Returned From Abroad: Barriers to Integration

by Britta Jensen



My brother and I have figured out that it takes less than seven days for a letter to transverse the globe from his home in Abuta-gun, Hokkaido, Japan to my flat in Amberg, Germany. His notes remind me of the multi-lingual missives my high school best friend and I wrote in a tiny green notebook that still resides in a trunk of journals I have kept since I was eight.

Now notes to myself are often written in three languages: English, Japanese and German. Individuals familiar with my background often ask about my “Asian” handwriting, love of hospitality (it’s difficult to leave my home without having had something to drink or eat), and will make fun of the fact I bow when I’m deeply grateful. A well meaning colleague went as far as to tell me it was time to “get over” the way I was raised so that I would have an easier time assimilating to life in the U.S. After twenty two years (split between childhood and working adulthood) spent living in Japan, South Korea and Germany I have come to appreciate that integration into any culture is often a two-way street.

My early life started close to the Mexican border. My mother was an interpreter for the deaf and my early memories are of conversations with hands, Mexican markets where she would bargain for the best vegetables on offer, and eating spicey dinners with our neighbour from Turkey. My family often drove across the Coronado Bay Bridge singing along to “Peki, Peki, Anlidik.” It wasn’t until two decades later, while dancing with my Turkish tango partner, that I learned the song’s translation. Unlike our neighbour, my partner wasn’t eager to talk about anything from his native country. He had learned early the necessity, even in New York City, of subsuming his other cultural identity. Like Yiyun Li states in her essay “To Speak is to Blunder” once he came to the U.S. he “became a new person…These are false and forced frameworks, providing illusory freedom…” I wonder how necessary it is for us to shed one identity in order to adopt another?

I understand the weariness of many an immigrant. When my family made a rare pilgrimage back to the U.S., relatives warned us about writing in hieroglyphs. My sister and I were told to stop speaking in Japanese in public because people would assume we were talking about them. For individuals not accustomed to speaking in more than one language, it was probably inconceivable that we weren’t being intentionally exclusive about communication. My sister and I were accustomed to speaking in two languages in a language mishmash. We also had assumed, mistakenly, that the cultural melting pot that the U.S. was famed for being, would go with the flow when it came to our speaking Japanese in public. We hadn’t spent enough time in the U.S. to know otherwise. America was still a famed country that had gilt edges whilst we were away. On NYC subway we became a target for every weirdo who wanted to ask us if we were speaking Swedish.

When I started taking post graduate courses at Columbia University I stopped hiding my multi-lingual background. In my first creative writing class the instructor asked us what we were afraid of.  My answer: “that my English isn’t good enough to become a decent writer.”  My brain considers all the languages I’ve studied one whole, not separate  branches on a language tree. Perhaps it is why half of my stories are set in places I’ve created, because the reality of where I came from is too difficult to extrapolate without making a setting that can integrate all of these cultural forces.


It can be hard to describe what it is like to feel that a place is home, even while the people who inhabit that place will always view me as a foreigner. (Or, as the above right graphic exhibits think it is okay to comment on my genetic origins because I do not belong to the dominant culture).  Nevertheless, the pervasive racism in Japan could not destroy my love of my home because I had spent so many happy moments there and felt like I was woven into the fabric of my surrounding community.

When I moved to the northern tip of Manhattan, I had had similar feelings of integration in Washington Heights where I was invited to christenings, baptisms, weddings, and various other cultural celebrations. I quickly learned Spanish, lived in Argentina for a summer, and found a wonderful second home. This false sense of cultural security made me believe it was possible to assimilate anywhere.



In South Korea I encountered my first obstacle to integration: I had no relevant background or knowledge of Hongul (Korean). I had been there once in high school and though the country had encountered huge shifts of technological advancement, Daegu, where I lived, didn’t have enough foreigners for people not to constantly stare or point at me. There were enough false cognates in Hongul for me to have a very hard time learning the language.

However, after a year and a half of individual study I was able to read. It probably helped that I started attending an all-Korean congregation and sang in the regional choir. Surrounded by a band of Korean ladies between the ages of 15-70 they would whisper the words of the songs to me so I could write them down. Every Sunday baffled children would watch me sing in Hongul and wonder why it was I couldn’t have a conversation with them. Integration was not possible, but I was happy in knowing I had a community where I had a defined function and purpose.

When a job transfer gave me the opportunity to move to Germany I relished the opportunity to live in Europe and to be reunited with beloved friends. I left with the assumption that I would integrate much like I had in Korea. Unfortunately, I wasn’t prepared for the cultural differences that only residents can be aware of.

Because I am a teacher, I have certain assumptions about learning that even beloved colleagues do not share. I believe that if you want to learn something, you will. Mastery in almost any skill requires a combination of sacrifice, good teaching, and focused repetition. Because Japanese and Spanish felt like they came so easily to me (and never quite required the same level of proficiency that my life in Germany demanded) I thought I would pick up a language in which I could already read, in no time. Local residents in my neighborhood quickly became frustrated when I didn’t learn German fast enough and became a burden on their hospitality.

Until this point the idea of “not learning fast enough” was foreign to me. Everyone learns at the pace in which their brain can work. Consequently, in Germany I was doing many things too slowly: driving (even when I was driving 10km faster than the speed limit), shopping, counting money, speaking, the list seemed to be endless. In my first three years there didn’t seem to be a week that didn’t go by that I wasn’t reduced to tears in the privacy of my car. I had chosen to reside forty-five minutes away from work in the largest  nearby city so I could learn German. Finances and writing/work obligations kept me from taking night classes and I was stuck in a limbo. I couldn’t help wondering what it was like for the population of migrants and refugees that soon took up residence in Amberg.

At that time, I didn’t have the patience to realize that acquiring a language– that you haven’t had a lot of exposure to– takes time. I spoke as much as a two year-old in my first three years in Germany. Now, seven years on, I speak almost as well as a highly cognitive four year-old. Germany is not an easy country, particularly in my region, to integrate. Often policy makers for refugees, migrants, and foreigners do not understand that integration requires being invited into local people’s lives. It requires a certain hospitality that often the average German lacks. When I speak to friends about this they admit, frankly, that this is a problem. But, could this also not be isolated only to Germany? I have felt similarly in America: but do I set the bar higher for the country of my birth?

In Jhumpa Lahiri’s essay entitled “Teach Yourself Italian” she perfectly identifies what any immigrant needs “someone with whom I can struggle, and fail.” Essentially, integration requires good teachers. These can be friends, actual language teachers, community members, neighbours. A willing community is necessary where patience is at the heart of embracing different cultures. I have found this, once again, in my church community. Unfortunately individuals without such a network can suffer.

Two things have made my life in Germany a delight: having local friends, especially Germans who have lived extensively in other countries. These friends have been patient to help bring my language skills to the next level. One good friend, a homeopathic healer has helped me to understand that if I visualize that I am already good at something, I have tricked my brain into going along for the ride. But, if I concentrate only on my mistakes, the grimaces from fellow shoppers, then I won’t latch onto the good and the beauty that comes from having the humility to learn, to make a fool of oneself and enjoy the transitory moment of being vulnerable.



Karlovy Most by Milo Jens

There is a certain blind faith I am exercising in going back to the U.S. It is the country of my birth, of my passport, but not necessarily my overall culture. I have become what some refer to as “third culture.” I have lived abroad longer than any of my other relatives, including extended family. At work I am surrounded by individuals who will never go back to the U.S. Some claim they will be buried on German, or foreign soil, rather than go back. I used to believe I would suffer the same fate.

I am aware that I have changed and like Lahiri, if I mention my tenuous cultural beginnings I often receive mixed reactions because of my pale appearance. “[M]any people react negatively. In the United States, some advise me not to do it….They don’t want me to change.” (“Teach Yourself Italian”, p. 11). There is an immense pressure to assimilate back to what I never was.  It is too late, because I have already changed and certain cultural variables can never integrate into American culture. Instead of letting this upset me, I am happy to belong to a subset of humanity that is growing: those without a primary culture, but whom are content almost anywhere.

I welcome your insights on integration and culture.


We are the church: becoming a Latter-day Saint woman

by Britta Jensen

After my long daily commute across B299, one of the deadliest roads in Bavaria, I listened to the recent LDS Church news conference welcoming our newest prophet. It was five o’clock in Germany and already dark. Snow, sleet and rain alternated at various times throughout the afternoon, leaving road conditions hazardous.

When I turned on the broadcast it was easy to forget my daily toils, the ever-present needs of my various students, and the oft misunderstood role of being a single, Mormon female. When a journalist asked President Nelson how the LDS Church means to address the needs of the marginalised females (resorting to interrupting the conference with a loud shout: “What about the women?”) I felt quite strange and disappointed. This reporter was clearly directing this question to the wrong gender. If you want to know about LDS/Mormon women: ask us!

I am on what would be considered– by individuals unfamiliar with my church’s doctrine–on the “outskirts” of Mormon society. This has been a frustrating theme of my life: trying to explain that I am not on the outskirts, but neither am I “mainstream.” Neither of these labels are important to either a daughter of God or a Mormon woman. In addition, nothing about me would suggest to any close acquaintance or beloved friend that I am in hiding.

In an average LDS congregation you will find that the vast majority of women my age are married, often have children, and do not work full-time to earn their living. I work fifty hours a week, live in a country where I am a minority culturally and ethnically, and have never been married (or proposed to). However, slide forward 15-20 years and those odds change. Many women become widowed, some divorced. Others have never have the chance to marry (yet!). But, we are not invisible, peripheral, or on the margins of the church. We are central, essential and beloved. I currently am in the leadership of the women’s organisation of a German congregation. By all rights and reason this should not be: I do not fit the mould of what society often perceives to be a “Mormon woman.” Thank goodness society isn’t making the decisions when it comes to church leadership positions.

It is important to understand some of my personal history and how I have come to these conclusions about my status as a gender equal and as a leader. Unlike the common perception of Mormons, I was not born in Utah. I also have never lived anywhere longer than eight months where I was the religious majority. I was born in the U.S., however, 22/38 years have been spent living in: Japan, South Korea, Argentina, and Germany. The longest I lived in the U.S. was in New York City for nine years. Unfortunately, with my quirky personality, I was often a target for ostracisation as a youth attending church programs. The bullying became so severe and the racism against me so marked I had to attend a Protestant youth group. But, I would not let anyone steal my love of the gospel of Jesus Christ, or what I knew was the right direction for my life: in the church. I was not bullied because I was a woman. The reasons have more to do with the bullies than do with me. Being surrounded by loving female role-models (inside and outside my church) has been what has fostered this desire to try to do the same for the next generation.

I have had moments of doubt, almost a decade of struggling with inactivity (not feeling particularly interested in attending church regularly) because of a variety of reasons that I do not wish to make a public record. However, no one in the church, despite many periods of extreme bullying, took away my ability to believe. No one ever made me feel that as a woman I was a lesser vessel of the Lord. Instead, it has been my fellow sisters in the church, most especially in New York, Korea, and Germany who have brought me back, who have nurtured me, fed my spirit and helped me to heal from deep psychological scars.

I don’t think many men are qualified to talk about the lives of women, which is why I feel it’s important for women to talk about being LDS.  Many LDS women are so enmeshed with their local communities that they don’t receive much “mic time” outside of the church pulpit. It could be because the vast majority of us are too busy doing the following:

*raising families

*volunteering in our communities

*making a living

*becoming more educated

*trying to raise the standard of living of those less fortunate than ourselves

*supporting and helping family members in crisis

It isn’t our way to brag, to list our accomplishments, or make public our CVs. We feel that our work, our love, and our lives should be a token of what we believe. None of us are content to lurk in the shadows.

I wanted to share my thoughts, on this very cold, but promising midwinter, as a life-long Mormon. I remain true to my roots, yet endeavour to never be invisible, but always indispensable to my fellow-women and men. I’m fairly certain other Mormon women feel the same.


My home ward in Feucht, Germany, hanging with my fellow ward sisters.

Gold Dust Mentoring


I officially started my “writing journey” in 2013 when I attended the Writers Workshop’s Getting Published Day. After my first one-to-one session I was informed that my writing looked like I’d never taken a creative writing class in my life.

I was very disappointed, but I knew that I had been writing for too long to let one person’s comment keep me from becoming a better writer. Simply going to university and attaining a BA and MA (and teaching secondary English) don’t necessarily make one suited to fictional prose. Since 2013, I had taken online writing courses, attended writing retreats, writing conferences, paid for manuscript assessments, everything I could afford to do in order to advance my career as an author.

The real turning point took place in 2016 when I took Faber Academy’s Short Story course with Shelley Weiner. The week long course concentrated on all aspects of the short story (with delightful recommended reading). It was exactly what I had needed. I had longed to write short stories, I had written many very badly, but I also had a tendency to write very long novels without knowing exactly where or how to cut them. This course helped to build my confidence level in crucial editing skills, but it also introduced me to my mentor, Shelley Weiner.

For awhile I had wanted to apply for a mentorship programme, but was afraid of paying even more money for instruction that might be repetitive. After taking the course with Shelley, I knew I needed to further the skills I’d gained in a short time. Gold Dust mentoring was a good fit because of its excellent structure and Shelley was aware of my penchant for writing science-fiction, which made her a better fit than blindly applying to a variety of schemes.

Now that I’ve just finished my last session with Shelley, a year later, I can honestly say that Gold Dust mentoring is worth every penny. In fact, every cent I’ve spent on writing mentoring, tutoring, classes, workshops, seminars, etc…has been worth it. But, I feel that the most important part of my writing journey has been through the one-on-one instruction Gold Dust provides for an entire year (or whatever timeline mentors and mentees determine). Before being accepted into Gold Dust’s mentorship I did not have the following skills:

  1. A regular writing habit that was built into my daily schedule as a full-time teacher
  2. deadlines that I had to meet because I would not just disappoint myself, but the mentor who was expecting the next section of my novel
  3. a drive to bring down my excessive first draft word counts
  4. daily assessment and planning of the novel’s next steps and the world of the novel
  5. building meaningful reflection time into my daily writing/editing so that the next drafts of the novel were built on what I’d learned from a previous editing session

Anyone who is serious about their craft needs mentoring because manuscript revision can only get you so far. Shelley’s careful eye and kind but firm guidance of my prose and writing process has helped me to grow in ways I never expected. I highly recommend her and the Gold Dust programme! Thank you Shelley and Gold Dust!


What does YA SF Need?

antique astronauts

I need your insights! (In 20 days I’ll present at WorldCon 75 in Helsinki, Finland). My topic: Young-adult science fiction.

  • What are some of your all-time favourite SF books–that are either readable for YA (ages 12+) or could reasonably fit into the YA category?
  • What do you wish publishers/writers/literary agents would consider for YA SF?
  • What types of characters and futures do you think are currently missing from the YA SF diaspora?

All comments entered into random drawing for the following: a free copy of one of my SF short stories or the first chapter of one of my books (your pick!) Three winners will be chosen. Deadline for insights: July 31st @ 10.00am (Munich, DE time zone).

Tea & Chemo by Jackie Buxton

You don’t have to have a cancer diagnosis to enjoy this book!

My father and good friend recently survived cancer and I found Jackie’s portrayal of the experience of debilitating disease to be most uplifting and heart-warming. I suffer from an immune disorder that often makes life very unpleasant.  I was personally inspired by Jackie’s account of how she fought for life and tried to embrace the brighter side of suffering, which is something I need to learn to do!  Jackie’s upbeat statement: “Why NOT me?” really made me consider the difficulty my friends and family have undergone during their cancer treatments and follow-up therapies to keep disease at bay. Jackie doesn’t whitewash how incredibly scared she was, at times. As the mother of two daughters she had to find a way of coming to grips with the possibility of not seeing her daughters grow up.  Thankfully, Jackie is currently cancer free, but as she points out, this doesn’t mean she, or anyone else is out of the “danger zone.”

I thoroughly recommend this book to everyone: those with no experience with cancer, but whom need a little inspiration, those with family members suffering from cancer, or people like me, who have a lifelong non-curable immune disorder that makes life unpleasant a lot.  The best part about Tea & Chemo is that a huge portion of the proceeds from book sales are donated to cancer research.

I was really uplifted by Jackie’s book and look forward to reading Glass Houses, now available in both hard-copy and online here.

Stunning debut: Paris Mon Amour


A wonder and a delight, Isabel Costello’s debut, Paris Mon Amour has all the ingredients of an engaging novel that will definitely be hard to put down. Alexandra, the main character, is at a critical point in her life when she says, “I ask myself if, on average, other people are happier than me.” Waylaid between a past disaster and the present state of her marriage, Alexandra is a character I can relate to and empathise with, despite huge cultural differences. Each of the characters are so beautifully drawn that I was a part of Alexandra’s struggle for love and personal acceptance. Costello does an incredible job of balancing humour, passion, and evoking the atmosphere of one of the world’s most beloved cities. This is a novel I enjoyed living inside. Paris Mon Amour caused me to question many of the assumptions I hold dear about the nature of romantic love and what it means to find your identity when you are caught between cultures.

Available here starting June 13, 2016.