Moving Home After Living Abroad: 4 Tips for Re-Entry

I recently moved back to my hometown, San Francisco, after spending the past three years in Chile, where I taught entrepreneurship courses at universities and collaborated with local startups.

This is not my first experience with re-entry. I’ve experienced two severe bouts of reverse culture shock over the years, along with many milder ones. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

After Chile, Back to School

These pictures are from my year abroad. On the left I'm with my host mother, Latife, and her husband Jaime. In the middle I'm standing in front of the library in the Toma de Peñalolen, where I volunteered. On the right, I'm with my montañismo classmates at the top of a snowy mountain we climbed together.

These pictures are from my year abroad. LEFT: with my host mother, Latife, and her husband Jaime. MIDDLE: standing in front of the library in the Toma de Peñalolen, where I volunteered. RIGHT: with montañismo classmates at the top of a snowy mountain we climbed.

At the end of 2005, I finished my year studying abroad in Chile. As I packed my suitcases, I tried to summarize my experience in one sentence: Chile’s a country of contrast between rich and poor, traditional and modern, liberal and conservative, city and country side and as an international student, I was able to see the extremes of all of these different contrasts often in the same day. In December I left Chilean summer and landed in California winter.

Chile changed my perspective. I’d grown up. I was 21.

It hit me hardest when I went back to college. I lived in the sorority house where I’d lived B.C. (before Chile). The rules seemed silly — no boys upstairs after ten or downstairs past midnight, you must wear light-but-bright-blue + bronze + brown tweed for tomorrow’s event….

I overcommitted myself. I needed two classes to graduate, but signed up for five, including a social entrepreneurship seminar, a student-taught women’s leadership course and ballet, plus too many activities and internships.

About a month into the semester, it hit me hard. Rushing everywhere, fueled by fear of missing out, exhausted — I missed Chile.

A few months later, I graduated with a degree in Latin American Studies. Then I moved to China. (Here’s the full story.)

After China, Hometown Adventure

In December 2007, after a year and a half in China, I moved back to San Francisco.

As I packed my bags, I tried to summarize my experience into one sentence and came up with one word.

Harmonious. A word I’d heard many times in China. “Build a Harmonious Society” is a Chinese government slogan that refers to hierarchy, stability, peace and respect. This was the topic for a student speech competition I’d judged and a favorite buzzword for Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives. But when I arrived home, I realized that this convoluted story about “harmonious” was not what anybody wanted to hear.

When people asked me about China, I said: “Fun, interesting. Lots of people.” And then we’d move on to another topic.

I’d say things like, “Wow, there’s free coffee at Bank of America! You can understand exactly what I need and help me in five minutes!?!?” and “Wow, Trader Joe’s has so many choices. And I can read all the labels!”

Fast Forward to Now

San FranciscoNow I’m back in San Francisco again, adjusting. I’m staying in my parents’ house (they’re out of town) and I’ve had plenty of time and space to myself over the past month. I’ve figured out how to introduce myself without going on and on about my travels. I can’t say it’s been totally flawless: 6am fire alarm I don’t know how to turn off? Not fun. Long-distance relationship? Not easy. But I have learned a lot over the years about how to process all these faraway experiences and move forward here.

4 Tips for Going Home After Living, Working, or Studying Abroad

(1) Give yourself time to adjust.

There are lots of subtle, mental shifts that you don’t necessarily recognize until you’ve lived them, but if you’re in the supermarket saying, “OMG I can read all the labels!” you should give yourself that moment to pause and think about it rather than jumping right ahead to, “I have five minutes to buy all these things on this list.”

(2) Keep your descriptions concise.

Your family and friends probably don’t want to hear all the details. An analogy: one of my best friends earned her PhD in biophysics. If she were to talk for an hour about her experiments, I probably wouldn’t understand it all. She and I are better off talking about things we have in common: friends from high school, what her sister’s up to, a bit about what we’ve been doing since we last met. But it can’t be a monologue. If it is a monologue, it is not really a conversation.

(3) Don’t go back to the same living arrangements as before.

It’s important to re-negotiate the major relationships in your life, as well as where you’re living and how you’re spending your days. You’ve changed. It’s important to figure out ways to acknowledge and account for these changes. It’s easier said than done, and it takes time.

(4) Get professional help.

Working with a résumé editor, or a career coach that can help you translate your experience into clear value in the local labor market, or a professional who’s familiar with re-entry issues can be helpful. Cate Brubaker has excellent resources about Re-Entry Reality on her website, Small Planet Studio.

What else might you add to this list? 

Update: November 25, 2014


Added by Stacie Berdan, via Facebook: “I’d add one more tip: Learn to tell a great story. This way, when you’re asked about your international adventures, you can share it in an engaging and non-threatening way. This one is particularly helpful with employers.”


I agree. It’s so important to be able to tell a great story that resonates with whomever you’re talking in a specific situation. Since I’ve been back I’ve frequently told the story of how I chose General Assembly‘s User Experience Design Immersive. In Chile I taught entrepreneurship classes with a focus on design methodology, and I wanted to go deeper into how design methods can be used to improve user experiences. It’s a more technical, specialized and applied approach to topics I’d explored a bit before.


It’s really important to be able to connect the dots in a way that’s engaging, non-threatening, and easy to understand.


Now that we’ve finished the course, I’m applying for jobs. This means that I’m continually re-telling my story, choosing details that are specifically relevant to each potential employer. In some cases this has meant emphasizing my language skills, in others it’s about showcasing my experience with mining-related startups, technical storytelling, this blog, or something completely different. I’m lucky to have such a wide variety of anecdotes to draw from!  

This post originally appeared on Lane Letters, my friend and former colleague Christy’s lovely blog about living adventurously in the middle.

Working Abroad? How to Give a Presentation in the Local Language

This post originally appeared on The Daily Muse.

Even if you’ve been working abroad for a while, and you feel comfortable getting around the city and chatting with colleagues, there’s something incredibly intimidating about being invited to give a formal presentation in your second (or third) language.

I used this process to create to develop a recent keynote speech at Universidad Arturo Prat in Iquique, Chile. The topic was Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial ecosystem and how to build stronger support for innovation in Iquique. My parents flew in from Ghana for the event. They both spoke in English and I translated everything into Spanish. This article was published on The Daily Muse the same day as the event!

I used this process to create a recent keynote speech at Universidad Arturo Prat in Iquique, Chile. The topic: Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and how to build a similar ecosystem in Iquique. My parents flew in from Ghana for the event. They both spoke English and I translated everything into Spanish.

Take it from me: The first week I landed in Chile as part of a government-backed entrepreneurship program, a professor invited me to a faculty meeting to speak about Silicon Valley and how academics could participate in entrepreneurship through technology transfer programs. Though I grew up in the heart of Silicon Valley, was familiar with the entrepreneurship scene, and spoke fluent Spanish, I wasn’t sure how to start creating a presentation for a totally foreign audience from scratch.

But, I did it, and since then I’ve given dozens of presentations in Spanish as well as coached friends and colleagues as they’ve prepared to speak in formal, cross-cultural situations. If you’re panicking about your international presentation, here are a few pointers based on what’s worked for us.


Pick the Best Format

Before doing anything else, think about the goals of the event. Are you teaching something? Are you inviting everyone to participate in an upcoming program? Are you competing against others for the audience’s backing?

Once you have a strong sense of these goals, ask yourself if your language skills are strong enough to really move them forward. Be honest: If your vocabulary and fluency aren’t up to par, it might be more effective to present in English and team up with a translator. And that’s totally OK.

If your language skills are solid, go for it, but don’t think you can wing it the way you might in your home country. It’s still important to give yourself enough time to plan a well thought out, culturally appropriate presentation and practice far more than you usually would.


Design Your Message to Fit the Local Culture

As you’re putting together your presentation, remember that the stories, anecdotes, and persuasion techniques that you’ve used in your home country might not always resonate abroad. For example, sports references like “batting average” or “home run” won’t work in a place where baseball isn’t popular. Or, if most people live with their families throughout college, they might not understand anecdotes about dorms or roommates.

Instead, think about what might help you connect with your international audience. If you’re in a place with a strong tradition of family businesses, like most countries in Latin America, and you come from a four-generation legacy in the same industry, be sure to mention this history, because it will establish common ground. You might even want to include family photos if they support your core message. When I spoke about Silicon Valley at the faculty meeting, I started with a picture of myself at age five, playing on our family’s Apple Macintosh II. With this image, I illustrated that technology has always been an important part of my life, and it could play a similar role in the audience members’ lives, too.

How could I mention this picture without showing it? Photo courtesy of Dad.


When in Doubt, Use Visuals & Examples

Last week, I attended an event that featured a German manager from a well-known tech company. He’s based in Barcelona and speaks excellent Spanish, and during his presentation he told a story about a taladro. He mentioned this word at least 10 times, and it seemed essential to the point he was trying to make. However, a significant percentage of the international audience did not understand this word and started whispering to neighbors or looking up taladro on their phones.

The situation illustrated an important point: When there’s a language barrier of any kind, photos, charts, graphs, and visuals can be a great way to help get your point across. If the presenter at my event had shown a picture of the object—a drill—he would have been much more successful in holding everyone’s attention and getting his key point across.

This is especially important when you’re introducing a new concept to your audience. For example, say you’re pitching an energy efficiency app to a panel of foreign investors. When explaining this brand-new concept, you might want to show a picture of something they already know and understand: the energy guide sticker that’s typically found on refrigerators, for example. Explain how this information helps users save energy and money, then extend the analogy to your own product.

Refine and Practice!

As you prepare the content for your presentation, write it all in complete sentences. Share your written draft with at least two or three locals, and incorporate their feedback. Then, read it out loud, and record yourself on a webcam. Watch the recording, notice where you stumble or make awkward faces, and edit out any phrases that are tough to say.

When you’ve finalized the presentation, put the entire script on an iPad or notecards. You don’t want to read it word-for-word—it’s more important to engage with the audience than to get everything 100% right—but having the full text on hand can build your confidence day-of.

Then, practice—as much as you possibly can. Practice in front of a mirror. Practice with your language tutor if you have one. Practice in front of at least two or three native speakers. Make a list of the questions your audience might ask, and practice answering them. The more confident you feel with what you’re going to say, the more you’ll be able to relax and connect with your audience—and that’s what’s bound to make a great impression.


Thinking back to that first faculty meeting, it turned out to be smaller and less formal than I’d anticipated. About 12 faculty members and a few students sat around a big table. I shared my presentation about Silicon Valley, learned about their research, and then fielded questions about a forthcoming grant competition. I enjoyed the experience so much that I’ve gone on to give similar speeches all over the country.

That day also taught me that, as an outsider, you’ll stand out from the crowd. But if you prepare, personalize your presentation, and rehearse your message, you’ll be remembered for more than just your foreign face—you’ll be remembered for introducing a new world of possibilities.

This post is part of the #MyGlobalLife linkup. 

Se vende en China: The Best Chinese Translations of Spanish-Language Brands.

“Mama, I’d like some Happy Kids Grow Taller and Taller.”

“Sure, dear.”

That’s a literal translation of a conversation that could happen within a Chinese family. Happy Kids Grow Taller and Taller is a roundabout explanation of the Chinese name for a Spanish brand of chocolate powder.Cola Cao, Gao Le Gao

高樂高 (pronounced gao le gao) is the product’s Chinese name. The first and last characters, 高, mean tall. The second character 樂 means happy. The word for happy sounds like a particle that denotes the passage of time, and thus, the phrase sounds like, “happy kids grow taller and taller.” And gao le gao sounds very similar to the original product name, ColaCao.

Choosing an appealing name is an essential part of launching an imported product into the Chinese market. The Chinese language is complicated, and this creates both opportunities and risks for foreign brands. “Picking brand names in China is a business in itself,” wrote Michael Wines in an amusing New York Times article:

BEIJING — After a hard day’s labor, your average upscale Beijinger likes nothing more than to shuck his dress shoes for a pair of Enduring and Persevering, rev up his Precious Horse and head to the pub for a tall, frosty glass of Happiness Power.

Or, if he’s a teetotaler, a bottle of Tasty Fun.

To Westerners, that’s Nike, BMW, Heineken and Coca-Cola, respectively. And those who wish to snicker should feel free: the companies behind these names are laughing too — all the way to the bank.

More than many nations, China is a place where names are imbued with deep significance. Western companies looking to bring their products to China face a dilemma not unlike that of Chinese parents naming a baby boy: little Gang (“strong”) may be regarded quite differently than little Yun (“cloud”). Given that China’s market for consumer goods is growing by better than 13 percent annually — and luxury goods sales by 25 percent — an off-key name could have serious financial consequences.

The full article is packed with amusing examples and definitely worth reading (PDF attached.)

At the beginning of the localization process, marketers must decide: “Do you want to translate your name, or come up with a Chinese brand?” Monica Lee, the managing director of Beijing consultancy Brand Union told The New York Times. “If you go for phonetic sounds, everyone knows where you are from — you’re immediately identified as a foreign brand.”

The majority of Chilean wine brands use the phonetic approach.

A quick search for 智利 (Chile) on Chinese wine retailer brought me to Monarca Cabernet Sauvignon.

The brandname Monarca is translated phonetically to蒙娜卡, and pronounced meng na ka. The first character is part of Mongolia, the second is common in girls’ names and the third means card, but a Chinese person wouldn’t think of those meanings, since these characters are often used to represent foreign words. The name meng na ka simply sounds foreign.

But this phonetic approach can also backfire.

Sun Zhiyong, a patent attorney in Beijing who has studied both English and Spanish, explained to me in an email message:

I also found a brand name 阿道夫·多明格斯 “Adolfo Dominguez”, which may be a very bad name. For some Chinese, “阿道夫” Adolfo can remind them of Adolf Hitler.

Does that association fit these stylish outfits? I think not.

In search of a Spanish-language brandname whose Chinese translation contributed to the appeal of the brand, I returned to and searched again.

Arboleda caught my eye.

Instead of a phonetic translation like A bo le da, this wine carried a more poetic name: Jewel Wood Manor. This incorporates the literal meaning of the Spanish word Arboleda (park full of trees) while communicating the treasured status of this wine, which retails for about $45 USD in China. Enthusiastic about my find, I shared it with Sun Zhiyong. His response?

By the way, Arboleda “珍木庄园” may not be a good name.  The meaning of 珍 [zhēn] = Tesoro, joya, valioso is correct.  However, for many Chinese, “珍” sounds (and “is”) more or less like an old-fashioned woman name, for example, a name for a grandma.

Since imported wine is relatively new to China, and most popular among younger professionals, naming it after grandma might not contribute to its popularity.

Urban Chinese are familiar with the cosmopolitan flair of Spanish language and culture, especially due to the Spanish Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai EXPO, Spain’s win in the 2010 World Cup, the prevalence of stores like Zara and Mango, and the influx of tapas bars in Beijing and Shanghai.

Spain’s pavilion at the Shanghai EXPO featured a massive animatronic baby named Miguelín, whose movements captured the attention of the mostly-Chinese crowd. Visitors also saw a flamenco dancer and scenes from a soccer match, and had the opportunity to buy Mango t-shirts and Spanish olives.

Despite this cultural identification, Chinese professionals are much more likely to speak English than Spanish. Words containing characters like ñ could be challenging for a Chinese consumer to pronounce.

Thus, the ideal Chinese translation of a Spanish-language brand should successfully combines Spanish flair, English pronunciation, and Chinese values.  Which brand rises to this challenge?

Roca is a brand of high-end bathroom fixtures. Its Chinese name 乐家 (pronounced le jia) echoes the two-syllable rhythm of Roca, while emphasizing the broader benefits of using these products. Its literal translation? Happy family.

Special thanks to Sun Zhiyong, Shepherd Laughlin, and Tania Geller for their help with this article. 

What does “home” mean in a nomadic life? Inspired by Love at the Speed of Email.

I loved this book! I couldn’t put it down and read it all in one evening. I look forward to reading it many more times, since Lisa’s book has given me a nuanced and comforting way to look at my own concept of home (not a simple concept in a nomadic life).

I’ve been a longtime fan of Lisa’s blog. Lisa, an Australian psychologist, was living in Los Angeles and traveling all over the world to train humanitarian aid workers in stress management techniques, when she received an email from Mike, an American working to develop sanitation systems in Papua New Guinea.

Author Lisa McKay

Through stories and big questions and the wonderful invention that is email, one thing led to another, and now they live in Luang Prabang, Laos, with their adorable baby Dominic.

Love at the Speed of Email seamlessly blends letters and memories with gorgeous, urgent, present-tense storytelling.

Here’s the description from the back of the book:

Lisa looks as if she has it made. She has turned her nomadic childhood and forensic psychology training into a successful career as a stress management trainer for humanitarian aid workers. She lives in Los Angeles, travels the world, and her first novel has just been published to some acclaim. But as she turns 31, Lisa realizes that she is still single, constantly on airplanes, and increasingly wondering where home is and what it really means to commit to a person, place, or career. When an intriguing stranger living on the other side of the world emails her out of the blue, she must decide whether she will risk trying to answer those questions. Her decision will change her life.

This book is an ideal choice for a long plane ride, a book club, or a lazy afternoon at “home” (whatever that means). Order it!

The core theme of the book is a search to define home, which is not easy when your life has spanned Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Croatia, Ghana, Zimbabwe, and more (in Lisa’s case) or California, China, Chile, and beyond (in mine).

While reading the book on my iPad, I made a list of things that I associate with home. These are artifacts from many people and places, which all blend together in my mind.

  • Home is tea poured for me, with no sugar but plenty of sweetness.
  • Home is red lentil soup with lemon. (This recipe inspired my version. I interrupted the writing of this list to make a spicy batch. It’s winter here in Chile.)
  • Home is broiled salmon topped with orange spice paste and a salad of green apples, spiced pecans, bleu cheese, and mixed greens.
  • Home is the hairstylist who has #8 on his nametag and remembers every detail I’ve ever told him.
  • Home is a broadsheet newspaper in my native language.
  • Home is Halloween costumes.
  • Home is a Thanksgiving feast.
  • Home is the Nutcracker soundtrack.
  • Home is made-from-scratch Mexican food.
  • Home is knowing where the bus will turn.

This list is incomplete; this isn’t the first time I’ve written about home. Almost two years ago, while living in Beijing, I made this photo-filled list of places I’ve called home. 

Here’s the view from my current home.

After two days of rain, the sky opened and invited everyone outside to marvel at the snow-capped peaks in the distance.

What does “home” mean to you? Is this an easy question to answer?

Larry Summers is Wrong: Why Learning Multiple Languages is So Valuable

Today’s New York Times features a Room for Debate section about the need to learn multiple languages. Six panelists, including author Stacie Berdan, agree that it is crucial to learn more than one language to operate in the new, globalized world.

They all refute an assertion by Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University and former secretary of the Treasury (and a man with a history of making blanket statements), who wrote What You (Really) Need to Know.

 The world is much more open, and events abroad affect the lives of Americans more than ever before. This makes it essential that the educational experience breed cosmopolitanism — that students have international experiences, and classes in the social sciences draw on examples from around the world. It seems logical, too, that more in the way of language study be expected of students. I am not so sure.

English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile. While there is no gainsaying the insights that come from mastering a language, it will over time become less essential in doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East. [emphasis mine, read more here]

This strikes me as arrogant and short-sighted. Even if more non-Americans are learning English and Google Translate is getting better, that does not negate the value of learning other languages.

Being able to speak more than one language has had an immeasurable impact on my own life.

I learned Spanish before the age of five, thanks to my wonderful Nana Petra. While my parents were working, she totally spoiled me with home-cooked Mexican meals, lacy white dresses, and games of Lotería. She drilled me on pronunciation (A, E, I, O, U) and taught me nursery rhymes.

This early exposure to Spanish paved the neural pathways in my brain to let me think in more than one language.

I continued to study Spanish all through school and all through college, including a year here in Chile.

When I graduated with a degree in Latin American Studies, I moved to China to teach English at a university near Shanghai. I’d never studied Chinese and never been obsessed with Asian culture, but I was able to quickly pick up the basics of child-like Chinese through conversations with vegetable vendors, security guards, and migrant workers on the train.

Over the next few years, I took many private lessons and small-group classes. Thank you Layla and Xiaofei for helping me elevate my Chinese skills from toddler level to that of a nine-year-old who likes to talk about wind turbine engineers and garbage incinerators. Learning Chinese gave me access to get beyond China’s single story, beyond the world of tour guides and textbooks, to take part in everyday life.

Now back in Chile, I use Chinese less. In the last month I’ve used it twice: at a restaurant and with a new Start-Up Chile entrepreneur from China. But linguistic crossover shapes the way I see the world.

Last week I led an entrepreneurship seminar at Casa de la Mujer, a community center in a poorer neighborhood of Santiago. The last day, fabulous Start-Up Chile video intern Javiera came with me to film the class and interview me and the ladies about our experiences. (The video will be ready soon!)

I talked about the course in English and it was SO HARD!  You might be thinking, but Leslie, you’re AMERICAN. English is your first language. How can it be hard?

Since I taught and thought about the class in Spanish, explaining it in English felt distant, foreign, and even patronizing. I stumbled over words; I felt like English made the distinctions between myself and the ladies too dramatic. In Spanish it felt more communal, more egalitarian, more personal. My testimonial, of how leading discussions with these woman has inspired me as an entrepreneur, flowed with enthusiasm in Spanish, but in English it felt forced, hesitant. Good thing Javiera took lots of footage: there should be at least a few clips in which my English is fluent and confident.

Linguistic crossover has had such a profound impact on my worldview. It has given me a broader understanding of words and grammar, but more importantly the tools to navigate the world with flexibility and empathy.

I truly can’t imagine life in only one tongue. I wish every preschooler could have a multilingual headstart!

Review: One White Face by Hilary Corna

Hilary Corna

I just read One White Face, a memoir by Hilary Corna, a young American woman who moved to Singapore right out of college and spent three years traveling the the Asia-Pacific region training Toyota dealerships in Kaizen. I enjoyed it, especially her descriptions of Toyota’s business culture and the reverse culture shock she felt when she went home to America.

Hilary’s experience as a young American woman working in Asia was so different from mine, because she was a leader within a company everyone has heard of, whereas I job-hopped between several industries, consulting assignments, multinationals and startups. The book inspired me brainstorm the arc of the story I could tell if I were to write my own memoir about working abroad.

Here are some of my favorite parts of Hilary’s story.

She had always loved Asia and had studied abroad in Japan. She writes:

Friends and family kept advising me, “Accept any job out of college, no matter what. You can‘t be picky,” but that thought process always stupefied me. On the cusp of graduation—that is when a young adult should be picky. You‘re uncommitted, unencumbered, and have little to lose. It‘s one of the best times to pursue your passions. (5)

So she sold her ‘95 Sahara Jeep Wrangler and moved to Singapore, where a friend let her crash until she found a job.

Following a chance encounter with a cute kid in a hotel pool, she found a great job with Toyota, training dealerships throughout the Asia-Pacific region to implement Kaizen. She explains her job like this:

Kaizen involves consistently working together to identify problems and develop solutions to them. My new job would be collaborating with each distributor to work in one dealership at a time to conduct a new kaizen activity. These projects would typically last one year. First, the team spends several months studying the dealership operations, and then we identify problem areas, prioritize one, and select a theme. After improving the problem through standardizing the process and achieving good results, we share the best practices with other dealerships and establish a standard for the country operation. (29)

Kaizen had almost nothing to do with the tool or solution, but how you nurtured people to create an environment cohesive to change—an environment that empowered them to develop the answer on their own. (95)

Throughout the book, I could tell that kaizen shaped the way Hilary approached her life as an expat, continuously adjusting to a changing, challenging environment. I could particularly identify with her descriptions of coming home to America.

When I saw someone for the first time, the conversation usually went like this:

―Hi, Hilary! How is Singapore?

―It‘s wonderful.

―Do you like it?

―Yes, I love it— but before I could finish, they‘d cut me off.

―So, when are you coming home?

This question depicted the common thread of the conversation. It seemed everyone just wanted to know when it was going to end. I realized much later that they asked the question not out of disinterest, but because they struggled to relate to me, just as I did to them. (77)

Yes, so true! My trips home have been filled with exactly the same conversation!

Eventually Hilary decided to leave Toyota and return to the United States. She writes, “I was beginning to miss the Western world. I still loved Asia, and my heart would always have a place there, but I felt a gap that I couldn’t explain” (200). I can definitely identify with this sentiment. I wrote about it in my letter, “Dear China: It’s Not You, It’s Me. Let’s Be Friends Forever.”

These days Hilary has been driving a 2012 Prius Plug-In across America, speaking about One White Face on high school and college campuses, bookstores, and special events.

I hope Hilary’s story inspires a new generation to move across the world to launch an exciting, empowering international career!

Added December 13, 2011: Hilary is offering a special discount code for readers of Beyond Chile’s Single Story. Go to and enter the discount code “P554X5B4″

Thanks Hilary!

The Cultural Revolution Cookbook: A Tasty Embrace of China’s Contrasts

Thanks to a thoughtful recommendation from Elise Bauer, author Scott Seligman sent me a review copy of The Cultural Revolution Cookbook, which is available on

I loved the book’s artful explanation of how disastrous government policy brought forth creative self-reliance.

For most Chinese who lived through the Cultural Revolution, the very idea of a history of eating during that cheerless decade sounds like an oxymoron. It was an era in which the traditional food culture of China – which, according to an old Chinese saying, is on a par with heaven – went into near-total eclipse. Shortages were the order of the day, and one was lucky to consume as many calories as one burned on any given day. The art of cooking, in the sense of a body of collected wisdom about ingredients, seasonings and preparation methods, was summarily abandoned and was, in fact, criticized as a capitalist remnant. People ate whatever they could get their hands on, and there was almost never enough to go around.

Most would think of their time in the countryside as a disastrous waste of a decade, but that view told only part of the story. The experience had also been formative, and they came back more mature and self-reliant. They came back with lifelong friendships, with skills they had never dreamed they would acquire and with a hunger for learning and improving their lots in life that would lead many to great achievements. And many came back with the knowledge of Chinese countryside cooking with its flavorful and wholesome recipes that would be with them for the rest of their lives. (9, 12)

The time I spent in China was infinitely more prosperous and harmonious than the Cultural Revolution, but I definitely sensed this influence. My friends and students were the sons and daughters of the Cultural Revolution generation, filled with the “hunger for learning and improving their lots in life.” And of course I tasted many of the dishes in this book in hole-in-the-wall restaurants and friends’ kitchens.

Here in Chile, I decided on the most obvious (and delicious!) way to review this cookbook: testing the recipes!

The first time I opened the book, I breezed through it all in one sitting, right before dinnertime. It made me so hungry! I wanted to see what I could make from what was already in my kitchen.

Scrambled Eggs and Tomato. The photos in The Cultural Revolution Cookbook make even the most humble recipe look like a delicacy, and this was no exception.

I ate this dish so many times in China, especially at the restaurant across the street from the front gate of our university in Jiaxing. I think it was the first dish I learned how to say: “fan xie chau dan.”

But I’d never made it myself. I was surprised to see that the recipe included several tablespoons of sugar. The combination of sugar, salt, and oil transformed these simple ingredients into a tasty memory from China.

Each recipe page has a quaint Cultural Revolution anecdote like this one, which accompanies the Scrambled Eggs and Tomato recipe.

I served the eggs and tomatoes alongside a warm and chicken-less version of Cold Sesame Noodles with Chicken: spaghetti, garlic, cilantro, cooking oil, crushed chili pepper (I used merkén, a Chilean spice that seems quite similar to Chinese chilies… a local touch!), soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil. All ingredients that I already had in my kitchen!

I positioned the plate on top of a book of essays on the future of China-Chile relations. I like how this picture communicates the dish’s trans-Pacific provenance.

A few days later, I made a Chinese “banquet” for four. This time I shopped for ingredients at the neighborhood fruit stand and butcher shop.

Inspired by the book’s recipe for Pork with Green and Red Pepper Shreds, I made a Xinjiang-style beef noodle soup with vegetables. I ended up adding tomatoes, beer, cumin, cilantro, and several other ingredients that were not in the recipe. It was quite tasty.

HINT: If you’re buying meat from a butcher, ask the butcher to cut it up for you. This saved me both time and the chore of scrubbing raw meat juice off my cutting boards. A win-win!

We also made cucumber salad, one of my all-time favorite Chinese restaurant dishes, and a second round of scrambled eggs with tomatoes, served with a really nice bottle of Carmenere that my parents left behind after a winery tour during their visit. A lovely finish to a lovely evening!

Overall, The Cultural Revolution Cookbook reminded me that Chinese cooking can be simple, inexpensive, unintimidating, and delicious. It does not require special trips to unfamiliar stores for ingredients you’ve never bought before. All you really need is fresh ingredients, simple kitchen supplies, and a healthy dose of China nostalgia.

All images from The Cultural Revolution Cookbook except for the shot of my plate of food with the Chilean and Chinese flags.

“A Successful Career and a Failed Personality” – The Power of the Non-Native Speaker

These days I give lots of speeches. In Spanish. A language that is not my mother tongue. A language that I speak fluently, without hesitation. But my accent reveals: I come from somewhere else.

On the way to an event, I thought of a comment by Rachel DeWoskin. Rachel’s first book, Foreign Babes in Beijing, is a memoir about her experience as the “bad girl” on a Chinese reality TV show in the 90s, and how the show mirrored her real life in Beijing. It was one of the first books I read about China.

Rachel DeWoskin

Rachel DeWoskin. Image via

I met her at her book signing at The Bookworm in Beijing when she had just published Repeat After Me, a novel about a young English teacher in New York who falls in love with a Chinese dissident.

During the book signing, Rachel described a Chinese friend, who once said:

“He has IS a successful career and a failed personality.” (see note below)

She saw this as a purer form of the English language. A native speaker is unlikely to say “He has  is a successful career and a failed personality,” but is there really any better way to express this idea? Native speakers use cliches and lazy, context-based phrases, often without clarity.

The extra effort it takes to speak a non-native language can make the ideas resonate. And stick.

I notice this on airplanes in Chile, where I actually listen to the safety announcements in English because they don’t sound like the rushed, almost-automated announcements on American planes. I notice it when my German, Korean, Chinese, and Chilean clients talk to me in English. Of course a high level of fluency, decent pronunciation, and full understanding of the topic at hand are all helpful. But in any case, being a non-native speaker can add power to the message.

I am proud to give speeches in slightly stunted non-native Spanish. I am always learning new words (recently: vorágine, licitación, apalancamiento). I will continue to learn new words for the rest of my life.

At the end of my recent trip to Concepcion, our host Felipe Sepulveda, founder of Atrévete Hoy, made this video of me talking about my new business, to send an inspirational message to the aspiring entrepreneurs of the Región del Bio Bio and beyond. Listening to it makes me cringe a bit: Gah, I sound so American. Is that really how I talk?

But daring to open my mouth and speak imperfect Spanish and talk about imperfectly-formed ideas on stage has opened the door to so many opportunities. I encourage all of you to banish your doubts, grab a drink (it helps, I swear) and start talking!!

P.S. If you can’t see the video, click on the title of the post to watch it on my website, or click here to watch it directly on YouTube. Gracias!

Amended 11/22/11 following correspondence directly with Rachel DeWoskin. She commented, “what Anna actually said was ‘he IS a successful career and a failed personality,’ even wilder, I think.” This reminds me of the question I always get asked here in Chile, after explaining in Spanish that I am American and my work involves solar energy, China, and mining: “But I don’t understand, what are you?” 

How to Give a Speech that Resonates

I’ve been meaning to write about Nancy Duarte for a long time. Now I have the ideal examples to write this in a California-China-Chile context! Yes!

Nancy Duarte

Nancy and my dad worked together many years ago at Apple. In 1990 she founded Duarte Design. The company has since grown into the world leader in presentation design and training. Clients include Al Gore and most of the world’s top tech companies.

She has written two fabulous, colorful, and useful books.

A few years ago, while preparing a presentation skills training for a group of Chinese lawyers, my dad suggested that I read the Duarte blog for inspiration. I became a loyal reader. Her ideas about storytelling inspired me to spice up a speech about patent invalidation procedures in China.

My client, a patent attorney with a pHd in chemistry, came to me with a draft of the slides for his speech at a conference in France. I read through the slides, and noticed on slide #26 a pharmaceutical compound more commonly known as Viagra has been invalidated a number of times in China. I saw this as a goldmine to transform a dense, technical presentation into a memorable story that would really resonate with a roomful of patent attorneys.

The final version of his speech started with a riddle. “It’s blue. Six letters. Men like it. Can you guess it? Yes, it’s Viagra! And Viagra is useful for more than one thing. It’s useful for understanding China’s patent invalidation process. Let me tell you about the first time Viagra’s patent was invalidated…”

The speech was a hit! Every attorney at this conference remembered his message!

I had the great fortune to meet Nancy Duarte in person a few months ago, when I was home in California. She had just booked a trip to China, and she had lots of questions about how the Chinese think. I recommended The Geography of Thought, which is a fabulous conversation starter.

This week, Nancy gave a speech in Beijing, and posted about the experience on her blog:

I spoke in Beijing on Saturday, and worked with an interpreter for the first time. Public speaking is hard enough, and working with an interpreter complicates things… unless you’re prepared.

I had two interpreters. One was the primary and the other was a secondary interpreter, plus they had two on stand-by (paranoid event planning I guess). The primary interpreter, Sally, was a subject matter expert, and the secondary interpreter, Rebecca, was a professional interpreter. Sally kicked it off and was doing great (I thought) and then I got a note to have it switch to Rebecca. Then a note to switch back to Sally. Apparently, because Sally wasn’t a professional interpreter, she was looking at me and at her notes and not at the audience. Even though she is a compelling communicator when alone on stage, they felt she was bringing down the energy of the talk. They slipped in Rebecca, coached Sally and had Sally come back on and she kicked it up! She and I both learned from this experience.

Interestingly, it was when Rebecca was interpreting that she created a S.T.A.R. Moment. That’s an acronym for Something They’ll Always Remember. In my talk, I was describing in what a S.T.A.R. moment is. But when Rebecca relayed in Chinese what a S.T.A.R. moment was the place roared with laughter (they didn’t laugh when I explained what it is.) Rebecca had inserted a traditional 4-character Chinese saying that means “something you’ll remember until you’re so old your teeth are falling out.” She did a great job mapping my information to the local culture.

Her suggestions apply for anyone communicating across cultures, not just VIP keynote speakers with four interpreters on hand! Here’s her full post:  Six Tips for Working With an Interpreter While Public Speaking.

I thought of Nancy yesterday while sitting through a full-day conference here in Chile. While some speakers gave clear, educational, and visual presentations, the majority brought to mind the phrase “Death by PowerPoint.” Too many slides! Tiny graphs! Bad typesetting! Ugly, mismatched colors! Impossible-to-read graphics “enhanced” by complex animation! A vertical, paragraph-filled PDF report with tiny type and tiny graphs, projected on screen! You get the picture.

The conference did have many redeeming values. I learned a lot and met many people that showed interest in my new business. But I wanted to use Nancy’s methodology to rework almost all of the presentations, as to inspire the audience, not put everyone to sleep!

It also gave me inspiration to continue packing my speeches with personal anecdotes and photos from my camera.

The following photo has made it into nearly every speech I’ve made in Chile. I use it to illustrate my Silicon Valley background, and truly connect with the audience.

If you have any interest at all in visual communication, public speaking, or the getting your point across in general, please read Nancy’s books, follow her on Twitter, and subscribe to her blog. Your audience will thank you!

Updated 1/2/2015