"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

Monday, December 14, 2009

My Global Bookshelf : A Broad Abroad, (The Expat Wife's Guide to Successful Living Abroad), by Robin Pascoe

According to Expat Expert Robin Pascoe, the trailing spouse is “the ultimate portable wife, and probably a mother too. [...] She is also the last person anybody really thinks about until all the clean underwear runs out.”

And she would know. As the trailing spouse of a Canadian diplomat, the author lived in Bangkok (where she gave birth to their first child), Taipei, Beijing, and Seoul, with re-entries in Canada in between, and a final move to Vancouver, British Columbia, all in a span of 15 years.

In this revised and updated edition of the book that first came out in 1992, Robin Pascoe shares her extensive experience, along with the lessons learned (often the hard way) with the reader, taking us through all the stages of a move abroad, from the preparations and research about the host country, the arrival and the various stages of culture shock all the way to the return home.

Chapters have telling titles like “Pre-Moving Day Jitters,” Making the Cultural Transition,” “Maids and Madams,” and “Home Leave to Hell,” with short, but always informative entries like “Why Did I Come?”, The Absent Husband,” “Your Children and Household Help,” “Doctor Disasters,” etc.

On the cover of the book, Robin sits in what looks like a huge box attached to a bicycle, an open packing box on the pavement next to her, in a street of Amsterdam. She’s ready to go. As all trailing spouses usually are, carrying so many conflicting emotions, along with their passports, and whatever belongings they’ve chosen to take across the world.

Robin’s talent lies in her ability to express feelings in a way that is at once honest, sensible and witty. She says it the way it is, which is what I love about her, and most likely what appeals to the enormous following she’s created over her years of writing and talking about expatriation. The chapter where she tackles the very sensitive issue of culture shock is a must-read for anyone even remotely concerned with expatriation.

A Broad Abroad is an essential book for any expat's wife (and if you have children, Raising Global Nomads by the same author - interview, here - is another indispensable book to have and read, over and over again). Whether you’re new to the “job” or old-timers, you will not only find practical and useful everyday advices, but also, and here comes Robin Pascoe's invaluable gift to us, the kind of empathy that we all so desperately need while facing the turmoils and challenges that go hand in hand with the joys and beauty of living the expatriate life - a voice that says: Don't you worry. I've been there, I've done that, and I am telling you: you're NOT crazy.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

December is here !

And this calls for a small update, after a longish silent.

Days continue to be too short to allow me to do all that I need to do in a way that would feel comfortable  (translation still due - even though I do now see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel - one more day to go with the outline class, kids taking turns not having school or falling sick, and the usual parade of mundane things such as : preparing meals, cajoling - or not cajoling at all - my older daughter into doing her homework, bath time, night time, all before I can sit again in front of the computer to go back to translating, writing, or trying to wrap my mind around the outlining process ; this last bit calls for a blog post, actually, and one more thing to add on my list of things to do. ) I've had to decline participating in the last two Bollywood dance classes, even though I'm sooo looking forward to doing this. My only recreation is the little time I spend on Facebook. Yeah, exactly, no comment !

Anyway, in the middle of it all, I had the pleasure of being asked to write an essay for the December issue of Paper Tigers which focuses on Religious Diversity in Relation to End-of-Year Celebrations. The title is A Wish for 2010. Do check the Paper Tigers website if you don't already know it. It's a great multicultural resource with a wealth of informations, reviews, interviews, etc...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Doctors without borders

One of the "perks" of living in developing countries is the vast array of exotic diseases you can catch : malaria, dengue, chikungunya, and a few more. My older daughter got the malaria while we lived in Nigeria. Actually, only a few months before we were due to leave for good, she got so ill we almost had to be medically evacuated. It was the malaria, but the medicines we'd given her (bought in a hospital) were probably fake, and of course, the malaria kept coming back, and each time, she got weaker, her immune system was shot, until finally we gave her a last course of medicine and that one worked. It lasted eight weeks. Poor thing. The way malaria hits some people and spares others is a real mystery. I didn't get it. My child did, and yet, I was probably one of the strictest mothers in our area, making always sure she was back inside before sundown. Some people spend years in endemic areas, and don't get it. Others spend a few days, and they're not so lucky.

When our little one was 18 months, we went to Sri Lanka, and she got the dengue fever there. Now, whenever she has a fever, I'm a mess, because I'm always afraid it might be another dengue. There is no treatment for the dengue fever. And it can kill.

Well, this time, she got the chikungunya. Poor thing woke up on a Monday complaining of pain in her knees. She had no fever then. I took her to the hospital but the doctor didn't think it was serious. That night, the fever began, and she complained of pain in her hands as well. I took her again to the doctor, the following morning, and was told not to worry, and prescribed Paracetamol. That same evening, the fever climbed to almost 102, her cheeks looked like an erupting volcano, and I had to rush her to the emergency room, where they drew some blood to check for dengue or else. It was not dengue, as the platelet count did not go down. More likely it was chikungunya. The good news ? While adults can suffer from terrible joint pains for months afterwards, children recover in a matter of days.

Well, as if I hadn't spent enough time visiting hospitals and doctors, I then came down with a pretty bad throat infection. All this to say that my whole carefully planned schedule for the month of November had gone out the window, and I was prone to mumble and grumble a lot.

But then, last Monday afternoon, I get a phone call from an unknown doctor who tells me about a foreign person who's come to Hyderabad so her 2-year old child can have an open-heart surgery. They were given my number by someone at the local Alliance Française, and wonder if I could help them, as the lady does not speak any English, only French. I say of course. As it turns out, she's not French at all, but Haitian !

It's a rather complicated, but beautiful story, and it ends well. The child was born with a hole in her heart, and while she was being followed by a doctor in Haiti, the parents knew she'd need surgery, eventually. In the US, the closest place for them to go, such an operation costs 40 000 Dollars. Not the kind of money they can easily get ahold of. Then, one day, the mother spots a flyer mentioning an association that helps children with medical problems. To cut the story short, one of the American doctors involved in this association, who's been going to Haiti several times a year to give his time and expertise, works with an Indian doctor originally from Hyderabad, who happens to have gone to medical school with yet another doctor who just opened an hospital in India where they perform the kind of surgery that can save children like this little Haitian girl. For a fraction of what it would cost in the US, needless to say, even if you add the cost of flying the two doctors, the mother and the child all the way to Hyderabad ! And so, this is how this woman and her child landed in Hyderabad, and how we got involved. The surgery went well, and I've seen the little girl, and she's fine and expected to travel back to Haiti with her mother on Wednesday.

Isn't that a beautiful story ? I spent several hours in this hospital room, waiting with the mother and these two doctors, talking about everything under the sun (Haiti, of course, but also health care in the US, life in India, and even the Ramayana and the Mahabharata !) What a relief it was to see the anguish leave the face of that mother, when a nurse finally came in to say that the surgery had gone well.

I have since been trying to catch up with my work, and I do try to mumble and grumble a little less. Let's see how long it lasts...

Saturday, October 24, 2009

CROCUS Festival : Around the World in 7 Days

Yesterday, began a week-long festival at The Saffron Tree blog. CROCUS stands for a Celebration of Reading Other Culturally Unique Stories, and there will be reviews of books from all over the world, and interviews (among which one from yours truly).

The Saffron Tree participated in Amadi's Snowman's blog tour, last year, and I'm excited and honored that they decided to include us in their CROCUS festival.

Check their blog. They post reviews of very good, interesting, and culturally diverse books for children.

And while I'm shamelessly touting my own horn, I might as well mention that I gave another interview, but in French, a couple of weeks ago. Of course, I couldn't mention it here because of this little big problem with my Internet connexion. My Francophone friends and family members who grumble about having to read in English for my sake will be happy to be able to sail through that interview. Check out the blog of an incredibly productive, multilingual fellow writer, and crosscultural global nomad, Jo Ann von Haff, Ladybirdisms.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Diwali !

My experience of Diwali has gone through its own little process ever since we first arrived in India, five years ago. I must say that UNICEF basically parachutes its staff and their family in their duty station without so much as a booklet about the local customs (I'm not even asking for cultural training, here), so you're basically to fend for yourself, and that's what we do, learning by trial and error.

When my husband first arrived in Hyderabad, in May 2004, he spent a month trying to find a house. Without success. Most gated communities which have since sprung out were not built yet, and all he could find were monsters of houses, some complete with ball rooms, three or four floors, ridiculous layouts (kitchen miles away from the dining room), or houses that were more the type of things we were looking for, only, the owner wanted us to keep his furniture, and we didn't want that. So, when I landed in August, with our 4-year old, and six-weeks old baby, we settled into a hotel room, where we ended up spending two months, until we moved into what is still our house, on October 16. As an aside, this is the longest I've spent in the same house in thirty years !

One of my prerequisites, when looking for a house, is light. I need lots and lots and lots of it. And one of the things that I loved when we visited our house was that it has huge windows everywhere. Light comes pouring in from practically every angle. Of course, it's a nightmare, in the summer heat, but I wasn't thinking about that. And anyway, I'd rather be hot than live in the dark.

So, we move into our brand new house (the reason it took so long was that it was still being built), and of course, there are NO curtains anywhere, no blinds, no nothing. The first thing we did was order curtains rods, buy fabric and have curtains made. As the taylor actually comes to your house with his little sewing machine, that was done quite fast. But we didn't want curtains in the living-room. We wanted blinds made of wood or bambou. The guy who came to take the measurements promised they would be ready in two weeks, and, well, these two weeks turned out to be two months. 

Now, here I am, in my very pretty, still very empty house that feels somehow like a glass house, especially when it's dark. The nanny and the housekeeper have left. I'm giving dinner to the children. My little one is three and half months by then. She's holding her head, but not sitting yet. It is quiet out there - much more than it is, nowadays. My husband is at work. 

Suddenly, I hear shooting and explosions. And I don't mean a lonely shot or a single explosion. No. I mean Beyrouth ! The sounds surround me and go staccato all over the place, and I don't know where they come from, what it is, and what the hell is going on, except that it feels like what I imagine the middle of a war zone must be like. So, I grab my two kids, run up the stairs to the Master bedroom where I can quickly draw the curtains, and we sit on the bed. Baby is in my arms, crying. Kora is scared. And I'm so totally freaked out, I'm going out of my mind.

Happy Diwali !!!

Now, I hadn't been living in a vacuum, and I knew that the Festival of Lights was coming. But no one had told me that the lights come with a deafening accompaniement of firecrackers, fireworks, and what not. We found our rooftop carpeted with all the junk left by the various firecrakers and fireworks the following day. I mean, buckets and buckets of the stuff. And it went on for a whole week. 

This is a story I like to tell, now, but I wasn't laughing that night. So, when time came for Diwali, the following year, we decided to go and visit Kerala, which is a mainly Christian state, and where Diwali is celebrated here and there, but in a nice, low-key fashion.

In 2006, we went to a beach resort just outside of Mammalapuram, in Tamil Nadu, and visited Pondicherry, and again, it was a lovely, reasonably quiet Diwali.

In 2007, we escaped to ICRISAT, an enormous campus outside of town, where we rented a small flat, and enjoyed another peaceful Diwali. And finally, last year, I was either preparing the blog tour for Amadi's Snowman or smack in the middle of it, and it is a proof of the kind of timewarp I was living in that I cannot tell when or how Diwali happened, and what on earth we did, and I don't find anything in our photo files. What I do remember, though, is that I decided that we needed to buy diyas to take with us, because I was sure that I'd want to celebrate the Festival of Lights once I was no longer in India. I might not have actively partaken in the celebrations, but I already felt it had become a part of my life.

Well, as it turned out, we are still here. Also, our children are growing. Both of them go to school, and they made their own clay diyas (oil lamp as seen in the pictures), heard about the victorious return of Rama to his kingdom, etc, etc. On the morning of Diwali, they were both very secretive. We didn't hear them. And when they finally emerged, they were both wearing an identical salwar kameez, they had flowers in their hair, and bindis on their forehead. And the older, when she saw that I was wearing Western clothes, frowned, and said : "Today is Diwali, you should wear Indian ethnic clothes to show respect." Oups ! I was made to go and "at the very least" get a bindi. And my husband and I were also told that we had to buy something new ; whatever, clothes, bangles, earings, something !

In the evening, I took out our diyas, and we set them on the steps outside our house. We lit a few fire crackers (not too many, because these things are just sooo bad for the environment, not too mention earsplitting noisy), and, well, this was our best Diwali, so far. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A lizard comes knocking.

It is 11 am on a school holiday, and I'm helping my daughter with her French lesson. We're sitting at the dining table, minding our own business, when we hear a rattling sound coming from the French windows that open onto a small grassy terrasse. My daughter turns, jumps, and cries : "Mom, look, there is an animal ! Look!"

Gloups. Those who know me, know that I'm not into animals as a rule. The only pets I've allowed into our household are fishes in a tank. They're pretty, silent, and don't require too much work. I might have relented and gotten a cat (I always loved their elegance and their independent streak,) but my husband is allergic. End of story. Of course, I don't mention the geckos that grace our walls. I've grown totally used to having those around. They don't bother me, and I don't bother them. They're actually very useful as they eat insects. But that's as far as it goes.

So here I am, wondering - somewhat anxiously - what to expect. I mean, we have stray dogs, the occasional neighborhood cat, plenty of frogs, a rooster who crows at the most unlikely hours, a bird who adopted the outside staircase that leads to our rooftop, and regularly comes to hatch her eggs (half her babies get ripped apart by the monkeys, in spite of our efforts to protect them), and plenty of snakes, I hear, although I've so far managed to avoid seeing them. And of course, outside the gate, we have the buffaloes, the camels, the goats, the occasional sacred cow, and a few years back, we even had a black panther roaming the streets.

Well, this time, it's a three-feet monitor lizard !

We saw one on a road in Sri Lanka, so I know what it is. And even though I'm terrified of reptiles (I can't even look at a picture of a snake or a crocodile in a dictionary) that one does look pretty harmless. My daughter, of course, is jumping up and down, excited, and yet a bit grossed out, too. It is really quite bizarre.

Anyway, we look at it for a minute, take pictures, and I say, cool as a cucumber : "OK, it's just walking around. Let it be, and let's get back to work."

We sit down at the table, but a few minutes later, we hear that rattling sound again. Our friend is back. And it does look like it is trying to get in. I mean, look at that, right ?

We see it go around the terrasse a couple of times, and it becomes obvious that the poor thing is trapped. What to do ? The security guard calls the neighbor's mahi who shows up a few minutes later with a huge stick. Not at all what I have in mind. I somehow locate the phone number of the Friends of Snakes Club, call them, and, surprise ! a guy answers who not only speaks English, but tells me they'll be there in 30 mns. Ok, this is India, and I'm not holding my breath, but I've done what I could.

We try to get back to work, but it's hard. After a while of silence, we wonder where the lizard went. It is no longer on the terrasse. Maybe these guys will show up for nothing. We look for the lizard all over the place, and find it on the side of the house, crawling on the wall that goes down to the room where we hang our laundry to dry. Well, maybe it did find its way out. Then, the guys from the Friends of Snakes Society DO show up. On a motorcycle. I wonder how they will take that lizard to release it in the forest, but wait, we'll find out...

Now, the poor lizard, who's not the brightest on the block, honestly, has managed to walk into a drain pipe that's no more than three and half inches in diameter. How, I don't know. But it's stuck. See the guy holding its tail ? He's pulling, pulling, but the lizard is not moving.

They want me to break the opening of the drain pipe. No kidding ! Of course, I refuse. Come on. I'm not going to break the house for a lizard with no sense of orientation, and stupid enough to go stick itself into a hole twice too small to fit it.

So, our guys open a trap, and these HUGE coackroaches start coming out. Now can you see the scene ? I'm standing outside, shouting, so are my two girls, and then I'm running to the kitchen to get the spray to kill these BEASTS, all the time yelling to them to CLOSE THE TRAP RIGHT NOW !

Now, while I'm gone, don't ask me how, these guys actually get the lizard out. I mean, look at its
belly. It's HUGE.

So, now, the rescuers  ask for a pillow cover. No plastic bag. Our friend wouldn't be able to breathe nicely.

I find a large hotel laundry bag, and they're happy.

See? Who needs a big car, if you can carry your wandering lizard (or snake) in a pillow case ?

Well, that's it, Folks ! End of this new episode in the ongoing series : Our Incredible Life in India !

Monday, October 19, 2009


Against my will, needless to say. Thirteen days without Internet. And I still don't know why. I called, and called, and called. Got different stories, according to the person I managed to get a hold of (not many, and not often.) First, it was the weather. Then, it was the construction work going on in the area around our house. Then, it was a power problem. But then I was told that they were updating their system... ? No one ever called or even sent an sms to let me know why, or how, or when, or what the heck. And this morning, I tried, without much hope, and... it works !!! I still don't know why, or how, or what... A lot of people here pay two service providers to avoid this type of problems. I must say this is the longest I've had to go without Internet, in the five years we've been here. Still, I was starting to fume.

To come : a post about the unexpected visit of a three feet monitor lizard at our house. Good to be back !

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dandiyas, decorated cars, and a clay doll toilet.

It rains, and rains, and rains in Hyderabad. And here are a few tidbits from the last few days...
On Saturday, we finally attended a Dandiya dance ! I say finally because I’ve wanted to do this ever since I saw that scene in the movie “Bride and Prejudice,” with beautiful Aishwarya Rai. 

The Dandiya dance is usually held during the Navaratri festival, a 9-night long festival (Navara means 9, ratri means night in Sanskrit) which ends with Dushera, the immersion of statues of the Goddess Durga, and the burning of ten-headed effigies of Ravana (picture) who abducted Sita, Lord Rama’s wife, and took her to Sri Lanka, where Rama finally rescued her and killed Ravana. It is the festival of the Victory of Good over Evil.
Once more, I was reminded how I never feel so alive as when I’m, either dancing, or partaking in some celebration that allows me a glimpse into another culture. So, I was doubly blessed, on Saturday. What a sight it was to see all these Indian ladies, young and not so young, dressed in beautiful saris and glittering gagras, dancing round and round with their dandiyas (decorated bamboo sticks) ! 

Where there is dance, there I am, ready to fumble until I manage to understand and reproduce a number of steps, so I’m happy to report that I had an absolute ball ! It was funny, also, to notice the similarities between some of the rhythms, and those of the Senegalese Sabar dancing I used to do, while living in New York.

And this afternoon, as I stood at a crossing, a few minutes walk from my house, waiting for the bus that brings my children back from their new school, I couldn’t help but smile - fondly - as I saw all the cars, motorcycles and bicycles all decorated with flower garlands. This is also part of the Navarathri festival : a pooja where all manners of tools and implements used in the everyday life are worshiped.

The bus usually brings stories along with my children, as they adjust to their new school : it is also an international school, but Indian-run. They have several campuses across India, and the one they opened in Hyderabad, a year ago, is nothing short of beautiful. Their philosophy is sound, they offer lots of sports and extracurricular activities, and they’re academically much stronger than the previous school (the reason we decided to shift our children, in spite of the heartache of having them leave their friends - thankfully, a bunch of kids shifted, too, so that they both have friends from their previous class with them). 

Sometimes, the stories are funny, and other times, they make me cringe. Today, my older daughter shared her disappointment at seeing the teacher of the clay pottery class destroy what she’d spent an entire period working on : a toilet for her Playmobils. Apparently, and even though the teacher had given them all latitude to do anything they wished, she found that making a toilet was “nonsense.” Knowing the sanitation situation in India, and the stigma attached to anything related to a toilet (let’s not forget that to this day, among the Hindus, cleaning a toilet is something that only those from the lowest castes are expected to do) I suppose I could say that such strong, knee-jerk reaction is understandable. That is the culturally aware approach. Then, there is the mother’s approach, who really balks at the thought that a teacher could destroy a child’s work, something to which she dedicated time and energy - and knowing my daughter, I bet it was a very pretty toilet because she’s quite the artist, and really has an eye for detail. I mean, come on, what’s so wrong about creating a little doll toilet out of clay?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Robin Pascoe's A Broad Abroad's Book Trailer

I'm waiting for Robin Pascoe's last book to travel the maze of the Indian Post Office all the way to my hands. In the meantime, we can watch the trailer. Don't you just LOVE that cover ?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

TCKID, hacker attack, and the need to back up

I can't remember how I came across the TCKID community. A grassroots project started by a young TCK, Brice Royer, and strongly supported by Ruth E. Van Reken, co-author with David Pollock of Third Culture Kids : The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, they count 21 000 members, and 13 local groups from Singapore to NYC. They have (had, actually, but read on) a website, and Brice Royer filmed several You Tube videos where he shares his experience about growing up a Third Culture Kid.

Of course, I immediately subscribed. Then, today, I received an email saying that the website was shut down, following a hacker attack on Wordpress. Read about that, here.

As an aside, it suddenly downed on me that blogs can disappear, and if I didn't back mine up, well, who is to know what could happen? Do YOU back up your blog ? That thought had never even occurred to me, but I'm glad it's done, now. (and easy to do, too. Go to the help section, and follow the instructions. Of course, I downloaded a whole lot of undecipherable lingo, but I suppose that's normal.)

Anyway, any expat reading this can check the TCKID community, and answer their call for help if they want to. I know I'd like my children to be able to count on this kind of support, as they grow up. Follow this link, if you want to find out more.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Khalil Gibran said it so well...

My recent post on raising Third Culture Kids across diverse cultures, here, reminded me of Khalil Gibran's inspiring and oh! so humbling poem : "On Children." Thought I'd post it here, for easy reference.

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let our bending in the archer's hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A beautiful picture to celebrate the blog's new background

Well, considering it's been a while since my last move (five years in the same house, this had not happened to me since I was a child) and I'm feeling seriously fidgety, I've been trying to think of ways to bring a little change into my life. I first moved the furniture around my office. And now, I've also changed my blog's background.

Finally, here comes a picture of Isabella, in California. It's been a while since I posted a pic of a child reading "Amadi's Snowman." Isn't she adorable ? Thank you, Isabella. I'm so happy you enjoyed the book. And thanks, Tina, for sending me the photo.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

I'm not my children, and my children will not be me (thank Goodness for them)

There is an interesting article from Kerrie Wiseman in the Expat Women Newsletter, this month, about the kind of conflicting feelings parents may experience as they watch their children grow up and integrate the ways of a culture different from their own. I can certainly relate to that !

Now, I will not dwell on the numerous and well documented positives of growing up a Third Culture Kid. Nor do I need to stress, again, the fact that I strive on being an expat (not saying it's not an arduous and lonely road to travel a lot of the time, just that I seem to strive on that road - or maybe I've followed it for so long, I can't even remember how to branch onto another one, but that would be the subject for another post). I do believe it would be very hard for me to have to return permanently to my birth country after spending half my life all over the place. I was never such a good French to begin with, anyway. My Spanish half was always a part of me that I nurtured and felt very proud of, even though it set me apart from most everyone else. And yet, I can be sooo very French at times (as I realized again this summer while visiting my newly expatriated brother in Madrid ; even as I basked in the feelings of familiarity, I also experienced some culture shock of my own, to my astonishment). So, not only do I truly love some aspects of the French culture, I confess that I would like to see my children embrace them.

Kerrie Wiseman mentions very accurately that in the excitement of preparing for an expatriation, a person does not, for one minute, imagine all the implications that this new adventure will have. We can all plan. We can think ahead. But we can never imagine how living in a culture different from our own will end up moulding our children. And yet, it is inevitable. The exposure to different ways of living, experiencing and doing things will have an impact on them.

I try to prepare myself for that eventuality. I do tell myself regularly that this comes with the whole package. There are always two sides to a coin, etc.

Of course, that's the rational, logical part of my brain talking. We could also call it wishful thinking. Because the other more emotional and spontaneous part of that same brain will sometimes make me act in ways that have my hair stand on end... retrospectively :

"Don't eat with your hands, only pigs eat like that." I won't even comment on the absurdity of such statement. I mean, since when do pigs eat with their "hands" ??? But yes, I confess that these words have escaped my mouth a couple of times, only to leave me sweating, wondering how I could utter such enormity after years of living in two different countries where eating with the right hand is just the norm, and not considered pig behavior at all, Madame ! My only excuse is that I heard these words as I was growing up, because in Europe, eating with your hand was and still is labelled pig behavior. And the first mother or father who does not sometimes catch themselves uttering sentences that make them feel as if their own parents just spoke through their mouth can just throw the first stone at me.

Or, I'll find myself giving philosophical lectures to my bewildered children :

A few months after we arrived in India, I once heard my not quite 5-year old say in a sing-song voice, as I was changing her baby sister : "Shame, shame, shame !" "What do you mean, shame ?" I asked. She proceeded to explain that at school, whenever a kid showed a naked butt (going to the bathroom, or such, these were Kindergarten children) someone would laugh at them and sing "Shame, shame, shame." Imagine me going out of my way to explain that NO BODY PART IS SHAMEFUL. We were all made the same, with arms and legs, and a head, and a nose, and a mouth, and YES, a butt, too, and that butt is mightily useful, so where is the shame, I ask you ? Right. As if all that ranting wasn't going to fly miles over my 4-year-old's head. And yet, I've also learned that kids living in between cultures do learn to act a certain way here, and another, there. Basic survival, most likely. So, who is to know for sure whether my discourse might have an impact in the long run ? I can only do what feels right at any given time, and hope for the best.

One last example, to follow the writing rule of three :

The French in me, who tends to like understated elegance, also finds it hard, sometimes, to remain silent when she sees the way her two kids just LOVE piling up colors, and glitter, and bangles, and anklets, and bindis, and beads on them until they can barely move (the way an Indian bride, however gorgeous, looks with all the jewelry and heavy saris).

These are obvious (and in the last case rather innocuous) ways in which our children will be influenced by another culture, but there are others, more insidious.

What to think, for instance, of the fact that both my daughters have now lived in places where women are constantly diminished and treated with utmost disdain - when not unbearable violence ? Or, what to think of the fact that Bolly and Tollywood movie posters lining the streets of Hyderabad always show men in macho situations, wielding weapons, guns, knives, sabers, and their women counterparts are either threatened, or looking all teary and suitably helpless ?

Should I voice my disapproval, as in the shame-shame case ? Or should I wait for the subject to come up naturally ? How does one broach such big subjects with children, in a way that will impact them, but without being too forceful ? What is the right age to do it ? There again, I can only rely on my gut instinct, and learn by trial.

I could also mention how they use the word "maid" in a way that I can never get used to (not to mention that I barely ever use that word myself). It's not that they're scornful or rude. But their assumption is clearly that a maid is someone you go to when you need something done that you'd rather not do yourself. Like picking up your toys. And it honestly doesn't matter that Mom has repeatedly asked her house help (or nanny when we had one) to NOT be at the beck and call of the little tyrants. If Mom turns her back, the children know they can get away with basically anything. Not to mention that there are "maids" at school, too, and the way that some local children treat them is not lost on our kids.

And on and on. I remember hearing an expat with roots in two West-African countries tell me that after a few years in New York, they had decided to take their children (who where entering their teenage years) back home. I'm always careful not to throw all African countries in the same pot, but in this case, home WAS Africa to these people, because they felt that the values they trusted and wanted their children to grow up with could only be found back on the continent. Said children have now gone on to have extremely successful international careers, by the way.

A lot of expatriates decide to go home when their children become teenagers. Because it's hard to move them around - they become vocal, and friendships being so important to them, they understandably don't want to be changing places every two or three years. Do their parents also feel that at such an important stage of their lives, their children ought to be in a place that will instill the kind of cultural values that they themselves are attached to (as in the case of our friends, above) ? What to do when the parents do not have the choice ? Or, as in our family, when the parents themselves are culturally mixed ? I have a few years left to ponder that question.

In the meantime, I try to prepare myself for the fact that my children will turn out to be their own selves. This is an evidence that all parents struggle with at one time or another, but the parents of Third Culture Kids have that extra dimension to deal with : our children will grow up to become their own person according to their talents, their personality, AND the way their diverse cultural experiences shaped their ways of thinking, and behaving, too.

So, what do we do when we see our children embrace ways that don't quite resonate with us ?

I, for one, try to make a distinction between knee-jerk reactions caused by simple habit or taste (as in my example about understated vs. over-the-top fashion taste) and core issues that may impact negatively my children's sense of themselves and their own value.

In the last case, my approach will continue to be a mixture of explaining, lecturing, and generally throwing my weight around in every way that will help me make my point - with a lot of fumbling in between.

When dealing with simple cultural differences like eating habits, there is what is done outside, and what we do at home. Indians often use their fingers to eat, and we, at home, eat with a fork and a knife. But I'm also aware of the need for me to broaden my comfort zone so as to include my children's experience as much as I possibly can. What if one of my daughters were to become a fashion designer or an artist whose creations would wear the stamp and influence of her years in India ? Guess where Mom would be sitting, clapping and bursting with pride ? First row, of course, understated chic clothes and all.

I may need to gather a collection of mantras about letting go (it always comes down to that, doesn't it? This should be integrated into every curriculum across the world : a course on the art of letting go) to help with said broadening of my own comfort zone (a never-ending endeavor for serial expats like me.)

I have also pasted a quote by Harry Truman where I can see it often : " I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it." This is a perfect example of a profoundly sound advice - if only it weren't so difficult to follow. So, I harbor the secret hope that by having the words around me, their full meaning will slowly penetrate my entire self until the day I wake up and discover I'm now able to implement its message.

Just don't hold your breath.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Baffled !

Well, this is yet another departure from my usual posts, but I just have to share how baffled I am, these days, whenever I read about the number of people who have reportedly died of shock (?), or by committing suicide, after the helicopter crash that costs its life to Andhra Pradesh's recently reelected Chief Minister, Y.S. Reddy. 122 people, according to some newspapers. But why ? What does this achieve ? M. Reddy's son had to come on TV and beg people not to commit suicide anymore.

Life seems to have so little value, in India. People commit suicide for the most absurd (to me, at least) reasons : children commit suicide because they received a bad grade, or failed an exam, parents commit suicide because their child had a bad grade or failed an exam, a mother will commit suicide because her daughter or son decided to marry someone who doesn't meet the family's approval, etc, etc. Now, some of the reasons here may be explained. Maybe. Upholding the family's honor is paramount, here (as in other societies, after all.) You don't want to face the shame. It's just too hard to have to live with it. Okay, fine.

But to commit suicide or go into cardiac arrest because a political leader died suddenly ? Nope, I don't get it.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Amadi gets his own podcast review

What a nice surprise - and a new experience for me, also... hearing people talk about the book, explain why they like it, only I can't see them. Listen to Andrea Ross and Mark Blevis at Just One More Book as they talk about Amadi's Snowman.

Thank you, Andrea and Mark.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A trip to "the necessary", anyone?

This is a bit of a departure from my usual themes, but I've began working on a new translation, and came across a word I'd never seen used as a noun before. The necessary.

You'll find a whole lot of interesting information about it, here. But I really liked the little study I found here. I never knew that the word "loo" used by my British friends (God forbid anyone should say "toilet") actually came from the French. And the reason why is hilarious. Of course, after visiting a few medieval castles over the summer, and hearing about the habits of the time, I can't say I'm surprised that the servants would throw the content of the bedpans out of the windows with a simple warning : "regardez l'eau." And of course, all the stories about our kings' habits have entertained French children for the longest time (maybe also children in other countries, but I have no experience, there.)

I also found it interesting that the Esperanto language uses a word so similar to the American word I'm trying to translate as accurately as possible. Necesejo.

But I'm paid to translate into French, not into Esperanto, and so I may have to settle for Le Petit Coin - if it was good enough for Molière, it's good enough for me, too - even though I'm not entirely satisfied. "Petit coin" (little corner) has something cute about it that doesn't match the more down to earth, austere feeling of the word "necessary."

So, was that an interesting entry, or what?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

"First Draft Blues!"

Being back home with the kids back at school doesn't only mean that I have more time for myself, but also that I get to sit in my office, instead of the dining table in the middle of the living room, and also that I can catch up on blog reading - a bit. Just stumbled upon this post, today, and found it so relevant to what I'm going through, now, and so often, that I just have to share. Go visit Heather Vogel Frederick's blog, Set sail for adventure. There are some gems, there.

I particularly like Jo Knowles' contribution. He must be one of those writers who don't outline: "Writing a first draft is like trying to assemble a giant jigsaw puzzle without getting to look at the picture first."

Another favorite, from Rukhsana Khan: "Writing a first draft is like stepping off a cliff and hoping the story will catch you."

Sunday, August 23, 2009

So much to share...

Yes, almost two months, and not one single post : disgraceful ! But hey, mothers all over the world know as well as I do that summer break doesn't necessarily mean that you have more free time. The children are on holidays, too, you see.

Anyway, I'm back in India, kids have began a new school year, in a new school, and I have cleared my desk and files, and moved some furniture around, too. I'm ready for a new year myself.

The holidays were great. Apart from one week in Madrid visiting my newly expatriate brother, I was in France for almost two months.

We frolicked with friends and family, ate tons of fabulous cheese and bread (and so much more), put some weight on (the adults), and of course explored lots of beautiful villages. We have the pictures to prove it...

But we can't eat and play only, right? And since I'm a real dragon when it comes to school and education (an obsessed dragon, my daughter would tell you), vacation or not, I had planned a number of visits related to the school curriculum.

We had a taste of Ancient Rome in Vaison la Romaine, town known for its Roman vestiges : the museum there had wonderful animations with actors dressed as Romans who showed us the way they used to build a fire, bake bread (we even tasted some, and it was good), or live.

In the lovely town of Lourmarin, we heard a story teller from the Côte d'Ivoire, and what a treat that was! He was so much fun, so quick in the way he improvised and used current issues or anecdotes to involve his audience. We loved it, and it reminded me of the beauty of the African oral tradition.

After that, we heard a little concert on the place du village, and the children were only too happy to try the balafon or the djembe.

On the 14th of July, the French National day, the band invited to entertain the crowds after the traditional fireworks was... Latin American ! Last year, same place, same celebration, I mentioned (here) how I came across a Colombian band playing at a nearby café, and how they seemed to draw the crowds much better than the Rock band playing at the place of honor. Well, the town's authorities heard the message, I guess. This year's musicians came from pretty much all over the Caribbean and South America - including a Senegalese man from the public who jumped on stage, sang in Spanish, and played percussion like a pro. As for Salsa dancing, it seems to have taken France over by a storm, because the people dancing in the audience were just awesome.

Finally, the region of Provence hosting so many festivals in the summer, (not to mention how totally starved I am for that type of performance art) we had to see an opera, and I was delighted by the production of Il Barbiere di Sevilla, in Lacoste. The production mingled Rossini's opera in Italian with the original play of Beaumarchais in French, and three hip hop dancers. And it worked!

Later, while in Auvergne, we visited the Château de Murol, and traveled back to the Middle Ages (also part of the curriculum - she's right, I guess, I am an obsessed dragon) where we learned, among other things, how people washed (rarely) their body and their hair (shampoo was a concoction made with ash, eggs and vinegar) and rinsed their mouth with wine, because: who on earth drinks water? We also learned that long after the Arabs realized that the earth was round, our Middle Age people continued to think that it was flat.

So, all in all, an instructive, entertaining summer. And now, it's back to work.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Good Bye, Michael Jackson

The man and his life may have been the stuff of a lot of controversy... his incredible talent remains, and that's what I want to remember him for.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Greetings from France

Hard to believe that more than two weeks have rushed by since my last post. I've left India and the monsoon, and landed in the south of France where the weather is gorgeous. Today was my birthday, and that alone would not deserve a post, but I just had to share the picture I received from one of my writers friends in New England. "Frangipanis for India and Lily of the Valley (muguet in French) for France," she said. A fusion bouquet on the yummiest looking cake. Isn't it beautiful?

Thanks, Nandini, and thank you to all my friends who sent lovely thoughts and wishes through Facebook. I just LOVE the Internet.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Monsoon is here !

And what a relief. The air has changed color. It smells different, too. Moist and green, as opposed to dry, dusty, and grey brownish. And we can breathe again. It's still early, so the sun is out quite a bit, but the temperature has dropped significantly and I can use the fan in my office, and forget about A/C. Yeah !

Friday, May 29, 2009

Tai Chi

Years ago, during my 6-months-long backpacking trip throughout South East Asia, I arrived one morning at the train station in Hanoi, after an overnight journey from the northern hilly region of Pho-Lu, and Sapa. It was to be my last day in Vietnam, after almost two glorious months, and I was flying back to Bangkok, on the tail end of a trip that would still take me to the Philippines, Hong Kong, and then back home to France just on time to celebrate my 30th birthday AND my sister's wedding.

I remember vividly walking the streets of Hanoi in the first light of the day, taking in the sights and smells of the city, and feeling so sad that I had to leave. I LOVED Vietnam. Anyway, I had a few hours to kill before I could retrieve my backpack from the guest house where I'd left it in order to travel lighter for a few days, and I went to sit by the Hoan Kiem lake in the center of Hanoi, and wrote in my journal. 

All around me, Vietnamese people walked or ran, did Tai Chi or played badminton, and some came up to me to exchange a few words in French (I don't mean to diminish any of the evils of our colonialist past, there or elsewhere in the world, but neither can I lie and pretend that I was not immensely touched by the kindness and enthusiasm of people, especially old ones, whenever they found out that I came from France. The country was just opening itself to tourism, since the war, and Americans were still to lift their embargo, so it was all very new and exciting for them, I think - and even more for those traveling there at the time, as we were always welcomed with great warmth and joy, wherever we went.) 

I just found my travel journal in the pile of old diaries that I carry around, looked for the entry of that morning, and found this anecdote that I had totally forgotten. 

I was sitting by the lake, on a bench, pealing an orange, when this man with hair sticking all over his head walked by, pushing his bicycle. "You are going to eat an orange," he cried out to me, in French. "Oui," said I. "Bonne journée, chère camarade," he added, then corrected himself. "Bonne journée, chère amie. ("Have a good day, dear camarade... Have a good day, dear friend.") How could I forget? 

Anyway, I do remember looking at all the men and women in that misty morning, alone or in groups, facing the lake with its lovely Tortoise Tower, and thinking I'd love to try Tai Chi, some day. It's taken 16 years, almost to the day (this was May 1993, and I took my first Tai Chi class on May 25 !) for me to act on that wish. It's early to say, but I'm really enjoying it, so far.

I've always had some difficulty with yoga. I've tried, and tried, and felt pretty silly to be living here, in the land of yoga, and to not use that opportunity. I have taken classes. Quite a number of them, with different teachers. But more than anything else, it always felt like a chore. Once I was doing it, it was OK. And I could definitely feel the benefits. But it was never something I looked forward to.

Tai Chi, on the other hand, has a flowing, dancing quality that appeals to me. So, I'm giving it a try. And I know : who else would come to India, and end up saying : "this is where I started Tai Chi." Oh well, the people in my class seem very passionate about it, and they are all Indian, so why not?

And as writing this post has made me jump back in time, I'm going to post a few pictures I took in Hanoi. Just because. 

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Life's Journey or Serendipitous Timing

Beware : introspective new-agey post :)

In November, I decided to register for a 5 months certificate course with the following promising title of "The Integrated Counselor. Self-Discovery, Life-Skills, People Empowerment and Social Impact."

Quite a mouthful, I know, but then, it turned out to deliver pretty much all that it promised.

Sujata Potay, the course director and creator, (for those living in Hyderabad and reading this, the course happens about twice a year and you can find information at this link), and her facilitator, Sudha V. Krishnan, have put together a brilliant combination to help us, wandering souls, try to make more sense of ourselves as we journey through life. It includes meditation, yoga, role plays, biographical learning, group activities, homework tailored to our issues as they manifest themselves in class, a lot of brainstorming and work around empathy (and believe me, the word may be overused, but the concept is not something easily understood and internalized), concept topics like "Character and Identity," or "Self Motivation", seminars, etc.

It was a truly fantastic experience. I met great people, and feel I learned so much about myself. But of course, the journey continues, and as serendipity would have it, I decided to take another online course (this one for my writing) about the Enneagram (I had started the course a couple of years ago, and even mentioned it here, but I was doing too much at once at the time, and was forced to withdraw. I've wanted to complete it ever since, but my schedule never allowed it until a month ago.)

And here I reach the reason for this post. Had I completed the writing course using the Enneagram a couple of years ago, I would most likely have missed out on the depth and beauty of this system and how incredibly powerful and useful it can be, when applied to our own selves. 

Being rather slow to understand the really important things in life (as in, I hear it, I even memorize it, but I don't really GET it ; or, I understand it in my mind, but why is it that I don't seem to be able to implement it in my every day life?) I guess it was written somewhere that I should fall into studying the Enneagram (and sticking to it, this time) just now, right after this course, rather than two years ago, because all we learned and talked about during the 5 months course gets repeated, re-explained, and/or illustrated in a very personal way, especially in the book, The Wisdom of the Enneagram, by Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson. 

So, now that I've gone all new-agey on you, I can also share that I'm a definitely a type 4, and that's the Individualist, also called the Artist (can you see me smiling?) with a wing 5, which is the Investigator or Thinker or Observer. 

Look at this pretty image. Isn't it perfect?

Enneagramfree enneagram test

Anyway, if you are into inner work, and therefore curious to understand more about yourself, I strongly recommend the Enneagram. It is really helping me cement all I've learned with the above-mentioned course, so that I can try and apply it to my every day life and maybe, maybe... in the long run... become a better person, for myself, and for those around me (but then, it all goes together, doesn't it?)

And since I'm discussing my spiritual and introspective life, I can also share that I started taking Tai Chi classes - but this will be the subject of my next post.

Monday, May 18, 2009

My Global Bookshelf : "Tone Deaf in Bangkok" by Janet Brown

Tone Deaf in Bangkok (And Other Places), published by ThingsAsian Press, is Janet Brown’s travel memoir of how and why she, a middle aged American woman who’d lived in Alaska and Seattle, fell in love with the city of Bangkok, spent several years there, and after returning to Seattle for a while, finally decided to go back for good.

The book itself is beautiful, with photographs from Nana Chen that give a real feel for the day to day life in the city. This is not your usual glossy touristy book about Bangkok. By the time I had followed the author through her journey, and spent time contemplating Nana Chen’s pictures, I felt I knew the place (and the author) a little better.

I spent some time in Bangkok, in 1993, as one of those backpackers that Janet mentions none too affectionately in her pages. It was the perfect base to explore neighboring countries, collect mail at the central Post Office, and get a taste for “civilization” as we Westerners like to call it (that entails air conditioned malls, movie theaters, shopping, and a facial thrown in to try and get some of the dust accumulated during endless bus, motorcycle or train journeys out of my skin). I walked those narrow lanes, visited the city’s many splendors, bargained at the markets, and careened through the streets aboard three-wheeled death defying tuk-tuks. I could have entertained the erroneous notion that I knew Bangkok, except that I always instinctively sensed that you don’t know a place unless you live there - and even then, you have to make the effort to really get to know it.  Janet Brown definitely made that effort.

With beautiful, fluid prose, unwavering honesty, and an elegant sense of humor, the author shares intimate snapshots of her life as a farang, or a guava, from her attempts to speak the tonal language, to her discovery that in order to be truly accepted and welcomed in a foreign country, you must first observe the ways of its people with humility and grace. 

I was moved to tears by her discreet and intensely felt account of her love affair with a young Thai who could have been her son. I laughed, while trying to imagine her seating side-saddled on a motorcycle, wearing a skirt and high-heeled sandals to go and visit Khmer ruins on the Cambodian border.

But my favorite moments in the book are those where Janet Brown tries to make sense of her identity - whether defining how she will experience entertainment in a way that suits her tastes and needs, as opposed to just going along with any group, or struggling to understand what it is exactly that makes her feel so vibrant and alive in Bangkok. Reading her, I felt I had found a soul mate - only much braver, and stronger.

During our years in Nigeria, there was an opening for a position in Geneva, Switzerland. My husband mentioned it to me, and my reaction stunned him, and everyone who knew me, and knew of the hardship we’d been experiencing. “No, thank you very much, but I’d rather stay in Nigeria.” Even as I sometimes cried on the plane that took me back from Lagos to Enugu after a vacation abroad, I stubbornly sustained that if I had to choose again between living in Switzerland or living in Nigeria, I would still choose Nigeria. I think Janet would understand me well. Here is what she writes, at the beginning of the book: “I live, at this point in my life, in the ideal American city. Seattle is small enough to be friendly, large enough to be urban, and is surrounded by enough natural beauty to launch a million calendars... Tourists come to the bookstore where I work, raving about this place, and it takes everything I have to keep from saying, “Thanks. Glad you like it. It bores me silly.”

There is not one boring moment, in "Tone Deaf in Bangkok," whether you're eating durians with Janet, celebrating Songkran (the traditional Thai New Year) on Khao San Road, pondering the advantages and benefits of separate toilets fitted in the floor, or weighing the pros and cons of the Bangkok Skytrain (ah, the eternal conflict between efficiency and dullness)... 

Read “Tone Deaf in Bangkok (And Other Place).” It will take you on an intimate journey with a funny, generous, independent woman while showing you the heart and many hidden corners of a city (and a few other neighboring places) just as fascinating as your tour guide.