A Slice of Life – Kurdistan, Volume 2

Oh, the Things We Have Learned….

I’m sitting on my couch, staring out the window at a grey sky. Through the fog I can just make out that the Kewa Rash have a fresh sprinkling of snow. Geese are honking loudly and insistently three floors below me, at what injustice I don’t know, but I am sure it is valid. I hear the music of the gas man in the distance, a strangely melodic tune that plays through loud speakers. He drives through the streets with this son, his small truck full of gas cylinders that we all need to heat our houses and use our stoves.

How I know it is the gas man is proof that I have learned some things in my time here in Kurdistan. We used to hear the truck and the tune and laugh, wondering what the man in the truck was selling. One day in December, I was anxiously waiting my husband’s return home. We had no electricity and we had run out of gas. It was cold and I wanted a cup of tea. I heard the music and looked outside. Down on the street below was the unmistakable shape of gas cylinders. I don’t think I’ve ever run so fast in my life. I took off like the proverbial bat out of hell, flew downstairs and saw my husband coming up the tiled path. “It’s the gas man” I shouted! “That’s the sound of the gas man! Let’s find him!” He was just around the corner and with limited Kurdish we were able to let him know what we needed. With good humor, and more importantly, a gas cylinder that was heavy and full of gas, he marched up our three flights of stairs and we were set for the next month.

There was great rejoicing in our apartment that night. The electricity came on and we had two full cylinders of gas.

It’s the little things that matter in cultural adjustment. You do fine with the big things, but it’s the little ones that make you lose your patience and think that you are incapable of living. For me it’s usually things to do with the house. For Cliff it’s usually things at the office. Thankfully, we are not usually both low at the same time.

Others things we have learned are how to get to the bazaar by mini bus, what to say when we need to get off the mini bus, how to order business cards, where to get keys made, where to get hair cuts, what time the bazaar opens and closes, which vegetable stalls have the best produce, how to get a taxi to take us to the grocery store and wait while we shop, how to catch transportation to the big cities, how to say hello, goodbye, how many children do you have, where do you live, we have five children, we live in Rania, we work at the university, how to buy jili Kurdi (Kurdish clothes) and which kebab place has the best kebabs. This may seem like a short list. Believe me, it is not. One of our sons said to us “Wow, at this stage of your lives, I bet this is really good for you!” I sort of hated that he had seen right into my heart and knew what I was thinking. I am someone who adores my creature comforts. Give me warmth, beauty, and a soft cinnamon roll and I will rule the world. A very comfortable world it would be, full of squishy people. But I digress.

Kurdish Resilience & Hospitality

Kurdish resilience and hospitality are known worldwide, and we have been grateful to experience both while we have been here. The story I wrote on advocacy is a remarkable story that characterizes the resilience that we are privileged to see every day. In terms of hospitality, we have been invited to countless homes and have enjoyed delicious food offered with a generosity that is incomparable. Along with this, we have experienced the generosity and hospitality of help and time. “If you need anything, anything” say our friends “call us!” They mean it.

Dinner invitations are usually no less than four hours, usually six, and often include huge platters of rice, meat, and various stews coupled with small bowls of olives, containers of thick pomegranate syrup, and chopped salads of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. Along with this there is always bread. As we are invited into people’s homes we are also invited into their lives as we learn about how many children they have; where they live; who is pregnant; and at least earlier this fall – who they were going to vote for.

Recently we had the privilege of attending our first engagement party. It was held in Qualadze, a city about a half hour over the mountain from where we live. Women and men were separated for the event, so my husband, our son who was visiting, and two friends headed to the men’s section while I held my own in a room full of women of every age, shape, and size. Babies nursed while grandmothers and aunts gossiped. It was amazing. We wore Kurdish clothes to the event and I was grateful for a friend who coached me through the dressing process through a video chat. Both men’s and women’s clothes are beautiful with yards and yards of material. The end result was that I was a glittering vision of gold and fabric. This is my kind of place and these are my kind of women. The more glitter and gold, the better. None of this black is chic stuff for them! Just yesterday I went to Rania bazaar with a friend to buy more fabric and have an outfit made. The fabric stores are visions of color and sparkle – they are amazing.

With our son and our friends after attending an engagement party. See! I told you I was a glittery vision – and you didn’t believe me!


We both have challenges around our work. The challenge of working with a group of students to help them get to Portugal was a great example of the many obstacles that Kurds, and now we, face in daily life. The lessons learned in that five-month long process are similar to what we face daily. It takes great persistence and patience to work within the infrastructure at the university. The strengths are many – a committed president and other leadership, good conversations with students and staff, warm friendships and hot tea daily. The challenges too are many. From getting ink for a printer to trying to get email responses, we glory in what many in the west would see as tiny achievements.

In a conversation with two of my colleagues this week I shook my head and said “You are amazing! You face obstacles and challenges everywhere, but you still move forward and do good work.” I felt myself holding back tears. It is a privilege to work here – even on the no good, very bad, awful, horrible days.

Talk Club

Friday is our day off, and most Fridays we head to Rania Bazaar to meet at a youth center with Kurdish students and others who are interested in improving their English Language skills. We begin with an opening activity and then break into small groups where we respond to a set of previously determined discussion questions. It is usually attended by Kurds in their twenties and we love meeting and interacting with this age group. They are the future of Kurdistan and if Talk Club is any indication, than the future will be strong. These are young men and women who are not afraid to learn, discuss, and share their opinions. They have worked hard at mastering English and they are amazingly smart and incredibly fun. We share a lot of laughter and learn something each week. It’s truly a highlight of our week and we miss it on the weekends when we travel to Erbil.


Rania is a small city, and we tend to run into people we know everywhere we go. This familiarity has helped a lot in curbing potential loneliness. While we miss our friends and family members dearly, and think of them in our days and in our dreams, this new community has offered us extraordinary connection and friendship. It comes with laughter, joy, and its fair share of cultural misunderstanding, but we are so grateful.

So there’s your slice of life from Kurdistan! Wherever you are today, may you learn to reach across cultural and communication boundaries – it is absolutely worth it and you will be the better for it.

  • 2nd, 3rd, and final photos are courtesy of Cliff Gardner

Tips for Working Cross-culturally in Health Care Settings and Beyond

Through my years of living, working, and communicating across cultural boundaries I’ve realized two things that sum it all up: one — this road is humbling and two – it’s a life-long learning process. Just when I think I have it all figured out, something, someone will come into my life and challenge my thinking and my well-worn tool box of ‘how to live and communicate across cultures’.

This is setting the stage for this post that is co-authored (though she doesn’t know it yet) by my cultural broker, colleague, and close friend Cathy. Cathy has taught me much about living and working across cultural boundaries. We have worked together to bring resources and workshops on culturally responsive, culturally competent care to health care providers in the Northeast for a number of years. Together we have come up with this list, compiled from a variety of sources. While we work primarily with health care providers, this list can be used in other situations.

So here’s our tool box for working and communicating across cultural boundaries:

  • Be aware of your cultural values and the beliefs you hold. This is a first and critical step to being able to effectively communicate across cultures. If you don’t understand the importance of culture — why you value what you do, how you make decisions, essentially how you live all of life, then it will be difficult for you to understand how culture affects others.
  • Become a student of the culture and the community. Even if you’re an expert in a certain area it’s important to rethink your role and be willing to learn as a student.
  • Recognize differences in narrative styles and practical behaviors across cultures. Be willing to research these differences and ask questions.
  • Understand that  limited language proficiency (whether your’s or another’s) does not mean limited intellectual ability. People with limited language skills are usually capable of communicating clearly and effectively in their native language.
  • Have a high tolerance of ambiguity.
  • Seek help from bilingual/bicultural co-workers and individuals – find those who can help explain cultural nuances, the complexity of culture, dual causality and more.
  • Know the role of interpreters and learn to use interpreters effectively.
  • Allow the use of story-telling and props when speaking with others – we learn so much more in a story than in a list of facts. For healthcare providers, realize the symptoms are often in the story.
  • Include the patient and family as partners in determining both treatment plan and outcomes.
  • Recognize the primary person you are working with may not be the decision maker in the family.
  • Use empathy, curiosity, and respect as you work across cultural boundaries. Empathic listening, curious questioning, respectful observing.
  • Be able to laugh at yourself and potential mistakes — if you don’t laugh you’ll find yourself crying way too much.

What would you add to this list? I would love to hear from you through the comments.  

Chive Boursin MuffinsThis week’s muffins are a delicious savoury mixture of chives and goat cheese. Stacy says this: “I used goats’ cheese with herbs and garlic to complement the chives.  Delicious!  This one will be a surprise to those who think muffins can only be sweet.”

For Chive Boursin Muffins head here.

A Life Overseas – Words Matter & Muffin Monday


Readers – today I am at A Life Overseas talking about words. And how they matter. Would love it if you would join me.

Here is an excerpt from the piece:

In health care we have a story we call “The 71-Million Dollar Word Story”.

It involves a young man from Cuba, the absence of a skilled interpreter, and a misdiagnosis.

The man was 18 years old and had just graduated from high school. He was riding around with his friend when he complained of a bad headache. He thought it was because of the strong smell of gas in his friend’s car but by the time he got home the pain was so severe that he was crying. He went into a coma soon afterward and he was transferred to a local hospital in a comatose state. The family was sick with worry as they waited in the emergency room for this man to be assessed. The word ‘intoxicado’ was used and, in the absence of a professional interpreter, it was assumed that the young man was ‘intoxicated’, had taken a drug overdose and was suffering the effects. The family had no idea this was the way the words were interpreted. Had they known they could have attested that the young man never used drugs or alcohol, that health was extremely important to this young athlete. Rather, ‘Intoxicado’ was a word used in Cuba to mean a general state of being unwell because of something you ate or drank. It was the only word they could think of to express the sudden onset of his symptoms.

The misinterpretation of this word caused a misdiagnosis resulting in an 18-year-old becoming a quadriplegic, for in reality he had suffered a brain bleed and lay for two days in a hospital bed without proper treatment. Had the hospital staff made the correct diagnosis the man would have left the hospital in a few days, on his way to college and a normal life.

This tragic event resulted in a lawsuit and if this man lives to be 74, he will receive a total payment of……Read the rest of the piece here!


Thyme Chevre Blackberry Muffins

And don’t forget the new addition – Muffin Monday. Today’s muffins are Thyme Chèvre Blackberry Muffins and they look amazing! Head over to Stacy’s blog to get the recipe here or just click on the picture!

Little Mosque on the Prairie – A Review

Little Mosque on the Prairie cast

Today’s post is a guest post from Abbas Karimjee. Abbas has followed the show Little Mosque on the Prairie from the first season until the show ended after its sixth season. Read more about Abbas at the end but for now enjoy this review of Little Mosque on the Prairie.

Little Mosque on the Prairie addresses the stereotypes and misconceptions about Muslims by providing a more balanced perspective towards the Muslim community. Zarqa Nawaz is the creator of the show and it was produced by Westwind pictures. It concluded back in April 2012 after 6 seasons on CBC.

The show is based largely on the experiences of the show’s creator, Zarqa Nawaz. Through a comedy format the audience is able to see Muslim characters as people who balance their faith with their lives as Canadians while working through typical struggles of life. The show’s use of comedy allows it to explore various societal issues (like being placed on a ‘No Fly’ list, when to wear the hijab, and more) in a light-hearted way.

Actress Arlene Duncan who portrays the vibrant and assertive café owner. Fatema Arlene Duncan, Little Mosque on the PrairieDinssah, speaks to how this focused yet universal type of storytelling has allowed for her character to be relatable to audiences across the globe. In an interview with me Arlene commented ”I was under the misguided impression, like a lot of people, that Islamic women were generally a very unassuming oppressed group and I think it’s very eye-opening for people to see a character like Fatima, who is so much like your mother, sister, aunt or friend…no matter what religion or culture you might be from. When people recognize me from the show they often comment on how they relate to the things she does or know people who are just like her…”

Non-Muslims also felt connected to the show’s characters in a way which supports Arlene’s view. In a recent interview with a Christian viewer from France, Helene commented that through the show she discovered that Muslims in other countries such as Canada were actually quite well-integrated and successful as opposed to her experiences in interacting with and observing the issues faced by Muslims in France.

“As a French viewer I could hardly believe at first sight in those Middle-class Muslim characters who are all educated and well-integrated(even Baber), who all succeeded in life and all have a good job. Without social problems things always go better, and the French Muslims have precisely a bunch of social problems. On the top of belonging to a religion which has had a bad image in Europe for centuries, they suffer from social discrimination which started far before 9/11 and that 9/11 just made worse.Compared with them, the Muslims depicted in Little Mosque looked pretty favoured”

Because the show was relatable to audiences from other faiths and backgrounds, it attracted a diverse audience and educated viewers about the Islamic faith.

Take a look at the enclosed video from CBC which not only features my perspective as a blogger and a Muslim but also the perspective of non-Muslims as well as the cast and crew on the show’s overall impact, including how it has had practical educational benefits.

Siobhan, a reader on Abbas Karimjee’s Weblog commented to the educational effect of the show.

“I am a non-Muslim living in Scotland… and I’m addicted to Little Mosque on the Prairie! It’s funny, lighthearted, and family friendly and has given me a real insight into Islam. I’m looking forward to season six, and finding out what’s next for Amaar and Rayyan. I’d also love to see more interaction between Baber and Reverend Thorne – they are the two funniest characters, in my book.”

While the show resonated with many, it did have its critics. Creator, Zarqa Nawaz who based the series largely on her own experiences growing up, addressed the issue of the conservative responses she received from both members of the Muslim community as well as right-wing Americans. It is interesting to note that conservative Muslims are against the show’s existence due to its liberal interpretations of Islam [ i.e Zaib Shaikh’s Amaar as a non-bearded imam] while right-wing Americans are against the show because of how it is “softening “ attitudes to prepare America for the next terrorist attack!


Many Muslims viewers also appreciated how they were able to connect with the characters and situations on the show. Batulbanu Dhala, a Muslim reader commented on how she connected with the show stating “Being a Muslim myself I felt attracted to the show and it was so hilarious that I could not stop watching it”
Batulbanu also commented that the show helped communicate a message by modelling a desired outcome of how communicating across boundaries can foster positive interfaith relations.

Given the show’s success in Canada, there has been great interest in shipping it to the United States.This seems to be something many Muslims have thought would help, given the reactions of some Americans towards a more balanced perspective of the Muslim community as seen in the earlier video from CBC well as the perspectives of some viewers

“This is such a fantastic show! I wish it would air in the U.S. as I believe that it would help promote a better understanding of the often misunderstood religion of Islam within my country. Additionally, it also shows how each person regardless of their faith, after all, is human and that we have much in common,” comments Little Mosque fan Nadia on Abbas Karimjee’s Weblog.

Given the demand, the show is available for viewing through Hulu @ http://www.hulu.com/watch/362933.

In summary, Little Mosque on the Prairie can connect with those from a wide range of backgrounds for different reasons and, by focusing on their similarities, model how those from different religious and cultural backgrounds can build strong, healthy ties between their communities, even in instances where there may be negative preconceived notions about one another.


Abbas Karimjee is a 20-year-old  Canadian blogger  and  psychology student. He was Abbas Karimjeeraised within the  vibrant  community of the Greater Toronto area but currently resides in Ottawa.He has been running Abbas Karimjee’s Weblog  for  nearly  5 years, using it as a platform to formally cover a range of comedy and science fiction shows  of personal interest such as Little Mosque on the Prairie, The Office, Modern Family, Stargate Atlantis/Universe ,LOST, and more!


In Which I order Two 25 Kilo Turkeys in Cairo, Egypt

We did our shopping on the weekend. The turkey, potatoes, green beans, mushrooms, jello (you must have jello) and so much more. As this time of the year comes around I think of Thanksgivings we have spent all over the world and all across the country. Pakistan, Chicago, Essex, Haiti, Egypt, Phoenix, Cambridge – all the memories make me smile.

But one stands out in my mind and to this day makes me laugh. 

To give context I did not cook a turkey until I was 34 years old and had four children.

Attending an international boarding school while growing up in Pakistan meant that we were never at home for Thanksgiving, that quintessential American holiday. Instead, the boarding school I attended graciously took the holiday and created their own version of a special meal (skinny chickens and mashed potatoes) followed by a musical concert. We called it thanksgiving and it was, for we were grateful for those scrawny but tasty drumsticks.

Furthermore turkey as known in the United States at that time was not available anywhere in the country outside of the American commissary, so Christmas dinner was generally chickens filled with homemade stuffing or the rich meat of wild duck.

It meant that I  never helped my mom cook a turkey. I didn’t know how to do it. I knew nothing about making a turkey or a roast, or any of those things that are considered good solid American fare.

But how hard could it be?

At 34 we found ourselves in Cairo on the Island of Zamalek responsible for 18 American college students in a semester-abroad program. I decided now was the time. So armed with my best Arabic I headed to a grocery store I knew well in Maadi.

The conversation went like this:

“Hosni, I would like to buy two 25 kilo turkeys for our feast”.

“Madame – I don’t know if I can find turkeys that big!”

“Hosni! I am having a lot of people. A lot of people ….I need TWO 25 kilo turkeys” He shook his head muttering but he had dealt with the likes of me before and knew there was no arguing.

When he called to tell me the turkeys had arrived, he apologized – he couldn’t find two 25 kilo turkeys, instead he had one that was 13 kilo and one that was 10. “I told you I needed BIG turkeys” I wailed. Hosni laughed “Oh, they are big!”

And then I went to pick them up.

They were massive. They filled two large boxes and packed beside them were their severed heads. In an instant I realized I was forgetting the weight difference between the metric system, used worldwide, and the American system, used only in America.

I had ordered over 110 pounds of turkey.

I was duly rebuked and humbled – no wonder Hosni muttered. We both laughed – he with glee and me with chagrin.  I often wondered if he enjoyed telling the story of this insistent white woman and her huge turkeys. Each year after we would laugh together about the 25 kilo turkeys.

It’s a good story to remember. The arrogance of my white-skinned insistence makes me cringe. This was only one of many times of having to admit that I was wrong; I didn’t have a clue. One of many “25 kilo turkey” moments of cross-cultural learning.

When we cross over into other cultures, we function most effectively when we can take 25 kilo turkey moments and recognize our need to listen and learn.

Thanksgiving dinner that year was amazing, the turkeys cooked to perfection. And the 25 kilo turkey moment remains a reminder, not only of an amazing Thanksgiving, but of the need for cultural humility, ceasing to be an expert and being willing to be a student of the culture where I was making my home.

Do you have cross-cultural holiday stories to share? Share your story in the comment section! 

The Many Uses of Olive Oil

There were 6 of us in a small examining room designed for two people — the doctor and the patient. In this case there were two women from the Sudan, two nurses, one patient navigator, one interpreter, and one baby.

It was crowded.

To say I was invited  to come to this community health center was something of a delusion, it was more as if I had been challenged to come – challenged with strong words: “This program isn’t working! You try to use this life-style education tool with culturally diverse patients”

To give context the “challenger” was referring to a health assessment that my office had developed to gauge whether a person is ready to make changes to their lifestyle. It included questions on weight, healthy fats, exercise, fresh fruits, vegetable consumption and more.

I was not a fan of the questionnaire – I had worked with people from different cultural backgrounds my entire professional career and knew that this tool had been developed from a bias of western biomedicine. As such, it had limited use.

But I accepted the invitation knowing that at least they would see I was on their side.

So there we were: health professionals, patients, and a culturally biased assessment. Speaking through an interpreter I began talking. I introduced myself and asked if I could ask them a few questions. They nodded in assent – no problem.

And so I began:

“Are you a healthy weight?” Blank looks.

The interpreter tried again, and then looked at me. “This is not relevant,” she said. “They do not weigh themselves.” Of course, they didn’t. What was I thinking? They were women who had escaped the Sudan, made their way through the arduous process of refugee camps and resettlement and I was asking them about healthy weight. Wow. But determined to continue I pressed on.

“Do you eat healthy fats?” More blank looks. My problem-solving mode switched on and I thought – ok, I’ll ask if they use olive oil – that’s a healthy fat.

New olive oil, just pressed. It has a dense co...

“Do you use olive oil?”

Their eyes lit up. They smiled. “Oh yes! We use olive oil all the time”. Good, I thought!  We’re making some progress…..

“Yes olive oil. We love olive oil! It is wonderful. We use it every day…..on our hair”

I began to laugh, and they with me. The whole encounter was so absurd. I would have gotten more information on their health and eating habits by having a normal conversation and inserting the right questions at the right time instead of following this biased and culturally illiterate tool.

The story is a great example of some of the challenges presented in working with patients from different countries and cultures. The healthcare professional (whether nurse, doctor, social worker or any other) comes into the clinical encounter with his or her own predetermined biases, values, and beliefs. Added to that is the often inflexible culture of western biomedicine under the umbrella of the institution. All of this mixes into a potentially difficult interaction with the patient.  We then wonder why patients won’t come back…or get offended…or don’t do as we want them to.

Culturally responsive care is critical to healthy outcomes.

But changing this dynamic is not easy. It’s a journey and as such takes time, preparation, and mile markers.

One of the first mile markers in learning to communicate across cultural boundaries is to understand one’s own cultural beliefs and values. Only then can we better interact with those from different backgrounds. If we don’t know what we believe and value, what is unique to our cultural backgrounds, we are ill-equipped to forge into relationships with those vastly different from us, even less ready to offer them good health care.

And after that it’s about listening to the stories and constantly being willing to learn and adapt.

It’s interactions like the one I’ve described that help me on this journey of communicating across cultural boundaries. They remind me that I have to be ever flexible and willing to see from the other person’s perspective; recognizing both literally and metaphorically the many uses of olive oil.

So.Many.Stories – Primary School Pentecost

Many who read Communicating Across Boundaries live in communities where the world is at their doorstep. This story takes us to a classroom with representatives from all over the world and one woman’s interaction in that classroom. Enjoy this post by Allison Sampson who writes about everyday things at www.theideaofhome.blogspot.com

Every Tuesday I spend time in a classroom with kids from all over the world. Most are from the Horn of Africa; others are from Burma, Pakistan, China, or Afghanistan; and a few are Anglo or Indigenous Australians. We all speak Strine; most of them speak Arabic; and many have a third language up their sleeve.

Together, we read, write and tell stories; and this year, we are experimenting with journaling. What this means is that I read a picture book aloud; we sit in silence for a minute; we ask some wondering questions; and then we write.

On a recent Tuesday, we delved into a story about a ‘half’ birthday. Afterwards, a girl and I wondered. I wonder how the family crossed the busy road? I wonder why the birthday boy fell asleep? I wonder where their dog is running through the trees? I wonder why they celebrated a half birthday? I wonder why his sister took her dinosaur back? I wonder what we celebrate, and how?

After a bit more wondering, the girl decided that we would each write about one of our own birthdays. While she scribbled away, an arm crooked around her work, I remembered turning four. My mother asked me what sort of cake I wanted. ‘A crooked man cake!’ I said. My mother rolled her eyes, then squared her shoulders and set to work. She baked a slab cake, then sliced off a wedge so that it sat crookedly. She iced it and set Lego doors and windows skew-whiff. A path zigzagged from the front door to a lopsided stile, where she leaned a bent Lego man. She found a small curled cat and made a mouse with a pipe cleaner tail (crooked), and added them to the scene; and finally she placed a snapped chocolate coin next to the stile. Thirty-odd years later, the memory still makes me smile.

I wrote it all down and, when our time was up, I read out my piece through the small lump in my throat. Then I taught the girl the rhyme ‘There was a crooked man who walked a crooked mile. He found a crooked sixpence beside a crooked stile. He had a crooked cat who caught a crooked mouse and they all lived together in a little crooked house.’

She repeated it over, committing it to memory. Then she read me her piece, a story about too many lollies, some extra television and a very late night.

As she read, I reflected that we were communicating across so many boundaries: age, religion, family background, country of origin, income and culture. Our stories may have been about small things, but they were about the special times which shape our identities; they were stories of our lives.

As I looked around the classroom I was taken back to a time long ago when boundaries were crossed; a time when Christianity was just beginning.  I reckon the earliest Christians looked a lot like the children at my primary school. Just like the residents of my inner-city neighbourhood in Melbourne, Australia, the earliest Christians came from all over the empire, places we now identify as Greece,Italy,Palestine, the Middle East, and North Africa. Most spoke the language of an earlier empire – Koine Greek – as well as their native language. And many years ago, on a day that is commemorated by Christians around the world during the Festival of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended like fire on a gathering of disciples, bringing with it the gift of language; and we are told that they began to communicate in each other’s mother tongues.

Reflecting on what a great privilege it is to be able to speak and listen to all, I gave thanks that I belong to a tradition which continues to share stories across boundaries, whether it’s with children at my local primary school or you who read with me now; for it is in these stories that we learn to love one another, and bridge the differences which threaten to divide.

About the author: Alison Sampson is a mother, a writer, a dreamer, a cook. She writes about small things at www.theideaofhome.blogspot.com

So.Many.Stories is usually posted on a Friday but this week I’m posting early because of a family birthday. If you would like to participate in So.Many.Stories read all about it here and send an email. We want your story! 

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So.Many.Stories – At the Principal’s Office

Today I am delighted to have Dorit Sasson takes us into a story of cross-cultural conflict and confrontation. I met Dorit through the So.Many.Stories project and you will see her bio at the end of the post. 

The bare white principal’s office is now a place of confrontation. The fact that I am a newly arrived English elementary teacher at a development town in Israel hasn’t sensitized loud-mouthed teacher to collaborate with me. When I finally told Tziona, our mentor, the real deal of our collaboration, I knew that I would have to work even harder to make my silent “teacher” voice heard. The voice I perhaps didn’t know existed.

The aggressive principal speaks. (I can still hear Lina’s voice) “Yael,” Lina says.  “Dorit’s a new teacher. If you’re both teaching the same classes, I don’t understand why you are both working separately. So, ma koreh, what’s going on?” Lina asks. I have to wonder what looks tighter: Lina’s intent expression or her bun.

Yael, the other teacher who prefers to teach English “her way,” doesn’t say anything.  Tziona sustains our eye contact long enough just to reassure what she has said to me before, Yehiyeh besder, “it will be okay.” But we both know it will be a long way. She leans forward, crosses her legs a bit and says, “We need to find a way to work things out together. You both can’t continue working in isolation. It makes no sense.”

Yael looks at me. I nod.

Okay, it’s time to make my silence heard.

There’s more that Lina and loud-mouthed teacher need to know. Much more.

For example, what about the time when I introduced myself to her classes and all I got was a Mona-Lisa smile …from one student?

Or when I tried to “socialize” with loud-mouthed teacher and all I heard was the noise of crunching carrots.

There is no cultural-linguistic shield to protect me now. (it’s a confrontation – how do you rely on your Israeli smarts)

I try to discern the “loud-mouthed” teacher’s eyes from her thick rimmed glasses but the light refracts what appears to be a stare. I know she’s thinking “go home you American. I take no prisoners. I’m better than you and you’re not going to change the way I work.”

Since the beginning of school, I’ve honored the Israeli teaching motto of “don’t smile before Chanukah,” and so perhaps I’ve received Lina’s goodwill. But now I have to find the right Hebrew voice. To articulate Hebrew assertively. To undo my silence. But between Lina’s tight-fisted bun and zippered mouth and Tziona’s fidgety look, I’m hoping I won’t need to talk.

Loud mouth teacher is the first to speak. She’s of course the one with “kfiyoot” – the seniority. She moves her hands in and out as if to open an oven. “Tziona,” she says raising her voice. “It’s close to impossible. We teach at different hours in different places.”

Loud-mouthed teacher now points to me. “She teaches small groups. I teach the large classes.”

“Yael, you don’t have to work together on everything. There’s no point if you have the same book and grades and you’re both working in isolation.” Tziona says. Lina nods affirmatively.

Loud-mouthed teacher looks at me. The words don’t come.

“How about if Dorit pulled out some of the lower-performing students from your group and worked with them?” Tziona suggests.

Ze lo ya’avod, it won’t work,” loud-mouthed teacher says.


“Because …they are at different levels.”

            What does that have to do with anything?

I say something that I hope will turn the discourse around. Even though I am still figuring out which word to say, I speak anyhow.
“I think the students I teach are at a lower performing level. They cause problems.” I am both nervous and relieved that I’ve got now everyone’s attention.

“Exactly. That’s why I don’t think it’s good to take my students out.” Loud mouthed teacher says. Her words rise like huge hot air balloons in this small office.

Aval achav hadivarim nirgeo, but now I feel things have settled down.” I say in a calm Hebrew voice.

Ze lo yishaney kloom, it still won’t make a difference,” loud-mouthed teacher says. “It’s too difficult of a situation.” She still won’t look at me so I look to Tziona for support.

“And if Dorit takes the hours she has with the non-readers and works individually with one or two students?” Tziona suggests.

“Still won’t work.”

“”Yael, you’ve got to be flexible here.” Tziona now speaks more emphatically. “This is a very difficult situation.”

“Yael, I don’t understand you. We’re talking about the students here.” The aggressive principal says something I didn’t expect to hear. “Give it a chance.”

“Okay, I’ll give it a try, but I still don’t think it will be successful.” Yael says.

All I hear is the “ani” for “I.”

Tziona looks at me, “How do you feel about that, Dorit?”

“That’s fine. I have worksheets prepared for their level and everything.”

Tziona nods in approval. “That’s a good start.”

“But it’s a difficult group. A harder group.” Yael says.

“Is there anything you want to say Dorit?” Lina asks.


We talk it out – in their language.

Not mine.
We don’t really find a solution in their language.
Not mine.

When we leave Lina’s office, I whisper to Tziona, “That wasn’t easy. With Yael, I mean.”

Tziona says, “I know. She’s difficult.”


“It’s not going to be easy.”

I go home and write about the lesson and the day in my language. This is what I wrote:

Today, I taught another lesson to fourth graders who are learning another language that just happens to be my mother tongue.
Only I’m not so sure if this cultural classroom is mine or theirs.
I’m still trying to figure it out.”

Dorit Sasson is the author of Giving Voice to the Voiceless and a speaker. She uses the power of story to help others create their life and business in story. Download your free MP3, Story Manifesto: A Guide To Stepping into the Authentic Voice and Vision of Your Story, at www.GivingAVoicetotheVoicelessBook.com. When you do, you’ll receive a complimentary subscription to the “Giving Voice to the Voiceless” ezine, including a transformational tip of the week.

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On Translation and Translators

Readers of Communicating Across Boundaries know about communicating across cultural boundaries. They know what it’s like when it goes well….and they know what it’s like when it goes not so well.

So today is Saturday and time for a light-hearted look at cross cultural communication gone wrong. Very.Wrong.

Enjoy this clip from a show in the UK! I laughed until I cried. I hope you’ll enjoy the humor and no offense intended! Have a great day!

Welcome to the new readers from this past week. I have heard from so many of you about Saudade and flying before walking and all those things that go into this nomadic life. Your stories resonate so deeply – think about joining in the project So.Many.Stories. If you have a story that you want to tell but can’t write, let’s talk!

Visiting Communicating Across Boundaries for the first time? Check out the About page for more information! Feel free to visit these posts to get a picture of what Communicating Across Boundaries is all about!

So.Many.Stories – So.Many.Proposals!

When I announced the So.Many.Stories idea as a celebration of Communicating Across Boundaries I did so a bit like one plans a party – excited but fearful that no one would come. But come they did! I am delighted to launch the series beginning today and continuing every Friday. Our first post is a delightful post by Amy Brown.

Amy is a self-professed white girl not just living, but thriving in SE Asia. She spends her time with Autistic children, baking things, and taking pictures of the aforementioned (and other things). Though she doesn’t know where she will be or what she will be doing in 4 months time, she is at peace knowing that God has something amazing in store. She also enjoys ending stressful days with a glass of chocolate milk. (Amy is also an amazing cook but that’s for another day)


I am no stranger to marriage proposals. But they probably are not the kind of proposal that you may be thinking of. No one is down on their knee, there’s no fancy ring, and definitely no romance. I’m talking about the kind of marriage proposal you get when you are a white woman living in West Africa.

Over the course of three and a half months, I received dozens and dozens of marriage proposals. From cab drivers to random men on the street to friends of my host brothers; it was hardly a rare occasion for me to hear “Will you be my wife” or “Marry me?” I don’t know if you have ever been proposed to by someone you would never ever consider marrying, but it leads to a very awkward situation. The first few times, I would stumble around for words saying, “Um…uh…no…?” To which I would have to deal with a failing attempt to convince me otherwise (most notably, one man spent 20 minutes explaining how he would make a living for himself and not bother me after I moved him to America and got him a green card).

Obviously a straight up rejection wasn’t going to be the best plan of attack, so I decided to take a different approach. Polygamy is quite common in Senegal. Many men have multiple wives and families, though it is strictly taboo for women to have multiple husbands. Luckily, Senegalese people have a good sense of humor, and it becomes a joke to talk about the possibility of a woman having more than one husband. In the face of a marriage proposal, my response soon became, “I’m sorry I’m already married”. When they asked about my husband I would tell them I actually had two, to which the response was, “It’s ok, I’ll be the third!” Then we both just laugh it off and move on with our lives.

As someone who generally likes to avoid awkward situations with strange men, I would try to avoid any situation that may end up in a marriage proposal. I must say that it is rather difficult to do this when you are constantly being thwarted by your own host mother. Yes, my host MOTHER. A vivacious woman in her late 40s, not married and with no kids, my host mother was amazing. But she spent about half her time trying to marry me off. In fact, by the end of the six weeks I spent with her, she had married me off seven times. SEVEN.

That’s more than one husband a week. The youngest was at the ripe age of six months and the eldest nearing 70. Somewhere in there was a cab driver.

I knew the mother of my youngest husband-to-be quite well, as she spent much of her time at our house during the day. On my last night in the village, she called me into the house to give me a gift. It was completely unexpected, so I had no idea what it was going to be. I went inside and was presented with a rather scandalous piece of Senegalese lingerie and bin-bins (strings of beads that are worn around one’s waist and only seen in private settings…). I was utterly speechless, trying to figure out if she was serious or joking. To fill the awkward silence, my future mother-in-law chuckles, “This is for your wedding night when you come back to marry my son.” We spent the rest of the evening laughing and they watched as I put the skirt on over my jeans and pranced around the compound.

As much as I appreciate the effort of my host mother, I think I will be just fine finding my own husband.

Amy and her husband-to-be (the 6 month old!) and his mom!

Central Square Walgreens: A Lesson in Humanization

Central Square Walgreens is a city drugstore. As you walk up the stairs coming off the outbound redline you will see it directly to your right. It’s always busy, ever crowded and not particularly clean. The staff are as iconic as the customers with diverse cultures, ages, clothing and personalities the norm.

It is the great equalizer. At Walgreens in Central Square people do not care if you’re a famous Harvard or MIT professor or a homeless person. You could be a doctor that discovered a treatment for a rare cancer or a stay-at-home mom; a barista or a post doc; a nurse or a tatoo artist; no one cares. You are served the same, wait in the same line, and try and get your pictures printed from the same computer. This is one of the reasons I love the city.

While living in the suburbs it mattered to people that our banged up Toyota Camry sat next to their Lexus. It mattered that Aeropostale and Banana Republic were not in our closets and it mattered that we didn’t care. At Walgreens an equalization takes place – a leveling of the playing field. People may try to assume airs and superiority but these are forced to the surface and squashed as quickly as they are assumed.

It was at Walgreens that I made the acquaintance of a Jordanian woman who knew no English. She walked in the store passionately requesting information in Arabic. Blank faces looked her way, and then everyone went back to doing what they had been doing. So the voice got louder. And the staff? They had no time for this woman who was speaking rapid-fire Arabic. Walgreens may be the great equalizer – but only if you know English.

At this point, I, standing at least three aisles away from her and knowing I could understand at least the basics of what she was saying, moved in a bit closer. It was one of those times where in a flash I had to weigh my decision to get involved against the urgency with which I had originally entered the store – in other words, I didn’t want any obstacles in my way between checkout and walking home. And the woman (dare I say it?) was an obstacle. But obstacles that are human have this way of getting into your brain and reminding you that getting involved is sometimes a mandate, not a suggestion.

Her name was Laila and she was frantically asking where the mosque was. Good. I knew and could tell her. But there was more. She wanted a cart to carry her groceries on city streets. She was older and carrying bags was too much for her. In the space of a few minutes I had heard about her daughter and no-good son-in-law; her grandchildren; and the mosque down the street – it’s amazing what you can learn about another person in a short interaction.

We found the cart in the front aisle but when I told her the price she looked dismayed. She took out a ten-dollar bill, held it out to me and began bargaining with me on the price. My Arabic is basic at best and she was persuasive. She kept pushing the ten-dollar bill into my hands, explaining that this was all she had. But there was a problem – I hadn’t set the price, Walgreen’s had. And if we know one thing in America – we don’t bargain. While an art form in some countries, it is simply not done in American retail. I laughed and told her that this would not happen, she would have to pay full price. So she argued some more. I responded that if she was in Jordan, this would work, but in America she would have to pay full price. And she argued more. I had met my match.

It was about this point that it dawned on me that I would be the one paying for the cart; her bargaining had worked, thought not in the way either of us intended. So we moved up toward the check out.

This is where something interesting happened: the staff previously uninterested and annoyed began treating the woman with kindness and respect. I watched in amazement. As I pulled out my debit card to pay for the cart, the staff were no longer annoyed or dismissive, but engaged and attentive. Through one interaction a domino effect began and she was suddenly worth while. She had been humanized, deemed worthy of having someone get involved, someone pay, and in the humanization the attitudes of all observing her changed.

It was a strong lesson to me in the power of actions. Very rarely do I feel like my actions to either get involved, or not get involved, matter. But to the person who needs us, it makes all the difference in the world.

We hugged goodbye, Laila and me, and she walked off with her cart to the mosque. I have never seen her again and my guess is she may not even remember me, but I am reminded of the lesson every time I go to Walgreens.


Offending and Mending

At one point while living in Cairo we were hunting for a flat on the island of Zamalek. After a day of searching, walking endlessly down dusty streets and alley ways, we were tired and had seen some of the ugliest apartments imaginable.

We had just walked up 8 flights of stairs and, on a scale of ugly to uglier to ugliest – this was the ugliest flat we had seen. My husband and I were getting increasingly more frustrated, feeling the cross-cultural disconnect of trying to communicate what we were looking for in a flat, so when the man showing us this particular flat asked us if we liked it,  my husband looked at him and said clearly“No. This flat is the ugliest flat I have ever seen” (With a toilet seat cover made of a deck of cards and a kitchen that resembled a tiny sauna, it was) Quickly we realized he had insulted the landlord, mistaking him for the bowab, a man who guards the front door and asks for baksheesh (a tip) once a month. “You don’t like my flat?” He said in a loud and puzzled voice. We had the grace to pause and look at each other, suddenly realizing that he had committed a no-no in apartment hunting in Cairo – insulting the landlord. But we were tired and defeated, so my husband said emphatically “No – we don’t like your flat. At all.” and off we went. Once back on the street we took one look at each other and burst into laughter. It was completely inappropriate given we had just insulted our host but we couldn’t stop. The incident was only one of many times where we realized we had a lot to learn about living cross-culturally.

The reality of living cross culturally is that there are times when, despite our best intentions, we offend.  Sometimes its pure ignorance, other times it’s because we are tired, and still other times we are in a cultural conflict and don’t even care that we are offending. If we have never offended, then I would suggest that we have not crossed over those important relationship boundaries and are spending too much time with those who are exactly like us, rather than boldly engaging those who are different.

These moments can be great for a couple of reasons.   One is that we learn from them; they are our most teachable moments in cross-cultural living and communication.  The other is that once we heal from the discomfort and sometimes painful residual effects, they are great moments of humor.

In a recent workshop I used the phrase “Offending and Mending”. I made it up on the spot and I like it. It recognizes the reality: We will offend. But the phrase goes further, also recognizing the importance of knowing the culturally appropriate way to mend the offense in order to move forward in relationship.

Mending is often as simple as being willing to admit I am wrong and taking extra care and effort with the relationship in the future.  Other times it’s as complicated as paying a visit and sitting in discomfort until the atmosphere thaws and we suddenly feel like all is made right.

I believe cross cultural adjustment is analogous to language learning. There are supposedly two types of language learners; those that immediately begin practicing with the little they know, despite making mistakes, and those that wait until they have the perfect sentence structure and then go and try it out. Supposedly the first group learns far quicker. I would say the same is true in cross-cultural communication. There are those that go out and build relationships without knowing everything, making mistakes and learning in the process; and those that study until they think they have it all correct, determined to make no mistakes. I would argue that there is no way they can get it 100% right all the time and that they lose a lot in relationship building in the process.

What do you think? What are your stories of offending and mending? This is a great topic to learn from each other so please share your stories!

Communicating Across Cultures Through ESL

Today’s guest blog is by Jessica Stamper. Jessica has a heart for people of different backgrounds and cultures, finding a myriad of ways to connect with them. Best of all, she has found a way to communicate across cultural boundaries just 15 minutes from her house. Read on….

I stepped out of my vehicle and onto the sidewalk. The strange smells and unfamiliar faces left me with a terrible desire to run – but I couldn’t run. What kind of volunteer gives up on the first day? And besides, it seemed as if the whole street already knew I was there. Strange faces appeared at the doors as I walked down the street, clutching my book bag. As I said hello, I got the distinct feeling they didn’t speak English. This was going to be scarier than I had thought. Three more doors, and I’d be at the address my contact had given me. I scanned the street, desperately hoping to see the American who had promised to introduce me to the Nepali family that I would be teaching. Not a sign of her – and for that matter, not an American anywhere!

I didn’t even have a chance to knock on the door before it was thrown open, and a smiling Nepali lady motioned for me to come in. I was taken aback by her kind welcome. She smiled, and her cheerful, sweet spirit melted the fear that gripped my heart. And then … she walked out the door, leaving me standing in her living room with numerous Nepali family members who spoke absolutely no English. My terror was mounting by the minute.

Manisha, the oldest member of the family, stood and greeted me in the traditional Nepali manner – palms together, “Namaste.” She smiled. I greeted her in English, though I was acutely aware she didn’t understand a word of what I said. Sameer, the only person present who spoke any English, motioned for me to take a seat, and I did so gladly.

After several times of introducing myself to the constant stream of Nepali relatives, the three girls whom I was assigned to teach arrived home from school. They were all smiles, but quite unsure about this new, very white teacher who spoke so strangely. But before long, we were paging through their readers, sounding out English words.

Bimla – the youngest of the three girls – wiggled closer to me, and put her hand on my arm, questioning. I noticed for the first time the henna designs on her hands and arms – beautiful, intricate drawings. “How you say? Ephelant? Yes?” I corrected her, and we sounded out the word together.

All too quickly, the girls finished their homework, and it was time for me to head home again. Rather than feeling relief that it was over, I found myself wishing I didn’t have to leave! Manisha and her older daughter and three little girls all crowded around the door, eager to see me off. Smiling and waving, their love for me – a perfect stranger! – humbled me and melted my heart.

Throughout the evening, I had become aware that I really, truly loved these girls. I loved these people. True, I was terrified. The language, culture and traditions were so foreign to me. It was terrifying to realize that, suddenly, I was the foreigner in a strange culture! But the rewards of loving, of giving, were so overwhelming. These refugees had become my friends.

Loving others – our friends, neighbors, church people, refugees – is risky. We run the risk of rejection, of misunderstanding, of uncomfortable situations. But when we’re willing to reach out in love, the rewards are great and the joy is overwhelming. Even if we have to push past our fears, and be willing to reach out of our cultural cocoon, it’s worth it.

I may never be able to fully communicate with my Nepali friends. I may never be able to share the joy of the incredible Treasure I have found in Jesus Christ, in words that they can understand. But love needs no language; love is not bound by cultural boundaries. Let’s take the risk, and love fully and deeply. I think we’ll find it the most rewarding thing we’ve spent our lives on, if we only step out and love the people around us.

More about the author:

Jessica is a seamstress by trade and lives in Eastern Pennsylvania where she enjoys working in two local cities among people from various cultures, languages and religions. She is part of an urban children’s ministry, and a volunteer with Church World Service. Jessica loves children, and enjoys language learning, cross-cultural work, writing, and above and in all that, serving and loving Jesus. Jessica blogs at http://jessica-delightingingod.blogspot.com/.

The Sun Dial and the Dentist – The Story of a Conflict

"Dentist examining child's teeth. Interio...
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As much as I pride myself on being a creature that is not “time bound” there are those moments when I wish that I operated more efficiently….in other words, I’m not always proud of being late.

Culturally based views of time have been the impetus for millions of cross-cultural conflicts – probably since the beginning of time. The conflicts are not pretty. The people on the “mañana” and “bukra” side juxtaposed between those with Swiss watches and German minds. The sun dials vs. the Swiss watches. Empires can rise and fall based on views of time, business deals can perish, relationships can sour, all because of time.

I am a sun-dial. I have already confessed to this in an earlier post. I have a loose view of time and one not-so-pretty conflict came at the dentist office.

To get the full picture of this story, one has to appreciate two things – how much I love being a sun-dial and how much I despise the dentist. When I am told to hurry and be on time, I am paralyzed. I have also had 5 babies naturally, coping with the discomfort of labor through good breathing and good support. I would rather have 15 babies naturally than ever have to go to the dentist. I realize that the word despise is not weighty enough for the way I feel. That dreaded question: “Did you floss?” And of course I answer yes, and with one look, they know that I’m lying.

But on to the story. It started with the dentist’s able assistant Debbie. She was perfect. Her teeth were even more perfect. They were the straightest, whitest, teeth I have ever seen. And I’ve lived in Arizona where Botox and white teeth are fairly common. Read on…..

“I’m Late” I announced rushing through the doors to the dentist’s office.“Yes you are” was the curt reply from Debbie.“Am I quite late or just a bit late” I was desperate to justify my ‘lateness’.

You are late”.  Three words from Debbie. She was diligent, she was beautiful and she had pearly white, straight teeth.  My teeth are somewhat crooked and not so white and somehow all this made my lateness worse.  I began to babble and felt myself growing hot trying to explain cross-cultural views of time. This was not the time or venue for a teaching moment.

This scenario had happened several times and although I wanted Debbie’s approval it was not going to come until I arrived on time.

I found that when I most wanted to get approval from this strange world filled with unrecognized cues and cultural nuance, I blew it even more.  Like being on time, saying the right thing, ordering coffee. All seemingly simple, but like bringing snacks for soccer games, I would panic. For instance, in America you are supposed to deflect compliments. I didn’t know this. When someone gave me a compliment on what I was wearing I would tell them where I got it and how much it cost. In America when you are offered something to eat and you refuse, you are not usually offered it again. In the places where I lived you always refused the first time, and the second, and usually said “Yes, if it’s not too much trouble” the third time around. In America you come on time.

Like most conflicts we were both convinced that we were correct. She told me that I “was in Rome and should do as the Romans” to which I responded “But I’m an Egyptian in a Roman empire!” and she didn’t think I was funny.  So we did what is important in cross-cultural conflict: We negotiated.   Like all resolution of cross-cultural conflict, it took coming to an agreement in the middle. In this case the “middle” was the little reminder card that comes from my dentist letting me know that the exciting appointment is coming up.  She agreed to set my time on the reminder card as a half hour earlier than it actually was.  The first time using the system I was early. I would have been twenty minutes late if it was the real time but because the reminder told me that the appointment was earlier I arrived 10 minutes early. She was pleased and I was delighted.  It worked well for a time.  Then I figured out the system, arrived late, and war broke out.

Time for another round of peace negotiations between Debbie and I. What will the middle look like this time?  No wonder the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is so complicated.  It’s about a far more than teeth and time.