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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

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The Disappointment of Realising You’re Racist

I’M RACIST.

No joke.

Unfortunately I’m deadly serious.

That’s not something you want to discover about yourself.
Racists are those people that I Ioathe. The ‘less than’ people I see on the news being arrested for hate crimes.
The people I disassociate myself from because….

I’m well-travelled.
I’m educated.
I’m cultured.
I have friends with different coloured skin.
You need to know that as I write this, that my whole body is creasing up in discomfort.
It’s the pain of realising that I’m no different to the ‘less thans’ and I’m trying to not feel ashamed.

I want to run. Badly.

Every cell in my body is fighting this admission. I hate it.
And now I’m crying. I feel like I’ve hurt my dear friends who have different coloured skin to me and I hate that even more. They don’t even know that I’m racist… but I feel like crap for actually being secretly pleased that I’ve been able to hide.

F*** This. Is. Hard.

Our street in Harlem

Last October I spent a week in Harlem, New York.
It was incredible and it was hard. Boy was it hard. It’s taken some time to process and has led to me sitting here, writing to you.

My wife is an Archbishop and her denomination’s Synod was being held at their church in Harlem.
I went along for the ride. I think my exact words were, “you’re not going to New York without me!”. It was my dream city and I’d never been before. For ease of access to the church, we stayed in Harlem.

And then it began. Five days of realising I’m racist.

So how does that happen?

MISGUIDED ASSUMPTIONS

His words were, “with all due respect, please do not compare your sexuality with one’s race. It is two totally different things.” I was affronted at his assumption that I was like ‘the others’.
I got it. Really I did!  I didn’t.
I’ll just reframe my point because he’s just misunderstood me. He hadn’t.

De-Dee Loft Davis is a racial equity consultant I follow on Linkedin. She’s great. About 2 months before New York I’d commented on a post of hers (how WOKE of me eh?) to show support that I understood the micro-aggressions Black people experience, because I get them too as a gay person.

It started a conversation between me and another racial equity consultant – a guy who continued to say, For me, most can hide their sexuality. I cannot hide my Blackness. It is what you see. I understand what you are trying to say by, “Sit in my shoes,” but I really don’t like when people try and compare the two. Both identities should be able to stand on their own.

I still didn’t like it. I really wanted him to understand my position. He wasn’t listening. (I know…..) He didn’t understand my gayness. I continued my argument, reframing and adding more points from my angle. This would make him understand (Don’t say it. I know…).

Suddenly I stopped.
I don’t know why, but I remembered something that Catrice M Jackson had said in her book ‘Antagonist, Advocates and Allies: The Wake Up Call Guide for White Women Who Want to Become Allies with Black Women’.  See I knew I wasn’t racist; I was reading the right books.

Essentially one of Catrice’s messages is simply to shut up and listen.
LISTEN to Black voices.
LISTEN to their experiences.
LISTEN to what they are telling you.
TRULY LISTEN.

So I listened and then I apologised to him. I did come to understand his point.
However, I still managed to tell myself that this was a one off experiences of me misunderstanding.

There’s that blindness of privilege again eh?

A FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY

Fast forward a couple of months to Harlem – grab a coffee and walk to the station to head Downtown. Ironically I was on route to give a talk to Families in Global Transition Tri state affiliate about identity, belonging and the biases we hold.

I’m feeling confident as I walk. Slightly excited at being here. Yeah I’m in Harlem. I’ve always wanted to come here. I’m an ally. I want to show support.

My naivety hit me hard. I smiled at people. Nobody gave a crap.
In fact it felt the opposite. It felt hostile.

And there were two hostilities, but I realised that they were both inside of me.

The first? I was desperately uncomfortable and trying to not look privileged. I couldn’t hide it. I’m a white woman walking down a street called Malcolm X Boulevard. That’s enough.

And second, (now I’m really trusting you with this), it became apparent to me how different my body felt when I walked past Black men. It hesitated and it felt anxious.

I tried to tell myself that it was because I’m a woman and we’re good at keeping ourselves safe in public, but deep down I knew I wouldn’t have felt it so acutely if they were White men.
I was ashamed and felt awful. I even found myself blaming them for making me feel this way. Nothing like a bit of projection eh? But I did want to understand why my body spoke to me this way.

I’m still wrestling with the why, but what I can offer for now is:

  1. My thoughts about Black people have primarily been developed through White eyes (mine and other people’s)
  2. My life has been very White. Yes, I’ve travelled widely, but observing is not living the truth of someone else’s life
  3. So much of the media talks about crime and social problems in Black communities, when in fact there are also many problems in White communities
  4. Somehow, the biographies and stories I’ve read about Black people, compartmentalise in my brain as separate individual cases, rather than evidence of a greater status quo of discrimination. I mean how much evidence do I need? Seriously? Again. Privilege.

YOU’RE JUDGED FOR BEING WHITE

I was completely ignored as I walked around Harlem. No one smiled at me. No one said anything to me. No one made eye contact of any description. But if you’re White and thinking that’s normal for any city street, watch what happens when you’re next out and about where you live. You receive subtle acknowledgements all the time. A sorry when someone squeezes past you, a quick stare if you’ve got a slogan on your shirt, people stay on the footpath when you walk towards them or they might give you a smile.

I got nothing. Like A.B.S.O.L.U.T.E.L.Y nothing.

In shops, the cashier talked to me as in, ‘that’ll be $5.99 thanks’, but if I said anything else it was completely ignored.

I felt like I wasn’t welcome. I wasn’t.

And why should I be? Centuries of slavery, discrimination and aggressions towards Black people and I think I can be welcomed as I venture into their safe spaces? Their communities? The reality was starting to hit me.

The reality hit even harder when I walked down the street with my wife dressed in her clericals. Her Bishop’s collar received welcomed smiles, greetings, Hello Padre – yes, padre! 🙂 In the laundromat where we’d been met with disdain in the morning, we were now offered a staff machine and all the help we needed.

My wife in clericals and me.

Previously, being White was enough to be judged. I hated what my skin represented. I wanted them to know I was different to ‘other white people’, but it didn’t matter. It was irrelevant. I was now experiencing what it was like to be judged for the colour of my skin.
It’s shit by the way.

Having struggled enormously when my wife became a priest (suffice to say, I didn’t like religion much), the irony of her giving me warm passage through the streets of Harlem was not lost on me.

You see, one less barrier existed. One less potential agitation removed. The collar bridged our differences and mutual fears.

I found myself wanting to leave Harlem, because I felt uncomfortable. I wanted to go back to blending. And then it hit me again. Blending is not an option for Black people. Unless they’re in Harlem. And then there’s this stupid White woman walking down the street…..

That’s gonna piss anyone off.
Privilege.

And you know the really awful thing? When I was in Harlem, I wished I had black skin, so I could blend and then I thought about what that really meant outside of Harlem and I didn’t want it.
Not because I think being Black is in anyway ‘less than’, but because I wanted to be accepted and not judged.
Privilege.

REALITY HITS

One of the fun things about New York is all the snippets of conversations you overhear when people walk past talking on their phone.

On this occasion I wish I’d heard differently.
A group of guys sitting on the front steps of a house.
Yeah, he’s dead. They said, ‘Stop! Freeze!’ then shot him. He’s dead.

The laundromat’s bathroom walls

This wasn’t a TV cop show or a social media post that you can distance yourself from.
The reality of their faces said everything.

I was now starting to truly listen. Minute snippets of truth slowly sinking into my tiny brain.

A couple of days later, Atatiana Jefferson was shot in her own home through her bedroom window by a Fort Worth police officer responding to a report that her front door was open. Moments before, she had been playing video games with her nephew, heard a noise and went to the window.

She’s now dead.

Black people are subject to deadly force even when they stay home.
I have never worried for my life when the police come to my home or when they’ve pulled me over in my vehicle. Privilege.

Poignant graffiti on the subway

RELIEF AND GUILT

It became time to move to another hotel Downtown. Synod was over.
I was relieved to be leaving the tension of Harlem.

This relief was also distinctly uncomfortable, because I knew that I could simply walk away from the discomfort I’d felt. It was an easy option for me. I could return to privilege without any effort and if I wanted to, forget about my experience ‘north of Central Park’. I could slip back into the melting pot of New York’s diversity and everything would all be okay again.

But it’s not.

What is not okay is not doing anything about it.

A switch has been turned on and I can’t turn it off.
I don’t want to.

The challenge for me personally is to work out what I’m going to do about it.

It starts with this blog.

In reading Catrice Jackson’s book, I had hoped to be classified as an ‘Advocate’ with the aim of moving to ‘Ally’.

However, my well intentioned, but misguided comment on Linkedin puts me in the Antagonist camp. I am not proud of this. But I’m also not afraid of difficult conversations.

So for me, it’s back to Catrice’s book to learn how to move forward into ‘Advocate’ and ‘Ally’. It’s too important not to.

Who’s with me?
It’s going to take more than one coffee to work through this one.

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Don’t ‘DIS’ My Ability

Why do you choose to sit where you do in a restaurant?

Noise levels? Away from the toilets?
By the bar?

Or maybe to protect yourself?
Huh? Protect yourself?

Yes. Stay with me on this.
Just before New Year’s Eve I was enjoying dinner in a resturant; one where you choose your table yourself.

All the diners had arranged themselves roughly in the centre of the restaurant, except for one table.

Sitting in the furthest corner away from any other diners and under a loud TV was a family; two parents and their adult child who had an intellectual disability. They were distinctly separate; removed from other diners.

Now, humans are fairly predictable. We follow well-worn paths. We clump together. We struggle to be random, even when we try to be. For example, you can tell if someone has fudged their expenses because they will often include numbers ending in a zero or a five.* Yes really. Don’t get any ideas! (*Is this where I enter my disclaimer?)

I admit that there may be a myriad of reasons why this family were separate (other diners had since left or they liked the TV? etc), but I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d removed themselves because of their son?

And the minute I write that I want to correct it.
Not because of their son, but due to a fear of how people might react to them.
We naturally want to protect ourselves. Who wouldn’t?

I know too as a gay woman, how much my own public behaviours are modified to remove any chance of being hassled, stared at or jeered. You self-select your protection measures.

Insight 1: DISCRIMINATION can create ISOLATION on route to PROTECTION

There’s oodles of research out there which proves that people with intellectual disabilities are discriminated in restaurants and cafes.

Do an internet search if you want stats. It’s real and it’s about as polar opposite as you can get from Belonging.

And within the context of our globally mobile lives, disability adds a layer of complexity. Do you admit to employers that your adult child needs to travel with you and has extra and different needs? Subsequently, you wonder if you will you be as employable if the company perceives your family to have additional cost implications? For example, you need to live near health facilities or require a house with no steps etc.

So you don’t say anything, but you feel guilty. You feel guilty because what does it mean if I don’t say anything? Does it matter? Well, yeah, because it’s like I’m hiding. Does that mean I’m uncomfortable by my family’s difference? No. I’m just scared about how I will be treated. I want to be open, but if I’m completely honest, I worry that….. And so the thought cycle goes round and round. It’s exhausting.

I have a friend who works internationally in the developing world and travels a lot for work. Picture rural areas, broken pavements, pot holes, footpaths covered by market stalls, animals lying in your path, stairs not lifts etc. She clearly impressed them in her interview as she got the job. The first they knew of her wheelchair was when she entered the interview room.

Now, imagine that. Really imagine that.

Think of the emotional energy that goes into removing the chance for discrimination.
The excitement you feel at getting an interview takes a hit when you imagine the potential discrimination and previous experiences of ‘not suitable for the job’. You try to work out how much it matters to you; whether or not you want to ask for the disability assistance that’s available for the interview. NO, let’s remove all chance of discrimination and just turn up. This protects you emotionally whilst holding the uncertainty of how it will be received. That’s all before you even get to the interview.

That’s a lot of emotional energy that could be redirected into more positive things.

Insight 2: INCLUSION removes wasted energy and creates a sense of BELONGING.

I’m not sure that people who are resistant to diversity realise that inclusion is going on all around them. They just don’t see it.
And in many way they’re not meant to. It’s not for them.

It’s a bit like a hidden code – only seen by those who can read it.
For example, my wife wears a sunflower lanyard when we go through airports. It shows staff that she has a hidden disability and might need assistance. A Rainbow flag sticker on a cafe door shows me it’s a safe space. A Rainbow badge worn by the nurse and doctor in the UK’s National Health Service tells me I’m seen.

Cartoon produced for Families in Global Transition.

These visual cues are so important. We all know to be careful walking near someone with a white cane. It is no effort for us, but makes the world of difference to that individual.

BUT, we still need to listen and not assume that we understand the code. We all speak different emotional and observational languages….. and if we go back to those *fudged expenses (*ahem…insert another disclaimer here), we need to remember that we struggle to be random. Based on our own set of cultural and social reference points, we tend to assume that our own observations of an individual’s behaviour equals that person’s intentions. Mostly, it doesn’t.

I suspect that we’ve all stomped along that well-worn path of human predicatibility at some point in our lives.

Insight 3: ASK FIRST – Always! and FOLLOW THEIR CUE

We’ve all heard the story of the elderly ‘disabled’ person who is ‘helped’ across the road by the well-meaning but misguided champion, only to inform them that they in fact weren’t waiting to cross the road.

Only last week, after my wrist operation, the nurse said,
Wear your sling in public so people know to be careful around you.
You’ll probably get someone trying to take you across the road!

A cartoon from my book Living Elsewhere.

A few years ago, we were in Glasgow for my wife’s work. As we stood at the pedestrian crossing waiting for the lights to change, I saw a woman in a wheelchair coming towards us.

Oh no! Angie! There’s a woman coming towards us in a wheelchair. I don’t want her to think that we’re ‘taking the piss’.
(For non-Australian and non-British readers, this means to make a joke at someone else’s expense).

So picture this. Angie and I standing by the side of the road with Ichabod (her ‘rubber man’ as she calls him) in his wheelchair and his granddaughter, Jessicha on his lap.

The woman approaches. I now see she has britle bone disease. I’m hoping she goes straight past us and doesn’t see us. But of course no, she pulls up, right next to us to also cross the road. The five of us in a row, waiting like peas in a pod – sandwiched together between two traffic light poles.

Angie and I stare straight ahead, trying to act as though wheeling a rubber man around in a wheelchair is normal. Mind you, he’s quite life-like so people often don’t realise that he’s not real.

And then I see her.
I see her slowly turn her head to look at Ichabod. The look of surprise is palpable.
She opens her mouth to speak.

I wait, worried.

And then in a broad Glaswegian accent she says Aye, and there I was thinking I was the special one! before laughing uproarously.

I’m fairly sure I then embarrassed myself by chatting to her waaay too enthusiastically. My relief burbling out with freaky friendliness.

It is also safe to say that I didn’t ‘style it out’ particulary convincingly.

But I didn’t care. She showed me how to ‘style it out’ like a pro.
Thank you Glaswegian woman. You taught me well that day.

Cath x

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Tears in the Bathroom

EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.
Every single time we lump people together, humanity takes another hit.

We lump.
We like to lump because it’s easy.
We lump people together as though we’ve grabbed a bag of oranges and chucked them into our grocery trolley.

A bag of oranges here. A packet of dates there. A box of biscuits.
Different food groups, but all the same within their collective packet.

It’s the reason that supermarkets, haven’t offered (until recently) imperfect fruit and vegetables. We like symmetry and we like to lump together.

We like to lump together when it comes to people too.

We do it with nationalities. We do it with gender. We do it with religion. We do it with….. well, everything.

It’s easy isn’t?
But have you noticed that we only do it when our words have derogatory intent?

When was the last time you heard someone say,
Oh that’s so typical of women to be amazing at juggling family life and work?
or maybe,
Typical men, they’re so good at raising their kids.

Me neither.
We lump together and generalise when we want to slag off or have our misguided judgements confirmed.

Oh yeah, but that’s not always the case I hear you say.
I wouldn’t say that because some guys aren’t great at raising their kids.

You’re right, They’re not, but I challenge you.
Do you afford the same positive variations and distinctions when generalising in a derogatory way?
Do you say, Ah, typical men! or do you pause and say, that’s so typical of a certain type of man?

Generalising Isolates and Incites Hate
I’ve seen it. It’s not pretty. In fact it’s horrid.
Social media is not kind. Faceless ‘warriors’ influencing and creating fear against certain people. Massive generalisations.

Transphobia. Xenaphobia. Islamaphobia…to name a few.

I feel fairly helpless in my ability to affect change. I speak out when I can. I’ve been described as difficult for doing so, BUT:

I have to. I find myself thinking of beautiful moments I’ve had in mosques, of visiting Syria and never feeling so welcome in a country as I did then, of Muslim friends, of reading about women having their hijabs ripped off in the street by strangers or the increase in racism after the Brexit vote…..

and I know that however helpless I feel, I am always in a position to do something positive.

Inclusion and Being a Friendly Face is Not Hard
It’s not till you see someone else’s every day, that you realise the reality of why we need to reach out.

On one of my last trips to the USA I was standing in a slow security queue at an airport. People were starting to get irritated at the delay. The security team were being extra thorough on one person. A muslim woman and her 3 year old child.

People smiled as he played behind her, leaping onto anything he could climb, but at the front of the queue you could have cut the air with a knife. The security guys were doing their best to be polite, but there was a massive elephant in the room, stomping down the conveyor belt.

I swear I heard it blow its trumpet, at least twice. Once when they insisted on putting the woman’s bags through the scanner for a third time and again when they offered to repack her now completely jumbled bags. She fought back tears as she grabbed her bags; all her belongings falling out. No, I’m okay. I’ll pack them myself, she said, clearly desperate to get away from the public spectacle.

It was awful to watch. We all knew why she’d been stopped, but no one said those words…. Muslim woman.

A few minutes later I was in the toilets and realised she was there too.

Excuse me, do you always get that level of detailed checks?

Yes.

That broke me. 
I placed my hand on my heart and through tears said,

I’m sorry that you have to deal with that. It’s not right.

I’m used to it.

You shouldn’t have to put up with that. I’m so sorry and for your children to see it too.

She shrugged,

I’m used to it. It happens all the time.

By now she was crying too. She leant forward to hug me. There we stood in the bathroom, two strangers in tears, hugging each other.

And the incredible thing…?
I spoke to her to give her comfort, but in reality she gave me comfort. That experience of ‘other’ was new to me. THAT reality check of someone else’s life.

How is it that we’ve got to the point where the victim is the one who reassures the privileged? And because they are so used to being treated as ‘the other’, it’s become their normal.

That frightens me.
I do not want to live in that world.

So I’m making a plea. I hope you’ll join me.

Next time you go to generalise, please think of the woman in the toilets.

Please think about the personal impact generalisations have on her and her son – the new generation growing up knowing they are ‘other’.

Please be the person who doesn’t generalise. Please be the person who speaks out.
Please be the person who sees individuals.

Cath x

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Who Are Your Steel Girders?

WE ALL NEED SUPPORT.
Sometimes a little is enough. Other times, we need a whopping great big steel girder. These moments are usually the ones that catch us completely by surprise and whack us from behind, with no time to prepare.

You never know when they’re going to hit, so I like to prepare if I can.

But when you live a globally mobile life, the big steel girders can be harder to find, right?
New friendships aren’t necessarily at that point yet. Old deeply nourishing ones may feel impeded by geographical distance.

But as Sundae Schneider-Bean, LLC advocates:

Love the crap out of your people

Keep them at the forefront of your lives. Look after them in the way that maintaining the steel girders of a bridge keep its users safe.

Maintain your steel girders too. You are the user of your own bridge.

Don’t let distance stop the connection. There are always ways to keep your friendships nourishing, meaningful and as close as they’ve always been.

Yes, you might end up like me with an embarrassingly large number of WhatsApp screen hours, but actually, do I care?

No.
Not. One. Bit.
“Wha??” I hear you say.

The richness that these connections bring to me are life changing.

Distance is nothing. The connections, the commitment to each other, and the care that comes in all colours of the rainbow make me happy

I feel safe. I feel secure and I feel full.
Find your steel girders.

Love the crap out of them and your bridge will stand against the fiercest of storms.

It might become a little cracked and dented in places, but these marks bear witness to a remarkable story of how the bridge survived the Force 11 storm of….
[insert your month/year].

So who today are you going to tell that they are your steel girder and why?

Cath xx

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Battling To Belong

Have you ever thought, that what’s a one day joke for you, may be somebody else’s everyday of not belonging?

They may offer a smile in an attempt to be accepted and not offend your joke.

But what’s going on inside that person?

Maybe their smile yet again covers the sudden desperate weight in their chest that comes with a ‘joke’. It’s just a joke right?
Banter, we all love banter don’t we? Yeahhh!

Yeahhh?
Watch the video and after you’ve watched it, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Cath x

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Releasing The Spoon

I want to talk about spooning. Yep. Spooning.
Now, there will be some of you saying, ‘Spoo……What?‘ and not knowing why it’s a loaded word. Others will innocently be thinking, ‘How lovely, I like to cuddle.‘ And lastly, there’s the ones who will have started to snigger.
Yes, it’s a sex position too.

BUT, there’s more to spooning than you think.

In a few months time I will be speaking at the
Families in Global Transition conference.

It’s mainly a conference for people who live a globally mobile life and the companies that operate globally.

A group of us who live in different parts of the world were looking at staying together. You know? Trying to work out how to save money and fit 5 people in a 3 bed place.

And the inevitable happened…

We started to joke about spooning. Well, you would wouldn’t you?
It certainly kept us entertained on WhatsApp for an afternoon….

….and reminded me of nights travelling, four of you squeezed into the tiny spare room of the friends who’d kindly put you up for the night.

Dare I suggest the new hashtag #FIGTspooning?

But seriously, it got me thinking about FIGT…

The conference has a wonderful ability to make you feel like you’ve ‘come home’. Rather than being the odd one out in your host country, everyone in the FIGT room understands the quirks and challenges of living elsewhere.

FIGT2018 was outstanding.

It allowed me to breathe again…. I had finally found my people!

And then, this morning and completely unrelated….
another friend sent me this picture below of a dog – its owner cleverly using a spoon to stop the dog from escaping through the fence.

This brings me back to spooning. #sorrynotsorry

The spoon holds the dog back. It keeps him/her contained, with good reason no doubt, but it limits the dog’s adventures.

It would be so easy for someone to rotate that spoon or slip it out of the dog’s collar and as he ran free he’d be wiping away the tears of joy like we did in Free Willy.

You see, this is how I see FIGT…
…as the hand that removes the spoon.

That hand that allowed me to breathe again.
The hand that expanded my world.

Yes, I decided to travel to The Hague in 2018, but FIGT created the reason.

And it was a decision that changed my life.

I now have a new group of friends whom I love dearly and communicate with regularly.

I met my best mate at FIGT. It’s been an amazing year of laughing, talking, soul searching and deep connection.

I’ve started new projects off the back of #FIGT18….and emotionally,

I’m an entirely different person.
I’m settled in a way that I hadn’t been for a long time.

Going to the FIGT conference sparked something that has fed me deeply this last year.

FIGT really is a wonderfully diverse organisation that promotes cross-sector connections for  developing best practices that support the growth, success and well-being of people crossing cultures around the world.

There’s a reason FIGT goes by the phrase, ‘A Reunion of Strangers’.

It’s not just big picture and big companies. In fact FIGT is the complete opposite.
Rather, it’s about creating rich personal connections that thrive across the vast distances that we all live from each other.

I’ll be there this year again in Bangkok doing a Lightening Presentation and Living Elsewhere will be in the bookstore.

If you’re wondering about whether to come, definitely do!
You never know where it might take you.

See you there!

Cath x

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What Do Your Objects Say About You?

WHAT ARE YOUR MOST PRECIOUS OBJECTS?

It’s the house-on-fire question isn’t it?
What would you grab if you only had a few minutes to get out of your house?

There’s the obvious ones like family photos and your beloved pets. I’m also likely to grab practical things like my computer drive, passports, credit cards, clothes etc. They are all the obvious items that I think we’d all choose if we had to make a quick decision.

But what about the other objects around your home?

I’m talking about the ones that tell a more detailed and multilayered story of your life – their meanings not fully tangible to other people, but are imbued with a rich personal depth that reveal the story of your life.

FINDING OBJECTS
For me that meaning comes with a personal experience.
The object triggers so much more than what appears on the surface.

There’s also certainly something wonderful about finding an object in the ground and piecing together its story.

A while back I found a button in the garden – turns out it was from a Royal Artillery volunteer’s uniform and that they’d had quite a presence locally in the mid to late 1800s. To me, the button says so much. It prompts me to think about my place in the world and to focus on how different my life is as an expat in 2018 compared to the men who wore the uniform that this button once called home.

The button now sits on my bookcase, right next to my lonely planet guidebooks. It’s a nice reminder of the history of our house (first inhabited in 1740) and I love that I am as much part of its history as it is now part of mine.

Also on my bookcase are a selection of fossils I’ve collected since living in the UK. We’re fortunate enough to live on the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. It’s essentially a giant graveyard – millions of fossils of the creatures who lived here when the seas were higher.

This ammonite is no bigger than my thumbnail and I smile when I see it – remembering my joy at spotting it on the wet sand, but also of finding fossils on family trips into the Australian outback.

Then there’s the spoon handle I found at Brewarrina Aboriginal mission in far western NSW. The mission was used to house Aboriginal people who had been forcibly removed from their families and spiritual country. It was a place of great trauma, oppression and suffering and as I roll the spoon around between my fingers, I wondered who else’s hands it had touched and what was their story.

EXPERIENCES THAT SHAPE YOU
From an early age my parents took us travelling. Where possible, time wise and financially, we spent holidays camping in the outback, learning to 4WD, learning to like our own company, learning to appreciate and respect the ancient Aboriginal culture that forms the foundation of Australia. And when more money and more time permitted, we backpacked overseas. I feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity to grow up learning about the world through the eyes of the people we met on our travels.

But these experiences were not always ones I’d like to repeat. In India our train was held up for several hours by bandits in the middle of the night, other passengers telling us to hide as we would be easy targets.

In Egypt I remember our taxi being stopped by the police. As foreigners we were viewed as potential drug traffickers. The doors were forced open and the police started to pull the panelling off the doors as they searched for narcotics. As a 10 year old sitting in the back seat, I started to giggle – mainly through fear, but very quickly stopped when mum’s face showed me the seriousness of the situation. On not finding any drugs our taxi was allowed to continue.

Taxis…
There’s something about taxis actually; they seem to feature quite heavily in my experiences of other countries. It was 2am and we’d just settled back into the taxi after stopping for tea. We were travelling to Kipling Camp in northern India, where we were hoping to see tigers.

The thick jungle-like vegetation made for a fairly monotonous journey that was, until a man walked out into the middle of the road. Our driver slowed down and rather than waiting for the window to be wound down, the man opened the front passenger door.

Something wasn’t right.

Our driver’s face told us all we needed to know.

He was scared.

Dad managed to pull the door shut again and quickly reached around to us in the back and told us to lock the doors. The driver was frozen with fear, but managed to move off again with Dad repeatedly telling him to drive, getting slightly more frantic each time he didn’t move.

As we drove off and looked behind us, we saw about another 10 men walk into the middle of the road from the bushes all carrying machetes.

Who knows what might have happened, but I don’t think they were expecting foreigners. The split second look of shock of the man’s face when he opened the door was enough of a delay to save us.

LISTEN TO OTHERS with KINDNESS AND ACTION
It is these situations that have made me look at the world differently. It’s opened my eyes to the fact that everyone has a story and everyone’s story is their own. We are all human. Our diversity is what makes us unique, but it’s also what makes a whole.

In 2005 I spoke to a man in Syria, who said:

“We recognise that governments are different to people. I assume you are here because you want to be. Please go home and tell all your family and friends, that we too want a democracy. We are not all terrorists. We want to live our lives and bring up our families like you do”.

How do you reply to that kind of comment?

How do you answer the woman also in Syria, who during the Iraq war walks straight up to you out of the blue and asks, ‘do you like Iraqi people?’

…or the woman in Vietnam that says ‘we are sick of people coming to look at us after the war’.

How do you cope with the racist attitude of a couple in the northern territory who are happy to give the man next to us a lift down the road,

until they realise he’s Aboriginal? 

You respond in the way you know how…

For me it’s about sharing people’s stories, whether it’s a man on the other side of the world or the local artist who crafts items from driftwood she finds on the beach.

People’s stories like this are replicated all over the world. Our social history gives us a place and a soul; otherwise what else are we other than just creatures with no connection to each other?

Our stories need to be shared, witnessed and honoured.
We make communities this way and as we start to understand each other’s lives, we can support one another through the tougher times.

A FEW OF MY OBJECTS

On my window ledge, there’s a polystyrene figure that I carved when I was going through a tough time. It reminds me of my strength and the growth that comes from these challenges.

I have dried Eucalyptus and Wattle leaves which remind me of home in Australia.

Then there’s the cute soft toy duck I bought when I travelled overseas on my own for the first time. I just liked it at the time, but now it feels like one of my first acts of adulthood and of branching out on my own

So, which are your favourite objects?
Which ones tell the tale of your life?

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Exile is More Than a One Way Journey

For people who live a global life with work postings in different countries that last a few years, a one way ticket can be exciting. It’s time for a new adventure and a chance to explore a new place. Whilst there’s stress in organising another move, you know it’s not forever.

So what about when it could be forever?

In early March at the Families in Global Transition conference, I heard the expression ‘lovepat’ for the first time. I’ve never really felt comfortable using the term ‘expat’, one of the main reasons being, that it feels like a temporary move for work. I’m not in England temporarily, or at least I can’t think that way as otherwise I would never settle.

I’ve been here over 11 years now. Am I still am expat? I don’t have a contract that I know will end in 2-3 years and then I’ll go home. I moved for love. My wife is British and I moved to England to live with her. So….lovepat it is.

So how does a one way ticket feel for a lovepat?

It’s quite something to sit on a plane, having packed up your entire life and know that you’re leaving home, but not know if you will ever return. I felt excited and enjoyed the feeling of the unknown, but I was also a bit scared and slightly unsure – was I doing the right thing?
But deep down I knew that I still had choices to return home to live if I wanted to.

But what if you can’t go home?

I heard the most amazing play on BBC’s Radio 4 this week. ‘Minority Rights and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon – The Fernhill Philosophers‘. In it the Eritrean character – a highly educated man, who was unable to go home said, “Exile is a kind of death, but I try to live”.

It’s a powerful statement isn’t it? ‘Exile is a kind of death, but I try to live.’

Imagine living with that everyday. Imagine our friends in Syria who cannot go home as home no longer exists. Imagine the exiled LGBTQI person that will be murdered if they go home. Imagine knowing that you will never go home to all the people and places you hold dear.

It’s beyond painful….
But exile is not just about people from other countries. Imagine feeling like you’re in exile because no one understands you and your autism. Imagine the stress of trying to do your job well, but your dyspraxia plays havic with your ability to remember what your boss asked you to do. Imagine people always looking at you oddly because your muscles make you walk differently.

We need to care and support people. We need to ask them what they need, because until we’ve walked in their shoes we know nothing of their lives.

But we can listen. We can listen openly and with love, and we can see ourselves in everyone we meet. If we listen we start to learn differently and we also start to learn the similarities. I love the Vietnamese expression, ‘same same, but different’. We are the same but we are all different too.

We are all a piece of the giant puzzle of humanity. No two puzzle pieces are the same shape, all rounded slightly differently, but I know that I can’t make up the picture without another puzzle piece, and another piece…..and another, and another, until we all fit together; different, but each forming an integral part of the same picture.

We need each other.
Whomever we are – what ever country we come from – and whatever our abilities.
Sometimes we’re that lone piece of the puzzle that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. We can’t seem to find our way. But suddenly the piece of puzzle is turned around and with a shift in perspective there’s a connection – a connection to another piece and another, and as more and more connections are found, the puzzle bonds together more firmly.

It’s much like life and community. On our own we may feel unconnected and wonder how we fit into ‘the bigger picture’. But start to shift perspectives and you start to see others more deeply.

You start to see the intangible layers, the personal stories in people’s eyes, the body language that shows their discomfort, the way they eat food that shows a rich cultural heritage, the non-stop talking that tries to hide their nerves, the accent that makes them ‘not like me’ and makes them hide the other 5 languages they speak, the jokes they make so you love them, the respectful silence you take as shyness, the constant movement that helps them to focus, the clothing they wear with pride but you don’t understand……the…..the….. The list is endless.

All I ask of you is to pause.

Draw breath.

Open your ears and eyes.

Open your heart.

Be the shift in persepective.

None us of want to be that lone puzzle piece.