We sat down with Karen to discuss her journey through languages and comics. Karen is the author of Expat Gone Foreign, while also juggling her PHD and teaching Spanish to college students, she still finds time to travel and discover other cultures.
Tell us how it all began
Born in a Southern Spanish town, I grew up surrounded by the many tourists who visit the region. There was always something different about them, something foreign and alluring that made me want to step off my doorstep and into the unknown; and learning their languages was a prerequisite for exploring all those new worlds. Also, back in the day video games and comic books were all in English, so one kind of had to learn it…
What languages do I speak? I’m fluent in Spanish, German and English; can communicate in French and Finnish and took Latin, Ancient Greek and Japanese through high school and university. I understand other Germanic and Romance languages though – such as Icelandic or Italian – due to their similarities. Once you know a few it gets easier.
It’s because I’m interested in a particular country and its mindset that I start learning a new language, since language encapsulates thought and it’s a means to discovering a culture from within, not as a tourist. At some point that curiosity led to moving abroad, for that’s the most efficient way to become proficient in any language. So did my sociolinguistic adventure start ten years ago when I moved to Berlin, followed by Zürich, Madrid, Savonlinna and most recently Hamburg.
A graphic journey through culture clashes
Expat Gone Foreign began as a humorous graphic diary to keep my family and friends up-to-date on my happenstances across the continent: linguistic misunderstandings, cultural clashes and the rigours of everyday life. In a short time, a bunch of people all over the Internet had joined the melee.
I guess part of the appeal my comics have for my readers might be thanks to how relatable they are. Many of the things that have happened to me over the years are the sorts of thrills and spills that other expats and travellers have also experienced. I think fans often see a bit of themselves in my work.
Embarking on this side project has provided me with the opportunity to get in touch with interesting people such as: expats, teachers, linguists, travellers and language freaks. It has been a year since it all started, and I have begun to contemplate the idea of creating a book to compile the strips.
One of the first comic strips I illustrated depicted an incident I had at Tegel airport in Berlin when I was heading to a music festival. I had one of those military bullet belts in my luggage and security stopped me from taking the plane and called the police. I was about to miss my flight when they finally arrived. They quickly accosted the security personnel, informing them that the belt was in fact just a clothing accessory.
One of the most popular strips portrays my first day in Finland. After having eaten at a restaurant I headed to the restroom and the doors didn’t have the traditional anthropomorphic signs on them, save for the Finnish words for “men” and “women”. I didn’t know any Finnish at that point and mistakenly entered the men’s room, only to be immediately rebuked by a gentleman at the urinal.
Another time, my first afternoon in Germany, I ordered an ‘infusión’ in a café, which in Spanish refers to ‘tea’ but in German means something more akin to blood transfusion. The waitress just looked at me in astonishment and asked me if I wanted her to call an ambulance.
Latest culture shock
I have been in England for a month now and – although I’m starting to see some patterns – English politeness continues to be a mystery. When people ask about you, one can’t always tell whether they are just being polite or are actually interested in engaging in a conversation. For instance, when you are asked how you are, they don’t really expect you to narrate your life story, which would be the opposite in countries like Spain. Getting accustomed to the new social norms can be tricky at first.
Comics, teaching and linguistics
I just doodle for fun. Currently I teach languages at college level and perform research in the field of cognitive linguistics. I attained my bachelor’s in linguistics and literature studies, followed by a master’s in education and a PhD in applied linguistics in teaching and learning foreign languages specialising in phraseology.
In the future I would like to develop language learning materials combining both my passion, foundations in linguistics and my avocation towards drawing, offering a fresh new medium with meaningful content and attractive visuals that allows people to connect with languages and engage in learning.
Describe myself in three hashtags? Let’s go with