The Displaced Nation

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Tag Archives: Burma

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

A wonderful connection, thanks to the Dragonfruit anthology.


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

Sharon said:

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Dragonfruit!

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


* * *

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

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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

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

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

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

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

—ML Awanohara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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For travel addict & photography lover Milda Ratkelyte, a picture says …

Milda M CollageWelcome to the second installment of “A picture says,” a series that sheds light on the people who move through our planet with a camera in hand, registering the look, character, and ambiance of people and places that capture their fancy.

Our guest today is Milda Ratkelyte, a camera-happy Lithuanian whose wanderings have taken her to the UK, America and now Asia.

Here are Milda’s vital travel statistics:
Place of birth: Lithuania
Passport: Lithuanian
Overseas history: From least to most recent: United Kingdom (London): 2005-2008; China (Wuhan, Shanghai, Beijing): 2008-2009; United States (California, Colorado, New York): 2009-2010; United Kingdom (London): 2010-2011; Singapore: 2011-present.
Occupations: Travel Community Manager at and owner of Milda Ratkelyte Photography
Social media coordinates:
Twitter: @MildaRatkelyte
Facebook: Milda Ratkelyte Travel
Instagram: @milda_ratkelyte
Google+: Milda Ratkelyte

And now let’s meet Milda and find out: which came first, the photography obsession or the peripatetic life?

Kenyan curiosity

Hi, Milda. Let’s talk a bit about your travels. You are originally from Lithuania but have spent a considerable amount of time in other countries and now live in Singapore. Tell me about how that came about, and what inspired your moves.
I had the most amazing childhood in Lithuania. I was very lucky, because my dad was a true travel fanatic. Back then it was not easy for us Lithuanians to go traveling to remote destinations outside of Europe, but my dad found a way to get us to Kenya for a summer. From that time on, I was addicted to travel, and have been wandering the world ever since. “Explore, discover and get to know different cultures and people around the world”that’s become my mantra.

Boy reaching for candyKenya sounds amazing. Can you share with us one of the photos from that trip?
I like this shot of a boy reaching for what he hoped would be candy. It’s from the early days of my camera experience, but I love it because it’s just so natural. There was no set up, no preparation. I was wandering the streets of the Watamu village, looking for the school where I was volunteering, when a group of kids ran towards me asking for candies. I didn’t have any on me, but I had a pack of pencils that I was carrying to the school, so I gave them out and decided to take a photo of the group. As I was setting up the shot, this boy ran from the end of the street. Noticing something was being given away, he squeezed through other kids and jumped right in front of the camera.

Asia calls!

How did you end up in my native land, the UK?
When I graduated from high school, I knew that I want to do something travel related. I enrolled in an International Tourism Management course at the University of Bedfordshire in the UK. For my work placement, I was sent to work in China for the Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, which gave me the chance to explore some other Asian destinations such as Hong Kong and Singapore. I fell in love with Hong Kong and told myself that once I graduated, I would definitely be coming back. However, when that moment occurred, reality kicked in: I could not get a visa for Hong Kong. I’d decided to stay in London when an opportunity to work for a major events company in Singapore suddenly landed on my doorstep. I had my bags packed in a few days and was on the 14-hour flight to Singapore.

How do you like Singapore?
I’ve been in Singapore for two-and-a-half years already and absolutely love it. Mostly, because it’s the most convenient spot in Asia travel wise. In just two hours I can be in Bali, Hong Kong, or Thailand. And Malaysia is just an hour’s bus drive away.

Luck strikes again

On your blog you say you were “one lucky girl” in finding your current position as a Community Manager for AsiaRooms, a site for booking hotels throughout Asia. Tell us how that opportunity came about and how it fits into your life ideals and love of travel.
When I moved to Singapore, I was working for an events company in the oil and gas industry. While I loved the thrill of closing huge deals, I had no life. The hours were long, with weekends in the office and sales calls at all times of the night. After about half a year, I missed having time to travel, take photos, explore and discover! I started looking around for something in the travel industry, and that was when I got introduced to my current boss, who mentioned that were looking to hire a Community Manager. It was a dream come true. Today I can definitely say I love my job! I have been working on the launch of Community site together with an amazing team, and we’ve already achieved some incredible results. I have also gotten a chance to study and have completed MatadorU’s Travel Writing and Photography courses. But most importantly, I’m getting to work with some amazing and talented photographers, filmmakers, writers and musicians in Asia and across the world while traveling a lot! This year I will finally tick off all the places on my bucket list for Asia.

Passionate about photographybut not equipment

On your blog you say that you love photography “and being able to freeze a particular moment in time, so when things in life change you have the one thing, one memory that never will.” What are the shots that capture some of your favorite memories? And what made them so special?
It is hard to say which ones are my favorites since there are just so many of them, and every trip I make is special. But if I had to choose, I’d pick the photos from the trip to Kenya such as the one above. That was the first time I got exposed to a truly different environment. It was also the first time I experimented with my DLSR, which was a present from my dad. My dad passed away unexpectedly last year, and I feel sad that I’ll never get to travel with him again. But having those photos reminds me of him and of the reason I started traveling.

What kind of camera and lenses do you use?
I have a Canon 300D with two Canon lenses: 18-55mm and 70-300mm. When I was doing a short weekend photography course, my tutor joked: “This girl is truly passionate about photography and not equipment.” My camera was so old it did not have half of the functions they were using during the course!

But although the camera has huge sentimental value, I think I will need to invest in a new one soon, since I have started MatadorU’s Travel Filmmaking course and will need a camera that can capture video.

A “no holds barred” approach to people as subjects

Where have been your favorite places to take photographs? Any particular shots stick out as being amongst your favorites?
My two favorite spots are Myanmar and Japan: Myanmar, for its amazing people, who are always smiling, and the colors of its markets, nature and city life, as well as incredible sunsets and sunrises over the ancient city of Bagan; Japan for its nature, culture and architecture. The old streets of Kyoto, the underground cafes and restaurants in Tokyo, hip people in the Harajuku district, lush greenery and deer in Nara, and bamboo groves in ArashiyamaJapan is just naturally photogenic.

ThanakaBoy_mmIn your shots of Myanmar, I noticed one of a young child. Tell me about how that shot came about and what exactly is going on!
It was taken in Bagan, Myanmar, which is full of the remains of temples and pagodas. That particular morning we’d grabbed our bikes and were exploring the terrain, when I was approached by this young kid trying to sell me his drawings for a dollar. They were crayon drawings of the temples, neatly packed in plastic bags. The boy spoke almost no English, but soon he became my little tour guide, showing me around all the ruins. After our little tour we sat on the old dusty stairs at one of the temples, and while he was trying to tell me more about the place, this perfect photo opportunity appeared. I just love the look in his eyes.

I often feel very reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious that I am doing so. Are you the same?
I used to be very reserved about it, but at the same time I knew that this was a major obstacle if I want to progress with my travel photography. I think I came to realize that after traveling around with my boyfriend, who is also a photographer and who has never had hang-ups about this! He doesn’t find it difficult to go straight to someone and ask them to take a photo. At the beginning I used to stay back and watch him, but when I saw how his shots turned out, I realized I needed to overcome this barrier.

Do you ask permission before taking people’s photographs?
It was hard at the beginning, because the truth is you will get a lot of people who will just tell you NO, but at the same time you will get the few that will be very nice to you. I guess my main advice would be to definitely ask them first, and if they don’t agree, leave it! If they do agree, have a little chit chat with them to ease the atmosphere and, once you take the shot, show them how the photo looks, I’ve noticed a lot of people appreciate that!

But how do you get around the inevitable problem of language barriers?
Well, I always try to learn at least few words in the local language before I visit country, like “please,” “thank you”, “hello”, etc. As for the rest, I just point to the camera, then at the person, and smile 🙂 Usually this works—and trust me, the results will be worth the effort.

Parting shots…

Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers (like me) who are traveling or living abroad?
1. Never leave your camera at home. The truth is, some of the most amazing photos are from the moments that come out the blue. It doesn’t have to be an incredible place, it might just be the street you walk down every day. Even if it’s just your iPhone camera, have something at hand.
2. Don’t let rejections stop you from achieving your dreams. I must admit, I have been trying to pitch different publications, blogs, magazines, etc for over a year and all I got were either unpaid opportunities or rejections. And it’s hard to keep motivated, when someone says that your photos are not good enough. But I’ve carried on pursuing my dream and finally, a year later, I am getting paid assignments and, what’s even more important, people are finally starting to look for me and not me for them. As a Community Manager at, I source the photo and video content myself, so I get about 30 pitches a day from very talented people. The roles are reversed: I am the one who is telling someone that we will not be publishing their work. However, in most cases, it’s not because their photos are not good, it’s because the industry is so competitive and businesses like ours can choose only the very best. Knowing this helps me to deal with my own rejections.

Thank you, Milda! Readers, what do you make of Milda’s advice on shooting people? And do you have any further questions for her on her photography, travels, or anything else? Please leave them in the comments!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Images (from left): Camera lens from Morguefile; Milda Ratkelyte reveling in her Grand Canyon moment. All other photos by Milda Ratkelyte

Thoughts on beauty — and chinos

As regular readers of this blog are doubtless aware, The Displaced Nation always likes to have a monthly theme around which its daily posts pirouette. This month’s theme sees us turning towards the world of fashion.

That leaves me in the somewhat awkward position of having to foist a fashion article onto you all. I confess, and again regular readers won’t be surprised to learn this, that this is not a topic that I am well versed in, I am a skinny guy that has never worn skinny jeans. My own fashion tips begin and end with the advice that you cannot go wrong with a chinos and shirt combo. The shade of beige in the chinos varies and so does the color of the shirt, which can range from powder blue to salmon pink — but that’s still not very exciting, is it?  So unless you want to dress like an ITN foreign correspondent, I’m not really the person to whom you should be paying attention when it comes to fashionista matters.

Perhaps sensing my uneasiness with this topic, it was suggested by others here at The Displaced Nation that I might want to write about whether there is a universal idea of beauty.

This seemed like a better idea than my posting about fashion. I could, I quickly realized, start the article with the old cliché about how “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Once that was out of the way, I could suggest that beauty is subjective, doing so by trotting out all those usual cultural differences — very appropriate in the context of The Displaced Nation — that confuse a modern Westerner: the Kayan Lahwi tribe in Burma whose female members wear brass coils around their neck to give the appearance of an elongated neck; the ancient Chinese practice of feet binding; the Essex facelift.

Once that was done I planned to counter the idea of different cultural ideas about beauty by positing that beauty standards are in fact objective — that perhaps Plato was right and beauty exists in his perfect forms. This new point of view would necessitate trotting out the evolutionary psychologists who have conducted studies on infants as young as two months, showing that they gaze at faces judged more attractive longer than the faces of those judged ugly. This, the psychologists contend, could suggest that beauty is indeed innate, that they are objective standards. As babies tend to cry when they see me, it would also prove conclusively that I am one ugly fecker. I would then have ended the article by referencing Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” (“beauty is truth, truth beauty”) in an effort to look more learned than I am.

However, that line of argument didn’t seem so convincing. As I tried writing that post, I kept catching sight of myself in the unfortunately huge mirrors that make up the sliding closet doors in my room. They are huge and as this is rented accommodation I can’t do much to change them. So as I typed away, I would keep seeing my reflection and think hmmm, its probably bad karma for you to be pontificating on beauty, Windram. So with that in mind, I think it’s probably fairer to nudge you in the direction of the BBC Radio 4 series In Our Time — specifically, the episode that discusses the history of beauty as a philosophical topic — while I go off and iron my chinos.

STAY TUNED for an interview with Random Nomad Annabel Kantaria.

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10 expat books ripe for movie adaptations

Those who have been following this blog for some time are probably all too aware of my unhealthy preoccupation as to what constitutes an expat or travel book.

Is it, as often seems the case when I browse the expat blogosphere, that expat books must occupy themselves with the oh-so-amusing hi-jinks of expat life? The result almost invariably of such approach is that we are depressingly left with another third-rate knock-off of Bill Bryson for us to throw on the bonfire.

So when considering which expat books are ripe for movie adaptations, my first thought is that the film world, not to mention the world in general — at least, the one I want to live in — really doesn’t need any more travesties such as Under the Tuscan Sun, A Good Year or — most horrifying of all — Eat, Pray, Love. So with that in mind I will nominate the following 10 expat books as being ripe for interesting adaptations.

10. A Moveable Feast (1964, revised 2009)

Author: Ernest Hemingway
Synopsis: Hemingway’s posthumously published memoir detailing his years as a young American expat in Paris socializing with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound.
Film pitch: Perhaps now is the perfect time for an adaptation of A Moveable Feast. The surprising success of Woody Allen‘s Midnight in Paris will perhaps have whetted Hollywood’s appetite for a more serious take on the same subject matter.

9. One Fat Englishman (1963)

Author: Kingsley Amis
Synopsis: Inspired by a year Amis spent teaching at Princeton, One Fat Englishman follows the badly behaved Roger Micheldene with Amis’s typical brio. An English gentleman who is affronted by everything on the American scene, Roger fails to see how his presence might adversely affect Anglo-American relations.
Film pitch: Cast Timothy Spall as Roger and watch the fireworks.

8. A Burnt Out Case (1960)

Author: Graham Greene
Synopsis: A man named Querry arrives at a leper colony in the Congo. He assists the colony’s doctor, who diagnoses him as suffering depression. It is revealed that Querry is in fact a world-famous architect, though he is hiding other secrets, too.
Film pitch: Perhaps Greene’s bleakest work — which may explain why it hasn’t been filmed previously despite being optioned twice by Otto Preminger (Greene was said to be thankful that it was never made). I would argue, however, that it has all the material for a fascinating film.

7. Travels through France and Italy (1766)

Author: Tobias Smollett
Synopsis: After the sad death of his daughter, Tobias Smollett and his wife left England for a tour of France and Italy. Detailing the quarrels Smollett has on his journey with those pesky Continentals, this is a very funny book.
Film pitch: Yes, I am suggesting that someone should make a movie based on an 18th-century travelogue. If Robbie Coltrane and John Sessions can turn Boswell and Johnson’s tour of the Hebrides into a delightful TV movie then I think the same could be done with this.

6. The Long Day Wanes: A Malayan Trilogy (1956-59)

Author: Anthony Burgess
Synopsis: Burgess’s first three novels are concerned with the character of Victor Crabbe, a teacher in a village in Malaya (now Malaysia). Based upon Burgess’s own experiences as a British civil servant in Malaya, the three novels that make up The Long Day Wanes detail the death of Empire and the birth pains of a newly independent nation.
Film pitch: Other than A Clockwork Orange, whose adaptation Burgess had strong misgivings over, Burgess’s work often seems overlooked for movie adaptations. It really shouldn’t be.

5. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010)

Author: David Mitchell
Synopsis: Until Commodore Perry in 1853 anchored four warships off the Japanese coast and so opened up Japan to western trade, Japan had been a “locked country” (sakoku) where it was illegal for a foreigner to enter Japan and for a Japanese subject to leave. The exception to this was at Dejima, in Nagasaki, where trade with some select foreign powers was allowed. This fascinating piece of history is the basis for David Mitchell’s latest novels. Set in 1799, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet details a young Dutch trader who has come to Dejima to make his fortune though he discovers a lot more.
Film pitch: The book has all the makings of a wonderful historical epic.

4. Up Above the World (1966)

Author: Paul Bowles
Synopsis: Dr and Mrs Slade are an American couple touring Central America. A chance encounter with an elderly woman leads to a tense and gripping chain of events.
Film pitch:A disturbing and intense work typical of Bowles, it would make for a deeply compelling thriller.

3. Burmese Days (1934)

Author: George Orwell
Synopsis: Similar to Burgess’s The Long Day Wanes, this novel is concerned with the dying days of Empire. Orwell, who was himself an officer in the Indian Imperial Police Force in Burma, paints a depressing picture of expatriate life that is based around the stultifying social hub of the European club.
Film pitch: Orwell’s first novel and while certainly not his best work, even a bad Orwell novel is still worthy of consideration.

2. Henderson the Rain King (1959)

Author: Saul Bellow
Synopsis: Eugene Henderson is a rich American with an unfulfilled desire. Not knowing quite what it is, he hopes he will discover it by going to Africa. Through a series of misadventures Eugene Henderson finds himself away from his original group and in the village of Wariri in Africa. After performing a feat of strength, Eugene is adopted by the villagers as the Wariri Rain King.
Film pitch: Bellow’s funniest book, Henderson the Rain King could be pitched as an intellectual Joe Versus the Volcano (or maybe not — that’s a terrible pitch).

1. Turkish Embassy Letters (1763)

Author: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
Synopsis: An important writer in her own right, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was the wife of Edward Wortley Montagu, who was appointed as the ambassador at Constantinople. Accompanying her husband just after recovering from contracting smallpox marring her famed beauty, Lady Wortley Montagu wrote about her observations in numerous letters. These letters form a fascinating look at the Ottoman Empire — from how they inoculated against smallpox to the zenanas, special areas of the house reserved for women — as observed by an aristocratic English woman of the time.
Film pitch: Just think what a great biopic you could make about her.

Note: If you click on the book titles in the above list, you’ll be taken to Amazon, where the books can be purchased — except in the case of Tobias Smollett’s travelogue, which goes to Gutenberg, where he can be read FOR FREE!!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, an interview with first-time novelist Meagan Adele Lopez, and her plans for turning the book into a film.

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7 extraordinary women travelers with a passion to save souls

A week ago, I announced that The Displaced Nation will be dedicating the month of November to exploring the displaced lives of those who travel the world to do good works on behalf of those less fortunate.

Blame it on the years I spent as an expat in England, but the whole time I was writing that post, I had the sense of a Victorian couple — the man in a top hat, the woman in a full skirt — looking over my shoulder, whispering in my ear: “We tried to save the world, too, you know.”

To be fair, those phantoms of mine have a point. The Victorians ventured into the wilds of Africa, Asia and the Americas not just as imperialists looking for riches but also as missionaries looking to save souls.

And, just as we 21st-century people think we have the answers for people who live in developing countries — microfinance, entrepreneurship, mosquito nets, gifts of sheep and goats — our forbears thought they had the answers, too: Christianity, coupled with a strong belief in the universality of basic human freedoms.

Today I will attempt to put said ghosts to rest by paying tribute to 7 women missionaries from the 19th and early 20th centuries, from both sides of the Atlantic.

So, why the women and not the men? Three reasons:

  1. Being women, they tended to stand up for the rights of women and children wherever they went.
  2. Many also learned the language and assimilated to the local culture, thereby winning respect.
  3. And many were further willing to acknowledge the blunders committed by missionaries when attempting to penetrate the world’s most remote communities. As missiologist Ruth Tucker, who has read many missionary memoirs by women, observes:

These women writers one after another have allowed themselves to be vulnerable in painting a sometimes messy picture of their own character and of their missionary work. [Their] raw memoirs have much to say to us in the 21st century.

I’m going to take Tucker’s words to mean that even if you’re not religious, disapprove of proselytizing, or are something other than Christian, you might still concede that, on derring-do, fortitude, and decency alone, the following women deserve a place in the Displaced Hall of Fame.

Ann Haseltine Judson (1789 – 1826)

Who was she? A Bradford, Massachusetts native, teacher, and the wife of Andoiram Judson. Two weeks after they married, the couple set out on a mission trip — first to India, then to Burma.
Key achievements: While her husband was imprisoned in Burma under suspicion of being a spy, Judson wrote stories of the struggles she faced on her own in the mission field. She included tragic descriptions of child marriages, female infanticide, and the trials of the Burmese women who had no rights except for those their husbands gave them.
How she died: Of smallpox in Burma, at age 37.
Interesting fact: At least 16 biographies of Judson were published in the 19th century, the most famous of which had a new edition printed almost every year from 1830 to 1856. She and Andoiram were American celebrities.

Betsey Stockton (c. 1798 – 1865)

Who was she? A freed slave who left domestic service to travel as America’s first single female missionary to Hawaii, then known as the Sandwich Islands. In fact, she went partly as a missionary and partly as a servant to one of the couples on the mission, the Reverend and Mrs. Stewart.
Key achievement: After being asked by the son of the Hawaiian king to teach him English, Stockton started up a school at Lahaina (in West Maui) for the makeainana — fishermen, farmers and craftsmen who lived off the land — which continued after she left.
Why her mission ended: Stockton’s service in Hawaii was cut short when Mrs. Stewart became ill. The party decided to return to the States in 1826.
Where she died: In Princeton, NJ. She is buried in the Stuarts’ plot in Cooperstown, NY.
Stockton’s diary: Stockton kept a detailed written record of the mission, which conveys her somewhat turbulent, occasionally agonized, inner spiritual life; her interest in the natural world — including the kinds of fish caught from the ship, the color of the waves, and various bird life; and her spirit of adventure. Like others on board she was frightened at her first sight of the Hawaiian men who come out in canoes to greet the ship:

half man and half beast—naked—except a narrow strip of tapa round their loins…

But then she adds: “They are men and have souls.”

Adele Marion Fielde (1839 – 1916)

Who was she? A working-class native of Rodman, NY, who followed her fiancé, a Baptist missionary, to Bangkok, Thailand (then Siam) — only to discover he’d died of typhoid fever 10 days after she’d set sail from New York. She carried on nevertheless, remaining in Siam for a couple of years.  Later she went on a mission to China for training Bible women.
Key achievement: Fielde mastered the Chinese language and was also a powerful writer. She encouraged each of her Chinese Bible women to tell their stories, and then translated these stories and got them published in magazines back home. As one of her biographers puts it:

Their heart-rending sagas proved enormously appealing to American women, who could sympathize with their suffering Chinese sisters.

Where her life ended: In the United States. She retired from missionary work, went home, and became involved in scientific research.
Strange twists and turns: A free thinker since childhood, Fielde broke away from her family’s Baptist roots — only to return after becoming engaged to a Baptist missionary candidate. She faithfully served as a Baptist missionary for two decades — and then turned to science. Notably, the Baptists for a a long time sensed that she wasn’t quite one of them, accusing her of indulging in card-playing and dancing when she lived in Siam. She responded:

“I desire to be good. But I do not wish to be Pious.”

Lottie Moon (1840 – 1912)

Who was she? A highly educated Virginia native (she was born “Charlotte Digges Moon” on her family’s ancestral slave-run tobacco plantation). She became a teacher and then was called, at age 33, to serve for decades in China with the Southern Baptist Convention. Initially she went to join to her sister, Eddie, who was stationed at the North China Mission in the treaty port of Dengzhou.
Remarkable turnaround: When she first arrived at the mission, Moon made a point of wearing Western clothes to distance herself from the “heathens.” But then she mastered the language, became an admirer of Chinese culture and history, and started wearing Chinese clothes and adopted many of their customs.
Commendable behavior: When China was facing plague, famine, revolution, and war, Moon shared her personal finances and food with anyone in need around her.
How she died: Of starvation, in the harbor of Kobe, Japan, while en route back to the United States. (At that point she weighed only 50 pounds!)
Impressive statistic: Southern Baptists have named their annual mission fund after Lottie Moon. It finances half the entire Southern Baptist missions budget every year.
Part of her lore: She used to tell people she was 4′ 3″ tall. While something of an exaggeration, she was definitely petite!
Lottie Moon Cookies: Moon won over the children in her Chinese village by making tea cakes for them — they called her “the cookie lady” instead of “foreign devil.” Baptist families bake Lottie Moon Cookies for Christmas.

Mary Slessor (1848 – 1915)

Who was she? A Victorian mill girl who left the slums of Dundee to live among the tribes of Calabar, Nigeria, to take up the mantle of David Livingstone two years after he died.
Noteworthy friendship: While in Africa, Slessor became acquainted with the writer Mary Kingsley. Although the latter had never been baptized and hadn’t even been brought up a Christian, their common status — both were single females living among native populations with little company — presumably created the basis for lasting friendship.
Key achievement: The tribal people believed that if a woman gave birth to twins, one of the twins was the offspring of the devil who had secretly mated with the mother — and since the innocent child was impossible to distinguish, both should be killed (the mother was often killed as well). Slessor fought hard to end this practice.
Where she died: In Nigeria, at age 67. There was great mourning among the tribes to whom she’d dedicated her life.
A tribute from an unexpected source: During London Fashion Week in 2010, Nigerian-born designers Bunmi Olaye and Francis Udom named Slessor as one of the muses behind their collection, which fused Victorian costume with furs of the African tribe Slesson had lived in. The reason? Slessor had rescued Francis’s great-grandmother, who was born a twin, from human sacrifice.

Amy Carmichael (1867 – 1951)

Who was she? A small-village girl from a devout Presbyterian family in County Down, Northern Ireland (her father founded an evangelical church in Belfast). She was called first to work among the mill girls of Manchester and then overseas, finding her life-long vocation in India.
Key achievement: In those days, Hindu priests kept “temple children” — mostly young girls who were forced into prostitution to earn money for them. Carmichael tried to rescue them by setting up a sanitarium in Tamil Nadu, thirty miles from the southern tip of India.
Bold behavior: She would dress in Indian clothes, dye her skin with dark coffee, and travel long distances on hot, dusty roads to save just one child from suffering.
How she died: In India at the age of 83. She asked that no stone be put over her grave. Instead, the children she had cared for put a bird bath over it with the single inscription Amma, meaning “mother” in Tamil.
Cryptic remark: While serving in India, Carmichael received a letter from a young lady who was considering life as a missionary. She asked, “What is missionary life like?” Carmichael wrote back saying simply,

“Missionary life is simply a chance to die.”

A measure of her fortitude: Carmichael served in India 55 years without furlough and produced a total of 35 published books about her experiences.

Gladys Aylward (1902 – 1970)

Who was she? A working class London girl who left domestic service for to Yuncheng, Shanxi Province, China, in the tumultuous years leading up to World War II. She worked with an older missionary, Jeannie Lawson, to found an inn where traveling merchants could get a hot meal and hear stories from the Bible. Notably, Aylward was initially rejected as a potential missionary to China because of her lack of education. She spent her life savings on her passage.
Key achievements: Appointed by the local mandarin to serve as a “foot inspector,” she toured the countryside to enforce the new law against foot binding and met with much success. She also took in orphans and adopted several herself, and she intervened in a volatile prison riot, advocating for prison reform. When the region was invaded by Japanese forces in 1938, Aylward led around a hundred children to safety over the mountains, despite being wounded herself.
How her life ended: She returned to England in the 1940s, then tried to go back to China but was re-denied entry by the Communist government. She ended up in Taiwan, where she started another orphanage. She lived in Taiwan until her death.
Chinese nickname: She was known in China as Ai-weh-deh, or Virtuous One.
Celebrations of her life: Numerous books, short stories and movies have been created about the life and work of Gladys Aylward, including the film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.
Not easily flattered: For Aylward, this 1957 movie was a thorn in her side: she resented being played by the tall, Swedish Ingrid Bergman (small in stature, she had dark hair and a cockney accent) and was further horrified to discover she’d been portrayed in “love scenes” with the Chinese Colonel Linnan.

Readers, what do you think of these 7 women? Have they inspired you?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a Displaced Q on the “pornography of poverty.”

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