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...
Image via Wikipedia

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.