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Tag Archives: Southeast Asia

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

A wonderful connection, thanks to the Dragonfruit anthology.

cuppas-and-chats

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

Sharon said:

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Dragonfruit!

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

serendipity-and-friendship

* * *

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

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

Related posts:

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

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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.

embarrassed-tcks

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.
shark-forehand-quote

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!

* * *

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.

LOCATION, LOCUTION: Novelist Dinah Jefferies melds themes of displacement and loss with the seductive beauty of the East

dinah-jefferies-location-locution
Tracey Warr is here with fellow historical novelist Dinah Jefferies. Dinah has led an unusually eventful life: not only has she lived in various countries but she has also suffered the loss of a child. These experiences have fueled a writing career that took off when Dinah reached her mid-sixties.

Greetings, Displaced Nationers.

My guest this month is Dinah Jefferies, who was born in 1948 in Malaya—as Malaysia was known then—where she spent the first nine years of her life, growing up against the background of civil war. Once Malaya gained independence from England, her parents decided to move back home.

Dinah found it wrenching. As she told a UK magazine:

“I was incredibly happy in Malaya. We just wore flip-flops and pants at home; it was so hot… I loved going to the Chinese quarter with my amah, sitting cross-legged on straw mats with her family, eating bright yellow, strong-tasting ice cream. It was like nothing like I’ve ever tasted since.”

Moreover, England did not make a good first impression:

“I just remember absolute devastation when I saw what England was like: February, the middle of winter – grey, cold, wet; no sunshine; horrible clothes.”

Dinah was bullied at school, and although she defended herself, that “feeling of not being quite a member of anything has stayed with me all my life.”

This outsider status led to a certain restlessness, which should be familiar to any of our Third Culture Kid readers. As a teenager, Dinah lived in Tuscany and worked as an au pair for an Italian countess. Much later, with her second husband, she attempted to retire in a 16th-century village in Northern Andalusia—a plan cut short after they lost most of their money in the crash of 2008.

But the experience that shattered life as she knew it was the death of her son in 1985, when he was just 14. Formally trained as an artist, Dinah channeled her unrelenting grief into her art work. Later her move to Spain afforded an opportunity to experiment with fiction writing. After settling in Gloucestershire to be near her grandchildren, she took to writing full time and found she enjoyed weaving her experiences of loss and displacement into stories set in the “extremely seductive beauty of the East.”

Dinah’s first published novel, The Separation, came out in 2014, when she was 65 years old. Set in 1950s Malaya, the book tells the story of a mother who journeys through the civil-war-torn jungle to find out why her husband and daughters moved up country without her.

Dinah landed a contract with Viking Penguin for that book and has produced a novel for them every year since:

  • The Tea Planter’s Wife (2015). Set in 1920s Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the book revolves around a young Englishwoman who has married a tea plantation owner and widower, only to discover he’s been keeping some terrible secrets about his past.
  • The Silk Merchant’s Daughter (2016): Set in 1950s French Indochina (now Vietnam), the era when militants were determined to end French rule, the story concerns a half-French, half Vietnamese woman who is torn between two worlds.
  • Before the Rains (forthcoming, February 2017): Set in 1930s India, the book follows the progress of a British photojournalist who is sent to photograph the royal family in the princely state of Rajputana (Rajasthan). She ends up falling in love with the Prince’s brother…

To research her books Dinah has traveled to Sri Lanka, Vietnam and India. She will be speaking at the Fairway Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka in January, should any of you Displaced Nationers find yourselves in that part of the world.
dinah-jefferies-4-books

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Welcome, Dinah, to Location, Locution. Which tends to come first when you get an idea for a new book: story or location?

For all four of my books the location came first, though story comes a very close second. Once I’ve decided on the place, I then research the period and usually while researching that, the kind of characters I want begin to emerge. Sometimes I have the kernel of an idea before I hit on the location. For The Tea Planter’s Wife I did have the idea of a life-changing secret before I chose Sri Lanka—or Ceylon as it was then known.

What is your technique for evoking the atmosphere of the various places where you’ve set your four novels?

It’s all about sensory detail. For my third book, The Silk Merchant’s Daughter, set in Vietnam, it was all about evoking the contrast between the elegant French quarter of Hanoi, as opposed to the clutter and noise of the ancient Vietnamese quarter with canaries singing in bamboo cages and the scent of charcoal and ginger in the air. The setting has to work to support the story in some way, and as this is a story of a woman caught between two worlds. I needed to show how different those two worlds were.

Which particular features create a sense of location: landscape, culture, food?

All those and more. I include everything I can to create the atmosphere of the place and the time. For historical fiction, one has to get the historical details right, too: the type of buildings, what people wore, their mindset, etc. It’s about what the characters would be seeing in their daily lives and how they would be interacting with their surroundings. For me the landscape has to almost be a character in itself. I try to re-create the beauty of the world in question as well as its unique personality.

Can you give a brief example from your writing that illustrates place?

From The Tea Planter’s Wife:

“Below her, gentle, flower filled gardens sloped down to the lake in three terraces, with paths, steps and benches strategically placed between the three. The lake itself was the most gloriously shining silver she’d ever seen. All memory of the previous day’s car journey, with its terrifying hairpin bends, deep ravines, and nauseating bumps, was instantly washed away. Rising up behind the lake, and surrounding it, was a tapestry of green velvet, the tea bushes as symmetrical as if they’d been stitched in rows, where women tea-pickers wore eye-catching brightly coloured saris, and looked like tiny embroidered birds who had stopped to peck.”

In general, how well do you think you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

I like to know it as well as I can and I always visit a location I’m planning to use. Just being in a place can help in ways you never could have imagined if you hadn’t been there. When doing research for The Tea Planter’s Wife, I was staying at a tea plantation in Sri Lanka and found a library of wonderful books I’d never have known about back home. Those books provided me with amazing details, as did sitting outside in the evening watching the fireflies and listening to the cicadas. Being there made it real.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

I love Julia Gregson’s book East of The Sun for the way it evokes a particular time in India. Also Simon Mawer’s The Girl who Fell from the Sky set in wartime France. Both are great books with terrifically realistic settings that are an important element of the story.

Dinah Jefferies’s picks for novelists who have mastered the art of writing about place

Interesting! I should tell you that one of my other guests, the novelist Hazel Gaynor, chose your books—The Tea Planter’s Wife and The Silk Merchant’s Daughter—in answer to this question. Also, my very next guest will be one of your picks, Simon Mawer.

Thanks so much, Dinah, for joining us. It’s been a pleasure.

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Readers, any questions for Dinah? Please leave them in the comments below.

Meanwhile, if you would like to discover more about Dinah Jefferies and her novels, I suggest you visit her author site. You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

À bientôt! Till next time…

* * *

Thank you so much, Tracey and Dinah! Dinah, your Third Culture Kid story tells us so much about you. I wonder if it’s the reason location comes first, before story? And hats off to you for starting a writing career in your sixties. What a tribute to resilience, as well as to the therapeutic power of art! —ML Awanohara

Tracey Warr is an English writer living mostly in France. She has published two medieval novels with Impress Books. She recently published, in English and French, a future fiction novella, Meanda, set on a watery exoplanet, as an Amazon Kindle ebook. Her latest medieval novel, Conquest: Daughter of the Last King, set in 12th-century Wales and England, came out in October.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Photo credits: Top visual: The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); author photo and photos of Dinah in Hall of Mirrors at Amer Fort (near Jaipur, India) and of Malacca, Malaya, supplied by Dinah Jefferies; and photo of England: Rainy Day, by David Wright via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Visual that accompanies the quotation: Tea Picking In Sri Lanka, by Steenbergs via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Expat creatives recommend books for the (not quite) end of summer

End of Summer 2016 Reads

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, has canvassed several international creatives for some recommendations of books that suit the various end-of-summer scenarios those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere will soon be in (if we aren’t already!).

Hello Displaced Nationers!

I’ve traveled quite a bit this summer, and now I’m wondering what I can do, as summer slides into autumn here in Prague, to bask in those prized last few moments of glory before the days get shorter and a chill enters the air.

I decided to canvas fellow international creatives about the books they would recommend for those of us who are:

  • Striving for one last beach read;
  • Stranded at an airport on our way “home”; and/or
  • Getting back to work/school/reality as autumn sets in.

There was just one catch: I asked if they would please recommend books that qualify as “displaced” reads, meaning they are for, by, or about expats or other internationals and so speak to members of our “tribe” (see ML Awanohara’s contribution below).

And now let’s check out their picks (correction: I should say “our” as I’m a contributor this time)—it’s an eclectic mix, but I predict you’ll be tempted by quite a few!

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JENNIFER ALDERSON, expat and writer

TheGoodThiefsGuidetoParis_coverWhen I read on the beach, the story’s got to be light and quirky or it goes back in my tote bag. The Good Thief’s Guide to Paris (2009), by Chris Ewan—or really any of the other four books in Ewan’s popular series of mysteries about a globetrotting thief-for-hire—fits the bill perfectly. I actually dislike the much-displaced Charlie Howard immensely—yet somehow end up rooting for him along the way. An Englishman, he doesn’t feel at home anywhere and travels the world to get inspired to write his next novel—and then ends up involved in criminal activities that mirror his fictitious plots. Each novel revolves around Charlie’s bungled robbery of an artwork or antiquity in yet another famous tourist destination: Amsterdam, Paris, Venice, Las Vegas, Berlin… Ewan’s descriptions of each city are spot on and quite beautiful, in contrast to the wonderfully sarcastic tone of the novels themselves. The capers are silly, absurd constructions involving the shadiest of characters, which inevitably leave a smile on my face. I’ve already finished Paris and Amsterdam. The Good Thief’s Guide to Venice is next.

The City of Falling Angels_coverI actually have two suggestions for books I wish I’d had in my carry-on when stranded en route, both set in one of my favorite countries in the world: Italy! A few days before my husband and I set off for a week-long holiday in Venice, I popped into a local secondhand bookstore and spotted John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels (2005). I absolutely loved Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, so I bought it without even reading the description on the back. Imagine my surprise when I pulled it out of my suitcase and realized it was all about the same magical city I’d just arrived in! It is an absorbing, magnificent novel that effortlessly blends fact and fiction. (Berendt moved to Venice in 1997, just three days after the city’s Fenice opera house burned down during a restoration—accident or arson?) The fabled city and many of her more eccentric residents form the soul of this book; art, opera and architecture are the main ingredients. Let yourself get lost in Berendt’s unique, almost conversational prose and follow along on his deliciously slow journey through one of the prettiest (and most mysterious) places on the planet.

BridgeofSighs_coverMy other pick is the captivating historical novel, Bridge of Sighs and Dreams (2015), by former expat Pamela Allegretto. The story follows one Italian family through the 1930s and 1940s, when Mussolini and later Hitler ruled the land. It is a sometimes gritty, sometimes romantic, tale of betrayal, intrigue and—above all—survival. The author’s beautiful yet compact descriptions of the landscape, people and culture effortlessly transport the reader to this fascinating and complex period in Italian (and European) history. I highly recommend it.

Whichever of these two books you choose, you’ll wish your flight was delayed indefinitely.

The Disobedient Wife_coverI’ve only read the first two chapters of The Disobedient Wife (2015), by Annika Milisic-Stanley, yet I’m already hooked—and would recommend it for anyone trying to get back into work/school mode. It’s such an eloquent description of the expat experience; from the first sentence I felt as if I was reading a soulmate’s description of how it feels to move on to a new destination after building up a life in a foreign country: we say goodbye while wondering what, if any, lasting impact we’ve had on our temporary homes. [Editor’s note: This book also made the Displaced Nation’s “best of expat fiction” list for 2015.]

The official synopsis reads:

The Disobedient Wife intertwines the narratives of a naïve, British expatriate, Harriet, and that of her maid, Nargis, who possesses an inner strength that Harriet comes to admire as their lives begin to unravel against a backdrop of violence and betrayal.

In the first chapter, Harriet is thinking back to her last post in Tajikistan: about the friends she’d willingly left behind and about her home, inhabited by another family only days after her own departure:

“All traces will be erased until the Dutch tulips I laid last September rise above the earth to bloom in April and pronounce that I really was there. The language, learned and badly spoken, is already fading from my dreams…”

These sentences stirred up so many memories for me of people left behind and as well as adventures past. I sometimes wish I could go back—even for a moment—to all of the places I’ve been in this crazy world and just say hello to the people I once knew there and remind them that I’m still around and do think of them once in a while. I cannot wait to finish this book. [Beth’s note: I did NOT mention to Jennifer that Annika is also participating in this column’s roundup—quite a coincidence!]

Jennifer S. Alderson has published two novels, the recently released A Lover’s Portrait: An Art Mystery and Down and Out in Kathmandu (2015), which cover the adventures of traveler and culture lover Zelda Richardson. An American, Jennifer lives in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband and young son.


ML AWANOHARA, Displaced Nation founding editor and former expat

Inspired by the new BBC One TV miniseries, at the beginning of the summer I downloaded War and Peace (new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) onto my Kindle. And, reader, I finished it! And now I’m having trouble finding any novels that hold my attention. By comparison to Tolstoy’s masterwork, they all seem too narrow in scope, and their characters aren’t as beautifully developed. Sigh!

Tribe_coverI’m thinking I should turn to nonfiction until the W&P spell wears off. Right now I have my eye on Sebastian Junger’s latest work, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging—which I think could serve any of the purposes Beth has outlined above, though perhaps is best applied to the third condition (getting back to reality). Junger has been compared to Hemingway for his adventure non-fiction and war reporting, but this book is more of an anthropological look at the very human need to belong to a tribe. Though we expats have left our original tribes, I don’t think that this decision eradicates our tribal instincts. On the contrary, we are attracted to tribes of fellow expats; and some of us even find new homes in cultures more tribal than ours—where the people value qualities like loyalty and belonging more than we do in the West.

Junger provides an example to which I can personally relate. Recounting the history of 18th-century America, he says that no native Americans defected to join colonial society even though it was richer, whereas many colonials defected to live with the Indian tribes. They apparently appreciated the communal, caring lifestyle of the latter. That’s how I felt after I’d lived in Japan for several years. I really didn’t fancy returning to my native society, which I’d come to see as overly individualistic and centered on self to the exclusion of little else. To this day (and especially during election years like this one!) I struggle with America’s you’re-on-your-own ethos. Wealth doesn’t necessarily translate into well-being: why can’t my compatriots see that? It’s something I can feel in my bones because of the more tribal life I had in Asia. Could this book help me understand the roots of my displacement?

ML Awanohara, who has lived for extended periods in the UK and Japan, has been running the Displaced Nation site for five years. She works in communications in New York City.


BETH GREEN, Displaced Nation columnist and writer

Hotel_Kerobokan_coverI tend to pick beach books by the setting. So if I am going to the Caribbean, I’ll pick something set in the Caribbean. My last beach destination was Bali, and the book I wish I’d taken with me was Hotel Kerobokan: The Shocking Inside Story of Bali’s Most Notorious Jail (2009), a sharply observed account of life inside Indonesia’s most notorious prison, by Australian journalist Kathryn Bonella. Also great is her subsequent nonfiction title, Snowing in Bali (2012), a graphic look at Bali’s cocaine traffickers. Stories that depict true-life crime in unexpected settings (isn’t Bali supposed to be paradise?) automatically go on my to-read list—but I forgot to pick up Bonella’s book when we were at the airport and then wasn’t able to find in the area around my hotel. I know, most people go to the beach for good weather and strong cocktails; but for me, a holiday isn’t a holiday until I can peel back the veneer and peer at something darker underneath.

The Bat_coverWhat I actually ended up reading was in fact very good—Jo Nesbo’s thriller The Bat, in which he introduces his hard-headed detective Harry Hole and sends him to Australia to pursue a serial killer—but I wish I’d planned ahead and got something that blended with the scenery.

It’s a terrible feeling to get to the boarding gate and realize you don’t have enough chapters left in your book to get you through takeoff. (This is one reason I love my e-reader and try to have it loaded with dozens of books at all times.) For air travel especially, I look for the fattest, longest reads possible.

The Mountain Shadow_coverFor my next long flight, I’m hoping to read Gregory David Robert’s The Mountain Shadow, which came out last year and is the sequel to his equally weighty Shantaram (2003). At 880 pages, this book will take even a fast reader like me a while! Set in Mumbai, India, it continues the story of an escaped Australian prisoner who finds a new niche as a passport forger—but also a better self—in the underbelly of the South Asian crime world. Engrossing and beautifully written, I think it’s the perfect companion for marathon flights. Even if you did manage to finish it mid-flight, you can spend the rest of the trip wondering how close the story is to the author’s real-life history as an escaped convict. Roberts spent 10 years in India as a fugitive after escaping a maximum security prison in Australia, and his first novel, at least, is rumored to be autobiographical.

CatKingofHavana_coverFor the goal of channeling our more serious selves as autumn approaches, how about a fun read by the peripatetic Latvian author Tom Crosshill (he spent several years studying and working in the United States, as well as a year learning traditional dances in Cuba). Crosshill will release The Cat King of Havana (2016) this month. The eponymous Cat King is a half-Cuban American teenager who gets his nicknames from the cat videos he posts online. When he invites his crush to Havana to learn about his heritage and take salsa lessons, he discovers Cuba’s darker side…

Beth Green is the Booklust, Wanderlust columnist for the Displaced Nation. Her bio blurb appears below.


HELENA HALME, novelist and expat

Murder in Aix_coverFor a last hurrah on the beach, I’d recommend Murder in Aix (2013), Book 5 in a mystery series by Susan Kiernan-Lewis, an ex-military dependent who is passionate about France, travel and writing. One of my secret pleasures in life is to settle down with a cozy murder mystery; I also have a passion for the South of France. So when I found The Maggie Newberry Mystery Series, consisting of nine books that featured an expat protagonist-sleuth who solves mysteries in and around Aix-en-Provence, I couldn’t wait to download the whole series onto my Kindle. In the fifth book, Maggie Newberry is heavily pregnant but that doesn’t stop her as she finds herself scrambling to prove the innocence of a dear friend arrested for the murder of an abusive ex-boyfriend. Her partner, a ruggedly handsome French winemaker, doesn’t approve of Maggie’s involvement in the case. “It’s too dangerous,” he tells her.

The novel is pure bliss—a feeling enhanced if you can read it by a pool or on a beach, preferably accompanied by a glass of chilled rosé!

TheBreathofNight_coverFor those inevitable airport delays, I’d recommend The Breath of Night (2013), by Michael Arditti, a much-neglected English author. The first book I read by him, Jubilate, said to be the first serious novel about Lourdes since Zola’s, is one of my all-time favorites, so I was delighted when The Breath of Night came out soon after. This is a story of the murder of one Julian Tremayne, a Catholic priest from England who was working as a missionary in the Philippines in the 1970s. Since their son’s tragic death, Julian’s parents have pursued a campaign to have him declared a saint. The story is told partly through letters from Julian to his parents and partly through an account by a friend of the family, Philip Seward, who has gone to Manila 30 years later to find out the truth about the miracles he is said to have performed. Did Julian lead “a holy life of heroic virtue”—one of the conditions for canonization? While telling an intriguing and captivating tale of life in the Philippines, the book provides a broader commentary on love and faith.

TheParisWife_coverWhen the time comes to settle back into your routine, I would suggest a read of The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain (2011). It’s a fictionalized story of Hemingway’s first years as a struggling writer in Paris in the 1920s, told from the point of view of his first wife, Hadley, a naive Southern girl who suddenly finds herself suddenly plunged into a life of drunken debauchery in the French capital. McLain’s writing is precise and beautiful; her background as a poet comes through in her careful choice of words. Her descriptions of Hemingway when Hadley first meets him are particularly ingenious:

“He smiles with everything he’s got…”

“I can tell he likes being in his body…”

“He seemed to do happiness all the way up and through.”

It’s a brilliant read that will take you somewhere completely different and keep the challenges (boredom?) of work or school at bay a little longer.

Helena Halme is a Finnish author of Nordic women’s and romantic fiction. She lives with her English husband in London. Her works include the best-selling autobiographical novel The Englishman (reviewed on the Displaced Nation), its sequel The Navy Wife, Coffee and Vodka (about which she wrote a guest post for us) and The Red King of Helsinki (for which she won one of our Alice Awards). The Finnish Girl, her latest novella, is the prequel to The Englishman.


MATT KRAUSE, writer and expat

A Time of Gifts_coverFor any of those circumstances, I would recommend A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1977; reissued in 2011 with an introduction by Jan Morris). At the age of 18, Fermor dropped out of school to walk from the heart of London to Constantinople, and his account of that journey—which started in December 1933, not long after Hitler has come to power in Germany, and ended just over two years later—is hailed as a classic of British travel writing. Hitler’s abuses were not yet evident, and Fermor describes drinking beers with Nazis once he reaches Germany. But I particularly enjoyed his account of a luxurious extended weekend in Geneva (or some city, I don’t remember) with a couple of girls he met along the way. I read this book as part of my research before walking across Turkey in 2012–2013, and really liked it.

Matt Krause is a communications coach based in Istanbul. He is the author of the memoir A Tight Wide-Open Space (reviewed on the Displaced Nation) and is working on a book about his walk across Turkey.


ANNIKA MILISIC-STANLEY, ATCK, expat, painter, campaigner and writer

two more book picks_Aug2016When I am on the beach, I get no longer than half an hour of uninterrupted reading time. For that reason, I took a book of short stories with me this year: Angela Readman’s Don’t Try This At Home (2015), which has stories set in the UK, USA, France and elsewhere. Brilliantly engaging, with an amazing use of language, alternately fun and fantastical, this debut, award-winning collection is well worth a read.

Some of you may not be short story fans, in which case I’d recommend The White Tiger (2008), by Aravind Adiga. The “white tiger” of the book’s title is a Bangalore chauffeur, who guides us through his experience of the poverty and corruption of modern India’s caste society. two book picks_Aug2016_515xThe novel won the 2008 Booker, but don’t let that put you off. It is surprisingly accessible and a real page-turner: funny, horrifying and brilliant.

For an agonizing airport wait, I have two suggestions: Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life (2015) and Sanjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways (also 2015). Both feature immigrants describing their former lives, their motive for departure from their countries of origin, and the harshness of life in a new country as illegals.

CentresofCataclysm_coverAnd once you’re back at the desk, I would recommend giving Centres of Cataclysm (2016, Bloodaxe Books) a try. Edited by Sasha Dugdale and David and Helen Constantine, it’s an anthology celebrating fifty years of modern poetry in translation—full of beautiful gems from poets from around the world. Profits go to refugee charities.

Raised in Britain by Swedish and Anglo-German parents, Annika Milisic-Stanley has worked on humanitarian aid projects in Nepal, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, India, Burundi and Egypt as well as living in Tajikistan for several years. She currently lives in Rome with her family. In addition to writing and painting, she works as a campaigner to raise awareness on the plight of refugees in Southern Europe. The Disobedient Wife, about expatriate and local life in Tajikistan, is her debut novel and was named the Cinnamon Press 2015 Novel of the Year. Annika invites you to like her book page on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.


PAMELA JANE ROGERS, expat and artist/author

Saving Fish from Drowning_coverFor that last trip to the beach, I’d recommend Amy Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning (2005). A group of California travelers decide to go on their planned trip to the Burma (its southern Shan State) without their (deceased) travel director, and in their total ignorance of the customs and religion of that part of the world, create havoc—and commit what is considered a heinous crime. I was directing a travel group in Greece when I read it, which may be why it seemed quite plausible, as well as darkly hilarious.

If you haven’t read it yet (though most on this site probably have), an absorbing read for when you get stuck in an airport is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (1998)The Poisonwood Bible_cover, about a fierce, evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959. Between the evangelical Christian father wanting his converts to “gather by the river” in Africa for their baptisms, to the chapters written by his wife and daughters at different ages—the reader is in for a rollicking, sometimes absurd, sometimes sad and sobering, ride.

And when it’s time to face work again, I recommend the book I’m reading now: Passage of the Stork, Delivering the Soul (Springtime Books, 2015), by Madeleine LenaghPassage of the Stork_cover, an American who has lived in the Netherlands since 1970. This is her life story. [Editor’s note: Madeleine Lenagh and her photography have been featured on the Displaced Nation.]

Pamela Jane Rogers is an American artist who has adopted the Greek island of Poros as her home. She has written a memoir of her adventures, which she recently re-published with a hundred of her paintings as illustrations: GREEKSCAPES: Illustrated Journeys with an Artist.


JASMINE SILVERA, former expat and writer

The Best of All Possible Worlds_coverFor the beach I would recommend The Best of All Possible Worlds (2013), by Barbadian author Karen Lord. It’s what many people call “social science fiction” because the story is less obsessed with technological advances than with their interpersonal ramifications. The book opens after a cataclysmic event destroys the home planet of an entire civilization, rendering everyone who managed to be off-world at the time of destruction displaced. It follows the journey of a leader of a group of survivors, who decides to team up with an “assistant biotechnician” to find a suitable replacement home on a colony planet. I know what you’re thinking: it doesn’t sound like a rollicking good time! But it reads a bit like a “he said, she said” travelogue; and one of the two narrators has delightfully funny moments (I’ll let you decide which one). There is humor and sweetness, a bit of intrigue, and a satisfyingly happy ending.

The Pilgrimage_coverFor an absorbing read suitable for a long wait in an airport lounge, try The Pilgrimage (1987), by Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. [Editor’s note: He was once featured on the Displaced Nation’s Location, Locution column.] I’ll be honest, my experience of the Camino de Santiago was nothing like the one depicted in this book (more technical fabrics and guidebooks, less overt mysticism); but I still find Coelho’s account evocative and moving. Like the work considered to be his masterpiece, The Alchemist, it’s part engaging adventure, part allegory—and a wonderful story. It’s a good one to transport you elsewhere when you’re “stuck” in a place you don’t want to be in.

Committed_coverIf the Way of St. James isn’t your thing, then I might recommend Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed (2010) for an absorbing read. I can’t imagine what it would be like to attempt a follow-up to a book that was a huge commercial success, let alone a direct “sequel.” But that’s what Gilbert did with Committed. People love or hate the book for all sorts of reasons. But it’s a good one to stick with, IMHO, because it explores not only the byzantine banalities of bureaucratic regulations (something all displaced persons deal with at some point in their adventures) but also the innermost workings of one’s heart as you navigate knowing when to go and when to, well, commit. And while Gilbert occasionally allows herself to navel gaze in less charming a fashion than in Eat, Pray, Love, overall this book is an honest, thoughtful exploration of what marriage and commitment means in a world of divorce, infidelity, and the “best friending” of one’s partner. The book starts out with a decision made and then backtracks through the process—but it’s the journey that counts, after all. [Editor’s note: Hmmm… Will she write a sequel now that she is divorcing her husband of 12 years?]

Kinky Gazpacho_coverFor getting back into your groove at work, I’d recommend Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain (2008), by Lori Tharps. There are relatively few travel memoirs written by people of color, so a book full of observations around how race is experienced in different cultures is a rare treasure. As a black woman from the United States, I have found race to be an intrinsic part of my experience in traveling and living abroad. From being stared at, to being touched, to stumbling on some unexpected bit of exported racism where I least expect it, I would say it’s an oversimplification to think that race is something we only struggle with in the land of my birth (that said, I’ve known a few African Americans whose decision to live abroad was based in no small part on the gravity of the struggle for racial equality in America). Nowhere is perfect, and Tharp explores what happens when the fantasy and the reality collide during her year of study abroad in Spain, as she attempts to reconcile that country’s problematic past with its present. She also extends her adventures beyond those of a traveler to become an expat (this is not a spoiler: she marries a Spaniard). I enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love, but this book resonated with my personal experience of travel and life abroad much more deeply.

A world traveler and former expat who remains a California girl at heart, Jasmine Silvera will release her debut, Prague-inspired novel Death’s Dancer in October (it was recently selected for publication by Kindle Press). Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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Thanks, everyone, for participating! Readers, what books would you recommend? Let us know in the comments!

Till next time and happy reading!

As always, please let me or ML know if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see reviewed here! And I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

Beth Green is an American writer living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes. She has also launched the site Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

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TCK TALENT: The talented Lisa Liang goes to Asia with her one-woman show about growing up everywhere

TCK Talent in Singapore

Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang has a “first” and a “last” to announce in this post. She will tell us all about what happened when she took her show, Alien Citizen, to Asia for the first time. But she will also tell us that this is her last regular column for the Displaced Nation. Having known her for three years (we even met in person once, when her show was in New York), I will miss interacting with her as well as reading her columns. But as is characteristic of her, she has kindly recruited a replacement. The show will go on! —ML Awanohara

Greetings, dear readers.

As ML just said, this will be my last article for TCK Talent. I’ll be moving on to devote more time to my solo shows, workshops, and acting career.

Starting in September, the column will be carried on by Dounia Bertuccelli, last month’s multi-talented interviewee. I know the column will thrive under her charge.

As ML also said, for my last post I’ll be presenting an account of the journey I made to Singapore in April to perform Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey—my one-woman show about growing up as a Third Culture Kid of mixed heritage.

It was my first time taking the show to Asia. I performed it for Third Culture Kid (TCK) high school students and their parents (many of whom had also been TCKs), teachers, and administrators, at two international schools.

* * *

Two miracles occurred on the flights to Singapore: I was in no pain despite a lower-back injury, and Dan (my husband and techie extraordinaire) and I both fell asleep! We normally can’t sleep on planes no matter what.

Unfortunately, we also experienced something troubling: my ankles and calves swelled up alarmingly. We guessed that this might be due to my choosing the Chinese options at mealtimes, which were tasty…but perhaps a foolish decision on my part since I’m mildly allergic to MSG.

(For details on the health scare that ensued, read my blog.)

Landing in a tropical city full of gardens and great food

Swollen body parts notwithstanding, we oooohed and aaaahed when we arrived at fancy Changi Airport, but were too tired to linger. As the cab drove us through the city-state to our AirBnB apartment, we were impressed by the many tall buildings and the lushly green urban landscape.

After that evening’s health melodrama, we slept like the dead. We had a few days to orient ourselves, sightsee, and start recovering from jet lag. I was expecting the heat of Panama alongside the humidity, but Singapore felt more humid than hot. (We perspired buckets nonetheless.)

Our adventures during the first two full days included:

  • visiting the lovely, peaceful Chinese Garden…in the pouring rain…with one umbrella. (Dan had accidentally left his in the Uber car.) Despite the deluge, we were impressed by the Confucius statues and the Bonsai Garden.
  • taking the immaculate and orderly MRT (metro). We loved hearing the train’s prerecorded announcements in Standard RP English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil.
  • exploring the interior of the enormous ION Orchard, a mall on Orchard Road. (It was still raining outside.)
  • ordering Malay and Indian food at a hawker stall in a mall near our AirBnB. (Singapore malls have food courts that serve the same scrumptious food you’d get at one of the famous hawker centres.)
  • trying a local dessert of shaved ice topped with red beans, black jello, and syrup—sort of a combo of Ice Kachang and Grass Jelly. Super-sweet!
  • experiencing Singapore’s favorite breakfast/snack at Toast Junction: kaya toast (sugar-coconut-buttered toast) served with two soft-boiled eggs, dribbled with a little bit of soy sauce, and a cup of hot coffee with condensed milk. Even if you’re not a fan of soft-boiled eggs (neither am I) or milk in your coffee (neither is Dan), we’re here to tell you that the whole combination is fantastic.

SHOWTIME #1 @ Canadian International School

On the first performance day we were up at 5:30 a.m. (The horror.) Our cab took us to Canadian International School in the pre-dawn darkness. In the impressively large and beautiful theatre, the school’s cheerful stage techie helped us to set up. I was warmly welcomed by a few faculty and admin members—and then the 9th through 11th graders started pouring in.

Showtime!

At first the audience was very quiet yet attentive. Some whispering began after 20 minutes and slowly grew louder until there was a low murmur toward the end.

Nonetheless, the students giggled and laughed at various appropriate places, and at the curtain call I heard a few hoots of appreciation along with the applause.

This was a relief because I rarely know how the show has been received until I take my bow. Afterward, drama teacher Julie and a slew of ATCKs (who are now moms to TCKs!) thanked me repeatedly for bringing the show to the school. I was especially validated by Julie’s appreciation of the script and performance since she’s a fellow theatre-maker.

As has happened after all of my performances, audience members approached to tell me about their own intercultural, nomadic lives and which parts of the show resonated the most for them.

One of them was a friend of a fellow Writing Out of Limbo author—thus proving how small the world is!

I loved hearing American accents from the non-US citizens and non-American accents from the US citizens. It made me feel like I was among my people, with that particular vibe of an international-school crowd, again.

My dear college friend Kikuko flew in from Tokyo just to see the show and flew back directly after, which blew my mind!

I learned later that the head of the school and the secondary school principal both enjoyed the show as well—always affirming to receive praise from the “top admin.” I will forever be grateful to Canadian International School for giving Alien Citizen its Asia Pacific debut.

As usual, my adrenaline was still pumping after the show, so Dan and I headed off to the Singapore National Museum. It had beautiful artifacts and displays, dense with information…and then we went home and crashed.
CIS performance

More marvels in this dot-sized city-state

On our day in between performances, we explored Little India. We saw our first Buddhist and Hindu temples, all of which were gorgeously colorful: Leong San See (Chinese Buddhist), Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya (Thai Buddhist with a huge Buddha statue), and Sri Srinivasa Perumal (Hindu). Each was a marvel for uninitiated us. We also saw the Sultan Mosque, which was more modest than the mosques I’ve toured elsewhere, but very welcoming to visitors.

It was another warm day and the humidity began to take its toll. Still, I enjoyed seeing the brightly painted two-story houses all walled together (like the one-story ones you see in Guatemala and other Latin American countries), with open shutters on the upper floors like in Cape Town.

When the humidity became overpowering, it was a pleasure to duck into a 7-Eleven (!) that blasted air conditioning—a/c is paramount in Singapore. We had lunch at Muthu’s Curry, where the delicious food was served on banana leaves. After waddling out we took an Uber to Arab Street and walked by tons of shops on the pedestrian road. At Sifr Aromatics I bought some blended-in-person Shadowfax perfume, which I adore.

In between shows

SHOWTIME #2 @ Singapore American School

The next day we went to Singapore American School for my afternoon performance. The high school drama teacher, Tom, gave us a warm welcome. I would perform in one of three theatres on campus, which had a luxurious backstage area—aisles upon aisles of dressing-room vanity mirrors and a full bathroom! The school’s theatre techies were very professional and helpful.

During the performance, the audience was alert and even laughed heartily at a few points. Afterward, some audience members came up to praise the show and a faculty member gave me an emotional bear hug. (Every time an audience member shows that much appreciation, it’s a relief, because it highlights the show’s value for different people in different places even as time wears on. I never know if there’s going to be an expiration date.)

Again, it was especially validating to hear a fellow theatre-maker like Tom speak of the craft that goes into creating and performing a show like Alien Citizen. I’ve performed it so many times in non-theatrical venues that I’ve become resigned to folks who refer to the show as a “sketch.”

For those unfamiliar with my work: I perform over 30 characters (including myself at different ages), speak five languages in it, and take the audience through six countries while I’m all alone onstage…with no intermission…for 80 minutes. It’s my job to make it flow and feel intimate, but it has never been an easy one.

An old friend of my mom from my high school years in Egypt (it seems that everyone knows someone in Singapore) took Dan and me out for drinks and dinner afterwards to celebrate. We went to the American Club, which is humongous with several restaurants, a pool, library, convenience store, dry cleaner, and more—I’ve never seen anything like it. They make an excellent martini…
SAS performance

Final hurrah: Singapore

The next day: freedom! Now we could do whatever we wanted for the rest of the trip! We took the MRT to the old colonial district, where we visited the Merlion, Cavanagh Bridge, and the Asian Civilisations Museum. The latter had a fascinating shipwreck exhibit as well as a collection of gorgeous ceramics.

The next stop was Raffles Hotel for high tea. We each indulged in two servings of tiered tea trays of finger sandwiches, cakes, and tarts. The meal also included a buffet of dim sum (!), croque monsieurs, chicken pot pies, and scones. (By now you’ve figured out: I’m all about the food.) After stuffing ourselves to the sound of a musician playing musical theatre tunes on a harp, we peaked into the famous Long Bar. We decided against ordering an overpriced Singapore Sling and took an Uber home.

The following day we visited Chinatown. We loved the Chinese Heritage Centre, which recreates what a shophouse was like in the 1950s—very immersive and expertly done. There were tons of places to shop for knickknacks. We had lunch at Fill-a-Pita, my high-school-mate Hassan’s eatery, where he served us delicious vegetarian Egyptian/Middle Eastern food. Singapore is a true hub for international folk.

We then walked through the Singapore Botanic Gardens, which were lush and peaceful. (They are the only tropical gardens to be honored as a UNESCO Heritage site.) That evening we went to the famous Wee Nam Kee for a dinner of Hainanese chicken rice, Singapore’s wildly popular and yummy comfort food.

The next day we visited Liang Seah Street, which was recommended for its young vibe. I enjoyed seeing my surname on street signs! We returned to Chinatown to visit Singapore’s oldest Hokkien temple, Thian Hock Keng, the interior of which reminded me vaguely of my extended family’s “big house” in Guatemala City (tiled floor around an open sky patio). We then walked to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple with its splendid interior. We were privileged to witness our first Buddhist service there.

That evening we went to the Night Safari, said to be the world’s first nocturnal zoo. Tip: get your tickets online to avoid a two-hour wait. It was fun to see nocturnal animals (and non-nocturnal animals, asleep) from all over the world as we were driven through on long trams. The elephants may have been the most thrilling sight. I had seen them and other animals on wildlife preserves in Kenya when I was 15, but that was a very long time ago. Alien Citizen’s final scene is set in Kenya, so there was a nice symmetry to seeing African animals on this trip.

On our last day we returned to Orchard Road. This time the sun was shining and we could see why it’s sometimes compared to the Champs d’Elysees or 5th Avenue. From there we went to the Peranakan Museum, which is basically the mixed heritage/multiracial/multicultural museum of Singapore. I felt very at home!

For our last adventure in the city, we took a Singapore River tour on a bumboat, the kind with a cheesy prerecorded commentary. I’m so glad we did, because we saw a completely different Singapore from the one we had been experiencing on the MRT and in cabs. It really is lovely along the banks of the quays and bays at twilight.

We capped the evening off by going to the Flight Bar at the Marina Bay Sands, a Vegas-style, three-towered behemoth of a hotel. Despite our sweaty, bedraggled appearance, we were given excellent service: they seated us at a perfect table overlooking both the bay and the city skyline. We toasted with my French “57” (its version of the drink that was originally served at the American Bar in Paris, later Harry’s New York Bar) and Dan’s Dark ‘N’ Stormy—overpriced but nonetheless a delightful VERY FINAL hurrah. After that celebratory toast, we managed to find one open restaurant, CoCo ICHIBANYA curry house, and gave that Japanese curry hell.

On our day of departure, after checking in at Changi Airport, we headed down to its ginormous food court and got our last kaya toast “Set A” at Ya Kun Kaya Toast. It was glorious. As we walked to our gate, we saw more of the deluxe airport, took pictures, and then had uneventful flights home. It took over two weeks to recover from the jet lag. It was worth it.

Final hurrah: TCK TALENT

It seems fitting for my last entry to be about Alien Citizen. I was first introduced to The Displaced Nation via an interview by amazing founder and editor ML Awanohara, when Alien Citizen was having its world premiere in Hollywood in 2013. ML asked me to write this column not long after the show’s first run ended, and it has been an honor to interview numerous fellow creative ATCKs for TCK Talent. They have all inspired, touched, and educated me. In the meantime, Alien Citizen has traveled around the USA on the college circuit, to festivals and conferences, and to private retreats and galas. It has also traveled the world to theatres, conferences, and international schools in Central America, Iceland, Europe, Africa, and now Asia. Furthermore, it was the catalyst for the workshops I now lead. We’ve come a very long way and we’re not even close to finishing the journey.

I feel privileged to have written for The Displaced Nation and am ever grateful to ML Awanohara for giving me the opportunity. Thank you, dear readers, for following along.

* * *

Thank YOU, Lisa, and the fondest of farewells! I will miss you. You really “got” what the Displaced Nation is about and over the years have showcased so many internationals who are now leading creative lives. You’ve also served as a shining example of that yourself, by reporting on the progress of your show—and several of those reports, like this one, have also been fascinating travelogues. I’m just so glad that the column you have created and shaped, highlighting the many talents of Adult Third Culture kids, will carry on in your wake. (Thank you, Dounia!) Meantime, please promise us you’ll come back to our fair shores from time to time for a visit—and perhaps even the occasional update post. Readers, please leave questions, comments, words of farewell 😥 😥 😥 to Lisa below.

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is a prime example of what she writes about in this column: an Adult Third Culture Kid working in a creative field. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she is an actor, writer, and producer who created the solo show Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey, which has been touring internationally. To keep up with Lisa’s progress, be sure to visit her blog, Suitcasefactory. You can also follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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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Photo credits: Top visual: Singapore cityscape and garden images via Pixabay;  Elizabeth Liang performing at the Canadian International School in Singapore, by Jacquie Weber (supplied); Alien Citizen (poster, supplied); and TCK Talent branding. Second visual: (clockwise from top left) Kaya Toast “Set A” breakfast at Toast Junction, by Daniel Lawrence (supplied); MRT image via Pixabay; Lisa at the ION Mall, selfie (supplied); and Chinese and Japanese gardens, Bonsai section, Singapore, by R Barraez D’Lucca via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Third visual: Lisa performing at the Canadian International School in Singapore, by Jacquie Weber (supplied). Fourth visual: (clockwise from top left) Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple via Pixabay; Daniel Lawrence in front of Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple, by Lisa Liang (supplied); Muthu’s fish head curry, by Krista, and Arab Street and Sunday lunch, by Bryn Pinzgauer—both via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Fifth visual: Singapore American School dressing room, selfie (supplied); and Singapore American School long shot, by Daniel Lawrence (supplied). Sixth visual: (top row) Lisa at Flight Bar, Marina Bay Sands Hotel, by Daniel Lawrence (supplied); and Elephant at Night – Night Safari Zoo – Singapore, by Glen Bowman via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); (middle row) Lisa at the Merlion, by Daniel Lawrence (supplied); one of many buddhas in Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, by Lisa Liang (supplied); (bottom row) Changi Airport departure, by Lisa Liang (supplied); High Tea, Raffles Hotel, by llbrarianidol via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: 6 writers talk expat- and travel-themed books: last year’s faves, this year’s must-reads

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), has canvassed several international creatives for their favorite expat- and travel-themed books of 2015, along with what’s on their bedside tables in 2016.

Hello, Displaced Nationers!

Last month I wrote to you about my Goodreads Reading Challenge, which, at 34 books and counting, is still proving (ahem) something of a challenge.

For this month’s column, instead of focusing on my 300-book goal, I decided to find out what other international creatives, several of whom have been featured in this column and/or on the Displaced Nation, have been reading.

I asked each of them to answer these two questions:

  1. What were the best books you read last year on displaced/expat/travel themes?
  2. What books are you looking forward to this year in the same or similar genres?  

Their responses are nothing short of tantalizing!

So much so that I’m now wondering…can I squeeze any more in?!

Please take a look:

* * *

MARK ADAMS, bestselling author

For the last several months I’ve been working on a new book about Alaska, so the 49th State has occupied a lot of my reading hours. Naturally, I’ve reread John McPhee’s classic Coming into the Country and Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. But two slightly less well-known books with an Alaska connection have really stuck with me.

John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire_coverThe first is John Muir and the Ice that Started a Fire: How a Visionary and the Glaciers of Alaska Changed America, by Kim Heacox (Lyons Press, 2014). This is a great example of history that comes alive by weaving names, dates and events with passion for a cause, in this case environmentalism. Today, Alaska’s shrinking glaciers are viewed mostly by passengers aboard cruise ships who look up while sampling their breakfast buffets. To Muir, though, they were living things, mysteries that held timeless wisdom. Heacox makes a stirring argument that Muir’s early trips to Alaska jump-started the modern conservation movement.

Deadliest_State_coverThe second book is Kalee Thompson’s The Deadliest Sea: The Untold Story Behind the Greatest Rescue in Coast Guard History (Harper-Collins, 2010). When I realized that my book research was going to take me deep into the Bering Sea, which I wasn’t even sure I could place on a map, I reached for a copy of this. I’m not sure it was the right choice for someone who’ll be sailing those frigid and famously turbulent waters soon, but any readers who like tales along the lines of The Perfect Storm or Black Hawk Down will find that Thompson’s tick-tock re-creation of this lifesaving mission really places them amid the freezing chaos of the action.

Sunnys_Nights_coverOne book I’ve already read and loved in 2016 takes place very far from Alaska. It’s Tim Sultan’s delightful Sunny’s Nights: Lost and Found at a Bar on the Edge of the World, a memoir that tells the story of a curious young man who lands in Brooklyn in the mid-1990s after a peripatetic and somewhat disorienting youth in Laos, the Ivory Coast and Germany. Sultan finds a home at what must be the strangest tavern north of New Orleans—Sunny’s opens only one night a week and its clientele runs from Mafiosi to nuns—and takes on the bar’s namesake owner as a sort of surrogate father. It’s a stained-glass window offering a nostalgic glimpse of a Brooklyn that has largely vanished.

The Seven Storey Mountain_coverNow, a book I’m looking forward to reading this year: The Seven Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton (Harcourt Brace; Fiftieth Anniversary ed., 1998). When I attended Catholic school in the 1970s, there were probably copies of Thomas Merton’s huge bestseller in every classroom, which is a shame, because most grade schoolers would be more interested in reading the phone book. Now that I’m older and no longer required to recite the Lord’s Prayer along with the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, I have the life experience that pushes one to ponder big questions, such as the meaning of life. Merton made that leap much earlier; he was an urbane, Ivy League-educated writer who abandoned a budding career at age 23 to cloister himself in a Kentucky monastery. (As a writer, I’m almost as awed by his decision to donate all royalties to his monastic order.) This is the story of his circuitous path toward embracing a life of pure spirituality.

Mark Adams is the bestselling author of Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City, which was reviewed for this column in May of last year.


JENNIFER ALDERSON, expat and author

Savage Harvest_coverLast year, while researching my third novel, I was lucky enough to come across Carl Hoffman’s Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art (2014) It is simply one of the best nonfiction travel adventure stories I have read in a very long time. An award-winning American journalist, Hoffman recounts his fascinating journey to Papua New Guinea, where he retraces the last art-collecting expedition made by anthropologist Michael Rockefeller. He juxtaposes his own travels through the Asmat region with a fictive reconstruction of Rockefeller’s final days before his mysterious disappearance, based on extensive archival research and new eyewitness accounts. He effortlessly combines mystery, adventure, personal self-discovery and colonial history into one captivating novel.

The Travelers_cover
When reviewing my bookshelf last week, I noticed I’ve bought quite a few international thrillers and mysteries featuring American expat protagonists this past year. So in that vein, I’m most looking forward to reading Chris Pavone’s The Travelers, (Crown, March 2016). Pavone is an American writer whose first novel, The Expats, is set primarily in the capitals of Luxembourg, Belgium and France. That book was a stylish, fast-paced thriller, yet what caught my attention the most was the lyrical and natural way in which he described these cities without slowing the plot down. His latest thriller promises to crisscross South America and Europe. I can’t wait to read it!

Gallery Pieces_coverAnother mystery/thriller I just learned about is Gallery Pieces: An Art Mystery, by Larry Witham (Archway Publishing, 2015). It’s about an American art expert who travels through Europe attempting to track down artwork stolen during World War Two. it sounds like a great story. Editor’s note: Larry Witham is a former journalist and foreign correspondent who became a full-time writer and artist (painting and drawing) around ten years ago.

Jennifer S. Alderson is the author of Down and Out in Kathmandu and American expat in the Netherlands.


MARIANNE BOHR, Displaced Nation columnist and memoirist

TheRentCollectorOf the travel/expat books I read in 2015, three come to mind immediately. The first is The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright (Shadow Mountain, 2013). This gritty yet heart-warming story is set in the largest municipal dump located on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a country about which I knew little. A couple with a chronically ill son live in a hovel in the dump, surviving day-to-day from what they can salvage and sell. They struggle to pay the titular rent collector, a bitter, alcoholic woman, every month. Books play a key role in this tale of perseverance.

Wright was inspired to write the book by his son Trevor’s 2012 documentary, River of Victory, who in turn was inspired by the people he met when volunteering as a humanitarian aid worker for the Cambodian Children’s Fund.

A Sport and a Pastime_coverLast year I also enjoyed reading the classic novel A Sport and a Pastime, by James Salter, which was originally published in 1967. (it was republished by Open Road Media in 2012). It’s an erotic tale told in tight prose that takes place in a small town in France. I couldn’t put it down.
Editor’s note: James Salter, who died last year, had a passion for European culture and particularly for France. Though he eventually became a full-time writer, he started his life as an officer in the United States Air Force, just after the end of World War II, and was stationed overseas, in Korea, Germany and France.

Coconut Latitudes_coverAnother book I enjoyed was The Coconut Latitudes: Secrets, Storms and Survival in the Caribbean, by Rita M. Gardner. It’s a coming-of-age memoir set in the Dominican Republic, where Gardner’s father transplanted his young American family. What begins as a dream of life in paradise soon takes a few wrong turns. The book, which came out a year before mine with She Writes Press, was a Gold Medal Winner for Autobiography/Memoir at the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Awards. Editor’s Note: Rita Gardner is a Displaced Nationer who was interviewed for A Picture Says… and featured for Valentine’s Day. Her book was on our “Best of 2014” list.)

Things Can Only Get Feta_coverThis year, I’m looking forward to reading Things Can Only Get Feta: Two journalists and their crazy dog living through the Greek crisis, by Marjory McGinn (2nd Ed.; Pelagos Press, 2015)
I’ve read many memoirs about expats on the isles of Greece, but this one by a transplanted Scottish couple intrigues me because of its location on the Mani Peninsula of the Peloponnese. The rugged landscape and fierce independent people of this part of Greece has always been on my list to visit for an extended period of time, and I can’t wait to delve into this volume. Editor’s note: Marjory McGinn’s sequel, Homer Is Where the Heart Is, made the Displaced Nation’s Best of 2015 nonfiction expat books.

TheDiscoveryofFrance_coverAnother volume on my bedside table is The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography, by Graham Robb (W.W. Norton & Company, 2008). I have owned this book for almost eight years, ever since it was published. I am a Francophile through and through and yet, the book keeps getting pushed aside for others. A history of France from the perspective of its provinces, it received outstanding reviews when it was published, and I am determined to read it in 2016. Editor’s note: For those who like stories of displacement, the author, Graham Robb, is originally from Manchester, UK, but took his Ph.D. in French literature from the University of Tennessee. He married an alumna of Vanderbilt University, and they live in Oxford, UK.

Peanut Butter and Naan_cover Another book on my to-read list is Jennifer Hillman-Magnuson’s Peanut Butter and Naan: Stories of an American Mom in the Far East, which came out with She Writes Press in 2014. This story by a woman whose husband is transferred from the US to India intrigued me the moment I read a review. They uproot their family of five children from their pampered existence in Nashville, Tennessee, to India, where they encounter extreme poverty, malaria, and no conveniences. I’m particularly interested in reading about how the children reacted to the move.

Marianne C. Bohr is the author of Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, which came out last year with She Writes Press. It was on the Displaced Nation’s Best of 2015 list for expat nonfiction. She also contributes an occasional column, World of Words, to the Displaced Nation.


JESSICA PAN, expat and memoirist

TheUnbecoming_coverThe best book I read last year about displaced/expat/travel themes was The Unbecoming, by Rebecca Scherm (Viking, 2015). It’s about a first-class jewel thief Julie from California, who’s really Grace from Tennessee. She makes her way to Paris, where she works for a shady antiques restorer, turning out objets d’art that are exquisite fakes. I loved how the protagonist re-invents herself in Paris—and yet, of course, her past comes back to find her. Gripping and inventive, with an unpredictable love story.

This year I’m looking forward to reading Cities I’ve Never Lived In: Stories, by Sara Majka, which came out with Graywolf Press in January. Cities_Ive_Never_Lived_In_coverOnce again, these linked short stories are about reinvention, which is one of my favorite things about living abroad (and I like to think about the many versions of myself I’ve formed and perhaps left in Beijing, Melbourne and now London).

Majka’s is the second book to come out in a collaboration between Graywolf and the journal A Public Space, to which Majka has contributed (they are also promoting her book). She made her debut in the journal seven years ago with the short story “Saint Andrews Hotel”; you can read it here.

Jessica Pan is the co-author of the 2014 memoir Graduates in Wonderland: The International Misadventures of Two (Almost) Adults. A graduate of Brown University, she worked as an editor of an expat magazine and a TV report in Beijing, earned a journalism degree in Melbourne, Australia, and now makes her living as a London-based writer.


H.E. RYBOL, Displaced Nation columnist, adult TCK and author

Write_This_Second_coverOne of the best books I read last year was Write This Second, by Kira Lynne Allen (Prashanti Press, 2015). Written in verse, the book tells the author’s story about overcoming trauma and reclaiming her life. Allen searingly chronicles a childhood blown apart by racism, incest, and rape, and a young adulthood marred by addiction, domestic violence and post-traumatic stress—but then she finds redemption in the recovery process and healing in her art. A sense of displacement permeates part of the book. Like other readers, I found the experience of this book life changing.

Thank You for Being Expendable_coverAnother book I enjoyed reading last year was Thank You For Being Expendable: And Other Experiences, by Colby Buzzell (Byliner, 2015). Buzzell is an Iraq War veteran, and he wrote these stories, 36 in total, over a decade of making his way back home. Though there were aspects of his adventures I didn’t appreciate, I really took to his style. Like Kira Lynne Allen, he is honest and unfiltered. I also liked that he takes his readers to China, England and other places exploring underground culture while he attempts to return to civilian life and the sense of being expendable.

Florence_and_Me_coverMy last pick for top 2015 reads is Florence and Me: The story of how the city of Florence befriended an American girl from Brooklyn, by Elaine Bertolotti (self-published, 2014). Bertolotti is a proud Italian American whose grandparents were born in Italy. She moved to Florence in the 1970s and taught English while also somehow managing to start up her own art studio and sustain an artistic career. She took pains to master the Italian language as well. Bertolotti says she likes to think of herself as one of the pioneers who paved the road for all the Americans who’ve followed her into the expat life in Italy. Her book is a short, fun read.

My Life on the Road_coverThis year I’m looking forward to reading Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road (Random House, 2015). Can’t wait!
Beth’s note: I’m also reading this, this month. It’s great so far!
Editor’s note: Steinem’s book, her first in 20 years, is on the Displaced Nation’s Best of 2015 expat nonfiction list. We gave her the status of honorary expat for her extensive travels within and outside the United States.

HE Rybol is the author of Culture Shock: A Practical Guide and contributes the Culture Shock Toolbox column to the Displaced Nation.


SHANNON YOUNG, expat, author, and Displaced Nation columnist

Here Comes the Sun_coverOne of the best books I read last year was the memoir Here Comes the Sun: A Journey to Adoption in 8 Chakras, by Leza Lowitz (Stone Bridge Press, 2015). Lowitz is an American woman who travels to Japan and falls in love with a Japanese man and begins a life with him in Tokyo. Together they pursue adoption and start a yoga studio. What I liked: Lowitz writes about her experiences with heartfelt vulnerability. Her prose is often poetic as she gets at the heart of the displaced experience and explores a longing for motherhood that took her by surprise. Editor’s note: Leza Lowitz still lives in Tokyo with her husband and son. She calls herself an “accidental global citizen.” She is the author of 17 books in several different genres.

Seafaring Women_coverAnother book I enjoyed was Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors’ Wives, by David Cordingly (Random House, 2009). It’s an account of the lives of women during the golden age of sail. These are true stories of women who left their homes to go to sea and settle in port towns all over the globe. What I liked: This book is a different take on the displaced theme. It explores the lives of real women who had a unique kind of expat experience in the great seafaring days. As with modern expats, some went to sea for adventure, some were pursuing employment opportunities (occasionally but not always disguised as men), and some were accompanying spouses. One thing’s for sure: nothing is better than real-life female pirates!

The Expatriates A Novel_coverThis year, I’m most looking forward to The Expatriates, by Janice Y.K. Lee (Viking, January 2016). Lee’s novel follows the lives of three expatriate women in Hong Kong. Why I’m interested: Lee’s first novel, The Piano Teacher, was one of the first books I read about Hong Kong. In fact, I bought it on the plane after visiting my now-husband several months before moving to Hong Kong to be with him. I’m looking forward to reading her new novel about the expatriate experience and comparing it to my own life as an expat here.

Shannon Young is a Hong Kong-based expat, Displaced Nation columnist (she contributes the bimonthly column Diary of an Expat Writer) and author of the new release Ferry Tale.

* * *

Thanks, everyone, for your contributions!

Still not seeing the right book for your next armchair adventure? Browsing ML’s great posts about fiction and nonfiction reads for 2016 is an excellent place to start. And, if you’re interested in Asia, I’d also recommend this blog post by Australian-born British novelist and writer Renae Lucas Hall, who writes about Japan. She’s listed some very intriguing books about Japan that she read in 2015 or will be reading in 2016.

So, readers, what’s on your bedside tables, and are you planning to add any of the above books?

Till next time and happy reading!

As always, please let me or ML know if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see reviewed here! And I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

Beth Green is an American writer living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes. She has also launched the site Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

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

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: 11 Expat- and Travel-themed Books to Expand Our Horizons in 2016

booklust-wanderlust-2015

Attention displaced bookworms! Our book review columnist, Beth Green, an American expat in Prague (she is also an Adult Third Culture Kid), is back with her personal picks for expat- and travel-themed books to watch for in 2016.

Hello again, Displaced Nationers!

It’s been quite a long time since I last wrote to you here. Since my last column we’ve started 2016, celebrated the beginning of the Year of the Monkey, written and revised our new year’s resolutions, and (hopefully) read some really great books!

As part of my own (ever-evolving) New Year’s resolutions I signed up for the Goodreads Reading Challenge. It’s currently showing that I’m 22 books behind schedule for my overly optimistic goal of 300 books this year—but, hey, it wouldn’t be a challenge if it was easy, right?

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 7.33.56 PM
Now, usually in this column I talk about books I’ve already read, but this month I’d like to highlight some that I haven’t. There are, of course, lots of intriguing books coming out this year—more than I can cover adequately in one column! But, of the expat- or international-themed books coming out in 2016 that caught my eye, I’ve chosen 11 to feature in this post, one for each month left in 2016. Take a look!

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Beginning with…a Thriller and a Mystery

CambodiaNoir_cover_300x200Cambodia Noir, by Nick Seeley (March 15, 2016)
The debut novel from an American journalist who has been working out of the Middle East and Southeast Asia, Cambodia Noir is a thriller that I’ve had on my to-be-read list ever since I first heard about it. The plot: A young American woman who is working as an intern at a local paper in Phnom Penh, June Saito, disappears. Her sister hires a retired photojournalist with first-hand knowledge of the corrupt, dissolute ways of the Cambodian capital, to look for her. Author Nick Seeley got his start as a foreign correspondent in Phnom Penh. He’s been hailed as a “fresh voice” exploring the depths of the Far East’s underworld.


InspectorSinghInvestigates_cover_300x200Inspector Singh Investigates: A Frightfully English Execution, by Shamini Flint (April 7, 2016)
Always the fan of international crime fiction, I’m excited that one of my favorite series—a series of charming crime novels featuring the portly, lovable Sikh policeman Inspector Singh—is getting a new addition this year. Author Shamini Flint is sending Singh to Britain Diary of a Tennis Prodigy_cover_300x200in the seventh book in her series. Each book provides not only a puzzle for the reader to solve but also a close-up look at the locations where the books are set. This is the Inspector’s first time out of Asia, and I’m looking forward to seeing what he discovers in the UK.

And, a special note for readers with kids: on January 1 Flint, who is a Singapore-based Malaysian, published a middle-grade book, Diary of a Tennis Prodigy, with illustrator Sally Heinrich (Sally formerly lived in Singapore and Malaysia but is now based in Adelaide, Australia).

And Now Let’s Add Three Travel Memoirs…

No Baggage_cover_300x200No Baggage: A Minimalist Tale of Love and Wandering, by Clara Bensen (January 5, 2016)
I love memoirs that read like novels, as I’m hoping this one will! Recovering from a quarter-life meltdown, 25-year-old Bensen signs up for an online dating account, and to her surprise, ends up meeting Jeff, a university professor who proposes they take a three-week experimental trip spanning eight countries, with no plans or baggage. Her story resonates with the adventurer in me—I can’t wait to take a look.


Little Dribbling_cover_300x200The Road to Little Dribbling, by Bill Bryson (January 19, 2016)
It may already be old news to anyone who’s been in a bookstore recently—or read our Displaced Dispatch!—but the world’s favorite traveler, humor writer and expat, Bill Bryson, has a new travelogue out. It’s another of his road-trip books. (I much prefer these to his other writings such as A Short History of Nearly Everything and At Home—they started out great, but I ended up leaving them unfinished…) Bryson made a journey through Britain 20 years ago, which was forever immortalized in his bestselling classic, Notes from a Small Island. In Little Dribbling, he follows the “Bryson line” from bottom to top of his adopted home country. I’m looking forward to being in his company again.


In Other Words_cover_300x200In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri (and translations by Ann Goldstein) (February 9, 2016)
As a London-born Indian-American, world-class novelist Jhumpa Lahiri excels at writing in English—yet has long harbored a passion for the Italian language. Not wanting to miss out, she moved her family to Rome to immerse herself and quickly reached a point where she was writing only in Italian. She kept a journal in Italian that has evolved into this dual-language memoir. As an expat who’s now tried to learn three foreign languages while abroad, I’m curious to see how Lahiri’s experiences match up to my own. (The critics would apparently like to see her go back to English!)

…Along with Two Works of Literary Fiction and a Harlequin Romance

WhatBelongstoYou_cover_300x200What Belongs to You, by Garth Greenwell (January 19, 2016)
An American professor working in Sofia, Bulgaria, hooks up with a male prostitute in a public toilet and slowly becomes more involved than he anticipated. Reviewers cite Greenwell’s lyrical prose as reason alone for picking up his debut novel, but I’m interested in seeing how this young writer—who himself once worked as an expat English teacher in Bulgaria—depicts the city and the relationships between locals and foreigners. (This book, too, was mentioned in a recent Displaced Dispatch.)


TheHighMountainsofPortugal_cover_300x200The High Mountains of Portugal, by Yann Martel (February 2, 2016)
Going over this years’ publishers lists, I’m now looking forward to reading a book by an author whose last book I despised. My friends were all gushing over Yann Martel’s 2002 novel Life of Pi; but, while it has an admittedly awesome premise, the story left me cold. But I’m excited to check out the chronically traveling Canadian author’s next book, which is set in Portugal and intertwines the century-spanning stories of a young man reading an old journal, a mystery-loving pathologist, and a Canadian diplomat. I’m planning a trip to Lisbon later this year, and hope to read this book before I go.


UndertheSpanishStairs_cover_300x200Under the Spanish Stars, by Alli Sinclair (February 1, 2016)
I’m pleased to report that former expat Alli Sinclair—my friend and former co-blogger from Novel Adventurers—has published her second romantic mystery novel this month. (Congratulations, Alli!) The action takes place in her native Australia and also in Spain. The plot: an Australian woman travels to her grandmother’s homeland of Andalucía to unravel a family mystery. She ends up meeting a passionate flamenco guitarist and learns her grandmother’s past is not what she imagined.

Finally, to Top Things Off, How About a Couple of YA Books?

I don’t read a lot of young adult books, but descriptions of two novels I saw reviewed recently stuck with me. Funnily enough, both books’ titles start with “Up”—maybe it’s the implied optimism that caught me? We could use a bit of cheer in our displaced world…

Up from the Sea_cover_300x200Up from the Sea, by Leza Lowitz (January 12, 2016)
This is a novel in verse. It tells the story of a Japanese teenager, Kai, whose coastal village is obliterated by the March 2011 tsunami, after which he is offered a trip to New York to meet children who had been affected by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The trip also provides an opportunity for him to go in search of his estranged American father. Author Leza Lowitz is an American expat writer and translator living in Tokyo, where she also runs a popular yoga studio. Her favorite themes to explore in her writing include the idea of place, displacement and what “home” means to expatriate women.


UPtothisPointe_cover_300x200Up to this Pointe, by Jennifer Longo (January 19, 2016)
I’m always fascinated by stories of Antarctica so have my eye on this book about a teenage girl who aspires to be a professional ballerina but, when her grand plan goes awry, sets out on an expedition to McMurdo Station (the U.S. Antarctic research center) in the footsteps of her relative and explorer Robert Falcon Scott. Notably, Seattle-based author Jennifer Longo wanted to be a ballerina until she finally had to admit that her talent for writing exceeded her talent for dance. Like me, she harbors an obsessive love of Antarctica. I admire the way she has woven these two themes together!

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So, Displaced Nationers, what do you think? What are you looking forward to reading this year? Any much-anticipated displaced reads that should be added to my list?

As always, please let me or ML know if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see reviewed here! And I urge you to sign up for the DISPLACED DISPATCH, which has at least one Recommended Read every week.

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

Beth Green is an American writer living in Prague, Czech Republic. She grew up on a sailboat and, though now a landlubber, continues to lead a peripatetic life, having lived in Asia as well as Europe. Her personal Web site is Beth Green Writes. She has also launched the site Everyday Travel Stories. To keep in touch with her in between columns, try following her on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a social media nut!

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

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CULTURE SHOCK TOOLBOX: Newbie expats, to keep waves of culture shock from crashing over you, practice the art of tacking

Culture Shock Toolbox Beth Green

Beth Green at a Buddhist temple in Cebu City in the Philippines, during Chinese New Year (supplied).

Transitions enthusiast H.E. Rybol is back with her latest interview guest.

Ahoy, Displaced Nationers! This month, fellow Displaced Nation columnist Beth Green takes us on a brief tour of her extensive, initially aquatic travels. You know how children test the waters? Well, Beth got to do that quite literally. That’s right, Beth spent her childhood on a sailboat! Doesn’t that sound mouth-watering? Though I must admit that with my predisposition for motion sickness I’d probably spend most of the time with my head over the railing.

Anyhoo, Beth now lives on land—in Prague, the Czech Republic—where she works as a freelance writer and English-language coach. She is also a member of the Sisters in Crime mystery writers’ association. Upon discovering she is a traveler, bookworm and lover of spookiness, I knew I had to interview Beth for this column! And luckily for us, she kindly agreed to share her culture shock stories.

Join us as we talk about opening a conversation with an apology, cringing at our own meltdowns, sending stuff back in restaurants (or not!), and working weekends to make up for weekday public holidays (say what?!). You never know, you may pick up a few items for your culture shock toolbox!

* * *

Hi, Beth. Welcome to my column! As a TCK and an ATCK, you’ve led a peripatetic life. Tell us a little about where you’ve lived…

I’ve never lived anywhere for very long! As a kid, I traveled with my parents on a sailboat. We were in the Caribbean for seven years and the South Pacific for two, with stops along the coastal United States in between. I went to high school in Alaska and to university in the continental USA, but my junior year of university I went to Spain on exchange for a year. That experience inspired me to move to Europe when I graduated and work for a bit. I lived in the Czech Republic for three years, where I met my now-husband (who’s Australian…of course!). Then, we moved to China together to teach English. We were there for four-and-a-half years all together—but with a break in the middle when we did a long backpacking tour of Southeast Asia and India that included living on an island in Thailand for five months. After touching down briefly in the Philippines and Thailand again, we’ve been back in the Czech Republic for the past two years.

In the course of these many transitions, have you ever ended up with your foot in your mouth?

Oh, sure! The first time I moved to the Czech Republic I quickly realized I needed to start every conversation in Czech with an apology. That way I could make up for the inevitable times when I forgot to whom I should give kisses on the cheek rather than shake hands, or failed to greet everyone properly (as is customary in many more situations in Central Europe than in other cultures—you say “hello” and “goodbye” even to strangers in elevators). China as well was a tricky place to stay on the right side of etiquette. Speaking of which, I can recall an embarrassing meltdown I had once in China after being served a mango-papaya smoothie (what I had actually ordered, I realized later) rather than a melon smoothie like I thought I was getting. I lost all kinds of “face” that day.

Art of European Cheek Kissing

Photo credit: Women kissing at bus stop in Paris, France, by Steven Depolo via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

How should you have handled that situation? What if any tools have you developed to adapt to this kind of scenario?

What I should have done—and what I learned to do later when I inevitably ordered the wrong thing due to either fanciful names on the menu or my ham-tongued attempts to speak and understand Mandarin—was just to give my smoothie to someone else and order another one. In certain cultures, you just can’t send stuff back in a restaurant! In other words, I had to get better at tacking: that’s when you zigzag back and forth with your sailboat instead of sailing right into the wind. I had to reminding myself constantly that expect the unexpected and not to make too many waves. Like the time in China when I was told that we would all work on Saturday to make up for a public holiday on Monday. What? That’s considered normal? Well, this will be a fun story later! And, I’d better make a note to check my next contract veeerrry thoroughly!

Smoothie debacle collage

Photo credits: (Top) Charm- and confidence-boosting smoothie, Ghangzhou, China, by Cory Doctorow via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Breakfast (Shanghai, China), by Martin Slavin via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); dissatisfied character via Pixabay.

Can you think of a situation you handled with finesse, and why do you think that was?

I feel like my latest move, back to Europe from Asia, went well because I made a decision not to hard on myself when the waters got choppy. I also decided to take measures right away that past experience had taught would help lower my stress; for instance:

  • hiring someone to help with my visa paperwork (instead of doing on my own);
  • asking for help finding an apartment instead of taking the DIY approach;
  • joining a co-working space right off the bat (even before the apartment) so that I had a quiet place to work even when everything else was up in the air; and
  • enrolling in a refresher language course.

Of course, I’m lucky that I had the option to do all of those things—not everyone will when they move cultures.

If you had any advice for someone moving abroad for the first time, what tool would you suggest they develop first and why?

This advice is easy to give and hard to follow: develop patience and also trust in yourself: you will make progress eventually. Patience for yourself for not “catching on” quickly to situations (I find that culture shock seems to lower your IQ a bit at first!), patience for local people who might not understand your expectations (even though they’re crystal clear to you), patience for the culture shock itself. If we go back to our sailing metaphor: By tacking, you move into the wind gradually. But the zigzagging doesn’t necessarily slow you down. You can learn to tack efficiently—that’s what I tried to do when seeking help for some of the more stressful challenges of settling back into life in Prague. Use your first few months wisely, and eventually your culture shock will go away! Tacking is the Blu-Tack of the culture shock toolkit.

Tacking is the Blu-Tack

Photo credits: Tacking upwind, by Tom Purves via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Old blu-tack packaging, by Clive Darra via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Thank you so much, Beth, for sharing your experience with us! Like you said, if you develop the sailor’s tacking skill, soon it’ll all be water under the bridge. Plus, as you also pointed out, you’ll have great travel yarns to share! In the end, it’s the situations that are most difficult to navigate that make for the best lessons, right?! That’s what I love about culture shock: the lessons we learn and the way our horizons shift as a result.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Beth’s advice? If you like what she has to say, I recommend you visit her Booklust, Wanderlust book review column here on the Displaced Nation, as well as her personal site. And as those who frequent her column know, she’s a social media nut: find her on Facebook and 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. She loves animals, piano, yoga and being outdoors. You can find her on Twitter, Linkedin and Goodreads. She recently launched a new Web site and is now working on her second book.  

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Trish Nicholson, a writer whose talents have blossomed in unusual places

Location Locution
Columnist Lorraine Mace, aka Frances di Plino, is back with her latest interview guest.

My guest this month, Trish Nicholson, is something of an exotic plant—the kind one discovers flowering profusely in a far-flung part of the world.

Trish’s birthplace, the Isle of Man, sounds remote to many of us—but not so for Trish, who, despite being half Manx (a mix of Celtic and Nordic), wasn’t able to bloom where she was planted. Following in the footsteps of some of her intrepid ancestors, she left her birthplace and hasn’t looked back.

Her first destination was the UK, in pursuit of higher education and a career. Trish is also half-Scottish, but, though she lived in Scotland for 12 years, her roots did not prove deep enough and she moved on to Europe and much further afield…transplanting herself to Papua New Guinea!

Yes, Trish was stationed in the West Sepik (Sandaun) Province of Papua New Guinea for five years working on aid and development projects while also serving as Honorary Consul for the British High Commission. Rest assured, conditions here were exotic enough for Trish not only to put down roots but to blossom and thrive. As she attests in the travel memoir she published last month, PNG contains the wildest places in the tropics. Among other challenges, she had to contend with crocodiles (the book is titled Inside the Crocodile), sorcery and near-fatal malaria.

Photo credits (clockwise from upper left): Mooragh Park Lake, Ramsey (Isle of Man), by Tony Hisgett via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Trisha Nicholson (supplied); Explosions (in PNG), by Taro Taylor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

Photo credits (clockwise from upper left): Mooragh Park Lake, Ramsey (Isle of Man), by Tony Hisgett via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); Trisha Nicholson (supplied); Explosions (in PNG), by Taro Taylor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) .

The so-called Land of Surprises must have been a hard act to follow, but Asia Pacific being Trish’s most nurturant habitat, she soon found other challenges—the next one being to direct the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) operations in the Philippines while completing her doctorate in social anthropology. After the Philippines, she obtained a research grant to study indigenous tourism in Vietnam and Australia.

And I mustn’t forget to mention that along the way there have also been frequent trips to South America and Africa, along with treks in Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal.

Trish did return to England eventually—only to decide the time had come to try transplanting herself to the “winterless” far north of New Zealand, where, as she says in her blog:

native trees grow even more in winter than summer because they have more moisture.

Hmmm… sounds a little like Trish?

And now let’s talk about Trish’s body of works. A compulsive scribbler, she has produced plenty of what she calls “creative nonfiction”—from articles for mainstream media to a book on responsible travel tourism—as well as short stories during her twenty years of wandering the globe.

More recently, since moving to New Zealand, she has published a series of e-books on her travels—one of the most popular of which is the illustrated travelogue Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. And now there is the aforementioned Inside the Crocodile: The Papua New Guinea Journals.

Trish’s nonfiction output also includes a volume on creative reading/writing as well as a guide to becoming a non-fiction author. And let’s not forget the historical anthology of storytelling, which she intends to sit down and write now that she’s settled on a quiet New Zealand hillside. That’s when she’s not hiding in her tree house or blogging. Her blog is called, appropriately enough, “Words in the Treehouse.”

* * *

Welcome, Trish, to Location, Locution. I know that your travels have led to much of your writing, but which tends to come first, story or location?

Thank you for inviting me, Lorraine.

It depends on what kind of writing I’m doing, of course. For short stories it’s usually character that comes first for me, but it’s close because characters are an integral part of their setting. In building up the story, character and setting feed upon each other. Location can affect a character’s mood, sometimes their whole outlook on life, and a change of location can be a turning point. But, as I said, it’s a two-way influence; people can also have an impact on their surroundings.

For my travelogues, experience of location came first, but the same principle applies: people feed off setting and vice versa. In this case, of course, the “characters” are actual people I met along the way.

Notably, you were right in saying that my travels led to my writing. I did not set out to write a book at the beginning of either of the two travelogues I have produced. I was inspired to visit Bhutan by an article in a 1914 National Geographic magazine my aunt had left me in a box of dusty old books. It was full of the most amazing photographs of mist threaded mountains, exotic architecture, and distinguished looking men wearing what appeared to be navy blue dressing gowns with broad white cuffs… Papua New Guinea, as you explained in your introduction, was a five-year work assignment, fulfilling a teenage dream to work overseas. Only afterwards did these locations compel me to write about them.

What techniques do you use for evoking the atmosphere of a place? After all, you’ve faced the challenge of describing places very few of the rest of us have visited.

I’m not sure if it’s a technique because it’s not something I do consciously as I write, but your question made me think about it. It’s not so easy to explain, but I seem to identify a feature that is characteristic of a particular place and use my senses to link to it emotionally—trying to recreate in words what I felt when I was there. It’s not simply “place” though, but more a series of “moments-in-place.” The atmosphere of a place changes depending on time of day, seasons and events. It’s possible to keep track of these changes if you maintain a detailed journal as I always do—scraps of information about everything I see, hear, smell and feel. With buildings and landscapes, for example, I record how light and weather affect them. A grey stone wall, for instance, may look hard and forbidding in Scotland, but under a tropical sun it feels surprisingly soft and warm. I note sounds and snippets of overheard conversation, clothes, colours, rhythms of people’s movements—all of which suggest place. Scribbling is a bit of an obsession with me, perhaps a way of hanging on to something I don’t want to end. My other obsession is photography, probably for the same reason. In my early travelling days I used Kodachrome but film was expensive; now you can take large memory cards and click away without a thought. When I’m writing, I scroll through my images and they recall whole scenes for me. The jottings and photographs aid my memory for those sensuous details that I believe evoke atmosphere.

Two of Trish's tools for capturing the details of places. Photo credits: (top) Notebook collection, by Dvortygirl via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Kodachrome, by Pittaya Sroilong via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Two of Trish’s tools for capturing the details of place. Photo credits: (top) Notebook collection, by Dvortygirl via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); Kodachrome, by
Pittaya Sroilong via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?

They all can, of course, depending on the story and a writer’s personal interests. I’m certainly no foodie, but even I can feel the tropical heat of Papua New Guinea when recalling drinking kulau (Tok Pisin for “juice from a young green coconut”) straight from a young coconut—the rough, dry shell on my lips, the smooth sweet coolness dribbling down my chin. Language, too, has always been a significant feature for me. Many writers avoid using dialect or foreign words in dialogue so as not to stress the reader, but there are ways of making it easier, and readers enjoy a little challenge. I write dialect or local language in short stories and in travelogues because it draws readers closer to people. And if I want to create the sense of a very specific location, I focus on whatever features are found only in that one place—for example, in Bhutan, the painted red bands around a building that tells you there are sacred relics inside, or in Australia, the surreal landforms of the Bungle Bungles that seem to stride across the landscape enacting their own primordial drama.

Which of your works provides the best illustration of place, and can you give us a brief example?

From Inside the Crocodile, a jungle moment on the hair-raising trek from Oksapmin to Lake Kopiago:

The heavy shower was reduced to drizzle under the canopy and it invigorated the forest; every shade of green was intensified, glistening and vivid. Lazy drops of water glided along leaves, dripping silently onto moss beneath. Fine hairs on the ribs of fern fronds, usually invisible, were lit-up by tiny twinkling water droplets like miniature fairy lights. And the air was filled with the fecund mustiness of moist earth seasoned with the tang of wet foliage … the forest stood in strange, expectant silence, muffled by the press of growing, spreading vegetation all around us. Yet every surface, especially the dark underside, was teeming with life we could not see, or would not recognise if we did, and we couldn’t see beyond the next tree trunk or veil of hanging moss. The sense of being enclosed, entrapped within an unknowable multitude, was overpowering.

Photo credits: (top) A frog inside the papaya tree, one of many critters found in PNG; one of many disintegrating bamboo bridges in PNG (by Trish Nicholson, supplied).

Photo credits: (top) A frog inside the papaya tree, one of many critters found in PNG; one of many disintegrating bamboo bridges in PNG (by Trish Nicholson, supplied).

And if I’m allowed another little one, from Journey in Bhutan, my journal entry the evening after we visited the ancient temple of Kyichu Lhakhang:

… I want to remember how it felt when I first entered the lhakhang – the dark wooden floor, polished and worn into grooves by centuries of calloused feet; distant chanting heard through a haze of incense; Buddhas lustrous in the flickering light of butter lamps – thirteen centuries of reverence are distilled in that room creating an almost palpable sanctity. I feel the balm of its atmosphere as I write – it’s almost like a presence.

Photo credits: (clockwise from top left) Rinpung Dzong, a large dzong (Buddhist monastery and fortress) found in Paro District, Bhutan; book cover art; ancient religious relics inside the lhakhang (all photos supplied by Trish Nicholson).

Photo credits: (top) Rinpung Dzong, a large dzong (Buddhist monastery and fortress) found in Paro District, Bhutan; book cover art; ancient religious relics inside the lhakhang (by Trish Nicholson, supplied).

How well do you need to know a place before using it as a setting?

This is a particularly interesting question because I believe one can be in a location too long. The point is not how much time is spent in a place, but how well we “see” it. In an urban setting, I can spend an hour leaning against a wall on a street corner, or a day walking the streets at random, and gather a huge number of impressions and factual details. In remote areas it takes longer because the changing elements have a greater affect on atmosphere. But this may be enough for the setting of a single story. Obviously, for a travelogue, longer immersion is necessary to reach a depth of understanding across time and seasons. But it depends also on how one writes about a place, the scope of the account. I was in Bhutan for a month, much of that time trekking, so although I included monasteries and temples, and carried out a lot of research on cultural and historical background, Journey in Bhutan focuses on the trek rather than trying to cover the whole country superficially. So, how long is too long? After a few years in Papua New Guinea I noted in my journal:

I’m losing all sense of “normal”.

I began taking for granted what seemed extraordinary to a visitor. Fortunately, I had recorded early events that revealed my astonishment and joy and alienation as a greenhorn during those first months. Without the journals, Inside the Crocodile would have lacked that perspective on the location because, after a while, we cease to “see” so clearly.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?

Hard to pick a few from so many: Vikram Seth for his depiction of India—but his first book, From Heaven Lake, was a vivid travelogue of Sinkiang and Tibet; he was still a student but the novelist is already burgeoning in those pages. Khaled Hosseini, who so cleverly weaves his characters into the texture of place in The Kite Runner, and Nikolai Gogol, especially in Dead Souls, where his detailing of personal possessions in a room reveals not only a distinctly Russian steppes atmosphere, but also a character’s past and present. And one more: Ruth Rendell appears to break all the “rules” in The Keys to the Street by opening with almost two pages describing London’s ornamental iron railings—but in such a way that with the first paragraph we are already anxious about those spikes.

Trish's picks for writers who have mastered the art of writing about place.

Trish’s picks for writers who have mastered the art of writing about place.

Thanks so much, Trish! I can easily see why one reviewer described you as “full of humour, adventure, and iron determination…”

* * *

Readers, any questions for Trish Nicholson? Please leave them in the comments below before she disappears back into her treehouse.

And if you’d like to discover more about Trish, why not visit her author site. She also chirps on twitter at @TrishaNicholson.

Until next month!

Lorraine Mace writes for children with the Vlad the Inhaler books. As Frances di Plino, she writes crime in the D.I. Paolo Storey series. She is a columnist for both of the UK’s top writing magazines, has founded international writing competitions and runs a writing critique service, mentoring authors on three continents.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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Photo credits (top of page): The World Book (1920), by Eric Fischer via Flickr; “Writing? Yeah.” by Caleb Roenigk via Flickr (both CC BY 2.0).

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