This TCK’s Journey Led Her to Your TV Screen: An Interview with Actress Elizabeth Liang

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Growing up in Taipei didn’t give my daughter much exposure to colleges in the States, so when she got older and came across the WB series Felicity on DVD, she was excited to find a tutorial on the college experience. Since then, she’s become a university student herself and has learned that real college life contains a lot more schoolwork and a lot less draaaaaama than Keri Russell’s version. But Felicity still holds a special place in her DVD collection, and in her Third Culture Kid heart.

When I told my daughter I was reviewing Elizabeth (Lisa) Liang’s solo show about being a TCK, Alien Citizen, and that Lisa had appeared in season two of Felicity, she was impressed.

Yes, Felicity gave Lisa her first TV role, in 2000, but it was far from her last. Since then she’s appeared in a number of television shows, as well as movies and stage productions. Most recently, her TV credits have included Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Schooled, Bob Hearts Abishola, Big Little Lies, and Fresh off the Boat. (Want to see a sampling of her on the small screen? She’s Margo in the Brooklyn Nine-Nine clip at the end of this post.)

As I wrote about in my review, Lisa has a lot of cultures packed into her life. She’s the daughter of an American mother of European descent and a Guatemalan father of Chinese-Spanish descent, and she grew up in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, Morocco, Egypt, and the US.

After watching Lisa in Alien Citizen—and on TV—I wanted to find out how being a TCK affected her development as an actress, so I asked her a few questions. Thanks, Lisa, for the conversation:

In Alien Citizen, you say, “In the theater everybody’s weird. We use our imaginations to create a world that we step into together, kind of like being dropped into one that you have to adapt to.” Tell us what led you to acting and explain more how the stage become a refuge for you as a TCK.

My mom is an actress and had worked both Screen Shot 2020-05-19 at 9.02.35 AMprofessionally and in community theatre since before I was born, so the smell of theatres and the excitement of the creative process were a “home” to me from a young age. I started acting at school and in community theatre as a kid in Panama, and my love for it only grew as I grew up.

The stage became my refuge as a TCK because it allowed me to express all the facets of my personality, as well as all the facets I dared not explore in real life, without argument. The audience might like or dislike my work, but for two to three hours on stage no one could interrupt me to argue with or dismiss my experience. I wasn’t being a bad guest, nor was I losing the possibility of making or keeping friends, when I portrayed a character on stage . . . even if she was angry or rude or rebellious, or vulnerable or scared. It was a great release.

To quote an essay I wrote for the anthology Writing Out of Limbo, “I also became an actress because the lifestyle bears a resemblance to the TCK lifestyle, with added perks: the immediate family of casts and crews, the insulated world of the play or film, the inherent loss of one another at the end of a project. Actors have no choice but to live in the moment when we are acting, just as we lived in the moment as kids when we experienced a new school, a new airport, a new language for the first time. There was only the here and now, and however frightening it might have been at times, it was also exciting. Based on this, one might expect all actors to have had mobile childhoods. Many have.”

Probably the most famous TCK among actors is Mark Hamill of Star Wars, but there are plenty of others: Julianne Moore, Viggo Mortensen, Kathleen Turner, and many more.

“One might expect all actors to have had mobile childhoods.” I can’t help but think about the converse of this phrase: “One might expect all who have had mobile childhoods to be actors.” How has your experience as a “cultural chameleon,” playing new parts in new locations, influenced your ability to inhabit new characters?

My experience as a TCK gave me extra skill at playing characters with regional and international accents or dialects. I’ve played everything from a Cuban lawyer to a Japanese mother to a French maid to a Cockney convict and more, and I’m very grateful that my upbringing made those roles possible for me to play convincingly. Many were “open casting,” racially speaking (I was an actress of color playing roles originally written as white), so I had to convince the audience with my accent and behavior that the character was embodied in me. I’m proud to say it worked.

Being a TCK also taught me to show automatic respect to cultures of which I’m not a member. So when I’m playing a character from a country I’ve never been to, I avoid stereotypes and do a lot of research on that country and the region the character is from. I look for the recognizable and relatable behavior that will make the role seem true as a human being and as a member of that culture and not a cartoon.

Finally, diving into a new role is very much like moving to a new country: there’s excitement, thrill, terror, and dread . . . all at the same time. With every role, as with every country, like every actor I know, I ask myself, “How am I going to do this?!?”

Your SAG-AFTRA resume says that you can portray 24 ethnicities. That’s quite a range. Can you share about any particular role that stretched you or that taught you something you didn’t know before about a place or culture?

One role that required a lot from me was Matilde in Sarah Ruhl’s wonderful play The Clean House. Matilde is a Brazilian standup comic who has moved to the CT/NY area (I decided it was Fairfield County, CT) and is working as a maid. She hates cleaning and she doesn’t much like the town she’s in, so I deeply understood her. Nevertheless, the role was challenging because I had to learn to speak Portuguese, because Matilde opens the show with a long-form joke in her native language. Since she’s Brazilian, I had to learn a Brazilian accent. I tried for São Paulo and hoped for the best.

I can never fully explain the courage it took to open a show by delivering a long-form joke directly to the audience in a language they and I didn’t speak, while sounding utterly confident and helping them “get” the joke.

My courage as an actor grew a lot during the run of that show.

You act out many characters in Alien Citizen, including your parents. How has creating and performing the play helped you understand what it was like for your mother and father raising TCKs?

Giving myself permission to write about the hard parts of my upbringing, and then include some of them in the final draft, helped me to process those experiences so I could then overwhelmingly see and acknowledge all the good in my TCK life. I had to be honest about the difficulties in my family’s dynamic, and bear witness to some of it in the show, in order to move past that and see how much my parents succeeded as parents and how hard it must have been for them to pick up and move and navigate different cultures over and over while raising two kids. My brother and I knew we were loved, without question, and that’s not always a given in families.

Also, interviewing my folks for a “special feature” in the DVD helped me understand how it was for them. They’re very clear that there was no help or guidance whatsoever from the international schools or my father’s employer regarding the emotional challenges their kids would face. That shocks me to this day. My heart goes out to all the families over decades and centuries who’ve relocated and had to learn how to cope emotionally on their own.

You offer workshops to help others wanting to share their stories in solo shows, personal essays, memoirs, and the like. What would you say to TCKs who would ask, “Why me? Why my story?”

Every human being’s story is part of the great, infinite prism of the human story. We have always relied on stories to help us feel connected, and learn how to behave and how to understand one another. Your story will resonate with people you expect and people you would never expect to relate to any of it. I know this from personal experience.

Ask yourself: What is it costing you not to have your voice, your story, in the world?

And remember: Our stories and our feelings about them matter. Honor them.

[photo: “Television,” by dailyinvention, used under a Creative Commons license]

Share Your Little Vista [—at A Life Overseas]

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Most countries have their majestic views. They’re the sights that populate Google image results and Pinterest collections. I’m thinking Eiffel Towers and Mount Fujis.

In the capital of Taiwan, we could ride the gondola up to the heights of Maokong and gaze at Taipei 101 piercing the skyline  of the city, surrounded by a ring of mountains. Or we could stand at the entrance of Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Park, with its paved square and manicured lawns leading to the majestic bright-white, blue roofed Memorial Hall.

If you visit Taipei, I’d suggest you try to see both of these grand vistas. But living there for a while, I had some little vistas that impacted me more. For instance, there was the view from my favorite seat in a Starbucks deep in the subway system. Through the glass wall in front of me, I could look down a long corridor, lined with shops. The architecture was nondescript, but what impacted me was the constant crowds of people kaleidoscoping by. I spent a lot of time at that vantage point mulling over big decisions.

And there was an ancient tree on a college campus downtown that caught my attention. It was mostly sideways limbs, gnarled and stretching out in all directions. The limbs were so heavy and low that they had to be held up by short concrete pillars so they wouldn’t touch the ground. I admired that tree. It was old and weary but enduring. It was especially picturesque during a rain shower.

What about you, in your host country? Do you have a little vista that brings you joy or peace or hope or inspiration?

Go to A Life Overseas to finish reading this post, and to add your own little vista.

[photo: “Flowerpot of the Roadside by mrhayata, used under a Creative Commons license]

Listening to a Wonderful Immigrant Story in the Walmart Parking Lot while Everybody Was Stocking Up on Bottled Water

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I was sitting in a Walmart parking lot, a few days after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the WHO. It was back when stores weren’t yet limiting the number of shoppers. People were still hoarding toilet paper and making a big deal about how people were hoarding toilet paper, and there wasn’t much of it left in the stores by that time. I had a list in my pocket of things to buy, but I stayed in my car for a while listening to NPR as I watched shoppers file out with their carts piled high with their necessities—bottled water seemed to be a must-have that day. I was in the middle of a Moth Radio Hour and I wanted to hear the end.

The edition playing that day was called “When We Were Young,” and in the second segment, “Sandwiches & Neighbors,” Oanh Ngo Usadi tells about her family of seven leaving Vietnam as refugees when she was twelve. They ended up in Port Arthur, Texas. and she introduces us to their landlords, Mr. Water (not so nice) and Mrs. Water (much nicer). “Water” wasn’t their actually surname, but that’s what Usadi’s family called them. She shares how her father opened a sandwich shop to give McDonald’s “a run for its money” and how they were introduced to the significance of April 1 (the hard way) and how a trip to Costco brought about an unexpected affirmation. And that brings me back to Walmart.

I didn’t have a mask with me, because we weren’t doing that yet, but I had in my head all the reminders to wash my hands and not touch my face. Regardless, I found myself wiping my eyes as Usadi reached the end of her poignant story.

You can listen to the entire episode at The Moth site, and I hope you do. It starts with “Is Love Wild, Is Love Real?” from a man who grew up outside London. His parents were Pakistani Muslims who didn’t believe that love was a useful ingredient in a husband-wife relationship. As he is looking for love anyway, his mother is looking to set him up in an arranged marriage. Enlightenment comes by way of Bruce Springsteen.

And the third, and final, story is “Kid Religion.” In it, the speaker tells about his time as a child in western New York, attending a small Methodist church. His mother, a “labor lawyer from a Catholic Puerto Rican family in the Bronx,” volunteers to teach his Sunday-school class and gets fired for how she answers a question. Years later, after developing a relationship with a girl in a school play, he comes to believe that his mother’s answer was the right one.

If Usadi’s narrative makes you want to hear more about her life, you can read her memoir, Of Monkey Bridges and Bánh Mì Sandwiches: from Sài Gòn to Texas.

[photo: “Walmart,” by Mike Mozart, used under a Creative Commons license]

Oh, the Questions We Hear from Those We Love [—at A Life Overseas]

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I saw a headline a couple weeks ago that pressed down on my chest like a heavy stone. It read, “‘Don’t You Love Us?’ Millennials Say Their Parents Are Making Them Feel Guilty for Turning Down Invitations to Come Over for Passover and Easter.” While the lead-in question is directed at young adults, asked by parents who don’t understand why they won’t be sharing a holiday meal together during the pandemic, it could just as easily be asked of health-care workers or grocery-store employees by loved ones wondering why they are putting themselves at risk by going to work every day.

So this is another thing that cross-cultural workers face that is similar to what’s been brought on by COVID-19: the questions.

Hands up. When you decided to work overseas, did any of you hear “Don’t you love us?” or something similar, from parents, siblings, children, or close friends? How many of you have heard it more than once, maybe each time you say goodbye?

When we make decisions based on our convictions, when we decide to do something difficult or out of the ordinary because we believe it to be right, our actions often affect others, especially those closest to us. And they have questions, and those questions can land with a thud.

Go to A Life Overseas for the rest of the post. . . .

(Erin McDowell, “Don’t You Love Us?’ Millennials Say Their Parents Are Making Them Feel Guilty for Turning Down Invitations to Come Over for Passover and Easter,” Insider, April 9, 2020)

[photo: “What? by Véronique Debord-Lazaro, used under a Creative Commons license]

To Be a Jellyfish in Venice Right Now

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If you haven’t yet seen the video of the jellyfish touring Venice, here it is. What a peaceful swim.

And to go with that, here are some other videos I’ve collected.

  • a ride down the normally crowded canals of Venice—nearly empty because of COVID-19 (a jellyfish’s-eye view, if they had eyes?),
  • an 8-hour relaxation video featuring jellyfish, for those of you who are feeling a little bit stressed,
  • and for those who might need a pick-me-up, a music video of Japanese pop duo Puffy singing the theme song from their Hi!Hi! Puffy AmiYumi Show. What’s the connection? you ask. Well, the song was produced by co-founder of the American rock band Jellyfish, Andy Sturmer.

[photo: “Jellyfish,” by Bruce.Emmerling, public domain]

“It’s a Small World”—More than Just a (Temporarily Closed) Disney Ride

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While practicing physical distancing and social friendliness in our front yard, I found out that one of our neighbors has her own travel blog. Small world, huh?

Kate’s blog is All Kids Can Travel, and in it she shares how to make the most of trips with little ones (she and her husband have four) and how to learn about the world from the comfort of your home. A few years ago, when they had three children in diapers, they decided to forego the plane rides and created their own “home travel adventures.”

After selecting a country, the trip began. “The kids had a blast packing their roller carry-ons with their favorite things,” Kate writes. “While that country’s music played in the background, we would pretend to be border agents,” speaking with foreign accents and inspecting pretend passports. Later, as their children grew older, their in-home treks developed into real-life excursions, in-state, out-of-state, and abroad.

It will be a while before families will be able to get out and about, so until then, you might want to download some activity packets and pages from All Kids Can Travel. Or if you’d like to dream about your next outing, how about taking a look at Kate’s “Do’s and Don’ts of Walt Disney World“?

Just imagine your crew in a newly reopened Disney park climbing into an It’s-a-Small-World boat with the It’s-a-Small-World tune working its way into your subconscious . . . on repeat.

It’s a small world, after all
It’s a small world, after all
It’s a small world, after all
It’s a small world, after all
It’s a small world, after all

Oops, got carried away there.

It’s a small, small world

So where did this catchy song, and the catchy phrase behind it, come from?

First, let’s look at the song.

When Walt Disney was tasked with creating an attraction for the Pepsi/UNICEF pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, he in turn tasked brothers Robert and Richard Sherman to create a theme song. Disney wanted a simple song that could be translated into multiple languages and sung in overlapping rounds. What he got was “It’s a Small World.” The boat ride, with its music, debuted at Disneyland two years later.

But Disney’s musical rendition wasn’t the first “It’s a Small World” . . . after all. No, that would be 1920’s “It’s a Small World after All,” with words by Andrew Sterling and music by Harry Von Tilzer. Sterling had earlier written the lyrics for “Meet Me in St. Louis” (for the 1904 World’s Fair), and Von Tilzer was the composer of 1911’s “I Want a Girl (Just like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad).”

Did you give it a listen? It’s not quite as catchy, but somewhat memorable in it’s own way.

To find the ancestry of the phrase It’s a small world, we’ll have to go back even further.

In 1882, Walter Bicknell put the words in the mouth of Iphigenia, servant of the eccentric Edgar Chatterton, in “The Player’s Child.” Chatterton finds Iphigenia looking at one of his books by Shakespeare:

“Have I not told you never to touch those sacred tomes, girl?” said her master, picking up the  book himself and touching with some care of manner.

“Well, I’m sure! I never went for to touch it! But there’s more dust in them nasty tombs—”

“Hence, Maiden, hence! I blush for the man or woman who applies the epithet ‘nasty’ to anything pertaining to the Bard of Stratford, Nature’s child.”

Iphigenia paused in silent reflection for a moment, and then said with a triumphant air:

“Out Stratford way, sir? Lor, then my mother must have known Mrs. Nature and them little Natures. She took in washing at Bow, and had a long circulation of shirts and handkerchiefs out by Stratford. It’s a small world, sir”

Iphigenia uses the phrase as we often do today, as in “Who would have thought that we’d know the same people?”

In 1875, Samuel James’ usage, though, has him talking about the physical size of the planet:

God cares about earth, and does not bound His love by the boundary line of heaven. Some people say, He is too great and glorious to care for such a little world as this of ours. It is, indeed, a small world compared with some of those twinkling star which we see in the midnight sky. But it is, for all that, an important world.

And in 1873, British author and army general George Chesney wrote A True Reformer, from the viewpoint of the character Mr. West. West and his wife, Eva, are traveling to Leatherwood to visit her aunts, and a Mr. Patterson sees them off:

This is a small world we live in,” said the old gentleman, as he bid us good-bye. “Only think that Mrs West should have been brought up at Leatherby, a place I know so well. The fact is that one of the members, Mr Sheepshanks, is a very old friend. A most truly excellent man he is, indeed, and owns half the town. I wish you could know him. I would send an introduction and ask him to call and see you, but that I know it would be of no use. He never visits anywhere.”

That brings us back to today’s meaning, if not the exact wording, and it’s the oldest such phrase that I, and others around the internet, have found.

For Iphigenia and Mr. Patterson, it’s enough to refer to the residents of nearby towns to show how small the world is. But today, our internet-linked world is even smaller, as we can find connections to people all over the globe, with, in theory, no more than six degrees of separation between any two of us.

We may be isolating ourselves at home right now, but some of us are out walking more and having more conversations with our neighbors. And social distancing is increasing our penchant for social networking online, which, in turn, is diminishing the gaps in our world, which truly is becoming

Smaller
Smaller
Smaller, after all

Walter Bicknell, “The Player’s Child,” The Theatre: A Monthly Review of the Drama, Music, and the Fine Arts, January to June, Clement Scott, ed., Charles Dickens and Evans, 1882; Samuel James, “Church Proverbs,”  The Headington Magazine, vol. 7, Oxford, 1875; George Chesney, A True Reformer, vol. 1, William Blackwood and Sons, 1873

[photo: “It’s a small world,” by tsukikageyuu, used under a Creative Commons license]

Flowers, 2, 3, 4

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“The Netherlands’ Huge Flower Sector Wilts as Coronavirus Hurts Business”

The Netherlands accounts for nearly half of the world trade in floriculture products and 77% of flower bulbs sold globally. Top destinations usually include Germany, the U.K., France and Italy. The Dutch exports overall are valued at $6.7 billion and the sector accounts for about 5% of the country’s gross domestic product, according to [Royal FloraHolland’s Michael] van Schie.

Now revenue has dropped by 85% since last month, the cooperative spokesman says.

. . . . .

The decline comes as the Netherlands battles the rapid spread of the coronavirus. As of Tuesday, 276 people have died in the Netherlands from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and the country has identified 5,560 cases of infection.

The Netherlands isn’t the only country whose flower sector is suffering. Kenya and Ethiopia are also important producers of roses, van Schie says. In Kenya, flowers are the second-largest source of currency after remittances. Seventy percent of cut flowers from Kenya are sold to Europe, most through an auction in the Netherlands. Farmers there are leaving their roses to rot.

How to Do Life during a Pandemic—Cross-Cultural Workers Can Add to the Discussion [—at A Life Overseas]

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Lately, my wife and I have been video chatting with two of our sons, their wives, and our four little grandkids. That’s what you do when your children are serving in a faraway land. That’s what you do, too, when your children, like ours, are close by but COVID-19 protocols tell you to stay home.

When we started out overseas, our parents didn’t have computers and Skype hadn’t even been invented yet, but I know how important video conferencing has become for ocean-separated families wanting to stay in touch. And my recent experiences back in the States have got me thinking about what cross-cultural workers (CCWs) can teach the rest of us about life under the cloud of a pandemic. While people all over the world are scrambling to overcome challenges in a matter of days or weeks, CCWs have been tackling similar problems for years.

Now I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but I’d like to consider the things that CCWs often take for granted that those “at home” can gain from. It’s not too common for senders to seek your input. “What is there to learn from people who do abnormal things because they live in abnormal places?” But as we all get used to a new normal, at least for a while, we all have things to learn.

There’s a lot of dialogue going on now about how to cope under “social distancing,” “sheltering in place,” and “quarantines.” I hope those of you working abroad are invited to give your input. You have a lot to share.

Here are some examples I’m thinking of:

You and your loved ones have dealt with extended separation and have navigated holidays and special events at a distance. You are masters at video chatting online, wrestling into submission Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, and the list goes on. And you’ve developed your own ways of connecting grandkids to Grandpa and Grandma when face-to-face isn’t an option.

Continue reading this post at A Life Overseas. . . .

[photo: “DSC06088,” by Nickolay Romensky, used under a Creative Commons license]