Happy Birthday, Clearing Customs

March 18, 2018 § Leave a comment


On March 18, 2012, here’s what I wrote in my first post for Clearing Customs:

During our 10 years as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, we wrote about 120 newsletters. In each one, we included a small section on some news coming out of Taiwan, a fact about the country, or an insight on Chinese culture. When we came back to the States in 2011, we switched the topic from Taiwan to globalization. Globalization means different things to different people, but the aspect we focused on is how the world is shrinking and cultures are more and more interacting with and affecting each other.

Soon, we’ll write our last newsletter, but I wanted to continue gathering and sharing information on the aspects of globalization that interest me. The first few posts come from our newsletter, so some go back a little while, but I’ll be catching up soon. Thanks for joining me.

Since the beginning, I’ve written 415 posts here, and I do appreciate all who’ve joined in, with your views, likes, share, and comments.

And over the years I’ve enjoyed seeing links to my posts popping up in interesting places. For example, Syracuse University, George Washington University, and the University of South Wales have linked to this blog in their online courses. The Physician Assistant Education Association referred to a post in an article on cultural competence. And just last week, a writer for the Atlantic linked to a post in his review of a new album by the former lead singer of the Talking Heads.

It’s been fun for me, and I’ve learned some things along the way. I hope the same can be said for you.

[photo: “Happy Birthday Austin,” by kathryn, used under a Creative Commons licence]


Painting, 2, 3, 4

March 8, 2018 § Leave a comment

“Pigcasso . . . or a New Francis Bacon?”

Her signed canvases sell to fans around the globe for up to £1,700 [US$2,400] apiece and an exhibition of her work is about to embark on an international tour.

Not bad for a girl who has only just turned 21 months old. Especially so when you consider that she’s a pig.

Pigcasso — as she has been christened — and her sister Rosie were rescued by Joanne Lefson from a slaughterhouse close to her home.

The animal artist produces her pieces by gripping the brush in her teeth and moving her head to lay acrylic paint on canvas. So impressive are the results that she has sold 44 paintings to fans in Britain, America, South Korea and Malaysia and last month launched her own exhibition, Oink, on Cape Town’s Victoria and Albert waterfront in her native South Africa.

Aislinn Laing, The Times, February 24, 2018

When Debriefing, Leave Your Shoes—and Socks—at the Door [—at A Life Overseas]

March 2, 2018 § Leave a comment


When we first moved to Asia, one of the customs we needed to learn was not wearing shoes in someone’s home. It’s one of those cultural things. But starting out, we had our reasons for wanting to leave our shoes on. It’s convenient. What about the holes in my socks? I don’t want you to smell my feet—and I don’t want to smell yours! It just doesn’t feel right.

But It didn’t take long for going shoeless inside to become our habit, and even our preference. Then we’d fly back to the West and upon landing we’d again be in the land of most-people-wear-shoes-in-the-house. Of course, we still could take ours off, and we often did. But sometimes it was easier just to leave them on. Then it was back on the plane (where, a recent headline proclaims, you should never take your shoes off), and we’d start to reset our minds about a whole range of things.

Back and forth. Back and forth. It can all get pretty confusing. Sometimes we need help sorting things out—things much bigger and deeper than clothing choices. A great opportunity for processing on those issues, whether you’re finishing a term, or a lifetime, overseas, is a set-aside time for in-depth, personal debriefing. And for that kind of debriefing, regardless of the location, shoes, and socks, don’t belong.

OK. Now I’ve moved to speaking figuratively, so let me continue in that vein and talk a little about feet. Most of us aren’t that crazy about how ours look. There are crooked toes, calluses, bunions, blisters, unclipped or ingrown toenails, and pasty-white skin. And then there’s that smell. Yes, missionaries may have the beautiful feet of Romans 10:15, but they don’t always seem that way to the ones who own them—thus the socks and shoes. Debriefing, though, should be about openness and trust, showing your feet, so to speak, as they truly are. But that’s not always easy.

To read the rest of this post, head over to A Life Overseas. . . .

[photo: “Shoes,” by Long Road Photography, used under a Creative Commons license]

Man Proposes, God Disposes: One Man Said It, Another Painted It

February 21, 2018 § Leave a comment


I hope that none of your your travels turn out like what’s depicted in the artwork above. The oil painting, completed by Edwin Henry Landseer in 1864, shows two polar bears ravaging what’s left of Sir John Franklin’s attempt to find the Northwest Passage, a sailable path through the Arctic Ocean from Europe to India and China. Franklin set out in 1845 with two ships and their crews, totaling 134 men. Three years later, the ships became stuck in the ice of the Canadian Arctic and all had to set out on foot (except for five who had been sent home shortly after the voyage began). After walking away from their vessels, named the Erebus—after Greek mythology’s personification of darkness—and the Terror, none survived.

The explorer John Rae, in 1854, came across some Inuit who were carrying personal items  from the Franklin expedition. They had collected them from abandoned campsites, where they had also found signs of cannibalism amongst the crew.

The title of the painting, Man Proposes, God Disposes, says something about the sometimes harsh intersection of humanity’s plans with divine governance. But the artist’s intention may have had less to do with theology and more to do with portraying the hubris of an English society that felt nothing could stand in the way of its forward progress.

Even though the men of the Franklin expedition seemed well-prepared, many today call the trek “doomed” from the beginning. The New York Times Magazine reports that the two ships carried enough food for three years, including “32,289 pounds of preserved meat, 1,008 pounds of raisins and 580 gallons of pickles.” But that may have been as much a curse as a blessing.

In 1850, a search party of Americans and British found three graves on Beechey Island, Canada, containing the bodies of three crew members who had died in 1846. Canadian anthropologist Owen Beattie, in 1984, dug up the graves and performed autopsies on the bodies. He found they contained high levels of lead, leading him to believe that the crew had been poisoned by their food, stored in tins with lead solder.

Four years ago, underwater archaeologists with Parks Canada discovered the Erebus at the bottom of Queen Maud Gulf. Ryan Harris, lead diver of the group, says that the mission’s fate was already sealed from the day they set out, not because of errors from its leader, but by poor planning from those above him. ‘‘Franklin and his men were doomed the moment they received orders from the admiralty. He followed those orders to a T and into the worst choke point in the Arctic Archipelago,” Harris tells The New Yorker Magazine. “The notion that Franklin was anything but a sterling naval officer I just can’t accept. He followed his orders faithfully and died.’’

Landseer’s Man Proposes, God Disposes now hangs in the College Picture Gallery of Royal Holloway, University of London, where it can be viewed throughout the year, except during exams. At that time, the painting is covered with the Union Jack, as legend says that students who look at the image will fail their tests . . . or slip into madness.

That tells us about the subject of Landeer’s painting, but where did the title come from? The phrase “Man proposes, God disposes” is not original to the artist (and it doesn’t come from the Bible, either, as many assume—at least not directly). Rather, it first appeared in The Imitation of Christ, written by Thomas à Kempis in the early 15th century. The relevant passage is in book 1, chapter 19, titled “Of the Exercise of a Religious Man,” which discusses a Christian’s consistency in keeping daily devotions. While Landseer’s use of “Man proposes, God disposes” is a look back on failed plans, Thomas à Kempis’s usage has a somewhat different bent, more of a call to rely on God’s help to reach a plan’s fulfillment.

The life of a Christian ought to be adorned with all virtues, that he may be inwardly what he outwardly appeareth unto men. And verily it should be yet better within than without, for God is a discerner of our heart, Whom we must reverence with all our hearts wheresoever we are, and walk pure in His presence as do the angels. We ought daily to renew our vows, and to kindle our hearts to zeal, as if each day were the first day of our conversion, and to say, “Help me, O God, in my good resolutions, and in Thy holy service, and grant that this day I may make a good beginning, for hitherto I have done nothing!”

According to our resolution so is the rate of our progress, and much diligence is needful for him who would make good progress. For if he who resolveth bravely oftentimes falleth short, how shall it be with him who resolveth rarely or feebly? But manifold causes bring about abandonment of our resolution, yet a trivial omission of holy exercises can hardly be made without some loss to us. The resolution of the righteous dependeth more upon the grace of God than upon their own wisdom; for in Him they always put their trust, whatsoever they take in hand. For man proposeth, but God disposeth; and the way of a man is not in himself.

While the wording “Man proposes, God disposes” (“Nam homo proponit, sed Deus disponit in Latin), is not found in the Bible, the idea behind it is.

There is Proverbs 16:9 (NIV),

In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.

and Proverbs 19:21 (NIV),

Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.

Also, the phrase following “Man proposes, God disposes” in Imitation of Christ, comes from Jeremiah 10:23, in the King James Version:

O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.

Let me repeat, I hope that none of your travels turn out like what’s depicted in Landseer’s painting.

Instead, as you resolve to explore new territories, whether that be through outward excursions or inner searchings, may you be hemmed in as gently as  possible, when necessary. And when you’re striving down the right path, may God’s grace strengthen you to continue on.

(Leanne Sharpton, “Artifacts of a Doomed Expedition,” The New York Times Magazine, March 18, 2016; Laura MacCulloch, “The Haunted Painting of Fabled Franklin Ship Discovered in the Canadian Arctic,” The Conversation, September 11, 2014; Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, translated by William Benham [1886], ca 1420)

[artwork: Man Proposes, God Disposes, by Edwin Henry Landseer, 1864, public domain]


Merton Brings Her Nomadic Sensibilities to The Tonight Show

February 10, 2018 § Leave a comment


Alice Merton performed on The Tonight Show last night, singing what Jimmy Fallon called “the catchiest song of the year, by far.”

I’m posting this for two reasons:

One, to show how incredibly hip and relevant I am, since I wrote about her earlier this week.

And, two, to share a joke that the junior-higher in me just made up:

Why didn’t Fallon’s house band accompany Merton when she sang on The Tonight Show?

Because wherever she goes, she makes it very clear, “No Roots!”

[photo: “Fallon Tonight,” by Edgar Zuniga Jr., used under a Creative Commons license]

Alice Merton Sings about Her Rootlessness—I Wonder If She Knows She’s a TCK

February 5, 2018 § 1 Comment


A few days ago, I heard a new-to-me song on the radio on my drive home from work. As the kids on American Bandstand were wont to say, “It’s got a good beat and it’s easy to dance to” (and by “dance” I mean “tap my foot”). I liked it so well that I found it on Youtube when I got home and it’s now a standard on my playlist (and by “playlist” I mean I’ve been listening to it over and over again).

The song is “No Roots,” written and performed by Alice Merton, and the part that caught my attention was the chorus, with its, appropriately enough, “I’ve got not roo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oots! I’ve got no roo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oots!”

I figured that could mean all sorts of things but thought it sounded kind of Third-Culture-Kid-ish. Sure enough, an internet search told me that Merton’s led a life of international relocation, moving 11 (or 12) times in her 24 years. Born in Frankfort, Germany, she moved to Connecticut, with her German mother and Irish father, when she was three months old. The family later moved to Canada, and when Merton was 13, they returned to Germany—where she learned German and attended high school—followed by another move, to England. Later, on her own, she was back in Germany again, where she earned a bachelor’s degree at the Popakademie (University of Popular Music and Music Business) Baden-Württemberg. (I’m piecing this together from bios and interviews, so I apologize if the details are off. The point is, she’s moved around a lot.)

“No Roots” has done its share of globe trotting, as well, with Billboard reporting that as of August of last year, it had climbed the top-ten charts in Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, and Switzerland. And now it’s crossed the ocean to take on the pop charts in the US, hitting number-one on Billboard‘s Adult Alternative Songs airplay ranking in December.

Merton may not call herself a TCK—or an Adult TCK—but she certainly speaks the language. The lyrics for “No Roots” include

I built a home and wait for someone to tear it down
Then pack it up in boxes, head for the next town running


I like standing still, but that’s just a wishful plan
Ask me where I come from, I’ll say a different land

with the refrain

And a thousand times I’ve seen this road
A thousand times . . .

I’ve got no roots, but my home was never on the ground

Merton wrote her first song, “Lighthouse,” when she was a 16-year-old student in Germany. She tells Billboard that the song was born out of her homesickness. “I just didn’t feel at home in Germany at all in the beginning,” she says. “That’s why I kept on searching for this lighthouse, I guess, which would take me back to Canada.”

Years later, her nomadic life once again provided inspiration, resulting in “No Roots.” Again to Billboard, she says,

I was on the beach, and I was just thinking to myself that I have no one place where I actually feel like I’m at home. I came up with the idea of having no roots—never being grounded to a certain place, but having your home with people who you love.

Talking with Tolga Akar, in an interview for a German radio station, she says that writing “No Roots” was helpful in processing her global transitions:

Once I’ve written a song I know how I feel about something. So this whole no roots topic was this topic that was just swimming around in my head, ‘cause I just felt like I just wasn’t at home anywhere. So I guess it’s kind of like therapy, because I only really knew how I felt about not having a home after I wrote that song.

But the therapeutic effect isn’t only in the creation of the song, for Merton, it’s also in the singing. Riff Magazine asks why her feelings of rootlessness didn’t lead to a “sad ballad.” She replies,

Before I went into the studio, I knew I wanted this song to be up-tempo. This topic at the time wasn’t a happy topic for me because I felt quite lost, but I didn’t want to look back at this song and feel sad while singing it, because I needed something that reminded me that it’s OK not to feel at home in one specific place. I knew that I wanted a hooligan-like choir to chant “roots,” so that it would feel even more uplifting.

If you’re a TCK, or anyone lost and rootless, let “No Roots” remind you “that it’s OK not to feel at home in one specific place.” Sing along with Alice Merton. She’s got the words and the tune.

Or if it’s more your style, you can join the hooligan choir and holler out “Roots!”—with passion—every time it comes around.

(Kevin Rutherford,  “Alice Merton Puts Down ‘Roots’ at No. 1 on Adult Alternative Songs,” Billboard, December 20, 2017; Tatiana Cirisano, “Alice Merton’s Wanderlust Anthem ‘No Roots’ Heads to U.S. After Blowing Up in Europe,” Billboard, August 22, 2017; Tolga Akar, “Interview Alice Merton: Scandalous Pics and Real Roots!” Der Beat Von Berlin KISS FM, June 27, 2017; Roman Gokhman, “Q&A: Nomad Alice Merton Raises Anchor, Drops ‘Roots,’” RIFF Magazine, November 20, 2017)

[photo: “Alice Merton 12/11/2017 #37,” by Justin Higuchi, used under a Creative Commons license]

Naming Your Grief and Finding an Answer [—at A Life Overseas]

January 31, 2018 § Leave a comment

Over at A Life Overseas, I’ve taken two of my previous posts, Disenfranchised Grief and the Cross-cultural Worker and Empathy: A Ladder into Dark Places, and adapted them into one. You can start reading the new post below.


I don’t think I’d ever heard the phrase “disenfranchised grief” before I came back from living overseas. Maybe it was during debriefing that it came up. Or maybe it was later, when I attended a series of grief-support meetings offered by a local hospice. Everyone else in the group had experienced the recent death of a loved one. I came because of the losses I’d had from my return.

Regardless, I didn’t immediately have a label for what I was feeling—sadness that was difficult to accept or express, sadness that easily led to shame and anger. But being able to name it is important. Kenneth Doka, who came up with the term “disenfranchised grief,” and who, in 1989, wrote the book Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow, says in an interview with Spring Publishing,

This concept has really resonated with people. And people constantly write and say, “You’ve named my grief. I never really recognized my grief until you talked about it in that way.”

Doka defines disenfranchised grief as “grief that is experienced when a loss cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned, or publicly mourned.” Grief is disenfranchised when losses are not typical to the population at large, so others often discount those losses or don’t understand them. It is difficult to have compassion for people when you don’t recognize why they are sad.

Continue reading at A Life Overseas. . . .

(Kenneth Doka, “Disenfranchised Grief,” Living with Grief: Loss in Later Life, Kenneth Doka, ed., Hospice Foundation of America, 2002; Kenneth Doka, “Disenfranchised Grief,” Springer Publishing Company, YouTube, October 4, 2013)

[photo: “Hiding,” by Kristin Schmit, used under a Creative Commons license]

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