Featured

Skills Learned as an Expat to Managing the COVID-19 Crisis

Like many of you, I’m digitally connecting while socially distancing with friends during the global pandemic. There is a noticeable difference in comfort level during these uncertain times between those who have lived abroad and those who have not. My expat and former expat friends were the first to settle into the new norm and are now seemingly unfazed. Meanwhile, those who have not had an overseas experience were panicked at the start and are still resisting establishment in new routines. It made me pause and ask what is it that sets these groups apart? What skills have the expats mastered that are just now being learned by others? 

The easiest answer is that we were at one point immersed in the hard lesson of resiliency. Those who are able to quickly adjust and adapt to change are the most successful in any relocation process. We know that with every unorthodox transition flows a pattern: preparation, honeymoon, culture shock and adjustment. It can feel like a foreign country when you move your life inside your home. New routines are needed, new learning habits, new rules … all feel familiar to those who have moved abroad. Those who have gone through the experience knew they had to prep first, then potentially felt like it was an extended vacation, and moved into understanding the new norm quicker than the average person with less panic.

We also know the importance of community. I might argue this is one of the top leading success indicators of an overseas assignment and of sheltering-in-place. When you feel incompetent and uninformed, it’s helpful to have a sense of community that can relate. When your super human power of self-reliance is eroded, the community that embraces you will strengthen you. Nobody is coming out of this pandemic without a little help from their family and friends. The sooner those in isolation find their network, the sooner they will feel less alone and scared.  

A small group from the Shanghai Crossfit community enjoy coffee before another day on the Anapurna lower elevation circuit in Nepal.

Being alone and scared makes one feel out of control and very uncertain. But these are not new feelings to expats. To the general population, these feelings are sending many into a fearful state. Many expats have been here, in a mess like this, before. Stuff happens while overseas. In March 2011, we lived in Tokyo and held on while the 9.0 quake shook us. We watched as expats were evacuated from other nations out of fear of a nuclear meltdown while those who stayed stocked up on toilet paper (sound familiar?). Whether it’s day after day of purple Air Quality Index days in Shanghai or the daily threat of being carjacked in Sao Paulo, expats have developed survival skills that diffuses the terror of being out of control during uncertain times. We know the world is full of historical events and we are part of the story if we just hold on tight and ride it out. 

We also know how to hunker down as a family or as a couple. This is where we have earned out stripes. We are a team that is bound tighter due to the hardships that come with living in a foreign country at times. Our family and marriages have been taken down to its studs and we are familiar with the essential needs. Sheltering-in-place feels a bit like landing in a new location where we are all that each other have for entertainment and companionship, for better or for worse. We know how to lean on each other heavily, and maybe even more importantly, we know when space is needed. Our family closeness has been one of the most beautiful benefits from our overseas experience and we are tapping into that advantage lately as if it’s our first week of immigration in a new location. 

My close knit family in Cinque Terre, Italy.

The compassion doesn’t stop in the family. We have more consideration for diversity since we have been the minority, the one with the thick accent, or the one who makes a cultural blunder. Some expats have lived where the outbreak began and our hearts are with our once host country. Some have visited where the country seems to be losing the battle on the virus and can recall the sites, smells and sounds of the cities now in isolation. These global citizens can reference locations with personal stories and feel more empathetic for those afflicted. We still have friends all around the world and are hearing first-hand how Spain or Korea is handling the situation. These aren’t faraway places with nameless faces; these are our communities and once upon time homes.

We have been stripped of all our creature comforts and made alternative adjustments as replacements or learned to live without. We are a resourceful lot. We can find replacements, substitutions, digital versions, homemade versions. We are a jack of all trades when it comes to ingenuity. No yeast available for bread? Okay, we’ll make tortillas. The gym is closed? Fine, we’ll download a new fitness app or stream our yoga teacher on Zoom. Expats typically know that a dead end doesn’t mean there is zero option; dead ends mean it’s time for Option B, C, or D. 

And lastly, we’ve been communicating with family and old friends through devices for a decade. We stayed in contact with our family while in Japan via Skype when that was the only platform offering face-to-face, real-time communication in 2009. Online communication is nearly part of the starter guide for expat life. From Instagram to Zoom, FaceTime to HouseParty, expats are physically distancing but socially connected as if hardwired into our being. 

We expats know how to push the reset button and for this I’m grateful. Pardon the gratitude but that’s just one more skill learned overseas. We tend to count our blessings because we have seen global poverty, crime, injustice, inequality. Let’s lead our local community in our optimism. To all the expats out there, keep leading by example with your sense of calm and ease during this time. The world needs your rare experience and global kindness more than ever right now.

Volunteers teaching disenfranchised immigrant students about Halloween in Shanghai.

An Anti-Foodie’s Realization Regarding Cooking Classes

I’m not a cook. In fact, I have a palette of an 8-year old. Due to my unsophisticated taste buds, I avoid the overwhelming culinary world. However, when traveling, I try in desperate hope of finding a cuisine that fits my ineptitude via a class. I’ve taken countless cooking classes. While specific skills and techniques may not always stick, what I have retained is a great deal more valuable from these hands-on experiences. When traveling, domestic or abroad, there is no better way than through one’s tummy to educate and saturate all senses in the region.

Hand-pulling noodles at PuDong Community Center in Shanghai during Chinese New Year 2016.
Long noodles represent longevity and usually served during the 15-day celebration.

Cultural Understanding

Learning to cook local cuisine is not just about the dish; it is so much more. The class is a vehicle for deeper understanding. Eating new foods is like translating the language and profoundly immersing into the location with each bite. It’s learning the unique blend of language, culture, history, and identity, all mixed up in a beautiful experience via the stomach. Let’s call it the secret sauce of the location.

The secret sauce is not only made up of new ingredients. Cooking styles differ as well. You may understand why the Chinese don’t have ovens and rely heavily on woks. Or the resourcefulness of using the entire animal rather than just the standard cuts that you’re used to back home.

I’ll take a cooking class to uncover the multi-layers of a district rather than sit in a history class any day! Anthony Bourdain, the acclaimed chef, traveler, author, and TV personality, said it best, “Meals make the society, hold the fabric together in lots of ways that were charming and interesting and intoxicating to me. The perfect meal, or the best meals, occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself.”

Sensory Overload

Taste incorporates all the senses. You can’t taste without smell. And sight and touch are critical element with each bite. Even hearing the crunch of crusty bread as you sink your teeth into it translates into almost a sub-flavor.

Now, imagine all your senses experiencing newness. Nothing beats walking through foreign markets full of new spices or unrecognizable offerings. The smells penetrate every cell. You begin to appreciate the local fruits and vegetables, colors, and tastes. You will hear the seller and buyer relations as they bargain within an unknown financial system. And if you’re lucky, you may experience a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence like the frigid temperatures of the Tsukiji tuna auction.

Look for these experiences when you travel. Seek out the street markets, the fishmongers, the crabbers on the pier, and you’ll witness an extension of the region in action.

Dubai Spice Souk was so colorful and smelled intensely rich.

Authenticity

Set out to ruin yourself. I’m now a self-described sushi snob after living in Japan. Every dining adventure in Japan set me up to reject American attempts … and I’m okay with that because it was so fulfilling to watch the chef’s meticulous attention to detail, know where the fish came, see the pride in the sous chef eyes when presenting the dish. Sushi, per this example, is not just the fish. Just like I assume pasta is not only the noodles in Italy. The food is wrapped in the overall ambiance of the surroundings and cannot be duplicated easily.

As you don the apron, you’ll appreciate the difference in subtle textures, slight heat variations, or a replacement ingredient that just doesn’t hit the mark from the authentic foods. On Koh Lanta in Thailand, we cooked in an outdoor kitchen and plucked pods from a nearby tamarin tree for pad thai. Do you think that imported and preserved tamarin taste better or worse than freshly plucked from a garden? It cannot be replicated!

Cooking with Mon on Koh Lanta with the branches of the tamarin tree in the background.

It’s fascinating from an American perspective. My home country cuisine is a mixture of cultures then processed, sweetened with sugar, and altered to the original dish’s point of unrecognition. Street tacos in Mexico do not taste like the Taco Bell drive-thru (they taste better). And there is no such thing as fortune cookies in China. Totally American. Totally sweet.

Repetition

Once you begin cooking, you must try and try again. Usually, it’s not easy to cook in a new style or with different ingredients. But with practice, slow progress can be made.

I took a high-end Chinese dumpling class with individual attention. Then, our beloved ayi (a local domestic helper assigned to your family) taught me her style, which was more like cooking hip to hip with Grandma—no measuring, no reasoning, no explanation. My third attempt was through an ex-pat class with a large group whereby we were struggling all together as we flattened, filled, pinched, and fried to perfection. I pulled all these lessons together and was able to confidently make my own. In doing so, I borrowed a little from each lesson I was taught. I still have a lot to learn, especially with making my own wrappers, but my skills are better than in the first class.

My first attempt at dumpling making in 2015 in Shanghai. I was so proud.
I soon discovered these little suckers tend to rupture when cooked so sealing properly is a critical step.

Memories

This is written in February of 2021, when the pandemic is still gripping the world. I have been confined to my kitchen while the restaurant industry grinds to a halt. I’m learning to appreciate my tattered recipe pages even more now when restaurants are shuttered, borders are closed, and school-aged kids are home for every meal. Pulling out each of my stained pages with handwritten notes brings back memories.

Sometimes you hear a song that transports you to another time. Food can do that too. A flavor can comfort you, and carrying all the emotional weight of a memory to be savored. It’s linked forever in our mind to a person, restaurant, or memory of some sort that can be called back through the kitchen.

As we slowly adapt to “after Covid,” I’m seeing many former cooking instructors expand their classes from their locations and enter the online world. I’m tempted to revisit them on Zoom and recreate some of my favorite dishes. Here are a few highly recommended classes that have made the jump and are now available online:

  • From Koh Lanta in Thailand, Cooking with Mon classes are available here. He has an enthusiasm for Thai cooking like I’ve never seen and his smile is contagious. I also really enjoy his Instagram account: @cookingwithmon
  • I knew her when she was “only” a chef. Now, Payal is the founder of Commune Kitchen, has a YouTube channel, teaches classes out of Singapore, and created a cookbook. She will make you believe that anything is possible in the kitchen.

If you get the eventual “travel passport”, then I recommend the Waffle Workshop which is perfect for kids and adults alike in Brussels, Belgium 

My little chefs preparing waffles in Belgium.

Unfortunately many of the classes I’ve taken have gone out of business. But I will share my all-time favorite recipe below that is a staple in my family. This recipe for sushi rice was originally developed by Wishbone Cooking Classes in Tokyo, Japan. I can no longer find her online but please enjoy this classic recipe.

Sushi Rice 

3 cups rice

1/3 cup rice vinegar

1 tbsp sugar

1 dash salt

Cook rice. Mix all other ingredients and pour over warm rice.

Fan rice while mixing the vinegar. (Learned in class: fanning the rice helps cool it quicker, gelatinizing the surface of the rice and giving it a glossy finish).

Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.”

Anthony bourdain
Learned how to make baking slings from my neighbor in Shanghai who taught casual American classic cooking classes out of her home.
Proof that classes need not be too far outside your comfort zone for learning!

Uniting The United States Through Culture Shock

Revised earlier entry for TrailingSpouse.com

It goes without saying that culture shock is part of the territory when relocating abroad — perhaps even bookended by a reverse culture shock when repatriating years later! But another common challenge, far less discussed, is the culture shock you’ll experience within your own expat community. 

You would think that being American would be enough to fit into an American community overseas. We’re just one big melting pot out of our element together, right? In my overseas assignments, however, I’ve observed social differences that seemed related more to regionality, rather than nationality. For example, many of the U.S. expats I met in Tokyo had transferred there from NYC’s finance industry — a culture equally foreign to an American from rural Oregon. 

In light of current political divisions in the United States, and with a year of repatriation giving me the benefit of hindsight, I believe these fractures merit closer inspection.

Thousands of miles from the January 2017 Women’s March, our diverse community walked together in Shanghai, China.
Big City vs. Small Town USA

Like many Americans, I had an “aha” moment on Election Night this past November. I had been back home for 16 months after living in Amsterdam, so I was feeling more or less acclimated while glued to the television watching the #ChartThrobs in front of their interactive maps of red, blue, and purple states. As CNN’s John King zoomed into his magic wall to show county-by-county polling results, it dawned on me: the culture shock I had encountered among expats overseas had far more to do with your hometown’s size than from which U.S. state you had emigrated.

In hindsight, I had already experienced intra-American culture shock on a micro-level at the University of Oregon when my roommate proudly diagnosed me with a speech impediment. Specifically, an articulation disorder outlined in her speech pathology textbook. She was from Oregon’s wealthiest county and was brilliant — she would later go on to be one of the youngest elementary school principals in our state — and had evidence, after all. I accepted her judgment and desperately tried to enunciate clearly going forward to sound more like her and our classmates. 

When I arrived in Tokyo 20 years later for my husband’s job transfer, the New Yorkers were plentiful — and so were their opinions on my rural accent, delivered in the form of honest banter:

“Wait, you don’t hear it? You say ‘fir’ instead of ‘for.’” 

“You talk slower too.” 

“You even walk slow.” 

While staring into those zoomed-in blue/red state and county maps in November, I realized that America’s political divide and my personal experiences both demonstrated the schism between people from big cities vs. small towns, rather between states. It even made sense that the types of social interactions are less personal in more densely populated places, whereas someone like me, coming from “the sticks,” would never have the confidence to bring up anyone’s perceived deficiency face-to-face or within a group setting.

Looking back, I could have mitigated the severity of my intra-American culture shock by educating myself before becoming a trailing spouse overseas — about my homeland as well as my new home.

Broaden Your Domestic Horizons

I used to think international travel was a must. Now, I put just as much importance on domestic travel. Aside from a sliver of the West Coast, I hadn’t experienced much of my own country before embarking on life in an entirely new one 11 years ago. After a decade of overseas living, and considering the travel restrictions imposed by COVID-19, I’ve focused on road trips to U.S. national parks — including two new states explored last year, and two more on my bucket list scheduled for this spring.

A beautiful country is never homogeneous; it is woven together with many different fabrics. Put a better way by a Muslim proverb, “A lot of different flowers make a bouquet.” Domestic travel allows you to explore your own nation’s richness — different speech patterns included! — and understand its regional values.

Don’t do this: I had visited NYC a decade before moving to Tokyo … but only hit the touristy spots.

If you’re on the brink of your first overseas assignment, try to get one last domestic trip in before leaving, to a place vastly different from your home base. Are you from a predominately white county? Go somewhere more diverse. Are you from a coastal community? Go explore someplace inland. Sample the traditional cuisine, engage in local conversations, and experience day to day life beyond the tourist attractions.

Study Your Expat Community

Before heading overseas, try to find out about your host city’s primary industry and how that relates to which part of America may be dominant in the expat community. As I mentioned previously, Tokyo is full of New Yorkers — which makes sense, given its importance as a financial hub. Shanghai, on the other hand, has a robust automotive industry that draws many Midwesterners, especially Michiganders.

With a little research, you can educate yourself on your fellow Americans cultures — and avoid gaffes. For example, I didn’t know that Michiganders held up their hand to mimic their state’s shape when asking, “Where you from?” The first time this happened, I proudly stated “Oregon” and gave my new acquaintance’s hand a high five! Taken aback, she then informed me she was from Midland, pointing to the fleshy part of her palm between her index finger and thumb.

Keep Your Mind Open

With any relocation, it’s important to be curious and ready to learn — not just about your new home, but even about your old one. Be inquisitive and open-minded, and consider your perceptions vs. reality carefully. You may be surprised by what you can learn from your fellow Americans (or whichever country your passport represents). 

Non-Jewish neighborhood kids learn about Hanuakkah at our friend’s house. We loved learning about her traditions and she was eager to share.

From Michiganders, I’ve learned to trust people at their word; from New Yorkers, the value of honesty and efficiency with a slightly quicker pace and decisiveness in conversations. In return, I hope I contributed Oregon’s joyful pursuit of outdoor sports and environmental awareness. 

Starting out on the sidelines, you may watch other Americans from similar communities bond quickly, making you feel even doubly like an outsider. Don’t automatically try to change your walking pace or speech patterns, however. Being a charlatan is exhausting! Own your differences, whether it’s a regional accent or what others perceive to be an odd compulsion to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Whether it’s primarily as Americans or expats or trailing spouses, you’ll inevitably forge friendships as you explore your new surroundings together and share the traditions from back home.

East Coasters and West Coasters found hiking Japan’s tranquil forests relaxing.

It sounds strange, but being surrounded by people who are difference is a great way to really learn to be yourself. While you may opt to change or polish some parts of yourself, it takes integrity and transparency to hold on to your core identity when you’re in the minority. By the end of our three-country tour, I was embracing the small-town roots that had set me apart in the very beginning, becoming unapologetically proud of who I am.

Embrace Your Experiences

There’s a long list of things to plan for and get used to when you’re moving to a new country. Major challenges like language barriers and work permits get a lot of attention, but don’t underestimate the intra-American (or whichever country you’re from) culture shock. In my case, I wasn’t prepared, but I ended up feeling grateful for it.

As noted in a previous blog entry regarding how expat life prepared me for navigating the challenges of a global pandemic, community is a huge success factor in any relocation assignment. Get excited about meeting a whole new America outside its borders — one that’s well worth exploring! You’ll thank me “fir” it.

The Intra-American Culture Shock of Ex-pats

“You have a speech impediment,” proudly diagnosed my college roommate. Her finger pointed at proof, an articulation disorder in her speech pathology textbook. I felt too old to have an undiagnosed speech impediment, but I begrudgingly accepted her judgment. She had evidence, after all.

When I arrived in Tokyo 20 years later, the New Yorkers were plentiful, and so were their opinions. I was yet again diagnosed. This time, the caring friend noted that I did not have a speech impediment but an accent. My circle of girlfriends didn’t hold back from pointing out my West Coast differences. 

“Wait, you don’t hear it? You say ‘fir’ instead of ‘for.'” 

And “You talk slower too.” 

And “You even walk slow.” 

I felt like I was in a Woody Allen comedy with too many people talking simultaneously; the words started blending. My laidback West Coast brain swamped with too much. Too many opinions. Too much volume. Too many words. Rather than push back, I politely adapted, just like I did with my college roommate. I tried to pick up the pace of my walk and quicken my tongue. 

It. Was. Exhausting. 

It can happen on a micro level like it did for me in college. Or, it can happen on a larger scale in a foreign country. Anyone bound on their first assignment should research the potential intra-American culture shock they may experience in their host city. Tokyo, for example, has a heavy New York ex-pat community, as mentioned. This is due to the banking industry in both locations. Shanghai, meanwhile, has a robust automotive sector that draws many Mid-Westerners, especially Michiganders. These Americans will find one another, bond over regional commonalities and you, the outsider, may feel like the black sheep at times. 

You would think that being American was enough to fit into an ex-pat community overseas. We’re all the same; one big pot of Western culture out of our element. Having not traveled too much outside of the Canada to Mexico’s coastline, I hadn’t experienced much of my own country before beginning life in an entirely new one. I didn’t know that Michigan was shaped like a mitten and people referenced their hometown by pointing at their palm. Or that Euchre is a favorite Mid-Western past time or that Rotel was a missed food staple. 

Ironically, it’s the American population who will teach you to be more authentic while overseas. You will learn to be more yourself outside of your home country by your countrymen than if you comfortably stayed inside the borders. You may realize you have a country class background which includes an undetectable accent to your own ears, like I had. Acknowledging such a difference takes vulnerability especially amongst a big city crowd. Or perhaps you value environmentalism so deeply that the level of recycle compulsion you subscribe to is uncovered when you move to a place that tests that very value. Many other cultural habits will be examined, smashed, or polished. It takes integrity and transparency to hold on or let go of these norms. But it pays off in the end by becoming unapologetically proud of who you truly are. I left our three-country tour embracing my roots that ultimately set me apart in the beginning. 

There is a lot to get use to as an ex-pat: culture shock, career shift shock, and language barriers. But there’s a healthy dose of intra-America culture shock that is underestimated by most. I was not prepared and had wished seasoned ex-pat experts had sent me a warning shot about protecting my authenticity. Community is a huge element of success in any relocation assignment. Therefore, you need to know what type of community you’re joining. Don’t look at the move as just an overseas assignment with other Americans. Be inquisitive and be yourself. You’ll find a whole new America outside of the mainland … and it’s worth the visit!

How Rice Cakes Saved Me from Depression

Finding your value in a time of transition

I was a 30-something American with a left-behind career, two kids under the age of 5, trailing my spouse in Tokyo, Japan. My husband’s job afforded our first ex-pat experience in a country so vastly different from my own that repeated warnings of culture shock prepared me for the worst. Unfortunately, there were no repeated warnings regarding putting the brakes on my career. This was the shocker that was unexpectedly difficult, and it sent me into depression. 

My hard-fought skills and my once-upon-a-time ambitions were no longer of value. Add to that the common foreigner challenges of a gaping language barrier, starting from ground zero with connections and community, and not having a place in our home as a domestic helper did everything for us. I was utterly lost and alone, quickly questioning my value and self-worth. 

Many trailing spouses and anyone amid a significant transition, can likely agree this thinking is a bottomless hole from which to crawl out. Luckily, I found a way via close self-examination of my values, but it took months and persistent work. 

Values “are the principles that give our lives meaning and allow us to persevere through adversity,” according to psychologist Barb Markway and Celia Ampel in The Self-Confidence Workbook. If unsure of your values, search online for lists, and select a handful to get started on the discovery process. 

I recognized that service was an essential principle in my life, but I had been forfeiting this value due to early motherhood and a demanding career. Other values such as creativity, optimism, justice, or stability may resonate with you. Whatever your list, scrutinize them to see where you can invest a little more. 

Finding how I could be of service in a foreign country proved to be trying not just because of the language barrier but additionally because of the quicksand of despair I had sunk. The opposite of depression is connection. Getting out and finding groups can be overwhelming when you feel vulnerable, but it truly is the cure. I tried a few different avenues from mommy-and-me groups to language classes before I found the community that linked to one of my life principles and, therefore, better fit me. 

I saw the need … and I became seen my self.

I found a Homeless Outreach program that made hundreds of onigiri (rice balls) for the homeless every morning. Participating with the other volunteers enabled me to refill my depleted self-worth. Often in depression, one feels alone and unseen. I saw the need within the work we were doing and I became seen my self. 

Franciscan Chapel Center Homeless Outreach volunteers (June 2010)

Volunteering allowed me to see the community first-hand. I saw behind the scenes at the socio-economics of my host city and peeled back that superficial layer of typical tourism, thereby fueling my curiosity (another life value). It helped me understand and appreciate the culture more, thus enhancing my learning value. Seeing the impact that the rice program made helped me feel impactful (again, service value). I saw the value and purpose of my work. I didn’t have a role at the school or home or a non-existent workplace, but I held a position in the church basement for the greater good.

It took hours to make the onigiri. While slightly mindless and repetitive, a bonus was that I got to know the other volunteers. We knew what was happening in each other’s lives. We came from a variety of backgrounds and ages, likely not grouped in any other circumstance. But we shared pieces of our lives and patched a community together that was unique and caring. And wouldn’t you know it … community was yet another value for me. 

You might not find the right fit immediately when searching for a way to live your value. The spirit of volunteerism was a crutch when we later moved to Shanghai. I tried caring for adoptive babies who were undergoing palette surgeries but felt too much heartache leaving them behind each day. And I lasted only a day as a hospitality host in the children’s wing of the local hospital, mainly serving head traumas. I left my shift in tears, knowing I could not change local helmet policies to prevent these injuries in the first place. Sometimes the group doesn’t fit, but eventually, you’ll find your spot. I finally found Stepping Stones, an organization that trains volunteers to teach English to immigrant children. 

“Does she like to play badminton? No. She likes to swim.” Teaching English at Wan Liao Elementary School in Shanghai.

These opportunities eventually help to strengthen your identity. By our third assignment, I was able to find a baking group for the Amsterdam homeless (De Kloof) that I knew would help me feel like I was contributing to my new city and, in return fueling my principles.

In the end, being abroad did not destroy my career or life as I had equated the two. It helped to develop self-awareness and helped me grow in ways a job never could. By no means am I diminishing the importance of a career. Instead, I’m shining a light on the fact that a standard career is not the only path to fulfillment. This thinking can run counter to the standard American dream, a way of thinking that is difficult to understand while living in America. Nothing can replace the passionate experiential adventure of living abroad and the opportunities that open. Volunteering was the one opportunity that unfolded for me and became nourishment to live out my values. Something else might unfold for others and aid in living out an unexpected purpose. But what we all share in finding the one thing is that we all grow from it. Growth is vital, and I wish everyone the growth that fits their unique set of principles. 

Lastly, growth is never-ending. The experiences you find abroad or during transitions are snapshots of time. Each of us continues to refine ourselves one adventure at a time. You have so much more to expand on with each move, each chapter of your life. As I continue my year of repatriation, I expect to stretch in new ways and perhaps invest in another value that I neglected while overseas.

Feed Your Travel Bug Without Leaving Home

My passport is beaconing me and I must go. But, wait … it’s Spring of 2020. I’m not going anywhere. If you’re like the rest of the human race, you’ve already painfully cancelled multiple trips while slowly losing hope regarding your summer plans. These desperate times have required us wanderlusters to find new ways to appease the inner travel beast who is growing more and more restless with each quarantined week. 

The key to satisfying a gypsy heart is to swap out travel with something personal. Unfortunately, the virtual tours of major museums or touristy gardens aren’t fulfilling for me. What works for one person may not work for another. Below are 10 curated ways I’m fueling my restless spirit. Hopefully some of the ideas listed below can be modified for your taste. While I prefer beachy destinations, you might be a mountain nomad or a city explorer. Just alter the ideas a bit to make it work for your needs and together we’ll assuage that burning desire to roam until further notice.

Here are my top 10 favorite ways to pursue adventure and export myself from the safety of my home.

  1. Get lost in reverie by reviewing photos of past trips. I’m a few years behind on printing photo albums to epic destinations and am using this time to pull them together. In doing so, I’m reminiscing and seeing the experiences through fresh eyes. If you’ve been there done that, then get lost down the rabbit hole that is Instagram. The creativity of some travelers is really impressive. Check out @erinoutdoors, an outdoor photographer who has recreated many of her shots to indoor miniature format with items from her home.
Discovering a leopard on the hunt with my family on a Kenyan safari in 2019.
  1. A highlight of any trip is tasting new flavors. From local spices to new cooking techniques, your palette is expanded with unexpected aromas, seasonings, and zests. Sampling newness doesn’t have to be isolated to travel if you are brave enough to try in your own kitchen. Recalling our short stint of living in Amsterdam, I was craving some comfort food that was readily available in Europe. Baking equates comfort so I baked a Dutch Baby, which is technically German but just as consolutory in difficult times. All you need is already in the packed pantry. Who knew this was so easy to make? 

Taste is not limited to just food; drinks fall into this category too. I’ve gotten into my stowed away stash of tea from Taiwan which brings me back to the beauty of the land. Or, if you don’t have anything on hand, try a sample of coffee from around the world. I recently gifted a sample pack from Driftaway Coffee and was impressed with the US company with an international twist. They’ve taken great effort to support global farmers with sustainability. This company roasts and ships out of Brooklynn and sends an onsite video from the far away farm. The video and the brew will whisk you away, if only for a minute or two.

Driftaway Coffee’s Costa Rican farmers
Use code GIFT10 for 10% off all Coffee Gift Subscriptions: https://driftaway.coffee/coffee-gifts
  1. Reading can transport you to another time or land or even dimension. Take part in Melinda and Robert Blanchard’s journey of following their dreams and passion by picking up A Trip to the Beach; Living on Island Time in the Caribbean. While it was originally published in 2001, the memoir is timeless. It documents their restaurant opening on Antigua, including recipes that leave you not only craving sand between your toes but their famous corn chowder too. For fiction, who didn’t fall in love with the 2012 Beautiful Ruins by Jesse Walters? It’s worth a re-read just to hopscotch around the world again and to experience the fictional port of Vergogna. The location feels just as real as any coastal cliff village in Italy. Find your next read easily in Goodreads and filter the genre to Travel. Find a destination that interests you and dive in. 
  2. If you’ve travelled extensively, you’ve seen the underbelly of some countries from animal cruelty to child labor to unbelievable poverty. If you have anything to spare, donate to a place you recall from past trips. Thai Soi Dog, a sanctuary and adoption service for street dogs in Phuket, Thailand, is struggling as they depended heavily on volunteers and merchandise sales to assist their business. A donation to an organization can make you feel a little more connected to the efforts and fulfills your desire to help during this devastating time. Plus, it can become your next philanthropic destination.
Soi Dog spays/neuters and vaccinates tens of thousands of street dogs and cats in Phuket, Bangkok, and other provinces of Thailand every year.
  1. Become a student of culture without travel by taking a class. The most common way to tap into another culture is through language. You gain a greater sense of a country’s priorities when you begin experiencing the language. Babbel and other online apps create an easy way to practice for as few as 5 minutes a day with reminders to prompt you to tap in. And with a few extra minutes on your hands lately, why not try a new language to prep for the next trip, or resurrect a language from the past?

Classes don’t have to be language based. My first time meditating in the zen style was with a Sri Lankan monk at a temple in Japan. It was one of the richest spiritual experiences while living overseas. I carry his teachings with me everyday. I’m tempted to try additional classes and found AirBnB creatively offering classes in different locations as an augmentation of their business model. They are offering Italian cooking classes with a nana, Puerto Rico salsa dancing, meditation with a Japanese Buddhist monk, and so much more.

  1. Movies and TV shows can take you away just like reading does. Conde Nast Traveler has pulled together a comprehensive list of the best travel movies over the past 50 years. Check it out to see if your version, such as Wild or Out of Africa or Beaches, made the cut.

I also recommend anything featuring Anthony Bourdain (Hulu is carrying a few series) because it’s never just about the food. He delved deep into the politics and viewpoints of the local people to immerse himself and bring awareness to us all. I can’t help but think he would be really proud of all the cooking in every kitchen across America right now, and maybe more importantly, the communal dining taking place within families.

“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life—and travel—leaves marks on you.”

Anthony Bourdain

7. While the virtual tours aren’t giving me the escapism that I’m searching for, I am enjoying the livestreams. Every night, @discoverla streams the sunset over the Pacific complete with palm trees swaying in the breeze. It’s become my ritual to tune in and relax.

  1. Hashtags will lead you to surprising places and may be the key to unlocking the door to where all the other gypsy souls are hanging out. Search via your favorite social media and watch the minutes tick by. Here are a few of the my favorite hashtags: #iamatraveller, #stillatraveller, #traveldiaries, #wanderlust, #wewilltravelagain, #golater. Or be more specific and search specific locations to see real photos by real people of activities and sites. 
  1. Stay home but keep dreaming. That last trip you just cancelled? Just postpone it but make it even better with an extra day trip thrown in. That vacation that takes significant planning (African safari), includes lengthy visa processing (Russia), requires advance preparation physically (Machu Picchu) and the like? Now is the time to work on the funds, itinerary, paperwork or training. There will be time for spontaneity again but right now, we have the luxury of pulling a complicated circuit together, ferreting out the details from others, and identifying the less explored paths that require a substantial time investment. Invest! 
  1. Personally, my laptop does not have the processor requirements but I do enjoy when someone uses a virtual background during the many Zoom calls. There are a variety of backdrops to choose from within Zoom and countless more you can upload. Pick a destination and you can easily drop yourself onto a beach, ski resort, field of daisies, even space. 

Don’t lose the faith, fellow journeymen. Our wellness and bliss may be on hold but that doesn’t mean we cannot find a way to adapt. Your mental health needs it. Keep dreaming of traveling again to see our wonderful world! 

A Letter from Mother Earth

Oh my sweet babies, how I didn’t want things to get to this point. I tried to be so strong and bare all the abuse to prevent this level of destruction. But I’m hurting, baby. I tried reasoning with you, sending you messages of my illness, showing you my wounds you inflicted, healing only to be damaged again by your selfish ways. I was getting too weak and tired. You see, we are interconnected you and I; we depend on each other. When one of us is down, we all go down together.

I told you so many times to stop with the fumes, gasses and smoke. Sweet child, it’s an ugly habit! But you kept the fires stoked so the chimneys spewed the acidic gases. You continued to rely on cars and dirty energy that puffed toxins. You kept the factories churning all hours to produce and produce and produce. And you tore up the swaths of green forest that were specifically designed to counterbalanced your excess. 

I do see you, sugars. I see those special few who tried to legislate and who picketed, boycotted, and marched. But even the leaders in Davos or the super powers of G8 couldn’t fast-track action. Meanwhile, I was getting sicker with every excuse and loophole. The littlest of you recognized may fate. My sweet brave babies went on strike from school to send the message. But you turned your backs. I started to lose hope … if you wouldn’t listen to the biggest and most powerful, and if you wouldn’t listen to the littlest and most vulnerable, then I’m gonna have to make you listen. And this time around, you’ll listen real good and real hard because I have had it!

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I tried reverse psychology and gave back the plastic on the beaches that you so love. I saw a few of you lovies cleaning up the mess but your efforts were no match for what I kept bringing back to you. My waterways and marine life are filled. I even sent whales full of garbage in their bellies to the beaches convinced that would open your eyes to the size of the problem. But nothing was changing your ways.

Oh, child, it hurts me so much to have to cause such pain and agony. But you don’t seem too bright, ignoring all my messages. 

The seas keep rising. 

The temperatures keep climbing. 

Hurricanes grow stronger.

Ice keeps melting. 

My invisible shield keeps eroding.  

I was in so much distress. I needed your help; I knew my sweet human babies were the cause of my afflictions and ironically the cure. I was desperate. I never wanted to ruin life, I’m Mother Nature after all, darling. I’m a creator, a lover of all things beautiful and living. But this was the only thing I had left in my arsenal, counterintuitive to my true self. 

I know it has been torture but can we just for one moment look? Look out at the Himalayans from Delhi. You can see the majestic peaks again through fresh, clean air. Don’t it smell good, kiddos? And have you seen the coyotes exploring Los Angeles and the jellyfish calmly discovering Venice again? The wild is back and thriving! Do you hear the whales calling in Alaska now that the ship noises are gone? It’s music to my ears. 

But everything is temporary: my illness, your illness, even your much deserved Time Out will end. This pause will be long enough for you to realize that your Mother is drawing serious boundaries. You’ve been spoiled without limitations. Did you really think you owned this house? Mmm-hmm, you don’t. This is my house and you will play by my rules, understand?  

I’m critical for your survival. Don’t forget that. I give you weather that affects everything from farms to ski seasons. I give you bees that pollinate your crops for food to flowers. I give you oxygen and even trees to clean the air. And you’ve squandered it all, making me very upset. And when mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. 

Now, you’ve almost learned your lesson, sweetpeas, but there are a few more things yet to discuss. 

  1. I just might reduce meat availability because you eat way too much of it. Plus, you’re being quite irrational with the production lately. You don’t need so much so we’re gonna back off the meat just a bit, alright? Eat your veggies. It’s okay … you’ll be fine, sweetheart. 
  2. And, let’s talk about the medical and hazardous waste. We need to figure this out before all is said and done. 
  3. Lastly, you are absolutely not going back to your old habits. We can work together to make a more balanced plan once you’re out of your Time Out, agreed? 

Above all else, know this: I love you dearly, little ones. I believe in you and trust you’ve nearly learned your lesson. I wouldn’t be so harsh on you if I didn’t care. Now, come give your mama a big hug! It’s been awhile and I’ve missed those arms of yours! 

A Historical Comparative Analysis: Could Melania be our Eleanor?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been compared to World War II on a variety of levels. There are important lessons we’ve learned and are implementing from history. Perhaps one has been overlooked, specifically regarding the workforce.

It’s common knowledge that women filled in a labor gap during the war. They had to adjust to working full time and leading the family, unable to abandon one for the other.

Full-time working parents are in a similar struggle during the lockdown with 19 states, as of this writing, closing schools through the remainder of the 2020 school year. Thankfully many of these children are learning online. However, a significant percentage of youngsters, especially those under the age of 10, need oversight and guidance in the lesson plans. This is not to discount our educators’ efforts. Nor is the argument that parents are doing all the work. Rather, juggling both work and education for a child, often multiple children, has become the latest topic of memes.

This heavy burden is less of a joke when the betterment of our nation’s future is considered. Perhaps full time working parents need a leader in this time of uncertainty. Below is a historical comparative analysis between women on the home front during WWII and parents in the classroom during COVID-19. Could parental assistance in distant learning come from an unlike source if history is repeating itself?

Women on the Home Front During WWIIParents in the Classroom During COVID-19
Women entered the workforce in record numbers during WWII. They knew their service was needed and they showed up to strengthen America per the encouragement of the government.Parents entered the education field in record numbers during COVID-19. They knew their service was needed and they showed up to strengthen America per the encouragement of the government.
Women were expected to stay home with children in the 1940s therefore entering the workforce was a dramatic shift in the nation’s culture.A parent was expected to work during the 2020s therefore entering the education field was a dramatic shift in the nation’s culture.
It wasn’t just the volume of women in the workforce but the male dominated jobs they took due to the gap in the labor force. They worked in factories building ships and airplanes, driving fire engines and trains, becoming air raid wardens and clerical workers.It wasn’t just the volume of parents homeschooling but the master degree jobs they took due to the gap in the labor force. They worked in reading and writing, history and mathematics, even driving home the lesson of the slope intercept form to graph a linear equation. 
These were jobs that they weren’t trained for and received less pay than their male counterparts. These were jobs that they weren’t trained for and received no pay
Their employment was considered a temporary measure for the period of the war.Parent teaching was considered a temporary measure for the period of the pandemic.
To try to address the dual role of women as workers and mothers, the first lady Eleanor Roosevelt urged her husband to approve the first US government childcare facilities under the Community Facilities Act of 1942.To try to address the dual role of parents as workers and educators, the first lady Melania Trump could urge her husband to approve the first US government … (history will fill in the blank).
While this is tongue in cheek, I see all you full-time working parents and appreciate the work you are putting in for the future of our country.

A Love Letter to Shanghai

As a former expat of multiple countries, I routinely get asked which city I liked best. With expert political correctness, I scoff and answer, “That’s like choosing a favorite child!”. But, Shanghai, let me tell you a little secret. That’s a lie! It’s been you and it’s always been you. I know the other cities may feel cheated at my confession but you offered so much more than they ever could.

A cold February night in Shanghai

In this era of finger pointing by both of our leaders, I feel the need to bravely and publicly exclaim my love for you, your country and your people … let me count the ways:

  • You came to me without ego. You welcomed me and all expats like no other. I know what it feels like to be unwanted in another country, to get the middle finger on a regular basis, to be reprimanded in a foreign language like a child. Your citizens smiled at people like me for absolutely no reason other than kindness and intrigue.
  • You catered to me. You seemed to want me there. There were events created just for my pleasure like Brawl on the Bund or Oktoberfest. There were opportunities for me to volunteer and get involved from rocking adoptive babies to teaching English. I’ve never felt so accepted before in a foreign country so quickly.
  • You simplified my life. You took away some unhealthy habits. I admit, I was angered by the lack of social media and Netflix at first. But, I replaced them with healthier entertainment. You took away some conveniences like Kraft macaroni and cheese and Downey. But I found a way to live without products that were not good for my body. You made me a better person.
  • You offered me a new family. I struggled to meet neighbors before but my Pudong neighborhood became my tribe. We sweated and traveled, laughed and cried, cooked and drank, and celebrated together. We pushed each other to be our best selves. And to this day, I have you to thank as I still have my tribe even after repatriation.
  • You helped me understand different views and appreciate your culture immensely. I left with knowledge that can’t be taught in a classroom. From excursions to language classes, proud locals showed me what China was, is and will become. I respect the country and the painful past, the hope and pride for the future, and cheer you on as one of your biggest fans.
  • You made me a more flexible and creative problem solver. If ever stumped, there was always “a guy” who could fix it. Got a 400 pound Xian terra cotta warrior that needs to be delivered? There’s a guy who will strap it between his scooter and his buddy’s and have it to your porch in 2 hours. Nothing seems impossible any more. Innovating thinking will overcome any obstacle.

No matter the destination, living abroad will push your boundaries, test your limits, make you resilient, bind your family together tighter, and give you unbelievable adventure. But living in Shanghai offers so much more. And for this, I am eternally yours, Shanghai.

A family dinner on a rooftop bar

One Big Breath

Reposting from April 2014 as many kids may need some coping mechanisms now during the pandemic.

Do me a favor … Take a moment and inhale one deep, full-bellied breath slowly. And then exhale completely letting all the air out entirely.  Feels good, right? It’s wonderfully simple and only took approximately 10 seconds to oxygenate all the cells in your body, momentarily resetting your nervous system.

Yet our kids don’t know this effortless technique.  They used to; newborns automatically use diaphragmatic breathing – using their diaphragm at the base of the lungs. But this breathing pattern gets lost in the first years of life. By age 10, the normal breath pattern has shifted year over year to predominantly thoracic, shallow breathing in the chest. (Verschaakelen, 1995).

Slow deep breathing is an important intervention tool for children who are distraught or angry, anxious about sports performance or test taking, or who generally feel tense and need to relax .

So, let’s tell children to “just take a deep breath.” Unfortunately, they likely will take a dramatic chest breath, thereby stimulating the fight/flight reaction and causing a downward spiral. Instead, we need to teach children slow diaphragmatic/abdominal breathing by first making them aware of their breathing and empowering them to control it by their actions.

Try one of the following techniques with your child. Start with the first and work your way through to the third technique as they build upon each other in comfort level and familiarity of their breath.

Blowing a Pinwheel or Tissue: Hold a pinwheel or a tissue in front of a child. Instruct the child to take a deep and slow breath in. Then have them release their breath by blowing the pinwheel or tissue. Being able to see the effects of their breath will encourage them to repeat and master this technique.

Candle and Flower: Have your child pretend that they are holding an aromatic flower in one fist and a lit candle in the other. Have them bring the flower to their nose and deeply inhale slowly. Help them transition to the other hand as they release their breath by blowing out the candle through their mouth.

Balloon Breath: With child laying down on their back, have them place one hand on their chest and one hand on their belly. Have them imagine a balloon (any color) in their tummy. As they take a deep breath in, they imagine that balloon expanding and getting bigger. As they exhale, the balloon deflates. You can witness the diaphragmatic breathing by watching their hand rise and fall on their tummy.

Personally, after trying the Balloon Breath with my older child, I saw awareness transform in his eyes and an engaging conversation afterwards. It’s as if he woke up a little. And after trying the Candle and Flower technique, a joyful smile erupted from my daughter’s face. As a mom, if I can get a sparkle in their eyes and a sunny smile from just breathing, you can bet that I’ll be continuing our big breaths frequently!

You will see that by taking meaningful and conscious breaths, they are forced to be silent, and present, in a chronically busy world. A small amount of silence will “… bring peace, healing, joy, simplicity, and truth” says Dr. Helen E. Lees, author of Silence in Our Schools.

Being present with a sliver of silence may help anyone in modern childhood. Today’s children are always-on due to their busy schedules and ever present technology that keeps them ramped up and perpetually worn out. Give them the gift of accessing the present moment through a big, deep breath – a portable tool that is accessible to them anytime, for life.

We begin each Imagination Yoga class with three big, full yoga breaths because we know the numerous positive benefits from this simple action. Please share with us a technique that works for you and your family, as well as any positive results.