The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Tag Archives: Africa

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!

Related posts:

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).

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

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

Happy holidays, Displaced Nationers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Any stories from your time in South Africa?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

embarrassed-tcks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

Until then. Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox and the newly published Reverse Culture Shock. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin, Goodreads, and, of course, her author site.  

STAY TUNED for next week/year’s fab posts.

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

Related posts:

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

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats and TCKs, humility is your best cross-cultural tool—and don’t forget to pack that golden triad!

marilyn-gardner-cst
This month transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol consults with a prominent member of the former expat/Adult Third Culture Kid community on how best to handle culture shock. They also discuss reverse culture shock, though her guest finds that term something of a misnomer…

Hello, Displaced Nationers!

I suspect some of you may already know, or at least know of, my guest this month, the multi-talented Marilyn Gardner. She is a blogger, author, consultant and public speaker. You may have come across her blog, Communicating Across Boundaries, or heard of her book, Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging, which is drawn from her blog writings and gets rave reviews from Amazon readers, who call her a “master storyteller.”

Born in small-town Massachusetts, Marilyn moved to Pakistan when she was three months old. She returned to the United States for college, became a nurse, and then tried to go “home” to Pakistan, only to be deported back to the U.S. after three months. She resumed her travels with marriage, producing five children on three continents and raising them in Pakistan and Egypt. When she and her husband finally repatriated, they arrived from Cairo at Dulles Airport with five children, 26 suitcases, and an Egyptian Siamese cat. They now live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Marilyn has a passion for helping under-served communities, including refugees and immigrants, with their health care needs. She started her blog in 2011 after returning from a trip to Pakistan where she worked as a nurse with internally displaced people. She also works with refugees in the Middle East, especially Iraq and Turkey.

Marilyn often speaks to groups and organizations on topics related to cultural competency, including culture and health care, faith and identity, and adult third culture kids.

She kindly took the time out from her busy life and travels to share some of her many cross-cultural experiences with us. (She conveniently lives 15 minutes from Logan Airport’s international terminal and flies to the Middle East and Pakistan as often as she can!) Check it out 🙂

* * *

Welcome, Marilyn, to Culture Shock Toolbox. Can you tell us which countries you’ve lived in and for how long? 

Pakistan, 20 years; Egypt, 7 years; United States, 28 years; and I have visited over 30 countries.

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

I have lots of memorable stories—some more embarrassing than others, all funny for various reasons. As a child, I wasn’t always aware of the cultural mistakes—but my mom was! At one point when I was three years old we had been invited to a feast in the town where we lived. The women were in one room and the men in another. We sat on the floor and we ate with our hands. Evidently, the minute the food arrived, I lunged toward it and grabbed the rice with both hands. The older woman in the room was none too happy—she sniffed and said loudly: “The child doesn’t know how to eat!” Every Pakistani kid knew that you eat with your right hand only! My mom was red-faced and fumbled over her words. She vowed that once we got home, she would teach us all how to eat in properly Pakistani style!
childrens-culture-shock-toolbox

Wow, I guess your mom needed a toy version of the culture shock toolbox? Did you continue making blunders as you grew up?

As an adult, the rules changed and some mistakes have to do with language and others with behavior. For instance, when I first arrived in Cairo, I had trouble flagging down taxis. Then I realized that Egyptians would just yell loudly “Taks” and wave their hand wildly. So I began yelling loudly and waving my hands wildly. One day I did this while out with one of my Egyptian friends and she was horrified! “Why are you shouting?” she said. I realized I’d been observing male behavior, not female. A woman stands calmly and daintily waves down a taxi; only the men are so loud and aggressive. It was a good example that it’s not only about observing, it’s also about observing and imitating the right behavior. Language mistakes are also common and almost always funny. My husband, for instance, once tried to tell someone he was thinner than another man—but ended up saying he was cleaner than him.

What tools do you think are most useful in scenarios like these? 

In health care we use the term “cultural humility.” You have to be humble enough to admit defeat when you get it wrong. In essence, this is a commitment to life-long learning about culture; a commitment to self-reflection and self-critique; a process whereby you continually place yourself in a posture of learning. I picture this as someone almost on their knees, looking up at another person and saying:

“You tell me what is important, you tell me what I need to know to function most effectively here.”

That’s what we expats, nomads, and Third Culture Kids all need to learn more about, continually posturing ourselves as being willing to grow and to learn.
cultural-humility

That’s a powerful image! But have there also been situations you think you’ve handled with surprising finesse?

There is something about growing up overseas that puts you in a different place from the beginning, and that has stood me well. But again I would stress that there can also be an arrogance that comes from growing up overseas, as in “I know better than you do because I’ve lived this longer”—which can be totally false. We only know what we know, and we can’t possibly have experienced every aspect of a culture, which is why we always need that toolbox. What I think is different from the adult expat is that we Third Culture Kids have been shaped, not just influenced, by cultures other than our own. That distinction is really important. When you’re shaped, it’s like a potter shaping clay. You are molded by different cultural viewpoints, which makes it much harder to be ethnocentric and think your way is best. You tend to see all sides. That in itself has its own issues, the “chameleon effect” I call it—but we won’t go there today!

If you had to give advice to new expats, which tools in their culture shock toolbox would they use most often and why? 

I have two. The first I’ve already mentioned: cultural humility. It is so easy to go as an “expert” and think you know it all. Cultural humility puts you in the place of a servant, a learner. You listen more, talk less, and observe everything. You ask questions not from a place of frustration but from a place of curiosity. In addition, I’d encourage new expats to develop what I call the “golden triad”—empathy, curiosity, and respect. All three are needed in equal measure and when even one of those is missing, we miss something in our experience.
golden-triad

I like the idea of the golden triad: that’s a great tool to add to the toolbox! Moving on to reverse culture shock: I’m not sure that we Third Culture Kids experience it in the same way as others, but can you comment on your reverse culture shock experiences as well? 

You are right, reverse culture shock is a misnomer for us TCKs. We don’t have reverse culture shock when we go to our passport countries—we have plain old culture shock. Reverse culture shock assumes a level of adjustment to our passport countries most of us have never attained. Once we are adults, and we (some of us) have lived longer in our passport countries, then we might feel a reverse culture shock.

What “reverse” culture shock experiences stand out for you the most?

For culture shock in my home country, one of the things that stands out for me is the cost of medications. I left a pharmacy in the middle of a transaction because I was given a bill for over s hundred dollars. I said with all the outrage I could muster “What? This medicine would be $3.00 in the place where I’m from!” To which the pharmacist looked bored and gave me a look that said “Well, obviously you’re not there so just pay up.” I left and said: “This is ridiculous!” I write about other examples in my book, such as paralysis in the cereal aisle and learning to speak “coffee”—I just couldn’t get the drink I wanted! There were so many choices and strange words. Expectations for who I was and how I would respond from dentist offices to work places also come to mind. Too many experiences to count!
repatriation-blues-mg

What are the best tools for dealing with (reverse) culture shock?

As I noted, my passport country was foreign in almost every way but language, so when I finally decided to treat it as foreign, I did much better. Not well mind you—but at least better! I watched and observed the rules, tried to follow the unwritten expectations. I cried a lot. I tried to find my happy places through coffee shops. I decorated my house with all the items I loved from the worlds where I had lived. I made friends with “locals.” I learned how to honor the goodbyes and to grieve even as I moved forward in the new. All of that helped in my adjustment. But what helped the most I think is giving myself time—it’s a process, and the longer we’ve been overseas, the longer the process of adjustment to our passport countries. Lastly, I’d like to note that staying in one place for a while doesn’t mean you grow stagnant. In the past I always equated stability with stagnancy, but that is simply not true. So slowly I have learned how to grow while staying in the same place.

Thank you so much, Marilyn, for sharing your stories with us. I love what you said about cultural humility. I think you’re right, once we start a life of living and communicating across cultures, there will always be a need for carrying a culture shock toolbox, and we should never forget that!

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, do you have any stories to share that show a lack of cultural humility, and could you have used Marilyn’s customized toolbox at that moment?

If you like her prescriptions, be sure to check out her blog posts. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter. And if you’re interested in health care, you should check out the video series she has created with a film maker here and here.

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

Until then. Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox and the newly published Reverse Culture Shock. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin, Goodreads, and, of course, her author site.  

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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

Related posts:

Photo credits: First visual (collage): Photos of Cairo and Pakistan from Pixabay; culture shock toolbox branding; and photo of Marilyn Gardner, her book cover and her blog banner (supplied). Second visual: Set Tools – Toys, by Suzette via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
Third visual: Photo of woman kneeling from Pixabay.Fourth visual: Celtic triad vector graphic from Pixabay. Last visual/collage: (top left) Breakfast Cereal Aisle, by Mike Mozart via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); (top right) Specialty Drinks – menu seen at Jack’s Java in Paris, Tennessee, by Kathleen Tyler Conklin via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and pharmacy cabinet photo via Pixabay.

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Expat creatives recommend books for the (not quite) end of summer

End of Summer 2016 Reads

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, has canvassed several international creatives for some recommendations of books that suit the various end-of-summer scenarios those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere will soon be in (if we aren’t already!).

Hello Displaced Nationers!

I’ve traveled quite a bit this summer, and now I’m wondering what I can do, as summer slides into autumn here in Prague, to bask in those prized last few moments of glory before the days get shorter and a chill enters the air.

I decided to canvas fellow international creatives about the books they would recommend for those of us who are:

  • Striving for one last beach read;
  • Stranded at an airport on our way “home”; and/or
  • Getting back to work/school/reality as autumn sets in.

There was just one catch: I asked if they would please recommend books that qualify as “displaced” reads, meaning they are for, by, or about expats or other internationals and so speak to members of our “tribe” (see ML Awanohara’s contribution below).

And now let’s check out their picks (correction: I should say “our” as I’m a contributor this time)—it’s an eclectic mix, but I predict you’ll be tempted by quite a few!

* * *

JENNIFER ALDERSON, expat and writer

TheGoodThiefsGuidetoParis_coverWhen I read on the beach, the story’s got to be light and quirky or it goes back in my tote bag. The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris (2009), by Chris Ewan—or really any of the other four books in Ewan’s popular series of mysteries about a globetrotting thief-for-hire—fits the bill perfectly. I actually dislike the much-displaced Charlie Howard immensely—yet somehow end up rooting for him along the way. An Englishman, he doesn’t feel at home anywhere and travels the world to get inspired to write his next novel—and then ends up involved in criminal activities that mirror his fictitious plots. Each novel revolves around Charlie’s bungled robbery of an artwork or antiquity in yet another famous tourist destination: Amsterdam, Paris, Venice, Las Vegas, Berlin… Ewan’s descriptions of each city are spot on and quite beautiful, in contrast to the wonderfully sarcastic tone of the novels themselves. The capers are silly, absurd constructions involving the shadiest of characters, which inevitably leave a smile on my face. I’ve already finished Paris and Amsterdam. The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice is next.

The City of Falling Angels_coverI actually have two suggestions for books I wish I’d had in my carry-on when stranded en route, both set in one of my favorite countries in the world: Italy! A few days before my husband and I set off for a week-long holiday in Venice, I popped into a local secondhand bookstore and spotted John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels (2005). I absolutely loved Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, so I bought it without even reading the description on the back. Imagine my surprise when I pulled it out of my suitcase and realized it was all about the same magical city I’d just arrived in! It is an absorbing, magnificent novel that effortlessly blends fact and fiction. (Berendt moved to Venice in 1997, just three days after the city’s Fenice opera house burned down during a restoration—accident or arson?) The fabled city and many of her more eccentric residents form the soul of this book; art, opera and architecture are the main ingredients. Let yourself get lost in Berendt’s unique, almost conversational prose and follow along on his deliciously slow journey through one of the prettiest (and most mysterious) places on the planet.

BridgeofSighs_coverMy other pick is the captivating historical novel, Bridge of Sighs and Dreams (2015), by former expat Pamela Allegretto. The story follows one Italian family through the 1930s and 1940s, when Mussolini and later Hitler ruled the land. It is a sometimes gritty, sometimes romantic, tale of betrayal, intrigue and—above all—survival. The author’s beautiful yet compact descriptions of the landscape, people and culture effortlessly transport the reader to this fascinating and complex period in Italian (and European) history. I highly recommend it.

Whichever of these two books you choose, you’ll wish your flight was delayed indefinitely.

The Disobedient Wife_coverI’ve only read the first two chapters of The Disobedient Wife (2015), by Annika Milisic-Stanley, yet I’m already hooked—and would recommend it for anyone trying to get back into work/school mode. It’s such an eloquent description of the expat experience; from the first sentence I felt as if I was reading a soulmate’s description of how it feels to move on to a new destination after building up a life in a foreign country: we say goodbye while wondering what, if any, lasting impact we’ve had on our temporary homes. [Editor’s note: This book also made the Displaced Nation’s “best of expat fiction” list for 2015.]

The official synopsis reads:

The Disobedient Wife intertwines the narratives of a naïve, British expatriate, Harriet, and that of her maid, Nargis, who possesses an inner strength that Harriet comes to admire as their lives begin to unravel against a backdrop of violence and betrayal.

In the first chapter, Harriet is thinking back to her last post in Tajikistan: about the friends she’d willingly left behind and about her home, inhabited by another family only days after her own departure:

“All traces will be erased until the Dutch tulips I laid last September rise above the earth to bloom in April and pronounce that I really was there. The language, learned and badly spoken, is already fading from my dreams…”

These sentences stirred up so many memories for me of people left behind and as well as adventures past. I sometimes wish I could go back—even for a moment—to all of the places I’ve been in this crazy world and just say hello to the people I once knew there and remind them that I’m still around and do think of them once in a while. I cannot wait to finish this book. [Beth’s note: I did NOT mention to Jennifer that Annika is also participating in this column’s roundup—quite a coincidence!]

Jennifer S. Alderson has published two novels, the recently released A Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery and Down and Out in Kathmandu (2015), which cover the adventures of traveler and culture lover Zelda Richardson. An American, Jennifer lives in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband and young son.


ML AWANOHARA, Displaced Nation founding editor and former expat

Inspired by the new BBC One TV miniseries, at the beginning of the summer I downloaded War and Peace (new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) onto my Kindle. And, reader, I finished it! And now I’m having trouble finding any novels that hold my attention. By comparison to Tolstoy’s masterwork, they all seem too narrow in scope, and their characters aren’t as beautifully developed. Sigh!

Tribe_coverI’m thinking I should turn to nonfiction until the W&P spell wears off. Right now I have my eye on Sebastian Junger’s latest work, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging—which I think could serve any of the purposes Beth has outlined above, though perhaps is best applied to the third condition (getting back to reality). Junger has been compared to Hemingway for his adventure non-fiction and war reporting, but this book is more of an anthropological look at the very human need to belong to a tribe. Though we expats have left our original tribes, I don’t think that this decision eradicates our tribal instincts. On the contrary, we are attracted to tribes of fellow expats; and some of us even find new homes in cultures more tribal than ours—where the people value qualities like loyalty and belonging more than we do in the West.

Junger provides an example to which I can personally relate. Recounting the history of 18th-century America, he says that no native Americans defected to join colonial society even though it was richer, whereas many colonials defected to live with the Indian tribes. They apparently appreciated the communal, caring lifestyle of the latter. That’s how I felt after I’d lived in Japan for several years. I really didn’t fancy returning to my native society, which I’d come to see as overly individualistic and centered on self to the exclusion of little else. To this day (and especially during election years like this one!) I struggle with America’s you’re-on-your-own ethos. Wealth doesn’t necessarily translate into well-being: why can’t my compatriots see that? It’s something I can feel in my bones because of the more tribal life I had in Asia. Could this book help me understand the roots of my displacement?

ML Awanohara, who has lived for extended periods in the UK and Japan, has been running the Displaced Nation site for five years. She works in communications in New York City.


BETH GREEN, Displaced Nation columnist and writer

Hotel_Kerobokan_coverI tend to pick beach books by the setting. So if I am going to the Caribbean, I’ll pick something set in the Caribbean. My last beach destination was Bali, and the book I wish I’d taken with me was Hotel Kerobokan: The Shocking Inside Story of Bali’s Most Notorious Jail (2009), a sharply observed account of life inside Indonesia’s most notorious prison, by Australian journalist Kathryn Bonella. Also great is her subsequent nonfiction title, Snowing in Bali (2012), a graphic look at Bali’s cocaine traffickers. Stories that depict true-life crime in unexpected settings (isn’t Bali supposed to be paradise?) automatically go on my to-read list—but I forgot to pick up Bonella’s book when we were at the airport and then wasn’t able to find in the area around my hotel. I know, most people go to the beach for good weather and strong cocktails; but for me, a holiday isn’t a holiday until I can peel back the veneer and peer at something darker underneath.

The Bat_coverWhat I actually ended up reading was in fact very good—Jo Nesbo’s thriller The Bat, in which he introduces his hard-headed detective Harry Hole and sends him to Australia to pursue a serial killer—but I wish I’d planned ahead and got something that blended with the scenery.

It’s a terrible feeling to get to the boarding gate and realize you don’t have enough chapters left in your book to get you through takeoff. (This is one reason I love my e-reader and try to have it loaded with dozens of books at all times.) For air travel especially, I look for the fattest, longest reads possible.

The Mountain Shadow_coverFor my next long flight, I’m hoping to read Gregory David Robert’s The Mountain Shadow, which came out last year and is the sequel to his equally weighty Shantaram (2003). At 880 pages, this book will take even a fast reader like me a while! Set in Mumbai, India, it continues the story of an escaped Australian prisoner who finds a new niche as a passport forger—but also a better self—in the underbelly of the South Asian crime world. Engrossing and beautifully written, I think it’s the perfect companion for marathon flights. Even if you did manage to finish it mid-flight, you can spend the rest of the trip wondering how close the story is to the author’s real-life history as an escaped convict. Roberts spent 10 years in India as a fugitive after escaping a maximum security prison in Australia, and his first novel, at least, is rumored to be autobiographical.

CatKingofHavana_coverFor the goal of channeling our more serious selves as autumn approaches, how about a fun read by the peripatetic Latvian author Tom Crosshill (he spent several years studying and working in the United States, as well as a year learning traditional dances in Cuba). Crosshill will release The Cat King of Havana (2016) this month. The eponymous Cat King is a half-Cuban American teenager who gets his nicknames from the cat videos he posts online. When he invites his crush to Havana to learn about his heritage and take salsa lessons, he discovers Cuba’s darker side…

Beth Green is the Booklust, Wanderlust columnist for the Displaced Nation. Her bio blurb appears below.


HELENA HALME, novelist and expat

Murder in Aix_coverFor a last hurrah on the beach, I’d recommend Murder in Aix (2013), Book 5 in a mystery series by Susan Kiernan-Lewis, an ex-military dependent who is passionate about France, travel and writing. One of my secret pleasures in life is to settle down with a cozy murder mystery; I also have a passion for the South of France. So when I found The Maggie Newberry Mystery Series, consisting of nine books that featured an expat protagonist-sleuth who solves mysteries in and around Aix-en-Provence, I couldn’t wait to download the whole series onto my Kindle. In the fifth book, Maggie Newberry is heavily pregnant but that doesn’t stop her as she finds herself scrambling to prove the innocence of a dear friend arrested for the murder of an abusive ex-boyfriend. Her partner, a ruggedly handsome French winemaker, doesn’t approve of Maggie’s involvement in the case. “It’s too dangerous,” he tells her.

The novel is pure bliss—a feeling enhanced if you can read it by a pool or on a beach, preferably accompanied by a glass of chilled rosé!

TheBreathofNight_coverFor those inevitable airport delays, I’d recommend The Breath of Night (2013), by Michael Arditti, a much-neglected English author. The first book I read by him, Jubilate, said to be the first serious novel about Lourdes since Zola’s, is one of my all-time favorites, so I was delighted when The Breath of Night came out soon after. This is a story of the murder of one Julian Tremayne, a Catholic priest from England who was working as a missionary in the Philippines in the 1970s. Since their son’s tragic death, Julian’s parents have pursued a campaign to have him declared a saint. The story is told partly through letters from Julian to his parents and partly through an account by a friend of the family, Philip Seward, who has gone to Manila 30 years later to find out the truth about the miracles he is said to have performed. Did Julian lead “a holy life of heroic virtue”—one of the conditions for canonization? While telling an intriguing and captivating tale of life in the Philippines, the book provides a broader commentary on love and faith.

TheParisWife_coverWhen the time comes to settle back into your routine, I would suggest a read of The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain (2011). It’s a fictionalized story of Hemingway’s first years as a struggling writer in Paris in the 1920s, told from the point of view of his first wife, Hadley, a naive Southern girl who suddenly finds herself suddenly plunged into a life of drunken debauchery in the French capital. McLain’s writing is precise and beautiful; her background as a poet comes through in her careful choice of words. Her descriptions of Hemingway when Hadley first meets him are particularly ingenious:

“He smiles with everything he’s got…”

“I can tell he likes being in his body…”

“He seemed to do happiness all the way up and through.”

It’s a brilliant read that will take you somewhere completely different and keep the challenges (boredom?) of work or school at bay a little longer.

Helena Halme is a Finnish author of Nordic women’s and romantic fiction. She lives with her English husband in London. Her works include the best-selling autobiographical novel The Englishman (reviewed on the Displaced Nation), its sequel The Navy Wife, Coffee and Vodka (about which she wrote a guest post for us) and The Red King of Helsinki (for which she won one of our Alice Awards). The Finnish Girl, her latest novella, is the prequel to The Englishman.


MATT KRAUSE, writer and expat

A Time of Gifts_coverFor any of those circumstances, I would recommend A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1977; reissued in 2011 with an introduction by Jan Morris). At the age of 18, Fermor dropped out of school to walk from the heart of London to Constantinople, and his account of that journey—which started in December 1933, not long after Hitler has come to power in Germany, and ended just over two years later—is hailed as a classic of British travel writing. Hitler’s abuses were not yet evident, and Fermor describes drinking beers with Nazis once he reaches Germany. But I particularly enjoyed his account of a luxurious extended weekend in Geneva (or some city, I don’t remember) with a couple of girls he met along the way. I read this book as part of my research before walking across Turkey in 2012–2013, and really liked it.

Matt Krause is a communications coach based in Istanbul. He is the author of the memoir A Tight Wide-Open Space (reviewed on the Displaced Nation) and is working on a book about his walk across Turkey.


ANNIKA MILISIC-STANLEY, ATCK, expat, painter, campaigner and writer

two more book picks_Aug2016When I am on the beach, I get no longer than half an hour of uninterrupted reading time. For that reason, I took a book of short stories with me this year: Angela Readman’s Don’t Try This At Home (2015), which has stories set in the UK, USA, France and elsewhere. Brilliantly engaging, with an amazing use of language, alternately fun and fantastical, this debut, award-winning collection is well worth a read.

Some of you may not be short story fans, in which case I’d recommend The White Tiger (2008), by Aravind Adiga. The “white tiger” of the book’s title is a Bangalore chauffeur, who guides us through his experience of the poverty and corruption of modern India’s caste society. two book picks_Aug2016_515xThe novel won the 2008 Booker, but don’t let that put you off. It is surprisingly accessible and a real page-turner: funny, horrifying and brilliant.

For an agonizing airport wait, I have two suggestions: Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life (2015) and Sanjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways (also 2015). Both feature immigrants describing their former lives, their motive for departure from their countries of origin, and the harshness of life in a new country as illegals.

CentresofCataclysm_coverAnd once you’re back at the desk, I would recommend giving Centres of Cataclysm (2016, Bloodaxe Books) a try. Edited by Sasha Dugdale and David and Helen Constantine, it’s an anthology celebrating fifty years of modern poetry in translation—full of beautiful gems from poets from around the world. Profits go to refugee charities.

Raised in Britain by Swedish and Anglo-German parents, Annika Milisic-Stanley has worked on humanitarian aid projects in Nepal, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, India, Burundi and Egypt as well as living in Tajikistan for several years. She currently lives in Rome with her family. In addition to writing and painting, she works as a campaigner to raise awareness on the plight of refugees in Southern Europe. The Disobedient Wife, about expatriate and local life in Tajikistan, is her debut novel and was named the Cinnamon Press 2015 Novel of the Year. Annika invites you to like her book page on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.


PAMELA JANE ROGERS, expat and artist/author

Saving Fish from Drowning_coverFor that last trip to the beach, I’d recommend Amy Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning (2005). A group of California travelers decide to go on their planned trip to the Burma (its southern Shan State) without their (deceased) travel director, and in their total ignorance of the customs and religion of that part of the world, create havoc—and commit what is considered a heinous crime. I was directing a travel group in Greece when I read it, which may be why it seemed quite plausible, as well as darkly hilarious.

If you haven’t read it yet (though most on this site probably have), an absorbing read for when you get stuck in an airport is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (1998)The Poisonwood Bible_cover, about a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. Between the evangelical Christian father wanting his converts to “gather by the river” in Africa for their baptisms, to the chapters written by his wife and daughters at different ages—the reader is in for a rollicking, sometimes absurd, sometimes sad and sobering, ride.

And when it’s time to face work again, I recommend the book I’m reading now: Passage of the Stork, Delivering the Soul (Springtime Books, 2015), by Madeleine LenaghPassage of the Stork_cover, an American who has lived in the Netherlands since 1970. This is her life story. [Editor’s note: Madeleine Lenagh and her photography have been featured on the Displaced Nation.]

Pamela Jane Rogers is an American artist who has adopted the Greek island of Poros as her home. She has written a memoir of her adventures, which she recently re-published with a hundred of her paintings as illustrations: GREEKSCAPES: Illustrated Journeys with an Artist.


JASMINE SILVERA, former expat and writer

The Best of All Possible Worlds_coverFor the beach I would recommend The Best of All Possible Worlds (2013), by Barbadian author Karen Lord. It’s what many people call “social science fiction” because the story is less obsessed with technological advances than with their interpersonal ramifications. The book opens after a cataclysmic event destroys the home planet of an entire civilization, rendering everyone who managed to be off-world at the time of destruction displaced. It follows the journey of a leader of a group of survivors, who decides to team up with an “assistant biotechnician” to find a suitable replacement home on a colony planet. I know what you’re thinking: it doesn’t sound like a rollicking good time! But it reads a bit like a “he said, she said” travelogue; and one of the two narrators has delightfully funny moments (I’ll let you decide which one). There is humor and sweetness, a bit of intrigue, and a satisfyingly happy ending.

The Pilgrimage_coverFor an absorbing read suitable for a long wait in an airport lounge, try The Pilgrimage (1987), by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. [Editor’s note: He was once featured on the Displaced Nation’s Location, Locution column.] I’ll be honest, my experience of the Camino de Santiago was nothing like the one depicted in this book (more technical fabrics and guidebooks, less overt mysticism); but I still find Coelho’s account evocative and moving. Like the work considered to be his masterpiece, The Alchemist, it’s part engaging adventure, part allegory—and a wonderful story. It’s a good one to transport you elsewhere when you’re “stuck” in a place you don’t want to be in.

Committed_coverIf the Way of St. James isn’t your thing, then I might recommend Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed (2010) for an absorbing read. I can’t imagine what it would be like to attempt a follow-up to a book that was a huge commercial success, let alone a direct “sequel.” But that’s what Gilbert did with Committed. People love or hate the book for all sorts of reasons. But it’s a good one to stick with, IMHO, because it explores not only the byzantine banalities of bureaucratic regulations (something all displaced persons deal with at some point in their adventures) but also the innermost workings of one’s heart as you navigate knowing when to go and when to, well, commit. And while Gilbert occasionally allows herself to navel gaze in less charming a fashion than in Eat, Pray, Love, overall this book is an honest, thoughtful exploration of what marriage and commitment means in a world of divorce, infidelity, and the “best friending” of one’s partner. The book starts out with a decision made and then backtracks through the process—but it’s the journey that counts, after all. [Editor’s note: Hmmm… Will she write a sequel now that she is divorcing her husband of 12 years?]

Kinky Gazpacho_coverFor getting back into your groove at work, I’d recommend Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain (2008), by Lori Tharps. There are relatively few travel memoirs written by people of color, so a book full of observations around how race is experienced in different cultures is a rare treasure. As a black woman from the United States, I have found race to be an intrinsic part of my experience in traveling and living abroad. From being stared at, to being touched, to stumbling on some unexpected bit of exported racism where I least expect it, I would say it’s an oversimplification to think that race is something we only struggle with in the land of my birth (that said, I’ve known a few African Americans whose decision to live abroad was based in no small part on the gravity of the struggle for racial equality in America). Nowhere is perfect, and Tharp explores what happens when the fantasy and the reality collide during her year of study abroad in Spain, as she attempts to reconcile that country’s problematic past with its present. She also extends her adventures beyond those of a traveler to become an expat (this is not a spoiler: she marries a Spaniard). I enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love, but this book resonated with my personal experience of travel and life abroad much more deeply.

A world traveler and former expat who remains a California girl at heart, Jasmine Silvera will release her debut, Prague-inspired novel Death’s Dancer in October (it was recently selected for publication by Kindle Press). Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

* * *

Thanks, everyone, for participating! Readers, what books would you recommend? Let us know in the comments!

Till next time and happy reading!

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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

Related posts:

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: The expat life is a craft you can practice, and there are bandaids, laughter & alone time when it doesn’t go well

Mrs EE Culture Shock Toolbox

This month transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol consults with a seasoned expat, who like herself is an Adult Third Culture Kid, for some advice on handling culture shock. They also talk reverse culture shock.

Hello, Displaced Nationers!

Today, I’d like you to meet Mrs Ersatz Expat! You might recognize her from her namesake blog where she describes herself as “a 30 something global soul, a perpetual expat” and writes about her life in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Kazakhstan (the list goes on…). Her photo of the indoor beach in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital city, complete with water slides and beach volleyball court, will make you want to experience blizzards in a whole new way!

Mrs EE prefers to remain anonymous online (hence “Mrs EE”), seriously dislikes milky tea and harbors a love for gadgets which, according to her, improve “life disproportionately compared with their actual value.” Her blog even features a series of said useless doodads, with photos! They include washing machine covers, neck rings for babies, double eye-lid tape and chair socks.

Mrs EE was born into a global life. She grew up in several countries, including a stint in a scary-sounding boarding school in the UK. She kindly took the time to share some of her culture shock stories and experiences. Join us as we talk about cringe-worthy boarding school moments (including a close encounter with Marmite!), along with some self-preservation tips such as laughing your head off and remembering to make time for yourself…

* * *

A warm welcome, Mrs EE, to Culture Shock Toolbox. Can you tell us, which countries have you lived in and for how long?

I am an Irish citizen born in the Netherlands to a Dutch (naturalized Irish)/Irish family. We lived in the Netherlands for two years after I was born and returned there for a further three short postings over the following 20 years. I also spent significant periods living with my grandparents in the Netherlands when my mother was very ill and receiving hospital treatment there. I probably had more personal and cultural connections with the Netherlands than any other country up until I was around 14 years old. After the Netherlands my family had postings in Norway, the UK, Nigeria, Turkey and Venezuela.

I was in boarding school in the UK when my family moved to Nigeria and only visited them for school holidays. I subsequently went to university in the UK, where I met my British husband and started my career. Nowadays I have more personal and cultural connections with the UK (my parents retired there and my sister lives there) than any other country, and many people who meet me believe I am British.

A few years after our first child was born my husband and I were offered the opportunity to expatriate, and we moved to Kazakhstan. After that we spent 18 months in Malaysia (both East and West during that period), and we are now in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. That makes a total of nine countries and I think 11 or 12 postings give or take. I have never lived in my passport country. I last visited Ireland five years ago.

In the context of cultural transitions, did you ever end up with your foot in your mouth?

All the time! The process of handing money over is always fraught. In some countries no one cares as long as they get it. In others, you put the money down and never hand it over. In yet other places you use only your right hand while others expect you to use both. I now have this habit of putting money down on the counter with my right hand—it seems to cover most bases.

handing over money

And I think you have some memorable stories about that British boarding school you attended?

The most cringe-worthy moment I ever had was on the very first day. I was 11 years old, joined mid-year and no one in my family had ever boarded before so I was rather at sea with the whole experience. My mother had dropped me off the night before and was on her way to meet my father in Nigeria. I knew the mail service was so bad I would not hear from them at all before I arrived, alone, in Lagos airport in three months’ time. I was rather scared and, although I had lived in England for the two years leading up to the move and attended an English school, I had lived with my parents so I was not truly culturally immersed in British food and traditions, let alone boarding traditions, which most of the other girls had heard about from their mothers and aunts.

I went down to breakfast and was rather bemused by being offered tea with or without sugar. While there was sugar on the table this was only for sprinkling on cereal (yes really!): we were not allowed to put that sugar in our tea. I asked for it with sugar and noticed with horror that it came with the milk already in. I am not allergic to milk but don’t have it often so it made me gag. At the same time I spread my toast with what I thought was chocolate spread. It turned out to be something called Marmite—a salty British sandwich spread for which the advertising tagline is you either love it or hate it. Well, I hated it.

The matron at the head of our table yelled at me for being greedy, taking food I wasn’t eating and, shaming me in front of all the girls, made me eat and drink every piece of food.

How did you handle that situation?

I finished my food and ran to the loos, when we were released for the five minutes before prayers, to be sick and burst into tears. I could not have a hot drink at breakfast for the entire two years I was in that boarding school, and I retain an abiding hatred for that woman and my time there.

Horrors of British Boarding School

THE HORRORS OF BRITISH BOARDING SCHOOL: Being offered milky tea with no sugar; tasting Marmite when you thought it was chocolate spread; and being shamed by Matron.

Would you handle the situation differently now?

If someone tried to do that to me now I would stand up to them, of course! If I saw someone doing that to a child I would be furious. No amount of cultural sensitivity to host cultures should require a child be shamed by a grown up, particularly when their parents are not around to defend them. Years later when my husband was a deputy house master and we were house parents, I came home from work to find the whole of the youngest year in our flat. They had committed some minor infraction for which they had been punished. They missed their supper and the Matron would not allow them to have any replacement meal. We cooked them bacon sandwiches and put in a formal complaint to the school.

Looking back on your many cultural transitions, can you recall any situations that you handled with surprising finesse?

It’s very hard to say, I moved so many times as a child that adapting to new cultures and expectations has become rather the norm for me. I wouldn’t say I exhibit any particular finesse as such but I do find that the transitions are less of a shock to me than to many of the people I meet because they are an integral part of my life rather than a once–thrice in a lifetime experience. That is not to say that I don’t experience stress, culture shock, bereavement at leaving a posting or any of those feelings that are the bread-and-butter of expat life. It’s just that I know to expect them and I know how they impact me. I also have an insight into how our children are feeling because I lived their life as opposed to just seeing them go through it.

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

Resilience! Expat life is hard, and you don’t become a craftsman overnight. You have to practice and get used to handling the unexpected, which gets thrown at you every day from the moment you get through immigration control and out of the airport. Some days will be unbelievably hard but, once you get through them, put away the toolbox and rest, and then get it out again and have another go. You have to be willing to take the hits, stand up and endure. Eventually, it will get easier.

I like the idea of taking the hits and moving on. Everyone should have Bandaids in their Culture Shock Toolbox.

That’s true, and you also need to know when you’re getting close to the end of your reserves and need some downtime. Whether it’s a holiday or a trip home to see relatives, time on your own or with your spouse and children, or even just a quick coffee with a friend (in person or over Skype), make sure that you get it. And you also have to make time just for yourself.

Finally, I would suggest cultivating a sense of humour. Learn to laugh at your mistakes rather than feel too bad about them. I remember one time, a month or so into our posting in Kazakhstan, we went to a fast food outlet in a food court and ordered four burger meals (we could not read the menu or order anything more complicated at the time). We were given five Danish pastries. I remember we sat there laughing our heads off to stop ourselves crying with frustration. Of course, by the time we left we could read menus, order specific food with variations and send it back if it was not to our liking and then we had to learn the process all over again in a new country!

Bandaids laughter time for self

POSSIBLE REMEDIES/FIXES: Bandaids, laughter, and self-care should be in every expat’s Culture Shock Toolbox.

That seems like sound advice! If you can laugh, your recovery from cultural mishaps will be much quicker, that’s for sure. And now can I ask whether you have any tips for handling reverse culture shock?

I have never gone home as such, but I do get a sense of this when we travel to the Netherlands. Of course we are not moving there to live so it’s not as intense but I do experience a wave of sadness that the country I grew up in effectively no longer exists. People behave differently, the TV programs are different, I no longer speak the language as easily, and many of the people with whom I spent most of my time are now dead. I feel out of time and out of place. I don’t think I would ever go back there to live, it’s too sad. My parents never returned to their native lands, choosing instead to settle in the UK where they had based our education. I think they realised that 30 years of expat life made it too hard for them to return.

How about if you end up back in the UK, where your husband is from and where you think of as “home”?

I am not sure what will help us transition back to life in the UK when we finally end our expat lives. I think a lot will depend on our children. We are currently debating whether or not to send them to boarding school in England when they’re older. If we do we will, of course, be back there far more often than if we don’t, and our children as well as our parents and siblings will help keep us far more grounded than if we had no family around. In the meantime, I make sure that Britain is not a distant country, reading a spread of papers and news magazines every day. The Internet has been a godsend in this regard. I remember as a child Radio 4 was on constantly and people would bring out tapes of CNN and the World Service which would do the rounds; a four-hour snapshot of the news. Papers and magazines were on circulation lists and as my father was promoted we got the papers more quickly. These days I can read the news as soon as it’s published, it’s truly fantastic.

Thank you so much, Mrs EE, for sharing your experiences so openly. What you say about resilience and taking time for ourselves is so true. We just have to look onwards and forwards while managing our own energy resources, and remember that it’s not only OK but necessary to take a break and treat ourselves with a little TLC. Bandaids, laughter and alone time should be in every expat’s culture shock toolbox!

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, do you have any boarding school horror stories to share? Please leave them in the comments, along with any questions you have for Mrs EE.

Hm, there’s actually a question I forgot to ask her: why does she call herself “ersatz”, which means not genuine or fake? Is it because she is enjoying the expat life so much? On that note, I’ll leave you with her photo of chair socks:
Chair sox-515
(Who knew chairs could get cold feet, too?!)

For more entertainment of this kind, be sure to follow Mrs EE’s blog. She is also on Twitter.

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

Until then. Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox and the newly published Reverse Culture Shock. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin, Goodreads, and, of course, her author site.  

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top collage: Photos of England, Ireland, Holland and Jeddah from Pixabay; culture shock toolbox branding; and photo of Ersatz Expat and her blog branding (supplied). Next visual: “Money in hand” photo from Pixabay. Second collage: (clockwise from top left) Memories of boarding school, by jinterwas via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); tea service photo via Pixabay; SHAME!, by Mills Baker via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); and Marmite, thickly spread on toasted bread, by Kent Fredric via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Last collage: Hammer and nail, solitary woman & laughter photos via Pixabay; and 流血後の親指 (Your thumb after an accident), by Hisakazu Watanabe via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Photo of chair socks is courtesy of Ersatz Expat.

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats and TCKs, when choosing tools for adjusting to a brand new culture, study the safety instructions

This month transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol consults with a fellow Adult Third Culture Kid for culture shock, and reverse culture shock, advice.

Hello, Displaced Nationers!

My guest this month is fellow Adult Third Culture Kid Amanda Bate, who co-founded the awesome #TCKchat, a bi-weekly event on Twitter that fosters conversation and provides insights and information for Third Culture Kids, in the spirit of mutual support.

(Some of you may remember Lisa Liang’s recent interview with Dounia Bertuccelli? She is one of Amanda’s co-hosts.)

Amanda was raised both in the United States and in Cameroon, a country in Central Africa. Her interest in navigating multicultural environments started young—and now it has become part of her career. A product of international schools in Africa and of American universities, she currently works in higher education from a base in Richmond, Virginia. She has her own consultancy offering counseling for college admissions to Third Culture Kids. In addition, she directs a college access program, helping disadvantaged students understand their options for college. She is excited about all things related to higher education, travel, and cross-cultural experiences.

Amanda recently founded TheBlackExpat.com, which has been featured on the Wall Street Journal Expat, to address global mobility and black identity. As she told freelance writer Debra Bruno:

We highlight the rich, international experiences of the Black Diaspora with firsthand accounts, personal narratives and key advice about cross cultural living. (…) With the black perspective so limited in visibility, we want provide a stage for the voices of the growing number of black travelers to be heard.

What else is important to know about Amanda? Well, she has an endless love for mangoes, airport terminals and makossa. Hm…what’s that?! Read on to find out…

Also read on to see what she has to say about the tango, manners (or the lack), and methods of bonding over shared interests (without necessarily sharing a language!).

* * *

Hi, Amanda, and a warm welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox. Can you tell us, which countries have you lived in and for how long?

I have lived in the United States and Cameroon. As you mentioned in your kind introduction, I grew up a Third Culture Kid, or TCK—so split my time from age 10 to 20 between both countries. I’ve been in the United States full time since 2000. I’ve also done some traveling in South America and Europe—and am currently navigating a possible move abroad.

In the context of cultural transitions, did you ever end up with your foot in your mouth? Any memorable stories?

It’s probably the Third Culture Kid in me, but I actually worry about making a misstep in a new locale. I spend a lot of time observing before making any comments that could be misinterpreted. I’m careful not to embrace stereotypes about cultural practices or customs. On the occasions where I’m feeling unsure, I’ll consult with a trusted acquaintance privately. I’ve been in enough situations where other people have made borderline rude comments based on limited information—and desperately don’t want to follow in their footsteps, to extend your foot metaphor.

Can you give us an example?

I’m thinking of a time when I was in Buenos Aires watching an Argentinean tango performance. I thought it was absolutely beautiful and enthralling, but the man next to me, another American, didn’t agree. He leaned in to me while stating loudly: “Oh, they’re not doing it well enough. It’s not sexy. It’s not like how they do it in Dancing With the Stars!” Dancing with the Stars? Was he really comparing an indigenous dance form to something he had seen on an American reality show? I bit my tongue and didn’t say anything—but was embarrassed just the same!

tango and dancing with the stars

Yes, that example really argues for reading the instruction manual for the tools in one’s Culture Shock Toolbox. Can you think of a situation you handled with finesse, and why do you think that was?

You are right about studying the instruction manual! I tend to do research about a place before I travel. It helps to get at least basic information about the culture—especially food, music and sports—which can help me connect with folks. Once, while still in Argentina, a really friendly taxi driver, who happened to be from neighboring Uruguay, took me to the airport. His English was about as good as my Spanish. However, we were able to fully communicate over a common interest—football. I mentioned some of the Uruguayan footballers I knew, and his face lit up. I am pretty sure he wasn’t expecting that by his facial expression—but then he started mentioning the Cameroonian players he knew…and the conversation (helped by lots of hand gestures) took off from there.

Shared passion for football

Ah, yes, football, or soccer as the Americans call it! Always a good topic and at this moment rather timely, for those of us who are following Euro 2016… If you had to give advice to new expats, what’s the tool you’d tell them to develop first and why?

Whenever you’re in a new place, you’re struggling to take it in. Your previous experiences inform how you organize your world. You have a set of rules and routines that worked for you in those spaces. A new place has the potential to uproot that—more so if it’s very different from other places you’ve been. My advice would be to embrace your new location as it is, without condition. I think it’s easier. Otherwise, you’ll end up playing a game of comparison—and your new location will have the hardest time competing with your past home, of which you’ll have only the fondest memories. Besides, it keeps you from making new friends and having new experiences—which some day will become your fondest memories.

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

Moving back to the United States after years of living in Cameroon was a rough transition, truthfully. My mind had fragmented memories of what life was like in America—most of which proved to be inaccurate. I was missing significant cultural references, the weather was colder than I preferred, and my family was far away, on another continent. Because my move correlated with starting university, I had a hard time adjusting. I was terribly homesick. I was calling my family every day. My phone bill was atrocious!

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

Honestly, what helped me was connecting to my old friends, many of whom were going, or had already been, through the same or similar transitions. They provided much-needed support through it all. Talking about what you’re feeling is a good first step. No one can know what exactly you’re going through, especially if you’re good at hiding your struggles. Finding people who have been there helps—not just to vent but also to figure out some coping mechanisms.

Thank you so much, Amanda, for sharing your experiences with us! Research, consultations with trusted acquaintances, an unconditional embrace of your new place, and efforts to connect with empathetic friends…it’s all such great advice! Connecting with those who’ve been through similar experiences is, if I’m to be honest, one of the tools that has helped me the most. It might not change my situation but it gives me some much-needed context. Simply finding out that someone else has felt the same way makes me feel less isolated.

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, have you ever plunged into a cultural situation without adequate preparation? Do tell!

To keep in touch with Amanda, I suggest you follow the monthly #TCKchat. #TCKchat is held twice at 15:00 GMT and 3:00 +1 GMT on the 1st and 3rd Wednesday of each month. (Amanada’s own twitter handle is @bateconsult.) And don’t forget to check out her new site, The Black Expat.

Wait, I almost forgot! Anyone still wondering what makossa is? Amanda has suggested the following for your listening enjoyment:

 

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

Until then. Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox and the newly published Reverse Culture Shock. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin, Goodreads, and, of course, her author site.  

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab post.

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

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top visual: (top row) Toolbox and globe via Pixabay; Sobriety Test, by Eli Christman via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Amanda Bate (supplied); (bottom row) images of Cameroon and instructions via Pixabay; The Black Expat logo. Second visual: Tango, by Gisele Pereira via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); 4.21.08 Dancing With The Stars, by Robbie Wagner via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Last visual: Luis Suarez celebrates his Gol to put Uruguay 1 – Netherlands 0, by Jimmy Baikovicius via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Dorge Kouemaha playing for Foolad, by Morteza Jaberian via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).

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


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

Buongiorno, Displaced Nationers!

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three things helped me a lot:

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

 

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Until then. Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox and the newly published Reverse Culture Shock. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin, Goodreads, and, of course, her author site.  

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab post.

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

Related posts:

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

TCK TALENT: Mary Bassey, Writer, Storyteller, Advocate and Scientist

Mary Bassey TCK Talent

Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang has invited a member of the up-and-coming generation of talented Adult Third Culture Kids to be her guest this month.

Welcome back, readers. This month’s guest is Mary Bassey, the first ATCK interviewee for this column whose talents extend from writing all the way to biochemistry! Mary is a self-described multiethnic (Efik & Igbo) Nigerian-Canadian-American. She was born in Nigeria, grew up mostly in Canada (the West Coast) and Kentucky, and currently resides in Southern California.

Mary has a talent and a passion for storytelling and writing, particularly when it sparks cross-cultural discussion and helps to effect change. She contributes to The Black Expat, a site that features first-hand accounts, personal narratives and key advice about cross-cultural living from members of the Black Diaspora. She has her own site, Verily Merrily Mary, where she coaches writers in how to have an impact, and she recently started a new blog on the Huffington Post. (Her first post was about the need for millennials to always be hustling, to the detriment of self-care.)

Mary received a prestigious TCK award to take part in this year’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference, in Amsterdam, where she spoke on a panel about storytelling as a means of communicating the experience of a global or Third Culture Kid lifestyle.

I met Mary on Twitter at #TCKchat, a bimonthly Twitter event for which she is one of several co-hosts (@verilymary). I found her so interesting, I decided I had to learn more of her story.

* * *

Welcome, Mary. Please tell us all the places where you grew up and why your family moved.
I was born in Ilorin, Nigeria, a city mostly populated by those from the Yoruba ethnic group. My father is Efik and my mother is Igbo and I fluently spoke both Yoruba and English as a small child, so even before leaving Nigeria for North America, my early childhood was already quite multicultural. My sights were set even further along the global cultural landscape once my father landed jobs as a physics professor in various cities and my mother, siblings, and I moved along with him. Our first move was to Victoria in British Columbia, Canada (on the Southern tip of Vancouver Island), for nearly three years. Then we moved to Kentucky for about seven years. Our last move was to Southern California, which has been my home for over eight years.

Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time, and if so, why?
My life in Victoria was by far the highlight of my life. Growing up, my siblings and I were involved in the activities of the city’s community center, which catered to the needs of kids living in the city, providing parents with time off while giving us the opportunity to play and explore the outdoors. I had my first camping experience in Victoria and actually saw a moose in person at around age six (one of the most Canadian moments of my life!). Hiking, swimming, and wading in the lakes and beaches were normal, nearly everyday parts of my life. Victoria opened up a new world of outdoor life, and I absolutely loved it. I was so carefree.

“Being in a STEM field has given me another avenue to put my mind to use.”

What drew you to studying biochemistry?
I decided to get my bachelors degree in biochemistry because science was something I have always liked, especially the life sciences. I couldn’t choose between biology or chemistry so I decided to pick biochemistry. My task now as a graduate is to figure out how to merge my intellectual curiosity in the sciences with my love of culture and storytelling.

Science and storytelling

The world could use your combination of gifts! Speaking of storytelling, which makes me think of writing, what made you decide to work as a writing coach in California?
When my family moved to California because of my father’s job as a physics professor at a university here, I was entering my second year of high school. I’m now in my early 20s and am still here. I decided to become a writing coach because I knew that I had something to offer to those who are struggling with their writing voice and/or need guidance in order to effectively communicate their message. I have been helping people with their writing since middle school. I decided to make my services more public and created an online platform to do so. It has been a blast working with so many brilliant and smart writers.

“I never thought of myself as a global citizen because I am not a citizen of the globe; I am a citizen of two countries.”

Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures?
I only partially identify with the cultures that I have grown up in. When I say that I am Nigerian, Canadian, or American, there is an invisible asterisk attached to each nationality because they each require a bit more of an explanation. For example, I am Nigerian, but I have spent most of my life living in North America. This may cause some people to question the validity of my Nigerianness because it is inevitably in juxtaposition with my Canadianness and my Americanness. Regardless, I know that my being Nigerian is valid.

Did your TCK upbringing inform your choice to become a writer? 
I think so. With so much of my life in transition and in flux, writing has been one of the few constants. Paper and pen is readily available in every place I have lived, and nowadays, of course, we also have laptops and tablets. When you are living a cross-cultural life, you become introspective by force. As a kid, I had plenty of those moments of introspection—though I may not have taken them to heart or perhaps was not yet able to understand my feelings fully.

Has writing helped you to process your TCK upbringing?
I only found out about the term “TCK” four years ago! It has helped me put words to my childhood experiences and write more about my TCK life. Finding other TCKs in the blogosphere and via social media encouraged me to be more confident in making my stories and experiences public on blogs and other kinds of publications. But even with the various opportunities I have been given to write on public platforms, I do not neglect writing for myself (journaling, etc.). I am such a strong believer in people—writers especially—journaling privately. It’s like the socially acceptable version of talking to yourself.

“How many of us millennials are more concerned with growing our ‘Countries I’ve Been To’ list instead of having in-depth interactions with the citizens of those countries?”

As an ATCK, do you have “itchy feet”?
One thing I like to say is that I find instability in stability. My obsession with wordplay aside, the statement rings so true for me. The fact that I can say I have been in the same spot (here in California) for over eight years is mind boggling—and makes me feel a bit anxious. The idea of being anything close to 100% established and settled in a place is not a source of comfort for me at all. My upbringing was not like that. I liked looking forward to my next plane, ferryboat, or long-distance bus ride during school holidays as a kid. My childhood was indeed nomadic. However, already this year, for the first time in five years, I took two international trips, giving me a whopping total of 10 planes already taken this year. That constant movement has kept me sane. It’s the madness of travel that keeps me centered.

Do you prefer to travel for business, pleasure, or both?
I would not mind a lifestyle that affords my moving frequently. And, while vacations are fun, I would not want all of my travel to be rooted in pleasure alone. My latest trip to Amsterdam was around the middle of March of this year. As you mentioned at the outset, I traveled there to attend the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference and I was one of five ATCKs to be awarded the Pollock Scholarship, which covers our cost of attending. I was also one of the conference presenters! I was on the plenary panel led by Julia Simens, called “Stories You Need to Tell.” There was a strong sense of purpose and duty with my going to Amsterdam. While the city was gorgeous, it was not just a vacation for me. That is the kind of thing that I want to happen regularly in my life: traveling with a purpose beyond pleasure.

The Worlds Within

I can relate and I’m sure it will continue to happen for you. Per your site, Verily Merrily Mary, you’re involved in many worthy causes: you’ve worked with organizations that aim to encourage grade school kids to get excited about STEM fields, especially children from underrepresented groups. You also support and volunteer with organizations that empower cancer patients and cancer researchers. Last July, you received the title Miss Efik USA, and you advocate for the Nigerian Efik people who live in the United States as well as in Nigeria. Congratulations on these contributions and achievements! Is there anything else you would like to share?
I had the absolute honor to be published in the book The Worlds Within: An Anthology of TCK Art and Writing: Young, Global and Between Cultures, which was launched in 2014 as a way of giving children and adolescents a voice regarding their TCK experience.
Editor’s note: The Worlds Within made our Best of Expat Books for 2014.

 

* * *

Thank you, Mary. Readers: you may learn more about Mary, her writing, and her various projects at her Verily Merrily site. If you have any questions or comments for her, please be sure to leave them below.

Editor’s note: All photos were supplied by Mary Bassey or are from Pixabay, with the exception of the two FIGT conference photos, which are from their Facebook page. The quotes are from Mary’s posts on Verily Merrilly.

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

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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

Related posts:

CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats, don’t let the cultural prism you carry around blind you to the most interesting facets of the experience

Culture Shock Toolbox Joe Lurie
Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol consults with a world expert on cross-cultural communication for this month’s column.

Hello, Displaced Nationers! This month I’d like to introduce you to Joe Lurie, Executive Director Emeritus of the University of California Berkeley’s International House. If you’re not familiar with it, I-House is a multicultural residence and program center that serves Berkeley’s students, alumni, and the local community. Its mission is to foster intercultural respect, understanding, lifelong friendships, and leadership skills to promote a more tolerant and peaceful world. Founded in 1930, Berkeley’s is part of a network of International Houses worldwide.

In addition to having led this esteemed cross-cultural institution, Joe has worked as a teacher, trainer and consultant. Last year, he published Perception and Deception: A Mind-Opening Journey Across Cultures, which contains the sum total of his knowledge about cross-cultural communication.

On the book cover is a cow, with the question:

What am I?

Divine?
Dowry?
Dinner?

Already this tells you something about Joe—the fact that he has a sense of humor along with many stories to tell about bridging cultures. As one of his Amazon reviewers says, the book is “sometimes laugh out loud, sometimes moving, always thought provoking.”

Joe also shares stories on his YouTube channel, along with information about how our own narratives can lead to incorrect perceptions. Tune in to watch him speak about an Italian student who thought his Sikh roommate was Jesus, the various meanings slurping and belching can have—and much more!

But for now, let’s hear a couple of Joe’s stories about gift giving, along with his theory of cultural prisms, the kind that can blind you once you exit your comfort zone. Warning: Joe’s culture shock toolbox may require donning safety specs!

* * *

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

I lived in Kenya as a Peace Corps Volunteer for three years; directed international educational programs in various parts of France (Strasbourg, Toulouse, Dole and Corsica) for four years; directed a study abroad program in Ghana for six months; and studied in Montreal, Canada, for two years. I have also traveled widely in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America, New Zealand and Australia as part of my career in international and intercultural education.

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

I recall, while living in Ghana, offering a gift to an Ashanti chief with my left hand, which caused a very angry reaction from the chief and the villagers who were present. Little did I know then that offering something with the left hand is virtually taboo in many parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The left hand in these areas is considered dirty, used frequently to clean oneself after a bowel movement.

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

Before entering another culture, it’s helpful to become familiar with its values, taboos and related behaviors, in contrast to your own values, taboos and behaviors. It is also useful to spend time with someone from the countries to be visited, asking them what they see as strange, offensive, or even unacceptable in your culture. This kind of research makes it easier to pause and suspend judgement when encountering a strange, inexplicable behavior beyond the horizons of your experience.

Of course, I apologized profusely—but to little avail until another Ghanaian, who had been to the United States, explained to all assembled that I meant no harm. It was at that moment that I fully understood the spirit behind the West African proverb: “The stranger sees only what he or she knows.” The Japanese also have a good one: “You cannot see the whole world through a bamboo tube.”

Japanese proverb bamboo tube

Can you think of a situation you handled with finesse, and why do you think that was?

I recall an Indian friend offering me a beautifully wrapped gift with two hands—a signal that I should accept the gift with two hands, as is the custom in many parts of Asia. Also, many Americans will open the gift immediately in front of the giver, eager to know what’s there—and perhaps even feigning joy if the gift is not particularly desirable. Because I had read about and experienced the discomfort that opening a gift in front of the giver could cause, I paused and chose to open the gift in private later, in order to prevent any possible sign of disappointment that might cause the giver to lose face.

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

Travelers and new expats would do well to realize that their cultures function like narrow prisms that distort their perceptions of what lies beyond their cultural ponds. As far as the Culture Shock Toolbox goes, I would advise that you take out your chisel and keep chipping away at these prisms to include facets of other cultures. The original prism never completely goes away, but you shouldn’t let it prevent you from taking in all you can from all the people you meet in other places. It’s enlightening as well as enriching.
cultural prism and chisel

Thank you so much, Joe, for taking the time to share your culture shock stories with us! Your description of one’s native culture as a prism is spot on. A prism takes light but then bends and distorts it. And I think you are right, we ought to chip away at these prisms, or at least become more aware of their refractive effects in producing cultural biases that limit our understanding of other cultural realities. We would all, whether we travel or not, do well to heed that advice, given that so much of our world is multicultural these days.

* * *

Readers, in light of Joe’s advice, why not take a moment and ask yourself: what is my cultural perspective and what does it make me see (and not see) in others? And now if you want to learn more about what Joe has to say, I recommend you visit his author site and/or consider buying his book for further inspiration (and entertainment!).

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

Until then. Prost! Santé!

H.E. Rybol is a TCK and the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and Culture Shock Toolbox. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin and Goodreads. She recently launched a new Web site and will soon be publishing her second book, on repatriation.  

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

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

Related post:

Photo credits: Book cover and author image supplied; all other photos from Pixabay.

TCK TALENT: Nancy Henderson-James, Missionary Kid in Angola, Librarian in North Carolina, and Author/Memoirist

Nancy Henderson James TCK Talent
Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang has invited another fellow Writing out of Limbo contributor to be her guest this month.

Greetings, readers. Today’s interviewee is Nancy Henderson-James, my fellow ATCK author in the anthology Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids.

Nancy was born in Tacoma, Washington, to Congregational missionaries. Not long after, the family moved to Portugal to learn Portuguese in preparation for a life in Angola, then a Portuguese colony.

Nancy grew up mostly in Angola—except for a couple of years in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where she boarded in a dorm run by an English couple, 2,000 kilometers away from her family. The Angolan war for independence from Portugal, in 1961, forced Nancy’s mother to bring her children “back” to Tacoma when Nancy was 16.

After high school graduation Nancy attended Carleton College, and then she and her husband settled in Durham, NC, where she worked as a librarian for 30 years.

The author of an acclaimed Third Culture Kid memoir At Home Abroad: An American Girl in Africa, about her childhood in Africa, Nancy has received honors from the Southern Women Writers Conference and the North Carolina Writers’ Network.

* * *

Welcome, Nancy. I’ve outlined some of your story already because I’d like to begin at the point where, after having “repatriated” with your mother and siblings to Tacoma, Washington, you were basically left on your own. Your older sister went to college and your mother took your younger siblings back to Angola to be reunited with your father. You, meanwhile, attended a high school in Tacoma for your senior year, living with a family you knew from church. In both your memoir and essay in the anthology Writing Out of Limbo, you write eloquently about the yearning you felt for family connection and “home,” which you sometimes confused with a need for spiritual connection. How do you define “home” now?
Thank you for inviting me, Lisa. The advantage of aging is the ability to look back and see how seemingly random decisions have knit into a coherent pattern. It is obvious to me now that a drive to create family and community has led me through life. Most recently it has manifested in the decision my husband and I made to form and move into a cohousing community in downtown Durham, North Carolina, called Durham Central Park Cohousing Community. Cohousing offers some of the best aspects of growing up as a missionary kid, such as sharing resources, supporting fellow community members, and working together toward a shared vision. Our urban condo community sometimes reminds me of the good times I had living in dorms. Of all my living situations growing up, dorms were the most congenial. Now the coho feels very much like home.

Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time, and if so, why?
Zeroing in on one place and time is a challenge for me. With the exception of the years immediately after reentry to the United States when I was caught up in culture shock, almost every place I’ve lived has had its happy times. For pure unconscious happiness, my early years in Lobito, living with my family, swimming on the beach across from the house every day, and absorbing the cultural mix of the small city has to qualify. My children’s growing up years gave me the satisfaction of family. And now in my older years, settled into cohousing, I find the challenge of working with 38 other residents draws on my strengths and tests me in ways that help me grow.

“I had landed in the middle of my own mystery…

Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures, or with people who have similar interests and perhaps similar cross-cultural backgrounds?  
My antenna immediately goes up when I hear someone talking about living in another country, whether as a child or adult. I attribute all sorts of wonderful characteristics to her, not always with good reason! I’ve spent decades reconciling to American culture and I am most of the way there. I married an American man who had not traveled much until I showed him its virtues. I have two American sons who have absorbed the best of American culture, contribute to it in the fields of affordable housing and community organizing, and bring me great happiness. That said, I pay special attention to what is happening in Angola and Portugal. I try to keep up my Portuguese and recently have had wonderful contacts via Facebook with young Angolans. I attend reunions of those who also grew up in Angola, at times the only way to know what is happening there since newspapers rarely cover Angola.

Did your TCK upbringing inform your choice to become a writer and memoirist?  Conversely, did writing the memoir and the essay for Writing Out of Limbo help you to process your TCK upbringing?
Both are true. Reading Mary Wertsch’s Military Brats in my 40s launched me on a mission, so to speak, to explore how a missionary upbringing affected missionary kids, or MKs, in the way that the military affected military brats. I found countless correspondences. The responses to the questionnaire I sent out—which were compiled in Africa Lives in My Soul: Responses to an African Childhood —provided rich sources for contemplating my life. The honesty and willingness of other missionary kids to respond affected me deeply and brought back memories of similar experiences I had had. Writing a memoir seemed like the logical next step. Faith Eidse helped me along the way by including my essay in Unrooted Childhoods, the memoir anthology she and Nina Sichel edited. Her confidence in my work was invaluable.

Missionary kids

…the mystery of life, really.”

It sounds like writing became part of the fabric of your life.
Writing continues to supply food for inquiry and expression. Our cohousing community has a small group of writers and artists that meets weekly to create and share. The group motivates me to write and provides helpful feedback. I also co-edit our monthly e-news.

What made you decide to settle in Durham and become a librarian?
We moved to Durham when my husband decided to attend Duke University’s graduate health administration program in 1974. As the wage earner with a newly minted library degree, I found a job working as a high school librarian—strange since I had hated attending American high school. Despite that, I worked at Jordan High School for 25 years and then for another five years at the UNC Children’s Hospital School (for children with chronic illnesses), as their first librarian.

Were you an avid reader as a kid, like so many TCKs?
As a child I was much more attracted to the outdoors (riding my bike, running, swimming) than reading inside. But when I graduated from high school I realized how much I didn’t know and started reading.

As an ATCK, do you have “itchy feet,” which still make you want to move frequently?
ATCKs seem to respond in two opposite fashions…to want to move frequently or to stay put. I discovered early on that I am in the second camp. I was a thrilled high school senior when President Kennedy announced the Peace Corps, certain I would join after college. But when the time came, I chose graduate school stateside to maintain ties with my boyfriend and his family, since my family still lived in Angola. The need for connection trumped the need for adventure. I have never lived outside the United States since leaving Africa in 1961. That said, I do travel for pleasure and took my sons on trips abroad, including on my first return trip to Angola after 44 years.

Never lived outside US

Your memoir, At Home Abroad: An American Girl in Africa, was well received. The chapter included in Unrooted Childhoods is gorgeous and haunting, and I love how you talk about the importance of language. (I agree! I think the ability to communicate trumps nationality, race, gender, religion, etc., in terms of person-to-person contact.) Where else may readers find your wonderful published writing?
My recent publications have been essays:

I’m currently working on another memoir that focuses on the many mothers and fathers who passed through my life growing up.

* * *

Thank you for sharing your story with us, Nancy! Readers: you may learn more about Nancy Henderson-James and her writings at her author site. And don’t forget to check out her books: At Home Abroad and the anthology, Africa Lives in My Soul. If you have any questions or comments for Nancy, be sure to leave them below.

Editor’s note: All photos of Africa are from Nancy Henderson-James’s Flickr albums; other photos (of the Tacoma school and the library) are from morguefiles. The quotes are from Nancy’s memoir (see excerpts).

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Related posts:

%d bloggers like this: