Sarah J. Carlson

Contemporary Young Adult Author

Tag Archives: culture

My most recent “Proud to be American” moment


For the past year and a half, I’ve lived in Singapore, writing up a storm, exploring Southeast Asia, making friends from all over (but mostly England, as random as that is). I haven’t been around many Americans. I moved home to Wisconsin last week.

Living abroad has given me a new appreciation of what it means to be American. it’s helped me recognize our unique culture and subcultures. It’s given me the chance to see my country–the ugly, crazy, and beautiful parts–through the eyes of non-Americans, who are fascinated by us. While I was in Singapore, the United States went through the government shutdown (which was SO hard to explain), major gun rights and Affordable Care Act debates, Ferguson, President Obama’s executive order on immigration, ISIS, Ukraine/Russia conflict, and the spread of marijuana legalization and gay marriage recognition (to name a few things). I’m not here to pontificate, but that’s a lot of intense stuff. I also missed a gubernatorial election and I couldn’t absentee vote; that was upsetting. I have to say, prior to living abroad, I didn’t feel particularly proud to be American. NOT living in the U.S. changed that some.

Something really moved when I returned home in October (after eight months away) and again last week when I moved back. My plane landed in Minneapolis (Detroit in October). As I waited in the U.S. Citizen immigration line, looking around at my fellow Americans, it hit me both times. The people in line with me came from many different racial/ethnic backgrounds: African American, white, Latino, a variety of Asian ethnic groups. You can’t identify an American based on their skin color, facial features, or even the language they are speaking.We look different, but we are ALL American. We are the same People.


“E Plurbus Unum”…one from many. There are very, very few countries that would have citizen immigration lines that are as diverse as ours.

It made me proud to be American.


Christmas in Singapore


So Singapore’s an interesting place. A city-nation-island. One of the safest cities on Earth. Home to over 200 malls. You can find a Hindu temple right next to a Catholic church. A Buddhist temple right next to a mosque. This year, I decided to travel around a bit and document Christmas in Singapore.

Singapore’s about 18% Christian, but Christmas is still a very big deal. The malls and and Orchard Road, Singapore’s version of Times Square, get decked out. Honestly, Singapore may be more decorated than what I’ve seen in the United States, at least in the Midwest.You can also buy real Christmas trees. Though small, they actually go for a reasonable price. Malls somehow create fake snow and you can go and play in it at certain times of the day. Others have foam snow parties.

So here’s my photographic Christmas journey through Singapore.

Each mall and Changi Airport has it’s own Christmas theme, which can range from typical US mall to Alice in Wonderland and Smurf Christmas.

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Orchard Road goes all-out starting at the end of October. I’m pretty sure you can see it from space. Orchard Road has over 20 malls, most of which are connected by underground tunnels. It’s literally a maze of malls. The first time I went there, it took me 15 minutes just to figure out how to cross the street!

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Gardens by the Bay, home of Singapore’s famous Super Trees, also gets a festive make-over. It was a very teddy Christmas, complete with fake snow.

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There were attempts to “Keep the Christ in Christmas.”

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And a few other random shots of Christmas around Singapore.

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This is actually a mostly “Muslim” hawker centre. Most of the stalls feature halal food and Malay food.

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The airport in Langkawi, Malaysia, which is a predominantly Muslim country.

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Ringing in the New Year with the Dutch…singing the Yon Yonson song? Whaaaaaa…..


photo 1-11Happy New Years Day from Singapore! Singapore is in the future when compared to a lot of places, so it’s the morning after for me. To ring in 2015, I went to a beach party with the following rules:

Beach partyTake note of the no swimming or selfie sticks ;). They actually had people guarding the ocean AND a fence around it. Safety first!

photo 2-11Actually, this was very smart. There were a lot of very drunk people there. Which leads me to my funny New Years Eve story. So we were hanging out and these guys come up to us, probably early 20s. One of them says, “I’m from the Netherlands, where are you from?” So I tell him the US, because in my experience there’s generally not much point telling non-Americans what state you’re from unless it’s California, Texas, Florida, or New York. But this guy asked me what state, so I say Wisconsin.


And he launches into the following song:

“My name is Yon Yonson

I come from Wisconsin,

I work in the lumberyards there.”

Now granted, it was a VERY slurred rendition of the song, but it was–in fact–the very song I grew up singing in elementary music class back home in good ol’ Wisconsin. My sister sings it to my niece all the time. But how? Why? Netherlands????

So I’m like, no way you sing that in the Netherlands.

So the guy calls his friend over and starts singing it and then his friend jumps in, independently verifying that yes, in FACT, they do randomly sing the Yon Yonson song in the Netherlands!

mind blowAnd then they kind of stumbled off before I could get to the root of the mystery, so now I may never know….

Here are the lyrics as I learned them in their entirety, if you’ve not had the pleasure:

My name is Yon Yonson,
I come from Wisconsin.
I work in a lumber yard there.
When I walk down the street,
All the people I meet
Say “Hello! Yon Yonson, hello!” (repeated again and again).
And a video if you really, REALLY want to enjoy it. It’s a different version though, not as good…. 😛
History note: I googled it to learn the origins, and apparently it was linked to the arrival of Swedish immigrants to the US (such as some of my ancestors). A lot of Scandinavians settled in the Midwest and at least in Wisconsin and Minnesota, lumber was a big industry around that time.
Oh, the world is a random place. Here’s wishing you and yours a happy, safe, and amusing New Years Eve/Day!

Wait….there’s no meat in it? On being the token Yank: Christmas Edition


So I’m an American living in Singapore. Have been for the past year and a half-ish.

10256652_10100472610562175_862716297238446126_oI haven’t encountered many Americans while living the expat life; plenty of Brits and Aussies though. So my husband and I actually hang out with a lot of English people, which is pretty awesome. Since we’re living in a foreign Asian country, that makes us all relatively similar. Kind of weird, right? And since we’ve been friends for quite a while now, a lot of the usual random questions we’ve had about each others’ countries have been covered. (One of their questions: do you really have yellow school buses? One of our questions: how do you have so many accents on such a small island?) We’ve gone through the usual vocabulary differences and I’ve added some surprising words to my British English lexicon, which is huge!!! (Aubergine=egg plant, that one that surprised me recently)

I can proudly say I can recognize the difference between the slightly north of middle all the way to a Northern English accent from a Southern English accent and a posh accent. …And now when talking to new English people, I categorize their accents by comparing them to my friends, lol. I.e. Oh, they sound like Bob, they must be from around Manchester. Or Game of Thrones. I use that, too 😛

Anyway, we were recently at a friend’s Christmas party sipping some mulled wine (which was awesome) when my friend brought around a plate of mince pies (which I also know to be minceMEAT pies).

1-1259080723rq3B(not my photo)

Important side note, American friends: mince is used in place of ground, so like minced beef instead of ground beef, which added to my presumed meat connotation in connection to mince, as that’s what they call it in Singapore, too). My husband loves meat pies, so he was quite excited (see, not just me!).

So we took a bite…

eatingAnd there was dried fruit in it.

It was, what we polite Midwesterners would say, interesting…. It tasted kind of sweet and sour and dry and fruity I guess? No meat. The flavor kind of reminded me of maybe a fruit cake? Anyway, we shared our experience with some of our other English friends, and they thought it was pretty amusing. Apparently there is a little bit of beef suet (fat) in it though, so there’s that. I looked up the recipe. Dangggg those things are hard to make! Recipe calls for like 20 ingredients that are minced then left to sit for at least 3 days! I have a whole new appreciation for mince pies now.

After I wrapped my brain around it, I did like it though 😀 My husband, not so much. Shhhhh don’t tell my friend! Obviously, every culture has their own unique holiday foods with which they have strong, fond associations. Us Americans, we have pumpkin pie 😛

Have you ever had any interesting holiday food experiences?

Sacred beings and Mitakuye Oyasin: Lessons I learned on a service trip to Pine Ridge


blog pic….that the entire United States needs to have implanted in our collective brain.

Two summers ago, I took a group of students of color on a service learning trip to Pine Ridge Reservation. I call them my students, don’t mind me. My students spent an entire year fundraising (baking, poetry slamming, selling brats, writing letters) and engaging in learning activities in addition to all their homework AND over the summer. We were all so excited when it was time to go.

The trip was life-changing for the kids, but also for myself and my fellow chaperones. Click here to see pictures. My students worked incredibly hard under the scorching South Dakota summer sun: built bunk beds and outhouses, skirted a trailer, and helped roof a house. My students learned a lot about the history of the Oglala Lakota and of the terrible things done to them by our government. They faced extreme poverty with big hearts and open minds. Each student learned something new about themselves. To speak their mind, recognize their own strengths, say no, take risks and try new things, challenge themselves, and that, even when things seem so hopeless, they can make a difference.

On our last day, my co-chaperone told me that the teachers back home would NEVER believe what our kids had done and how hard they worked and learned. My students amazed me while we were there, and I’d been working with them all year to get them ready.

I learned a lot, too. When I first started consulting with the volunteer center about bringing my students, one of the staff shared that they’d had some bad experiences with kids from inner city Milwaukee–as though that suggested anything about what to expect from my students. We were also referred to as “inner city kids” by the staff while we were there at least once—we are from Madison, there is no inner city. I saw firsthand how my students were stared as we loaded on the plane, as we walked into the volunteer center and were the only group that wasn’t white. I watched white kids touching my students’ hair and asking them about rap and if they were from the ghetto (out of well-intentioned curiosity). During our learning sessions with staff at the center, there was a lot of talk about white privilege, which is something my kids are well, WELL aware of. I could sense discomfort from the other groups that this discussion was happening with a group of students who don’t have that privilege.

On the second day, one of the other adults (who I was later told was a bit eccentric) snapped on some of my students for no reason other than they were sitting outside talking and laughing during a break time; I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it included a racially-charged word. My students were upset and I was pissed, but they didn’t want me to talk to the lady. They said it wasn’t that big of a deal—because they were so used to it.

During one particularly long and (yes, I’ll say it) weird and boring lecture, two of my students were whispering. A lot of white kids were doing it, too. The speaker blatantly targeted one of my boys, yelled at and embarrassed him. It was so bad that a number of kids and adults from other groups came up and apologized to him later. The boy’s response…he kind of said he deserved it for talking.

After that, I had to have a talk with my students and say, I don’t care what the rest of the kids are doing, you will be better. And they were. My students never grumbled about having to work all day then have learning sessions THEN have small group discussions and journaling time. Because my students were there to learn and help. My students learned they could use power tools (better than me), conquer their fear of heights to roof a house, open up to people they’ve been in classes with for three years but barely know, and to be proud of themselves. They learned that terrible injustice still exists, but they can make a difference.

diffuse 3A few random favorite quotes from this trip:

Girl: “I wish I had a power saw at home. Then I could make anything!”

Boy: “This trip has really been life-changing…there is no number of times I would say thank you if I did it would go on forever and ever and ever. I’ll miss you and have fun in that foreign place of yours.” (i.e. Singapore, haha)


I’ve been to fifteen countries, climbed over mountains, witnessed sectarianism alive and well, gone to the ruined village from whence my ancestors immigrated to Canada, toured ancient temples, swam in many oceans, walked with elephants. But this service learning trip to Pine Ridge, South Dakota was probably the best experience of my life, because of those students.

Wow, do I miss those kids. And all the dozens and hundreds of other kids I’ve helped through nightmares and pushed toward dreams over the past six years, most of whom were African American.

And as I sit here thinking about Travon Martin and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, all I can think is, what if it were one of my students that was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got killed by police due to what started as a misunderstanding? Or one of their parents? Like Rumain Brisbon and Eric Garner. What Facebook images would be flashed on the TV screen? What tiny mistake would be touted to smear their character so we can reduce our cognitive dissonance over an unarmed human being killed?

But then I remind myself it doesn’t matter if it happens to “my” students. The fact that young black men are 21 times more likely than whites to be shot dead by a police officer is a national travesty.

Back to the Rez…

p1070911One particularly powerful guest speaker, a Lakota high school teacher, told us a few things that stick with me to this day.

Two important aspects of the Lakota belief system are Turtle Island (the Earth) and the medicine wheel, which incorporates the colors red, white, black, and yellow. To the Lakota, it symbolizes that we are all one, no matter the color of our skin. We are all brothers and sisters traveling together on Turtle Island. We shouldn’t be colorblind, we should celebrate our differences.

p1080210Mitakuye Oyasin: we are all related.

The most powerful thing this speaker said: the Lakota word for child literally means sacred being. What if our society thought of all children this way?