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. 

Hannah: TCKs and the Arts

Hannah is a Third Culture Kid who grew up between Ghana and the USA. She is the founder of TCK Art website ‘cUlture MiKs‘.

“My TCK experience was a lonely one, full of transitions and travel and impermanence; and my way of dealing with that was to create art.  As a child, I wrote songs and poetry and stories because I believed I was the only one who felt the way I did.”

Hannah spent much of her time in Ghana without the company of other TCKs, unaware that other people like her existed.

In an interview with TCK Care, she explains, “I didn’t know anybody else like me. No one had ever told me they felt like me, so a lot of my art in my younger years came out of that sense of ‘I must write because there’s nothing out there that really expresses me.'”

It was only when she returned to the USA for university that she found a community of TCKs online, who shared her experience and emotions.

“That’s why I made [the website] – to be a resource for people to find other TCKs who feel things similar to them. It’s like, ‘hey, you’re not alone in this, we all feel this way.'”

Now, Hannah’s website is a source of comfort, inspiration, and solidarity for TCKs all over the world, with a wide range of contributors. She’s collected a range of poetry, music, videos, and paintings dealing with themes of identity, home, and culture, and she is still open to submissions! If you like to express yourself through art or are interested in other peoples’ TCK experiences, Culture Miks just might be the place for you.

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.

Thomas Merton

Language-Learning Blunders To Make You Feel Better About Your Own

Language learning is hard. It’s slow and frustrating and really embarrassing! I was sure I couldn’t be the only one who was making humiliating language slip-ups, so I turned to Twitter for a little back up.

You can follow my Twitter here: @DaniAtSea
@AnaHannahAuthor
@LombardEmma
@SadiraStone
@SarahZiman

We don’t usually wake up fluent in a new language, so be patient with yourself, and know that when you inevitably do make this kind of blunder…you’re not alone!

Love, Dani

What are your language-learning mishaps?

Kirstie: The Perils of Change (Poem)

Kirstie Sivapalan is a Geordie-born writer based in the south of England. She lives with ME, but spends her time writing stories and poetry, and helping people with social media.

“Change often involves dissolving of ideas, beliefs, relationships and structures in our lives that we may think we are ready to leave behind, but when those changes start to happen around us it can feel like our whole world is falling away.  Not only that, we then realise we can no longer go back and even more fright-inducing is the dawning that we don’t know what the world will look like ahead of us […] All you can do is keep moving forward carefully, one foot in front of the other.”

This poem originally appeared on Crystallising Dream, and has been reproduced with the author’s permission.

You’ll find more of Kirstie’s creative work on her blog, which focuses on connection and disconnection with the world around us. She tweets at @KirstieWrites.

5 Ways to Make Friends in a New Place

Whether you’ve moved to a new city or a new country, being the ‘new kid’ can be so lonely. It can be hard to know how to relate to these people, and you might be left feeling very foreign, and out-of-sync with everyone else.

You do need friends, though. You need community. So I promise you, all of the awkwardness and miscommunications are worth it in the end.

For the first few weeks or months, your friendship-building might just look like forced friendliness and slightly stilted interactions. And you know what? That’s ok! Persevere through the awkwardness. Take the time to get to know the people around you: what their interests are, how they spend free time, what their lives are like. And give them a chance to get used to you, too!

Making friends looks a little different from culture to culture, but I wanted to share my tips for finding people to connect with when you’re new to a place. I moved to Scotland just last month, and forcing myself to do these things not only helped me meet more people, but feel settled much faster!

  1. Smile at your neighbours. Chat, be friendly, ask for and offer practical help. Don’t become known as the person in your building/on your street who doesn’t interact with anyone! In some communities, neighbours are practically family. Don’t forget that in some cultures it’s polite to give your neighbour a small gift when you first move in, or at least knock on their door and introduce yourself. Try and find out what might be expected of you in that culture. If in doubt, do what you would do in your culture (don’t forget to explain that to your neighbour!), and let that be a talking point to break the ice. Your neighbours will be invaluable sources of information, too – they know the area, the landlord, and the language, so they might be willing to help you out if you have any problems!
  2. Find a hobby. It doesn’t matter what it is – rock climbing, choir, calligraphy…do something that will both help you relax, and let you meet people with similar interests! It will not only make you a more interesting person to talk with, but having some ‘scheduled fun’ will do wonders for your mental health, and help you feel much more settled.
  3. Be a good colleague/coursemate. When I’m the new person, I get nervous and tend to withdraw from people. Because I know that that is my first reaction, I try to catch myself in that habit, and reject those negative actions. These people are often very willing for you to join in their community, they just need to figure out who you are and what you’re like! The sooner you can build good relationships with the people who are naturally around you on a day to day basis, the better an experience your work/school will be.
  4. ‘Take me to church’. Are you religious? Get stuck into a mosque/church/synagogue etc as soon as you possibly can! Visiting your place of worship in a new place might just be the key to discovering these people aren’t so different from you after all. These places can also be incredibly welcoming, so get stuck into that community and enjoy your family away from home.
  5. Volunteer. In my opinion, the best way to integrate into a community is to serve it. So, what’s going on in yours? Is there a soup kitchen for the homeless, or an after-school club for disadvantaged kids? Is there a litter-picking group, or English classes for refugees? Find something you can help with. You’ll not only feel the sense of community, but you’ll know you’ve used your time in a really worthwhile way!

Making friends cross-culturally is hard, so don’t get frustrated with yourself if things start off slowly. Persevere, be patient, and keep smiling! It will happen.

“If you want a friend, be a friend.”

Love, Dani

  • What has your experience of building cross-cultural friendships been?
  • What other tips would you give to people who feel lonely in their new home?

I Can’t Stop Moving

I grew up in a globally mobile family. Now I’m in Scotland, I have a job and a community…but even the idea of being here for the rest of my life makes my heart beat faster, and the panic sets in. It’s not that I’m not happy here, or that I don’t like my life here. I just can’t stop moving.

I love meeting international friends, and trying new foods, and exploring new places. And in a strange way, I think I like being foreign. I like that people can look at me without expecting me to immediately understand the culture, or the idioms, or the unspoken traditions. There’s more leeway to be different, because I am different.

On the other hand, I love the feeling of being settled – of having a favourite restaurant, a circle of close friends that you’d trust with your life, and a steady income. So why, when I find those things, can’t I stay?

My brain is set to rhythms of change. My body is on a timer; every couple of years I want to wipe the slate clean, pack my earthly belongings into suitcases, and start over. I’m not a criminal, I don’t think I’m emotionally detached, I’m just…a mover.

Would I like to break the cycle, to settle down and accumulate life souvenirs, maybe start a family, maybe buy a house?

I don’t know. Maybe I just haven’t found the right place yet.

Either way, all I know for now is that I can’t stop moving.

“Being rootless has given me a sense of freedom. I feel grateful for the experiences I’ve had, and I am proud to feel, above all, like a citizen of the world. The possibilities for the future are endless. The sense of being at home anywhere, yet feeling that home is nowhere, is part of who I am.” – Ndela Faye, writing for The Guardian

Love, Dani

5 Ways to Look After Yourself When You Move Abroad

So you’ve just moved, or are about to move, to a different country? Great – what a wonderful, enriching experience for you! Also, it’s going to be super hard.

The thing is, we all have different personalities, and we’ll all deal with country moves in a slightly different way. So although I’m planning to give some pointers today, you can take everything with a pinch of salt. You’ll have your own, unique needs. I hope this helps anyway.

I moved to China in 2018, and I heard all sorts of methods to integrate with the culture. “Open-door policy” was one – the idea was that your apartment would always be open and available to your friends and neighbours, at any time. That idea stressed me out so much that I didn’t even try, but I know it really worked for the family who suggested it.

“Avoid having too many ex-pat friends” was another philosophy. I do understand the thought behind this one: if you want to really get involved in and learn about China, of course you need to invest in some Chinese friends! But I also learned a lot from my ex-pat friends, because they were also looking at Chinese culture from the outside, and they could see and articulate mannerisms, values, and habits within the culture that someone who had never left China probably couldn’t. Also…my Chinese isn’t very fluent. I really appreciated being able to relax and speak English occasionally!

So that’s what didn’t work for me. Here’s what really did:

  1. Take naps. Seriously, take naps. Be kind to your brain. Moving to a new place can be so emotional and overstimulating that your energy levels will be a little lower than usual. For the first month (or three), make sure you have times in the day to let your brain rest. You were never going to feel comfortable in that culture straight away, so why get worked up about it?
  2. Indulge in home comforts. To clarify, I’m not suggesting you become one of those ex-pats that won’t touch local food. I’m just saying you don’t need to deny yourself things that bring that little sense of home. For me, I ate Chinese food every day, but brought a little stash of Galaxy chocolate and Yorkshire Tea from the UK. Find your own balance.
  3. Don’t call home too much. Your parents might not be thrilled about this, but hear me out! You need to be fully present in your new country. Your home and your family are incredibly important, of course, but they don’t need you to call them every day – not in the first couple of weeks, at least. You need space to build up your new life and let yourself start cultivating new routines and relationships. Call your parents more once you’re settled, maybe.
  4. Learn to laugh at yourself. You will make language mistakes. You might get confused in the supermarket, or get on the wrong bus, or have a misunderstanding with a stranger. No new ex-patriate ever has a completely smooth run, so learn to laugh it off! The challenges are all part of the experience, and you’ll probably learn a lot more about the country because of them!
  5. Look after other people. Does your neighbour need a hand with those heavy bags? Could you hold the door for that older lady? Does your ex-pat friend need a friend to moan about homesickness with? When you keep an eye out for other peoples’ needs, not only do you become a more integrated and appreciated part of the community, but you forget about your own problems! Moving countries is hard, there’s no doubt about it, but remember that everyone has struggles. Make friends, be helpful, be hospitable, and you’ll find that sense of community much faster.

Love, Dani

  • What would your tips for moving to a new country be?
  • Do you have any stories about your mistakes in a new place?

Piroska: First Days in Vancouver (Poem)

Piroska was born in Switzerland to a Swiss mother and a Hungarian father, with whom she moved to Canada as a child. She was a stay-at-home mother and housewife, and now as an ’empty-nester’ is exploring her creative side.

Being an immigrant to Canada changed my life, even though I was young when we moved. My dad’s perception of “us vs. them” came up often – in his eyes, European was often ‘better’. He looked down on his neighbours. Maybe it was his way of compensating for what he thought he lacked.

First Days in Vancouver

I could feel my mother’s sadness– 
it filled the room like a thick fog.

I stared out the hotel window 
and saw nothing but gloom and grey;
the rain ran in rivulets down the pane,
like the tears on my mother’s face.

Vancouver was an ugly city,
to my five-year old eyes.
The buildings were huge concrete monsters,
and the constant sounds terrified me.

Horns beeped incessantly; police sirens shrieked.
The sound of people rushing about–
the buzzing of busy-ness.

My parents would take us for walks,
but it was hard not to get soaked,
dodging huge puddles,
and I couldn’t get the stench
of worms out of my head.

I wanted to hear the pealing of church bells,
feel the rounded cobblestones
beneath my feet.

I missed the green meadows,
alpen wildflowers,
and going for walks with my granny.

I missed…
my old life.

Piroska posts her writing at Creative Journeys, and you can find her on Twitter @pippirose77.

What’s ‘culture’, anyway?

We’re all people, we all have (pretty much) the same survival needs, internal organs, emotions…when we have so much in common, why is it so hard to fit into a different country or community?

The answer, my friends, is culture. (Usually.)

Culture is more than creative expression: maybe when you think of culture, you think of paintings, or traditional crafts, or national music. And you’re not wrong: the arts are a big part of culture, but culture is not the arts. Are you following?

If you’re picturing ancient Chinese paintings, or African tribal masks, or ancient Greek statues, then again, you’re not wrong. Those belong under the ‘culture’ umbrella. But don’t let a colonial superiority complex make you think you or your country are “above culture”, just because you don’t see it manifested in the way you might expect. You have it, because you are human and you are surrounded by humans.

In fact, some would argue that culture is not what we make, but what makes us.

“Society or culture or whatever you might want to call it, has created us all solely and wholly for the purpose of maintaining its continuity and status quo.” – U.G. Krishnamurti

Our cultures shape our language, our manners, our humour, our relationships, our values, our beliefs… In a weird, brain-twisting paradox, we are forming culture as culture forms us.

The uncomfortable part is that a lot of cultural indicators are subliminal: you might not even realise that you think or behave in a certain way, because it is so deeply ingrained in your experience of life.

Traditions are the guideposts driven deep in our subconscious minds. The most powerful ones are those we can’t even describe, aren’t even aware of. – Ellen Goodman

So it’s no wonder moving to a new country, or working in an international company, or marrying into another culture is so hard! We are all human, we are all valuable, and we all function more or less the same way, but we are all wired a little differently. Out cultures have gifted us with different perspectives and traditions and ways of being, and sometimes those cultures contradict.

Maybe your Brazilian coworker wants to hug everyone, but that makes your Japanese office buddy uncomfortable. Maybe your female Muslim neighbour won’t shake your hand, or your Jewish uncle won’t eat the bacon sandwich you made him. (These are all quite black and white examples, I’m sure you’ll come across much more confusing and subversive ones!)

But here’s the key. Your culture is not right. It’s not wrong, by any means, but it is human and that means it’s complex. It means it’s changing, evolving, and adapting to the circumstances around it. The same goes for other peoples’ cultures.

Your culture(s) almost definitely played a big role in defining who you are today, even if you were fighting against it! But what’s a culture without a people to subscribe to it? You are still free to question the things you have always been taught. The more you travel, and the more people you meet who are different to you, the more you will realise what you are like. You’ll notice quirks about your own country: things you love, and things you wish were better.

So…what do we do with this knowledge? We have all this terminology to think about people groups and how humans function socially, but what, practically, needs to happen now?

You tell me. Would thinking about culture explain that conflict with your foreign neighbour? Would a deeper awareness of your own culture help you settle as an ex-patriate in a new country? Or, would an understanding of different cultures give you a more balanced view of your country’s place in the world?

Again, you tell me.

Love, Dani

  • What do you think are some defining features of your culture?
  • If you have lived abroad, what did that experience teach you about yourself?
  • Do you have an awkward culture-clash story to share? (Please do. It makes us all feel better.)