On Matters of the Heart

One of the fringe benefits of my mom and dad’s move is receiving some gems of books. Some are old favorites, others are brand new. I began reading one of my new treasures this weekend and, as sometimes happens with books, 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 An Uncommon Correspondence, described as an “East-West Conversation on Friendship, Intimacy and Love”. It is a book that would be deeply appreciated by anyone who has friendships that span cultural boundaries.

It is a 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, a third culture kid, also a professor, who is living and working in England. The correspondence spans a one year time period 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, the 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 appreciate more and more some of the traditions she grew up with in India that stress 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.

For as long as I can remember I have analyzed and thought through 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. This book was freeing and I found myself nodding and speaking to it, like I would to a person; it gives words to so much of what I have thought, seen and felt.

Full of insight, wisdom and some humorous moments, this book challenged me to think further and farther about love, marriage, intimacy and friendship across oceans and cultures. Is it that there is something better than what both sides of the globe present? Can those of us who want to seek a better way; an attitude that transcends both cultures? As Margaret says in the introduction, being offered a different perspective can be disturbing. And it can also be “profoundly liberating”.

What do you think?

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Places to Retire: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly & Beautiful

From the moment I saw Maggie Smith, sitting in a crowded Indian bus surrounded by men, women and children, refusing food with the dismissive line “No thank you! If I can’t pronounce it, I don’t want to eat it” I knew I would be first in line to see this film.

A sea of grey met us as we entered the theatre – and it wasn’t the curtains. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie this full of older adults! Swallowing our pride, we took our seats along with the other elderly, just glad we still had sprite in our steps and hoping we would look like the “young couple in the audience”.

We quickly forgot grey and age as we journeyed across the ocean, landing in India. From the drab of the United Kingdom to the sunshine and color of Jaipur, this film was pure delight from the opening scenes. Predictable? Maybe. Award winning? Who knows? But full of life and promise? Five Stars and more.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel begins in England where three men and four women, all retirement age, find themselves in less than satisfactory circumstances. Though their life situations are vastly different, ranging from a retired high court judge (Tom Wilkinson) to a housekeeper who has been “let go” (Maggie Smith), they are all in the same place of being lured to Jaipur through glossy advertising, a promise of luxury and a desire that their money would go farther. The goal of their journey? To enjoy a blissful and long-term (if not permanent) stay at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (for the Elderly and Beautiful)

As soon as they arrive it is clear that there is a massive disconnect between what was advertised and what currently exists. The advertisement is the dream of their enthusiastic host, Sonny (played by Dev Patel) and the reality is dust-covered bedrooms, cracking walls and rooms with no doors. In this context we follow their lives as they are transplanted into Indian soil.

The cast brings some of the best British actors together as they negotiate life in India midst the chaos, confusion and colors of a world far removed from their native England.

It was poignant and sometimes humorous watching Muriel (Maggie Smith) transform from an uptight, non-negotiating racist, to someone who begins to love both the people and the place, ultimately devoting herself to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I also felt a sadness and not a little frustration for Jean (Penelope Wilton of Downton Abbey) and Douglas (Bill Nighy), the one married couple in the group, as Douglas embraced all that Jaipur and India had to offer while Jean remained stuck, unable and unwilling to adapt and see beyond her myopic British molded vision.

Although the film is accused of being predictable, I was so caught up with the brilliance of the cast and the beauty of the place that it didn’t matter. Over and over I said both silently and audibly “That’s where I want to be! That’s where I want to retire”.

The delight for me was personal. Scenes of multicolored trucks and buses, crowds in the streets, beautiful shalwar, chemise and saris, motorized rickshaws and crowded bazaars all took me back to my childhood in Pakistan, where the streets of Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi look similar.

For those who have spent time in the subcontinent, be prepared to be less than satisfied with your current circumstances when you leave the theatre, but also be ready to laugh, smile and be thoroughly enchanted by the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and the Beautiful.

As for us? We left the movie knowing with certainty that, should the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel be real, this was the place we wanted to retire.

Memorable Quotes: 

Sonny Kapoor: “I have a dream Mummy. To create a home for the elderly, so wonderful that they will simply refuse to die.”

“Everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, then it is not yet the end.”

Muriel: “No thank you! If I can’t pronounce it, I don’t want to eat it!”

“Like its characters, we want to hold on to the dream that all will come out right in the end if we only check into the right address.” Christian Science Monitor Movie Review

New to Communicating Across Boundaries? Take a look at some of these posts that others have enjoyed!

Taper, Trim and Snip: Nine Countries, Nine Haircuts!

Today is a guest post from Robynn Bliss. Robynn has written other posts and beautifully articulates the complexity of living between worlds as it relates to normal life events. In this post she takes us on a journey through something common to women and men everywhere, haircuts!

One of my ridiculous claims to fame is that I’ve had my hair cut in 9 countries. It may seem a silly thing to say at a dinner party or over coffee with a friend, yet remembering those nine countries keeps me connected to my story while at the same time holding out hope for a trim in a tenth country somewhere, sometime!


Growing up in Pakistan meant many childhood haircuts. The ones where I’d sit on the edge of a charpai (rope bed) in our courtyard so mom could cut my bangs, or perch on one stool on top of another outside Utopia house in the summer with the wide expansive views of the Himalayas and my chin tucked into my chest so the back of my hair could be trimmed by Auntie Carol. Then there were the boarding school haircuts in dorm rooms—some quickly and surreptitiously done by friends by the light of flashlight, others by dorm mothers with proper plastic sheets and the hair cutting tools to taper, trim, and snip!


Returning to Canada for college meant inexpensive haircuts for a dollar downstairs outside the student lounge by college girls anxious to earn extra pocket-money. After graduating and moving to the big city I could afford a haircut by Blair at Blessings and Co –a stylish, extravagant salon with warm lighting and classical music in the background.


One Christmas my cousins and I travelled down to visit my aunt and uncle who were staying in Southern California. On Christmas day all 5 of us descended on friends wintering in Yuma, AZ in their RV. Vera cooked up a turkey in her miniature oven and prepared the fixings on her tiny stove. We ate Christmas dinner around the picnic table outside. On Boxing Day we decided to cross over into Mexico. I had needed a haircut so why not in Mexico? The back alley beauty parlour proudly boasted 4 women in floral aprons all sitting around gossiping in Spanish with nothing to do. They were thrilled for the business and for the distraction. “Haircut?” I enquired. Off they prattled an excited affirmative. They decked me out in a green sheet and started in. “Taper?” one asked. “Yes, taper it up in the back but then keep the longer layers in the front. Don’t cut my bangs! Cut it short over the ears.” I made my wishes known. “Taper?” she repeated, it was apparently the only English hair word she knew. She kept saying it as she cut and primmed and pranced all over my head, “Taper?…. taper?… taper?…” I kept smiling and nodding, “Sure!”


Lowell and I eventually married and moved to India. After a futile attempt to grow my hair so as to look more like my neighbors, one of my most notorious haircuts involved a four star hotel in Delhi, a friendly beautician, an excellent haircut and, at no extra charge, a terrible case of head lice! There was another memorable haircut from a friend who had a beauty parlour in her home. When I got home, Lowell, who isn’t particularly observant about things like hair, asked, “Is it supposed to do that in the back?” My sweet friend had hacked a chunk of hair out of my style. It took several months to grow it out!


One year as we were headed back to the US for meetings, I emailed ahead to ask my friend Dianne in New Jersey to please make me an appointment for a haircut immediately after we arrived and before the meetings began. Our route had us going through Kuwait City. There we encountered technical difficulties and were put up in an airport hotel for 24 hours. Next stop was London. Because we had missed our ongoing connection we were once again graciously given a room at The Edwardian Airport Hotel –the nicest hotel we’ve ever stayed in—for another 24 hours. Knowing I had missed my appointment in NJ, I walked down to the lobby of the hotel and discovered one of the best haircuts I’ve ever had at one of the highest prices I’ve ever paid!


There was a haircut in Huahin, Thailand. Actually there were two. The first one, where the hair cutter (again) chopped off a little too much resulting in a hole on the side of my head. This was directly followed by another where a fellow traveler and tourist made a brave attempt at correcting it with a towel over my shoulders and a pair of nail scissors in the hotel lobby!

United Arab Emirates

A trip to the UAE to visit friends resulted in a luxurious experience in a posh beauty parlour. The Arab women, free from their black robes and public restraints, were chatty and outgoing. The latest fashions were uncovered, beautiful black hair was let loose. There was a vibrant intimacy in the air. Nails were painted, unwanted hair was waxed off arms and legs, faces were massaged with fragrant creams and oils, eye brows were shaped with dancing threads and of course hair was washed, cut and coiffed. It felt to me like I had entered a strange new mysterious world. It was a sensual and sizzling place. And I had my hair cut there!


Kathmandu provided me a haircut at a funny little roadside parlour. The walls were covered in laminated pictures of lovely Chinese women with modern hairdos and Bollywood movie stars. The hair cut was inconsequential but I remember my senses being blasted with poignant incense burning, the garish vermillion paste and grains of rice on the forehead of my hair cutter and loud raucous blaring of those same Bollywood stars blasting their tunes.

Years ago a group came from Kansas to visit some others in Varanasi, the city in North India where we lived. When I heard that one of the visitors was a hair stylist I begged for a haircut! Judy popped by our house and there in the middle of our dining room on the banks of the Ganges river she cut my hair, another friend’s hair, and our girls’ hair. It was such a treat: a good haircut right in our own home.

United States

Now that we’re in Kansas that same Judy cuts my hair monthly. Coming from my world, it seems shamefully extravagant to have a good haircut that frequently. I pop over to her house and she cuts my hair in a room tucked off her dining room. Judy previously worked in a high-end salon and now works out of her home. She massages my scalp with a conditioner that smells expensive: all coconut and pineapple lather. She massages my soul as we talk about significant things: marriage, and grace and God. When the cut is done, she styles and spritzes and sprays and pretends that I’m a wealthy client.

Pakistan, Canada, Mexico, the UAE, England, Thailand, Nepal, India and of course here in the US… mine is a story punctuated by interesting haircuts in far off corners of the world. I wonder if and when the 10th country will be added to the list. On occasion I regret the places I’ve been where I failed to get my haircut! Even as I settle into the Midwest, my soul and my hair long for an adventure somewhere in a far off corner of the world sometime soon!

Leaving for London

London collage.And I said, what a pity, To have just a week to spend,When London is a city,Whose beauties never end!

This line of a poem sent by my daughter Stefanie sums up some of our feelings as my 15-year-old son and I travel to London today. We arrive early morning in the United Kingdom and will be joined by Stefanie arriving from Milan and Cliff, my husband, arriving from Edinburgh in late evening.Stef and Jonathan will be introduced to London with all its history and charm as this is their first visit.

As we prepare I realize once again how vast the world is and the magic of travel. Along with the magic of moving between worlds and cultures will be a sweet reunion with Stefanie. Stefanie is 19 and has been on a gap year between graduating from high school and entering college. Her experiences have taken her from Milan to Istanbul and London will be our reconnection between coming back to life in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Reunions for the third culture kid are many and often. Hellos are frequent, goodbyes more so. Trying to work through the complexity of being willing to get to know someone only to let them go is a challenge in this context. The tendency at points is feeling it’s not worth while, that the goodbyes are too painful and bring about unresolved grief and loss. Dave Pollock who worked extensively with third culture kids until his death says this:

“one of the major areas in working with TCKs is that of…dealing with the issue of unresolved grief. They are always leaving or being left. Relationships are short-lived.At the end of each school year, a certain number of the student body leaves, not just for the summer, but for good.It has to be up to the parent to provide a framework of support and careful understanding as the child learns to deal with this repetitive grief. Most TCKs go through more grief experiences by the time they are 20 than monocultural individuals do in a lifetime.”

It’s also self-perpetuating – just as we said a lot of goodbyes and faced continuous loss as kids, we bring up our children with a love of travel and the world so we continue to face these partings, only now it’s with our most precious commodity – our kids.

But then we go through that glorious feeling of reunion where your hugs are so tight that you can hardly breathe and you can’t talk fast enough to get all the missing thoughts and words of the last months and years out of your heart and head and into the heart and head of the other person. And you know in that instant that no matter how much it hurts to say goodbye, it makes the reuniting all the sweeter. That as much as you think you want that other persons life – the one who has lived in the same house for 30 years and has all of their family within a 5 mile radius – it will never be so for you and your family and that’s quite alright!

American Invasion – In Scotland??

“In Scotland, there’s been an American Invasion – but it’s not exactly what it sounds like.”

And so began a story on National Public Radio on Scotland being “overrun” by American Minks. Yes. Our minks have overtaken Scotland and the Scots will have none of it. In fact, they have one goal – to kill them all. You read that correctly – all of them.

These minks, exported to the United Kingdom at some point in the 1950’s have been able to breed like rabbits. But unlike rabbits, it turns out that minks are pretty vicious creatures (maybe so they won’t be made into fur coats) and they are killing off small mammals called voles. I did not remember this until the NPR segment, but a vole is the beloved main character in the children’s book “Wind in the Willows” by Kenneth Grahame, a Scottish novelist. To kill off voles is an act of war as they are part of every childs imagination and every adults memory.

A volunteer army has risen in Scotland to fight this war and they will not stop until they have achieved their aim of ridding the country of these pests of American variety.  As in any war, there are those who are against the activity and they too were interviewed saying in effect “It’s not the minks fault!”

The humor with which NPR developed and reported this story is not to be missed, as they subtly linked it to the common consensus on the world stage that our invasions, whether mink or human, are not as welcome as we may surmise. Along with that is their ability in the midst of crisis, when my brain and empathy quotient are heavy with fatigue from events playing out across the globe, to bring us a story light and humorous in comparison. I have to catch myself and my tendency to consider it a sign of disrespect to not follow every detail of a crisis, rushing to the television, radio or whatever source of media I have to make sure that I haven’t missed anything substantive. With this story, I recognized how grateful I was to be able to listen and laugh guilt free, not feeling as though I was being disloyal to a subject or a cause. I had a moment of panic thinking “Even our minks are overbearing and ethnocentric…!” But that passed and I was able to enjoy the story. As a human I have limited ability to continue effectively in my present surroundings if glued to events of which I have no control. It does not mean I should, or will, stop caring, watching, reading or listening to the news. But taking a small break to think about a volunteer army of Scots waging war on minks of American descent is a perfectly acceptable diversion.

The end of the story?  To quote directly from NPR “… this war seems to have no end. Once scientists clear the minks out of Scotland, they plan to drive the American invaders out of the whole of Britain.” and with that I’ll say Happy Friday!

Middle-Aged Woman, Little Black Suit

Continental breakfast
Image via Wikipedia

Bloggers Note: In keeping with the unintended theme on women this week, I’ll relay a story that showed me just how hard it is in some cultures for middle-aged women to be taken seriously….

Location: London, England

Time: March 2009

Place: Fancy Intercontinental Hotel – breakfast

I can’t say I wasn’t warned.  My sister-in-law had told me when she entered middle-age that middle-aged women were not taken seriously in the western world unless they dressed up.  I heard her with part amusement and part interest.  I was to find once again that Hearing and Experiencing are not the same.

I walked down to the breakfast area of the Intercontinental Hotel in London, England in jeans and slip on flats.  I had almost overslept breakfast and the meal as described on the brochure was not to be missed.  The descriptions of butter croissants either chocolate, plain or almond; pastries of every kind;fresh fruit and juices; and an omelet bar topped off with whatever kind of coffee drink you so desired were mouth-watering.  More over, we had only three nights in the fancy hotel, heading next to Hotel Jubilee, a ‘cold toast and bad jam perfect for our budget‘ hotel.

I waited at least 10 minutes to be seated, growing increasingly frustrated.  The waiter who seated me gave me the up and down look making snap judgments on  both my intellect and budget before seating me with no eye contact.  I helped myself and people-watched.  I was the invisible person – I was the middle-aged female frump, a nuisance to be ignored.  Let me make it very clear that there were middle-aged male frumps who were doing just fine.  But not the female…

So I decided to do some non-scientific research.  I obsessed and planned over it all day long.  The next morning I jumped out of bed, even later than the day before.  I had no time to shower but I put on my little black suit and the highest heels I own.  I topped it off with make up on an unwashed face.

It worked – “Good morning Madam!  Would you like to be seated?”  No waiting, no frustration. I gave what I hoped was a charming sophisticated smile through teeth, unbrushed and fuzzy with sweaters still on them, and followed him to a premier spot with sunlight pouring through the window. The excellent service continued and culminated with a copy of The Times brought to me on a silver tray.

The research had ended, the results were clear – Middle aged women need little black suits in order to be recognized and taken seriously.

Thankfully I have several role models who are on the other side of this stage and have not allowed poor service, middle age, black suits, or Botox to take over their identity.  They have instead focused on growing increasingly wiser, humbler, and more fun. And as those characteristics are molded deeper into their wrinkles, they have become more beautiful.

Note from the blogger: This post is dedicated to Pauline Brown, Ruth Johnson, and  Bettie Addleton – Beautiful women who don’t need little black suits.

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