A question of culture: Assimilate or die?

This week I attended a evening of talks at China Exchange, a charity based in London’s Chinatown whose mission it is to create ways of exploring Chinese culture and China’s influence on the world. I fell across them late last year in attending a provocative discussion between Sir David Tang and Mr & Mrs Smith CEO James Lohan and have been keen to attend something else ever since.

This one-night-only event featured five speakers who had eight minutes each on their allotted subject followed by questions from the audience. They covered a range of topics from Chinese medicine (and what is it really?), Hinkley Point C and the role of Chinese investment, feminism in China and the opportunity that Chinese tourists represent for the British economy.

I know very little about China and Chinese culture. During an emerging market project about 18 months ago, I was surprised by the level of Chinese investment in large infrastructure projects in Africa and I’ve only had limited exposure to ‘Chinese’ medicine. Needless to say I found it an educational and thought-provoking evening.

But the eight minutes that really left me thinking were delivered by Dr Victor Fan, a Senior Lecturer at King’s College. His topic was ‘white washing’ in the entertainment industry i.e. non-Asian people playing Asian roles. It was every bit as interesting as the others but it was when he spoke about his experience of getting a visa to live and work in Quebec, Canada – one that specified that he would speak French and adopt local practices – that something struck a chord.

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47: Some ups and downs

Since my last post, I’ve had a birthday – number 47 to be exact. As is my usual birthday habit, I decided to take a long weekend and explore somewhere new – the last few years I’ve been to Stockholm, Ghent, and Barcelona. This year, another adventure beckoned.

I have known Swiss-S for about 15 years – we worked together in Melbourne and have ridden the rollercoaster of expat life in London at overlapping points in time. A couple of years ago, I watched him exchange I-do’s with Prosecco-G in a small Belgian village and now they live in Geneva with rescue dog, R. At his 40th birthday drinks do earlier this year (Swiss-S that is, not R), we agreed to ‘make a plan’ so at a dark and excruciatingly early hour last Saturday, I boarded a plane for Geneva. Here’s how things went down.

After a quick trip from the airport on the Swiss-ly efficient and air-conditioned train (it’s about the only air-conditioned thing in Geneva), we had a hello ‘coffee and chat’ before Swiss-S and I wandered down to the lake.

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An aaaw-dorable local family takes a dip

Next we headed to the Old Town where we climbed the 150-odd steps to enjoy the views from the South Tower of St Peter’s Cathedral…

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View from the South Tower, St Peter’s Cathedral, Geneva

…and then climbed down and back up the North Tower to make sure we hadn’t missed anything.

We also visited the archaeological exhibition beneath the cathedral – I know it’s not for everyone but I’m fascinated by old stones and stuff.

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Old monk’s cell beneath St Peter’s Cathedral, Geneva – must have been a small monk.

After such exertion, it was time for a pick-me-up so we headed to a rooftop bar to check out the view again before heading further around the lake to pay homage to the Jet d’Eau with a dash along the old stone pier beneath its spray.

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Evening number one started out with a drinks cruise on the lake, a very pleasant way to enjoy the warm weather, clean air and magnificent views. Each ticket included two drinks and at first, we got a bit excited when we saw that cocktails were included.

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They may look harmless (as well as cheap) but after one, we realised that these were pure alcohol (there was no mixer included in that one glass!). Sensible Swiss-S purchased a bottle of something soft with our second round so we didn’t end up pie-eyed on pouches. It probably goes without saying that we were really ready for dinner by the time we disembarked.

Day two took an international turn with a trip into France to Chamonix. Our first order of business was a trip up, up, up the mountain (two cable cars and an elevator) to Aiguille du Midi to admire the panoramic views of Mont Blanc.

This is a picture of the information board showing the view from the lookout…

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…and this is what we saw.

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‘Limited’ visibility – don’t worry, we were warned when we bought our tickets.

Nevertheless, we rejoiced in the snow…

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It was actually snowing as we stood there – but it had to be done.

…stepped out into the void…

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You can just make out the cliff face beneath our feet. It must be super freaky when you can see everything below.

…and had a rather pleasant lunch at the highest restaurant in Europe.

In the afternoon we took the train up another mountain to see the glacier and visit the ice cave

Did I mention that there are 430 steps down to the ice caves? Oh yes, and that means 430 steps back up. After yesterday’s cathedral climb and a morning at altitude, we were completely done in when we finished here – a crepe and coffee pick-me-up was essential before the 90 minute drive home. Lucky for us we also found one of Prosecco-G’s mixed CDs to keep us entertained on the road.

Evening number two proved rather festive with a boozy barbecue at the apartment. And at midnight, my big day arrived with a ‘happy birthday’ and a few surprises from my fabulous hosts.

After all the food, fresh air and alcohol, it will probably come as no surprise to you that I slept very well that night.

August 1st is Switzerland’s National Day (nice of them to do this for my birthday, wouldn’t you say?) and with a festive feeling still in the air, we all piled into Prosecco-G’s Beetle and headed to a local winery for brunch. I had raclette (among other things) – it was delicious!

The afternoon was spent driving around the area, admiring the scenery and making the most of the warm sunny weather.

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Once back in town again, it was an ice-cream by the lake with Swiss-S and R to cap off a chokkas weekend. Then there was just enough time to pack, freshen up and head to the airport.

So that was my sensational Swiss celebration – full of fresh air, glorious scenery and plenty of laughs and good times with my fabulous friends. Not a bad way to birthday, I’d say.

Wonder what I’ll get up to next year?

Memories of Nanjing

Memories are funny things aren’t they?

We gather so many millions and millions of them throughout our lives and somehow they all get stored away in our mind’s filing cabinet. Some things we want to remember – a couple of mine include standing awestruck in the empty chamber in one of Giza’s great pyramids or for something more mundane, just remembering the name of the person I met half an hour ago. Others we’d rather forget. Most retreat and end up buried beneath the constant and never-ending deluge of our life. Yet sometimes, like yesterday, they pop up when least expected.

Blogger (and published author) extraordinaire Linda Janssen writes Adventures in Expatland and I was over there yesterday checking out the latest piece in her Expats A to Z series, C is for Committed. The post was pretty much what I’ve come to expect from Linda’s writing: thoughtful, insightful and generous. But what I didn’t expect was the evocation of a memory so powerful, it took me right back to a summer’s evening in a Nanjing street almost nine years ago.

I had been in my own version of expatland for about 18 months. It had been a hard induction – initial expectations of money, home and job had fallen well short and my family and friends watched from afar – concerned, helpless and confused – as I struggled with both the practical and emotional minefield of building a new life. And whilst I knew deep down that here was where I was meant to be, there was another little voice in my head whispering, ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing this to yourself? You had a good life, it would be easier/far more sensible to give up and go back to Australia.’

At this point in time, I’d found myself in a job that promised so much and fairly quickly became a huge disappointment but I did get a couple of amazing opportunities to travel in the ten months I was there and one of these trips was to Asia.

I’d spent a week with our local rep visiting suppliers in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong. We’d managed a casual evening in Macau, another more digestively challenging evening as guests of a supplier in Shanghai, had visited villages and great cities and had been flown and driven around for six days. On the final day, we crossed the Yangtze River for our final supplier meeting and then spent the afternoon heading towards Nanjing in order to get on our respective flights home the following morning.

With the pressure of the week finally over, my colleague suggested a stroll through the city and a ‘local’ dinner so fortified by a drink at the hotel bar we set off. Nanjing was full of colour and life and my local took great care of me, showing me the sights and encouraging me to share several local dishes at a tightly packed restaurant filled with the curious clacketty-clack of Chinese chatter.

As we wandered back towards the hotel, I felt a whole world away from my troubles back in the UK.

We passed a few art and craft stalls and finally stopped where a small crowd had gathered. Drawing closer, I could see a young woman surrounded by rolls of bamboo parchment, an array of small ink pots before her: she was finger-painting these extraordinary Chinese scrolls and selling them for about £10. I stood and watched her for a while, fascinated by her complete immersion in her task, wanting to imprint the moment of simplicity, purity and happy endeavour firmly in my mind.

Eventually, I asked for one to be painted for me and as I looked on, a delicate picture of ebony branches with tiny bright red flowers came to life beneath her deft fingers. It was beautiful and I was so delighted at the prospect of taking this little piece of Nanjing home with me. But even more poignant was her explanation as she presented me with my finished scroll – the tree she had chosen to paint for me was one that slept and struggled through the cold dark months of winter and then would blossom in a vivid testament to its commitment to both survive and thrive in spite of the elements.

It hung on my wall in my tiny Kingston flat for six years before getting irreparably damaged during my move to Finchley. But Linda’s post yesterday brought it back to me, as vivid and delicate as the night it was created. And when I shared this story in response to her post, she asked me to share it with you.

I’ve built a life I absolutely love here in London and it feels like the seed that was planted ten years ago has finally blossomed. But I will never forget that moment in the dim light of a Nanjing street when, in fractured English, I was inspired by the recognition and acknowledgement of all my heart was feeling by a complete stranger.


Turning Points…Blogging and Beyond

One of the best things about blogging is that you get to open up your world to all sorts of amazing, generous, interesting and talented people that you just might not bump into when immersed in the minutae of day to day life. Linda Janssen is one such person for me – amazing that is, not minutae!

An American living in The Hague in Holland, Linda is the lady behind the fabulous blog Adventures in Expatland where she charts her particular journey as someone who wants to make a difference: as an expat, a wife, a mother and as an aspiring writer. 

But wait…aspiring no more. She IS a writer. And as you know, I love to support those who are brave enough to reach for what their deepest heart desires so I am both completely thrilled and deeply honoured to play host to her virtual book tour here at Gidday from the UK.

So here’s to you Linda – chin chin! And for all you aspiring…well anything you want to be’s …out there, read on to see how inspiring reaching for your dreams can be.
Blogging and Beyond
by Linda A. Janssen
On the latest stop of my ‘virtual book tour’ I’m here in London at Gidday From the UK. I’m visiting  a number of my favorite blogs to share a little about the writing journey that has led to the publication of a book to which I’ve contributed. 
Specifically, I’m in Fabulous Finchley in Northern London today. A big thank you to Kym for hosting me in her new abode so soon after moving, but she’s a brave gal and not one to let a recent move keep her from having company.
Last week was the launch of Turning Points: 25 Inspiring Stories From Women Entrepreneurs Who Have Turned Their Careers and Their Lives Around, and it’s been a roller coaster ever since. The book is edited by Kate Cobb, a women’s business and executive coach (www.movingforwardyourway.com) and Brit now living in France. Our publisher is the formidable Jo Parfitt (www.joparfitt.com) who runs Summertime Publishing, a niche publishing house that specializes in fiction and non-fiction books by and about expats and international living.
I’m new to the publishing arena, and while I did a fair amount of research beforehand into what I could, should and would do to help get the word out about the book, I wasn’t entirely sure how it would all go. The answer in a word is fabulous. But I would credit the book’s concept for that more than anything else.
Turning Points is an inspirational collection of uplifting personal essays in which women from all over the world, living different lives and working in various fields, reach a pivotal moment or series of events that triggers within them the acknowledgement that they simply cannot continue on in the same manner. Change in their professional and personal lives is demanded and inevitable.
Each woman shares her own situation, how her particular turning point came about, and  the manner in which she responded. Even better, each contributor offers the resources (books, websites and the like) that helped her implement change, and lessons learned along the way.
I’ve been reading Kym’s posts for quite some time now, and it’s difficult to point to just one aspect that pulled me in. She’s witty and amusing with an eye for the absurd yet isn’t afraid to display her romantic side. She’s a voracious reader who kindly shares her mini-reviews; I enjoy the range of titles and authors, constantly adding to my own ‘must read’ list. I’m drawn to her story (arriving in the UK for love and courageously choosing to stay when it didn’t go as planned) but am liking her ending even more.
When I started my blog, I was in the early stages of ‘coming out’ as a writer. I’d hidden my dreams and aspirations for too long, and knew that in order to move forward I’d have to put my writing and myself out there for all to see. Like Kym, I started writing articles, book reviews and interviews and slowly began to build up my published portfolio.
We can’t do it all. In truth, who can? So we choose to do the things that bring us closer to our goals. I’m writing a non-fiction book about the importance of emotional resilience in living in countries and cultures other than your own. Contributing a chapter to Turning Points was a fork in the path, an opportunity that presented itself, another decision point.
I helped start a writers’ group along with some other wonderful writing women here in The Hague, and over time I’ve come to trust their instincts and feedback. Now I share my deepest secret with them in the form of sections of a novel I’ve begun to write. The pace is slow, almost glacial at times, but just the fact that my words are seeing the light of day is enough for now.
Blogging is the public portal through which many a writer now steps. As Kym states herself in her Gidday bio, sharing bits and pieces of everyday life has ‘reignited her passion for writing and she now wonders where it all might lead.’ With a writer as talented as Kym, it will be fun to watch.
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If you’d like to find out more about our book, please take a look at the website www.theturningpointsbook.com, or follow along on Facebook’s The Turning Points Book page or on Twitter @Turning_Points. A portion of all sales will benefit www.seedsfordevelopment.org.

Expat: Born or bred?

On one of my especially long commutes home this week (3hrs!) I stumbled across a blog, Adventures in Expat Land by ‘accompanying wife’ Linda from The Netherlands.  As I sat on the top deck of the number 14 bus (having been ejected from King’s Cross Station after a ‘reported emergency’ with the rest of London’s peak-hour commuters and then walking 20mins to get on said bus), her post Seven Reasons Not To Become An Expat struck a chord…

It can be fun. And exciting, educational, eye-opening, energizing, amazing. It can also be uprooting, disruptive, alienating, challenging, lonely and just plain hard work.

I knew no-one here and had no job (just some leftover redundancy package money) but buoyed by fierce determination and an unrelenting belief that it was where I was meant to be, I packed up my comfortable Melbourne life and started again. Just like I did many times over as we moved up and down the east coast of Australia and around Melbourne, changing schools, jobs, friends, creating new habits and leaving the comfortable predictability of old ones.

But then so did my sister…who stays happily ensconced in Australia with not so much as a twinkle of expat life in her eye.

Which then leads me to wonder whether an expat is ‘born’ a nomad rather than being a product of their upbringing.  You know, nature vs nurture and all that.  Bit like a personality flaw trait.

So are expats actually born or bred?  And what’s the difference between those that up sticks and settle somewhere else vs the constantly relocating expatriate lifer?

Does anyone know?
ps…and if you even have a inkling that you might like to try on ‘expat life’, you should read Linda’s post for yourself by clicking here…or not…