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FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD: Cristina Baldan’s creative life as serial expat


Columnist Doreen Brett is back. Having introduced herself to us in her opening column, she will use this second post to interview serial expat Cristina Baldan, about the impact of her various “homes” on her creative output. Did she appreciate living far from the madding crowd, or is it crowds that give her inspiration? Or perhaps a bit of both? —ML Awanohara

Hello, Displaced Nationers! As ML mentioned, I’m excited to welcome my first guest to the Displaced Nation: photographer, graphic designer and serial expat Cristina Baldan. A native of Italy, Cristina has lived in eight different countries in the past 16 years. Her present abode is in Maastricht, the southernmost point of the Netherlands, spanning the border with Belgium. On the creative side: she was involved in the creation of the site Expatclic, a multilingual platform that supports expat women, and is currently developing the site What Expats Can Do. It’s a new kind of initiative, and she’ll tell us about it below.

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Welcome, Cristina, to the Displaced Nation! I understand you grew up in Italy but have lived on five continents and eight different locations. How did that come about?

I grew up and lived in the same town in Italy for 30 years, but then things started to change: I found a better job in a bigger city, and I got married and had my first child. My husband’s career then brought us to eight different locations in 16 years: Saudi Arabia, Nigeria (two different cities), France, Australia, Italy again, Canada, and now Maastricht. In the meantime, my family grew to five members plus one dog and, without completely realizing it, I was the living embodiment of the trailing spouse who would never be able to go back to her career in finance. Nowadays I am more aware of the richness that this kind of lifestyle has brought to my personal identity, and I am starting to find ways to rebuild my purpose and contribute something of worth to the wider world.

Those of us who have been Third Culture Kids or repeat expats tend to gravitate towards global cities as that’s where we think we’ll find work and our “tribe.” Have you found this to be the case?

I enjoy living in big cities. The anonymity allows you to move around and explore the location despite cultural, social, linguistic or even physical constraints. It is easier to open yourself to new experiences, meet people at your own pace, and navigate the cultural challenges. When I was living in more isolated places, I found life much harder. In those places, locals can identify you immediately as a foreigner and this can be difficult to manage. Getting in touch with the local culture is not an easy process, and in rural or small-town environments it may require a huge amount of time—time that an expat like me doesn’t have, as the next move is always approaching. In cities, by contrast, people are more used to people coming and going, and the settling-in process is accelerated. Big cities also offer activities as ways to meet other internationals. An expat spouse who cannot work because of being home with kids and/or for visa reasons risks staying at home too much and never really facing up to culture shock.

So would you say that cities nurture your creativity more than rural environments?

All the places I lived in as an expat have nurtured my creativity in different ways. The nomadic way of life opened my mind: there was an entire world out there I had not been aware of, and I was eager to share it with others. My first hosting country was Saudi Arabia, where tradition and culture are fascinating but also difficult to explore. As a woman I was not allowed to be alone in public, walk alone in the street, drive, or indulge in conversations with men who weren’t relatives. Logistically this meant being confined mostly at home or in “Western adapted” locations. I had very few contacts with locals and few possibilities to get to know the local culture. Writing was the first thing I tried to do; it began mostly as a way to tell stories to the family and friends left behind: letters, emails, blogs… But then when I moved to Africa, writing became insufficient. There were so many new colours, situations, people: words were not enough any more. At that point I discovered documentary photography. Then, as I was gaining more and more knowledge about connections among cultures—and found myself particularly interested in the visual effects of those connections—I began to study graphic design and visual communication.

Can you give us a concrete illustration of a work of yours that was nurtured out of the places you have been to?

The images you see here were selected for, and displayed at, the first LagosPhoto Festival (in 2010). They belong to my photo series “Streets Economics – Lagos through and behind windows”.

all rights reserved © Cristina Baldan – the above four images cannot be copied, downloaded, or used in any way without the express, written permission of the photographer.

You’ve lived in so many places, but have referred to just two of them, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria (Lagos), in this conversation. What was it about these two locations that stimulated your creativity?

For me, it wasn’t the remoteness of these two places on the map that I found stimulating; rather, it was the remoteness of their cultures, which I wanted to get to know but there were so many constraints. Creativity grows when you’re facing external constraints, at least that’s been my experience. In Saudi Arabia, my freedom was restricted in various ways, so I turned to writing. In Nigeria, I tended to take photographs through the windows of my car, as this was least intrusive. And in Nigeria, photography was also the answer for me as I couldn’t get the requisite materials and colors from the market for painting pictures.

What’s next for you, travel-wise and creativity-wise: will you stay put where you are or are other cities/artistic activities on your horizon?

I am currently organizing our move back to Canada: it is time for us to settle down in one place after so many years of nomadic life. As soon as I get there, I am planning to open my freelance business as an intercultural graphic designer and photographer. Meanwhile, I am nurturing my new project, which was launched a few months ago (we presented it at FIGT 2017): whatexpatscando.com. We are trying to engage as many expats as possible in working toward a better world by leveraging our experiences and skills in managing cultural diversity. Please join us!

Thank you, Cristina!

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Readers, any further questions for Cristina on on her thoughts about place, displacement, and the connection between the community you live in and creativity? Any authors or other international creatives you’d like to see her interview in future posts? Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

STAY TUNED for this coming week’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:
Opening collage: All images are from Pixabay.
The four photos of Lagos were taken by Cristina Baldan and supplied by her for this post.

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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.

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…

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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!

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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.

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

Related posts:

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.

TCK TALENT: Rahul Gandotra, Oscar-shortlisted filmmaker

Rahul Gandotra CollageElizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her column featuring interviews with Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields. Lisa herself is a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about growing up as a TCK, which receives rave reviews wherever it goes.

—ML Awanohara

Hello again, dear readers. Today’s interviewee is filmmaker Rahul Gandotra, whose short film, The Road Home, has played in over 60 festivals around the world and won over 20 awards, including the Student Film Academy Award and British Independent Film Award, and was shortlisted for the 2012 Oscar nominations.

The film beautifully depicts a Third Culture Kid story; it also catapulted Rahul into the shortlist of up-and-coming filmmakers.

RoadHome_posterHere is the film synopsis:

Growing up in England, ten-year old Pico never wanted to go to boarding school in the Himalayas, and despite the beauty there, he struggles to fit in. When he’s bullied for insisting he’s British in spite of his Indian heritage, he runs away, determined to return to his home in London. As he journeys through a country foreign to him, Pico encounters others who mistake him for an Indian boy, forcing him to face the painful truth that the world does not see him the way he sees himself.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Rahul. I understand that you were born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and grew up in eight countries across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas. Why did your family move so much, and to which countries?
A lot of my moving around happened because of my father’s job—he was a doctor looking for new opportunities in different parts of the world. While it gets complicated with all the cities I’ve lived in, the general overview is: after being born in Belfast, I spent the first six years of my life in all four parts of the UK (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales). Then we moved to Saudi Arabia, where I spent three years before attending a boarding school in the Himalayas (in Northern India) for seven years.

How about college and beyond?
I received my undergraduate degree in the United States, where I lived for eleven years. After that I was in the Czech Republic for one year. Since moving to London for my graduate degree, I’ve been in England for the last ten years.

“If you want to see the Himalayas, they’re that way.” —Pico to a British couple touring India

Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time, and if so, why?
Tough question. My happiest memories stem from when I was living in Saudi Arabia from age 6 to 9. Perhaps it was because I was a child? Perhaps it was because I was still with my parents (my mum was a homemaker) before I went to the boarding school in the Himalayas?

I just remember having happy memories in Saudi Arabia. I think my time at my boarding school was also quite enjoyable after I adjusted to life there.

Come to think about it, I’ve had good memories in places where there was a TCK-like / international environment. The more monocultural the environment was, the less I enjoyed the place.

What led you to become a filmmaker, and did it have anything to do with your peripatetic upbringing?
I don’t know if my moving around pushed me into filmmaking. I think the moving around has given me many gifts that I use in filmmaking. The ability to see things from different points of view, for example, helps me in seeing an actor’s point of view—especially when it’s different from mine.

Looking back, I learned a lot of my storytelling from my mother with all the stories she told me. I guess the patterns and rhythms of storytelling just seeped into me, as she recounted one story after the other!

At what point did you pick up the technical skills that turned you into a filmmaker?
That came from a combination of “doing it myself,” formal education, and a lot of reading!

“But I don’t feel Indian inside!” —Pico to an Indian taxi driver

Have you found that “your people” tend to be other Adult TCKs in creative fields or does it really depend on the individual and what s/he evokes in you, whether it’s a resonance that’s artistic or political or personality-related or life-experience related, etc.?
I seem to gravitate to people who are either TCKs or people who have done a significant amount of traveling. They don’t necessarily have to be in the creative fields though.

Congratulations on all the accolades your short film, The Road Home, has won! What inspired you to tell this story?
The plot was a fiction but the themes were autobiographical in nature. The idea of looking like you belong to a particular region because of your skin colour but feeling inside that you belong somewhere else is something that I wanted to illuminate in the short film.

Here is the trailer:

And if your readers would like to watch The Road Home, they may do so here.

I understand you are now making a feature-length version of The Road Home. Where are you in the pre-production phase?  
I’m in the financing stage where I’m hoping all the investments will be in place so I can shoot the feature film soon. (If there are any interested investors, please do contact me!)

“Why not speaking Hindi, huh? Important your knowing your mother tongue.” —Taxi driver to Pico

Are you working on other projects?
My screenwriting partner and I have been writing other screenplays but those are bigger in scope, and we’ll present those to the world when I’ve completed my first feature.

You’ve been directing commercials. Where are they airing and can we see them online?
I’ve just started directing commercials. Some of them have aired in the UK, while others have aired in India. The funny thing is that the commercial that was shot in the UK aired in India. And the commercial shot in India aired only in the UK! Here is one that was shot in India, for Rajah’s garam masala:


You can see more here.

Congratulations again, Rahul, on the success of The Road Home, all of the commercial work you’ve been doing, and the screenplays you’ve been writing. You’re a true “ATCK creative” and we’re hereby nominating you as Best Up-and-Coming Director for our Displaced Oscars!

Readers, please leave questions or comments for Rahul below.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.

JoannaJoanna Masters-Maggs, our resident Food Gossip, is back with her monthly column for like-minded food gossips.

This month, Joanna addresses the issues facing a wine-loving girl who finds herself living in a dry country for two years.

* * *

“I don’t think I can do this,” I whined to my husband casting my eyes around the restaurant in something close to desperation.  “I think it must be time for repatriation, don’t you?”

My husband had taken me to a smart restaurant in Al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, on our first night in The Kingdom.  It was such an attractive place: lovely china and glasses, a chic wooden floor, attentive waiters and delightful food. Yet it was all, so, so wrongIt wasn’t just that I was clad in a form-engulfing abaya, the sleeves of which kept getting in the way of everything.  It wasn’t that we had been ushered to the less well-appointed “Family Section” without views over the The Gulf.  Annoying as those facts were, they weren’t the only irritant.

“Look.” I held up my large balloon shaped wine glass for inspection. Full of San Pellegrino, it shimmered under the tasteful lighting. “What’s the point of all this wonderful food if you just wash it away with water?”

“It’s nice water. Italian,” encouraged David, whose heart must have already been sinking in the knowledge that he had two more years to live with a discontented missus.

“It’s. Not. Wine.” I enunciated my words carefully. “And I have beef.”

More to the point, I had a beef. Let me make this clear for anyone who has not had the Saudi experience: there is no alcohol to be had anywhere.  It is forbidden, interdit, prohibido, indeed, haram.  Occasionally a hapless supermarket manager might mistakenly stock chocolate liqueurs, but who wants those, with or without a good Chateaubriand?

Home-brewing, the expats’ hobby

I’m all for fitting into the lifestyles of the places where I wash up, but I like a bit of give and take. Several years without wine or bacon didn’t seem like give and take for a girl who is half English and half Irish. On that first night, I would have considered raiding a Church’s communion wine but, of course, there are no churches in Saudi either.

So started a two-year quest to find an acceptable alcoholic drink which would inject a little of the warmth wine offers to a dinner party, and a little of the naughty fun that oils the wheels of a party the rest of the world over.

Our starting point was the homemade wine with which most expats become acquainted.  I won’t bore you with the recipe; suffice to say it involves a water cooler bottle, gallons of red or white grape juice, lemon, lots of sugar, yeast and a handful of teabags – for the tannin, of  course.  This lot is heated up then transferred to the water bottle and bunged up with the special cork and an impressive-looking glass “curly wurly” tube.  After four or five weeks, when the smell of yeast has subsided, the wine can be bottled.

The resulting wines can vary surprisingly, but in one thing they are identical: each is truly appalling.  It doesn’t matter the method used, the care taken or the expensive ingredients experimented with — fresh blueberries in Saudi, anyone? — it is just dreadful.  We knew someone who actually made a batch from grapes he had trodden himself. Well, perhaps that never did sound promising.

Vimto — with a Tixylix chaser

During the weeks of waiting for our wine to ferment, I realized why even cough mixture was banned in The Kingdom.  A few dry company dinners complete with presentations and speeches convinced me that teetotalism is not advisable, at least not before retirement. If you must spend dinner with a bunch of people not entirely of your choosing, a slug of Tixylix would be welcome.

I began to view anything sold in bulk with grave suspicion.  Why, for example, would anyone wish to buy large quantities of Vimto, a cordial traditionally found in fish and chip shops in Northern England?  Could it be possible that it was the secret to a sloe gin sort of drink?  The adverts on massive billboards throughout the city suggested a sophistication more readily associated with champagne than a fruit squash. That observation led to an ill-advised attempt at a Vimto-based wine. Sadly, and perhaps predictably, the result was the cough mixture a million sleepless Saudi parents would have been grateful for. Never mind; undeterred, we continued our experiments with a dedication and wanton disregard for our health that the Curies would have admired.

Putting the fizz in compound life

Early in our stay in Saudi, I heard rumours of “The Champagne Lady” of another compound.  She had, so it was said, perfected a sort of sparkling wine which, if not exactly champagne, was a far more pleasant drink than Saudi Ordinaire.  My search for her was rewarded in time and she proved generous with her recipe.  The key requirements were a strong lemonade bottle with a wired cork, unsweetened white grape juice and just two grains of yeast. Even one grain over requirements could result in a nasty glass-shattering explosion.  One must resolve to keep the fledgling beverage in the fridge and not agitate it for two weeks — harder than it sounds in a household with four kids. After guarding the fridge door like an over-zealous Rottweiler for the required time, I could pull down the wire to cork the bottle then leave it in its comatose state for a further two weeks.  The  “pop” on opening was deeply gratifying; the flavor, surprisingly, “not so bad”. Rather like Appeltiser, it did not cause one’s face to reflexively contort while downing it.  Champagne it was not, but drinkable it was.

Add the Perrier and face the grapes of wrath

Two years of experimentation taught us two things.  Firstly, the only way to make a drink that approximated a bone fide drink one might find on sale elsewhere was not to serve our wine straight but to make a “Pimms” cocktail from it.  We would pour it over a glassful of ice and top up with lemonade.  After adding plenty of mint, cucumber and any other vegetation to hand, we could, at a stretch, imagine ourselves at Wimbledon.  Unlike the wine alone, it was vaguely similar to what we wished it was.  That alone justified the considerable number of Pimms parties we hosted in our time.

The second thing we learned, as a direct consequence of the first thing we learned, is that a wine snob is a wine snob whatever his situation.  Making our “cocktail” on occasion caused as much offence as if we had used a Grand Cru as the base, especially if mixed it with someone else’s wine.  The snorts of outrage could have been no stronger.  Indeed cutting someone else’s wine with anything from Perrier to club soda to ice, was to run the risk of causing deep and enduring offense.  There are certain people (and you know who you are) who should remember wine is meant to be fun.  You need every laugh you can get in certain circumstances, and a dodgy Saudi Red ought to be the perfect vehicle for hilarity.

Postscript

Oh, and in case you were wondering — why the popularity of Vimto? It turns out that it is the Saudi drink of choice during the Iftar breakfast enjoyed at sundown each day of Ramadan.  It addresses low blood sugar levels after a day of fasting and stands up well to the full flavoured food on offer – and it doesn’t make you screw up your face when you drink it.

Joanna was displaced from her native England 16 years ago, and has since attempted to re-place herself and blend into the USA, Holland, Brazil, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and now France. She describes herself as a “food gossip”, saying: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and trying out new recipes. Overseas, I am curious as to what people buy and from where. What is in the baskets of my fellow shoppers? What do they eat when they go home at night?”

Fellow Food Gossips, share your own stories with us!

Image: Joanna in her abaya, celebrating an English goal during the World Cup

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post!

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A classic TCK dilemma: Which of my 3 heritages counts for the Olympics?

We welcome back Third Culture Kid Tiffany Lake-Haeuser to the Displaced Nation. (She last joined us during fashion month.) Born in the United States to German parents, Tiffany returned “home” to Frankfurt when she was six. But then at age 13, she moved with her family to Abu Dhabi, UAE. Now back in Frankfurt, this 16-year-old divides her time between this city and Paris, where her father currently resides. So which team(s) does Tiffany support in the Olympics? That’s the million-euro (or is it dollar?) question.

I was never really very interested in sports. This year, during the Olympics, that changed. You still won’t find me glued to the television to see all the events, but I’m definitely more interested than in the past.

Then of course, there is the somewhat confusing decision of which country to cheer for. Do I support my heritage and the country I now live in, Germany? Or do I support the country I was born in and often associate with, the USA? Well for me it was easy to decide. You see, I am extremely competitive and enjoy cheering for the country that wins, which for the most part leads to me cheering for the USA.

I watched the pre-Olympic trials for the American gymnastics team when I was in the United States visiting childhood friends earlier this summer. I was gobsmacked — not only by the amazing talent of the athletes, but also by the enthusiasm shown by the spectators.  I think that’s when I caught the Olympic bug. Suddenly I was eager to see the team compete for gold in London.

German apathy

But when I got back in Germany, there was barely any sign that the Games were fast approaching. Maybe I was just in the wrong environment, but no one was even talking about it. Even when the Games started, it felt like no one cared. The most excitement I observed was a small promotional program by a pharmacy(!). Unless I was on some social networking site, I barely ever exchanged views with anyone about what was happening at the Olympics.

While waiting for the Games to start, I did some research and found out that since the modern Olympic Games began, the USA has always been in the top three countries when it came to the number of medals won.

This history made me even more inclined to support my other “home” country. I love cheering for countries that are doing well. I love being a fan.

Go USA! Hmmm…unless it’s soccer?

As anyone who read my March interview with The Displaced Nation knows, I’m something of a fashionista. I love the idea of showing some pride for the US team by wearing red, white and blue. It may seem petty, but half the fun of watching the Olympics for a non-athlete like me is getting dressed up and painting your face in your team’s colors.

That’s something I picked up from Germany, in fact. Germans get truly pumped up for one thing: soccer. It’s our pride and joy. During the European Cup or the World Cup, Germany is transformed into a black, red and golden country. While in the USA people have flags hanging by their doors all year long, in Germany that happens only during these major soccer events.

One test of which side I was on in the Olympics came when a friend tried to bug me by saying that Germany was being beaten by his country in some sport. To be honest, I didn’t mind that much. All I could think about how well Gabby Douglas was doing in gymnastics.

Does this mean I am not proud of my German heritage? It definitely doesn’t; by the next soccer game you will see me losing my voice for cheering on Germany.

So it really isn’t that straightforward or clear. You never truly stop cheering for a country that means something to you. All you can really hope for is that the two countries’ teams never play against each other…

Go women athletes!

On a different note, I was excited to hear about how every country sent women to the Olympics this year. I wouldn’t call myself a feminist, but I do think gender equality is important, and that a country that is sending its women athletes to compete in the Olympics for the first time is taking a big step. I hope that gender equality in sports can become the new standard. Some day, perhaps, it will be considered so normal it won’t even make the headlines.

Having lived for three years in Abu Dhabi, I was particularly interested in the news about Saudi Arabian women participating in the Games. I know from experience how easy it is for us Westerners to look at Arab women wearing the hijab and think they are less liberated than we are. When I saw the Saudi women walking behind the men during the London opening ceremony, I was not surprised so much as humbled. Not everyone sees equality in the same way as we Westerners do.

Likewise, I didn’t think it was fair for the International Olympic Committee to consider banning the judo wrestler Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani from dressing according to the traditions by which she was raised.  (In the end, they compromised on a cap for her to wear instead of the hijab.) To some degree, I admire Saudi Arabia for insisting upon preserving its cultural identity and traditions in face of the influence of Westernization.

By the time the Games end on Sunday, I think my favorite part will not be about having supported a particular country. The best part, in my opinion, has been seeing the people who rise to the occasion and do phenomenally well. It sounds cheesy, but you can see in their eyes the joy and relief that all their hard work and training has finally paid off — in the moment that counted, they were able to be the best they could be.

* * *

Readers, any thoughts on or reactions to Tiffany Lake-Haeuser’s dilemma? Please put them in the comments. You can also follow what she is up to on her blog, Girl on the Run.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s episode in the life of our fictional expat heroine, Libby. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures.)

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12 NOMADS OF CHRISTMAS: Karen van der Zee, Dutch/American expat in Moldova (8/12)

Current home: Chișinău, Moldova
Past overseas locations: Kenya, Ghana, Indonesia, Palestine, Ghana (again), Armenia, Moldova. (For years I was also an expat in the USA, my husband’s home country, and have dual — Dutch and American — citizenship.)
Cyberspace coordinates: Life in the Expat Lane — Foreign Fun in Exotic Places (blog) and @missfootloose (Twitter handle)
Recent posts: “Life Abroad: Of Red Undies, Sugary Pigs, and Freezing Waters” (December 31, 2011); “Expat Foodie: What to Do with Goose Fat?” (December 27, 2011); “Expat Life: Holiday Greetings from Afar” (December 26, 2011)

Where are you spending the holidays this year?
In Moldova. It will be the first time ever that my husband and I will not be spending it with the rest of our family.

What do you most like doing during the holidays?
Besides spending time with family, I enjoy decorating and cooking. This year I will cook dinner for expat friends who are also not going home. We can cry on each other’s shoulders, or perhaps just have a good time.

Will you be on or offline?
The computer will be on. We may be able to Skype.

Are you sending any cards?
I send only a few snailmail paper cards. Mostly I write short personal emails, using in part a few paragraphs of prepared text, but no newsletters. Newsletters never seem to quite fit for everybody the same way.

What’s the thing you most look forward to eating?
I wish I had something exotic to tell you about here, but actually, I just love having a good Christmas dinner and some decadent dessert. Normally I don’t eat much sugary food.

Can you recommend any good books other expats or “internationals” might enjoy?
Two works of nonfiction:

1) The Last Resort: A Memoir of Mischief and Mayhem on a Family Farm in Africa, by Douglas Rogers (Crown, 2009): A tragic-comic account of the author’s (white) parents’ life in Zimbabwe in the last 15 years and the trials and tribulations of running and holding on to their resort while all around them farms of white owners are being stolen and the country is falling apart. Great read.

2) Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris, by Sarah Turnbull (Gotham, 2003): An Australian journalist falls in love with a Frenchman, moves to Paris, and culture shock ensues. I always enjoy culture shock stories, and Paris is a great setting for culture shock.

And one novel:

Finding Nouf, by Zoë Ferraris (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008): A murder mystery set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with Saudi Arabian characters. I love this book because it offers an intimate look into the culture and lives of men and women in the very closed society of the Kingdom. Fascinating.

If you could travel anywhere for the holidays, where would it be?
I must be a terrible bore, but spending the holidays anonymously with strangers in some exotic place doesn’t appeal to me. However, I would love to live in the highlands of Bali!

What famous person do you think it would be fun to spend New Year’s Eve with?
What a fun question! Let me think. How about New Year’s Eve with Whoopi Goldberg? Why? Well, she’s unconventional, creative, fun, and loves to hang loose. What else do you need in a person to have some fun?

What’s been your most displaced holiday experience?
When we lived in Indonesia with our two young daughters. It was difficult to create a Christmas atmosphere in the sweltering tropics because we were used to a cold Christmas in the northern hemisphere. The year after that, while still living in Indonesia, we visited friends in Australia over the holidays. It was better, but still, it was summer there. It just wasn’t quite right!

How about the least displaced experience — when you’ve felt the true joy of the season?
I honestly cannot pick just one. I’ve had so many Christmasses and they’ve always been good one way or another.

How do you feel when the holidays are over?
Usually it’s a bit of a drag to take down the tree and pack up all the decorations and the house looks so bare and boring, but then I get busy and get on with life. I do not go into a major funk or depression, fortunately.

In the past, we would be returning from the US to wherever we were living, in the tropics or elsewhere, and that sort of took care of the transition to normal life.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love said to me:
EIGHT WHOOPHIS WHOOPING,
SEVEN SKIERS A-PARTYING,
SIX SPOUSES TRAILING,
FIVE GOOOOOOOFY EXPATS.
FOUR ENGLISH CHEESES,
THREE DECENT WHISKIES,
TWO CANDY BOXES,
& AN IRISHMAN IN A PALM TREE!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s featured nomad (9/12) in our 12 Nomads of Christmas series.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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