"Keep working on a plan. Make no little plans. Make the biggest you can think of, and spend the rest of your life carrying it out." Harry S. Truman

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The book is here !

Last night, my husband brought home the DHL box sent by the printer in South Korea. I just had to record the event for the blog.

Yours truly, still looking as if she doesn't quite believe it.

Of course, I had to show it to my favorite fan in the whole world. Luckily, my daughter was not yet asleep. For months, she's been asking me : "when will you get the book?" And to my diverse answers, she always gave a sigh and added one of her favorite expressions : "I can't wait."

Another month, and it should be in bookstores !

Monday, April 28, 2008

A celebration of fusion

The previous post made me think about the word "fusion" and what it means.

I love it. I'm actually annoyed that I didn't think of it when I was trying to come up with a name for this blog. I'm not good with titles, and scribbling being such a huge part of what I am, I went for that. Besides, I kind of jumped into this blogging thing without a clear idea of where it would go. Now, a year later, I think that "Fusion Katia" would have sounded pretty good, too, and it would have been true as well. Maybe something to think about.

I first came across the term "fusion" - as it is used more and more, to indicate a mingling of cultures and expressions of cultures - when we moved to India and I went to a restaurant that offered a Fusion menu. Now, in India, the concept of fusion food remains a little tricky and will often be used to describe Western dishes prepared with an Indian twist ( read, a copious amount of chili - among other spices - thrown in, because in the mind of most Indians, especially in the south, eating food without LOTS of chili remains a concept they cannot really wrap their minds around. Same as totally dry food. To be good, a dish must be hot and swimming in sauce, which is called curry, here), and that "Indian twist" can make it hard to catch the dishes' original flavor. But that's only fair. After all, we ARE in India.

The concept of fusion doesn't apply to food, only, but to fashion, to art, music, etc. Maybe it is quite big, here, because India, before it became a nation, was composed of so many princely states, with numerous languages, cultures, and religions living side by side. There was always some sort of fusion, here and there. It is so much easier to become tolerant and open to others' ways of doing and thinking things when cohabiting with diverse ways of life. What is racism and xenophobia, after all, if not a fear of the different, of the unknown?

I always keep a very mundane example in my mind when dealing with a new, strange situation : the first time I ate Japanese food. It was in Paris, and I was in my early twenties. I shared a "chambre de bonne" with a friend - an 8 m² room with a shower in a cubicle and a toilet on the landing, at the top of an old bourgeois building. We dreamed of traveling far, but not having any money, we could only treat ourselves to a foreign restaurant once in a while ; discovering foods from far-away countries was our way of sampling another culture. When we went to that Japanese restaurant, I ordered Sushis, and when I tried the pickled ginger, I almost spit it out. I was totally unprepared for such a strong taste, and I remember that I gave all my ginger to my friend. I couldn't eat it. Nowadays, if I don't eat ginger once in a while, I crave it. I love the stuff. I make sandwiches with pickled ginger, and I use it a lot when I cook. My point ? I rejected the taste of ginger because it was so totally foreign to what I'd been used to. Thankfully, I did not give up on ginger and Japanese food ranks very high on my personal chart of favorite cuisines, if not at the very top.

Back to fusion. Extensive exposure to other ways of doing things is bound to attract some sort of fusion effect. While reading William Dalrymple's "White Mughals", set in Hyderabad, I was fascinated to learn that first the Portuguese, as early as 1510, after the conquest of Goa, and later the British who came to live in India, from the 17th until the beginning of the 19th Century, were very quick to mingle and adopt the local ways : they happily wore light cotton pyjama kurtas, smoked the hookah, ate Indian food, and married local women, had biracial children, etc, etc. The whole divisive, straight-laced attitude came later, with the Victorian era.

A quote from the book: "The success of the East India Company in its formative years depended as much on contacts across the lines of race and religion as it did on any commercial acumen, and to varying extents the traders, soldiers, diplomats and even the clergymen who ventured eastwards had little choice but to embrace the Mughal India. Nor should this tendency surprise us: from the wider perspective of world history, what is much odder and much more inexplicable is the tendency of the late-nineteenth century British to travel to, and rule over, nearly a quarter of the globe, and yet remain resolutely untouched by virtually all the cultures with which they came into contact."

Of course, wherever extremism and fanaticism raise their ugly heads, fusion has a hard time striving, and unfortunately, these scourges are here as much as anywhere else, in spite of India's long multicultural history. No matter. Fusion is out there, and I want to believe that it's there more and more, in spite of everything. And we ought to encourage it, and celebrate it everywhere we witness it.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Fusion stories

The month of May will be Asian Pacific Heritage Month, and Fusion Stories is a Web site created by 10 Asian authors to showcase teens contemporary novels that move beyond the traditional tales set in Asia or the stories about immigrating to America.

I now have a whole new bunch of books on my "to read... sooner than later" list.

Quoted from the website : "As Newbery winner Linda Sue Park told author Cynthia Leitich Smith (Tantalize) during an on-line chat: “At last it seems we’re getting ready to go to stories where a person’s ethnicity is a part but not the sum of them.”"

Hurray to that !

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Last book I read : Naming Maya, by Uma Krishnaswami

PaperTigers chose Uma Krishnaswami's novel, Naming Maya, as their Tiger's Choice, this month. After reading the conversation on their blog, I decided to read the book again. I'm glad to report that I enjoyed it even more the second time.

Naming Maya tells the story of a 12-year-old girl who must go to Chennai with her mother, who's decided to sell her father's house. Over the course of the summer in the land of her parents, now divorced, Maya comes to terms with many issues in her life even as she learns more about her family, and her split cultural identity.

The first time I read the book, I'd only been in India for a few months. Now that I've made my home here for almost 4 years, some details of the book spoke to me in a way they did not before. "What will four people say?" worries a character in the book. I laughed out at that one. I didn't know that it was told in that particular way. How vivid, colorful and true! I've come to learn that indeed, as Lakshmi Auntie mentions in the book, Indians are very much brought up to mind what any four people around might say. They're not the only society to be like that, mind you, far from it; but it's definitely strong, here.

I adored the character of Kamala Mami, the old, loving housekeeper who's also the keeper of the family's history.

There are many layers to this book : communication between mother and daughter - the question on PaperTigers was to know whether this would be a good mother-daughter book club, and I definitely think it would be - with the weight of things never said permeating everything between them; Maya learning to feel her way in this place that's so much part of what she is and feels familiar with in a deep, instinctive way, and yet, is not home in the sense that New Jersey, where she was born and brought up, is ; and the wonderful symbol of the Two-Gift (Maya and her best friend in New Jersey always buy each other two identical gifts ; they give the other one, and keep one for themselves, so they have twin collections) which comes full circle when Kamala Mami gives her her own Two-Gift. And, of course, there is the language, rich, full of sensory details, the description of Chennai's city life, the neighbors with the husband always speaking about the weather, and the wife always complaining about the house-help, the tantalizing descriptions of all the Indian dishes cooked by Kamala Mami, etc.

Thanks to PaperTigers for launching this conversation and giving me the opportunity to read this book again.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Expat Expert Robin Pascoe is touring India


As parents of global nomads, many of us wonder, somewhat anxiously, how to manage the constant changes our children experience, how to best prepare transitions between countries, how to maximize the benefits of an international life and minimize its pitfalls. Expat Expert Robin Pascoe is currently touring India, and she will be here in Hyderabad, next week. The author of five books on global living, the last of which is titled: Raising Global Nomads: Parenting Abroad in an On-Demand World, she'll provide her view on all of these expatriate concerns and more.

Robin is a Canadian who spent 15 years moving between Asia and Canada with her diplomat husband and two children, now both grown-up. She experienced the expatriate life as a pregnant woman, as the mother of babies, toddlers, middle graders, and teenagers. And the fact that she waited until her children were both out of the nest to write this last book brings an added dimension and value to her testimony: she could look back and take stock.

The expat reading Robin Pascoe’s books is sure to experience a number of very strong feelings: exhilaration, many “eureka” moments, validation, reassurance, and last, but far from least, the bizarre notion that they know the author, and most importantly, that this author knows them! Not only does she describe our experiences by sharing hers, she does it with great wit and humor. We read, we smile or even laugh out loud, sometimes we feel like crying, but most of all, we keep thinking: “YES! I did that!” How, funny, I’ve felt that way!” “Ha, that happened to me, too!”

I first read Robin's books - along with David Pollock (to whom Robin Pascoe dedicates this last one) and Ruth Van Reken’s “Third Culture Kids” - while living in a small bush town in Nigeria and it was such an enlightening experience. Being the consummate worrier, questions about our uprooted life and the impact it would have on our daughter had been gaining momentum in my brain, but with barely anyone to share them with, I felt terribly isolated. The discovery that others experience the same feelings, and most of all, that most of our children turn out great, provided that parents are proactive, aware of pitfalls, and available to help their offspring negotiate them, was incredibly reassuring and liberating. I was not alone. Moreover, my children were not alone. What a relief!

Raising Global Nomads addresses issues like culture shock and the ways to negotiate them, the importance of creating and keeping family rituals, how to keep the family healthy, work-life harmony, especially when the working spouse spends most of their time at work, traveling, or manipulating their Blackberry, and of course, the vast and tricky subject of international schools. She mentions, with good humor, that when she speaks at international schools, not only are these talks typically organized by the school’s parent organization, but she usually finds very few teachers in the audience. She also notes how “many international schools are almost as bad as multinational corporations when it comes to recognizing the emotional needs of children and budgeting to accommodate training programs,” a fact she deplores, as “there is more to teaching global nomads than achieving a perfect score on a math test.” The book covers all areas of expatriates’ life, including the tricky subject of repatriation. There are also contributions from other global nomad experts: Dr Barbara Schaetti and Lois Bushong.

In preparation for Robin coming to Hyderabad, on April 29 and 30, I asked her a few questions:

How did you come to write so extensively on the subject of expatriation?

For me, it started with the birth of my daughter in Bangkok, Thailand. I was one of the founders of an international mother's group (still going strong after 25 years!) called BAMBI http://www.bambiweb.org/ I started a newsletter/magazine for them and got interested in the idea that new mothers, with their own far away, should support one another. This idea kind of mushroomed over the years into expat expert and writing books, articles and publishing a website.

Why did you feel the need to write Raising Global Nomads, after your other books?

I had written a previous book about parenting overseas that was published in 1993! I knew how out of date it was, but the original publisher never let me update it to include the Internet and all the challenges of the 21st century. So, because my own children were becoming young adults, it was a very good chance for me to look back to see what worked for me, what didn't work for me (!) and what worked for others. The big picture became clearer to me once the smaller details of day to day child-rearing were taken away.

Your daughter was born in Bangkok and your son was born in Ottawa. What are they doing, now? How would you say they feel about the life they had growing up?

As I joke in my book, our daughter Lilly is the environmentalist and global citizen....but our son Jay four years younger is the real tree hugger who should never leave home. After some international internships, Lilly is doing her masters in environmental studies in Toronto. Jay is home in Vancouver studying at the local college after what he calls 'an unfortunate year' at a university out of town. This is an example I use in my lectures a lot...of the so-called expat expert missing out on the obvious which was that our son probably should never have moved away to school because we moved him five times before he was 9 and just the idea of moving makes him crazy! The main thing is he's doing as best a 20 year old boy can do and is much more settled and happy at a school at home.... Our daughter, almost 25, soars professionally, but often believes she has challenges making long term relationships. Of course, if she would stay put somewhere long enough that would help! They both know they are different from their non-moving friends but like so many third culture kids, most of their friends are also from different places.

What would you say are the main challenges that global nomads must face?

They face all the same challenges of any young adult growing up in today's on-demand, cellular world....and then some. Parents of third culture kids often ascribe certain challenges or character traits to the TCK or mobile experience when really, some issues might have cropped up anyway! But I think the biggest one from my experience is their sense of wondering 'where is home?' and 'where am I from?' I help them answer that by framing a response: they are globalists. The world is their home in the big picture; their family and extensive network of friends are both their memory and their history.

Would you say that your global experience has changed you significantly, and how?

Absolutely. I could have lived my entire life in Toronto (my home town) and traveled to Florida or Hawaii for golfing and that would have been it. Instead, I've had a wonderful, privileged life of tremendous experiences and the opportunity to expose my children to the world. Now if I could just get over my fear of flying, my world would be perfect.

What was the lowest "low" in your own global experience? How about the "highest high?"

I think the lowest was at the very beginning when I had no idea whatsoever what I was getting myself into...and was pregnant on top of that.... :-) It is the primary reason why I started writing books, to make sure women knew what they were going to face without an identity or paycheque or absent, traveling husband. The highest experiences, ironically, have come after we left Foreign Service and moved to Vancouver. I never for a minute expected to keep writing books and traveling so it's really been amazing to go to so many communities and feel useful. I do a lot of reassuring!

If you had only one piece of advice to give to parents of global nomads, what would that be – other than read your book :) ?

I think I wrote in my introduction that every family is unique and will make choices that are right for their families. I can write about what I did, and people can relate to certain pieces of it, but at the end of the day, parents must always feel confident that they know their children the best, they know what's right or wrong for their child, when it might be time to stay in one place and so on. In other words, I want parents to have self-confidence in their own parenting skills (recognizing that not every decision may be the right one....like mine, to suggest my son go away to college...wrong decision!) But nothing is irrevocable and besides, we all make mistakes. I believe no experience is bad experience (even if at the time you can't believe you chose to do something). I have to re-read my own books a lot and especially look at my power pt presentations and remind myself that every success has a few failures behind it. That's OK. The ability to tell your children you were wrong is also a bonus. As I like to say, we do what we can with love and the best of intentions. What more can we do?

If you had only one piece of advice to give directly to our global nomads, what would that be?

Doesn't matter what advice I give to them....they know it all already :-) Seriously, it's very difficult to speak to young adults because like young people everywhere, they think they know everything and as a parent saying something, they will run in the opposite direction from our advice....! But I would definitely educate them about 'third culture kids" (or advise them to educate themselves through the books and websites now devoted to the subject) so they know they are not alone in the way they have been growing up and that there is a world community of young people just like them who does understand their uniqueness.

You raise some very interesting points regarding the role of digital communications when dealing with culture shock. You mention the need to use caution, for instance. Why?

Long story too....I think the Internet and all the technology has been both the best and worst things to happen to expats. The best because of course we can keep in touch, get info, read our local papers etc. The worst because it is often mismanaged and not used in a healthy way. Too much Internet at the beginning of an assignment, as I wrote, can delay the stages of culture shock. Too many phone calls from mom may break a spirit of independence in a child. Too much time on a Blackberry by a parent can be alienating. Facebook is great and kids are posting all sorts of stuff....not realizing it's there forever! So I'm really recommending 'technology management'.

You emphasize the subtle difference between "pro-active parenting" and "over parenting." How and where does one draw the line?

I like to use the baby in a playpen analogy to explain this. Put the child in the playpen with lots of toys to play with. That's pro-active parenting. Then leave them alone to play with their toys instead of jumping in there personally and showing them how each toy works. That's over-parenting.

You mention the role of grief in culture shock. My experience has been that even when the expatriate experience is not a happy one (the expat cannot wait to leave the host country) they better make sure they still acknowledge all the feelings that go with leaving one place, any place, to relocate to another – whether it's going back home, or moving on to yet another country – or they'll be carrying unresolved feelings around like a bunch of very clunky, unwanted luggage. What would you say about that?

I agree completely! I have met and interviewed so many expats who hated a posting but then when you meet them at their next posting or after repatriation, they rhapsodize poetically about a place they supposedly hated! Every move must be brought to a proper closure(celebrate the end of a posting, take lots of pictures etc) or there will be grief over the loss of that experience even if it wasn't great. The best transition gurus have always said: there can be no good beginning without first a good ending of the previous experience.

If you would like more information about Robin Pascoe, visit her website at www.expatexpert.com. She’s currently conducting a Relocation Survey titled: Family Matters! at www.expatexpert.com/survey. It is for family only, including high schoolers, and Robin will be publishing the results and using the information (all anonymous) when she speaks to businesses about the importance of family support for relocation.

Friday, April 18, 2008

April's give-away on Kimberly Willis Holt's blog

Kimberly Willis Holt is giving away two copies of her last book, Piper Reed the Great Gipsy, coming out in August, and illustrated by Christine Davenier (Henry Holt, 2008). I interviewed Kimberly in December and very much look forward to reading the second installment of this very spunky navy brat's adventures.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Black Doll White Doll

In her last article on New Demographic, Carmen Van Kerckhove mentions a short documentary filmed by 17-years old Kiri Davis as a high school project: A Girl Like Me. She decided to repeat an experiment conducted by psychologist Kenneth B. Clark in 1954, in which he showed a black and a white doll to black children, and asked them to choose the one they preferred. The vast majority chose the white doll.

Over fifty years later, Kiri conducted the same test on 21 black children in New York City, and 15 chose the white doll.

Kiri Davis's experiment is conducted in the US. But I'd bet that if someone conducted the same experiment here, in India, the vast majority, if not all the Indian children, would also choose the white doll over a brown or a black one.

Maybe this experiment should be conducted everywhere in the world. Because seeing the child who not only chooses the white doll, but when asked to show the bad one, chooses the black doll, and then, when asked what doll looks like her, hesitates a fraction of a second, and then pushes the black doll towards the filmmaker... I don't know that I can ever forget the expression on the face of that child. Carmen's title for that article is "What is the human cost of racism?" Well, we see it on the face of that little girl. And it is heartbreaking.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The new international airport of Hyderabad

For months, we'd been hearing, reading and talking about the new airport... bound to open on March 15, not matter what, and in spite of the fact that the roads supposed to lead directly there from the city were not yet built - this still holds true, and said roads will most likely not be completed before the end of the year. There were battles to keep the old airport open for domestic flights. People worried about the commute taking much longer than with the old Begumpet airport. Etc, etc.

Well, we took off from Begumpet, on March 22, and landed at the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport, on the 29th. From the window of the airplane, we could see masses of people lining up a ramp that seemed to lead to the entrance of the airport, and wondered what that might be. A strike, maybe?

As it turned out, these were visitors who'd come to take a look at the new facility and watch planes land and take off - people from villages coming by bus loads.

Unfortunately, my husband was pushing the luggage cart ahead of me, and he was carrying my camera, and I was not able to take pictures showing the throngs of people walking up the ramp shown below - when I was able to take a shot, there seemed to be a hiatus in that human flow. One moment before, though, we had to push past dozens of people going up, as we came down. We passed an ornamental water pond and I saw several lonely sandals floating, most likely lost in the shuffle as people walked up.

According to some newspapers, on Sunday the 30th alone, one hundred thousand people visited the airport. It really was the most amazing sight. I mean, airports are usually busy places, but this was something else, and these pictures don't do justice to what we saw.

It was getting dark, unfortunately, but what you see at the back of the picture below, taken outside, is people, people, and more people.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The monkeys outside my window !

The other day, I was mentioning how a large monkey likes to scamper along the white fence outside my office window, and how I was never fast enough to take its picture. Well, I had the visit of TWO monkeys, yesterday. They were playing together, as opposed to merely using our fence as a fast lane from one house to another, and I was able to snap some pictures, from the other side of the window, obviously, so they're not perfectly clear. Needless to say, as soon as they saw me, they disappeared into the trees.

And since we're talking about animals that happen in our neighborhood, here is another, who was just on the other side of the street, on the same day.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Celebrating Holi in Goa

Holi is the festival of colors of India. It is meant to welcome spring and win the blessings of Gods for good harvests and fertility of the land.

Second most important festival after Diwali, it is celebrated with lots of fun and exuberance. Everywhere you go, you see people painted and powdered in the most vivid palette of colors. And I mean vivid!

These are some of the colored powders used. In old times, they used to be all natural. Nowadays, some are very toxic, and actually, there are casualties every year - kids burned by the chemicals in the colors. But when done with natural colors, there is no danger whatsoever.

We celebrated Holi in Goa, in the rain (found myself with a throat infection a few days later), and once we got over the initial shyness (do I or do I not throw this very pink color on my husband's clean linen shirt? If I do, he's bound to retaliate, and my cream-colored pants and T-shirt will be ruined), boy, did we have fun.

Here we are, the girls and I, soaking wet and, as a tourist put it when he saw me coming out of the bathroom with my youngest daughter after I washed her face because powder had gotten in her eyes : "Wow, you are... colorful !"

But of course ! It was Holi !