Elizabeth acts on stage, film, and television. A graduate of Wesleyan (after transferring from Wellesley), she is a published essayist (“Checked Baggage: Writing Unpacked,” “Transforming Three Sisters”) and has a column about creative adult TCKs at TheDisplacedNation.com. She is also the co-host of the intercultural podcast Hapa Happy Hour.
Her solo show, ALIEN CITIZEN: An Earth Odyssey, had its world premiere at the Asylum Lab in Hollywood in May 2013. It had its Off Off Broadway debut at Stage Left Studio in September 2013. Since then it has been performed at Princeton, M.I.T., Wesleyan, Williams, Augustana (SD), Carleton, and Santa Clara University in the USA. It was the closing keynote at the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) 2014 conference. It also began its tour of international schools and US Embassies in Panama; was sponsored by the API Cultural Center at the United States of Asian America Festival in San Francisco; and had its international theatrical debut at Tjarnarbíó in Reykjavík, Iceland.
How did you get into traveling?
My dad worked for Xerox (they made photocopiers) back when they were as big as Apple and Google are now, and they moved us from Guatemala to Costa Rica to the USA to Panama to the USA again to Morocco to Egypt. Some of my happiest memories from my youth are of the family vacations we were so fortunate to take in different countries.
I came back to the USA for college on the east coast, graduated and moved to the west coast for a career in the entertainment industry, and have been here ever since. I love to travel for pleasure, and I love to travel with my solo show, ALIEN CITIZEN: An Earth Odyssey, because I get to combine my three favorite activities: acting, traveling to new places, and indirectly: writing (I wrote the script).
What was your most intense culture shock experience? What did you learn from it?
It was probably a tie between moving to the USA the first time and encountering racism there, and moving to Morocco and encountering a culture that was in no way tied to the Americas and was frequently hostile to the presence of Westerners due to former French colonialism. (Until then we had lived in North and Central America only, and we learned the hard way about the psychological manifestation of post-colonial trauma in Morocco.)
I learned in the USA that despite all of their privilege, wealthy white New Englanders weren’t necessarily happy, so happiness is not tied to privilege. I learned in Morocco that friendships are based on similar experiences and language(s), and socioeconomics are a huge part of that. In Morocco I also learned to be both afraid of and brave about walking alone as a young girl who was harassed incessantly, and I learned that there was occasionally kindness to be found among strangers, and it was an experience of constant extremes.
Any tips for someone going through culture shock for the first time? What helped you?
Give yourself permission to feel what you feel, but don’t carry it like a burden. Express those feelings in a journal, in letters/emails to trusted friends/family, in some creative outlet (photography, music, dance, performance, a blog, drawing, knitting, whatever). Be honest. If you fear causing offense, you needn’t share everything you write/create, but you do need to get those feelings out of your mind and onto some other medium that can hold them for you. Because then you can move forward, less burdened, and see/hear/smell/touch/taste the good in this new place, without judging/stifling yourself for any bad feelings that arise. What helped me was being involved in community theatre and school plays, where I could express emotion “in character.” It was both brave (public performance) and safe (expressing emotions in the guise of another person).
If there’s something you already love to do that you can do in your new location, do it. A sport, a craft, an art, a book club, whatever. And: if you want to try something new and no one knows you in this new place, no one will say “But that’s not like you so how can you possibly do that?!” In fact, you can, and possibly no one in this new place will argue because they don’t know your history.
What has reverse culture shock been like for you?
It was very rough every time we moved to the USA because it’s one of my passport countries, my mom is American, and we had visited many times before and after we lived there each time. But living somewhere is entirely different from visiting, and I didn’t fit in at all, in terms of life experience or my multi-ethnicity. I made friends the second and third times I moved back, but I still stifled myself a lot. I thought it might be better the third time when I came back for college because I assumed my classmates would all be open to meeting new people and having new experiences, since it was college. But that wasn’t often the case, frankly.
I was terribly lonely for the first two years–my few friends had their own social lives with larger groups that I wasn’t in. But then I transferred to a different college, and without changing a single thing about myself, I made friends instantly and had a fantastic social life. So…perhaps it’s just the luck of the draw, socially speaking? Meanwhile, it was always shocking to come back to the USA and walk through enormous supermarkets and have hot running water with good water pressure 24/7. And constant electricity and air conditioning and heating and just tons of luxuries that the average born-and-raised-in-the-USA American takes for granted.
Visiting Guatemala (my other passport country and where I was born) was always great and hard. Great to see our extended family there, and hard because the longer we lived elsewhere, the more different we became from our extended family. There were and are day-to-day cultural aspects of Guatemala that I could not and do not relate to. But I do love many things about it.
What is your favorite travel learning experience? Anything that triggered a profound shift?
Going to Kenya during high school on spring break with my parents. The constant, overwhelming natural beauty. I think the shift didn’t truly happen until about three years ago when I was writing ALIEN CITIZEN: An Earth Odyssey, and mentally revisiting a lot of the hard parts of a nomadic childhood, and then I got to the part in Kenya. It reminded me that I’m deeply fortunate and privileged in a singular way that I must always be grateful for and never take for granted.
You might sort of know this growing up if you grew up in poor countries like I did, but I didn’t fully know it until I was an adult, pursuing a career, paying bills with survival jobs, and daily life was nowhere near as adventurous as it was when I was a kid who was lucky enough to see all that I got to see. The other shift that happened while writing the piece was: understanding that I had a right to tell the truth, even the painful truth, and only then could I fully appreciate the positive truths. So the shifts didn’t happen while traveling but they happened thanks to my nomadic upbringing and creative pursuits.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign to take ALIEN CITIZEN: An Earth Odyssey to conferences in Spain and South Africa so that it can reach a wider audience. I’m also going to perform the show at San Diego State University on April 16 and the University of Arizona on April 22. To keep track of the show in general, people can go to the website and Facebook page.