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#expatmom vs #expatdad

The figures speak for themselves.

On instagram the term #expatmom has been used 77.7k times, whilst #expatdad only 1000+.

Then there’s
#expatwoman 103k
versus
#expatman 100+

Interesting figures eh?

Clearly expat women are using instagram a lot compared to men, but I’m not sure it’s that simple.

I have a lot of questions.

  1. Is it because women are more commonly the accompanying partner and have to create and claim their own identity?
  2. Is it because men just simply communicate differently to women?
  3. Is it because accompanying partners (mostly women) are the primary care giver for children and therefor name their role?
  4. Is it because social media is a way of keeping in touch with family ‘back home’. Perhaps it’s women who maintain the family connections more?
  5. Is it because men don’t give a shit about social media?
  6. Is it because Instagram focuses on filters, manufactured life, and beauty and those standards are still placed heavily on women to conform?
  7. Is it because men do not know what hashtags are?
  8. Is it because….nothing…. I’m looking for answers where there are none?

It’s more than gender.
As of October 2020, women ranked higher than men in their instagram usage in all age brackets, except 25-34, where men were 0.6% higher. None of the age groups had more than a 2% difference.

So we know that the difference in #expatman and #expatwoman is not based on the male vs female. These figures are also exceptually binary and do not acknowledge the diversity of all genders.

So it must be to do with being an expat

A 2011 study confirmed that ‘female expatriates are better adjusted than males overall and significantly so in the areas of building and maintaining relationships with host nationals’.

But that’s old data you say. Things are different now.

No they’re not.

In 2018, the International Federation of International Movers referred to research which revealed that 71% of men were accompanied by wives/partners, compared to only 26% of female expats.

That’s a big difference!

Progress in expatriate gender equality is slow – and even slower for same-sex couples where homosexual ‘activity’ is still illegal in 73 countries.

The presence of unconscious gender bias limits opportunities for women. Whilst 40% of the global workforce are women, only 15-25% of international assignees are women (2017 data).

To add insult to injury, 80% of male employees believe their company to be gender neutral whilst only 44% of women believe the same (2017 data).

This goes some way towards explaining the different roles that men and woman are experiencing in overseas postings.

However, regardless of who takes the lead assignment, that 71% of men who are accompanied by their female partners are still #men and #dads. Those roles do not diminish just because they’re the ‘lead’ person for the assignment.

Instagram is not the be all and end all of communication, but it does raise some interesting questions.
There’s certainly something different happening in how men and woman express their experiences of an overseas posting.

So what do we know?

  • Men are pretty much equally interested in using social media compared to women
  • Men do actually use hashtags, albeit they use them differently – ‘observations’, rather than women’s more expressive/conversational hastags
  • Women are less represented in the lead assignment
  • Men are still #expatdad and #expatman regardless of being the assignment lead


What’s left?

I believe it comes down to communication style and the need to create purpose in one’s life.

I don’t want to fall victim to gender stereotypes, as there are enormous variations in the norm.

However, as a general rule (and don’t bust my balls here), women look to communication to create connection and to build relationships. Men are more about negotating status and independence (offering advice etc).

So if instagram is anything to go by, female accompanying spouses are working hard to create connection and build a life.

They’re digging deep. They’re fighting hard for their families. They’re creating purpose through helping the community and building their portable businesses. They’re adapting. They’re succeeding. And they’re building relationships rapidly so that the sense of ‘home’ arrives quickly before it is taken again with a new assignment.

And they do this with the knowledge of SONDER.

SONDER
n.
The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

– The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

I love this more than I can express.
I champion the women who do it naturally and
I champion the incredible women who adeptly create ‘home’ on a regular basis with ever changing parameters.

Cath x

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An invitation

Maps…They’re the best open invitation.

– Richard Glover

That’s quite a phrase isn’t it?

There’s a delectable sense of discovery and anticipation held within those few words.

Spoken by Richard Glover in his book, George Clooney’s Haircut and other cries for help, this phrase really struck me.

I guess it summed up everything I’ve always thought about maps.
Having trained as a landscape architect, much of my university life was spent designing and exploring the world through the aerial perspective.

For most people maps are for planning holidays, or the car trip discomfort.
I’m sure that many couples have nearly reached divorce because the chosen ‘navigator’ has misread the map or the vital road intersection happens to land on the map fold – the same fold that has now turned into a hole on the paper from repeated foldings.

Perhaps the introduction of GPSs has saved many a relationship?!

To me, there’s a beauty to maps.

As you trace your finger along the roads, you begin to imagine what each place looks like; the place names conjuring up images in your mind. Half the fun of planning a holiday or an overseas trip is in the preparation; pouring over a map before you leave.

In many Australian maps, place names offer insight into human hardships.

LAKE DISAPPOINTMENT
credit: Summerdrought

Mount Misery and Lake Disappointment so acutely describe the state that British explorers found themselves in hundreds of years ago. Yet, Anglo names do nothing to describe the massacres, traumas and desecration of the local indigenous people who called and still call these places home. Other names written out of history.

As artistic masterpieces, maps can be exquisitely detailed and take you on a journey through the creative mind of the artist.

Other maps allow you to explore communities that once lived.
Personally I really enjoy looking at the old parish maps.

Parish maps are beautifully simple with just a few lines making up the boundary of the cemetery and delineating the different denominations. Which denominations were the most revered and the most influential in the town is also evident. The ‘best’ denominations were those that could be accessed without having to venture through another denomination’s land.

The desire for street frontage still rules!

BOMBALA PARISH MAP

Then there’s simple mud maps, drawn quickly to help a friend find your house in the countryside.

‘Mud maps’ reveal much about the creator. In an attempt to help you find the destination, the creator includes prominent points of interest – defining locations to help you on your way.

But it’s not simply a map.

It’s a code that reveals more about the individual than we might realise.

I notice natural features; the trees, the rocks, watercourses as well as the absence of such soulful features. I love trees – everything about them. So for me, my mud map might describe the road turn-off by the enormous Eucalyptus that stands on the corner, the trunk that glows brightly at sunset.

Other people might instead, notice the new brick house on the same corner, its double garage and carport featuring prominently – something which passes me by.

And so in using someone else’s mud map, we follow their journey and gain an insight into their loves, their interests and their life.

We might not know it.
They might not know it either, but there’s a subtle insight into that person’s internal dialogue.

As Richard Glover says about maps, ‘they’re an open invitation’.

It’s an invitation to find out more.

Cath x

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What language should we use?

Most of us don’t really think much about the words we use on a daily basis.

Picture yourself down at the pub or sitting chatting with a friend in a café.

As you’re recounting a tale, it’s about the story.
You’re not thinking about how to talk. You just do it.

Occasionally it gets more exciting as you get to the bit when you found £20 blowing down the street or the opposite happens.
Your tone of voice changes as you describe something that upset you at work or at home.
….but you still just recount the story.

There’s not a lot of time spent choosing the words to use.
For most of us, it’s such an automatic process that you don’t have to think about how to speak.

What do words really tell you?

In 2013, I spent a week in Romania as part of the CHIST program (Cultural Heritage, Interpretation and Sustainable Tourism). Travelling as a heritage interpretation specialist, I was keen to try to understand what really makes Romania tick. I wanted to try to find out what are the subtleties of Romanian culture that an average tourist might miss.

We spent the week in north’s Maramures region, famous for its historic wooden churches.

I’ve never been great at languages and my school-girl French is passable for buying train tickets, ordering breakfast etc, but Romanian? Not even on my radar.

We were lucky to be accompanied by a guide who spoke fluent English, but this started me thinking about how different our experience might have been without her. Would we have got under the skin of Romania in the same way? As an outsider, does the language barrier determine our enjoyment and/or whether we might choose to return to the country?

Similarly, when you live in another country, do you enjoy it more when you speak the language?
Or is the enjoyment in the adventure of not knowing?

Do we need to understand language?

Towards the end of our Romanian week, we visited an old prison, the Memorialul durerii in Sighet.
As a ‘favourite’ place to torture prisoners in the communist era, many prisoners died here.

The prison held stories of great pain and suffering – important stories to tell the world.
With English as my language I was frustrated at not being able to read the detailed information. Limited to the simple English captions and various pictures, much of the greater details was lost on me.

However, what was overwhelmingly powerful was the cell with no words.
Emotionally profound. Simple. Straight to the point.

Sometimes words are too much. The profundity of the experience was all that was needed.
Whatever our language…and whatever our age, we are all human.

We all understood this cell.


In this particular cell, prisoners were shackled to the ground for 24 hours a day in the dark. They were only allowed to stand.

Empty cell with spotlighted shackles.

I watched a boy of about ten walk up to the chains in the middle of the floor.

He squatted down deep in thought and touched the shackles with his left hand, whilst with his right, he held the cross hanging around his neck.

He stayed there.
He stayed crouched for a couple of minutes.

No words for him to read, but a powerful connection seemed to be made and it was profound to observe.

We predominanly use words to communicate. It’s how we connect with people. But it makes me wonder, what do we miss if we only use words?

How can we change our interactions with people?
Rather than feeling a lack of words when we can’t speak a foreign language, what if we saw it as an opportunity to connect more deeply via non verbal means?

Some of my most favourite memories of travel have been connecting with someone when we didn’t speak each other’s language. The nods, the smiles, an awkward gesture, a desperate need to communicate with limited means. Lost in the back streets of Nha Trang in Vietnam, it was acutely apparent to me that tourists did NOT walk down these streets.

To my left I saw a tiny wizzened little old lady standing on her top step. She saw me, pointed in shock, laughed enormously in delight and started clapping. I could still hear her laughing and clapping as I went around the corner. She wasn’t laughing at me. I was just the last thing she expected to see that day. Her enjoyment was palpable.

What about diversity of language in our communities?

In terms of identity and belonging, my focus is about exploring dualites – within local communities and also within ourselves.

If we look at tourism and its need to provide multi languages for tourism, are we negating our local communities?
They too are sometimes as diverse of the foreigners that visit. Local people visit museums, heritage sites etc too.

The 2013 UK census revealed that Polish was the second most spoken language in England and Wales. In line with supporting social inclusion, should the UK now include Polish on all museum information panels?

At what point does immigration impact the way in which we approach human connection and the supply of local information?
At what point do we become local?

The history of immigration and multiculturalism fascinates me. We can hold several identities at once and also none at all, other than human.

The nuances are varied. The duality within us can feel a million miles apart or as close as a whisper.

And I think this all relates to communication – how we communicate to ourself and how we communicate to others.

By all means use language. It’s powerful, but so are no words.

No words speak to people’s hearts – and that’s where true connection happens.

Cath

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Are you mentally land-locked or island nation?

Growing up in an island nation, you hear the rhetoric.

Island nations benefit from being able to control their borders more easily.
No warring neighbours. No being hemmed in by another country. No case of anyone being too close.

By nature of it being the opposite, land-locked therefore means, loose borders, neighbours far too close and being enclosed.

Well that’s at least what some want you to think.

Personally I think that’s bollocks, bull and a crock of shit.
(Does that cover enough cultural expressions of “I don’t agree”?)

It comes from an insular standpoint that says more about your internal mindset than anything else.

“Islands are metaphors of the heart, no matter what poet says otherwise.”

― Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry

Islands are also separate from, on their own and unconnected.

I’m not saying that island nations encompass this in any way other than their physicality.
In people however, the metaphor is twofold.

1: It represents the ‘look after me, stuff you’ attitude which is devasting for those who are considered ‘other’.
AND
2: You’re protecting yourself emotionally.

I think that both decisions are made from a position of fear.

The first threatens what is known and familiar, the second, threatens to hurt our heart.

It’s scary, so we barricade rather than face ourselves – or we project onto others and blame someone else for what’s going on inside us.

This is why island nation mentality is so dangerous.

Ostracizing the ‘Other’

When we are confronted by difference and by people we don’t understand, it’s easy to attribute blame anywhere else but ourselves.
It’s their fault.

In reality, they probably haven’t done anything.
For whatever reason, just their mere existence has triggered you. And it’s triggered you, because you can’t wrap it up neatly in your mind with your known and familar experiences.

Humans like to be able to understand. It helps us to assess threat and to feel safe and comfortable in our environment. When we don’t understand something and can’t compartmentalise it, it becomes threatening.

Simply put. We don’t know where we stand and that makes us feel vulnerable.

None of us like to feel vulnerable so we shift to the other person. They’re to blame.

The homeless person makes us feel uncomfortable because we don’t know how to behave around them.

We avert our eyes from the beggar, because we don’t want to feel guilty by not giving them money.

We smile slightly patronisingly at the child with cerebral palsy and their parent. If we were comfortable we’d ignore them like any other passer-by.

We avoid the hearing impaired staff member because we might get awkward and embarrassed in trying to communicate with them.

Does any of this feel familiar?
Good.

It’s awkward isn’t it?
It’s awkward because I see you. I see me too.

You see, the only thing this thought process and behaviour does is isolate people.

Otherness isolates

It creates division, prejudice and suffering.

We are all someone else’s ‘OTHER’

It’s all about us, NOT the other person.

But it’s the other that suffers.

I’ve spoken to homeless people who say that all they want is to have a normal human conversation. A human conversation. That’s not a lot to ask is it?

But it’s also everything.

So let’s put us aside.

In opening ourselves we not only bring people in from the margins, but we also remove our own fears and discomforts. Everyone become known.

Do it enough times and it becomes your normal.

and best of all….?

It becomes their normal too.

Cath x

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Dog-lost in Transition

Spare a thought for our pets.

Imagine the shame.

You’re a French Bulldog and it’s not until your human family move to France that you realise you don’t speak French.

You live in hope for their next move.

They decide on Burkina Faso.
Merde!

It’s the only French word you know.
You remember back. A young labrador I met in the park taught me that. I think it means ‘Yes!

But Burkina Faso is only a two year posting, so that’s okay.

I’ve heard we’re moving to Belgium next or maybe Mali. “Merde!!”

How often do we think about our pets in this way?

They are part of our family and they come with us when we move.

Well…. mostly.

Sometimes a pet suddenly doesn’t appear in the family photos anymore and you know it’s stayed behind with a new family.

Animals are sentient beings and like humans, need to adjust to new locations and new routines. I’ve always thought positively about giving family pets to a new family or equally, taking them with you when you relocate.

Honestly, no judgement.

They will follow suit and fit in with life wherever, but….. and this is a big BUT…

I now know I was wrong.

They do adapt, but having done 3 years of work for one of the UK’s best animal rescue centres, I’ve learnt about all the subtle layers that we don’t see and maybe don’t want to see.

Animals miss their humans. They get depressed. They are intelligent and need stimulation. Before the rescue centre allowed people to become a ‘forever home’ for one of their rescue animals, there was a stringent process to follow.

Potential adopters were often shocked, at the indepth process and that they could be refused.

Beloved pets – the love goes both ways.

Do we do the same before we hand over our pets to friends before we relocate to our next posting?

Sometimes, they can’t come with us, but do we understand the needs of our animal enough to make the right decisions about their future home? Can we, if we’ve only known them in our company?

Are you aware of the impact of new surroundings, new noises and new scents – and what they may translate as to your pet?

Will the new family be able to offer as much stimulation or are they out at work all day? Do you know how your animal lives naturally, as apposed to in captivity? Does it matter?

Turquoise-fronted amazons are one of the most common amazon parrots kept in captivity.

Most parrots pair for life. As highly intelligent social creatures they need the company of other parrots. Keeping a parrot as a pet is time consuming. Humans need to supply the bird with all the things the bird would get naturally. Can the new family do this?

People can also be unaware that ordinary home odours like scented candles, air fresheners, Teflon frying pan vapours and aerosols may also harm parrots. Do the new family know this?

Emotional Needs

It’s not just your pet’s physical needs.

In 2002, the rescue centre I worked for acquired a depressed Amazon parrot, named Peter. His elderly owner had asked that after his death, his much loved bird should live at the centre. Parrots are intelligent social creatures that need a lot of attention. Peter had been with his owner for 32 years and found it difficult to adjust to life at the centre. Thirty year-old Ben, another of their elderly Amazon parrots, was also depressed having lost his female partner. The centre tentatively put them together and within five minutes they were both laughing, shouting and screaming in extreme excitement. They had become their old selves instantly. However, they found that Peter was actually a hen bird and was known as Petra from then on!

Back to the Bulldog

I started out making jokes about the French Bulldog, but I’m kinda serious too.

I think we can take it for granted that our pets will cope. We worry about the flight, especially if it’s a long one, but as long they can get to us, then it’s all okay right?

Yes, mostly, but there’s also an adjustment period.

Who knows what all the new smells mean or what the new next door poodle said when it walked past?

I think we need to think about our pets in the same way that we think of our kids settling into a new school.

Makes allowances for nervous or poor behaviour and the ubiquituous accidental poo.

Cath x

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Crossing the road in….

Crossing the road in any country plunges you right into the national psyche. As you take your life in your hands – and it flashes before your eyes – you wonder, is today a good day to die.

It’s bloomin terrifying.

  1. Brain engage.
  2. Look left, or is that right?
  3. A tentative step forward. Your foot hasn’t hit the ground yet and you realise that pedestrian crossings are also known as ‘completely meaningless’
  4. You jump back scared, only to bump into the person behind you, who looks at you as though you’re an idiot and walks calmly across the road avoiding the motorbikes, cars, buses and trucks that shave past.
  5. I’ve just shat myself. I’m still on the curb.

Such was day one in India, 1990

….and day 2

…and day 3.

You do get used to it though. Your flight or fight response takes a Valium and you eventually cross the road with ease….until the next country.

Testing the Theory

When I decided to settle in the UK, I had to take the ‘Life in Britain Test’.

As my wife jokes, “how many people in Wales put a red sock on their left foot on Wednesdays?”
Well, not quite, but we’d all benefit from some different questions.

Learn about the Royal family? Or… learn how not to die whilst crossing the road?
Tough choice every time.

I’m inclined to go with the Royals. Prince Harry is a red-head after all. We have a bond, you know? It goes deep. And he’s now also an expat, so….

But, needs must.

I pick ‘not dying whilst crossing the road’.

Based on my completion of the highly accredited course – ‘You’ve Shat Yourself to Suave Moves Across the Road in 30 Days’, I’m generously offering you some free top-tips, based on highly spurious generalisations and gross simplications.

Ready?

Me neither.

Cath’s Cleverly-Cunning TOP 5 TIPS

(also known as Cath’s stupidity)*

#TOP-TIP 1

Wear a brightly coloured shirt so that drivers can aim for you at speed before diverting at the last minute. This works particularly well in France. You’ll stand out better at a distance. It’s great too for testing your flight or fight response.

These long straight roads work wonders with target practice.

#TOP-TIP 2

Wear shoes that are slightly too big for you, so that you trip on a pothole and stagger inelegantly across the road, half-bent half-upright, hoping that half-upright wins the day. And then it doesn’t. This technique is particularly useful when you want to blend in and share a joke with the locals. Carrying luggage can make it even more effective.

He doesn’t know how well he’s about to blend in.

#TOP-TIP 3

A gormless look on your face is a superb way to slow the traffic before you even step out onto the road. If you’re lucky you’ll find 3-4 taxis stopping to see if you want a ride. It’s at this moment that you’ve got the best chance of getting across the road.

This isn’t failsafe though because your inept tourist-level language skills mean that you’ve accidentally said ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’ to the drivers. However, it’s also one of the best options because you’ll have an amazing chat to the driver when he reveals that he speaks your language perfectly – and you realise that you have much more personal growth ahead of you than you realised.

#TOP_TIP 4

This is an oldie, but a goodie and works every time. Just as you get near the other side of the road, step in an old pool of water whilst wearing sandles. Like really step in it deep and proper. That way, your parent will have to scoop you up quick as a flash and run you across the remaining distance to clean your feet thoroughly. You don’t want to risk catching bilharzia from contaminated water.

#TOP-TIP 5

Slightly different to #TOP-TIP 3, but equally useful – my best tip for crossing the road is to not cross one at all.

Stand by the side of the road and get into a stranger’s car when they slow down. You’ll discover it’s not an UBER after about 4 mins. You’ll freak out discreetly, but the real benefit comes when the driver starts talking and acting strangely. It’s still good though because you learn how to remain calm and after all, you’ll avoid having to walk to the airport and all the roads you’d have been forced to cross. Genius!

Who was this man and how on earth does one get into a complete stranger’s car???

And you thought crossing the road was easy.

I’m fast going off the Prince Harry option and will start advocating for ‘not dying whilst crossing the road’ to be included in every country’s entrance test.

You with me?

Cath x

*My disclaimer – Please do not try any of these tips! This is a satirical piece for the purposes of prooving I’ve survived my stupid actions 🙂

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What’s your secret and how do you feel about it?

Twice, in my life I’ve had to ‘come out’. Say that phrase and to many it means coming out as gay. Yep, done that one. But it was the other that took me by surprise.

I grew up in a non-religious family. I never went to church except for funerals and weddings. It was a desperately uncomfortable space for me. It felt make-believe and as though everyone was being conned.

‘Faith’ as a good thing was a foreign concept to me. All I knew of it was it being used as a weapon to control people and the damage done in its name. For me that was Aboriginal people who had been forcibly removed off Country and put into missions to convert them to the Christian way.

In short, I always thought anything spiritual was a crock of shit.

Then in 2008 things started happening to me that I couldn’t explain….

I just ‘knew’ things that came true – information I could not have known. I had visions. I saw people in my dreams before they died 36 hours later. I could tell people specific details about their deceased relatives – people I’d never met. I saw people I knew in car accidents that then happened a week later exactly as I’d seen them happen.

In short, I thought anything spiritual was a crock of shit.

– Cath

Try getting your head around that, when you think it’s all a crock of shit! Not easy.

Fast forward 13 years and a chunk of Shamanic training, and this is now my every day.


I’m no ‘fluffy bunny’ type. I’m visceral, candid and work with a discerning gut.

Who is this woman?! hahaha

It’s not something I ever thought I’d be owning as part of my identity. And I certainly never expected to ‘out’ myself a second time to the people who were with me during the ‘crock of shit’ phase.

White sage is used as an incense and for cleansing.

Claiming Your Identity

What are the things in your life that you hide? What are those parts of you that are worthy of you ‘outing’ yourself? The funny thing is that some ‘outings’ fall completely flat. We anticipate reactions. We build them up in our heads. We work out ways to justify who we are and to counteract any resistance.

That’s a lot of energy there isn’t it? All that effort.

So what if we were bolder and brave enough to show who we are?

I know that can be scary and there’s always the fear of being hurt or of an unpleasant reaction. But we can’t not do it. It’s too important.

Why?

If you’re feeling resistance, consider this.

Identity goes to the core of who we are. That’s why it’s scary. It’s meaningful and it’s personal.

So if you’re hiding that part of you, who are you really hiding from? Is it others or yourself?
Living authentically is so much more enjoyable. Take it from me. When I told a close relative that I was gay, he said that he was glad that that’s all it was. He’d been worried about me as I hadn’t been myself. He’d noticed that I didn’t seem happy.

After that ‘outing’ everything changed. Everyone noticed it too. Everyone commented on how I felt lighter, more positive, more of a free spirit. I felt different too – a weight had gone.

And I also noticed the change when I started working Shamanically. By being honest with myself about who I am, I could see how much better I was. More at ease, a quieter mind and nicer to be around – ask my wife!

When we’re at our best everyone benefits.

I now even work with clients who are seeking spiritual guidance and healing.

Occasionally I pinch myself to remind myself that this part of my life is real, this identity. It’s so far from where I once thought I’d end up.

But then I think of the people I’ve helped and I know that’s been good. When clients give me feedback, I know I’m on the right track.

“I was ill prepared however, for the true depth of what Cath was able to do for me.”

– N.H.

“Two years ago, eight years after the death of our daughter my husband and I were both at a very low ebb. Cath was very gentle, respectful and totally non judgemental. We are both enormously grateful to Cath for the inner peace she has brought us.

Debbie

I love helping people and I love doing what I do. Now, I can’t imagine not working Shamanically.

But even more so, I can’t imagine not being able to help people through some of the most difficult times in their lives. It’s a huge privilege to be invited into that space and I’m incredibly humbled by those who do.

And that’s not going away anytime soon.

This Shamanic woman is here to stay……with her ever changing identity.

Cath x

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Debunking Myths and Illustrating Identity

“In our culture we respect the person, regardless of the look. We don’t look on the outside. It’s the inside.”

– Crystal, a Transgender Tiwi Islander (on the BBC’s ‘Miriam Margoyles – Almost Australian)

These words were part of a conversation with 5 Tiwi Islanders – all transgender women, about whether or not they’ve had ‘bottom surgery’ (also known as gender reassignment surgery).

It’s a common question. Why it’s anyone else’s business still flummoxes me, but for many TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) it seems to be all about the male ‘member’ and primarily, the fear of its use in predation. One of the Tiwi Islander sisters, (the way they refer to themselves), goes on to say “it’s just there for decoration”.

This is the BBC’s series, ‘Miriam Margoyles – Almost Australian‘, in which Margoyles, a British actress and new Australian citizen, takes a 2 month journey around Australia to find out what it means to be Australian.

She doesn’t hold back. The conversations are fantastically open and honest.

In broader society the concept of ‘decoration’ versus predation creates an instant clash. One group sees it as a weapon, whilst for the other, it can be almost immaterial to their internal identity.

Margoyles continues, “Crystal tells me, the Tiwi Islands are home to Australia’s largest per captita transgender population and they have been part of the community, its life and traditions since time immemorial“.

THIS is significant and one of the reasons I decided to write this blog.

So many people think that being transgender is new. It’s not.

Tiwi Islands in the north of Australia (credit: Google maps)

Debunking the myths

Over this last weekend I’ve been involved in lengthy conversations on Facebook about transgender people. There is so much misinformation and fear out there and where possible I try to counter the opinions with more factual information.

Knowing that I do “Talk-Back Tuesday – a live session on Facebook where I answer questions about LGBTQIA+ stuff, a friend tagged me in a conversation on a mutual friend’s page – “Get in here Cath Brew”.

So I got in there.

My preferred way of writing includes calm polite conversation no matter how ‘expressive’ the other parties get. I’ve learnt over the years that they expect a fight and they come out fighting very early on – mostly because that’s what they get back. This is the issue with discussions around trans issues. Debates become toxic very quickly and often end up with participants slanging insults at each other.

Whilst our views may differ, I am proud that two of them thanked me for my kind and polite comments.

If I’m sarcastic back or equally ‘expressive’, no one wins.

So why write about it here?

Because on Sunday afternoon as I was driving home I passed a transgender woman we know. She was glowing from the inside out as she walked in the sunshine. I smiled, but was reminded of the times I’ve heard her talk about being hassled, about being threatened and of seeing her standing alone in pubs with no one talking with her. So I write this for her and every other trans person.

I want her to be seen and not feared.

I want all trans people to be supported and not subjugated.

Setting the record straight

Much of my work with Drawn to a Story is about ‘centring the margins’. By illustrating the experiences of marginalised people, I hope to create safer spaces.

In continuation of the weekend’s Facebook discussions, here are some clarifications of common myths about Transgender people.

Being Transgender is not a mental illness

Gender dysphoria is not a mental disorder. Some people however can develop mental health problems as a result, particularly because of how society may treat them.
https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/gender-dysphoria/

Pedophilia has nothing to do with being transgender

Foucault’s queer theory is often quoted as ‘proof’ that being queer and that the + in the acronymn LGBTQIA+ includes pedophiles as it’s different to the hetero binary social norm. Firstly, a theorist does not define our lives. I think it is worth considering that a theory is just that, a theory. Other queer theorists speak differently, yet focus is always brought back to Foucault. It bothers me intensely that pedophilia is again linked to our community. It becomes a biased generalisation. I think Foucault’s theory feeds into unconscious bias and proves the whole point that queerness is ‘othered’ by the dominant heteronormative society and therefore demonises genuine queer as a result.

The + does not include pedophiles. Most pedophiles are actually straight, so why are they lumped in with the LGBTQIA+ community? This is my problem. Queer is different than, not ‘deviant or deviant from’. The + can also stand for straight allies, but no one ever links the straight part to pedophiles. It’s always linked to our community and spread with motives behind it. The propaganda used to be that gay men were all pedophiles, now it’s trans people. It just shifts to whomever is deemed the weakest link. Please don’t confuse pedophilia with being queer and/or transgender. We have a hard enough time without this falseness being added to us.

Being transgender is as old as humans have existed. It’s not new.

Many people assume that being transgender is a new trendy thing and that society has only ever had two genders. My first comment is always, “Which society are you referring to?”

Trans people have always existed, just like Crystal the transgender Tiwi Islander woman expressed. There are also gender queer and different relationships in the Bible, but that’s a WHOLE other topic.

Franciscans in the 1650s talked about men and boys who dressed like women in Pakistan. The ancient Kama Sutra talks about sexual acts being performed by women of a third sex. The Hijra in India are one of the oldest non-binary identities, despite the British trying to ‘erase’ India’s third gender.

In Native American nations, ‘two-spirit’ people represent a third and fourth gender and in some nations, up to six genders. They are the healers, visionaries, and medicine people. “Amongst different Siberian nations (tribes to colonialists) one finds a variety… men taking on womens roles and tasks, wearing womens clothes, marrying a man or woman. Same with women.” (taken from a personal conversation with a Tuvan shaman)

Hijras in India are considered holy people.
Hijra and companions in Bengal, 1860s.
We’wha (1849-1896) was a two spirit Native American who shared much of her culture. Read More.

It really isn’t new. It’s just that people talk about it more.

All human embryos, as do all mammals, start as female. Around the 2nd month, maleness develops (if it’s going to). With the enormous range of differences we see in medicine, it’s only natural that the same happens with gender, and therefore natural that crossovers occur.

There’s so much more I could add here, but I’ll leave any questions you have for “Talk-Back Tuesday.

You can ask your questions anonymously here or ask them on the Facebook Live at 2pm BST on Tuesdays.

Cath x

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What Makes Us Human?

“Because there was still some human in me….

– Sergeant Rudy Reyes, US Marine

Systematically trained to kill people, Sergeant Rudy Reyes was shown people’s heads being shot off to desensitize him.

Speaking in the BBC’s documentary Once Upon A Time in Iraq, which aired in the UK last week, Reyes talked about being part of an elite group of marines. ‘When I saw that, I looked inside myself and said, “I don’t know if I have what it takes to do this”. Because there was still some human in me.’

There’s still some human in me….

Those words stayed with me.


I was struck how rarely I’ve thought about what it means to be human. As is the norm, I go about my daily life, its highs and lows and all the bits in between, but never have I had cause to ask, what makes me human?

I know too well, that not having to think about that question means that I’ve lived a privileged life. Apart from distant observance, human rights haven’t been pushing at my doorstep.

That’s because I have them.

What makes us human?

Simply put, the most obvious answer is ‘genetics’ and how we are distinguished from other species. If your mind is already thinking about our links with the ‘Chimpanzee family’, Sir Walter Bodmer, Professor of Genetics at the University of Oxford will not disagree. Whilst humans share 99% of chimpanzee sequence, he refers to the 1% that we don’t share, as giving a massive amount of space for ‘significant differences’ *

Phew! So that random strangely course hair I find on my… ahem…. that a woman finds on her chin sits within the 1% and not the 99%? Grand. Makes me feel so much better.

I once read that the difference between ‘Modern man’ and the previous species was that as homo sapiens we couldn’t leave the deceased where they fell by simply walking away. We needed to deal with the body and during that evolutionary shift, we were most likely to bury the person.

I recount this because genetics are one thing. Most of us can’t fathom our genetics with any detailed knowledge, so I find myself going to more tangible things that I can grasp. Bury your dead. That seems human to me.

I would also suggest that in a diverse cultural and global context, ‘bury your dead’ now needs to be exapanded out to a ‘ritual goodbye of the deceased’.

So what does ‘being human’ have to do with identity and belonging?

There are a range of accepted contributions to what it means to be human – bigger brains, cognitive ability, cooking, language, curiosity and quest, and we have a ‘deep social mind’ which means that we are more social than any other animal on earth.**

Now, the scientists among you are going to cringe when I say this, but I want to ignore genetics and scientific explanations…….

I want to ask you what it FEELS like to be human.

And as you start to think about this, you’ll find that it taps into areas of your soul that link to Identity and Belonging. This question forces you to think about what you value, what feeds your soul like nothing else does, what makes you feel happy and potentially what brings up a range of uncomfortable emotions – especially which you may not have yet admitted to yourself?

So – What does it feel like to you to be human?

Is it the connectivity of your closest relationships?

This taps into:

  • You needing to verbalise what YOU want from a close relationship
  • How YOU need to connect
  • Whether you know YOUR own identity and not just the identity of you as a couple.

Is it that you dream of bigger things for your life and your family?

This taps into:

  • Your hopes and dreams and whether you are living them already or not – and if not, do you feel that you are living the real YOU?
  • Do you feel that you belong with your family or are you at odds? If you’re at odds, how do you feel about that? How does that impact you and your sense of self?

Credit: @ToluBamwo from nappy.co

Is it that you explore the laws of the universe and all that is beyond yourself?

This taps into:

  • What does it mean to be you?
  • Where do you feel you belong in the Universe?
  • How do you relate to the world around you and why?
Credit: @ToluBamwo from nappy.co

These are just a few of the questions that you can ask yourself.

I guarantee that when you ask yourself ‘What makes me human?, you will delve into the deepest parts of who you are.

If you say it’s your emotions, which emotions? Why? Why are they important to you? What will you tolerate and not tolerate? What does that say about your identity? What values do you align with? What triggers you emotionally? Why?

See.

Asking ‘what makes you human?’ is only the beginning of the conversation.

So where do I stand on being human?

How I feel is eloquently captured by Roland Barthes in his book, Mythologies.

For me, being human means that we deal with the ‘goodness of wine, not with the wine itself‘.

Personally, this simple phrase captures the richness of being human.
It creates space for each and every single one of the layers that create our internal conversation.

The internal conversation that makes up who we feel we are and where we feel we belong.

And so I ask you again….

What does it feel like to you to be human?

Cath x

*Bodmer, W. (2009) ‘Foreword’ – What Makes Us Human, One World Publications, pg.ix
**Whiten, A. (2009) The Place of ‘Deep Social Mind’ in the Evolution of Human Nature, One World Publications, pg.146

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Not fitting-in is your Superpower

When I arrived in England, my partner gave me a book.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but Watching the English: the Hidden Rules of English Behaviour would become my bible.

Kate Fox’s book is a marvellous addition to any expat’s research on England. I read it, but like so many things about culture, it didn’t really sink in until I’d experienced the things I read about.

My now wife and I met at a conference, a death conference to be precise.
As you do…

We sat next to each other the first night at dinner and the rest, as they say is history.

But it seems I only made it by the skin of my teeth, or rather the teeth on my fork.

Unbeknown to me and outside of the rules of English behaviour, I had no idea that on that first night, I held my knife and fork correctly. We’ve joked about it ever since. Held it wrongly and we wouldn’t be married…

The Knife Holding Rule

Page 316 talks about the knife holding rule, whether the handle goes under your palm or rests like a pencil between your thumb and index finger.

I jest about whether I would have passed the test to marriage. But it gets more extreme. When we met, Angie ate a pot of yogurt with a fork, because she didn’t want to move away from me to get a spoon. Sweet huh, but oh so wrong!

I jest, but these social rules about eating utensils are the key to opening up the whole world to English social history – the history of class. It’s certainly a fascinating insight into a country when you understand where it’s come from culturally and socially.

In one sentence, whether your midday meal is lunch or dinner, or whether your evening meal is supper or tea tells someone exactly what your social standing is.

I don’t say this to judge. I’m not judging.

This is historically how England operated. Your social behaviour, the words you used, the tone of your voice, your mannerisms – so much was and is revealed.

This history of class was part of shaping the nation. Your social status defined what you could achieve, what doors opened to you and how others viewed you.

The influence of class on identity

As an outsider arriving newly to a country you observe in ways that you might not as an insider.

I’ve often wondered about the infamous English reserve and where it comes from.

I still don’t know, but I can’t help but think about the impact of class. I may be wrong, but historically, if the minute you open your mouth you’re judged, then you’re going to keep it shut aren’t you? Whilst there are many other signs, your behaviour is also going to be more measured to not let out any hints.

Is this where English reserve comes from? I wonder?

The outsider’s view

Whilst time has evolved English society considerably, its history remains present and influential.

When I arrived in the UK, I worked in the field of heritage management. All my experience was Australian history and so I was a little concerned about how I might fit in working with English history, of which I knew very little.

But being an outsider was my genius zone!
It put me in a powerful position that I hadn’t considered.

I could get to the heart of things.

Someone said to me, “As an outsider, you’re in a really powerful position. You’re not part of our social history or class system. You can ask the questions we know we’re not allowed to ask.”

Wow!

That blew my mind and I suddenly realised that I didn’t need to fit. My value and strength was precisely that I was different.

So, I asked away. It enabled me to have conversations that locals couldn’t in normal work settings. Professionally, it became my asset. People hear my Australian accent and I’m allowed a space that others aren’t. My accent attracts other comments, sometimes not friendly, but that’s their shit not mine.

The longer I’ve lived and worked here, the more I knew what I couldn’t ask, but with my accent I was still given open access.

Make the most of how you don’t fit

For all the people out there who are struggling to find a sense of belonging where you live, remember that your difference is your asset.

Whether you’re an expat, relocated 100 miles down the road, or maybe moved to another State or region, you will experience a period of adjustment. It’s easy to fit in because it feels safer.

However, my advice?

Don’t try to fit.
As I stated in the American Express magazine, AMEX Essentials, belonging comes from within

And the best bit?

You really want to know?

Your ability to not fit is your superpower.

Cath x