A letter to Marilyn as she travels to India

For over 21 years I lived in Pakistan and never made it to India, despite her being right next door.

For those from the region, this will not surprise you. At any given time India and Pakistan struggle with a tenuous relationship, and growing up there were wars and rumors of wars that kept us from heading across the border. So as I’ve prepared to go to India, Robynn has been a wonderful friend and resource. Having lived for long periods of time in both countries, her heart has a divided loyalty – but she wears and articulates this division well. So here are her words to me this day.


Dear Marilyn,

Today you are traveling to India. There’s a few things I want to tell you, a few things I want to share.

  1. First off, you need to know that the idea of you traveling to India is killing me. I have a terrible case of travel-envy. I want to be you just now. I want to pull out my passport, push you out of the queue and travel in your place. Please enjoy every minute of it…because I’m traveling there vicariously through you and if I were there, I surely would!
  2. India is NOT Pakistan. I know you have a deep love and loyalty to Pakistan. I do too. We were both raised there. Our hearts have “lugged” there. We are attached to that place. But India is not Pakistan. Don’t assume they are the same country. Although they may be twins that were cruelly separated at birth, they are paternal twins, not identical ones. On the surface they share similarities but at the heart they are vastly different. Indians are more reserved, more contained. It’s a shyer country, if that’s possible. People from Pakistan tend to be more gregarious, friendlier, louder. They dress in different clothes. They prefer different foods. Indians eat more rice. Pakistan loves it’s chapatti.
  3. India gets in your blood. She has a way of moving in and forever ruining you. There is no ambivalence permitted: You will always feel a pull toward India or a push away from India. India calls for an emotive response and she always gets one!
  4. There is an intensity to Indian culture that will immediately strike you. The extremes, the contradictions, the climate, the population –all of it arduously affects the soul.
  5. Did I mention that India is not Pakistan?
  6. There are a few street foods that are worth getting sick for! You’ll never see this in a guide-book or a travel blog, but let’s face it, Gol Guppa (or Pani Puri as it’s sometimes called) is just about to die for…and you might nearly die for it if you try it from a street vendor…but it’s really almost worth it!
  7. Don’t expect India to meet your expectations! She will surprise you time and time again. Don’t try to make sense of her. Resist the effort to understand all that you see. Just experience it. Enjoy it. Engage. Your world will be changed, but you can sort that out later.
  8. Indians aren’t the same as Pakistanis but they do share certain values. You’ll enjoy expansive hospitality in India, akin to what you’ve known in Pakistan. Pakistanis and Indians love families and are quick to include you as one of theirs. Both countries love colour and conformity. Both countries understand chaos and a little confusion.

I guess that’s it for now. Really I’m so very pleased you get to go. India has a big space in my heart. Right next to the Pakistan space.

Travelling mercies.

The Arrogance of the Third Culture Kid – Part One of a Two-Part Post

Today I am delighted to have Cecily Thew Paterson from Cecily Mostly write a guest post. Cecily is an award-winning author living in New South Wales, Australia. She has written for Communicating Across Boundaries in the past with an excellent essay on poverty and it’s an honor to have her post again today.


Marilyn asked me to write a two-part series on the issue of TCKs and arrogance after we both contributed to a Facebook conversation. The request seemed easy enough at first, but quickly I realized this was bigger, and a bit more personal, than I had thought. I’ve decided to tell my story in the first part and then talk more broadly about TCKs and the perception of arrogance in the second.

When I was 16 my family returned permanently to Australia after living in Pakistan for 13 years.

It was September. I had finished Grade 10 in an international boarding school in June, and after a family holiday and a bit of sorting ourselves out we arrived in our new home – a country town of 10,000 people in rural New South Wales.
Because of the different school year in the southern hemisphere, I began school by going straight into the middle of term 3 of Year 11.

It wasn’t a simple transition.

The school was very reluctant to recognize my previous education. “We don’t know what level British GCSE qualifications are,” they said. “Maybe you’ll be behind in our syllabus,” they said. “After all, you are missing more than six months of Year 11,” they said.

It took me two weeks of maths tuition with a teacher in the term 3 holidays to catch up on calculus, but in every other subject I was ahead or on par. And when I topped the Year 11 exams in most courses, they scratched their heads.
“Oh well, they must do things alright over there in Pak-i-stan,” they said.
My attitude to school was pretty simple. I thought it was mostly a waste of time. I wanted to get in, do the work, do the homework, get my final HSC qualifications and move on.

“I’m really just waiting to go overseas again,” I told the nonplussed careers advisor in my compulsory career interview in term 4. “I certainly don’t plan on staying here in Australia for long.”

I bumped up against the school again and again. First I decided I didn’t want to study their English syllabus. I objected to one of the books and declared that I’d do my own individual study of Jane Eyre in the library during that time, thank you very much. And I certainly wasn’t going to attend the two-day ‘study skills’ camp that came around in early Year 12.

“What’s the point of going to learn how to study, when you’d be much better off using the time to actually study?” I asked. “By the time the HSC is over, I’ll have done 66 exam papers in 18 months. I think I know ‘how’ to study. I won’t go.”
The school insisted I at least go to the library to study if I wasn’t going to attend camp.

I sniffily acquiesced, but only because I had to.

Socially, I couldn’t be bothered. I found one friend on my wavelength and hung out with her group of girls, but the truth is that I thought most of them were stupid/trivial/ignorant/uninteresting/unsympathetic/badly educated. Take your pick of adjectives. And I was scared of the rest of them. Others were interested only in getting me to ‘say something’ in my peculiar mash-up of an international accent or making comments about how ‘posh’ I was because I held the door open for someone once.

I appeared to be, as my thirteen year old daughter might now say, “arrogant, much?”

But as with all stories, there’s more than one way of looking at the same situation. To my English teacher (who exploded at me one day, yelling for a full eight minutes about Jane Eyre and study camp and ‘people who call themselves Christians’ and then storming out of class) I was simply, to use a good old Aussie expression, ‘up myself’. A person who thought I was better than everyone else.

It was partially true. But if she’d known more about me, she might have found out the following:
In the previous two months I’d said goodbye to my friends, to my school, to my home, to my adopted country and to the identity I’d had for sixteen years. I’d sobbed at the airport and on the plane. I’d moved to a new town, to a new home and to a new school and had to start over in what was effectively a foreign culture and educational system. I was struggling to make friends and connect with people.

I felt all of this as an actual pain. It was like my physical heart had a piece ripped out of it.

I didn’t know how to do my hair, I didn’t know which school shoes to wear, I felt naked in the compulsory thigh high sports skirts we had to wear on Wednesdays, I didn’t know the rules to netball and I didn’t have a team to follow for rugby league. I hadn’t watched the shows the kids at school had watched, or listened to the music they’d listened to, or been around town half my life, or attended the Show every year. I didn’t want to go to parties and get drunk, I didn’t like kissing people on the cheek when I met them, I felt uncomfortable when they asked me questions like, “If you’re from Pak-i-stan, why aren’t you black?” and I didn’t know where building H was for tech or what the rules about late sign-ins were.

I didn’t get Australian small town life. The things that were uniquely Aussie didn’t appeal in any way. I didn’t understand barbeques, I didn’t like salad, I laughed at farmers wearing moleskins, Akubras and striped shirts, and I thought gum trees were ugly and drab in comparison to the green of the Himalayan forest I was used to.

Perhaps hardest of all was that I looked like I should belong. I was Australian, obviously, so people expected that surely I should know how to fit in. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t that simple.

The only thing I really knew how to do was to study, do exams and get good 20130220-090309.jpgresults. I could ‘do’ smart; I understood it. So I decided to focus on the academics and treat the things and the people I didn’t understand as unimportant and unnecessary.

One side of the story is arrogance. The other side is pain and fear. But both sides are true. For me the question is: can you get through pain and fear without arrogance as a young person? And how?

Make sure you come back tomorrow for Part Two.

End of Life Care and Cultural Competency

I just finished speaking to a group of medical and nursing students on end of life care and cultural competency.

It’s a big topic.

In health care the two areas where cultural beliefs are profoundly obvious are during birth and during death. In other areas the belief systems are more subtle, the differences not always obvious.

But birth and death? These moments of coming into and going out of the world are rich with tradition, ritual, meaning, and emotion.

The first thing I ask people to do is to think back to their first memory of death in their family or community. Who was it? What were the circumstances of the death? What is their most vivid memory? What rituals and behaviors were observed by the family and/or community?

The answers are fascinating, particularly if it’s a diverse group. There are people who remember all the church bells in the town ringing — they knew someone had died because the bells were ringing at a time when they were usually silent. Others remember wailing waking them during the night. Still others will talk about death being a celebration, a party of sorts.

The important piece is that they talk. Most have never thought about this, let alone processed it in a group. And talking about their experience puts us in the best possible place to continue the discussion.

Because telling their stories helps them realize how significant those moments are, and how critical it is for them to hear the stories of their patients, to be fully present with their patients during the end of their lives.

We move forward into the discussion on the western view of the body as a machine, on how culture affects views of illness, expectations of care, and views of the process of death. We look at possible points of cultural collision – patient autonomy, organ donation, body preparation, the differences in both meaning and expression of pain and so much more.

I usually end the time with a short video telling the true story of a gentleman from Afghanistan named Mohammad Kochi. Mr. Kochi immigrated to the United States with his family and settled in California. At the time of the film he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. The film details some of his care and the disconnect and misunderstandings that occurred, resulting in his refusal of chemotherapy through a pump into his body — ultimately his death because of lack of treatment.

It is sobering and hard to watch. We sit somewhat stunned at the end and there is no gap in conversation.

How could this happen?

So preventable!

Such a misunderstanding!

But these types of cultural misunderstandings occur far too often despite the best of intentions.

There are so many things that come up in conversation, and so much to learn from each other. But we end talking about three areas where we can develop skills.

The first is in self-reflection – How do I react to cultural differences? How do I manage my own reactions? How do I negotiate with patients and families in the face of cultural differences?

The second is active listening Listening to and with the body, listening in with self reflection, listening out by learning from others; listening with the mind by hearing facts and stories; listening with the heart by being willing to hear emotions and feelings.

The third is bearing witnessbeing fully present with the person, letting them know they’re not alone, listening to their stories and their symptoms. 

As is usually the case, I leave contemplative, thinking about life in its entirety, life from birth to death. And I also leave with a renewed resolve to continue developing skills in the areas of self-reflection, active listening, and bearing witness.

Skills not only important in end of life but through all of life. 

A World Removed

My youngest brother Dan, and his wife, Carol, are in the country of Chad. They have gone there for meetings where my brother is a featured speaker, and Carol is working with others to hold a children’s program.

If you look at a map of Africa, Chad is right in the center. Until 1960 Chad was part of France’s “Africa holdings”. At that time it achieved independence and has gone through decades of civil war, threats and invasions from Libya located on its northern borders, and sporadic rebellions from within. In this land-locked country, three times larger than the state of California, there are multiple ethnic groups, religions, and social inequities. Female life expectancy is 49 years and male 47, so only about 3 percent of the population is over age 64. Latest reports bring news of a cholera epidemic hitting central Africa with Chad being one of the countries most severely affected.

In a short email to my brother this morning I asked how they were doing and gave some basic news, ending with the information that tonight I am going to a fashion-show at an élite hotel in Boston as a fundraiser for breast cancer research and treatment. I stopped in the middle of typing. It is such a stark contrast to the world that they are currently experiencing. It is mind-boggling. I am going to a sequins and silk event at a cost of seventy-five dollars a ticket (I am invited by a generous friend to go for free). We will sip on cocktails in a beautiful lobby at the Liberty Hotel, a historic building that was originally the Charles Street Jail and is now turned into a luxury hotel. After cocktails and mingling, we will go to a fashion show and swoon over a designers creations. I ended the email saying “It’s a world removed from where you are, and what you are doing”. And it is.

I am again reminded that in one part of the world extreme poverty and problems are constant, even as in another place, an elegant fashion show, complete with music and soft lights, is being held. Even more striking, in one part of the city a meal for the homeless will be served out of large metal pots, while in another, white- coated waiters will offer appetizers to a well-dressed crowd.

I’ve experienced both worlds and one thing I know is that in both places there are hearts that are empty and longing. Your belly and wallet can be full, while your heart and soul, hidden by the façade of silk and velvet, are empty and crying out for meaning. A world removed? In some ways yes, in others not at all.

Have you experienced both worlds? What is your response to the contrast?

A Moment of Truth from “Digging to America”

Digging to America” by Anne Tyler is one of my favorite books. It tells the story of 2 little girls from Korea, both adopted by people in the United States. They arrived in Baltimore, Maryland on the same plane, an evening flight from San Francisco. I can picture the scene in my mind having been at many airports as they are slowly shutting down, only one or two vendors still open along with sleepy janitors slowly moving their mops across floors that carry the world back and forth during the day.  The “Caution Wet Floor” signs are evidence of their effort. During those times, airports, usually the best places for people-watching become a tad lonely and people often sit with only their baggage, their thoughts, and an evening summary of the news in subtitles on overhead screens.

The baby girls are adopted by two very different families, and as they grow they give proof that culture is not genetic. The first family is a comfortable, friendly, homey, liberal couple whose hearts were as big as their appetites. They arrived at the airport to greet their new daughter with a number of loud and excited relatives, described like a “gigantic baby shower”.  The second family is an Iranian American family, striking with their beautiful olive skin and aquiline features, an air of aristocracy surrounding them like perfume.  They were quieter, just three of them, a beautiful young couple and an elegant grandmother, Maryam-jon. The two babies looked like they were custom-made for the couples, one being chubbier and actively awake, the other petite and quiet.

In the book, Ann Tyler gets at the heart of cultural difference as she explores the growing, and sometimes hesitant, connection between the families. Throughout the book, the author weaves two perspectives – one of a family who is completely at home in the U.S having never known life anywhere else, the other of a family that feels “other” and is confronted with their sense of difference and being “outsiders”, even as they are continually welcomed by the born and bred “American” family. Ann Tyler’s skill is clear as she takes us inside the head of the Iranian grandmother, and gives us an intimate look at the struggle to belong, yet hold onto the things we cherish the most.

The book will strike a chord with anyone who has felt other, whether through life experience, or living cross-culturally. Maryam has her moment of truth, where she realizes she loves this other family. For all their differences, their loudness, their “in your face” concern, she belongs.

I think a moment of truth comes for many third culture kids, where we suddenly realize that it’s ok for our lives to be upset and overtaken by what we considered foreign and alien, suddenly realizing that we belong. It’s ok to evolve, and learn to love a country and place, understanding that we are not betraying our past, but rather, living up to how we were raised. And that is as adaptable and flexible, ever willing to try something different.

Jin-Ho was quiet a moment, rhythmically kicking the passenger seat in a way that would have been irritating if anyone had been sitting there. Then she said ‘Remember when me and Susan were digging a hole to China?….So the kids in China, are they digging to America?

Bloggers Note: For those who have followed the story of the American hikers jailed in Iran, breaking news is that they have finally been freed. Take a look @ CNN’s Live Blog for details.