An East-West Conversation

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“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.

No Better Place Than This…

“Third culture kids, immigrants, refugees, foreigners.”

“We find each other in unlikely spaces. In the shared experience of other, we find belonging and rest, whether in a short ride to an airport or a long-distance phone conversation. These moments of connection seem to come at the right time, sustaining us until the next encounter, preventing us from falling into an abyss of self-pity and isolation.” (p. 181 of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging)

I got together with a fellow immigrant (she – a real one, me – an invisible one) the other day. Talking together was easy and natural. Oh there were plenty of missed cues, and ‘what do you mean by that?” questions, but the ease with which we communicate across those boundaries are what was so refreshing.

We were at home in the shared experience of being outsiders. We are the ones who don’t completely fit into our surroundings, but work to live well despite the poor fit. The gift of shared experience lasted for a couple of hours, and then it was time to be on our way. We left the coffee shop, bound more tightly together by our vast global network of people, places, events, and memories. We left with more stories that link us to each other and to the world.

As I walked back to my apartment, a cold rain was falling. Slush and rain puddles crept through my boots, but somehow it didn’t matter. I thought about friendship and contentment, and how long it sometimes takes to accept our reality.

It has taken me a long time to live effectively in my passport country. For so long I looked and wished for a better place. Slowly, I’ve given up a dream idea that there is a better place than right here, right now. I no longer live with unrealistic expectations and frustrations with those around me (at least not most of the time!) Instead, I’ve realized there is no better place. Right here, right now – wherever that is for any of us – is the best place.

There is no ‘better place’ than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven…

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

And in the “no better place than this” I will continue to meet strangers and soulmates, fellow immigrants and those who have lived here forever. I will connect immediately with some and tentatively with others, because that’s life.

And in all of this, I will learn more about loving and keeping place, and in doing so, join it to Heaven.

On East and West (and In Between!)

stereotypes

A few months ago I was invited to do an interview with Orthodox Christian Network. The interview was with Father Chris Metropulos, President of Hellenic College Holy Cross in Brookline, Massachusetts.

I was invited to respond to several questions about growing up in Pakistan, about living in both Pakistan and Egypt as an adult, but mostly about some of the differences between East and West, and what building bridges might look like. Any of you who have read Communicating Across Boundaries know that this is the whole reason I began writing, so it was a gift to be able to communicate some of that verbally.

I’ve included a link to the audio of the interview, but I also wanted to write down some of what I prepared in writing to prompt me when responding on air. Building bridges, reaching across ethnic, racial, and other divides, communicating across the boundaries that divide us – these are the things that make my heart beat faster and harder. These are the things that motivate me to get up in the morning. I’d love you to listen to the interview (even if I might perhaps maybe definitely hate the sound of my voice in the audio) but if you don’t have time, here are the written responses to some of the questions that were asked


Raised in a missionary family, Marilyn Gardner spent her childhood and adolescence in Pakistan and raised her five children in Pakistan and Egypt. She now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she works as a public health nurse with underserved immigrant communities. Marilyn is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and blogs at Communicating Across Boundaries and A Life Overseas. Her new book Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey will be released in March of this year.

What can you tell us about your book that will help us understand each other better and your journey of faith?

Worlds Apart is about 3 things that are interwoven – being a third culture kid (which essentially means being someone who was raised in a country outside of their passport country for their developmental years), Pakistan, and faith. At the beginning, it was going to be just about living between worlds, but the more I wrote, the more I realized that the other consistent thread through the book is faith.

My parents were Baptist missionaries in the country of Pakistan. They arrived in Pakistan not many years after Pakistan’s birth as a nation and thus, separation from India. They raised five children in Pakistan.  Faith was ever-present in our home through prayer, devotions, and decision-making; but it wasn’t only in our home. Equally strong faith with all around us. The call to prayer sounded five times a day, mosques were on every corner, faith was alive and well, despite different truth claims. My childhood experience with faith set the stage for later moving into the Orthodox Church.

In his poem The Ballad Of East and West, Kipling wrote: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat.” What is your experience of living in the East and West? Do you see yourself and your work as a meeting place, a juncture perhaps?*

Kipling does have a great way with words, particularly when talking about East and West.

There is a cartoon that I believe captures the divide between East and West. It’s a cartoon of a fully veiled woman on the left, and a blonde woman in a bikini on the right with sunglasses on. Each of them have bubbles over their heads. The bubble over the blonde’s head is “Everything covered but her eyes, what a cruel, male-dominated society!” The veiled woman also has a bubble over her head:  “Nothing covered but her eyes. What a cruel male-dominated society” This cartoon is so accurate in showing the dangerous stereotypes that are made about both east and west. The problem of course with stereotypes, is that they put people in boxes and don’t let them out.

One of my favorite authors says this about stereotypes. “The problem with stereotypes is not that they are incorrect, but that they are incomplete. No one is a single story.” As I speak and write, I am more and more aware of the complexity of human thought and experience, as well as the multiple perspectives that can be seen across almost any subject.  I’ve witnessed stereotypes on both sides of the globe, but the more resources we have at our disposal for learning about difference, the more culpable we are if we continue to perpetuate those stereotypes instead of confronting them for what they are.

In the last few years, my work has become a meeting place of sorts, as I have been able to do a lot of work as a public health nurse around cancer screening in the foreign-born Muslim community in greater Boston. This has been a gift and a connecting point between my past and my present.  But our home in Cambridge was a meeting place way before my work became one. At a recent Thanksgiving meal, our home was full of people from many different countries, and as I observed a Syrian and an Israeli communicating over tea and pie, I had a deep feeling of gratitude that our home in the United States could be a juncture for people from different places, backgrounds, and faiths to meet.

In all that I do both professionally and personally, I believe with all my heart that how we view the one who is other is an important conversation, and I love having those conversations.  The conversations come out in my writing and in my interactions with people from around the world who have made Boston and Cambridge their home.

What made you write Worlds Apart? Is this a visceral reaction to the current political climate?

I began to write Worlds Apart way before this current climate. The first bits of it were written about 8 years ago, and I remember reading a couple of them to my oldest daughter Annie, who is an excellent writer by her own right. It was Annie who didn’t laugh when I said I wanted to start a blog and gave me excellent tips. So I began blogging, but in between blogging I would go back to this idea of writing a memoir about my life in Pakistan. So the fact that it has taken this long to become a book feels providential. I can’t think of a better year for this book to be released so I am thrilled.

Your love for Pakistan and its culture is something that anyone who has lived in these parts of the world can relate to, and yet there is much to be desired, that it is hard for someone who have never lived there to comprehend. As you are beautifully positioned between worlds how can you help us understand what makes us uncomfortable? Is it our way of perceiving, our own fears that prevent us from connecting?

There is a French philosopher who says the first spontaneous reaction in regard to the stranger is to imagine him as inferior, since he is different from us.  Therein, I believe, is your answer. Which is why I think the Holy Scriptures are so full of verses about welcoming the stranger.

When we moved to the United States, I remember having our kids’ friends over for dinner. Often they would see foods they had never seen, much less eaten at our table. Their automatic first reaction to seeing this ‘strange’ food was immediate and strong: “Uuuuhhh! What’s that??” They would  look at a dish of spinach curry and immediately assume that this food was not as good as what they were used to. It is the French philosopher’s quote in action.  I believe strongly  that this is the very first, unfiltered version around the world when any one of us confronts difference in the form of a stranger. Yet, more and more, encountering the stranger is part of our daily life. 

Sometimes the encounters are interesting, intriguing, fun, joyful. Other times encounters are troubling, assaulting us with faces, smells, clothes, and accents that exacerbate the differences we feel and make us uncomfortable and fearful. Sometimes those feelings of discomfort spill over into anger or judgment.

But I believe with all my heart that the way we confront difference, the way we treat the stranger, reflects what we believe. If we consider the stranger to be inferior because he or she is different than we’d best ask ourselves ‘why’, best examine our motivation and our heart.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in,naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.”*

From Genesis to Hebrews to James we have clear instruction and wisdom on how to treat the stranger. The words of Jesus call us to feed the hungry, bring drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick, come to the prisoner. The writer of Hebrews asks us to show ‘hospitality to strangers for by it some have entertained angels’. Hospitality holds a high premium in Middle Eastern culture, both now and in Old Testament times. The Bible is not ambiguous in its commands.

Ronald Rohlheiser is a an author who has written profoundly about ‘otherness’ in a book called Sacred Fire. He says this:

We are constantly being overwhelmed by otherness. Nothing is safe for long. More than any previous generation, we are being stretched beyond what is familiar. Often that is painful and disorienting….(p 267) The simple fact is that otherness frightens us and often brings out the worst in us. It is not easy to be comfortable with, at home with, and welcoming to, what is other, different, and often seemingly deviant. (p269) 

Ultimately we must move on to face and accept otherness, strangeness, difference, what is foreign. Our survival depends upon it. We can no longer live just among our own. Sooner or later, given that the planet is both limited and round, we will find it impossible to avoid what is foreign to us. What is strange to us will soon enough be part of our neighborhood, our home, our church, and our perspective on things. 

 Moreover, welcoming what is other and different is in fact, a key biblical challenge… God is defined precisely as “Other”, as what is beyond imagination, outside the realm of the familiar. This is what scripture means when it calls God holy. Biblically holy is not primarily a moral quality but an ontological one—namely, otherness and different from us.

 Thus, biblically, we have the tradition within which revelation from God is understood to come mostly through the stranger, the foreigner, the unexpected, in the unfamiliar, in what is different, in the surprise. For this reason the scriptures insist on the importance of welcoming strangers. (p270)

On Fear: I think safety has become something of an idol in the Western world. And I think many make too many decisions based on this. We are slaves to the images and stories we hear on the media, and if we’ve never met someone from Pakistan, or from Syria, or from Afghanistan, or Iraq or Iran, then our default is to cling to what we do know. And what we do know is fear-based. It tells a story of terrorism and Islam and chaos. Our faith must transcend this. We must ask ourselves the question “Does God really love me more than the rest of the world?” I think if we’re honest we think he does. We think we’re his favorites. But there’s no qualifying line in John 3:16. It says “For God SO loved the world.” Not for God so loved Russia. Or For God so loved Greece. Or for God so loved the United States.  It’s “the world” and I believe it’s important that we examine our hearts around who we consider to be God’s favorites.

Finally as a child of a missionary family from Pakistan, you have continued to work in the Middle East, bringing aid and working with the refugees. It seems you are in some way continuing the calling of your parents, would you agree?

You know, for a missionary kid, the word ‘calling’ is loaded. I wrote one time about  “calling” and asked the question if it’s in our DNA.  I believe that any Christian has one primary call – and that is to God and his church. Beyond that, there are all kinds of creative ways that we exercise our faith. What I do believe is that I have had wonderful, and often unique, opportunities both internationally and in the United States to interact with people who don’t share the same faith, culture, or truth claims that I do. I am grateful that I have had the opportunities to move forward in relationship with many of these people. I don’t know if that’s calling, but it is responding to opportunities that I have been invited into.

What would you wish to see happening as a result of the publication of your book?

Obviously, I would love it if people read it and the journey of faith resonates with them. I would love for the book to bring honor to Pakistan and the minority Christian community there. I would love for it to be a book that is a bridge-builder, for people who would never pick up a book about Pakistan to pick it up. But I can’t count on any of this. I just know that in God’s incredible grace, he allowed me to begin writing and gave me words that were well-received by others. And so ultimately, I want this to bring honor to God.

If there is purpose to our lives, what would that be?

I think if every day we know God a little more than the day before and translate that into loving people a fraction more every day, then that’s enough. And that really is possible. I guess if pressed,  I want my gravestone to say “She loved God and she loved people.”


*When I sent the audio link to my brothers, my brother Stan responded with this important caveat:

BTW, the quote from Kipling often (usually?) omits the last lines at the end of the poem: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat. But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth.”  Kipling has very often been accused of being a bigoted colonialist. In fact, when read fully, Kipling is exactly the opposite and gives dignity to every character except those on all sides who are indeed the bigots.


NOTE: This piece has been edited to reflect the new title and re-release of Passages through Pakistan to Worlds Apart:A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

Audio Interview: On Understanding the Differences Between East and West – Marilyn Gardner

 

”I’m not from here…wherever ‘here’ is.”

Not from here

I’m from the edges of the map
the edges of the Pacific

I’m from the edges of the room
the outside looking in

I’m from Southeast Asia
unless you mean my nationality

I’m from the U.S.
unless you mean where my heart is

I’m not from here
wherever “here” is

by Cindy Montgomery Wyneken


A few months ago. I was with a group of global nomads and the “I’m From” poem exercise came up as an activity to do with students, third culture kids, immigrants, refugees, expats and all those who live between. We talked about using words to explore the complexity of our journey. These “I’m From” poems become mini memoirs telling a part of our story that otherwise remains hidden.

When I first arrived in the United States as a college student, holidays were the times when I struggled the most. The “Who am I?” and “Where am I from?” questions became much more acute.  I’m not in the same place anymore, but I remember well what it was to be in that space.

If you are around third culture kids, global nomads, or cross-cultural kids during this holiday season, it may be good to be aware that this is not an easy season for those struggling with identity. The families and communities that we create when we are away from our passport countries are close and unique, borne of mutual need and shared understanding. Our extended biological families do not always have the same intense connections. Auntie Anne may be wonderful and warm, but may not have much understanding of where the third culture kid is coming from both physically and ideologically.

These “I’m From” poems are a window into the world of those who may look like you on the outside, but have had a vastly different life experience because of where they were raised. These poems express in writing what can be so hard to articulate verbally.


If you are one who opens your home to these kids and adults, Taylor Murray at the blog A Life Overseas has some suggestions of questions to ask that may help you communicate and connect.  She divides the questions into “Church-Lobby Questions” and “Coffee Shop Questions”.  Taylor says this about connecting with third culture kids:

Most MKs/TCKs are asked hundreds of questions during their families’ home assignments. Ironically, many of us leave our passport countries feeling unknown. In all honesty, we usually don’t answer questions well. Our fumbling answers can create distance.  Many times we feel as though these questions are asked politely, without time or desire to listen to our answers. In order to avoid awkwardness or unintentional hurt, TCKs can detach and dispel memorized responses.

This makes it difficult for those who truly want to connect. Have you ever longed to know a TCK, but don’t know how to reach his or her heart?  Have you sensed that we struggle to respond to your questions, but don’t know what else to ask? As an MK/TCK, I’ve learned that certain questions can unlock the heart.**

These questions can be a way to bridge gaps of understanding and help connect the third culture kid to others in the room.

I have my own favorite questions adapted from Taylor’s piece:

  1. What is one of the funniest things that happened to you in your host country?
  2. Where do you feel most at home?
  3. What are some impressions that people from your host country have of your passport country?
  4. Can you tell me a bit about the political situation in your host country?
  5. What have some of the biggest surprises been about living in your passport country? Challenges?
  6. What are some of the things you had to leave behind?

*Recently, the “I’m From” poem that Adelaide Bliss wrote three years ago resurfaced on the blog. A new reader found it and, inspired, wrote her own “I’m From” poem.

**I have changed Taylor’s response to include TCK, not just MK (Missionary Kid).

 

A Life Overseas – When You’re Sure God Loves Ann Voskamp More Than He Loves You…


”I’m pretty sure God loves Ann Voskamp more than he loves me.” 

I wrote this to a friend recently. I don’t even know Ann Voskamp, but I was still convinced that when it came to actual love, I was in the dog house and Ann was in the castle on the hill.

I mean, what’s not to love? She clearly loves Jesus. She gives money to the poor. She eats off the land (she’s a farmer’s wife for god’s sake). She adopts kids from places Far Away. She writes books that are poetic and lyrical and get onto the New York Times Bestseller’s list. Her inanimate books even love Jesus. She travels the world and writes about it. Plus, she’s thin. Everyone knows that God  likes thin people best. She even has a quote on the walls of the American University in Suleimaniya, Iraq. I saw it with my own eyes. Actually, through my husband’s eyes because they wouldn’t let me past security, but whatever.

So, yeah – I’m pretty sure God and Jesus and the whole Trinity love her more, because when I compare my little life to that of Ann Voskamp? I can’t even.

I have weighed myself on the scale of God’s love, and I have been found wanting. 

It’s kind of depressing. No – it’s not kind of depressing; it is deeply depressing. Not that they love her more, but that in my heart I really believe this. And if you’re honest, you probably believe that God loves some people more than he loves you.

Because let’s just get it out there in black ink: It’s so hard to believe that we are loved uniquely, deeply, completely, and unconditionally by a God who delights in us. It is so easy to see why he loves other people, but it is so difficult to get that he loves us. He saw what he made, and he called it “Good!”.  Our thinking is distorted and we are tricked into believing lies abot God, lies about ourselves. 

Here’s the rub: If I really believe that God loves Ann Voskamp more than me because of all the things that she does better than I do, then I probably believe that God loves me better than some other people. As much as I deny that, the reasoning is logical based on my distorted theology.

Comparison kills and we will always be found wanting. Whether we convince ourselves that we are better or worse than the person we are comparing ourselves to, we will always lose. Always.

Comparison and envy rot the soul. 

A few years ago I wrote a piece about envy. I’ve included it today because this is what I need to come back to when I have thoughts like the one I confessed, thoughts that undoubtedly, God loves Ann Voskamp more than he loves me.

May all of us give our distorted theology to God and thank him that in his master design he made each of us and loves each of us – deeply, uniquely, and completely.


We sat in our postage stamp size garden, tea and home made cookies in front of us. The weather was beautiful — a cloudless seventy degrees, typical of a Cairo spring. It was early afternoon and the call to prayer had just echoed through the area from a nearby mosque.

We were talking about language learning, the time it takes, the struggle, how we vacillated between feeling like idiots to feeling like small children reduced to no verbs and minimal participles.

“I wish I had language ability like Claire. Her Arabic is so good!*”

The cloudless sky darkened and green entered my soul.

“Well – if you and I had been here as long as she has and if we didn’t have as many kids our Arabic would be good too!” I said it lightly with a laugh – eager to hide the ugly of my envy.

She laughed, whether in agreement or out of politeness, and the moment quickly passed.

But it didn’t. Not really.

Because this had happened more than once; this ugly envy that entered my soul around a myriad of things. Whether it was language learning or how many Egyptian friends I had, envy had this way of creeping in and affecting my friendships, destroying unity. 

Read the rest here.

A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones~ Proverbs 14:30

Have you dealt with potential competition or envy with fellow workers who are overseas?  It’s a hard but important question!

*name has been changed!


 

Culture Shock: When Your Soul Takes Longer to Arrive

culture shock.jpg

First you arrive physically and you are very tired. But only after a while, your soul gets here, too. Because the plane is very fast, but the soul takes longer to arrive.*

On Friday, my youngest son arrived home after two months of travel. He experienced hospitality, adventure, and food across Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, and Istanbul. He arrived physically exhausged but full of the best sort of stories and pictures. There are a lot of moments that transpire between goodbye and hello. 

In 2013, the BBC published a short video of a man from a tribe in the rain forests of the Amazon who had come to New York City to live. His words quoted above accurately describe our global world and remind us that though through plane travel we arrive quickly on the other side of the world, our souls take longer.

We have high expectations for ourselves. We expect to jump right into life, to pick up as though we are unchanged, to tell ourselves “it’s no big deal – I’m back now”. But when our souls are still a world away, we can’t fully connect.

We need time and we need grace.

Three years ago Robynn wrote a wise piece called “How to Give Yourself Grace: Advice to someone returning from a long journey.” As Robynn unpacks what this means, she says this:

You can anticipate some cultural confusion. When you switch a baby from breast-feeding to bottle feeding and then back to breast-feeding often the baby experiences some “nipple confusion”. As earthy as the metaphor might be, I think it describes some of what we feel when we return to our beloved places and then reenter our regular placements. We are confused. Our souls are unsettled. We knew a particular way and then we became used to a different way and now we’re back to the old way, but only temporarily and now we race to what was sort of familiar and yet now not so much. There has to be some cultural confusion….some yanking of our tethers, our leashes. We are whiplashed from culture to culture. You can expect to be out of whack!

 She goes on to say:

Resist the urge to return too quickly. Try not to rush back in. Breathe deeply. Move slowly. Go ahead and do the next thing on your list but don’t hurry. Your poor body has been around the world and back again. Let your soul catch up! Come home slowly.

I think of Robynn’s words as I pray for my son and as I watch him slowly enter, because his soul will enter slowly and he may need some time to breathe.

You can read Robynn’s piece here. I know many of you have been missing Robynn – she has take a break for a bit, and I hope to see her back soon resuming her Friday wisdom. 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21806193

Living Effectively in the Here and Now (AKA I’m not in South Asia anymore so….)


June is the month of transition for overseas workers and their families. It’s the month where many make the decision to stay – or to leave. 

Decisions to leave are not made lightly – I know this. They are made with butterfly filled stomachs, hurting hearts, and a lot of soul-searching tears. The decision to leave a place where you have invested your heart also comes with many fears and questions.

What will it be like for us on the other side? 
I’ve learned how to live well here – and it’s taken time. 

How will those invisible skills be used in my passport country? 


How will we live effectively? 

We haven’t heard from Robynn in a while – but today she’s at A Life Overseas talking about what it was like to move to the United States after living so many years in India. 

In a talk she and her husband gave at their church, she speaks to these questions. For all of us who have asked, or are asking, these questions, this post offers wisdom and grace for living well in the here and now.


 I recently was asked to talk to our church about how I live out my faith. It got me thinking. In 2007 we were “redeployed”. It’s a long story but we knew God was moving us from South Asia to Manhattan, Kansas. As I processed that move it struck me that Jesus must have Kingdom of Heaven Purposes in mind and yet I had no idea how to minister to people here. I remember asking someone how to talk about Jesus here, how to do good works in His name here in Manhattan. Her response was, “I don’t know! You’re the overseas worker!” She seemed like such an intentional person. I was so shocked by her response. I asked a few others. No one had anything very tangible or helpful to tell me. So….I consciously decided to pretend that everyone here was from South Asia! I would do what I knew to do! I would do what I’d been sent out by my church to do….but I’d do it here!

Here’s a little bit of what I mean:

I recognize I’m here for the Kingdom’s sake! My life has significance. I firmly believe Jesus asks us to live somewhere for a reason. We were brought here on purpose!

Intentional Involvement:Lowell and I intentionally think how we can get involved. I joined the PTO. I volunteered in the lunch room at Bluemont Elementary and then TR. Lowell joined the Friends of Sunset Zoo board. He’s now a court appointed special advocate for kids in the legal system. Those were all strategic decisions. How can we hang out more with people that needed hope? That seemed to be a good place to start. 

Read the rest here

People Have Friends; Governments Have Interests

When I first began dating my husband, I would joke that I dated him and 30 Iranians. Cliff had hundreds of friends and most of them were international students at the university he was attending.

During those initial dates we would go to underground Marxist events, Nowruz parties, or sumptuous Wednesday night dinners of kebabs, pilau, torshi, and tea served in special glasses with sugar cubes — all with Iranians. He counted them among his best friends. Through our courtship and then marriage they became my friends as well, some of them young men; others whole families. I became convinced that God created Iranian women first and used up so much beauty that there wasn’t much left for the rest of us. Bad theology? Maybe. Truth about their beauty? Absolutely.

It was during the Iran Hostage Crisis that my husband befriended these students and families. In a recent conversation one of his friends admitted that several of them thought he may be with the CIA. Who else asks that many questions?

Iran was not popular with the United States at the time. Three decades have gone by and not much has changed.

The number of countries that the United States considers dangerous has only increased during the past three decades. Different administrations have made a variety of statements and decisions about who is safe and whether they meet the litmus test of coming to this country.

During the same period of time, our friendships with people from these countries has only increased. In the last 7 years, we have had the privilege of traveling to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan, We have also formed friendships in Cambridge with people from Iran, Turkey, Palestine, Israel, Syria, Algeria, Somalia, and so many more. Two years ago, we were able to introduce a young Syrian family to a young Israeli family at a Thanksgiving gathering. Watching them talk and connect was incredible. Their former views of each other’s respective countries was through the barrel of a gun, not over tea and pumpkin pie.

“People have friends; Governments have interests” is a quote that I’ve heard many times. Living in the United States affords many of us unique opportunities to form friendships with people who are from countries considered dangerous, countries that are not counted as ‘friends of the United States’. Because we are not our governments. Our decisions on who to love, who to trust, and who to befriend are not dictated by who or what our government does; by who our government does or does not deem ‘safe’. 

Too many times we confuse the two. Subconsciously our attitude becomes: If the United States Government and the mainstream media sources do not trust a country, then we can’t trust people from that same country. If they are on bad terms we must be on bad terms. 

My husband and I are not unique in having Muslims as some of our best friends. We know many Christians who claim the same. And we are among many who believe friendship and dialogue trump government interests and activity every time. As I’ve seen articles and been in conversations there are times when I fear some Christians in the west allow government policies and opinions to dictate their friendships; other times when media sources control their hearts and minds. I would suggest that this is misplaced loyalty creating a poverty of thought and spirit preventing us from befriending and reaching out to those who God has placed around us.

From Cambridge, Massachusetts to Tehran, Iran, the last few years have given us uncountable opportunities for meaningful interactions, because people are not governments.

“If we leave it to the mainstream, corporate media to form our conception and understanding of the surrounding world, the entire universe will be a gloomy, failing and disappointing entity in which no sign of hope and dynamism can be found.”*

There’s more to say on this topic, but I want to open it up to you. Wherever you live, how does the government and media affect how you view people? Who you will or won’t let into your life? Do you agree with the quote “People have friends; governments have interests?” Why or why not?

*Quote from Kourosh Ziabari — an award-winning Iranian journalist, media correspondent and activist

Note: This post was revised from another written in 2014

Approaching the Holy

holy-ground

Our first task in approaching

Another people

Another culture

Another religion

Is to take off our shoes

For the place we are approaching is holy

Else we find ourselves

Treading on another’s dreams

More serious still, we may forget that God was there before our arrival.

We have to try to sit where they sit, to enter sympathetically into the pains and grieves and joys of their history and see how those pains and griefs and joys have determined the premises of their argument. We have, in a word, to be ‘present’ with them.”

Quote attributed to Max Warren in 1963 

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I just discovered this quote, written when I was only three years old. It is an amazing quote and a picture of the cultural humility that is critical in working across cultures, particularly when we are working in faith-based settings. In our fractured world, this feels more critical than ever.

Today, I want to sit with this quote and be reminded that this should be my posture every single day as long as I have breath. 

Graphic from The Culture Blend

It’s a Monday, and I’m traveling. I’ve been in San Diego since Thursday night, enjoying Palm trees, incredible sunsets, and the ocean. Best of all, I’m free from the tyranny of the undone and urgent. I think you know what I mean. 

Getting away gives perspective and peace and I’ve needed both. 

Because I’m traveling, I’m posting a graphic on transition that is an excellent description of the life of the expat wanderer. It comes from a blog called The Culture Blend.  The blogger, Jerry, is gifted at articulating some of the paradoxes of living cross culturally and giving practical ways to live and thrive in this journey. Enjoy this graphic and take a look at some other pieces on his blog! 

Along with the graphic, I’ve included an excerpt from the full piece.  

 

Where I live people come and go . . . a lot. That’s the part that they don’t put in the brochure when you move abroad . . .

“Adventure of a lifetime — Explore exotic lands! Learn new languages! Say goodbye to 20% of your friends every summer and random others throughout the year!” 

Sign here. 

It is a big painful part of the expat experience though. Transition that is. Not the expected ones like “culture shock”, bumbling language mistakes and system conversions. We saw those coming from a mile away (1.60934 kilometers). We read books and blogs about those. Some of us even went to seminars and conferences about how to “transition well”. There is no small bit of attention paid to the beginning phases of life as a foreigner. There is also a growing bit of attention surrounding the ending phases — leaving well, saying goodbye, repatriating, reverse culture shock and so on.

Not knocking that since . . . you know . . . I wouldn’t have a job without it.

BUT . . .

Here’s the kicker: As long as you live abroad — TRANSITION NEVER STOPS.

Read the entire post here! 

Dear Linda

rose-676760_1920In the middle of the night I got a message from my friend Linda that lives on the other side of the world. She is hurting. They left South Asia several years after we did. Her husband took a position that he finds fulfilling and satisfying. She however has struggled to find her place. She is lonely. The friendships she does have she holds onto tightly for fear that those friends will abandon her. She no longer knows who she is or what she has to offer.

It’s not the first such letter I’ve received. There was one eight or nine months ago from Lisa. Her family’s lease had been suddenly revoked. They were asked by their landlord to leave the acreage they (and others with them) had restored from a weed choked, overgrown plot of ruin to a luscious garden retreat space. Her heart was breaking too. How would she get passed the sense of loss? How would she find herself again…when so much of her was planted in the ground they had cultivated?

Still another email came in August. This particular friend, Susan, knows they are planning on leaving the city they’ve adopted as their own in Asia. All the signs are pointing in that direction but she is beginning to sense even now unintended sorrows and sadness. She wondered if there was a way to manage such a transition while mitigating some of the heartache. Is there a “how to” book for making such a earth-shaking, globe traversing change?

My heart connects so thoroughly with these women. They are my friends it’s true. But they are also travelling along some of the same roads that I’ve been on. I’ve walked down those pathways and they were not so easy. The journey from there to here is long and mostly uphill and it’s ever so painful. I want to protect them from the pain they are in or the pain they have yet to face. I want to make all their endings happy ones. I want to cocoon them with some mythical protective wrap that ensures they will get through the transitions without agony, with their souls intact, with their hearts unscarred.

I suspect Linda doesn’t just grieve for the place she left behind. She grieves for everything else that got left there too: her memories, her place in the community, the meaning-infused ministry she was a part of, her friendships –made deeper there by shared suffering over time. Her marriage looked different there. She parented differently there. Her children were younger then and responded differently to her. And while parenting and being a spouse have not changed–she is still a wife and a mother–it looks wildly different than it used to.

I’m guessing she also left huge pieces of her self somewhere in South Asia. Linda wasn’t being careless, she didn’t mean to forget to pack her personality and sense of self, but in all the chaos and change, she inadvertently forgot to bring Linda. At least that was my experience… When we returned I realized I had forgotten to bring me!

I know that sounds ridiculous! Of course I came back too….but really so much of me didn’t. Huge parts of my personality didn’t make the journey. There was no use for most of my knowledge or experience. It was no longer relevant. No one needs to know how long to pressure cook beans on this side of the ocean! And if that’s what I had to offer—suddenly I wasn’t offering much at all. The humour on that side, certain silly situations, daily living, prompted certain responses from me. With those prompts all gone or vastly changed I found myself responding in ways I didn’t recognize. I missed the old me. It took me awhile to get to know the new me.

Dear dear Linda (and Lisa and Susan too) –I want you to know that this time will end. There is a beginning, a middle and an end to every transition. I suspect, from what you’ve told me, that you are right smack in the middle. A kind lady, a momentary mentor of sorts, once told me that it would likely take me ten years to adjust to life here in the United States. My husband, Lowell, was shocked when he heard that! Ten years?! But for me it was very helpful. It would end. I would settle. I would get through this. And Linda, you will too. The heartache and the intense sadnesses will pass. You will find yourself again. The time of transition will end.

Time will generously give you new experiences. You are beginning to collect new memories and new stories. God is showing his new mercies for each new day.

Discovering who you are and what you have to offer in this ‘new’ place is perhaps the hardest part of this. It’s frightful and unsettling. I wasn’t brave enough to step out and try new things for a very long time. Even when I did I felt like I was mostly faking it. It didn’t feel right. It took a very long time to get past that. It’s only been the past year or so—and even the past few months—where I’ve begun to experience brief moments of a fully soul satisfied Robynn again.

Give yourself lots of time. Extend lots of grace to yourself. Cry when you need to cry. Drink lots of hot tea and bring to mind the presence of God. He is with you in this. He has not abandoned you. He knows who you are—there in that old life, and here in this new life. He’s not surprised by how you are doing. He’s not disappointed in you. His patience and tender care are enduring. He’s the only one that can fully relate to the amount of loss and change you’ve been through. God understands. He cares for you in your loneliness too. He is with you even in that place. When it feels terribly dark and you wonder if you really are going crazy–He brings a little bit of light and hope. Hold onto Jesus, sweet Linda. He has not changed.

You may always be a little lonely. That chapter in your life was rich with deep friendships and meaningful connections with your team, your international church, your community. Most friends now will likely not fully understand that. But God will give you others that, while not completely identifying with your past, will be able to meet you in your present. I suspect the ache for the “good ole’ days” will always be there but grief will be gently replaced with nostalgia. You will always miss the way it was, the way you were, but those longings will no longer paralyze you.

Linda, I’m so sorry. I wish I could make it better for you and easier. I will pray earnestly for restored joy, for the end to come when it needs to come (hopefully sooner rather than later), for new friends, for a new sense of purpose. All will be well….eventually….all manner of things shall be well.

When the World Comes to You

It was over a year ago when Elizabeth Jones contacted me. She had been reading and interacting with Communicating Across Boundaries for a while at that point, always affirming and entering into discussion in meaningful ways. I am delighted to have Elizabeth guest post today! Elizabeth watched the world come to her through her work as a chaplain in a busy, diverse, city hospital. 

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world, globe

Caring, Capable and Conscientious

Caring, capable and conscientious. That’s what I wrote on the fliers several years ago, advertising piano lessons I could teach from my home when my children were small. When I turned 40 and my mother died after several years of uncertain health, I went to seminary with the money I received from her small estate. As I formulated my new, chaplain’s resume, I turned to the same phrase—caring, capable and conscientious.

I enjoyed chaplain internship! I dug right into learning about different faith traditions. This was a natural progression for me, in learning more of how to accompany diverse people in crisis, critical care, trauma and end of life. It sounds rather odd, talking about my years of intensive learning and stressful internship in this way, but I very much appreciated every experience I had: both in the classroom, as well as on the floors and units of the hospitals and care centers.

I no longer serve as a chaplain, since I am now a small church pastor in the Chicago suburbs. But for almost ten years, in several hospitals and extended care centers in and around Chicago, I dealt with patients, their loved ones, and health care staff—on a regular, and sometimes daily, basis.

I appreciate Marilyn’s kind invitation to write a guest post. This blog ordinarily talks about the wide world, and how Marilyn and her friends and acquaintances navigate this world and cross visible and invisible boundaries and borders. Instead, I had the world come to me, in the hospital.

All three of the hospitals where I served were in the middle of multicultural areas, a crossroad of the multicultural communities of Chicago and the surrounding area. One of these hospitals has the distinction of sitting in one of the most diverse ZIP codes in the country. (The U.S. Census Bureau says so.) I never knew who was going to be in that next room I entered, or what situation I was going to encounter next.

People—when they become patients—are so often stripped of everything they have, everything they are. Especially in critical care, this hospitalization experience can be depersonalized. As a chaplain, I tried to bring some personal, pastoral care into each room I entered.

I have a big, friendly smile. It happens naturally. When I’d knock and enter a room, announcing myself as a chaplain, my smile would often automatically turn on. (It still does.) I’ve had people of all different faiths and all kinds of nationalities thank me for my smile and my genuine manner. “Your smile lights up the room. I really needed that,” one older woman told me.

I have sat with an aged senior in Cardiac Care, holding her hand with the chipping nail polish, as her life softly ebbed away. She was a nursing home patient and had no other relatives. I remember an Asian family in critical care, as their loved one had just died—complete silence and intense sadness greeted me as I came into the room. I entered the packed ICU cubicle—wall to wall with a Pentecostal Latino family, who wanted me to pray their brother (and uncle) across the River Jordan. (The waves of grief were palpable…I vividly remember.) And the couple who had just delivered a stillborn, full-term baby. Their first. The husband looked so lost, so alone. My heart still goes out to them both as I see them in my memory.

It wasn’t all end of life. I remember being asked to pray the Rosary with a Filipino family around their ill auntie, lying in the hospital bed. Then, talking haltingly in my schoolroom German with a grumpy old man who just spoke Russian—and Yiddish! (He was disgruntled that few could understand him. But with my cheerful efforts, I believe I made a difference.) The situation with an older Muslim patient, and the 20-something relative wearing hijab and very conservative dress; she earnestly asked me to pray. Of course I did! (And, I talked with her for a good long while afterward, since her loved one in the bed was non-verbal.)

Happy occasions happened, too. Often I would see patients get better, and get released. Also, I loved seeing all the babies. Bless the babies, and their families, as well.

Caring. Capable. Conscientious — The words continued to guide me as I tried my best to be warm and nurturing. I would strive to help, to serve, to come alongside of whoever needed me, or paged me, or stopped me in the hall. Just as I do now, in the suburb where my church is located. Multicultural Morton Grove, Illinois.

Again, the world is coming to me. I hope always to have my heart and arms open wide.

How has the world come to you? Please share your stories through the comments! 

More about the author:

ElizajonesElizabeth has been involved:

– as a pastor at St. Luke’s Christian Community Church, Morton Grove, Illinois

– in various ministry and prayer-related activities

– as a commissioned member in the Federation of Christian Ministries

She holds a Master of Divinity degree from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and a Certificate in Alcohol and Drug Counseling in Illinois (IAODAPCA). You can find her blogging at matterofprayerblog.wordpress.com

How do You Open Your Heart?

Fred Perry quote

A year ago I wrote a piece called “People Have Friends; Governments have Interests.” A friend of mine made this comment on the post, and so I offer it to you today.

I have been blessed to live in and travel much of the world that many Americans would consider dangerous and full of people who would mean us harm or ill will. Many of my best friends come from and live in these places that have been “branded” by media and by politics. The only way to experience the humanity of another or “the other” is to open your heart, your home and the opportunity for friendship and wait to be amazed.*

How do you meet those who are “the other?” What has helped you open your heart to those who are different from you?

*the quote is from our friend, Fred Perry. You can read more about him here.

Dear Mr. Graham, Let me Introduce you to Some Friends….

IMG_4480

Dear Mr. Graham,

I’d like to introduce you to some friends of mine. 

The first friend is Golnaz. Golnaz is a bright and beautiful young woman from Iran. My husband first met her while working on a project at Harvard University. It was an instant friendship and soon after he met her, he invited her to come to our home. We got to know her and her young son, inviting them to Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas open houses. At the time, Golnaz was single-parenting. She had no family around, and little community. In the seven years we have known her, we have watched her get a masters degree, work through the difficulties of a complicated divorce, and raise an amazing son.

Here’s another set of friends: They live in San Diego in a lovely home that they open up to us whenever we are in the area. Rehan is a brilliant geneticist and Ghazala is a physician. Their house reflects their Pakistani heritage, and their living between worlds reality. They have two sons: One in university and the other heading quickly into his high school years. Both are brilliant and personable, like their parents. Ghazala and Rehan have a strong faith and wake to the call to prayer on their alarm clock each day. We share history, stories, and deep conversations of faith together.

I mustn’t forget Ali Reza. When Ali Reza left the United States for Denmark, we all cried. He brought his parents to visit right before we left. We sat on our couch, on a warm summer evening drinking mint tea together and talking. We talked and talked – even though we only know phrases in Persian, and his parents only know a couple of phrases in English. No matter, we found that the connection, the friendship, was a gift. We communicated across the boundaries of faith, language, culture, and world view. Ali Reza was like a son to us during the year he was in the United States.

There are so many more! There are Payman and Farnaz, a lovely couple who make their home in a suburb of Boston; there is Hamra – an extraordinary artist living with her husband and baby near Harvard Square.

It would take too long to list everyone, and I want to get to my main point, which is this: I am deeply troubled by the comments you made publicly about Muslims and immigration and I believe you are culpable for many of the negative attitudes toward Muslims in the Evangelical church.

I would ask you to hear me out on this one: All of the friends I mentioned above are Muslims, along with many more Mohammads, Alis, Fatimas, Khadijahs and more.They all subscribe to different truth claims than we do; they celebrate different holidays, they have vastly different cultural backgrounds. And we count it a deep privilege, a joy, to walk through this thing called life together. They no more wear the ideology of terrorism than you wear the ideology of Westboro Baptist Church. They are as afraid of radicalization as you are. This is truth. They fear God and they seek to live well between worlds in their adopted country. And that country is the United States.

Let me give you a little history of my life: I was raised in the country of Pakistan, daughter of Christian missionaries. The call to prayer was my alarm clock, curry was my staple food, and Muslim women and girls were my aunties and my friends. I experienced extraordinary hospitality at the hands of the people of Pakistan. They offered us friendship, safety, and amazing food. Early on in life, my father would take us to see men praying at the large mosque in our city during the Eid celebrations. I would watch as a sea of white-clad men, all with prayer caps on their heads, bowed in unison as the muezzin chanted from the microphone attached to one of the tall minarets. I did not see terrorism, I saw devotion. I did not see anger, I saw zeal.

My husband and I went on to raise our own family – first in  Pakistan, and then in the country of Egypt. We love the Middle East and we love our many Muslim friends, both sides of the ocean.

And so when someone like you, with a reputation for doing good, someone with a vast following of Christians, makes the sort of statement that you made the other day about Muslims, I worry. A lot. Because I believe that the other day, in trying to express compassion for marines who were murdered, you misspoke and abused your position. I believe that you had a right to be angry, but your choice to exhibit the extreme racism and ethnocentrism that came through in your words was not wise. In fact, those words were angry, hurtful, and should be retracted.

You see, it’s not enough to do Operation Christmas Child on the other side of the world. Kindness and love of God needs to extend to people here as well.

As a leader, you have the ability to make friends and foster deep relationships with some of the Muslim leaders of this country. Muslims who are not radicalized, Muslims who fear God and long for change.

The lens through which we view the world is shaped by many things. And because of where I was raised, I am perplexed by the vehemence and hostility with which people who bear the name ‘Christian’ respond to the Muslim world. This was not something that my Christian parents taught me, not something that I was familiar with as a child.

Hear this Mr. Graham – You do not need to give up your truth claims to have dialogue. You do not have to give up the things that you hold dear, that you believe with all your heart, to be willing to form friendships and talk within relationship. In fact, your truth claims should guide you into those relationships without fear, without fear-mongering, but with humility and a desire to love and to understand. I am not asking you to not be angry about terrorism. I am not asking you not to express outrage at attacks against others that are carried out in evil malice. I am asking that you not stoop to the low-level of stereotyping all Muslims as terrorists. I am asking that you, as a Christian leader, walk the high road.

To build relationships with people of other faiths is not compromising our faith. Rather, it’s living out a faith that is not threatened but firm.

I am a little person in this big, wide, internet. But, should you want to talk, I would love to talk to you about this. Having spent a majority of my life living and working in Muslim countries, and with so many friends from Muslim majority countries, I believe I may be able to, in humility, offer a perspective.

Because you received excellent and Godly modeling from a man we all admire, and I would hope that you would be willing to listen.

Related Posts:

What Growing up in a Muslim Country Taught us About Christianity

The Hard Questions

Seeing Ghosts

Challenging Assumptions

This post has been closed for discussion. 

A Life Overseas – Offending and Mending

Readers, would you join me today at A Life Overseas? I’ve retooled an old piece!

view-of-the-city-700x469

Of all the difficult things we do in cross-cultural moves, finding places to live is near the top. We want to create space and place – we want to create home. And often our expectations are a planet away from our reality.

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

My husband and I were getting increasingly frustrated, feeling the cross-cultural disconnect of trying to communicate what we were looking for in a flat to what we were being shown. Precisely at this point we walked up 8 flights of stairs and, on a scale of ugly to uglier to ugliest we were shown the ugliest flat we had seen. Ever. Anywhere. 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 we have ever seen.” With a toilet seat cover made of a deck of cards, a kitchen that resembled a tiny sauna, and mirrors all over the gaudy red bedroom, it was hideous.

In that moment, by the look on the man’s face, 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 we 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. We would never live here. It’s ugly,” and off we went. Once back on the street we took one look at each other, and in the exhaustion of the day, 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 when we realized we had a lot to learn about living cross-culturally.

Read the rest here at A Life Overseas!

Cultural Competency – Tools for the Trade

If you have not read the previous posts on Cultural Competency, you are welcome to take a look! Today is the last in my 3-part series on Cultural Competency.

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Building Bridges city

“It’s easy! All it takes is caring!” 

“All you have to do is be sensitive!”

“I don’t know why this is such a big deal! In our [insert company name] we treat everyone the same!” 

These are a few of the things a colleague and I have heard when we talk about cultural competency, specifically when we conduct workshops on cultural competency.

We always breathe deeply and slowly before we respond. 

As normal as those phrases may sound, they are exactly the sort of phrases that create barriers to achieving cultural competency.

  • “It’s easy! All it takes is caring!” First off, let me say this: caring is good! Caring is essential. Caring is a great start. But, and this is a big but, it doesn’t give us what we need to communicate and function effectively across cultural boundaries. It’s a great and necessary first step but it is important to move beyond caring to offer culturally competent care and services. Here’s an example: For a long time I worked as a home care nurse. I would go to the homes of patients who had come out of the hospital but still needed nursing care. My patients ranged from new moms who were struggling postpartum, to oncology patients who were struggling with chemotherapy. The range of reasons for going to see patients was huge. The agency I worked with would always give me the “foreign” patients. It didn’t matter where they were from, it was assumed that because I had grown up overseas and then lived overseas as an adult with a lot of experience working across cultures that I would be the best one for the job. And sometimes I was, but not always. I remember a Japanese patient that I was caring for. I cared deeply for her, but I found it impossible to communicate. I felt loud and big in contrast to a woman who was quiet and small and lovely. One day with a shock I realized I would always put this patient at the end of the day, a time when I was busiest and had the least amount of time or energy. If I saw her then, I had a good excuse for a quick visit. I was not giving her good care. I was not communicating adequately and I didn’t know what was really going on with this patient. I cared – but caring wasn’t enough.
  • “All you have to do is be sensitive!” This is similar to caring. Sensitivity does not a culturally competent person make. Sensitivity means that an individual or organization responds to cultural differences and attempts to take them into consideration in their line of work. But if I don’t know what those cultural differences are, how can I take them into consideration? If I am unaware of the beliefs, values, and behavior of those I work with or serve, then sensitivity won’t take me very far. Again an example: Western biomedicine places high value on something called evidence-based medicine. Evidence-based medicine is a way of taking the best scientific evidence and linking it with a physician’s clinical expertise to better treat patients. What evidence-based medicine doesn’t do is recognize dual causality – the idea that the mind and body interact with each other and patients from different cultures and backgrounds believe there is both a scientific and a spiritual reason for their disease or ailment. A doctor needs to know their patients well enough to know if they believe in dual causality in order to give them the best care possible. They need to know that their patient believes that both chemotherapy and snake oil will cure their cancer. One of the best examples of collision of cultures when it comes to medicine is in the book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. I write about it here and highly recommend reading the book.
  • “I don’t know why this is such a big deal! In our [insert company name] we treat everyone the same!”  There is so much wrong with this I don’t know where to begin. First off, it’s a huge deal. We wear culture like our skin – we don’t even think about it until it is bruised or torn or burned. We don’t realize that everything we do is based on our cultural beliefs, until we encounter someone with behaviour and beliefs completely different from our own. And it’s all very well to say we treat everyone the same, but the reality is that they might not want to be treated the same. Their cultural norm could be completely different, whether it’s around greeting people or modesty or any other number of things.

So what are tools for the trade? We looked at some of these in the story about the FBI. Here are others that I think are excellent. I originally posted them in this piece: Tips for Working Cross-culturally in Healthcare Settings and Beyond. 

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Learn to be capable of complexity.
  • Be able to laugh at yourself and potential mistakes — if you don’t laugh you’ll find yourself crying way too much.
  • Build bridges – just as a bridge connects two bodies of land together over a vast chasm or river, so it is with us. The chasm of cultural disconnect and misunderstanding can be bridged, but it takes humans to bridge it.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again and again and again. None of this is easy. It’s not easy to listen. It’s not easy to be reflective of our own cultural values and see where bias, both conscious and unconscious, is present. It takes time and effort. It means putting some, not all, but definitely some of our values temporarily to the side while we focus on what is important to those around us. But it can make a huge impact and change outcomes no matter what sphere we find ourselves.

“Building bridges means moving beyond my enclave of cultural comfort, moving to a place of cultural humility and willingness to learn”Between Worlds, Essays on Culture and Belonging 

“Ignorance of cultural differences is one of the chief causes of misunderstanding in a world that is getting more and more interdependent on the one hand and increasingly torn with strife on the other.” – Fali Chothia

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

Blogger’s note: Just this morning a friend of mine from Families in Global Transition wrote this piece: How to Build a Bridge for Mental Migration. I love how well it complements this series and wanted to link to it.