Graduates in Wonderland


Rare are the books that get intercultural living; rarer still are the ones that are funny, interesting, and keep you reading with their honesty. One such remarkable book is Graduates in Wonderland: A Memoir of Friendship. Written by Jessica Pan and Rachel Kapelke-Dale, the book encompasses the life changes that occur after college, global jobs and relationships, and the hermeneutics of intercultural adaptation.

Stretching for years after graduation, and detailing the changing lives (and locations) of Jessica and Rachel, Graduates in Wonderland offers a glimpse into living in a shifting global economy, where movement and jobs transcend national boundaries, where cultural differences are adapted to with seeming ease, where the internet plays a large role in maintaining friendships and enhancing communication. I love it.

This is a wonderful book about maintaining connection through changing lives…and enormous amounts of distance. It tells the search for meaning, purpose, and connection; of growing up, of learning a city, of learning oneself. It is eminently readable, and is a wonderful portrait of a friendship, the kind you know you’re lucky to have, or wish to build. But (the international educator in me here) the best part, for me, was the clear (and fascinating) record of growing and changing, interculturally.

We know about Bennett’s Model of Intercultural Sensitivity, the work of R.M. Paige and the Intercultural Communication Institute (ICI), and the work of countless international educators in many fields to research and teach about intercultural processes and development. But it is unusual to see this in memoir, where you can not only care about the authors, but also root for them in each chapter. This is the perfect book for all ages – from recent college grads to expats to people with many years of life (and travel) under their belts. I love the global span of it, as well as the intimate look into the friendship of two women, growing and changing and enjoying the journey of life.

And, of course, I emailed all my best friends around the globe, to share this extraordinary book that somehow transcends the personal, and tells all of our journeys in finding a place in the world – and finding ourselves, wherever we are.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Jessica Pan (in between trips!), and find out about the backstory of this book, of inspiration, honesty, millenials, being an expat, and more. Here’s what she had to say…

Please tell us about your book, Graduates in Wonderland…

Graduates in Wonderland came about really organically, which is a strange thing to say, but we hadn’t really planned on it happening. On the eve of our graduation from Brown, my college friend Rachel and I made a pact to stay in touch. After graduation, I had a one-way ticket to Beijing and she was moving to New York, so we promised to send each other no-holds-barred, honest accounts of our lives once a week.

That’s where the book begins – my letters to her from landing in Beijing and her letters from New York. Over the years, I end up in Australia and she moves to Paris. Of course, at the time, it wasn’t a book – it was just our letters to each other about finding love and adventure and new jobs in strange lands – hence the title, Graduates in Wonderland. It’s odd that it’s called “Graduates” when we graduated seven years ago, but as it begins when we’re 22, we thought the title was apt (and we do want to stress that it’s not for fresh graduates – we’ve had many older readers relate to it).

What inspired you and your co-author, Rachel Kapelke-Dale, to turn your emails into a book?

Five years after making our pact, we both ended up in London (for very different reasons – all found in the book, of course!). Finding yourself in a big foreign city living a few blocks away from one of your best friends is such a gift – we found that we were meeting for coffee and seeing each other so regularly that it felt like we were back in college.

On one of these occasions, we were bickering about some detail of the past – someone’s name or when one of us was in Paris – so we decided to both search our email history. We were amazed at all the emails from our past that appeared. Crushes we had lost touch with, strange experiences we lived through and so many details we had forgotten appeared in our inbox and took us right back to those moments in Beijing (for me) and NYC and Paris (for Rachel).

Because we had always promised to be brutally honest and detailed in our emails, we found that our correspondence captured a very chaotic and eventful time in our lives. First full-time jobs, heartbreak, big loves, career changes, etc. We thought, “We would have loved to have read something like this,” and decided to send a book proposal to a few literary agents. This was September and we decided that if we hadn’t heard back from a literary agent by the end of the year, we’d just self-publish it and it would be a fun project to show our future kids. However, a literary agent got in touch in November and the rest is history.

One of the things I loved most about your book is the honesty. Was it hard to keep that in, to open your lives so publicly?

By nature, I’m a private person, so I found it incredibly difficult to reveal so many details or embarrassing things about my personal life. Rachel and I discussed this early on, though. We decided that if we weren’t going to be honest and show the good and the bad, then it wasn’t worth doing at all. No one wants to just read about the rosy side of someone’s life – that’s not real and we wanted this book to be real.

I actually have no problem with strangers reading the book, but I really struggled with having my parents read it. The way I can best describe what I was feeling was to imagine having your parents read what is essentially your diary.

To cope, I whited-out entire paragraphs and pages of the more “risqué” parts of the book and sent the censored copies to my parents a week before the book came out. I also attached a card about how important they were in my life, how much I loved them and then ended it with, “P.S. Lena Dunham is a well-respected, successful woman who does way more risqué things than me.”

They thought it was ridiculous, but they seemed to like the book, although I think it must’ve been strange for them to read. Sometimes my dad quotes it back to me and I want to die, though.

For many millenials, the entire world is a workplace — and boundaries are open for exploration. Because of the internet, having jobs, friends, and living abroad is a readily available option. Do you feel that many people in their 20s and 30s are fully utilizing the benefits of this global, wired age?

I think searching for jobs and adventure abroad in your 20s and 30s is much more common, which I love. The world is such a big place and to not try to see as much of it as possible seems like such a waste. My experiences living in China and traveling to various countries have definitely opened up my eyes in ways I can’t even quantify. When you’re 22, you think you know everything, so it’s refreshing to go abroad and have your mind blown. I love that feeling.

I do think it’s becoming easier and easier to live abroad since so much of our work is online these days. I write for US publications from London, which would probably have been quite difficult 50 years ago.

You’ve had experience as an expat in several places — do you feel that the more you live abroad, the more your sense of home goes with you, instead of being a place?

For me, the sense of home is linked to people, not place. In fact, there’s nothing lonelier than going back to an old haunt or a favorite place that’s full of memories you had with people who are no longer there. Homesickness is loneliness at its heart.

When my family visits me in London or in Beijing or Melbourne, I’m at home. More and more, I’m also astonished at how your friends become your family. I can be in the most foreign, remote country in the world, but if I’ve got a best friend with me, I feel so happy. That’s also my advice for feeling lost or homesick in a new place – find friends. They make the biggest difference. And reach out to old friends, too, even if they are 7,000 miles away, like Rachel and I were.

What’s up next for you (please say a volume 2!)?

Ha! Perhaps! To be honest, we’d love for Graduates in Wonderland to be turned into a movie. Last year we had a surreal phone call with our hero Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator and writer of Gilmore Girls, who said that she loved the book and would love to make it into a movie – but we still haven’t optioned the film rights. Any other takers?

As for us, I’m a freelance journalist in London and I’d love to write a non-fiction book (though not another memoir – not for a long time). Rachel’s working on a novel and finishing up her PhD. We still meet up often for coffee and to edit each other’s work, which is fantastic. Having creative friends you can trust to give you good feedback is invaluable.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

You’ll never regret staying in touch with someone so if you have the thought, “I should really email so-and-so”, then do it. That tiny effort often makes a huge difference. Everyone wants to hear from an old friend. It’s always worth it.

I highly (highly!!) recommend this book!

Graduates in Wonderland came out this summer. Learn more at: http://graduatesinwonderland.com/the-book/

(Originally at Wandering Educators)

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