The Displaced Nation

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TCK TALENT: Maya Evans, Poet, Writer, Teacher, Translator, Consultant & Transition Facilitator

Maya Evans for TDN

Maya Evans (own photo)

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 is now raising funds to take the production to Valencia, Spain, and Capetown, South Africa, later this year.

—ML Awanohara

Greetings, readers. Today’s interviewee is Maya Evans, a poet and writer, transition facilitator, international education consultant, and translator based in Boston, Massachusetts. She is also my fellow ATCK author in the anthology Writing Out of Limbo, in which her poem “Le Français” appears. Currently, she is working on a memoir about her extraordinary life, which took her from the Middle East to Europe to South America and finally to her current home of the United States.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Maya. I understand that you were born to a Francophone Jewish Egyptian-Hungarian family in Alexandria, Egypt, and that you grew up there and in Caracas, Venezuela. Please tell us why your family moved.
My family moved from Alexandria, Egypt, in 1958 after what history termed the Suez Crisis, which is to say the nationalization of the Suez Canal. Built by the French in 1869, and jointly controlled by the British and French until 1956, the Canal was of strategic importance to Western powers. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser‘s actions to nationalize it provoked a brief war—a lot like the wars carried out presently in the Middle East. Nasser wanted to end Egypt’s colonization. We left because Jews were no longer welcome in Egypt. The revolutionary government confiscated Jewish properties and bank accounts, even expelling some Jewish people holding French or British passports. My father was demoted, the bank where he worked was taken over by the authorities, and clearly his career was finished. His brothers, sisters, and their families mostly went to Brazil, although some ended up in France, but none in Hungary, where they’d come from originally. (At the time, Hungary was occupied by the Soviet Union.) When we left, I was 12-and-a-half—and still have vivid memories.

Did your mother’s family leave as well?
My mother’s family, rooted in the area for generations, did not leave. My grandmother refused to leave her house. My uncles and one of my mother’s sisters, who were very close, all stayed, not daring to contradict their mother.

Where did your family end up going?
For a brief time we lived in Paris, scattered among relatives. We also stayed in Genoa, Italy, for a couple of months waiting for my father to clear his affairs and obtain a visa for emigrating to Venezuela. We were “stateless” at the time, having left Egypt with a travel document valid for one trip with no return. My father had managed to “transfer” money out of Egypt to Switzerland, which was needed to buy our passages to South America. This is a story on its own, one I’m attempting to describe in my memoir.

Achieving happiness in the midst of displacement

I find your story moving as it’s about exile, not the usual voluntary migration for TCK families (voluntary for the parents at least). Still, your moves from North Africa to Europe to the Americas is very relatable for this ATCK. Were you happiest in a certain place at a certain time?
I can recall the exact time when I realized I was truly happy. It was at Brenau College (now Brenau University), in Gainesville, Georgia. It took one year to convince my father to allow me to go to college in the U.S. He thought that a girl had to stay home and go to the university nearest to where her family lives which in my case would have been the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), a 15-minute ride from our home in Caracas. The problem was that the Venezuelan government did not recognize my high school degree from Colegio Internacional de Caracas (CIC)—the school is only accredited in the United States. Besides, my Spanish was not at a high enough level for the entrance exam. A solution would be to transfer to the UCV from an accredited school in the U.S., after a year of university-level courses. Reluctantly, my father agreed as long as I went to a “girls only” school, properly chaperoned during my trip to the States. I was fortunate enough to meet a trustee of Brenau College at a tea sponsored by the American Association of University Women. She traveled with me from Caracas to Atlanta, and drove me to her college. For a variety of reasons, among them the lack of money, neither my father nor mother could have made the trip at that time.

What was it like being in a small southern town after living in Caracas?
At Brenau, I was one of a handful of international students. Besides Venezuela, there were also girls from Norway and Taiwan. Luckily, two Hungarian sisters from Venezuela, in their third and last year of college respectively, took me under their wing. Both were intelligent and poised, which made me a “cool girl” by association. Suddenly, there was no need to explain why French was my native language but I wasn’t French, etc. It was easy to say: “I am from Venezuela.” Period. I had a distinct identity, foreign but also exotic. It was also wonderful to be far from the dramas of home. I had postponed the moment of reckoning, which would occur upon my return to Venezuela, when I would find out what it would be like to be a university student in Caracas who had attended an American high school full of students with tenuous ties to the country.

Maya Universities

From studying at Brenau in Georgia to getting a degree at Universidad Central Caracas Venezuela to working at Harvard…

Eventually, though, you moved back to the United States. Why was that?
I was just starting to feel Caraqueña (from Caracas)—finding my bearings as a journalism student at the UCV by night and as a bilingual assistant in an export company by day, enjoying 80-degree Fahrenheit weather year-round, living in a beautiful apartment facing the mountain—when I met my husband, an American. (We met in Caracas.) We moved to the States in the early 1970s. His job moved us to Boston; then to Stanford, Connecticut, where our first child was born; and then back to Boston.

Allow me to bridge cultures, people and dreams…

At what point did you start your career…or careers I should say, as I know you’ve had more than one.
After the birth of my second child, I was determined to find a job that would link me to the Latino community, or better yet, send me on frequent trips to Latin America. I found that job at Harvard, in a department facilitating studies in the United States for professors and business executives from Latin America. I traveled all over Latin America, and in the mid-90s, was assigned to a project in Venezuela sponsored by Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) to train a cadre of executives for studies in the United States. I left Harvard shortly after and worked directly as a consultant for PDVSA. I also trained as an interpreter, working for the Massachusetts courts, and taught Spanish at the University of Massachusetts.

Consultant, trainer, interpreter, teacher: your careers seem to have been influenced by your peripatetic upbringing…
True. I would slide in and out of professions just as I slid in and out of countries, and adjust like the chameleon I’d become. I was always being uprooted but then would find ways to adapt. This in turn led me to my life’s “calling”: to facilitate transitions for others. Whether working with foreign students at American universities, or with international researchers trying to find the right department to pursue their research, or with companies wanting to train their personnel to live somewhere else, I would bridge cultures and languages in an effort to help others ease into their new surroundings.

Who am I? Where am I from?

Have you found that “your people” tend to be Adult TCKs or other cross-cultural people?
Undoubtedly, I feel comfortable with other Adult TCKs as well as multicultural people. I am actually uncomfortable with monocultural, monolingual people, regardless of their education level or accomplishments. I find that I have little in common with them, or that I have to “explain” myself again—and at a certain stage in life, it gets tiresome. I also feel a kinship with artists and people who are a bit out of the mainstream. Like Adult TCKs, they tend to look at the world from the outside. For the longest time, I felt outside, looking in. Even now, that feeling hasn’t left me completely.

Not only for your sake but for the rest of us ATCKs, I’m happy you are now working on your memoir, a few parts of which I was privileged to hear you read. What inspired you to start writing it, and how far along are you in the process?
Thank you for your kind words. It’s been a long and tortuous road. For the longest time, from my days as a journalism student, I wanted to tell stories. Stories I heard around the world, and stories of my relatives who happen to be an eclectic bunch of multinational people. But I am always escaping into work, travel, poetry writing, whatever other excuse I can find. Now I’ve decided to work less and, while I still can conjure the memories, dedicate more time to writing what I like to call a “romanticized memoir,” with characters loosely built on the stories I heard about Egypt and on the memories I have of the places where we lived. I am still at the beginning of the process, and need to speed it up, lest it get buried alongside other writings.

Attempting to “capture all the voices in my head without sounding schizophrenic”

On top of all of this, you are a published poet. Is there a particular poem of yours that expresses your feelings of transience or loneliness or instability—or freedom or curiosity or love of travel—that you are most proud of? If so, could you share it with us?
Two years ago, a poem of mine I like the best, “Voz Ajena” (“Alien Voice”), was published in Spanish in the New England Translators Association’s newsletter. Although I translate other people’s work, I cannot translate my own. I don’t hear it in any other language but Spanish. In that poem, I attempted to capture all the “voices” in my head without sounding schizophrenic. To me, it is interesting to note that I can do this only in Spanish, which was the third language I acquired, after which it became my “go to” language. Even though French is rooted in me, Spanish carries Latin America with its music and colors, which trumps all others! I’ll give you that poem, but for those who don’t read Spanish, I’ll first give you a poem I wrote in English:

Notebook with a Missing Language

Only English is missing
in these familiar lines
that stretch quietly on a
tidy little notebook
filled in French with spatters of Spanish;
scents of places and of people long gone
leaving behind tender thoughts,
silent melodies, objects of desire,
histories of exiles and commencements
of lenities and humiliations,
of successes and exonerations;
tales of lost places, warm embraces,
mute voices, empty houses,
doors shut on bygone worlds.


The last line of “Notebook with a Missing Language,” a poem by Maya Evans


And now for those who read Spanish:

Voz Ajena

Le preguntó un día por su acento opaco,
esa manera que tiene ella
de tropezar con las erres,
saltar continentes al azar,
atar letras sin más sabor
en un ritmo extraño, ritmo de blanco.

Son recuerdos de otras voces,
las vivencias de mi memoria
de crêpe georgette y chantilly,
dijo ella con voz de seda, voz de sirena.

Yo no sabía de los fantasmas que te habitan,
No sabía de Egipto, España,
Francia y Hungría,
No sabía que te comían noche y día,
ocultándote la luz, clamando por aire,
y todos con ese afán de ser.

Y más aún le dijo ella,
tocan tambores y hacen ruidos,
se contorsionan en las tinieblas
por estallar en mil estrellas,
dejar arañas y demás vainas,
ser lentejuelas, champaña fino, jamón ibérico,
Ravel de fuego, Maria Callas reencarnada,
vistiendo toga, comiendo astros, tragando mundos.

Boston, 19 de abril de 2010

* * *

It’s been a pleasure, Maya, hearing about your many professional accomplishments and “romanticized memoir” in progress. And thank you so much for sharing two of your poems! Readers, please leave questions or comments for Maya below.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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TCK TALENT: Gene Bell-Villada, literary critic, Latin Americanist, novelist, translator and TCK memoirist

Gene B-V TCK Talent

Professor Gene Bell-Villada (own photo)

Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang is here with her first column of 2015. For those who haven’t been following: she is building up quite a collection of stories about Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields. Lisa herself is a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about growing up as a TCK, which is receiving rave reviews wherever it goes.

—ML Awanohara

Happy New Year, readers! Today I’m honored to be interviewing Gene Bell-Villada, author of the Third Culture Kid memoir Overseas American: Growing Up Gringo in the Tropics and co-editor of my first published essay in the TCK/global-nomad anthology: Writing Out of Limbo. Gene grew up in Latin America and “repatriated” to the USA for college and beyond; he is a Professor of Romance Languages (Spanish), Latin American Literature, and Modernism at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He is also a published writer of fiction and nonfiction.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Gene. Like me, you’re an Adult Third Culture Kid of mixed heritage. Since you were born in Haiti and grew up in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Venezuela as the son of an Asian-Polynesian mother from Hawaii and a WASP father from Kansas, your identity development was complex and nuanced, as you make clear in your memoir.  Can you tell us how you identify yourself these days?
Like the title of my memoir, I identify myself as an Overseas American, of mixed WASP and Chinese-Filipino-Hawaiian ethnicity, with a Caribbean-Hispanic upbringing. I wrote my memoir in great measure to disentangle and explain that background—for myself and others! More broadly, in my middle 20s, it dawned on me that, by default, I happened to be a cosmopolitan, and that I couldn’t feel “local” even if I wished to. And so, I set out to make the best of that cosmopolitanism and build on it.


Tell us two things you miss about each of your childhood countries.
From my three childhood countries, I miss mostly the Latin informality and warmth…and salsa dancing! From Puerto Rico, I’ve fond memories of the University campus that was next door to my first home in Río Piedras, and where my mother would take us for walks. From Cuba I miss the richness of the music and folk culture. About Caracas, 3,000 feet above sea level, I remember its mild climate and “eternal spring.”

“Puerto Ricans do a lot of hugging, Dickie reflected. His parents and relatives almost never did.”

Your TCK childhood had extra upheaval due to your parents’ divorce and your two years at a military school in Cuba while your parents each lived in other countries. I imagine that affected your feelings about where you lived.
I must admit, I don’t “miss” most of what I lived in my 17 years in the Spanish Caribbean. I had a very difficult childhood, in which I never really “belonged” to any of those countries, had little contact with the expat community, and was leading a painful, dysfunctional family life. Since my brother and I were put away in a military school in Cuba, it’s not a place that I would “miss.” The circumstances of my upbringing have made childhood nostalgia an elusive sentiment for me.

After a young adulthood in New Mexico (briefly), Arizona, California, Massachusetts, and New York—and some trips to Europe—you settled in Williamstown, MA.  When did you come to feel that it was home, inasmuch as any place can be for an ATCK?
My wife and I actually have had homes in two locations in Massachusetts: Williamstown and Cambridge. So we lived both in the city, where we had our home life, and the country, where I taught. And I guess I realized sometime in the 1970s that New England had become my home. The place had enough cultural density, layered history, and overall cosmopolitanism for me to feel at ease in those parts. (I’d also earned my Ph.D at Harvard.) I even turned down a job offer from UCLA in 1976 because by then I felt attached enough to Massachusetts to stay there. Plus, I didn’t look forward to living in my car on the LA freeways, or putting up with Los Angeles pollution, which was fairly serious back then!

“‘Ah, but you speak such good Spanish…'”

Have you returned to any of the Latin American countries in which you grew up? 
I’ve been back to Puerto Rico and to Venezuela, always experiencing those mixed feelings. When I visited my old neighborhood in Hato Rey, PR, in 2012, I found it largely changed. Moreover, during a previous visit to San Juan in 1985, I went for a stroll at the University grounds. At the sight of the palm trees at the entrance and the tower looming above it all, I fell to the ground, crying. It was a reminder that much of my youth there, when I’d believed that I was an “American” boy in the tropics, had been illusory.

As for Cuba, I could only go back under very specific conditions—not because of the regime, which I’m not against, but owing to my painful personal memories of the place. I worry that seeing certain streets and buildings might elicit a wrenching sadness in me.

Since you’re a professor of Latin American literature and have written about the heavyweights in the field, I presume you’ve also visited quite a few countries in the region at this point. What were your impressions?
Inasmuch as I’ve written books and articles about Borges, García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and Mexican literature, I’ve been more than once to Argentina, Colombia, Perú, and Mexico. Going to and traveling in those countries brought insight into their literary works that one cannot get simply from reading them in one’s study. On the other hand, my Latin American and Caribbean background proved enormously helpful in accessing the culture and the society of those places. Indeed, García Márquez’s world is the Caribbean coast of Colombia; exploring that area in 1982 and 1988 was a lot like being back in San Juan and Havana! Writing about it was fun, a bit like a return to my childhood, without the pain.

“She was from New York. Didn’t people from New York listen to classical music?”

Although you have always had a passion for classical and Latin music, you ultimately found ways to express yourself through writing fiction and nonfiction. Does music still play a big role in your life? 
Music is my first love. If I hadn’t had a late start at the piano (a fact that unfortunately set me back several years), I might have stayed with it. I turned to literature, in some measure, because it didn’t require advanced hand-muscle skills! But once I got involved with the written word, I strived to make my prose style as artistic, expressive, and fun as music can be, and I worked to give it rhythm and melody. (Someone has remarked that I write like a musician.) I still play piano, though.

Is there a particular work that you are most proud of having written, and if so, why?
I feel equally attached to all of them! Each one has had its role in my life. My books on Borges and García Márquez (which have sold well and gone through second editions) are used in AP courses, and are consulted by general readers, here and abroad. From early on, I had set out to be a “cultural mediator” between Latin American literature and U.S. readers, and those volumes serve that purpose.

My book Art for Art’s Sake and Literary Life, on the other hand, grew out of my cosmopolitanism and my desire to deal with the uses of art as both escape and expression. (In some subliminal way, it’s autobiographical.) The volume covers the phenomenon of aestheticism in Europe, the U.S., and Latin America. I felt vindicated when the thing was a finalist for the 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award (there I was, sharing space with Cynthia Ozick and William H. Gass). It also got translated into Serbian and Chinese! When I asked my two translators just what had drawn them to the book, they both replied that what I’d said about Latin American aestheticism was also applicable to analogous 19th-century movements in Serbia and Taiwan. So my cosmopolitanism had shed light on some corners elsewhere in this world.

My two books of fiction focus in part on TCK issues, plus such cultural-specific matters as American relativism or the seductive influence of Ayn Rand.

But I finally turned to memoir because I felt it was the way to confront head-on the question of my crazy, mixed-up background, to make sense out of it all and give it a living shape. The process of remembering that past, and crafting it and getting it out there, has proved enormously therapeutic. It also led to my meeting Nina Sichel and, then, you, Lisa, via our essay collection, Writing Out Of Limbo!

My latest volume is a kind of experiment, starting with its very title: On Nabokov, Ayn Rand and the Libertarian Mind: What the Russian-American Odd Pair Can Tell Us about Some Values, Myths and Manias Widely Held Most Dear. Besides dissecting the two authors, I tease out my troubled relationship to them, delve once again into my own life history, and finally move on to the larger problem of a rising, spreading libertarianism in this country. There’s even an Appendix in which I throw in a number of spoofs of my own of hard-line libertarians! (I’ve been playing with satires of something or other ever since I was in middle school in Puerto Rico…)

You’re a true international creative, with works that run the entire gamut! Tell us, what’s next? Fiction? Nonfiction? Something else?
I have stuff in the works, but am in the process of rethinking my projects in the wake of my wife’s death in 2013. (Widowerhood does things to your mind and spirit, alas.)

Where can people find your works?
All my books are available from Amazon and local bookstores, as well as from any good library!

Thank you, Gene, for sharing your wonderfully inspiring story with the Displaced Nation. So, readers, any questions or comments for Gene? Be sure to leave them in the comments!

Editor’s note: All subheadings are taken from Gene’s book The Pianist Who Liked Ayn Rand: A Novella & 13 Stories.

STAY TUNED for our next fab post.

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TCK TALENT: Nina Sichel, writer, editor, and guiding light on the Third Culture Kid experience

Nina Sichel_TCK TalentElizabeth (Lisa) Liang is back with her monthly column about Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) who work in creative fields, Lisa herself being a prime example. A Guatemalan-American of Chinese-Spanish-Irish-French-German-English descent, she has developed her own one-woman show about growing up as a TCK, which she has taken all over the country. In fact, she turned up as the convocation speaker at Carleton College on October 31st, where my niece, now a Carleton freshman, had the pleasure of watching her perform some excerpts!

—ML Awanohara

Welcome back, readers! Today I’m honored to be interviewing Nina Sichel, co-editor of the seminal TCK / global-nomad anthology Unrooted Childhoods, which includes essays by several famous TCK writers such as:

  • Pico Iyer: “I fold up my self and carry it round with me as if it were an overnight case”;
  • Isabel Allende (she fled her homeland for political survival); and
  • Military brat Pat Conroy: “Each year I began my life all over again . . . and I think it damaged me.”

In addition, she co-edited the TCK / global-nomad anthology Writing Out of Limbo—to which I contributed. Thank you, Nina, for the hard work you did on my first published essay!

Nina grew up in Venezuela and “repatriated” to the USA for college and beyond; she is a writer, editor, and leader of memoir-writing workshops in Virginia.

* * *

Welcome to The Displaced Nation, Nina. I understand that you grew up in a multicultural household as a TCK in Caracas—the daughter of an American mom and a German-Jewish dad. With Thanksgiving around the corner, my thoughts are turning to the upcoming holidays. Did any particular holiday traditions or celebrations take precedence over others in your household as you were growing up?
My father had to leave Germany when he was 11 and grew up in Uruguay. He seldom spoke about his childhood. He came to the U.S. for college, and, after marrying my mother, lived in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic before settling in Venezuela. After all of those moves, his identity was not at all tied to nationality, and, like so many other choices in his life, citizenship was a matter of practicality. So national holidays were completely unimportant.

What about your mother?
My mother was a nostalgic American—more so when she was in Venezuela than when she was anywhere else. But she was an expat, and U.S. national holidays were not celebrated in that country. My parents’ friends were multinationals—our social circle was not defined by nationality. And, even though my father’s sister and mother, Uruguayan citizens by then, lived in Caracas, close by, we were secular Jews, only going to synagogue on the High Holidays and mostly not even then. We had an abbreviated seder, we lit candles at Chanukah. That Jewish identity, more ethnic, perhaps, than religious, was important to my parents. Yet we had very little religious training. I think things were assumed more than instructed… I remember going to summer camp in the States with Jewish girls from Long Island—and feeling I had absolutely nothing in common with them.

Did you celebrate other holidays?
We had a Christmas tree with lots of presents and sang carols. Santa Claus came till we were too old for him, but there were still gifts afterwards. We dressed up for carnaval, and the Easter bunny came to visit us. Hmmm… I’ve given you a long answer to what should be a simple question—but then, some things are not so simple. Like composite identities.

I was raised with no real roots, an American child in Venezuela…

Writing_Out_of_Limbo_coverWhich brings us to your wonderful essay, “Outsider,” which appears in Writing Out of Limbo. You mention in that piece that there was a lot of turnover among your friends at your international schools. Can you tell us a little more about what that was like?
I never knew, from one school year to the next, which of my classmates would actually be back. I don’t remember ever talking about it; this was normal, nothing remarkable. I remember a few friends who left with advance notice, and I tried to keep in touch with them—pen pals during a time when letters would take one or two weeks to reach their destinations. Those friendships faded over time. Quite a few friends were sent away to boarding school once they reached high school; sometimes they’d be back for summer vacations, but by then I’d usually be in the States. There were also, of course, quite a few children whose parents would stay in Venezuela indefinitely, till retirement and after. And then there were the kids who rotated in and out every couple of years, many of whom were Americans. Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how different the ones who stayed as long-term residents were from the ones who rotated in and out. And how difficult it is to make general statements about any of this—there are layers and layers of outsiderness, not just one sort of expat or TCK identity.

Have you still got friends from that period?
I’ve kept strong ties to some friends from my youth, and to me this is very special—they are more like family than friends now. I’ve learned to invest deeply in relationships I hope will last, perhaps because the chances are so fleeting. I’ve felt incredibly lucky to be able to contact some people from my past via the Internet, and rekindle friendships from long ago, and learn how TCK life has affected them, their choices, their lives.

Our memories are the part of life we get to keep and take with us…

After an entire adulthood in the USA, tell us what you still miss about Venezuela. I’m also curious to know how many of those things can still be found there, and how many are connected to memories of family and/or friends who are no longer there?
Though I have lived my adulthood in the U.S., my parents remained in Venezuela, and I went back often to visit until they passed away. The place changed—all places do—and I also changed. My memories now are interwoven with nostalgia for what was or might have been. But there are also tangible things. Venezuela is a beautiful country, and there are things about nature I miss. I miss smells—that thick Caribbean salt air, the tangy grass. I miss tropical light, and will miss it more and more now that we’re approaching winter here.

Nowadays, do you feel at home in the United States?
I do feel “at home” in the States in general; just not rooted in any particular place. As you know from my essays, I’ve lived in several places. I lived in a small town in upstate New York, then Manhattan; I lived in the Deep South two different times; in rural Michigan; in West Palm Beach and then urban Miami; and now I live outside Washington, DC. In the smaller towns, what I missed was diversity—of language, ethnicity, experience, culture. I had to seek it out in the people I befriended and the kind of work I chose to do. But even in the cities, I felt outside the mainstream. Remember, coming to the States was not coming home for me; it was immersion in a different culture.

Unrooted_Childhoods_coverIn Unrooted Childhoods, your co-editor, Faith Eidse, writes about her yearning “for thick gumbo-limbo roots.” Do you sometimes wish your roots were deeper in this country?
I remember being fascinated by a friend’s roots in the Deep South that went back many generations. As my family does not have that history, it was something new and rather foreign to me, an oddity. But it was not something I wanted, as it felt too confining, to be defined by your predecessors that way.

Do you have “itchy feet,” which still make you want to move frequently? Or are you the kind who prefers to have a home base and travel only for pleasure?
Yes yes yes. All of the above. o I have to choose?

You mentioned longing to find other people with the experience of having lived overseas. Have you found that “your people” tend to be other ATCKs in creative fields—or does it really depend on the individual and what s/he evokes in you, whether it’s a resonance that’s artistic or political or personality-related or life-experience related, etc.?
I tend to fall in love with people, with aspects of people, and am constantly surprised that all my friends don’t automatically feel the same about each other as I feel about each of them! So, yes, I think it’s about that resonance that you mentioned, but it’s a different resonance in each person, a different connection I respond to. In any case, I never knew about TCKs or ATCKs until I began to work on Unrooted Childhoods.

I want to choose and gather the markers by which to remember our years here…

Like other ACTKs including myself, you were drawn to the craft of writing as a means of self-expression. Is there a particular piece that you think expresses your feelings of transience or loneliness or instability—or freedom or curiosity or love of travel—that you are most proud of? And where can we read it?
I’m not going to choose among my babies, but anyone who is interested can read my essays in Unrooted Childhoods and Writing Out of Limbo. I also wrote much of the introductory material in both books. There was an essay of mine published recently in Brain, Child Magazine, titled “Leaving,” which many of the readers of this column will surely respond to. And I’ve been posting short blogs on the Children’s Mental Health Network website, to inform readers about issues concerning TCKs.

We both lead workshops for people who want to write about their own lives. Tell us what got you started as a memoir workshop leader.
I’ve always felt torn between creative expression and nurturing others—as though I had to choose, as though the work I’d always done (teaching, counseling, raising children) wasn’t already a combination of the two. When I moved to the Washington, DC area, I developed the memoir and other writing programs I currently offer and am always expanding the menu of choices. The workshops are theme-based, and range in topic from creative change and transformation to intercultural exchange to turning points to writing about place to parenting to… I had a program that I developed once specifically for au pairs, which I’d like to offer again at some point. I keep the workshops small, intimate, supportive. We do not engage in critiquing—most of my writers are beginners in memoir, and need to both give and receive positive feedback to grow into the writers they are becoming. I feel honored by their trust, in bearing witness to their journeys.

It’s wonderful that you enjoy helping others make the most of this genre. Of course a good example of that is Unrooted Childhoods, which is a book of memoirs by people who grew up in multiple countries.
Memoir is a wonderful genre, open to many forms, and helping writers find their voices, their unique expression, their subject, is a joy for me. There are strands in life that one thinks of as separate, and I have figured out a way to braid them together. There is so much self-discovery in the process—I can’t tell you how many times students have told me, “I had no intention of writing about that. And I’m so glad I did.”

Where can people find those workshops?
My regular memoir-writing workshops are offered through Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, outside Washington, DC. I’ve offered other types of reflective writing programs in various community and art centers in the area, and am open to offers elsewhere. I’m happy to share more detailed information upon request.

Thank you, Nina, for sharing the story of your creative life with readers at the Displaced Nation. So, any questions or comments for Nina? Be sure to leave them in the comments!

*All subheds are quotes from Nina’s essay for Brain, Child Magazine, “Leaving” (April 2014).

STAY TUNED for our next fab post.

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GLOBAL FOOD GOSSIP: The Mysterious Case of the Missing Pastries

global food gossipJoanna Masters-Maggs, our resident repeat-expat Food Gossip and Creative Chef, is back with her column for like-minded food lovers.

This month: The regrettable global takeover of the Cronut, and what should be getting the publicity instead.

* * *

“What in dog-breeding hell is a Cronut?” demanded my son Seb, reading over my shoulder while swigging milk from the bottle in that annoying way 16-year-olds have. Baffled for a second, I realized the confusion and laughed.  My German Shepherd, Sophie, is my obsession and I am always reading articles about breeding and training.  Today, though, I was reading a food magazine which discussed trends for the New Year. Seb had seen a headline that asked:

“2013 was the year of the Cronut and Duffin but what does 2014 hold?”

Those of you elsewhere — anywhere except France, that is — may laugh, but Seb’s assumption that a Cronut is German Shepherd-related rather than food-related was completely justifiable.  My own ignorance of Cronuts and other “blended” pastries was only brought to my attention in December, when a friend living in Kuala Lumpur posted that they had finally arrived there.

I think it true to say that the Cronut hasn’t yet arrived in France and probably never will.

Some dishes deserve to go global

I do hope the same will not be the case for other treats that, my magazine suggested, will be sweeping tastebuds worldwide this year.  I was particularly happy to see the arepa from Venezuela and Columbia on the list. My hips might not want to revisit my interest in these delectable goodies, but I am smacking my lips in anticipation.

I first met arepas in Maracaibo, Venezuela, and our friendship deepened while I lived in Caracas.  These flattened balls of unleavened maize flour-based dough are fried and then filled with a cornucopia of ingredients, depending on the region. North Western Venezuela, where I first fell in love with the arepa, has its own speciality, the Arepa Cabimera, whose filling consists of the improbable combination of cheese, jam, chicken and boiled eggs.  You know when someone is eating a Cabimera as the arepas are unusually square.  Other varieties often include queso guayanés  — a mild, medium-soft cheese similar to mozzarella, shredded chicken and, if you are very lucky, crispy pork rind.

Global — with the exception of France, that is

The idea that I will miss such delights as they sweep the world is distressing, but our ignorance of the Cronut is a sad portent of what might come.  How had the Year of the Cross-bred Pastry missed France? Perhaps it’s not such a surprise; France is not culturally inclined to faddy trends as is, say, London or New York.  Why a “need-to-please” hybrid, when a classic, small, and delightfully buttery croissant is available?  How intolerably vulgar to take such perfection and, presumably, add jam and deep-fry it.

I can feel a thousand thin and elegantly clad Parisian shoulders shudder at the thought.

Hybrid – it’s the new pedigree

On further reflection, my less-thin shoulders shudder too.  As my son’s comment shows, cross-bred dogs are very much at the front of people’s minds at the moment.  Maybe the Cockerpoo, Labradoodle, and Schitzpoo are the canine equivalents of our human desire to have our cake and eat it.  A dog that doesn’t shed and mess up the carpet and sinuses, and a croissant that doesn’t — oh, wait. It does crumble.  Well, a pastry that isn’t a croissant or a doughnut but which still makes a crumbly mess…

Why?  Why make a mash-up of existing pastries when you could come up with something less plagiaristic or stick with what already works?  Oh, listen to me: maybe I do belong in France!  After all, for each hybrid that works there are the unlucky ones in each batch which fail to inherit the best of both worlds and instead exhibit the worst of each.  A croissant where the delicate buttery flavor has been killed by over-sweetening?  A  Labradoodle which sheds anyway and isn’t a pedigree but which costs the same and has the potential to inherit the congenital defects of two different breeds?

What’s more, the frying of such a delicate thing as croissant pastry is not for amateurs.  Getting the layers of pastry and butter to open in the heat of an oven is no mean feat; getting them to do the same in hot fat is entirely different.  Apart from that, think how easily butter burns.  That’s a lot of worry when pâtissierières across France already have mastered the art of injecting chocolate into croissants to make pain au chocolate or, better, almond paste.

For me the almond croissant is the pinnacle of pastry pleasure.  This marriage of crisp pastry with nutty and unctuous almond paste represents the Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward of the Pâtisserie.

The Cronut is, as yet, a Brangelina wannabe and everyone is already asking how much longer is it going to last.

“New” but not necessarily “improved”

The French disdain for change for change’s sake can be seen everywhere.  Fashion classics which stand the test of time are valued over the new and the shocking.  London fashion is all about iconoclasm and rebellion, rather than restraint.   Surely, when it comes to food, good taste should not be derided.  Maybe the French are right not to jump on the bandwagon of each new craze, instead waiting to see what stands the test of time and has what it takes to become part of the pâtisserie canon.

I doubt that the Duffin will ever be the Little Black Dress of the pâtisserie world; certainly not with a name that makes it sound like something an ageing hippie would wear on a cold winter day in Glastonbury, UK.

Hmm, pause for thought indeed.  At least with baking, we can bin the rejects; we cannot do the same with our canine friends who don’t pass the successful hybrid test.

How, then, can a modern culinary classic find acceptance in France?

So, let me find order to my reasoning.  The French, so far, have not accepted the hybrid pastry which tries too hard to please and lacks the elegant restraint of better behaved French patisserie staples.  However, history reveals that the French will eventually accept what will not go away: dishes with an enduring appeal, such as the pizza so…

…let’s return to my arepa whose pedigree cannot be questioned.  This is a traditional, tried and tested, and regionally variable dish.  Given time, I am hopeful that the French, who enjoy regional variety in cheese and wine, should be open to accepting this newcomer.  France has already embraced with overwhelming enthusiasm the pizza and tweaked it to French tastes – crème fraiche anyone?  There is a little van with a wood burning stove on most street corners in every city, town and village of the country.  For every Domino there are scores of restaurants, parlours, and vans, nearly all of them French owned and run.

For the arepa this is hopeful news indeed. I may have to wait longer than a resident of London, Birmingham or, indeed, Kuala Lumpur, but I have hope that the Venezuelans are coming to Aix.

* * *

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

Fellow Food Gossips, share your own stories with us!

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post!

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Images: All images from Joanna’s personal photo albums, and used here with her permission

Marriage, cross-cultural style: Two veterans tell all (Part 2)

A week is a long time in blogging, and since Part 1 of this post went up last Monday, horrifying events in Norway have delivered a chilling reminder of the venom that can be unleashed when cultures mix and values clash.

Thus I am full of renewed admiration for our two married couples — Gabriela & Daniel Smith, Jeffrey & Naoko Huffman — who have tested themselves more than most on cultural tolerance and openness.

Last week, we heard from Gabriela and Jeffrey, the nomadic halves of each partnership. Let’s introduce them again — along with their better halves, who this week have kindly agreed to “come in” and answer a few of my questions.

GABRIELA & DANIEL SMITH have been married for eight years. Gabriela was born in Venezuela to Spanish parents, but ended up in the UK, where she met Daniel and they currently live.

JEFFREY & NAOKO HUFFMAN have been married for 19 years. They met in Nagoya, Japan, where Jeffrey, an American, had journeyed for his work. They now live in Seattle.

Naoko and Daniel, I’d like ask you both a question I posed to your respective spouses last week: did you ever think you would marry someone from another culture?

NAOKO: My parents expected that I would agree to an arranged marriage, and when growing up, I thought I would do as they told me. But then I attended an English as a Second Language (ESL) program in San Francisco. After meeting lots of people from different countries, I became more open to the idea of an international marriage. But I don’t think I chose Jeff as my husband because he is a foreigner. I just wanted to be with him and spend the rest of our lives together.

DANIEL: I was drawn by Gabriela’s Latin charm, but what attracted me to her primarily was her personality and way of looking at life. I never experienced any inhibitions about asking her to marry me. I assume that whatever the background of your partner, if you make the decision you love someone and want to be with that person forever, there will always be a considerable amount of risk — as in not knowing how each person will change and how their values and perceptions will evolve. In reality could the “girl next door” be a higher risk? For example, I now know what it feels like to be an expat from having worked for six years in France, but I had no way of predicting my life would take that path.

How did you find your new in-laws?

NAOKO: Jeff’s parents were nice to me from the beginning, even though my English wasn’t good enough to communicate with them on a deep level. But while they treated me with respect, I think they were also wondering how Jeff’s two grandmothers would feel about me.

DANIEL: On our first visit to my new parents-in-law, the only true reservation I had was based on what type of food I would be offered and if there was a different etiquette I would be expected to follow. Navigating the new culture proved relatively straightforward, although I did discover that calamares — whether fried, baked or stewed — isn’t fit for human consumption.

Let’s bring in all the partners now and talk a little more about family life. As mentioned in Part 1, each of you has two kids, a girl and a boy. What’s been the biggest challenge in bringing up kids from two different cultural backgrounds? Have they adopted one of your cultures more than the other?

JEFFREY: At 9, I think our son is too young to have much “cultural consciousness.” He has Asian American, African American, and Muslim American classmates. He’s aware of the general differences, but none of it seems to matter at this point — although he was rooting for Japan, not the U.S., to win the women’s World Cup.

Our daughter, on the other hand, is quite proud of her Japanese heritage — while not being particularly well versed in the culture. She has at least four other haffu classmates and lots of Korean American and Chinese American classmates. Of her best friends, one is African American, and another is a half-Phillipina girl whose adoptive mother is a lesbian. Her cohort gives me hope for America’s future as an open and tolerant society.

Neither Naoko nor I is religious, so that’s never been much of an issue — less so, however, with my mother, who is Christian and probably believes we’re all going to hell.

NAOKO: I had a concern about how our kids would feel about being Japanese when they learned about WWII. But they just accepted as a fact and were okay with it. I was impressed. I do wish we’d started them on Japanese language training earlier, though. Our daughter was only 18 months old when we moved back to the U.S. After that, I stopped using Japanese at home and soon returned to work full time. They are just now beginning formal Japanese-language instruction.

GABRIELA: I was born in Venezuela to Spanish parents and have never been able to choose between my two — Spanish and Venezuelan — heritages. Perhaps our children will just take the best from each of these cultures, and from English culture. No doubt their choices will be influenced by where they live, the type of people they meet, and how they position themselves in the world. I don’t know if they will feel more one or the other, especially if we live in a neutral third country, which as I mentioned last week is our goal. Right now, for example, my daughter says she is French because she was born in France. I’m happy with that.

DANIEL: I don’t find it challenging at all to bring up children who are a mix of cultures. Of course I’m always noticing their Spanish looks and ways, inherited from Gabriela.

How about for meals? Do you try to blend your cultures in the foods you prepare for the family? Who cooks?

JEFFREY: We eat as much if not more Asian/Japanese food as we do Western. Our son would eat soba and shumai seven days a week. We both cook.

GABRIELA: I cook for our children and my husband cook for the two of us. Since I’m not much of a cook, my kids have to eat my invented meals (bless them!), and as for my husband, well, I let him decide what he wants to make. I just enjoy it and do the washing up afterwards! He occasionally makes Venezuelan and Spanish meals, perhaps as often as he does English ones.

Jeff and Naoko, do you think you’ll ever move back to Japan? Last time, Jeff hinted that you might like to one day.

JEFFREY: The longer we’ve been back in the U.S., the harder it’s become for us to return to Japan. That being said, even in today’s economy, Naoko would have little difficulty finding work in Japan — she’s in finance. Whereas I’m pretty much unsuited to anything in Japan that would pay all that well. The kids, particularly our daughter who is just entering high school, would probably mutiny as well if we uprooted them at this point. Maybe after retirement?

NAOKO: Jeff keeps telling me to get posted to London, so perhaps we could give that a try?

Gabriela, how often do you get back to Venezuela to see family and friends?

GABRIELA: The last time I visited was three years ago. After that, I decided not to go back due to the political situation and have been relying on telephone calls and the Internet to keep in touch. But, to be honest, I don’t communicate with my family all that often. I have been away 14 years, so am used to the distance.

How about your kids? Actually, that’s a question for Naoko, too, since both of you are living away from the countries where you grew up.

GABRIELA: Only some of my family come to the UK and visit, usually just once a year for a few days. Those are the only times my children see them.

NAOKO: We haven’t been able to go back to Japan as often as we would wish since it’s so expensive for a family of four to fly there. Over the last five years, we’ve gone back every other year. But from now we’ll be making more of an effort to visit my parents since my father is not doing so well. My family always talks about coming to see us in Seattle, but they haven’t done it yet. Only my mother has been here — for my wedding, 19 years ago.

Finally, we are honoring Pocahontas this month at The Displaced Nation for her expertise in cross-cultural relations. I’m wondering if each of you could offer some advice to other couples in cross-cultural relationships — preferably in the form of a Native American proverb.


Cultural barriers are in the eye of the beholder.


For cross-cultural marriage to work, there can be no shortcuts. Each partner must accept the other’s culture.

Warm thanks to both of our couples for allowing their marriages to be put under The Displaced Nation’s microscope for two weeks running. Readers, do you have any more questions or comments?

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, Part 2 of the travel yarn “How foreign is Fez?” — by guest blogger Joy Richards.

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Marriage, cross-cultural style: Two veterans tell all (Part 1)

In the life of the global traveler, one of the most thrilling escapades you can have is a romantic encounter with someone you meet in a far-flung land.

But should your story involve going the further step and hitching your wagon to a person from a completely different culture — well, that’s another level of adventure altogether.

For marriage, you will need the ability to stand by the courage of your convictions.

Or, as one of our Random Nomads, Helena Halme put it in her comment on last week’s post covering this topic, cross-cultural marriage tends to be “for the mad bad and young — or foolish.”

Today and next Monday, one half of each of two cross-cultural couples have agreed to take the floor and answer my questions about what made them take the plunge:

GABRIELA SMITH has been married to Daniel for eight years. She was born in Venezuela to Spanish parents, but ended up in the UK, where she met Daniel and they currently live.

JEFFREY HUFFMAN has been married to Naoko for 19 years. They met in Nagoya, Japan, where Jeffrey, an American, had journeyed for his work. They now live in Seattle.

How did you meet your spouse-to-be?

GABRIELA: We were working for the same company in the UK; we met on my first day at work.

JEFFREY: We’re something of a cliché couple. She was a student in the summer Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) prep course I was teaching in Nagoya. She had just graduated from college and wanted to pursue a second degree at a university in the U.S. and needed to pass the TOEFL to do so.

What made you think that this is the person for me? Did culture have anything to do with it?

JEFFREY: Definitely, Naoko represented a tie to the Japanese culture that I wanted to have. Seattle has a pretty large Asian community, I had taken Japanese at university with dozens of nikkei-jin, and I had been to Japan on visits twice before. But it wasn’t until I went to live there that it all fell in place.

GABRIELA: I arrived in the UK at 23 — marriage was not even in my mind. Additionally, I had no wish to stay in the UK so wasn’t looking for an Englishman to marry. I was going to travel more. I actually had a one way ticket to Italy when I fell in love with my husband.

Did you have any reservations before deciding to tie the knot, having to do with the other person being a different nationality?

JEFFREY: No reservations on my side, probably because Naoko had lived in the States for a year as an undergrad by the time I met her, and because her English was so good.

GABRIELA: Not at all. I thought — and I still think — that culture has very little effect on the “amount of risk” in a relationship. Values are important, of course, and I considered my husband’s values as an individual — not by placing him within a category ruled by his nationality.

How long were you together before you decided to get married?

JEFFREY: A point of no small contention with my wife. We’d been together for four years, two in Japan and two in the States, before I finally got around to asking her formally. Naoko was just about to graduate from Seattle University, and I’d been accepted at Columbia for grad school when I finally woke up and realized the time had come…

GABRIELA: Exactly 12 months after the day we met for the first time. Daniel asked me.

Where were your weddings held? Did you have cross-cultural ceremonies?

GABRIELA: The civil wedding was held in England; from my side there was just me. The religious ceremony was held in Venezuela a week after; from my husband’s side there was just him. The ceremony was in Spanish, a language that he does not speak! We held the reception party three weeks later when we were back in England — again, just me from my side. I even looked for a wedding dress on my own, and was on my own at the hairdressers on my wedding day. People may have thought it was strange, but I never minded. I thought it was all very exciting.

JEFFREY: We were married in my parent’s living room by a family friend who was a county judge. He wrote the ceremony for us, and it was very nice – just family and a few friends. We did a recommitment ceremony a few years later in Hawaii. Naoko didn’t want any kind of ceremony in Japan. She comes from Aichi-ken, where weddings tend to be an extravaganza. (Of course the real reason is that she was embarrassed to be marrying me — just kidding.)

Which makes me think of another question… What was it like meeting your in-laws for the first time? Did you have any awkward moments?

GABRIELA: Of course we’ve had some communication barriers, but mainly been due to my accent. I just have to repeat several times a word, or get my husband to “translate” for me. Ah, and the fact that I never drink tea or eat Christmas pudding seems to surprise his family each time!

JEFFREY: I think her parents and older brother initially took a dim view of our relationship, because I didn’t speak Japanese very well. To this day, my wife is my conduit with her parents (their Aichi-ben still leaves me lost a lot of the time). Overall, though, I think they are comfortable with me as I’m pretty comfortable with the culture.

How much of your married life has been spent in each other’s countries? And have you also lived in countries that are foreign to both of you?

GABRIELA: I don’t exactly have a country as my parents are originally from Spain but I grew up in Venezuela. Daniel and I have yet to live in a Spanish-speaking culture. We did, however, spend six years of our married life in a country foreign to us both: France. Otherwise, we’ve been in the UK.

JEFFREY: We’ve never lived anywhere else besides our home countries, and we’ve lived much longer in the U.S. than in Japan. Our time in Japan as a married couple consisted of three years in the Greater Tokyo area in the mid-1990s.

Are you settled down where you are now, or do you think you will change countries again?

Seattle is home for the time being. That said, I know Naoko misses her family. We’ve had some very emotional send-offs by family and friends in Japan. If fortuitous circumstances presented themselves (i.e. we were both offered obscene amounts of money and guaranteed vacation time), we’d be fools to not go. Barring that Disney scenario, we fully expect to spend at least part of the year in Japan in retirement, which isn’t that far off. It’s just eight years until our youngest is in college.

GABRIELA: What attracted me the most to my husband is that he also wanted to travel and live in other countries. I think things would have been very different if he said he wanted to stay in England “forever.” Now that we’ve spent six years in France I’ve realized that the weather really influences the social life and, to some extent, how people behave. It would be easier for my career if I stayed in the UK, but I have always placed my lifestyle before my career. Thankfully, my husband is quite happy with the idea of having late dinners on a terrace, under the sun, with wine and cheese on the table! Being Spanish, I would love for us to live in Spain one day.

What language do you speak with your respective spouses?

JEFFREY: Painful as it is to admit, about 99% English.

GABRIELA: Always English.

Tell me more about your kids.

GABRIELA: We have two wonderful children — a girl, 6, and a boy, 2. They were born in France, I was five months pregnant when we moved. Communicating with the midwives during childbirth was … interesting.

JEFFREY: We also have a girl and a boy, but they are a little older. Our girl is 14, and our boy, 9. Our daughter was born in Kawasaki, and our son in Seattle.

What language do you and your partner speak with the kids?

JEFFREY: The children are just now taking formal Japanese lessons.

GABRIELA: Spanish and English with my children. Occasionally I tease them — and my husband — in French. I must say that no matter what language I speak they all reply to me in English.

We look forward to hearing more from Jeffrey and Gabriela — and their spouses — next week. Let them know any comments or questions in the meantime!

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