Uprooted and Relocated: Expat File#17

My guest for the Expat Files today is author, copywriter and blogger for hire: June Whittle. At age eleven, June was uprooted from tropical Jamaica to England to live with her parents whom she had not seen since she was four years old. Here is her story.

butterfly-on-flowers

Tiger-swallowtail on tropical blossoms

The day started normally like any other. Sunshine beamed down on us. My sisters and I played happily under the large overhanging mango tree. We hunted butterflies to catch and store, in our bottles before releasing them to fly off into freedom.

I loved living in the countryside. We lived humbly. Although we didn’t have much material wealth, we had an abundance of love between us. Our simple lifestyle in Kitson Town, St. Catherine was similar to the butterflies. Free, easy, carefree, happy and fun. Not that I know how butterflies feel. But I imagine they’re happy and have fun flying, taking rest breaks perching on the array of beautiful flowers of their choice.

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Housing Complex, St Catherine, Jamaica

Later that afternoon, an elderly lady walked up the path towards our wooden house. Smiling, she introduced herself as our grandmother, my dad’s mom. I had never seen her before, but my grandmother who we lived with, sometimes spoke about her. She hugged each of us. However, she gave me a lingering hug.

kitson-town-jamaica

Local area where I grew up

She went into the house with Sis, my grandmother. My sisters and I carried on playing in the yard. Shortly afterwards they called me to come inside. The decision they made that sunny afternoon changed the course of my life forever.

Sis told me to pack my grip (suitcase) because I was moving to Spanish Town to live with my new grandmother (called Granny). Shocked and unhappy, I packed my clothes fighting back tears. Shortly afterwards, I waved goodbye to the close family I had known all my life. I walked off hesitantly with a woman I had never met before. Disbelief ripped through my whole being and pain tugged at my heart.

How could an 11-year-old girl rebel against decisions adults make? I did as I was told. So, I moved to a new school and a whole new area. A few months later, I began to settle down into my new lifestyle.

beautiful-jamaica

Nevertheless, two years later, another bombshell dropped. Granny told me she was going to the UK and, instead of sending me back to St Catherine’s, I was traveling with her.

I waved goodbye to my familiar family. Three weeks later, I stepped off the boat onto the cold shores of Southampton, England. My mom and dad who left me in Jamaica when I was four came to meet us. And, my little sister who I never met before welcomed me to the cold, damp, grey country. The dreary day matched my mood.

While my dad was driving us to London, the first thing I noticed was how quiet it was. Cars didn’t beep their horns like they did in Jamaica. The houses were joined up and they didn’t have verandas. Plus, for the first time I saw snow.

Soon, I adapted in my new life, new school, new friends and new family in Fulham, London. However, I missed Jamaica, my sisters, friends, Sis and the sunshine. My little sister didn’t help the homesick feeling. She was amazed by my strong Jamaican Patois accent and believed it was her job to teach me to speak the Queen’s English. She corrected my every word. Within six months, I had lost most of my then lifelong accent.

me-starting-at-my-new-school-in-the-uk

Me starting my new school in the UK

Life at school, Hurlingham Comprehensive, and in the UK was challenging. I encountered a lot of racism. At school, the girls teased me because I was different from them. I was extremely timid and didn’t have many friends. They mistook my shyness for aloofness.

So, I truanted a lot from school. After mom dropped me off in the mornings, I caught the bus back home. But, one day she came home early and caught me. I was grounded and wasn’t allowed to see anyone outside of school. Anyway, after that incident, I stopped taking unauthorized time off and carried on with my studies. When I finished school at 16, I worked at a few jobs for different companies.

Me in Amsterdam

Me in Amsterdam in the 80’s

I saw my grandmother Sis again. She visited the UK once before she died in 1989. It was blessing to see her and spend quality time with her. She was a strong woman all the way and taught me a lot about the values of life.

My other grandmother, Granny, developed dementia in her 60s and had to go into a home. It broke my heart because she didn’t recognize me the last time I saw her. Sadly, she died in the care home.

Although I felt like I came to the UK by force, as I grew up, I knew it was the best decision my family made for me. I had a wonderful relationship with my mum, dad, grandmother and little sister. And, eventually my two sisters also came to the UK to live.

On reflection, changes in life are not always welcomed. Nevertheless, sometimes that is our destiny, even though we may not be aware of it at the time. If I hadn’t come to the UK, I wouldn’t have had my three beautiful daughters and grandchildren. They are my world.

Like so many expat children (TCKs**) June experienced culture shock, but she also was uprooted from family twice: once from her parents and then from the grandmother who had raised her as a young child and her sisters;  on top of that she had to deal with racism. She also writes about difficult  times, in relationships as a young adult in her book:  Deep Within my Soul: Finding Hope After Abuse           (**TCK is the acronym for “Third Culture Kids” – raised in different cultures, they may end up living in their own “third culture” as an expat.)

june-for-twitter-profile

June Whittle

June would be glad to answer any questions you have. Please leave your comments below.

You can also connect with her at the following Links: Miraculous Ladies; Divine Copywriter ; https://www.facebook.com/MiraculousLadies?ref=hl

Putting Down Roots: Expat File # 14

Madeleine Lenagh has lived in the Netherlands most of her adult life. A writer and photographer, I’m delighted to welcome her as a guest on the Expat Files. ““““““

What would it be like to live in Portugal? (Photo by ML)

I never consciously decided I was going to spend the rest of my life in the Netherlands. Even after having lived here for 20 years, somewhere in the 90’s I found myself toying with the idea of moving back to the States. During visits to the UK or Portugal I would wonder what it would be like to live there.

Madeleine Lenagh

Madeleine Lenagh

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And, after visiting New Zealand in 2009,  I came back convinced that the South Island would be a great place to grow old.  My son frowned,  “You wouldn’t see your grandchildren grow up.”   I sighed; he was right.

Coming from a nation torn apart by internal strife, in the early 1970’s, the Netherlands was about the sanest place I had ever seen. Protesting students were not tear-gassed into oblivion or shot to death. Their demonstrations actually resulted in university reforms. City streets were safe for pedestrians and cyclists. Everyone had access to proper medical care and there were no signs of poverty. I wanted to stay for a while and see for myself how this worked.

“Staying for a while” stretched out, on and on. In my autobiographical book, Passage of the Stork: Delivering the Soul, I describe settling down, raising a family, becoming active in local politics, and building a career in urban development and project management.51MWG-YPTdL._SX308_BO1,204,203,200_

With chameleon-like versatility I learned to speak fluent Dutch and recognize the subtle rules of social engagement. I tried to curb my American tendency to talk about myself. Sometimes I succeeded. However, my ease at speaking in public and acknowledging my achievements, did not always trigger admiration among my new friends. It was often frowned upon, I was seen as an arrogant American.

And, above all, I was incapable of learning how to ride a bicycle properly. After wobbling along with a toddler in the front basket and grocery-bags in back, almost getting hit by a truck was the final straw. The Dutch may have been born on a bicycle, I certainly wasn’t!

Learning to ride a bicycle ( photo credit Kuno Grommers)

Learning to ride a bicycle ( photo credit Kuno Grommers)

As the years went by, I grew and changed. I gave up trying to become as Dutch as possible and simply tried to be as authentically myself as possible. But what does that mean, authentically myself? And where do I really belong? Am I simply a chameleon, blending into wherever I happen to be?

One of the important themes in my book is this process of understanding who I am at the core of things. Understanding why some people view me differently than I perceive myself. Another important theme is about developing a sense of belonging somewhere, putting down roots

 One thing became clear to me. I had grown up in the woods of rural New England and had spent much of my childhood on or near the sea. I’m not an urban person.

 “She will always love the sea.” quote from Passage of the Stork: Delivering the Soul. (Photo ML )

“She will always love the sea.” quote from Passage of the Stork: Delivering the Soul. (Photo ML )

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So, after 30 years in the charming but very urban towns of Haarlem and Utrecht, I moved out to the Dutch countryside. It was still a compromise; neatly tended fields are a far cry from the wild remote places I love, but the vistas are beautiful and my garden is filled with birds and other wildlife.

Sunrise from my house (Photo ML)

Sunrise from my house (Photo ML)

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I left my work in project management and opened a practice for life-coaching and counseling. From my clients I learned that feeling displaced can also happen to people who have lived in the same town their entire lives. It’s a sense of not feeling at home in the life you’re leading. Many people make their life choices based on what others expect of them. They are not doing that which makes them happy. The ensuing sense of displacement can lead to restlessness, addictive patterns, and/or depression.

I started doing the things that make me happy: photography, writing, traveling. I stopped dreaming of a better life in a different country. I started paying careful attention to my natural surroundings. Like a great tree, I learned to put down roots.

A great tree (Photo by ML)

A great tree (Photo by ML)

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A lot of expats become chameleons – to blend in to their surroundings – and later wonder about their identities, but Madeleine notes it can be a common experience regardless of where you have lived. Can you relate? Do you have any comments or questions about her life, her book or anything at all?

The Coconut Latitudes –Expat File #13

Rita Gardner and I met online – we saw each other’s interviews on two of my favorite blogs (Jamoroki and The Displaced Nation ) and found that we had some things in common: we both grew up as expats in Latin America and we are both writers who dabble in photography. Ironically, the man who “introduced” us, James King, lives in Thailand and it turned out that Rita and I live about 30 minutes from each other – so we made a date for lunch and found that we are kindred spirits.

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Book exchange! Cinda, left with Rita’s book; Rita on right with mine.

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Rita grew up on her family’s coconut farm in the Dominican Republic. Her spell-binding memoir The Coconut Latitudes is about childhood in paradise, a journey into unexpected misery, and a twisted path to redemption and truth. Here is an excerpt to whet your appetite:

Introduction

Before I am born, my father, for reasons shrouded in mystery, abruptly leaves a successful engineering career in the United States. He buys two hundred and fifty acres of remote beachfront land on Samana Bay in the Dominican Republic. This small, Spanish-speaking nation occupies two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola and is ruled by the dictator Rafael Trujillo. Trade winds blow year-round all the way from the deserts in Africa, combing through palm groves and shaping the trunks into inverted commas. The island is also in the main path of hurricanes that storm through the Atlantic and Caribbean from June through November. In 1946, when I am six weeks old and my sister Berta is four, my father moves us into this instability. Our family lands—with a pile of suitcases, a box of books, and bright Fiesta dinnerware—years before there will be electric power or actual roads to Miches, the closest village. My father hires a crew to plant ten thousand coconut seedlings and names the property Cocoloco Plantation. My father frequently says we are a damn happy family; we’ve arrived in paradise, and are the luckiest people in the world.

Miches

Chapter 1: Miches

It’s a sticky summer day when we first bounce over the mountain in a ratty jeep driven by an old man with brown leather skin. The windshield is cracked and dust covers everything. Our suitcases are piled on top, strapped down by frayed ropes. We’re not tied down by anything at all. We heave left and right as the jeep straddles the track that’s barely a road. I’m used to these raggedy roads in the Dominican Republic. In the smelly backseat, Mama wedges in between my sister Berta and me, trying to hold on to us as we lurch up yet another switchback. Berta turns white, leans out the window, and throws up. The vehicle stops and I get sick too. Daddy tries to distract us by showing us a waterfall off in the distance… We pile in again and rumble onward. When we crest the mountain, we stop where the air is cool. There’s nothing left in our stomachs. Daddy climbs a rocky ledge. He waves his arms, motioning us to join him.

The hillsides spill all the way down to the bluest water I’ve ever seen, a bay of shimmering light so bright it makes me blink. Daddy smiles. “See—there’s Miches town.” He gestures toward the inner curve of the bay to a scattering of small buildings crouched along a rocky shoreline with a few streets … I squint at a long snaky river at the edge of town and then, to the right of it, a long sweep of sandy beach that stretches out like a sliver of new moon. The shore is lined with green fringe, and a smaller patch of a light color stands out like a ragged square of carpet. Daddy waves his arm toward the pale green at the far end of the bay.

“There,” he says as tears roll down his face. “That’s Cocoloco Plantation.”

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Cinda: It occurs to me that Cocoloco would have served as an apt title as well. Although I love The Coconut Latitudes – it made me want to read more.

Rita:  Funny you would mention that – for the longest time (years, in fact), I had chosen “Cocoloco” as a title. My only concern is that is a name of a tropical drink, and I didn’t want that context. One day I just thought of “The Coconut Latitudes.”

“While our tropical surroundings were indeed idyllic, we were in the constant path of hurricanes, under the grip of a brutal dictator, and beset by alcoholism and family tragedy.”

 

 

Cinda: Your memoir details a reality far from the envisioned Eden, the terrible cost of keeping secrets, and the transformative power of love and truth.   What advice would you give someone about writing a memoir –especially a painful one?

Rita: Don’t think about or worry about others. Pretend no one else exists. Just write for you. Say anything, say it all. Later, you can come back to it objectively; see the plot, the narrative arc and structure. But for the first draft, just sit yourself down, see what comes out, and keep going until you’re out of words. You’ll be surprised at the twists and turns your writing will take. It sometimes directs itself.

Samana Beach near Miches

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Rita M. Gardner was home-schooled as a child, she began writing, reading and painting at an early age. She has published essays, articles, poems, and photographs have appeared in literary journals, travel magazines and newspapers.  The Coconut Latitudes was just published this fall and is already being well received. I wrote a review for Goodreads and Amazon because I am so impressed with her writing skills and the honesty in this book. Here is my excerpted review:

A haunting memoir I wanted to read because it is about a girl who had grown up in Latin America like myself. But this is more than an interesting story about an expat; it chronicles a difficult upbringing (a la Mosquito Coast or Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.)….The young Gardner daughters are isolated not only from the parent’s culture and extended family, but forced to keep secrets from their Dominican friends when one family member disappears. There is no one they can turn to when their alcoholic father keeps them up late at night with angry rantings and irrational demands. Even their mother is unable to protect them or nurture them. This heartbreaking memoir may shock you at times, but the writing is straight-forward and compelling. You will root for her survival and be staggered at what a young girl manages to do.

 One of my favorite authors, Julia Alvarez, (who wrote In the Time of Butterfiles) says this about “The Coconut Latitudes”: Another fine writer who moves beyond borders into the wide open spaces of the heart.” And calls Rita an honorary Dominicana.

From Publisher’s Weekly’s select review: “Gardner has written a rich, haunting book that vividly captures her childhood and makes everyday turmoil vital through precise and honest prose.”

Rita will be happy to respond to any questions or comments you leave below. Check out her website at www.ritamgardner.com;  see more reviews and buy the book here: Amazon– the coconut-latitudes.