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TCK TALENT: Benjamin Jancewicz, missionary kid, socially responsible graphic designer and pioneering vector artist

Photo credits: (top row) Kawawachikamach Band (flag) of the Naskapi, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0); (middle row) Ben Jancewicz self-portrait (supplied); (bottom row) Lights, Camera, Action (Fed Hill), by Bill Mill via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0), Zerflin logo.

Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang‘s guest this month is an adult Missionary Kid (and Third Culture Kid) who expresses his creativity as a visual artist.

Welcome back, readers. Today’s ATCK interviewee is artist, illustrator, and graphic designer Benjamin Jancewicz. Benjamin grew up in Northern Quebec, on the Naskapi Native American Reservation of Kawawachikamach, to an Irish-American mother and Polish-American missionary father who is a linguist and Bible translator to the Naskapi Native Americans.

His Twitter blurb says he was raised “Native, Interracial, MK” (MK being Missionary Kid).

Benjamin’s parents met tobogganing at a Youth Group in their hometown of Norwich, Connecticut, and Ben was born in Connecticut. He now lives in Baltimore with his wife, Tamika, where he runs his own graphic design company, Zerflin (the name belonged to a cartoon alien Benjamin drew as a kid) and creates original vector artwork, which has been exhibited in galleries, cafes and homes around the United States and Canada. His current show, Who Said What, is, in his own words,

a collection that combines my love for engaging people in the creation of my art as well as my desire to reimagine quotes that move people to live better lives. The creation process begins with a call for quotes to be submitted. I then do careful research and select a unique photograph of the quote’s author, typically in their youth, imagining them as my peer. Using the reference image, I draw the piece itself inspired by 1950s and 60s screenprinting, interior design and album covers. Each piece has a unique color palette and font from an up-and-coming typographer.

You can get a taste of the work, and the vector art process, of which Ben is a pioneer, from this short video:

* * *

Welcome, Benjamin. I understand your family traveled quite a bit before settling in the Naskapi Native American Reservation.
Yes, my family moved to Chicago (where my parents went to school), Texas (where they had training), Mexico (where they had field testing), and Sherbrooke, a city in southern Quebec (where they learned French), all before I was four years old. I remember bits and pieces of that time and I’m told I picked up Spanish, but I ended up losing it and learning Naskapi, French, Innu and English instead.

Those are some very peripatetic early years (not to mention impressive multilingualism on your part). Did the traveling continue after you moved to the Reservation?
To raise support for the work, my parents had to travel to the States almost every summer. So there was a lot of visiting churches and road trips through the states, listening to my Father give slideshow presentations about what our family was up to. He continues that to this day in a blog I built for him: http://bill.jancewicz.com. We also moved quite a bit on the Reservation (we call it “the Rez”) as well. We stayed at people’s houses, either with them or when they weren’t there. Eventually when I was older we moved to the nearby town, but living on the Rez was some of the happiest time of my life. Summers filled with bike riding, exploring the woods, swimming in the lake…it was heaven.

“You never find yourself until you face the truth.” —Pearl Baily

What drew you to art and illustration?
I always drew as a kid. As I got older, life on the Rez got harder. Kids got involved in drugs and alcohol. Their parents being absent for the same reasons took a toll. I began losing friends to suicide, overdose. And as TV crept into the Rez, so did an attitude of treating white people differently. I was singled out because I was different. Bullies began attacking me more and more frequently at school—until my parents pulled me out and homeschooled me for a few years. I ultimately went back to the Rez school for most of secondary school, but drawing, computers and piano were often how I dealt with depression and loneliness.

It’s striking, how many ATCKs’ creative pursuits begin as—or become—coping mechanisms during childhood/adolescence. I’m very sorry you were bullied and am glad you found creative outlets to help you handle it. Did your interest in art and illustration evolve naturally into a career in graphic design?
I never really considered art and illustration to be a viable career, and originally went to school for engineering. After two years, I began to learn more about graphic design and after much deliberation, I switched majors. I didn’t find out until later that my father had done graphic design when he was younger as well. Once I switched, I had to do a lot of extra work to catch up, and started my design company, Zerflin, while still in class.

Creation of Zerflin

Photo credits: (top row) Camp amérindien MANTEO MATIKAP, by Guillaume Cattiaux via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); (middle row) screen shots of Ben; (bottom row) Zerflin logo and banner.

That’s impressive!

“Power & control will never outweigh love.” —Jada Koren Pinkett Smith

In college, did you identify most with a particular culture or cultures, or with people who had cross-cultural backgrounds similar to yours?  
While I was in college, in a small town in the States, I was bullied again, this time in the dormitories, and again for being different. But this time it was because I was Canadian, because I grew up on a Rez, and had perspectives that were considered strange by my white dorm mates. I sought refuge in a place on campus called the Rafiki House, a house dedicated to helping TCK and international students adjust to life in the US (rafiki means “friend” in Swahili). I ended up being the first freshman ever to live in the house. I stayed there all four years, getting involved in the protests and fights for its survival when the college tried to shut it down.

I’m sure many current TCKs and international students at the college are grateful for the House’s existence. What made you decide to move to Baltimore?
Baltimore was only an hour-and-a-half drive from college, so I’d often come down with friends to explore, and Tamika and I would come on dates. We fell in love with the city and decided to stay. Tamika originally wanted to teach in the public school system, and I got a job working at a non-profit in DC. Baltimore is much cheaper to live in, so we bought a house here.

“If you have an opportunity to use your voice you should use it.” —Samuel Leroy Jackson

As an ATCK, do you now have “itchy feet,” or do you prefer to have a home base and only travel for pleasure?
I have a very strong wanderlust, but the Recession pretty much killed any opportunities to travel. I try to travel as much as I can with my business, and now have art shows in L.A. that I frequently travel for. We organized with a group of friends and traveled to South Africa for the first time this past winter, which was amazing. It was the first time off the continent for me. Baltimore is really feeling more and more like home, though. Getting involved in the local social justice movements has given me life, and I’m glad to have a base here.

Per your design agency’s website, Zerflin’s staff “champion underdog clients and believe running a company without being evil is paramount.” This is admirable! Did your TCK background influence this mission/vision/value, or did something else, or were there a combination of influences?
Growing up on a Rez, there’s a certain amount of “wokeness” that just comes with living and experiencing how white people in town would treat my friends differently. And as someone who looks white, it was crazy hearing some of the conversations other white people would have about African Americans and Africans, Natives, Latinos, and Asians. As I got more and more involved in social justice on campus and began reading more and more books from black nationalist, feminist, womanist, and social justice authors, I knew I wanted to be involved in that work in some capacity. I also recognized that most companies (especially in design) are more large-client focused. As a social justice action, I wanted to do something different.

Congratulations on your show, which I understand will be at Impact Hub Baltimore for most of May into early June. Are you working on any more big art projects at the moment?
Continuously. I’ve been doing a lot more with art over the past couple years, which is strange for me. I knew some artists in college, and the way they acted really turned me off to art. I already felt looked down upon just being there as a TCK, but artists really seemed to take it to the next level. Tamika greatly encouraged me to pursue art, and as it took off, I’ve been getting more into illustration as a profession. You can see more of my work here.

Ben Jancewicz’s artwork. (Clockwise from top): Trumpeter plays the blues (hand-drawn, digitally rendered); West African Girl, available for purchase at Zerflin (Etsy shop); screenshot of Oprah work at Who Said What exhibition; Fayette Regina Pinkney, commissioned portrait.

* * *

Thank you so much, Ben. Congratulations on your successful business and ongoing artwork! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Benjamin below. Besides checking out his art site, you can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter. You can commission his artwork here and buy select pieces (on paper or canvas), including from the current show, here.

Editor’s note: All quotes are taken from the artwork in Benjamin Jancewicz’s current show, Who Said What.

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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TCK TALENT: Mary Bassey, Writer, Storyteller, Advocate and Scientist

Mary Bassey TCK Talent

Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang has invited a member of the up-and-coming generation of talented Adult Third Culture Kids to be her guest this month.

Welcome back, readers. This month’s guest is Mary Bassey, the first ATCK interviewee for this column whose talents extend from writing all the way to biochemistry! Mary is a self-described multiethnic (Efik & Igbo) Nigerian-Canadian-American. She was born in Nigeria, grew up mostly in Canada (the West Coast) and Kentucky, and currently resides in Southern California.

Mary has a talent and a passion for storytelling and writing, particularly when it sparks cross-cultural discussion and helps to effect change. She contributes to The Black Expat, a site that features first-hand accounts, personal narratives and key advice about cross-cultural living from members of the Black Diaspora. She has her own site, Verily Merrily Mary, where she coaches writers in how to have an impact, and she recently started a new blog on the Huffington Post. (Her first post was about the need for millennials to always be hustling, to the detriment of self-care.)

Mary received a prestigious TCK award to take part in this year’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference, in Amsterdam, where she spoke on a panel about storytelling as a means of communicating the experience of a global or Third Culture Kid lifestyle.

I met Mary on Twitter at #TCKchat, a bimonthly Twitter event for which she is one of several co-hosts (@verilymary). I found her so interesting, I decided I had to learn more of her story.

* * *

Welcome, Mary. Please tell us all the places where you grew up and why your family moved.
I was born in Ilorin, Nigeria, a city mostly populated by those from the Yoruba ethnic group. My father is Efik and my mother is Igbo and I fluently spoke both Yoruba and English as a small child, so even before leaving Nigeria for North America, my early childhood was already quite multicultural. My sights were set even further along the global cultural landscape once my father landed jobs as a physics professor in various cities and my mother, siblings, and I moved along with him. Our first move was to Victoria in British Columbia, Canada (on the Southern tip of Vancouver Island), for nearly three years. Then we moved to Kentucky for about seven years. Our last move was to Southern California, which has been my home for over eight years.

Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time, and if so, why?
My life in Victoria was by far the highlight of my life. Growing up, my siblings and I were involved in the activities of the city’s community center, which catered to the needs of kids living in the city, providing parents with time off while giving us the opportunity to play and explore the outdoors. I had my first camping experience in Victoria and actually saw a moose in person at around age six (one of the most Canadian moments of my life!). Hiking, swimming, and wading in the lakes and beaches were normal, nearly everyday parts of my life. Victoria opened up a new world of outdoor life, and I absolutely loved it. I was so carefree.

“Being in a STEM field has given me another avenue to put my mind to use.”

What drew you to studying biochemistry?
I decided to get my bachelors degree in biochemistry because science was something I have always liked, especially the life sciences. I couldn’t choose between biology or chemistry so I decided to pick biochemistry. My task now as a graduate is to figure out how to merge my intellectual curiosity in the sciences with my love of culture and storytelling.

Science and storytelling

The world could use your combination of gifts! Speaking of storytelling, which makes me think of writing, what made you decide to work as a writing coach in California?
When my family moved to California because of my father’s job as a physics professor at a university here, I was entering my second year of high school. I’m now in my early 20s and am still here. I decided to become a writing coach because I knew that I had something to offer to those who are struggling with their writing voice and/or need guidance in order to effectively communicate their message. I have been helping people with their writing since middle school. I decided to make my services more public and created an online platform to do so. It has been a blast working with so many brilliant and smart writers.

“I never thought of myself as a global citizen because I am not a citizen of the globe; I am a citizen of two countries.”

Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures?
I only partially identify with the cultures that I have grown up in. When I say that I am Nigerian, Canadian, or American, there is an invisible asterisk attached to each nationality because they each require a bit more of an explanation. For example, I am Nigerian, but I have spent most of my life living in North America. This may cause some people to question the validity of my Nigerianness because it is inevitably in juxtaposition with my Canadianness and my Americanness. Regardless, I know that my being Nigerian is valid.

Did your TCK upbringing inform your choice to become a writer? 
I think so. With so much of my life in transition and in flux, writing has been one of the few constants. Paper and pen is readily available in every place I have lived, and nowadays, of course, we also have laptops and tablets. When you are living a cross-cultural life, you become introspective by force. As a kid, I had plenty of those moments of introspection—though I may not have taken them to heart or perhaps was not yet able to understand my feelings fully.

Has writing helped you to process your TCK upbringing?
I only found out about the term “TCK” four years ago! It has helped me put words to my childhood experiences and write more about my TCK life. Finding other TCKs in the blogosphere and via social media encouraged me to be more confident in making my stories and experiences public on blogs and other kinds of publications. But even with the various opportunities I have been given to write on public platforms, I do not neglect writing for myself (journaling, etc.). I am such a strong believer in people—writers especially—journaling privately. It’s like the socially acceptable version of talking to yourself.

“How many of us millennials are more concerned with growing our ‘Countries I’ve Been To’ list instead of having in-depth interactions with the citizens of those countries?”

As an ATCK, do you have “itchy feet”?
One thing I like to say is that I find instability in stability. My obsession with wordplay aside, the statement rings so true for me. The fact that I can say I have been in the same spot (here in California) for over eight years is mind boggling—and makes me feel a bit anxious. The idea of being anything close to 100% established and settled in a place is not a source of comfort for me at all. My upbringing was not like that. I liked looking forward to my next plane, ferryboat, or long-distance bus ride during school holidays as a kid. My childhood was indeed nomadic. However, already this year, for the first time in five years, I took two international trips, giving me a whopping total of 10 planes already taken this year. That constant movement has kept me sane. It’s the madness of travel that keeps me centered.

Do you prefer to travel for business, pleasure, or both?
I would not mind a lifestyle that affords my moving frequently. And, while vacations are fun, I would not want all of my travel to be rooted in pleasure alone. My latest trip to Amsterdam was around the middle of March of this year. As you mentioned at the outset, I traveled there to attend the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference and I was one of five ATCKs to be awarded the Pollock Scholarship, which covers our cost of attending. I was also one of the conference presenters! I was on the plenary panel led by Julia Simens, called “Stories You Need to Tell.” There was a strong sense of purpose and duty with my going to Amsterdam. While the city was gorgeous, it was not just a vacation for me. That is the kind of thing that I want to happen regularly in my life: traveling with a purpose beyond pleasure.

The Worlds Within

I can relate and I’m sure it will continue to happen for you. Per your site, Verily Merrily Mary, you’re involved in many worthy causes: you’ve worked with organizations that aim to encourage grade school kids to get excited about STEM fields, especially children from underrepresented groups. You also support and volunteer with organizations that empower cancer patients and cancer researchers. Last July, you received the title Miss Efik USA, and you advocate for the Nigerian Efik people who live in the United States as well as in Nigeria. Congratulations on these contributions and achievements! Is there anything else you would like to share?
I had the absolute honor to be published in the book The Worlds Within: An Anthology of TCK Art and Writing: Young, Global and Between Cultures, which was launched in 2014 as a way of giving children and adolescents a voice regarding their TCK experience.
Editor’s note: The Worlds Within made our Best of Expat Books for 2014.

 

* * *

Thank you, Mary. Readers: you may learn more about Mary, her writing, and her various projects at her Verily Merrily site. If you have any questions or comments for her, please be sure to leave them below.

Editor’s note: All photos were supplied by Mary Bassey or are from Pixabay, with the exception of the two FIGT conference photos, which are from their Facebook page. The quotes are from Mary’s posts on Verily Merrilly.

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

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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

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TCK TALENT: Nancy Henderson-James, Missionary Kid in Angola, Librarian in North Carolina, and Author/Memoirist

Nancy Henderson James TCK Talent
Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang has invited another fellow Writing out of Limbo contributor to be her guest this month.

Greetings, readers. Today’s interviewee is Nancy Henderson-James, my fellow ATCK author in the anthology Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids.

Nancy was born in Tacoma, Washington, to Congregational missionaries. Not long after, the family moved to Portugal to learn Portuguese in preparation for a life in Angola, then a Portuguese colony.

Nancy grew up mostly in Angola—except for a couple of years in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where she boarded in a dorm run by an English couple, 2,000 kilometers away from her family. The Angolan war for independence from Portugal, in 1961, forced Nancy’s mother to bring her children “back” to Tacoma when Nancy was 16.

After high school graduation Nancy attended Carleton College, and then she and her husband settled in Durham, NC, where she worked as a librarian for 30 years.

The author of an acclaimed Third Culture Kid memoir At Home Abroad: An American Girl in Africa, about her childhood in Africa, Nancy has received honors from the Southern Women Writers Conference and the North Carolina Writers’ Network.

* * *

Welcome, Nancy. I’ve outlined some of your story already because I’d like to begin at the point where, after having “repatriated” with your mother and siblings to Tacoma, Washington, you were basically left on your own. Your older sister went to college and your mother took your younger siblings back to Angola to be reunited with your father. You, meanwhile, attended a high school in Tacoma for your senior year, living with a family you knew from church. In both your memoir and essay in the anthology Writing Out of Limbo, you write eloquently about the yearning you felt for family connection and “home,” which you sometimes confused with a need for spiritual connection. How do you define “home” now?
Thank you for inviting me, Lisa. The advantage of aging is the ability to look back and see how seemingly random decisions have knit into a coherent pattern. It is obvious to me now that a drive to create family and community has led me through life. Most recently it has manifested in the decision my husband and I made to form and move into a cohousing community in downtown Durham, North Carolina, called Durham Central Park Cohousing Community. Cohousing offers some of the best aspects of growing up as a missionary kid, such as sharing resources, supporting fellow community members, and working together toward a shared vision. Our urban condo community sometimes reminds me of the good times I had living in dorms. Of all my living situations growing up, dorms were the most congenial. Now the coho feels very much like home.

Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time, and if so, why?
Zeroing in on one place and time is a challenge for me. With the exception of the years immediately after reentry to the United States when I was caught up in culture shock, almost every place I’ve lived has had its happy times. For pure unconscious happiness, my early years in Lobito, living with my family, swimming on the beach across from the house every day, and absorbing the cultural mix of the small city has to qualify. My children’s growing up years gave me the satisfaction of family. And now in my older years, settled into cohousing, I find the challenge of working with 38 other residents draws on my strengths and tests me in ways that help me grow.

“I had landed in the middle of my own mystery…

Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures, or with people who have similar interests and perhaps similar cross-cultural backgrounds?  
My antenna immediately goes up when I hear someone talking about living in another country, whether as a child or adult. I attribute all sorts of wonderful characteristics to her, not always with good reason! I’ve spent decades reconciling to American culture and I am most of the way there. I married an American man who had not traveled much until I showed him its virtues. I have two American sons who have absorbed the best of American culture, contribute to it in the fields of affordable housing and community organizing, and bring me great happiness. That said, I pay special attention to what is happening in Angola and Portugal. I try to keep up my Portuguese and recently have had wonderful contacts via Facebook with young Angolans. I attend reunions of those who also grew up in Angola, at times the only way to know what is happening there since newspapers rarely cover Angola.

Did your TCK upbringing inform your choice to become a writer and memoirist?  Conversely, did writing the memoir and the essay for Writing Out of Limbo help you to process your TCK upbringing?
Both are true. Reading Mary Wertsch’s Military Brats in my 40s launched me on a mission, so to speak, to explore how a missionary upbringing affected missionary kids, or MKs, in the way that the military affected military brats. I found countless correspondences. The responses to the questionnaire I sent out—which were compiled in Africa Lives in My Soul: Responses to an African Childhood —provided rich sources for contemplating my life. The honesty and willingness of other missionary kids to respond affected me deeply and brought back memories of similar experiences I had had. Writing a memoir seemed like the logical next step. Faith Eidse helped me along the way by including my essay in Unrooted Childhoods, the memoir anthology she and Nina Sichel edited. Her confidence in my work was invaluable.

Missionary kids

…the mystery of life, really.”

It sounds like writing became part of the fabric of your life.
Writing continues to supply food for inquiry and expression. Our cohousing community has a small group of writers and artists that meets weekly to create and share. The group motivates me to write and provides helpful feedback. I also co-edit our monthly e-news.

What made you decide to settle in Durham and become a librarian?
We moved to Durham when my husband decided to attend Duke University’s graduate health administration program in 1974. As the wage earner with a newly minted library degree, I found a job working as a high school librarian—strange since I had hated attending American high school. Despite that, I worked at Jordan High School for 25 years and then for another five years at the UNC Children’s Hospital School (for children with chronic illnesses), as their first librarian.

Were you an avid reader as a kid, like so many TCKs?
As a child I was much more attracted to the outdoors (riding my bike, running, swimming) than reading inside. But when I graduated from high school I realized how much I didn’t know and started reading.

As an ATCK, do you have “itchy feet,” which still make you want to move frequently?
ATCKs seem to respond in two opposite fashions…to want to move frequently or to stay put. I discovered early on that I am in the second camp. I was a thrilled high school senior when President Kennedy announced the Peace Corps, certain I would join after college. But when the time came, I chose graduate school stateside to maintain ties with my boyfriend and his family, since my family still lived in Angola. The need for connection trumped the need for adventure. I have never lived outside the United States since leaving Africa in 1961. That said, I do travel for pleasure and took my sons on trips abroad, including on my first return trip to Angola after 44 years.

Never lived outside US

Your memoir, At Home Abroad: An American Girl in Africa, was well received. The chapter included in Unrooted Childhoods is gorgeous and haunting, and I love how you talk about the importance of language. (I agree! I think the ability to communicate trumps nationality, race, gender, religion, etc., in terms of person-to-person contact.) Where else may readers find your wonderful published writing?
My recent publications have been essays:

I’m currently working on another memoir that focuses on the many mothers and fathers who passed through my life growing up.

* * *

Thank you for sharing your story with us, Nancy! Readers: you may learn more about Nancy Henderson-James and her writings at her author site. And don’t forget to check out her books: At Home Abroad and the anthology, Africa Lives in My Soul. If you have any questions or comments for Nancy, be sure to leave them below.

Editor’s note: All photos of Africa are from Nancy Henderson-James’s Flickr albums; other photos (of the Tacoma school and the library) are from morguefiles. The quotes are from Nancy’s memoir (see excerpts).

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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

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TCK TALENT: Sezín Koehler, multimedia artist, tatoo collector, editor and prodigious writer

Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang starts off 2016 with a guest who has been to the Displaced Nation before, albeit in different guises: as Alice, as film critic, as featured novelist, as repatriate…though never as a TCK Talent.

Happy 2016, readers! I hope your January has been splendid thus far. Today’s interviewee is writer, editor, tattoo collector, and Huffington Post contributor Sezín Koehler, who also calls herself Zuzu (a nickname she picked up when living in Prague). Sezín may already be familiar to some Displaced Nation readers as an early contributor, including a two-part series listing films that depict the horrors of being abroad, or otherwise displaced; a much-commented upon post called “The Accidental Repatriate”; and an Alice-in-Wonderland-themed post on her life in Prague (that was after she had received one of the Displaced Nation’s very first “Alice” awards).

But what some of you may not know is that Sezín is a Third Culture Kid. She was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to a Sri Lankan dad and Lithuanian-American mom. Her mom’s job with UNICEF moved the family from Sri Lanka to Zambia, Thailand, Pakistan, and India.

Sezín went to college in California—and then returned to her family, who were living in Switzerland and then in France (the move again being due to her mom’s job).

Next Sezín moved alone to Spain, where she met her husband, who is American. After living as expats in Turkey, Czech Republic, and Germany, the couple now call Lighthouse Point, Florida, home.

* * *

Welcome, Sezín. What a truly peripatetic life you’ve had! What made you decide to “repatriate” to the USA and come to Lighthouse Point? 
This area is where my husband grew up and has family, although his family moved further north just this year. Economics and a series of unfortunate events are what brought me back to the US—my husband and I returned with literally 15 euros between us.

Sounds like a tough reentry. While living as a nomad can also be tough, were you happiest in a certain place?
That’s a surprisingly difficult question! There was a lot of conflict in my family when I was growing up because of the tension between my American mum and conservative Sri Lankan dad—and all the cultural, social, etc., issues that come with having a multicultural and multiracial family before that became something of the norm. Plus, moving all the time was not a lifestyle that worked for me, and it created uncomfortable cycles of depression that were then compounded by having post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after witnessing the murder of one of my best friends in our final year of university. The repatriation to Florida was one of the more miserable moves—especially since I had never planned to move back to the United States until they sort out more effective gun-control laws.

That sounds terribly painful. How have you coped since your return to the US?
My first two years back made me completely despondent, and then one day I just decided to make the best of the situation. It was time to choose happiness; otherwise I wasn’t going to survive. So now every day I wake up and I find something—big or small—to be happy about and I focus on that for the day. In that sense, and in a strange reversal, I suppose Florida is where I find myself happiest because this is where I learned that happiness isn’t something that happens to me passively because life is perfect. Happiness is a daily choice. And I actively make the choice to be happy however difficult my surroundings.

“That feeling of being an outsider never quite leaves you…”

Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures, including the very broad “TCK culture”? 
You know, I think I identify with aspects of pretty much every culture under the sun—even ones where I didn’t actually live or visit. Being highly sensitive, coupled with having a TCK upbringing, has made it so I can identify with just about anyone who isn’t a bigot or misogynist, even if our backgrounds are nothing alike. I do find myself particularly drawn to other TCKs because, even if we didn’t live in the same places, there is something about the “universal” TCK personality that resonates with me, and it’s far easier to start on the same page rather than having to work hard to build bridges of understanding between myself and people who haven’t traveled or grown up abroad. I also find that many TCKs understand that just because growing up abroad sounds exciting, it might not have actually felt that way when we were getting yanked from place to place, leaving friends and family behind in those pre-social-media Dark Ages.

Did your TCK upbringing inform your career path as a writer?
To be honest, with all the moving around plus PTSD, it’s been hard to develop a career track other than writing. Being a writer means you take your passion with you wherever you go, and no matter where you are, there is always something new to write about. Writing has been my longest-standing support system and therapy through the variety of traumas that ended up shaping my life, and any day now I hope I’ll start being able to make a living doing it. 🙂

Did growing up as a TCK also influence your career as an editor?
As an editor I focus on academic writing by non-native English speakers, and having lived in so many places has definitely helped me understand all the different (incorrect) ways people use English and help them to get published in English-language publications where English fluency is a requirement.

“As a Third Culture Kid, I always related with monsters more than ‘norms.'”

Tell us about your tattoo collection. Any TCK connections there?
Other than my husband, tattoos are one of the great loves of my life. Tattoos for me have been a way to not just express myself creatively, but have also been a way to re-claim my own body after so many traumas. I have a hybrid identity that I often express in fantastical ways. Sometimes when people ask me where I’m from and I don’t feel like having an intimate conversation about my life I’ll say I’m a mermaid and I’m visiting from the ocean. I have a huge jellyfish on my right thigh and I say, “Meet my pet jelly.” Now that my hair is in a pixie cut, I might introduce myself as a fairy and since I actually have tattooed wings on my shoulders as well as often literally leaving a trail of glitter in my wake, I find it easier than getting into my TCK identity—especially when the person I’m talking to might have never left this corner of Florida.

Keep Calm & Be a Mermaid

So in a way, the tattoos serve as both explanation and protection.
For my entire life I’ve operated under an assumption of otherness—when I’m in the US people ask me where I’m from, and when I’m in Sri Lanka people ask me where I’m from. Being mixed race can be really complicated—and I get a lot of aggression from strangers who try to figure out “what” I am. In a way tattoos are a shield between me and curious eyes, as is much of my performance-of-the-fantastical-self art and being.

Have any of these careers/interests helped you to process your nomadic upbringing?
Writing, definitely! Writing has been my most effective and longest-standing therapeutic tool. Not just my non-fiction, but also my short stories and my novels have most certainly helped me situate my cultural self in lots of different ways that have been helpful and healing. As a writer I’m also an avid reader, and reading is another huge help in figuring out where my strange background and I fit in the grander scheme of culture and society.

“I revel in my boundaryless self…”

As an ATCK, do you have “itchy feet,” or would you prefer to have a home base and only travel for pleasure?
I have always hated moving and I might be the only TCK to say I have never had itchy feet. Ever since I was a little girl all I wanted was to stay in one place and even now at 36 I feel that way. But because of how I grew up moving around, I’ve also come to a point where everywhere seems pretty much the same—I always see the same kinds of people in disparate places, it’s weird—and yet nowhere ever feels like home. So now my concept of home has shifted and simply means being somewhere with people I love.

Moving is one thing, but how do you feel about traveling in general, including for pleasure?
After a lifetime spent on airplanes and traveling, I absolutely hate traveling now. I have crippling aerophobia, and if I’m forced to travel somewhere by plane, everything about the experience is miserable and I end up getting really ill before, during, and after. I find going to new places more stressful than enjoyable. My dream is one day to have a house with a beautiful view and some rescue dogs and never go anywhere ever again. Except through books, of course.

Speaking of books, you published your first novel, American Monsters, four years ago, and I understand the sequel has just come out!
Yes indeed! My second novel, Crime Rave, came out in October 2015, and I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of one of my creations in my life. Going back to your question about how being a TCK has shaped my writing, this book is a perfect example. The story itself defies genres—it has crime noir, supernatural, horror, and feminist themes just to name a few—and most of my characters are either mixed race or people of color who are not only TCKs themselves or ethno-cultural hybrids, but they’ve all gone through traumas that resulted in superpowers. If there was a label of Third Culture Fiction, my book would totally fit the bill.

The number of novels you have in progress, on top of what you’ve had published, is wildly impressive! Please tell us about them.
Thank you so much, Lisa. I’m currently working on my third, fourth, fifth, and potentially sixth novels—the third is a zombie tale set in Prague, the fourth will find recurring Crime Rave characters on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, Lighthouse Terror will be a grindhouse horror novel set in a gated community in southeast Florida, and finally I’m toying with the idea of an entire novel about Marilyn Monroe.

Yes, I know you are a big Marilyn fan. I believe she makes an appearance in Crime Rave?
Yes, in Crime Rave she not only lives but has a daughter.
Crime Rave Marilyn
What else are you working on?
As a HuffPost freelancer I’m working on a number of pieces featuring interviews with some badass individuals—authors, activists, artists, scientists, and more. I’m also in the process of starting my own publishing label that will focus on works by women and other marginalized writers who create genre-bending works in which women play all the major roles.

You’re so prodigious!
The one benefit of being an accidental shut-in who works from home here in Lighthouse Point is that I have nothing but time to work on all the creative projects I want, which is another dream come true.

Where can we find your work and follow your progress?
At sezin.org, my HuffPost column, my American Monsters site, and sezinkoehler.com. I’ve also recently revamped my Etsy store, Zuzu Art, with its gallery of sparkly-strange multimedia Alice in Wonderland and Frida Kahlo-inspired pieces. I have a Tumblr cabinet of curiosities called Hybrid/Monster that I continue to update with oddities of the visual nature, and I am rather fond of my Instagram account, where I post pics of my own art, my performance art, and snapshots of life in the tropics. Whew! I didn’t realize how much I produce online until this very moment.

* * *

Thank you so much, Sezín! I’m inspired to know that your artistic path has led to your healing, and that you’ve found daily happiness since the painful reentry to the United States. Congratulations on your many creative, career, and personal accomplishments! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Sezín below.

Editor’s note: All photos are from Koehler’s Hybrid Monsters site (apart from her book cover and the photo of one of her Etsy works) or from Pixabay. The quotes are from her “About the Curatrix” page.

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

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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TCK TALENT: As 2016 approaches, Lisa Liang dares to dream big for her one-woman show, “Alien Citizen”

LisaLiang_onFilm

Photo credit (top right): Lights, camera, action! by Portable Antiquities Scheme via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

In a year that took her to Spain and South Africa for performances of her play Alien Citizen, columnist Lisa Liang is already making big plans for 2016. You go girl!

Hello, dear readers. This month’s column is devoted to my recent experience filming my one-woman show, Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey, in Los Angeles, California. The show is about growing up a TCK of mixed heritage.

Two years ago, I had Alien Citizen video-recorded so that I could

I had no budget and will be forever grateful to my friend, filmmaker Rod Bradley, for giving the video such high-caliber image quality. For readers who may be unfamiliar with my show, here is what we produced:

Taking it up a level

This year I wanted to film the show at an even higher level in order to…well, that’s the thing: I have many dreams for it. I want to sell it to individual customers and institutions. I also want to send it to the Sundance Channel, IFC, and PBS on the chance that they might like it enough to want to reshoot it as a “special” with a much higher budget. I would love for it to catch the attention of an off-Broadway producer who would give it a proper several-weeks run in Manhattan. I would love for it to inspire a studio to hire me to draft a screenplay or TV pilot based on it. I would love to get great stage and screen acting jobs from it. I would love for it to entice professional producers to come on board for my next solo show. I would love for it to get me great writing gigs.

I want a lot. I’m not sure how to pursue any of it. But I will try.

This all means that I need a filmed version that looks and sounds really good. So I took my ridiculously meager budget (at least I had a budget this time!) and rented a venue where years ago I was in the audience for the greatest live performance of a solo show I’ve ever seen.

Last month, at this tiny theatre, I produced as professional a film shoot as I could under the ultra-low-budget circumstances. We shot over two nights with two extremely high-end digital cameras on both nights—I got great deals on the cameras and equipment, largely thanks to my friend Rod again. I hired a DP (director of photography), a camera operator, and a professional sound recordist (who set up five microphones, including the lavalier attached to my sternum, for truly good sound quality).

My husband, Dan, ran the projections and sound cues, and I hired a stage manager to also hang lights, program the light board, and run lights.

My director, Sofie Calderon, worked tirelessly with the crew and me, having to “slate” the clapboard herself because we had no PA (production assistant) to do the job for her. She was wonderful.

Taking direction Alien Citizen

Director Sophie Calderon puts her all into helping Lisa Liang with the filming of Alien Citizen in November (photos supplied).

We had no audience on the first night when we shot close-ups and medium shots; we had a full audience on the second night of close-ups and wide shots.

This is what I’ll say about performing a solo show for cameras but without an audience, starting and stopping for technical and performance adjustments: it’s utterly exhausting. We were at the venue for a good eight hours that night and we must have shot for at least four-and-a-half of those hours. This meant that I had to perform alone for close to five hours. No costar to work off of, no audience to bounce off of, nobody but the silent cameras, the silent crew, and me. Mind you, doing the 80-minute show nonstop is already a tremendous workout. I always say it’s like doing a sprint triathlon while emoting—and I would know because I’ve done a sprint tri. So now imagine doing it for 270 minutes.

Gah!!!

Drama needs an audience

The next night’s shoot was much more fun, thanks to the warm, enthusiastic audience. They were mostly friends and friends-of-friends who were happy to be there, which made all the difference. I enjoyed myself and the performance felt “full.” We had to “hold” a few times due to sirens passing just outside the theatre—the bane of filming in a big city. But the audience was good humored and supportive throughout.

Afterward we had a Q&A moderated by one of my associate producers, Karen Smith, and people asked smart questions. I’ll include the Q&A on the DVD as an “extra” and maybe put it on YouTube as a promo. People stuck around for wine and goodies after that, and it was absolutely lovely to continue receiving support and enthusiasm well into the evening.

Alien Citizen Talkback

Associate producer Karen Smith conducts a talk back with Lisa and Sophie for a DVD “extra”; the lobby is decked out before the public show with an Alien Citizen backdrop for interviews later (photos supplied).

Have I mentioned that I performed with four injuries? I accidentally hurt my lower back in January, and the problem has flared up intermittently throughout the year. My left shoulder/neck area started bothering me over the summer. My right clavicle was injured accidentally at a chiropractic session for the first two injuries (!). And I hurt my right leg during a performance of an excerpt of the show in September. I’ve been doing all I can to take care of these problems: chiropractor, massage, acupuncture, cupping, at-home physical therapy, hot tub, you name it.

Stress with a capital “S”

So I can only think that the reason they all flared up (especially my back) with a vengeance in the weeks leading up to the shoot was: stress. It’s stressful to produce a film, even when it only shoots over two nights. If you’re the only actor in it, and it’s your “baby,” and you’re literally recording it for posterity, then the stress increases exponentially. So I felt more wrecked than usual on the mornings after both performances, and I laid low for a few days afterward. Luckily, Thanksgiving was soon upon us, so I used the holiday weekend as an excuse to stay in.

I look forward to editing the digital version of the show with my director’s input, and then sending it out into the world. The world has been very kind to Alien Citizen so far, so I’m allowing myself to hope for its future.

Meanwhile, my next live performance will be at Smith College on January 30, and my Asia-Pacific debut will be in Singapore in late April. The show still has legs and I’m so grateful to every single person who has supported it.

Since I’ve posted several entries about the show’s adventures in 2015, and you’ve been very indulgent of that, I’m pleased to announce that the first TCK Talent posting of the new year will be an interview of a wildly impressive creative ATCK. Happy holidays, all, and stay tuned!

* * *

Thank you, Lisa! It’s been quite a year for you and your solo show. I’m amazed you still had energy for a film shoot, especially given your injuries. You’re amazing! I think I speak for all the Displaced Nation readers in wishing the brightest of futures for Alien Citizen, in 2016…and beyond! —ML Awanohara

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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TCK TALENT: Donna Musil, Writer-Director, Lawyer, Activist & Proud Army Brat

The uber TCK-talented Donna Musil. Photo credit: Ray Ng.

The uber TCK-talented Donna Musil. Photo credit: Ray Ng.

Columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her latest interview guest.

Welcome back, readers! It’s been awhile. But I think the wait will be worth it as my latest interviewee is the super-talented writer, filmmaker and social change agent Donna Musil. Donna is also a fitting choice for the month when America celebrates Veteran’s Day. She made the award-winning documentary BRATS: Our Journey Home, narrated by Kris Kristofferson, about what it is like to grow up in a military family and the long-term impact it can have on a person’s adult life.

She is also the founding director of Brats Without Borders, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing awareness and support for military brats and other Third Culture Kids.

Donna’s interest in the subculture of military brats is personal. Born into a career Army family, she went to 12 schools by the time she was 16 and never had a hometown. Her family moved almost every year until she was seven, from Fort Benning, Georgia, to two other bases in Georgia (Athens and Macon, the latter when her father was serving in Korea and Vietnam); then to the enormous Army installation in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and to Charlottesville, Virginia, where her father was doing something at the university. They moved overseas twice: to Germany (Bad Kreuznach), followed by Fort Mason in San Francisco; and to South Korea—Yongsan Garrison in Seoul and then Camp Walker in Taegu (now Daegu), after which they were stationed in Fort Knox, Kentucky. Donna’s father died in the summer of 1976, two months after she turned 16, and her family had to leave base housing. They moved to Columbus, Georgia.

Talk about talent! BRATS was Donna’s very first directing effort. I had the privilege of getting to know her as one of my fellow authors in the TCK anthology Writing Out of Limbo.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Donna. Even though I’ve met and have interviewed plenty of Adult TCKs, my head is still spinning at the number of moves you experienced as a youngster. Once you reached young adulthood, did you settle in one spot or keep moving?
I stayed in Georgia for college, earning a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a law degree a few years later (the time in between I traveled and worked as an on-air radio newscaster). After law school, I practiced union-side labor law in Washington, DC and Atlanta. In the late 1980s, I quit practicing law to pursue a writing career, my childhood dream. After a few years in Atlanta, I moved to Los Angeles to “pay my dues” in the film business, but when the 1994 Northridge earthquake struck and destroyed half of my possessions, I stored the other half at my sister’s and moved to Dublin, Ireland, for two years to write. When I ran out of money, I returned to Georgia and began making the BRATS film. I lived in a crooked, old family lakehouse, which became my “base.” During the ten years it took to make and distribute the BRATS film, I also worked as a technical writer and/or attended writer’s residencies in Denmark, Spain, Paris, Taos, and Port Townsend (Washington).

Where do you live now?
In 2010, I moved to Denver to be near my sister and her family, and have lived there ever since, except when I’ve been on writer’s residencies—in France, Chicago, and San Francisco. (I’ll be living at a writer’s residency in Chiang Mai, Thailand, this coming winter.)

Donna Musil, already displaying her talents in Korea, 1975. (Photo supplied.)

Donna Musil, already displaying her talents in Korea, 1975. (Photo supplied.)

Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time?
I was happiest when we lived at Fort Mason in San Francisco when I was 11 to 13 years old. Interestingly enough, it was one of the least “military” of all of our assignments, just a block away from the famed Ghirardelli Square, overlooking the bay. I attended public schools, populated by an eclectic array of children, whose parents were everything from authors to restaurant owners to ballerinas. The racial makeup of the student body was about a third Chinese, a third white, and a third black and brown. I loved it!

I can imagine you thriving on the diversity. Was there anything else that made that time special?
Yes, swimming! I joined the Presidio Swim Club after watching Mark Spitz bedazzle the tragic 1972 Olympics, and began dreaming of my own (albeit unlikely) Olympic run. I walked to school every day and to swim practice every afternoon. I think I still hold the Marina Junior High School record for the most pull-ups for a 13-year-old girl—12! I loved everything about San Francisco—the culture, the diversity, the hippies on the beach. It was also the last year before my father got sick, so I suppose it was the end of my innocence. The next year, we moved to Seoul, Korea, for six months and then to Taegu, where there was no swim team, and my dreams of Olympic glory evaporated. My freshman class had ten students, total. We were surrounded by jaded, war-struck soldiers on their way to or from Vietnam, bars, prostitutes, and easy access to drugs and alcohol. You can imagine the results.

Because everybody needs a place to call home…

Let’s talk about BRATS. For readers who aren’t familiar, here is the trailer:


Were you surprised by what a hit BRATS has been with adult military brats and ATCKs? 
The reaction to BRATS: Our Journey Home has been interesting. I initially made the movie to figure out “who I was and where I was from,” but it quickly became apparent that it was less about me and more about the brat/TCK culture in general. I had been separated from the military life for twenty years when I began filming so was somewhat surprised to discover that most of the issues the movie discusses are just as relevant today as they were when I was a child—particularly the emotional and trauma-related issues.

In your essay in Writing Out of Limbo, you mention a teenaged boy who loved the documentary because it was the first time he had seen a family like his portrayed on film. You state: “I would do it all over again to hear that one comment. To make a difference in just one child’s life—no honor, award, or monetary compensation could ever compare.” That’s tremendous! But let’s also talk about your goal of affecting change within the military itself. How has the military responded?
To be honest, I would have to say that the military-as-a-whole has not welcomed the film or the research of Brats Without Borders (or any other “brat” groups) with open arms, nor have they helped us implement programs or provide resources to current and retired families that address the emotional needs of military brats/TCKs. There have been pockets of institutional and corporate support for a related art exhibit and workshops, as well as the film distribution costs, and Armed Forces Network has broadcast the film multiple times. The reactions have always been universally positive, but we could be doing so much more (with so very little).

So there are no military groups who have interpreted the film as a call to action?
In general, the military clergy and soldiers have been most supportive of our work and the military educational system and spouses the least supportive. It took me a while to realize that it must be hard to hear that the life you’ve chosen for your family (often a life better than your own childhood) also has its flaws. Many (high-powered) spouses are willing to hear and promote the positive legacies of growing up brat/TCK but tend to gloss over the painful legacies and attribute them to bad parenting instead of institutional pressures, traditions, or combat trauma. As a result, nothing much changes, and (as it has always been), brats/TCKs are forced to take care of their own emotional needs. Nowadays, people talk a little bit more about the sacrifice of military kids and groups give them free “stuff”; but they’re still not addressing their emotional needs (among other things) or considering what institutional changes might be made to ease their transitions and difficulties.

You must find that frustrating.
It’s particularly frustrating when I hear the institution and the media talk about the “lack of research” in this area, because it’s simply not true. We have the research. We’ve had it for 25 years. They just don’t always like what the research says. The military wants to downplay the negatives and the media wants to downplay the positives. Meanwhile, millions of dollars are being thrown into programs for military kids that are designed by people who haven’t walked the walk, or whose loyalties lie more with the institution or perpetuating their own existence than they do with the children. That may seem harsh, but I think it’s the truth. Perhaps one day actual brats and TCKs will be invited to the table and given substantial support, but I’m not holding my breath. In the meantime, we’ll just keep helping ourselves!

“Like many brats,…I could talk to, but didn’t trust, anyone.” —Donna Musil in Writing Out of Limbo

Let’s move on to talk about the TCK experience. Many of the sections in your essay for Writing Out of Limbo resonated with me; for instance, when you said: “There are lessons each of us has to learn in our lives, and the more we avoid learning a particular lesson, the harder God will knock us down, until we have no choice but to learn it (and move on to the next lesson….). Still I didn’t learn.” You mention trust issues, inability to handle disagreement or confrontation, and more traits that are common among ATCKs, for which you needed to learn healthier coping mechanisms. Has making and touring BRATS helped you deal with this? Or do your old TCK survival mechanisms still crop up from time to time (like mine do even though creating Alien Citizen helped me a lot)?
For good or ill, I think all of my TCK survival mechanisms are alive and well! I’ve just learned to manage them better, with experiences from the BRATS film, my new film projects, some very good therapy, a lot of reading, and a very kind, understanding, and patient fiancé.

Has making and touring BRATS helped Donna to deal with some of the TCK issues Donna describes in Writing Out of Limbo? (Cover art; poster art, supplied.)

Has making and touring BRATS helped Donna to deal with some of the TCK issues she describes in Writing Out of Limbo? (Cover art and poster art, supplied.)

Are you tempted, for example, to run away from confrontation/disagreement?
Yes, I’d rather flee, move, break up or leave. I’ve learned to temper that impulse by isolating myself and dealing with it after I’ve calmed down. I also still have a visceral reaction to mean-spirited, unjust, authoritative, or self-centered people, but instead of confronting them like I used to, I try to avoid them. I’m much less black-and-white about things—but perhaps that’s just the wisdom of age. I do make people earn my trust instead of instantly bestowing it, and vice versa. There are so many ways “growing up brat/TCK” still affects my life today; it probably shapes almost everything I do. As I get older, though, I try to build on the positive aspects of my youth and temper the less-than-positive legacies, which is often much easier said than done!

Do you identify most with a particular culture or cultures, or with people who have similar interests and perhaps similar cross-cultural backgrounds?  
I don’t identify with any particular culture or ethnicity, other than the brat/TCK culture. I don’t even have any real nationalistic tendencies. I don’t think America is “the best country in the world.” I think all countries and all people have their good points and not-so-good points; it just depends on what you’re most comfortable with. That said, I am definitely the quintessential American—independent, strong-willed, feisty, rebellious. Daniel Boone was my (great-great) uncle, his oldest brother Samuel my (great-great) grandfather, so I come by that spirit honestly. But my political sensibilities are more Scandinavian, like my grandmother’s side of the family. I enjoy being around other curious, open-minded “outsiders,” many of whom tend to have cross-cultural backgrounds. I try very hard not to consider myself, or any group to which I feel I might belong, “special.” That kind of thinking is the source of most of the world’s ills.

Do you have “itchy feet,” which still make you want to move frequently? Or would you prefer to have a home base and only travel for pleasure?
My poor fiancé. He was an educator brat—but basically grew up in one town in Germany. When we first started dating, I’d tell him all of the places I dream about living in: Vancouver, Canada; Austin, TX; San Francisco, CA; Chiang Mai, Thailand; Asheville, NC; and Paris, etc. Like any man, he wanted to give me what I wanted, but he couldn’t pin me down on what I actually wanted (one of the banes of being a brat/TCK). I was born and raised to be geographically and intellectually curious (the best legacy of growing up brat/TCK!). I like to stay somewhere until I want to go somewhere else—and my fiancé is okay with that, too. I don’t have any children, and his are grown, so it’s possible for us to live this way. Perhaps we’ll settle down in one place in the future. Denver is a nice town. We like it—for now.

Donna’s next act(s)

Returning to your work: I believe you are making another documentary? Tell us about it.
Yes, the film is called Our Own Private Battlefield. It’s the first documentary about the intergenerational effects of combat PTSD on military children, and how one Marine family is using art to help heal the long-term wounds of the Vietnam War. I still have a few more interviews to shoot. I’m hoping the lessons learned from this family will help generations of current and future military families deal with the traumas of war, both here and abroad.

Battlefield sounds amazing.
It’s actually a byproduct of the combined efforts of Brats Without Borders and Marine brat Lora Beldon’s organization, Military Kid Art Project, which teaches customized art classes to military children.

Your mention of art reminds me: I think an art exhibit is one of your other projects?
Yes, Lora and I founded the BRAT Art Institute this year and will host our first Military BRAT Art Camp in 2016, in conjunction with Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, VA. Right now we have a museum exhibit currently touring the country, called “UNCLASSIFIED: The Military Kid Art Show.” It won a Newman’s Own Award in 2012 and features over fifty years of military brat and veteran art from around the world, historical artifacts, and films about using art to heal trauma. The art camps will be part of a larger research effort to study how art can help military children deal with the traumas of war and multiple deployments.

Do you have any projects that don’t relate to the military?
Yes, my personal projects are much more eclectic. Besides a TV show based on brats in Korea in the 1970s, I’m also shopping a children’s animated film script based on African folktales (with a producer from Ghana) as well as a feature film screenplay about a modern-day union campaign at a small-town nursing home. My current writing efforts are focused on a murder mystery, based on (what I believe) is an unjust incarceration of an innocent man for over thirty years.

How can we follow your progress?
People can see my brat/TCK projects at www.USAbrat.org. Later this year, I will be putting up a personal page, donnamusil.com, for my non-brat/TCK projects.

* * *

Thank you so much, Donna! I think I can speak for the entire Displaced Nation in asserting that you’ve blown us all away with all the important and necessary work you do for military brats, veterans, and TCKs. Congratulations on your many extraordinary achievements! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Donna below.

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

STAY TUNED for more fab posts!

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TCK TALENT: Lisa Liang takes her show back on the road; second stop: Cape Town, South Africa (2/2)

TCK Talent columnist Lisa and her husband (and techie), Dan, head to Cape Town. Photo credits: (from left) Alien Citizen poster; Lisa and Dan in front of Little Theatre on University of Cape Town campus (supplied, by Daniel Lawrence); and view of Table Mountain through bus window (supplied, by Lisa Liang).

Having delivered a successful show, TCK Talent columnist Lisa and her husband (and techie), Dan, explore Cape Town. Photo credits: (from left) Alien Citizen poster; Lisa and Dan on the street where they rented a cottage in Woodstock; Lisa in front of the clock tower on the V&A Waterfront. (All photos supplied, taken by either Lisa or her husband, Daniel Lawrence.)

TCK Talent columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang has had an exciting summer, even by her own, well-traveled standards. First she performed her one-woman show about growing up as a mixed-race TCK in Valencia, Spain, after which she headed for Cape Town, South Africa, for another performance, which she told us about in her last post. Today we’ll be treated to Part Two of her South African adventure!

Howzit, dear readers—molweni! Kunjani?

As some of you may recall, in my previous post I described the experience of taking Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey, my one-woman show about growing up as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) of mixed heritage, to the Women Playwrights International Conference, held June 29–July 3 in Cape Town.

This month’s post is about the second half of said trip, during which my husband, Dan, and I explored the city and its surroundings. A travelogue, if you will.

The day after the conference ended, we took an Uber cab to our new digs in Woodstock, about half a mile east of the city centre. (We’re not fans of Uber as a company—but as the Cape Town drivers were excellent and we were on a budget, we compromised.) Our AirBnB guest cottage had an en suite bathroom with a big shower—an upgrade from the dorm life we’d experienced at the conference.

We took it easy that day because I was wiped out from a week of conferencing that had culminated in performing my show. (Dan had played a role in the performance, too, as my techie.) We went grocery shopping in what South Africans call a “lower rent” area, a couple of blocks away. It offered far fewer choices than you would find in the USA or Europe—similar to the shops of my childhood and adolescence, spent in Central America and North Africa. Our most memorable buys were the potato chips or “crisps” and the gingersnap cookies or “biscuits”: both excellent!

Regarding safety in the city: we had read warnings about crime, but we witnessed none. As we walked along the main road, young men shouted at us through the windows of vans speeding by, offering us rides. At first we were intimidated, but by the end of our stay it was so familiar that we would just call back “No thanks!”

On the way home, we stopped at a cafe, the Field Office, where we enjoyed a great lunch and decent WiFi connection.

Dan is a coffee aficionado and I love the way Cape Town serves chai lattes in pretty glass mugs, so we were especially happy hanging out at this cafe, which aspires to be an office-away-from-the-office (hence its name).

When we returned to the cottage, we nearly froze—my teeth literally chattered! As I mentioned last month, most homes in Cape Town don’t have heating or insulation for the colder months. Luckily, our host realized this and loaned us a space heater the next day. (We had foolishly assumed he didn’t have one.)

The next day we went to the V&A Waterfront, which I loved for the clock tower, the public art, the restaurants and shops—and the fact that so many of our fellow tourists were from African countries. It was a pleasure to be among travelers from the African continent for a change. We discovered some fantastic traditional arts-and-crafts shopping at the African Trading Port.

Impilo! (Cheers!)

The following day we took a winelands tour. The countryside was beautiful; we passed a farm that had a zebra, a springbok, an ostrich, and more animals you never see on US farmland. Without having eaten breakfast, we tasted five wines (!) in Paarl valley, which was perhaps not the healthiest way to begin the morning.

Our next stop was charming Franschhoek, where I insisted on getting breakfast—a lovely muffin-like scone with butter/cream/jam coupled with a caffe latte…I felt much better. We also bought chocolate at a pretty chocolate shop because…chocolate!

The second winery was very fancy; then we continued on to Stellenbosch, where we had a tasty lunch. The towns were pretty with Cape Dutch, Georgian, and Victorian architecture.

The final winery on our tour had lots of character in the form of gigantic spider webs hanging by the stained glass windows. It was there we learned that fortified wine is to port what sparkling wine is to champagne. In total that day we tasted 12 wines and three ports fortified wines. We liked the ports fortified wines the best.

A cobwebbed window at one of the wineries; a glass of port, a fortified wine[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fortified_wine#/media/File:Port_wine.jpg], by Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons; Lisa at La Motte Winery.

A cobwebbed window at one of the wineries on Lisa and Dan’s tour; a glass of port, a fortified wine, by Jon Sullivan via Wikimedia Commons; Lisa at La Motte Winery.

Benza iKapa (Beautiful Cape Town)

The next day we took a city tour. We were supposed to go to the top of Table Mountain but it was too windy. (We were finally able to reach the top on our second-to-last day. It was so beautiful, I feel enormously lucky and grateful to have experienced it.)
Table Mountain_top
Our guide showed us some of the beaches near the town. The water was such a beautiful shade of light blue—I’ve never seen water like that before! And the view from Signal Hill was spectacular—I can’t use that word enough for the natural beauty surrounding Cape Town.

And on this tour, I finally had the chance to see the outside of all the places that Dan had visited during our first week while I was “conferencing”:

We walked through a small section of the Company’s Garden, a beautiful park with very old trees and Egyptian geese having Make Way for Ducklings moments, to the Iziko South African Museum.

This tour ended with the requisite visit to a diamond shop, which no one in the van was interested in, but we all ultimately decided to go in for the demonstration on how the jewels are made from gems (and, I’ll admit, for the free champagne). There was loads of tanzanite (named for Tanzania, where it was discovered) on display—a good investment, apparently. We didn’t invest.

Legacy of apartheid

While at the South African Museum, it was disturbing to learn that the museum’s first curators had created life-sized models from molds of actual living “Bushmen” (who were never credited) to demonstrate an “authentic, primitive, and it’s being lived today” lifestyle. Since the end of apartheid, the museum has been re-curated from the indigenous perspective.

On our second-to-last day we visited Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of the 27 years he served behind bars before the fall of apartheid. (The prison is now a museum.) We had a great guide in the bus, who stressed that the prison was not about Nelson Mandela. The prisoners chose Mandela to speak for them, but they told him what to say and asked him to refashion their words because he was so eloquent and was also trained as a lawyer. At the prison itself, we had a former prisoner as our guide, who showed us Mandela’s cell. No white prisoners were held in that prison—only “blacks” and “coloureds,” who were not treated the same (there was worse treatment for blacks).

Mandela’s last prison was Drakenstein Correctional Centre (formerly Victor Verster Prison), which we’d seen during our winery tour. (We stopped to take pictures beneath the inspiring Nelson Mandela statue at the entrance.)

On our last day we went to the District Six Museum, which is a beautifully and intimately designed and curated memorial to the forced movement of 60,000 inhabitants of various races in District Six during 1970s apartheid. My eyes started welling up in the first five minutes. I felt anxious, angry, and moved.

(Top) Robben Island Prison Museum; District Six Museum.

(Top) Robben Island Prison Museum; District Six Museum.

At the conference I had remarked to a young South African theatremaker that I hadn’t perceived any racial tension among the diverse group of actors and directors who staged the play readings; she replied that that was because we were at the university, but things were different off campus. Dan and I were unpleasantly surprised when one of our tour guides, an older white man, stated that “black neighborhood” equaled “ghetto,” and pointed out a section of the city that he considered “awful”—but it looked like any populated section of a city in a developing nation to me.

I grew up mostly in poor countries, so I’m accustomed to the scrappy, grimy, not-at-all-pretty-yet-functional aspect of many an urban area. We actually bought our groceries on the block that the guide was pointing out.

Ubuhle bendalo (Spectacular scenery)

In disconcerting contrast to its painful history, South Africa has spectacular scenery. We went on a tour to the Cape Peninsula, including Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point. Spectacular vistas and beaches—again, I’ve never seen that color of ocean.

We also loved seeing animals that were new to us. We took a boat to see Cape fur seals on Duiker Island. Along the road throughout the day we passed zebras, baboons, bontebok, and ostriches—mostly not penned in—just by the road! And ever so many African penguins on Boulders Beach!

We ended that particular day at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, which were lush and green, and I treated myself to a new mug at the gift shop. (A mug of tea being part of my writing ritual!

South African animals collage

Clockwise, from top left: Ostrich between road and sea; South African farm animals; African penguins at Boulders Beach; the Egyptian geese in Company Gardens.

Glorious food

We had been wanting to try the best Cape Malay food in town. We were told it was at Biesmiellah, so went there for dinner. Best comfort food ever after a day that had run the emotional gamut from a grim yet inspiring prison-turned-museum, to one of the world’s natural wonders with jaw-dropping vistas, to a fantastic restaurant where the cooks are Muslim women who feed you after sunset during Ramadan (so you can only hope they’ve broken their own fasts while taking care of tourists).

We ate wonderfully well in Cape Town. I can also recommend:

Paradoxically, almost every day we were approached by a homeless person, each one of a
different ethnicity/race (white, black, Malaysian, etc.), often young, always deeply courteous, asking for a meal. It finally occurred to me to carry an energy bar in my coat for giving away.

Last but not least…

While at the District Six Museum on our last day, we happened to run into a few WPIC delegates, one of whom complimented my performance of Alien Citizen from the previous week: a great way to cap off our visit.

One of the last things we did was to return to Company’s Park to walk the length of it; there were numerous romantic couples on the grass, which reminded me of Rome’s Villa Borghese Gardens and L.A.’s Griffith Park. We also saw many guinea fowl in and around Cape Town—again, we loved seeing animals we never get to see in the States.

We also visited St. George’s Cathedral, which was lovely and smaller than I had expected. It’s so famous for Desmond Tutu that in my head it was the size of Chartres—until I actually saw it and went inside.

We even took in the South African National Gallery, which had two incredible exhibits by South African artists:

  1. photography and more by Omar Badsha, and
  2. a multimedia-with-moving-sculpture work by William Kentridge called The Refusal of Time.

Hamba kakuhle! (Go well!)

All too soon it was time to wend our way back to L.A. The first leg of our flight was at night. On the British Airways plane back to Heathrow, the flight attendants sprayed something throughout the cabin, saying that it was not toxic but that we should still take our contact lenses out and not lick the mist. Um…

I’ll spare you the details of our layover in Heathrow, but be warned: that airport goes well out of its way to make you miserable. Meanwhile, our flight out of Cape Town left late, so we missed the connection and were rerouted to San Francisco…and our luggage got lost at SFO. It was finally delivered to us four days later—intact! Hooray!

Looking back, I think we were lucky to have mostly clear weather during our time in Cape Town as I was able to take extraordinarily vivid impressions of the majestic Table Mountain, the city and its surroundings, which are still with me…

On another level, I found Cape Town stimulating as an artist. It’s the kind of place that compels you to be brave and keep trying to tell your story truthfully. That’s also what I took away from our trip, along with an abiding gratitude to the WPIC programming committee for choosing Alien Citizen as the closing show—and of course to my generous backers who made the trip possible. Without a doubt, it counts as one of the highlights of my creative international life.

* * *

Thank you, Lisa! I really appreciated hearing about your travels within and around Cape Town from your ATCK perspective: it was fascinating, as well as moving, to take this virtual tour. Readers, please leave questions or comments for Lisa below. —ML Awanohara

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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TCK TALENT: Lisa Liang takes her show back on the road; second stop: Cape Town, South Africa (1/2)

TCK Talent columnist Lisa and her husband (and techie), Dan, head to Cape Town. Photo credits: (from left) Alien Citizen poster; Lisa and Dan in front of Little Theatre on University of Cape Town campus; and view of xxx through bus window (supplied).

TCK Talent columnist Lisa and her husband (and techie), Dan, head to Cape Town. Photo credits: (from left) Alien Citizen poster; Lisa and Dan in front of Little Theatre on University of Cape Town campus (supplied, by Daniel Lawrence); and view of Table Mountain through bus window (supplied, by Lisa Liang).

For the second month running, our TCK Talent columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang updates us on her own creative life. This is the first of a two-part post on her South African experience.

Howzit, dear readers—molweni!

I’m devoting this month’s column to the experience of taking  Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey, my one-woman show about growing up as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) of mixed heritage, to Cape Town, South Africa.

The occasion was the 2015 Women Playwrights International (WPI) Conference, held June 29–July 3. WPI has brought together women playwrights and allied theatre artists, cultural workers, and scholars since 1988. It facilitates communication and collaboration among the international community of women in theatre by holding conferences every three years.

In last month’s column I remarked: “It sounds like my kind of crowd.”

Well…it was!!

It felt enormously special to be at the conference’s 10th assembly and its first gathering on the African continent—my first time back in Africa since I graduated from high school, and my first visit to Cape Town. I’ll always be grateful to the donors who financed the trip via my online crowd-funding campaign.

Into Africa

It takes a gajillion hours to get from Los Angeles, California, where I live, to Cape Town (with a layover at Heathrow). My husband (and techie), Dan, and I can’t sleep on planes (!) so were jet lagged on arrival—and only too glad to reach our lodging at Graça Machel Hall at the University of Cape Town (a residence hall, or dorm), the cost of which was generously covered by a housing grant from the Writers’ Guild of Norway.

The room and especially the communal bathrooms gave us flashbacks to our college years—except this dorm was cleaner and full of adult delegates to WPI and other conferences, which we appreciated. We were also happy that the bathrooms provided a good hot shower—and were taken aback (but ultimately impressed) by the free condoms offered in every bathroom on campus.

Note to travelers: If you visit Cape Town in winter (May–July), be warned: indoors is colder than outdoors. Virtually no one has heating or insulation, so bring thermal socks and long johns to wear beneath your pajamas at night, and a thick sweater for any day you lounge indoors—and you’ll be fine. I also recommend gloves and winter hats, unless you’re from a below-freezing-in-winter climate, in which case you’ll likely shake your head and chuckle at all the other tourists complaining of the cold. (The Canadian delegates seemed to be the most bemused by the rest of us.)

The conferencing experience

Every day Dan and I rode the shuttle taking WPIC delegates to the conference site on UCT’s Hiddingh Campus. During the 15-minute drive along the highway, we thrilled at the sight of Table Mountain, Lion’s Head, Devil’s Peak, the harbor, and the Atlantic. It’s impossible to miss the mountains—they loom over, or cradle (depending on your perspective), Cape Town and are magnificent.

My conferencing mornings began with a fantastic keynote by an African theatremaker or a fascinating panel of mostly African playwrights, all women. This was followed by a tea/coffee/yummy-snack break, then workshops led by theatremakers from all over the world, and then a tasty lunch provided by WPIC. Then: readings of excerpts from plays written by playwrights from everywhere and read by South African actors of every race/ethnicity, doing accents from all over Africa and the English-speaking world. Then another tea break, more readings, then panels/sessions/networking/presentations, then supper break (not provided, and we learned that we could not get a bad meal in Cape Town—every dinner out was delicious). The evenings ended with full-length performances.

I was conferencing 12–13 hours daily, and there was usually a smorgasbord of offerings from which to choose in any given hour.

She's really there! Typical beak between conference sessions 9selfie); conference poster on campus (supplied, by Daniel Lawrence).

She’s really there! Photo credits: Typical break between conference sessions (supplied, selfie); conference poster on campus (supplied, by Daniel Lawrence).

Prep for show time

Dan, meanwhile, toured around Cape Town—but joined me for the two technical rehearsals for Alien Citizen in the Little Theatre on campus. After the classroom debacle learning experience at SIETAR Europa in Valencia in May, we were so happy to be in an actual theatre again! The theatre was a bit run down, but it had a booth, professional lighting grid, and Sean (WPIC15’s excellent production manager), so we were stylin’.

If you’ve been following this column for at least a year, then you know what happened with my first old-fashioned slide projector in Iceland. (Woe.) Well, it nearly happened again. I forgot to attach the slide projector to the voltage converter that I bought expressly for Valencia and Cape Town. Instead, I plugged the projector to the wall with a little plug adapter…and it roared as a burning-wires-and-plastic smell permeated the air.

Gah!!!!

I unplugged everything, made adjustments, replaced the bulb, et voila! The projector worked normally…as long as you could ignore the lingering odor of burned something-or-other.

Conferencing highlights

After making sure that my laptop could communicate with the theatre’s screen projector (EVERY venue’s screen projector is its own special starflake), Dan went back to his Cape Town exploring while I attended another conference lunch. Lunches tended to be three quarters sociable (talktalktalk) and one quarter zombie apocalypse (many of us on iPads/iPhones while digesting). At every lunch, I sat with new people, all of whom were interesting and amiable and from everywhere. That was one of my favorite aspects of the conference.

Other highlights of the conference included:

  • the opening keynote by Zambian-born Mwenya Kabwe, who spoke humorously and eloquently about theatre and being an African woman theatremaker.
  • the performance of Walk: South Africa, which taught us a grim statistic, that half of all South African women will be raped in their lifetimes.
  • Kenyan actress-playwright Mũmbi Kaigwa’s reading of an excerpt from her smart, funny, and moving solo show, They Call Me Wanjikũ.
  • a panel of extraordinary South African theatremakers who told us that all theatre in South Africa in the 1980s was held in protest to Apartheid, but nowadays the theatre scene has become very segregated—it has regressed.
  • the workshop on Community Play Creation lead by Hope McIntyre of Sarasvàti Productions in Canada.
  • countless amazing women, including another ATCK playwright who grew up in many more countries than I did, and an Egyptian professor who was a budding playwright, which brought back happy memories of Egypt.
  • the final keynote by the incredibly accomplished Napo Masheane of South Africa. She spoke of working in a jewelry store as a teen, where adult white men would come in and immediately say: “Can I please talk to someone more intelligent?” She ended her speech with a poem that had a beautiful refrain, which she repeated with evocative gestures more and more quietly until she was only mouthing the words while making the gestures, and it made me cry:

    Do not shut your temple doors, whatever you seek seeks you, whatever you want wants you, whatever you need needs you.

    Do not shut your temple doors, there is enough space for all of us to shine, let us dance with fire under the stars.

SouthAfricatheatreconference_arrow

The delegates to the 2015 Women Playwrights International Conference, in Cape Town. Photo credit: Nardus Englebrecht Photography.

Show time!

After the final keynote, Dan and I had another tech rehearsal for Alien Citizen to program the lights. Sean gave the sandstorm-in-Casablanca a nice effect with upstage lights flickering, and the high-school-dance-in-Cairo was even more humorous because he spotlit me in purple with white polka dots that shimmied back and forth, reminiscent of a disco ball’s reflection.

And then it was showtime. After my experience in Valencia, I couldn’t help but have doubts over whether we would have a decent audience. But while I was waiting in the wings I heard delegates enter and sing along to some pre-show music (“Dancing Queen” and “Stand by Me”). I was glad they were getting into the mood, and it sounded like there were a lot more than 20! When I began the performance I could see that it was a “good house” (theatre jargon for “numerous seats filled”) and there were lots of laughs (which sounded slightly surprised, probably because most of the other shows at the conference had been about harrowing subject matter).

Afterwards I received amazing feedback from delegates from South Africa, Canada, Lebanon, Sweden, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Germany, Hungary, New Zealand, USA, Australia, Spain, Singapore, Kenya, Brazil, Jamaica, and more. Several said that the show was a great way to end the conference. I felt relieved, gratified, and honored.

That night, we met with other delegates at Addis in Cape for tasty Ethiopian food (and a cosmo for me). I’m always slightly braindead after performing, but it was lovely to “wind down” with other theatremakers who were very positive about the show. The next morning at breakfast, and again as we checked out of the dorm, more delegates praised Alien Citizen, which was the best way to end the conference for me.

Before, during, after the show. Photo credits: Drama of the slide projector (selfie by Lisa Liang, supplied); the show, which closed the conference; post-show cosmo at Addis in Cape Town (the latter two by Daniel Lawrence, supplied).

Can’t get over Africa

Thank you for reading, and stay tuned next month for Part 2 of Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey’s trip to Cape Town, to include tours of the winelands, the Cape Peninsula, Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of the 21 years he served behind bars), District Six Museum (a tribute to the 60,000 inhabitants of District Six, a former residential area of Cape Town, who were displaced by the apartheid regime), the aforementioned Table Mountain, and more! Until then…hamba kahle!

* * *

Thank you, Lisa! Once again, you’ve taken us on a vicarious journey—not only into a part of the world to which I’ve never been but also into the midst of theatre people, your creative tribe! I found it fascinating, as I’m sure others will as well. Readers, please leave questions or comments for Lisa below.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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TCK TALENT: Lisa Liang takes her show back on the road; first stop: Valencia, Spain!

This month our TCK Talent columnist Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang updates us on her own creative life.

¡Hola, amigos!

As those of you who subscribe to the Displaced Dispatch will know, Alien Citizen: an earth odyssey, my one-woman show about growing up as a Third Culture Kid, or TCK, of mixed heritage, was accepted by two international conferences in two of the world’s most appealing locations: Valencia, Spain, and Cape Town, South Africa. Thinking I’d be a fool to pass up this kind of opportunity, I launched an online crowd-funding campaign to fund both journeys. Two of us would be going: myself and my husband, Dan, who also serves as my “techie” for the show.

It was my fourth experience with crowd-funding—the most recent being last year, to cover expenses for taking the show to an arts center in Reykjavík, Iceland; and once again, the campaign worked. (A relief since I feared I might have tapped out my supporters’ goodwill, but people were as generous as ever—and I won’t ever fundraise for this show again.) We didn’t quite make our goal but could afford to cover the balance. We would be able to attend two international conferences on two continents in two months—hooray!

In this month’s column I’ll recount our trip to Valencia, Spain, to participate in the 2015 SIETAR Europa Congress, on May 21–23. SIETAR, which stands for the Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research, is the world’s largest association dedicated to intercultural issues.

TCK Talent Lisa Liang takes her show on the road to Valencia, Spain.

TCK Talent columnist Lisa and her husband (and techie), Dan, head to Spain. Photo credits: (from left) Alien Citizen poster; Dan and Lisa in front of Ciudad de Artes y Ciencias (supplied); “Naranjo y el Campanario Valencia,” by Emilio via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

First impressions of the Land of Sweet Orange Trees

Dan and I had a couple of days of sightseeing before the three-day conference took place at the Universitat de Valencia. We drank lots of fresh-pressed zumo de naranja (“orange juice” in Catalán)—and yes, the oranges are the best we’ve ever tasted!

We toured the wonderful old section of the city, including the Cathedral and its Torre del Micalet, and the spectacular Ciudad de Artes y Ciencias (City of Arts & Sciences)—a futuristic outdoor/indoor complex near the beach, with an awesome aquarium. We even took the long bus route back to our hotel, which gave us a chance to see a lot of the Turia Gardens, a park built on a riverbed.

Dan got to carry on sightseeing while I attended sessions (workshops, panels, and lectures) during the first two days in order to meet people, learn more about the interculturalist professional world, and get the word out on Alien Citizen.

First impressions of SIETAR

In general the other conference participants seemed very nice but a tad noncommittal when I told them about my one-woman show. I think it was rather unusual to have a theatrical piece at the congress, though I noticed there were several sessions on storytelling as an important means of generating intercultural understanding.

Most of the attendees were what I would describe as interculturalist entrepreneurs—perhaps not your usual fringe theatre-goers? Still, I appreciated learning what sort of cross-cultural issues Europeans have been facing, and there was the bonus of generous lunches and yummy pastries along with coffee, tea, and zumo during the breaks. (I may have gained a pound or two.)

At the end of the second day, I was beat—but still had to do a run-through of my show in our hotel room that evening. Theatre takes stamina, so perhaps my two full days of attending conference events had done me a favor.

attending performing SIETAR

First she observes; then she performs. Lisa Liang at Congress Valencia 2015. (Photos supplied.)

Show Day!

The third day of the congress: show day! And some tension… For one thing, I didn’t realize until then that many congress-goers would take the day off to go to the beach or do sightseeing. I feared I might only have five or so attendees, which would be enormously disappointing after making the long journey from California (not to mention the fundraising!).

And for another, I was performing in a classroom like all the other session presenters, which meant we had just 10 minutes to set up. Ten minutes may be fine for a PowerPoint presentation but, especially as the session before us ran a little late, Dan and I really had to hustle to set up all the props, as well as the laptop, old-fashioned slide projector with voltage converter, my tape marks so I would know where to stand when projecting words onto my torso, and chair. We were in such a hurry that I forgot to set up chairs to stand and dance on “upstage.” I had to grab them from the front row in the middle of the performance. Funfunfun!

Despite these challenges, the show was a hit! People did turn up, and there were many more than five, thank goodness. They stayed for the whole performance, which was a coup—there had been walkouts from every session I attended in the previous days (with all the concurrent sessions, people were constantly session-hopping).

After the show, the applause lasted for such a long time that I exited the room to give the audience a break. But they didn’t stop, which was deeply gratifying and a huge relief, so I came back in and took some more bows. Many audience members stayed afterward to thank Dan and me, and in some cases draw parallels with their own lives. Those who found the story relatable included not just people like me, who grew up in different countries, but also people who’d lived only in Spain. One woman said she would distribute the show’s flyers at international schools in her country…so here’s hoping!

Most importantly: the show seemed to help people feel more connected and better understood, which is its ultimate mission.

Post-show celebrations

Post-show, Dan and I went out for a celebratory drink of horchata (made with tiger nuts) at one of Valencia’s oldest and prettiest horchata joints. Then we ambled over to the formerly half-Moorish, half-Catholic quarter, where we ordered a pitcher of sangria (since it cost the same as two glasses).

It may well have been the best sangria I’ve ever had—certainly worth the headache afterwards.

We made it back in time to attend the conference’s gala dinner, which took place in a lovely courtyard at the university. A couple of people who came to the performance approached me to say they were telling everyone at their tables about Alien Citizen. Again, I felt a mix of pride and relief.

Congrats Collage

Brava, Lisa, to another fine performance! Photo credits: (top and bottom) Lisa and Dan celebrating with sangria and at the gala dinner (supplied); (right) “A glass of horchata, Spain” via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY SA 2.0).

To sum up…

Reflecting on the experience, I came to the conclusion that if the show is accepted at another non-theatre conference in the future, I should perform it only if it can be a keynote (as it was at the FIGT conference in 2014). Practically speaking, it takes time to set up the equipment and props, and as a performer I need space/room to relax and warm up before the show, which runs 80 minutes non-stop and takes my entire being to perform with the energy, precision, and authenticity that the audience deserves.

Still, I’m glad that we brought the show to this intercultural gathering, and I’d love to visit Valencia again. Food-wise, we had truly fantastic tapas and excellent wine, and as a night owl, I appreciated the late dinners. Virtually every Valenciana/o was very polite and friendly, and they all understood my slightly-gringa-inflected Guatemalan accent in Spanish.

The jet lag was only a problem on our first night. It took about a week to recover from it back in L.A., but that may partially be due to wistfulness: we’re not in Valencia anymore (woe!). Between its delights and our appreciative SIETAR audience, it was a fantastic, and very worthwhile, trip.

Next stop: South Africa!

At the time of writing I am preparing to attend the 10th Women Playwrights International Conference, being held in Cape Town from June 29 to July 3. WPI has brought together women playwrights and allied theatre artists, cultural workers and scholars since 1988. It facilitates communications and collaborations among the international community of women in theatre by holding conferences every three years.

It sounds like my crowd. But South Africa: that’s a first! We’re hoping to do a winelands tour and maybe a one-day safari tour. Watch this space for my next update.

* * *

Thank you, Lisa! I enjoyed taking that vicarious journey into a part of Spain to which I’ve never been. Imagine being able to drink fresh-pressed zumo de naranja to one’s heart’s content! (I’m not so sure about the horchata, though.) It was also interesting to hear your take on SIETAR: I know several Displaced Nationers were planning to attend. Readers, please leave questions or comments for Lisa below.

STAY TUNED for the next fab post!

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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.

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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).

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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!

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

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