The Displaced Nation

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

Happy New Year, Displaced Nationers!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

STAY TUNED for more fab posts.

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

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

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BOOKLUST, WANDERLUST: Giving thanks for expat and repat writers whose novels have an international flavor

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 several recommended reads!

Hello again, Displaced Nationers!

This week is Thanksgiving in the USA. Many Americans abroad skip this holiday for one reason or another—one main reason being the cost of frozen turkey (a friend in Thailand recently posted a picture of one selling for $200 at the expat grocery store!).

But I always try to do something a little bit special. The way I see it, there can never be enough occasions to sit down with friends to a table full of good food!

In addition to planning for Thanksgiving and the holiday season, I’ve been cruising through the rest of my 2015 To-Be-Read list. This month, I’ve been feasting, so to speak, on three books by current or former expats who write fiction set against international landscapes. Two of them are first-time novels and the other is a thriller. One came out with a small press, and the other two are self-pubbed. Take a look!

1) Summer on the Cold War Planet, by Paula Closson Buck (Fomite, 2015)

Summer Cold War Buck

A first novel about expats in late 1980s Berlin, written by a former Fulbright fellow who has written poems and short stories about her travels? Sounds like a perfect choice for the Displaced Nation! Paula Closson Buck directs the creative writing program at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, and is currently at work on a novel set in Venice—keep your eyes open for a review of that book, too, when it publishes.

Summer on the Cold War Planet tells the story of Lyddie, a young American woman who is living in Berlin a few years before reunification and studying architecture. She encounters a trio of German artists/activists and also meets her future husband, an American botanist named Phelps.

Most of the action takes place, as the title suggests, the summer before the Berlin Wall falls. At that time, Phelps disappears while conducting botanical research in Kurdistan and so Lyddie, now pregnant, returns to Berlin to examine her feelings for the absent Phelps—and rediscover who she is.

Buck brings the period to life through gorgeous details such as:

In the simple way the young East German at the border touched Lyddie’s face, tipping her chin this way and that as he scrutinized her features in relation to her passport, Lyddie felt she understood the meaning of Cold War. He returned her passport with a hint of a smirk and nodded her release.

But, although I was transported to the intense atmosphere of 1989 Berlin, I often felt at arm’s length from Lyddie, I think because, especially in the flashback scenes, she seemed to be letting others make choices for her.

Later, when the action shifts to the Cycladic Islands in Greece, Lyddie becomes more relatable. My favorite character in the novel, I’d like to add, is another point-of-view character, a Greek painter who learns to paint canvases underwater. A new thing to try next time I go scuba diving!

2) A Decent Bomber, by Alexander McNabb (November 2015)

McNabb Decent Bomber

This book also ticked two boxes for inclusion in this column—an expat author and an internationally relevant plot. Alexander McNabb is a former journalist who has lived abroad—mostly in the Middle East—for about 30 years. He is author of several other international thrillers, including the “Levant Cycle” books, all three of which were featured on the Displaced Nation.

The action of McNabb’s previous international thrillers centers on the Middle East, but he sets A Decent Bomber in Europe, mostly in Ireland.

Now, I find it fun to read thrillers (“fun” in that kind of macabre sense), and this one has an enjoyable premise. A retired, reformed bomb-maker for the Irish Republican Army reluctantly agrees to build new bombs, this time for African terrorists—and then tries to save the day before his bombs explode. McNabb keeps the pacing tight, the action scenes believable, and the violence just on this side of gruesome.

Perhaps because of recent current events, I was also impressed with how delicately he handles the multiculturalism of present-day Ireland, as well as the long, contentious history between the English and Irish. Take, for example, the following scene, set in a mosque in Northern Ireland:

“Welcome. I am Abdelkader Ul-Haq.”

“Hello, Father. My name’s Pat.”

Abdelkader hobbled to behind the desk and lowered himself into the wooden armchair. “I am not your father. May I sit?”

“Of course. I’m not holding you up. And father is we call our priests.”

“I know. I was joking with you. It is always best to joke with men who have guns, I am finding.”

“What gun?”

“I know the shapes guns make in clothes, Mister Pat. I come from a troubled place.’

“Well you’ve certainly hopped out of the frying pan into the fire.”

“Belfast? It is peaceful now. Before, there were troubles. No more. How may I be of assistance to you?”

Lest you be put off by the idea of following the adventures of a lone cowboy (indeed, Pat is such a cowboy that he actually owns cows), I should mention that our hero is rarely alone. He is joined on the chase by his college-student niece along with a group of police officers and politicians from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, all of whom provide moments of comic relief. As we know from the Displaced Nation’s previous encounters with McNabb, he has a sense of humo(u)r.

3) I Have Lived Today, by Steven Moore (October 2014)

I have lived today Moore

I included this book in this particular round-up because of the author’s international credentials, and because it has received 130+ five-star reviews on Amazon. Steven Moore is the man behind the visually stunning travel blog, Twenty First Century Nomad (he also has an author site). He has been working and traveling abroad for at least twenty years. He now lives in Mexico, and one suspects his adventures aren’t over yet!

But, now, let’s burrow into the pages of Moore’s book, his first. Although the novel does have scenes both in the UK and in New York City, it is principally a coming-of-age story about a boy whose travels have to do with discovering his own conscience. I Have Lived Today takes place in the 1960s and follows the turbulent journey of Tristan Nancarrow, a boy so badly treated by his alcoholic father that he was never allowed to attend school.

Tristan’s mother is forced to run for her life, and not long after, Tristan makes his escape from the isolated island where the family lives. He spends the bulk of the book trying to reunite with his mother—having plenty of adventures, along with his share of small triumphs and bitter tragedies, along the way.

I especially enjoyed the parts of the novel when Tristan discovers what he was missing out on while under his father’s control. One of the first things he does after escaping is go to a bookstore and buy an atlas:

Tristan turned the pages delicately, as if he was looking at a priceless and ancient manuscript. To him it was an object of beauty, a treasure from a museum, and indeed the musty old store had a museum feel about it, or at least that’s how Tristan imagined a museum would seem, having never been to one.

There are times in I Have Lived Today when the tone takes on a moralistic edge and the pacing becomes steady and unrushed in a manner reminiscent of a Grimm’s fairy tale (though, to be sure, without any witches or other supernatural beings).

Our hero, Tristan, despite his father’s brutal abuse, remains an innocent who chooses to embrace a white-knight moral code even as the world shows him how cruel it can be. Through switches in point of view, Moore lets the reader peek into other characters’ motivations, but the focus is always on Tristan and his choice to reject his personal demons. This hero has resilience—the quality that we expats need—in spades.

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So, Displaced Nationers, if you’re lucky enough to have a few moments to yourself over Thanksgiving or before the holiday season gets into full swing, you might want to check out these three books. They’re as different as the sides at a potluck Thanksgiving, and no less delicious for that!

p.s. And, since it’s Thanksgiving, may I say a hearty thank you to my readers! Please keep in touch and let me or ML know if you have any suggestions for books you’d like to see reviewed here! Last but not least, 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!

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: In “The Porcelain Thief,” ATCK and expat writer Huan Hsu assembles shards of his Chinese heritage

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 a new recommended read!

Hello again Displaced Nationers!

After a long absence (in which I got to satisfy some wanderlust, go me!), I’m resuming my column just in time for the crisp autumn weather that is conducive to some serious reading.

This month I’m excited to tell you about one book in particular I uploaded to my Kindle since we last met: The Porcelain Thief: Searching the Middle Kingdom for Buried China—a memoir of a journey through Mainland China and Taiwan by Chinese American journalist Huan Hsu.

Photo credits: Top third of an antique Chinese vase (Pixabay); cover art; Huan Hsu's author portrait by Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen.

Photo credits: Top third of a Chinese antique porcelain vase (Pixabay); cover art; Huan Hsu’s author portrait, by Martijn van Nieuwenhuyzen.

Hsu currently lives in Amsterdam and teaches creative writing at Amsterdam University College, but he grew up in Utah. His parents had immigrated to the US from China via Taiwan. Hsu had never set foot in Asia until, as an adult, he started investigating the family legend that sparked this book.

I think one of the reasons Hsu’s account of his travels within China resonated with me so much is that I returned to the United States this summer after a two-year absence and, as usual, felt disoriented. In my case, of course, it was reverse culture shock. I just couldn’t get over the novelty of understanding everything. I started eavesdropping on conversations not because I wanted to but just because I could! Sometimes when people asked me questions, I would stare at them blankly before realizing I could understand what they were saying and respond. I found all the signs and labels, which I often tune out in my life in Prague, distracting. Man, counter culture shock can be tiring!

But whereas I was going home again, Hsu was recounting his very first journey to his homeland, another kind of (and more challenging, I think) Through-the-Looking-Glass experience.

Hsu goes to Shanghai ostensibly to work in an uncle’s semiconductor chip business, but really he wants to interview his grandmother to see what she knows about the family tale of his great-great grandfather having buried a vast collection of prized antique porcelain just before he and his family fled the town of Xingang, on the Yangtze River, to escape the Japanese occupation.

In a place he’s never been—but which many people expect him to regard as “home”

In Shanghai, Hsu finds himself in a place he’s never been—but which many people expect him to regard as “home.” Coming to China without fluent Mandarin, he’s just as much at-sea as many other American expats; but the people he encounters treat him differently than they do other foreigners. In fact, they don’t really consider him an “expat”; rather, they see him as “Chinese”—as much as he would have been if his family had never left that part of the world.

Invisible foreigner in Shanghai

Photo credits: “Just a ‘Small Crowd,'” by Kyle Taylor via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); invisible man (via Pixabay); middle third of Chinese antique porcelain vase (via Pixabay).

This honorary insider status frequently works to Hsu’s advantage as he tries to uncover the truth—if any is to be found—about the complicated events that led to his ancestor burying his precious porcelain pots before taking flight and becoming displaced.

To be honest, I would have been perfectly happy if Hsu’s entire book had been about his experiences as an American-born Chinese exploring China. As Hsu himself says in an essay published earlier this year just before The Porcelain Thief came out, “while books about the Chinese-American experience in America are plentiful, … the story of Chinese-Americans in China remains unstudied.”

It is a story that interests me personally as my now-husband, who is half Chinese, and I once lived in China, where he could pass for Chinese as long as he didn’t talk too much, whereas I was the visible foreigner. (Now that we live in Prague, our “visibilites” are reversed.)

Hsu talks about the times he had it easier adjusting to China because of his ancestry (fewer stares, more acceptance in some areas), but I was happy to see him also address the down side of this situation:

“…(F)etishization of Westerners was perhaps the most exasperating part of being an ABC [American-Born Chinese] in China…the Chinese still regarded laowai [foreigner] as an ethnicity, not a nationality, so we lacked the necessary skin tone and hair color.”

Likewise, other expats fail to see him:

“…I felt wounded when a fellow expat’s gaze passed over me without acknowledgment. Non-Chinese foreigners seemed to always notice one another on the street, sharing a knowing, conspiratorial glance, and when I tried to catch their eyes, they probably regarded me as just another impolite, ogling local. Though I stood out to the local Chinese, I was also invisible to many of my countrymen.”

Hsu’s refreshing honesty about the difficulties of living in China

One of the dangers of many travel memoirs (one that I sometimes fall prey to in my own writing) is to only write about the trip’s highlights. But perhaps because of his journalist background, Hsu is refreshingly honest. He calls it as he sees it:

“To face the absurdities of daily life, expats in Shanghai keep a mantra: This is China. The Middle Kingdom was not so much a foreign country as it was a parallel universe that managed to offend all five senses plus one more—common.”

Hmm… As I can attest from my own experience, it’s not only expats in Shanghai who feel that way!

And if he is honest about the difficulties of living in China, Hsu is also honest about the difficulties of studying Chinese. Anyone who has signed up for language classes after a move abroad will identify with this passage:

“Their Mandarin sounded familiar, and their speech didn’t seem fast to me, and sometimes I could even understand a good number of the words. But I couldn’t comprehend a thing because I was missing all the important ones, so I would hear something like, ‘Okay, and now we’re going to talk about [blank] and why you [blank] and [blank] because [blank] [blank] [blank] [blank] [blank] [blank] otherwise [blank] [blank] [blank]. Any questions?’”

Good memoirs are a little raw; this one is. Just as Hsu doesn’t pull any punches when describing China, he is equally blunt about owning up to his family’s quirks and talking about his own difficulties surmounting culture shock. Regarding this last, he writes about people having “the same personal space as puppies” on public transportation, and about his cringing embarrassment when he sees people drying their laundry on telephone poles in less-affluent areas of the city. I think anyone who has been an expat in China has made a similar list of initial observations. I can remember doing so after moving to China in 2006.

So much more than just a TCK-experiencing-Culture-One memoir

But in the end, the book is so much more than just a TCK-experiencing-Culture-One memoir. Tsu also introduces the reader to the art of Chinese porcelain, which serves in turn as a kind of symbol of modern China, a nation of fragments.

Photo credit: Chinese antique porcelain vase (Pixabay).

Photo credit: Chinese antique porcelain vase (Pixabay).

In fact the bulk of the book is devoted to Hsu actively searching for any remaining pieces of the family treasure. He flies to Taiwan and Hong Kong to locate the heart of the old porcelain industry. He finally visits the old family property that his great-greats had fled and in so doing turns up long-forgotten shirttail relations.

In the course of this quest, Hsu pieces together beautifully imagined scenes of his family’s escape from the Japanese into the Chinese diaspora.

I enjoyed The Porcelain Thief on all kinds of levels: as memoir, travelogue, art history, and social history. I’d particularly urge anyone who has lived as an expat in China, or who is thinking of doing so, to give it a try.

* * *

So, readers, have you ever had the experience of being an “invisible” expat or know someone who has felt that way? Let us know in the comments. And if you have ideas for books to review for this column, please leave a comment or let me know on Twitter! Last but not least, 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!

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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TCK TALENT: Neil Aitken, Computer Gaming Whiz Kid Turned Award-Winning Poet

Neil Aitken Poet

Neil Aitken (photo supplied)

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her column featuring interviews with Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields. Lisa herself is a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about growing up as a TCK, called Alien Citizen, which premiered nearly two years ago and is still going strong. In fact, she will soon be taking the production to Valencia, Spain, and Capetown, South Africa!

—ML Awanohara

Welcome back, readers! Today’s interviewee is poet Neil Aitken: winner of the prestigious Philip Levine Prize for Poetry for his book of poems, The Lost Country of Sight and founding editor of Boxcar Poetry Review. Neil and I met at the Mixed Roots Literary & Film Festival in 2009. I am so pleased to have the chance to interview him this month for TCK Talent.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Neil. I understand that you’re a multi-ethnic ATCK like me! Please tell us about your heritage.
My father was born in the Okanogan Valley in British Columbia, Canada, of Scottish and English descent. My mother was born on Hainan Island, south of China, in the midst of the conflict between the Nationalists and the Communists in China. Shortly after her birth, her parents—her father was a high-ranking officer in the Nationalist Army and her mother, the daughter of one of the elite island families—fled to Taiwan to escape the Communists. Despite growing up a world apart, my parents met in the middle, Hawaii, while both attending university there.

Where were you born, and where did you live growing up?
I was born in Vancouver. My father’s bachelor’s degree was in Linguistics & ESL. His first job took us to Dhuhran, Saudi Arabia, where he taught English in the oil universities. But then my mother developed severe asthma due to the extreme heat and dust, and the doctors warned her that if she stayed any longer, she would be putting her life in peril. So she took my younger sister and me (I was four, my sister two-and-half) to Taiwan to live with relatives while my father completed the last nine months of his teaching contract. While in Taiwan, my sister and I forgot all our English, switched completely to Mandarin Chinese, and attended a Chinese-speaking pre-school. When my father finally arrived to pick us up, apparently we were so frustrated in our inability to communicate with him, we refused to speak Chinese until we relearned English. By the time we returned to Canada, we’d made the switch—but lost our Chinese in the process. My father returned to school in Vancouver, concluding that it was too hard to raise a family as an ESL professor. He completed a Masters in Library Science degree at the University of British Columbia and, when I was eight, we moved to North Battleford, Saskatchewan, a small city surrounded by farmland in the northern part of the province. Later we moved to Regina, the province’s capital and a much more vibrant multicultural center, where my father took his dream job as the supervisor over a special book collection focused on local, regional, and family histories of the Central Plains and Prairie Provinces. I completed elementary school and high school there.

“It is dark always, then someone opens a door./Then another. Then another.” —Neil Aitken from “Prodigal”

Fascinating! Did you stay in Canada for college?
No, I moved to Provo, Utah, to attend Brigham Young University, but I took a two-year break from school to serve as a missionary in Taiwan, relearning Mandarin in the process and re-immersing myself in culture, family, and place. When I returned, I completed my studies and then returned to Canada—to Calgary, Alberta. I looked for work for a year and eventually landed a job in Los Angeles.

I understand that just as your background spans two very different cultures, your academic background spans two very different disciplines?
Yes, as an undergraduate I studied Computer Engineering with a minor in Mathematics. I also took a number of graduate courses in Creative Writing. My first job was working in the computer games industry, but after five years, I left programming to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing and then returned to Canada for a year to look for work and to care for my father, who was in rapid decline from ALS. I also spent that year writing and finishing my first book of poetry and then applying to PhD programs. I received a number of excellent offers from all over the US, but in the end chose to return to Los Angeles and pursue a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. I’ve been here in Los Angeles ever since, but now, on the threshold of graduating, am likely to be packing up and moving again to somewhere as yet undetermined.

Binary code via Pixabay; cover art.

Binary code via Pixabay; cover art.

What has the transition been like, going from computer programmer to poet?
In truth, I’ve been writing poetry almost as long as I’ve been programming. I started writing poetry in earnest when I was around 10, about the same time my father brought home an IBM PC Jr with GW-BASIC on it. One of my very first original programs was a haiku generator that produced pretty awful haiku. Even as an undergraduate studying computer science, I sought permission to take creative writing classes at the graduate level. For a long time, I thought I could juggle writing poetry with computer programming. Eventually, however, programming lost its luster and I stopped loving the work, despite still being good at what I did. I knew at some point I needed to jump ship—I couldn’t bear the thought of spending my life in a field that no longer held my attention or affection. Working full time as a computer games programmer, I found myself putting in 60-, 70-, 80-, and occasionally 94-hour weeks. It was just too much. It was time to find a way out. At the same time, it was important to me that I avoid going into debt for my poetry degree, so I had to wait for the right offer. All the while, I continued programming and when possible, spent my evenings at open mic poetry venues, listening to all sorts of poets read their works. Eventually, I received a call from UC Riverside offering me a generous full-ride MFA scholarship, which made the transition possible.

“I wake already longing for those whom I soon will leave—” —Neil Aitken, from “Kundiman”

One of the judges for the Philip Levine Prize said that “Traveling Through the Prairies, I Think of My Father’s Voice” struck him as being a “perfectly made poem.” Was your family close?
I have many fond memories of time spent as a family together, whether it was picking through a coal seam at the side of a mountain highway with my father searching for fossils, or gathering together as a family on the eve of my graduation—the photo of which is the only family photo where we’re all smiling naturally, unrehearsed, unburdened by life’s later challenges and sorrows—or just simply lazing around the house at Christmas, listening to my father read Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales to us with his usual gusto and dramatic flair.

Where have you been happiest as an adult?
My happiest moments in recent years have been tied to my friends and fellow poets whom I met through Kundiman, an organization dedicated to the creation and cultivation of Asian American literature. The three years I attended the Kundiman Poetry Retreat set in motion lifetime friendships and bonds with people that, to this day, I count as my closest poetry kin—I was unprepared for how deeply and completely I would fall in love with the community, and how this group of Asian American poets would come to be a second family. When I showed up for my first Kundiman retreat in 2005, I was convinced that there had been an error—how had they let me in? What use could they have for a Chinese-Scottish-English Canadian poet who rarely wrote about identity, at least not directly? But on the first day, as we made our introductions in a classroom at the University of Virginia, I soon realized that many of the other participants felt the same way I did. We had all arrived convinced that our lives and our writing were somehow outside of what was expected and permitted—only to discover that what was happening on the front lines of Asian American literature was much more diverse and vibrant, much more compelling and dynamic, much more inclusive than whatever we had been led to believe from the anthologies we’d read and the classes we’d taken. To this day, I love running into a fellow Kundiman and can’t wait to hear about their work and discover what they have to offer to the conversation.

Your Kundiman experience sounds like a quintessentially good TCK experience. In general, do you find that “your people” tend to be other ATCKs, or cross-cultural people, or creative folk?
It varies quite a bit, but generally speaking I’ve found myself most at home with other Asian American writers (especially those I’ve met through Kundiman), other editors of literary journals, and other people who negotiate the fragile yet fertile space between faith, science, and compassion. On a broader level, I find my people are those who share a love of language and literature, whose eyes are on the forgotten spaces and figures of the world, and whose efforts and desires pointed outwards, with the ambition to make more room at the table. I love surrounding myself with people who are building bridges and tearing down arbitrary walls, who are not afraid to speak against the structures of oppression and forgetting, and who challenge themselves to do more and be more than who they were yesterday.

“There is always something that refuses to be contained…” —Neil Aitken in “Encapsulation”

On top of working toward your PhD, you won the DJS Translation Award for your co-translations of poetry from Mandarin to English. How do you feel about your two “native” languages? Do you prefer one to the other?
I love the strange and omnivorous nature of English. English is constantly devouring other languages, incorporating new terms into its lexicon, and expanding with each passing year and succeeding social revolution. In terms of tone, music, and range, very few languages can compete with English. That being said, I also have a big place in my heart for Mandarin Chinese, a language I learned once when I was very young, forgot, then relearned at 19.

What is it like to translate from Chinese into English?
The two languages could not be more different. Chinese is a language traditionally learned by the memorization of classical and literary texts. It relies heavily on allusion, each word and phrase carrying with it a wealth of cultural association and literary reference. It moves not just sonically but also visually, evoking the elements—fire and water, air and earth—and connecting words and ideas that share some common philosophical history. The act of translation is a humbling experience—I’m constantly reminded of how fluid concepts and relationships are between ideas once they are unshackled from one’s mother tongue. And yet, there is great pleasure in it as well. I enjoy puzzles—I enjoy this bit of creative play where the translator searches for a way to create an equivalent experience and gesture in a new language for something that they have encountered in the original. My childhood experiences with Chinese left a deep imprint in my mind that manifests itself now as a type of intuition when it comes to finding the right equivalent phrase or understanding the cultural impact or resonance of the original line. It’s an imperfect intuition, but one that nevertheless guides me through tricky places in the poems and helps me feel still a part of the Chinese culture.

Finally, I’d like to congratulate you on winning of the prestigious Philip Levine Prize for Poetry for The Lost Country of Sight. Is there a particular poem from that collection that expresses your feelings of transience or loneliness or instability—or freedom or curiosity or love of travel—that you are most proud of, and could you share it with us?
In many respects, my entire first book of poetry, The Lost Country of Sight, grapples with these themes and, therefore, it’s actually pretty hard to settle on just one poem. I’m going to suggest two, if I may:

In the Long Dream of Exile

You are counting the dark exit of crows
in the rear view mirror, or from the top of an overpass
looking back into the last flames of cloud.
Your car, steel to the world of flint, rests listless
with its windows wide, the stars slipping in
and settling down for the night.
Now, what you could not leave rides in boxes
heavy with numbers and places you’ve already
turned into poems. There is nothing left
in your pockets, your clothes worn down
to this list of miles taking you out of the known earth.
Outside your open window, the dark repeats
like the wind in late fall, twisting the names
of familiar back roads into a long rope of sighs.
You could lower yourself down with such longing.
It could be a woman or a young girl, the way the light
clings to that body like a sheet of immaculate heat,
invisible to the eye, but something, you are certain,
something that must be on the verge of love.

driving_abstractly

In the Country I Call Home

I have two countries, Cuba and the night.
~ José Marti

There is no Cuba, no other half of night.
No dark woman in her deep robe of grief,
no wooden doors flung open to emptiness. Nothing
of music. No city in flames. All this absent.

In me, there are as many countries as names.
As many versions of the world.

If there is a country, it is a white-limbed tree,
a wind-drifted plain of snow. It is a country buried.
Or a man holding a camera to his eye. Or a silence.

If there is a country, there are two countries.
A double exposure. The other world ghosting the first.
The second full of dark-haired strangers. Ink ground
from charcoal pressed to stone. Hard as raw rice.

If there are two countries, a third always rises.
Life preserver on the waves. A ship without reference.
Anywhere. Everywhere. A nation of one.

If there are three, there must be a fourth.
I will find it in your skin. Hear it resonate in your bones.
A ringing echo. Something of sound. It will be small.
Almost a hut. A thatched roof shack in the wilderness.
A hermitage for two. A boat in a river. Almost a home.

snowdrift

“Wind shapes,” by John Holm via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

* * *

Thank you, Neil, for these two lyrical offerings. Again, congratulations on your numerous accomplishments in poetry and translation, and best of luck with post-PhD life! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Neil below.

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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DIARY OF AN EXPAT WRITER: How to fly solo without burning the tips of my wings

DiaryExpatWriterI am pleased to welcome back up-and-coming author Shannon Young. This past summer, Shannon announced she’d cut 18 inches off her hair, quit her day job to become a full-time writer, and given herself a pen name for her planned adventure novel series. And, yes, she is an expat, a kind of love refugee, in Hong Kong. Shannon has agreed to chronicle her writing adventure for us. This is her second installment.*

—ML Awanohara

Dear Displaced Diary,

As you may recall, last month I gave you some background on my decision to quit my day job and dedicate six months to writing with all my time, all my savings, and all my heart.

I already love the sensation of flying solo. As writing coach Mary Carroll Moore once said:

Books demand more time inside, to think, muse, dream, and design our stories.

But what if I love it so much I end up soaring too high and burning my wings? To continue the aviation metaphor, I mustn’t forget to touch ground and refuel every so often.

Diary, my goal this month is to find the balance between chasing my dreams and relying on much-needed feedback, input and advice from the people within my editing and writing community.

Recently I’ve learned three lessons that I think could be useful to bear in mind:

1: Languish in limbo no longer.

fire-dragons_coverThis month saw the final publication stages for the first book I ever started writing: Year of Fire Dragons. The working title for several years was Hong Kong Limbo, which is a fairly good description of this book’s journey. After writing several drafts, I worked with an excellent critique partner (fellow expat author Jane Cornelius) and asked numerous friends and relatives to beta read before querying literary agents.

To make a long story short, one of the first agents who requested the full manuscript spent two years assuring me she would get to it soon. I don’t know if she ever opened the manuscript, leaving me—and my writing career—hanging in the balance.

At the two-year mark, I withdrew my manuscript from her consideration. By that time, I had begun to believe that this particular book could find just the right home outside the New York publishing world and didn’t want to keep being strung along. I decided to take my career back into my own hands.

Three months later I had signed a book deal with Blacksmith Books, an excellent Hong Kong-based publisher, and my piece on student debt had been accepted into the competitive Kindle Singles program. That piece is now being made into an audiobook as well.

In retrospect I’m grateful for the delay that took place due because of that New York City agent. It gave me time to do some rewriting, and my manuscript was much better by the time I submitted it to Blacksmith Books.

That said, it also taught me an important lesson about taking control of my own career.

In this season as a full-time writer, I hope I’ll continue to learn when to take the initiative and be a better judge of when to rely on other people’s responses.

2: Get by with A LOT of help from your friends.

My full-time writing schedule has allowed plenty of time to work on the little details while preparing for the launch of Year of Fire Dragons—with help and feedback from others, of course!

Here are a few things that happened this month:

1) The publisher sent the final proofreading notes. I combed through the manuscript one final time, knowing that this was my very last chance to catch any errors.

2) We rewrote the blurb (again), simplifying it a bit from the previous version. It needed to be stripped down to the basics of the story. Here it is:

Year of Fire Dragons: An American Woman’s Story of Coming of Age in Hong Kong

When a bookish 22-year-old follows her Eurasian boyfriend to Hong Kong, she hopes it’ll be the happy ending to their long distance love story. But a month later, his company sends him to London. Left with a new job and a pile of student debt, she embarks on a wide-eyed newcomer’s journey through Hong Kong—alone. She works as the only foreigner in a local school and explores with other young expats. The city enchants her, forcing her to question her carefully laid plans. Soon she must make a choice between her new life and the love that first brought her to Asia.

(Is your curiosity piqued, Dear Diary?)

3) I practiced talking about the book without being annoying. This is a difficult one for me. Like many writers, I’m an introvert, and it’s a constant struggle to figure out the right balance of things to say. (If you know me in a real life and I talk about my work too much, please tell me to cut it out!)

4) I messed up, but got things sorted out in the nick of time. My publisher arranged to have an excerpt from my book published in a cool local magazine. I got the email about the opportunity shortly before I flew to Taipei for a friend’s wedding. I didn’t read the email closely enough to realize that they needed the excerpt ASAP. Several days later, I found myself in line for the elevator at Taipei 101 (the world’s second tallest building) reading an email asking where my excerpt was and could I send a photo, too? I had left my computer back in Hong Kong. At the top of Taipei 101, I tucked myself into a corner and spent most of our visit frantically trying to download the manuscript on my phone and find an appropriate photo to forward. Thank goodness for free WiFi! When we got back to the hostel I was able to use their computer to download my book and find just the right excerpt for the magazine.

5) I received blurbs offering advance praise of my book, the final full spread cover design, and a PDF with typeset pages (248!)—all the bits and pieces that make a book come to life. I’d written the pages, but my publisher had polished them, the designer had created the beautiful artwork for the cover, and the blurb writers had inspired me through their own books and offers of encouragement along the way.

Notably, all of these little victories were the direct result of other people’s input.

3: Expat life can be read as a metaphor for the editing process.

It occurred to me the other day that living in another country can be likened to the writing and editing process. An expat has to be open-minded to the cultures around him—just as a writer must learn when to accept feedback. An expat must also forge her own path—just as a writer must sometimes decide to hold fast to the words she wants to write and the career she wants to pursue.

With the near constant feedback of the other culture, an expat naturally reassesses the way they do things. Sometimes your new country doesn’t offer the same opportunities and you need to adapt, and sometimes you see a better way.

Year of Fire Dragons used to have a lot more words: awkward words, melodramatic words, giddy and petulant and angry words about my first year living as an expat in Hong Kong. The process of writing the book was a maturing process. I had to first learn to describe what I saw on the surface, with assumptions and prejudices and even rose-colored glasses. Then I had to learn to refine my perceptions even as I learned to edit my words. I had to cut to the heart of what was most important, most interesting, and most moving.

My work and my expat life are not so different, it turns out.

Diary, I still struggle with whether I’m making the right decisions. I wonder whether my book will be good enough, or if I should have spent yet another year revising. I even question whether people are just trying to be nice when they say sweet things about my book.

Throughout the next few months, I hope I’ll continue to learn how to take all the lessons offered by the wise folks around me, while still building this new life the way I want it to be.

Thank you again for following along on this journey!

Yours,

Shannon Young
www.shannonyoungwriter.com

* * *

Readers, it’s your turn. Have you ever struggled with the writing process, wondering how long you should hunker down before accepting feedback on your work, or if that feedback is genuine? Let us know in the comments!

*Shannon Young has edited an anthology, How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia (2014), from which she is sharing some excerpts. We’re calling them “chunks” of dragonfruit—they taste delicious!

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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And the nominees for best expat/travel film are…seeking your vote! Welcome to the 2013 Displaced Oscars

Don’t miss our 4 polls below! Results to be announced in March 2nd Displaced Dispatch! Enjoy!

When I first repatriated to the United States, I relished the chance to watch the Oscars again. For some reason — I’m not sure why, particularly as I was never a big movie buff — I regretted missing out on the pinnacle of Hollywood glamour during my years of living overseas, first in England and then in Japan.

It did not take long, however, before the novelty wore off. I grew bored with the dresses — they all seemed so same-y. And a tux is a tux is a tux.

I also grew bored with the selection of films. Typically, Oscar-nominated films take place within a single country’s borders — and when people cross these borders, it is in the service of maintaining them (IT’S WAR!!!). Apart from when Sofia Coppola was singled out for her Lost in Translation screenplay, the plots do not exactly speak to me and my prior situation of displacement.

Case-in-point: 2013 Oscar nominees

A great example of what I’m talking about are the two historical — or, more accurately, historically informed — movies that are up for this year’s Oscars:

  1. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln — the quintessential American biographical period piece that the Academy loves (it is predicted to win five Oscars, including best director for Spielberg).
  2. Les Misérables, the film of the musical theatre adaptation — which in turn is based on an historical novel by Victor Hugo (1862), depicting life in the aftermath of the French Revolution. (Les Mis is likely to win for its score, sound mixing, makeup and hair styling, and best supporting actress for Anne Hathaway.)

Actually, make that three historical films, as Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (up for best picture, cinematography and best original screenplay) can come under that rubric as well. The first half is a mock Western and the second, a mock-revenge melodrama about slavery. At least, though, it has one foreign character: German bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Posing as a dentist, he gallivants around Texas, speaking perfect English. And you’ll never guess what? He’s a villain. He does have manners — but does that mitigate or enhance his villainy? One can never tell with Mr Tarantino…

Likewise, Argo (likely to win best picture along with some other prizes) and Zero Dark Thirty (likely to win for best original screenplay) depict epic events in the — albeit much more recent — American past. And although each of these films portrays Americans abroad, it shows them acting in the service of president and country — with the aim of protecting other Americans. Nothing too displaced about that.

The comedy-drama Silver Linings Playbook (likely to win Best Actress for Jennifer Lawrence) is about two people who bond over shared neuroses — could anything be more American? Not to mention their common love of pro-football (no, Andy, not the soccer kind!).

Perhaps the best of this year’s films for anyone with a proclivity for venturing across borders is Life of Pi (likely to win for best original score and visual effects). The story is about an Indian family that is emigrating to Winnipeg, Canada. Yet, as even those of us who haven’t seen the film know by now, Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma) gets stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific with a Bengal tiger. (That’s after the steamliner carrying his family’s zoo is pulled underwater during a freak storm.)

Over the course of months, the two unlikely castaways must depend on each other to survive — a scenario that provides an occasion for reflecting on cross-spiritualism, not cross-culturalism. (Pi, who was born a Hindu, loves Jesus and practices Islam.)

It also provides an occasion for displaced Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee to try his hand at 3D storytelling.

Why are we trying so hard to fit in when we were born to stand out?

WELCOME TO THE 2013 DISPLACED OSCARS. If we don’t fit into the Hollywood version, we may as well host our own event. We invite you to vote on your favorite films in the four categories we have created below. Preliminary results were announced in the Displaced Dispatch that came out on Saturday, February 23rd. Final results will appear in the Dispatch that comes out on Saturday, March 2nd. Be sure to sign up if you haven’t already!

1) Best Film Exploring Themes of Interest to Expats & International Travelers

This category honors the films that put cross-cultural themes right at the center. And the nominees are:

ShanghaiCalling_pm1) Shanghai Calling (2012, dir. by Daniel Hsia)
SUMMARY: Manhattanite Sam (Daniel Henney), an arrogant young lawyer, is transferred to his firm’s Shanghai office. He bungles his first assignment and finds his career in jeopardy. With the help of his beautiful relocation specialist, among others, he just might be able to save his job and learn to appreciate the wonders that Shanghai has to offer.
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: How often do we get to see Shanghai on the big screen? That said, the plot is somewhat shallow and fails to make the most of Sam’s background as a Chinese American.

 

TheBestExoticMarigoldHotel_pm2) The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012, dir. by John Madden)
SUMMARY: A group of British retirees — played by British acting greats like Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy — have outsourced their retirement, attracted by the less expensive and seemingly exotic India. They are enticed by advertisements about the newly restored Marigold Hotel and given false dreams of a life with leisure.
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: At the 2012 Mumbai Film Festival, the film was honored for showcasing Indian filming locations — a view not necessarily shared by viewers outside the subcontinent. Some of us feel that India was slighted by being treated as the shimmering background to a story about retirement-age self-renewal.

TheImposter_pm3) The Imposter (2012, dir. by Bart Layton)
SUMMARY: Thirteen-year-old Nicholas Barclay disappeared from his home in San Antonio, Texas, in 1994. Three and a half years later, he is allegedly found alive, thousands of miles away in a village in southern Spain with a story of kidnapping and torture. His family is overjoyed to bring him home. But all is not quite as it seems. The boy bears many of the same distinguishing marks he always had, but why does he now have a strange accent? Why does he look so different? This British documentary concerns the 1997 case of French serial imposter Frédéric Bourdin.
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: By common consensus, The Imposter is one of the year’s most provocative pictures. Certainly, Displaced Nation writer Anthony Windram found it that way. In one of our most popular posts of last year, he mused that Bourdin’s story is not entirely unfamiliar to expats, all of whom have chameleon-like qualities.

CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!

2) Best Foreign Displaced Film

This category honors films about displacement that take place in non-English speaking countries and therefore require English speakers to read subtitles while learning about other cultures. And the nominees are:

Tabu_pm1) Tabu (2012, dir. by Portugal’s Miquel Gomes)
SUMMARY: The action in this experimental fiction ranges from contemporary Lisbon to an African colony in the distant past, in what was Portuguese Mozambique. First we are introduced to a cantankerous elderly Portuguese lady with a gambling addition. Then we flashback to her youth as a beautiful young woman living a kind of White Mischief existence at the foot of Mount Tabu, where she falls in love with a handsome adventurer…(Notably, the film’s title references the 1931 German silent film of that name, which took place in the South Seas.)
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: The film shows what happens to expats who live too long — there are no remnants of “paradise” left. But some — e.g., A.O. Scott of the New York Times — have faulted the director for glossing over the issues of colonialism in the film in favor of simple aestheticism.

ClandestineChildhood_pm2) Clandestine Childhood (2011, dir. by Benjamín Ávila)
SUMMARY: A cinematic memoir drawn from Ávila’s own experiences, the film paints an unsettling portrait of families affected by military dictatorships. The year is 1979, five years after Perón’s death, and the family of 12-year-old Juan, who have been living in exile in Cuba, returns secretly to Argentina. Juan’s parents are members of an underground organization and for sake of their cover, he must assume the name of “Ernesto” and pretend to be a newcomer from northern Argentina.
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Juan’s parents aren’t fleeing the law because of their past misdeeds but are trying violently to overthrow a current dictatorship. The film therefore raises the question: do urban guerrillas make good parents? After all, they are asking their son, a Third Culture Kid, to act the part of a native in the homeland he never knew, for the sake of their political ideals. But while this question is intriguing, the story is driven almost entirely by clichés. As one critic remarked:

[T]he writing needs to be sharper to avoid feeling like a generic coming-of-ager.

LetMyPeopleGo_pm3) Let My People Go (2011, dir. by Mikael Buch)
SUMMARY: French immigrant Reuben (Nicolas Maury) is living in fairytale Finland — where he got his MA in “Comparative Sauna Cultures” — with his gorgeous Nordic boyfriend Teemu (Jarkko Niemi). He works as the mailman in a neighborhood whose colorful houses look like Scandinavian Skittles. Then, after a misunderstanding involving a parcel full of Euros, Teemu casts his lover out of Eden, sending him back to where he came from: Paris.
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Ruben’s return to Paris — where he finds his family weathering various crises as well as emotional instability — demonstrates why he left in the first place. (Aren’t most expats escaping something?) However, the scenes with his wacky, feuding family members soon become tedious. As one critic puts it:

The movie’s labored attempt at creating comedy mostly means lots of scenes with Ruben cringing as relatives shout.

CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!

3) Most Displaced Director

This category honors the director who has shown the most chutzpah in raiding the literature of other cultures to make a commercially successful movie (note: they do not cast the natives!). This year’s nominees are:

AnnaKarenina_pm1) Joe Wright for doing a British version of Anna Karenina (2012), casting his muse (Keira Knightly) in the titular role
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Some enjoyed Wright’s bold new interpretation of this classic Russian novel, while others felt that he did Tolstoy a terrible injustice — for instance, New Yorker critic Richard Brody had this to say:

Wright, with flat and flavorless images of an utterly impersonal banality, takes Tolstoy’s plot and translates it into a cinematic language that’s the equivalent of, say, Danielle Steel, simultaneously simplistic and overdone.

LesMiserables_pm2) Tom Hooper for casting a bunch of Aussies, Brits and Americans in Les Misérables
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Since Hooper previously won the Best Director Oscar for the terribly English drama The King’s Speech (historical drama, yay!), many found it odd that he would choose to take on this sprawling French story, and beloved musical, to create what he calls “an oil tanker of a picture.” But for what it’s worth, Hooper had no qualms about directing a film having to do with French history instead of his own. He is persuaded that Victor Hugo’s story speaks to issues of concern today:

Hugo’s story of populist uprising in 1832 Paris resounds in an era of the Arab Spring, the Occupy protests and general frustration over economic inequality.

DangerousLiaisons_pm3) Korean director Hur Jin-ho for making an Asian version of Dangerous Liaisons (2012) — which was originally an 18th-century novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclosset — and setting it in 1930s Shanghai
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Many have complimented Hur Jin-ho’s decorous adaptation, saying it was clever of him to swap the insular, decadent world of de Laclos’ book, which takes place pre-French Revolution, with the similarly gilded cage of Chinese aristocrats just prior to the Japanese invasion. But the film isn’t particularly sophisticated on a political or historical level. As one critic writes: “It’s all just window-dressing: pretty, but substance-free.”

CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!

4) Most Displaced Actor/Actress

This category honors the actor who has performed this year’s greatest feat of playing a role that requires them to take on a whole new nationality. We’re talking Versatility Plus! And the nominees are:

Daniel_Day-Lewis_pm1) Daniel Day-Lewis, the Anglo-Irish actor who portrayed Abe Lincoln in Lincoln
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Apparently, there was no American actor good enough to play one of the most exceptional presidents the nation has ever known as critics have had nothing but praise for Day Lewis’s performance. Here is a sampling:

His Lincoln is tall and tousled and bent over with the weight of melancholy responsibility in the fourth year of the Civil War.

[Day-Lewis] manages to inject so much quiet humour into what could have been a very reverential portrait.

[The actor] inhabits the ageing figure of the 16th President of the United States with exquisite poise, intellect and grace.

AnneHathaway_pm2) Anne Hathaway for playing saintly prostitute Fantine in Les Misérables
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Many find it impressive that Hathaway, cast as the tragic Fantine, sings the show-stopping “I Dreamed a Dream” in one take. (Tom Hooper’s contribution to the genre was having the actors sing rather than lip synch.) And some say that her willingness to have her locks shorn off on screen shows her commitment to her craft. That said, her performance is not to everyone’s taste. “Rarely have the movies seen such an embarrassingly naked plea for applause,” writes Australian film critic Jake Wilson — the implication being the Victor Hugo’s Fantine would have had more dignity.

Alicia_Vikander_pm3) Swedish actress Alicia Vikander for taking on two non-Swedish roles: Caroline Matilda of Great Britain (she served as Queen of Denmark and Norway in the 18th century) in A Royal Affair (2012); and Kitty in Anna Karenina (2012)
WHAT CRITICS ARE SAYING: Vikander’s “moxie” is apparently what landed her both of these parts. According to A Royal Affair director Nikolaj Arcel, every actress in Denmark wanted the role of Mathilde, but only Vikander had the requisite “regal quality.” She even went to Copenhagen two months before shooting began to learn to speak Danish fluently. Likewise, Anna Karenina director Joe Wright saw in her the qualities to play Kitty, a flirtatious young woman who believes the dashing Count Vronsky is her Prince Charming, only to find love with a kind-hearted farmer named Levin. It is not uncommon for movie-goers to remark that she outshines Kiera Knightly’s Anna.

CAST YOUR VOTE HERE!

* * *

Are we missing out on any films/categories? Please leave your suggestions in the comments below.

Longing for even more expat and international travel films? Please go to our Displaced Oscars Pinterest board.

As for me, I’m going in search of a displaced after-party! Let’s hope I don’t have to travel too far to find one! 🙂

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

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Images: Oscar statuette courtesy Dave_B_ on Flickr; actor pix from Wikimedia.

Living La Dolce Vita with Food Writer and World Explorer Robyn Eckhardt

Veteran travel and food journalist Robyn Eckhardt is here. A few months ago, she shared some insights on Southeast Asian cooking with Displaced Dispatch subscribers, but for this post I’ve asked her to supply a recipe for La Dolce Vita, or the Sweet Life — drawing the ingredients from her extensive world travels and their sensory delights — along with an easy version anyone can try!

Robyn Eckhardt’s Personal Recipe for La Dolce Vita

Mix together the following:

3 heart-stopping sights

1) The Bund, Shanghai, in 1990 before the city underwent its construction boom. It was of those moments when you realize that a place you know by heart from books (I studied Chinese history in college and grad school) is actually real.
2) Istanbul’s Blue Mosque from a taxi at 1:00 a.m. on a crisp, clear February night. It was my first time in Turkey; I’d just arrived from Shanghai, where I was living at the time. The combination of jetlag and being somewhere so foreign and utterly different to the place that I called home was like a slap in the face, in a good way.
3) When I was 17 I saw the Statue of Liberty up close on a Circle Line tour. Even though I was your typical cynical, jaded teenager, my jaw kind of dropped. I imagined the thousands and thousands of immigrants to the US arriving by ship and having that same view. It’s still a pretty amazing sight, I think.

11 intoxicating scents

1) In most any neighborhood in Chengdu (capital of China’s Sichuan province) at around 5:00-6:00 p.m., the scent of dried chilies hitting hot rapeseed oil.
2) Just-off-the-boat anchovies grilling in Sinop, on the Turkish Black Sea.
3) Chicken barbecuing anywhere in Thailand.
4) Chòu dòufu, or “stinky beancurd,” in Taipei — funky yet beguiling.
5) Jasmine flowers in bloom on a hot summer ‘s (which is actually in September or October) evening in the San Francisco Bay Area.
6) On winter evenings in Santa Fe, burning piñon tree branches in a hundred fireplaces.
7) The seafood section in the market in Butuan, Mindanao in the Philippines, which smells like nothing but seawater — it smelled so good we didn’t mind eating kinilaw (the Philippine “ceviche”) prepared by a fish vendor, right smack in the middle of the market.
8) In any Turkish town or city very early in the morning, the first whiff of rising dough and baking bread from any bakery.
9) The enveloping, almost chokingly overwhelming scent of spices freshly ground in huge quantities at an old, Indian-run spice shop in George Town, Penang.
10) The dining room at a tiny osteria in Calosso, Piemonte, which my husband and I frequented four years in a row. It didn’t matter what was on the menu that day, as soon as I walked in the I knew that I was going to eat wonderful foods, drink good wines and leave very, very happy.
11) Last but not least, the smell of China. You smell it as soon as you get off an airplane. What is it? I’m not really sure. It’s certainly not magnificent but it is intoxicating to me because it never fails to transport me in a single second to my 21-year-old self, abroad and on her own for the first time, arriving in Chengu. Lots of emotions there.

4 dreamy sounds

1) The call to prayer one late afternoon as I sat on a hill overlooking the ruins of the theater at Aspendos, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. One muezzin started, then another from the opposite direction began, then another and another, from mosques in nearby villages. Their voices alternately intertwined and competed — one of those incredible moments that leaves you almost gasping for breath.
2) The sound of calling/singing/chanting vendors at wet markets. Especially when they get into a groove, sing-songing the same phrase over and over again. Like at Pudu Market in Kuala Lumpur: satu ringgit satu ringgit satu ringgit satu ringgit satu ringgit satu ringgit! When I hear a great call from a market vendor I just stop and listen while the market frenzy continues around me.
3) The sound of the rain forest waking up on Langkawi Island from the vantage point of the top of a hill, above the forest canopy. I arrived to perfect stillness; as the sky began to lighten there was movement in the trees — creakings and squawks and chirps and rumbles and knocks and grinding noises. Just before I left, ten or so hornbills simultaneously rose from their perches, making a tremendous, wonderful racket with their wide wingspans. It sounded like a jet flying low overhead — whoo whoo whoo whoo. I could feel that noise in my gut. Incredible.
4) A trio of genggong (Jew’s harp) players on the front porch of a cottage on the edge of a rice field in northern Bali. Bali is magical to begin with. This was an unexpected treat.

A particularly delicate flavoring

Normally, I’m attracted to bold flavors, but as this is La Dolce Vita, I’ll probably throw in the sap from the cut flower of an aren palm, which I tasted when I went out at dawn with a palm sugar maker in northern Sumatra to get the sap he was collecting in bamboo tubes from dozens of trees. It was sweet and flowery but in a very, very restrained way — what’s incredible is that after just three hours of boiling it becomes one of the most intensely flavored sugars in the world.

An extraordinary physical sensation

For this recipe I’ll include the most amazing physical sensation I can remember: riding an elephant bareback and solo, which I did last year in northern Thailand near the border with Burma. Grabbing its leathery ear to pull myself up, palming the spiky, hair-sprinkled knobs of its massive forehead to keep my balance, feeling its shoulders move under me when it walked — something I will never, ever forget.

A memorable encounter with strangers

My husband and I ended up eating lunch with an elderly Turkish couple in their traditional timber farmhouse on the Black Sea. The experience sticks with me, for many reasons. Rather than retell the story here, let me point you to the relevant post on our blog, EatingAsia.

A place that stimulates all five senses

For me, this can be anywhere unfamiliar, or where I haven’t visited for a long time. Right now, especially, it’s eastern Turkey, which I’ve been getting to know in bits and pieces over the last two years.

The food is new (to me) and surprising — interesting twists on familiar Turkish dishes and curve balls out of nowhere, like dolma made with cherry tree leaves(!) or dough spirals seasoned with copious amounts of ground poppy seeds that taste like cacao.

I love the way the Turkish language sounds; I speak enough to get by but am nowhere near even half-fluency. I desperately want to be better at it, so when I’m traveling there my ears and brain are hyper alert to conversations around me; I’m constantly trying to understand what I hear, writing down unfamiliar words, trying (and often failing) to communicate well with strangers. That’s fun in a certain way, though ultimately exhausting — but it’s a level of engagement with everything that is going on around me that I don’t always have.

Outside Turkish cities the sky is big and the population sparse. To me — a resident of Southeast Asia — that is incredible and wonderful. When my husband and I go, we rent a car and do long, long road trips. I’m always eager for what’s around the next bend in the road or over the next pass because in two or three hours the terrain can change tremendously.

I can never get over the scent of air in that part of the world: nothing but air, clean fresh air! We make it a point to go once or twice a year when it’s cold; this past February temperatures in Eastern Anatolia averaged about 10 degrees Fahrenheit and there was lots of snow. It was that kind of cold where the hairs in your nose freeze as soon as you walk outdoors and ice cracks under foot and snow crunches with an especially hard “c”. I loved it.

And I’ve had so many great people experiences there — strangers opening their homes and kitchens to me. Even though I’m always a wee bit tentative in that way that you get when you are among strangers somewhere unfamiliar, eastern Turkey is probably the place where I travel with my heart the most open. When I arrive there I take a deep breath and just relax and let whatever is going to happen, happen. I can’t and don’t always let my guard down like that when I travel, so it’s lovely to be somewhere where I can.

Art by 2 artists who understand La Dolce Vita

1) Well, I am biased, but this recipe definitely calls for my husband Dave Hagerman‘s portraits and people-focused street photography because they often capture, I think, that moment when a subject decides to just let it go. Those sorts of photographs only come when a photographer is willing to extend his or herself, take a risk and show utmost respect to his or her subject.
2) I also love the work — paintings especially — of California realist John Register. The empty-room paintings, the diners-at-night paintings. I can’t say much about his heart or his soul when he was painting them, but to me they show that mundane things can evoke emotion. That is beautiful.

An inspiring travel quote

“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.”
– Rudyard Kipling

As one who travels most of the time on her stomach, I can especially identify with this sentiment.

* * *

After adding a pinch of salt to all of the above, Robyn is living the sweet life. And if you’re not as well traveled as she is, not to worry. Robyn offers this simple recipe to try at home.

Robyn’s recipe for living La Dolce Vita at home

You don’t have to physically get on a plane or train or bus to travel. Do something unfamiliar in the place you know best, your home:
1) Go to a neighborhood you don’t usually frequent, go to a museum if you are an outdoors person or to a park if you’re an indoors type.
2) If you are not an early riser, go out before dawn and watch your town or city or neighborhood wake up, or if you’re an early-to-bed sort of person, take a nap in the evening and then go out late and see what where you live looks and sounds and feels like when you’re usually asleep.
3) Ride a bus or some other form of public transport if you’re always in your car.
4) Try a new restaurant or bakery or cafe, or shop at a farmer’s market if you usually buy your food at the big box or grocery store.

Penang-based freelance food and travel journalist Robyn Eckhardt is a contributing writer at Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia, a contributor at ZesterDaily and to publications like The New York Times Travel Section, Saveur and SBS Feast. With her photographer husband David Hagerman, she publishes the food-travel blog EatingAsia. As this interview hits interwebs, the two are hiking village-to-village in far northeastern Turkey, learning about beekeeping and cow-herding and tasting lots of honey and cheese.
Final note from ML Awanohara: Extra points will be awarded to anyone who recalls Robyn’s husband, David, being featured in the series I ran at the end of last year: “The 12 Nomads of Christmas.” He’s just as extraordinary as Robyn says!

STAY TUNED for Wednesday’s post, an interview with Laura Graham, author of Down a Tuscan Alley, a semi-autobiographical novel about her mid-life move to Tuscany. (Ah, la dolce vita!)

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Img: Robyn Eckhardt writing in Tokat, Turkey (by David Hagerman).

Youth writer Gabrielle Wang’s characters solve cross-cultural conundrums with magic and aplomb

The spirit of Pocahontas has been haunting The Displaced Nation this month, lending a helping hand to anyone who feels stymied by the strange customs they’ve encountered in other lands.

This precocious Native American girl appears to have been naturally gifted in openness and tolerance — else how could she have become an intermediary between her father’s tribes and the Jamestown settlers at age 10?

The majority of us, however, are not naturals when it comes to cross-cultural relations. We could use some basic training, preferably while still young.

As suggested in one of this month’s posts, one solution might be to absorb the whole of Harry Potter — all those tales of discrimination against Half-bloods and Muggles.

But not every youth can identify with a universe that is governed by the laws of who’s magic and who isn’t. Take Pocahontas, for instance. If she prayed for magic in her dealings with the white invaders, it was most likely for herself, never mind anyone else.

Perhaps, then, I have her to thank for guiding me towards Melbourne-based author Gabrielle Wang, whose books for children and young people feature characters who in many ways resemble the feisty Anne of Green GablesPollyanna or Calpurnia Tate — but with a further twist: Wang’s heroines are always non-white, Chinese or some mix. They are culturally marginalized.

Wang’s very first book, The Garden of Empress Cassia (to be published for the first time in the U.S. this fall) involves a heroine, Mimi, who feels ashamed of being Chinese until she discovers a a box of magic pastels that enables her to draw, and then enter, the garden of the Empress Cassia — a transformative experience.

Wang’s latest heroine, Poppy, is even more unusual: she’s a half-Chinese, half-Aborigine girl who lived in the 19th century. Poppy’s Aboriginal mother died when she was a baby, and her Chinese father disappeared before she was born. When her brother, Gus, runs away to look for gold, Poppy decides to follow. Disguising herself as a boy, she stows away on a paddle steamer and keeps in touch with Gus through a secret code and Chinese symbols.

Wang’s books are targeted at the youth market, but adults are very fond of them as well. Here’s what one reviewer had to say of her first book in the Poppy series:

I’m sure young girls living in Australia who are interested in their country’s history will love this book, but as an adult living in America, I really enjoyed it too!

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Gabrielle Wang in person — at a congee restaurant in New York City’s Chinatown. Here’s how our conversation went:

Can you tell me a little about your background?
I’m a fourth-generation Chinese Australian on my mother’s side and first generation on my father’s. I live in Melbourne, where I’ve been a professional writer of children’s and young adult books for nine years. I’ve written ten books published by Penguin Books Australia, and a picture book published by Blackdog Books, now an imprint of Walker.

All my novels involve cross-cultural issues as that is my background. Being brought up in Australia and knowing little about my own heritage, I felt was a tremendous disadvantage. I was ashamed of looking different. I couldn’t speak Chinese and knew little of the beliefs and customs of China. Now, when I look back at that period in my life I know that if I’d been steeped in the culture of China, I would have grown up proud of my heritage. It was only when I left school that I realized that belonging to two cultures was an advantage and began learning Mandarin.

My latest books are being released this year three months apart. There are four in the Our Australian Girl series about a half-Chinese half-Aboriginal girl named Poppy.

Right now I’m working on a ghost short story for a Penguin anthology as well as thinking about my next novel, called The Wish Bird.

This month, our blog has dedicated many of its posts to Pocahontas, who was a member of the original displaced peoples in North America. Are the stories of the Native Americans and Australia’s Aborigines very similar?
Definitely, there are many similarities. But my impression of the Native Americans is of a more warring people — at least that’s how they’re often portrayed in the old cowboy-and-Indian films. I’m probably stereotyping here. The Aborigines were also driven off their hunting grounds. Many were slaughtered by the squatters while others starved to death or died from disease. It was a tragic time in Australian history which carried through even to the 1960s. The scars and the injustices still exist today.

The European settlement of Australia occurred at least a century later than that of North America. Were Australia’s settlers still influenced by the ideal of the Noble Savage, “the good wild man,” in their encounters with the natives?
The squatters of the 1800s looked down upon the Aborigines. They had no idea that the Indigenous Australians had a highly advanced and complex culture and belief system. And by the 1850s and 1860s, when my Poppy stories take place, the ideal of the Noble Savage never crossed anyone’s mind. At that time, large numbers of people from all over the world went to Australia to look for gold, not to discover a new land.

Turning to your Poppy books, I noticed that you employed the nature trope that’s associated with the Aborigines. Poppy uses the Southern Cross to guide her travels, follows water birds, eats wild raspberries and honey-flavoured sap-sucking bugs…
The Aborigines’ belief system is closely linked to the land they inhabit and to the animals in their environment. They have animal totems and there are sacred places all around Australia. Unfortunately, most of these sacred sites are not in the hands of the local Indigenous people and have been lost or desecrated. But if you go and visit the known ones, like I have, you can still feel a tremendous power and energy in the landscape.

When I was on a writing/walking trek through Central Australia near Alice Springs, we camped, with the permission of the local Indigenous tribe, on a sacred site. It was an amazing experience.

I am very interested in the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, the I Ching and Daoism – which are not that dissimilar to the beliefs of the Indigenous Australians and their relationship with nature. The Aborigines are also like the Chinese in that they have an advanced plant medicine system.

Was it difficult to think through how an Aborigine child might have felt back then?
In my story, Poppy was born on a Christian mission, so she knows very little about her own culture. I am not an expert on Aborigine culture, so I was careful not to step over the line. I had several Aboriginal advisors who I consulted with. John Sandy Atkinson is an elder for the Bangerang tribe and Maxine Briggs is the Koorie Liaison officer at the State Library of Victoria. They were invaluable to me while writing the Poppy series. As a Chinese person, I know how wrong some authors can be when writing about a culture they have little knowledge of. It is easy to misconstrue and misunderstand things so I was careful to avoid this.

Since you’re so interested in the topic of portraying other cultures, you may find it interesting that Maxine Briggs lent me Werner Herzog’s film Where the Green Ants Dream just so I could see how NOT to portray another culture. The film as you may know had to do with a dispute between a mining company and the local Indigenous tribes in the Australian desert.

I noticed in reading some excerpts that the white people Poppy meets behave quite decently. Did you make them like that on purpose?
Race is a highly sensitive subject and sometimes it’s difficult to strike a good balance. In Poppy’s time, the 1860s, racial prejudice towards Aborigines was at an all-time high. But I’m always aware of my audience — children 8-11 years old. When you write for young people you have a responsibility. It is important to be positive; otherwise, the same prejudices can begin all over again.

Up until now, you’ve created Chinese heroines for your book. What inspired you to create a character who was only half-Chinese?
I wanted to write about the period when my maternal great-grandfather came to Victoria to join the Gold Rush. I also wanted to highlight the plight of the Indigenous population during that time when white settlement expanded at such an alarming rate. Before 1834, around 100,000 Aboriginal people lived in the State of Victoria. By 1860, with the influx of white settlers and the discovery of gold, this number had fallen to less than 2000. That figure is shocking.

I think I’d also been influenced by the recent consciousness in Australia about the injustices done to the Aborigines. Beginning in 1869, the Australian government rounded up the Aborigines into missions (as already mentioned, Poppy is from one such mission) and began removing some of the children — the ones who were of mixed race — from their families to work as indentured servants for white families. I’m talking about the so-called stolen generations. If you’ve seen the film Rabbit-Proof Fence, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

It’s a big issue right now in Australia — and is finally being recognized as a national tragedy. The former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, presented a formal apology in 2008 for this misguided policy. It was a long time coming.

To sum up: I could have just written about a Chinese child, but I wanted to stretch myself and imagine a child who was half Chinese, half Aborigine. It is important for young people to walk in the shoes of someone who is different — who might be of a different culture, race and skin color. Only by doing this can we empathize with others.

Were you able to find any examples of half-Chinese, half-Aboriginal children on which you could base the story?
In my research there were no written records in Victoria of mixed race children at that time. But there’s no doubt they would have existed as the Chinese gold diggers were all men. They left their wives and family back in China.

So an Aboriginal character was a first for you. Was it also the first time a non-Aboriginal person had written a story for kids?
No. The highly respected and wonderful Australian children’s author Patricia Wrightson may have been the first. But I’m certainly the first non-white Australian author to write about an Aboriginal character.

Is it important that you’re a “non-white”?
I think I was able to imagine the Aboriginal child’s situation quite easily because I know what it feels like to be an outsider, and to suffer racial prejudice. I was the only Asian child in my school in Melbourne and I only saw white faces in the street. I always felt embarrassed when my parents came to school as my mother would sometimes appear in traditional dress, and my father didn’t speak English well, which I found embarrassing. Of course, it’s changed now as more Chinese have migrated to Australia, but back then, Chinese Australians were real outsiders.

You have been an expat for several years, living in Taiwan and then Mainland China. Can you tell us what that felt like?
Strangely enough, before my first visit to China in 1977, I always said that I was going back to China even though I had never been there before. Perhaps this is true of many children of migrants. When I actually went to Taiwan and China to live, I was at a disadvantage because I couldn’t speak Chinese very well and therefore was never fully accepted. Language is so important.

There were a couple of incidents in particular that made me realize how difficult it would be living in China — apart from the difficulty of learning the language, that is.

Once in Taiwan, I was invited to a friend’s house. It was her birthday. I brought a gift of a necklace, but was so surprised when she didn’t open the gift, nor did she acknowledge its receipt with a thank-you. I thought, how rude! I had no idea that in China, it’s rude to open gifts in front of the giver.

The other incident occurred in Mainland China, when I was invited to a banquet by a friend of my mother’s. She sat next to me and kept filling my plate. In Australia, it’s impolite not to finish the food on your plate, so I kept eating what was given to me, only to have it filled again. Finally, when I couldn’t fit in another morsel of food, I put my chopsticks down and sat back. My hostess breathed an audible sigh of relief. In China, of course, people like to show their hospitality by giving their guests more food than they can possibly eat.

Your personal story is inspirational as you never fancied yourself a writer.
When I was younger, I didn’t think I could write at all. I failed Year 12 English and had to repeat the whole year because I wanted to study Graphic Design at University. When I became interested in children’s books, it was to illustrate them not to write the words. But in the year 2000 I took a writing course and discovered I had hidden potential. We all do, I think. And it’s never too late to find out what it is. I explore that theme a lot in my books, especially The Hidden Monastery.

As part of Pocahontas month, we’ve been coming up with proverbs for those who wish to spend their time abroad getting to know other cultures. Can you give us one proverb based on your own experiences?

“If you want to know what it means to be a migrant or a person who is displaced by outside forces, then live in — don’t just visit — another country where you cannot speak the language.”

To that I would add:

“If you can, make it a country where people have skin of a different color to yours. Then, and only then, can you understand what it means to be an outsider.”

Gabrielle Wang’s book The Garden of Empress Cassia will be published in USA by Kane Miller this September. You can also visit her Web site at www.gabriellewang.com.

Images: Gabrielle Wang at Congee Bowery, NYC (by Susumu Awanohara); front cover of Wang’s first Poppy book; and front cover of the about-to-be-released American edition of her very first work, The Garden of the Empress Cassia.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s installment of our displaced fictional heroine, Libby, who learns more about her bête noire, the realtor Melissa. Were her initial misgivings about Melissa justified?

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What the concept of home means for expats

My mother was the kind of woman who knew she wanted to be a journalist from the age of 12. She never stopped moving. Maybe that’s why I remember so clearly the one ambitious sewing project that she managed to finish. It was a sampler that lay over one of the chairs in our family home embroidered with the words “Home is where the heart is.”

I’ve often pictured my mother’s needlework as I wandered the globe, first as an expat in England, then as an expat in Japan. Where was my heart, and therefore my home: with my mother, my husband, my husband’s family, or in some of the places I’d visited and connected with? Hadn’t I left a piece of my heart in each of those places?

Then when I finally returned to my native land, having spent as many years abroad as I’d consciously lived in the United States, I was no longer sure if this country could be my home any more, as it appeared to have changed so much.

Misery loves company, especially when it includes Joanna Penn

Oh, why does life have to be so complicated? Why can’t it be summed up on a sampler?

Still, I have taken much solace in knowing I’m not alone in grappling with such questions. Just last week, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my expat-to-repat group now includes the extraordinary Joanna Penn, author, speaker, and business consultant.

I am a faithful subscriber to Joanna’s blog, The Creative Penn, which not for nothing has achieved the distinction of being one of the top ten blogs for writers. Recently, Joanna gave us the thrill of live-blogging the writing and self-publishing process for her very first novel, a fast-paced thriller called Pentacost.

Somehow, though, it hadn’t clicked with me that Joanna was an expat.

But then I read her 8 April 2011 post and watched the accompanying YouTube video, “What the Concept of Home Means for Writers.”

Joanna was prompted to talk about “home” because she’s repatriating to England after having spent the past 11 years in New Zealand and Australia. Not only that but it turns out that Joanna was a so-called third-culture kid. Her family moved all over the place when she was young, including to Africa for a while.

For Joanna, home is a spiritual bond

Joanna thinks outside the box when it comes to publishing, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised that she thinks outside the box when it comes to being an expat. She seems to regard her displaced state as par for the course, as nothing particularly special. This is because she sees herself as a writer first and an expat second:

… for me the concept of home is not necessarily where I’m physically based at any one point but somewhere where I spiritually feel I belong…

We could say Joanna is out of the James Joyce mould, as described by Anthony Windram in his latest TDN article, “James Joyce’s Paris.”

This is not to say Joanna isn’t fond of the countries where she’s lived. She says she still has a soft spot for Malawi, where she went to school as a kid, and has enjoyed her more recent time Down Under.

That said, I sense she will be glad to see the back of Oz in some ways — judging by her response to one of the commenters on her “concept of home” post, that she is “looking forward to being without mosquitoes, huge spiders, sweltering heat and humidity.”

Joanna’s mention of the spiders gives her something in common with Robert Pickles, who has stirred up some controversy for his Daily Telegraph series on why he’s decided to ditch his dream of Australia and move back to Blighty — the “vast array of insects … with fizzing wings and frenzied little eyes” being at the top of his list of dislikes.

A tale of two cities that are now “home”

But that is where the similarity between Penn and Pickles ends. Unlike Robert Pickles, Joanna Penn never really thought of Australia as “home.” Right now she feels a spiritual kinship with two cities: Oxford, where she went to university and near where her father now lives, and Jerusalem, which she’s visited at least ten times because she loves it there so much.

What’s more, Joanna connects these two cities in her mind and has done so ever since reading the Thomas Hardy novel Jude the Obscure as a kid.

The novel’s tragic hero, Jude, is a working-class boy who tries to educate himself. He idealizes Oxford (known in the book as Christminster) as a “city of light,” where “the tree of knowledge grows.” Coming over a ridge and gazing at the city of his dreams for the first time, he refers to it as a “new Jerusalem.”

Joanna approves of Jude’s hypocatastasis. (“And did those feet in ancient time…” is now playing in my head.) Steeped in religious studies, she sees both Oxford and Jerusalem as holy cities, worthy of pilgrimages and therefore an intense romantic attachment.

Some parting spiritual reflections

In the week of Passover and Easter, I sometimes envy those people with strong spiritual ties, a pull that I’ve never especially felt.

In fact, the only time I’ve ever wanted to kiss the ground upon first discovering a place was when I landed in Taipei and my husband took me to a restaurant called Din Tai Fung. The dumplings were so delectable that I decided then and there that if ever I were told I had only a few days left to live, I’d demand to be transported to that restaurant for my final few hours.

Could a Taiwanese dumpling house really be my spiritual home? No doubt that explains why I’m writing about Jamie Oliver’s food revolution on this blog whereas Joanna Penn is working on her second in a series of religious thrillers set in Oxford and Jerusalem.

Still, fans of Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman should understand how I feel… My mother would understand it: she was an excellent cook, when she had time for it…

But I digress.

Question: What do you think of Joanna’s notion of a spiritual home? Is “home” for you a place that has captured your heart, your imagination and your spirit? Or is it a place where you live with your nearest and dearest?

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How many years should an expat stay? The answer is blowin’ in the wind…

Most human beings feel disconcerted when they lose the self-validating “mirror” that tells them who they are. That’s what we hear from the relocation experts — as cited by Kate Allison in her article exploring how even people who move within the same country can have something akin to an expat experience.

But in my own experience of being displaced, first in England and then in Japan, trying to live in a country where you share a great deal — ethnically, culturally, linguistically — with the natives is easier to sustain for lengthy periods. Under those conditions, it’s possible to maintain the illusion of the mirror still being in place.

After all, quite a few Americans — comedians like Ruby Wax and Reginald D. Hunter, writers like Bill Buford and Bill Bryson — have made it in England. In Japan, by contrast, although foreigners can become talento, they will never achieve the same level of belonging.

Thus when I first learned the news that Junichi Kinoshita had won this year’s Taipei Literature Award, the first non-native writer to do so in 13 years, I thought, well, no wonder. On the face of it, Taiwan should be a relatively easy adjustment for a Japanese person.

But does Kinoshita actually feel that way? Yes and no. His first impression of the Taiwanese was how similar they looked to the Japanese, and though he found learning Mandarin a challenge, he eventually mastered it to the point where he was able to write his debut novel in Chinese, and at a level that garnered it a prestigious award.

On the other hand, life in Taiwan posed a considerable culture shock as people there tend to be much more hospitable than the Japanese. In Kinoshita’s book, the title of which can be roughly translated as Dandelion Floss, five Japanese expatriates in Taipei struggle to adjust to the local culture — and when they finally get the hang of it, must grapple with the question of when (and whether) to go home to Japan.

At the end of the novel, one of them says:

I think every expatriate is following some kind of mysterious calling from their heart. There is some predestined relationship between a person and a city. One leaves the city when the affinity ends, be it a few months or 10 years, it just happens.

Kinoshita intended his book as a swan song to his life in Taipei. After submitting it to the contest, he planned to return to Japan with his wife, who is also Japanese. Now, however, they are rethinking their next step: perhaps the prize is a signal that Kinoshita isn’t finished with the city yet? Besides, he has already decided on a theme for his next work of fiction, as well as a language: Chinese again.

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