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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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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

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There’s Truth and then there’s TRUTH

Together

We know our truth.

Well at least we think we do.

Two people can have a conversation and come away with different ideas as to what it was about.

There’s a lot of new age, feel good stuff out there at the moment about knowing your truth.

Be true to yourself
You can only be responsible for your own truth
– Find your truth and you find yourself

These are all well and good, but what does that actually mean?

Last Friday, in my regular Barefoot Friday I talked about what it’s like to live with a neurodiverse spouse. Barefoot Friday is live illustration and conversation in which I cover a range of subjects around Identity, Belonging and Expat Life. 

With half an hour to spare before I started, I said to my wife, ‘what am I going to do for Barefoot Friday? Nothing is coming to me. I want to do something simple, but powerful’.

My wife replied,

‘I’m simple….’

‘And powerful’.

We often joke about her being simple, like the happy bouncy dog that can only focus on the ball you are about to throw. I appreciated her nudge towards our inside joke.

‘Why don’t you talk about what it’s like to live with a neurodiverse partner?’ she said.
She was right. This felt good.

Barefoot Friday’s illustration from 5 June 2020

It’s not something I could have talked about once. I didn’t understand it.

My truth was frustration, pain, hurt and confusion.

Ang’s diagnosis of Dyspraxia at aged 50 and our belief now that she’s also got Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Autistic tendencies created a space to talk.
It turns out her truth had been frustration, pain, hurt and confusion.

Ang is now 61, so we’ve had 11 years to learn, negotiate communication that works for both of us, and find ways that mean we get what we need. It’s like anything in a marriage. It takes a commitment to each other to make it work.

So, my truth turned out to be her truth too, but from a different angle.

Finding your truth

In reality…

I didn’t find my truth as the new-age tells me. I found my wife.

My wife didn’t find her truth. She’d known it for a long time. She finally felt understood.

In talking about neurodiversity, I received feedback from another neurodiverse listener who stressed the importance of talking about the positives of neurodiverse people, not just the struggles.  They are right. Neurodiverse people have amazing skills and that will be the subject this week, but it got me thinking about truths again.

It was my wife who suggested the subject matter and she was very happy with it, but someone with a similar experience holds a different truth. Even when we speak the same language this disconnect exists.

In the expat context, imagine too, the added complications of different languages and culture. It’s a wonder that anyone ever understands anyone else!

Dyspraxia is classified by the World Health Organisation as a disability. The benefit of this means that diagnosis opens avenues for funding, support services and further public recognition – all of which has been invaluable for my wife.

However, and I know this is going to sound like I’m speaking from a position of Privilege, non-neurodiverse privilege, the majority, the main-stream…. but I’m going to say it anyway.

And I am saying it, because THIS is my truth.

There is limited support for people who are married to people with dyspraxia. You can find information and services to help with bringing up autistic and ADD children and if your partner is autistic, but dyspraxia? Not so much.

At one point I even contacted the Dyspraxia Foundation to ask if they had resources, but they didn’t. Rightly so, their focus is on helping dyspraxic people, but I do wonder about partners. Are they also hidden voices as they navigate neurodiversity? Resources for non-neurodiverse people would certainly also benefit their neurodiverse spouses and relationships.

Have I just given myself another project?

Navigating neurodiversity in a marriage

Both my wife and I will openly admit that it’s been a challenge to negotiate, individually and together, but we’ve done it well and we continue to. We are an amazing team and I wouldn’t change anything.

Being dyspraxic is as much part of your identity as having brown hair. THIS is the reason I am talking about this issue. Diversity is about understanding, acceptance, embracing and celebrating.

Not allowing space for the full spectrum of people is nothing short of rejection. Who do you reject without realising it or without being honest with yourself, because you can’t cope with their difference?

Living with a neurodiverse spouse can be really challenging, but so can living with a feisty red-headed Australian. We are just who we are. Angie has opened my eyes to the world in ways that I would never have looked it. My wife’s approach to life has given me a lot to think about and loosened me up, inspired me and helped me in numerous ways….

but to find out about that, you’ll have to watch this week’s Barefoot Friday (Friday 2pm BST) on Facebook.

Cath x

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The cultural limitation of being old

Old hands

We all think someone else is old until we get there ourselves.

Then….

We massage our mind to try to be at ease with the number before looking to name a new distant number as ‘old’.

Is it any wonder though? At least in a large proportion of the West.


We erase the older generation from our lives.

And I don’t mean physically. It’s bigger than that.

It’s a deeply seated attitude where ‘old people’ are socially sandwiched between residential care and dying.

They become less than human.

When was the last time you saw an elderly person involved in a romantic storyline on TV?

When was the last time you saw an elderly couple in a film sex scene?

I can’t remember either.

It’s not because it’s not happening in real life.

In the UK, 54% of men and 31% of women over 70 report still being sexually active with a third stating ‘frequently’.

So, why is it that society pretends it’s not happening? Is it because it makes us (the society that values youth) uncomfortable?

I know that there’s the awkward thought of your parents having sex. I’m sure mine only had it twice…9 months before I was born and the same for my sibling.

Seriously though, in the expat community we often talk about how others box us in, especially with the ‘Where are you really from?’ question. Often, the enquirer doesn’t like our answer because it doesn’t fit their predetermined limitation of one’s identity.

The same applies to the elderly.

We place limitations on what we expect suitable behaviour and identity to be, but in doing so, we impose our own identity and attitudes. Apply it enough and at some point, the social pressure becomes a lived reality.

Last year, there was an incredibly good TV program in Australia called Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds. I think it is my most favourite program ever on TV.

This unique social experiment brought older retirement home residents together with pre-schoolers, to see if their contact and connections could help the residents to lead happier and healthier lives.

The children placed no limitations on residents and the results were remarkable.

It got me thinking.

When we place limitations on others, we also limit ourselves. We assert our own fears. We lower our standards. We close our minds.

I do not think that Josephine Smith felt limited.

Meet Mrs. Josephine Smith, aged 84, whose hobby is digging graves, says the caption to this National Library of Australia photo.

Josephine Smith

Woah! Stop right there!

84 and digging graves as a hobby?

I think I am in love with that woman.

She certainly does not look like a woman who would take well to being treated as old. She is a prime example of the power of seeing the elderly very much as active members of society.

They have a lot to offer if we allow ourselves to see them. I am not saying that to be seen, they need to be as active as Josephine Smith.

Rather, let us look beyond our own lens of limitation. Wipe your murky glasses to help you see differently. You might find that you do not even need to wear glasses and a new perspective will reveal itself.

The integrity of any society can be judged by how well it treats its youngest and oldest members.

– Brian Atuhaire

We have a lot to learn about how other cultures treat their elderly.

Mediterranean and Latin American cultures often all live under the one roof. I remember reading an article years ago that talked about the elderly living longer in cultures where they lived with family. The simple fact was that they were not isolated.

In South Korea, it is an honourable duty to care for one’s parents.  In India, the elderly are the head of the household and respected for their wisdom and sage advice to younger family members. In Vietnam, Japan, and China they also live with family as do many other cultures.

So where does leave us?

I look to Josephine Smith.

I’ve made a deal with a friend that we will go running together when we are 75. Who knows if we’ll even reach 75. It might be more of a crawl, but I know one thing for certain.

I’m aiming high and, in the meantime, I’m going to aim high for the elderly in my life.

I might even ask how good they are on the end of a shovel.

Josephine would be proud.

Cath x

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The Cultural Implications of Fatness

I’ve heard it my whole life.

The one with a ‘lovely smile’ and ‘pre-Raphaelite hair’. I’m the woman with ‘brightly coloured shirts’ or the woman with a ‘lovely complexion’. Sometimes I’m the one with a ‘curvy figure’. Occasionally I’m the ‘larger lady’. I’m never the ‘fat one’.

At least in my culture.

But I am fat.

It’s a fact. I have fat. The fat is reducing, but it’s still there.

Why is fatness such a sensitive subject in western cultures?

It’s been my identity as long as I can remember. Defined by others, which in turn imposes a valued definition and worth upon myself. I’ve always struggled with my weight.

See, even there I say ‘struggled’. That phrase comes naturally.

It implies that I should be thinner…..
or is that fatter?

If I was Jamaican, I’d be considered more physically attractive and in good health. However, I’d probably also be serving a jail sentence for being gay, so as they say in Britain, ‘swings and roundabouts’.

In Barbados, doctors report of diabetes patients worrying about becoming ‘less sexy’ to their spouse if they lose weight. A stark difference to my own Australian culture.

I remember being bullied all through school for being overweight.
There it is again, ‘over’weight. ‘Weight’, being the preferred size according to the name caller – the one who takes it upon themselves to decide my identity.

We all do it.

We all look at people and make decisions about who they are, based on our own cultural and social reference points.

What I love is when a cultural taboo like talking about fatness, is smashed together with another culture. Each person’s parameters are poles apart, but the collison creates cultural tensions within oneself.

In 1988 my family backpacked around China. I was 12.

Me, aged 12.

I returned in 2005 and again received the same question, “Why are you so fat?”

My brain always takes a few seconds to register.

Yes, she really did just ask, “Why are you so fat?
My first thought? Bitch!


But, when my brain has time to organise itself away from its cultural programming and natural reactions, I remember I’m in China.

I want to bark back, “Why are you so small?”

But I’m torn.

My own cultural limitations prevent me from asserting myself so freely.

I then want to say, “and why are you so rude?” but that is pointless too. It’s not rudeness. It’s cultural difference and it’s just smashed mine to pieces in the most non-violent game of Rock, Paper, Scissors.

In the two seconds that took up those thoughts, I’ve traversed thousands of years of history in both cultures. I’ve searched the depths of my soul, ethics, values and internal dialogue about self-worth. I’ve seen my life through another culture’s eyes, I’ve seen another culture through my eyes.

Not bad for two seconds eh?

This is how identity, belonging and expat life work.

Sometimes they are three distinct elements. Other times, you don’t know where one starts and the other begins.

I am pleased though to find out that I’m not alone in my experiences of discussing fatness in China. A friend told me about a friend of his who was kicked out of a taxi, because, “you’ll break my tyres!”.

If you want to travel or want to be an expat, you better develop a thick skin.

Maybe I should live in Africa.

In many African countries, being overweight implies richness, fertility and wealth. When living in west Africa, a friend of mine discovered that their cook was adding a lot of oil to their food to fatten her up. The explanation came that given her husband’s esteemed job, he was not being a good patron if his wife walked around thin. He would be seen to be not taking care of her and they would not be doing a good job of showing their status and wealth.

Fatness and fertility have often gone together. In Vienna, the Museum of Natural History is home to the Venus of Willendorf.

She was found in Austria and is believed to be a fertility symbol crafted between 30,000 and 25,000 BCE. I took great delight in drawing her when I visited and joked that it was me 25,000 years ago.

The fateful sketch!

But, I also feel the need to confess.
I don’t mean to brag, but…

My hair is way better.

I knew you’d agree.

To me, there’s a great irony about the Venus of Willendorf being at home in Vienna. I love Vienna, but never have I been looked up and down so much by well-to-do women. And they weren’t shy.

Four feet from me. Eyes start at my feet, look me up and down again and then dead in the eye. Terrifying.

It happened mostly at the people’s opera. A childhood friend of mine is a soprano soloist for the Vienna State Opera and it had been my dream to see her on stage. I realise that I wasn’t dressed to the standards shared by these women, but who cares?

MY mate was on stage. MY mate got the standing ovation.

And this is the thing.

This is all it’s about, any of this cultural stuff.

Know who you are
and
Know what’s important to you.

Get those two sorted and you’ll know your identity and where you belong.
The only place you need to belong is within yourself.

It can be one of the most hostile of places.
But it can also be the most satisfying and peaceful.

So, let’s:

*talk about fatness
*talk about all those things we struggle with about ourselves
*remove the taboos and we remove the isolation of sitting in silence
*remove the power in taunts
*remove the voice that tells us we are not enough, too much or too little.

*EXPLORE other cultures.
*LIVE fearlessly.
*JUMP INTO conversations and JUMP at the chance to be challenged.

It’s where the good stuff lies.

It’s where we grow.
It’s where we find ourselves.

Now, give me a second to find my car keys and I’ll see you there.

Cath x

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New Online Shop

This week I am proud to announce that I launched my new Drawn to a Story online shop!!

And I couldn’t be more proud.

This is big.

It’s been a dream of mine for three years.

So what was the dream?

To provide a range of products and gifts that help people feel seen and heard in their global lives.

Like any spectrum, there’s the full gamut of experiences in the global community. I refer to the shop being for people who ‘Struggle, Survive and Thrive in Expat Life, and for those who love them’.

As someone who’s moved through ‘Struggle’ (not so elegantly) into the more stable, but not easy ‘Survive’, and now very happily sitting in ‘Thrive’, I want to help.

I want to help people feel validated in their experiences.

I want to let them know they are not alone.

I want to offer them a sense of belonging.


So…. I now have an online shop.

WE, the expat community now have an online shop.

All the products are themed to expat life, third culture kids, global nomads. They speak our language and they hold up a mirror to us to see our lives reflected and celebrated.

The drawings come from my book, Living Elsewhere.
It’s been a real joy to use them to spread the love more widely.

One of the nicest things about creating something new is that you also get to establish your own ethos.

You get to choose to live your TRUTH every day.

This is mine.

It’s important to me to run Drawn to a Story with these values at its core.

Body Size

I am passionate about clothes being accessible. I want more equality within diversity. Here, each size within a clothing product is the same price.

Just Clothing

Gendered clothing reinforces sterotypes, social conditioning and limits personal expression. In my store, there are no genders. Clothes are just clothes.

Change for Good

I aspire to make positive change and create a better future together. Each year, I donate 3% of shop sales (in 2020 up to £200) to a charity of my choice.

Passionate about Products

When you buy a gift, you want it to be just perfect. If there are products you wish were in the shop, but aren’t, please let me know.

Dreams are not made by one person alone

Like the saying, ‘it takes a village to raise a child‘, so too does it take a village to raise a shop.

I could not have achieved this without support.

Angie – My wife. My support in every way possible. This is the woman who encourages me to follow what feeds my heart and soul. She brings me cups of tea and coffee when I’m working, smiles at me when I’m stressed and is so incredibly thoughtful. On Sunday night, I worked all night to make sure the shop was ready to launch on Monday. She stayed up night too to support me, so I wasn’t doing it on my own. Isn’t that amazing? Thank you for everything!

Naomi Hattaway – From I am a Triangle.
Without Naomi, I would have a book and I wouldn’t have created Drawn to a Story. At one of my lowest points, I was desperately trying to find purpose amongst feeling lost. I had an idea to create a book of drawings about expat life. I mentioned it to Naomi and she said, “What a wonderful idea. Go for it.” Her immediate support gave me the push to leap forth. She kindly gave me feedback on every single draft cartoon, promoted my work and was constant support through the process.

Sundae Schneider-BeanIntercultural Strategist and Solution-oriented Coach
Not only is Sundae a dear friend, but working with her has revolutionised my work life. I hired Sundae to help me ‘go up a gear’ professionally. Through our coaching sessions, she helped me to realise my potential and develop strategies to move forward. Sundae had a wonderful way of getting to the nub of my struggles through a beautiful mixture of candidness and compassion. With Sundae’s help I’ve been able to imagine and create a future where I am living with purpose and fulfilling my dreams. Thank you.

Jerry JonesThe Culture Blend and Expat Up
In 2018, I met Jerry at the Families in Global Transition conference in The Hague. The night we met, we talked for four hours. It was a conversation that changed both our lives. We came back to FIGT the following year to present our story, Unlikely Connections: The Baptist and the Lesbian. Jerry helped me to realise that I had something to say and reminded of the importance of sharing your truth, because you never know who needs to hear it.

Thank you all from the bottom of my heart. You all mean the world to me.

All that is now left to say is, please take a look at the shop http://www.drawntoastory.com
I hope that you find products here that you love AND also products you want to give to the people that you love.

Cath x

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The ignorance of being an expert

When you live abroad, you become an expert in your country.

You learn the culture intimately. You find the food you love. You soak up the nuances of social behaviours. You know it so well.

Right?

And once you’re ‘in the know’, there’s nothing more irritating to an expat than people at ‘home’  assuming that you’re the same as when you left. You’ve changed and learnt stuff. The more humble amongst us would not make the full claim, but we’ve learnt nearly enough to call ourselves an expert.

Right again?
You’re not going to like this, but my answer is ‘No’ and ‘No’ again.

Yep. Really.

Sorry.

Right about now, your head is filling with examples of where you know that you were/are at one with the culture.

There was that time wasn’t there, where you weren’t seen as the foreigner because the food stall holder laughed wholeheartedly at your joke? It was great wasn’t it? I’m still smiling.

I’m thinking of that moment too when the coffee waiter became our ‘friend’. We were really connecting. He wanted to show us around the next day too. It was A…MAZING.

I’m blending and I really ‘get’ this place and the people I meet.

No you’re not….And, I’m sorry, but you don’t.

Oh crap, she is joking about not being an expert, isn’t she?
Yeah, she must be. I sooo understand and love this other culture and its people.
Oh no, she really IS serious.

Why am I not an Expert?

In early February I wrote about my experiences with racism in Harlem, New York and discovering my own infallabilities.

This time only had the massive impact on me because I went from being an observer to a very brief participant.

When we live elsewhere, we so often remain the observer. We get glimpses into a life. If our heart and mind are open we hear it, but we know nothing of its layers.

When my parents told their cleaners that they were leaving Chile, one of the ladies looked at the other and said in Spanish, “Why do all the best ones leave?“. It wasn’t for mum and dad’s ego affect. It was in Spanish to her friend.

So, you imagine… What do the worst ones do?
Seven words that lead to another whole experience of life if you’re willing to ask.

We need to be full particpants, not to get a glimpse of another’s life, but to completely embody what that different life means. I don’t mean ‘participant’ in the sense of volunteering at a soup kitchen or helping out in a poor neighbourhood. I mean participant as someone who lives and breathes that life E.V.E.R.Y.  S.I.N.G.L.E   D.A.Y.

In Harlem, I experienced a miniscule snippet of ‘participant’, but I still had white skin and I still was able to walk away to my Privilege.

Recently with coronovirus, the rallying chat amongst postive-thinking people and those wanting to make the best of the situation, tends to focus on ‘we’re all in this together’.

We’re not.

We think we are (said the white woman), but others know we’re not.

In the USA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends wearing masks made out of a hankerchief or bandana. Seems like a good idea when stocks of medical masks are low?

Aaron Thomas shares another view – a Black man with genuine concerns about risking his life if he wears anything other than an official protective mask.

This comment says more about the state of our world than the Coronovirus pandemic.

You need to live that tension and threat EVERY day to call yourself a participant.

… and you need to be a participant before you can call yourself an EXPERT.

Being an expert isn’t so attractive now is it?

Let’s shift to what we do know. Our own lives.

Experts of our own lives?

I know about being a white, red-headed Australian lesbian who lives in England. I am an expert in that and I write about identity and belonging in the context of expat life.

Well at least I thought I did.

Recently I heard an interview with the author Sara Collins, who talked about the pressure that writers of colour face to address Race in their work. People assume that she will always write about ‘Black issues’. She went on to comment about the double standard, “white people think they’re writing about humanity, but in fact they’re writing about white issues.” Sara Collins is not afforded the same luxury when writing about humanity. She is told she writes about Race.

Us ‘white experts’ assume liberties from our positions of comfort.

She’s right.
It’s that little thing again called Privilege.

We’re like that racing horse with blinkers covering the sides of our eyes; self imposed blinkers to make sure we don’t get frightened by the reality of our context (people of colour sharing their truths) as we head to the finish line to soak up the glory of winning (being seen as an expert on participants).

Does this blog make me one of those ‘experts’ on participants?
It’s highly likely. Unfortunately, yes, I believe it does.

It’s like I said in my piece about Harlem, I don’t have the answers, but I’m not going to do nothing either. Nothing is an easy option and that does not sit comfortably, especially when I hear the Coronovirus statistics coming out of America.

In Chicago 68% of people who have died are in the African-American community despite making up only 23% of the population. Socioeconomic inequality detemines that we are NOT all in this pandemic together.

And I want the Privileged amongst us to be aware of what our privilege means.

It’s a matter of life and death. 

So yes, maybe I am being that ‘expert on participants’.

In reality, I’m not a participant or an expert on anything other than being a 43 year old white, red-headed Australian lesbian who lives in England.

BUT…
I’ll also be damned if I know these inequalities exist and I stay silent.

I have much to learn.

I’m being public about my personal exploration, in the hope that you see yourself in my musings and explore your own internal dialogue.

I firmly believe that this is how we change the world.
LEARN, in order to GROW internally, so we can EMBODY WISDOM, which leads us to ACTION.

“    Wisdom tends to grow in proportion to one’s awareness of one’s ignorance.”
– Anthony de Mello

I want to find out that I am wholly and massively ignorant.

That would be a good day.

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Drawing Upon Angels

Oh, Not again…. I wish I didn’t have to post these pictures again.

But I do it because it helps me cope.

It helps others cope.
I know because they tell me.

I’ve often posted these pictures to social media unfortunately. Normally it’s in response to a global grief – a large natural disaster, a mass shooting, or other event that surpasses our comprehension.

They seem to express what we can’t verbalise. The brain process images 60,000 times faster than words do, so that’s pretty effective.

It’s one of the reasons I love to draw. The simplicity of the pen allows all superfluous information to fall away and the minutiae of the message is highlighted.

‘Trusting’ in Angels
I drew these angels in 2003 when I was the Cemeteries Conservation Officer at the National Trust.

Yes, I’ve heard all the jokes and no, it wasn’t a dead end job.

It actually gave me life.
You may not realise, but cemeteries are not actually about death. Sure, they are the final resting place of our deceased, but they are memorial landscapes for the living. Their epitaphs tell you not necessarily about how people died, but more how they lived.

Headstones offer much symbolism – carved stone that reflect beliefs at the time, materials give indications about the wealth of a family, epitaphs tells you about religious sentiments and values, grave locations tell of social hierarchies, whilst the style of monument can reveal how a family felt about the death of their loved one.It’s about life. It’s always about life, which is actually probably the reason that so many of us struggle to talk about death.

And now, it is also life that we now grapple with, in the midst of the global coronavirus outbreak.

The world is trying to contain the virus and preserve life.

This brings me back to angels.

In cemeteries, angels are protectors of souls. In life and more so than ever now, human angels are also protectors of our souls.

Whilst we hunker down in lock down at home, I want to draw your attention to these five categories of human angels.

Medical Staff

My friend, Dr Anisha Abraham recorded this in her street in Amsterdam the other night. She says “Shout out to all my fearless health care colleagues around the world who are working tirelessly in hospitals, clinics, research centres and more to fight coronavirus. Tonight, throughout the Netherlands, we applauded health care workers at 8pm and we will it repeat in again tomorrow night. It made me feel so proud and a bit teary eyed. Here’s the view from our street. Stay strong peeps!” Wonderful huh?

Funeral Staff

Often forgotten, but they too are on the front line. Standard protective equipment is as rare as hen’s teeth for Funeral Directors to buy. Staff are working without it. I’m not posting this to frighten or cause panic, but to raise awareness about the dedication and sacrifices that people are making to fight this virus. It’s easy to forget when we’re watching tv on the sofa warm and safe in our homes. In this article, read ‘funeral staff’ in place of NHS staff and you get the picture.

Teachers


Yes, schools are closing left, right and centre, but here in the UK, teachers are still teaching kids in school with special needs. Schools are ensuring online learning is available for students to try and keep a sense of normality flowing. Now I know some parents aren’t terribly pleased at suddenly having a 3 month weekend or becoming an overnight ‘expert’ in Maths, Science and Geography – no one wants to look stupid in front of their kids right?

Shop keepers and food delivery people

These champions enable us to stay home, so that we don’t run the risk of making the spread worse. We need them just as much as our other essential services. If the human body could survive on water alone, I’d be the first to try it. Mind you, a little less food might be a good thing for those of us trying to lose weight! As someone said on my Slimming World group page, I will either come out of this 60lbs lighter or 100lbs heavier – only time will tell. I joke because I feel the same. Whilst I am able to run outside I will, but I am soon to set up an exercise space in our house.

Rubbish collectors

Whatever is happening in the world, we still produce rubbish. Mountains of it and if it’s not managed, we end up with other health problems. Thank you to those who collect our rubbish and allow us to live at home reasonably carefree.

But equally importantly…

If you are someone who believes in angels of the spiritual kind, please may I ask you to send your prayers, your thoughts, your woo woo juice, whatever you practice, in bucket loads to the people I am most frightened for – those living in abusive relationships.

Imagine lockdown for 1 month with an abusive partner.
Imagine lockdown for 3 months with an abusive partner.
Imagine kids at home in that abusive space, when their only safe space (school) is now closed.
Imagine a mix of alcohol, drugs, guns, frustrations.
Imagine isolation in this environment.
Imagine how fucking frightening that is!

I have no idea what we can do about this.
All I can do is hope for goodness to come across the spiritual airwaves. If you’re ever going to believe in this stuff, then now is the time to enact your interest. Please send your vibes their way.

And if you don’t believe, that’s fine. I used to think it was all a ‘crock of shit’ 🙂
All I ask is that you raise awareness of how some people may be safe from coronavirus, but in dreadful danger from partners/parents.

Check on your neighbours.
Watch. Observe. Help those unseen, be seen when they need it most.

I once asked a police officer at what point I should call the police if I was worried about domestic violence in a neighbouring house. He said, ‘the moment you are scared’.

So if you feel scared for someone’s safety, please make that call.
And in the meantime….

Enjoy lockdown, but spare a thought for all those workers who enable us to be in lockdown.

Cath xx