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TCK TALENT: Sezín Koehler, multimedia artist, tatoo collector, editor and prodigious writer

Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang starts off 2016 with a guest who has been to the Displaced Nation before, albeit in different guises: as Alice, as film critic, as featured novelist, as repatriate…though never as a TCK Talent.

Happy 2016, readers! I hope your January has been splendid thus far. Today’s interviewee is writer, editor, tattoo collector, and Huffington Post contributor Sezín Koehler, who also calls herself Zuzu (a nickname she picked up when living in Prague). Sezín may already be familiar to some Displaced Nation readers as an early contributor, including a two-part series listing films that depict the horrors of being abroad, or otherwise displaced; a much-commented upon post called “The Accidental Repatriate”; and an Alice-in-Wonderland-themed post on her life in Prague (that was after she had received one of the Displaced Nation’s very first “Alice” awards).

But what some of you may not know is that Sezín is a Third Culture Kid. She was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to a Sri Lankan dad and Lithuanian-American mom. Her mom’s job with UNICEF moved the family from Sri Lanka to Zambia, Thailand, Pakistan, and India.

Sezín went to college in California—and then returned to her family, who were living in Switzerland and then in France (the move again being due to her mom’s job).

Next Sezín moved alone to Spain, where she met her husband, who is American. After living as expats in Turkey, Czech Republic, and Germany, the couple now call Lighthouse Point, Florida, home.

* * *

Welcome, Sezín. What a truly peripatetic life you’ve had! What made you decide to “repatriate” to the USA and come to Lighthouse Point? 
This area is where my husband grew up and has family, although his family moved further north just this year. Economics and a series of unfortunate events are what brought me back to the US—my husband and I returned with literally 15 euros between us.

Sounds like a tough reentry. While living as a nomad can also be tough, were you happiest in a certain place?
That’s a surprisingly difficult question! There was a lot of conflict in my family when I was growing up because of the tension between my American mum and conservative Sri Lankan dad—and all the cultural, social, etc., issues that come with having a multicultural and multiracial family before that became something of the norm. Plus, moving all the time was not a lifestyle that worked for me, and it created uncomfortable cycles of depression that were then compounded by having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after witnessing the murder of one of my best friends in our final year of university. The repatriation to Florida was one of the more miserable moves—especially since I had never planned to move back to the United States until they sort out more effective gun-control laws.

That sounds terribly painful. How have you coped since your return to the US?
My first two years back made me completely despondent, and then one day I just decided to make the best of the situation. It was time to choose happiness; otherwise I wasn’t going to survive. So now every day I wake up and I find something—big or small—to be happy about and I focus on that for the day. In that sense, and in a strange reversal, I suppose Florida is where I find myself happiest because this is where I learned that happiness isn’t something that happens to me passively because life is perfect. Happiness is a daily choice. And I actively make the choice to be happy however difficult my surroundings.

“That feeling of being an outsider never quite leaves you…”

Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures, including the very broad “TCK culture”? 
You know, I think I identify with aspects of pretty much every culture under the sun—even ones where I didn’t actually live or visit. Being highly sensitive, coupled with having a TCK upbringing, has made it so I can identify with just about anyone who isn’t a bigot or misogynist, even if our backgrounds are nothing alike. I do find myself particularly drawn to other TCKs because, even if we didn’t live in the same places, there is something about the “universal” TCK personality that resonates with me, and it’s far easier to start on the same page rather than having to work hard to build bridges of understanding between myself and people who haven’t traveled or grown up abroad. I also find that many TCKs understand that just because growing up abroad sounds exciting, it might not have actually felt that way when we were getting yanked from place to place, leaving friends and family behind in those pre-social-media Dark Ages.

Did your TCK upbringing inform your career path as a writer?
To be honest, with all the moving around plus PTSD, it’s been hard to develop a career track other than writing. Being a writer means you take your passion with you wherever you go, and no matter where you are, there is always something new to write about. Writing has been my longest-standing support system and therapy through the variety of traumas that ended up shaping my life, and any day now I hope I’ll start being able to make a living doing it. 🙂

Did growing up as a TCK also influence your career as an editor?
As an editor I focus on academic writing by non-native English speakers, and having lived in so many places has definitely helped me understand all the different (incorrect) ways people use English and help them to get published in English-language publications where English fluency is a requirement.

“As a Third Culture Kid, I always related with monsters more than ‘norms.'”

Tell us about your tattoo collection. Any TCK connections there?
Other than my husband, tattoos are one of the great loves of my life. Tattoos for me have been a way to not just express myself creatively, but have also been a way to re-claim my own body after so many traumas. I have a hybrid identity that I often express in fantastical ways. Sometimes when people ask me where I’m from and I don’t feel like having an intimate conversation about my life I’ll say I’m a mermaid and I’m visiting from the ocean. I have a huge jellyfish on my right thigh and I say, “Meet my pet jelly.” Now that my hair is in a pixie cut, I might introduce myself as a fairy and since I actually have tattooed wings on my shoulders as well as often literally leaving a trail of glitter in my wake, I find it easier than getting into my TCK identity—especially when the person I’m talking to might have never left this corner of Florida.

Keep Calm & Be a Mermaid

So in a way, the tattoos serve as both explanation and protection.
For my entire life I’ve operated under an assumption of otherness—when I’m in the US people ask me where I’m from, and when I’m in Sri Lanka people ask me where I’m from. Being mixed race can be really complicated—and I get a lot of aggression from strangers who try to figure out “what” I am. In a way tattoos are a shield between me and curious eyes, as is much of my performance-of-the-fantastical-self art and being.

Have any of these careers/interests helped you to process your nomadic upbringing?
Writing, definitely! Writing has been my most effective and longest-standing therapeutic tool. Not just my non-fiction, but also my short stories and my novels have most certainly helped me situate my cultural self in lots of different ways that have been helpful and healing. As a writer I’m also an avid reader, and reading is another huge help in figuring out where my strange background and I fit in the grander scheme of culture and society.

“I revel in my boundaryless self…”

As an ATCK, do you have “itchy feet,” or would you prefer to have a home base and only travel for pleasure?
I have always hated moving and I might be the only TCK to say I have never had itchy feet. Ever since I was a little girl all I wanted was to stay in one place and even now at 36 I feel that way. But because of how I grew up moving around, I’ve also come to a point where everywhere seems pretty much the same—I always see the same kinds of people in disparate places, it’s weird—and yet nowhere ever feels like home. So now my concept of home has shifted and simply means being somewhere with people I love.

Moving is one thing, but how do you feel about traveling in general, including for pleasure?
After a lifetime spent on airplanes and traveling, I absolutely hate traveling now. I have crippling aerophobia, and if I’m forced to travel somewhere by plane, everything about the experience is miserable and I end up getting really ill before, during, and after. I find going to new places more stressful than enjoyable. My dream is one day to have a house with a beautiful view and some rescue dogs and never go anywhere ever again. Except through books, of course.

Speaking of books, you published your first novel, American Monsters, four years ago, and I understand the sequel has just come out!
Yes indeed! My second novel, Crime Rave, came out in October 2015, and I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of one of my creations in my life. Going back to your question about how being a TCK has shaped my writing, this book is a perfect example. The story itself defies genres—it has crime noir, supernatural, horror, and feminist themes just to name a few—and most of my characters are either mixed race or people of color who are not only TCKs themselves or ethno-cultural hybrids, but they’ve all gone through traumas that resulted in superpowers. If there was a label of Third Culture Fiction, my book would totally fit the bill.

The number of novels you have in progress, on top of what you’ve had published, is wildly impressive! Please tell us about them.
Thank you so much, Lisa. I’m currently working on my third, fourth, fifth, and potentially sixth novels—the third is a zombie tale set in Prague, the fourth will find recurring Crime Rave characters on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Lighthouse Terror will be a grindhouse horror novel set in a gated community in southeast Florida, and finally I’m toying with the idea of an entire novel about Marilyn Monroe.

Yes, I know you are a big Marilyn fan. I believe she makes an appearance in Crime Rave?
Yes, in Crime Rave she not only lives but has a daughter.
Crime Rave Marilyn
What else are you working on?
As a HuffPost freelancer I’m working on a number of pieces featuring interviews with some badass individuals—authors, activists, artists, scientists, and more. I’m also in the process of starting my own publishing label that will focus on works by women and other marginalized writers who create genre-bending works in which women play all the major roles.

You’re so prodigious!
The one benefit of being an accidental shut-in who works from home here in Lighthouse Point is that I have nothing but time to work on all the creative projects I want, which is another dream come true.

Where can we find your work and follow your progress?
At sezin.org, my HuffPost column, my American Monsters site, and sezinkoehler.com. I’ve also recently revamped my Etsy store, Zuzu Art, with its gallery of sparkly-strange multimedia Alice in Wonderland and Frida Kahlo-inspired pieces. I have a Tumblr cabinet of curiosities called Hybrid/Monster that I continue to update with oddities of the visual nature, and I am rather fond of my Instagram account, where I post pics of my own art, my performance art, and snapshots of life in the tropics. Whew! I didn’t realize how much I produce online until this very moment.

* * *

Thank you so much, Sezín! I’m inspired to know that your artistic path has led to your healing, and that you’ve found daily happiness since the painful reentry to the United States. Congratulations on your many creative, career, and personal accomplishments! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Sezín below.

Editor’s note: All photos are from Koehler’s Hybrid Monsters site (apart from her book cover and the photo of one of her Etsy works) or from Pixabay. The quotes are from her “About the Curatrix” page.

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is a prime example of what she writes about in this column: an Adult Third Culture 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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Wonderlanded with Dr. Karen V., scholar of linguistics and creator of a comic strip series on expat life

Welcome back to the Displaced Nation’s Wonderlanded series, being held in gratitude for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which turns 150 this year and, despite this advanced age, continues to stimulate and reassure many of us who have chosen to lead international, displaced, “through the looking glass” lives.

This month we travel
d
o
w
n
the hole with Karen V., a Spaniard who describes herself as an expat, linguist and skeptic. Her sociolinguistic adventures began ten years ago when she moved to Berlin, followed by Zürich, Madrid, Savonlinna and most recently Hamburg.

She speaks Spanish, German and English fluently and can communicate in French and Finnish.

But if Karen is in no uncertain terms a scholar, the only thing I knew about her before eliciting her participation in our Wonderlanded series was that she produces a comic strip series called “Expat Gone Foreign,” which depicts the adventures of a black-haired girl called tXc. The series—which Karen describes as “a graphic journey through culture clashes, social awkwardness, language-related phenomena and life itself”—has its own Website and products. It has attracted many social media followers.

In my backings and forthings with Karen for today’s post, she assured me that tXc is her (though her eyes aren’t nearly as big), and all of the anecdotes in the strips are real situations that have happened to her over the years.

That said, Karen assured me that today we would be wonderlanded with her, not with tXc—that is, until the very end, when tXc will make a special appearance.

Also, the phantasmagoria of images we will see during our journey through Karen’s wonderland were created by her, a first for this series.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to jump down the hole after Dr. V. Apart from anything else, I’m curious to hear her vision of Alice as a manga character.

* * *

Karen: Thank you, ML, and greetings, Displaced Nation readers. Before we begin our plunge, here is a little more background on me. I was born and raised in a small city in Southern Spain and became interested in languages and foreign cultures at a young age, mostly due to the interaction with the many tourists who visit the region and expats who live there. My curiosity would peak whenever my family and I went camping along the Andalusian and Portuguese coast during the summer holidays. There was something different about the lobster-looking Brits abundantly smeared in sun lotion holding their sangrías with little umbrellas, or the sock-and-sandals-wearing Germans sitting in the shade reading those huge newspapers and filling every crossword book. But there was more to it than their mere appearance. They spoke, gesticulated and interacted in a different manner than the locals; and it seemed to me that their language was just a doorstep into a whole new microcosmos of proxemics, social norms and unfamiliar mindsets. An intriguing foreignness. As I attempted to interact with these outsiders, I realized I relished the challenge of having to decipher sociolinguistic puzzles with pieces that were different than the ones I was used to playing with.

Eventually that curiosity led to becoming widely interested in languages and foreign cultures, getting into the field of linguistics and ultimately, stepping off my doorstep into the unknown…into the proverbial rabbit hole.

…after a few minutes it seemed quite natural to Alice to find herself talking quite familiarly with [the Dodo, the Duck, the Eaglet, the Lory, the Mouse, etc.], as if she had known them all her life.

When I first relocated to Berlin for university, I felt as if four million citizens were rowing in a boat simultaneously, all of them sailing in the same direction. That said, I don’t recollect my first experience of the city as being disorienting. Rather, I was relieved and exhilarated, as if I had finally gained the required space to explore and develop myself. My stranger self in the company of other million strangers, I felt at ease amidst complete unfamiliarity in the vibrant big city. The new everyday life was packed with novelty, strangeness and excitement. A mixture of emerging patterns waiting to be understood. A prophylactic change against stagnation.

Cheshire Cat to Alice: “[W]e’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

On my first day of university, I met a Finnish girl who seemed overwhelmed by the academic system and referred to it as pure chaos—a statement I didn’t understand until I moved to Finland four years later. Whereas I was utterly pleased by the German orderliness, she conveyed the impression of being rather irritated. It was a clear illustration of two individuals whose accustomed grounds were being torn apart—in this case, in two opposite directions; an example of how the societal life design in which we grew up outlines our boundaries of normality and acceptability.

Alice to the Cheshire Cat: “It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

After having lived in the same country for the most part of your life, it’s fair to assume that moving abroad involves a great deal of discordance coupled with an unsettling feeling of disconnection from the world. However, this wasn’t the case of my pioneer relocation abroad, but rather the trial I experienced when I temporarily had to move back to my home country after the first year in Berlin. It was a reverse culture clash and probably one of the hardest transitions. Returning to Spain meant bringing back the personal development and acculturation that had occurred during my time in Berlin and trying to fit it in the home environment, an environment so deeply familiar and yet that now seemed uncanny in so many aspects. I realised no one could possibly come back and pick up as the same person one was before leaving. Navigating the new set of circumstances meant facing the original issues that fostered the decision to leave in the first place. My solution was to try to recreate “wonderland” around me. I surrounded myself with German exchange students and spotted the local stores where I could get imported products. I learnt to bake dark rye bread with pumpkin and sunflower seeds—brunch became a Sunday ritual in my shared flat. I would wake up every morning listening to Berlin radio stations, watch Stromberg at night and skype with the friends I left behind. It worked until the time was right to venture into Wonderland again.

Alice to herself: “I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”

The first time I got sick abroad was during my first week in Switzerland. Patients in Switzerland receive their medical bills by post after being treated, and I still didn’t have any written proof that I was living there. I had to wander around Zürich for hours until I found a doctor who was kind enough to deal with my feverish cold. Unsurprising fact: he was also an expat.

Recipe for a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

I would serve seafood for the main course and chocolate chip cookie cake for dessert followed by lychee cocktails. I would invite American filmmaker David Lynch; English composer Michael Nyman; German-born Swiss literary giant Hermann Hesse; linguists Vyvyan Evans and Edward Sapir; Vanessa Yves (the heroine of the American horror series Penny Dreadful); German author of fantasy and horror E.T.A. Hoffmann; Oscar Wilde’s gothic hero Dorian Gray, and my good and displaced friend Ginger. I can’t think of a better combination of people for throwing a tea party. 🙂

Alice muttering to herself: “It’s really dreadful, the way all the creatures argue. It’s enough to drive one crazy!”

Since Germany has become my permanent place of residence and I have adapted to its interactional patterns, one of the things I struggle with when I visit Spain is talking to people. It takes me a couple of days to adjust to the fast conversational pace, the high volume, the close proximity, the somewhat intrusive physical contact and the fact that being interrupted doesn’t mean rudeness but cooperation and interest on the listener’s part. Likewise, many a time have I returned to Germany after my holidays in Spain and noticed people would be staring at me for being the loudest person in the room, so…back to keeping it down a notch.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

I find extremely interesting the way some people change fundamentally when they switch from one language to another. It’s not just the linguistic code, but also their voice register, their body language and even their emotions and opinions; as if one weren’t the same individual anymore but had rather suddenly shifted into a new identity. I have been told to manifest this behaviour a couple of times and I was skeptical at first, so I watched myself in mute videos to ultimately confirm their hypothesis.

Advice for those who have only just stepped through the looking glass

If you have ventured into the rabbit hole, there’s no turning back. The displacement or dépaysement (fr. the feeling of being disoriented or not at home, in a foreign or different place) will be recurrent, and it’s something you have to come to terms with. Finding yourself geographically rootless, a part of everywhere and nowhere, can result in restlessness and distress. I dare say it’s not an exclusive phenomenon of international relocation, but moving to a foreign country definitely enhances its scope. Take it from me and others who have been to Wonderland and back: one gradually turns into a patchwork of identities, a broken jigsaw, a mixture of places and cultures, an odd individual made of bits and pieces from everywhere and hence nowhere.

But there are always two sides to the coin. Should you experience any sense of bereavement resulting from your leaving, consider all the independence, freedom and professional as well as personal development you have gained by doing so. Picture yourself in a parallel universe in which you had never left and examine that hypothetical self. Would you rather be that person? I don’t think so. You are becoming the best version of yourself, embracing life at its fullest from its many a different angle, participating in a conscious awakening.

As Lewis Carroll writes at the end of Alice’s adventures:

“So she sat on with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality.”

Bonus: Alice as manga character

The cartoonist in me envisions a black-haired Alice who, after having spent a while in Wonderland, crawls back to the surface wielding a large scythe and haunts citizens for explanations as to what happened. She eschews the proper lady stylings of her literary counterpart, having both a voracious appetite and a temper.

Ta–dah! tXc is here!

92 Wonderlanded P

* * *

Thank you, Karen! Being wonderlanded with you was…beyond curious! I have to confess, there were a few times when I wondered whether you had become a creature of wonderland yourself…but I of course mean that as a compliment! Readers, any responses to Karen’s story? How about to her visuals and to the glorious appearance of tXc as Alice in Wonderland (or should that be Expatland)? Please leave in the comments. And don’t forget. If you want to keep in touch with tXc’s expat adventures, be sure to visit Expat Gone Foreign site, like the comic strip series on Facebook, and follow along on Twitter. ~ML

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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TCK TALENT: Donna Musil, Writer-Director, Lawyer, Activist & Proud Army Brat

The uber TCK-talented Donna Musil. Photo credit: Ray Ng.

The uber TCK-talented Donna Musil. Photo credit: Ray Ng.

Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her latest interview guest.

Welcome back, readers! It’s been awhile. But I think the wait will be worth it as my latest interviewee is the super-talented writer, filmmaker and social change agent Donna Musil. Donna is also a fitting choice for the month when America celebrates Veteran’s Day. She made the award-winning documentary BRATS: Our Journey Home, narrated by Kris Kristofferson, about what it is like to grow up in a military family and the long-term impact it can have on a person’s adult life.

She is also the founding director of Brats Without Borders, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing awareness and support for military brats and other Third Culture Kids.

Donna’s interest in the subculture of military brats is personal. Born into a career Army family, she went to 12 schools by the time she was 16 and never had a hometown. Her family moved almost every year until she was seven, from Fort Benning, Georgia, to two other bases in Georgia (Athens and Macon, the latter when her father was serving in Korea and Vietnam); then to the enormous Army installation in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and to Charlottesville, Virginia, where her father was doing something at the university. They moved overseas twice: to Germany (Bad Kreuznach), followed by Fort Mason in San Francisco; and to South Korea—Yongsan Garrison in Seoul and then Camp Walker in Taegu (now Daegu), after which they were stationed in Fort Knox, Kentucky. Donna’s father died in the summer of 1976, two months after she turned 16, and her family had to leave base housing. They moved to Columbus, Georgia.

Talk about talent! BRATS was Donna’s very first directing effort. I had the privilege of getting to know her as one of my fellow authors in the TCK anthology Writing Out of Limbo.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Donna. Even though I’ve met and have interviewed plenty of Adult TCKs, my head is still spinning at the number of moves you experienced as a youngster. Once you reached young adulthood, did you settle in one spot or keep moving?
I stayed in Georgia for college, earning a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a law degree a few years later (the time in between I traveled and worked as an on-air radio newscaster). After law school, I practiced union-side labor law in Washington, DC and Atlanta. In the late 1980s, I quit practicing law to pursue a writing career, my childhood dream. After a few years in Atlanta, I moved to Los Angeles to “pay my dues” in the film business, but when the 1994 Northridge earthquake struck and destroyed half of my possessions, I stored the other half at my sister’s and moved to Dublin, Ireland, for two years to write. When I ran out of money, I returned to Georgia and began making the BRATS film. I lived in a crooked, old family lakehouse, which became my “base.” During the ten years it took to make and distribute the BRATS film, I also worked as a technical writer and/or attended writer’s residencies in Denmark, Spain, Paris, Taos, and Port Townsend (Washington).

Where do you live now?
In 2010, I moved to Denver to be near my sister and her family, and have lived there ever since, except when I’ve been on writer’s residencies—in France, Chicago, and San Francisco. (I’ll be living at a writer’s residency in Chiang Mai, Thailand, this coming winter.)

Donna Musil, already displaying her talents in Korea, 1975. (Photo supplied.)

Donna Musil, already displaying her talents in Korea, 1975. (Photo supplied.)

Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time?
I was happiest when we lived at Fort Mason in San Francisco when I was 11 to 13 years old. Interestingly enough, it was one of the least “military” of all of our assignments, just a block away from the famed Ghirardelli Square, overlooking the bay. I attended public schools, populated by an eclectic array of children, whose parents were everything from authors to restaurant owners to ballerinas. The racial makeup of the student body was about a third Chinese, a third white, and a third black and brown. I loved it!

I can imagine you thriving on the diversity. Was there anything else that made that time special?
Yes, swimming! I joined the Presidio Swim Club after watching Mark Spitz bedazzle the tragic 1972 Olympics, and began dreaming of my own (albeit unlikely) Olympic run. I walked to school every day and to swim practice every afternoon. I think I still hold the Marina Junior High School record for the most pull-ups for a 13-year-old girl—12! I loved everything about San Francisco—the culture, the diversity, the hippies on the beach. It was also the last year before my father got sick, so I suppose it was the end of my innocence. The next year, we moved to Seoul, Korea, for six months and then to Taegu, where there was no swim team, and my dreams of Olympic glory evaporated. My freshman class had ten students, total. We were surrounded by jaded, war-struck soldiers on their way to or from Vietnam, bars, prostitutes, and easy access to drugs and alcohol. You can imagine the results.

Because everybody needs a place to call home…

Let’s talk about BRATS. For readers who aren’t familiar, here is the trailer:


Were you surprised by what a hit BRATS has been with adult military brats and ATCKs? 
The reaction to BRATS: Our Journey Home has been interesting. I initially made the movie to figure out “who I was and where I was from,” but it quickly became apparent that it was less about me and more about the brat/TCK culture in general. I had been separated from the military life for twenty years when I began filming so was somewhat surprised to discover that most of the issues the movie discusses are just as relevant today as they were when I was a child—particularly the emotional and trauma-related issues.

In your essay in Writing Out of Limbo, you mention a teenaged boy who loved the documentary because it was the first time he had seen a family like his portrayed on film. You state: “I would do it all over again to hear that one comment. To make a difference in just one child’s life—no honor, award, or monetary compensation could ever compare.” That’s tremendous! But let’s also talk about your goal of affecting change within the military itself. How has the military responded?
To be honest, I would have to say that the military-as-a-whole has not welcomed the film or the research of Brats Without Borders (or any other “brat” groups) with open arms, nor have they helped us implement programs or provide resources to current and retired families that address the emotional needs of military brats/TCKs. There have been pockets of institutional and corporate support for a related art exhibit and workshops, as well as the film distribution costs, and Armed Forces Network has broadcast the film multiple times. The reactions have always been universally positive, but we could be doing so much more (with so very little).

So there are no military groups who have interpreted the film as a call to action?
In general, the military clergy and soldiers have been most supportive of our work and the military educational system and spouses the least supportive. It took me a while to realize that it must be hard to hear that the life you’ve chosen for your family (often a life better than your own childhood) also has its flaws. Many (high-powered) spouses are willing to hear and promote the positive legacies of growing up brat/TCK but tend to gloss over the painful legacies and attribute them to bad parenting instead of institutional pressures, traditions, or combat trauma. As a result, nothing much changes, and (as it has always been), brats/TCKs are forced to take care of their own emotional needs. Nowadays, people talk a little bit more about the sacrifice of military kids and groups give them free “stuff”; but they’re still not addressing their emotional needs (among other things) or considering what institutional changes might be made to ease their transitions and difficulties.

You must find that frustrating.
It’s particularly frustrating when I hear the institution and the media talk about the “lack of research” in this area, because it’s simply not true. We have the research. We’ve had it for 25 years. They just don’t always like what the research says. The military wants to downplay the negatives and the media wants to downplay the positives. Meanwhile, millions of dollars are being thrown into programs for military kids that are designed by people who haven’t walked the walk, or whose loyalties lie more with the institution or perpetuating their own existence than they do with the children. That may seem harsh, but I think it’s the truth. Perhaps one day actual brats and TCKs will be invited to the table and given substantial support, but I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, we’ll just keep helping ourselves!

“Like many brats,…I could talk to, but didn’t trust, anyone.” —Donna Musil in Writing Out of Limbo

Let’s move on to talk about the TCK experience. Many of the sections in your essay for Writing Out of Limbo resonated with me; for instance, when you said: “There are lessons each of us has to learn in our lives, and the more we avoid learning a particular lesson, the harder God will knock us down, until we have no choice but to learn it (and move on to the next lesson….). Still I didn’t learn.” You mention trust issues, inability to handle disagreement or confrontation, and more traits that are common among ATCKs, for which you needed to learn healthier coping mechanisms. Has making and touring BRATS helped you deal with this? Or do your old TCK survival mechanisms still crop up from time to time (like mine do even though creating Alien Citizen helped me a lot)?
For good or ill, I think all of my TCK survival mechanisms are alive and well! I’ve just learned to manage them better, with experiences from the BRATS film, my new film projects, some very good therapy, a lot of reading, and a very kind, understanding, and patient fiancé.

Has making and touring BRATS helped Donna to deal with some of the TCK issues Donna describes in Writing Out of Limbo? (Cover art; poster art, supplied.)

Has making and touring BRATS helped Donna to deal with some of the TCK issues she describes in Writing Out of Limbo? (Cover art and poster art, supplied.)

Are you tempted, for example, to run away from confrontation/disagreement?
Yes, I’d rather flee, move, break up or leave. I’ve learned to temper that impulse by isolating myself and dealing with it after I’ve calmed down. I also still have a visceral reaction to mean-spirited, unjust, authoritative, or self-centered people, but instead of confronting them like I used to, I try to avoid them. I’m much less black-and-white about things—but perhaps that’s just the wisdom of age. I do make people earn my trust instead of instantly bestowing it, and vice versa. There are so many ways “growing up brat/TCK” still affects my life today; it probably shapes almost everything I do. As I get older, though, I try to build on the positive aspects of my youth and temper the less-than-positive legacies, which is often much easier said than done!

Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures, or with people who have similar interests and perhaps similar cross-cultural backgrounds?  
I don’t identify with any particular culture or ethnicity, other than the brat/TCK culture. I don’t even have any real nationalistic tendencies. I don’t think America is “the best country in the world.” I think all countries and all people have their good points and not-so-good points; it just depends on what you’re most comfortable with. That said, I am definitely the quintessential American—independent, strong-willed, feisty, rebellious. Daniel Boone was my (great-great) uncle, his oldest brother Samuel my (great-great) grandfather, so I come by that spirit honestly. But my political sensibilities are more Scandinavian, like my grandmother’s side of the family. I enjoy being around other curious, open-minded “outsiders,” many of whom tend to have cross-cultural backgrounds. I try very hard not to consider myself, or any group to which I feel I might belong, “special.” That kind of thinking is the source of most of the world’s ills.

Do you have “itchy feet,” which still make you want to move frequently? Or would you prefer to have a home base and only travel for pleasure?
My poor fiancé. He was an educator brat—but basically grew up in one town in Germany. When we first started dating, I’d tell him all of the places I dream about living in: Vancouver, Canada; Austin, TX; San Francisco, CA; Chiang Mai, Thailand; Asheville, NC; and Paris, etc. Like any man, he wanted to give me what I wanted, but he couldn’t pin me down on what I actually wanted (one of the banes of being a brat/TCK). I was born and raised to be geographically and intellectually curious (the best legacy of growing up brat/TCK!). I like to stay somewhere until I want to go somewhere else—and my fiancé is okay with that, too. I don’t have any children, and his are grown, so it’s possible for us to live this way. Perhaps we’ll settle down in one place in the future. Denver is a nice town. We like it—for now.

Donna’s next act(s)

Returning to your work: I believe you are making another documentary? Tell us about it.
Yes, the film is called Our Own Private Battlefield. It’s the first documentary about the intergenerational effects of combat PTSD on military children, and how one Marine family is using art to help heal the long-term wounds of the Vietnam War. I still have a few more interviews to shoot. I’m hoping the lessons learned from this family will help generations of current and future military families deal with the traumas of war, both here and abroad.

Battlefield sounds amazing.
It’s actually a byproduct of the combined efforts of Brats Without Borders and Marine brat Lora Beldon’s organization, Military Kid Art Project, which teaches customized art classes to military children.

Your mention of art reminds me: I think an art exhibit is one of your other projects?
Yes, Lora and I founded the BRAT Art Institute this year and will host our first Military BRAT Art Camp in 2016, in conjunction with Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, VA. Right now we have a museum exhibit currently touring the country, called “UNCLASSIFIED: The Military Kid Art Show.” It won a Newman’s Own Award in 2012 and features over fifty years of military brat and veteran art from around the world, historical artifacts, and films about using art to heal trauma. The art camps will be part of a larger research effort to study how art can help military children deal with the traumas of war and multiple deployments.

Do you have any projects that don’t relate to the military?
Yes, my personal projects are much more eclectic. Besides a TV show based on brats in Korea in the 1970s, I’m also shopping a children’s animated film script based on African folktales (with a producer from Ghana) as well as a feature film screenplay about a modern-day union campaign at a small-town nursing home. My current writing efforts are focused on a murder mystery, based on (what I believe) is an unjust incarceration of an innocent man for over thirty years.

How can we follow your progress?
People can see my brat/TCK projects at www.USAbrat.org. Later this year, I will be putting up a personal page, donnamusil.com, for my non-brat/TCK projects.

* * *

Thank you so much, Donna! I think I can speak for the entire Displaced Nation in asserting that you’ve blown us all away with all the important and necessary work you do for military brats, veterans, and TCKs. Congratulations on your many extraordinary achievements! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Donna below.

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is a prime example of what she writes about in this column: an Adult Third Culture 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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EXPAT ART AS THERAPY: Works that capture unexpectedly beautiful moments of life in other countries

ExpatArtasTherapy_principle_no_two

As the summer wears on—and I’m wondering what I am doing working long hours in a big city while everyone else seems to have escaped to beaches or mountains or on other adventures—I’m returning to my series based on the ideas of pop philosopher Alain de Botton. As those familiar with his work will recall, de Botton maintains that art can provide relief from as well as solutions to one’s angst.

But does the art we expats produce play a role in improving people’s lives? That’s what this series of posts explores.

No doubt, the works of international creatives has some appeal to what global soul Pico Iyer has called the great floating tribe of people “living in countries not their own.” (Expats currently number around 230 million, or about 3 percent of the world’s population.)

But are the works expats produce too specific to their own situations, or do these works, too, speak to broader life problems?

De Botton outlines six specific ways art can respond to human needs. My last post examined his first principle, that art can compensate for the fact that we have bad memories. I offered some examples of how international creatives have preserved precious moments of their lives in other countries in their works, not only for themselves but for posterity.

Today let’s look at de Botton’s

PRINCIPLE #2: Art can give us hope. Simple images of happiness touch us. We tend to be moved by small expressions of beauty—not because we are sentimental but precisely because so much of life is not pretty.

The example de Botton cites is Claude Monet’s Water Lilies, (or Nymphéas), a series of around 250 oil paintings that depict the French impressionist’s garden at Giverny. Monet painted the series during the last years of his life, while suffering from cataracts.

Claude_Monet_Nympheas_1915_Musee_Marmottan_Paris

Nymphéas, 1915, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris. via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

De Botton is of course stirring it up by insisting that beautiful art serves an important purpose. Artists of today seem to be in a race to outdo each other in the outrageous stakes. I’m thinking of Damien Hirst, who built his reputation on artworks displaying dead animals, or their parts, in formaldehyde tanks. Providing a respite from the ugliness of life is the last thing on his mind. Likewise for Jen Lewis, who uses her own menstrual blood to create abstract designs. Provocative, yes, but not my idea of beauty.

Returning to de Botton’s second principle: which expat artists have excelled at producing the kind of beauty that provides relief from life’s less pleasant aspects? (Who are our displaced Monets?)

By way of an answer I’ve arranged a small “exhibition” of works by four visual artists, three painters and one photographer, all of whom have been affiliated in some way with the Displaced Nation. As de Botton has done at several museum exhibitions, I’ve added post-it notes describing the therapeutic effects I’ve experienced upon viewing these artists’ works.

#1: “Lost on a Mountaintop,” by Candace Rose Rardon

Lost_on_a_Mountaintop_by_candace-rardon_800x

POST-IT: Those of us who have traversed international boundaries carry in our hearts the fear that we may someday lose our way—literally, of course, but even figuratively, with no family or old friends around to serve as mentors or sounding boards. Candace Rose Rardon shows us the flip side: how glorious to be lost on the top of a mountain range with the world stripped down to pines, sun, wind and hills, ready for you to paint your own scenes on it. Even a stay-at-home curmudgeon could be struck down with wanderlust, at such a prospect. Candace is a writer, sketch artist and illustrator without a location. She tells stories about the world through her words and watercolors.
OUR CONNECTION: Candace was the recipient of one of our Alice Awards.
SEE ALSO: Candace’s blog, The Great Affair; and her first book of travel sketches: Beneath the Lantern’s Glow: Sketches and stories from Southeast Asia and Japan.

#2: Les Mimosas de Mesubenomori,” by Julie Harmsworth

les-mimosas-de-mesubenomori-2013-800x-acrylique-et-pastel-c3a0-lhuile-sur-papier
POST-IT: My first (and only) visit to Nagasaki, made while I was living in Japan, had a lasting impact. To this day I carry around images of the damage wreaked on that city from my visit to the Atomic Bomb Museum. But for Julie, who moved to Nagasaki from the United States to teach English, the city was the place of her rebirth as an artist. She often walked to this local park, and this painting is her tribute to its flowering mimosa trees. For a moment her painting makes me forget the pain this city endured, along with the horror for war it engenders. Though one can never lose sight of the darkness, it’s possible to be touched by these simple, beautiful trees.
OUR CONNECTION: We are mutual blogging admirers. Julie, btw, has now moved to France, where she continues her work as a fine artist (hence the French title of her painting).
SEE ALSO: Julie’s portfolio site.

#3: “Russian Market—Phnom Penh,” by A. Spaice

Russian-Market-PhnomPenh_framed
POST-IT: I’ve never been to Phnom Penh but imagine it might be a variation on other Southeast Asian cities (Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Saigon) I’ve visited. From reading descriptions of the Russian Market, which lies in the southern part of Cambodia’s capital city, I can certainly picture it: a narrow warren of stalls, crowded, busy and sweltering, full of the kinds of goods you see in all of the markets in that part of the world (though apparently at better prices), everything from handicrafts to fake Swiss watches to pirated software to designer clothes considered unfit to be shipped abroad because of small flaws. The global economy at its finest! But what does writer and sometime photographer A. Spaice offer us? A glimpse of a splendidly isolated flower and flower-to-be. Such a beautiful reminder that the “I shop therefore I am” credo of Asia isn’t all there is to life!
OUR CONNECTION: A. Spaice was our first international creative to be “wonderlanded” (read her interview and an excerpt from her short book, Bangkok).
SEE ALSO: A. Spaice’s Design Kompany site and weekly e-zine.

#4: “End of the Drought,” by Antrese Wood

Endofthedrought_Antrese_Wood
POST-IT: The Pampas grasslands of Argentina are one of the most fertile areas in the world. When a drought occurs and its crops are destroyed, not only farmers—but also does the rest of the world—suffers, as world food prices are nudged higher. Antrese’s painting of the grasslands landscape “after the drought” reminds us that even when nature gives the earth and its inhabitants a terrible beating, the rain returns eventually and the beauty of the landscape is restored. If a glimpse of such beauty helps us forget the pain even for a moment, then perhaps it is possible to regroup and carry on. (Note to self: Come back to this painting once the dog days of August have arrived.) An American married to an Argentinian, Antrese has been living in Argentina since 2011.
OUR CONNECTION: Antrese was one of the interviewees in our long-running Random Nomad series. At that time she was about to embark on an ambitious project, “A Portrait of Argentina.”
SEE ALSO: Her portfolio site and her podcast series for artists, SavvyPainter.

Note: All four artists’ works are reproduced here with their permission.

* * *

So, readers, what do you think of the above “exhibition” of works that capture unexpected moments of appreciation for life’s beauty? I know that writing about these works helped to lift me out of my late-July funk, but did you, too, find it therapeutic? And are there other expat works you would recommend for this reason? Do tell in the comments.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post.

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3 anti-New Year’s resolutions for expat creatives, courtesy of the Lord of Misrule

LordofMisrule

“Lord of Misrule,” by _william via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The start of a new year, and I’ve been struggling to think of just the right blessing, words of encouragement or meditation to inspire you (and myself for that matter) in the climb to reach new summits in your creative pursuits of 2015.

But here it is, the last day of Christmas, what some of us refer to as Three Kings Day or Epiphany—and I find myself with, well, no epiphanies.

Rather, my mind seems to have been taken over by the Lord of Misrule, a figure of mischief who presided over medieval celebrations of the 12th day of Christmas, or Twelfth Night—known to the Romans in pre-Christian times as Saturnalia (the Celts had their own version: Samhain).

* * *

Wait just a second… The Lord of Misrule is dragging me into the Feast of Fools and offering me a tankard of wassail. He has invited me to give a speech to the assembly. Well, here goes:

“Lords and ladies of the Feast, I am enjoying this occasion when we all have license to behave as fools.

In that spirit, I’d like you join with me in cursing—you heard it right, CURSING—my compatriot Clement Clarke Moore, who wrote a poem about St. Nicholas. I think it should have ended here:

And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap…

I ask you: Was it really necessary for St. Nick to bound down the chimney just as that poor couple was finally getting some rest?

In that same vein, let us also condemn whoever it was who invented the New Year’s custom of making resolutions!

Surely, what most of us want to do on January 1 is get back to that long winter’s nap and hibernate for a bit?

Where I live, we are now preparing for a second Arctic blast, even colder than the first.

Under these conditions, I would be doing well to get the dog out for a walk and myself to the office—especially as it has just started snowing. Indeed, the last thing I need at this point is one of those lists of 52 goals to accomplish in 2015.

I’ll be lucky if I can remember where I stored my old snow boots.”

* * *

Okay, here I am again. (They gave me a standing ovation, btw. If they ask for an encore, I’ll bring up my new campaign to refer to the Year of the Sheep as the Year of the Alpaca instead, so much cuter!)

But listen, I haven’t completely abrogated my duty of leaving you with some thoughts at the start of the 2015.

At the encouragement of my new best friend, the Lord of Misrule, I present 3 anti-New Year’s resolutions, which you’d do well to heed:

1) There’s nothing wrong with easing in to the new year.

Readers who follow us closely will remember that we recently posted an excerpt from a contribution made by Philippa Ramsden, a Scot who lives in Burma, to columnist Shannon Young’s Dragonfruit anthology. Philippa talks about finding out she has cancer as she reaches the Tropic of Cancer. Well, as her first post of the year to her blog, Feisty Blue Gecko, suggests, she plans not to lean in but to ease in to 2015. I see nothing wrong with that, particularly for those of us, myself included, who found 2014 difficult year because of health issues or losses in their families (not for everyone Facebook’s “Year in Review” app!). Easy, easy, one day at a time. Resolutions can wait.

2) Read what you want to, not what you have to, for a while.

To illustrate this point, allow me to spin a quick travel yarn. My husband and I spent Christmas-into-New Year’s in the arty little town of Hudson, New York, staying in this house with a Parisian-style mansard roof (who knew?):
Hudson_House
It was the kind of house that made you want to sit by the window with a good book, but for one problem: I forgot to pack my Kindle! At first I was in despair: what’s a poor Kindle-less girl to do? That was before I discovered that the Hudson Valley has a wealth of abandoned books. In nearby Greenport, I found a regency romance by Georgette Heyer (deliciously frothy) and J.B. Priestly’s novel Lost Empires, which, in telling the story of the early 20th-century English music hall, paints some extraordinarily vivid characters. Reading two books I’d encountered by chance, I was reminded of my grad student days, when I would read widely as a break from writing my thesis. I was also reminded of why I chose to live in England so long: I was, and remain, enamored of the way they write novels.

3) Be open to finding inspiration in the most unlikely of places.

In the era of social media, there are countless gurus who tell us how to write, offering writing prompts or daily inspiration—when the truth is, the best inspiration usually comes when you least expect it. To continue with my travel yarn: During our stay in Hudson, we decided to visit the Olana State Historic Site, the home of Frederic Church, one of the major figures in the Hudson River School of landscape painting. I went there thinking I would learn something more about this quintessentially American style of painting, only to find that Church was ONE OF US: an early example of an international creative! Yes, he was American and attached to the Hudson Valley, but he also traveled extensively through Europe and the Middle East—Beirut, Jerusalem, and Damascus—with his wife and children and, before marriage, had explored South America. Fittingly, the house he and his wife designed is a mash-up of Victorian, Persian and Moorish styles:

"Olana2006 3 edit1" by Rolf Müller - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Olana2006_3_edit1.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Olana2006_3_edit1.jpg

“Olana2006 3 edit1” by Rolf Müller – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

My goodness, I thought to myself, did they design this place anticipating it would one day be visited by displaced people like us?!

* * *

Okay, the Lord of Misrule is signaling that it’s time to get back to the old wassail bowl and sing a tune for the 12th-night crowd.

Here goes:

With a hey-ho and the snow and the wind,
May you build your own Olana in 2015,
But that’s all one, this post is done.

STAY TUNED for our next post!

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TCK TALENT: Nina Sichel, writer, editor, and guiding light on the Third Culture Kid experience

Nina Sichel_TCK TalentElizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her monthly column about Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields, Lisa herself being a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about growing up as a TCK, which she has taken all over the country. In fact, she turned up as the convocation speaker at Carleton College on October 31st, where my niece, now a Carleton freshman, had the pleasure of watching her perform some excerpts!

—ML Awanohara

Welcome back, readers! Today I’m honored to be interviewing Nina Sichel, co-editor of the seminal TCK / global-nomad anthology Unrooted Childhoods, which includes essays by several famous TCK writers such as:

  • Pico Iyer: “I fold up my self and carry it round with me as if it were an overnight case”;
  • Isabel Allende (she fled her homeland for political survival); and
  • Military brat Pat Conroy: “Each year I began my life all over again . . . and I think it damaged me.”

In addition, she co-edited the TCK / global-nomad anthology Writing Out of Limbo—to which I contributed. Thank you, Nina, for the hard work you did on my first published essay!

Nina grew up in Venezuela and “repatriated” to the USA for college and beyond; she is a writer, editor, and leader of memoir-writing workshops in Virginia.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Nina. I understand that you grew up in a multicultural household as a TCK in Caracas—the daughter of an American mom and a German-Jewish dad. With Thanksgiving around the corner, my thoughts are turning to the upcoming holidays. Did any particular holiday traditions or celebrations take precedence over others in your household as you were growing up?
My father had to leave Germany when he was 11 and grew up in Uruguay. He seldom spoke about his childhood. He came to the U.S. for college, and, after marrying my mother, lived in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic before settling in Venezuela. After all of those moves, his identity was not at all tied to nationality, and, like so many other choices in his life, citizenship was a matter of practicality. So national holidays were completely unimportant.

What about your mother?
My mother was a nostalgic American—more so when she was in Venezuela than when she was anywhere else. But she was an expat, and U.S. national holidays were not celebrated in that country. My parents’ friends were multinationals—our social circle was not defined by nationality. And, even though my father’s sister and mother, Uruguayan citizens by then, lived in Caracas, close by, we were secular Jews, only going to synagogue on the High Holidays and mostly not even then. We had an abbreviated seder, we lit candles at Chanukah. That Jewish identity, more ethnic, perhaps, than religious, was important to my parents. Yet we had very little religious training. I think things were assumed more than instructed… I remember going to summer camp in the States with Jewish girls from Long Island—and feeling I had absolutely nothing in common with them.

Did you celebrate other holidays?
We had a Christmas tree with lots of presents and sang carols. Santa Claus came till we were too old for him, but there were still gifts afterwards. We dressed up for carnaval, and the Easter bunny came to visit us. Hmmm… I’ve given you a long answer to what should be a simple question—but then, some things are not so simple. Like composite identities.

I was raised with no real roots, an American child in Venezuela…

Writing_Out_of_Limbo_coverWhich brings us to your wonderful essay, “Outsider,” which appears in Writing Out of Limbo. You mention in that piece that there was a lot of turnover among your friends at your international schools. Can you tell us a little more about what that was like?
I never knew, from one school year to the next, which of my classmates would actually be back. I don’t remember ever talking about it; this was normal, nothing remarkable. I remember a few friends who left with advance notice, and I tried to keep in touch with them—pen pals during a time when letters would take one or two weeks to reach their destinations. Those friendships faded over time. Quite a few friends were sent away to boarding school once they reached high school; sometimes they’d be back for summer vacations, but by then I’d usually be in the States. There were also, of course, quite a few children whose parents would stay in Venezuela indefinitely, till retirement and after. And then there were the kids who rotated in and out every couple of years, many of whom were Americans. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how different the ones who stayed as long-term residents were from the ones who rotated in and out. And how difficult it is to make general statements about any of this—there are layers and layers of outsiderness, not just one sort of expat or TCK identity.

Have you still got friends from that period?
I’ve kept strong ties to some friends from my youth, and to me this is very special—they are more like family than friends now. I’ve learned to invest deeply in relationships I hope will last, perhaps because the chances are so fleeting. I’ve felt incredibly lucky to be able to contact some people from my past via the Internet, and rekindle friendships from long ago, and learn how TCK life has affected them, their choices, their lives.

Our memories are the part of life we get to keep and take with us…

After an entire adulthood in the USA, tell us what you still miss about Venezuela. I’m also curious to know how many of those things can still be found there, and how many are connected to memories of family and/or friends who are no longer there?
Though I have lived my adulthood in the U.S., my parents remained in Venezuela, and I went back often to visit until they passed away. The place changed—all places do—and I also changed. My memories now are interwoven with nostalgia for what was or might have been. But there are also tangible things. Venezuela is a beautiful country, and there are things about nature I miss. I miss smells—that thick Caribbean salt air, the tangy grass. I miss tropical light, and will miss it more and more now that we’re approaching winter here.

Nowadays, do you feel at home in the United States?
I do feel “at home” in the States in general; just not rooted in any particular place. As you know from my essays, I’ve lived in several places. I lived in a small town in upstate New York, then Manhattan; I lived in the Deep South two different times; in rural Michigan; in West Palm Beach and then urban Miami; and now I live outside Washington, DC. In the smaller towns, what I missed was diversity—of language, ethnicity, experience, culture. I had to seek it out in the people I befriended and the kind of work I chose to do. But even in the cities, I felt outside the mainstream. Remember, coming to the States was not coming home for me; it was immersion in a different culture.

Unrooted_Childhoods_coverIn Unrooted Childhoods, your co-editor, Faith Eidse, writes about her yearning “for thick gumbo-limbo roots.” Do you sometimes wish your roots were deeper in this country?
I remember being fascinated by a friend’s roots in the Deep South that went back many generations. As my family does not have that history, it was something new and rather foreign to me, an oddity. But it was not something I wanted, as it felt too confining, to be defined by your predecessors that way.

Do you have “itchy feet,” which still make you want to move frequently? Or are you the kind who prefers to have a home base and travel only for pleasure?
Yes yes yes. All of the above. o I have to choose?

You mentioned longing to find other people with the experience of having lived overseas. Have you found that “your people” tend to be other ATCKs in creative fields—or does it really depend on the individual and what s/he evokes in you, whether it’s a resonance that’s artistic or political or personality-related or life-experience related, etc.?
I tend to fall in love with people, with aspects of people, and am constantly surprised that all my friends don’t automatically feel the same about each other as I feel about each of them! So, yes, I think it’s about that resonance that you mentioned, but it’s a different resonance in each person, a different connection I respond to. In any case, I never knew about TCKs or ATCKs until I began to work on Unrooted Childhoods.

I want to choose and gather the markers by which to remember our years here…

Like other ACTKs including myself, you were drawn to the craft of writing as a means of self-expression. Is there a particular piece that you think expresses your feelings of transience or loneliness or instability—or freedom or curiosity or love of travel—that you are most proud of? And where can we read it?
I’m not going to choose among my babies, but anyone who is interested can read my essays in Unrooted Childhoods and Writing Out of Limbo. I also wrote much of the introductory material in both books. There was an essay of mine published recently in Brain, Child Magazine, titled “Leaving,” which many of the readers of this column will surely respond to. And I’ve been posting short blogs on the Children’s Mental Health Network website, to inform readers about issues concerning TCKs.

We both lead workshops for people who want to write about their own lives. Tell us what got you started as a memoir workshop leader.
I’ve always felt torn between creative expression and nurturing others—as though I had to choose, as though the work I’d always done (teaching, counseling, raising children) wasn’t already a combination of the two. When I moved to the Washington, DC area, I developed the memoir and other writing programs I currently offer and am always expanding the menu of choices. The workshops are theme-based, and range in topic from creative change and transformation to intercultural exchange to turning points to writing about place to parenting to… I had a program that I developed once specifically for au pairs, which I’d like to offer again at some point. I keep the workshops small, intimate, supportive. We do not engage in critiquing—most of my writers are beginners in memoir, and need to both give and receive positive feedback to grow into the writers they are becoming. I feel honored by their trust, in bearing witness to their journeys.

It’s wonderful that you enjoy helping others make the most of this genre. Of course a good example of that is Unrooted Childhoods, which is a book of memoirs by people who grew up in multiple countries.
Memoir is a wonderful genre, open to many forms, and helping writers find their voices, their unique expression, their subject, is a joy for me. There are strands in life that one thinks of as separate, and I have figured out a way to braid them together. There is so much self-discovery in the process—I can’t tell you how many times students have told me, “I had no intention of writing about that. And I’m so glad I did.”

Where can people find those workshops?
My regular memoir-writing workshops are offered through Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, outside Washington, DC. I’ve offered other types of reflective writing programs in various community and art centers in the area, and am open to offers elsewhere. I’m happy to share more detailed information upon request.

Thank you, Nina, for sharing the story of your creative life with readers at the Displaced Nation. So, any questions or comments for Nina? Be sure to leave them in the comments!

*All subheds are quotes from Nina’s essay for Brain, Child Magazine, “Leaving” (April 2014).

STAY TUNED for our next fab post.

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TCK TALENT: Alaine Handa’s fringe fest dance performance immortalized on the big screen

One year later (August 2014), Alaine Handa finds herself dancing in Spain. (Photo credit: Alaine Handa)

One year after her Edinburgh Fringe adventure, Alaine Handa finds herself in the land of flamenco: Valencia, Spain to be precise. (Photo credit: Eveline Chang, July 2014)

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang started up this column in summer 2013 with a two-part conversation with today’s guest, fellow TCK performing artist Alaine Handa. By the end, I for one had come to believe in the truth of Martha Graham’s assertion: “The body says what words cannot.”

—ML Awanohara

Welcome back, readers! It’s a pleasure to have choreographer/dancer and adult third culture kid Alaine Handa back with us at the Displaced Nation. As ML says, Alaine was my very first interviewee when this column made its debut last year.

I am circling back to Alaine to see what happened with her dance performance at the Edinburgh Fringe and also because, rumor has it, one of the performers has made a short documentary about this artistic adventure.

Dance and film: that’s quite a pas de deux!

* * *

Welcome back, Alaine! When we spoke to you last year you were about to premiere your newest show, Habitat, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The piece “shows how different people from different backgrounds change the way they behave around others and when they are alone.” How was it received at the fest?
The Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world, so we worked very hard to get the word out about our production. We blasted out press releases, distributed physical flyers everywhere (and befriended some local shopkeepers!), and performed excerpts at the venue. All of these promotional efforts starting paying off in audience numbers as the festival progressed. The feedback from audience members was mostly positive—the stories portrayed on stage were relatable. Our negative feedback was that the performance should be longer! I guess that isn’t really a bad thing: to have the audience wanting to see more.

As I recall, the members of your multicultural ensemble lived in different countries during rehearsals, so you relied on Skype, YouTube, and email a lot. What was it like to finally rehearse and perform the piece together at Edinburgh?
I rented a studio from Dance Base in Edinburgh a week before we opened for intensive rehearsals. We also lived together for the duration of the festival run so got more comfortable with each other. The rehearsal process through the 2-D medium of video was frustrating, to be quite honest. The time difference of 12 hours between New York and Singapore meant that feedback via email would be received hours later. The rare moments when we Skyped during rehearsal, we would run into problems with connectivity. I rehearsed weekly with another dancer based in Singapore and videotaped everything to send to the other dancers in New York. By the time we came together physically, it was a dream come true but also a whirlwind. We had to fit together all the puzzle pieces and find the missing links. It proved a bit of a challenge.

One of your dancers, Laura Lamp, is also a filmmaker who made a documentary short, Dreaming to Escape, about taking Habitat to Edinburgh while also exploring your philosophical and aesthetic approach to dance. Please tell us what it was like to be the subject of a documentary when you were in the middle of premiering a new work.
Laura partnered with Kevin Tadge, who runs the film company Nesby Darbfield, to make the film. They shot a lot of their material on stage, backstage, in rehearsal, at warm-ups before the performances, during dinners, in taped interviews, and everything in between. I was a bit self-conscious at first, but after a while, I just learnt to ignore the camera like a reality TV star! Upon seeing the short, I realized I should’ve cared a bit more about my appearance during rehearsals!

Where is Dreaming to Escape being screened?
Here’s what Laura reports:

“We hope to take it to documentary and dance film festivals around the world. It would be great if it screens at the Singapore Film Festival later this year. We’ve really only begun to send it out… It’s a bit of a slow process, but we’re excited to share it with everyone.”

Alaine, I understand you have relocated back to Singapore, where you were born and spent your adolescence. What has been the best part, the worst part, and the biggest surprise about living in Singapore again?
Reverse culture shock has been hitting me hard, living back in Southeast Asia. It’s been a little over two years now and I still go through culture shock every single day I am here. Singapore has changed so much in the 2000s. I barely recognized the country when I returned. The biggest surprise is how expensive it’s gotten to live here. The cost of living has gone up tremendously!

I know one of the things you’ve been doing in Singapore is teaching dance. Please tell us where prospective students can find your classes.
Yes, I’ve been teaching at multiple locations around the island. The best way to learn more is to join my mailing list by sending me an email at ahdancecompany@gmail.com and/or join my Facebook group.

Thanks, Alaine! Readers, here is a tiny taste of what you might see in Laura Lamp’s short documentary, the trailer created last year for Habitat:

Questions or comments for Alaine? Be sure to leave them in the comments section!

STAY TUNED for Thursday’s fab post.

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TCK TALENT: Cathleen Hadley, Porteña at Heart and Artist by Calling

Cathleen Hadley Collage

Cathleen Hadley in the transit lounge nervously awaiting her son’s arrival from Afghanistan, taken by her husband, Roger.

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her monthly column about Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields, Lisa herself being a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about being a TCK, which was the closing keynote at this year’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference.

—ML Awanohara

Greetings, readers! My guest today is Cathleen Hadley, my fellow ATCK author in the anthology Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids. Cathleen grew up in South America and the USA; she is a visual-turned-conceptual artist now living in Oviedo, Florida.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Cathleen. I understand that as the US-born TCK child of American parents—a Foreign Service dad and a homemaking mom—you lived in the United States (Washington, DC and Maryland), Venezuela, and Argentina before enrolling in Hartford Art School, part of the University of Hartford in Connecticut, and starting your adult life back in your “home” country. Recalling these many transitions, do you have a place and a time where you felt happiest, as in least displaced?
I had a happy childhood in Maryland, but of all the places I lived while growing up, I liked Buenos Aires the best. BA was like a first love; I had come to it fresh, and found it fascinating. It gave me the freedom to explore, discover joy in my life and youth, find myself in the arts… The depth of my feelings for this city are perhaps best summed up in my reaction to the first book I read by the Argentine writer Jorge Louis Borges (who was a living celebrity at the time), his short story collection Labyrinths. I likened myself to one of his halls of mirrors, and felt as though I lived in his circular time travel of art: prose to dreams or dreams to canvas and so on.

Was it an adjustment coming back to the U.S. after such a heady experience?
When I left, I carried as many things Argentine as I could. I had a lot to relearn. In BA, for example, I was courteously late for all appointments, but that was unacceptable in the USA. I had forgotten that if a class started at 8:00 a.m., I should arrive 15 minutes earlier or at least be on time. This reset to my inner clock was harsh. I still carry the music of the language spoken with soft “che” sounds. It grates on my ears to hear the City of Good Airs mispronounced.

But I presume you enjoyed attending art school?
My first art school: the smell, lighting, and echoes in those rooms resonated with my awareness of being in a circle of like-minded souls. Each project was an awakening, a revelation of inner potential.

Becoming a tourist in her own country

Limbo_coverIn your essay in the anthology Writing Out of Limbo, called “Artist in Transit,” you write about the difficulties of repatriation. I can relate! Eventually, you married a U.S. Navy officer and the pair of you ended up living in several different states.
After years of meeting Germans, Indians, and other assorted nationalities who congratulated me on my awareness of the culture of others but admonished me for my lack of knowledge about my native land, I decided that the Navy could serve as my passport to the United States—I would follow my husband, Roger, in his career. I particularly enjoyed being stationed in the Pacific Northwest, our final destination while he was active Navy. It offered the combination of climate from where I grew up in Maryland (think gardening), the temperate weather of Buenos Aires, and the emerald green and mists of the Indonesian Islands.

How did moving to different states compare to your earlier experience of moving from country to country?
The experiences were not dissimilar. Each place we lived in the United States had a different routine and a distinct local culture. Living in Ridgecrest, California (the Mojave Desert) was vastly different from living in San Diego—and that was within the same state! The Navy culture and traditions—those we carried with us everywhere. And having a child, a son, rooted me in life/home.

And now you live in Florida?
Now I am in a place that was not on my map—Florida, where I moved to be near my parents. Roger and I are rooted here by necessity, by the roof over our heads, his job, and my disability (chronic back pain).

I’m so sorry to hear about your back pain. That would be hard for anyone to endure, but especially an artist and a traveler! Going back to your upbringing: are you like many of us TCKs in that you tend to gravitate towards people who have similar interests and perhaps similar cross-cultural backgrounds? (And of course it’s not a given we’ll become fast friends…)
Identifying with people from my own culture is an ongoing process, and to this day I often find myself failing when making an effort to blend in. I suppose I am happiest with my dear old friends from my traveling TCK days and with those Navy folks from my ATCK days. And I was drawn to you, fellow author—Limbo brought us together because of the “resonance” we find in each other’s stories. Though we’ve never met in person, I am certain that if we did, we’d be comfortable and familiar with each other.

“Painting is silent poetry.” — Plutarch

Something that resonated with me from your Limbo essay was your description of how you behaved on home leave during your adolescent years: “I began wearing a mask, holding back information, or my true stories and feelings.” I gather you found ways to express yourself through your art, as I did through acting. Are there particular art works of yours that express these feelings of transience or loneliness or instability—and what about the freedom, curiosity, and love of travel you’ve also experienced?
Yes. I can share several examples:

ch_arrival

“Arrival,” by Cathleen Hadley

I created this painting, “Arrival”, a cleaned-up version of which was used on the cover of Limbo, when imagining what my son would see when serving in Afghanistan. That was a speechless, visual time for me. I wanted to paint endless versions of the same horizon until he came home.

"Phantom in the Woods," by Cathleen Hadley

“Phantom in the Woods,” by Cathleen Hadley

Here I painted myself looking like a phantom standing in a dark and gloomy woods, which symbolized the closed-in feelings I had about transience, loneliness, and instability. The ghost is passing through the landscape of an imaginary world because “place” did not yet exist.

CH_Bug Quilt

Bug Quilt, created by Cathleen Hadley for her son, Alan.

I asked my son to pick out whatever quilt pattern he wanted and I would make it for him. Of course he picked one that required a complicated technique called appliqué, which requires attaching small pieces of fabric to a larger piece. It was way out of my league—not on my list of quilting goals. But making Bug Quilt represented my love for him and my husband, and what it took to make a home for all of us.

What sort of artwork do you find yourself doing now? And is it influenced by any culture(s) and/or by your peripatetic upbringing?
Today, I am a conceptual artist adapting by necessity. I had worked with many wonderful local artists—but had to give that up in 2012 due to my recurring back pain, which influences the mediums I can and cannot use. For one year—as I sat on my terraced porch—with a view over trees directly across from where I sat, I took photos of the sunrise and the changing clouds. That view became my canvas. It was the most accessible art I had at the time. I call it the cloud photo series:

Three of the photos in C Hadley's "cloud series."

Three of the photos in Cathleen Hadley’s “cloud series.”

Today’s painting are these words on paper:

Grey mountain, Green grass. Yellow sky. Blue water.

Time to open those boxes?!

I imagine that due to your back pain, you can no longer travel as you used to. But do you still have the ACTK’s “itchy feet”?
I have worse than itchy feet. How about itchy underworked imagination? Some days I’ll move wall hangings, rearrange the photos on display. Other days, it’s the furniture, or the books…anything that isn’t nailed down. My poor husband! For the first time, I am focusing on “place”. What would I do, what will I keep, to make this place more than a temporary home? As far as travel goes, the urge to travel and live elsewhere remains, but I am becoming a person who wants a home base as well. I consider myself to be in the transit lounge of my life. When we relocated to Florida, I became homesick for the first time for the Pacific Northwest. I am over that now.

Are you working on a new art project or projects?
I am in a period of transformation. From years of having to change or make do, I recognize it as a moment before something new emerges. It’s a slow and alone time and I hope to use it wisely (well). I am feeling remarkably undefined—and that is okay. I am making an art of managing expectations, trying to lose some of my structured behavior and let things unfold. Find my place and be satisfied. Not every day has to be an answer to an existential question. I am on a quest to be a homemaker—lay down the past and make a homey home. A home as a place to speak from, somewhere to simply be. Time to open those boxes!

* * *

Thank you, Cathleen. I do hope we get the chance to meet in person some day! Readers, I hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know Cathleen through this post. Please leave any questions or comments for her below.

STAY TUNED for next month’s fab posts!

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TCK TALENT: Why do so many Adult Third Culture Kids gravitate toward acting, and is that the best use of their talents?

Com & Trag Collage

Tragedy and Comedy, Scarborough Hotel, Bishopgate, Leeds. Photo credit: Tim Green via Flickr.

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her monthly column about Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields, Lisa herself being a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about being a TCK, which will be the closing keynote at this year’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference, “The Global Family.”

In my last column, I interviewed Laura Piquado, a professional actress based in New York who grew up in six countries, including Egypt, where we were drama classmates in high school. As a result of the interview, Laura, editor ML Awanohara, and I had a lively discussion about Laura’s career change from education/activism to acting.

ML said she was puzzled as to why so many intelligent, well-educated Adult Third Culture Kids feel so at home in the acting world. She expressed concern that acting might cultivate a narcissistic outlook on life, which is the opposite of a TCK’s worldly upbringing. She said she found it particularly jarring that Laura could go from go from almost doing a PhD on women’s education in post-conflict societies, to enrolling in acting school—and not look back.

Laura’s response was so eloquent that I am posting it here.

Before you read it, I recommend watching this TED Talk by British actor Thandie Newton:

Born to a Zimbabwean mother and English father, Newton always felt disconnected or “other” while growing up in the UK:

“From about the age of 5, I was aware that I didn’t fit. I was the black, atheist kid in the all-white, Catholic school run by nuns. I was an anomaly.”

Acting gave her a chance to play with her different selves.

And now from Laura Piquado:

I had a similar reaction to yours, Lisa, in seeing acting described by ML as a narcissistic endeavor. While I can certainly understand that reputation (indeed, the Golden Globe awards), I have always idealized what theatre can be: life-changing, hopeful, inspiring, and necessary. It’s the worst to be onstage with someone who’s “masturbating” their way through a show (and equally as painful for an audience member).

I was in Maine a few years ago at a craft school (I’m a potter), and I sat next to a visiting artist at dinner (the amazing Hungarian-born sculptor Gyöngy Lake). She asked me what I did. When I told her I was an actor she said:

“We love you! We need you! You tell the stories of our lives!”

Now while that sounds uber-maudlin, I was completely overwhelmed. I had known this woman for less than two minutes, but she had described, for me, what the essence of art is.

On the other hand, I don’t want to get beaten over the head with social and political commentary every time I go to the theatre. I mean, I love Brecht, but can you imagine if that’s all theatre was? Mother Courage after Mother Courage, after The Caucasian Chalk Circle, after Arturo Ui…ugh. People would stop going. There’s room for pomp-y, wacky, ridiculousness (all hail The Book of Mormon), and everything in between. But I do think theatre at its best, the stories that stay with you, are the ones that connect to a deeper human context.

I was reading an interview with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in the New York Review of Books where he recounts a story he heard while a law student:

At the turn of the last century, the court was called upon to decide a case on prices for theater tickets—could they be considered basic necessities, and could they be regulated as such? The majority thought the theatre was not a necessity. The great Justice Olive Wendell Holmes Jr. replied in his dissent: “We have not that respect for art that is one of the glories of France. But to many people, the superfluous is the necessary.”

The interview was a larger discourse on France and Proust, but the point Holmes made about the necessity of art resonates.

ML also made the comment:

An interest in international affairs implies that you care about effecting positive social change on behalf of less fortunate people… Do you foresee bringing those two strands of your life together at some point?

The notion of “effecting positive social change” is what I’ll respond to. Again, it’s what I believe theatre can be, from Winter Miller‘s In Darfur to Moisés Kaufman‘s The Laramie Project. Being a part of that kind of theatre is deeply gratifying and something I always seek out. (Or as a potter: being able to go to communities to work with local artisans to make pots that filter clean, potable water falls into that same category.)

The leap from one discipline (social justice through academia) to another (theatre) wasn’t so quantum for me. And while they are vastly different on so many practical and actual levels, “effecting positive social change,” for me, lies at the heart of both.

* * *

So, readers, do you have anything to add to the debate? Are we ATCKs doing ourselves, and the world, a disservice by turning to acting, or can acting be one of our more profound contributions?

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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TCK TALENT: Laura Piquado, New York City Actress & One Well-Traveled Kid!

Laura Piquado Collage FINALWelcome to Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang’s monthly column about Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields, Lisa herself being a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she recently debuted her one-woman show about being a TCK, which I had the pleasure of seeing during its too-short run in New York City in September of last year: stupendous!

—ML Awanohara

Happy new year, readers! Let’s start today’s interview by plunging right in. My guest is Laura Piquado, a professional actress based in New York who grew up in six countries, including Egypt, where we were drama classmates in high school.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Laura. It’s wonderful to reconnect with a Cairo classmate! I know you grew up as the daughter of a pair of teachers who were full of wanderlust. Can you give us a run-down of the countries you lived in as a kid?
My mother always told me that her earliest dream memory was of wanting to move to Africa. And as soon as she graduated from university in Canada, that’s what she did. She met my father in Sierra Leone in the mid 1960s. He was there with the Peace Corps, while she was being sponsored by CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas)—a Peace Corps-style organization. They left when my mother was six months pregnant with my brother. My mother is tall, almost 5’11”, but at that time weighed only 120 lbs. I think having parasites, or the occasional bout of malaria was commonplace, but the risk to her health became too great.

After my (healthy) brother was born in Washington, DC, my parents decided to go overseas again. The first job my dad got was as an English teacher in a small village in northern Newfoundland, where I was born. Less than a year later, we moved to Beirut, Lebanon. Four years after that, when war broke out, we were evacuated to Shahin-Shahr, Iran, for almost four years. War broke out again, and we were evacuated again. The next stop was São Paulo, Brazil, for two years. My mom and dad hated the city, and we left every other weekend and holiday to get away from it. Consequently, my memories of Brazil are of travel, and of everywhere but São Paulo. After Brazil, we lived for four years in Bontang, Indonesia, which is in the province of East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. After seventh grade we moved again, to Cairo, Egypt, where I graduated high school. That’s where you and I first met! My parents then moved on to Ecuador and China for 16 more years.

My parents loved being overseas, and at no point did they yearn to “come home.” They wanted their lives to be as teachers in international schools, and for 40 years that’s what they did. They retired a few years ago to a small town in New Hampshire.

A hard landing into adulthood

How did you feel about living in so many places?
I loved it, actually. Adjusting to new environments, new friends, new cultures, languages, was never difficult for me. I don’t know why. Perhaps I just got used to it. But I don’t think you ever get used to leaving friends and people you love—that’s always hard.

As an adult, do you find yourself drawn to other TCKs?
I definitely identify with other TCKS, though it’s not always a given we will hit it off. In fact, I used to be magnetically drawn to anyone who was a visible minority. “You’re from Indonesia?! I used to live in Indonesia!” “Hey, you’re Alexandrian! I lived in Cairo for 5 years!” I was always wanting to make a connection with a world that was no longer mine—and maybe never was mine, if I adhere to the rules of 3rd culture. But just because someone grew up all over the world as I did, or just because they are an actor like me, doesn’t guarantee I’ll be friends with that person—but it’s a starting point. And if a person grew up in different countries, at least their eyes won’t glass over when I answer the question, “Where are you from?”

You now live in New York City. How do you find life in the USA?
I’ve lived in the United States longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. Yet it’s the first place I’ve ever lived that doesn’t feel like home. For the first 20 years of my life I played with my friends, explored the jungle, hiked the Andes, swam in the Red Sea and the East Timor Straights, climbed salt flats, made forts in the desert, went horse-back riding around the Great Pyramids, woke to gibbon songs and the muezzin’s call to prayer. And then I came back here to go to school, get some degrees, get a job, and try to figure things out… I had this exhilarating childhood, and then this less-than-thrilling transition to adulthood.

Does your identity revolve around any one particular culture that you’ve lived in?
I am Dyak and atheist, Muslim, Christian, Bahá’í, Jain, Egyptian, Italian, Canadian—there is nowhere in the world that has ever felt foreign to me. I am all of these things, and none of them. After moving to the United States for the first time for college, being able to be all of them at the same time was what mattered the most. I was striving to understand who I was and what my life had been, and trying to share that with others, even if I couldn’t articulate it to myself. It’s taken a long time, and I suppose I’m still working at it. That said, I love meeting the kind of person who, unlike me, was raised in the same town he or she was born in, and still goes back there for family visits and holidays. I am attracted to the sense of being anchored somewhere, to a particular place. That perceived sense of belonging somewhere: it’s something I just don’t have; I don’t know what it feels like.

From an actor on the global stage, to an actor on a real stage

Tell us what you studied in college and how you made the leap to pursuing an acting career.
I did my master’s degree in Islamic Studies at McGill University in Montreal. I wanted, as an adult, to understand the cultural, political, and social environments in which I grew up. On some level I was looking for a path that would take me overseas again, which I was aching to do. I wanted to work in the development of women’s education in post-conflict societies because it was work that I was passionate about.

Just as I was finishing my degree, and thinking about streamlining into a doctoral program, I went back to Cairo. I hadn’t been back since high school. For a whole month I walked through the streets of my old neighborhood, saw my friends, went to mosques and bazaars and the Red Sea, and smelled and ate and absorbed Egypt again. It was glorious. But something changed in me after that, and made it okay for me to move on.

When I came back to Montreal, I started applying to drama schools. Although I had been involved in theatre since I was a kid, I hadn’t wanted to study it as an undergrad. There were other things in my life that I needed to address before I embarked on that.

But now I was ready for drama school—I enrolled in the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. At LAMDA, I felt like I was flying. I was so happy. To allow myself the ability to change horses mid stream, and for it to feel natural and fluid and right—that was tremendous. I don’t think any of us is just one person, and we aren’t the same person at 15, 25, 35, 55. We have multiple loves and lives and wants, and finding ways to marry them all, if we’re lucky enough to know what they are in the first place, can be overwhelming.

How did your family react to your decision to pursue an acting career?
I’ve only ever had a supportive family. So instead of calling me a flake, or accusing me of lacking any sense of stick-to-itiveness when I told them I wanted to go to drama school, they became, again, my most enthusiastic supporters.

I think our peripatetic childhoods trained us to be actors—to observe, listen, and adjust our behavior to our surroundings. Do you agree?
I do agree, for the most part. But I also think personality has a lot to do with it. Just because you grew up all over the world doesn’t de facto make you a keen observer, or an astute listener, and not all kids who move around a lot are able to adjust to their changing environment. On the other hand, if you have had a peripatetic life, and you also happen to be a good listener, observer, etc., it seems it can only enrich your depths as an actor (and certainly as a human being). For me, adaptability became a defining aspect of my personality.

I think that for us TCKs, the challenge of convincing a casting director that you truly can be this other person is made easier because of all of those things we bring to the table—listening, observing, adjusting, maybe even having lived or known the character’s life. But also for that reason, many of us find it even harder to put up with being typecast.

Which sorts of roles are you attracted to, and do you think your upbringing influenced this?
I’m usually attracted to damaged characters, or quirky ones. And accents are always juicy! I’ve always been a mimic, and am grateful for that gift as it makes it easier to play a variety of roles. Why I’m drawn to quirky characters is less apparent. Does it have something to do with my upbringing? That’s an interesting thought. I’ve never made that correlation, but it makes complete sense.

So which parts have been your faves?
I loved playing Goneril in King Lear with the Texas Shakespeare Festival. I’ve always thought that she’s been inappropriately maligned as a character. Lear is not the easiest father—demanding, impulsive—and to require his daughters to prove, to prove, their undying love for him—for the sole purpose of measuring it against their inheritance—makes him something of a jerk in my book.

Playing the painter in Ionesco‘s The Painting with the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble was pretty great as well. Aside from the play’s absurdism, the part was perverse because of the the vocal and physical qualities we decided on. It’s not often that you get to play grotesque and obsequious, mismanage your voice, throw out your back, and sprain your jaw because the part demands it. Fantastic! 🙂

And a role on the damaged front, I suppose, was Charlotte in Sharr White‘s Sunlight, for its world premiere with the New Jersey Rep. While I’m less attracted to straightforward, modern dramas (though in truth, I love it all), the whole premise for who Charlotte is, for what motivates and oppresses her, is her having been in the Towers on September 11th and losing her child as a result of the trauma. And while that’s not what the play’s about (thank God!), it defines who she is able to become (or not become) in the ensuing decade.

* * *

Wow, that’s an impressive list! Thank you, Laura! I wish you the very best in your career and hope to see you on stage and/or screen soon. Readers, please leave questions or comments for Laura below.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, from our Global Food Gossip!

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