Guest Post: The Lingering Lesson of the Durian

Today I’m privileged to post some of the cross-cultural insights of fellow blogger and writer Lauren S. Power. I first met Lauren at FIGT ’15 as a fellow PPWR. Her perspectives after having lived in Japan and Singapore are unique, and she paints beautiful pictures of global living. 

“It is better to learn from the mistakes of others than it is to make mistakes yourself,” a wise old man once told me. I believe that. I even have proof that what he said is true.

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When I was about 5 years old, my parents were trying to impress upon me the importance of good dental health. My Dad told me that if I didn’t brush my teeth, they would turn black and fall out just like my grandfather’s. I saw horrible visions of Grandpa’s gap-filled grin and few mustard yellow stumps (the product of a questionable implant job in Mexico) taking the place of my pearly whites. I vowed that that fate would never be mine. I formed good habits and stuck to them. To this day, I have never had a cavity.

Apart from my textbook dental hygiene practice, I have made plenty of mistakes. Mistakes are unavoidable, especially when traveling or moving to new countries. However, I’m cautious person, and my risks are usually carefully calculated. I really do listen to advice. I like to do research and I care about the experiences of others. After all, the more information you have in making a decision, the better the decision. Some mistakes, you can’t undo.

That is why, when I moved to Singapore, I did not try durian.

The King of Fruits has quite a reputation. Its odor has been compared to rotten fish, smelly feet, and sewage. It is said that the smell travels over great distances and lingers for many hours after, which is why it is illegal to take durian into public buildings or on any public transportation in Singapore.

I have had ample opportunities to sample its odorous bouquet around the city, as most roadside fruit stands are laden with durians. I have also given durians a thorough visual inspection. They are big – about the size of an American football – and heavy. A single durian weighs on average 2.5 kg (about 5lbs), but there have been durians recorded as heavy as 14kg (about 30lbs). Deaths occur from falling durian in an around orchards in Southeast Asia. They are viciously spiky, necessitating the use of industrial-grade gloves for the durian handlers. If ever there were a fruit less inviting, I’m sure I can’t imagine it.IMG_3422

“Its taste can only be described as…indescribable, something you will either love or despise. …Your breath will smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother,”[1] Anthony Bourdain, food and travel expert and lover of durian famously said.

Yet, people queue up at prestigious durian stalls, willing to pay up to $100 for a choice fruit. There had to be something to recommend it. Given the smell, the look, and the price, my internal calculus told me that it wasn’t worth the risk to try durian myself. More research was needed. I decided to do an unofficial poll of locals and foreigners to get more perspective.

“I used to hate durian when I was a child,” Dmitry told me. “I had to eat many before I found the right one.”

“Yes, sometimes you have to wait for that one durian that can open your mind,” Michelle agreed.

“The first time I tried durian, I thought I was going to vomit,” Kathleen said. “Now, I buy them all the time.”

“No, I’ve never tried durian. There’s no way I’d eat that! The smell…” said Courtney.

“Honestly, I don’t think I’ll ever buy it again,” Nick confessed. “I’m not sure it was the worst thing I’ve ever eaten, but it has to be close.”

“You have to try only good durian,” Jeremy said. “If you get a bad one, you can’t stand it lah! But the uncle may try to cheat you because he can see you are ang mo. So, you have to watch him to make sure he gives you the good one.”

How do you tell a good durian from a bad one? They all smelled rotten to me. I certainly didn’t want to be given a bad durian just because I was a foreigner. It seemed like too much trouble. Too many people had had awful experiences. Though my curiosity would continue to be piqued every time I passed a whiff of rotten onions mixed with old gym socks coming from a fruit stand along the street, I erred on the side of caution and kept walking.

Two and a half years after moving to Singapore, my guide appeared.

“You know, right now is durian season,” my friend, Michelle said. Michelle is from Malaysia and grew up eating durians, which makes her an authority on the subject, as far as I’m concerned. She informed me that there was a reputable durian stand just down the street. We decided to try it out.

As luck would have it, we arrived as the durian handlers were returning with a fresh batch of durians. A heavy, foul stench preceded them, but they were smiling. Michelle ordered a small Mau Shan, the highest grade of durian.

As we took our seats on the sticky red plastic stools, small gnats buzzed around the exposed light bulb above us. The uneven brick sidewalk was wet from the humidity. When the durian handler placed our opened fruit before us, I felt like my lungs had been coated with the underside of a compost heap. Obviously, I’d need to burn the clothes I had on – they’d never truly be clean again.

Michelle reached inside a pod to grasp a corpse-colored lump of flesh with her bejeweled blue nails. Creamy yellow custard dripped down her finger where she pierced the outer membrane. The smell was suffocating. I either needed to eat or leave… or pass out.

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Quickly, I plucked a small, mucous-like glob from the pod and popped it in my mouth. I did not vomit. And magically, the smell disappeared. It was as if a really strong cheese had the consistency of pudding. It was like mango mixed with garlic and blue cheese salad dressing. The texture and taste was unlike anything I’d ever had and nothing at all like a fruit. I actually finished my portion of the durian. Honestly, it is not my favorite dish, but I wouldn’t mind eating it again. I’m glad I tried it.

As you experiment with new cultures, locations, and foods, do be cautious. Be curious. Be excited. Do your research, ask questions, and listen. Learn from the experiences and mistakes of others, but don’t be afraid to make your own. If you take a risk, you may not get the thrill you seek, but you will likely gain a sense of accomplishment in the knowledge that you tried.

[1] “Anthony Bourdain tries out durian in Indonesia”. Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Season 2. Episode 12. 2006-06-19. Travel Channel. Video from YouTube. Retrieved on 2015-05-16

Lauren is a Texas native who has lived in the UK, Japan, and Singapore. As an independent writer and researcher, Lauren uses her involvement with Southeast Asian institutes and think tanks as inspiration for the social, economic, and political themes in her work. To view Lauren’s work, visit www.laurenspower.com

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City Living

It’s almost mid-June. Boston has finally emerged from one of its worst winters on record (which of course is the year I moved back up North). Schools are almost out for the summer.

And as the days get warmer, the Families in Global Transition Conference becomes more and more of a distant memory. It’s been a privilege to follow the reflections of some of the attendees and presenters from the conference, and as a Parfitt Pascoe Writing Scholar, I’ve been able to relive some of my favorite sessions as I wrote articles about them (stay tuned for future publications). But the more time ticks on, the more removed the experience feels.

Until today, when I realized that the weekend will probably always be a part of me. Although I’ll never be surrounded by that same group of global nomads again, there are some key lessons that I can remember and take away. Some of them I’ve blogged about in the past (see previous posts on Bridging Worlds and Diversity), but some I’m still learning.

Let me explain:

A few weeks ago I faced a very challenging decision: I’d been offered admission to a Master’s Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education [wait, what?!? When I finished undergrad, I didn’t even want to get a Master’s, much less apply to Harvard! Long story]. It was an International Education Policy program, which had basically become my dream program–nine months of intensive coursework and internships, and an M.Ed on the other side. I could either remain in the work force or go back to school.

After a year of some pretty amazing trips to Haiti and working with Haitian educators, I decided I needed to accept Harvard’s offer of admission. [Guys, I’m going to Harvard!!!]

Choosing to go to Harvard meant that I’d have to move. Since it was less than a year ago that I’d loaded my earthly possessions into a Penske truck and driven them up to Massachusetts, I wasn’t too keen on packing them up again. But with the help of some lovely friends, it happened and I relocated twenty minutes south to Somerville.

I’ve never felt happier after a move than I have in the past three days.

In contrast to the previous places I’ve inhabited in the United States, I’m finally back in a city. Not one of those suburb towns that pretends to be a city–a real city. With a subway system, and permit parking, and traffic that yields to pedestrians, and systems that are enforced.

Don’t get me wrong–I’ve loved all of the areas and communities that I’ve lived in previously after moving to the United States. I enjoyed my college campus, North Carolina was beautiful, and suburban Massachusetts was hugely convenient.

But there’s something about being a city that is ridiculously homelike, regardless of the country it’s in, even though things like street sweeping and parking permits for moving vans are annoying. For the first time since being an adult, I can walk to the grocery store. I can walk to the nearest subway stop. There’s a bike path two blocks behind my apartment.

And most importantly, there are people. Lots of people, from all over the world. Walk into Panera, and you’ll hear three different languages. I hardly know any of these people, but they remind me that I’m part of humanity.

How does this relate to FIGT15? As I was finishing up an article this week, I was reminded of Katia Vlachos’ session called, “Home is What You Make It.” She described how we often define home in one of three ways: people, place, or feeling.

If we’re talking about people, I have homes all over the world. If we’re talking about place, I have a few of those as well.

But home as a feeling? I don’t know that I’d found that until I moved into a city.

Maybe this is the honeymoon phase of moving. I’m sure I won’t feel the same way when winter comes to Boston again, or when traffic gets congested, but right now, I love city living.

Book Review: B at Home

Amidst the research being published on Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and the impact of global mobility on education, it’s sometimes easy to forget about the voices of the people we are researching and writing about—the kids themselves.

Valerie Besanceney has created a wonderful short chapter book that begins to provide words for a TCK experiences when he or she moves. The book follows the story of 10-year-old Emma through her international move from one home to another due to her father’s work relocation. It is written from the perspective of both Emma and interspersed with the thoughts of her stuffed bear, affectionately named “B.”

Through telling the story through both the eyes of Emma and B, Besanceney has been able to capture all angles of the moving experience—the impact of past moves, the uncertainty of a future move, and how Emma processes the entire situation. Besanceney skillfully brings up questions of rituals, friendships, changing schools, and creating a home, all of which are bound to run through the mind of any child who moves.

This book would be an excellent book for a parent and child to read together to help process an international move. Reading about Emma’s experience going through a similar transition will likely provide words for a TCK to begin processing a moving experience, opening up a conversation with parents. At the same time, it will remind the child that he or she is not alone in feeling this way. Parents may also glean ideas for how to make the transition easier by reading this book, whether it’s establishing a new ritual or creating a Moving Booklet similar to the one Emma receives in the story.

All in all, I would highly recommend this book to anyone with children and who is making an international move. Feel free to check it out on Amazon.

Book Review: Letters Never Sent

At the beginning of March, I had the privilege of meeting Ruth van Reken at the FIGT conference. As a TCK, hers was a name I had heard frequently, but until the conference I don’t think I actually believed that she was a real person. She’s one of the realist, most authentic people I have ever met. Her honesty, sincerity, and assessment of the world were refreshing.

It’s still a little weird for me to meet the authors of books that I read. I read Ruth’s Letters Never Sent about a month after the conference. If you’re a global nomad, this book must go on your must-read list. I never knew that a person could take the feelings that so many TCKs experience and put them into words on a piece of paper. Yes, Ruth is an expert in the TCK field due to the research she has conducted, but this book reaches beyond the research and into the heart of the TCK. I started the book on a flight to Haiti and finished it on the return flight.

Ruth writes with an incredible amount of honesty about the impact that various aspects of her TCK experience had on her. The book itself compiles journal entries about experiences she had throughout her life. Some letters are addressed to her parents respectively, some to God. She captures all aspects of life—marriage, faith, community, career—and somehow puts words to act of processing each of these through the lens of being a global nomad. The fact that the book is well-written is beside the point–above all, Ruth is real about the experience and the impact that it had on her, and that in itself is powerful in a world where TCKs often feel misunderstood.

I would strongly recommend TCKs, parents of TCKs, and those who work with TCKs to read this book. While this book by no means offers a “how to” recipe for raising a TCK (because there is no recipe), it does give a glimpse into a long-term impacts that such a transient lifestyle can have on an individual. That insight can be invaluable for understanding such a person.

So if you haven’t already, please pop over to Amazon and order it—either for yourself, a friend, or another TCK you know.

Blankets and Espresso

I’ve spent much of the past few weeks looking over my notes from the Families in Global Transition conference.  So many thoughts come from those notes–so many quotes, so many ideas, that it’s hard to know where to begin writing them down.  I’ve come to realize that one of the best places to start is the experience.

I was honestly a little bit skeptical when I agreed to attend FIGT as a Parfitt Pascoe Writing Resident.  I’d never heard of the conference before last October. The online expat community ramped up FIGT to be a sensational experience. But how could I really believe these digitized faces? The words of the computer screen spoke life, depth, and connectedness, but the flatness of the computer screen made it difficult for me to believe that such a thing could actually exist from people traveling in from around the world.  I balked a little at dropping a couple hundred dollars to spend a weekend with people I had never met.

Which is why I was surprised when attending FIGT felt like both snuggling up with your favorite blanket and drinking three cups of espresso (this is probably an inadequate coffee comparison…you’ll have to forgive me, I’ve only just begun drinking coffee).

A favorite blanket, you say?

Yes, a favorite blanket. The one that you always grab when you’ve come inside from shoveling snow (I did a lot of that this year), and you can’t stop shivering.  It’s fuzzy, and it covers your completely, and suddenly you’re warm again and it doesn’t matter how cold it is outside.

That’s like what walking into FIGT is–no matter where you’re coming from, or whether or not you’ve been to FIGT before, there’s a feeling of familiarity and warmth that you can’t find anywhere else and that makes everyone feel like they’ve come home.  No matter where you’re coming from, everyone shares a common bond.  The bond goes beyond the understanding of what it’s like to travel between cultures and countries.  It’s a desire to understand that experience and do something with it that brings everyone together.  And when everyone’s together with that understanding, then it doesn’t matter what’s going on outside.

That is also why FIGT is a little bit like three cups of espresso.

Because the people who go to FIGT don’t stop at just thinking.  They want to do something about what they’re thinking and want to learn how to use their gifts to help others.

As a TCK, I often felt like we viewed ourselves as victims–many of us had no control over where or when we would move next.  Thus, as children, we seemed helpless to impact the changes taking place around us.  I never liked this image of helplessness that I felt like was associated with being a TCK.

That’s where we need to start changing the narrative.  As research emerges about the benefits of moving cross-culturally, we get to do something about the world.  And there are hundreds of awesome people with brilliant ideas about what we can do to start that.  Many of those people were at FIGT, and their desire to make that change is inspiring and motivating.  It spurs other people into action beyond the walls of the conference room.  It’s better than caffeine.

Long story short, you should plan on attending FIGT next year when it takes place in the Netherlands.

On Making That Difference…

As you’ve probably gathered by now, a recurring theme at the FIGT conference was making a difference in the world.  The past few decades have produced an incredible amount of research into the impacts of global mobility on a person.  With this research comes a better understanding of ourselves, and with that understanding comes an ability to make a difference.  We can’t make a difference until we know who we are.

On a global scale, it seems that the world is also moving toward understanding differences.  Instead of being fearful of differences, our world is beginning to value them and in some cases celebrate them. Centuries ago, fearing differences was necessary for survival.  Now, however, fearing diversity limits expansion.  The value of diversity has slowly stepped into a central role in many organizations and networks.  This is probably partially due to the increase in globalization and the fact that in so many aspects of life, understanding and valuing diversity is necessary for moving forward and succeeding.  (Note: I did not say we’re there yet…events like Ferguson and ISIS prove otherwise.  But we are making incredible stride toward it.  After all, the Cold War didn’t blow up the world.)

As we understand the people of the world better, suddenly people are hearing voices of communities who before did not have one.  People seek to understand.  And with those voices comes the power to impact change.  It’s the idea of using your difference to make a difference.

With the power of having a voice comes an immense responsibility.  Because despite a desire to understand, it’s still easy to misuse the voice that we now have.  Examples of this plague the new today, from Boko Haram to the Syria.  When there are so many perspectives of “right” in our postmodern world, sometimes understanding doesn’t lead to progress.

So what do we do? Do we stop trying because we don’t see progress? Or because our neighbor doesn’t agree with us?  Giving up only perpetuates the problem.  As I’ve thought about what it means to impact change, I’ve settled on three things that I want to keep in mind for myself…

1. Sometimes smaller is better.  When I was teaching in a high poverty school, I quickly grew frustrated by how the system didn’t work for my students–so much so that i forgot about my students amidst the system.  It was impossible for me to change an entire system of education that didn’t work for them.  But I could help them understand how they could use the system to share their voice with the world.  And some days, it was just one student that I helped, but it was still worth it.

2. Is it hurting someone?  Thinking about changing something, we should always be asking ourselves what the short-term and long-term consequences of our actions will be.  If the consequences of something will hurt an entire community, then it’s probably not a good idea.

Unfortunately, actions and programs and initiatives are usually not completely clear-cut on whether they will ultimately hurt or help a community.  That’s where diversity is important.  If only one community’s voice is represented in any decision, then there is no way all interests will be protected.  And while compromise comes into play in any decision, every voice should be heard.

3. Is it helping someone?  Not just me, but other people?  Am I giving more than I’m expecting to receive back?  In our capitalistic society, that doesn’t necessarily make sense.  But sometimes I know that I need to be more concerned with the people around me than what I’m getting out of something.  And if my actions and voice and desire to impact change can benefit someone else in a positive way, then that’s awesome.

So my challenge to myself, and maybe to readers, is to make sure that change is impacted responsibly, and that each voice is heard.

Bridging Worlds

Over the past couple of days at the Families in Global Transition Conference, it was inspirational to meet some amazing people who have stories similar to my own.  When I think about my life, I’m honored to realize that I’ve led a pretty cool life.  I was born in Taiwan and lived there for most of my childhood.  During those eighteen years, I traveled to the Philippines, Japan, and Thailand.  Then I received a quality education from a liberal arts college, during which time I connected with phenomenal people and lived in Italy for four months.  After that, I taught in rural North Carolina, where I met some powerful students and visionaries.  Now I get to travel to Haiti to work with teachers who have an amazing passion for their students.

Many times, rehashing my life for people results in glazed over looks and confusion.  But over the past weekend, that’s the last thing that’s happened.  Because everyone else has had a similar story.  Moreover, these people are trying to make a difference with their stories.  This weekend I met Tayo Rockson, a TCK who lived in five countries and founded Use Your Difference (http://www.uydmag.com) to encourage people to “Use their difference to make a difference.” I met Ellen Mahoney, who founded Sea Change Mentoring (http://seachangementoring.com) as a mentoring organization for TCKs in high schools and universities.  I met Ruth Van Reken and Michael Pollock, who have established and continued groundbreaking research into the impacts that global mobility has on children.

Talking to these people made me remember that I could be part of something bigger.  As mobile as we are, and however much we end up dispersing across the globe, we as TCKs have a unique opportunity to make a difference in the world due to our backgrounds and global upbringing.  The conduit for that difference may vary, and one is not necessarily better than others, but it happens.  This revelation isn’t new, but I was definitely reminded of it this weekend.

But honestly, we’re really not that special.  Pieces of our stories resonate with so many others.  How we acquired our stories may be unique, but the impacts that they have on us are similar.

And that’s where we get to start bridging worlds for others.

Because even though I’m a white female, I want to help the Haitian (or Taiwanese, or Romanian, or South African) student tell his or her story to the world through education.  Because if we’re not careful, these students are going to lose their cultural identity in the face of globalization in the same way that TCKs risk not developing their cultural identity because they never grow up in one culture.

And I firmly believe that one of the vehicles to do this is education.  Through education, we build empathy.  Through empathy, we build understanding.  And through understanding, we build the ability to listen to others, recognize, and celebrate their differences.

After the conference ended, I met up with one of my North Carolina friends for dinner in DC.  We had a few extra minutes and with them we visited a small, local bookstore.  As I was browsing through the books, my eye caught a children’s book that had the blue UNICEF brand emblazoned on its cover.  The letters read A life like mine.  I grabbed it and started flipping through it, slowly discovering that this book identified different themes of cultural identity and depicted how these indicators were manifested in different cultures across the world.  As I looked further throughout the store, I found an entire education shelf devoted to cultural response teaching and education as identity development.  Please feel free to check out their website: http://www.tfcbooks.org.

I realized that this is where I get to start bridging worlds.  Through my passion for education, and I get the help teachers give their students a voice that will further their cultural identity while still understanding others.