Alaine and I met the “millennial way” – in a Facebook group for travel bloggers and later on in person in Singapore. I was fascinated by her diverse background as a blogger and dancer who had lived in so many countries: Alaine was born in Singapore but grew up between Jakarta and Singapore attending International American schools. She then studied and worked in the US before returning to Singapore and then continued her postgraduate studies in Switzerland. Alaine now splits her time living between Singapore and Sweden.
Since our last meeting, Alaine has also become a cookbook author. Her book “In Search of the Best Swedish Chokladbollar: A Southeast Asian Falls in Love with Fika” illustrates her international journey perfectly. I talked to Alaine about why she is passionate about Swedish chocolate balls, what is Fika, why she considers herself a “Third Culture Kid” and how her international background influenced her path as an author, culinary expert and blogger.
When I first met Alaine, I could not really tell where she was from. Even though she spoke English with an American accent, she did not seem too American. I soon found out that she did spend a lot of time in the US, but there was something very international about her – an interesting mix of cultures.
Alaine was born in Singapore and spent her childhood in Jakarta, Indonesia. At the age of eight, her family and her moved back to Singapore and stayed for nine years. Summer holidays were spent with relatives in Australia, California and Indonesia. Alaine studied dance at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and later on spent seven years as a dancer, choreographer and dance teacher in New York.
After that, Alaine moved back to Singapore and worked in dance education, hospitality, and events. This led her to attend hospitality management school in Switzerland with an internship in Brussels. Today the globetrotter lives between Singapore and Sweden, with occasional stays in Malta where she works with the dance community.
“What ARE You?”
You may ask yourself now: What is her “home”? Can someone who moves so often even have a home?
“We are so mobile these days. Hence, it is even more difficult to answer. I grew up as an expat kid in an international school system. [If someone asks me where I’m from,] I would say Singapore because I lived here the longest. But it depends who I’m talking to. In taxis in Singapore I usually say I’m from New York to avoid questions like: ‘Ah, you’re Singaporean, but where are you really from?’ I also relate to New York because this is where I became myself. You can be anybody in New York.”
When people question her about where she is “really from”, she gets a bit frustrated. “All these pieces are a jigsaw puzzle of me.” But sometimes, she says, it is just easier to give an easy answer to avoid further questions.
A Third Culture Kid with an Unconventional Job
Alaine refers to herself as a “Third Culture Kid”, a term coined by American sociologist and anthropologist Ruth Hill Useem. It refers to children who spend a large part of their childhood abroad or in different countries due to their parents’ profession. Alaine describes it as follows:
“We are our own stories and we are all the places that we have lived in. Most people grew up in one place and they have a strong identity based on where they are from. We have moved so many times. I have friends who have moved four or five or more countries before the age of 18. It is just how we live our lives.”
Expats are often asked when they plan to “come back home”. “Home” usually refers to the country in which they were born or where they have extended family. In the context of that question it usually does not mean where they actually feel at home. I asked Alaine how she deals with this question. “It kind of bothers me. I’m home here right now. I’m home when I’m also on the road because I learnt to quickly acclimate to the environment. When I feel comfortable, I feel home.”
Alaine has moved a lot due to her profession. As an author, dancer and blogger, her daily work life is rather unconventional. She can work remotely and from several countries, as there is no need to physically be at an office every day. This flexibility can easily be misunderstood. People sometimes ask her when she will get a “normal job”.
Alaine agrees that it can be difficult to grasp this unconventional job concept. While many people tend to think that digital nomads like Alaine “are just sitting by the pool watching a movie”, the workspaces can be very different from the traditional work environment. Even though Alaine may not have an office, her workspace is the dance studio, her kitchen or wherever her laptop connects to wi-fi.
Alaine’s Passion for Fika and Swedish Chocolate Balls
Alaine has a big passion for chokladbollar. These Swedish chocolate balls perfectly illustrate her diverse professional and personal backgrounds.
When she was a child, Alaine spent a lot of time with her aunt Mona, who used to make rum balls and cakes. “My aunt, cousin and I spent the whole day baking and cooking. My favourite was making rum balls.”
Much later in New York, Alaine discovered a fika café. Fika is a deliberate break during the day when Swedes catch up with friends or colleagues. It is about enjoying the moment and a chance to recharge. When Alaine explained the concept to me, it very much reminded me of Viennese coffee culture: During a fika, friends enjoy some coffee and pastries. For Alaine, it was just the right peaceful concept she needed in New York, where people are always in a rush and drink their coffee on the go. Fika helps Alaine to be more productive and content with herself.
During their fika, Swedes often enjoy the above-mentioned chokladbollar, chocolate balls made of oats, butter, sugar, cacao powder and a splash of coffee. They are usually rolled in coconut or pearl sugar. As the balls are not baked, making them is a perfect activity for children. Hence, almost every Swedish child learns how to make them and it is often their first foray in the kitchen.
When Alaine tried chokladbollar for the first time, she was taken back to her own childhood with aunt Mona. She did not learn the recipe until she was on a plane and met a Swedish lady on her way from Copenhagen to Singapore. Alaine then perfected her recipe while living in Belgium. The chokladbollar also helped her through a challenging period: In Brussels, Alaine did not know anyone. As a Third Culture Kid, she usually knew someone through someone in a new city. But not in Brussels. Hence, Alaine spent a lot of time experimenting in the kitchen.
A Book about Chokladbollar
It took Alaine about four years to perfect the recipe – her culinary background has trained her in testing and recipe development. The major challenge was to consistently produce the same quality each time. As Swedes hand down their recipe to their children, they often do not measure the ingredients and every batch tastes different. Furthermore, Alaine invested a lot of effort in searching for the best quality ingredients. The better and richer the basic ingredients, are, the better the end result. She made them again and again and wrote down the recipes.
As a teacher, Alaine wanted to make sure that other people can make the chocolate balls themselves. Even though some people advised her to first open a café and only publish a book after she established her name, she decided to write a book right away.
“I’m passionate about teaching somebody to go for it themselves and achieve the same quality. A lot of chefs are very secretive about their recipes. Hence, the recipes die when the chefs retire. Similarly, my aunt and grandma were amazing cooks and bakers but most of their recipes are lost, because they have never been written down. I don’t want recipes to die, I want them to be handed down and live on so that more people can enjoy them.”
Social Media and Publishing
As Alaine is a blogger turned author, I asked her about the importance of social media for new authors. “A lot of published authors don’t have any social media accounts, they are busy writing their books.”, Alaine says half-jokingly. Due to the rise of social media, we see a lot of people who built up a following online and then sold their first book to their established audience. But Alaine prefers a face-to-face approach which is supported by social media.
For fellow bloggers and entrepreneurs, Alaine recommends to use social media platforms as support to your own website rather than making them the main focus. Platforms like Instagram or Pinterest can take away your content and sometimes are not very beneficial for website traffic. Alaine advises to own your content. She uses Instagram to promote her book and get people interested in the related events.
“In our digital world, people like to put a name to your face. We are always behind the lens of social media and we never know the person fully. For me, it is about meeting people and taking time for them. Just like the fika-concept. We are so connected but at the same time disconnected in so many ways. I’ve connected to many like-minded people via social media and many ended up supporting my events. It’s nice when we finally get to meet in person. If I promote my book in person, people see I wrote it. It speaks volumes and these human-to-human interactions can’t be automated.”
Alaine pointed out that it is crucial to be careful about what we share on social media. It is not necessary to overshare – the world does not need to know every part of us. “Instagram has warped everybody’s sense of reality. People think I am constantly on the road even though I stopped travelling extensively to write my book. On Instagram, you pick the best content and the persona you want people to see. This does not necessarily correspond to our daily lives.”
Alaine’s recipes are a manifestation of her exposure to different countries and cultures. She took the basic chokladbollar and expanded it with flavours from the many places she called her home. For her second book, she plans to focus even more on a cultural and global take. She is also thinking about expanding her vegan recipes (all her current recipes can already be made vegan substituting with nut butters or coconut oil) and even a new take on energy balls. She also wants to focus on cakes out of the chokladbollar mixture since all her recipes can be made into whole cakes. These easy no-bake-cakes would be perfect for busy mums who do not have much time but need something for bake-sales at schools.
Alaine Handa is an adult “Third Culture Kid” who currently calls Sweden and Singapore her homes. She has studied dance at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and hospitality management at Les Roches International School of Hospitality in Switzerland.
Her book “In Search of the Best Swedish Chokladbollar: A Southeast Asian Falls in Love with Fika” is available via her website for signed copies, The English Bookshop in Sweden, The Moon bookshop and Fika café in Singapore, Books for cooks in London, and every major online retailers worldwide such as Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, Waterstones, Adlibris, Apple Books, Kobo, etc.
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Pictures courtesy of Alaine Handa, unless otherwise indicated.
All information as of the date of publishing/updating . We cannot accept responsibility for the correctness or completeness of the data, or for ensuring that it is up to date. Based on the personal experience of Elisabeth Steiger, no fees were received.