Write what you know. Isn’t that what everyone preaches? We authors are supposed to dig into our own experiences to discover the gems that will inform our stories. I scoffed at this advice when I first began to write, for what did I personally know about World War One that had captivated me so much I ultimately created three novels with that setting.
Gradually, I realized that it isn’t what you know in that particular way, but what you know about people and relationships, about success and failure, about falling in love and staying in love, about birth and death and the myriad of human emotions and challenges we experience in our lives. An author can learn a lot about herself, if she pays attention and digs deep while writing.
So, why today’s title ‘From Euphoria to Dislocation to Opportunity’?
I’ve finally written a novel that truly draws on personal experience – the experience of being an expat. Some of you will have read about my time in Hong Kong and I know that I’ve described The Admiral’s Wife as being inspired by that experience. But what was it really like to live in such a foreign country, what were the ups and downs of living half way around the world from the place I’d called home for more than twenty-five years?
In 2009, I outlined a book on that very topic which I titled Thriving in the Expat Cycle. I even wrote several chapters, and it would not surprise readers of A Writer of History to know that I created some diagrams as well 🙂
That book (never published) explores two fundamental concepts. The first concept is that every expat assignment involves several stages, what I referred to at the time as the expat cycle. This cycle includes the euphoria of anticipation, the maze of logistics and preparation, the discovery period, the dislocation period, the transition and finally the second settling in or opportunity stage.
The second concept draws from theories of change management which have been used for many years by organizations embarking on major change. In my consulting days, we spoke to clients about the difficult process of letter go of an old situation, of suffering the confusing nowhere of in-betweenness, and of launching forth again into a new situation or way of doing business.
For an accompanying partner/spouse – me in this case – the change was moving to a foreign land; the transition was the psychological process I had to go through to adapt to and thrive in my new circumstances.
AN EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 1 OF THRIVING IN THE EXPAT CYCLE
An expat assignment typically starts like this:
“Guess what happened today?” your spouse announces as he sheds his suit jacket and tie.
“What, dear,” you say absentmindedly, stirring the spaghetti sauce while keeping an eye on the news.
“My boss wants me to go to Hong Kong for three years,” he replies, opening the fridge to find something to drink.
“Hong Kong. Three years. What do you think?”
“Wow.” You struggle for the right response as excitement collides with uncertainty.
Wow is right. For most individuals this scenario would be a totally unexpected, jolting request to which you have no idea how to respond, no concept of its potential far-reaching impact, little sense of the advantages or disadvantages. The romantic, adventurous side of you might quickly say ‘yes’ while the timid, conservative side of you might be full of anxiety. You could choose to prevaricate and ask your partner “what do you think?” but that will only delay the inevitable need for you to consider the possibilities and determine, along with your partner, which direction to take. Make no mistake, though, an overseas assignment is a change of immense significance for both of you, as well as for your children and other close family members.
Change. We all like change, don’t we? Or do we? Our lives are full of change: going away to university, leaving home, getting married, having a child, losing a parent, finding a new job. The list goes on. Some of these experiences were easier than others; some were painful. On the scale of major life changes an expat assignment rates near the top in terms of impact. Like an iceberg, you can see parts of this change: a new climate, different language, new food, new friends, new home, different customs. They glint in the sunshine offering promise, by their tangibility seemingly manageable. But like an iceberg, danger lurks beneath the surface with changed identity, feelings of loss, new financial status, lack of friends, no network, unaccustomed roles, changed spousal dynamics and so on.
The characters in The Admiral’s Wife – Patricia Findlay, the American-born daughter of a very wealthy Hong Kong Chinese family and Isabel Taylor, the wife of the Admiral of the British fleet in China – both experience this wrenching change when they move to Hong Kong, one in 2014, the other in 1912. I brought some of my own experiences and feelings to these characters and sincerely hope readers will find their journeys of change and discovery compelling.
As I look back, both now and while writing The Admiral’s Wife, I realize that an expat assignment is a gift. One has to admire the ribbons and colourful paper, unwrap the package slowly to savour the surprise, lift the lid carefully, marvel at the gift, see it from all angles, learn from it, and enjoy.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon US, Amazon Canada, Kobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.