Columnist H.E. Rybol never saw a culture clash she didn’t want to fix. She calls herself a “transitions enthusiast” and credits her Third Culture Kid upbringing for giving her a head start in that department. That said, H.E. is always looking for new tools to add to her kit, and toward that end has been interviewing other displaced creatives about their culture shock experiences. Today she speaks to Kristen Rossi, a New Yorker who is on a mission to spread the Golden Age of Broadway/jazz throughout Asia. Okay, H.E. and Kristen, time to paint the town and all that jazz!
Hello, Displaced Nationers! Today I am delighted to introduce Kristen Evelyn Rossi to Culture Shock Toolbox readers. Kristen is an American actress, singer and voice over artist based in Southeast Asia. Besides being a talented performer, she is an entrepreneur and, while living in Bangkok, has co-founded two organizations: Broadway Babe, an endeavor to bring Broadway style to the Thai capital, and Musical Theatre for KIDS, which offers Broadway musical and theatre workshops for Asian youth.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Kristen recently and ask her a few questions about her somewhat unusual life of crooning her way around Asia, while also teaching others how to traipse the Broadway boards. I can see from the YouTube videos on her Website that she has racked up many successful performances; but I wanted to know: have there been any cultural flops?
Here’s what she had to say…
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Hi, Kristen, and welcome to the Displaced Nation. Can you tell us which countries you’ve lived in and for how long?
I have lived in London (UK) for just under a year; about seven years in Bangkok, Thailand; Hanoi, Vietnam for the past four months; and I will call Macau home in May.
That is quite a few cultural transitions! You are a singer, so I’m not sure if this is the right question, but did you ever put your foot in your mouth? Any memorable stories?
As an entertainer I meet people from all over the world. One common mistake I make is in judging a guest’s nationality. In particular I find it hard to tel the difference between Japanese and Koreans. Sometimes I can tell the difference and sometimes it is hard, especially when they come in their business suits! Several times I have said, “oh are you from ___” and they will just say “no, we are ____” and then look at me very seriously. Awkward.
Another occasional mistake related to nationality is that I don’t always know what the people of a country are called. I remember the first time I was speaking with a diplomat from Qatar. I was about to refer to the people…and hesitated. It made me feel a little embarrassed. (Of course I know now it’s Qatari!)
How do you usually handle these situations?
I try to quickly move on to something I do know and like about the country or culture in question. For example, with Koreans I always say, “Oooh, I just love makgeolli (an alcoholic beverage native to Korea).” Once I say this, I usually get smiles and “ooooh!” and laughs. I’ve found that it helps to learn a few positive facts about the nation and its culture—so you can always change the subject quickly.
In general, how do you think you have handled your many cultural transitions?
Most of my transitions have been positive and quite easy I think because I’m a performer by nature. I just get out there. I walk around, I interact, I am patient, I smile a lot. I figure out how to make the best of the situation.
If you had to give advice to someone who just moved to a new country, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first and why?
Engage with the culture. I can only speak on behalf of Southeast Asia/Asia, but what I have found is people want to share their culture with you. They want to be good “hosts”; embrace this. Ask your colleagues or new friends to show you their favorite local artists (music, gallery, etc). Ask them to take you to their favorite coffee spot or their favorite place to get their favorite local dish. Most of the time, they will be flattered you are interested in them, happy to share their culture—and you’ll probably end up making new friends. Another important tool is language. Make an effort to learn even a few words in the local language. You can practice simple words at home and then go into the office and ask your local colleagues if you are saying the words right. They will LOVE IT, I promise!
Thank you so much, Kristen, for taking the time to share your experiences. It’s wonderful to hear that a Broadway diva knows when not to be a diva. And I think you’ve hit the nail soundly on the head in advising that the best way to handle culture shock is to engage with the culture head on. Show interest and ask questions; learn the language and ask for feedback.
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Readers, what do you make of Kristen’s advice? Do you agree with my impression that she’s brought some of the energy of the “city that never sleeps” to this column?
It’s turning into Third Culture Kid Week at the Displaced Nation! Today our newest columnist H.E. Rybol, who has a German dad and a French mom and is a self-described “transitions enthusiast,” interviews a fellow adult TCK, with a French dad and a Belgian mom, about the tools she used to face the inevitable culture shocks during her family’s many moves. Later in the week, TCK Talent columnist Lisa Liang will be interviewing the poet Maya Evans, who was displaced from Egypt as a child. And you know something else? H.E. recently interviewed Lisa on her own blog. Though not a TCK myself, I always learn a lot from this rather tightly-knit group. I expect you will, too.
Hello, Displaced Nationers! This month I am proud to introduce my first guest to the Culture Shock Toolbox column: Olivia Charlet, a fellow adult TCK and the founder of TCK Dating, a site that explores how our multicultural backgrounds influence our relationships. Olivia is fascinated by questions like: Are we TCKs happier with partners who share a similar nomadic background, or do opposites attract and we gravitate towards those who’ve lived in the same place their whole lives?
Today she has kindly agreed to answer my questions about the culture shocks she has experienced, along with tools she has used to overcome the feeling of not belonging. Here’s what she had to say…
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Hi, Olivia. Thanks for joining me. First, can you tell us a little more about your background: which countries you’ve lived in and for how long?
Sure! I was born in Tokyo, Japan and lived there for my first four years. I then lived in Düsseldorf, Germany for two years. We later moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, for six-and-a-half years. Finally, I spent middle school in Vienna, Austria, for almost four years. I completed my last two years of high school in Hamburg, Germany, and then went to university in Boston, Massachusetts, for three years, after which I lived in Auckland, New Zealand, for six months. I have now been living in London for around five years.
That’s a lot of moving! And now we should move on to the topic of my column: cultural transitions. Can you recall any memorable occasions where you “put your foot in,” so to speak, during your many moves?
I still feel like I’m doing that, as an adult TCK here in London, especially when spending time with people who grew up in this part of the world. When I’m with a group of internationals, who are often my friends, this doesn’t happen as often since there’s this shared understanding that we all have slightly different cultural backgrounds. Let’s see… I think it mostly happens when I’m simply being outspoken—when I say things like “I love this!” or “This is amazing” or “It was terrible.” I picked up these expressions from American schools, I think. British people tend to be more understated. They’re more likely to say things like “Yeah, it’s alright” or “She’s nice.” It’s not so intense.
How do you tend to handle those inevitably awkward situations when you feel people may have misinterpreted you?
When I was younger I would have tried to mold into what they believed to be “normal” or “appropriate” behavior. But unfortunately (or fortunately?), I’ve become less and less likely to do this as I’ve gotten older. I want to be able to me. And express my difference. I don’t like pretending and I need to be authentic. If I’m trying to please them by saying what they want me to say, I won’t be genuine. Growing up outside of my passport country, I spent years learning how to adapt quickly and meet new friends. However, every year that goes by in London, I realise I can find people in the city that won’t expect me to be something else. They’re just fine with me being me (crazy mix of customs and all!).
Looking back, can you recall any situations that you handled with surprising finesse? Why do you think that was?
Well, that’s really my point. Having grown up moving around so much, I became really good at mimicking customs and behaviours—but not because of any natural ability. I just wanted to fit in. For instance, I played on a German football team in high school, and none of the girls spoke a word of English. They saw me as one of them after only a couple of months. Likewise, while attending university in the United States, I honed in on what the American students and professors needed to see for me to blend into their culture.
If you had to give advice to TCKs or new expats, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first?
Strangely, I don’t think I would have said this six months ago, but basically my advice is to truly know yourself. Who are you? What do you love to do? What do you not like to do? How do you like to behave? Are you loud? Are you soft-spoken? Extroverted? Be you. Because really, as much as we try to fit into another world, the truth is you’ll find people in no matter what culture who “get” you and understand you just the way you are. The more you try to change and adapt to what other people want you to be, the more you’ll lose a sense of who you are. And the most important thing (at least for me) about living in a different country is to not lose your core of self. What are your goals? What is your purpose? Who are you? That’s what should matter. And with that will follow meeting people who match that.
Thank you so much, Olivia, for sharing your stories and reminding us that, regardless of where we are, we’ll meet others who “get us.” In a sense your tool consists of putting away the toolbox when it’s a question of remaining true to ourselves.
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Readers, what do you make of Olivia’s advice? Hopefully, it has you “fixed” until next month!
Today we welcome a new columnist, H.E. Rybol, to the Displaced Nation. The product of a German dad and a French mom, H.E. has lived in the United States, Luxembourg, England, Spain, Switzerland and Singapore. (She currently resides in Luxembourg.) After 16 years of the Third Culture Kid life, she feels well equipped to handle any culture shock challenge that may come her way, and recently compiled these tools in an e-book. In her column for us, H.E. will be sharing some tips for handling the inevitable through-the-looking-glass moments every international faces—albeit with a certain finesse—through excerpts from her own writings and interviews with other cross-cultural experts.
Thanks, ML, and greetings, Displaced Nation readers!
Today I’m going to be talking about how our expectations shape our experiences. While that is something we all might know, we may not always be aware of it when it comes living life in other lands.
I am reminded of when I spent a bit of time in Dortmund, Germany. I spent my afternoons writing in a small boat-like cafe: blue sky and fluffy clouds were painted in the “portholes” on the back wall and ceiling, there were railings, two fake palm trees, maritime decorations carved out of wood: a seagull, a lighthouse, a sailboat.
Corny maybe, but I loved it.
One day, two women walked in with immaculate haircuts and fancy jewelry, conversing. They seemed excited, as if they’d really been looking forward to this moment. They ordered, merry faced and with their arms firmly planted on the table….an apfelstrudel.
The waiter, a young German-Egyptian, seemed bewildered: “A what?”
“No, no!” The women insisted.
This place offered an array of creamy and luscious cakes, but not apfelstrudel.
The women were incredulous. They turned to me, and said: “Apfelstrudel is SO German! How can they not have it?!”
They tried a different cake but kept shaking their heads in disbelief. They were disappointed. It seemed like in their minds, a cafe in Germany that didn’t serve apfelstrudel just didn’t fit.
Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with this scenario. We have all had moments where we set our minds on something we didn’t get. Consider this though: How would the experience of the two ladies that afternoon have changed, had they let go of their idea and simply embraced what they had found?
Dear readers, may I ask what would you would do in this situation?
Now, were any of you at all inclined to select the first answer? Be honest! Because it’s time for me to get out my toolbox.
Why is it a good idea to leave preconceived notions behind?
1. (She powers up her blowtorch.) It’s more exciting! Of course it’s a good idea to prepare, but once you’re on the plane (train/bus/bike), let go of those ideas. Replace expectations with anticipation.
2. (She exchanges vise grip pliers for needle nose pliers.) Let go to avoid disappointment. I think it’s a great idea to try local specialties and show interest in another country’s culinary traditions. But be flexible. If there’s no apfelstrudel, try a black forest cake (Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte) or any other local specialty. (Or if your heart is still set on apfelstrudel, why not ask people on the streets or in shops or restaurants for apfelstrudel recommendations?)
3. (She picks up the crescent wrench.) It helps us be more open. We don’t travel to confirm an image that we have. We travel to learn and grow as human beings. We travel to connect. In order to do that we have to let go of stuff we don’t need…such as preconceived notions. It helps us embrace new experiences and see things we wouldn’t notice otherwise.
4. (She turns on the overhead light.) Reality is often so much more interesting and stimulating than what we picture in our minds….and if we cling to the picture, we miss out. Culture shock is already a lot to deal with, we don’t need to add roadblocks by clinging to preconceived ideas.
5. (She invites a German-Egyptian carpenter to do a demo.) As travelers our expectations shape our experiences, but we should remember that the reverse is also true. Other people’s preconceptions also have an impact. Be open, flexible and learn from each other.
I hope that has you fixed until next month.
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Readers, what do you make of H.E.’s advice about developing some flexibility from those times when you’re feeling displaced? Or is that too tall an order when you had always pictured yourself eating apple strudel in a boat-themed German café?
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The founders of The Displaced Nation share a passion for what we call the "displaced life" of global residency and travel—particularly when it leads to creative pursuits, be it writing, art, food, business or even humo(u)r.