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


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

Buongiorno, Displaced Nationers!

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three things helped me a lot:

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

 

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Until then. Prost! Santé!

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab post.

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

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

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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!

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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!

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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!

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IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: Best of expat fiction 2015

The title of this post is a lie: you didn’t miss anything. It’s we who missed our deadline of publishing, at the end of 2015, a list of books for, by and about expats.

Dare I suggest that our procrastination could prove fortuitous? Most of us have more time to read now that the holidays are over and the doldrums have set in—along with, for some of us (I refer to those on the East Coast of the USA), a spell of blizzardous weather. What better time to curl up with a book that in some way relates to the themes of international adventure and displacement?

Without further ado, allow me to offer my curated list of the best novels by, for, and about expats and other international creatives in 2015. (Nonfiction coming soon, we promise!)

PLEASE NOTE: The books, which include indie as well as traditionally published novels, are arranged in reverse chronological order.

* * *

Year of the GooseYearoftheGoose_cover_400x (Unnamed Press, December 2015)
Author: Carly J. Hallman
Expat credentials: A native Texan, Hallman lives in Beijing. This is her first novel.
Synopsis: A comic novel about China’s era of the instant tycoon, which has been described as “unhinged”, “outrageous”, “deranged” and “hilarious. The oligarchical, tabloid-driven society it portrays is not unlike our own, which may be why the book was listed as one of the BBC’s 10 books to read in December 2015 as well as selected for the December 2015 Indie Next list.
How we heard about: The Anthill blog


TheNavyWife_cover_400xThe Navy Wife (December 2016)
Author: Helena Halme
Expat credentials: Originally from Finland, Halme has lived in the UK with her British husband for many years.
Synopsis: The sequel to Halme’s well-received autobiographical novel The Englishman (reviewed here by Displaced Nation founder Kate Allison), which concerns a long-distance romance between a Finnish woman, Kaisa, and a British naval officer, Peter. We see the couple, despite having tied the knot, facing a number of obstacles and threats to living happily ever after—especially when Kaisa doesn’t take well to the life of a military spouse in a foreign country.How we heard about: Social media, and a comment by Halme on one of our posts.


Seafled_cover_400xSeafled (November 2015), Burnt Sea (August 2015) & Seaswept (April 2015)
Author: Jordan Rivet (aka Shannon Young)
Expat credentials: An American, Young has lived in Hong Kong for the past few years with her half-Chinese husband, a Hong Kong native.
Synopsis: A post-apocalyptic adventure series set on a souped-up cruise ship, featuring a prickly female mechanic named Esther. The series, called the Seabound Chronicles, consists of three books and a prequel.
How we heard about: Young writes the popular “Diary of an Expat Writer” column for the Displaced Nation.


TheJapaneseLover_cover_400xThe Japanese Lover (Atria Books, November 2015)
Author: Isabel Allende
Expat credentials: Born in Lima, Peru, to a Chilean diplomatic family, Allende lived in various countries, including Chile, Bolivia, and Beirut. As an adult she worked in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe; she also lived for over a decade in Venezuela. She currently lives in San Rafael, California.
Synopsis: A cross-cultural love story that sweeps from present-day San Francisco to WWII-era Poland the United States. It explores questions of identity, abandonment, and redemption.
How we heard about it: Who hasn’t heard about it? It was one of the most anticipated books of 2015!


TheDisobedientWife_cover_400xThe Disobedient Wife (Cinnamon Press, November 2015)
Author: Annika Milisic-Stanley
Expat credentials: Born to Swedish and Anglo-German parents, Milisic-Stanley grew up in England and now lives in Rome. She says she based the plot on stories she heard when living in Dushanbe as a humanitarian aid worker for several years.
Synopsis: The story of the friendship that forms between a poor, courageous local woman in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, and her employer, a trailing expat wife married to a British diplomat.
How we heard about: An interview with Kristin Louise Duncombe, an American writer who has lived in Europe since 2001.


CrimeRave_cover_400xCrime Rave (The Margins Press, November 2015)
Author: Sezin Koehler
Expat credentials: Koehler is an adult Third Culture Kid who lived in Prague for some years and now lives in Florida. She has written several posts for the Displaced Nation, including a two-part series listing movies that depict the horrors of being abroad or otherwise displaced.
Synopsis: The second installment to her debut novel, American Monsters. Picking up where that one left off while jumping genres, the new book presents an alternate universe in which goddesses have free reign over humans, trauma goes hand in hand with superpowers, and Marilyn Monroe lives.
How we heard about: A Facebook post by Koehler


ADecentBomber_cover_400xA Decent Bomber (November 2015)
Author: Alexander McNabb
Expat credentials: A Brit who has been working in, living in and traveling around the Middle East for some thirty years, McNabb was featured on The Displaced Nation three years ago for his “Levant Cycle” trilogy.
Synopsis: Another political thriller—but this one is set in Northern Ireland and concerns a former IRA bomb maker who is drafted against his will into joining the War on Terror.
How we heard about: He sent us a heads up, and Beth Green reviewed the book in her last column. She found it well researched, well written and an enjoyable read.


ThePalestInk_cover_400xThe Palest Ink (Lake Union Publishing, October 2015)
Author: Kay Bratt
Expat credentials: Bratt lived in China for almost five years, where she “fell in love enough with the people to want to write about them forever.” She has since repatriated to the hills of North Carolina. (She is also the author of a memoir, Silent Tears: A Journey of Hope in a Chinese Orphanage. )
Synopsis: A story that depicts the coming-of-age of a sheltered son from an intellectual family in Shanghai, during a tumultuous period of Chinese history: the Cultural Revolution.
How we heard about: Kindle promotion.


Olivia&Sophia_cover_400xOlivia & Sophia (Monsoon Books, October 2015)
Author: Rosie Milne
Expat credentials: A native Brit, Milne has lived all over Asia; she currently lives in Singapore, where she runs the Asian Books Blog.
Synopsis: A fictional account of the lives of the first and second wives of the founder of the British trading post of Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. Set in London, Java, Sumatra and Singapore, against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars—the story takes the form of two fictionalized diaries, one by each of Raffles’s wives: Olivia Devinish and Sophia Hull. Milne “takes us away from the cold, damp confines of Georgian London to the muggy, hostile tropics and to the titillations and tribulations of a life far away from home.”
How we heard about: When Rosie Milne was “wonderlanded” on our site, we published a couple of excerpts from the book.


NowhereChild_coverNowhere Child (Black Dot Publishing, October 2015)
Author: Rachel Abbott
Expat credentials: Abbott fled from the corporate life to Italy, which gave her the opportunity to start writing psychological thrillers. Her first one was a break-out hit on Kindle, and she hasn’t looked back. Currently, Abbott divides her time between Italy (where she lives in an apartment in an old fort, which overlooks the sea) and Alderney, in the Channel Islands (just off the coast of France). But although the expat life gave her a new career as a writer, Abbott sets her books mostly in her native Manchester.
Synopsis: A stand-alone novella featuring the same characters as Abbott’s Stranger Child. Eight months ago Tasha Joseph ran away, and her stepmother, Emma, has been searching for her ever since—as are the police, since Tasha could be a vital witness in a criminal trial.
How we heard about: Lorraine Mace interviewed Abbott for her Location, Locution column in December.


TheHundredYearFlood_cover_400xThe Hundred-Year Flood (Little A, September 2015)
Author: Matthew Salesses
Expat credentials: Salesses was adopted from Korea at the age of two and often writes about race and adoption. This is his first full-length novel.
Synopsis: The mythical and magical story of a 22-year-old Korean-American’s escape to Prague in the wake of his uncle’s suicide and the aftermath of 9/11. He tries to convince himself that living in a new place will mean a new identity and a chance to shed the parallels between himself and his adopted father.
How we heard about: Social media


TheDressmaker_cover_400xThe Dressmaker (Penguin Books, August 2015*)
Author: Rosalie Ham
Expat credentials: Born and raised in Jerilderie, Australia, Ham now lives in Melbourne. Like most Australians, she has had a period of traveling and living overseas.
Synopsis: A darkly satirical tale of love, revenge, and 1950s fashion. After twenty years spent mastering the art of dressmaking at couture houses in Paris, Tilly Dunnage returns to the small Australian town she was banished from as a child. She plans only to check on her ailing mother and leave. But Tilly decides to stay, and though she is still an outcast, her exquisite dresses prove irresistible to the prim women of Dungatar. Note: The book is soon to be a film starring Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times
*Originally published in 2000, this is the film adaptation of the book.


CirclingtheSun_cover_400xCircling the Sun (Ballantine Books, July 2015)
Author: Paula McLain
Expat credentials: None! Her breakout novel, The Paris Wife, was about an expat: Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, whose passionate marriage ended as her husband shot into literary stardom. This time her focus is the Happy Valley set, a decadent community of Europeans in 1920s colonial Kenya. As she told NPR in a recent interview:

You know, I wrote most of The Paris Wife in a coffee shop in Cleveland. I don’t have to tell you that a Starbucks in Cleveland is about as far away from a Parisian cafe as you can possibly get. And I also wrote about Kenya, the wild African frontier, from my home in Cleveland without having ever gone there. You can’t really visit colonial Kenya, can you? You can’t really visit Paris in 1922, except in your imagination.

Synopsis: Based on the real-life story of the fearless and captivating Beryl Markham, a record-setting aviator who became caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, who as Isak Dinesen wrote the classic memoir Out of Africa.
How we heard about: A New York Times review by the expat writer Alexandra Fuller.


TheAmbassadorsWife_cover_400xThe Ambassador’s Wife (Doubleday, July 2015)
Author: Jennifer Steil
Expat credentials: A Boston-born former journalist, Steil is married to a Brit who once served as ambassador to Yemen, where a suicide bomber attacked him. She is also the author of The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, a memoir about her experiences running a newspaper in Yemen. She lives in Bolivia, where her husband is the European Union ambassador.
Synopsis: A harrowing account of the kidnapping of an American woman in the Middle East and the heartbreaking choices she and her husband, the British ambassador to an Arab country, must make in the hope of being reunited.
How we heard about: Shortlisted in the New York Times Book Review as a “marriage plots” novel.


TheStarSideofBurnHill_cover_400xThe Star Side of Bird Hill (Penguin Press, June 2015)
Author: Naomi Jackson
Expat credentials: A Third Culture Kid, Jackson was born and raised in Brooklyn by West Indian parents. After attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she traveled to South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship and earned an MA in creative writing from the University of Cape Town.
Synopsis: The story of two sisters, ages ten and sixteen, who are suddenly sent from Brooklyn to Bird Hill in Barbados after their mother can no longer care for them. The young Phaedra and her older sister, Dionne, live for the summer of 1989 with their grandmother Hyacinth, a midwife and practitioner of the local spiritual practice of obeah.
How we heard about: Shortlisted in the New York Times Book Review as a “coming of age” novel.


TheWolfBorder_cover_400xThe Wolf Border (Harper, June 2015)
Author: Sarah Hall
Expat credentials: Born in northwest England, Hall lived in Wales while attending Aberystwyth. She went on to study in Scotland (St. Andrews) for an MA, where she met and married an American law student. Though the marriage was short-lived, its legacy was substantial: a move to the US proved the catalyst she needed to embark on novel writing. The pair was based in the small town of Lexington, Virginia, after her husband was awarded a scholarship to a nearby law school. At that time, Hall visited the Idaho reservation that appears in this book. She currently lives in Norwich, UK.
Synopsis: About a controversial scheme to reintroduce the Grey Wolf to the English countryside, which brings zoologist Rachel Caine, who has lived a solitary existence in a remote section of Idaho, far away from her estranged family in England, back to the peat and wet light of the Lake District. The novel explores the fundamental nature of wilderness and wildness—as well as the frontier of the human spirit.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times


IntheCountry_cover_400xIn the Country: Stories (Knopf, June 2016)
Author: Mia Alvar
Expat credentials: Born in the Philippines, Alvar was raised in Bahrain and the United States. She now lives in New York City. This is her first book.
Synopsis: A collection of nine short stories about Filipinos living overseas. Alvar has imagined the lives of exiles, emigrants, and wanderers who uprooted their families from the Philippines to begin new lives in the Middle East, the United States, and elsewhere—and, sometimes, turned back again.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times


TheDiversClothesLieEmpty_cover_400xThe Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty (Ecco, June 2015)
Author: Vendela Vida
Expat credentials: Born and raised in San Francisco, Vida is the daughter of two immigrant parents: a Swedish mother and a Hungarian father. She has become known for producing “travel trauma” narratives, exploring the lives of competent women who feel disintegrating marriages for distant lands (i.e., the Philippines, Finland and Turkey). Her latest novel, considered to be her “finest work” to date, was inspired by a trip she took to Morocco where her bag was stolen.
Synopsis: A literary thriller that probes the malleability of identity, told with lush detail and a sense of humor. Robbed of her money and passport in Casablanca, Morocco, an American woman feels free to be anyone she chooses.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times.


ChinaRichGirlfriend_cover_400xChina Rich Girlfriend (Doubleday, June 2015)
Author: Kevin Kwan
Expat credentials: Born and raised in Singapore, Kwan has lived in Manhattan for the past two decades. He says he still craves “craves pineapple tarts and a decent plate of Hokkien mee.“
Synopsis: Follows the story of the culture-shocked Rachel Chu as she searches for her mysterious birth father in Shanghai in hopes he’ll walk her down the isle at her upcoming wedding. The book is a sequel to Kwan’s 2013 bestseller, Crazy Rich Asians, picking up a few years after those events. Both books take place in the world of Hong Kong and Singapore’s super-super elite.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times


TheRocks_cover_400xThe Rocks (Riverhead Books, May 2015)
Author: Peter Nichols
Expat credentials: Nichols grew up partially on Mallorca (while attending boarding school in England), where he got to know other Northern Europeans. He has worked in advertising and as a screenwriter, and a shepherd in Wales. He divides his time between Europe and the United States. In 1997 he produced a riveting memoir, Sea Change, telling of the time when he set off alone across the Atlantic in his beloved 27-foot wooden engineless sailboat, Toad, which he and his (now ex-) wife had lived on for six years, fixing it up, making it into their home, sharing adventures on it.
Synopsis: A tragic double romance, told in reverse, primarily set in a seaside resort in Mallorca and its enduring expat community.
How we heard about: From a book review in the New York Times.


coming-home_cover_400xComing Home (Mira, April 2015)
Author: Annabel Kantaria
Expat credentials: A Telegraph Expat blogger who has been featured on the Displaced Nation, Kantaria has lived in Dubai with her family for several years.
Synopsis: The story of a woman living in Dubai because she wants to flee the pain of her brother’s death but then heads for home upon receiving word of her father’s sudden death. Kantaria says that writing the book helped her “explore that push and pull and sense of displacement you feel when you have a foot in two countries.”
How we heard about: A Telegraph Expat post on expat-themed summer reads, by Rosie Milne


APlaceCalledWinter_cover_400xA Place Called Winter (Grand Central Publishing, March 2015)
Author: Patrick Gale
Expat credentials: Born in the Isle of Wight, Gale was an expat of sorts when his family moved to London. During his misspent youth, he lived at one point in a crumbling French chateau. He now lives on a farm near Land’s End.
Synopsis: The story of a privileged Edwardian man who has a homosexual affair and, for fear of arrest, is forced to abandon his wife and child: he signs up for emigration to the Canadian prairies. He reaches a world as far away as possible from the golden suburbs of turn-of-the-century England. The story is loosely based on a real-life family mystery of Gale’s gentleman great-grandfather. The plot in a nutshell: “To find yourself, you must sometimes lose everything.”
How we heard about: Gale was a featured author at the Port Eliot Festival, which takes place yearly on an ancient estate in Saint Germans, Cornwall, UK.


TheArtofUnpackingYourLife_cover_400xThe Art of Unpacking Your Life (Bloomsbury Reader, March 2015)
Author: Shireen Jilla
Expat credentials: A journalist-turned-novelist who now lives in London, Jilla has been an expat in Paris, Rome, and New York. The Displaced Nation did a feature on her first novel, Exiled, about a British expat wife in New York.
Synopsis: The story of a group of university friends who set out on the holiday of a lifetime, a safari in the Kalahari, only to find they don’t have much in common any more.
How we heard about: Social media and then Beth Green interviewed her.


TheTehranText_cover_400xThe Tehran Text – The Tana Standish Spy Series #2 (Crooked Cat Publishing, February 2015)
Author: Nik Morton
Expat credentials: Morton spent 23 years in the Royal Navy, during which he had the chance to visit (among others) Rawalpindi, the Khyber Pass, Sri Lanka, Tokyo, Zululand, Mombasa, Bahrain, Tangier, Turkey, Norway, Finland, South Georgia and the Falklands. He has also traveled widely in his private life. He and his wife are now retired in Alicante, Spain.
Synposis: Second of Morton’s Cold War thrillers featuring psychic spy Tana Standish (first was The Prague Papers). Iran is in ferment and the British Intelligence Service wants Tana Standish’s assessment. It appears that CIA agents are painting too rosy a picture, perhaps because they’re colluding with the state torturers…
How we heard about: Lorraine Mace interviewed Morton for her Location, Locution column last July.


Outline_cover_400xOutline (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 2015)
Author: Rachel Cusk
Expat credentials: Born in Canada, Cusk spent much of her childhood in Los Angeles. She moved to the UK in 1974 and is a graduate of Oxford University. She now lives in London.
Synopsis: About a divorced writer who lives in London with her two youngish children, covering the several days she spends in Athens, where she has gone to teach a writing class. She ends up spending time with a much older Greek bachelor she met on the plane.
How we heard about: A book review in the New York Times

* * *

Tell me, what have I missed? I’m sure I’ve missed loads!! Kindly leave your recommendations for novels for, by, and about expats that came out in 2015 in the comments!

ML Awanohara, one of the Displaced Nation’s founders and its current editor, has a section in the weekly Displaced Dispatch where she mentions the latest expat books. Why not subscribe for the new year?

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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

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Photo credits: All photos via Pixabay or Morguefiles.

Alice in Expatland: Paying tribute as her 150th anniversary year winds to a close

Alice in Expatland

Curiouser and curiouser.

Once upon a time, I found myself chasing a white rabbit with a gloriously old-fashioned pocket watch and falling
d
o
w
n
a hOle into Aliceland, where people stood about in anoraks and talked about the weather.

I was an expat in the United Kingdom.

Next I stepped through a looking glass into a topsy-turvy wonder-world where commuters in suits sporting high-tech timepieces were dashing about, afraid to be late for apparently important dates.

I was an expat in Japan.

In 2015 the world celebrated the 150th birthday of Lewis Carroll’s first Alice story, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and, although I’m no longer an expat—I repatriated back to East Coast USA some time ago—I have spent the year paying tribute to this Victorian heroine for being my role model, or muse, during the period when I lived abroad.

What drew me so powerfully to the Alice stories? Skeptics may surmise that this Alice obsession of mine comes from some childish need to exoticize the adventures that took place during my time overseas. By comparing myself to Alice, I’m implying that my expat life was even more extraordinary than it actually was.

These critics may also think I’m being condescending in implicitly likening the natives of the UK and Japan to talkative animals or mad people.

For anyone who’s not feeling the thing I have for Alice: My point is, being an expat made me feel like a child again, especially when I found myself struggling to communicate basic points or failing to understand what was happening around me.

At moments like those, if someone had told me lobsters could dance, cats could have grins that fade in and out, and men could be shaped like eggs—I would have believed them. (In fact, I did see a lobster dance. That was at a fish restaurant in Tokyo. It hadn’t mastered the quadrille, though.)

“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle…”

Alice is a child on the verge of adolescence—and the expat me could relate to that portion of her story as well. Her statement “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then” echoed in my head throughout my expat life—especially towards the end, when I was an American who spoke with a British accent and, similar to Through the Looking Glass Alice, had lost my first name. (As the only foreigner in a Japanese office, I was always referred to by my last name, with the suffix “-san”.)

Psychologist Eve Hemming addresses what it feels like to lose one’s cultural bearings in her recently published Scatterlings: A Tapestry of Afri-expat Tales. As she tells it, her decision to emigrate from her native South Africa to New Zealand was traumatic. Her arrival in “the land of the long white cloud” of Māori legend was akin to “falling through Alice in Wonderland’s looking glass and waking up an extra-terrestrial in an alien landscape.” Not long after, she had the chance to return to her homeland for a brief visit, and felt as though she has “plummeted down the rabbit hole back into Africa.”

These descriptions make me think of the Cheshire Cat’s advice to poor disorientated Alice:

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

If you stay in the expat world long enough, you feel, and are treated like, an alien wherever you go. I can still recall going home to America and having people refuse to believe I was American because of my credible British accent. They also found it strange I was so apologetic, a trait that had come from working in a Japanese office.

I had become one of those people who are at home everywhere—and nowhere; an adult yet a Third Culture Kid.

“How do you know I’m mad?”

Although I didn’t know it at the time, Lewis Carroll’s wonderland story could be a textbook illustration of the four stages of expat acculturation, as outlined by psychologist Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign in her manual, Living Abroad.

As soon as she lands at the bottom of the rabbit hole, Alice enters Stage One: Elation. She glimpses a “most fabulous” garden and samples a delightful drink that has “a sort of mixed flavour of cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast.”

It is not long, however, before she enters Stage Two: Resistance. “It was much pleasanter at home,” thought poor Alice, “when one wasn’t always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits.”

At the same time, though, she shows potential for entering Stage Three: Transformation, when, after saying she almost wishes she hadn’t gone down the rabbit hole, she reflects: ”…and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”

And, although Alice never quite reaches Stage Four: Integration (when cultural barriers are bridged)—she leaves Wonderland still feeling a bit displaced—the memories of her adventures clearly have an impact. In the next Alice story, Carroll shows her as being keen for another adventure, why she steps through the looking-glass…

“And yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”

The quality that Alice develops in spades (and hearts, clubs, diamonds) is resilience—which by many expert accounts is the key on a glass plate that opens the door to a successful expat life.

As Linda Janssen puts it in her book The Emotionally Resilient Expat, to have a successful transition into living in another part of the world, we need to know how to adapt, adjust or simply accept what cannot be changed.

Janssen, an American, called the blog she kept while living in the Hague “Adventures in Expatland.” She said the title perfectly expressed her feelings about an experience that was “incredibly exhilarating, challenging, and occasionally maddening.”

I know what she means. There were several instances during my times in the UK and Japan when I needed to believe six impossible things before breakfast… By the same token, though, I knew that after a fall into expatland, I should think nothing of tumbling down stairs—a thought that kept me going through a second expat assignment, and now repatriation, possibly the curious-est wonderland of them all.

Thank you, Alice, for being my heroine, and I hope you enjoyed your big birthday. Now that you’re 150, you shouldn’t be taking any stuff and nonsense from the March Hare. Tell him to pour you that glass of wine! Cheers, kanpai, bottoms up—from one of your top expat fans xoxoxo

* * *

ML Awanohara, one of the Displaced Nation’s founders and its current editor, has been conducting a series of “wonderlanded” interviews with expat authors whose lives, and works, in some way echo Alice’s adventures. If you find her Alice comparisons amusing or even a bit nonsensical, be sure to subscribe to the weekly Displaced Dispatch, which has an “Alice Obsession” feature.

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!

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Photo credits: Top row: Ann Smith – Sleepy Summers Day – Lobster Quadrille, by sea +; Final Tea Party, by Joe Rice via Flickr; and Float in the Tres Reyes parade (Seville, Spain), by Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble. Bottom row: Night cat, by Raffaele Esposito; The Pool of Tears, by sea +; and Have I gone mad (Berlin), by onnola. All photos via Flickr (CC BY 2.0), except last one, which is via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

TCK TALENT: Lisa Liang takes her show back on the road; second stop: Cape Town, South Africa (2/2)

TCK Talent columnist Lisa and her husband (and techie), Dan, head to Cape Town. Photo credits: (from left) Alien Citizen poster; Lisa and Dan in front of Little Theatre on University of Cape Town campus (supplied, by Daniel Lawrence); and view of Table Mountain through bus window (supplied, by Lisa Liang).

Having delivered a successful show, TCK Talent columnist Lisa and her husband (and techie), Dan, explore Cape Town. Photo credits: (from left) Alien Citizen poster; Lisa and Dan on the street where they rented a cottage in Woodstock; Lisa in front of the clock tower on the V&A Waterfront. (All photos supplied, taken by either Lisa or her husband, Daniel Lawrence.)

TCK Talent columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang has had an exciting summer, even by her own, well-traveled standards. First she performed her one-woman show about growing up as a mixed-race TCK in Valencia, Spain, after which she headed for Cape Town, South Africa, for another performance, which she told us about in her last post. Today we’ll be treated to Part Two of her South African adventure!

Howzit, dear readers—molweni! Kunjani?

As some of you may recall, in my previous post I described the experience of taking Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey, my one-woman show about growing up as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) of mixed heritage, to the Women Playwrights International Conference, held June 29–July 3 in Cape Town.

This month’s post is about the second half of said trip, during which my husband, Dan, and I explored the city and its surroundings. A travelogue, if you will.

The day after the conference ended, we took an Uber cab to our new digs in Woodstock, about half a mile east of the city centre. (We’re not fans of Uber as a company—but as the Cape Town drivers were excellent and we were on a budget, we compromised.) Our AirBnB guest cottage had an en suite bathroom with a big shower—an upgrade from the dorm life we’d experienced at the conference.

We took it easy that day because I was wiped out from a week of conferencing that had culminated in performing my show. (Dan had played a role in the performance, too, as my techie.) We went grocery shopping in what South Africans call a “lower rent” area, a couple of blocks away. It offered far fewer choices than you would find in the USA or Europe—similar to the shops of my childhood and adolescence, spent in Central America and North Africa. Our most memorable buys were the potato chips or “crisps” and the gingersnap cookies or “biscuits”: both excellent!

Regarding safety in the city: we had read warnings about crime, but we witnessed none. As we walked along the main road, young men shouted at us through the windows of vans speeding by, offering us rides. At first we were intimidated, but by the end of our stay it was so familiar that we would just call back “No thanks!”

On the way home, we stopped at a cafe, the Field Office, where we enjoyed a great lunch and decent WiFi connection.

Dan is a coffee aficionado and I love the way Cape Town serves chai lattes in pretty glass mugs, so we were especially happy hanging out at this cafe, which aspires to be an office-away-from-the-office (hence its name).

When we returned to the cottage, we nearly froze—my teeth literally chattered! As I mentioned last month, most homes in Cape Town don’t have heating or insulation for the colder months. Luckily, our host realized this and loaned us a space heater the next day. (We had foolishly assumed he didn’t have one.)

The next day we went to the V&A Waterfront, which I loved for the clock tower, the public art, the restaurants and shops—and the fact that so many of our fellow tourists were from African countries. It was a pleasure to be among travelers from the African continent for a change. We discovered some fantastic traditional arts-and-crafts shopping at the African Trading Port.

Impilo! (Cheers!)

The following day we took a winelands tour. The countryside was beautiful; we passed a farm that had a zebra, a springbok, an ostrich, and more animals you never see on US farmland. Without having eaten breakfast, we tasted five wines (!) in Paarl valley, which was perhaps not the healthiest way to begin the morning.

Our next stop was charming Franschhoek, where I insisted on getting breakfast—a lovely muffin-like scone with butter/cream/jam coupled with a caffe latte…I felt much better. We also bought chocolate at a pretty chocolate shop because…chocolate!

The second winery was very fancy; then we continued on to Stellenbosch, where we had a tasty lunch. The towns were pretty with Cape Dutch, Georgian, and Victorian architecture.

The final winery on our tour had lots of character in the form of gigantic spider webs hanging by the stained glass windows. It was there we learned that fortified wine is to port what sparkling wine is to champagne. In total that day we tasted 12 wines and three ports fortified wines. We liked the ports fortified wines the best.

A cobwebbed window at one of the wineries; a glass of port, a fortified wine[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fortified_wine#/media/File:Port_wine.jpg], by Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons; Lisa at La Motte Winery.

A cobwebbed window at one of the wineries on Lisa and Dan’s tour; a glass of port, a fortified wine, by Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons; Lisa at La Motte Winery.

Benza iKapa (Beautiful Cape Town)

The next day we took a city tour. We were supposed to go to the top of Table Mountain but it was too windy. (We were finally able to reach the top on our second-to-last day. It was so beautiful, I feel enormously lucky and grateful to have experienced it.)
Table Mountain_top
Our guide showed us some of the beaches near the town. The water was such a beautiful shade of light blue—I’ve never seen water like that before! And the view from Signal Hill was spectacular—I can’t use that word enough for the natural beauty surrounding Cape Town.

And on this tour, I finally had the chance to see the outside of all the places that Dan had visited during our first week while I was “conferencing”:

We walked through a small section of the Company’s Garden, a beautiful park with very old trees and Egyptian geese having Make Way for Ducklings moments, to the Iziko South African Museum.

This tour ended with the requisite visit to a diamond shop, which no one in the van was interested in, but we all ultimately decided to go in for the demonstration on how the jewels are made from gems (and, I’ll admit, for the free champagne). There was loads of tanzanite (named for Tanzania, where it was discovered) on display—a good investment, apparently. We didn’t invest.

Legacy of apartheid

While at the South African Museum, it was disturbing to learn that the museum’s first curators had created life-sized models from molds of actual living “Bushmen” (who were never credited) to demonstrate an “authentic, primitive, and it’s being lived today” lifestyle. Since the end of apartheid, the museum has been re-curated from the indigenous perspective.

On our second-to-last day we visited Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid. (The prison is now a museum.) We had a great guide in the bus, who stressed that the prison was not about Nelson Mandela. The prisoners chose Mandela to speak for them, but they told him what to say and asked him to refashion their words because he was so eloquent and was also trained as a lawyer. At the prison itself, we had a former prisoner as our guide, who showed us Mandela’s cell. No white prisoners were held in that prison—only “blacks” and “coloureds,” who were not treated the same (there was worse treatment for blacks).

Mandela’s last prison was Drakenstein Correctional Centre (formerly Victor Verster Prison), which we’d seen during our winery tour. (We stopped to take pictures beneath the inspiring Nelson Mandela statue at the entrance.)

On our last day we went to the District Six Museum, which is a beautifully and intimately designed and curated memorial to the forced movement of 60,000 inhabitants of various races in District Six during 1970s apartheid. My eyes started welling up in the first five minutes. I felt anxious, angry, and moved.

(Top) Robben Island Prison Museum; District Six Museum.

(Top) Robben Island Prison Museum; District Six Museum.

At the conference I had remarked to a young South African theatremaker that I hadn’t perceived any racial tension among the diverse group of actors and directors who staged the play readings; she replied that that was because we were at the university, but things were different off campus. Dan and I were unpleasantly surprised when one of our tour guides, an older white man, stated that “black neighborhood” equaled “ghetto,” and pointed out a section of the city that he considered “awful”—but it looked like any populated section of a city in a developing nation to me.

I grew up mostly in poor countries, so I’m accustomed to the scrappy, grimy, not-at-all-pretty-yet-functional aspect of many an urban area. We actually bought our groceries on the block that the guide was pointing out.

Ubuhle bendalo (Spectacular scenery)

In disconcerting contrast to its painful history, South Africa has spectacular scenery. We went on a tour to the Cape Peninsula, including Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point. Spectacular vistas and beaches—again, I’ve never seen that color of ocean.

We also loved seeing animals that were new to us. We took a boat to see Cape fur seals on Duiker Island. Along the road throughout the day we passed zebras, baboons, bontebok, and ostriches—mostly not penned in—just by the road! And ever so many African penguins on Boulders Beach!

We ended that particular day at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, which were lush and green, and I treated myself to a new mug at the gift shop. (A mug of tea being part of my writing ritual!

South African animals collage

Clockwise, from top left: Ostrich between road and sea; South African farm animals; African penguins at Boulders Beach; the Egyptian geese in Company Gardens.

Glorious food

We had been wanting to try the best Cape Malay food in town. We were told it was at Biesmiellah, so went there for dinner. Best comfort food ever after a day that had run the emotional gamut from a grim yet inspiring prison-turned-museum, to one of the world’s natural wonders with jaw-dropping vistas, to a fantastic restaurant where the cooks are Muslim women who feed you after sunset during Ramadan (so you can only hope they’ve broken their own fasts while taking care of tourists).

We ate wonderfully well in Cape Town. I can also recommend:

Paradoxically, almost every day we were approached by a homeless person, each one of a
different ethnicity/race (white, black, Malaysian, etc.), often young, always deeply courteous, asking for a meal. It finally occurred to me to carry an energy bar in my coat for giving away.

Last but not least…

While at the District Six Museum on our last day, we happened to run into a few WPIC delegates, one of whom complimented my performance of Alien Citizen from the previous week: a great way to cap off our visit.

One of the last things we did was to return to Company’s Park to walk the length of it; there were numerous romantic couples on the grass, which reminded me of Rome’s Villa Borghese Gardens and L.A.’s Griffith Park. We also saw many guinea fowl in and around Cape Town—again, we loved seeing animals we never get to see in the States.

We also visited St. George’s Cathedral, which was lovely and smaller than I had expected. It’s so famous for Desmond Tutu that in my head it was the size of Chartres—until I actually saw it and went inside.

We even took in the South African National Gallery, which had two incredible exhibits by South African artists:

  1. photography and more by Omar Badsha, and
  2. a multimedia-with-moving-sculpture work by William Kentridge called The Refusal of Time.

Hamba kakuhle! (Go well!)

All too soon it was time to wend our way back to L.A. The first leg of our flight was at night. On the British Airways plane back to Heathrow, the flight attendants sprayed something throughout the cabin, saying that it was not toxic but that we should still take our contact lenses out and not lick the mist. Um…

I’ll spare you the details of our layover in Heathrow, but be warned: that airport goes well out of its way to make you miserable. Meanwhile, our flight out of Cape Town left late, so we missed the connection and were rerouted to San Francisco…and our luggage got lost at SFO. It was finally delivered to us four days later—intact! Hooray!

Looking back, I think we were lucky to have mostly clear weather during our time in Cape Town as I was able to take extraordinarily vivid impressions of the majestic Table Mountain, the city and its surroundings, which are still with me…

On another level, I found Cape Town stimulating as an artist. It’s the kind of place that compels you to be brave and keep trying to tell your story truthfully. That’s also what I took away from our trip, along with an abiding gratitude to the WPIC programming committee for choosing Alien Citizen as the closing show—and of course to my generous backers who made the trip possible. Without a doubt, it counts as one of the highlights of my creative international life.

* * *

Thank you, Lisa! I really appreciated hearing about your travels within and around Cape Town from your ATCK perspective: it was fascinating, as well as moving, to take this virtual tour. Readers, please leave questions or comments for Lisa below. —ML Awanohara

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TCK TALENT: Lisa Liang takes her show back on the road; second stop: Cape Town, South Africa (1/2)

TCK Talent columnist Lisa and her husband (and techie), Dan, head to Cape Town. Photo credits: (from left) Alien Citizen poster; Lisa and Dan in front of Little Theatre on University of Cape Town campus; and view of xxx through bus window (supplied).

TCK Talent columnist Lisa and her husband (and techie), Dan, head to Cape Town. Photo credits: (from left) Alien Citizen poster; Lisa and Dan in front of Little Theatre on University of Cape Town campus (supplied, by Daniel Lawrence); and view of Table Mountain through bus window (supplied, by Lisa Liang).

For the second month running, our TCK Talent columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang updates us on her own creative life. This is the first of a two-part post on her South African experience.

Howzit, dear readers—molweni!

I’m devoting this month’s column to the experience of taking  Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey, my one-woman show about growing up as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) of mixed heritage, to Cape Town, South Africa.

The occasion was the 2015 Women Playwrights International (WPI) Conference, held June 29–July 3. WPI has brought together women playwrights and allied theatre artists, cultural workers, and scholars since 1988. It facilitates communication and collaboration among the international community of women in theatre by holding conferences every three years.

In last month’s column I remarked: “It sounds like my kind of crowd.”

Well…it was!!

It felt enormously special to be at the conference’s 10th assembly and its first gathering on the African continent—my first time back in Africa since I graduated from high school, and my first visit to Cape Town. I’ll always be grateful to the donors who financed the trip via my online crowd-funding campaign.

Into Africa

It takes a gajillion hours to get from Los Angeles, California, where I live, to Cape Town (with a layover at Heathrow). My husband (and techie), Dan, and I can’t sleep on planes (!) so were jet lagged on arrival—and only too glad to reach our lodging at Graça Machel Hall at the University of Cape Town (a residence hall, or dorm), the cost of which was generously covered by a housing grant from the Writers’ Guild of Norway.

The room and especially the communal bathrooms gave us flashbacks to our college years—except this dorm was cleaner and full of adult delegates to WPI and other conferences, which we appreciated. We were also happy that the bathrooms provided a good hot shower—and were taken aback (but ultimately impressed) by the free condoms offered in every bathroom on campus.

Note to travelers: If you visit Cape Town in winter (May–July), be warned: indoors is colder than outdoors. Virtually no one has heating or insulation, so bring thermal socks and long johns to wear beneath your pajamas at night, and a thick sweater for any day you lounge indoors—and you’ll be fine. I also recommend gloves and winter hats, unless you’re from a below-freezing-in-winter climate, in which case you’ll likely shake your head and chuckle at all the other tourists complaining of the cold. (The Canadian delegates seemed to be the most bemused by the rest of us.)

The conferencing experience

Every day Dan and I rode the shuttle taking WPIC delegates to the conference site on UCT’s Hiddingh Campus. During the 15-minute drive along the highway, we thrilled at the sight of Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, Devil’s Peak, the harbor, and the Atlantic. It’s impossible to miss the mountains—they loom over, or cradle (depending on your perspective), Cape Town and are magnificent.

My conferencing mornings began with a fantastic keynote by an African theatremaker or a fascinating panel of mostly African playwrights, all women. This was followed by a tea/coffee/yummy-snack break, then workshops led by theatremakers from all over the world, and then a tasty lunch provided by WPIC. Then: readings of excerpts from plays written by playwrights from everywhere and read by South African actors of every race/ethnicity, doing accents from all over Africa and the English-speaking world. Then another tea break, more readings, then panels/sessions/networking/presentations, then supper break (not provided, and we learned that we could not get a bad meal in Cape Town—every dinner out was delicious). The evenings ended with full-length performances.

I was conferencing 12–13 hours daily, and there was usually a smorgasbord of offerings from which to choose in any given hour.

She's really there! Typical beak between conference sessions 9selfie); conference poster on campus (supplied, by Daniel Lawrence).

She’s really there! Photo credits: Typical break between conference sessions (supplied, selfie); conference poster on campus (supplied, by Daniel Lawrence).

Prep for show time

Dan, meanwhile, toured around Cape Town—but joined me for the two technical rehearsals for Alien Citizen in the Little Theatre on campus. After the classroom debacle learning experience at SIETAR Europa in Valencia in May, we were so happy to be in an actual theatre again! The theatre was a bit run down, but it had a booth, professional lighting grid, and Sean (WPIC15’s excellent production manager), so we were stylin’.

If you’ve been following this column for at least a year, then you know what happened with my first old-fashioned slide projector in Iceland. (Woe.) Well, it nearly happened again. I forgot to attach the slide projector to the voltage converter that I bought expressly for Valencia and Cape Town. Instead, I plugged the projector to the wall with a little plug adapter…and it roared as a burning-wires-and-plastic smell permeated the air.

Gah!!!!

I unplugged everything, made adjustments, replaced the bulb, et voila! The projector worked normally…as long as you could ignore the lingering odor of burned something-or-other.

Conferencing highlights

After making sure that my laptop could communicate with the theatre’s screen projector (EVERY venue’s screen projector is its own special starflake), Dan went back to his Cape Town exploring while I attended another conference lunch. Lunches tended to be three quarters sociable (talktalktalk) and one quarter zombie apocalypse (many of us on iPads/iPhones while digesting). At every lunch, I sat with new people, all of whom were interesting and amiable and from everywhere. That was one of my favorite aspects of the conference.

Other highlights of the conference included:

  • the opening keynote by Zambian-born Mwenya Kabwe, who spoke humorously and eloquently about theatre and being an African woman theatremaker.
  • the performance of Walk: South Africa, which taught us a grim statistic, that half of all South African women will be raped in their lifetimes.
  • Kenyan actress-playwright Mũmbi Kaigwa’s reading of an excerpt from her smart, funny, and moving solo show, They Call Me Wanjikũ.
  • a panel of extraordinary South African theatremakers who told us that all theatre in South Africa in the 1980s was held in protest to Apartheid, but nowadays the theatre scene has become very segregated—it has regressed.
  • the workshop on Community Play Creation lead by Hope McIntyre of Sarasvàti Productions in Canada.
  • countless amazing women, including another ATCK playwright who grew up in many more countries than I did, and an Egyptian professor who was a budding playwright, which brought back happy memories of Egypt.
  • the final keynote by the incredibly accomplished Napo Masheane of South Africa. She spoke of working in a jewelry store as a teen, where adult white men would come in and immediately say: “Can I please talk to someone more intelligent?” She ended her speech with a poem that had a beautiful refrain, which she repeated with evocative gestures more and more quietly until she was only mouthing the words while making the gestures, and it made me cry:

    Do not shut your temple doors, whatever you seek seeks you, whatever you want wants you, whatever you need needs you.

    Do not shut your temple doors, there is enough space for all of us to shine, let us dance with fire under the stars.

SouthAfricatheatreconference_arrow

The delegates to the 2015 Women Playwrights International Conference, in Cape Town. Photo credit: Nardus Englebrecht Photography.

Show time!

After the final keynote, Dan and I had another tech rehearsal for Alien Citizen to program the lights. Sean gave the sandstorm-in-Casablanca a nice effect with upstage lights flickering, and the high-school-dance-in-Cairo was even more humorous because he spotlit me in purple with white polka dots that shimmied back and forth, reminiscent of a disco ball’s reflection.

And then it was showtime. After my experience in Valencia, I couldn’t help but have doubts over whether we would have a decent audience. But while I was waiting in the wings I heard delegates enter and sing along to some pre-show music (“Dancing Queen” and “Stand by Me”). I was glad they were getting into the mood, and it sounded like there were a lot more than 20! When I began the performance I could see that it was a “good house” (theatre jargon for “numerous seats filled”) and there were lots of laughs (which sounded slightly surprised, probably because most of the other shows at the conference had been about harrowing subject matter).

Afterwards I received amazing feedback from delegates from South Africa, Canada, Lebanon, Sweden, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Germany, Hungary, New Zealand, USA, Australia, Spain, Singapore, Kenya, Brazil, Jamaica, and more. Several said that the show was a great way to end the conference. I felt relieved, gratified, and honored.

That night, we met with other delegates at Addis in Cape for tasty Ethiopian food (and a cosmo for me). I’m always slightly braindead after performing, but it was lovely to “wind down” with other theatremakers who were very positive about the show. The next morning at breakfast, and again as we checked out of the dorm, more delegates praised Alien Citizen, which was the best way to end the conference for me.

Before, during, after the show. Photo credits: Drama of the slide projector (selfie by Lisa Liang, supplied); the show, which closed the conference; post-show cosmo at Addis in Cape Town (the latter two by Daniel Lawrence, supplied).

Can’t get over Africa

Thank you for reading, and stay tuned next month for Part 2 of Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey’s trip to Cape Town, to include tours of the winelands, the Cape Peninsula, Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of the 21 years he served behind bars), District Six Museum (a tribute to the 60,000 inhabitants of District Six, a former residential area of Cape Town, who were displaced by the apartheid regime), the aforementioned Table Mountain, and more! Until then…hamba kahle!

* * *

Thank you, Lisa! Once again, you’ve taken us on a vicarious journey—not only into a part of the world to which I’ve never been but also into the midst of theatre people, your creative tribe! I found it fascinating, as I’m sure others will as well. Readers, please leave questions or comments for Lisa below.

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Nik Morton draws from his nomadic expat life to author genre fiction

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her very first interview guest, the extraordinary Nik Morton. (Nik, thank you for giving the Displaced Nation a shout-out in one of your recent posts!)

Hello, readers. This month we have the delight of discovering how Nik Morton, a British-born resident of Spain who is also a prolific author, handles location, locution.

Although Nik has fifty years of writing experience, having sold hundreds of articles and more than a hundred short stories, he came late to being a published author. His first novel, a western, came out in 2007. This year he will publish his twenty-second book—Catacomb, the second in his Avenging Cat crime series. (The first was Catalyst and the third will be Cataclysm. All are named for the series’ protagonist, the Avenging Catherine Vibrissae.)

In addition to this contemporary crime series, which he publishes with Crooked Cat (there’s that feline theme again!), Nik has written:

  • westerns (Black Horse series, under the pseudonym Ross Morton, published by Robert Hale)
  • fantasy (co-written with Gordon Faulkner under the pseudonym Morton Faulkner, published by Knox Robinson)
  • Cold War thrillers (the Tana Standish series, which Crooked Cat will reissue).

Nik has run writing workshops and chaired writers’ circles, and has been a magazine editor, a publisher’s editor, and even an illustrator. His writing guide, Write a Western in 30 Days: With Plenty of Bullet-Points!, is said to be useful for all genre writers, not only writers of westerns.

Spain, where he currently lives, was the inspiration for the stories collected in Spanish Eye.

Spain is one of several inspiration sources for the well-travelled writer Nik Morton.

Nik was displaced, incidentally, long before he and his wife retired to Alicante. He spent 23 years in the Royal Navy, during which he had the chance to visit many exotic places—among them Rawalpindi, the Khyber Pass, Sri Lanka, Tokyo, Zululand, Mombasa, Bahrain, Tangier, Turkey, Norway, Finland, South Georgia and the Falklands. He has also travelled widely in his private life, giving him a wealth of places to draw on in his works in addition to his current home of Spain.

* * *

Which comes first, story or location?

This is a tough question, and the answer is ‘it depends’. For my seven western novels, the character and the story came first; the location for each required research for the period and the State, usually Dakota Territory.

Yet location definitely comes first for my Cold War thrillers featuring psychic spy Tana Standish: The Prague Papers, The Tehran Text and the third, a work in progress, The Khyber Chronicle. Each adventure in the series is based around actual historic events, so the location is crucial.

I’ve always hankered after writing about exotic places, and as you mentioned in your introduction, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel widely, both privately and with the Royal Navy. My wife and I lived for 20 months in Malta and out of that location emerged a cross-genre novel, a modern-day vampire romantic thriller, now out of print.

We’ve visited Tenerife on five separate occasions and from that evolved my romantic thriller, Blood of the Dragon Trees.

Having lived in Spain for over 11 years, I’ve absorbed quite a bit about the politics and crime situation here and have had 22 short stories published set in Spain, collected in Spanish Eye—exploring the human condition as seen through the eyes of Leon Cazador, half-English, half-Spanish private eye, written ‘in his own words’.

For my latest crime series about ‘the avenging cat’, Catherine Vibrissae, the story definitely came first: but the exotic locations were a close second—Barcelona (Catalyst), Morocco (Catacomb) and Shanghai (Cataclysm).

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

Place is important in almost every scene; I want the reader to see the characters in the scene, so the place needs to be described in relation to them. Character point of view can provide an emotional appreciation of the scene too. The rugged, inhospitable High Atlas of Morocco, for example, can be strengthened by the character experiencing the intense heat and the almost preternatural silence of the place.

Technique: be there, in the scene. Of course you can’t overburden the story with too much description, but the weather, the flora and maybe even fauna, the landscape as character, all have their input at various times. If I can’t visualise the scene through my characters’ eyes, then there’s little chance that the reader will. I may not always succeed, but that’s what I strive towards—using all of the character’s senses.

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

All of the above, depending on the dramatic content of the scene. People have to eat to live, so it’s natural that my characters eat from time to time. I don’t want to labour the point for the reader, but if I simply wrote ‘Corbin ate a meal at the hotel and then went out,’ then we’re in the realms of ‘tell’ not ‘show’; which has its place from time to time, but perhaps mentioning some particular food can make it more ‘real’ and show more of the character, such as:

Stomach full with Chili de Sangre Anaranjada, Corbin read the local newspaper in the hotel lounge, allowing the beef and pork to digest. He had complimented the chef, a Swede by the moniker of Iwan Morelius. Apparently, Morelius had been on the staff of Baron Ernst Mattais Peter von Vegesack, who had been given leave to fight for the Union. While the baron returned to Sweden after the war, Morelius stayed and Mr Canaan, the hotel manager, was vociferously proud of his culinary acquisition.

—From The $300 Man, by Ross Morton (p. 84)

Culture is definitely relevant if the story takes place abroad—whether that’s Prague or Shanghai. And we’ve already touched upon landscape, which can become a character that tests individuals to the limit.

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

This cafe in Tenerife will soon be populated by characters from Nik Morton's imagination. Photo credit: Tenerife, Canary Islands, by Carrie Finley-Bajak[https://www.flickr.com/photos/cruisebuzz/8158748971] via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

This cafe in Tenerife will soon be populated by characters from Nik Morton’s imagination. Photo credit: Tenerife, Canary Islands, by Carrie Finley-Bajak via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In Blood of the Dragon Trees, Laura has come to Tenerife to teach a couple of Spanish children. I wanted to create an ambiance while moving her through the story. She is waiting for Andrew Kirby, a mystery man who attracts her:

Clutching her Corte Inglés shopping bag, Laura arrived at the square about fifteen minutes early and, as usual, the adjoining roads were jammed with delivery trucks and a variety of taxis: Mercedes, Toyota, Seat, Peugeot. She was lucky and grabbed a café’s outdoor table with two vacant chairs. She sat and politely fended off the attentive waiter, explaining in Spanish that she would order when her friend joined her. Friend?

In the meantime, she waited, idly studying the antics of the men at the taxi rank in front of a series of phone booths. One of them was pushing his car along the rank, rather than switch on the engine, as the row moved forward. The taxis sported a colorful and distinctive coat of arms.

Sitting on the corner of the street was a blind man selling lottery tickets. She doubted if that would be possible in any town or city in England; the poor man would be mugged in seconds.
Most of the people at the other tables appeared to be businessmen and women, though there were some exceptions. An overdressed elderly woman sat with her Pekinese dog on her lap, feeding it biscuits while sipping her Tío Pepe. At the table next to her, a large bull of a man was glancing through the newspaper, El Día; he possessed a Neanderthal jaw and crewcut dark brown hair. For a second she thought she’d seen him before, but shook off the idea. Andrew Kirby was making her unreasonably suspicious!

—from Blood of the Dragon Trees, by Nik Morton (p. 116)

So, besides the observation of little details going on around her—and the suspenseful hint for the reader that we’ve seen the man with the Neanderthal jaw before—there’s the compelling influence that Andrew is exerting on her.

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

Ideally, travel to the place. But even then additional back-up research is necessary. Of course you can’t hope to travel to every exotic place you write about. I’ve been to many of the places in my novels and short stories, but not all—and I must then concentrate on research.

Sadly, non-fiction reference books can quickly become out-of-date—bus colours might change, customs may once have been quaint only to be replaced by adopted globalised traits. (Yes, it has happened to me!)

Any piece of fiction set in the past requires research; yes, you can travel the battlefields, visit the ancient cities; but you can’t experience that time, only imagine it.

Official map of the territory of Dakota[https://www.flickr.com/photos/normanbleventhalmapcenter/14009763855/], by http://maps.bpl.org via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/]

Some places can’t be visited, only researched. Official map of the territory of Dakota, by http://maps.bpl.org via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Fiction requires a writer to be bold, to do research and then re-imagine the place, with its sights, smells and sounds. The bottom line is, it’s fiction, which means an approximation of the real world. If a critic blithely dismisses writers who make a few errors in their research because they haven’t travelled there, then that critic is misguided.

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

Some books could be set anywhere; location is not significant to the story. Others, the location is vital to the story. The old practitioners Desmond Bagley, Hammond Innes, Nevil Shute, and Alistair Maclean described the location their main characters found themselves in, and you believed every word. Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels thrust you into a period and a place that seems real while you’re reading. Donna Leon’s Italy is real.

A few of the writers Nik Morton admires for their depiction of place in their novels.

A few of the novelists Nik Morton admires for their skill with depicting location.

Thanks so much, Nik!

* * *

Readers, any questions for my first guest? Please leave them in the comments below.

And if you’d like to discover more about Nik, why not pay a visit to his author site; his blog, called Writealot (no exaggeration in his case); and the archives of Auguries, a science fiction, fantasy and horror magazine Nik edited from 1983 to 1994. You can also follow Nik on twitter at @nik_morton.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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Photo credits (top of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Beach bound? Check out summer reading recommendations from featured authors (1/2)

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), has arrived with a treasure chest full of recommended reads to take you through the summer. NOTE: Check out Part Two here.

Hello again, Displaced Nationers!

Summer is upon us—well, for readers in the northern hemisphere, that is! And for those in the United States, Fourth of July weekend is coming shortly. Even if you’re not beach bound, perhaps you are at least picturing yourself sitting in a beach chair feeling the sand through your toes, the waves pounding towards you, the fresh, bracing sea air filling your lungs…

And what’s that you have in your hand—a book or a Kindle?

I find the sound of the waves and the ocean breeze the perfect conditions for escaping into other worlds that writers conjure up for us in their books. This summer, I’ve already been to a few local parks with my e-reader, and I’ll soon be topping it up with some of the books from our best-of-2014 list for an overseas trip. But I’m always on the look-out for fresh new material, and as there are miles to go before I can flop down on the beach of my dreams, I fear I’ll run out of prime reading matter by then. With this eventuality in mind, I decided to reach out to a few of the authors whose books I’ve recently read or reviewed, along with a few of my bookish friends, to see what books they recommend taking on vacation. I asked them to tell me:

Summer Reading 2015

Photo credits: Amazon Kindle PDF, by goXunuReviews via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); beach chair and sandy feet via Pixabay.

They responded with recommendations that seem tailor made for an audience of international creatives. Enjoy! Part 2 will be posted on Friday.

* * *

ALLI SINCLAIR, world traveler, Australian romance author and former co-blogger at Novel Adventurers: I recommend that you bring one travel book, one classic, and one novel. The following make a good combination:

ChasingtheMonsoon_cover_x300Chasing the Monsoon: A Modern Pilgrimage Through India, by Alexander Frater (Henry Holt & Co, May 1992)
There are some books that touch something in your soul that stays with you forever. For me, Chasing the Monsoon falls into that category. Originally published in the early nineties (and thankfully, still available!), Alexander Frater follows the monsoonal rains from the Kerala backwaters in southern India to Cherrapunji, in northern India—known as the wettest place on earth. Frater connects beautifully with the people he meets and he writes for all senses, giving the reader a full immersion into one of the most captivating countries on Earth.

The Ascent of Rum Doodle_cover_x300The Ascent of Rum Doodle, by W.E. Bowman (Vintage Classics, 2010)
Originally published in 1956 but still in print, this book is one of the most celebrated mountaineering stories of all time. The 1950s saw some of the world’s highest mountains successfully climbed (including Everest), and this book is a parody of mountaineering at it’s finest…er, worst. There’s a route finder who is constantly lost, a diplomat who continually argues, and a doctor who is always ill. Rum Doodle will most definitely appeal to fans of Bill Bryson, who wrote the introduction to the book’s international edition (published in 2010).

HellofromtheGillespies_cover_x300Hello From The Gillespies, by Monica McInerney (Penguin, 2014)
I’m a long time fan of Monica McInerney’s books, maybe because Monica is a “displaced” person: having grown up in Australia, she has split her time between Australia and Ireland for the past 20 years. This book is mostly set in outback Australia but with ties to England. Angela Gillespie, a mother of four adult children, has sent out a regular Christmas letter to friends and family for thirty years. The notes are always cheery and full of good news but this year, her note details the unsettling truth of how her family has fallen apart. If you enjoy family sagas with humour and heart, you can’t go wrong with this book. (True, some people recommend it for the holidays, but it’s summer in Australia at Christmas time, remember?)


BRITTANI SONNENBERG, adult TCK, current expat and author of Home Leave (which we reviewed in November): I would pack the following books (assuming I’d be packing it for someone else, who hadn’t read them yet).
Sonnenberg_collage

The Dog, by Joseph O’Neill (Vintage, September 2014)
It’s a devilish, compelling take on cosmopolitan and expat life by the TCK author of Netherland. (Joseph O’Neill was born in Cork, Ireland, in 1964 and grew up in Mozambique, South Africa, Iran, Turkey, and Holland. He now lives in New York City.)

Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi (Penguin, 2014)
This is an intimate examination of a splintered family, set in Accra, Lagos, London, and New York.

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews (McSweeney’s, 2014)
One of the saddest and funniest books I’ve ever read; an honest, moving portrayal of sisters and mental illness.


CHRISTINE KLING, author of travel- and sailing-related thrillers: I’ve just finished up the edits on a the third novel in my Shipwreck Adventure series, and I’m looking forward to taking a bit of time off from writing and working at reading my way through some of the long list of books I’ve been wanting to read. The three books I’d take in my beach bag include two novels and a combination cookbook/memoir/travelogue.

The-Janissary-Tree_cover_x300The Janissary Tree, by Jason Goodwin (Sarah Crichton Book, 2006)
My husband and I are contemplating building a new boat in Turkey, and after our recent visit, I’ve fallen in love with the country. Jason Goodwin has written travel books, histories, and thrillers, and I’ve been waiting for the chance to begin reading his work. The Janissary Tree, winner of the 2007 Edgar Award for Best Novel, is the first in what is now his five-book series set in in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire’s Istanbul. The series features a very unique protagonist Yashim Togalu, a eunuch guardian. In this book, Yashim is called upon to investigate a series of crimes including murder and theft of jewels.

Marina_cover_x300Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2014)
The first book I read by this author was The Shadow of the Wind, which I often cite as one of my favorite books of all time. I knew Zafón had written a young adult novel that was published in 1999 and became a “cult classic” in Spanish, and since I enjoy good YA novels like the Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games, I was happy to see this book finally released in English in 2014. Marina is set in Barcelona around 1980 at the end of Franco’s regime. This gothic tale is touted as containing elements of mystery, romance and horror as a young boarding school boy meets the exotic, dark Marina. Together they embark on a series of adventures where they meet the kind of grotesque Barcelona characters Zafón does so well.

Sea-Fare_cover_x300Sea Fare: A Chef’s Journey Across the Ocean, by Victoria Allman (Norlightspress Com, 2013)
Years ago I worked as a chef on our owner-operated charter sailboat, and I know what it is like to have to create meals for demanding guests. Victoria Allman is in an entirely different category as she trained as a chef and has worked your years on multi-million dollar yachts. In Sea Fare, Allman has combined the tales from her beginning as a green Canadian chef looking for a job in the charter yacht industry to the joys of shopping in exotic markets from Italy to Vietnam. From the descriptions of her experiences on board the yacht, dealing with crew problems and falling in love with the captain, the stories are grand, but the recipes and the outstanding color photos of the food, will probably cut my trip to the beach short as I head home to try some new dish.


HEIDI NOROOZY, adult TCK, translator and author of multicultural fiction: I just returned from a research trip to Germany, and my choices seem to reflect that! (I went there because I’m writing a novel about an East German detective, Johannes Christian Alexander Freiherr von Maibeck—I know, it’s a bit of a mouthful—I created for a short story I once wrote. The setting is Leipzig, German Democratic Republic, 1981.)

The-Leipzic-Affair_cover_x300The Leipzig Affair, by Fiona Rintoul (Aurora Metro Press, May 2015)
Set in 1985, this novel tells the story of a Scottish student at Leipzig University who falls in love with an East German girl and stumbles into a world of shifting half-truths. Well written and fast paced, the story captures the atmosphere of its setting very well, a world where nothing is ever quite what it seems. As one reviewer writes: “The book is expertly written and seems to me to be a very comprehensive picture of what it was like to live in the East German state.” (Rintoul, a Scot who lives in Glasgow, gathered her material for the book by visiting East Germany and meeting a woman who had been imprisoned. She also looking at extracts of STASI files on people she met.)

Zoo-Station_cover_x300Zoo Station: Adventures in East and West Berlin, by Ian Walker (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988)
British journalist Ian Walker, who once covered Central America for the Observer (and never managed to write his promised volume on Nicaragua), produced this travelogue on the two Berlins back in 1988. It depicts bohemian life in the once-divided city, where everyone seemed to be from somewhere else: West Berlin was full of Brits, Asians, Danes, Turks and East German exiles; East Berlin, of Anglo-Austrian expats. Walker’s descriptive narrative and reflections on the broader social issues of the day are what make this book stand out. As one of Amazon reviewer puts it:

Having read “Zoo Station”, I was able to understand why some people regarded East Germany as a pinnacle of socialist achievement, much more preferable to its capitalist twin in the West. It is good travel writing, and is both politically and culturally astute.

The-One-That-Got_Away_cover_300xThe One That Got Away, by Simon Wood (Thomas & Mercer, 2015)
Okay, this one isn’t about Germany, and I haven’t read it yet—but it’s at the top of my summer book bag. Tag line: “She escaped with her life, but the killer’s obsessed with the one that got away.” The story of two grad students in California who decide to take a road trip to to Las Vegas, this suspense novel deals with survivor’s guilt and is bound to be a thrilling ride. (Originally from England, Simon Wood lives in California with his wife.)

* * *

Readers, that’s it for this round; we’ll have another round on Friday (update: check it out here). Meanwhile, have you read any of the above and/or do you have summer reading recommendations to add? Please leave in the comments!

And if you need more frequent fixes, I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for PART 2 of this post on July 3rd!

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!

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