By Lauren Owen
A conversation with Doug Ota feels as though you’ve been invited into his living room and have known him for at least 20 years. He is one of those people who remembers your name and your face, even if only after a two-minute elevator introduction, which was how I first met him. Generous, responsive, and sincere, I was honored by Doug’s willingness to sit down for an interview shortly after delivering the concluding keynote of the three-day Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference.
Doug currently lives and works in the Netherlands, where he is a psychologist. His own cross-cultural story has spurred much of his research and writing, and his recently published book Safe Passage offers a guide to structuring effective transition support within international schools and organizations. Originally from California and biracial by ethnicity, Doug has spent his life crossing cultures. From the United States, he transitioned to the Netherlands, where he continues to work in psychology and cross-cultural issues. It was a privilege to sit with Doug and hear his story leading up to the publication of the book, as well as his past and present involvement with FIGT.
Outside of the Box
Doug’s life shaped him for the cross-cultural experience. An Asian and Anglo-Saxon hybrid, he always knew he looked different, but was never quite sure what caused it and found himself constantly wanting to look like ‘the other kids’ he lived among in California.
“What’s your ethnicity?” his classmates would ask.
“They needed to have a box for me,” Doug said. But no one could come up with a box.
When Doug’s stepfather entered his story, Doug began to live the importance of rituals, noticing how they gave him a place. Doug’s biological father had left the family when Doug was three years old, acquainting Doug with transition at an early age. With his stepfather, though, Doug felt comfortable. The two of them would go to baseball games together, and attend church services. These rituals provided safety and security, providing a framework to live in.
Even with these rituals, though, Doug continued to feel he didn’t belong. He realized he would have to come to terms with being different. He didn’t fit into a box, and would have to find his own way.
Moving to the Netherlands
Doug continued to feel like a stranger as he moved from the United States to the Netherlands as an adult. Graduating from Princeton University before moving to Europe, he had grown accustomed to the academic culture in the United States . American culture valued competition and individuality.
As he began to study psychology in the Netherlands, though, he discovered the Dutch culture was very different. The Ivy League degree he had obtained held little importance in Dutch culture, where students tend to downplay successes and strive to fall in the middle of a category.
“It was a difficult and dark period,” Doug admitted, describing how he struggled to adjust to the new set of academic norms. He continued to strive to be a good student, but the difficulty of not fitting into the Dutch academic box was wearing.
Despite the difficulty, he continued to work and study, ultimately opening his own private practice in 2009.
Connecting with FIGT
We can thank Ruth van Reken for her role in connecting Doug with FIGT. While traveling to Holland, Ruth wanted to organize a preconference workshop on transitions teams in an international school context. Due to Doug’s work on the transitions program at the American School of The Hague, Ruth invited Doug to present.
Two years later, Doug was invited to give the opening keynote at the 2009 conference. Now, attending FIGT feels like coming home.
My own personal excitement for interviewing Doug came from the fact that I had just finished reading his recently published book entitled Safe Passage: How mobility affects people and what international schools should do about it. As described in the title, the book describes the impact global mobility has on people, but also outlines steps to building a program to aid in transition.
Tied together by a nautical theme, I assumed Doug had a nautical background due to the prevalence of sailing references. Despite sailboats functioning as a defining metaphor, I discovered he has no affinity for water.
“I get terribly seasick,” he chuckled. The idea for the theme had emerged from the restaurant he and Ruth van Reken had met at, which sported sailboat decorations. The theme fit and became the defining feature.
When asked about the process of writing the book, Doug looked off into the distance for a minute.
“It was something I had to grow into,” he admitted.
The idea had been birthed in 2005, with writing starting in 2006. At the time, 30 people were working on the project; Doug was lead editor.
“It ended up being a cataclysm,” he confessed. The book did not emerge.
Not to be put off, he tried again a couple of years later, this time with a team of approximately six people and the help of Barbara Schaetti and Ruth van Reken. The context was different, but the results were the same: ideas and no book.
Despite the multiple failed attempts, though, the book bug did not go away. In April of 2012, Barbara Schaetti gave Doug the nudge he needed: “you still can”.
“I needed to grow into being ready,” Doug explained. He realized this was his story to tell, and he needed to tell it. No one could tell the story for him. “I didn’t really have a choice.”
Doug expressed his goals for the book on both the individual and macro level. “I want people to be able to find themselves,” he said. “They don’t have to go through what I went through.” He also wants to equip international schools and organizations to support individuals encountering transition.
“This book focuses on schools,” I mentioned as we concluded our interview. “What about other organizations that support transitioning people?”
“The sub-title is insufficient,” Doug admitted. “It should read, how mobility affects people and what international schools and organizations should do about it.”
In closing, Doug shared the following pieces of advice for people who are involved in cross-cultural work:
- Don’t try to do it by yourself
- Be patient
- Be persistent, but don’t go away
- Find people who are like-minded
For further information about Doug Ota’s book visit www.safepassage.nl
For further information about Doug Ota visit www.dougota.nl
Safe Passage: How Mobility Affects People and What International Schools Should Do About It, Douglas Ota, Summertime Publishing, 2014
Edited by Dounia Bertuccelli. With thanks to the sponsorship of Summertime Publishing and the Parfitt Pascoe Writing Residency.