A Fit Bit (On belonging; Not on Electronic Step Tracking!)

One day, on our recent working trip to Spain, we were sitting around after an intense day. Lowell and I had been teaching a small-assorted group on leadership for a week. The day was over. The week was over. Several of us were sitting outside the villa breathing in the evening air, soaking up the last of the day’s sunshine. Into a conversation about introverts and extroverts one woman spoke out, “I’m an introvert and I’ve never really felt like I fit.”

I sat up and listened more intently. Fitting in has been a perpetual struggle for me. I often feel like I don’t belong. I constantly contend with a sense of disconnect. Here was someone else confessing to that same feeling.

Another woman in the circle admitted, “It’s not just introverts. I’ve never felt like I fit in the Anglican Church or in the organization I work with.” We all sat there and let that settle over us. Another bravely entered the conversation, “I’ve never fit either. It’s my personality or something. I always feel like I don’t belong.” A lady on the edge of the circle, “I’ve never fit either. I thought it was because I’m still single.” Others admitted their own sense of what it was that kept them at odds from belonging.

I really couldn’t believe what I was hearing in that circle of seemingly well adjusted, thriving individuals. These were all exceptional people—strong individuals with a well-defined sense of purpose. They were people other people want to be like. They knew their strengths. They had tempered their drive with gentleness and wisdom. And yet nearly all of them admitted out of a place of deep vulnerability that they felt like they didn’t quite fit. All of them had experienced some shame at not quite belonging. They all wondered if there was something wrong with them that they couldn’t quite fit.

I finally joined the conversation. I felt tears and emotion constricting my voice. I confessed to the same feelings. I’ve always struggled to fit. Whatever fitting I’ve found I feel like I’ve faked. All this time I thought it was because my childhood was so convoluted, my narrative so strange. Being a Third Culture Adult has been the excuse I’ve given myself for my not finding connection or belonging with others. That’s the reason I don’t fit. At least that’s the story I’ve been telling myself for all these years.

What if all of us struggle with these same feelings? What if none of us feel like we fit? What if that’s the connecting point that allows us all to find community? We belong to each other because none of us really feel like we do belong. Perhaps it’s universal. Maybe it’s not just those of us who’ve grown up elsewhere.

Something changed in me that evening in Spain. I looked around that group of people and some lights came on. I felt some reassurance and some relief. For the first time in a long time I felt like perhaps I do fit—mind you, with a group that by their own admission don’t feel like they do!

A Word About the Weather…

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A Word on the Weather by Robynn

Nothing serves to highlight the differences between where I used to live and where I now live more poignantly than the weather.

In South Asia the weather is a static reality. It rarely changes. For ten months of the year it’s hot. Overlay two months of monsoon rains midway through those ten months and it’s now wet and still hot. Two months of the year are noticeably different. December and January are cold (not cold cold but certainly colder than hot). Sweaters, shawls, socks all come out smelling like mothballs from their hot hiding places and are worn out of pure necessity. The cold demands fashions accommodate a sweater-vest, or an accompanying shawl.

Imagine my shock at the weather here in Kansas! It remains a source of constant surprise. Locals like to joke, “If you don’t like the weather– stick around…” It’ll change, sometimes dramatically in one day! We’ve even experienced three different seasons in one single day!  I’m amused by Kansans and their fixation with the weather. Everyone always knows what the weather will be today and for the remainder of the week. They listen to the weather forecast religiously. They check it on the internet. The weather app is a part of every smart Kansans smart phone repertoire. Most Kansans have emergency weather alarms, weather accommodating houses. Kansans keep t-shirts and shorts; sweaters and jeans out all year long! To be Kansan is to be weather savvy.

Weather serves as a memory maker and life marker for a community. Here in Manhattan, KS they remember the Great Flood of 1983. Some still talk about the Great Flood of 1951. People drinking hot cocoa in warm houses with the glow of lamps lit and overhead lights on still reminisce about the ice storm of 2007 where the electricity was off for two weeks in the middle of December. No one here will ever forget the recent tornado of 2008. These things serve to bind a community together. Neighbours reach out to neighbours. People help one another. Sleeves are rolled up, debris is sorted through, extra soup is made, access to hot showers is shared. In the face of the wild side effects of weather, humanity remembers her heart and reaches out with kindness to those around her.

There is a rhythm to the weather’s seasons here in North America: spring, summer, autumn, winter. A whole collection of winters and summers, springs and autumns all joined together like beads on a rosary. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. Day in, day out. Month in, month out. Year after year the weather marches on across the continent.

However, the newly arrived, the foreigner, the immigrant may not immediately connect to these predictable patterns. They can’t necessarily relate to the seasonal cadences. To them the weather serves to isolate.

Severe winter storms make for lonely cold people. Spring winds taunt the memories of warmer breezes. Hot summers set off sparks of wild homesick fires. An autumn that bids trees, all the trees at once, to fall their leaves is unsettling to the uninitiated.  A friend teaches in the ESL program here at Kansas State University. On a day when the thermometer reached 50* F (10*C), a shivering student asked her, “Does it get much colder than this?” Last week on a day when the warmest it got was 14*F (-10*C) I wondered after that poor student.

I will never forget that first winter back in North America, years ago, when I had returned to college on the Canadian Prairie. That first winter took my breath away. It sucked all the life out of me. I remember one forlorn day in the middle of January, that year, looking out the window, to more snow, more cold, more wind. The tears were falling down my face faster than the flakes were flailing from the chilly heavens to the frigid earth below. I closed the curtains and crawled back into bed—where I stayed for nearly a week. Winter sealed in my despair. Any morsel of remaining hope I had was piled under the shifting snow drifts outside my Saskatchewan window.

At boarding school our life was mostly climate controlled. When the winter snows began to fall in the Himalayan foothills, they broke up the school year to allow us to winter in a more temperate region. Kids and chaperones, bedrolls and trunks, suitcases and footlockers were dispersed by train or plain or jeep or bus to the far flung corners of Pakistan, where a more mild winter had settled. In the spring when the sun had regained her heat, we were allowed to escape back up to the cooler mountains, where, hopefully the snows were beginning to melt. We never had to endure the severe extremes of Pakistan’s weather. It was one thing that they tried to protect us from.

Winter has already arrived with stamina and severity to Kansas. The weather viciously turned on us a couple of weeks ago. The skies are bright and the sun is deceptively chipper and yet one step out the front door and your breath is plucked from your lungs and your extremities immediately begin to question your rational decision making abilities. It’s hard for me to maintain my emotional equilibrium in the face of such cold. I battle bitterness and bitchiness. I struggle to find joy and hope during the endless winters here. I find myself longing for other places, more temperate spaces.

I know my war on winter is petty in light of huge global issues. But it’s my honest struggle these days. Faith, hope and love are not dependant on the weather. The Holy One and the fruit he bears out in our souls (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness) is not thermostat controlled. His power can permeate frozen hearts of stone. He alone can transform those frigid heart-blocks into warm beating; life pulsing hearts of soft flesh.

I’m asking him to melt my icy attitude to the world outside. I’m asking for the courage to try on cheerfulness.

I’m asking him to make me aware to where life and warmth thrive, to where he is busy melting and moving, to those sacred hearths where he invites me to join him.

 

“We Speak the Language of Elsewhere”

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“A janitor is sweeping the courtyard. He’s a dark shade of sunny……So I go to Azibo, the janitor. He’s old and I’m young, but we both speak the language of elsewhere. We become buddies.” No Shade Under the Sun by Valerie Wilson

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I stand in a crowded subway, pinned in on all sides. My eyes sweep the crowd, silent observer of those around me. I’m looking for those who may speak the “language of elsewhere.” It almost becomes a private game as I try to guess who else speaks this language. The young mom who didn’t know how to get on the subway and so was impatiently jostled – she speaks the language of elsewhere. The two students who are chatting in staccato German? They speak the language of elsewhere. And the women in hijab? She too speaks this language. There are others, but most of us are silent. Afraid that there will not be interpreters for elsewhere, that elsewhere is too vague and abstract to be interpreted properly. But for us, it is neither vague nor abstract – it is real.

When you grow up between worlds you speak the language of other, the language of elsewhere. While your appearance may say one thing, your inner life, should it be revealed, would say something completely different.

Loneliness floods over me – tsunami like in its strength. How could I possibly look and talk like so many around me yet feel this alone? And yet what prevents me from reaching out to those who also know this language, those who also experience the deep loneliness that is ‘other’.

The subway stops and I am birthed with the crowds onto the platform. I head home along a street that feels both familiar and foreign to me. I pass by houses that I’ve passed many times in the six plus years we have lived here. I pass by some people that I recognize but who I don’t know. I come to the Village Grill, the small neighborhood restaurant owned by Teddy, though we call him Theo. I stop and chat – he is a fixture in this neighborhood, as solid as the street lamps lining the side of the road. He’s Greek and proud of it. For a short time I belong.

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Every September the streets of Cambridge and Boston fill with people who speak the language of elsewhere. They may be undergrad students, they may be those with fellowships, they may be visiting professors, they may be immigrants newly arrived, they may be refugees, finally settled after years of trying to get paperwork in order, or they may be third culture kids, those whose looks belie who they are on the inside, what their life experience has held thus far. There are all kinds of reasons but the language is the same. They are ‘other’. And initially life can overwhelm and threaten to undo them.

It’s not only Boston. It’s the streets of Atlanta, Seattle, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Miami, and so many more. It’s the expat communities in Cairo, Shanghai, Bangkok, and Phnom Penh. 

And to bridge this divide, this chasm of elsewhere, this block in language understanding it is imperative to reach across and learn to speak the language of elsewhere.

It’s not that hard. There’s no grammar or syntax involved and there is no morphology. Prefixes, suffixes, or infixes are absent. You don’t have to worry about past tense, or present perfect or superlatives.

But there is a lexicon. It includes tea, coffee, talk, meals, reaching out, asking questions, sometimes shopping, most of all – time. Time – that precious commodity that we think we have so little of until work ends, retirement begins, and suddenly we have all the time in the world.

All of us have spoken the language of elsewhere at some point – whether as a tourist or as a resident. And it starts out fun – it’s exciting! Everything is new and different. And then day 11 of our journey comes and it’s no longer exciting. Instead, everything is different and different is no longer good. Different is hard. Different means I don’t know the rules. Different means me and the stranger both wear shoes, but I wear them better. Different is lonely.

Into the lonely steps the one who has experienced this language before. There to lend a hand, an ear, even a shoulder to cry on. So this fall, if you’ve ever spoken the language of elsewhere – look around you and seek out those who are other, who share this language. It’s the only way to bridge the divide. 

An Unappeased Yearning to Return

Nostalgia

“Sometimes I’m so homesick I can’t get out of bed. Especially in the winter.” This was said to a colleague of mine by a Brazilian patient a few years ago after the health center she worked for decided to change a depression survey to add these two questions:

Do you ever get homesick?

What do you do when you get homesick?

A recent quote I read about nostalgia echos the words and thoughts of this woman. “The Greek word for “return” is nostos. Algos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.”*

This patient had an unappeased yearning to return, a longing for what no longer is, a ‘saudade’. 

At a wedding this fall I met a woman who had moved back to the United States after living in Afghanistan for 10 years. “Do you miss it?” I asked. She stopped and looked at me full on. “Thank you so much for asking me” she said. “Yes – I miss it so much. So much. And no one has asked me this. Not one person has asked me if I miss Afghanistan this past year.” 

An unappeased yearning to return.

A few years ago I sat beside an elderly patient who had lost her husband, her children far away and busy with their own lives. “I look at pictures and I have sweet memories. And oh how I miss those days when I was surrounded by family, in my home.” There she sat in a small apartment for the elderly, her phone beside her so she wouldn’t miss the call that just might come through.

A longing for what no longer exists.

I see these longings for what no longer exists with immigrants, with refugees, with the elderly. I also see it with former expats and third culture kids. They have an unappeased yearning to return. They don’t live in this on a daily basis, instead it comes in strange waves at inopportune times, loneliness and nostalgia rushing up on them like a hot blush, from toe to head. It can be mistaken by the uninitiated for a discontent, an inability to adjust. But I think that reduces the feelings and fails to acknowledge the complexity of those feelings. This unappeased yearning is not wrong and it doesn’t mean we are not fully living. This is the mistake I have made in the past – confusing the longing with restlessness, with a fretful inability to function properly.

But I have realized something important: we can be content and well-adjusted to a place and yet still have a longing for the places we came from, the places where we will never return. 

Yes, for some, like the example of the patient, it results in a temporary inability to function. But for more people it sits in the soul, under the surface, not affecting activities of daily living, but silently accompanying us wherever we go. And there are things that help to calm and tame these feelings. Stories with old friends, either in person or through phone calls; inhaling memories through a favorite meal at a restaurant that smells like ‘home’; even a language class where you revive some of the skills that are laying dormant.

More and more I see this as a gift in our world. Because this is what makes us human. This is what can connect us to each other. When we are fully at home and secure we are unaware of the journey of others. We can ignore the lonely, walk by the homeless without a thought, dismiss the one who is ‘other’. But when we are in  tune with our nostos and algos we can stretch out a hand to those who walk the journey with us.

What do you think? Have you experienced an unappeased yearning to return? How can it be a gift? 

*Milan Kundera

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Your Manicure Will Never be the Same – World Refugee Day

Today is World Refugee Day. I had forgotten and did a post on how my life is like a box of crayons. The irony of this hit me.

My life is like crayons because of privilege and choice. A refugee can’t even use that analogy because there is no choice. They leave because they have to. 43 million people leave their homes and countries and begin the arduous process of rebuilding.

Today I have a passport and a home, I have friends and family who have never had to flee any country, I have children who are safe and clothed and when I birthed them I had good prenatal care, ensuring as healthy a start as possible.

Today I get up and eat a healthy breakfast, walk to pick up a rental car and head off to a job that pays well. All this is what the refugee longs for and looks for. In honor of world refugee day I am taking down the post on my “Crayon Box” life and posting on a community that through hard work and resilience has made this transition and built a new life. Thank you for reading!

What do immigrant dreams and Hollywood have to do with your manicure? Turns out – almost everything!

Whether the north shore of Boston, Phoenix, or Cambridge, when I go get a manicure or pedicure I am met at the door by savvy, professional Vietnamese women.

An example of a French Manicure, acrylic nails...

They usher me in and authoritatively say“Pick your color!” I am suddenly no longer in control; instead it’s Linh or Mai or Minh who will dictate where I sit, where I stand and when I’ll leave. They know their business and they do it well.

Like any immigrant story, the story of Vietnamese and nail salons is one of ingenuity, resilience and hard work. It also has the fairytale element of a movie star and a dream.

It begins with Tippi Hedren, an actress best known for her roles in Alfred Hitchcock films. Beyond her stage career Tippi was committed to international relief. She was working with Food for the Hungry in a refugee camp in California when several women, refugees from Vietnam, admired her manicure. An idea was borne that she brought to her manicurist: Could the manicurist come to the camp on weekends and teach women this skill?

She could and she did. Through this seemingly small act, a business and dream was born. The skill set allowed for employment when families were desperate for income and within a short time Vietnamese refugees had both started and captured the market of affordable nail care. Until Tippi Hedron and the women  taught by her manicurist came onto the scene, manicures were an unaffordable luxury, limited only to those who had wealth and time.

A school in California called the Advance Beauty College, teaching manicuring, cosmetology and massage, has graduated over 25,000 students. Clients looking for a bargain benefit from the discounts offered as students work on their nails, able to  clock in the hours needed for a license from the state. While not only Vietnamese attend, they make up the largest percentage of students in the school profile.

It is a classic case study on the igenuity of refugees and immigrants. As I think about nail salons, looked on by most as merely a “service” industry, I am amazed and humbled at their skill, business savvy and ability to build a small empire. Indeed, my manicures will never be the same.

It’s also a good example of the principles of community development. Too often instead of teaching skills and working alongside a community, outsiders dictate to the community what they should do and how they should do it. Taking advantage of an opportunity and learning this skill gave a displaced refugee community a livelihood and a way to start over after dramatic and traumatic events changed their lives. All of this was focused toward building a new life and a future. Would that all could find their niche spots as they ride the waves of grief, loss and renewal in a new world.

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“Welcome to English Class!”

Cover of "Why Don't They Learn English: S...
Cover via Amazon

In every municipality, in every major city, in every state from east coast to west “Welcome to English class!” is the call I would like to hear. As immigrants flock to various cities across the nation and long to find community and employment, the road is not easy. One of the areas where we could collectively encourage the adjustment process is by fighting for more English classes.

An article in the New York Times gives some interesting information about immigrants in New York State. A report called “Bad English” put out by the Center for an Urban Future in Manhattan warns of some far-reaching consequences to something seemingly as simple as cutting budgets for ESOL classes.

Census bureau numbers indicate that from 2005 to 2009 there was a six percent rise in the number of people that identified as speaking English “less than very well”. The six percent ends up being a figure of about 1.7 million people. At the same time the number of people enrolled in ESOL classes had decreased to only four percent of those adults who spoke English poorly.  The report looked at this from an economic view and warned of the serious impact to the economy. Specifically, the report states that this reality  “threatens the state’s ability to tap the skills of immigrant entrepreneurs and workers to strengthen local economies”. The problem is not only adults – because of a shortage of teachers in the school system the city of New York identified over 5,000 children not getting the English they need to be succesful in a school setting.

I have never met an immigrant who was not desperate to learn English and begin working. The reality is that English skills are a necessity in most jobs within the United States. They are also important when it comes to communicating to your child’s teachers, to health care providers, to your bank and in your local grocery store. It is not easy to function without English language skills when you are creating a new life for yourself and your family.

In a book published in 2001 by Lucy Tse called Why Don’t They Learn English? Separating Fact from Fallacy in the U.S. Language Debate some of the public perceptions of immigrants and language learning are studied and found to be myths. For instance, the author found that  immigrants and their children want to learn English and attempt to do just that in any way they can despite the many challenges that face them, one of them being a lack of ESOL classes.

The president of Laguardia Community College in a letter to the editor of the New York Times from earlier this fall says that “people hungry to learn English are placed on a waiting list that extends up to two years.”  That’s not good enough. We can do better and my guess is that these classes would pay back ten fold what is spent through the investment in people and what immigrants give back to their communities

And so I’ll ask those hard questions: Do we want immigrants to be a significant part of our communities? Do we want immigrants to contribute to the economy in our towns? Cities? States? Do we want immigrants to feel a part of the country and not become burdened with bitterness and frustration?  If so then fight for an English for Speakers of other Language class in your community. Start an ESOL class in your faith community. Be patient and willing to let people practice on you, encouraging them through the journey. Be the first to say “Welcome to English Class!”

Bloggers Note: At 83 and 85 years old my mom and dad both teach English to Speakers of Other Language classes through a church in their area. Through them I’ve learned that age is no excuse to not act.