Hurray for second editions! Jo Parfitt has released an updated version of an old favourite, Forced to Fly. This collection of stories about the funny side of expat life was written (as the cover so generously puts it) by expatriates everywhere — including Jack Scott (whose memoir, Perking the Pansies, is long-listed for the Polari First Book prize), Debbie Fletcher (author of Bitten by Spain), and a host of expat bloggers, including the nimble minds behind Disparate Huisvrouw, WordGeyser, Adventures In Expat Land and yes, even I Was An Expat Wife.
Says Jo, “When the first edition came out I had no idea that it would find its way into corporate goodie bags for relocating employees, nor that people would call me up, saying, ‘Help, my daughter-in-law has just moved to Dubai and is not doing so well. Can you send her a book, please?’” Now Forced to Fly is bigger (20 additional stories) and better than ever.
Although there are giggles aplenty, the book also contains some pretty sober bits: chapters on culture shock and — new to this edition — emotional resilience.
Earlier this week I chatted with fellow published author (God, it feels good to write that!) Linda A. Janssen of Adventures in Expat Land. Her contribution to Forced to Fly 2 centres on what should be a simple task: buying a tree for her family’s first Christmas in The Netherlands. But when you’re a new expat, things are never really simple, are they? Linda and I talked (and laughed) about humour, writing, and what it takes to make it in the crazy world of expatriation.
Linda: I’ve got a copy of the original Forced to Fly, and those are good stories. I’m glad Jo decided to do a second edition. The stories are from all over the world, all sorts of situations, all sorts of humour, all sorts of writing styles. I’m looking forward to it.
Maria: Yeah, and you don’t have to be an expat [to enjoy them.] I mean, it’s a cliché that everybody laughs at the guy who slips on the banana peel. Everybody has done it metaphorically, but you don’t have to literally slip on a banana peel to see the humour there.
Linda: Exactly. The situational humour is important. It exists everywhere, but it certainly is there in the cross-cultural situations that arise when you’re abroad. And there’s a lot you can write about travel fiascos.
Maria: I like those stories better than the ones that go smoothly. There’s no fun in that. I like it when things go slightly awry.
Linda: Well, that’s the human element. You can relate to that. It either could happen to you, or it did happen to you, or something similar happened to you, or it happened to your cousin Dave, or your sister, or your grandmother.
Maria: Do you approach writing the funny stories differently than the more serious pieces?
Linda: That’s a good question…. When I was younger I only wrote humour, and I think the fact that people laughed reinforced the idea that I could do it. But on demand — that’s hard, you know? I don’t know that I’ve ever sat down and said, “okay, today I’m going to write a funny post.” Because I think the moment I tried to do that, I’d just freeze up.
Maria: Some topics lend themselves to humour — or could lend themselves to humour — and others don’t. But I don’t think it’s really a conscious decision.
Linda: Yeah, exactly. It’s funny though — I was thinking about what triggered some of the more humorous posts that I’ve written, and it’s usually something situational: either two cultures colliding or me doing something silly.
Maria: Right now I’m working on a post about, um …toilets.
Maria: That could be hilarious, right? But then you start reading statistics from WHO about diseases arising from poor sanitation, and you think, well, I cannot make a joke about this. But on the other hand, you’re writing about poop — how can you not make a joke about it?
Linda: [laughing] You could call it “Here’s the Poop.”
Maria: When things go wrong, do you think, “this is going to make a great story”?
Linda: Sometimes. Sometimes you’re in a situation that’s just so ridiculous that you actually look at each other and say, “this is really going to be humorous a month from now.” Other times, no. Humour comes from so many different places, but — well, the story I wrote for Forced to Fly 2 is a situation where one thing after the other goes wrong, and it keeps snowballing. There’s humour in that; either people can see themselves in it, or so many things are going wrong that you can’t help but feel for the person in the middle of it.
Maria: Let’s talk about the role of humour in expat life. When you have an experience like you had with the Christmas tree, you can either laugh or you can cry because those are frustrating days — especially if you’ve already had to learn a hundred new things that day and you’ve screwed up half of them. But if you don’t have the ability to laugh, you’re not going to have a very successful expat life.
Linda: I think you’re absolutely right. In cultural interactions you can always find humour, and it tends to be when it centres on you doing the faux pas.
Maria: The funniest aspect of expat life is the whole fish out of water experience, right?
Maria: To me, it’s not the water that’s funny; it’s the fish. And I don’t mind being the fish because some of the massive screw ups I’ve had are hilarious. I think they would be funnier if they happened to somebody else, because there’s always an element of pain in there, too. But I laugh at myself and I think that’s actually a very healthy attitude toward life.
Linda: Yes! I’m writing a book on emotional resilience and expat life, and I think humour is very important. It’s being able to step back and not see everything as a crisis, not see everything as a loss. If you’re only going to look at the negative, you’re not going to see the positive.
Maria: Some people are hardwired to look for humour, and some will just never see it.
Linda: But you can develop an awareness of humour and how good it feels to laugh. There’s the chemical reaction in your body when you laugh — endorphins or dopamine, I can never remember which. [edited to add: it’s both!] You can actually start to look for humour and when you read funnier things and watch funnier shows, you see it more.
Maria: It’s also a bonding experience. If you laugh together, you’re probably releasing oxytocin…
Linda: Probably, yeah.
Maria: … and I think people who laugh together are bonded in a way that perhaps if life were a little more serious, they wouldn’t be.
Linda: Absolutely. You know what it’s like when you have a really good laugh with someone, or you’re there at the same time for something really funny? All you have to do is see that person again, and you’re laughing.