Eloise: Finding my Feet

Eloise is from England, and is studying her final year of a bachelor’s degree in French and History. She has just completed a year’s internship with a church in France.

As I sit down to write this, it’s actually a year since I got on a plane and went to live in the South of France for ten months. Probably the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life.

I’d known it was coming and had been mentally preparing for a while – I’m a languages student and so knew from the start of my degree that I’d have to spend third year abroad – but felt completely unprepared when the plane took off and it hit me that I didn’t have a return flight booked in a fortnight (or at all, actually, as I didn’t know what dates I’d be coming home for Christmas).

Obviously, I was there to improve my French, a language I’d supposedly been learning since the age of eleven. And yet, for my first month or so, I felt like a complete fraud; here I was, claiming to be a university student studying French and yet it felt like I could barely string a sentence together. It didn’t help that the region I was in, Languedoc-Roussillon, had a regional accent, and so even the basics of communicating in French were made even harder!

Culture Shock

I was interning in a church, which threw me straight into the deep end of having to interact with French people from many different walks of life on a daily basis, as well as living with a host family from the church. For the first few months, this meant that it felt like my brain was constantly switched on, and I had to work twice as hard as everyone else all the time. Even social situations that were laid-back and relaxing for everyone else were exhausting and stressful for me. One of my overwhelming memories from my first few weeks abroad is how tired I was, all the time!

Having grown up going to France for summer holidays, I thought I’d be able to cope with the culture shock – how different could it be really? Turns out, culture shock was a massive issue for me, and I never really got over it, though I did get used to it. I learned to laugh things off as a ‘cultural thing’. I felt like I didn’t fit in – from the sense of humour, to the food, to the fact that I’m stereo-typically English and drink a lot of tea, and the French don’t.

It took me ages to feel like I’d made friends, in part because I was so shy and scared no-one would like me. Now I’m back in England I regret not being more outgoing to begin with; when I did make friends, we did some really fun things together and I wish we’d had time to do more and develop our friendship further. At the end of the year, whilst part of me couldn’t wait to go back to England and embrace home comforts and not having to speak French for a while, there was a part of me that wished I was staying longer, as I felt like I’d finally found my feet and could actually ‘do’ this whole living abroad thing.

Living the Language

I think a misconception of a year abroad is that you’ll learn the language with no effort; you’re living there, how could you not? Whilst this was true to some extent, I actually found that I really had to make myself go out and find opportunities to practice my language skills, from trying to make friends instead of staying in and watching Netflix, to going to museums and taking the French leaflets instead of the English ones.

My language acquisition seemed to come in stages; I didn’t notice any difference for ages, and then when I went back to France after spending Christmas in England, I suddenly noticed a huge improvement. I also felt like I started to rapidly improve again in the last few months of my stay, and if you’d shown me at the beginning of my year abroad how confident and comfortable I’d be using French day-to-day, I wouldn’t have believed you.

A year abroad,  in my experience, is definitely not the idealised study break everyone assumes, in which language students spend their year posing for Instagram and getting a tan, all in the name of ‘immersing ourselves in the  culture’ (although I did do both of those things). It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and there were so many moments when I wanted to run away to the airport and get on the first flight home. But it was also one of the most worthwhile and rewarding things I’ve ever done. Living in a new culture and pushing myself out of my comfort zone meant I learned so much about myself and grew in confidence.

Don’t be afraid to be different

To anyone about to head off to live abroad, or thinking about it, can I give you a piece of advice? Embrace the new culture, but also don’t be afraid of being a little different- one of my fondest memories is hosting an English meal for a group from church and introducing them to English food, from fish and chips, to Lancashire hotpot, to a Devon cream tea, merging where I grew up with where I go to uni. Introducing them to a part of my culture strangely helped me feel more at home in theirs. Although I never managed to convert any of them to tea drinkers!

I started my year abroad crying on the airplane, convinced I would completely fail and never be able to speak French. Ten months, a lot of tears, some incredible highs (eating ice cream on a beach, surrounded by mountains, staring at the bluest sea I’ve ever seen and realising I  actually got degree credit just for being there, wine tasting in Paris living the year abroad dream for 48 glorious hours, the moments when I realised I’d been speaking fluent French without trying…) and some awful lows later, and I ended my year abroad crying on the airplane, because I’d somehow found my place in this strange little corner of France, just as I was leaving it all behind.

If you would like to hear more about Eloise’s adventures in France, you can read her blog ‘Eloise in Roussillon’ here.

Claire: Living with Borders

Claire was born in the Philippines and raised in Chicago, Illinois. A diplomat’s daughter, she’s lived in Seattle, Washington; Melbourne, Australia; and in Singapore. She is developing an independent documentary series called Dreamland: The Filipino American Story.

My biggest guilty pleasure is browsing Zillow or AirBnb. I imagine myself living in a vintage apartment back in my childhood neighborhood, walking around like a local. Or building a tiny house on wheels so I can constantly be on my way somewhere else. But even if I wanted to, I could never just take off on a whim. Visas are required for every country I’ve called home, except for Singapore.

As a TCK raised to believe the world can be roamed freely, my choices today are shaped by borders. The struggle has moved away from questions of identity into uncharted territory for the TCK: staying put. Since returning to Manila five years ago, I wake up everyday wanting to just fly. Where can I go, what can I do to find joy right here? It’s the challenge faced by any creative person: make it new.

And so I address God and ask, “What new thing will You show me today?”

While navigating the twisty, narrow streets of the most densely populated city in the world, I try to look past the chaos that is Manila.

The sari-sari store keepers fanning themselves in the thick heat and the fearless entrepreneurs opening cafes and co-working spaces all share a kind of grace in their striving. I see the work they put into building community, and the spirit of the city begins to grow on me. The idea of rootedness turns into a peaceful stability.

Then there are days I’m frantic for change (hence the virtual apartment hunting). Or I drive three hours south of the city, out to the small volcano poking out from the middle of a lake, if only to cope with the sameness of my surroundings.

As a young mom, I made the choice to raise my Philippine-born daughters as third culture kids. This was not an easy decision to make, even though being a cultural misfit was the only way I knew how to be. At 10 and 11, my girls were thriving at school, had best friends and pets they adored, and a roomy house they ruled noisily, all while making their own childhood memories in one place. I thought about the turbulence and trauma I experienced at 13, moving from the US to the Philippines; the bumpy transition to Melbourne at age 17.

But when I asked my father for advice, he said: “We moved all the time. You kids turned out OK.” And so my husband chased a career in Singapore, where my kids grew up, graduating high school at an American school. My daughters are adults now, and I celebrate the empathy, open-mindedness, and adaptability they share with other TCKs. But I worry about their restlessness (which mirrors mine), and their own journeys to belonging.

I can’t help but see my passport country in the context of the places I’ve lived. Not only have I seen more, but I’ve been steeped for years in a multitude of experiences, and maintain rich friendships across countries. I’m painfully aware of the privilege that’s allowed me to live so many kinds of lives. There are places that feel more like home to me than others, but I could never choose just one cultural identity.

Instead I claim and nurture a global identity, with all its moving, malleable parts. Then the question becomes not “who am I”, but finding where I stand in a much bigger story.

Follow Claire on Twitter @cam_writes, and keep up with her ‘Dreamland’ documentary about Filipino American history on Twitter @dreamlanddoc and Instagram @StoriesfromDreamland

Learning ‘Home’: 6 Ways to Settle into Life Abroad

There is wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble, it kills prejudice, and it fosters humour.

George Santayana, The Philosophy of Travel

We’ve talked about this before: culture shock is hard. Making friends is hard. Moving abroad is so, so hard.

It’s not all bad – I have lived in different countries before and absolutely plan to move again, so don’t be discouraged! Think of all the friends, cultural understanding, language skills, food and general joy that will be added to your life from this experience.

But let’s not be too flippant about this – we need to have realistic expectations. Be kind to yourself, because humans do struggle with uprooting and replanting in totally unknown territory. It’s confusing and overwhelming and a little scary.

So these are my tips for making that process a little easier for yourself.

  • Build a routine. Depending on your reasons for moving, this might be harder for some people than others! But how about setting aside every Saturday morning for a cooked breakfast, or Sunday afternoon for an outdoors walk? Could you honour a simple routine – like watching a movie once a week, or meeting a friend for coffee – that would give your crazy schedule some structure, or at least a little treat to look forward to? You can’t be stressed every waking moment of your day, or you will be miserable. Commit to a routine that includes rest and recuperation.
  • Eat familiar food. Not all the time – your host country probably has amazing dishes on offer that you definitely don’t want to miss out on! But don’t feel bad about eating something you’re comfortable with every once in a while. Make yourself feel at home, and find that balance between cultural immersion and your comfort zone. When I lived in China, I loved the food! Chinese people are so proud of their cuisine, and rightly so. I tried new things, and braved unusual delicacies, from raw pig’s cheek to barbecued duck’s tongue. Did I also go to McDonalds every week for some oh-so-familiar fries? Absolutely.
  • Find people you trust. You’re going through a huge, emotional transition, and you shouldn’t try and do it alone. Find other ex-pats who know your struggles, and who can help you straighten out your confusions. Talk to locals who have lived abroad; ask them what they found hard, or helpful, and how they dealt with it. No one can fix your homesickness or culture shock for you, but it will help enormously if you have people you can vent to!
  • Stay healthy. Maybe this is obvious, but eating a balanced diet, getting outside, exercising, and drinking plenty of water will make you feel good, and improve your mood. Don’t let those things slip just because everything else around you is changing. You are only human, and you need to look after yourself holistically if you want to make a healthy adjustment to your new life.
  • Be brave. Try the things you’re nervous to do (within reason!) Talk to locals. Try out your language skills on shopkeepers. Figure out the public transport. Set yourself little, achievable challenges that will keep you learning and engaging with the host country.
  • Sleep. You’re body needs sleep, so let it sleep! You might be jet-lagged, or overwhelmed, and in need of a little extra rest – so rest! Have a nap. There’s nothing wrong with taking a little more time to sleep when you’re in a new place. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

Bonus tip: It’s going to be okay. Keep going – you’re doing great.

Love, Dani

  • How have you dealt with culture shock in the past? What would your advice be for people moving to a new country?

Samantha: Where I Belong

Samantha was born and raised in Hong Kong, where she attended international secondary school. She studied her undergraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh, and now works with Friends International in Scotland to support international students.

Ethnically I am Chinese. But in terms of national identity, I have never felt a strong tie to my Chinese heritage. The reason for this may be due to growing up in a multicultural environment.

I lived in Hong Kong, but grew up listening to and watching American pop culture. At home, I spoke Cantonese with my parents, while at school I spoke English with my peers. I studied in an international school under the UK education system, where my classmates were the children of expats and immigrants from all over the world.

In class, our teachers referenced things from the UK which I had never seen in Hong Kong: Jaffa Cakes and scones among other things. They also shared stories about themselves from their childhood years, waiting eagerly in the mornings for the milkman to deliver glass bottles of unhomogenised milk, and how they would then fight with their siblings to be the one to sip the cream on top. They were experiences which I had never encountered and can only imagine.

Since most of my education was in English, it became my dominant language. I remember once my Chinese tutor said to me: “you are not Chinese”, because of my poor ability to communicate in the Chinese language. It stung. I held back tears, determined not to cry in front of her. Looking back now, I do know why that hurt me.

As humans, we deeply desire to belong. Our sense of belonging impacts our identity.

Living in Hong Kong, I struggled to fit in with the local Chinese people no matter where I went. I always thought it was because of my poor Chinese, but after going to the UK for university studies, I found that I could not fit in with the local British people either. Although I had the language, I did not have the culture.

We International school kids are a community of our own. We have our own culture – a product of the east meeting the west. There is nothing else quite like it.

Though quite at home in our own little circles, we were very much foreigners to the locals. So then where did I belong? And what determined this? My ethnicity? The language I spoke? The place I spent the most time in? My culture?

One summer during university break, I joined an international student outreach. It was run by Friends International, a Christian Ministry organisation that aims to reach international students in the UK with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

On our team that year, we had nine members from eight different countries. We were all from different places, with very different upbringings, and all spoke English as a second language. But as I listened to the stories of these people and shared with them mine, we connected in a way closer than I have ever felt to any community. This was very interesting to me, and as I probed at it in my mind, I slowly began to realise that it was because we are united in something bigger, something that transcends language and culture, place and time.

You see, when we believed in Jesus and gave our lives to Him, we began to share life with Him and with others in Him. We became united in His family, in wondrous fellowship with brothers and sisters of every race and age around the world, and this is a bond profoundly deeper than anything else!

I found where I belong: in God’s family.

Culture Shock Blues

‘Culture shock’ is a word we use quite liberally these days – “moving to that part of town was a bit of a culture shock!” or “there was quite a bit of culture shock when I changed schools’. And all of these things are valid – change isn’t easy!

That said, when we throw that term around as much as we do, we can forget just how profound the experience of culture shock can be in a completely different country.

Culture shock can rear its head in the form of loneliness, tiredness, isolation, homesickness, withdrawal, irritability…the list goes on. You might find yourself missing a food you never even liked that much before – it just reminds you of home. You might find yourself getting emotional because of a smell that reminds you of your family’s cooking. You might even find yourself lacking the energy to leave the house, because being surrounded by all the new sounds, accents, and maybe languages, is draining.

4 Phases of Culture Shock

We commonly think about culture shock in four phases, and these phases will last different lengths of time and manifest themselves a little differently in every person.

I like this illustration from the Swedish for Professionals website

We start with the Honeymoon Phase: these are the golden weeks where everything seems new and exciting. The locals seem charming and the food is delicious and the weather is beautiful. This was the best choice you’ve ever made.

If you’re on a quick holiday, you might find that you never get past the Honeymoon Phase! If you stick around a little longer though, you’re going to run into some difficulties. Next up is the Frustration Phase (also known as the Anxiety Phase.)

This is the part where you start to realise all the things you don’t know about this country, and the list of things that make no sense to you is probably growing with every minute you’re there! Why do they talk to me like that? Why can’t they just eat normal food? What do those signs mean?

It might feel like you are notoriously different, chronically out-of-the-loop. It might feel like there’s no hope for you to ever feel at home here.

But there is hope, because all of these things become easier with time. That’s what the Adjustment Phase is about.

You’ll start to learn your way around, and gain independence. You’ll be doing your own shopping, maybe even chatting away in a new language. You’ll start growing friendships and building community around you, and you might start finding answers to some of those niggling cultural questions.

And then, after all the hassle, frustration, and learning, there’s one final stage. It might take months, it might even take years, but it exists: the Acceptance Phase.

This doesn’t mean you fully understand your host country, or are necessarily fluent in the language. But it means you’ve found your place there: you’re settled, and that’s where your life is now. You’re thriving, or at least, at ease in this culture that used to be so strange to you.

These phases aren’t clear-cut or prescriptive, but they are a really helpful guideline to give you an idea of what to expect, and to justify what you might be feeling. You can prepare yourself before you leave: know that there will be difficulties, and that that is completely normal.

Nobody ever said crossing cultures would be easy. It takes time and patience – both with your host country and with yourself! But it is possible, and it will get better.

Love, Dani

  • What elements of culture shock have taken you by surprise on your travels?
  • What are your tips for dealing with culture shock?

Stephen: TCK Care

Migration means leaving things behind. It moves you into a disoriented world which doesn’t add up in the way you were used to. You have to start putting things together in a new way.

Ruth Padel, The Mara Crossing

My name is Stephen Black, and I grew up in the bush in Nigeria.

I had a rich childhood, full of excitement and adventure and a fair share of grief and loss as well. I grew up in farm country where I had the freedom and safety to be a kid in a way that I’ve never seen again. And I gained the ability to learn languages, cultures, and people which has served me well time and again in my adult life. To be real, I lost more friendships, endured more stress, and encountered more violence than a child ever should. And I wouldn’t trade it.

I have found that sentiment to be a common theme among TCK’s – that there were difficult, painful aspects of their mobile, multicultural lives, yet that the experience as a whole has shaped their identity and their culture. It’s given them skills, strengths, and an awareness that they never would have found otherwise.

So I talk to people about what it means to be a TCK and how to care for a TCK, taking advantage of those benefits and processing the losses and the grief. I have begun collecting those stories, strategies, and supportive conversations in the form of a podcast: TCK Care.

Stephen now works as a TCK Care Worker, and uses his podcast to discuss and share TCK stories and experiences, connecting with a range of people who have grown up abroad, and those who have researched these themes. He describes it as ‘a podcast for those with a multicultural childhood, past or present.’

Jude: Human Amongst Robots (Poem)

Jude was born in Brazil, and moved to Italy when he was 11 years old. He moved to England as a young adult, before later returning to his beloved Italy.

When I was 24, I decided to leave Italy and have a ‘London experience’. I arrived there alone, and I had to start from zero – that meant a new job, new house, new friends, and a new culture. It was the most wonderful, painful experience I’ve ever had.

London is amazing – loads of culture, hundreds of things to do…but mostly you are alone. And when you come from a Latino/Mediterranean culture, you are taught to expect a ‘mi casa es tu casa‘ welcome. In the UK, I had to face the fact that ‘mi casa es tu casa…if I want you here.’ I was living with deep depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

For the first three years, I had a love-hate relationship with the country.

I didn’t share my experience with other immigrants that were in my position. It was only after I published my poetry book ‘Words/Wars’ that a few people reached out to me: “I thought I was the only one that lived in that loneliness.”

I would say this: this might not be the last place you live in. Give yourself the opportunity to live more experiences and see more places. Don’t build boundaries; be open, because life changes, and you will change with it.

LND
The fog is in town and
my heart is gone.
I am drinking a hot cappuccino
in Starbucks,
and voices are all around me.
Memories of my life get
louder in here
because this place is so empty,
and people
look like crazy robots.
I don’t miss being a robot.
I am real now.
A human amongst robots.
I have a heart that pulses hard.

Jude tweets at @JsaintJude, and his debut poetry book is for sale on Amazon.

“Have You Heard of London?”

I’m pretty British. If you asked me where I was from, I would say Britain. When I was living in England, a lot of people would look at my Spanish name, or pick up on something different in my accent and say, “No, no – where are you really from?” And I would think about it, and shrug. “Britain?”

My mother is Scottish, my father is South American. I was born in Scotland. I lived the first four years of my life travelling with missionary parents, and then we moved to England. I lived there for about seventeen years, before moving to China, and now Scotland.

So you see, it’s confusing for me when people tell me I’m not really English, because…what else would I be?

Languages Are Suspicious

There’s a joke in Catherine Bohart’s satirical video ‘How to be an immigrant British people like‘* that “British people are suspicious of people who speak more than one language…why do you have a secret code that only you and your friends understand?” Because the thing about your average Brit is, they don’t have a good reputation for language learning.

*This video is full of British humour, which is very dry and sarcastic! It’s meant to poke fun at some of the racist stereotypes in society today, not to be offensive.

In my family, we started learning Spanish as kids. And then when I had to start studying French at school, I was good at it because a lot of the grammar and vocabulary was similar to Spanish. At university, I jumped at the opportunity to learn some Mandarin Chinese. I love languages – every time I travel to a new country, I’ll try to learn at least the basic phrases to get by. I’ve collected bits and pieces of Swahili, Zulu, Rufumbira, German, Thai, and Indonesian along the way.

Now, of course there are so many British people that also love to travel and learn languages. But that wasn’t the case for my friends. They would get annoyed with me for going to European summer camps, or to visit family in Scotland every school holiday – “You just disappear,” they’d say. “We never see you.” And now that we’re adults, I keep missing reunions because I just live too far away. My school friends all live in the same county that we grew up in.

Have you heard of London?

I loved living in China, partly because Chinese people would accept my ‘English-ness’ without question. They wanted me to comment on English politics, or cook English food for them, or recommend some British TV shows. And I could, because I grew up British, more or less.

The only problem was, when I met other British people in China, they couldn’t identify me as one of ‘their own’. I remember taking a group of British students out for dinner, only to have one of them turn around and say, “Oh, Dani, I forgot to ask – which state are you from?”

Another time, someone at my church stood up to give a notice in a perfect cockney accent. I went up to talk to him after the service, introduced myself, and said, “Whereabouts are you from?”

“Well,” he said. “Have you heard of London?”

Have I heard of London?

“I’m British,” I said, and he quickly changed the subject.

I’m not offended by things like this. I know that my accent changes, especially when I’m outside of the UK. But it does make me feel a little like a fraud, that I almost shouldn’t be telling people I’m British if my ‘country-mates’ can’t back me up on that.

Fake-British

When I was in England and people would do the whole “Where are you really from?” thing, I would just tell them I was Scottish, and that would usually satisfy their curiosity.

Now I live in Scotland, it’s pretty obvious that I’m not really Scottish. I don’t do small talk quite how they do, my accent is different, and I’ve never heard of half of the famous places here! The only problem is, Scottish people actually know what an English accent sounds like, so “I’m English” doesn’t really cut it here, either.

It’s not at all that I’m ashamed of my South American heritage – I love being with that side of my family, and I love visiting in that part of the world. But I’ve never lived there. My Spanish isn’t even that fluent. It’s part of my identity, and so is my British-ness.

I was sort of hoping that writing this up would lead me to a conclusion ‘British people don’t really think I’m British, but I’ve learned…’ That would have been a really nice way to end. But I don’t have a neat answer. Sometimes it still hurts me that people from a country that I identify with so strongly don’t accept me as one of their own. More often, these days, I’m trying not to care.

I’m trying to enjoy the places that I get to live and explore, and to remember that in the grand scheme of things, nationality is a social construct. We (humans) drew up borders and claimed ownership of them, and those borders have changed, are changing, and will change. We’re all just people living in cultures and within land boundaries that other people pretty much just made up. That’s not to say those things aren’t important, just that they are not permanent.

So to be honest, you can ask me if I’ve heard of London. (I have.) You can ask me about my accent, or my name. It’s okay. I’m going to keep calling myself British, though, because at the end of the day – who’s to say I’m not?

Love, Dani

Girls Abroad

Disclaimer: every country has different stereotypes about different groups of people, and I am by no means saying that white girls are the worst off here. I am saying that I have only experienced travel as a white girl, and as such all my examples will be from this perspective. Thanks for listening!

Dear fellow women, here’s what you should know before you travel anywhere.

People in the country you’re travelling to may never have met someone of your race before. They may be basing their presumptions about you on what they’ve heard, or seen on the news, or have been told via Hollywood movies. And ladies…it’s not always positive.

There are probably people at your destination that think – through no particular fault of their own – that white women are without exception rich, immoral, and promiscuous.

I had a Nigerian friend once, who came to England for his studies. After a few months he wrote on social media to his friends at home something along these lines: “England is great, but I came thinking white girls would be easier. If you’re thinking of coming here to find a girl, I don’t recommend it.”

Now, all of the examples in this post are one-offs, and only represent the views and misconceptions of individuals, rather than the countries they are from. My point, though, is that there are people who think like this, and it’s better to know that than to be caught off guard.

I remember sitting crammed into a little public bus in Rwanda, setting off on a three hour trip. The guy next to me was delighted that I could communicate in French, so we started chatting. It was very chill – an absolutely normal conversation. After a few minutes, he said to me, “Shall we get a hotel room after this?”

I was so shocked that someone who had been politely chatting a moment before would ask me a question like that! “No,” I sputtered, too shaken to think of anything else to say, and ended the conversation.

“What?” he said. “Don’t you think it’s romantic to sleep with someone while you’re on holiday?”

We sat the rest of that journey in silence.

I don’t think that man meant me any harm – I didn’t feel in any danger, and the friend I was travelling with was close by! But somehow, to my embarrassment and offence, he felt like that was a reasonable question to ask me.

These aren’t just the perceptions of keen men – let me take you to China for one last little anecdote. I was in Beijing, a city that is pretty accustomed to foreigners in most areas. I was being eaten alive by mosquitoes, so made my way over to a pharmacy to get some cream.

I walked into the store, and realised I had no idea how to ask for bite cream. The shopkeeper, a middle-aged lady with a slightly disapproving expression, made her way over to me as I fumbled with the dictionary on my phone.

“Don’t worry,” she said, taking my arm. “I know, I know.”

She led me over to the shelf of condoms.

Not that there is any shame in needing to buy condoms, but I was surprised that her first, confident guess of what this awkward white girl needed was contraception. Not sanitary products, not make up…condoms.

In case you’re interested, I did find the word for bite cream, and the shopkeeper suddenly became a lot more friendly.

So, why do white girls abroad have this reputation? Do we earn it? Maybe in part. Maybe foreigners haven’t been as careful about respecting the local moral code as they should have been. Or maybe people have just been misinformed by the movies and TV shows they’re fed, where women are often sexualised.

But what do we do about it? I personally don’t want people to hit on me because they assume I’m ‘loose’, or an easy target. I don’t want people to think I’m immoral because of what they’ve seen of my country in films. But I also think getting angry or overly-offended about these things isn’t the answer. (That is, unless you have had a crime committed against you in which case please do make a fuss! Report it.)

Here are my general tips for women travellers who want to shake free of those stereotypes and unwanted advances:

  • Talk to women who know the area. Not just the country – cities and even streets will have different reputations and varying levels of safety, so do your research. If possible, talk to women of your race! They’ll be able to tell you how modestly you should dress, whether it’s appropriate for you to go out alone, or if you should stay with a group. It’s also worth asking if it’s normal for women to go out at night, and which establishments might be seen as ‘immoral’ (for example, in some countries respectable women don’t go to pubs). Take all the advice you can get, and do your best to respect your host country’s culture. When in Rome, do as the Romans do – because you’ll be much safer, feel much more comfortable, and you’ll be a much better and more respectable ‘ambassador’ for your country!
  • Question your local friends. Wait, was what I said accidentally flirty? Is it normal for a guy to hug me? Is spending time with him giving the wrong impression? Cross-cultural friendships can be a minefield for this sort of thing, so be brave and quiz your local friends. They’ll know what’s up, so trust what they tell you and act accordingly!
  • Watch the alcohol. If you can’t trust yourself to make good decisions and continue respecting local rules and customs when you’re under the influence, you need to watch how much you’re drinking. British people in particular have such a bad reputation for this – we are the noisy irresponsible tourists! If you want a holiday just to get drunk, choose a country where that won’t be as scandalous. In fact, in some countries, you’ll need to avoid alcohol altogether. Do your research, and put safety and respect before your right to drink alcohol.
  • Wear a ring. When I went to Marrakesh, one of the items on my suggested packing list was a fake wedding ring. And to be fair, if you are going somewhere for a short visit and don’t have the language, what better way to wordlessly say ‘please don’t even try’?
  • Walk confidently. I use this tip wherever I go – it doesn’t matter if you’re lost, if you have nowhere to go, or if you’ve suddenly realised you’re walking in the wrong direction. Move confidently. Walk with a purpose. Don’t keep checking your phone. Wandering or looking obviously lost can make you look like a target for unwanted conversation or flirting, or worse.
  • Be kind. Ultimately, if you don’t like the way people view you, don’t be the negative stereotype. There’s no need to get preachy about it – be your kindest, truest self and show people that there are other types of foreign girls: that there are nuanced, respectful people from your country that they can befriend. The only way we can beat this kind of stereotype is to be an exception.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were all judged for ourselves rather than the media that portrays our people? That works both ways – let’s not base our ideas about people on fiction. Let’s meet people where they’re at, with love and respect for their countries and cultures. Let’s be people that prove the movies wrong.

Oh, and girls? Stay safe!

Love, Dani

  • What are your experiences as a women abroad? Have you ever had any problems?
  • What advice would you give to women travellers?

Eleanor: Fluently

 “But inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce and that is who we are.”

Anthony Marra , A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

My name is Eleanor Chin.  I was raised in the United States, in the Bay Area in California.  Best known for its veritable traffic jams, increasingly bizarre tech unicorns, the astronomical cost of living, and extremely liberal political bent, it is also home to a significant Asian-American population. 

My father is Chinese-American, my mother is Caucasian.  Adopted from China at six months, I grew up speaking only English, and mostly spending time with other purely Caucasian families. 

From a young age, I had a natural inclination toward foreign languages and mythology traditions from other lands.  I was very good at Spanish, I taught myself French, and I played around with a few other languages.  I was a hopeless dunce at mathematics and sciences, however – a trend that would continue into my later schooling. 

At age eleven, I began attending a Chinese school with many Taiwanese immigrant families.  I was wildly in love from day one – the tones, the script, and of course, the miniature toys the teachers would bring us as homework motivators.  For the first time, I began to be conscious of my Chinese heritage, noticing that my family’s values, priorities, and habits were significantly different from other kids in school.  I used to hang out with a bunch of white girls, but I started seeking the company of other Asian-Americans.

I took my first trip out of the United States at age fourteen, to Vietnam.  It was a significant experience, and I came home with a renewed love for Asia and its languages.  I got more serious about Chinese, finding a private language tutor, reading more books about Chinese history, and actively pursuing friendships with people from China and Taiwan.  I also began to read memoirs about Chinese-American experiences.  Outstanding: Growing Up Asian, by Cynthia Meng, and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua brought into striking relief a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t an “authentic” Asian American. 

As I observed my family and community, I found myself to be at odds with myself in multiple directions, enhancing this belief.  First it was the academics.  There is typically a lot of pressure in an Asian-American homes to bring home excellent marks in school, particularly in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related subjects.  I never experienced this kind of pressure, and as I was a complete dunce in maths and sciences anyway, I was extremely grateful.  But still, I felt that I was cheating somehow, that I should experience that kind of pain to legitimize my experience as “truly” Asian-American.

Then there was the violin.  I started playing of my own accord.  My parents never made me practice, and I never partook in any violin competitions, let alone win any of them.  This bothered me a lot.  A common theme in the “real” Asian-American world is the prevalence of developing inner discipline through a musical instrument.  I played the violin, like a “regular” Chinese kid, but I wasn’t very good, because I didn’t practice enough—to me, it was worse than if I didn’t play at all.  I was really ashamed of myself, as if my credibility in being Chinese-American hinged on how many violin competitions I won. 

Finally, there was Chinese.  I was very, very good at learning Chinese.  I had more fun in Chinese school learning words than I had in youth group throwing water balloons.  It might have been the drug of being so spectacularly good at something so effortlessly, but I was totally, completely in love.  I think I poured so much into learning Chinese because I desperately wanted to have a meaningful relationship with my Chinese self.  A relationship that wasn’t at odds with the cultural norms, and that would also be understandable to my non-Asian friends. 

 I went off and lived in Taiwan and China, one year in each place.  In both places, I found that I was more culturally American than I thought.  Despite my significant language abilities, and sometimes in light of them, I found myself once again estranged.  Now, I was not only a bad Asian-American, but also a bad Asian. 

Why did I ever learn Chinese? I asked myself.  The last ten years have been an extreme waste of time.

Jhumpa Laheri, author of In Altre Parole, once wrote of missing the Italian language, “that emotional distance is always more pronounced, more piercing, when, in spite of proximity, there remains an abyss.”

My Chinese had already hit a glass ceiling years ago, so I subsequently tried to define myself more fully as a linguist by pursuing Japanese and Korean, which are close cousins.  Fluency evades me though; my emotional connection to these languages is just not as deep.  Or maybe it’s because I’m still burned out from a decade-long linguistic journey that brought me right back to where I started. 

Language shapes existence, and so despite being thankless, onerous, and insanely demanding, I remain in awe of and inspired by foreign tongues.  The word I cannot pronounce may not be in Chinese, or for that matter, in any language I know.

I trust that someday though, I’ll speak it fluently.