Who Made You the Spoon to Stir the Sugar in my Tea?

Idioms are a mystery and a delight! And until you know at least a couple of them, some of the nuances of a language and culture elude you.

Recently I learned an idiom from a Yezidi teenager, a Kurdish idiom that I love. The girl was standing outside, casually chewing gum. A teenage boy looked over at her and said to her “You shouldn’t be chewing gum.” To which she responded without hesitation “Who made you the spoon to stir the sugar in my tea?”

As a bystander I didn’t understand any of this. I did however understand the ensuing laughter and so right away asked about the interaction. My translator laughed and tried to explain and what came out was “Who made you the spoon to stir the sugar in my tea?”

Basically, who gave you the right to tell me what to do?

I love this!

It brings up the beauty of idioms, that way of saying things without really saying them. Around the same time that I heard this idiom a friend sent me an article called “Idioms of the World Infographic.” It is a fabulous, illustrated guide to ten phrases from around the world.

Here are three favorites of the ten.

1. To feed the donkey sponge cake

Language: Portuguese
Translation: Alimentar um burro a pão-de-ló
Meaning: To give good treatment to someone who doesn’t need it

2. To let a frog out of your mouth

Language: Finnish
Translation: Päästää sammakko suusta
Meaning: To say the wrong thing

3. Not my circus, not my monkey!

Language: Polish
Translation: Nie mój cyrk, nie moje malpy
Meaning: Not my problem

Take a look below at the rest of them and enjoy! Then add your favorite idiom to the comments for a chance to win a copy of Between Worlds! 

Idioms of the WorldSource – HotelClub

See more at: http://www.hotelclub.com/blog/idioms-of-the-world-infographic/#sthash.Jj7PK2vD.dpuf

More Than a Tourist: Living Deeply Across Cultures

I’m honored to have Jody Fernando guest post today at Communicating Across Boundaries. Jody blogs at Between Worldsa blog I highlighted as a favorite new blog that I’ve discovered. It was my brother who first sent me a link to an article she wrote in the fall and that’s all it took to bring me in. The article was called When White People Don’t Know They’re Being White and it provided hard and necessary discussion, evidenced by the fact that it went viral and is still being widely shared across social media sites.  Jody is a beautiful, thoughtful writer providing much-needed perspectives on crossing cultures, racial inequalities, racing biracial kids, and faith. You can read more about Jody at the end of the article.


More than a tourist

When I first started to cross cultures, there was a distinctly romantic quality to every adventure – fascination with food and language and buildings and transportation and landmarks. I would inhale the smells and sights and textures with wide eyes, captured by the difference they represented. I would wrap my tongue around the words and sounds, attempting to capture some small meaning with my own mouth. Culture captivated me, and I drank it in with every cup of tea I shared.

As time has passed, however, this romantic captivation slowed, and I found that crossing cultures no longer carried the same zing it once did. In fact, it required more energy with each new encounter for I no longer entered ignorant about my own assumptions and inadequacies.  When I enter a new culture these days, it is slower, more observant, less enraptured. I walk carefully and quietly, curious but patient about the new realities I encounter. After nearly half a lifetime of loving across a culture, the exoticism of such differences is being slowly replaced by a simple expectation of normalcy and humanity.

In short, I expect now to find people when I travel – not exotic animals on display in a zoo.  I expect that those people will be fully human, with all sorts of wonderful and terrible qualities within.  I expect that there will be some things I admire deeply, some that make me a bit angry, and some that I will simply never understand.  Rather than try to stereotype a group at large, I try more frequently now to understand individuals.

In light of my personal shift over the years, I was quite eager to read Joseph Shaules’ book A Beginner’s Guide to the Deep Culture Experience in which he writes about the differences between the surface aspects of culture that are more “exotic, artistic, ceremonial, and visible” and the ways that culture subconsciously programs our minds. As I read Shaules’ book, I was struck by how much I could relate to even though I’ve never lived outside of my home country. It reminded me that it’s not always necessarily to leave a homeland to live between worlds, especially in the US.

In a particularly chapter on personal growth and deep culture learning, Shaules outlines specific attitudes that help cross-cultural sojourners develop intercultural sensitivity that I find especially helpful for all of us who live between worlds:

  • Engagement. While tourists may spend their days relaxing at the beach or isolating in museums, learners of deep culture stumble through navigating daily realities and rubbing shoulders, facing higher levels of stress, confusion, and energy because they engage the culture around them, let go of their control, and take chances. They don’t give up even when they make mistakes or fail.

  • Reconciliation. Deep culture learners use the conflict of their contrasting cultures to build connections between all of their worlds. They recognize that while we might adapt to the ways of another place, we always bring pieces of our own identity to the table, and that these pieces remain valuable in any cultural context when presented with humility and flexibility.

  • Inner and outer practice. By maintaining an open and curious attitude about the surface (outer) aspects of culture, deep culture learners grow as they consider the strengths offered by understanding the visible cultural differences in a new culture. At the same time, deep culture learners must also learn to pay close attention to what happens inside (inner) themselves in order to better understand how and why we respond in situations that cause cultural stress.

  • Breaking routines. The first time our notion of cultural normalcy is shaken is hard to forget. For Shaules, it was the discovery of lime and chile potato chips, for me, it was apple Fanta. The shock of discovering a new take on an established routine can be jarring, and when these day-in-day-out routines are interrupted, we’re forced to wake up and notice small realities around us. Breaking these routines on purpose can be one way to increase deep culture learning. Take a different route to work. Eat a new food. Change a service transaction to an engagement with another human being.

  • Planning the journey. Intentionally look for local places to engage cross-culturally. Attend a church outside of your tradition or demographic. Volunteer. Attend events where you are the minority. Make an effort to go local when you travel as well – hit homes instead of hotels. (Shaules’ book offers a great list of organizations that can help with this process.)

  • Language learning. It’s impossible to learn a culture deeply without speaking the language of that culture. Internationally, this obviously means language study either in person or online. For those who belong to the majority culture, however, I’d suggest that this may also mean listening a great deal more than we speak – even in our own language. For even if we speak the same language, we don’t always communicate the same way. As we seek to interact across cultures more deeply, it’s essential to learn the language of those we’re attempting to love.

  • Entry point. Cultivate relationships with people willing to help you navigate a new culture. I have had countless guides along the way – people who have been patient with my questions and willing to help me understand more deeply. Please note that this isn’t a one-time deal, but an on-going relationship. No one will be able to tell the ins-and-outs of cultural learning over a single cup of coffee.

These attitudes are only the tip of the iceberg presented in A Beginner’s Guide to the Deep Culture Experience, and I’m deeply grateful to Shaules for the insight he gives into deepening cultural understanding.  As the worlds shrinks, these are skills we all need, and this book will provide readers ample material for personal reflection and discussion.

Have you read Shaules’ book?  What were your most valuable take-aways?


About the author: Jody Fernando does a lot of living between worlds.  A midwestern girl from the cornfields, she is married to a man from the Indian Ocean.  Together, they raise their bicultural and biracial children, and have family on four continents.  She explores the ins and outs of intercultural living on her blog Between Worlds, helps amazingly resilient immigrants learn to speak English, teaches a few university courses, and makes a mean curry.

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A Life Overseas – Words Matter & Muffin Monday


Readers – today I am at A Life Overseas talking about words. And how they matter. Would love it if you would join me.

Here is an excerpt from the piece:

In health care we have a story we call “The 71-Million Dollar Word Story”.

It involves a young man from Cuba, the absence of a skilled interpreter, and a misdiagnosis.

The man was 18 years old and had just graduated from high school. He was riding around with his friend when he complained of a bad headache. He thought it was because of the strong smell of gas in his friend’s car but by the time he got home the pain was so severe that he was crying. He went into a coma soon afterward and he was transferred to a local hospital in a comatose state. The family was sick with worry as they waited in the emergency room for this man to be assessed. The word ‘intoxicado’ was used and, in the absence of a professional interpreter, it was assumed that the young man was ‘intoxicated’, had taken a drug overdose and was suffering the effects. The family had no idea this was the way the words were interpreted. Had they known they could have attested that the young man never used drugs or alcohol, that health was extremely important to this young athlete. Rather, ‘Intoxicado’ was a word used in Cuba to mean a general state of being unwell because of something you ate or drank. It was the only word they could think of to express the sudden onset of his symptoms.

The misinterpretation of this word caused a misdiagnosis resulting in an 18-year-old becoming a quadriplegic, for in reality he had suffered a brain bleed and lay for two days in a hospital bed without proper treatment. Had the hospital staff made the correct diagnosis the man would have left the hospital in a few days, on his way to college and a normal life.

This tragic event resulted in a lawsuit and if this man lives to be 74, he will receive a total payment of……Read the rest of the piece here!


Thyme Chevre Blackberry Muffins

And don’t forget the new addition – Muffin Monday. Today’s muffins are Thyme Chèvre Blackberry Muffins and they look amazing! Head over to Stacy’s blog to get the recipe here or just click on the picture!

Language and Diplomacy (aka The Importance of Knowing Urdu)

The Iranian captain took a risk and used Urdu and the navy “just happened” to have an Urdu speaker on board – this is the story at the heart of the rescue of thirteen Iranian fisherman who were captured by Somali Pirates.

And what a story it is! Iran is a country that is understood primarily through its infamous leader and is not a favorite of the United States. Westerners rarely think of the amazing heritage that comes out of Iran – the history, the beauty of carpets, the delight of the cuisine, and something that must be mentioned – the stunning beauty of Iranian women. I once said to one of my Iranian friends: “When God created women, first he made Iranian women, and after that he didn’t have much beauty left over for the rest of us”. All this is mostly unknown to the western world who view Iran through the lens of a misunderstood veil and Ayatollah’s that make news through sometimes outrageous comments.

The tension between the two countries sparks and sizzles, occasionally bursting into a full flame. This story is an unlikely story of diplomacy on the high seas and of the importance of language and diplomacy. It was on Thursday that the US Naval ship heard a distress call from the Iranian vessel. The fisherman had been captured for six weeks, complying and biding their time, praying and hoping for rescue. The Iranian captain used Urdu, a language that the pirates did not understand, to communicate the need for help to the naval ship. A linguist aboard the ship who understood Urdu was able to translate the message and the result was a rescue of the fisherman and capture of  fifteen pirates.

To give context to how amazing this is, it might help to hear a well-known joke among expatriates:

What is a person who knows two languages called? Bilingual

What is a person who knows three languages called? Trilingual

What is a person who knows one language called? An American

It’s sad but true. Americans are not known for linguistic skill. Our geographic isolation on the world map puts us in a place where learning a second language is not a high priority. To my knowledge, there is no federal law that requires schools to offer a foreign language. It is left up to individual states to decide if and when a foreign language will be offered. Often when a language is available it is not until seventh or eighth grade and at that point a child is about 13 or 14 years old. The chances of them picking up anything more than a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ during a 45 minute school period is minimal. It is quite tragic. But this story is not a story of tragedy but a story of linguistic skill responding in a potentially fatal situation and changing the outcome dramatically.

When we speak the language of another, we speak to their heart. “You know our language?” they may say with delight, thoroughly surprised that someone from America is familiar with Hindi, or Urdu, or Arabic or Farsi. While there are a myriad of ways to communicate beyond verbal communication, there is something about language and voice that connects us.

In my work I see error and tragedy averted continuously through good interpreters who skillfully navigate between doctor and patient and nurse and patient, helping to prevent miscommunication and increase understanding. It is a different kind of diplomacy and while it doesn’t hit the news, it is as tremendous as the rescue of the thirteen Iranian fisherman.

The end of the story put a smile on my face. Iran “welcomed the rescue of 13 Iranian sailors by a U.S. Navy ship, calling it a ‘humanitarian act.'”(CNN)  The picture I have in my mind of American navy men waving at Iranian fisherman headed home, smiling, wearing USS Kidd Navy ball caps?  Now that’s a picture of diplomacy.

Bloggers Note: The author wishes to confess that she speaks Urdu and Arabic enthusiastically but poorly and would never have been able to rescue the fisherman. She could however let the pirates know in fluent Urdu that they were completely uncivilized!