Tag Archives: Culture Clash

Running On Empty: New Information on Post-Iraq Invasion Blair

Empty Gas Tank 2

Tony Blair was going to resign as UK Prime Minister back in 2004. After inciting the biggest culture clash in modern UK history by supporting Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Blair was a very depressed man. The End of the Party, a new book to be published March 1, 2010 by the The Observer‘s Andrew Rawnsley says (according to The Guardian), “Tony Blair descended into such a deep depression after the Iraq war that he told Gordon Brown and John Prescott (both key figures in his administration) that he would quit No. 10 [the PM’s office] the following summer.”

The End of the Party describes how Blair’s special envoy in Iraq briefed Blair at the end of his time in Iraq that the conditions were “unbelievably bad” and would deteriorate further. ” ‘What can we do?’ pleaded Blair. ‘We have told them [the Americans] again and again what we think is necessary. If it doesn’t happen, what can we do?’ Greenstock was left with the image of the prime minister ‘tearing his hair’ over Iraq and ‘throwing his hands in the air’.” (The Guardian)

In supporting what was seen by the British public as an oil-greedy mistake by a blood-thirsty dimwit with Daddy’s agenda, Blair committed the unpardonable sin.  The British public was much more skeptical about the war than the American public. While American reactions to Bush’s actions were often divided along party lines, British disdain for Blair was overwhelming.  Blair was openly referred to as Bush’s poodle, a sell-out willing to compromise his integrity to preserve Britain’s then-coveted “special relationship” with the US.

“He was very low, he was very lonely and he was very tired,” Rawnsley quotes Blair’s friend and colleague, Tessa Jowell, as saying about Blair at the depth of his misery.  Blair’s stress level was so high that he says he “spaced out” several times during the time-honored British tradition of Prime Minister’s Questions and would frequently wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.

As if the extreme disapproval with his decision was not enough, Gordon Brown (favored as Blair’s successor), was furious when Blair regained some self-confidence and reneged on his decision to resign. An eyewitness of one conversation (quoted in The End of the Party) says, “Gordon was just losing it. He was behaving like a belligerent teenager. Just standing in the office shouting: ‘When are you going to f*****g go?’ ”

It took Blair’s wife and several close allies to get him through the worst of his anguish.  “Come on. Buck up. Buck up. Think of what you’ve got to achieve. You’re the best politician in this country by a mile,” said his friend Peter Mandelson, who himself had survived many a political storm.

Eventually, the embattled Blair did pick himself up but the damage had been done.  One of the most popular politicians in recent UK history had been forever sullied by allying himself with the trigger-happy Texan who permanently marred not just Middle East relations but the foreseeable future of Anglo-American partnerships.

Bjorn Karlman

Culturally Sensitive Skinny-Dipping

arhitecture details of neptun's statue.

Here’s a paraphrase of a wikiHow entry on how to skinny-dip without causing a ripple:

1)  Scan the area – Do not be an idiot.  Auntie Elma will not be amused at your spontaneous stripping.  Pick secluded beaches or obliging groups before you bare it all.

2)  Watch your timing – Slip away at a slow point of the party if you opt for a clandestine approach.  If you are an exhibitionist, wait for everyone to settle down then head for the high dive.

3)  Do not wimp out and disrobe in the water.  Stand tall and give it your all… be dramatic.

4)  If you feel uncomfortable, ignore step three and dive in the second you’ve stripped.

Even more amusing than steps 1-4 are the warnings, one of which is “You’ll look like a pervert if you are the one to suggest skinny-dipping, be careful!”  Helpful.

How-to instructions such as these seem to suggest that you can make any practice culturally-acceptable with the appropriate finessing.  Who knows?  Maybe these steps really do result in culturally appropriate skinny dipping. But it is not as though we can just apply legitimizing steps to any practice and expect everyone’s applauds.  Some practices simply will not fly in certain cultures.

Knowing this in theory doesn’t stop us from acting completely oblivious to it in practice.  Examples abound of flagrant abuses.  An enthusiastic romp between randy tourists in the back of a Malay bus can result in some time in a cell. Latin-style parties in Zurich suburbs will likely result in phone calls to the police.  We rationalize what we want to do but often forget the context of culture and how unforgiving it can be.

It is as if, subconsciously, we expect what is normal and acceptable to us to be the same for others. This kind of thinking lies at the very heart of culture clash – an unwillingness to really look at life through the lenses of another culture.  A useful definition of culture clash is: “When one or more cultures are integrated into one environment, causing disruption and challenging contemporary traditions. Often occurs in multicultural societies.” (urbandictionary.com)  This “integrated” state is never seamless and clashes are to be expected.

The key lies in basic savviness and the ability to look past one’s own rationalizations to think deeply about the other’s culture. Make an effort. Concretely this can mean watching movies set in the target culture to get a feel for how things work.  Asking good questions of friends from that culture helps too.  What can help most is to show some interest in getting on the particular culture’s social calendar of birthdays, holidays, holy days and other celebrations. If you show this kind of interest, people will take notice of you.  You may even get on the pool party guest list.

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Bjorn Karlman

Getting Hitched? Some International Guidelines…

newly weds - wedding bands

My dad and I were catching up with an old family friend and he was telling the story of how his then-future son-in-law asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage.  “He took me golfing and didn’t say a word about my daughter.  It was the biggest white elephant in the room ever.  We went the whole day without him saying anything at all relevant to the whole reason we were golfing.  Then as we pulled into my driveway at the end of the whole day,” our friend breaks into a huge smile, “he shows me he’s a good Southern boy and he says, “Jill and I were thinking about getting married.  Do you, uh… do you… I mean… do you think that would be a good idea?”

The awkward suitor was given the go ahead after his stumbling efforts and the incident got a permanent page in family history.  A success story.  But things obviously don’t always go that smoothly.  Most of my American friends probably know someone that dodged family expectations, lavish custom and the accompanying bills and eloped in Vegas.  Some enjoy the notoriety of having done it “my way” regardless of offended relatives and fat Elvis impersonators that will forever mar the $19.99 picture album of their union.

But most people who decide to tie the knot want to do it well.  This is no easy thing, especially if you and your second half are from different cultures.  I am not married so the following are not my tips but rather an assortment of the cross-cultural knot-tying advice I’ve picked up while on the trail:

1) Examine motives: Sorry to start off with something so boring.  It is vital though.  I will never forget the time I was in line for check-in at the Dominican Republic’s Santo Domingo airport.  In front of me was a very boring looking, potbellied, middle-aged white guy with a stunning local girl. I was about to roll my eyes when the woman reached into the old guy’s back pocket and pulled out a passport.  She proceeded to wave it to her friends who all started jumping in delight at the other end of the security barrier.  Joe may have bagged a beauty, but Juanita snagged a passport.  Avoid the marriage of convenience.  Enough said.

2)  If you are going local, don’t go “loco”. There’s nothing more pathetic than a wannabe.  Cultural sensitivity is great and is absolutely advised, but everyone can spot a desperate bluffer.  There is absolutely no reason that you should walk around in your future spouse’s national costume for days on end just so you can be accepted as “one of them”.  You are different, you are from somewhere else.  Own it.  It’s OK.

3)  Realize that you may never be “good enough”. As much as your future in-laws may like you, there is likely a little part of them that just wishes their son had married one of his own.  This is nothing personal.  Your attempts at Scandinavian midsummer frog dancing are commendable but you will never be mistaken for a Greta.  You will find that everyone, including yourself, harbors some kind of prejudice. Christine Benlafquih, in an article for suite101.com titled “Cross-Cultural Marriage”, makes the point that it helps to find out what some of the commonly held prejudices are in your significant other’s culture. This can prevent nasty surprises farther down the line. Innermost preferences and prejudices aside, your future family will most likely appreciate you and will eventually see you as a person before your nationality.

4)  Talk to others that have done it – Intercultural marriage is never problem free.  It is challenging.  Tamula Drumm, writing for TransitionsAbroad.com, states that although statistically intercultural and interracial marriages have a high rate of failure, many couples make them work. It helps to learn from the success stories of older couples that have had to deal with more cultural disapproval and discrimination but still were able to live happily together.  Ask questions, listen to their stories and learn from their mistakes.

In the end a cross-cultural marriage boils down to the same thing as any other marriage.  Where there is love and a will there is a way.  So relax, enjoy this special time of life and, if all hell breaks lose, there’s always Vegas.

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Bjorn Karlman

Straight Talk: Sin or Virtue?

Lips zipper 2I had been away from Asia for several years when I returned on a business trip in 2004. By my second or third meeting in Bangkok, it was clear that “getting down to business”, “straight talk” and a Western “no-nonsense” approach to negotiations were not going to fly. Meetings started with a shockingly robust round of pleasantries by American business standards. In fact, it seemed that the actual “business” portion of the meeting was limited to very brief statements, sandwiched between a prolonged inquiry into how my colleague and I were enjoying Thailand at the start of the meeting, and another succession of questions and suggestions at the end as we covered how best to entertain ourselves in Thailand for the rest of the trip. My host did a superb job of making sure everyone felt at ease and there was a sense of harmony to the meeting that I had rarely witnessed in the Western “cut-to-the-chase” business etiquette that I was used to.

I can’t say that I have a definite preference when it comes to approaches to business etiquette. I can definitely appreciate the Eastern prioritization of group harmony over directness. I really enjoyed my time in Bangkok and from a business point of view, the deals we were able to negotiate by playing by the local rules proved to be very lucrative successes. On the flip side, straight talk can be enlightening because it minimizes the guessing game. I was raised by Scandinavian parents that encouraged clarity in communication to the point of bluntness. They felt that this kind of communication was honest and correct. I have countless examples of how openness and directness, however uncomfortable they may be in the short term, end up saving a lot of time and heartache in the long run. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, on his website The Welch Way, claims that candor is a principle of business communication that is necessary and helpful in any work context, anywhere – a veritable one-size fits all.

This is where I beg to differ. Millions of dollars are lost every day on business deals gone south because we as humans seem only to think about communication in terms of what is culturally accepted in our societies. We know, in theory, that people communicate differently in different parts of the world, but habits are hard to break. It seems that subconsciously, we expect others to see relationships and communication the way we do.

As a result, cultures that believe group harmony to be paramount may come across as evasive and even dishonest in cultures such as those of North America and Western Europe, where directness and clarity are the guiding force. On the other hand, Western candor often comes across as bullish and rude in many Asian countries and can be alienating to the point where deals collapse. AsianAmerica.net, an online service to promote cultural, educational and economic ties between Asia and North America, puts it like this: “It is estimated that more than half of all international joint ventures fail within two or three years. The reason most often given is cultural myopia and lack of cultural competency – not the lack of technical or professional expertise.”

There is no magical third way to completely avoid this clash of communication styles that leads to business disasters. Do your homework before you take off on international business trips or before you start negotiations with anyone from a different culture. What will their expectations be in terms of etiquette and what can you expect from them as far as their communication style?

Asian.American.net says “Customizing the learning experience is the most effective way to address specific issues and objectives and maximize the impact cultural competency can have on the company’s bottom line. In today’s global marketplace, being culturally savvy is no longer just “nice to have” but a key ingredient in building and maintaining a competitive global advantage.”

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Bjorn Karlman

Same-sex Smooching

FriendsThe “beso”.  It was one of the hardest things to get used to when I moved to Buenos Aires. Hetero men and women would greet others of the same sex with a kiss on the cheek.  My Argentine friends found it hilarious that on top of my gaffes in learning Spanish (I once asked for the local “place of pleasure” instead of asking for apartment storage space), I almost cringed whenever it was time to greet guys.  It was reminiscent of my freshman days in college when I had to force my reserved Scandinavian self to greet American classmates with hugs and loud, enthusiastic banter.  But the “beso” was even more of an invasion of space.  Luckily I’d had practice with the French “bisou” (kisses on both cheeks for the opposite sex) while studying in France so I had the mechanics down.  But the fact that men were involved was unsettling.


It should be said that the mere fact that straight men kissed each other in Argentina did not at all mean that they were effeminate in other ways. In fact, Argentine culture in general seemed to encourage alpha male behavior, complete with near-belligerent cursing and heckling in the stands at soccer games.  The “beso” was simply an accepted way to greet people, whatever their sex might be.

Of course, same-sex kissing is not at all limited to Argentina, a lot of cultures find the practice perfectly normal. South Eastern Europe and some countries of South Western Europe, Latin America and the Middle East find it completely acceptable.  In the Middle East (with the exception of some moderate Islamic countries) it is more acceptable for men to kiss each other on the cheek than for men to kiss women on the cheek in public.  (A topic for a different post would be Arab male-on-male hand holding that had George W. Bush feeling a little uncomfortable when Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah was visiting the US).

How do you adjust to something like same-sex kissing if you are from a different culture?  Dive in.  It’s just like language learning – you learn best by immersion.  In my case, I had to force myself the first few times.  Then the beso got easier.  It never felt completely natural but it certainly did not bother me after a few weeks of greetings.

The challenge can be to avoid Borat-scale awkwardness by remembering where you are. When I met my former Spanish tutor from Buenos Aires on a trip to Paris in May, the beso was gone, replaced by a hug.  That same greeting between old friends, if it had taken place in Northern Europe, could well have been a simple, if somewhat prolonged, handshake.  The problems creep in when you plant a manly kiss on Bubba at the Indy 500.  That could warrant a royal kicking of an entirely different set of cheeks.

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Bjorn Karlman

Offend Anyone Anywhere With These Five Simple Screwups

loose gears

I really enjoy it when people get what’s coming to them. Rarely have I found this more satisfying than in cross-cultural situations when some oaf has clearly made no effort to be culturally sensitive and then suffers the inevitable backlash. Case in point: during Nato’s airstrikes against Belgrade in 1999, a Serbian friend of mine was talking about how beautiful the city was when a visiting citizen of one of the Nato member countries helpfully offered, “Well it won’t be when we are done bombing it.” The offender was shunned from that point on.

If you are reading this you probably have as little pity for this clown as I did. But what happens when YOU are the offender? There is a good chance that if you do any kind of mingling with people from other countries, something you say will upset someone. There is obviously no fool-proof way to avoid causing this kind of offense and it is possible to be too paranoid about potential insensitivity. However, there are a few avoidable moves that will frame you as a dimwitted, nationalistic philistine without a cosmopolitan bone in your body. Here they are:

Talking too much about your own country
Yes, if you are an American traveler, you will take an international beating for the reputation Americans have as loud-mouthed, nationalistic brutes whether or not you yourself have done anything to encourage this stereotype. Luckily, Barack Obama’s reversing of George W. Bush’s moronic unilateralism has made today the easiest time for Americans to travel in at least a decade. Talking too much about one’s own country is something that anyone from anywhere can be accused of. When I first moved to the US I was a little too eager to tell people about Sweden. I look back now and I am embarrassed… luckily my American friends where gracious and gave me some time to adjust to the fact that as interesting as Sweden may be, I was now living in the US and could afford to wave my own flag a little less.

Unnecessary Comparisons
This is a screw-up that is very closely linked to excessive commentary on your own country. Sometimes it is soooo tempting on overseas trips or in discussions of international flavor, to compare foreign lands to your own. Steer clear of it. If you have a local guide, they are hoping to show off their country, they don’t need to hear about yours and they certainly don’t want to hear about how your country’s architecture/health care/communication style somehow is better.

Lazy Assumptions
I got a lecture from an Argentine friend when I suggested that refined conversation was, by definition, calm and collected. She completely disagreed. Refinement, she said, did not at all come from the kind of monotone, subdued interaction that I was describing. Animation, energy, passion and dramatic fluctuations in tone and volume were not just OK, they were just as refined as anything I was talking about. I backed right down from my Northern European assumption.

Wimpy Eating Habits
Whenever my family and I visited friends’ homes growing up in Asia, food would appear. Our hosts were often intensely interested in what we thought about their food. I learned very quickly that it was NOT OK to ignore the curry and make comments about the food tasting “interesting.” If you are traveling, embrace the opportunity to try something different. Stick your neck out, puff up your chest and ask for another pupusa…

Being an Island Unto Yourself and Your Own
It’s tricky. You are a long way from home. You are homesick. And the confusing blend of new language, food, customs and beliefs has you wanting to either stay indoors or join a club that exclusively admits your own nationals. Resist this urge to hibernate. Some culture clash is to be expected. If people sense that you have no interest in reaching out and learning about your host country, they are less likely to make an effort with you.

One final word: don’t freak out if you are guilty of any of the above. International interaction and cross-cultural communication of any kind is going to involve a lot of trial and error. If you upset someone, a sincere apology is often all that is needed to move forward and enjoy the process of learning about new ways to be human.

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Bjorn Karlman

Border Skirmish – Boundaries in Cross-Cultural Relationships

Voluntary Restrictions
Voluntary Restrictions

You know how it goes: Straight-laced white guy with IBM pocket protector meets exotic young curvy thing from Guadalajara, they fall in love, struggle through no end of relational issues and cultural adjustments and then finally reach some kind of happy cultural equilibrium and live happily ever after. The predictability of these Hollywood cross-cultural romances is touching. But how do you navigate cultural diversity in real-life relationships? Some would say that the most important thing is to break down all boundaries, to create a complete blend of both cultures. I would say the exact opposite: in order to have a successful cross-cultural relationship, you need boundaries. Effective boundary setting is the most effective way to multicultural relational bliss. Here are a few boundaries to watch:

Overgeneralizing: Familiarity in multiclutural relationships can easily lead to slips of tongue and overgeneralizations about the other person’s culture. “You Swedes are such emotionally unavailable bores…”, for example, is not something that needs to be heard. “National and cultural stereotypes do play an important role in how people perceive themselves and others, and being aware that these are not trustworthy is a useful thing,” says Robert McCrae of the National Institute on Aging http://bit.ly/4kXDgE.
“No cultural stereotyping” is a great ground rule for cross-cultural relationships; it will spare you a lot of conflict.

Comfort Levels: It is entirely unfair to expect your significant other of another culture to enjoy or feel at ease with each one of your cultural practices. Come from a loud, spontaneous culture? Don’t judge your boyfriend for his inability to jump straight in and blend in. Decades of conditioning to one way of life are not reversed overnight. Give your partner some space and allow for very gradual change. The Harvard University International Office tells Harvard international students that it is possible to control the discomfort of living in a new culture and the accompanying culture shock. The first step: Realize that dealing with culture shock is tough. Students are advised to reach out to family and others from “back home” to have some connection to their roots. (http://bit.ly/1dMfXT).

Superstition: Whether or not we come from a background of organized religion, most of us have beliefs that seem very true and very important to us. As personal and non-transferable as some of these beliefs may be, we do not appreciate ridicule about them. An example from Filipino culture: turning your plate around when someone leaves during a meal to ward off bad luck. This may look petty or silly to the outside observer but it speaks to the importance of community-building and sharing food in Filipino culture… ignore it at your peril. Check out this article that touches on the benefits of respecting cultural superstition, no matter how strange it may seem: http://bit.ly/2pPlWC.

Historical/Political Pressure Points: It is important to know a little about the historical and political landscape of your partner’s home country. Often, seemingly harmless jokes can have disastrous consequences if they indicate insensitivity about another’s culture. Realize that jokes about political developments in your girlfriend’s country may wreak havoc when her father decides you are an uneducated brute who hasn’t even bothered to understand basic cultural taboos.

Good boundary setting is ultimately one of the most freeing things if you want to have a happy cross-cultural relationship. Solid ground rules and structure facilitate respect and understanding and the ability to appreciate and celebrate differences.

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Bjorn Karlman

Pulling the plug on (communication with) grandma

love in any language
love in any language

This summer ultra right-wing spin masters crisscrossed the US, spouting sensationalist garbage about Obama’s healthcare plan and organizing America’s lunatic fringe for circus-style mayhem at Town Hall meetings. One of the more charming claims made was that somehow healthcare reform was going to allow the government to “pull the plug on grandma.” Sen. Chuck Grassley, who first made the comment regarding the government’s potential future role in end-of-life decisions, later retracted it. But like Joe the Plumber, the expression stuck around. The mention of grandparents struck an emotional cord with people. We want them around. But as much as we value older family members it seems that most of us do precious little in the way of communicating with them. What’s to blame? Busy schedules? Misaligned priorities? Or is the real evil… social media?

I typed in one simple question into my Facebook status today: “Are your parents on Facebook?” Comments ranged from “my parents are old school eastern Euros…they type with one finger…so your answer is no” to “Mum is a super user… AND my 80 yr old grandmother!” I got 23 comments total.

The general trend was surprising to me: Most of my friends had at least one parent that was on Facebook even if they were subscribed, as one person put it, “only as a lurker.” Keep in mind that most of the respondents were in their late 20s or 30s and had parents that are or are pushing, grandma age.

Facebook reported this year that the fastest growing demographic of users was over 35 (http://bit.ly/7CMGd). Even more significantly, the fastest growing subset of this larger group of people over 35 is women over 55 (http://bit.ly/173ReU). That’s right, grandma has invaded Facebook. Trends such as these may be part of the reason one of my friends’ responses was, “My dad is (on Facebook) and he keeps trying to friend my friends. I will not friend him. You have to draw the line somewhere!”

LifeTips blogger Jamison Cush said, “Conventional teen wisdom: once your parents embrace something, it is no longer cool. So, inspired by a recent Facebook friend request from my mother, I am boldly declaring on this blog that Facebook is so over.” This kind of logic may be indulged for comic effect, but there is truth to it. As much as I want to stay in touch with my retirement-age parents, I don’t want them sifting through my Vegas pictures. And I will think twice about social media that allows them to do so.

Is it just time to admit that cross-generational communication is a touchier area than we give it credit for? Trying to do what we’ve failed to do in face-to-face communication across an age gap isn’t going to get easier because grandma now knows how to post bingo pictures and, very disturbingly, friends your online buds that she finds attractive. You could try to remedy the issue through heart-to-hearts over hot chocolate.

Or maybe just beef up your privacy settings.

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Bjorn Karlman

Well-Traveled, Multilingual and Clueless –Third Culture Kids Unpacked

At a wedding near LA with TCK friends I grew up with in the Philippines
At a wedding near LA with TCK friends I grew up with in the Philippines

I can go from zero to awkward, mumbling mess in no time when Western pop culture predating the late 90s is brought up in conversation. I have no clue what to say because a lot of the time, I have never heard of the actor/singer/quirky 80s celebrity of ambiguous sexuality being discussed. It is painful. I sound American. My Northern European genes make me look like I’ve got straight-laced, Mayflower Puritanical blood.  But I grew up next to sugar cane fields and coffee plantations in the Philippines and I have never seen a single episode of Miami Vice.

Luckily I grew up with other expat kids who were just as lost. We were all Third Culture Kids (we’d grown up in a culture different from that of our parents.)  Instead of being perpetually bummed about the fact that we didn’t completely fit into any culture or country, we bonded over our oddball similarities.  The transition to adulthood has changed very little so here’s my list of TCK traits:

1) Most of us speak English better than our mother tongue and are stumped if some zealous patriot asks us to recite the words to our own national anthems.

2) Whether or not we’ve ever stepped foot on American soil, our accents are often, to one degree or another, American.

3) We are flakes when it came to growing roots anywhere.  I’ve kept in touch with a number of my fellow TCKs and a lot of them have kept moving, never staying in the same place for more than a few years.

4) TMI!  We are used to sharing a lot very quickly because growing up we knew that we didn’t have much time to make friends before we had to leave again. But there is a flipside to this. Steph Yiu on denizen-mag.com puts it well:  “once you get to know us, you might find that we keep you at bay. We’re just so used to leaving (or being left by) people who are close to us that sometimes we don’t want to form very deep relationships, for fear of losing them.”

5) We were raised watching cultures clash on a daily basis so we are OK with grey areas.  We don’t expect life to be black and white.

6) We may have been mature teenagers but for some reason, we take our time “growing up” in our 20s.  For more on that, check out this article by Ann Baker Cottrell and Ruth Hill Useem:  http://www.tckworld.com/useem/art3.html

7) We are unlikely to take jobs in government or the corporate world that involve a lot of red tape/bureaucracy.  Neither do we often follow in our parent’s footsteps professionally:  http://www.tckworld.com/useem/art5.html

If you are a TCK or if you know one well and care to add to this list I’d love to hear from you.  Post a comment.  Just don’t ask me about the Jetsons.

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Bjorn Karlman