Some Ramblings on Life, Loss of Ideals, and Culture Stripping

I arrive back to Rania in the rain. The mountains along the road from Erbil to Rania have changed from dusty brown to lush green. They are beautiful. Rivers are rushing with muddy water, an indication that it has rained for some days, and the sun is seemingly lost behind clouds.

It’s hard to believe that this lush land is the same one that we arrived to in early September. Gone is the dust and brown of summer, replaced by vivid shades of green with snow capped mountains in the distance.

Long hours of power outages accompany the rain and we sit on a couch, huddled in our robes sipping spicy, turmeric tea. It’s not as romantic as it might seem. Flickers of discontent are below the surface and I try hard to focus on the positive.

I bake a cinnamon tea ring and the rich scent is a spark of hope until I realize the bottom has burnt. The dim light from a candle wasn’t enough to see if it had cooked long enough and I kept it in the oven too long. The result was as disappointing as you might imagine.

Along with that we are facing some difficult relationship problems and it makes us want to curl up and isolate. Sometimes nothing works out and that’s the honest truth. When everything seems to go against you in a cross-cultural context you begin to question everything.

The rumblings of discontent stir and then boil. As the electricity stays off and we have no hot water for the fifth day in a row, those rumblings erupted and boiled over the pot. We huddled in our living room as I write an email to see if someone could help us. They could and they did. Within 24 hours we had electricity, we had someone to come and fix some other things that were broken and friends brought us over a kerosene heater to take the chill out of the air when the electricity went off again.

Independence and self-sufficiency are all-American values and in many ways they aren’t very good ones. The idea of “do by self” creates a lot of loneliness and defeats the idea of community. We are in a position that could lead to great loneliness and we are more American than we thought when it comes to trying to do it alone or letting our needs be known.

Along with that are reminders of what we left behind. We came from strong church, work, and friend communities – communities that would give and come alongside us, that challenged us to open our hearts and homes to those around us. In our move to Kurdistan, we left those behind. We have been given much in terms of hospitality and genuine friendship, but it takes a long time to grow an old friend, and we haven’t been here a long time. We are also in a place of need. We don’t know things about living here. We constantly need help. We are two adults who are like children when it comes to our understanding of cultural norms in Kurdistan. We would love to invite people to our home, but it’s small and people have bluntly told us that they wouldn’t come anyway. Instead, we accept invitation after invitation without giving back.

Here’s the thing: We have been stripped of our ideals at every level. 

What does all this mean? Those reading may immediately cry “culture shock”. But I think some of this is not just culture shock – it’s what writer Rachel Pieh Jones calls “culture stripping”. She describes it well in an essay at A Life Overseas, and I quote some of it here as a reminder to me:

Culture stripping begins the moment you touch the earth in this new place. It doesn’t stop. Ever. Not even when you return to your passport country. Culture stripping forever changes who you are.

Culture stripping is the slow peeling back of layers and layers of self. You give up pork. You give up wearing blue jeans. You give up holidays with relatives. And those are the easy things. Your ideas about politics and faith and family, your sense of humor and taste in clothes, the books you read, evolve and change. Even, potentially, your outlook on spirituality.

You have little instinctive protective layers between you and the world. Buffers like fluency, shared history, family, no longer buoy you. You are learning, but you will never be local. And so you also are stripped of the idealized image of yourself as a local.

This also hurts, but it is a good, purposeful pain. 

Kind of like Eustace in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He was turned into a dragon and failed to get rid of the scales on his own but Aslan comes.

“The very first tear he made was so deep and I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.”

These words from Rachel reveal my heart, they reveal what I think is happening under the surface of all that feels hard. In so many ways I hate it. I hate what it reveals about me, I hate that I am not stronger, better, kinder. But in other ways, it reveals truth, and I want truth. I don’t want to live a lie. I want to grow, learn, and move forward even when it is hard. I want to lean into the discomfort. 

As Rachel says, this stripping is not a one and done event. It is like the long journey in the same direction – you keep on going because every once in a while you see a glimpse of yourself without the dragon skin, and that glimpse is so worth it.

So – to you who are on this same journey, a journey of culture stripping and cleansing, of getting rid of our cultural dragon skin, may we share the non-idealized versions of ourselves. These stripped and humbled versions that are vulnerable are ultimately far more useful than the ones we try so hard to cultivate.

I write this as I hear the evening call to prayer. The rain and gloom continue outside, but inside there is warmth and healing. A bit of the dragon skin has been peeled but there’s more to come. For now I sit, grateful for the stripping.

“Why?” – On One ‘Why’ Question a Day

“Really?”

I raised my eyebrows as I looked at my husband. “You’re going to waste your one ‘why’ question on this?”

“Doesn’t count!” he said emphatically!

“Does too!” I replied.

“Does not!”

We stood there like two children in the middle of the dusty road in back of our apartment, the afternoon shadows of the mountains creating shade despite no vegetation of any kind. A lone chicken had begun to cross the road toward us, only to confront my husband midway, squawk indignantly, and turn back to the other side.

The ‘why’ question was the age old question with a Kurdish twist: “Why did the Kurdish chicken cross the road?”

It was this that I responded to.

We moved here six weeks ago. After a whirlwind of closing the doors, windows, and chapters on one life, we traveled thousands of miles to a completely new one with little that links it to the old besides us.

We could not be more delighted to be making our home here in Kurdistan. We are in a small city that has welcomed us in wholly and completely and we are grateful. But because we wear our own cultures like body suits, tightly fitted to our form, there are times when we are assaulted by cultural differences, some big and some small.

In an essay “Living Well Where You Don’t Belong” writer Joann Pittman walks through a series of tips for expats who are learning to live well in their adopted countries. It is an excellent article, and well worth keeping bookmarked, but the best advice of all is unforgettable. She gives a numeric limit to the number of ‘why’ questions you are allowed to ask a day. The number is one. That’s right. One ‘why’ question per day. And I will tell you – it is a life saver. It is a marriage saver. It is a friendship saver. And it is genius advice.

She says this: “One of my favorite quirky Hong Kong movies is a mad-cap adventure called “Peking Opera Blues.” The movie itself is entertaining, but the poorly translated “Chinglish” subtitles add to the humor. In one scene, the beautiful damsel enters a garage and finds it littered with dead bodies (the mafia had just paid a visit), and utters (according to the subtitles) ‘WHY IS IT LIKE THIS?’ Those of us who live cross-culturally find this question on the tips of their tongues pretty much all the time. We look are around and see so much that is unfamiliar and confusing and want to shout WHY IS IT LIKE THIS? If the question is driven by a true desire to understand, then it is fine; however, most of the time, it simply means “it’s not like this back home, so it shouldn’t be like this here,” and excessive use of the question just opens the door for a rant. So…make a rule. Only one ‘why’ question per day.”

One ‘why’ question a day.

Think of how many times you ask why in your home culture. Chances are that it is far more than you are aware of. Now think about being removed thousands and thousands of miles from your home culture, and being in a culture where you don’t know the language, the rules, or the culture. Yet still – one ‘why’ a day.

So if I use it poorly, I’m done. Like “Why did it take us three weeks to get our residence permit, and it only took that other expat one day?” No. NO. NO. Bad why question. Bad. Because who knows? And does it really matter? These governmental procedures are way, way out of our control.

It just happened that way, and don’t worry about it. We now have our residence permits. We have our passports. We are happy.

Here’s another ‘why’ question with no answer: “Why did they put our western toilet over a Turkish toilet so it rocks back and forth?” Also not a good ‘why’ question. We will never learn the answer to this.

“Why are you charging us an extra five thousand dinar for our mint lemonade?”

Answer: “Because you had the nuts.”

“But we didn’t ask for the nuts.”

“Okay. Then we won’t charge you the extra money.”

Now that question was a good why question! That question had an answer.

“Why are all the tire stores together?”

Bad. They just are. You might just as well say “Why aren’t the tire stores together in our home country?”

The good ‘why’ questions are the ones that help you better understand your host culture, and thus be able to enjoy and adapt and live effectively within that host culture.

The not so good ‘why’ questions are the ones that are often based on cultural superiority. The ‘we do things better where I come from, so why don’t you change your ways to be like ours?’. This may be painting broad strokes on why questions, but my experience tells me that it is not. When we learn what is behind a particular way of doing things, we are better able to understand it, even if we don’t agree with it.

If we limit ourselves to one ‘why’ question a day, we take ourselves away from constantly questioning and instead put ourselves into a posture of learning.

Let’s face it – there are some places and situations where we could ask ‘why’ all day long. I just left government service in Massachusetts. Believe me, government and state institutions around the world are not that different. There are always too many employees to be efficient. There is always too much bureaucracy, and there are always too many leaders who don’t care. This was true in Massachusetts, and it’s true here. I wasted a lot of time at my job in Massachusetts asking ‘why’. Why, for ten years, did I have no support to go to continuing education events? Why was there so much bureaucracy? Why. Why. Why. I should have limited myself to one ‘why’ question a day while I was there.

Instead I waited until I came to Kurdistan. And in Kurdistan I am enjoying life so much – partly because I have limited myself to one ‘why’ question a day.

So people – One ‘why’ a day! If you’ve crossed cultures it’s a necessity. If you haven’t crossed cultures, try it anyway! I guarantee that your life will change!

On Waiting…

Jenni Gate - Waiting

We are sitting in a government office in Suleimaniyah (commonly called Suli) and we are waiting. We left Rania at seven in the morning. The sun had already welcomed the day and a beautiful breeze accompanied us on our walk to the university.

The road between Rania and Suli begins as a one lane, heavily trafficked highway. Even early in the morning cars, trucks, and lorries are moving fast. Traffic in this part of the world is not for the fainthearted. There are few rules and those who observe them are much more likely to get hurt than the rest of us. Until we reach Dukan, a small city beside a winding river, the road is narrow and crowded with little room to pass. At Dukan it widens and becomes much more comfortable for those in the back seat of an old Toyota pickup truck.

We get to the residency office in Suli and this is where the waiting begins. People are scurrying here and there, some of them lawyers or handlers, others are people like us who don’t have a clue what they are doing. What we do know is that we need to be here and we need to behave. We are guests in a country and mama always said that guests need to behave. The busy looking people have a lot of paper and a lot of passports in their care, and it matters what they say and what they do with the paper and the passports. They are our go betweens. While we must perfect the art of waiting, they must perfect the art of acting and doing. They understand both the language and the process, and we desperately need them.

Black numbers mark small cubicles where government workers, separated by glass, interview or authoritatively stamp approval or disapproval on official looking papers. This is Kurdistan, so the number of people smiling far exceeds the number who look grumpy. I love this and feel an affinity with Kurds in their generally optimistic outlook on life. They have much to teach the world about waiting and about hope.

There is a lot of waiting in this building. My colleague makes the insightful observation that knowing you are waiting for something automatically changes the quality of time you have. If I suddenly had this long stretch of time at home, I would be delighted. There would be so many things I could do and so much possibility created by knowing I have extra time. Not so when I am forced to wait. Suddenly I feel paralyzed and can’t do anything.

Just before we left Massachusetts we ended up at the Division of Motor Vehicles, non-affectionately called the DMV by those in the know. The line for the DMV went out the door and down the hallway to a nearby Target store. It was a nightmare. In any country, in any language, government bureaucracy looks similar. What changes is whether you know what’s going on or not, otherwise the lack of ability to control what goes on is exactly the same. And world-wide the approach is similar with these four rules:

  • Be as nice as possible without seeming like you are trying to butter your way onto the bureaucracy toast
  • Have just the appropriate degree of assertiveness
  • Say please and thank you
  • Whenever possible make people smile.

In any country and in any language there is another universal truth: the truth of waiting. Waiting. Suspended between. Not sure when you’ll be able to leave or if you will leave with what you came for.

We wait. Always we wait. It’s a universal experience, one that will not be over until our final breath. Airport terminals, hospitals, and government office buildings are just a few of the spaces where we live in the limbo of the “not yet arrived.”

Sometimes we wait patiently and other times we are impatient. Sometimes we wait with a good sense of humor while other times we are grumpy. Sometimes we wait with anticipation and other times we wait with dread.

While I am waiting for a residency permit, you may be suspended between a blood test and a diagnosis; a job interview and a job offer; a visa application and a stamp of approval; a pregnancy test and a definitive little pink line; an abnormal mammogram and a biopsy; an offer on a house and an acceptance of the offer; a child who is far away and their homecoming; a journey or question of faith and an answer.

May you know the song of the waiting one. May you be able to rest despite your nerves and your tears; may you be able to trust against the odds; may your imagination be enfolded in grace; may your heart rest in the knowledge that in all the waiting, there is one who waits with you.

May you know grace and peace in the margins of waiting. 

“Above all, we wait for God. We move forward in faith, only to be stopped in transit. So we wait. It’s not time. We sit tight. There are dozens of ways that God moves in an orchestrates our plans, our movements. We may never know the reason for the waiting – they may elude us until the day we die and we’re on the other side of eternity.” 

For waiting is nothing new to the work of God.

“And so I wait [in a government building], thinking of this God who reaches through time and place and asks us to be okay in the in-between, to trust his character and his love. Giving thanks to a God who is utterly trustworthy and completely unpredictable, a God who knows all about waiting as he daily waits for his children to finally get it.” from “Mumbai Airport” in Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging

A Life Overseas – Failed Missionaries and “But God”….

loser-3096225_1920

Readers – I’m at A Life Overseas today talking about failure. I would love to have you join me!


When my husband and I left what was supposed to be a three-year missions commitment in Pakistan after one year, we were angry, hurt, and deeply wounded. We didn’t leave Pakistan, but we did leave a missions community that I had been a part of since birth. This community had raised me, loved me well, and shown me a lot of grace. Though there had been times of deep pain, loneliness, and misunderstanding in my childhood, I had been nurtured and loved in extraordinary ways, and those were the memories that I held to.

I had failed at the one thing that I thought I would be great at.

We moved to the capital city, Islamabad, and my husband began working for a USAID program. Pregnant with our second child, I stayed home with our little girl and began to meet other expatriates in the community. We ended up making deep friendships at our international church, and on the surface we were doing well.

A Time of Cynicism

But the wounds of failure went deep and soon gave birth to cynicism and anger toward the entire missionary community. “They” had hurt us.
“They” were hypocrites. “They” were spiritually superior. “They” made stuff up. “They” embellished facts to get money.

WE however? WE were real. WE were genuine. WE admitted failure. WE lived off our own hard-earned money, thank you very much. WE loved Pakistanis more than “they” did.

It was exhausting. Because we all know that bitterness and hatred are a bitter poison to drink. And while cynicism, when analyzed, can be a tool for discernment, we didn’t analyze our feelings. Because that would have taken work. Yes, we were hurt, but we were also lazy. We did what we had always challenged others not to do – we made broad, sweeping judgments and used labels. Ultimately, labels are lazy.

The Problem

We desperately wanted to cut ourselves off completely from missionaries, but here was one of the problems: My entire family was involved in missions in some capacity. My parents were career missionaries. I had brothers who were connected with missions in tent-making roles. I had other brothers who were pastors, or on missions committees. And then there were our friends around the world, working in some amazing, quietly world-changing projects. A Christian Ashram in Varanasi; medical work in various parts of the world; work in translation and education – people working in these projects couldn’t just be labeled, because they were our family and friends and we did believe that their work mattered, that they mattered. There were times when we longed to wear the title of missionary again. We had been schooled well, but incorrectly, that missionaries were a level above average. We struggled, feeling like we had fallen out of favor with an exclusive club. Sometimes it left us angry and cut off from connection with like-minded people. Other times it was a relief.

But God in His gracious big picture view knew that it wasn’t the title or the place for us.

Read the rest of the piece here. 


An East-West Conversation

sign-1254874_1920

“So – your parents chose your husband for you.” 

The women speaking to me was not posing a question; she was making a statement. I took a breath, not sure of how to respond. No, my parents did not choose my husband. Cliff and I met in Chicago and realized after a short time that we wanted to share our lives together. We traveled to Pakistan where he could meet my parents and ask my father for his blessing. He did this on his first night in Pakistan, a country he had never visited, after going into the crowded bazaar with my father. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. After all, I was fully at home in Pakistan and it was deeply satisfying to be back in the country introducing the one who I loved to my parents.

As I think back on the trip and the engagement, I realize how brave Cliff was; how willing he was to move into unknown territory and conquer it. Just days later we celebrated our munganee (engagement) in my parents’ yard in Shikarpur, Pakistan with Sunni, Shia, and Ahmediyya Muslims, Hindus, and Christians. There we served hot, spicy samosas and pakoras and sweet gulab jamuns and barfi. Fragrant garlands of roses and sparkly garlands of money were placed around our necks as we celebrated with a community that had hospitably welcomed my family and the entire missionary community.  It was a celebration to remember.

But I didn’t know how to relay all this to the conservative Muslim woman with whom I was speaking. We shared many similarities – but in this area, our experiences were different.

For as long as I can remember, I have analyzed and thought about both eastern and western traditions as they relate to love, marriage, and friendship. I have often felt the West displays a cultural imperialism and ethnocentric attitude toward some of the values and views of the East, namely arranged marriages and the concepts of extended family and their involvement in one’s life.

An Uncommon Correspondence is a book that is described as an “East-West Conversation on Friendship, Intimacy, and Love”. Anyone who has friendships that span cultural boundaries would not only appreciate, but also inhale this book. I found myself grabbing a pen so I could underline those phrases and paragraphs that put words together in perfect packages, like presents to be unwrapped by my heart and mind.

The book is series of letters written between Ivy George, a professor who is Indian by birth but living and working in the United States and Margaret Masson, an adult third culture kid, also a professor, who lives and works in England. The correspondence spans one year — from 1989 to 1990. While the book is primarily about love and relationships, more specifically a look at romantic love versus arranged marriages, it brings up the many cultural trappings that surround those two areas; values, expectations, and cultural views integral to how they play out. The result is a unique and readable discourse on the dynamics of love and relationships both sides of the globe.

“How deeply we are written by our culture” exclaims Margaret at one point, as she recognizes that just because she can analyze her reaction to her experiences with romantic love doesn’t mean she is free from falling into the cultural “pitfalls” that are part of the package. And later in the same letter: “It seems that neither of our cultures has got it quite right. But I’m sure that each could learn something from the other. Even if it is simply the acknowledgement, the realization that ours is not the only way, that there are alternatives to what our cultures seem to conspire to convince us is the ‘inevitable’ the ‘natural’.”

Ivy left India to study in the United States, partly to escape the pressure and path to an arranged marriage. But as she observes her peers and others in the United States, the concept of romantic love, carefully cultivated in her life through novels and myth, is shattered. She sees the broken pieces scattered through stories and on faces of those she meets. In an early letter to Margaret, Ivy says “While I was horrified at my prospects as a married woman in India, I was disappointed at my prospects as a single woman in the U.S” Ivy’s observations of “dating and mating” as she describes it fill her with anxiety and fear. “Alone as I feel” she says “I am still trying to understand ‘loving and losing’ and the worth of it all. The anxieties are deep, the stakes too high. While I came to the West believing in ‘choice’ for one’s life, I am struck by the absence of it. What’s so different from India? Thinking about it as a Christian sheds little further light on this. I can see the workings of God’s grace perhaps, but little perception of God’s will in these matters. There’s far too much human manipulation….”

As far as opinions on physical contact and touch between the sexes, Ivy learns to greatly appreciate some of the traditions she grew up with in India that stressed no touch until after marriage. “After living in the west so long I can see the importance of this value in my tradition when I see how many hands, lips, bodies, and beds have been shared before one chooses to marry. Surely such serial giving of oneself has an impact on so much of one’s present and future being!”

An area that comes up in the correspondence is close same-sex friendships. Friendships that are not sexual but intimate and life-giving. Both women are concerned that the west has not given enough credence to the importance of intimacy in these friendships. They fear there is no longer any vocabulary for friendships like these in the west; that “all of our longing for intimacy must be focused on a sexual partner”. This is contrasted with the deep and intimate female friendships that Ivy experienced growing up in India.

This book was freeing and I found myself nodding and speaking to it as I would to a person.  It gives words to so much of what I have thought, seen, and felt.

When my friend asked me about who chose my husband, I hadn’t yet read this book. In retrospect I see many similarities between her experience with an arranged marriage and mine. Though I chose my husband, it was critical to us that family be apart of the journey, that Cliff ask for my parents’ blessing, and that we recognize family as central to surviving and thriving in a marriage. It was also important to recognize that part of the way we show love is through commitment and sticking with a person through the awful and the beautiful.

But since that time, I’ve continued to ask these questions: Can we find a better way? Can we develop an approach to love, marriage, and intimacy that transcends both cultures? Because though my heart bends East, I think we can learn from each other.

The book  and my many conversations through the years challenge me to think deeper and wider about love and friendship across oceans and cultures. As Margaret says in the introduction, hearing a different perspective can be disturbing, but it can also be profoundly liberating.

Imagine for a Moment…

img_0445

“Rootlessness — the implied weakness of it — is treated as a failure. That is plainly schizophrenic: In a world where one in seven people is displaced, the failure must be of planetary scale. It belongs to all of us. This is a century of dislocation not merely of body and home, but also of empathy, dignity, compassion.” [Refugees Don’t Need Your Pity by Anna Badkhen]

Imagine with me for a moment. 

Imagine that you have spent the last seven years in a refugee camp. You live in a tent with nine other family members. A water truck comes by twice a day and you make sure you and your family are there with your water containers, because water is life. Food bags are distributed once a month and give you lentils, oil, powdered milk, rice, sugar, and tea. At the same time you are given a bag with soap and detergent.

You registered your family with UNHCR when you first arrived, and the last two years you have been to so many interviews that you have lost count. You have been asked if you have ever trained child soldiers; if you’ve ever sold your body for sex; if you have ever communicated with a terrorist–so many questions, questions that embarass you. You have gone through medical exams where you were probed and prodded, where blood was taken over and over for laboratory tests, where you comforted your screaming three year-old with a soft “shh,shh,shh” desperately trying to hold down their tiny arm so blood could be taken from an almost absent vein.

And then one day, the word came. Your papers have been approved. You are going to America. You, your parents, your spouse, and your five children– nine of you in total. The next weeks are a blur. The camp has been your home for seven years. Your youngest two children were born here. You know everything about the residents, you have lived in close quarters for a long time. You can hardly believe that this is happening.

Stories periodically circulate around the camp about America. “My Uncle lives in Detroit,” says one of your neighbors. “Please say ‘hello’ to him.” “My cousin says that children don’t respect their parents,” says another. “Children run off and do all sorts of things.” You are quite sure that they are simply envious of your lot.

The day comes. You’ve never been on an airplane, and it smells funny and feels slightly claustrophobic. You feel like you are in a dream. Can this really be true?

“Everything is held together with stories,” the writer Barry Lopez once said. “That is all that is holding us together, stories and compassion.” But for all of our new accessibility, we know each other’s stories no better than before.

Hours later, you arrive, exhausted and beyond emotion. But there is more to come.

Your family waits for a long time in an immigration line, and you are grateful that there is someone who is helping you who speaks English. There are other refugees with you, but they are not from your camp. You don’t know them, but conversation comes easy when there is shared experience.

25 of you pile into a bus. The noises of crying babies, confused adults, and talkative children mix together – an orchestra of humanity.

You arrive at a brown building. There is a door that moves around and around, but you’re not sure how it actually works. So you go for the safer option–a double door to the side.

It feels like hours before you get to your room – a ‘suite’ they call it.  The space looks huge. There are beds and a table and chairs. You’re told you will be staying there for a few days, just until an apartment is arranged.

But as you look around, the confusion only continues. There is shiny silver and ceramic and a bright flourescent light. The person in charge has been joined by others. They are all friendly, but so loud.

“This is a machine that takes your bread and cooks it.” You are dumbfounded. You learn later that it is called a toaster.

“This is a bathtub.” “This is a refrigerator.” “This is how you turn the lights on and off.” “This is an electric stove – DON’T let your children put their hands on these round things! They get very hot. Your children will burn their hands.”

You want to cry, but you don’t want to seem ungrateful. Finally, they all leave.  All of them. They have left a cell phone with a number on it. You can call if you need anything, anything, they insist. “Welcome to America!” Their smiles are genuine, their voices are still loud.

Your youngest two children have fallen asleep on the floor, your older ones are rushing through the rooms. To them, it’s all new. it’s all exciting. Your mom and dad are rapidly fingering their prayer beads, dazed looks in their eyes. Your husband has the loud voice he gets when he feels out of control.

It takes another hour to get everyone settled, and when you go to look at your sleeping children, you see that they have taken blankets off the bed and all five are huddled together on the floor, a tangle of legs and arms.

You feel strangely comforted by this. Somehow, you know that if you stick together, a tangle of arms and legs, heads and bodies, you will somehow make it.

In fact, it might be the only way to survive. 

“Unless the world finds compassion for this new communality, learns to make sense of one another’s voices, its humanity will perish.”

Note: All quotes are from Refugees Don’t Need Your Pity by Anna Badkhen

http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/12/checking-in-to-a-new-life-in-america/?_r=0

Note: This piece was inspired by the Checking in to a New Life in America as well as by conversations with refugees and resettlement organizations.

On Welcoming the Third Culture Kid

passport with quote

The last week in August is upon us, and lamentations of “how quickly the summer has gone” can be heard all around.

It’s the time of year when college towns begin to see old students return and many new ones come in. Among those old and new are those who have lived as third culture kids, those who blend in with the crowd, even as their insides scream “other”.

Once I was one of them. I entered into my college years with hidden fears and insecurities, many of them because my insides and outsides were at odds.

Here are some things I want to say to those who are welcoming and working with third culture kids who are entering their university years:

DOs

  • Let them talk about their past. They have left so much, let them talk about what they have left.
  • Ask probing questions
  • Take them out to a restaurant that may serve foods from the country(ies) they called home
  • Seek to understand through the lens of cross-cultural adjustment. Don’t assume that they identify with their passport countries.
  • Offer space for them to process their grief
  • Encourage them to connect and find their safe spaces
  • Seek to understand some of the losses that they have experienced
  • Help them to do it afraid. What do I mean by that? Tara Livesay in a blog post called Do it Afraid talks about feeling afraid, but doing things anyway. She gives the illustration of her son Isaac learning to walk, how even when he’d left his “wall of safety” and walked into her arms, he would still get afraid. But he did it anyway. Tara says this: “Practicing doing scary things doesn’t really make me perfect at it. I’m still afraid sometimes. I don’t know how to stop being afraid completely and consistently. I’m not finding ‘perfection’ as I continually practice facing both my rational and irrational fears.I only know that sometimes – I have to do it afraid.” So help them to do it afraid.
  • Help them “remember rightly.” We TCKs tend to go two ways with our memories and stories – either we remember them as perfect, or we dismiss them as absolutely horrible. It can be difficult for us to remember rightly. In my recent trip to Iraq, I was speaking to the art therapist about stories, and remembering our stories correctly. She said that as we tell our stories over and over, we have a tendency to embellish. Either we make them better than they were, or worse. The important thing is to remember them rightly; seeing our past with clear vision so that we can move forward in peace.
  • Challenge them on any visible or invisible bigotry. Yes, TCKs can be bigots. See Exploring TCK Bigotry for more on this.
  • Learn to speak the language of ‘elsewhere.’ It’s not that hard. There’s no grammar or syntax involved and there is no morphology. Prefixes, suffixes, or infixes are absent. You don’t have to worry about past tense, or present perfect or superlatives. All of us have spoken the language of elsewhere at some point – whether as a tourist or as a resident. This is the language that reaches across the divide and attempts to understand the one who is “other.”

DON’Ts

  • Tell them to “get over it already!” Instead pose honest challenges to them like: “What would it take for you to live more effectively in your passport country?” or “Western countries are experiencing more and more diversity. What might your TCK background offer to the community?”
  • Deny their experiences by saying “Everyone feels insecure in college. Everyone misses home.” Denying the experience of the TCK denies their life.
  • Let them wallow. There is a difference between honest grieving and wallowing in self-pity. The one heals, the other destroys.
  • Put a time limit on their adjustment and their grieving. We are all different. We grow and adjust at different rates. So don’t put time limits on the TCK. Allow them room even as you continue to love and challenge them.

I’ll close with this thought from Nina Sichel, author and adult TCK:

“So when she comes to you, don’t ask her where she’s from, or what’s troubling her.  Ask her where she’s lived.  Ask her what she’s left behind.  Open doors.  And just listen.  Give her the time and space and permission she needs to remember and to mourn.  She has a story — many stories.  And she needs and deserves to be heard, and to be healed, and to be whole.” from The Morning Zen: The Trouble with Third Culture Kids

Readers – what would you add to this list of dos and don’ts? 

Blogger’s Note: Elizabeth Trotter writes an excellent article using Physics to explain Third Culture Kids. Take a look at it below!

For more essays on third culture kids, take a look at Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging as well as the newly released Passages Through Pakistan – An American Girl’s Journey of Faith. 

When You’re Told to Pull up Your Bootstraps but You’re Not Wearing Any Shoes

rubber-boots-

It’s not often our expertise but the exploration of our own suffering that enables us to be of real assistance.That’s what allows us to touch another human being’s pain with compassion instead of with fear and pity.We have to invite it all. It is an intimacy with our own inner life that enables us to form an empathetic bridge to the other person.” (Ostaseski, 2008)

The words stung. “You need to just pull up your boot straps and get on with life. I mean how long is it going to take you to be okay living here?”

A hard slap across my tender face would have been more welcome. We had moved from Egypt three years before, a difficult move by any standards.  I thought I was doing well. I had landed a job; my children were doing well in school, and top of their classes. They were acting in school plays and had friends and confidantes. We were involved in the school and the community.

In a matter of seconds, none of that was enough.

I needed to do more. Be more.

But I couldn’t. There was nothing more I could do. I was at the end of my resources. We lived in a small town that was 10 minutes from the ocean. Our house was a magical 165 year old Victorian home with over 26 windows and enough space for 5 kids to sprawl. On the surface we were living the American dream.

The problem was that we never wanted to live the American dream. We never thought we would buy a house. We never thought my husband would work at Harvard University. We never anticipated the quintessential small town Main street address.

And so every day was learning to live with what was, not what I wanted. The script had been re-written by a Master Author, yet I as one of the characters was not playing my part very well. My resources had failed.

I had no shoes, let alone boots. I couldn’t pull up anything. But I was told to pull up my bootstraps and get on with life.

There are times when being told to pull up your bootstraps helps – but usually you have to be wearing boots for that to work. There are other times when you wish people would look beyond the surface, would see your lack of shoes, and walk beside you – holding your hand, warning you of the rocks and pebbles that are inevitably a part of the journey.

There are times when instead of telling people to pull up their bootstraps we need to buy them shoes; other times when we need to take off our own shoes and walk with them barefoot.

It’s called empathy. 

Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams puts it this way: ”

“Empathy isn’t just remembering to say That must really be hard, it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see….”

I’ve thought about the above encounter many times. It no longer hurts to think about it, instead it is from a past that is covered with grace. But I don’t forget it – because hurts in the past when healed can inform our future, can change the way we relate with others. How often have I looked at others and, instead of entering their pain and asking them their story, expected them to just try harder? How often have I acted as though they needed to pull up their bootstraps and get on with life instead of looking to see if they had any boots?

Every day there are people around us with a story, a life narrative. How we choose to meet them can make all the difference. Will we enter with empathy or with judgment?

*The Empathy Exams” published February 2014 in The Believer

Readers – purchase Between Worlds before December 15 and all proceeds go toward refugees in Turkey! Read reviews below!

Reviews of Between Worlds: 

Picture Source: http://pixabay.com/en/rubber-boots-shoe-old-broken-509967/

Finding My Niche in Law by Jenni Gate

finding your niche map

We kick off the ‘Finding Your Niche‘ series with a writer who is becoming a favorite on Communicating Across Boundaries – Jenni Gate. Jenni is the perfect person to begin this series. Enjoy and please join the conversation through the comments!

Global nomads are very good mediators. Whenever TCKs move into another culture, they become very good, objective observers. They’re like cultural sponges. Those skills translate into ideal requirements for combating racism and advancing social and refugee work.” ~ Norma McCaig, El Paso Times

If I had to do it all over again, I might have put more thought and effort into planning my career path. But in typical TCK fashion, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life after high school.

Being repeatedly uprooted and resettled every few years led me to see a world of endless possibilities. There were so many choices. I wanted to learn everything. I wanted to travel. I wanted to continue to live amongst various cultures. I wanted to help people. I couldn’t settle on a college, and ended up attending three, including one overseas. I wanted to major in art. My parents wanted me to major in business. I compromised by getting an English degree.

After graduation, I married and moved to Alaska. One of my first jobs was as a temporary secretary in a law firm. When the firm got a contract with the municipal Public Defender’s office, it became a full-time job. Soon, I was managing the scheduling, filing, and intake interviews for a heavy case load of DUIs (driving under the influence),prostitution, petty theft, and other misdemeanor cases. When the PD contract came to an end, the law firm asked me to stay on. My case load evolved to include managing felony cases.

The attorney I worked for handled drug cases, DUIs, divorce and custody, probate, personal injury, and murder cases. The most dedicated, brilliant attorney I’ve ever worked with, he was committed to the belief that every individual has a right to counsel. Crazy as it sounds, having grown up as the perpetual outsider, feeling like I was on the fringes of the “in” cliques in every new school, having learned to adapt quickly in each new situation and culture, I found my TCK background helped. I connected with our clients one-on-one, a necessary skill when trying to elicit the details necessary to put on a defense. The ability to relate to people from all walks of life was a definite asset in working with the outcast, the downtrodden, what others would consider the dregs of society. The armed conflict I had experienced in my youth helped me relate with clients who were Veterans.

Every human story has value, and we all share some basic human needs. Observing without judging, and evaluating a situation from various perspectives is an invaluable TCK trait in the legal field.

In time, I trained as a mediator with a community mediation center that worked to resolve community conflicts, parent and adolescent conflict, and to bring juvenile offenders to reconciliation with their victims. Bridging cultures, viewpoints, and opposing positions as a mediator was a natural for a TCK. Juveniles, who were not yet hardened criminals, met face-to-face with the people they victimized, encouraging them to see their victims as people, to step up and take responsibility for the crime committed, and find a path forward. For the individuals and families victimized, it gave them an opportunity also to express emotions not allowed in court, to see the offender as a person, to seek meaningful restitution, and to find a way to put the crime suffered behind them. I was thrilled with our low recidivism rate and proud to be part of a program that worked to steer juveniles back on track and foster positive changes in the community.

Continuing my nomadic ways as an adult, I have lived and worked as a paralegal for nearly 30 years throughout the Pacific Northwest US and England. Today, I work in a small plaintiff’s personal injury law firm that caters to an international clientele. It is a perfect niche for a TCK adult who thrives on diversity, the music of global languages, and the skills required for understanding the cultural needs and considerations of our clients.

The diverse experiences of TCKs, our language skills, flexibility, and ability to relate to people from all walks of life are an asset in the workplace. I still highlight the fact that I graduated from high school in Pakistan on my resumé, and it has always been a topic of conversation in interviews. Emphasize your unique background in your job search, and it will set you apart from the job-seeking crowd.  Do not be afraid to draw on your TCK background in your own career. Our mobile childhoods provided us with valuable qualities for almost any workplace. Good luck finding your niche!

You can read more of Jenni’s work at Nomad Trails and Tales and follow her at Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/NomadTrailsAndTales

Would you like to contribute to the Finding Your Niche series? Take a look here and share your story. 

You Take Yourself With You (And Other Things About Living Overseas)

Airport Check-in

Readers, I’m posting at A Life Overseas today about what does and doesn’t happen when you get on that plane to go overseas.

Here is a preview of a longer version where you can then head over to A Life Overseas to read the rest. 

I’ll never forget the day the call came from the American University in Cairo. It was a Sunday morning and my husband had left for church with our three children. With three kids under four years old, we had our hands full. I had worked the night shift as a nurse and arrived back to the house in time to eat breakfast, hug them, and send them on their way.

I then began the difficult task of getting to sleep. We were in a period of great uncertainty. My husband’s job as an English Teacher had ended at Jacksonville University and the job that we thought we would be going to in Saudi Arabia had fallen through.  My faith was at a low, my body exhausted.

As I lay on my bed, half-asleep, half-awake in the warmth of that August morning, the phone rang. It was an administrator from the American University in Cairo. I don’t remember much about that phone call but the final words she said to me were these: “Tell your husband that his future at the American University in Cairo looks very promising”

Sleep would not come that day. I could hardly wait for my husband to get home. We had dreamed of going to Cairo while dating and the dream had only become stronger. The year in Jacksonville had been difficult – a time of healing, waiting, repentance. And now we were watching miracles unfold to get us to the Middle East.

Two weeks after that phone call we were in Cairo with our youth, our passion, and our three little ones.

And that’s when it got hard. Because there are some important things that we didn’t realize when we were on one side of the pond – the side where churches applauded us and raised prayers on our behalf; the side where Christian fellowship was easy to find and when I was tired I could open up a box of macaroni and cheese for dinner.

Here are some of the things I learned as I moved forward in my new life, creating a home and longing to serve. Read the rest http://www.alifeoverseas.com/you-take-yourself-with-you-and-other-important-things-about-living-overseas/

More Than a Tourist: Living Deeply Across Cultures

I’m honored to have Jody Fernando guest post today at Communicating Across Boundaries. Jody blogs at Between Worldsa blog I highlighted as a favorite new blog that I’ve discovered. It was my brother who first sent me a link to an article she wrote in the fall and that’s all it took to bring me in. The article was called When White People Don’t Know They’re Being White and it provided hard and necessary discussion, evidenced by the fact that it went viral and is still being widely shared across social media sites.  Jody is a beautiful, thoughtful writer providing much-needed perspectives on crossing cultures, racial inequalities, racing biracial kids, and faith. You can read more about Jody at the end of the article.

*****************

More than a tourist

When I first started to cross cultures, there was a distinctly romantic quality to every adventure – fascination with food and language and buildings and transportation and landmarks. I would inhale the smells and sights and textures with wide eyes, captured by the difference they represented. I would wrap my tongue around the words and sounds, attempting to capture some small meaning with my own mouth. Culture captivated me, and I drank it in with every cup of tea I shared.

As time has passed, however, this romantic captivation slowed, and I found that crossing cultures no longer carried the same zing it once did. In fact, it required more energy with each new encounter for I no longer entered ignorant about my own assumptions and inadequacies.  When I enter a new culture these days, it is slower, more observant, less enraptured. I walk carefully and quietly, curious but patient about the new realities I encounter. After nearly half a lifetime of loving across a culture, the exoticism of such differences is being slowly replaced by a simple expectation of normalcy and humanity.

In short, I expect now to find people when I travel – not exotic animals on display in a zoo.  I expect that those people will be fully human, with all sorts of wonderful and terrible qualities within.  I expect that there will be some things I admire deeply, some that make me a bit angry, and some that I will simply never understand.  Rather than try to stereotype a group at large, I try more frequently now to understand individuals.

In light of my personal shift over the years, I was quite eager to read Joseph Shaules’ book A Beginner’s Guide to the Deep Culture Experience in which he writes about the differences between the surface aspects of culture that are more “exotic, artistic, ceremonial, and visible” and the ways that culture subconsciously programs our minds. As I read Shaules’ book, I was struck by how much I could relate to even though I’ve never lived outside of my home country. It reminded me that it’s not always necessarily to leave a homeland to live between worlds, especially in the US.

In a particularly chapter on personal growth and deep culture learning, Shaules outlines specific attitudes that help cross-cultural sojourners develop intercultural sensitivity that I find especially helpful for all of us who live between worlds:

  • Engagement. While tourists may spend their days relaxing at the beach or isolating in museums, learners of deep culture stumble through navigating daily realities and rubbing shoulders, facing higher levels of stress, confusion, and energy because they engage the culture around them, let go of their control, and take chances. They don’t give up even when they make mistakes or fail.

  • Reconciliation. Deep culture learners use the conflict of their contrasting cultures to build connections between all of their worlds. They recognize that while we might adapt to the ways of another place, we always bring pieces of our own identity to the table, and that these pieces remain valuable in any cultural context when presented with humility and flexibility.

  • Inner and outer practice. By maintaining an open and curious attitude about the surface (outer) aspects of culture, deep culture learners grow as they consider the strengths offered by understanding the visible cultural differences in a new culture. At the same time, deep culture learners must also learn to pay close attention to what happens inside (inner) themselves in order to better understand how and why we respond in situations that cause cultural stress.

  • Breaking routines. The first time our notion of cultural normalcy is shaken is hard to forget. For Shaules, it was the discovery of lime and chile potato chips, for me, it was apple Fanta. The shock of discovering a new take on an established routine can be jarring, and when these day-in-day-out routines are interrupted, we’re forced to wake up and notice small realities around us. Breaking these routines on purpose can be one way to increase deep culture learning. Take a different route to work. Eat a new food. Change a service transaction to an engagement with another human being.

  • Planning the journey. Intentionally look for local places to engage cross-culturally. Attend a church outside of your tradition or demographic. Volunteer. Attend events where you are the minority. Make an effort to go local when you travel as well – hit homes instead of hotels. (Shaules’ book offers a great list of organizations that can help with this process.)

  • Language learning. It’s impossible to learn a culture deeply without speaking the language of that culture. Internationally, this obviously means language study either in person or online. For those who belong to the majority culture, however, I’d suggest that this may also mean listening a great deal more than we speak – even in our own language. For even if we speak the same language, we don’t always communicate the same way. As we seek to interact across cultures more deeply, it’s essential to learn the language of those we’re attempting to love.

  • Entry point. Cultivate relationships with people willing to help you navigate a new culture. I have had countless guides along the way – people who have been patient with my questions and willing to help me understand more deeply. Please note that this isn’t a one-time deal, but an on-going relationship. No one will be able to tell the ins-and-outs of cultural learning over a single cup of coffee.

These attitudes are only the tip of the iceberg presented in A Beginner’s Guide to the Deep Culture Experience, and I’m deeply grateful to Shaules for the insight he gives into deepening cultural understanding.  As the worlds shrinks, these are skills we all need, and this book will provide readers ample material for personal reflection and discussion.

Have you read Shaules’ book?  What were your most valuable take-aways?

****************

About the author: Jody Fernando does a lot of living between worlds.  A midwestern girl from the cornfields, she is married to a man from the Indian Ocean.  Together, they raise their bicultural and biracial children, and have family on four continents.  She explores the ins and outs of intercultural living on her blog Between Worlds, helps amazingly resilient immigrants learn to speak English, teaches a few university courses, and makes a mean curry.

Enhanced by Zemanta

The Arrogance of the Third Culture Kid – Part Two

Pakistan - Lower Bazaar MurreeThe response to “The Arrogance of the Third Culture Kid – Part One” was overwhelming. It struck a chord in many of us and Cecily’s vulnerability allowed us to see ourselves in her story – different passport countries but similar narratives. Today Cecily brings us Part Two of her post on The Arrogance of the Third Culture Kid. If you missed Part One take a look here.

*********************** 

You can be arrogant about different things. The rich and wealthy are often considered arrogant by people less well off. Smart people can be arrogant about their brains, sporty people about their brawn. I watch Survivor (my fave show) where the arrogant contestant is a staple of the cast line up every year. In one particular season the good-looking girl was the arrogant one. She created groups and excluded others depending on their ‘hotness’ and ‘cuteness’.

No matter what area of life arrogance shows up in, it’s always an attitude of superiority. Arrogance seeks to diminish the personhood of another based on not matching up to certain criteria, usually determined by the arrogant person. It’s one person saying to another, “You’re not good enough because you don’t tick my boxes.”

I had a lot of boxes when I was a young adult.

The things I valued included being smart, educated, globally-aware with a broad outlook on life, well-travelled, interested in social justice, opinionated, hard-working, straightforward, sensible, clear about your goals, kind, funny and a good conversationalist.

All of those things were fine in themselves. In fact, they were better than fine. They were good, worthwhile, valuable, necessary and community-changing. The problem was that if other people didn’t match up to my standards, I dismissed, disregarded, disdained, disrespected and even despised them. My version of being human was better than theirs. Of course, I hid it – or I tried to. But you can’t stop arrogance leaking out the cracks.

As a third culture kid I put on arrogance as a protection. It was hard to fit nowhere and always be on the outside of every group. I didn’t know the rules of the culture I was supposed to belong to and I didn’t have the group knowledge that my peers took for granted. I didn’t like feeling like I was second best; an oddity; that girl with the funny accent.

It hurt. A lot.

So I created my own identity where I didn’t have to be worse than everybody else. In my version of the world, I was better, for a whole variety of reasons.

It wasn’t until later, when I was older, that I realized that this didn’t really work so well. For a start I was lonely. With every strong wind I wobbled precariously on the pedestal of my own making. And when I did finally fall off, it was hard to accept that I wasn’t perfect, and even harder to accept that I needed help.

Shedding my TCK arrogance meant taking a new look at the lives of the people I was living among. They weren’t second best, small, trivial or stagnant, like I had always thought. They were just lives. They were just people.

I also had to take a look at myself and ask the question: what am I trying to protect myself from? Grief, yes. Hurt, certainly. But most of all, the idea that I am second best. Having a truer perception of myself in relation to others and God helped me be brave to feel the grief, experience the hurt, and know that I am loved, just as surely as others are too.

For a while I felt invisible in my new identity.

It felt as though without the armor of superiority, no-one could see me. But it wasn’t true. People could always see me. The difference was that now I could relate to them. I didn’t have to get rid of the boxes I ticked for myself, but I could now value other people’s boxes just as much.

Maybe not all TCKs are like me and put on arrogance as protection. Even so, there is still often a perception that we are know-it-alls and show-offs, often simply because we have different knowledge to the people around us.

I remember as a little girl on furlough in Australia expressing surprise at the size of the garlic bulbs in the supermarket. “That’s a lot bigger than in Pakistan,” I said to my cousin, who promptly turned up her nose at me.

“Well, in Australia, that’s how big garlic is,” she said sniffily. I could see she was upset but I had no idea what I had said.

I only understood it later in life when I met an exchange student at uni.
“Back home we do this,” she said. “In the US we do that.” I found it boring at first. And then I found it insulting. “I have such great times with my really great friends back home,” she said. “I really miss them.”

“If it’s so great, why don’t you go back there,” was my immediate thought. “Aren’t we good enough for you?” And all of a sudden I realized why my cousin had been upset about the garlic. All she had heard from me was “Pakistan this and Pakistan that” and she was tired of it. Didn’t her experience count for something too? Couldn’t I just start living where I was?

Children blurt out what’s on their minds, but as TCK adults we have a choice; we can constantly talk about our past experiences and places we’ve been and risk being thought arrogant and difficult to get on with. Or we can live more fully where we are, embrace what’s around us and be aware that when we bring other knowledge and experience to the conversation we need to do it with respect for the people we are with and the culture we are in.

Cecily Paterson blogs at www.cecilypaterson.squarespace.com. She is the author of an award-winning memoir, Love, Tears & Autism, and recently published her first teen novel, Invisible, available free as an e-book at iTunes and smashwords.com and cheap at Amazon.com.

Home – Cecily. Mostly.

cecilypaterson.squarespace.com

For more essays on third culture kids take a look at Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging available here: 

Purchase here:

Read reviews of Between Worlds here: 

Labor of Love

I met Dawn Hobbie Sticklen when I responded to a post she wrote about the Muslim community in Joplin, Missouri. Since that time we’ve communicated over blogs and twitter. Today I’m sending you to her blog “Since You Asked…” to read a piece that she posted yesterday. If you’re wondering how you might break out of your comfort zone this year, her essay will be a great challenge and encouragement.

********************

In July of 2010, Cheryl Fogarty and seven others from Joplin, MO, boarded a plane bound for Haiti.  Once on the plane, Cheryl felt a wave of peace envelop her and she told herself, “This is what you’re supposed to do.”

And then she got off the plane in Haiti. 

Cheryl, who suffered from chronic asthma since childhood and depended on inhalers and several medications to breathe freely, was unprepared for the stench of decay she inhaled when she stepped off the plane and into the suffocating heat and humidity of Port-Au-Prince.  Her immediate thought was, “Surely God didn’t bring me all the way here to die.”  Once again, she began to pray.

Six months before her first trip to Haiti, Cheryl began a quest to understand her life’s mission.  As she recently told me, “I had achieved all my goals.  My husband and I have been together for twenty years.  We have four children, a beautiful home, and my practice is thriving.  Yet, I felt there was something more I was supposed to do……Read more here!

 

Related Articles

Campo Guilt – Guest Post

Logo of the United States Peace Corps.

My nephew Tim spent two years with the Peace Corps working in the Dominican Republic. During those two years he went through a couple of hurricane evacuations. The following is an excellent piece that looks at these forced evacuations, resulting sense of guilt over lack of productivity and abandoning the community where you are living, and understanding cultural views of productivity.

Consolidation and Campo Guilt
by T.S. Brown

I am not sure how long I’ve sat in this hotel.  The calendar says it’s been three days, but it feels like three months.  Am I still a Peace Corps volunteer, or has my close of service date come and gone during this consolidation?  Boredom and excessive television seems to be turning my mind into a guineo mas duro (ripe banana) that’s been on the shelf for a few days too long.  I have been immersed in English television and conversation for so long that my Spanish muscles are beginning to atrophy.  I hope I can still talk to my neighbors when I go back to my community.

That is IF I ever go back.  And if they remember my name. 

I think they were just getting used to the idea that I am not moving away any time soon.  I’m not just a tourist visiting their community for a few weeks.  But now I have pulled a disappearing act twice in two weeks.  I get a message on my cell phone, and have to say “sorry guys.  It’s about to rain, and the Peace Corps doesn’t want my feet to get wet.  I’ll be back soon, si dios quiere (if God wills it)!”  So off I go, down the mountain, arriving at the hotel well before the rains set in.

The first few hours of consolidation are fun.  I get to experience luxuries like air conditioning and restaurant food.  I can get up to the minute headlines from CNN rather than relying on two month old editions of Newsweek.  There are also lots of friends around to visit — but for me, these thrills tend to disappear quickly.  The air conditioning gets unpleasantly cold, and the restaurant food is more expensive and less tasty than a meal prepared by my host mother.

On CNN the talking heads are jabbering in the same obnoxious way that they were when I watched them from home.  And friends are great, but more so when they’ve actually chosen to spend time together rather than act as cell mates in the Peace Corp’s version of Folsom Prison.

I should not be here.  I am missing meetings that my community was just starting to get into.  My English students are going to be behind by the time I get back.  The gardens will be sprouting weeds.  This consolidation is getting in the way of the important work I am here to do.  How does the evacuation look to my neighbors?  I often tell them that I am here to be a part of the community.  To live like them, eat like them, and to feel solidarity across the cultural gap.  But here I am, running for the high ground as soon as something potentially dangerous comes along.  It sure doesn’t make me feel like part of the community.  I feel like a tourist with a “get out of jail free” card sitting in my back pocket.  I begin to question why I’m in this country at all.  I am a fraud in humanitarians clothing.

These are the thoughts that sometimes buzz around my head during extended periods of inactivity, and I am coming to understand it as another dimension of my cultural adjustment.

As an American, my sense of self-worth is intimately connected to my sense of productivity. 

If I think I am doing something constructive I tend to feel very good about myself.  My parents and grandparents are hard workers who taught me to believe that nothing would ever be out of reach so long as I was willing to apply myself.  This upbringing has been positive in that I’ve been able to dream big, and I’ve been driven to give my all to school and work.  The unpleasant side effect, however, is that when I am not being outwardly productive, my sense of self-worth takes a major hit.  I feel useless, and useless things do not carry much value.  The fact that I am not in this hotel by my choice makes no difference to fact that I feel like a pathetic waste of human space for not accomplishing more with this day.

This is the feeling that a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers call “campo guilt”.  We feel a sense of shame when we are not at our sites, being busy little bees for peace and justice.  Campo guilt can strike regardless of whether we are lounging on a beach, called to a meeting in the capital, or even when we are consolidated for a hurricane.  I think we’ve all had it, and I believe it to be a sign of an American cultural tendency that isn’t always healthy. That tendency is that we are addicted not to productivity, but rather to a sense of being busy.

Our self-worth is found not in actually getting things done, but in being in a constant state of movement. 

We continue to do do do, because if we stop we will feel useless.  Our culture has conditioned us to act this way.  In the United States you can usually climb the ladder to comfort and success if you are willing to work hard enough.  Constant “doing” pays off.  Things are a bit different here in the DR.  Rural farmers toil and sweat from sunrise to sunset for next to nothing, while urban bureaucrats have good jobs with decent salaries just because they had friends in the political party that happened to win the last election.

In our own work many of us have found that a conversation about baseball over a cup of coffee with a community leader will do more for our projects than hours worth of well researched and professionally delivered presentations. 

This is frustrating.  We get angry when our hard work doesn’t produce the same results that we feel it should.  Our American mindset tells us that the lack of results probably means that we are not working hard enough.  Therefore, every moment that we are not at our sites becomes a wasted moment.  A squandered opportunity to do that one more days worth of work that might have made a difference.  We are certain that both our neighbors and our Peace Corps colleagues are talking about our laziness –if we just put a bit more into it we would actually be able to help someone.  And in the back of our minds we think they may be right.

We need to be a little more fair, and stop judging both ourselves and those around us.  Yes, things work differently here than they do back home.  Dominicans have different ways of relating to each other, different ways of considering productivity and self-worth, and different ways of getting things done.  This is not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing.  It is just different.  Frustration and miscommunication are what happens when we begin to assign positive or negative moral value to cultural differences.

Success in our work simply means that we have to change the way that we look at things.  We American volunteers are like athletes who’ve spent our whole lives training to play football and win.  Suddenly the Peace Corps has decided to place us in the middle of a basketball game.  If we play the game we know then we are not going to get very far.  And we are not going to convince all the Dominicans on the court to stop the basketball game and suddenly play football.

If we want to win we had better shed our football cleats, put on some basketball shoes, and learn how to play the game that everyone else is playing.

Where have you seen cultural differences in views of productivity, of work? Would love to hear through the comments. 

 

Negotiating Cross-Cultural Escalators

Česky: Eskalátor, Palác Flora, Praha

I watched the little girl with fascination and amusement.

It was clear by her look of wonder and terror that she had never been on, or near, an escalator.  She stepped toward it hesitantly.

What was this moving staircase? And how on earth was she to ride it.

“Come on! It’s ok! We’ll ride it together” the little girl beside her was gently persistent.

They couldn’t have been more different. The one, dark skin with deep brown eyes and tight curls falling over her round face; the other fair with skin easily burned by the sun, blue eyes as deep as the other’s were brown. Hair past her shoulders, wispy, straight and blonde.

I wanted to covertly snap a picture, so taken was I with this interaction and the contrast. But I would have to be content with the picture in my mind and the words already forming in my head.

She continued to hesitate as the blonde girl coached her along.

“It will be fun, you’ll see”

I have no idea what their story was. More family members seemingly belonging to the blonde girl were at the bottom of the escalator, laughing and looking up, calling out encouragement.

It was a perfect picture of a cultural broker. The darker-skinned girl had never seen, much less ridden, on an escalator. She had no idea if she could trust it. She was in strange territory, away from what she knew, away from comfort and knowing the rules. The girl with her spoke encouragement until they both got on, holding hands.

I left as I heard their laughter echoing upwards.

When we’re crossing into foreign territory it’s comforting to have a hand to hold, someone who can, and will, tell us it will be okay. Someone who won’t mock, but gently coaxes, knowing that we’ll get on when we feel ready.

Sometimes the foreign land is an escalator, other times it’s a crowded bazaar, no matter – the feelings are the same.

We hesitate. 

We are part enamored and part terrified.

We are a good bit overwhelmed. 

The last thing I saw as I turned were two heads close together, one dark and one light, laughing and moving forward.

I wish all cross-cultural encounters were this successful. Would that more would result in two heads together in mutual laughter and hope, negotiating the escalators of cross-cultural living and communicating.

Living Well Where You Don’t Belong

Today’s post is by Joann Pittman. Joann is a childhood friend who I’ve reconnected with in the past year. As a woman who has lived her entire life cross-culturally, Joanne is gifted at helping others learn to live effectively across cultures. You can read her full bio at the end, but for now enjoy this post on “Living Well Where You Don’t Belong”.

I have spent most of my life overseas, that is, not in my “passport country.” I am an American, but I spent the first 14 years of my life in Pakistan, where my father was a professor and pastor, and have spent the past 28 years living and working in China. This means that I have lots of practice in living where I don’t belong.

“Belonging” has multiple layers of meanings. One is purely internal, referring to how I feel about my place in whatever space I find myself in. Do or can I FEEL like I belong somewhere, regardless of the circumstances or living conditions?

Another aspect of ‘belonging,’ however, is external – how do the local residents view me? Do or can they view me as belonging, or will they always consider me an outsider who doesn’t really belong here.

Below are eight tips for living well where you don’t belong.

  1. Cultivate a tolerance of ambiguity. According to Dictionary.com, ambiguity is defined as “doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention,” which is just another way of saying you don’t know what the heck is going on. As those of you who live (or have lived) cross-culturally know, this is permanent state of affairs, as you grapple with a language that is different, customs that seem strange, and social systems that are often opaque. Those with a low level of ambiguity tolerance may experience more culture stress than those who can say (honestly) “I don’t have a clue what’s going on around me, and that’s fine.”
  2. Remember that the burden of change is on you, not on the locals. The locals have done things their way for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, and they aren’t going to change just because you showed up, not matter how noble your reasons for being there.
  3. View everything as a privilege, not an entitlement. The American sense of entitlement is strong, and often not helpful when living cross-culturally. It is true that we have many rights for which we should be thankful, but we need to keep in mind that they are not automatically transportable. In China, for example, I am not entitled to speak freely on any topic anywhere or form an assembly or social organization. But in many ways, those are the easier things to deal with. What is harder is to remember that I am not entitled to the level of convenience and efficiency that I am used to ‘back home.’ If we can leave behind our sense of entitlement, we are then free to view everything (whether they bring joy or annoyance) as a privilege.
  4. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Maintain your sense of humor. Look for the humor in everyday life, remembering that YOU are often the main source.  You will find yourself in many funny and perhaps embarrassing situations. Go ahead and laugh about it. Laughing beats fretting every time. One of my former colleagues in China used to say that he was convinced that the main role of a foreigner in this society was to provide entertainment to the locals. I think he was right.
  5. View cultural mistakes as learning opportunities.  It’s important to remember that if you are living cross-culturally, you WILL make cultural mistakes. Fortunately cultural mistakes are not fatal, unless of course the cultural mistake you make is not crossing the street properly. In most cases, locals are very gracious towards foreign sojourners in their midst who are making obvious attempts at learning the language and culture.
  6. Limit yourself to one “why” question per day.  One of my favorite quirky Hong Kong movies is a mad-cap adventure called “Peking Opera Blues.” The movie itself is entertaining, but the poorly translated “Chinglish” subtitles add to the humor. In one scene, the beautiful damsel enters a garage and finds it littered with dead bodies (the mafia had just paid a visit), and utters (according to the subtitles) “WHY IS IT LIKE THIS?” Those of us who live cross-culturally find this question on the tips of their tongues pretty much all the time. We look are around and see so much that is unfamiliar and confusing and want to shout WHY IS IT LIKE THIS? If the question is driven by a true desire to understand, then it is fine; however, most of the time, it simply means “it’s not like this back home, so it shouldn’t be like this here,” and excessive use of the question just opens the door for a rant. So…make a rule. Only one “why” question per day.
  7. Be prepared to adjust /modify your own behaviors. In his book “The Art of Crossing Cultures,” Craig Storti suggests that cultural adjustment is really adjusting to two things: to new behaviors of the locals that annoy, confuse, and unsettle us, and adjusting or weeding out those behaviors that we have that confuse and annoy the locals. Truth be told, that’s the harder adjustment sometimes.
  8. Strive to be an ‘acceptable outsider.’  I live in China, which is an insider/outsider culture. There are two kinds of people in the world: Chinese and foreigners, and they are as mutually exclusive as Jew and Gentile. There is nothing I can ever do to be considered an insider in Chinese culture.  The best I can become is an acceptable outsider, one who is active in learning the language and culture and taking steps to gain access to the world of the insiders. It also means that I try not to settle for not being offensive; rather I make it my goal to be polite. Sometimes I even succeed! In my case part of ‘belonging’ means coming to terms with my permanent outsider status.

What tips do you have to add? Would love to hear some in the comments section. 

Joann Pittman is a consultant, trainer, researcher, and writer who helps people prepare for and navigate the challenges of cross-cultural living. She has lived in China since 1984, working as an English teacher, Chinese language program director, English language program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has done extensive study and research in Chinese language, history, and contemporary society, and is a fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese. She is the author of Survival Chinese Lessons. You can read Joann’s blog Outside-In at joannpittman.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

“Saudade” – A Word for the Third Culture Kid

“Saudade”

It’s described as a unique word with no equivalent in English. Its origin is Portuguese and it was first used in the 13th Century. It is a longing, a melancholy, a desire for what was. It is “Saudade.”

Many immigrants and refugees search for words that adequately describe the peculiar longing for what they left behind. Not the war and evil that is a relief to escape, but the land, the people, the food – all that encompasses that which is home. Doctors and nurses working with large populations of immigrants and refugees often simply put it down as “depression.”

A health center I know desperately tried to find out through a survey what percentage of their immigrant and refugee patients had depression. The survey was unsuccessful. It did not reflect the narrative that these health care providers were hearing from patients.

One day a woman from Haiti said to them, “Have you ever thought about asking patients if they are homesick?” They looked at her in surprise. No, they had not. With a simple change of a word, they felt they were better able to get to the heart of the feeling. But is it depression? Depression is defined as a “severe despondency and dejection, accompanied by feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy.” That is not what immigrants are describing.

What they describe are feelings so deep that you can scarcely give words to them. Your throat catches. You experience an intense, but wordless, longing and desire. How do I know this? Because I have experienced it, first hand. What we long to describe is Saudade.

The famous saudade of the Portuguese is a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness. A. F. G. Bell In Portugal of 1912

Many know that they will never go back to the place where they feel most at home. They realistically accept this, but not without saudade. A Portuguese friend of mine recently told me about her father. He is in his nineties and came to the United States with a large family over fifty years ago. A year ago, he went back to Portugal for what everyone thought would be a short trip. Now over a year later, he is still there. All the years he was in the United States, he experienced saudade. He has returned so he no longer has to experience this intense longing; he is back in a place where he is viscerally at home, in a land that he loves.

Third culture kids often struggle to give voice to their longing. Well aware that they are not from the country or countries where they were raised, they still have all the connections and feelings that represent home. When trying to voice these, others look on with glazed eyes. Just recently, someone said to me, “But you’re not an immigrant! You’re American!” The tone was accusing. It was meant to be. What was unsaid was, “Give it a rest! We know you grew up overseas. Big deal. You’re American and you’re living in America.”

Ah, yes… but I have saudade. I have that longing for something that “does not and cannot exist.” I know that it cannot be. And on my good days, it is well hidden under the culture and costume of which I am now living. But on my more difficult days, it struggles to find voice only to find that explaining is too difficult. Finding the word gives voice to these longings.

I have often been looked at with impatience. “Third culture kids are not that different!” says the skeptic. “We all have times of longing,” but I would argue, gently, that our experience is different. We are neither of one world nor the other, but between. Our earliest memories are shaped by sights, sounds, and smells that we now experience only in brief travels or through movies and television. All of those physical elements that shaped our early forays into this world are of another world. And so we experience saudade. And the simple discovery of a word gives meaning to those feelings, and can validate and heal. 

Blogger’s Note: A great way to kill the saudade is to go to the FIGT Conference in Amsterdam in March! Click here for more details!

This essay is published in Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging © Doorlight Publications, July 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this essay may be reproduced without express permission from the author and publisher.

To read more essays like this on third culture kids and living between worlds, go to Amazon.com and purchase the book Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging. Kindle edition is only $3.99! 

 ****************

It’s funny how the simple act of discovering a word that gives meaning to those feelings can validate and heal. That is what I believe “Saudade” can do for the third culture kid.

Between WorldsFor more reading on Third Culture Kids make sure to purchase the book Between Worlds – Essays on Culture and Belonging available July 1, 2014 from Amazon.

Be sure to read the outstanding comments below from others who live between worlds.