A Life Overseas – On Safety & Sanity

Safe passage cannot be bought. We have no holy passport to protect us and so we venture forward, fragile maps in hand, flying our banners of courage and of hope.”


When life feels like it is too much, and I can’t make sense of our broken world, I turn to Call the Midwife, the television series based on a midwife’s memoir of working in the East End of London. I’m only half kidding when I say that.

News on the world stage is of quarantines and evacuations because of the new coronavirus, a virus affecting world economies, social structures, and everyday living for millions of people. News in your particular area may not only be coronavirus, but also local storms and tsunamis, civil war, or other threats to your safety. 

In the midst of any of these, the questions for many become what will happen next and how do we keep sane and safe? 

These are both good questions. The first we have little control over. Anyone who has lived overseas for even a short time knows that there are things you have no control over. From viruses to visas, you enter a life where you are regularly asked to give up your timetable and your control. If you insist on keeping them, they will mock you during a night where you toss and turn in your bed. The reality is we don’t know what may happen next. 

The second question may seem to offer a few more options, but there is much unknown there as well. 

Rachel Pieh Jones, writer and longtime contributor to A Life Overseas, writes about safety in a stunning essay called “The Proper Weight of Fear.” In the essay she describes having to flee Somaliland after three expatriates were murdered at the hands of terrorists. At one point in the essay she describes questions that she and her husband were asked before leaving for Somaliland. “The second question after weren’t you afraid was were you safe? Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.

“Of course we were safe. Of course we were not safe.” are perhaps the most honest phrases that describe a life overseas. My first memories in life are of blackouts during a war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. My parents’ had the only room in the house that did not have a window so it was safe to have the light on. We would gather and listen to the BBC World Service and drink hot cocoa, after which my mom would read to us until we fell asleep. Safe? Not safe? Who knew? 

How do we keep sane and safe during coronavirus warnings, wars, evacuations, and sometimes just plain traffic that seems to disregard human life? When it comes to decisions on safety, our lives stopped resembling those of our peers a long time ago; even so there are times when events happen that urge us to think more seriously about where we live and and weigh the inherent risk in staying or leaving. 

Here are a few things that may help: 

Start with the Psalms. If ever there was a model of crying out to God in times of despair and in times of hope, it is in the Psalms of David. They offer the full spectrum of feelings and responses to life and death situations. Reading these regularly is a good practice. You are not alone. You have never been alone. CS Lewis says  “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.” The Psalms are a comforting reminder of that truth. 

Connect with those you trust and those who can help you work through your feelings and decisions. You may want to reach out to your parents or other family members in your passport country, but you know that their worry will cause you great stress and make you second guess your decisions. As much as you love them, they may not be the best people with whom to review your options. Pick the people that you share with wisely. Make sure that they can walk you through your decision making without passing on their own fear over a situation that they may not fully understand. 

Keep as regular a routine as you can. Whether you have young children or older teenagers, keeping a routine is critical. Particularly at bedtime so that everyone can get a good sleep. Family meals (even when food may be rationed), bedtime stories, gathering together for games is critically important during times of uncertainty and crisis. Keep those routines going throughout the time of crisis. 

Be careful of the amount of news you discuss in front of your children. Our world is over saturated with news and information. It makes people miles away from a crisis afraid, let alone you who are directly affected. Discuss the news in age appropriate ways with your kids. With older children, answer their questions with concrete information. Don’t have the news going nonstop on either a radio, the television, or your phone. It will not keep you sane – it will make you crazy. Keeping current on information is important, but there are ways to do it that preserve your sanity. 

Policies are your friends. If your organization has a policy, then trust that it was made for a reason. Let it be your friend. Let it guide your decisions. I say this to health organization supervisors all the time. “Let policies be your friend.” They don’t exist to be mean and arbitrary, but to guide and protect when you may not have the strength to make the decision on your own. You may disagree vehemently with the policy, but policies are often made to keep people sane and safe for the long term, not to burn them out in the short term. Rachel and her husband Tom did not want to leave Somaliland when they had to leave. They had only been there a year, and their lives were turned sideways. But they trusted a policy, and they left. It was the right decision. 

Don’t make decisions out of fear. Fear is not good currency. It will bankrupt you quicker than you can imagine. Make decisions based on reality and with regard to your organization’s policies, not based on fear of the “what ifs.” 

End with the Psalms. Start with the Psalms and end with the Psalms. They are good bookends. They keep all of life together in a clear image of human struggle and response. 

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me. – Psalm 13, ESV

I don’t know what is going on in your world. I don’t know what your struggles are, what threats may assault you from without and within. What I do know is that you are infinitely precious to God on this life journey. I offer these words of traveling mercy from my friend Robynn: 

When the ride gets turbulent, when oxygen masks dangle in front of us, reassure us of your nearness and help us to breathe. Thank you that you travel with us. Thank you that you promise to meet us at baggage claim. Thank you for the hope of our Final Destination. But until then, we ask for your traveling mercies.Christ in your mercy, hear our prayer.


May you venture forward, flying your banner of courage and of hope.

3 AM in the First Class Lounge

I have never been in a first class lounge before. This hits me as I sit in a chair at three o’clock in the morning at a first class lounge in the Qatar Airport, my head resting on on of those brilliant, semi-circled plane pillows. We are here because of an extra long layover after an extraordinary, though quick, trip to Iraq.

The lounge is nearly empty, but an hour ago people from a multitude of cultures and countries converged on this space. Women in black abayas with bedazzled hijabs loaded plates of food for kids of all ages. Blonde-haired Europeans with skinny jeans and sweatshirts lounged on modern furniture scrolling through smart phones, their faithful links to the world’s they left behind. Tall and short men of varying ages, some eating, some drinking tea or coffee, still others snoring, oblivious to anything but the deep sleep that consumes them.

And then there are the staff, so attentive in their caring for weary travelers, yet so weary themselves.

A large, unavoidable screen gives airline information in vivid white, a reminder that we are only temporary sojourners. Each of us will leave this room, for it is merely a temporary resting place. We will never be fully comfortable here, but it does provide respite for a time.

How like our life on earth! The invisible but unavoidable screen of mortality reminding each of us at that our time on earth is limited.

If we let it, travel ushers us into reflective humility. All these travelers representing individuals, families, countries, cultures, languages, political ideologies, and religious beliefs. All these travelers, and I am but one of the millions that are traveling throughout the world today.

We are so small in the big scheme of things, yet so utterly beloved by our creator, without exception. The person I may despise the most is deeply and completely loved by the same One who loves me. It is beyond my ability to understand yet at three in the morning, it is deeply comforting.

A little girl has fallen asleep nearby. I smile, memories of traveling the world with my own children coming back to me. They would have loved to see the likes of this lounge.

I am so grateful for these moments. In a short time I will be on my way, the humility that travel affords too quickly replaced by my everyday erroneous thinking that I can control my world, replaced by my pride. But I thank God for the moments.

The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment He has scattered broadcast.  We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy.  It is not hard to see why.  The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency.  Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.” C.S. Lewis

Waking up on the Other Side of the World

Istiklal Caddesi on Sunday Afternoon, Istanbul by Stan Brown

Last night my parents left for Istanbul. My niece, Sarah, drove them from Rochester, New York, to Toronto. There they embarked on a non-stop flight to Istanbul.

They woke up on the other side of the world. 

I’ve done this many times myself, but I still shake my head in amazement. How is it that our worlds can change so rapidly? How is it that in a matter of 10 hours, we can arrive in a totally different part of the world?

I know the mechanical and physical part of it, that’s easy. We have airline travel and that has changed the world. What I’m marveling at is the emotional and psychological piece.

You wake up on the other side of the world to the call to prayer and strange syllables being pronounced all around you. You wake up on the other side of the world in a haze of excited exhaustion. Traffic bustles and the city of Istanbul is at the end of a work day. You wake up on the other side of the world, greeted by those who make their home in a 3-bedroom apartment, part of a middle class neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul.  You wake up on the other side of the world, united to family who love you and welcome you with special care, even as you leave behind family who love you and care for you daily. 

On A Life Overseas this morning, Elizabeth Trotter has written beautifully about this. Elizabeth will wake up on the other side of the world tomorrow. She leaves Cambodia, a place where she has been writing her name in the land, and heads to the United States. She writes poignantly about this transition:

“Who am I, and where do I belong? I live in this city and traverse its Asian streets, all without quite belonging to them. Yet I don’t quite belong to the immaculately clean American streets I’ll soon be walking, either. Belonging is a slippery feeling for a global nomad. It can be everywhere, and it can be nowhere, all at the same time.

From now on, wherever I go and no matter which side of the sea I settle on, I will always be on the far side of somewhere I love.” from Elizabeth Trotter in The Far Side of Somewhere.

My parents embarked on a life between worlds long before I was born. When I came into their life, they had already planted their feet both sides of the globe — in Pakistan and in the United States. Their careers were spent waking up on the other side of the world, always leaving someone behind. At first, it was parents and siblings. But as time went on, it was their own children and grandchildren. They are ever-familiar with the tightness in the chest, the swallowing, the tears just beyond the eyelids — all symptoms of goodbye. 

As I think about this, I remember the One who knew what it was to live away from his Father, the One who left all that was his, and woke up on the other side of the world. This Jesus knew the agony of separation. The words “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” were on his lips as he was dying. He knew what it was to long for the place where you truly belong, and so he sent a Comforter.

“I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever;”*

If I asked my parents their secret to waking up the other side of the world, they would tell me that it is this Comforter that makes it possible.

Because when we wake up on the other side of the world, the Comforter comes with us. 

*John 14:16

Photo Credit – Stan Brown

Wrapping up the week – January 24th, 2015

I’m sitting on my couch looking out on a white world. Snow is falling in those big, beautiful flakes that you can easily distinguish. It’s producing white fluff, like marshmallows, on the ground. Our Greek neighbor, the oldest man on the block, has already cleaned his sidewalk so well that it looks like it never snowed.

And though I don’t want to admit it, this fluffy world is beautiful. It hides city dirt and throws a blanket of lovely across roads and houses.

It’s been a busy week. We came back midday on Martin Luther King Day and the very next day I went to an all day workshop on health insurance and the Affordable Care Act. And if you are in the United States and you don’t understand the ACA or health insurance, don’t worry – it really does take a rocket scientist. This I can attest.

But on that note – here is a site called ObamaCare Explained that includes a video called ObamaCare for Dummies. The title may not endear you to it but believe me, when it come to health coverage, we are all dummies. It’s that crazy complicated.

This week I am focusing on some photojournalism – pictures that tell stories in places and ways where words limit.

  • Demolished. Here is a look at the history of public housing in Chicago through pictures.
  • Along with that, a friend who lives in Afghanistan alerted me to this photo essay. A “majestic building in Afghanistan and the destruction it has seen.” Take a look here.

Both of these essays feel critically important to me – the story they tell, the people that are affected. What do you think?

Excerpt: “Because of you, our understanding of the Gospel includes rough places made plain and crooked places made straight.  Your belief taught us to seek healing and to fight for restoration.” 

  • A Railway Pilgrimage in Pakistan This piece called  took me back in time to the many train journeys in my youth. For those who read my book Between Worlds you will remember the essay “The Train Party.” The essay I link above is a wonderful piece that includes beautiful pictures and stories of people along the journey.

Excerpt: “The train whistle blows, echoing throughout the station. “Can I carry your luggage?” a porter asks me. I shake my head and push my way into the crowd. The Khyber Mail is parked just ahead—the Pakistan Railways logo painted in fine white lettering in English and Urdu on the side of the engine. Through the windows of the Mail I glimpse families stuffing metal trunks, rolls of bedding, water coolers, and metal containers of food under the berth or wherever they would fit. For the tuck-shops—the small kiosks selling toys, snacks, and everyday items—on the platform, this is a burst of brisk business. Chai vendors scurry back and forth collecting empty glasses from passengers as the train starts to pull out of the platform.”

Excerpt:“Chinese will regularly comment on your weight, your age and the way you raise your kids. You get used to it, but some comments are stunners. In 2012, near Chongqing in central China, a weathered peasant, who was standing around eating peanuts, asked me my age. When I told him 61, he laughed. “I’m 80 and I look better than you,” he said. So this guy, who probably weighed 100 pounds and was missing most of his teeth, thought he looked better than me? Next time, I resolved, I’d say I was 90 and see what happens. (I never did it.)”

Reader Jocelyn brought this piece to my attention: Thoughts on Peace, MLK Jr., Hiba, and Life Unarmed.

On my night stand: I continue to read I am Malala – I don’t really want it to end and I haven’t had much reading time lately so my wish may come true!

Travel Quote: This one comes from blog reader Ginny. Thank you Ginny – love this!

Cairo View 2 Sarah Groves quoteWhat have you read or seen?


You Know You Married a TCK When…..

coffee quote

All of you long suffering spouses and partners of TCK’s – this one’s for you:

You know you married a TCK when…..

  1. You’re listening to National Public Radio (NPR)  and she shouts – “I know that reporter”.
  2. You’re playing Trivial Pursuit and she gets stuck on pop culture but gets every country question correct.

  3. You have to teach her idioms. Again. And again. And again.

  4. Every three months she has to either get across an international border or rearrange the furniture.

  5. You try to convince her that she cannot bargain for fresh produce at the fixed price grocery store.

  6. She nods and laughs at a joke, but you know by the look on her face that she does not understand a word of it.

  7. You find her in tears after trying to order coffee in her passport country.

  8. She gets ragingly envious when you have an overseas trip — and she doesn’t get to go.

  9. You know that the only restaurants she will want to go to on Valentine’s Day are ethnic restaurants.

  10. One of her favorite places is the international terminal at the nearest airport.

  11. Every immigrant she meets becomes her best friend.

  12. She dissolves in tears when she hears news reports of tragedies from her adopted country/countries.

  13. Her decorating style mixes samovars with reindeer, white lights with Egyptian perfume bottles, and Turkish bowls with books.

  14. She is fiercely protective of her TCK “tribe.” You criticize her tribe – you criticize her!

  15. She has no problem sending her kids across the ocean to countries with uprisings and revolutions but sits up half the night worrying about them driving your car down the street to a friend’s house.

  16. She gets completely paralyzed in the cereal aisle of a grocery store. Or the bread aisle. Or the chips aisle. Or the….

What would you add? Spouses or TCKs are welcome to contribute!

Readers – today is the last day to purchase Between Worlds and have the royalties go to toward refugees in Turkey! Read reviews below!

Reviews of Between Worlds: 


When You Feel Small

I took a breath as I looked out from a high roof-top terrace over the city of Istanbul.

“This city is so massive, and I am so small” I thought to myself.

My brother had taken me to one of his favorite city cafés. It is across from the Süleymaniye Mosque, an imperial mosque from the Ottoman Empire and the largest mosque in the city of Istanbul.

We walked from the spice bazaar heading up hill along ancient stone steps, alley ways, and roads. Passing through a market beyond the spice bazaar with its plethora of everything from pottery to plastic, we reached the mosque just before the midday call to prayer echoed across the city.

We moved on through the beautiful courtyard of the mosque and out through archways arriving at the terrace café to relax and talk. That’s when I sat, looking out in awe and amazement. Levels on levels of buildings, some set high on hills, others low by the sea, all part of this city of Istanbul. Dots of people moving looked like tiny ants and cars were like toy cars that you buy cheap at a toy store.

“I am one of those ants” was my inner reflection and I felt small in the best sort of way. 

There is something healthy about feeling small, about recognizing your place and opinion in this world is finite, your influence limited. The apartment buildings housing millions of people were all around me and the Bosphorus separated the continents of Europe and Asia, connected only through solid bridges and ferry rides.

There are times when my opinion of myself is far too high, other times when I sigh in despair at my lowliness – but this was not that. 

This was a healthy, God-given reminder that I am small. And in that admission I sighed with relief. The world-wide problems are not mine to solve, the fates of nations and empires not mine to decide. Rather, as one who is small I lean hard on the One who gathers the nations, the One who will be glorified among the nations and yet still knows the number of hairs on my head.




A reminder that if you buy Between Worldsfor yourself or a friend during November all proceeds will go to refugees in Turkey. The refugee situation gets more difficult by the day and cold weather is coming. With that cold weather comes an increase in need for resources like blankets, heaters, tents and more. Along with that are the myriad of health needs so I’m thrilled to be able to send any royalties to a cause like this. It seems appropriate given the topic of the book and where my heart lies.

Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging can be purchased here: 

Behind the Persian Curtain: An American in Iran: Part 4

As Cliff and I read comments on all three of his posts on Iran, we realized that there was a missing piece – that of more detail on the dialogue. There is only so much you can fit into a blog post before losing the attention of readers, so he has continued the series with one more post.

I think this could be one of the most important posts ever published on Communicating Across Boundaries for in it we have word for word some of the concerns of a country isolated for 30 years. Please read and share as you feel appropriate. 


Many of you have asked for more specific details of the conversations our delegation had with the Iranian thought leaders we met during our week in Tehran and Qom. In this post I want to go deeper into some of what was discussed during our time in Iran. 

It is important to know that our delegation consisted of ten academics from ten different institutions and went to Iran as private citizens. We were political scientists, anthropologists, historians, linguists, and theologians. We were Christians, Jews and agnostics. We were Republicans, Democrats, Socialists and Libertarians. Our goal was to meet with Iranian academics, clerics and think-tank leaders. We were well aware of the chasm that has existed between our two governments, as well as the perceptions of our populations, since the Iranian revolution.

According to mediator, Douglas Noll, one of the key principles of peacemaking is the following:

The peacemaker is charged with the sacred duty of creating a refuge where people from different backgrounds know they will be heard and understood, where their needs and ideas will be respected, and where they can safely do the difficult work of reconciling their differences.”

Each of us stepped off the plane at Imam Khomeini International with a desire to listen to our Iranian hosts but to also have the freedom and tact to ask some of the “hard questions” in our mind about Iranian human rights and academic freedom.

During the week we met at eleven different venues with over two hundred people, representing over thirty different organizations. As you can imagine that is a lot of talking, and listening and you could imagine translating. The majority of the speakers we interacted with spoke English and many of them has obtained their higher education degrees in the U.S. or Europe.

Our delegation leader, Dr. James Jennings, would begin each session with a reiteration of why our delegation had come. We were there to listen and begin a dialogue between our parties. We did not represent the U.S. government or its foreign policies, but were there to discuss a wide-range of topics.

I would say that the hardest realization was to hear how isolated Iran has felt these three decades since the Iranian Revolution. We were listening to people, who for some of them, had the first opportunity to share (i.e., vent) with an American audience. I could envision years of conversations they had been having with each other about this regional and global isolation and the effects the sanctions had on their society.

As mentioned before, Iranians are passionate and vocal by nature and we were able to listen to them. Let me list a few topics that the Iranians wanted us (and vicariously other Americans) to hear:

“Your sanctions are killing us slowly, We cannot import certain chemicals to ease our traffic pollution and many of our medicines are too expensive for the general population.”

“Your academic journals are rejecting our papers and research in the name of ‘sanctions’.”

“We want to collaborate with your academic institutions.”

“We want Iranian-American exchange programs for university students.

“We want you to see how the sanctions have limited us and made us more self-reliant.

“We are proud of our Islamic Revolution and its principles.

“Our Supreme Leader has issued a fatwa stating that any nuclear bomb is anti-Islamic.”

“We are providing women with education and support. Sixty percent of our university students are women.”

“Your government is hypocritical. You talk about human rights, yet you support the country of Saudi Arabia that will not even allow its women to vote or drive cars.”

“We believe that our government needs to protect society from the ills of modernity.”

“We have challenges with our youth and joblessness.”

“We have a problem with drug smuggling from Pakistan and Afghanistan. We have over one million drug addicts that we are trying to rehabilitate.

These are the topics that members of our delegation wanted the Iranians (and vicariously their government) to hear:

“We are individual academics. We do not represent the American government or U.S. foreign policy.”

“How is your society addressing human and civil rights violations?”

“Why is your government supporting the regime of Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon?”

“What is the status of women in your society?”

“Why can’t American tourists come to Iran and travel on their own.”

“What are your nuclear intentions? Are they just for energy purposes or for obtaining a nuclear bomb?”

“What about the freedom of religion in Iran? In the first declaration of human rights, Cyrus the Great stated in principle #4: Every man has the right to choose his own religion.”

“What is the status of Iranian Christians, Zoroastrians and Baha’i who have been imprisoned for their beliefs?”

“Many Americans want relations between Iran and the U.S. to be normalized.”

We had many honest and probing conversations with our Iranian hosts in the formal sessions and also over meals and tea. We were involved in peacemaking by trying to explain the rationale of some of the decisions made by our government, academic intuitions and journals. We listened to one another and trust that we will be able to bring more delegations to Iran and to host Iranian participants at our U.S. institutions.

Peacemaking is never clean-cut and solutions are rarely solvable in one sitting. The desire to be heard by the other party is the first step in reconciliation and rapprochement.


Enhanced by Zemanta

Behind the Persian Curtain: An American in Iran: Part 2


Today is Part 2 of the series on Iran. If you missed yesterday’s feel free to click here.


For those of you who have had the privilege to sample Iranian/Persian cuisine you are definitely in for a treat. Before I left my good Iranian friend, Payman, said, “You will be served more chelo kebab than you have ever been served.” Now chelo kebab is a national dish in Iran, with small pieces of beef, grilled with sumac (a lemon-like spice) and served over saffron enhanced rice and whole grilled tomatoes. I laughed at my friend and said, “Could one ever get tired of chelo kebab?” Well, his prediction came true. After each delegation meeting and even in the evening we were treated to sumptuous meals of chelo kebab kobideh, rice, salad and occasionally fesinjan, a chicken stew with walnut and pomegranate sauce. By the end of our trip we were ready for a break from chelo kebab.


Our trip was primarily focused on delegation meetings, rather than tourism, but after one meeting we were taken to the main Tehran Bazaar. As we piled out of our vans, accompanied by 3-5 “handlers” we first stopped for refreshing hand-squeezed pomegranate juice. We were all in our suits and ties and began our walk towards the main bazaar. Iran does not have many Western tourists and even fewer Americans that visit. So you can imagine the looks we received. At one point an older woman asked one of our delegates if we were from Germany. She said, “Na, ma az Amrika ast” “No, we are from America.” The woman took her hand and said, “Welcome, where have you been? We have been waiting for you for 32 years.” It was a genuine expression that was to be repeated over and over during our time in Tehran and Qom. Iranians seem to be tired of the isolation of their country from much of the world and would like there to be more interactions.


Someone asked me upon my return if I had witnessed women being “oppressed by Islam”. It is not the first time I’ve been asked this question by North Americans when they find out I have both lived and traveled extensively in the Muslim world. From my view people seemed genuinely happy and relaxed in society, interacting with each other freely, observing cultural norms of modesty. All women had their heads covered with fashionable scarves and most showed some forehead locks, some even with super-stylish curls. Most were modestly dressed with their manteau (covering to their thighs) or dresses. When we visited the holy city of Qom, about 2 hours from Tehran, all of the women were in black chadors with no hair showing. But we saw many women interacting with men in every day life and even saw women working in the bazaars.

One of our ‘handlers’ pointed out a situation one day in the area called Darband where four young women were put in a police van and were going to be taken for questioning. In front of the van were four bored policemen and two serious morality policewomen in full black chadoors, zealous in their job of upholding the modesty of the young.

During our stay we learned that Tehran was the “nose-job” capitol of the world with over 90,000 nose jobs a year performed. We saw Tehrunis proudly strutting with bandages on their noses, both men and women alike. My wife always said that God made Iranian women the most beautiful in the world and left the rest of the world to fend for itself. What a surprise to find that with some of these women God got a little help in the form of a plastic surgeon skilled at crafting noses. 


I have to admit that I was most interested in meeting with Shi’ite clerics on this visit. I certainly had perceptions of them being intensely spiritual and serious men. As we went from meeting to meeting we started to interact with more clerics. What struck me most about these clerics was their deep passion to connect their religious intellect with the passions of their heart and with culture and education. We had very honest and candid conversations about faith and the intersections of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. But what surprised me the most was the sense of humor that they had. At one lunch I sat across from two clerics, one with a black turban and one with a white turban. We discussed a variety of topics when I posed to them, “Can you tell me of the religious significance between the black and white turbans?” The cleric leaned in and said, “Well, it is because I have a black heart and my friend here has a white heart.” They laughed and then explained to me that those with black turbans were sayyeds, direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. The cleric in the white turban said about his friend, “He is a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, and I am only the descendent of the Prophet Adam.”

After our lunch conversation the black-turbaned cleric said to me, “You must stay in Iran. We will keep you here with us. We can find you an Iranian wife.” I replied in Arabic, “Haram alayk, God forbid, I already have a wife and one is most sufficient.They laughed and made the offer again. We posed for pictures with them and were told to come back and visit and bring others with us for more dialogue and discussion.

One day our delegation traveled for two hours to the holy city of Qom. It is like the Vatican for Shi’ite Muslims and seat of great learning and pilgrimage. We met with clerics and academics at two universities and was welcomed into their midst. We had candid discussions about religion, theology and practice among Muslims, Christians and Jews. We were given a private tour of the holy shrine of Fatima Masumeh, the sister of the 8th Shi’ite Imam, Ali Reza. We were able to see faithful pilgrim come and venerate this shrine along with the tombs of other religious leaders and teachers buried there. It was a great privilege as non-Muslims to enter into such a sacred place for Shi’ite Muslims.


Thursday and Fridays are government holidays in Iran, so on juma’ (Friday) we were taken on a tour around Tehran. We stopped for lunch at the International Ferdowsi Grand Hotel. We were told that we were being taken to a “traditional restaurant”. It turned out to be called Traditional Restaurant. It was decorated with large wooden chairs covered with Persian carpet squares, large wooden tables and large brass samovars around the room. Through the middle of the restaurant there was a large fountain and river. A sumptuous buffet table was laden with Iranian appetizers, rice, vegetables, fish and chelo kebab! They served us the most incredible bread I’ve ever eaten called sangak, a large rectangular flatbread that had been cooked on hot rocks.

Against one wall was a raised dias with 4-5 musicians setting up their instruments for a live traditional music performance. After our delegation was seated at two large tables we noticed a large influx of guests, mostly women. We were told that a wedding reception was taking place. As the live music started, a man in a leisure suit and coiffed hair began to croon before the crowd. Anyone who knows me, knows that I love music and that I love to dance. As the music started, the drums beat and the accordion accorded (?) I started to move my hands and hips to the music. My Iranian handlers found this most amusing. I went up to get some food at the buffet and was entranced by the music. I went up closer to the performers and took a short video. The wedding singer then motioned for me to come up, biyah, and I set my plate down and joined him on the stage and began to dance. The women from the wedding party started to clap and egg me on. I didn’t need a more encouraging audience. I danced and moved and noticed the camera phones of my handlers take pictures across the distant room.

After the song ended I left the stage and returned to my table to continue eating and enjoying the wedding festivities. When it was time to leave I met in the foyer a young man dressed in a trendy blue suit jacket and jeans. I said to him, “You have the best suit at this wedding!” he leaned closer and stated, “I’m the groom.” We laughed and talked for a while and took pictures together. When I left the restaurant he thanked me for dancing at his wedding.

Join us tomorrow for Part 3 as Cliff writes about Khomeini; mosques, churches and fire temples; and the effects of sanctions on Iranians.  

Pomegranate Juice Stand – Tehran, Iran

Fruit of the gods – selling pomegranates Tehran, Iran

All that glitters is Brass

Enhanced by Zemanta

Travel Advisory: Tips for families traveling with their TCK children and adolescents

Here is the continuation of Jenni’s post on Airports I’ve Known. This is both a practical and humorous post. Once you read this you’ll never, ever want to travel with meat…..just sayin’.


Tips for families traveling with their TCK children and adolescents by Jenni Gate


Jenni Gate - luggage

  • Airport air-conditioning can be freezing, especially in the middle of the night when the whole family is sprawled out on the floor or huddled on uncomfortable, hard plastic seats. Always bring a sweater or at least a light jacket and wear trousers, not shorts.
  • When you need to rest between flights. Sleeping in an airport beats paying for a hotel with a three-hour layover in the middle of the night. It is a good idea to have your passport and ticket within easy reach, and any valuables in a bag under your head.
  • Look for lockers. Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam provides wonderful, roomy lockers where you may lock your bags if you want to explore the city. But make sure to bring your bags with you through the exit and lock them up near the airport entrance. Once you have locked a bag behind a security checkpoint, it may be nearly impossible to get access to it again.

Jenni Gate - Schiphol

  • Look out for airport taxes. I spent my last dollar in Hong Kong and had no money for the airport tax. I sobbed until someone took pity on me and paid my tax.
  • Weather. Expect delays in ice storms, snow storms and hurricanes. Even if the airport you’re stuck in is in another part of the world, if a connecting flight is delayed due to weather, there is a very good chance flights all down the line in other parts of the country or the world will also be delayed.
  • Lost bags are a fact of travel life. Pack light, if you can, so that you have no checked luggage. If that’s not possible, pack a toothbrush and a change of clothes in your carry-on bag.
  • Don’t fly with meat. Flying to Dulles from Oregon one year, my grandfather, a farmer, packed meat in his luggage, expecting to surprise us with Christmas dinner. It was his first experience with lost luggage. By the time his suitcase was found, it had to be thrown away. Dulles baggage handlers were not amused. People ship fish from Alaska sometimes with similar results. Use dried ice and realize that if the container is lost, no amount of dried ice will preserve it after so many hours.
  • Security is security is security. Always present, always intrusive. Try not to become separated at either side of the checkpoint. Realize that your 5th grader probably did not listen to your warnings about pocket knives.
  • About the kids…. Keep small children occupied with coloring books, movies, and lots of games. Travel boredom is easier to handle today with electronic readers and mp3 players. Snacks help. Naps help. Sometimes there is just nothing you can do to stop a tantrum. At those times, at least try to walk your child away from other travelers to keep the tension down.

Jenni Gate - Waiting

  • And about the adolescents…. Keep adolescents from killing each other by keeping them at opposite ends of a row of seating while you wait for your flight. They have as much energy to burn off as a toddler. If there is an open space near your gate, let them show off their pushups or sit-ups, dance steps, or stretches. Ignore the looks from fellow travelers.
  • Actually don’t even travel with teenagers.  It is just not wise. It is an extreme stressor that could lead to ugly faces, angry words, exasperated shouting and threats of violence. And not just by the teens. Seriously. If there is a way to avoid traveling with teenagers, do it.

What about you? What airports do you know? What tips can you share?

Enhanced by Zemanta

A Guest Post – Airports I’ve Known

Jenni Gate has guest posted for Communicating Across Boundaries before and today I’m delighted to welcome her back with this post that will resonate with travelers world-wide – Airports I’ve Known. Enjoy and feel free to tell us your stories through the comments!


Jenni Gate - birthday“Happy birthday!” Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I looked up from my nest of flight bags on the airport floor to see Mom holding a cupcake out to me with a lit candle, my sisters belting out the birthday song loud and clear. Heads turned as other passengers looked on, and an Arab man nodded behind Mom, a smile broadening his face as he took in my growing excitement. I don’t remember where we were going or where we were coming from. I don’t remember the particular airport. It was not my first birthday in an airport and it would not be my last.

Whether moving, going on home leave, or on vacation, my family traveled a lot. Mom always said she could write a Mother’s Guide to the Restrooms of Europe, and that includes airports. Every few years, Heathrow, Rome, JFK, Dulles, and National sprouted new terminals. By the mid-1960s, we could choose flights routed through any of these major hubs, and we grew up knowing airports better than my parents’ home towns.

Jenni Gate - Lagos

Moving from Libya to Nigeria, we became well-acquainted with Lagos and Kaduna Airports. I was little more than a toddler when we landed there, but my older sister still talks about the smell, the muggy heat, and the press of humanity as we got off the plane. In 1966, the first eruptions of violence signaled the Biafran War. In 1967, my family was evacuated. I still recall the fighting in the months before our evacuation and the dead and injured on the tarmac as we boarded the plane in Kaduna.

It took days to travel from Washington DC to Kinshasa, Congo. At least one of us got locked in a bathroom while a flight was called. Between gates from JFK to Athens, we ran to keep up with Dad’s long legs. In Athens, I stared dumbly at the heavily armed soldiers who boarded the plane. Landing at the small, dusty terminal in Kinshasa, we were exhausted. We were dirty and sweating in the equatorial heat. Our apartment was on the fourth floor of the UN building in the center of Kinshasa, and the thick odors of the Congo River wafted up to us in the heat. We were too jet lagged to pay attention to the cockroaches skittering across the floor in the night. The next morning we awoke to learn there had been an uprising against Mobutu and thousands of people lay dead and injured in the streets below us.

Jenni Gate - Passport

In my teen years, we moved to Pakistan via Heathrow, then Karachi International Airport, finally arriving in Islamabad. During the years flying in and out of Pakistan, I had a flight canceled because rats ate through the wiring. One flight was delayed while the airline attendants tried to convince a family they could not start a fire in the aisle to cook their dinner. Inevitably, we were strip searched by Pakistani officials when entering or leaving the country.

As a senior, my class took a trip to the pristine Swat territory of Pakistan a week before graduation. We all got giardia from contaminated water. On the way back to the US after graduation, I left Islamabad for Karachi and went through a full strip-search in Karachi Airport. Landing in Heathrow looking like a hippie, I was searched again. Flying out of Heathrow on a British Airways flight, the wheels fell off the plane on take-off. We flew out over the English Channel, dumped our fuel, and turned back for a belly landing. The airline put us up overnight, and we flew out the next day. I spent the following week in Ocean City, Maryland, with friends from Virginia who just graduated. Still on giardia medication, I stayed sober while my friends partied on. They knew little of life in the wider world. It was an epiphany for me.

My travel bug drives me to take the ups and downs in stride. Excitement builds with the smell of jet fuel and the revving of jet engines as I anticipate arrival at the next destination. I love the sound of my bag’s wheels clicking along behind me as I walk to my gate, off to the next adventure.

What are some of your stories? What airports have you known that have made lasting impressions on your life story? 


About the author: With a childhood enriched by travel and diverse experiences, Jenni learned early that the only constant in life is change, and she developed skills to manage each change as it happens. She has worked as a paralegal, a mediator, a small business consultant, and a writer. Her published work includes several articles for a monthly business magazine in Alaska and a local interest magazine in Idaho. She has written several award-winning memoir pieces for writing contests. Jenni currently writes fiction, drawing upon her global experiences. She blogs at nomadtrailsandtales.com.


Enhanced by Zemanta

The Galaxies Within Us – A Guest Post

Today I am delighted to introduce you to Jenni Gate. Jenni and I met online through another third culture kid. It was instant connection and we have said more than once that we have lived parallel lives, the most obvious being both of us graduating from high school in Pakistan, two different schools, in the same year. Read more about Jenni at the end but for now enjoy this beautiful post on memories within. 


I am a universe with the memories of each place I’ve lived orbiting around my brain like stars within a galaxy. 

world, globeEach TCK or global nomad carries the memories of all the places lived in their own unique universe.  When we discuss our experiences, we offer a shimmer, a glimpse into our individual universe. A scent or a word spoken in just the right way may trigger a flood of memories, like a meteor shower crashing into a planet, carrying the memory of one culture as it impacts another and another and another. In an instant, we remember every moment we had to say a good-bye or every moment we were the new kid at school. When our planets collide, the shock of one culture compared with another, we may be immobile until we understand the new realm of experience, the new rules of gravity, the new physics of our interactions with one another.

Worlds of memory are packed away inside us, pushed into the dark matter of our minds.

I first realized this when I started writing memoirs of a life growing up globally. I began describing some of the people who took care of us when we were little. Like most westerners living in the Third World, we had household staff. In Benghazi, Libya, we had a neighbor who was about 12 years old. She loved to keep my mother company, eager to help bathe us and dress us and comb our hair when I was an infant and my older sister was 3 or 4 years old. In Nigeria, we had Marta, a nanny who carried us, fed us, played with us, and babysat us when our parents were out. We also had Ussman, who organized every aspect of our lives.  In Kinshasa, we had Mousa, a timid, quiet man who cooked and cleaned and looked out for us.  In Islamabad, we had Rafiq and our cook Ashraf, who made incredible after-school snacks to please us.

As I wrote about each of these people, people I once loved as close as family, it dawned on me that with each move, we said good-bye to people we loved and trusted. We never took time to grieve these losses.

I began to categorize the things we lost and the things we gained. I listed schools, toys, games, houses. I listed holidays and cultural norms. I listed identities. There was Jenni the ballerina, Jenni the swimmer, Jenni the hockey player, Jenni the cheerleader. I listed pets. We left so many pets behind when we moved. We were grateful for those we moved with us. We left pets with close friends and distant acquaintances; we left pets behind into the unknown during wars and evacuations. We got to a point that we refused to get large dogs because they could not come with us when we moved, and it was too hard to separate from them.

We gained new insights into religions of the world. We gained cultural norms and social expectations. We gained new friends, new enemies, new people we may or may not remember. We gained languages. We gained dreams and hopes, and new ways of perceiving. We learned that the universe was open, and the infinite is possible.

Each time we move, we pack up our memories along with our possessions. Sometimes the boxes that hold specific memories aren’t opened again for years, if ever. We look to selected memories to help define us, clinging to a whisper of what we might have become if we had followed a certain trajectory or lived our lives in one place. We do this because with each move, part of our identity is packaged into its own separate planet containing memories, cultural norms, activities, hobbies, friends, pets, places and people that we may never do or see again. These memories inevitably spin from our minds as we turn to new experiences, new cultures, new planets to be explored and integrated into our universe, always seeking a foundation we can call our planet earth – home.


Jenni was born in Libya, and as a child she lived in Libya, Nigeria, the Congo, Pakistan, the Philippines, and the Washington DC area.  As an adult, she has lived in Alaska, England, and throughout the Pacific Northwest.

With a childhood enriched by travel and diverse experiences, Jenni learned early that the only constant in life is change, and she developed skills to manage each change as it happens.

She has worked as a paralegal, a mediator, a small business consultant, and a writer. Her published work includes several articles for a monthly business magazine in Alaska and a local interest magazine in Idaho. She has written several award-winning memoir pieces for writing contests. Jenni currently writes fiction, drawing upon her global experiences. She blogs at nomadtrailsandtales.com.

Singapore-shaped Hole

Little can describe those first months in our passport countries after living overseas, We leave strong, vibrant expat communities and return to places where community seems absent or elusive; we think it’s there but how do we find it? We leave places where we have connected with other people from all over the world and created our own global neighborhood and move to places where that global neighborhood feels far away and the local neighborhood too provincial. Most of all we leave places that we have grown to love, where our hearts are marked by holes shaped like those places and filled with those people that we have left. 

Fall is typically a time when these moves happen. And so my niece Amy is guest posting today, taking us on a bit of her journey this fall as she faces a Singapore-shaped hole in her heart. 

Fall has historically been my favorite season. And this week, the DC metro area is experiencing the most gorgeous fall weather a girl could ask for. The trees are starting to change colors and there is a crisp breeze causing all the leaves to rustle joyously. But what really gets me is the smell; the smell of changing seasons is indescribable and intoxicating.

I find that there is a stirring in my heart; a nostalgic joy that has been long-lost is awakening in my soul. It is brought on by crunchy leaves, bright orange pumpkins, delicious apples, and that familiar and comfortable atmosphere of Fall that I know so well.

But every crunch of a leaf, flash of orange from a pumpkin, and juicy bite of an apple reminds me of the season I have left behind.

English: Overview of Singapore's financial dis...

The last two years of my life were spent on the tiny island of Singapore. This island is a bustling city nestled in Southeast Asia between Malaysia and Indonesia; rich in jungle atmosphere, cultural diversity, and the best food known to man. Though 6 weeks have already passed since I moved back to America, a piece of my heart still dwells with that little island. I long for the sticky, hot air and the smell of jungle and city, combined with a hint of durian.

I wonder when I will again feel that tropical atmosphere, eat chicken rice at the local hawker stall, or be the only white face crammed into a train car packed with Asian faces.

As I am experiencing the joy I have always found in changing seasons, my heart is being torn in two as I grieve what I have left behind. Some mornings when I wake up, the Singapore-shaped hole in my heart is almost too much to bear. I tell myself that I would trade the gorgeous Fall weather any day to be back on that tiny island.

But the grief will inevitably fade, and the joy of Fall will once again take over. And I will move forward into my new season, as we are all forced to do at times, but I do so having left a piece of my heart in Singapore and treasuring the piece of Singapore left in my heart.


The Broken Suitcase

Fridays with Robynn

A typical suitcase

I was on my way to Turkey to speak at two back to back women’s retreats with my friend, and the coauthor of Expectations and Burnout, Sue. It was the first time I had travelled internationally in four years. For someone who has had a passport since she was eight, who’s traversed the globe multiple times, who’s childhood was expended overseas and who’s birthed two babies on the banks of the Ganges river– this was a really big deal.

And I was excited.

I think because travel is built into my DNA and I love it, I’ve always had this quirky but simple fantasy. I long for the day when I can travel with matching luggage. We’ve always had mismatched pieces. We’ve scrounged them at yard sales and thrift stores or we’ve found them on sale racks. Most of the time they’re sturdy pieces, hardy little things that carry the weight of our burdens on their little wheels. Often they have a slight warble to their frame, or a snag in a zipper. But we make do. They work. And when they no longer work we replace them quickly, easily, cheaply.

But I would love to have matching luggage. Streamlined and floral perhaps? Or I’ve seen some interesting pieces in unique colours. Luggage that says “Travel is my priority. It’s what I do”. Bags that wear the Panera Bread name tags that declare, “My passion is Travel”. That’s what I’d love. I think I would look impressive pulling such bags behind me. I would look calm and collected, ready for the world and whatever it might bring.

On this particular trip to Turkey, matching luggage was not to be. I had two small bags packed and ready to go. One was black and tidy, the other flaming red and flamboyant. The red one housed copies of Sue’s and my book to sell at the retreats as well as gifts for the attendees. It was a heavy bag. I had probably asked too much of it.  To make matters worse, as Lowell was loading it into the back of the car, one of the wheels fell off! The timing couldn’t have been worse. We were on our way to the airport. There was no time to stop and buy another bag, or to really even repack. Lowell ran back into the house and brought out a bag that was bigger. He cleverly set the red bag inside the bigger bag zipped it up, threw it in the back of the car and off we raced.

When we got to the airport and weighed my babooshka Russian stacking doll suitcase it was too heavy. We took the red one out of the bigger one and Lowell advised trying to purchase another bag en route at the next stop. It was annoying to say the least, to have this gimp bag, but I really didn’t have any other immediate solutions.

Of course the first flight was delayed which meant my opportunity to replace the broken suitcase was gone. I checked it in, through to my final destination, and hoped for the best. I also ran a prayer tape around it asking God to please, at the very least, hold it together. It seemed to me that copies of Expectations and Burnout would do better in the hands of the women than strewn from here to Istanbul and back! We needed those books and treats for the women.

Please God protect my little worn out suitcase!

When I reached Ankara, I couldn’t find my bags at all. Neither one of them. After some limited exchanges in English and sign language, I discovered a whole other terminal with a whole other set of conveyor belts. There, forlornly, going around and around were my two bags, one black and the other red. To my shock and great amusement (it was either laugh or cry at this point!), both the wheels were now off the red case. In their place were the two spiky attachment posts. The case was too heavy to carry and I couldn’t find a trolley so I dragged the case toward the exit.

Turks take their travel very stylishly. Matching suitcases are a given. They also wear fashionable clothing and amazing footwear. I was surrounded by beautiful men and women wearing beautiful things and carrying beautiful bags. It seemed no one had travelled very far…no one had the glazed over fog of jet lag in their eyes. Everyone laughed and smiled glamorously. There were reunions and joy and beauty all around.

Meanwhile, feigning confidence, I dragged my bags to the exit, successfully carving out two parallel scratch marks in the Ankara arrivals hall.

A couple of days later while Sue and I were preparing to teach the retreat, I had a wave of thick insecurity and raw paranoia. Suddenly it struck me: who did I think I was to come to this place to teach on burnout? I am not an expert. I am not educated in these things. Expectations and Burnout was born from Sue’s Masters Thesis. She is the expert. She is well read and researched on the topic. She has read the surveys and she has studied the materials. It was natural that they would invite Sue. Sue is the obvious candidate to speak on these painful issues. I am not Sue. I shouldn’t have been there.

And then we got word that one of the women had decided not to attend. She said she wasn’t well enough to come.

I knew the real reason she cancelled….she decided not to come because she heard I was speaking.

As ridiculous as that sounds, that was the “logical” conclusion my soul came to. I was beside myself with nervous self-consciousness. I was tying myself up in knots of fear and insecurity and self-pity and inferiority and shame and embarrassment.

I excused myself early from lunch to go to my room to pray. I needed the Outside Voice of God to speak calm and reassurance to my soul. I needed to cast my cares on Him. I needed to hear loudly from Him that He did still care for me–as ridiculous as I was being.

As I sat on my bed, I looked down at my little red suitcase. There was a bedraggled bag, worn out from use, broken from being mistreated. If God could use that little suitcase to successfully deliver books and treats, truth and love to these women in Turkey….surely he could use me. I am worn out. I’ve broken and been misunderstood. I’ve carried too much for too long. I’ve barely held it together. I have disappointed people and I’ve been disappointed by people. I’ve fallen apart repeatedly. I’ve obsessed. I’ve given into self-pity many times. I often don’t match the suitcases I’m travelling with. I’ve felt lonely, and sad, insecure and miserable.

Graces of graces, God has still used me to bless others. As mysterious as it is…He has used me, in my brokenness to deliver truth and beauty, love and laughter, hope and encouragement to my kids, to my community, to the sisters surrounding me.

Like my suitcase, I’ve often left two parallel lines behind me, as I’ve dug in my heels and dragged my feet, stubbornly resisting where I’m going, or what I’m carrying. God mercifully keeps letting me be involved in what he wants to deliver. He keeps using this middle-aged case… He keeps me together!

I’m a case alright…..But I’m His case.

Living Well Where You Don’t Belong

Today’s post is by Joann Pittman. Joann is a childhood friend who I’ve reconnected with in the past year. As a woman who has lived her entire life cross-culturally, Joanne is gifted at helping others learn to live effectively across cultures. You can read her full bio at the end, but for now enjoy this post on “Living Well Where You Don’t Belong”.

I have spent most of my life overseas, that is, not in my “passport country.” I am an American, but I spent the first 14 years of my life in Pakistan, where my father was a professor and pastor, and have spent the past 28 years living and working in China. This means that I have lots of practice in living where I don’t belong.

“Belonging” has multiple layers of meanings. One is purely internal, referring to how I feel about my place in whatever space I find myself in. Do or can I FEEL like I belong somewhere, regardless of the circumstances or living conditions?

Another aspect of ‘belonging,’ however, is external – how do the local residents view me? Do or can they view me as belonging, or will they always consider me an outsider who doesn’t really belong here.

Below are eight tips for living well where you don’t belong.

  1. Cultivate a tolerance of ambiguity. According to Dictionary.com, ambiguity is defined as “doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention,” which is just another way of saying you don’t know what the heck is going on. As those of you who live (or have lived) cross-culturally know, this is permanent state of affairs, as you grapple with a language that is different, customs that seem strange, and social systems that are often opaque. Those with a low level of ambiguity tolerance may experience more culture stress than those who can say (honestly) “I don’t have a clue what’s going on around me, and that’s fine.”
  2. Remember that the burden of change is on you, not on the locals. The locals have done things their way for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, and they aren’t going to change just because you showed up, not matter how noble your reasons for being there.
  3. View everything as a privilege, not an entitlement. The American sense of entitlement is strong, and often not helpful when living cross-culturally. It is true that we have many rights for which we should be thankful, but we need to keep in mind that they are not automatically transportable. In China, for example, I am not entitled to speak freely on any topic anywhere or form an assembly or social organization. But in many ways, those are the easier things to deal with. What is harder is to remember that I am not entitled to the level of convenience and efficiency that I am used to ‘back home.’ If we can leave behind our sense of entitlement, we are then free to view everything (whether they bring joy or annoyance) as a privilege.
  4. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Maintain your sense of humor. Look for the humor in everyday life, remembering that YOU are often the main source.  You will find yourself in many funny and perhaps embarrassing situations. Go ahead and laugh about it. Laughing beats fretting every time. One of my former colleagues in China used to say that he was convinced that the main role of a foreigner in this society was to provide entertainment to the locals. I think he was right.
  5. View cultural mistakes as learning opportunities.  It’s important to remember that if you are living cross-culturally, you WILL make cultural mistakes. Fortunately cultural mistakes are not fatal, unless of course the cultural mistake you make is not crossing the street properly. In most cases, locals are very gracious towards foreign sojourners in their midst who are making obvious attempts at learning the language and culture.
  6. Limit yourself to one “why” question per day.  One of my favorite quirky Hong Kong movies is a mad-cap adventure called “Peking Opera Blues.” The movie itself is entertaining, but the poorly translated “Chinglish” subtitles add to the humor. In one scene, the beautiful damsel enters a garage and finds it littered with dead bodies (the mafia had just paid a visit), and utters (according to the subtitles) “WHY IS IT LIKE THIS?” Those of us who live cross-culturally find this question on the tips of their tongues pretty much all the time. We look are around and see so much that is unfamiliar and confusing and want to shout WHY IS IT LIKE THIS? If the question is driven by a true desire to understand, then it is fine; however, most of the time, it simply means “it’s not like this back home, so it shouldn’t be like this here,” and excessive use of the question just opens the door for a rant. So…make a rule. Only one “why” question per day.
  7. Be prepared to adjust /modify your own behaviors. In his book “The Art of Crossing Cultures,” Craig Storti suggests that cultural adjustment is really adjusting to two things: to new behaviors of the locals that annoy, confuse, and unsettle us, and adjusting or weeding out those behaviors that we have that confuse and annoy the locals. Truth be told, that’s the harder adjustment sometimes.
  8. Strive to be an ‘acceptable outsider.’  I live in China, which is an insider/outsider culture. There are two kinds of people in the world: Chinese and foreigners, and they are as mutually exclusive as Jew and Gentile. There is nothing I can ever do to be considered an insider in Chinese culture.  The best I can become is an acceptable outsider, one who is active in learning the language and culture and taking steps to gain access to the world of the insiders. It also means that I try not to settle for not being offensive; rather I make it my goal to be polite. Sometimes I even succeed! In my case part of ‘belonging’ means coming to terms with my permanent outsider status.

What tips do you have to add? Would love to hear some in the comments section. 

Joann Pittman is a consultant, trainer, researcher, and writer who helps people prepare for and navigate the challenges of cross-cultural living. She has lived in China since 1984, working as an English teacher, Chinese language program director, English language program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has done extensive study and research in Chinese language, history, and contemporary society, and is a fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese. She is the author of Survival Chinese Lessons. You can read Joann’s blog Outside-In at joannpittman.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

What Haiti Taught Me

Today’s guest post is from Joanne M. Choi. Joanne is a freelance writer who will go anywhere to get a great story! Her passion is staying up-to-date on people and society.
You name it, she has written about it. She currently writes for Color Magazine and is the fashion blogger at Boston Event Guide. Otherwise, her time is spent finishing her first Young Adult novel, volunteering with Boston Cares, and traveling.

From the moment my feet touched down at Toussaint Louverture International Airport last year, my eyes took in this completely new world with both wonderment and confusion. That reaction was not unexpected as this was my 1st time to the Caribbean, Haiti, and on a missions trip. The feat was fierce as our group waited for our rides.

My first impression of Port-au-Prince as we drove away from the airport was beauty in the midst of chaos. It seemed like a place colorless and dusty with patches of vibrancy all the more brilliant for its unexpectedness.  Think endless rubble, children trying to dust off our van, potholes, the random art, and the brightly painted taptap buses with many Haitians crammed inside and out.

That crammed impression was furthered when looking upon Haitians conducting their day-to-day activities.  Those selling goods, other buying goods, graceful women passing by with items balancing nicely on their heads.  The men who seemed to be just hanging around adding to this tableau of densely configured spaces.

The children’s eager faces peered at us excitedly from windows and doors when we arrived on that first Monday to the Caped Orphanage to conduct a weeklong Vacation Bible School. I wonder what we represented to them as we emerged with, most of us armed with our supplies for the week and one with her guitar.

The perpetually smiling Pastor Dimanche and his wife ran the orphanage that had a fence around the property and a gate (I was pleasantly surprised) though the children shared the beds and others slept on the floor.  The Dimanches had one biological son and the rest of the children were between the ages of 2-20.

Schnadine, whom they called Bébé, was the youngest in the orphanage.  Like a delicate figure skater, she walked around carefully in frilly little dresses.  I adored her.  The older children made it a point to include her in games. Bébé had miraculously survived the earthquake and been rescued from the rubble though sadly her Mother had not survived.

As we started singing, John Carey burst into sobs as his thin legs dangled over the seat. Large sad brown eyes stared ahead as I did my best to soothe this overwhelmed child that seemed to have a sorrow within him so profound.  He fell asleep in my arms. What I didn’t know that first day was that only 8 days prior, unable to care for him, his mother had dropped her little boy off at the orphanage.

Even though some kids were shy and did not approach me right away, others did.  One teenage boy with a charming smile inquired, “Do you have parents or brothers and sisters?” I did and we started chatting.  The floodgates opened; he wanted to know the background about the other Americans in my group. Soon, there was a group of older kids gathered around me listening.  I felt like a storyteller weaving in our lives so they could understand us better.

Many children touched and tugged at my hair when I didn’t have it pulled back. “Do you cut your hair?” a teenage girl asked me urgently, seriously while widening her eyes and gazing at me. Confused, I answered, “My hair used to be much longer but now I keep it at shoulder length.”  The other girls around me nodded in seeming awe.  Then, I realized why they asked me. We shared the same hair color, the children and I, but the texture of their hair was different from mine.  I wondered if I was the first Asian person they had ever met in person. It did seem at times that I was one of few Asians in the whole country.

“We call them the United Nothing,” quipped Frenaud, one of our translators, when we both looked at a white UN vehicle with its protective bars that seemed out of place.  To say this is a complicated country whose relationships with other nations like the US are extremely complex is an understatement. Many American, myself included, are not taught in school/aware that Haiti was the first free black republic in the world and once more prosperous than the US.  The issues related to foreign aid are layered.  Reading Margaret Trost’s book On That Day, Everybody Ate, Paul Farmer’s The Uses of Haiti, and Philippe Girard’s Haiti provided glimpses and helped with my general ignorance.  As did watching the episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations filmed in Haiti.

After the 2010 earthquake, Haiti was in the news and on the hearts of many people in the US and around the world, and I hope the focus continues to be there.  I believe that the Haitians can and should take the initiative, working together with self-sustaining charity models. In my opinion, charity-supported models will not break the learned helplessness cycle that is ultimately self-defeating.  Haiti is a country on the verge. It won’t take a day or a year to break free from the effects of generations of poverty, a high illiteracy rate, deforestation, and corruption, but there are Haitians who can take it in the right direction.

Why did I come? Something inside was compelling me and it felt both emotional and spiritual. Also, I didn’t want to be sitting around all the time focusing on myself, my own uncertainties about the future and the path I had chosen.  I knew that I needed perspective and if I did this now, it would be the start of giving back in ways that felt real and relevant.

I still think about the precious Haitian children in the orphanage and writing this now helps me process my thoughts. To the world, they have little prospects and only the guarantee of one hot meal of day until they leave the orphanage. I take comfort in knowing that the children have their hope for a better future along with a spirit of faith and joy.

Information on aid and relief organizations associated with Haiti.

Fonkoze – http://www.fonkoze.org/

Fonkoze, which means “let’s talk” in Haitian Creole, is an micro-lending organization.  They say that they are the largest micro-finance organization servicing Haitians in poor, rural based areas.

Zafen – It’s Our Business https://www.zafen.org/

Zafen, which loosely translated means “our business” in Haitian Creole, is another micro-lending site but it’s built on the KickStarter model.   It allows folks to post their projects (mostly education projects and medium – large enterprises) online and set fundraising goals.  Funders can then A) pick from an array of featured projects and B) Select how much they want to give.  100% of your loan or donation goes directly to the project.

Haitian Artisans For Peace International – http://www.haitianartisans.com/

Support Haitian Artisans and the expansion of the arts in Haiti

International Institute of New England – http://iine.us/

Many Haitians have relocated to the States after last year’s earthquake.  The IINE, located here in Boston, helps recent immigrants adjust to their new lives in New England through workforce development programs and money-saving workshops. The staff is experienced and incredibly passionate about what they do.

Haiti Habitat for Humanity – http://www.habitat.org/intl/lac/89.aspx

This branch of HFH provides both temporary housing and construction skills to the communities affected by natural disasters in Haiti

J/P HRO – http://jphro.org/

The mission of the J/P Haitian Relief Organization is about bringing sustainable programs to the Haitian people in a timely and efficient matter. Co-founded by Sean Penn.

GiveLove – http://www.givelove.org/

GiveLove is focused on teaching the Haitian people about thermophilic composting. Co-founded by Patricia Arquette and Rosetta Getty.

Project Medishare for Haiti – http://www.projectmedishare.org/

It is an organization dedicated to sharing its human and technical resources with its Haitian partners in the quest to achieve quality healthcare and development services for all.

Partners In Health – http://www.pih.org/

The mission is both medical and moral. It is based on solidarity, rather than charity alone.

World Relief – http://worldrelief.org/Page.aspx?pid=2723

Christian organization that works with local churches to serve the most vulnerable.

Murree Memories Part 2 – A Guest Post

Murree Memories (Part 2)

My friend Jason continues his Murree Memories in today’s post. For those of you who missed last week’s post on Murree take a look here.

I’ve been back to Murree several times in the past few years, and each of these visits has given rise to mixed emotions.   Sadly, the old feel of the place is gone.  It’s no longer an out-of-the-way resort town moving at a leisurely pace.  The town has been grossly overdeveloped.  Innumerable hotels, all uniformly ugly, are built over the hillsides to accommodate the influx of domestic tourists who now come in great numbers from the populous and bustling cities down country.  Traffic jams choke the roads.  Many of the old buildings remain, but are now either derelict or crowded about on all sides by the new grotesque tourist hives.  A garish Post Office has replaced the old building, and an enormous new hotel towers behind it.  The old colonial air is much fainter now.  Public waste bins, painted hopefully with the words “Use Me,” stand overflowing and unattended.

And yet I found some features of the place had the power to cheer and still charm me.  “Tikka Alley,” the short and narrow street famous for its barbecued fare, remains much as it did decades ago.  Skinned chickens and cuts of beef and mutton are hung outside the eatery doors, then skewered and grilled above open coals.  Aromatic curried smoke fills the alleyway, burning the eyes and arousing the appetite.

In Murree, as elsewhere in Pakistan, the warmth of many common people is endearing.  Nearly every “Asalaam aleikum” I’ve said is matched with a cheerful “Waleikum asalaam.”  Striking up friendly conversations with shopkeepers remains easy, and it seems natural that in a few minutes they often freely share details about their families and sometimes invite the stranger-become-friend home for a meal.

On one visit to Murree I took high tea at Sam’s Restaurant, an old Mall landmark, which I suspect may be dated to British days.  The confectionery came on fancy tiered serving trays.  The elderly waiter backed away from the table deferentially. I hoped it was merely an act of simple respect and hospitality, and not something learned from an uncle who’d served the Raj and been forced to bow and scrape in the presence of the foreign overlords.  In any case, the gesture was touching.

(In the late 1950s and ‘60s Sam’s hosted dance competitions held to swing music.  My older brother tells me that the pleasing strains of the horns wafted across the Mall and could be heard during Evening Prayer held at Holy Trinity.  The “worldly” music was of concern to the congregation’s more mature members; to the youth it was like the whiff of some forbidden intoxicant—of which they dared not partake.)

In 2007 I spent a few days in Murree.  I was working elsewhere in the country and needed a getaway weekend.  The changes I witnessed since my previous visit several years before were shocking.  The town was almost unrecognizable in places.  Unhappy with the haphazard overdevelopment and throngs of noisy tourists, I left feeling dispirited.

Still, over the next couple of years I found myself back in Murree a few more times.  In my walks down the Mall I was barely irked by the cacophonous vacationers.  How could I begrudge them a few days of fun in their own country?  I made an unplanned visit to the dorm room I occupied when I started boarding school in first grade.  One walk took me past one of my family’s old rented homes, now in a state of terrible disrepair.  I met and spoke to my old childhood playmate, still living next door, and reflected on the many disparities between his life and mine.

Murree figures prominently in my memory, integral to innumerable experiences. Murree as a place gave character to those experiences, and in so doing helped form my character.

In Murree I learned how to speak and read and write.  I learned of the world outside and the neighbor next door. Life in Murree, more than anywhere else, taught me the value of family and community, of loneliness and camaraderie, and of the deep spiritual needs and capacities we all have.  Murree taught me of the dissonance and wonders of cross-cultural interactions, and something of what it means to have a good earthly home and yet see that home as transient.

I left Murree the last time thinking, with a little melancholy, that the dear old place has been overtaken by events.  The innocent halcyon days—if they ever existed—are gone.  Murree too is caught in the eddying currents of troublous modern times—unchecked population growth, political instability, rising prices, a poor economy, power shortages, and an uncertain, unpromising future.

I thought too, on that occasion, of how St Paul was keen to impress upon the readers of his epistles that the new life brought us in Jesus Christ supersedes past experiences and old sources of identity—ethnicity, tribe, culture, religion, nationality, and place.  These truths first came to me in a significant way while in Murree in my youth.  As I departed the last time I felt ambivalent.  I was glad I’d been able to visit again,sorry I couldn’t stay longer.

As I left I remembered Paul’s words to the Philippians:  “Our citizenship is in heaven.”  Murree helped teach me that, too.

Thanks, Murree.  I’ll always be in your debt.  And you’ll always be one of my home towns.

Murree Memories – A Guest Post

Murree Memories (Part 1) is a guest post by a childhood friend – Jason. Jason was born in Pakistan in the mid-1960s to American parents who worked in the central part of the country.  Jason spent most of his grade school and junior high years in Pakistan.  In adulthood he has returned to the South Asian country to help with earthquake recovery and healthcare projects.

It is a fitting post for ten years ago on August 5 there was a terrorist attack against our boarding school in Murree leaving 6 dead and many more wounded. It deeply affected people associated with the school and the community. Jason takes us to Murree through pictures and words put together like poetry. Enjoy a look into this unique place that brings back so many memories.

Like a few hundred other children over the past five-plus decades, I spent a number of my growing-up years in a boarding school in the alpine Murree Hills of northern Pakistan.  Little did I realize at the time how the place would figure in my development, not so much academically, socially, or spiritually, but how it would give me a sense of place.

The town of Murree was established in the early 1850s as a “hill station” by and for the British Raj.  Here, at 7,000 feet, the salubrious climate provided the colonial masters respite from the repressive heat of the Indian plains.  Murree came to be an administrative center of British India during the long summer months.  Several clubs and societies provided entertaining social diversions.  Well-dressed Britons attended plays and dances, played croquet on lush lawns, ate cucumber sandwiches and scones with their tea.  Social standing was maintained with a promenade down the Mall, and especially viz a viz the Indians—the street was off-limits to the native population.

Of course Murree changed after Independence in 1947.  And yet it seemed the town was reluctant to shake off many of the trappings from colonial days.  In particular the names of buildings and roads were slow to lose their British titles.  In the 1970s, when I spent most of my childhood in Murree, the charm of bygone British days was still poignant.  My family lived in Dingley Dell, Braemar House, and the improbably named Utopia House.  (My brother was born in Utopia and says “It’s been downhill ever since.”)  Friends lived in Forest Dell, Bexley House, Marsden, and Park House.

En route to worship at Holy Trinity Church we walked down Mall Road past shops selling walking sticks and Golden Syrup.  A quaint, aesthetically pleasing General Post Office building dominated the intersection at the center of town.  The square steeple of Holy Trinity loomed above the shops halfway down the Mall.

Blogger’s Note: Murree more than any other physical location gave many of us a sense of ‘place’, of belonging and connection. Paul Tournier, a noted Swiss psychiatrist speaks of place – searching for place, finding place, enjoying and occupying place and then being willing to move on to the next place. Murree was the beginning of that circle of life.

(Stay tuned for Part 2 where Jason will give us more word pictures and detail. )