The Displaced Nation

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A valentine to kindred creative spirits encountered in far-away lands

Expat life has a transient quality that is not always conducive to making close friends. Thus when two people reach out and find a connection, it feels very special, as we learn from this guest post by Philippa Ramsden, a Scottish writer who until recently was living in Burma/Myanmar. Philippa has been on our site before. Her story about discovering she had breast cancer shortly after her arrival in Rangoon/Yangon was one of the dragonfruit “morsels” that Shannon Young, who contributes our Diary of an Expat Writer column, chose to share with the release of an anthology she edited in 2014, How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia. I must say, it is a pleasure to have Philippa back in our midst. Not only is she doing much better health-wise, but her story of friendship makes a perfect read for Valentine’s Day! —ML Awanohara

As I was eating my breakfast quietly this morning, in this peaceful retreat, I was joined at the table by another couple. We started chatting a little, enthusiastic about the day ahead and our various plans for exploring, relaxing and creating.

That’s when I saw the plate of dragonfruit in front of them! I hadn’t seen dragonfruit since leaving Asia, I did not even know it grew in South America*.

It was a striking coincidence given the special place dragonfruit holds in my creative heart. The first time I had my writing published in a proper book was when it appeared in the How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? anthology, which came out in 2014. What’s more, something unexpected emerged from the process of refining the writing in preparation for publication, which ultimately led to my present surroundings.

* * *

We were a team of 27 women, including and guided by our editor, Shannon Young, towards producing a collection of stories from our lives as women in Asia. Stories of our lives in countries where we were essentially guests, for a shorter or longer term. From a dozen different countries, we varied enormously in our situations but were tied together by the fact that we were all, or had been, women living in Asia as expatriates.

It was fascinating to get to know each other through our stories and through email connection as we were kept up to date on the decision of the title, the reveal of the cover art and the lead-up to publication.

Just after my writer’s copy of the anthology arrived, I received an email from one of the other writers, Sharon Brown. She had read my account of moving to Myanmar and being diagnosed with cancer. I, meanwhile, had read her story, “Our Little Piece of Vietnam,” in which she recounted hurtling through the streets of Hanoi on the back of a motorbike while being in the throes of labor, reaching the hospital just in time for the (safe) arrival of her daughter.

Sharon had reached out to me because she and her family were moving to Yangon!

“Once we’re settled in, if you have time, I would love to meet with you for tea one day,” her email said.

And indeed we did. Just think, had it not been for our Dragonfruit connection, it is highly unlikely that our paths would have crossed in Myanmar over the two years of their stay. We would not have enjoyed those cuppas and chats, writing together or being part of the same book club.

A wonderful connection, thanks to the Dragonfruit anthology.

cuppas-and-chats

Fast forward two years, to May 2016. As it turned out, Sharon and I were both preparing to leave Myanmar. I was packing to leave Asia for Africa, and I learned that she was leaving Asia for South America: Ecuador. Along with her husband, she was embracing the opportunity to take on a new challenge. They would be running an eco-lodge in Ecuador, something close to their hearts, values and beliefs. They were filled with enthusiasm and zest for their new adventure.

Sharon said:

“You should come to the lodge. It would be the perfect place for a writing retreat. Do come.”

What a fascinating thought—but hardly a likely venture. Ecuador is further west than I have ever travelled. It is more than a day’s travel from Africa. Would it be rash to travel such a distance when the year has already seen such intensity, change and indeed long-distance travel? Would it not be wasteful given that there is so much to explore on my new African doorstep?

These are sensible questions, but my mind is not so wise. The thought kept returning that this is an opportunity which might not arise again. That it is probably better to travel when health is reasonable as nothing can be taken for granted. And the sneaking reminder, that if I did visit Ecuador, then incredibly, this would be a year which would see me on no less than five continents. (I do believe that I have not travelled to more than two continents in any year in the past.) How many grandmothers are able to do that?

* * *

So here I am, in the beautiful La Casa Verde Eco Guest House, nestling in the hills of Ecuador. I am sitting on the balcony of what is now being called “The Writing Room”, tapping away at the keyboard with the steep green hills right in front of me, the sound of a donkey braying in the distance, the trees swaying in the breeze and in the company of blue grey tanagers. The creative silence of the past months is being lifted gently in these inspiring hills.

I could not resist the temptation of visiting such a new part of the world to me, and of bringing the year to a close in a peaceful and inspiring place.

Had it not been for our Dragonfruit connection, I might never have made it to this fascinating new land. Serendipity and the friendship of a kindred spirit have enabled this retreat to happen.

Like so many journeys, the one to get here was not an easy one, but I am powerfully reminded of the importance of making that effort and seizing the day. These opportunities are to be embraced and treasured. And will surely be long remembered.

Thank you, Dragonfruit!

Editor’s note: In fact, dragonfruit, or pitaya, is native to the Americas.

serendipity-and-friendship

* * *

And thank YOU, Philippa, for such an uplifting story! Displaced Nationers, do you have any stories of friendships that blossomed because of creative pursuits, and if so, did they lead you to new parts of the world? Do tell in the comments.

And if this excerpt has made you curious to about Philippa Ramsden, her blog is Feisty Blue Gecko, where a version of this post first appeared. You can also find her on Facebook and twitter. She has written several meditations on the challenges and joys of life in a foreign environment—and they are all fascinating. She is currently working on a memoir.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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Photo credits:
Opening visual: (clockwise, from top left) Dragonfruit anthology cover art; the photos of schoolgirls in Baños, Ecuador (where the eco-lodge is), of the two young women in a field in Myanmar, and the two kinds of dragonfruit are all from Pixabay.
Second visual: The photos of the cups of tea and of the two women making a heart with their hands are both from Pixabay. Image on the left: Inside The Strand Hotel & some of their gift shops – Rangoon, Myanmar (Burma), by Kathy via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); image on right: downtown Rangoon with Sule Pagoda in distance, supplied by Philippa Ramsden.
Last visual: The photos of the green hills of Ecuador and the eco-lodge balcony view were supplied by Philippa; the photo of the blue grey tanagers is from Pixabay; and the rainbow image should be attributed as: Ecuador, over the rainbow, Baños, by Rinaldo Wurglitsch via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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CHUNKS OF DRAGONFRUIT: The story of an expat for whom Burma literally becomes the Tropic of Cancer

Dragonfruit cover and photo of Philippa Ramsden, courtesy Shannon Young. Purple dragonfruit by Mike Behnken (CC BY 2.0).

Dragonfruit cover and photo of Philippa Ramsden, courtesy Shannon Young. Purple dragonfruit by Mike Behnken (CC BY 2.0).

First of all, if How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia isn’t on your Christmas list, it ought to be. As regular Displaced Nation readers will know, Dragonfruit is a new anthology edited by columnist Shannon Young. Shannon has been sharing a few tasty morsels with us over the past couple of months, and we have been repeatedly amazed at the window afforded on Asia by these expat women writers. This is the third installment. The first can be read here; the second, here.

—ML Awanohara

For this month’s excerpt, I’ve chosen a piece by Philippa Ramsden. A Scotswoman, Philippa is a development and humanitarian professional, writing in any leisure time. She had been to Asia only once when she stepped off a plane in Kathmandu in 2000 to take up a new job, with no idea what to expect—and has been in Asia ever since. She has lived and worked in Nepal, Mongolia, India, Sri Lanka, and now Burma/Myanmar.*

Philippa actually submitted more than one piece for consideration in the expat women anthology, but this one stood out because it addresses head-on one of the scariest things an expat can experience: receiving a life-threatening diagnosis abroad. Philippa is a true inspiration for handling such a significant challenge without letting it undermine her sense of wonder and appreciation for the country she currently calls home.

I am honored to share the beginning of Philippa’s story here.

“Moving to the Tropic of Cancer,” by Philippa Ramsden

Rainy season in Burma is spectacular. At night, I love to lie in bed, listening to the torrential rainfall drenching the earth and bringing life and vitality to the land. Between showers, the air is so thick that you can hear the moisture dripping from leaves and branches. And if you listen very carefully, you can almost hear the grass sighing and burbling with delight as it wallows in the rainwater. When the rains come down, they do so thick and fast. Even with an umbrella and raincoat you are quickly drenched. In the intervals between the downpours, it is hot, humid and sticky.

When I arrived in Burma in mid June of 2009 to start a new job, rainy season was in full force. Having lived in Asia for more than a decade, I have become close friends with the monsoons, which bring welcome respite from stifling heat and humidity. Being caught in a sudden downpour, or even listening to the rain from outside, brings energy and feels like a revitalising force. I have many fond memories of standing, drenched to the skin, grinning from ear to ear after only a few moments in an unexpected cloudburst. It helps that the rain is warm! Coming from Scotland, where the rain can be just as heavy but usually accompanied by grey skies and often a biting wind, I have never tired of this warm torrential rain.

When the rains make their first annual appearance, they usually arrive dramatically, and the world is transformed. There is a festive feeling; smiles and laughter return. The sight of children playing in the rain, splashing in puddles and letting the rain soak them through is ubiquitous. And not just children—adults too! The city turns green, mosquitoes hold crowded parties, and the frogs grow to such a size that they sound like male tigers as they croak in the night. The ground and pavements are covered with a layer of slippery, slimy moss in the hidden spaces which have not already turned to mud.

Such was Yangon when we arrived with our suitcases, papers, and a crate of enthusiasm, to take up a new life in this enigmatic country. It is quite an experience looking for a home in such a setting. We had a temporary place to live but were keen to settle and unpack properly. In those first weeks, we tramped round a number of potential homes, the mosquitoes nipping at our ankles and the rain teeming down.

It was not too long before my husband found the perfect place, a simple bungalow within walking distance from work. We made arrangements to view it, and the heavens opened shortly before the visit. The road outside the office flooded, and we had to wade through warm, murky water to get there. It was well worth the effort, though. The bungalow was indeed perfect: modest, but deceptively spacious. The wooden floors gave it a cosy warmth and the large, high windows made it feel light and optimistic. Unusually for Yangon, it had ceiling fans throughout. My fear of earthquakes was assuaged by the fact it was all on one level. The generous garden was gloriously tropical and mature, bounded by bamboo, mango trees, and hedging, and filled with pink, white, and yellow bougainvillea, crimson foliage, pink and purple hibiscus, and scented frangipani. It was ideal. We would share it with several families of geckos, some of which were the tiniest ones I have ever seen. They added to the nighttime chorus with their characteristic chirruping sound.

After a series of one-year postings in different countries in the South and Southeast Asian region, we were very happy at the prospect of a longer posting. We were keen to move into this peaceful space and finally unpack. Particularly back in 2009, Burma had an air of mystery, and were eager to learn about our new environment. We made arrangements to rent this house and moved in as soon as everything was in order. It was a marvelous feeling to be settling at last.

By late September, the rainy season had truly left its mark: the vegetation was lush and vibrant from the rains, clothes seemed to be neither clean nor dry, almost everything was growing a layer of mould, and the humidity made me feel constantly grimy.

One unremarkable evening, as another hot, sticky, and wet day was drawing to a close, I had my usual shower to refresh myself and clean off the day’s grime. It was in the shower that I felt a hard, solid area where one should not have been, in my left breast.

I was instantly transported back in time twenty-six years to when I had found a lump one evening while bathing. I vividly remembered the sensation of sick fear as I checked that I had not imagined it. It had indeed been real all those years ago, and I had had it investigated promptly the next day with my local doctor. It had turned out to be nothing sinister and was shrinking by the time I had a hospital appointment a couple of weeks later. Although the lump at that time was not worrisome, the emotions and fear that I felt at that time were very real.

My reaction was different, however, on finding this lump all these years later. My stomach didn’t sink in quite the same way. In the previous days, I had noticed some changes in my left breast, and was intending to seek medical advice. However, I believed these to be related to my age. When my fingers rested on the hard mass, I knew that the lump plus changes must constitute worrying signs. This really could be sinister this time. I comforted and contradicted myself, focusing on the fact that eighty percent of breast lumps are benign, and moreover, there was no history of cancer at all in my family.

I swallowed the sense of fear and uncertainty. My mind had to absorb the possibility that I might have cancer. And I was living in a new and foreign environment. I had no idea what the implications might be.
*We have chosen to use Burma and Rangoon rather than Myanmar and Rangon.

* * *

Readers, if you enjoyed that morsel, I hope you will at least consider downloading a sample of the Dragonfruit anthology from Amazon or purchasing the book: the e-book and paperback of are available at all major online retailers.

And if this excerpt has made you curious to learn more about Philippa Ramsden, her blog is Feisty Blue Gecko. You can also find her on Facebook and twitter. She has written several meditations on the challenges and joys of life in a foreign environment—and they are all fascinating. She is currently working on a memoir.

* * *

Thank you so much, Shannon! Displaced Nationers, do you have any responses to the opening of Philippa’s moving story?

Before I go, here’s another reminder to purchase a copy of Shannon’s wonderful anthology. What better end-of-year gift for the expat woman in your life (or for yourself, if that is you!).

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with snippets of worldly wisdom, exclusive book giveaways and our nominees for the monthly Alice Awards. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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CHUNKS OF DRAGONFRUIT: A tale of an Australian expat navigating her own way in Japan

Dorcas Cheng-Tozun and Dragonfruit cover, courtesy Shannon Young. Purple dragonfruit by Mike Behnken (CC BY 2.0)

Kathryn Hummel and Dragonfruit cover, courtesy Shannon Young. Purple dragonfruit by Mike Behnken (CC BY 2.0)

How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia is a new anthology edited by columnist Shannon Young. For the benefit of Displaced Nation readers, Shannon has generously carved out a few tasty morsels from the writings of the collection’s 26 female contributors, highlighting their feelings of displacement within Asia. This is the second installment. The first can be read here.

—ML Awanohara

For our October excerpt, I’ve chosen Kathryn Hummel, an accomplished poet whose prose immediately stuck out to me for its lyrical quality. She uses intricate details to make her life as an Australian expat in Japan come alive, and she captures the emotions of displacement beautifully.

Kathryn also uses a unique structure featuring a poem followed by a meditation on the stages of expat life: from arrival to finding community to a mid-life crisis of sorts to acceptance. Kathryn draws the full map of a life abroad.

I hope you’ll enjoy the beginning of Kathryn’s piece, which is titled “Charting Koenji.” (Kōenji, for those unfamiliar with Tokyo’s layout, is a neighborhood on the outer western edges of the city.)

“Charting Koenji,” by Kathryn Hummel

Sometimes there are moments that catch in the flow of the everyday like a taped-up tear in a reel of film. Afterwards, there is an almost imperceptible change in the tension and projection of life, when I feel more than I see that Koenji is not my place. While I am closer than a stranger, I am still at a distance: this I measure from the inside out, since I can’t get far enough away to see it as an onlooker, detached but still interested in how the scene rolls on. For the past two years, the everyday scenes of my life have had Japan as a setting: most of these have been concentrated in the district of Koenji-minami, Suginami Ward, Tokyo. During my first weeks here, I intoned that address so many times it became a mantra, a verbal talisman to guard against losing myself in the city. Although being an expatriate—a collection of syllables I don’t often apply to myself—places me in a position of being both inside and outside, when I hear the wooden heels of my shoes clip the now familiar walkways of my neighbourhood, I am reminded only of this place, my present.

I. Arrival

Arrival is not signified by
the unburdening of suitcases
but the mechanics of realisation.
This is where I am, will be:
I have come now to the place
where before I was going.

Being present in a place means you inevitably paint yourself in the picture, draw the map around you. Slip outside these bounds and you are lost, or so I once thought. In 2004 I had stopped in Japan on my way from China to Australia and was delighted by my weeklong visit. I knew that living and working in Japan would be harder than traveling through, when my only responsibility had been to find the best way to be happy before my set departure date. Still, I had friends in Japan and their phone numbers to call; a Japanese language certificate and alphabet flashcards; a few tatami mats’ worth of rented space and a position, courtesy of an arts-exchange program, to write words for an intimate Koenji gallery wanting to commune with the English-speaking art world. If the present was a leafy bough, my future (as well as my literary imagery) would be heavy with the fruit of my Japanese incarnation.

I arrived in Osaka and rested for a few days at the home of Quentin, a university friend who had spent the last three years of his life traveling back to Japan to teach English, a compulsion he would spend another three years satisfying. At Quentin’s suggestion, I made my way to Tokyo on a journey of acclimatisation and language practice. I took a slow train to Hamamatsu to go on a gyoza (dumpling) hunt and traveled on to Yaizu, where, walking to the beach to see the distant Fuji-san bathed in the light of sunset, I met and later made love to a fish-factory worker from Peru. Yet even this encounter had the day-seizing quality of one made on a transient journey only.

When I reached Tokyo, the city was so miserably wet I thought it would never dry out. As arranged, I was met at Koenji station by my landlord, whose easy graciousness flickered warmth over my arrival, and accompanied to the building where my first studio apartment was waiting. After giving me a tour, which consisted of opening the bathroom door and indicating to the rest of the open-plan space, diminished by a folded futon and my wet bags, my landlord retreated with a bow. I was not delighted by Tokyo so far but wanted to be, so I gave my wool scarf a tighter wind, armed myself with an umbrella and ventured out. During my walk, I found that the compass on my Bleu Bleuet watch was only for show—an incidental discovery, since instinct is the direction I rely on above all. At that particular moment, I had none, and the rain didn’t help clarify my position. It leaked somehow through my umbrella and under my collar, where it remained without guiding me. As it usually happens when I walk the streets of a new place, I got lost.

The houses lost me. Or I lost myself in them. Every grey, dun, or cream-colored structure fit together in a maze of reinforced concrete. Some homes were irregularly shaped to sit correctly on their blocks; others had strange additions that seemed the architectural equivalent to tusks and antlers; oddly shaped, overgrown bonsai sprouting various thicknesses of branch and colors of foliage mingled with low electrical wires; antennas, rubbish bins, sometimes just inexplicable but neatly arranged collections of junk, assembled to give the impression that it was still of use, awaited their purpose. There was an element of seediness that did not feature in my memory of Japan: paint peeled from wooden walls and bald light globes had been left burning after midday. In the alleys behind restaurants, I was met with cardboard boxes, broken brooms and wooden pallets, rusty machinery and empty cans of cooking oil. The rain blurred the scenes without actually softening them, making greyer what was already dismal.

I told myself not to try to make sense of the maze. Tomorrow I would find my way to the gallery where I would be working and meet Kenzo-san, its owner, and all would be well if I believed all would be well. At the same time I thought, with naïveté or impatience, that I had to have a plan, that aimlessness would prevent me connecting to Koenji.

Before I left Osaka, Quentin studied my face as if trying to read its meaning. “You should have a Japanese name,” he told me. “Kat-san isn’t so easy to say.”

To me it didn’t seem as difficult as “Kassorin-san,” but I already had thought of a name that sounded appropriately Japanese. “What about Katsu?” I asked. “It’s a mixture of my first and second names: Kathryn Susannah.”

Quentin shook his head. “No. It will make people think of tonkatsu (deep-fried pork). They’ll think it’s strange. Why not choose something that represents you—a tree, or an animal?”

Quentin’s advice may have worked admirably for him in his various Japanese incarnations, but has never yielded the same results for me. I was then, and remain, “Kassorin-san,” a woman who navigates her own way. On that first afternoon in Koenji, I continued to walk until I at last saw something that indicated my flat was not far off: a secondhand bookshop I never have learned the name of, though I did eventually begin to buy books there that I hope to read, one day, with ease. The bookshop is recognisable during the day by its awning of green-and-white stripes, at night, by its security doors. Each of the three doors is painted with a face: one with running mascara and a Clara Bow hairdo, one with a sweat-beaded forehead and a guilty laugh, the last with an angry eye and an imperious-looking nose.

These faces, which remain guarding the bookshop until 11:00 am each day, signal more than my location—they are signposts for my mood. Depending on whether my mind is full or empty as I walk past on my way to the gallery or language lessons or the house of a friend, I either ignore or sympathize with whatever I can read in their expressions: their moods always change. It seems charmingly whimsical to write that these faces were my first friends, though when I realised this, I knew it was time to stop observing and start finding my community in Koenji.

* * *

Poems From Here KHummelReaders, if you enjoyed that morsel, I hope you will consider downloading a sample of the Dragonfruit anthology from Amazon. (The e-book and paperback of are available at all major online retailers.)

And if this excerpt has made you curious to learn more about Kathryn Hummel, her new collection of poetry called Poems from Here has recently been published by Walleah Press. You can also find out more about Kathryn at her author site: KathrynHummel.com.

I look forward to sharing more excerpts from the Dragonfruit anthology over the next couple of months.

* * *

Thank you so much, Shannon! Displaced Nationers, any comments on what Kathryn had to say in this passage? Having lived in Tokyo myself, I found her description of the city captivating. I was also impressed by her determination to “navigate her own way” in a city that makes many of us Westerners feel we’ve stepped through the looking glass.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with snippets of worldly wisdom, exclusive book giveaways and our nominees for the monthly Alice Awards. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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CHUNKS OF DRAGONFRUIT: A tale by a Chinese American expat woman in China

Dorcas and Dragonfruit cover, courtesy Shannon Young. Purple dragonfruit cubes by http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikebehnken/4996063234/

Dorcas Cheng-Tozun and Dragonfruit cover, courtesy Shannon Young. Purple dragonfruit by Mike Behnken (CC BY 2.0)

How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia is a new anthology edited by our latest columnist, Shannon Young. For the sake of the Displaced Nation audience, Shannon has generously agreed to carve out a few tasty morsels from the writings of the 26 female writers within the collection that highlight their feelings of displacement within Asia. Take it away, Shannon!

—ML Awanohara

Thanks, ML. I’m excited to be doing this. The very first excerpt comes from a piece by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun, called “The Weight of Beauty,” which covers the insecurities she experienced as a Chinese American woman living in China. Dorcas worries that her command of the language doesn’t match her Asian face and her average American weight is considered fat in China (she knows because strangers tell her!). Despite the difficulties, she finds an unexpected connection with her slim, beautiful, bilingual Mandarin teacher.

Here is the beginning of her story:

“The Weight of Beauty,” by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun

“If you went running every day, you could lose some weight.” A maintenance worker with a receding hairline squinted at me as the elevator in our apartment building rose far too slowly. This was the first time I had ever interacted with this man. Unfortunately, he was speaking Cantonese, which meant that I understood him perfectly.

“Mmm…” I responded, avoiding his eyes.

“Really. If you ran every day, you could lose some weight,” he repeated, concerned that I had not given him a proper reply.

I flashed him a tight smile, but I did not trust myself to say anything else before he stepped out of the elevator. As I watched his stooped, retreating back, I tried to remember how I was considered “petite” and “tiny” by my American friends. But the US was, literally, half a world away.

When my husband and I moved to China in the summer of 2008, my body’s relative mass seemed to triple during the time it took us to cross the Pacific Ocean. From my first day living in the industrial city of Shenzhen, my weight was a favorite conversation topic of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances alike. “You’re rather fat,” I would often hear. Or, “Did you gain weight? You look fatter.” If I stepped into a shop, sales clerks would rush forward, stopping my progress with wild gesticulations communicating that they had no merchandise remotely close to my size.

My figure was not the only thing wrong with me in the Middle Kingdom. I had grown up speaking Cantonese in the United States, but I knew barely any Mandarin. And judging by the reaction of the locals, my lack of language skills was by far my greater sin. Restaurant waitresses turned up their noses at me; grocery store cashiers clucked their tongues at me; taxi drivers quizzed me endlessly about my deficiency in Mandarin. My life in China at times felt like a series of one-act plays in which characters emerged with the sole purpose of telling me how stupid, fat, and just plain wrong I was.

“Ignore them,” my husband Ned, whose Turkish and Jewish roots had combined to make him look generically Caucasian, urged me.

“How can I?” I protested. “They’re everywhere.”

“But their opinions don’t matter. They don’t know you.”

That was the problem: they thought they knew me. I was a Chinese woman living in urban China, so knowing how to speak Mandarin was the minimum criterion for proving my sentience. It was equal to a blonde, blue-eyed woman in a cowboy hat and boots in rural Texas barely comprehending a word of English. It just wasn’t supposed to happen.

In exasperating contrast, the locals regarded Ned like a creature with magical properties. They were entranced by his height and broad shoulders, his light hair and green eyes, and they immediately set the bar for cultural competence at zero. All he had to do was say, “Ni hao,” and the same individuals who had been glaring at me as if I had insulted their ancestors as far back as the Tang Dynasty would glow with beatific smiles and tell Ned how amazing his Mandarin was. Ni hao was Ned’s universal password to obtain what would forever be denied to me: respect, attentive service, automatic entry into heavily guarded buildings, and a mysterious fount of Chinese joy and happiness that seemed to emerge only at the white man’s touch.

“He’s so handsome,” Chinese women would tell me, glancing at him through fluttering eyelashes. “Is he your boyfriend?”

“He’s my husband” was a Mandarin phrase I quickly learned to say.

Under the daily barrage of insults and sneers, my former life in the United States as an independent, competent, well-adjusted young woman began to recede from memory. It was as if that old version of me had never existed, as if I had always been the overweight, bumbling idiot that 1.3 billion people seemed to think I was.

I learned to wear an I-don’t-care-what-you-think expression on my face, but in reality, my defenses were only shadows of battlements. I felt as if I was constantly under siege; even the most innocuous encounter could become a surprise assault.

One day I greeted a deliveryman at the door of the office where Ned and I worked. I had done this several times before, and the routine was easy. All I had to do was say “Ni hao,” take the package, and sign for it.

But this time, when I handed the clipboard back to the deliveryman, he scrutinized my signature before eyeing me suspiciously. “Why don’t you have a Chinese signature?” he asked in Mandarin, a stony expression on his face.

“I’m American. I only have an English name.” I spoke slowly and gave him a small, apologetic smile.

“Why don’t you have a Chinese signature?” he repeated stubbornly, red blotches blooming across his forehead.

“I was born in the US I only have an English name,” I repeated just as stubbornly, all traces of the smile gone.

I didn’t understand any of the words he spat at me after that; he was speaking too fast and I was too shocked at his venomous tone. Knowing that I had just been deeply insulted, I refused to give him a response. We faced off in silence for a few tense moments before he turned on his heel, continuing to mutter vitriol under his breath as he walked away.

At that moment, learning Mandarin became my top priority. I contacted a company called New Concept Mandarin, which focused on teaching conversational survival Mandarin. They promptly responded, offering to send a company representative to my office the following day. When I told Ned about it, he asked to join in on the meeting to see if the classes were right for him as well.

The next afternoon, when I heard a knock at the office door, I jumped up from my desk. “I’ll get it,” I announced to the office in general.

Easing the door open, I called a cheery “Ni hao” into the dimly lit hallway. Then I froze.

“Ni hao,” responded the supermodel standing in the doorway.

I couldn’t stop the thought from entering my mind: If this woman isn’t from New Concept Mandarin, she must be a high-class prostitute. My eyes locked first on her dress, a body-hugging, black-and-white-striped mini that revealed every impeccable curve on her petite form. The shine of her straight, long black hair, which she casually tossed behind one shoulder, mesmerized me; her wide almond-shaped brown eyes, her thin upturned nose, and her closed-lip smile left me in awe.

As I stared at her, I remembered how I had barely brushed my hair that morning; how I had a grease stain on my blouse from lunch; how I had an angry zit on my forehead that was probably doubling in size at that very moment.

“Are you from New Concept Mandarin?” I asked in a squeaky voice.

“Yes,” the vision said confidently, with only a trace of a Chinese accent. “My name is Joanna.” She held out a tiny hand adorned by a French manicure.

Feeling oafish, I extended my sweaty, un-manicured hand and awkwardly shook hers. “Please come in.”

I shuffled to the conference table in the middle of the office, conscious that five pairs of eyes followed our progress. The room suddenly felt too open, too public. I didn’t want all my colleagues—and certainly not my husband—seeing what I saw: this epitome of Chinese beauty in juxtaposition with the ungainly, unkempt Chinese American who actually liked to eat.

I invited Joanna to sit in a black swivel chair. She descended gracefully into the seat and crossed her slender legs. I attempted to imitate her movements, but instead I had to steady myself on the armrests when I nearly missed my seat. Clearing my throat to hide my embarrassment, I asked Ned to join us.

* * *

Readers, I hope you enjoyed that morsel! Want to read more of Dorcas’s story? It’s the second in the book, so you’ll be able to finish it if you download the free sample on Amazon. (The e-book and paperback of Dragonfruit are available at all major online retailers.)

And if you’re curious to find out more about Dorcas Cheng-Tozun and her writing, she can be found at chengtozun.com.

I look forward to sharing more excerpts from the Dragonfruit anthology over the next few months.

* * *

Thank you so much, Shannon! Displaced Nationers, any comments on what Dorcas had to say in this passage? Have you ever had the experience of having people look at you but not believe you were (or weren’t) speaking their language? I speak of the phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance…which can make one feel very displaced. Tell us about it, or any other responses you’ve had to this excerpt, in the comments!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s announcement of the September Alice Awards.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with snippets of worldly wisdom, exclusive book giveaways and our nominees for the monthly Alice Awards. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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LIBBY’S LIFE #91/#92 – The Stepfordization of Maggie

Maggie’s house used to feel like my second home. Every part of it was an extension of her, my “other” mother: the black wood-stove, the teapot-cats she didn’t have the heart to throw away, the colourful patchwork quilts draped over rocking chairs and love-seats.

I loved the stove’s smoky smell that wound through the house, even in summer, and clung to my clothes after every visit. So similar to cigar smoke, which I cannot bear, but so comforting in a way that tobacco residue never is.

I loved the china cats, gathering dust on the shelf above the kitchen window. They were as ugly as they were useless; cats of any material were never designed to hold hot liquids, and during afternoon tea, as Maggie tipped them over to pour, they would dribble incontinently over her plates of digestive biscuits and slices of Victoria sandwich.

And the quilts? I loved, simply adored, the stories that each quilt told.

“Now this white taffeta here, that’s from my wedding dress. Well, I say ‘dress’, but there wasn’t much of it. You couldn’t get more than a couple of patches out of it. It was the Sixties, and the skirt was noticeable more by its absence than presence. The blue seersucker, though, is from a party dress that Sara wore when she was five. It had a Peter Pan collar and puffed sleeves, and she looked like Miss Pears in it. And see this lime green? That’s part of the shirt I was wearing when I decided, just like that, that I’d had enough of Derek. I packed a bag for me and Sara and we left at midnight, like a pair of Cinderellas, while he was on night shift.”

The last story, about a patch of lime-green cotton commemorating her independence, is the one that keeps coming back to me as I sit with Maggie now in her living room.

Correction. This is not Maggie’s living room. Not anymore. It belongs to someone else who lives here now.

It’s as if the lime-green shirt lost its life in vain.

Gone is the wood-stove, replaced by a wall fire resembling a plasma TV.

Gone are the ceramic cats in the kitchen. The shelf where they used to sit has also gone, and in its place is a calico Roman blind. The countertops, which used to be barely visible for all the bric-a-brac — half-opened letters, a basket of middle-aged Golden Delicious, assorted supermarket receipts and special offer coupons — are clear of paraphernalia and smell faintly of lemon and ammonia. Only a coffeemaker and a toaster grace the surfaces.

And gone are the worn wooden rocking chairs and threadbare love seats, usurped by two cream, leather sofas, the type with angular seats that dig into the backs of your knees, and backrests that are too low to lean your head on.

Naturally, the life-history patchwork quilts are nowhere to be seen.

It’s like an “after” picture on a home makeover program.

Very sleek, very chic, very neutral. Devoid of personality.

Devoid of Maggie.

Well — devoid of the old Maggie, the Maggie who lived here a few months ago, the one whose personality was too big for this little cottage.

Since her ex has been living with her, though, her personality has been on a starvation diet.

The new Maggie twists slightly on her unforgiving sofa, and asks in a too-bright tone if I would like some tea. The old Maggie would have simply put the kettle on with nothing being said. Her Miss Manners style of etiquette is infectious, though, and I find myself answering:

“That would be perfectly lovely, thank you.”

She rejects my offer of help in the kitchen — something else the Maggie of old would not have done — so I stay seated and watch her walk into the kitchen. Even her dress code has changed: no more dirndl skirts or hippy kaftans, no more peasant blouses or wooden beads. I remember, when we first met, my impression of her was “Biba meets Miss Havisham of Great Expectations.”  Today, a first impression might be “Botox meets Liz Claiborne of Stepford Wives.”

What, I ask myself, can make a strong woman like Maggie turn into a drone?

It’s a rhetorical question. When you take into account the variables of Maggie’s life, only one has changed: her companion. Her ex-ex who, even when absent from the room as he is at present, keeps Maggie in a zombie-like trance by remote control.

Maggie’s personality started to alter quite a while ago, of course. My own diary pinpointed the moment as early as last September:

I have no idea what witchcraft Maggie’s ex has spun on my friend, but in the four weeks she was in the Keys, Maggie changed. She’s never been one to show or act her age — “Age is but a number” she is fond of saying — but since she came back, she’s been nearer in mental age and outlook to Jack than to me.

I did wonder if she was becoming prematurely senile, until I saw Maggie and Derek together one afternoon. Then I realised what had happened.

They’ve teleported themselves back forty years. She is behaving as she did when she was nineteen, and he thinks he’s the dashing young state trooper who stopped a redheaded English woman for speeding in a borrowed Corvette.

And it won’t work. You can’t be teenagers when you’re drawing a pension — at least, you can’t be the same teenagers that you used to be. By all means, have a second youth; but the key word there is “second”.

Reliving their first one will end in a pool of tears, I’m sure of it.

Ignoring Miss Manners’ probable advice to stay put on the sofa as my hostess had indicated I should, I follow Maggie into the kitchen.

She looks up as I approach, and I could swear that her expression is one of alarm.

“Let’s have a nice chat while the tea’s brewing,” I say, leaning cosily against the counter. “I haven’t seen you for ages. Not even in the shops, although I’ve seen Derek there a few times. How are you doing?”

Maggie’s alarmed expression returns to one more bland. She smiles and nods once to acknowledge her satisfactory wellbeing, and counts out spoonfuls of looseleaf tea into an angular, stainless-steel teapot that resembles not a tabby cat but part of a car engine.

I stare at the stainless steel monstrosity — no doubt an example of engineering perfection that it wouldn’t dream of dribbling over teatime cake and biscuits — and rage quietly to myself. How dare it decide that Maggie’s old china teapots weren’t good enough?

The answer to that is: it didn’t. Something else did.

Someone else did.

“And how is Derek?” I ask. “You haven’t kicked him out yet?”

Maggie’s eyes widen. She looks around furtively before replying.

“Of course not. Why would I do that?” she says. “We’re just getting to know each other again.”

She pours boiling water on the tea leaves, lets it brew for exactly two minutes, then pours me a cup. It’s not her usual brand of bright orange PG Tips. This stuff is pale grey with a slice of lemon floating in it, and it smells of lavender potpourri.

“The house looks beautiful,” I lie, after I’ve taken a sip. Not only does the tea smell like potpourri, but it tastes like it too. “Very tidy. Very clean. Very…” I can’t think how to describe the new, angular, clinical style that is so out of place in Maggie’s cosy home.

“Very not me, I think you’re trying to say.” Her voice is barely audible.

It’s the first sighting I’ve had of the real Maggie for several months, and in my surprise, I almost drop my cup.

“So why did you do it?” I ask.

Maggie purses her lips: Shush. Then she jerks her head slightly towards the door in the kitchen that leads to the den.

“Can you talk?” I whisper.

She shakes her head.

In a louder voice that will carry to the den where her ex-ex presumably is, she says, “Derek and I have plans to go out very soon, so I’m afraid you won’t be able to stay long. But before you leave, remind me to give you the CD you lent me last summer. I do apologise for keeping it so long.”

Again, a pursing of lips to silence any bemused reaction on my part. I’ve never lent Maggie any CDs. Ever.

I swig back the remnants of my lavender-flavoured tea and Maggie hustles me towards the front door. As I step out onto the porch, she thrusts a CD case at me. I shove it in my handbag without looking at it, get in the car, and head off home to see the children who have been tormenting a local high schooler who was foolish enough to volunteer to babysit.

Later, after dinner, I tell a slightly bored Oliver about the mysterious changes in our old neighbour. “And then, just before I left, she gave me a CD she says I lent her…but I’ve never lent her any CDs.”

“What was it?” Oliver asks.

I rummage in my handbag, which is a large sack-like affair in which everything falls to the bottom in a jumble of loose change, gas receipts, and Happy Meal toys, and pull out the CD case that Maggie had given me.

“A Beatles album,” I tell him, and hold the case up for him to see.

He squints. “I can’t see without my glasses. Which one?”

John, Paul, George, and Ringo; dressed in blue uniforms, holding their arms in various semaphore positions.

“‘Help’,” I say.

 

.

Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #93

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #90 – The Other Woman

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

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LIBBY’S LIFE #90 – The Other Woman

Travel - Map Of The World  By Salvatore Vuono/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Travel – Map Of The World
By Salvatore Vuono/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Note to Libby readers: this week, you can download Libby’s Life: Taking Flight FREE at Smashwords.com. Simply enter the coupon code RW100 at the checkout to get your discount. 

*

This week’s Libby’s Life comes from Oliver.

The phone buzzes in my hand, and I look down at the telephone number on the screen.

“I have to take this one,” I say to her. Even to my own ears, I sound apologetic. “It’s someone from work.”

As I get up from the sofa and head to the kitchen to take the phone call, she pouts and says, “You don’t have to lie to me. I know it’s her on the phone. Libby.”

*

“Oliver?”

Libby’s voice is echoey. She must be in the study which is empty at the moment, ready for its transformation next week into habitable living space. I love our new house — more than I thought I ever would — but it is an almighty money pit.

I pull the kitchen door shut so that our conversation won’t be heard. Or, more to the point, so that Libby won’t hear the other voice.

“I’m here, love.”

“Oh good. I thought the line was breaking up for a minute there. Are you all settled into your hotel?”

“As settled as you can be in a hotel room. It’s no fun, being on the road.”

“No fun for me, either,” she says. Poor Libs. I’m not at home much, these days.  “What do you say we go away for a couple of days when you’re back? One of those indoor water resorts, maybe, where we can pretend it’s summer? I’m so fed up of the snow.”

“Sounds great.”

Actually, it sounds hideous. The last thing I want to do after a fortnight on the road is to go away again to another hotel, even if it’s with Libs and the kids. Today, I had a six-hour flight from Boston to Heathrow, checked into an airport hotel for the next two weeks, and immediately got back in the car for an hour and drove here. Not that Libs knows about the last hour of that journey, of course; as far as she’s concerned, I’m still holed up in an anonymous room at the Heathrow Radisson.

A clattering of glasses behind me from the cosy living room, and the faint pop of a cork being ejected from a wine bottle. I know she’s been saving a special bottle of Rioja for my visit – it’s one from the year I turned 21. I cup the speaker part of the phone with my hand in case Libby can hear the sounds as well.

“Libs, can I phone you back in a couple of hours? I’m expecting a call from work — everyone’s still in the office where you are, obviously — and then I’ll need to get a few jobs done before they all go home.”

Libby agrees cheerfully and without question; if I felt like a turd before, I feel like King Turd now.

A few whispered niceties and exchanged promises of commitment, and I click the screen to finish the call.

Back in the living room, I pick up the glass of ’97 Rioja from the coffee table.

“Cheers.” I smile at her, but she’s already spoiling for a fight.

“You could have left that phone call,” she says, pouting again. Christ, this woman has a lower lip like a soup plate. “You didn’t have to answer it. We were having such a lovely time together.”

I briefly close my eyes.

“Don’t be silly,” I say. “Libby called to make sure I’d arrived safely. She’d be worried if I didn’t answer.”

Not to mention suspicious.

A sniff, a sharp tilt of the head to point her nose at the ceiling. We are past the pouting phase of the sulk now, and she’s going to make me suffer. I should be used to this by now and therefore able to ignore her, but I can’t. I seem to have stereotyped myself into the role of Peacekeeper.

“Come on,” I say, annoyed to hear a hint of pleading in my voice. “Come on. Let’s not spoil it. We don’t have that much time together.”

“And whose fault is that?” She fold her arms and stands in front of the fireplace.

“It’s no one’s fault!” I say. “It’s just how it is! I can’t change things. You’re here, and I’m over there, in Woodhaven.”

“You could change things. If you really wanted, you could change things.”

This is getting to be such hard work. I came over for a pleasant evening, to drink some wine, to have something to eat, to make up for the dreadful argument we had last time I saw her, but here we are, arguing again already.

“I couldn’t change things,” I say. “Not yet. I’m under contract to stay there for a few more years, as well you know.”

And frankly, it’s easier for me to see her in England while Libby is safely in Woodhaven. Keep the two of them apart. Libby would be none too pleased if she knew where I was today.

There’s a silence, and she stares down into her wine glass.

She seems to be getting over her tantrum — until she speaks again.

“You could always leave her. I have no idea why you married her in the first place.”

*

It’s so difficult, juggling a life with two women: Libby and her. I don’t know how other men manage, although plenty do, I suppose.

But I can’t let her last comment pass me by. Even though there are things I have to sort out with her after our last meeting – things that Libby won’t ever know about — I can’t let her get away with that last remark.

I stand up and rummage in my jeans pocket for the car keys.

“Right, that’s it. I’m off. I’ll come back when you’re in a nicer mood. Give me a ring at the hotel when you feel like being more rational.”

I head out of the living room to the front door, the one I painted white, years ago; the one that still has a gouge in it where Jack rammed it with his little wooden tricycle, the one through which, for a laugh, I carried Libby, hours after our wedding.

I’ve almost shut the door behind me, when her words run through my mind again — “You could always leave her” — and suddenly, I’ve had enough of being nice and being reasonable and trying to please everyone. Grow a pair, Oliver, for Chrissakes. Just this once.

I open the front door again. She’s sobbing in the living room, but I’m not taking any notice.

“And when I come back,” I shout; the sobs ebb a little, because she’s probably waiting for me to apologize and say it’s somehow my fault that she’s being a vindictive, possessive cow, “that spare bedroom had better be empty of all wildlife and reptiles, like you told me and Libs it would be, three months ago. Do you hear me?”

The sobs stop completely. I wait a second, nod to myself, and softly pull the door shut behind me.

Yes. My mother heard me, all right.

.

Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #91

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #89 – Catching up

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

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LIBBY’S LIFE #89 – Catching up

It’s snowing in Woodhaven.

I sit at the antique oak desk in front of our dining room window and watch the flakes fall onto the deck. They linger for a few seconds before dissolving into the wooden boards, but it won’t be long before they gang together into a hefty depth; eight inches of the little blighters before dawn tomorrow, if the weather forecast is correct. The outdoor thermometer, which gave a springlike reading of 45 degrees two days ago, now stands at 28 degrees, and the mercury is dropping fast.

Wait! Rewind.

I’m sitting in the dining room in Woodhaven. The room into which I wouldn’t go alone three months ago because it was the favourite spot of Jack’s invisible friend, Em.

How things have changed.

Yes, I know. It’s a while since you heard from me. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year — they’ve come and gone again for another year. But I’ve had a break, and you know what?

I needed it to regain my sanity.

When you won’t stay in a room, or even an entire house, because your kindergartener has convinced you there’s a nine-year-old poltergeist in it, you need to remember where you last left your sanity. It’s not as simple as remembering where you last left your car keys.

So this break was not just a vacation, it was a necessity. A necessary break to convince myself that cold dining rooms are due to ineffective central heating or over-effective air conditioning, not due to a spiritual cougar dreamed up by my five-year-old son because he can’t get a real girlfriend yet.

A break from watching my good friend Maggie turn herself from Germaine Greer into Betty Crocker, as she misguidedly resurrects her long-abandoned marriage to Derek Sharpe. Someone (me) needs to tell her (soon) that being alone isn’t the same as being lonely; that you can be lonely even when you’re not alone. An ex-husband who wants you to be his house-servant in your twilight years is not a satisfactory trade for being alone; indeed, this particular ex is not even a good trade for being lonely. I have so much to tell you about this man — but not yet.

And lastly, a break from Woodhaven, a break from being a foreigner. Instead, a few weeks in good old Blighty where people understand my accent and don’t incessantly comment how “adorable” it is.  (I get so tired, in Woodhaven, of being told how adorable I sound. I’ve even made a “two strikes” rule about it: if, during our third meeting, a new companion is still trying to copy the way I say certain words, there will be no fourth meeting.)

But, you might be asking, what’s happened chez Patrick since November?

After the Sandra-snakes-and-snails fiasco — another topic to elaborate on later — Oliver jetted off to Rotterdam to see his customers, and the kids and I stayed at a hotel near my mum’s place for a few days. It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than staying in the parental home; something I should have remembered from the last disastrous time I stayed there with Jack, just before we moved to Woodhaven, nearly three years ago.  While I love my parents because, well, they’re my parents, I would never want to live in the same house with them again, not least because it would result in news stories with intriguing headlines.

Elderly couple missing for two years found in their own freezer. Daughter pleads not guilty; says it was suicide pact.

Teetering along a fine line between “elderly” and “borderline senile”, my parents have forgotten what it’s like to have small children. After an afternoon involving one twin trying to eat a block of toilet cleaner (the sort that hangs from the rim; George thought it was a lollipop), the other twin sinking her teeth into the plastic bananas and pears in Mum’s fruit bowl, and Jack adding crayon stick-figures to the leather-bound journal in which Dad was writing his memoirs (as if anyone would ever read them anyway!) Mum and I tacitly agreed to meet at more neutral venues in shopping centres. Not Dad, though, who made a big deal of cancelling all engagements in order to rewrite his memoirs into a brand new, unsullied leather-bound journal.

When I’d spent more hours than is humane with Mum in “neutral venues” — mooching round Primark and M&S was her idea of an entertaining afternoon for small children and, being reliant on her transport, I couldn’t argue — Oliver finished his business in Rotterdam and came to rescue us. He turned up in an ugly, green Renault people carrier rather than on a white charger, but after a week in Primark and M&S I’d have loaded me, the kids, and the luggage onto a Shetland pony and trotted all the way to Heathrow.  Oliver had even managed to get us all tickets on the same flight to Boston, which was a relief. Going to the supermarket on my own with the sprogs is hair-raising enough, never mind going on my own with them across the Atlantic.

A few hours of assorted children crying at frequent intervals, squeezing into aircraft bathrooms to change nappies, and playing “I Spy” with Jack until even he got bored (“I spy with my little eye something beginning with A-C.” “Another Cloud?”) and there we were…back in Woodhaven.

Back home.

Home?

Yes. A couple of years ago I couldn’t think of  Woodhaven as home, but something keeps changing. The combination of paying a mortgage to the bank instead of rent to Melissa H-C, and the cold-water-splash reality check of visiting Milton Keynes — somewhere I used to call “home” but isn’t any more — made me realise where home is.

It’s not where you’ve lived, but where you make a life. Life is here, in this funny little house with the wood panelling, temperamental wiring, and uneven floorboards. It’s where my children are, where Oliver is — most of the time, anyway.

I look up from my journal. The snow is settling now; about an inch has gathered on the deck since I started to write.

The children are in bed, and Oliver is away, as usual, this time in Seattle. A floorboard creaks behind me, but I don’t turn round. This old house creaks all day long; the rise and fall in temperature and humidity in a wooden construction makes unexpected noises inevitable.

If it isn’t merely the falling outdoor temperature — and at night, alone, my stern self-admonishing to grow up and stop being so silly can lose its power — well, that’s OK.

Our home is where we’ve made our lives, of course.  But many other people made their lives in this enchanting house before we came along. I can understand if some don’t want to leave yet.

As I’m always telling Jack, George, and Beth — it’s nice to share.

.

Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #90

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #88 – A silver trail

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to subscribe for email delivery of The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of the week’s posts from The Displaced Nation. Sign up for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

An expat novel in episodes: SUITE DUBAI #1 – Arriving (2/8)

Suite Dubai Collage Drop Shadow

Image: Top: Book cover & author image (supplied by Callista Fox); bottom: By vahiju (Morguefiles).

It’s midDecember—perfect timing for the second installment of Suite Dubai, a serial novel by adult Third Culture Kid Callista Fox. As Callista tells it, the book grew out of a story that entered her head that wouldn’t go away: “There was this girl, young, vulnerable, naive, walking along a concourse in an airport, among men in white robes and checkered scarves and woman in black gauzy material. Where was she going? What would happen to her there?” Missed the opening installment? Get caught up now!!! NOTE: Highly addictive! Six more parts to come in 2014.

ML Awanohara

Her parents hadn’t wanted her to take this job. “Where?” her dad had asked, like he’d misheard her. “Dubai?”

Her mom had put her hand to her mouth. “All the way over there? In the middle of all those bombings? Can’t you wait a few more months, you know … see if something comes up here?”

A few more months? She’d already waited a few months. Twelve, to be exact. She’d already filled out more applications than she could count, for jobs she didn’t want until they’d rejected her. She had a degree in journalism and couldn’t get a job working the desk at the Motel 6. “Have you ever worked in hospitality?” a woman named Melinda had asked her over the phone, missing the irony of her own inhospitable tone.

In hospitality? What did that even mean? She’d spent her whole life being unnecessarily nice to people, on the phone, at the store, even in heavy traffic. She was certain she could hand someone a room key without causing a scene.

This job, the one waiting for her on the other side of the crowd, had been advertised on a website with an international employment section that she read mostly to pass the time, something she’d had plenty of since graduation. The public-relations position caught her eye, but she didn’t apply. She didn’t even know where Dubai was.

Then, rather than ask her mom for gas money—again—she threw some old clothes into the back of her Honda and headed for a consignment store. At a busy intersection she saw a guy dressed as a mattress, dancing on the side of the road, flashing a 15 PERCENT off sign at oncoming traffic. While she waited at the light, a gust of wind came and caught the inflatable costume like a sail and blew him back a few feet. He stumbled, almost fell, and then regained his footing, but his sign was blowing along the strip of grass and he had to turn and chase after it, the wind blowing against the back side of his costume now. His legs, outfitted in gray tights, stumbled along as he tried to slow himself down lest he become airborne and delivered to the brick wall of the nearby Chick-fil-A. She was scared for him, and she was even more scared she might recognize him from one of her writing classes.

That day she drove home and rewrote her résumé.

She added that she had done some public-relations work for a local nonprofit (omitting that it was her mother’s nonprofit). She had promoted an art auction that raised over $120,000 for at-risk teens (omitting that she’d really paraded paintings, like a woman on a game show, around a banquet hall, encouraging people to bid). She had been more of an art Sherpa than an event planner. Yes, she embellished. That’s what writers do. She wrote a kick-ass cover letter about the lost art of storytelling in the business world and clicked send.

“Where. The hell. Did you find this job?” her friend Emily asked, scribbling down the name of the website with a pen she’d chewed until it cracked. It was her tenth day without a cigarette. “I’d do it. I’d go in a heartbeat. I’m so tired of serving penny beer to drunk college guys.”

When they’d started their journalism degrees, they had both expected a job with the local newspaper that would lead to a column with the New York Times or a wire assignment that required a khaki blazer and a handsome translator. Now all they heard was, “Journalism is dead. You need to start a blog.” She and Emily scraped up money for domain names but neither of them got very far. Her life had become so dull and disappointing she was too embarrassed to write about it.

Emily was having the same problem. “I could describe the texture of the vomit delivered to my left sandal by a guy in a Georgia Tech jersey, or how I’ve started stealing my parents’ dog’s antidepressants.”

“Don’t worry,” Rachel said as she moved her chair into the shifting shade of the umbrella in Emily’s backyard. “I won’t get it. I’m not really qualified. Five years’ experience? Everyone wants five years’ experience. What I really need is a time machine.”

“But what if you do get it?” Emily said squinting at her. “I mean, a real job. One your parents wouldn’t be embarrassed to tell their friends about. I see my mom’s lip quiver before she tells people I’m a waitress at Kelly’s. She’s embarrassed. I don’t blame her. All those ballet lessons, cello lessons, Saturday Spanish classes, SAT prep courses, so I could get ahead. That’s what they said. So I could get ahead. Ahead of what?” She leaned back in her chair. “I wear a green apron with a pin that says ASK ABOUT OUR BUCKET SPECIALS. I count out change and signal to the bouncer when he needs to intervene. But see, I use the word “intervene” instead of “throw his ass out.” So it was all worth it, right? Because…vocabulary.”

“At least you’re good at something. I was a horrible waitress. Always forgetting who got the water, who got the wine. Twice I left a family sitting there, at a table, for almost an hour before even taking their order. The tips they gave me were out of pity. I saw it in their eyes.”

“You’re good at something. You just don’t know what it is yet,” Emily said, unwrapping a piece of gum and folding it into her mouth. “I should go back to school, take some architecture classes. That sounds so much better, right? ‘My daughter’s studying to be an architect.’ Especially if you go off to Dubai and leave me here alone.” Her eyes got shiny with tears. She looked away. “Or you could take me with you.”

“Well, there’s no way I’ll get this job.”

None of it was awful. They weren’t starving. They weren’t homeless. But enough days repeat themselves and you can’t imagine any day in the future being different than the one before it. This is how people fail, Rachel thought. A little bit at a time.

Two weeks went by without a reply. Then one night she remembered the business card in her nightstand. The one she’d had for over a year. The one she’d almost tossed in the garbage. When she had put it in the drawer she’d wondered why she was keeping it, but she knew she’d never get another business card with the word “sheikh” on it. She dumped the drawer on her bed and dug through the gum wrappers, hair ties, and scraps of bad poetry she’d written late at night when she couldn’t sleep. There it was, a simple white card embossed with the name Sheikh Ahmed Al Baz. He lived in a city called Riyadh, not Dubai. Wherever it was, it was closer to Dubai than Atlanta. So she wrote him an e-mail, asking if he remembered her, asking if he’d heard of the Al Zari Hotel.

* * *

So, readers, how are you enjoying the story so far? Let us know in the comments… And if you can’t wait until next month, you can always download the complete episode of “Arriving” (this is just the beginning) —as well as the next episode, provocatively entitled “Party on Palm Island”—from Amazon.

Callista Fox moved to Saudi Arabia when she was eight and lived there off and on until turning 19. she went to boarding schools in Cyprus and Austria. She has written two travel books and a travel column in the Sunday Oklahoman. Currently, she writes proposals for a consulting firm that provides technology and management solutions to governments and nonprofits around the world.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, an interview with this month’s featured author, Alexander McNabb, back by popular request. We’ll be talking about, and giving away, the final book in his Middle East trilogy: Shemlan!!!

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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LIBBY’S LIFE #88 – A silver trail

It’s a cozy enough scene, I suppose, if one were to look at it quickly through the living room window. Granny, Beloved Son, Doted-On Grandchildren and, OK, Tolerated Daughter-in-Law, all sitting in squashy chairs and sofas around a real (gas) fire. Tea and biscuits on a tray on the coffee table. Everyone chatting together, like people used to do before TVs and iPads and smartphones came along.

You could paint the scene and put it in the National Gallery: a snapshot of family life at the beginning of the third millennium.  A couple of hundred years later, some author would see it as an escape route from writer’s block, and write a book about it – a bit like “The Girl With A Pearl Earring”, only this would be “The Family Without Facebook” — and the idyllic life of the Patrick family would be immortalized in print as well as watercolour, on paper. Or whatever they make books out of in the 2200s.

The story two hundred years hence, of course, would be nothing like the reality of today. The reality of our get-together is less idyllic than it appears from that quick glance through the window.

Although pictures can say a thousand words, those words sometimes get lost in translation.

*  *  *

Oliver, in the armchair to the left of the fireplace, leans forward, his elbows on his knees. He’s tired and cross, annoyed that he’s had to come back to Milton Keynes for an emergency family summit instead of having a child-free lie-in tomorrow at an anonymous airport hotel. He should be so lucky. Since I opened the door of the fourth bedroom, the children and I have been staying in one room at the local Travelodge.

He looks in Sandra’s direction – at her left ear, her right shoulder – but doesn’t catch her eye.

“You do understand, don’t you, Mum?” he says.

Sandra sits rigidly upright in an identical armchair on the other side of the fireplace, folds her arms, and lifts her chin up. You don’t have to be an expert in body language to hear “Defiance” screaming from every limb placement.

Playing with a toy Ferrari on the floor at her feet, Jack announces excitedly to the room that he can see right up Granny’s nose and it has hairs growing out of the left side.

Sandra drops her chin a little to make her nostrils less obvious, and hunches her shoulders as she hugs herself. In doing so, her stance loses the defiance and becomes defensive.

“I said, you do understand?” Oliver repeats his question, but his voice is gentle. He is a much nicer person than I am, at least when it comes to dealing with his mother. “You see that we can’t let you keep—”

“They’re not doing any harm!” Sandra hugs herself more tightly as she blurts out the words. “They’re just minding their own business, in the spare room. I don’t see how any reasonable person can object to that.”

“Yes, but, when we agreed that you should live in our house, it was on the understanding that you didn’t keep–”

“You didn’t say anything about it.” Sandra hunches over even more, looking like a naughty child who’s been caught stealing chocolate biscuits after being told she can’t have any. “You only said ‘No dogs’.”

Oliver nods slowly, seeming to consider this miscarriage of justice. “That’s true,” he says at last. “When you put it like that, I suppose we don’t have any grounds to…”

Oh, for goodness’ sake. I leap up from the sofa.

“When Oliver said ‘No dogs’,” I say to my mother-in-law, pointing my finger at her, “it should have been perfectly obvious that he meant ‘No dogs, no cats, and no Boris The Tarantulas. Certainly no geckos, no turtles, no rats or mice, no giant African snails or any of the other slimy creatures you’ve got living in our spare bedroom, and —” I pause to take a breath, and the last part comes out as a semi-scream “— most definitely not a six-foot boa constrictor on the loose.”

“Libby.” Oliver tries to take control, but I’m on a roll. I shake my finger at Sandra again, and she cowers into the armchair.

“Are you incapable of using common sense, or does everything have to be written into the lease? Ah, yes, I forgot. Oliver didn’t want you to have a lease, did he? You’re family, he said. You’ll look after the house, he said. Clearly,” I say, shooting a slit-eyed look at Oliver, “having an exotic pet collection in what will be Beth’s bedroom in a couple of years is his and your idea of looking after the house.”

Oliver’s expression and body language echo those of his mother. Two naughty children caught in the biscuit tin.

“The animals…they’re not actually doing any harm in the spare bedroom. To be fair,” he adds.

I try counting to ten, and get as far as three. I’m not in the mood to be fair.

“When I went into that room to look for rainboots,” I say, as evenly as I can, “that giant snake had escaped from its box and was curled up under the radiator.”

“That’s why I call him Houdini,” Sandra says. “He doesn’t like being in his tank all the time.”

“It’s not a tank!” I shout. “I might not mind as much if it were a real, actual tank! It’s a plastic box, just like the one in the attic that we used to keep our rolls of Christmas wrapping paper in, and its lid is loose, just like that one…” I stop. “I don’t believe it. It’s the same box, isn’t it? You’ve recycled our storage bins into serpent bungalows.”

Sandra nods reluctantly. “I put the wrapping paper through the shredder and used it as bedding for the rats. It seemed the least I could do for them, give them a nice colourful bed before they were fed to Houdini. Now that the wrapping paper is gone, I give them the colour magazines from the Sunday newspapers.”

Surreal. I’ve had a lot of imagined conversations in my life, but not one of them has been about interior decorating styles for rodents on death row.

“What else have you done?” I ask. “What else has been recycled? Is the conservatory now a bird sanctuary, or the oven a retirement home for aged scorpions?”

“Libs…”

I wave at Oliver,  a dismissive “shut up, I’m not finished” flap of the hand.

“And this living room,” I continue. “Very convenient that you choose to get it decorated three days before we arrive, isn’t it?”

“That’s going too far.” Oliver stands up. “Mum had this room done to keep the place nice for us. It’s terrible of you to say she had ulterior–”

“It was the snails.” Sandra’s voice cuts across Oliver’s protests. We both turn to stare at her. “The giant African snails. I put them on the fireplace.”

Oliver and I look at the fireplace. I’ve always hated it: a relic from another decade, stucco-covered brick. We’d kept intending to rip the thing out and replace it with something nicer, but it was such a messy job that we never got round to it.

“You put the snails on the fireplace?” Oliver’s confusion matches my own. “What were you doing? Roasting them for supper?”

Sandra shakes her head. “I’d run out of eggshells.”

Oh, right. She should have said before. Everything’s perfectly clear now.

“What the hell are you talking about?” I ask.

Sandra sniffs. “Will and Kate — that’s what I call them — they need calcium for their shells, and I usually give them eggshells to eat. But I wasn’t very well, and I ran out of eggs and couldn’t go out, so I took Will and Kate out of their tank and put them on the fireplace, because that white bobbly stuff has calcium in it.”

“It’s true,” Oliver murmurs at me. “I’ve read about it. Florida has an infestation of those creatures, and they love the stucco on the houses there.”

“And then because I was poorly, I fell asleep and when I woke up, they’d gone for a little walk all over the walls.”

“Leaving a silver snail trail behind them.”

Sandra shuffles around in her chair and gazes at the carpet.

“And other things too. So when you phoned and said you were coming, I thought I’d better get the decorators in.”

Oliver turns to me. “Those things carry meningitis. And they’ve been crapping all over our living room walls.”

Much as I am sickened at this idea, I’m pleased that Oliver has switched from being Dutiful Son to Dutiful Husband. He finds it difficult to play both roles at once, but, to paraphrase a great Prime Minister, he will always do the right thing once he has exhausted all the other possibilities.

“They can’t stay,” he says to Sandra. “Either they go and you stay here, or they go and you go with them. But they can’t stay. Fergus and Boris are one thing, but Houdini and Will and Kate are another. I don’t care where they go, as long as they go safely. I don’t want to read in the newspaper a few days from now about cats and Yorkshire terriers mysteriously going missing in Milton Keynes. We’ll come back in a few days to make sure they’re gone, and I want that spare bedroom returned to human living quarters.”

“But they’re such good company!” Sandra wails. “They’re my babies!”

She could be right, I reflect. It would explain an awful lot.

*  *  *

“Now what?” I ask Oliver as I open the hotel room door at the Travelodge. “The kids and I can’t stay here for the next week and a half, and I’m not sure I could bear to stay with my own mother, even if she’d have us.”

We bundle the three kids inside the room before one of them decides to make a break for it down the corridor.

“We’ve seen the house, we’ve sorted out the problems. Stay here for a couple more days until I can get you an earlier flight, and then go home. I’ll follow in a week or so when I’ve finished my work in Europe.”

I think about this. It would mean being without Oliver in the house in Woodhaven for a while.  Just me, Jack, George, Beth – and Em.  But if there’s one thing I’ve learned this week, it’s that there are worse things to have around the house than centuries-old spirits of nine-year-old girls.

Em, at least, does not spread meningitis or slither around on my living room walls.

“Sounds good,” I say.

.

Next post: LIBBY’S LIFE #89

Previous post: LIBBY’S LIFE #87 – Behind closed doors

Read Libby’s Life from the first episode.

Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s posts!

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An expat novel in episodes: SUITE DUBAI #1 – Arriving (1/8)

Suite Dubai Collage Drop Shadow

Image: Top: Book cover & author image (supplied by Callista Fox); bottom: By vahiju (Morguefiles).

Today we begin a serial novel by Callista Fox, called Suite Dubai. Recalling her childhood as a Third Culture Kid in the Middle East, Callista had a story in her head that wouldn’t go away: “There was this girl, young, vulnerable, naive, walking along a concourse in an airport, among men in white robes and checkered scarves and woman in black gauzy material. Where was she going? What would happen to her there?” Sounds tantalizing, doesn’t it? On that note, here’s the very first part of Episode 1…with 7 more parts to come. (Warning: Highly addictive!)

ML Awanohara

When Rachel walked through the sunlit terminal at the Dubai airport, her student-loan payment was a month past due; her credit card, maxed. She had thirty-six dollars in her bank account and twenty-three in her purse, minus the ten she’d converted to euros to buy a stale ham-and-cheese croissant from a vendor at the Charles de Gaulle Airport. Now she couldn’t find the name of the man sent to pick her up. She’d printed the e-mail back in her mother’s office, folded it into a neat square. But where was it? Not in her purse or her carry-on bag. She’d checked them twice. It was a man’s name, something that started with an S. Her phone was no help. When she turned it on, the word ROAMING flashed across the screen. She was definitely roaming. At least Sallie Mae couldn’t reach her here. Not for a few weeks, anyway. And when they did, Rachel would finally have the money to make a payment. Unless her new boss realized she was a fraud and sent her home.

They wouldn’t have hired you if they thought you couldn’t do it. That’s what she’d been telling herself since Paris, since before Paris, really. Since she’d gotten the job offer.

You will do it, she whispered.

Down an escalator and along a series of moving walkways, she followed a family she recognized from her flight: a man in loose-hipped pants and long tunic, his wife in a bright green sari, the end of her scarf trailing behind her sequined shoes. Between them, holding their hands, a tiny girl in a yellow dress kept bending her legs, lifting her feet off the floor and letting her parents carry her along. The little girl shrieked and giggled, and in spite of the strain on their arms, her parents smiled down at her. In front of them, two men wore long, floor-length dress shirts. Checkered scarves flipped away from their faces like long hair. To her right, in the aisles of a duty-free shop, a woman covered in black gauze moved like a shadow among the perfume displays.

Rachel switched both bags to her other shoulder and smoothed the front of her wrinkled t-shirt. Her pants were no better. All those hours of travel had left a dull film on her skin and her head felt like it was filled with cotton.

She needed something. A trip to the bathroom to splash more water on her face. Something to eat. Several hours of real sleep—not the kind you did while trying to sit straight up until, desperate to finish your dream, your head slipped down and found a comfortable spot on the shoulder of the man sitting in 32F. “Excuse me…miss…”

She handed her passport to a man behind a high counter, who studied her picture then thumbed through the pages to her visa.

“You are here for work?” He asked.

“Yes,” she said. “The Al Zari Hotel.”

“The Al Zari Hotel,” he repeated. He looked at her t-shirt, her pants and then down at her tennis shoes. “Housekeeper?”

The customs line was long but it moved quickly. A man straightened his black beret before motioning for her to put her suitcase on the counter and open it. “Medications?” he asked. She shook her head. “Cash over ten thousand dollars?” She laughed. No. “Gifts over three thousand AED?” She had exactly no gifts worth any AED, as far as she knew.

“You have nothing to declare?” He said, looking annoyed.

“No,” she said. “Nothing to declare.”

“You are in the wrong place.”

She stared at him, not sure what to do next.

He pointed across the room to the Indian family who was waiting for their luggage to travel along a conveyor belt through an x-ray machine. “There,” the man said.

She grabbed her suitcase first, then her carry-on by the strap, tipping it over and spilling an envelope of pictures onto the counter. Together she and the customs man began to scoop them into a pile. He lifted one and squinted at it. Then he turned it around so she could see it. It was her with Truman, taken by a stranger while they stood in front of the roller coaster at Dollywood. They were doing that couples pose they’d perfected the one with their heads tilted toward each other. She was holding a mass of fluffy cotton candy and his face was scribbled out with a black marker.

“Oh, yeah.” She took the picture from him. “I should just throw this away.” She turned and slipped the picture into the side pocket of her bag.

On the other side of customs some sliding doors parted to reveal a crowd. People craned their necks to see who was coming through. Some held signs in Arabic. Some in Chinese or Japanese. The only English sign had the name Mr. Duncan written in marker. She walked along, looking for someone looking for her. The family from the airplane walked past her, the man pushing a luggage cart and the woman carrying the girl, who had fallen asleep on her shoulder.

Someone touched her arm.

“Rachel, eh, Lewis?” A short man with a horseshoe of black hair on an otherwise bald head, wearing delicate gold spectacles, stood a few feet from her. “You arrre Rachel Lewis?” His rolled rs made the question sound dramatic.

“Yes,” she said, and gave him a smile that remained on her face against her will. This was not the professional look she’d practiced but the face of a girl watching a friend of her father’s pretend to pull a quarter from behind her ear. “I’m Rachel Lewis.”

“I am Sayeed,” he said. “The car is outside.” He picked up her suitcase and headed for the exit.

Outside there was no sky, just the sun’s glare. It stung her tired eyes and she had to blink just to see where she was going. The heat felt thick as fur against her skin, too thick to breathe in all at once. Sayeed crossed a road and led the way along a row of cars, finally stopping at a white Mercedes.

The city looked nothing like she’d hoped. She saw no ancient markets shaded with draped fabric, no tents, no camels. It was as modern as downtown Atlanta with silver skyscrapers and wide, smooth multi-lane highways and perfectly painted crosswalks. A Rolls-Royce passed them on the right, then a big truck hauling men like cargo. They were packed tight on benches bolted to the truck bed; the ones on the end braced with their feet to stay seated. Their faces sagged, their shoulders, their arms and hands. They looked as tired as she felt. . . .

* * *

So, readers, would you like to hear more? Let us know in the comments… And if you can’t wait until next month, you can always download the complete episode of “Arriving” (this is just the beginning) —as well as the next episode, provocatively entitled “Party on Palm Island”—from Amazon.

Callista Fox moved to Saudi Arabia when she was eight and lived there off and on until turning 19. she went to boarding schools in Cyprus and Austria. She has written two travel books and a travel column in the Sunday Oklahoman. Currently, she writes proposals for a consulting firm that provides technology and management solutions to governments and nonprofits around the world.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, some musings on Thanksgiving from an expat point of view, by Anthony Windram.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Image: Top: Book cover & author image (supplied by Callista Fox); bottom: By vahiju (Morguefiles).

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