my body or any place or culture. Also, I wrote a college paper about re-entry culture shock, and the research I did for it was eye opening and healing. It also helps to have friends who have also lived the expat life and know what that’s like. Oh—and therapy. I recommend getting a good therapist.

youre-not-going-crazy

I like your recommendation of consulting the experts, whether it’s through books—we might call them operations manuals—or conversations with therapists who understand the TCK and expat mindset. Can you think of any transitions you made that were particularly smooth?

I’m inclined to say my move back to the United States to study at Berkeley was the easiest. I made friends right away and jumped right into college life. I didn’t miss Indonesia at all—probably because I’d lived there only for a year and hadn’t wanted to move there to begin with. (This had nothing to do with Indonesia—more that I was tired of moving.) But what I didn’t realize was that I’d not yet dealt with the accumulation of culture shocks and re-entry culture shocks I’d amassed in my psyche over the years. Inevitably, all of that would catch up with me eventually.

Yes, the compound effects of all those transitions is such an interesting subject! What advice do you have for expats or TCKs who are experiencing expat burnout or change fatigue?

I’d advise expats and TCKs to understand that the psychological and emotional fallout of multiple moves around the world are real. Recognize what is happening to you, proactively rather than reactively. Read and write about it. For me, writing that college paper about re-entry shock was a formative experience. I finally understood the effects that moving so many times while growing up had had on my development.

Lastly, do you have any advice for parents of kids like us?

For parent expats, I’d recommend letting your kids know that they, too, will be subject to culture shock. I’d suggest making space for your children to process their feelings and deal with the losses that can come from moving countries and cultures. Yes, there are plenty of gifts and benefits from being a global nomad, but there are also drawbacks. Ignoring the negative effects can be harmful. Granted, kids generally adapt more easily than adults, but this can also make it harder for them to stay grounded and cultivate a solid sense of self.

Thank you so much for sharing your stories, Diahann. I agree, some of the best advice for those who feel culture shocks piling up is to try to stay grounded: actively engage in activities that make you feel grounded in the place you are right now.

* * *

How about you, Displaced Nationers? What makes you feel grounded? And do you have any “manuals” or “experts” you’d recommend for getting through the difficult cultural transitions and/or their cumulative effect? Let us know!

And if you like Diahann’s prescriptions, be sure to check out her Website and blog. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Well, hopefully this has you “fixed” until next month/year.

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/year’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a biweekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: First visual (collage): Culture shock toolbox branding; photo of Sine & family, her book cover and her blog banner (supplied); View over Stuttgart-South and Stuttgart-Heslach and the “Karlshöhe”, Germany, by MSeses via Wikimedia Commons; and A rainbow over Joburg about two hours ago, by Derek Keats via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
Second visual: Hamburger via Pixabay (moustache vector art from iPiccy).
Third visual: Embarrassed boy, happy faces and wrench via Pixabay; Australia v England Netabll [sic] Test, by Naparazzi via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Traditional protective cup, by Scoty6776 via Wikimedia Commons.
Fourth visual: Great white shark, by Michiel Van Balen via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and tennis player via Pixabay.

TCK TALENT: Educational theatre specialist Guleraana Mir uses drama to coax out and channel TCK & immigrant stories

mir-tck-talent
Columnist Dounia Bertuccelli is back with her first Adult Third Culture Kid guest of the new year.

Hello again, fair readers! In this month of dramatic change here in the United States, perhaps you’d like to switch to another kind of drama. My guest this month is writer and educational theatre specialist Guleraana Mir. Among other projects, she has been working on Home Is Where…, an experimental theatre project based on the stories of Third Culture Kids, with Amy Clare Tasker, my very first guest.

Born in London to Pakistani immigrant parents, Guleraana spent the first five years of her life moving between Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UK. She recounts her family’s decision to settle back in the UK with humor, explaining:

“There’s a family joke that I returned home from the American nursery in Riyadh with a mixed-up accent, and my dad, proud of his broad Yorkshire twang, said something along the lines of: ‘No child of mine will grow up speaking like that!’ So we immediately made plans to return to the UK so my brother and I could be educated in England.”

As an adult, Guleraana continues to expand her horizons, traveling around and working in South America for a year and then spending two-and-a-half years in the United States. Currently based in London, she engages in a variety of creative endeavors, from leading theatre and creative writing workshops in community settings and schools in the UK, to developing scripts, to producing content for a London-based digital marketing agency, to writing poetry. Her first full-length play was long listed by the BBC Writersroom team in 2014, which seeks out new writers for possible BBC broadcast.

* * *

Welcome, Guleraana, to the Displaced Nation! Let’s start by hearing a little more about your path once you became an adult. What and where did you choose to study at university, and why?
I completed my BA in English and Creative Studies at the University of Portsmouth, in the south of England. I chose that location because it was far away enough to not be in the immediate vicinity of my parents, but close enough to hop on a train home to London. Four years later I chose to study for an MA in Educational Theatre at New York University’s Steinhart School instead of a comparable course in the UK because the dollar was two to the pound, making the cost of studying in the USA was almost affordable. Plus, I was obsessed with New York after visiting the year before. I would have done anything to be able to return for an extended period.

What made you so obsessed with New York, and how does it compare to London?
I can’t tell you how hard I’ve tried to answer these questions in a succinct and tangible way, but it always comes back to this: my obsession with New York is visceral, not something I can rationalize. New York has an energy that inspires and motivates me. London is wonderful, steeped in history and tradition, but its energy is different. In my first semester at New York University, I found myself on the 7th floor of the Student Union Building. I looked out of the window and realized I could see past Washington Square Park all the way up Fifth Avenue. All the way up! It was so long and straight and brightly lit; it seemed infinite and vast, full of magic and possibilities. In London the streets are small and cobbled and windy and you don’t get that sense of size, even though it is a very big city.

Do you think your love for New York also has to do with going to graduate school in that city?
Yes, my passion for New York ultimately has to do with the fact that I first visited at an extremely pivotal moment in my life. I have since written an essay about becoming a woman and an artist, and I attribute 100% of my current confidence to NYC mostly because of all the empowering experiences I had whilst living there. London is my childhood, my safety net, my current state of success. New York sits in the middle of those two states. It’s the place I ran away to and discovered myself, the place I finally felt comfortable being who I am. Whilst I know that London is the right place for me because I could never really live in the USA, every time I think of New York my heart breaks. It’s like the lover you can never let go of, the one that got away.

torn-between-ny-and-london

“Theatre is the art of looking at ourselves” —Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal

Did growing up as a TCK influence your decision to go into theatre?
I grew up not only as a TCK, meaning I spent my early childhood outside my parents’ culture–but also as a CCK, or cross-cultural kid, as I spent the next portion of my childhood living in England with Pakistani parents. These experiences moved me to want to become a human rights lawyer or a journalist, or else pursue European Studies. All I can ever really remember being passionate about was traveling the world and writing, with a heavy emphasis on “changing the world.” While working on my BA, I explored creative and journalistic writing, but ultimately graduated without a concrete career path. I’ve ended up working in educational theatre because it is a combination of things I am good at, and love. I honestly couldn’t see myself doing anything else. 

Has theatre helped you process your TCK upbringing?
As a playwright I can process my mixed-up identity through my characters. Having the opportunity to explore things I’ve experienced on stage is both triggering and cathartic. Luckily I am surrounded by amazing people who also happen to be extraordinarily talented artists, so working with them makes the whole process easier.

You’re currently based in London—are you settled or do you get “itchy feet”?
I will always dream of New York, and Rio, and all the other places I’ve felt “at home”; but London occupies a special place in my heart. It’s where parents and family are, so as long as they’re here, I’m here. Sort of. The itchy feet are constant—but I hate packing. So, we shall see!

“The worst part of holding the memories is the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.” —ATCK writer Lois Lowry

You’ve been collaborating with Amy Clare Tasker on Home Is Where…, weaving together the true stories of TCKs with a fictional narrative inspired by our post-Brexit political landscape. What has working with other TCKs meant to you?
Meeting Amy and discovering the term “Third Culture Kid (TCK)” for the first time felt like getting into bed after an exciting night out. Through our work on Home Is Where…, I’ve engaged with so many more TCKs. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction and hearing some of the stories that make up Home Is Where… you realize how true this saying is. Some people have been on such great adventures! Also, as our actors are also TCKs, watching them bring a piece of themselves to the project is very humbling. Each of the stories the drama tells is like a special gift.

I know you and Amy have been experimenting with verbatim theatre. I want to ask you the same question I asked her: how has that process been?
Verbatim theatre is an interesting art form. As Amy explained in her interview, the actors listen to the audio recordings of TCK interviews on stage via headphones—and then repeat exactly what they hear. There’s something so raw and honest about it, but there is also the potential for it to be very static and boring. At the moment Amy and I are working on a way to revamp the piece so the interviews take center stage without the audience getting distracted by all the other things we feel we need to add to create an exciting theatrical experience. Watch this space for updates!

Are you working on anything else at the moment?
I am. My play Coconut is about a British-born Pakistani woman called Rumi who identifies as a “coconut”—a derogatory term for someone who is brown on the outside and white on the inside, i.e., who isn’t deemed culturally Asian enough by the community. The play explores Rumi’s relationship with her heritage and her religion, and we see how far she will go to appease her family. The play has been supported on its development journey by the Park Theatre and New Diorama.

coconut-play

Congratulations on that and on being selected as a Pollock Scholar and a speaker for the 2017 FIGT conference, which takes place March 23-25 in The Hague. Is connecting with global communities important for you on a personal and professional level? What do you hope to gain from this experience?
Thank you, Dounia! Amy and I will be doing a short presentation on Home Is Where… followed by an interactive workshop, something that I’m very passionate about. My expertise is in applied-theatre and I want to show the global community that the creative arts are the perfect way to explore the theme of this year’s FIGT conference: “Creating Your Tribe on the Move.” My hope is that everyone who attends our session will be moved to find a way to bring theatre into the way they work with families and individuals who are experiencing, or have recently experienced, migration.

Thank you so much, Guleraana, for sharing your story of how you got started as an international creative. You have so many exciting irons in the fire, it’s a true inspiration!

* * *

Readers, please leave questions or comments for Guleraana below. Also be sure to visit her Website and connect with her on Twitter, where she likes to tweet about theater, global politics and gifs (tweet her your favorites!). And if you’re headed to the FIGT event in March, be sure to attend her workshop on Friday, March 24.

Born in Nicosia, Cyprus, to Lebanese parents, Dounia Bertuccelli has lived in France, UK, Australia, Philippines, Mexico, and the USA—but never in Lebanon. She writes about her experiences growing up as a TCK and adjusting as an adult TCK on her blog Next Stop, which is a collection of prose, poetry and photography. She also serves as the managing editor of The Black Expat; Expat Resource Manager for Global Living Magazine; co-host of the monthly twitter chat #TCKchat; and TCKchat columnist for Among Worlds magazine. Currently based on the East Coast of the United States, she is happily married to a fellow TCK who shares her love for travel, music and good food. To learn more about Dounia, please read her interview with former TCK Talent columnist Lisa Liang. You can also follow her on Twitter.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for the biweekly Displaced Dispatch, a round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Top visual: (clockwise from top left) Guleraana Mir photo, supplied; New Routemaster at Clapton, Hackney, London [mosque in background], by Sludge G via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); “Home Is Where…” performance photo, supplied; and New York University Waverly building, by Benjamin KRAFT via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
New York vs London visual: “Looking across Washington Square Park at Midtown Manhattan, up 5th Avenue,” by Doc Searls via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Back Lane, Hampstead, by Dun.can via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Bottom visual: Coconut rehearsal, performance and promo piece, all supplied.

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT: Moving on to fabulous, fragrant (and fatiguing!) Hong Kong

THE ACCIDENTAL EXPAT
At the moment when women all over the world are demanding a right to be heard, columnist Indra Chopra is here to remind us that an expat spouse is a person in her own right, with her own voice. Something else that makes her column well timed: it is about Hong Kong. I can guarantee her descriptions (particularly of food!) will put you in the mood for Chinese New Year, which is just around the corner… ML Awanohara

In a previous post, I described my family’s expat life in Muscat, Oman. Our next big adventure was a move to Hong Kong, which took place after a planned hiatus of six years in our home country.

I agreed to the Hong Kong move, not because of the Indian family tradition of a wife walking seven steps behind her husbandbut because I, too, am into adventure.

Join me as I take you into the fabulous, fragrant place I initially encountered.

* * *

Water brings luck

No sooner had I agreed to our move to Hong Kong but I am looking down from a rental suite on the 38th floor of Harborview Horizon in Hung Hom, Kowloon, at the teal waters of Victoria Harbour. There is a line of vessels—scampering ferries, catamarans with orangey-brown sails, nose-in-the-air cruise ships with names like Star Virgo and Pisces, rusty junks, barges and sampans—silhouetted against the vast blue sky, with brawny mountains in the distance.

I spend the entire day settling in while taking sneak-peeks at the unfolding harbour scenes. By the time night falls, it looks as though someone has taken a painter’s brush and dabbed sequined color on the concrete structures in the distance and then streaked the water in rainbow hues…

On the day of our arrival in Hong Kong, a friend told us that staying near water brings luck. Hm, is that what the Britishers felt when they first set foot in “The Fragrant Harbor” in 1841, and is that why they stayed for so long?

fabulous-victoria-harbour

A taste of “home”

The so-called City Island is eons ahead of staid Muscat, and I find myself unsure of how to approach my new life: as a novice or as a widely traveled person critically appraising what was on offer?

Being Indian, I am naturally drawn to Chungking Mansion (Nathan Road, in Tsim Sha Shui, Kowloon), a building full of small, family-run Indian and Pakistani restaurants serving traditional food. Believe me, the best Indian snacks or spices in Hong Kong can be found in little peek-a-boo stores under stairs or between shops—dark patches one could easily overlook while being bombarded with DVDs, mobile phones, suitcases, watches, currency exchangers, not to mention steady streams of locals and foreign tourists. I would taste the best butter chicken I would eat during my time in Hong Kong at a Pakistani eating-place on one of the floors of Chungking. I like the feeling that no one can ever get to the bottom of this cavernous, mysterious place. The possibilities are limitless.

a-taste-of-home

Fabulous…and fragrant

Our fresh-off-the-boat year is mesmeric…and exhausting. We are constantly meeting new people and making new friends among Hong Kong’s potpourri of nationalities. I never get homesick, except for family, thanks to the sizable Indian diaspora.

Now, it would be easy to be a stay-at-home wife who joins the various kirtan (prayer) groups, coffee mornings or kitty parties. Watching me deliberate on which Indian ladies to befriend, a British friend is surprised: “What’s the big deal, aren’t you all Indians?” Well, yes, but each of us has our own individual traits.

But something within me desires a whole set of new experiences. I know I won’t rest until I can understand more about the vignettes of daily life I keep witnessing as I navigate my new surroundings.

Perhaps energized by Hong Kong’s Autonomy Movement, I start asserting my own autonomy. Joining the crowds on the Peak Tram and the Mid-Levels escalator, I step out of my comfort zone and start peeking into the curtained windows of posh villas and spa treatment facilities that reek of Chinese herbs and other concoctions. I sense there is something unique about this place. Part of it is a sensibility but there is also an aroma that is manifestly Chinese.

I start taking day trips to Macau, China’s Las Vegas clone. I queue up for weekend ferries to the outlying islands of Chueng Chau, Lama, Lantau, Peng Chau, Pui Oh, Tai Wan Long, and Sai Kung. I even join some treks and hikes, including to the Ng Tung Chai waterfall, the biggest in Hong Kong, and within the lush, secluded greenery of the New Territories.

I visit the former Kowloon Walled City (Kowloon Walled City Park), the history of which traces back to the Song Dynasty (960–1279), when an outpost was set up to manage the trade of salt.

Strolling through subterranean air-conditioned passages or along overhead walkaways, I find aspects of my adopted home enchanting. I stand mute in front of the iconic lions as I reach the front of the HSBC Main Building in Central, which was designed by British architect Norman Foster. Catching sight of the International Finance Centre (IFC), I visualize French Spider-Man, Alain Robert, doing loops atop its towers; and, as I make my way through the high rises of Central, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay, I feel like Moses as he walks through the parting seas in The Ten Commandments.

Hong Kong has an excellent public transportation system, and I even manage solo travel to Lo Wu, which lies on the border between Hong Kong and mainland China, though I do not cross over to Shenzhen as I still don’t have my China visa.

On brutally hot days, I hop on a bus or a train and escape to an unknown neighborhoods in search of alfresco cafes, local designer stores, tearooms, parks and gardens, art galleries or libraries.

Whenever I feel I have seen and done it all, I have a niggling doubt there is more.

fabulous-and-fragrant-hk

Fabulous, fragrant…and fatiguing

Although Hong Kong still has pockets of antiquity here and there, with links to the region’s rich historical past, much of the region is in flux. For instance, Sheung Wan, one of the earliest settled places by the British, and part of the Central and Western Heritage Trail, is rapidly turning into a dining hotspot and bustling shopping mecca. The same is true of Sai Ying Pun, an area once known for its small lanes and historical buildings.

Similarly in Kowloon, Sham Shui Po—Deep Water Pier in Cantonese—the peninsula’s commercial and industrial hub, is fast becoming a street-shopping mecca.

Talk about change—one has only to look upwards at the constantly changing skyline. Hong Kong has more skyscrapers than anywhere on the planet, with its notorious shoe-box apartments piled atop shopping malls piled atop subways stations. Then, two years ago, a giant wheel suddenly landed in the midst of all these shifting layers, giving Hong Kongers their own version of the London Eye: what a fantastical embellishment to this swathe of reclaimed land!

Not long after my initial arrival, my feet are in urgent need of pampering. I have never done so much city-walking before—so followed the lady handing out leaflets in one of the by-lanes to a third-floor cramped salon that offered reflexology massage. It’s not one of the cleanest experiences, but soon I will have my favorite places, where I take visiting friends and family when they, too, are in need of some down time…

Travel writer Paul Theroux has said that travel is a state of mind. In Hong Kong, the fear is you may never get out of that state… No sooner have you taken in the brightly colored tong laus (19th-century tenement buildings) than you find yourself in a murky alley full of yan ching mei (the essence of humanity). It can be difficult to take in the sounds of traffic and never-ending foot-falls, the smells of traffic fumes, cigarette smoke, raw meat and fish…and not feel overwhelmed.

Making my way around this cacophonous Island city, I pick up many lessons, two of which stand out:

  1. Silence is golden—best exemplified by unblinking people in malls, the surging and pushy crowds of the MTR, and the mute cashiers at general stores.
  2. Survival is an art. You have to learn how you deal with the guttural rudeness of fruit sellers in wet markets, the pestering sales-peddlers of “genuine fake” watches and purses on Nathan Road, and the “No cheap” snide comments of shop assistants in brand showrooms once they notice you’re from the Sub-continent. After a while, I begin to comprehend the “I stay in a beach-side villa” hand-flick of long-time expat residents, the “couldn’t care less” attitude of locals, the jostling Mainlanders on weekly shopping sprees, and the hired helpers laying siege to open spaces and parks on weekends.

I shadow a friend as she navigates past umbrella-poking pavement walkers; impervious-to-others, 70+ matrons pushing carts laden with used cardboard boxes; cell-phone strollers; feisty old ladies twirling to “Sugar Sugar Honey Honey” in a neighborhood park; and Rambo seniors swimming in the cold waters of Hung Hom Bay. Little by little, I am getting in step.

It’s food!

A member of my writing group suggested I should spice up my writings rather literally, with more mentions of food—not a difficult task when it comes to Hong Kong, which entices its visitors into alleys, eateries and restaurants with its distinctive smells.

It is not long before I learn there is more to Chinese cuisine than my favorite dishes of Indian-Chinese Manchurian chicken, chow mien and hot & sour soup. In my various gastronomic quests on both sides of the Island, I discover finger-licking fish balls, succulent dim sum dishes, as well as slurpy wanton noodles, at the cha chaan ten (traditional Chinese eateries). In time my list of favorites comes to include:

Food is a kind of entry point into the mysteries of Hong Kong, the key to pinning down some of its elusiveness. I learn what people consider to be esoteric or exotic (e.g., snake soup, whole pigs or fish varieties) and become aware of the apparently important need to distinguish between dim sum, the word for a traditional lunch or brunch where one eats small portions of food served with tea, and dumplings, consisting of small pieces of dough wrapped around various fillings (meat, veggies or even fruit). Dumplings are not dim sum but a dim sum dish.

By making the restaurant rounds—from Michelin starred restaurants. to neighborhood open-air food stalls or dai pai dong, to book cafes and fast food outlets—I come to know parts of Hong Kong I might not otherwise have encountered.

Most important of all, I discover The Toothpick: the fine art of flicking food particles from in between tooth gaps, after one finishes eating. It is fascinating to watch all the Chinese people immediately reach for a toothpick at the end of every meal. A friend always carries a packet of toothpicks because “some eating places do not place it along with sauces and the salt-and-pepper set.” Now I, too, am addicted and my mouth craves that instant gratification.

its-food-hk

* * *

In John le Carré‘s The Honorable Schoolboy, it is said at one point that “when you leave Hong Kong it ceases to exist.” That was not my experience. After a seven-year stay, Hong Kong never ceases to exist for me.

To be continued…

* * *

Thank you, Indra! As always, you bring a unique lens to your travels and expat experiences. I wonder, does Hong Kong seem familiar in some ways to you because of its British colonial heritage, not unlike India’s? —ML Awanohara

Indra Chopra is a writer/blogger passionate about travel and curious about cultures and people. Her present status is that of 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

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of posts from The Displaced Nation, and much much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Opening visual: Airplane photo and India photo via Pixabay. Other photos supplied or else downloaded from Pixabay.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: For acclaimed British novelist Simon Mawer, not feeling at home anywhere fires creativity


Tracey Warr is here with the extraordinary Simon Mawer, whose work is on a par with Australian-born, U.S.-based Peter Carey and Sri Lankan-born Canadian Michael Ondaatje. Like them, he has used his displacement to produce an award-winning body of fiction.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is world-class novelist Simon Mawer.

As ML implied, Mawer is a natural fit for the Displaced Nation. Though British, he has lived in Italy for many years and to this day finds his imagination fired by the extraordinary and the unfamiliar.

He also had a peripatetic upbringing. His father served in the Royal Air Force, and his family spent three years on the island of Cyprus—an experience that informed his novel Swimming to Ithaca (2006)—and a total of five years in Malta.

About his childhood spent in other cultures, Mawer has this to say:

These experiences planted in me a love of the Mediterranean world which has lasted my whole life. They also gave me a taste for exile which I have never lost. When people ask me where I come from I am still unable to reply. I have lived in Italy for more than three decades, but Italy is not home. Home is where the mind is, perhaps.

Returning to the UK for boarding school, Mawer attended Oxford University where he earned a degree in zoology. He spent three years teaching biology at the secondary-school level in the Channel Islands, two years in Scotland, and two in Malta, before moving to Rome where he has lived ever since, teaching biology for over thirty years at St George’s British International School in Rome (he retired in 2010). Because teaching took up so much of his time, he didn’t publish his first novel, Chimera, until age 40, when he sold it to Hamish Hamilton.

Mawer’s ten novels are imbued with a compelling sense of time and place. His characters grapple with their own fraught and hybrid identities. The Bitter Cross (1992) is the only one set in the distant past: taking place in the 16th-century Mediterranean, it explores the theme of exile and belonging through the eyes of one of the last of the English knights, from the vantage point of retirement on the fortress island of Malta.

But the rest of Mawer’s novels take place in the early 20th century, with settings ranging through 1930s Czechoslovakia, 1940s occupied France, wartime Rome, 1950s London during the Cold War, Cyprus, Israel and Palestine.

The following six have won high accolades:

  • Mawer’s first novel, the aforementioned Chimera (1989), tells the story of a part-Italian, part-English archeologist who is haunted by his own past. On an archeological dig in central Italy, he recalls being parachuted into wartime Italy as a Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent. It won the McKitterick Prize for First Novels.
  • Mendel’s Dwarf (1997), described by the New Yorker as “furious, tender and wittily erudite,” blends fact and fiction by telling the story of the fictional Benedict Lambert, a distant descendant of real-life founder of the modern science of genetics, Gregor Mendel. Like Mendel, Lambert struggles to unlock the secrets of heredity and genetic determinism. However, Benedict’s mission is particularly urgent—he was born a dwarf. The book reached the last ten of the Booker Prize and was a New York Times “Book to Remember”.
  • Set partly in wartime Britain and partly in the anarchic world of British rock-climbing in the early seventies, The Fall (2003) is about many kinds of falling: off mountains, into love, out of love, from grace. It was the winner of the 2003 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature.
  • The Glass Room (2009) centers on a couple who who live in a modernist house that resembles the real-life Villa Tugendhat, which the German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed for a wealthy Jewish man and his gentile wife in Brno (now in the Czech Republic). But then the storm clouds of World War II gather and the family flees through Switzerland to the United States. This work was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and the Wingate Prize, and was a bestseller in the US and the UK. The Guardian described it as “a thing of extraordinary beauty and symmetry,” and the Washington Post found it “eerily erotic and tremendously exciting.” The Glass Room was adapted for the stage from the book’s Czech translation for a performance in the city of Brno (which, incidentally, is the seat of the priory where Mendel performed his experiments).
  • Mawer’s ninth novel, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky (Trapeze in the US) (2012) was described by the Daily Telegraph as “an absorbing novel full of treachery, twilight and terror.” Set during World War II, the novel follows the path of the half-English half-French diplomat’s daughter Marian Sutro. Her hybrid status is an advantage in wartime, and she ends up serving as an agent in occupied Europe. The Guardian once described Sutro as “perhaps the closest thing to a female James Bond in English literature.”
  • Mawer must have enjoyed the company of this complex female protagonist as Marian Sutro returns again in his most recent novel, Tightrope (2015), a cold war thriller set in 1950s London. One of a handful of surviving agents of the Special Operations Executive, Sutro tries to cast off her identity as heroine of the resistance, but the memories of torture, heartbreak and betrayal won’t leave her—nor will the longing for adventure. Tightrope was described by the Sunday Times as “a sophisticated, deviously constructed story,” and by the Mail on Sunday as “gripping stuff, with a sinuous plot and some haunting bedroom scenes.” It won the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and was Waterstones Novel of the Month (March 2016).

Mawer has also written two nonfiction books:

* * *

Welcome, Simon, to Location, Locution. Which tends to come first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

This very much depends on the book. Most begin with an idea—for example my last pair of novels, The Girl Who Fell From The Sky (Trapeze, in the US) and Tightrope, began with the idea of a young woman—a mere 19 years old—being recruited into a clandestine warfare outfit in the middle of the Second World War. Everything else followed from that. Similarly The Fall began with a literal fall, in this case the fall of a climber from a mountain wall. But once I’d got a mountain involved it was pretty obvious that location was going to become important. Indeed the Sunday Times reviewer drew attention to precisely this:

“What makes The Fall truly valuable, and truly unusual is its sense of landscape. Much British writing these days seems to be self-consciously urban. Mawer’s novel, distinguished by its keen descriptive sense of rock-face, crag, lake, snow and stone, bucks that trend beautifully.”

However, two novels later The Glass Room most definitely began with a location—the mesmerising Tugendhat House in the Czech Republic that I first visited in 1994. Standing in rooms that seemed to have barely changed from the 1930s, in a building that to this day remains a touchstone for modernist design, it was obvious for me to think, “There’s a story here.” I’m a writer of fiction so the subsequent story had to be my own creation rather than the true story of the family that built the house; but there is no doubt that location came first.

the-glass-room-collage-w-quote

What is your technique for evoking the atmosphere of the various places where you’ve set your four novels?

If there were only one technique it would be easy (and dull). There are many techniques but for me underlying everything is the idea that the reader must do some work. The writer’s task is to stir the imagination not replace it. So you evoke place with small hints, little details, small observations, and you rely on the intelligence of the reader to create the whole picture in his or her head. Don’t underestimate the literary intelligence of the reader—the ones without it are probably watching TV anyway. At best they’ll only be reading Dan Brown.

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

It depends on the location. For landscape one tends to resort to descriptive devices, leavened with metaphor of course. But it’s important not to overdo it and to restrain yourself from indulging in purple prose. Description should be brushed into the narrative with rapid, impressionist strokes. Urban locations, on the other hand, lend themselves to cultural references (see the example below).

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

How about Paris immediately after the war, as described in Tightrope:

Her first visit to the city since the war. Paris with a superficial gloss to it, like a piece of silver plate that has been polished up but is still worn away in places to show the base metal beneath: the drab buildings in need of cleaning, the broken pavements, the impoverished shops. But Paris with a strange, febrile vitality, Paris that was home to the theatre of the absurd and was itself a kind of theatre with people performing on its various stages, writers in the cafés of the Left Bank, politicians treading the boards of the National Assembly or berating crowds in place de la Bastille, black jazzmen from America sounding off in basements and cellars, models strutting on catwalks wearing clothes that outraged the poor of Saint-Denis and Belleville, tarts and pimps on the pavements of Pigalle. Paris canaille.

Paris canaille? Coarse, tawdry, crooked Paris. It’s the title of a song of the time written by Léo Ferré and first made popular by Catherine Sauvage. If the readers get that, great. If not, it doesn’t matter. But give them the opportunity to find out if they want to. You’ll find it here.

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

It is possible to know a place too well. I have lived in Italy for about 40 years and have written very little that is set in this country. It is too familiar to me (yes, Italy can become too familiar!). What fires my imagination is the extraordinary and the unfamiliar—so I’ve set novels in Israel/Palestine, Czechoslovakia, World War II London, Cyprus, 16th-century Malta. Of course once your imagination has been lit, then it is necessary to get to know the place sufficiently to write about it with conviction without ever losing the sense of newness and discovery.

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

Perhaps one writer above all: Graham Greene. He was a master at location, so much so that critics even bestowed his name on the world that his characters inhabit: Greeneland. You know it. It’s hot, arid, run down, plagued with dust and corruption and lost faith. That’s the ultimate achievement, to create a world so vivid that it transcends any real location and instead belongs entirely to you, the creator.

So true! I should tell you that my last guest, the novelist Dinah Jefferies, chose one of your books—The Girl Who Fell from the Sky—in answer to this question.

Thanks so much, Simon, for joining us. It’s been a pleasure, as always.

* * *

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

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Simon Mawer and his novels, I suggest you visit his author site. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Simon! I have to say I’m particularly intrigued by Simon’s statement that he’s written very little in Italy despite (because of?) having lived 40 years in the country. That suggests that we international creatives should get started sooner rather than later if we decide to write about our adopted homes! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She recently published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her latest medieval novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th-century Wales and England, came out in October.

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 biweekly posts from The Displaced Nation and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo, supplied; Roman scene via Pixabay; Cyprus. Nicosia 1969 – 70, by Brian Harrington Spier via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Street and Glastonbury Tor taken from Walton Hill, by Edwin Graham via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).
“Glass Room” visual: (top) Mies van Der Rohe- Tugendhat House, 1930, by Rory Hyde via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); (bottom left) The Glass Room on stage at the City Theatre, Brn (Pavla Vitázková as Liesel, Svetlana Jantová as Kata), supplied; and Simon Mawer relaxing in the living room of the Tugendhat House, with the director of the house, Iveta Černá looking on, supplied.
“Paris as theatre” visual: (clockwise from top left): Acetate fabrics by Robert Perrier, 1951 Autumn-Winter via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); Screenshot from Catherine Sauvage “Paris Canaille” (live official), Archive INA; Waiting for Godot (cover detail) via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0); and Zsa Zsa Gabor playing Jane Avril in the film Moulin Rouge (1952) via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain 1.0).

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expat mums, time to loosen your worry nut: relax, write funny stories & try not to embarrass your kids!

sine-culture-shock-toolbox
Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol is back with her final post of 2016.

Happy holidays, Displaced Nationers!

Are you already thinking about trips you’d like to make in 2017? Maybe you’re thinking about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro? In which case you’ll find it inspirational to meet Eva Melusine (Sine) Thieme, traveler, writer, and author of the hilarious memoir Kilimanjaro Diaries: Or, How I Spent a Week Dreaming of Toilets, Drinking Crappy Water, and Making Bad Jokes While Having the Time of My Life, about climbing Africa’s highest mountain with her teenage son.

Born in Germany, Sine—whose name is not pronounced like “mine”—has moved across the world seven times, “lugging progressively more stuff and family members along the way,” as she puts it on her author site. Most recently, she and her husband, also German (they met in Stuttgart), spent three years in Johannesburg, South Africa, with their four children.

At that time, Sine started up her popular blog, Joburg Expat, as a space for recording her adventures—ranging from her campaign to help baseball gain a foothold in an African township to a series of hair-raising encounters with lions, great white sharks, and the Johannesburg traffic police.

The family now lives in Tennessee, where Sine continues to maintain her Jo-burg blog. She also writes freelance for the Wall Street Journal and other outlets, and prides herself on remaining sane with four teenagers in the house—which reminds me of a quote by Nora Ephron:

“When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”

Sine says her next book will be about a road trip through Namibia with six people in a five-person car.

She kindly took time out from her busy life to share some of her culture shock experiences. Join us as we talk about mustaches vs. mustard, cultural differences in parenting—and the therapeutic benefits of writing…

* * *

Welcome, Sine, to Culture Shock Toolbox. So where on our beautiful planet have you lived?

I was born in Germany where I spent the first 16 years of my life. I then embarked upon a year as an exchange student in the United States, arriving full of wonder in the Deepest South of Mississippi, marveling at such novelties (to me) as cordless phones, giant TV screens and drive-through fast food. My love for America kindled and confirmed, I returned after my undergraduate studies for an MBA at the University of North Carolina together with my also German-born husband. We have since moved—with an ever-growing entourage of kids—to Singapore, Wisconsin, Kansas, South Africa, and now Tennessee. Having been naturalized in 2010, I don’t consider myself an expat in the United States any more. My most memorable time of feeling like an expat came when we lived in Johannesburg with our four children, from 2010 to 2013.

It sounds like a beautiful love story, what you said about the United States! In the context of your many cultural transitions, did you ever put your foot in your mouth?

The most embarrassing—because I was a self-conscious teenager still learning English—was the time when, as an exchange student in Mississippi, I insisted that I wanted “mustache” with my burger. I had of course confused the word for “mustard”—and it didn’t do my perfectionist self any good to be relentlessly teased about it by my younger host siblings for months on end.
burger-mustache-quote

Any stories from your time in South Africa?

Nowadays I’m not easily embarrassed, but my kids make up for that with their exponential embarrassment on my behalf, which, I’m convinced, comes with the Expat Mom territory. Take, for instance, the school sports scene in South Africa. My daughter Impatience—that’s her blogging name—was playing in a netball match, actually playing pretty well considering she’d never played the sport before in her life. But I was going crazy because no one was going for the rebound after shooting at the basket. “Get the rebound!!!” was naturally what I yelled from the bleachers for an entire half, like a good American mother with Olympic ambitions for all her children, no matter how lowly the league. Well, as any netball players out there will know, it’s not called a “rebound”. It’s also apparently not something you can “get” willy nilly, because there is some kind of zone around the basket or perhaps the goal-shooter—I learned there is actually a position called goal-shooter that comes with its own lettered t-shirt—into into which you can’t extend your arms. Impatience later informed me of this technicality in hushed tones so that I would abstain from any further “encouragement” from the sidelines. South African mothers do not seem to provide such encouragement at all, I came to learn.

How did you handle that situation? Would you handle it differently now? What tools do you think are most useful for adapting to situations like these?

I think in general the key is to relax waaaaay more than we typically do, not just as a tip for expats but a life skill in general. None of this is really so important, so instead of watching my kid with eagle eyes to see how well she plays, I should have socialized with the other mothers much more and dug into the goodies piled onto tables for “tea time,” which had been supplied by some well-meaning parents. South Africans are good at relaxing, as I learned during those years. “Sit back and observe what locals do” is usually a pretty good guideline when arriving in a new land.

Definitely! Looking back again on your many transitions, can you recall any situations you handled with surprising finesse?

I don’t profess to have much finesse. So just abstaining from committing a similarly embarrassing blunder in front of another one of my kids can perhaps count for such a success story. One day I was tempted to walk right into the teacher’s lounge at the prep school, brimming with indignation, to tell my son Jabulani’s geography teacher that no, contrary to her firm belief, the United States does NOT have 52 states, never had, and probably never would. And, while we were at it, zero degrees north is just as good an answer on the exam as zero degrees south, if she really insisted on splitting that particular hair. Jabulani blanched at the prospect. He begged me to abstain. It would be SO embarrassing if I talked to the teacher like that, which is apparently something South African mothers don’t do. So I listened to my child—another good rule for parents of Third Culture Kids to follow. They are so much more attuned to the perils of putting a foot in your mouth. 

Yes, that’s actually something Tanya Crossman wrote about in her book, Misunderstood, which was featured on this site last week.

Come to think of it, it was also Jabulani who found it equally embarrassing when, upon receiving the supply list before cricket season, I was the only mother who had no idea what a “ball box” was. And who then loudly inquired at the sporting goods store as to where she might find one, and proceeded to tell everyone for months afterwards, hooting with laughter, how funny it was that it turned out to be an athletic cup (which is inserted in a jockstrap to protect the genitals against impact from the ball):

Yes, if you think about it, a ball box is indeed a box containing balls, haha, and should we read anything into the fact that South African “ballboxes” are about twice the size of their American counterparts? Hahaha.

embarrassed-tcks

I’m imagining you might say “sense of humour,” but if you had to give advice to new expats, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first and why?

Maybe I’m biased because I’m a writer, but I’d actually say the most important tool as an expat is to start writing. Emails to your friends, Facebook posts, a blog, whatever it is, it will lighten your mood tremendously. It will shift being afraid of what’s new towards seeking out the new—because you have an audience and a story to tell. It will turn frustration at yet another long wait at an incomprehensible government office into almost giddy suspense as to what ridiculous thing might happen next, and how to best put it into words to make your readers back home burst into laughter.

How did you feel when you came back to the United States after living in Africa? What was “reverse” culture shock like for you?

It was worse. Before, there was the excitement about living in a new country, coupled with the benevolence you feel towards a people you don’t completely understand. You give them the benefit of the doubt. They might seem a little quirky and weird, and you might not understand all they’re saying, but they smile at you and they’re interesting. Plus, the sun is shining and someone is ironing your laundry at the house, and that someone is not you. But when you return “home” you feel like you understand everyone far too well, and you don’t like what you think you know about their psyche. They’re all too shallow, too pampered, too full of their First World Problems, you think, and there can’t possibly be anything in it for you by getting to know them. You pine for the friends you left behind in the country you left behind, and nothing seems like it will ever be quite so fascinating and exciting again in your life as it once was.

Can you recommend any tools for handling (reverse) culture shock?

The key is to treat your home country like any other expat location—with curiosity, an open mind and heart, and a willingness to adapt. You have to overcome your own snobbishness to realize there are wonderful people everywhere in the world, and only then can you form new friendships, find new passions, and move on with your life. 

That’s good advice: it’s important to find new passions.

You might have cage dived among great white sharks and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro as an expat, and now you might have to settle for the much more mundane sport of tennis upon returning home. But let me tell you: perfecting your forehand is just as challenging and rewarding as living abroad. I’m still trying to find an equally convincing story about the laundry I’m now back to folding myself in a country without domestic help. I’ll get back to you when I come up with it.
shark-forehand-quote

Thank you so much, Sine, for taking the time to share your stories and insights. As you say on your blog, “If life always went exactly as planned, there would be no stories. If you look at it that way, a crappy day can be the greatest gift!” Such a wonderful motto to live by, abroad or at home!

* * *

Displaced Nationers, I hope you enjoyed this interview. Did you turn any frustrating moments into stories? Let us know!

And if you like Sine’s prescriptions, be sure to check out her author site and her blog. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Well, hopefully this has you “fixed” until next month/year.

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/year’s fab posts.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a biweekly round up of posts from The Displaced Nation—and so much more! Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: First visual (collage): Culture shock toolbox branding; photo of Sine & family, her book cover and her blog banner (supplied); View over Stuttgart-South and Stuttgart-Heslach and the “Karlshöhe”, Germany, by MSeses via Wikimedia Commons; and A rainbow over Joburg about two hours ago, by Derek Keats via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
Second visual: Hamburger via Pixabay (moustache vector art from iPiccy).
Third visual: Embarrassed boy, happy faces and wrench via Pixabay; Australia v England Netabll [sic] Test, by Naparazzi via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Traditional protective cup, by Scoty6776 via Wikimedia Commons.
Fourth visual: Great white shark, by Michiel Van Balen via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and tennis player via Pixabay.

%d bloggers like this: