Adjusting to a New World Through Stories of the Old

Last year I got involved with a project to raise awareness of breast cancer in the Asian American community in the greater Boston area. It was a project that taught me many lessons, one of them being how much I have to learn about communicating across cultural boundaries. I am not the queen that I once thought I was! One of the arms of the project was designed to have breast cancer survivors from the Asian community share their stories – their stories of diagnosis, treatment, and ultimately survival. It was a powerful and compelling piece. Through bearing witness and sharing their stories, these women not only helped others, but healed themselves.

This same approach can be a powerful tool to cross-cultural adjustment – something I have worked through, talked about, lectured on and cried about. Cross-cultural adaptation and adjustment are critical to transitioning between worlds.

I am more and more certain that part of adjusting to a new country, a new world, is being able to tell stories of the old world.  I believe that the more we are able to share our stories, the quicker we come to see our new surroundings as places that we can make work. Just as the women who are living as breast cancer survivors become empowered through their stories, I passionately believe the same can happen with immigrants, refugees and third culture kids.

When we moved to the United States after three years in Pakistan and seven years in Egypt, we came with a lot of stories. We had birthed and raised five kids on three continents. We had swum in the Red Sea and picnicked by the Pyramids; we had traveled to Istanbul, and lunched in the Plaka in Greece; we had cocktails with ambassadors and shared bread with refugees. All of those stories were consolidated into our 26 suitcases as we moved to a house with the address 2 Main Street. It doesn’t get more quintessentially American.

But behind the Victorian house on Main Street was a family whose stories didn’t go away, they were still there, but the listeners were few – it felt too much to ask of a provincial place where most had known each other for generations. We were the outsiders.

Into that world came friends who understood our need and listened to our stories. They ate curry with us and challenged my view that no one raised in the west could make a good curry by showing up with one of the best Thai curries I have yet to eat; they loved us and brought us gently into their world. And as we were brought into their world, we began relaxing and realizing that we were accepted with all our stories and all our idiosyncratic quirks picked up from years of living in different cultural contexts.

Cultural brokers they were. They bridged the gaps of understanding and made us welcome. I began to learn that you don’t have to experience everything to be able to empathize and listen. And as I grew in comfort I no longer had to announce to the world before they had asked “I’m not from here you know!”

The more I hear from immigrants, refugees and third culture kids, the more convinced I become that communicating their stories is a critical piece of learning to live effectively in their passport countries. They have a lifetime of experiences that, when boxed up for fear of misunderstanding, will result in depression and deep pain.  For a third culture kid to tell a group of friends that they came down with chicken pox on the plane from Greece to Turkey is not boasting – it’s life. (True.Story)

So what about your world? What role has the telling of stories played? Where have you served as a cultural broker and been willing to both listen and re-tell the stories of those who live between worlds? Or where have you had a cultural broker – someone who entered into your world, allowed you to tell your stories, and helped you move a fraction closer to being able to live in a world that felt foreign?

Would love to hear what role both stories and cultural brokers played so please share in the comment section!

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7 thoughts on “Adjusting to a New World Through Stories of the Old

  1. Lots to think about here! I find I can often keep my stories hidden away inside of me, for fear that if I bring them out, someone will trample on them (metaphorically speaking!), not realising how precious they are to me. Really thankful for “safe” people who handle my stories with care and hope I can be that person for others!

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    1. Oh so true! So often we end up with a hard experience when we tell our stories that it makes us hesitant to share again. Those ‘safe’ people are such a gift. My desire too is to be that safe person for others, someone who will treat their stories with care.

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  2. Just came from my ESL class so I have to comment. Teaching English to new arrivals, whether visiting scholars, wives of grad students or immigrants is the perfect venue for becoming a cultural broker. I love to hear their stories: a Japanese student married to a man from China. They met when she spent a semester abroad in China from her University in Japan. The next year she discovered that he had transferred into that very university – following her? Probably. I asked where the wedding was. It was in China because he is his parents’ only child, and so his wedding was a really big deal. “But,” she said, “my mother had a big party for us when we came back to Tokyo.”
    In Pakistan older missionaries were often cultural brokers, but perhaps more so, language teachers. So much of culture is bound up in language. Getting acquainted with neighbors was crucial. With young children, I couldn’t go wandering around much. When I grew older in Pakistan, and was responsible for helping to orient younger newcomers to the language and culture, I tried to match them with a language teacher of similar age and the same sex – really important for single women. Sorry this is so long – too.many.stories!

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    1. I thought I had left a comment to this. This was so good. Should be a blog post of its own. It must have been so huge for you when you first began understanding and being able to use idioms in Sindhi and then to watch newcomers do the same. When I saw Rod Black in Pakistan when Carol and I went, listening to his urdu and Sindhi was a joy – he is So Good. And clearly enjoys it so much.
      Re: your Japanese student – have you seen any pictures of the wedding?

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