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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

A wonderful connection, thanks to the Dragonfruit anthology.

cuppas-and-chats

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

Sharon said:

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Dragonfruit!

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

serendipity-and-friendship

* * *

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

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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

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

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

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

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

—ML Awanohara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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

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

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

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

—ML Awanohara

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

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

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

“Charting Koenji,” by Kathryn Hummel

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

I. Arrival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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

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

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

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

—ML Awanohara

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

Here is the beginning of her story:

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

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

“Mmm…” I responded, avoiding his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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