Reflecting on his many journeys while living, working or traveling around the world, Grey opens up about his myriad of real-life experiences abroad.
1) Where was your first trip abroad? Where was your most recent trip?
In 1958, when I was eight, my family of six children, aged one-and-a half to ten, traveled by train from Los Angeles to New York and then by ship from New York to Le Havre, France. From there, all eight of us drove in a Volkswagen bus to Munich where my mother’s sister lived, working for Radio Free Europe.
This year--sixty-four years later--my wife and I traveled to Berlin, where she ran the marathon, and then to Paris for ten days.
2) What is the funniest thing that ever happened to you while traveling overseas?
In the summer of 1973, I had arranged to stay with a family in Kyushu, Japan to improve my Japanese. On the first night, my Japanese mother prepared an especially elaborate sashimi and sushi dinner for me. I popped what looked like a beautifully carved flower in my mouth only to discover it was actually wasabi--spicy Japanese horseradish. My eyes overflowed with water, sweat soaked my body, and my face turned bright red, but I didn’t say anything lest I embarrass my new family. Weeks later, when my language skills had improved, my Japanese mother told me she had noticed my reaction but didn’t say anything to avoid embarrassing me! We laughed at our mutual, cultural discombobulation.
3) Which trip abroad was your favorite?
It’s impossible to select a favorite out of hundreds of trips over sixty-plus years, but certainly one of the most memorable was my first trip to Asia, in 1969, when I travelled with a Stanford student group to Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. It was in Hong Kong where I played on a local Y volleyball team and we won the city tournament.
4) What was your worst overseas trip?
I traveled from France to Japan in the summer of 1977 stopping in many locations, including Afghanistan. I was not allowed to check my small bag on an Indian Airlines flight out of Kabul. The bag was lost and I ended up spending three days in New Delhi sick with only one set of clothes.
5) Did any of what happened in the book actually happen to you?
Many of the stories reflect my own experience. The family trip to Europe in 1958, for one. I played baseball with a group of local boys in Mexico in 1962. I also competed on a volleyball team in Hong Kong in 1969 and traveled with a student group across Japan in 1971. These trips all led to chapters in the book.
6) Why do you think it is hard for people to relate across cultures?
Most people learn their home culture at a very early age like their native language. Their home culture and native language become so ingrained that it is hard for them to imagine relating to other cultures or speaking differently. Even if they desire to have those skills, they are daunting to learn.
Some people grow up from an early age in bi-cultural and/or bilingual environments and seem to develop a flexibility of mind and spirit that allows them to relate more easily across cultures and languages. I have always admired that flexibility and sought through working and living abroad to develop it.
7) Do you miss living overseas?
During the pandemic, I did not travel abroad for nearly three years--the longest period of time I had stayed in the United States in more than five decades. That experience made me realize how lucky I had been to work and live overseas for much of my life and how much I missed the challenge and also the thrill of moving across cultures. Working on ABROAD undoubtedly helped me relive my time overseas through my characters.
8) How did you conceive the idea to write ABROAD?
I am fascinated by the range of reactions to living and working in a different culture--from the “we’re not in Kansas anymore” shock of the first trip through ignoring and embracing, rejecting and relativizing, romanticizing and exploiting cultural differences. The idea of writing a novel about that tension crystalized for me about four years ago, after the BIG series was finished. As I drafted the first pages, I decided to try to answer two questions: can we ever truly understand someone from another culture and can we ever truly understand ourselves if we don’t try?
9) Who is your favorite character?
I like Maddie the best because I think she traveled the furthest in the book, that is, her character grew the most.
10) Did you really meet a dukun?
In 1972 when I was in Indonesia, I was told that a Javanese man whom I was to visit was a dukun--or shaman, as we would call him. I was surprised to discover he had an extensive Western education and spoke at least four languages: Javanese, Indonesian, Dutch, and English. I did not spend much time with him, but fifty years later I needed a catalyst to help Skip, Maddie, and Rex realize themselves and he formed the basis for the wise, sometimes Delphic Widiyanto.