Reading reflections in the Bookinglass

An expat with a love of fiction

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Being an ATCK

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Map at Berlin Bus Stop

There is no escaping the label Third Culture Kid (TCK); I am a grown-up one. I would be in good company if more people knew that President Obama is one too.

An Adult Third Culture Kid (ATCK) is an ugly term that means I have grown up in cultures not that of my parents. I have thought for a while that it was best to ignore my rootless conundrum and avoided probing too deeply into the difference it makes to my adult life.

I dread the possibility that people will think I am showing off at how ‘well-travelled’ I am. I dislike but  try desparately to contort myself into cultural boxes and usually I let the other person do part of the constructing of the box to fit me in.

To that innocent question ‘Where do you come from?” my spiel normally goes something like this:

“I am from England…”

(Wonderfully simple, a nice English Girl, probably from Sussex or Kent, possibly Hampshire.)

“…but at the moment I am living in Germany.”

(My imagination is not stretching too far yet, this is still Europe, she is white, blonde, perhaps even has some German family, perhaps here on university exchange.)

“I cannot speak German.”

(Well, this is getting odd, she isn’t German. She really should attempt to learn some German, it would enable her to fit into the culture more easily, surely it can’t be that difficult.)

“I am working here but my parents lived here a few years whilst I was at university, I wasn’t expecting to be lucky enough to be able to find work and live here with them.”

(She has parents here? Goodness, she is still following her parents around and letting them take care of anything that requires speaking German.)

“They cannot speak German either.”

(Well, they really ought to learn some German, are they just lazy or culturally obnoxious?)

“They are teachers.”

(Ah, that is logical, I was expecting something more like like a diplomat or in the military, but yes English teachers, that makes sense.)

“They don’t teach English, they work in international schools.”

(She is British School educated that explains the accent.)

“So I grew up overseas and went to international schools, not necessarily British, my accent just seems to be because I watched BBC world news a lot…” *fake chuckle*

And, of course, it often goes on. Arduously.

You know how some people come back from their gap years in India or Ghana with dread locks or braids, sporting some wax cloth, beads, bangles, new tattoo or at least just a healthy-looking tan?

I don’t look like that and never have done. I have mousey hair, no tan and a cream tea British accent. My appearance , and my accent accentuates my appearance, is just where the difficulty in fitting back into Europe begins. All the normal cultural cues end with ellipses…

Here are just a few small ways that being a TCK has affected me:

  • When I arrived in Heathrow airport as a teenager after 6 years in the tropics, the chatty coach driver asked my father whether he had been hiding me indoors for all that time because I was so white (not naturally very fair-skinned, just pale).
  • I pointed at all the sheep and cows in the English fields and joyfully exclaimed “How quaint!”
  • I didn’t know how to pay for a ticket on the bus (luckily bus drivers are nearly always lovely, apart from in London where they are nearly always horrid).
  • The idea of being able to walk across the street at zebra crossings and have cars stop for you, that is just too easy!
  • The libraries were so full of books to read for free, my heart could have burst.
  • To be able to go to the cinema and watch the new movies as they came out….ah I thought I would never take that for granted.
  • Only this week I broke the habit of thinking I must stay in the car passenger seat at the petrol station whilst the driver went to pay for the pump. I don’t travel in cars very often and when I was growing up it was foolhardy to walk alone anywhere as a white girl and you wouldn’t leave the car unattended otherwise you wouldn’t find it when you came back, if you came back at all (my parents exaggerated to some extent).

Being an ATCK is like being some kind of naive spy without a purpose other than to act normal.

Being an ATCK is not being understood as being anything in particular.

Being an ATCK is watching all the prejudices against this ‘third culture’ fly under the  radar; how can prejudices even exist if the culture itself against which they are bourne cannot be defined by the average person?

I read an article recently in the Guardian about the every challenges and prejudices faced by an unusual set of British twins, one who is black and one who is white. Perhaps surprisingly, it was the white twin who suffered more from racial prejudice and bullying in school. The mother proposes that other white kids were incited by the audacity of a “black person” appearing to be just like them. I think I can relate to this situation; although I have not been bullied outright, I find that not having a cultural background reflected in my language, accent or appearance means that often people find it hard to accept that I am different in a good way. People rarely acknowledge the difficulties, merits and challenges that having only skin deep cultural belonging present.

I find it hard to accept that I won’t fit into any culture but I know that having a complex cultural background is going to become more and more common and recognised. As I am making steps towards moving back to the UK, my home culture, I find that I am more nervous than ever about fitting in and finding a job. In which job will I benefit from my international experience but not require a second language? Should I continue to ignore my cultural complexity? Should I dreadlock my hair as a nod towards my previous homes in foreign lands? Should I explain all of this in depth to acquaintances and employers? I know one thing for certain is that I seek friendship and connections with others like me.


Written by bookinglass

November 3, 2011 at 8:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Birthday Books

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I was given a voucher for Dussman, the biggest fanciest KulturKaufhaus (books and music store) in Berlin, and so I bought three unbent books straight from their dustfree boardroom-esque English-language room (now on the ground floor, “Take a right at the Sphinx”).

Did you know more books are sold off tartan rugs than….wait, no, the tartan is just in case you forget you are in the English-language section. They had a good choice of books out on display but I only had 10 mins to pick something from those dark wood masculine shelves. I usually take 10 mins to decide what to have for dinner. But I am happy with my choosen ones:

Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Fragoso’s memoir Tiger, Tiger
Egan’s A Visit by the Goon Squad

Challenging, huh?

I was inspired to read the latter book by watching Jennifer Egan’s interview with GoodBooks as her novel was their chosen for their book club these last two months (June/July). I have almost missed out on the book club unless I could pull an all-nighter I don’t think I will get to contribute this time around. Even though I know it is a Pulizer Prize winning novel, I am put off by the featureless book cover. I have two other books with predominantly orange covers recently (Cleave’s The Other Hand and Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns), do they think that it makes a book look more serious or eye-catching? Or perhaps this is just coincidence.

The other two books are a bit of a punt up the river I’ll Give It a Go. They are all currently secured alongside other to-be-reads on the bookshelf. They are meant to be tough reads, especially the memoir, I will have to psych myself for these ones! But as things around here haven’t been too happy of late, I think I will leave them be for the moment. I have just enough funds on the voucher left for one last book. Decisions, Decisions.

Written by bookinglass

July 26, 2011 at 10:25 pm

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Cunning Cat

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I was in the middle of reading a description of a suicide scene in The Last Life, when my mum walks into my room with the cat in her arms asking whether I had let him out. Now this may sound normal (ish)…except we live on the first floor of an apartment building (an old one from 1920s) and the great front door is always closed. Our cat has learned how to pull the handle and let himself out the front door. I am not even very surprised, he is very clever and has already taken to drinking out of the bathroom tap instead of the bowl beside his food. The only thing to do is to swap the lever handle on the front door with the round handle on the tap and our cat will be able to stay indoors and drink water whenever he likes.

This reminds me of a TED talk I watched about the intelligence of crows. It is fascinating stuff, if you have a spare 20 minutes I recommend it. Anyone else have a crazy and cunning animal story?

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Written by bookinglass

June 28, 2011 at 9:06 pm

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How not to recommend a book

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There are many ways in which you can put someone off reading a book. The trap I fall into is that of the overly enthusiastic advocate.

“You MUST read this book”

When I read Not Untrue and Not Unkind by Ed O’Loughlin, I was completely enamoured long after I finished reading it. During my honeymoon period with this book I expounded  its brilliance to whomever would listen to my soliliquising. But only my mum has embarked upon reading it.

Here is how I now know not to recommend a good book.

The book is set mostly in the civil war torn Congo and follows the life and career of the Irish journalist who reports from “cities of half-remembered conflicts”.

I have always wondered about the lives of those foreign reporters I saw on the BBC. It is thrilling to imagine seeking out places that most people would run a million miles away from.

More than anything, the poignant imagery and the cynical undertone really struck a chord with me. For example, the title of the book sounds like a cheesy and pretentious memoire that is an extract from the end of Philip Larkin’s poem, Talking in Bed. It is a finely-tuned joke that balances that shallow offhand use of a well-known poem, with the depth of feeling that he borrows from Larkin’s words nonetheless. As you come to realise that the narrator despises the type of bigwig journalists who romanticise their career and experiences in such a nauseating way.

The imagery is surprising and original. From the first page:

“The days and nights mill round like mismatched fighters, short and long, long and short, from summer to winter to summer again…”

I love how the weather in the UK is likened to what I imagine as cold, sweaty, mistrustful, grim boxers skirting around each other in a ring. The lack of daylight does seem like it loses out to the dark in the Winter and the change in seasons plays a unpredicatable role in people’s lives. This author is a master at creating atmosphere and setting.

But it was not until the hilarious scene with the journalists treking into the jungle in search of a gorillas that I truly madly deeply fell in love with this book.

There are few moments when you have to put down a book and wipe your eyes from tears. I was brought to this twice in Not Untrue and Not Unkind, once from laughter (gorilla scene and the unfortunately-worded T-shirt scene) and once from devastation (most of the other scenes to be fair).

But I shan’t give too much away. Therein lies the problem with recommending a book. It’s like when someone tries to inform you about what makes an in-joke funny: it flops like a flat lilo of undrollity. The more someone goes on about something that you can’t participate in, the less you want to know about it.

So my waxing lyrical about Not Untrue and Not Unkind is pointless really until you have read it too (and please tell me if you do!) and can put people off reading it altogether. So for now, as I am still not used to this what books would you recommend and why malarky, I advise you to get over the first chapter, just the first chapter, and get to the gorilla part and then you’ll be hooked.

Do you think you can be put off reading a book by someone who is too pushy?

Written by bookinglass

March 30, 2011 at 11:00 pm

Book Club Rookie

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I came across Dialogue Books, a boutique English-language bookshop in Berlin, as I was searching for something to join that wasn’t to do with bars and parties.

Don’t get me wrong, I am far far far from a party animal….but Berlin is stumble-full of cool, friendly bars…like the upside down one (and this one I just came across that I must go to sometime as it is recommended by another ‘not a bar lover buuut…’ person!).

Ok, so I was searching for people who loved books too. And voila! This website is so chic and they have a book club too… perfect fit for me!

Only one thing stopping me: a little shyness about the fact the I am a book club rookie.

What do people say at a book club? And, yeah, going to a book club in your early twenties, doesn’t that have a bit of a stigma (‘Errr…shouldn’t you just be out drinking til 6am?’) attached?

But after an (non-scary sounding) email exchange with Sharmaine the head of Dialogue, and as I found myself wandering around Senefelder Platz looking for the right road for the little cafe in which we would meet…which made finally arriving on time such a relief, I was happy to introduce myself and sit down at a table with the 3 men who I took to be Dialogue Book Club veterans.

Now… I haven’t* mentioned the actual book that we were to be discussing because it was really a prop for me to actually get out somewhere that was not the shop/flat/office/bar. I was just chuffed to actually be there with my gunpowder tea and meeting people, I really couldn’t care what we discussed. Except of course, I did get intensely involved in the discussion.

It was fun, despite some of the time feeling like a complete uneducated randomer, I felt welcome and engaged. Next month I hope I will be less of a randomer and one more of your usual ecelectic bunch of book lovers (although I think I am going back partly because I love the cafe so much).

At least I won’t be a book club rookie much longer!

How was your first book club experience? Will I ever feel like I belong to a book club?

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Written by bookinglass

February 16, 2011 at 10:42 pm

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Hitler, Pink Rabbit, Mog and Judith

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I think my love of Judith Kerr’s children’s books is only surpassed by that of my Mum. She is a primary school librarian after all. The next moment I see her I am showing her this wonderful interview with Judith on the Guardian Books website. Please go ahead and enjoy the interview too.

It reminds me of all the adventures in her semi-autobiographical novel ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’. I must read this again soon to experience the ups and downs of living a childhood in different countries as a refugee from Nazi Germany (this is a better review). I will probably see it very differently now I am living in Germany and because I also grew up within a different culture (I never saw the parallels at the time I first read it).

Whose interest couldn’t be piqued by the book title alone? I am surprised that nothing is mentioned of this book in this article about children’s war fiction. Perhaps because it is one of the “old-school” representations of the  effects of war on children, rather than anything new and controversial as Little Soldier. I asked my mum what she thought of children being introduced to war and the idea of child soldiers (the subject of Little Soldier) and she highlights the fact that what most children find most scary and sad is the idea of being taken away from their families. In the video on the BBC article the children’s views completely reflect what my mum noticed.

And as to her Mog the Cat books…ahhh…all I can say is that our family’s cat could well be a kindred spirit of Mog.

Do you think he dreams of flying like Mog does or being a whale?

Written by bookinglass

January 20, 2011 at 10:20 pm

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Glass Feet and Warrior Cats

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Cute cat with paw on windowThere has been no update from the land of currywurst and bears who do handstands. I have been busy getting to grips with this fantastic city but not yet with the German language.

So it’s been quite an eclectic mix of books that I have read over the last few weeks…and ‘eclectic’ is a euphemism to make it sound like my reading children’s books borrowed from the school’s library over their summer vacation (and, ok, into term time) is justified.

Warrior Cats by Erin Hunter. About cats who live in the forest and fight each other over territory and food. I just can’t get enough of this series of books written for 10 year olds.

I cried when the lovely cat died in kittenbirth.

I pumped my fist when the mangy old evil cat was kicked out of the clan.

Haven’t quite given into the desire to join the online fan page yet. And oh…just discovered a whole realm of Youtube videos surrounding the series. This one is pretty funny. It really is as dramatic as they make out, I tell you, puts my problems in perspective! Also it’s given me reason to think up new names for our old cat that are more in tune with nature and feistiness. Best I can come up with is Blacktail. I know, not inspired.

The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw. Not worth it. Really. Read the first and last chapters and you don’t miss much inbetween. She has glass feet, it says so in the title, so really all that mystery in the first few chapters around the reason behind her chunky boots and careful, stilted gait: Boring and pointless. And, no, there is no reason for her having glass feet. You just come to realise that even magical things can be dull:

‘I told you about moth-winged cattle after you saw the poor bull. I think I told you they eat and shit and die like everything else. You see, just because something is unfamiliar doesn’t mean it isn’t bound by all that stuff.’ (p. 164)

And yes, that says moth-winged cattle, pint-sized whirring cows. BUT I finished the book, so it can’t be that bad. And now I feel guilty as Ali Shaw has a blog and all….eek. It’s ok, Ali, if you’re reading this: I am that stupid girl who likes books written from the perspective of cats. It’s probably just my mood at this moment in time but if book 2 could be named The Cat with Glass Paws?

On a less facetious side, Ali Shaw’s use of language is astounding and intricate. I really love the image of the glass feet the first time that Midas peels back the sock:

‘In the curve of her instep wisps of blood hung trapped like twirls of paint in marbles.’ (p. 62)