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CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Expats & TCKs, when the culture shocks pile up, pull out the manual or consult an expert


Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol is back with her first guest of 2017.

Happy February, Displaced Nationers!

Meet my fellow ATCK Diahann Reyes-Lane. You might know her already from Elizabeth Liang’s lovely interview for TCK Talent. If you don’t, Diahann is a former CNN journalist and Hollywood actress who now works as a coach for writers and artists.

In her own creative life, Diahann is a blogger, writer, and performer. In Stories From The Belly, her blog about “the female body and its appetites,” Diahann addresses feminism, body image, identity culture, food and travel. Her poems and essays have been published in WriteGirl anthologies Emotional Map of Los Angeles, You Are Here and No Character Limit. She has written a number of chapbooks: Howl Naked Raccoon the Moon; Moon Goddess; and Basketball Dome of Tears. And she has performed at the Hollywood FringeFestival and read her stories at Beyond Baroque in Venice. Currently, she is working on a memoir as well as a solo show.

Diahann lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their five cats. She kindly took the time to share some of her cultural transition stories with us. Join us as we talk about TCK burnout, courting customs in Manila (just in time for Valentine’s Day!), and various forms of therapy.

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Hi Diahann, welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox! So where on our beautiful blue planet did you grow up?

I was born in the Philippines. I learned to speak my first language, English, with a Kiwi accent at age one when my dad’s company moved us to New Zealand. We lived there for almost two years before moving back to Manila. When I was eight, we moved to Argentina for two years. Buenos Aires is still, to this day, my favorite city where I’ve lived. Two years later, we landed in Pakistan, where I spent the fifth grade. We stayed for a little over a year before migrating to the US. This was supposed to be our final move, but when the Marcos regime was overthrown, my father moved us back “home” to Manila in 1987.

How well did you settle down once you found yourself back in your passport country?

Our repatriation to the Philippines was brief. It was less than a year before my dad’s company moved him to Indonesia. I spent my senior year in Jakarta before moving back to the United States for college. I’ve been here ever since—going on 27 years now. I consider my long stay in this country a far more exotic adventure than moving countries all the time, which had been my norm for so long.

That’s very interesting. You mean you found staying in one place more exotic than travel?

Yes, learning to live in the same place has been a bigger adventure because moving, I knew how to do. Going to a new school, I knew how to do. Moving out/into a new apartment/house/neighborhood, I knew how to do. It was what my family did the whole time I was growing up. Until I turned 18, I moved to a new school, if not country, almost every year. I had no idea what it was like to have friendships that lasted beyond a school year. My sophomore year at UC Berkeley was a challenge because I didn’t know how to have ongoing relationships and I had to learn how to do that as a young woman. I used to think “what if”, mourning the losses of friendships and budding romances that surely would have blossomed if only I didn’t have to move again. I now know that sometimes, even when you live in the same zip code with people, friends drift apart and romances die for reasons beyond geography.
moving-i-knew-how-to-do

I hear you. And that’s a lot of moves. I’m guessing that, for you, like many of us Third Culture Kids, your most difficult re-entry shock occurred when you returned to your birthplace?

Yes, since Manila was “home”, I assumed there would be no transition. I thought I’d be like everyone else, for once, since I was no longer a foreigner. To my dismay, I still was an outsider. I didn’t know the customs or social rules any more than I did when I’d moved to the other countries. I was hard on myself about this because I assumed that I should know because I was a Filipina citizen.

Did you ever put your foot in your mouth when you were back “home”?

One example that springs to mind occurred during junior high school in Manila. A boy from another school was “courting” me. This was the eighties, so I’m not sure if courting is still what kids do nowadays. Basically, he was wooing me to be his girlfriend. But I wasn’t interested in him and I didn’t want to lead him on. I told the guy straight out—nicely, in my opinion—that I just wanted to be his friend. That’s what I would have done had I still been in living in the United States or studying at an international school. When I told my classmates about what happened, they made clear that this was a breach of etiquette. They said I should have allowed him to keep courting me until he finally asked me to be his girlfriend. Only then should I have let him down. Instead, I’d embarrassed him.
courting-in-philippines

Would you handle that kind of situation differently today?

The woman I am today would have handled the situation exactly the way I did then. But at 16, and after so many moves from country-to-country and school-to-school, I just wanted to fit in—especially because the Philippines was my country of origin. After that incident with the boy, I made more of an effort to abide by Filipino etiquette, including never calling guys and not taking the initiative when it came to expressing interest in a boy. Adapt, assimilate, and conform became my way of coping. I wish I could have told my younger self back then: “Just be yourself and honor your values. Who you are is enough. Your perceptions and choices aren’t wrong.”

Any “tools” you can recommend for the rest of us who are feeling some of these emotions?

Reading books about culture shock and re-entry culture shock helped. I discovered I wasn’t the only one having these experiences and my behavior, reactions, and mental and emotional state because of all the moving was normal. Until that point, I thought I was losing my mind. I couldn’t stay grounded in my body or any place or culture. Also, I wrote a college paper about re-entry culture shock, and the research I did for it was eye opening and healing. It also helps to have friends who have also lived the expat life and know what that’s like. Oh—and therapy. I recommend getting a good therapist.

youre-not-going-crazy

I like your recommendation of consulting the experts, whether it’s through books—we might call them operations manuals—or conversations with therapists who understand the TCK and expat mindset. Can you think of any transitions you made that were particularly smooth?

I’m inclined to say my move back to the United States to study at Berkeley was the easiest. I made friends right away and jumped right into college life. I didn’t miss Indonesia at all—probably because I’d lived there only for a year and hadn’t wanted to move there to begin with. (This had nothing to do with Indonesia—more that I was tired of moving.) But what I didn’t realize was that I’d not yet dealt with the accumulation of culture shocks and re-entry culture shocks I’d amassed in my psyche over the years. Inevitably, all of that would catch up with me eventually.

Yes, the compound effects of all those transitions is such an interesting subject! What advice do you have for expats or TCKs who are experiencing expat burnout or change fatigue?

I’d advise expats and TCKs to understand that the psychological and emotional fallout of multiple moves around the world are real. Recognize what is happening to you, proactively rather than reactively. Read and write about it. For me, writing that college paper about re-entry shock was a formative experience. I finally understood the effects that moving so many times while growing up had had on my development.

Lastly, do you have any advice for parents of kids like us?

For parent expats, I’d recommend letting your kids know that they, too, will be subject to culture shock. I’d suggest making space for your children to process their feelings and deal with the losses that can come from moving countries and cultures. Yes, there are plenty of gifts and benefits from being a global nomad, but there are also drawbacks. Ignoring the negative effects can be harmful. Granted, kids generally adapt more easily than adults, but this can also make it harder for them to stay grounded and cultivate a solid sense of self.

Thank you so much for sharing your stories, Diahann. I agree, some of the best advice for those who feel culture shocks piling up is to try to stay grounded: actively engage in activities that make you feel grounded in the place you are right now.

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How about you, Displaced Nationers? What makes you feel grounded? And do you have any “manuals” or “experts” you’d recommend for getting through the difficult cultural transitions and/or their cumulative effect? Let us know!

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

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

Until then. Prost! Santé!

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

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

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

Related posts:

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

TCK TALENT: Educational theatre specialist Guleraana Mir uses drama to coax out and channel TCK & immigrant stories

mir-tck-talent
Columnist Dounia Bertuccelli is back with her first Adult Third Culture Kid guest of the new year.

Hello again, fair readers! In this month of dramatic change here in the United States, perhaps you’d like to switch to another kind of drama. My guest this month is writer and educational theatre specialist Guleraana Mir. Among other projects, she has been working on Home Is Where…, an experimental theatre project based on the stories of Third Culture Kids, with Amy Clare Tasker, my very first guest.

Born in London to Pakistani immigrant parents, Guleraana spent the first five years of her life moving between Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UK. She recounts her family’s decision to settle back in the UK with humor, explaining:

“There’s a family joke that I returned home from the American nursery in Riyadh with a mixed-up accent, and my dad, proud of his broad Yorkshire twang, said something along the lines of: ‘No child of mine will grow up speaking like that!’ So we immediately made plans to return to the UK so my brother and I could be educated in England.”

As an adult, Guleraana continues to expand her horizons, traveling around and working in South America for a year and then spending two-and-a-half years in the United States. Currently based in London, she engages in a variety of creative endeavors, from leading theatre and creative writing workshops in community settings and schools in the UK, to developing scripts, to producing content for a London-based digital marketing agency, to writing poetry. Her first full-length play was long listed by the BBC Writersroom team in 2014, which seeks out new writers for possible BBC broadcast.

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Welcome, Guleraana, to the Displaced Nation! Let’s start by hearing a little more about your path once you became an adult. What and where did you choose to study at university, and why?
I completed my BA in English and Creative Studies at the University of Portsmouth, in the south of England. I chose that location because it was far away enough to not be in the immediate vicinity of my parents, but close enough to hop on a train home to London. Four years later I chose to study for an MA in Educational Theatre at New York University’s Steinhart School instead of a comparable course in the UK because the dollar was two to the pound, making the cost of studying in the USA was almost affordable. Plus, I was obsessed with New York after visiting the year before. I would have done anything to be able to return for an extended period.

What made you so obsessed with New York, and how does it compare to London?
I can’t tell you how hard I’ve tried to answer these questions in a succinct and tangible way, but it always comes back to this: my obsession with New York is visceral, not something I can rationalize. New York has an energy that inspires and motivates me. London is wonderful, steeped in history and tradition, but its energy is different. In my first semester at New York University, I found myself on the 7th floor of the Student Union Building. I looked out of the window and realized I could see past Washington Square Park all the way up Fifth Avenue. All the way up! It was so long and straight and brightly lit; it seemed infinite and vast, full of magic and possibilities. In London the streets are small and cobbled and windy and you don’t get that sense of size, even though it is a very big city.

Do you think your love for New York also has to do with going to graduate school in that city?
Yes, my passion for New York ultimately has to do with the fact that I first visited at an extremely pivotal moment in my life. I have since written an essay about becoming a woman and an artist, and I attribute 100% of my current confidence to NYC mostly because of all the empowering experiences I had whilst living there. London is my childhood, my safety net, my current state of success. New York sits in the middle of those two states. It’s the place I ran away to and discovered myself, the place I finally felt comfortable being who I am. Whilst I know that London is the right place for me because I could never really live in the USA, every time I think of New York my heart breaks. It’s like the lover you can never let go of, the one that got away.

torn-between-ny-and-london

“Theatre is the art of looking at ourselves” —Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal

Did growing up as a TCK influence your decision to go into theatre?
I grew up not only as a TCK, meaning I spent my early childhood outside my parents’ culture–but also as a CCK, or cross-cultural kid, as I spent the next portion of my childhood living in England with Pakistani parents. These experiences moved me to want to become a human rights lawyer or a journalist, or else pursue European Studies. All I can ever really remember being passionate about was traveling the world and writing, with a heavy emphasis on “changing the world.” While working on my BA, I explored creative and journalistic writing, but ultimately graduated without a concrete career path. I’ve ended up working in educational theatre because it is a combination of things I am good at, and love. I honestly couldn’t see myself doing anything else. 

Has theatre helped you process your TCK upbringing?
As a playwright I can process my mixed-up identity through my characters. Having the opportunity to explore things I’ve experienced on stage is both triggering and cathartic. Luckily I am surrounded by amazing people who also happen to be extraordinarily talented artists, so working with them makes the whole process easier.

You’re currently based in London—are you settled or do you get “itchy feet”?
I will always dream of New York, and Rio, and all the other places I’ve felt “at home”; but London occupies a special place in my heart. It’s where parents and family are, so as long as they’re here, I’m here. Sort of. The itchy feet are constant—but I hate packing. So, we shall see!

“The worst part of holding the memories is the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.” —ATCK writer Lois Lowry

You’ve been collaborating with Amy Clare Tasker on Home Is Where…, weaving together the true stories of TCKs with a fictional narrative inspired by our post-Brexit political landscape. What has working with other TCKs meant to you?
Meeting Amy and discovering the term “Third Culture Kid (TCK)” for the first time felt like getting into bed after an exciting night out. Through our work on Home Is Where…, I’ve engaged with so many more TCKs. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction and hearing some of the stories that make up Home Is Where… you realize how true this saying is. Some people have been on such great adventures! Also, as our actors are also TCKs, watching them bring a piece of themselves to the project is very humbling. Each of the stories the drama tells is like a special gift.

I know you and Amy have been experimenting with verbatim theatre. I want to ask you the same question I asked her: how has that process been?
Verbatim theatre is an interesting art form. As Amy explained in her interview, the actors listen to the audio recordings of TCK interviews on stage via headphones—and then repeat exactly what they hear. There’s something so raw and honest about it, but there is also the potential for it to be very static and boring. At the moment Amy and I are working on a way to revamp the piece so the interviews take center stage without the audience getting distracted by all the other things we feel we need to add to create an exciting theatrical experience. Watch this space for updates!

Are you working on anything else at the moment?
I am. My play Coconut is about a British-born Pakistani woman called Rumi who identifies as a “coconut”—a derogatory term for someone who is brown on the outside and white on the inside, i.e., who isn’t deemed culturally Asian enough by the community. The play explores Rumi’s relationship with her heritage and her religion, and we see how far she will go to appease her family. The play has been supported on its development journey by the Park Theatre and New Diorama.

coconut-play

Congratulations on that and on being selected as a Pollock Scholar and a speaker for the 2017 FIGT conference, which takes place March 23-25 in The Hague. Is connecting with global communities important for you on a personal and professional level? What do you hope to gain from this experience?
Thank you, Dounia! Amy and I will be doing a short presentation on Home Is Where… followed by an interactive workshop, something that I’m very passionate about. My expertise is in applied-theatre and I want to show the global community that the creative arts are the perfect way to explore the theme of this year’s FIGT conference: “Creating Your Tribe on the Move.” My hope is that everyone who attends our session will be moved to find a way to bring theatre into the way they work with families and individuals who are experiencing, or have recently experienced, migration.

Thank you so much, Guleraana, for sharing your story of how you got started as an international creative. You have so many exciting irons in the fire, it’s a true inspiration!

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Readers, please leave questions or comments for Guleraana below. Also be sure to visit her Website and connect with her on Twitter, where she likes to tweet about theater, global politics and gifs (tweet her your favorites!). And if you’re headed to the FIGT event in March, be sure to attend her workshop on Friday, March 24.

Born in Nicosia, Cyprus, to Lebanese parents, Dounia Bertuccelli has lived in France, UK, Australia, Philippines, Mexico, and the USA—but never in Lebanon. She writes about her experiences growing up as a TCK and adjusting as an adult TCK on her blog Next Stop, which is a collection of prose, poetry and photography. She also serves as the managing editor of The Black Expat; Expat Resource Manager for Global Living Magazine; co-host of the monthly twitter chat #TCKchat; and TCKchat columnist for Among Worlds magazine. Currently based on the East Coast of the United States, she is happily married to a fellow TCK who shares her love for travel, music and good food. To learn more about Dounia, please read her interview with former TCK Talent columnist Lisa Liang. You can also follow her on Twitter.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Top visual: (clockwise from top left) Guleraana Mir photo, supplied; New Routemaster at Clapton, Hackney, London [mosque in background], by Sludge G via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); “Home Is Where…” performance photo, supplied; and New York University Waverly building, by Benjamin KRAFT via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
New York vs London visual: “Looking across Washington Square Park at Midtown Manhattan, up 5th Avenue,” by Doc Searls via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and Back Lane, Hampstead, by Dun.can via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
Bottom visual: Coconut rehearsal, performance and promo piece, all supplied.

Ushering in 2017 with other internationals whilst not forgetting my expat days of “auld lang syne”

Happy New Year, Displaced Nationers!

As I began drafting this note, initially for the January 1 Displaced Dispatch—if you’re not signed up yet, please do!—it was still New Year’s Eve here in New York City. As some of you may know, I’ve made the island of Manhattan my home after living for many years in two small-island nations, England and Japan.

At that moment I was preparing to join some neighbors a few doors down for a feast of fresh lobster (flown in from Maine), foie gras, and champagne (mais oui).

It was a night to remember, I’m happy to report—which is rare for a New Year’s Eve fete in my experience. To go with our lobster, we had a baguette from Maison Kayser, the famed Parisian bakery that recently opened a branch nearby, and some pink and white kamaboko (Japanese fish cake, the kind used for celebrating the New Year). My husband, who is Japanese, had purchased the kamaboko from the Japanese grocery near us, Sunrise Mart. (Watching the sun rise, incidentally, is a Japanese New Year’s tradition.)

For dessert we had a fruit pie from the Union Square green market (my contribution), along with Portuguese custard tarts, the contribution of our displaced Taiwanese neighbor, who’d gotten them from his favorite bakery in Queens.

I didn’t quite manage my high heels but still went for a glam look. Our hosts, an American man and his German wife—she didn’t live in Germany until she was an adult—spend a large portion of the year at their vacation house in France, and everything was tasteful in a way that only the French can manage, even though neither of them is French(!).

For me, a repatriate who continues to feel displaced, this international gathering of friends and food is the closest I can come to feeling settled and at home.

That said, the price of international travel is that I sometimes feel overwhelmed by nostalgia for auld lang syne (times gone by) in other parts of the world. Since I can’t always communicate these sentiments to the people around me, nor would I wish to, my postings on the Displaced Nation have become my outlet.

The fact is, dear readers, I have never spent a New Year’s back “home” without missing Japan. Over the course of my life in Tokyo, I came to love so many aspects of Oshōgatsu, as it is known.

Last year on the Displaced Nation I wrote about the tolling of the bells at Buddhist temples at midnight, audible throughout the land. But as I think back once again to these times of old, memories keep popping in my head like New Year’s fireworks. I’m thinking of:

  • the plain meal of soba the night before
  • the new year’s greeting itself, uniquely Japanese in its import: Akemashite (it’s opening). Omedetō gozaimasu (congratulations). Kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu (please take care of me next year, too).
  • the colorful foods on New Year’s Day (osechi-ryōri), served in special boxes, including the aforementioned fish cakes
  • the arrival of nengajō (New Year’s postcards)
  • visits to the shrine/temple where women would be wearing kimonos with fur collars
  • kite-flying
  • koto music
  • bamboo and pine displays
  • Beethoven’s Ninth…

Looking back on those times, I’m convinced it was the mix of contemplation (the Buddhist elements) and joy (stemming from Shinto, the native Japanese religion)—that never failed to put me in a good mood at the start of the year.

On that note: wherever you are in the world, and however you’re celebrating, my hope is that you will give yourself equal time for self-reflection and for fun. After all, you can’t have yin without yang. What’s more, I predict that some healthy mix of the two will put you in an optimistic—and creative—frame of mind for 2017!
yin-and-yang-new-year
p.s. My habit of singing “Auld Lang Syne” at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve likewise dates back to my Tokyo days. I spent several New Year’s Eves with a group of British expats!

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ML Awanohara, one of the Displaced Nation’s founders and its current editor, often composes pieces of this kind for the biweekly Displaced Dispatch. Why not subscribe for the new year?

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

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

Related posts:

Photo credits:
Opening collage (clockwise from top left): Champagne glasses via Pixabay; [New York City at New Year’s], by Kohei Kanno via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Happy New Year 2017 via Pixabay; Soba Noodle Just Before the New Year, by raitank via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Kite flying competition, by Sam Sheffield via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); and The days of auld lang syne by Ian MacLaren, by Boston Public Library via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
The yin & yang visual is from Pixabay.

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

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

Happy holidays, Displaced Nationers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Any stories from your time in South Africa?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You might have cage dived among great white sharks and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro as an expat, and now you might have to settle for the much more mundane sport of tennis upon returning home. But let me tell you: perfecting your forehand is just as challenging and rewarding as living abroad. I’m still trying to find an equally convincing story about the laundry I’m now back to folding myself in a country without domestic help. I’ll get back to you when I come up with it.
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Thank you so much, Sine, for taking the time to share your stories and insights. As you say on your blog, “If life always went exactly as planned, there would be no stories. If you look at it that way, a crappy day can be the greatest gift!” Such a wonderful motto to live by, abroad or at home!

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

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

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

Until then. Prost! Santé!

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

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

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

Related posts:

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

TCK TALENT: Tanya Crossman takes her talent with mentoring TCKs to the next level: a resource-rich book


Columnist Dounia Bertuccelli is back with her second Adult Third Culture Kid guest, who has had a particularly productive year.

Hello readers! Welcome back for my second TCK Talent column, where I am happy to introduce author and TCK mentor Tanya Crossman. Tanya is ending 2016 on a high note as this was the year she had her first book published: Misunderstood: The Impact of Growing Up Overseas in the 21st Century (Summertime Press), a work full of insights into the hearts and minds of Third Culture Kids and, for Tanya, a true labor of love.

Tanya is familiar with what it is like to grow up in other cultures from her own experience. Born in Australia, she grew up mostly in Australia (Sydney and Canberra) but also spent two of her teenage years in the USA when her family moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, due to her dad’s IT career. Being a 13-year-old in such a different part of the world played a major role in shaping Tanya’s adult identity. As she put it to fellow Adult Third Culture Kid, Janneke Muyselaar-Jellema, of the DrieCulturen (Dutch for “three cultures”) blog:

I think it showed me there’s a whole world of opportunity out there, and not to limit myself to what is “normal” in Australia.

After completing a Bachelor degree in Asian Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, Tanya moved to Beijing for a study year abroad—and ended up staying for 11 years. During that period she also spent a lot of time in Cambodia. She moved back to Australia about two years ago, where she’s been learning to navigate repatriation while completing a Master’s program in Sydney.

It was during her time in China that Tanya began to work with other Third Culture Kids. This became her passion, and, even now that she is back in her passport country, she continues advocating for TCKs.

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Congratulations, Tanya, on the publication of Misunderstood. That’s an amazing accomplishment! How did you develop the ambition to write your own book on this topic?
Thank you for featuring me, Dounia. As you mentioned, I mentored Third Culture Kids who were living in China for years, listening to them and learning how they felt about life. At a certain point I started receiving requests from parents for advice as well as invitations to speak to interested groups both in China and other places. People would ask for resources, and while I was able to point to some excellent works, I couldn’t find anything that represented the angle I spoke from—so eventually I wrote my own book.

“If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” —Toni Morrison

Tell me, how does Misunderstood differ from other TCK resources?
Misunderstood is different because I act as an advocate and a “voice” for young TCKs. I’m trying to express how they really feel about the experience of growing up in a third culture. They have a different experience of the world to their parents. Recognizing this is essential for giving them the support they need. I interviewed nearly 300 TCKs and surveyed 750 TCKs during the writing process, and there are statistics as well as quotes from this work throughout Misunderstood. I explain the TCK perspective but I also articulate how many of them feel—often in their own words.

Who would you say is the primary audience for the book?
My initial goal was to write for parents, teachers and care workers, but I later re-wrote the contents to cater to young adult TCKs as well. Most of them are processing their childhood experiences and finding their place in the world, and I think it will help them to discover there are other people who have felt the same way, and to be given vocabulary to explain their experiences to others.

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I know you were a TCK for just two years, and in another English-speaking culture. But I assume that your experience of living in Connecticut (where I now live, btw!) was also a motive for writing this book? And did writing the book help you process your TCK experience?
Only indirectly. I have to say, I knew nothing about TCKs before I began mentoring them in Beijing. I certainly didn’t connect my two years in the United States to their experiences. Once I got into working with TCKs, I started reading the literature (particularly Pollock and Van Reken’s Third Culture Kids: Growing up Among Worlds). As a result, I began to understand and process what I’d felt while living in Connecticut as a teenager. While my Third Culture experience differed from the teens I was working with, I could see there were points of overlap, which was what had helped me make the initial connection. It gave me a head start in understanding the landscape of their inner lives.

What are your hopes for Misunderstood?
My biggest hope is that it ends up in the hands of people around the world who will find it helpful. I want young TCKs to read it and feel understood and empowered. I want parents to read it and feel encouraged because they are able to see their children’s experiences in a new light. Already I am getting responses from TCKs, parents and other expatriate advocates, sharing the ways in which Misunderstood has encouraged or challenged them. That sort of feedback is exciting and humbling. It makes it all worth it.

“Australia doesn’t really feel like “home” anymore. Beijing feels like home…” —Tanya Crossman

You recently repatriated to Australia—how has that experience been?
Repatriation has been HARD!! The first three months I hardly left my room unless I had to. After about ten months I had this feeling of “waking up” and feeling like a person again. It’s really only in the last couple of months that I’ve started to feel anywhere near normal. I’ve been here almost two years now, and although I feel settled enough in my current life, it does feel quite temporary—although that’s partly because I’m in a program of study, which gives me a concrete end date (about a year from now). I definitely expect to head overseas again after that, though I’m open to staying in Australia if the right opportunity comes up.

If you do end up settling in Australia, aren’t you afraid you may get “itchy feet”?
I get itchy feet if I don’t get on a plane every few months, no matter where I’m living! I’ve managed to make two overseas trips in the two years I’ve been back, and I have another planned in a few months’ time.

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Are you working on anything new at the moment? Are there plans for a second book?
Mostly I’m working on my completing my master’s degree, though I do have a side project looking at creating reading guides for Misunderstood—in large part prompted by conversations with a few expat mums (in China, South Africa and Thailand) who were interested in using Misunderstood for group discussions.

Please share any other information or links you would like our readers to know about.
There are lots of great resources about TCKs out there, including some great books released in the last five years. Other than the classic Third Culture Kids which I mentioned before, the books I recommend most often are:

Another great resource is Ellen Mahoney’s TCK mentoring organization Sea Change Mentoring.

It’s generous of you to cite these additional resources for us. Thanks so much, Tanya, for this interview!

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Readers, please leave questions or comments for Tanya Crossman below. If you’re interested in learning more about her book, please visit Tanya’s author site. You can also connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

Born in Nicosia, Cyprus, to Lebanese parents, Dounia Bertuccelli has lived in France, UK, Australia, Philippines, Mexico, and the USA—but never in Lebanon. She writes about her experiences growing up as a TCK and adjusting as an adult TCK on her blog Next Stop, which is a collection of prose, poetry and photography. She also serves as the managing editor of The Black Expat; Expat Resource Manager for Global Living Magazine; co-host of the monthly twitter chat #TCKchat; and TCKchat columnist for Among Worlds magazine. Currently based on the East Coast of the United States, she is happily married to a fellow TCK who shares her love for travel, music and good food. To learn more about Dounia, please read her interview with former TCK Talent columnist Lisa Liang. You can also follow her on Twitter.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Related posts:

Photo credits: Photos of Tanya supplied. All other photos from Pixabay with exception of Greenwich photo in first collage: Greenwich, Connecticut, by Doug Kerr via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Expat, repat, and otherwise displaced reactions to the 2016 US presidential race

the-trump-panel

Welcome to the Displaced Nation’s virtual panel discussion on the most recent presidential election in America. (Hey, we figured if the pundits could get it all wrong, we could all be pundits, too!)

Before we get started, let me quickly explain how this panel came about. As some of you may know, I lived abroad for many years and, since repatriating to the United States, I’ve often felt like an exile in my own country. That said, the election of political outsider Donald Trump did not entirely surprise me. As explained in the most recent Displaced Dispatch, I had good information sources.

But if it didn’t surprise me, it definitely rocked my view of politics as usual in my native land. In the immediate aftermath, I wanted to be around other like-minded people here in New York City rather than being alone with my thoughts.

Likewise, I had the urge to reach out to the members of the international creative crowd we’ve gathered here at the Displaced Nation. How are they processing the news of America’s Brexit? And what impact do they see it having on their far-flung lives—beginning with the possibility of awkward holiday dinners with families?

A motley lot we expats, repats, and otherwise displaced types may be; but we, too, deserve a chance to say what we think.

And now, over to the panel…

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MARIANNE BOHR, American Francophile: In a lodge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with my husband. We were on a cross-country trip to move to Park City, Utah, for our early retirement. I was in shock as I saw state after state in the Trump column.

ANTHONY WINDRAM, British expat (now a U.S. citizen) in New York City: I watched the results at home with a makeshift newsroom. I flitted between CNN on the TV, a different cable news channel on my iPad, twitter on my phone, and various news sites on the laptop. But as the results came in, and the narrative arc of the night started to become apparent, I felt I needed to be away from the constant breaking news and the increasingly hysterical tone of Wolf Blitzer. The repulsion I felt at the result was visceral. Brexit is the closest comparison, but with the British referendum result, I just felt sadness. The Brexit vote centered around fairly abstract ideas about sovereignty and Britain and Europe—thus a toad like Nigel Farage could be dismissed as a distraction; but this election was centered around the carnival barking demagoguery of Trump, and the knowledge that he will not be going away for, at least, the next four years and that he now has a permanent, prominent place in the history of this country, is nauseating.

HE RYBOL, Adult Third Culture Kid based in Luxembourg (moving soon to Canada): I heard it on the car radio on my way home. No thoughts, just disbelief, sadness, frustration, anger. If I had any thoughts, they were about the rise of nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe.

INDRA CHOPRA, Indian and serial expat: In my hometown, Gurgaon, India, preparing for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights (October 30). Diwali is a celebration of good over evil but this year the festival stars Trump-ted the message. I was not surprised by the result as I had been following the campaign projections and stories during my stays of the past summer in the USA and Canada. I did feel let down by Hillary Clinton’s defeat, she is more qualified and deserving of the two and secondly it is time for the USA to have a woman president.

LISA LIANG, Adult Third Culture Kid based in Los Angeles: At home on the couch in our living room. I was in numb shock, not because I didn’t think it could happen, but because I had known it could and had decided to be optimistic for the last 36 hours because my psyche could no longer handle the dread and uncertainty. I could not sleep most of that night. The pain, grief, and rage arrived the next day and have peaked and dropped and peaked again on different days.

JACK SCOTT, former British expat in Turkey, now living in Norwich, UK: I first heard about Donald Trump’s victory on the morning news here in Britain. It was a wakeup call, but after Brexit, not entirely unexpected. I think we all know that both outcomes are a symptom of something deeper and more socially corrosive. There are a lot of people out there who feel marooned in poverty with little hope of rescue, including members of my own family. So it was okay to bail out the bankers but not the steelworkers? Really? If I was a praying man, I’d be on my knees hoping that Trump will be less incendiary in office than he has been on the podium, but I wouldn’t bet my shirt on it. Stoking up the darkest fears of those at the bottom of the heap is what got him elected. How a man born to enormous privilege can possibly understand the worries of the common man or woman is beyond me. But then I don’t understand the appeal of former merchant banker, Nigel Farage, either.

ML AWANOHARA, former American expat in UK and Japan, now living in New York: I spent the first part of the evening with a group of seven international friends in my NYC apartment building—only three of whom (myself included) were born here. One of our hosts was born in Montreal and the other in Taiwan, and the other two guests, in Asia (one of whom is my husband, who is Japanese). We were drinking wine and eating Chinese food while watching the returns on a huge TV screen. A bottle of bubbly was chilling in the fridge. Several of us left at midnight, when it was clear Hillary was likely to lose. We never popped the cork. The next morning, I couldn’t get over how quiet and glum everyone looked on the subway. At work several of us gathered around a computer screen to watch Hillary’s speech, with Bill standing behind her. The two of them have been political fixtures in this country for so long, it felt like watching the Twin Towers come down. No wonder people are saying 9/11 and 11/9…

q2_trumppanel

MARIANNE BOHR: It hasn’t changed my views because I remain steadfast in my belief that our country’s system of checks and balances will limit the damage Trump can do. Having lived in France, however, I always think about what the French will say/think about US politics and I’m afraid that many of them are as astounded as Americans. They love President Obama and I’m sure they’re shaking their heads about Trump—while also fearing that his election may indicate what could happen with Marine Le Pen.

ANTHONY WINDRAM: This was the first election I voted in since taking American citizenship. Indeed, this election was one of the primary reasons that I sought citizenship. Now I’ve assumed the nationality, I probably can’t claim displacement anymore: assimilation seems to be the stage I am at now. But there certainly isn’t the pride I felt on the morning when I voted as a US citizen for the first time taking my three-year-old daughter with me to the voting booth. I’m glad she’s only three. I’d have hated to try and explain to an older child that Horrorclown was the President-elect. I also find myself thinking back to my citizenship ceremony. The vast number of Hispanics sworn in with me, the small number of people from the Middle East. The result feels like a stinging rebuke to them from the country they had pledged allegiance to. Perhaps all high schoolers as part of their civic lessons should be taken to see a US naturalization ceremony. (As I write this, it has just occurred to me that as President one of the first duties that Trump will have to do is record a video greeting to be played at all naturalization ceremonies. I would find that grotesque.)

HE RYBOL: If anything, this outcome made me feel how lucky I am to have led an international life, with parents from different countries and with the opportunity to go to university in California (I loved it!). But while I don’t understand how anyone could vote for Trump, I don’t feel comfortable putting all of Trump’s supporters in the same basket, especially considering I’m sitting comfortably on another continent. For some of them, a vote for Trump may be an expression of frustration or even despair, rather than a reflection of who they really are. Part of me would like to encourage them to try living abroad for a while. At the same time, though, I’m aware my suggestion might seem unrealistic for someone who is struggling to make ends meet.

INDRA CHOPRA: I am not directly affected, and neither is my family, by the election verdict. Travel to USA had always been a challenge and additional discourtesies have come to be expected.

LISA LIANG: The election result has made me even more grateful for my TCK upbringing and even more determined to tell my intercultural story in my one-woman show, Alien Citizen, in as many countries as possible. I also want to help countless more people tell their intercultural stories via my workshops. On the painful side, the election has made me wonder if traveling will be harder because US citizens will be reviled and/or because the president elect will find other ways to make it harder. I hope not with all my heart.

JACK SCOTT: Viewing the world from our window, I feel rather insulated from the tragi-comedy engulfing us. I’m glad we chose Norwich to pitch our tent after our Anatolian adventures. While the cattle and corn county surrounding us voted for Brexit, the city itself wanted to remain, me included—though even I waivered a bit. The European Union is hard to love. But now the die has been cast, we just have to get on with it, don’t we?

ML AWANOHARA: I’m living in a bubble (that of a repat, with many international friends) inside a bubble (New York City), so, yes, I’m feeling rather exposed at this point! On the other hand, this election made me realize I do know something—in fact, my knowledge came from my early years abroad. While in the UK, I wrote a doctoral thesis on women, politics, and Shakespeare. My conclusion was that women nearly always find it problematic to exercise power when their power derives from a relationship with a powerful man. Unfortunately for Hillary, my findings showed that she would have been better off had she tried to make it to the top on her own steam, as Margaret Thatcher, and now Theresa May, did. But that is of course the rational side of me. The emotional side is breathing a giant sigh of relief I’m no longer an expat—I can imagine how weary I’d be by now of being asked by everyone I meet to explain the Trump phenomenon. And how much worse, now that he’s the president-elect! I’m also thinking back to the days when I first went abroad and felt happy to be escaping a society I’d come to see, even at that tender age, as fat (literally), lazy (wanting something for nothing), shallow (“shop until you drop”) and degenerate (hopelessly dysfunctional). Even so, I hadn’t quite foreseen that Washington would one day become a reality show!

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MARIANNE BOHR: No. I have to say that all my friends have political beliefs that are similar to mine. As I come from a family of eleven children, I learned long ago that we disagree about politics and religion and that we do not discuss them. They simmer under the surface but it’s dangerous to let them boil over. The burns would leave scars.

ANTHONY WINDRAM: I’ve never considered it before, but the family argument regarding politics over the holiday dinner is such an American trope. It doesn’t seem to exist to the same extent in Britain. Perhaps it’s our lack of a Thanksgiving? When eating our big holiday dinner at Christmas, it’s hard to feel mad at individuals who have just showered you with presents and with whom you can look forward to watching Downton Abbey or a Doctor Who Christmas special. By contrast, at Thanksgiving you feel oddly trapped with your family, and America doesn’t do good holiday TV so families have to actually interact with each other—never a good idea. But you know, even if I discovered that my values clash with a family member or friend, I think I’d be okay. I’m surprisingly diplomatic in person. I’ve always had very close friends of differing political persuasions to my own, and I’ve always been a little suspicious of people who don’t. We all know who among friends and family we can have a reasonable political discussion with irrespective of our differences, and who just wants to vent. It’s always best not to engage with the venters—just treat them as dinner theater (which is just as well considering the lack of good holiday TV in the US!).

HE RYBOL: Nope, thankfully the members of my immediate family—our nationalities include German, French, Luxembourgish and Italian—are all on the same side, as our friends who visit that time of year (whose nationalities also include Dutch, Belgian, Brazilian, Swedish, English, and Portuguese).

INDRA CHOPRA: Luckily it seems, this question doesn’t apply to me.

LISA LIANG: Nope. Everyone in my immediate family, and among my close friends, voted for Hillary Clinton. I also made it clear on Facebook at 1:00 a.m. on the calamitous night that anyone who didn’t vote for her could unfriend me. In my life, I don’t need anyone who voted for—or helped enable the election of—a Ku Klux Klan-endorsed, xenophobic, bullier of the disabled, likely rapist and his religious fanatic VP. Those details absolutely cannot be compartmentalized no matter how many people insist that they can.

JACK SCOTT: As far as Brexit goes: Most friends tend to be remainers, unless they’re closet Brexiteers of course (and I suspect a few are). And I’ve long since kept politics out of the conversation, family-wise. We’re a diverse group and it pays to keep mum. Of course, Mother herself is a devoted Brexiteer, as is common for her wartime generation. The old girl doesn’t get out much these days—and didn’t make it to the polling booth.

ML AWANOHARA: Funny what Anthony says—I talked politics at many a Christmas gathering in Britain! And I’ve always found it much harder to talk politics with family and friends in the United States. It’s as though we’ve outsourced our politics here so that we don’t have to tax ourselves overly with worrying about it. (Hm, I wonder if that will change now!) In any case, I suspect the topic of the election may surface occasionally at tomorrow’s Thanksgiving party. A couple of us were Bernie supporters, and the younger people who are coming, my nieces, are part of the millennial generation that felt devastated in the wake of Hillary’s loss. My stepfather is too old to travel but if he were joining us, he would attempt to hold up the side for the Republican Party. But even then we’d probably find some common ground as his idea of the Party is much different than Trump’s!

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More about the panelists:

Marianne Bohr is the author of Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries and has been contributing the World of Words column to the Displaced Nation.

Anthony Windram is one of the founders of the Displaced Nation. He has a long-running blog of his own, called Culturally Discombobulated, where he’s been closely covering the 2016 election and now aftermath.

HE Rybol is the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and the recently published Reverse Culture Shock. She has been contributing the Culture Shock Toolbox column to the Displaced Nation.

Indra Chopra contributes to Indian, Middle Eastern and online media. She blogs at TravTrails and has been writing the Accidental Expat column for the Displaced Nation.

Lisa Liang is the creator and star of the solo show Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey. She is also the creator of the Displaced Nation’s TCK Talent column.

Jack Scott is the author of Perking the Pansies—Jack and Liam move to Turkey and Turkey Street: Jack and Liam move to Bodrum. He formerly contributed the popular Jack the Hack (writing advice) column to the Displaced Nation.

ML Awanohara is the founding editor of the Displaced Nation. She is currently contributing the Expat Author Game column to the site.

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Readers, do you have anything to add to the panelists’ heart-felt responses? We’d love to hear from you in the comments!

And we hope you have (had? by the time you read this…) a happy Thanksgiving, those of you who are celebrating—try not to spoil it by talking politics. 🙂

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 biweekly posts from The Displaced Nation and soooo much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Photo credits: Top visual: Panelist photos (supplied). Q1 visual: Donald Trump Backyard Photo Sign at Night – West Des Moines, Iowa, by Tony Webster via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0). Q2 visual: Bursting bubble via Pixabay. Q3 visual: Thanksgiving dinner, by Marilyn C. Cole via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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

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

Hello, Displaced Nationers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then. Prost! Santé!

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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

REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: To cope with the transition back to your native land, consider vlogging!

reverse-culture-shock-morgan
Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol consults with recent repat Morgan Carver Richards about the best tools for fixing a bad case of reverse culture shock syndrome.

Hello, Displaced Nationers! I wonder if you’ve already had the pleasure of encountering the videos made by YouTuber Morgan Carver Richards? If not, you’ve been missing out…

Morgan spent four years in Dubai because of her husband’s flying career and returned to her native United States in January of this year. She has been posting hilarious videos on YouTube as a way of coping with the effects of reverse culture shock.

Here are some of my favorite sound bites from the series:

“Why are there so many cereals?!”

“This doctor bill is like 750 dollars! All she did was look at my leg and give me some Ibuprofen!”

“Kids, they don’t have bus nannies here. You’re on your own out there.”

“No, you cannot walk to the grocery store by yourself. This is not Dubai. Do you want Mommy to go to jail?”

“There are signs outside the primary school saying you can’t take your guns inside. There is NO WAY I’m the only person who finds that odd!”

Originally from South Carolina, Morgan had her own career as a flight attendant for several years. That was before the “lavish Vegas wedding of the shotgun variety” that took her to Dubai and the children that followed. Her career in the airlines industry, combined with her perpetual stir-craziness (hello, itchy feet!), has inspired several books:

morgan-carver-richards-books
Something all of Morgan’s works have in common, including her repatriation videos, is that she likes to make people laugh. Why don’t you see for yourself by checking out Morgan’s very first repat video, “Gardeners, Maids, Savages”:

Despite her skill with the video camera, Morgan claims to be somewhat behind the curve when it comes to adapting to new technologies. But she has no regrets because she thinks that growing up with social media would have made her early life less fulfilling.

Food for thought…

And now let’s find out what Morgan has packed in her reverse culture shock toolbox…

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Hi, Morgan, and welcome to Culture Shock Toolbox—or in your case, REVERSE Culture Shock Toolbox. Where on our beautiful planet have you lived?

I spent four years in the United Arab Emirates and 27 years in the United States where I lived in Phoenix, Arizona; Rock Hill, South Carolina; and Nashville, Tennessee.

Any memorable cultural transition stories? Did you ever put your foot in your mouth?

I have put my foot in my mouth several times, mostly when in the United States. I feel I wrongly assume too often that other people have the same knowledge base on the United Arab Emirates as I have. It easily makes the conversation go from friendly to savage.

How did you handle that situation?

I’m actively working on handling these situations in a more tolerable manner. I’m slowly but surely learning to keep my conversations to a happy medium instead of overreacting. I am still developing the tools to convey my experiences in a way that helps people understand cultural differences and discern reality from what is reported on Fox News (sorry, Fox News, you’re savage).

Can my fellow Americans discern reality from what is reported on Fox News?

“Why can’t my fellow Americans discern reality from what is reported on Fox News?” Morgan Carver Richards grapples with reverse culture shock.

Can you think of any culture shock situations, reverse or otherwise, you’ve handled with finesse?

I handled the relocation to Dubai from the US with surprising finesse compared with my move back to the US, which has had a finesse level of 0%. I think it was easier moving to the UAE because I went in knowing that I would have to learn a new culture and system. Returning to the US I wrongly assumed I would be accustomed to the culture because it’s my home country.

You illustrate some of your reverse culture shock moments in your hilarious YouTube videos. I gather the transition has been rough?

Yes, reverse culture shock has been powerful for me. I know other people repatriate more smoothly, but it wasn’t the case for me. The biggest source of counter culture shock I struggle with still is the less personal approach to daily interactions and the focus on privacy instead of the strong community feel and strong communication aspect that were a part of life in Dubai.

What has helped you deal with reverse culture shock?

Publishing my repatriation videos has led to an outpouring of support, positive feedback, laughter and understanding from other repatriates. I now see that, although each person has their own unique repatriation story, I am not alone with a lot of the feelings and experiences I’ve been having. I cannot stress how incredibly helpful and amazing that experience has been for me.

Did you hear that, expats? Make sure you include an iPhone or video camera in your toolbox. It may come in handy once you have to go home.

vlogging-the-answer

Finally, because some of our readers are still expats, can I ask: are there any tools you found particularly helpful in adjusting to life in the UAE?

My best advice is to take your time and check it out before you move. Don’t go into it with a bad attitude or else your experiences will reflect that attitude. Develop a few strong relationships early in the transition. My few strong relationships were what held me together in my new environment when I had a rough time or a bad day.

Thank you so much, Morgan! Building a new community is essential for handling cultural transitions, which may be why repatriation is so hard—it’s a lonely experience. But vlogging sounds like an excellent way of connecting with others who are going through something similar. We constantly need to remind ourselves: we’re all in this together.

* * *

So, Displaced Nationers, do you have any of your own repat stories to share?

To keep in touch with Morgan, I suggest you subscribe to her YouTube channel, check out her author site, like her Facebook page, and/or follow her on Twitter.

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

Until then, cheers! Prost! Santé!

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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Photo credits: All photos are from Pixabay.

THE PERIPATETIC EXPAT: Against the wind, becoming a repatriate

Displaced creative Sally Rose

When Sally Rose first started this column, her most perplexing issue was where to go next after five years of being based in Santiago, Chile. But then a devastating personal tragedy struck and she had no choice but to return to the United States. In this month’s post, she reports on her transition. —ML Awanohara

I’ve been back in the United States for not quite two months. Back in New Mexico, where I’d lived twice before.

I’ve owned a condo here for the past two years, but I didn’t expect to actually live in it. It was supposed to be my pied-à-terre, my escape hatch, an occasional break from my real life, that of a perpetually perplexed peripatetic expat. Now, everything is topsy-turvy and, at least for the foreseeable future, it will be home.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” (mistakenly attributed to John Lennon)

Repatriating wasn’t part of the plan, but circumstances change. In my case, death happened. As I wrote about in my last column, my son, Phillip, passed away in May. Instead of visiting with him, it’s all business now, taking care of whatever has to be done.

It’s a month on and I still haven’t seen Phillip’s fiancee. She’s working at a summer camp for children, out in the New Mexico wilderness. Our reunion will have to wait a while longer.

Am I glad to have a little hidey-hole to come back to? Maybe, but I’m hoping it will be a temporary measure in an otherwise peripatetic life.

Phillip would have understood. “If I wanted to just hang out with ‘Americans,’ I would stay in the United States.” I used to say that often, long before Phillip encouraged me to follow my dream and move to Chile.

In our first conversation about my going overseas, Phillip told me, “I’ve been wondering what’s taking you so long.” He knew, even before I’d decided, that I would become an expat.

The expat life is a kind of calling

A few months ago, I read an article about a woman who’d grown up in Portugal. As an adult, she moved to London and assumed the expat life. As I recall, she didn’t stay there very long, maybe a year, before moving back to Portugal.

She commented that she felt like a failure because her expat life in London didn’t work out.

Maybe failure is the wrong word. Being an expat isn’t for everyone. For me it was a kind of calling. When I went to Chile, I learned Spanish, taught many students, learned from many students, and created a family-like circle of friends.

Before I left Chile, the Universe brought several people, whom I hadn’t seen in a long time, back around to say goodbye.

The neighbor, whom I had met in the laundry room when I was a newbie to Chile. She was the one who introduced me to Chilean sopaipillas, which are very different from Mexican sopaipillas.

Even after I moved out of my apartment in the Bellas Artes neighborhood of Santiago, I ran into the drum-and-flute band. In the late afternoons, they used to wander through the neighborhoods of Bellas Artes and LaStarria, busking for donations. I felt like they had come to tell me goodbye.

I ran into my original landlord, the famous Sr. A from my memoir, A Million Sticky Kisses, three times in the two weeks before I left.

Coincidence? Could have been, if you believe in it, which I don’t.

At my despedida, my farewell party before leaving Santiago, I looked at the faces of my guests and realized that two-thirds of them were Chilean faces. I smiled. I had created another life in another part of the world. Mission accomplished.
adios chile

Against the wind, becoming a repatriate

Once I arrived back here in New Mexico, it took two weeks for me to unpack. I was exhausted, physically and emotionally, and unpacking didn’t seem important.

By now, I’ve tackled everything except the three boxes that I had mailed back to myself. I threw them into my storage locker here at the condo complex. I wonder what’s in them, what part of my other life I considered important enough to save.

I’m struggling to get into a routine, some semblance of normalcy. No exercise regimen, no writing routine, no Pisco Sour debriefs with a bestie once a week. Not yet.

I’ve tried Pilates, my preferred form of exercise, but it’s different here. Instead of being a relaxed, gentle atmosphere of breath-work and stretching, like in Chile, it’s hut-hut-hut, military style. I don’t like it.

Pilates Now and Then

I’m taking the stairs to my fourth floor apartment, whenever I don’t have my hands full. It gives me a little cardio workout once or twice a day, but it’s not the same as doing Pilates. I miss it.

And don’t get me started on how I have to drive everywhere, or how much I dislike hot weather, or how difficult it is to make new friends in an old place.

Sandia Mountains vista

 

As I wrote about on my own blog, I feel like I’ve been yanked out of a familiar and beloved garden, leaving torn roots behind.

Last year, when I visited Scotland, I spotted this graffiti on the side of a building.

“The things I love are not at home.”

I wondered who wrote that and what that meant to them.
What were they thinking
I’m not sure where “home” is, but I know that the things that are most important to me didn’t get packed into those boxes that I shipped back to Albuquerque.

The things I love most aren’t “things.”

Let me leave you with this thought:
TrustthatanEnding

Signed~
Perpetually Perplexed, and Now Grieving

* * *

Sally, Thank you for updating us. I know from personal experience how hard it is to repatriate but your circumstances make it even harder. I’m rooting for you! I’m also imagining that your restless, roaming spirit will not allow you to remain home for very long…but we shall see. —ML Awanohara

Born and raised in the piney woods of East Texas, Sally Rose has lived in the Cajun Country of Louisiana, the plains of Oklahoma, the “enchanted” land of New Mexico, and the Big Apple, New York City. Then she fell in love with Santiago de Chile and entertained herself (and us) by “telling tall tales” from that long, skinny country, where she made her home for five years. Where will her next act take her? The author of a memoir and a children’s book, Sally has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Mrs EE Culture Shock Toolbox

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

Hello, Displaced Nationers!

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

handing over money

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

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

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

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

How did you handle that situation?

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

Horrors of British Boarding School

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

Would you handle the situation differently now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bandaids laughter time for self

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Until then. Prost! Santé!

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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

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