When in Rome, sometimes we do as the Romans do just to fit in. Sometimes it’s out of necessity. Sometimes it’s because their way is actually better. And sometimes it’s because, well—Why not give it a shot?
Has your host culture offered you ways of doing things different from what you’re used to, ways you’ve tried on for size, sometimes finding out they fit you to a T? Mine sure did.
There was the time in Taiwan when we hired a local moving company to help us relocate to another apartment. Much to my surprise, the movers, small, wiry gentlemen, carried most of our things backwards. I don’t mean that they carried them from our new place to our old one. Rather, they carried them on their backs, with their arms wrapped around behind. Big boxes. Heavy boxes. Small appliances. Where I’m from, most of us carry things in front, next to our bellies, and often need help doing so. And we ache the next day. I’ve tried carrying boxes their way, and it works. Maybe I’m the one who’s been doing it backwards. (The movers also taught me how to hold the elevator door open with a folded-up piece of cardboard, but I digress.)
And then there’s that oft-photographed tourist attraction in Asia—the squatty potty. . . .
Finish reading, and join in on sharing your own discoveries, atA Life Overseas.
“This Hellish Desert Pit Has Been on Fire for More Than 40 Years”
There are places on Earth that are a little creepy, places that feel a little haunted and places that are downright hellish. The Darvaza gas crater, nicknamed by locals “The Door to Hell,” or “The Gates of Hell,” definitely falls into the latter category—and its sinister burning flames are just the half of it. Located in the Karakum Desert of central Turkmenistan (a little over 150 miles from the country’s capital) the pit attracts hundreds of tourists each year. It also attracts nearby desert wildlife—reportedly, from time to time local spiders are seen plunging into the pit by the thousands, lured to their deaths by the glowing flames.
So how did this fiery inferno end up in the middle of a desert in Turkmenistan? In 1971, when the republic was still part of the Soviet Union, a group of Soviet geologists went to the Karakum in search of oil fields. They found what they thought to be a substantial oil field and began drilling. Unfortunately for the scientists, they were drilling on top of a cavernous pocket of natural gas which couldn’t support the weight of their equipment.The site collapsed, taking their equipment along with it—and the event triggered the crumbly sedimentary rock of the desert to collapse in other places too, creating a domino-effect that resulted in several open craters by the time all was said and done.
The largest of these craters measures about 230-feet across and 65-feet deep. Reportedly, no one was injured in the collapse, but the scientists soon had another problem on their hands: the natural gas escaping from the crater. . . . So the scientists decided to light the crater on fire, hoping that all the dangerous natural gas would burn away in a few weeks’ time.
. . . .
But . . . the scientists in Turkmenistan weren’t dealing with a measured amount of natural gas—scientists still don’t know just how much natural gas is feeding the burning crater—so what was supposed to be a few-week burn has turned into almost a half-century-long desert bonfire.
By far, my post with the most views on a single day is “Eight Years Ago, ‘The Impossible’ Happened,” published the day after Christmas in 2012. In it, I write about the movie The Impossible, in which Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor portray a couple whose family is vacationing in Thailand when the 2004 tsunami hits. For some reason, that post got into the gears of Google’s machinery and for a time showed up on the first page of search results for the film’s title.
Though I don’t expect anything near those kind of results, it’s with a little bit of déjà vu that I’m now writing about Watts’ 2020 Netflix movie Penguin Bloom. Again, Watts plays a woman vacationing in Thailand with her husband and three young sons when tragedy strikes. This time, though, it’s not a region-wide disaster, but a personal one, with Watts’ character, Ann Bloom, falling off a rooftop and breaking her back, leaving her a paraplegic.
Bloom’s story following the accident is ultimately an uplifting one, with much of the inspiration coming from an odd source, an injured Australian Magpie, named Penguin, that is adopted as part of the family. You can probably see a series of clichéd plot points writing themselves, but the film is actually based on real life—with a real-life magpie—written about by Ann’s husband, Cameron, in Penguin Bloom: The Odd Little Bird Who Saved a Family.
The first portion of the film centers on the devastating effects, physical and emotional, of Ann’s injury, with things looking much more hopeful by the end. This progression comes through in two small scenes, one early on and one much later.
In the first, Cameron comes home from work and asks Ann, “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” she answers.
But then as he helps her into bed, she voices her frustration: “Never ask me that question in front of the boys again.”
“What question?” he asks.
“How am I?” she replies. “I don’t want to have to lie to them,” and he answers, “OK.”
In the second, at a more positive time in Ann’s healing, she invites Cameron to ask “that question.”
“Which question?” he asks.
She answers, “The one I told you never to ask me.”
“How are you?” he responds.
Here’s a trailer for the film, followed by a two-part story on Penguin and the rest of the Blooms from 60 Minutes Australia.
It’s not that I can’t swim, I just don’t do it often enough to cause an injury. I’m in physical therapy for my shoulder now, but I actually started PT because of pain in my hip, and then my shoulder started acting up. I wish I could say that my hip problem was caused by swimming, or by mountain climbing or power lifting. Instead, I think it’s from stepping out of my car the wrong way. And my shoulder? It might be caused by painting our dining room. Or who knows? It could have come from brushing my teeth with too much reckless abandon.
I know what you’re thinking. But before you say that it’s clear I’m getting old and my body’s falling apart, let me first say that it’s clear I’m getting old and my body’s falling apart.
So every day I go through my series of exercises. If only my routine included things like “reverse suspended monster crunches” or “overhead double infantry lifts.” But no, I have “supine gluteal sets” and “seated shoulder flexion towel slides at table top.”
It’s not quite the stuff of a Rocky training montage. (If you haven’t seen any of the five Rocky movies, seven if you add the two Creeds, then just think about any film that includes a music video of the main character getting ready for battle.) In preparation for the next ultimate fight, set to stirring music, Rocky boxes with frozen meat (da-da-daaa), rips off dozens of one-handed pull-ups and push-ups (da-da-daaa), lifts log chains over his head (da-da-daaa), guzzles raw eggs (da-da-daaa), and outruns a car (da-da-da-da-da-da-da-daaa-da-daaa).
Here’s the thing about training montages in the movies: They’re in the movies. When you’re tackling challenges in real life, it’s not bigger than life and it’s not condensed down to just a few minutes. Seen from the inside, the real stuff of montages can feel slow, tedious, and monotonous, not monumental.
I never knew Miriam Beard. I never had any conversations with her, nor do I have any personal anecdotes about her to tell. So last onth when I discussed her writing and her well-known travel quotation, I was limited to using what I could find in Google searches.
How happy I was then, when after I published my post, I received an email saying, “I really appreciate you bringing the work of my grandmother, Miriam Beard, to the attention of a broader audience.”
No, I never knew Miriam Beard, but now, thanks to Karen Vagts, I’m getting to know her better. And Karen has graciously allowed me to invite you into our conversation, so that you can get to know her grandmother better, too. Thank you, Karen, for sharing this with us:
“My grandmother was a person of immense talents but often under the shadow of her parents, the historians/activists Mary Ritter and Charles Beard, and her husband, the military historian Alfred Vagts; managing their literary output consumed more than her fair share of her time. But she was an immensely talented writer (one of the first women to attend the Columbia School of Journalism and wrote a wonderful series of stories for The New York Times, including an insightful article about the status of women in 1920s Japan) and published a two-volume History of Business. She was however very modest about her achievements, which is why her obit was sketchy.
“As an American born in England, Miriam perhaps was already predisposed to be a global traveler but her interest in travel was probably sparked by her travels to Asia in the 1920s, when her father was asked by the government of Tokyo to consult about the rebuilding of the city following a major earthquake. The Beards traveled throughout Asia during a very critical time—when the political tremors that would lead to WW2 were starting to vibrate—and that greatly impressed Miriam—I recall that she was particularly fascinated by Shanghai. After she married, she and her husband lived in Hamburg until the Nazis came along and then thereafter she travelled with friends and family wherever she could. She passed along her love to travel to her son and her granddaughters.
“My grandmother sent my father—in between high school and college—to the Experiment in International Living program in Germany. This was in the late 1940s and Dad had the task of sorting bricks from bombed out buildings in Munich for re-use; he then got to wander around Europe for a couple of weeks, a real eye-opener. Ironically, wherever he went in Europe, he was warned about thieves and pickpockets because the post-war situation in Europe was still so dire. But it was not until he landed back in New York Port Authority that his knapsack got stolen!”
“She also funded my sister and my first independent trip to Europe, took us on excursions, and gave us a subscription to National Geographic. She also assumed that being multi-lingual was an innate characteristic. The world might be rather different if everyone had such a cosmopolitan, well-travelled grandparent!
“Much appreciation and I look forward to the time—hopefully in the not-to-distant future when we can all feel comfortable traveling to view the world.”
[photos: “Family of Charles A. Beard,” The DePauw University Archives Documents and Photographs; Miriam Beard, courtesy of Karen Vagts]
If you’re like me, you saw at least one of the “those we lost” montages covering the deaths of notable people over the last year. And when you see some of the names and faces, you react for some with “I didn’t know they were gone” and for others with “That just happened this year?”
I recently saw a different kind of look back. It was a list of high-profile Christians who’d made the news for their failings in 2020. It included pastors, authors, and ministry leaders, among others. There were a couple I hadn’t heard about, but sadly, I thought of a couple more I could add. Not everyone’s transgressions took place last year, but that’s when some of them came to light.
Do cross-cultural workers also face temptations and sometimes give in to them? The answer, of course, is yes. Those abroad are not immune to temptations “common to man.” But added to that, new surroundings can present uncommon enticements seemingly around every corner—at least uncommon when compared to what used to happen at home.
Does the sin of cross-cultural workers sometimes become public? Does it sometimes cause them to leave the field? Does it sometimes bring their work into question? Does it sometimes destroy relationships? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Many of us have seen it happen, to fellow workers, to teammates, to family members, to friends, to ourselves.
I’ve prepared the following questions as a beginning-of-the-year gut check, with the aim of helping us stay off of someone’s 2021 those-we-lost list. Yes, that’s an excellent goal. But I also realize that for some, having their failings exposed is a necessary step leading to healing and restoration. Being on the list doesn’t have to be an indication of lostness. It can also be an opportunity for being found.
I’ve often wondered how a single phrase finds its way from being buried in a memoir or novel to being plucked out as a stand-on-its-own “quotation.” Of course, the creator of the thought is important, but so is the one who finds it and decides it’s worthy of display on its own.
“Next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it,” writes Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Many will read the book before one thinks of quoting a passage. As soon as he has done this, that line will be quoted east and west.”
When Miriam Beard, the daughter of the American historians, Charles and Mary Beard, wrote Realism in Romantic Japan in 1930, I’m sure more than a few people read it. (In 1961, the Department of State’s Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs called it “the most popular book of the day on Japan.”) But I doubt that many stumble across it today. In fact, it didn’t warrant mention in her New York Timesobituary in 1983. That honor went to her History of the Business Man, which she published in 1937. But even that work isn’t what she’s best known for now. Google her name and what rises to the top is a single sentence from her work about Japan:
Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.
Who knows who originally brought this quotation to the attention of the masses? I’ll probably never find out, but I’d like to think that that person recognized Beard’s insight in the surrounding text. The passage comes in a chapter titled “First Timers,” in which Beard discusses how multiple experiences in a new culture bring about a growth in impressions, ultimately leading to the ability to “sympathize” (though not necessarily in the way you might think). Here is how she describes the three phrases of this progression:
If, at each repetition of a bowing, a chopstick meal, a song or a garden, my impressions were different—”how” I asked myself, “am I ever to know what I think of these things”? Should I live a hundred years before I have the right to speak my mind on any thing? If I shudder at a song the first time, and love it the last—at which stage have I the right to describe my sensations? What are impressions? Are they worth anything?
Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living. History is handled no longer as a mere chronicle of dates but as a progression from one stage to a succeeding. So travel is no mere heaping up of episodes but an evolution. It is of constant development and not of fixed judgment that I dare to write: of the steady submersion of the ego in a stream of life.
There are phases in this process. The earliest is a sense of bewilderment in the number and variety of scenes, gorgeous, comical, or amazing, that the East presents. It seems that two weeks in Tokyo are like a ten-minute trip through an overcrowded museum. You must rush, staring and crying out, through rooms and corridors, without a pause. The feet grow heavy as basalt rocks; the optic nerves, bruised by a thousand images, refuse to register; and the mind seeking in vain some balance in all the maze, turns round and round on itself like a kaleidoscope or a pin-wheel.
. . . . .
The sensation of living on a new planet—that is the second stage. “Home,” “America,” recede from the mind, seem farther and farther away. Nearer and nearer draw the problems and the drama of all Asia: Siam, Ceylon, Borneo, Turkestan, Afghanistan, Korea, China, and Russia the Colossus.
. . . . .
All at once a third period breaks. It becomes suddenly possible to be, not merely a spectator at a strange show, but a participant. Oriental life catches up the visitor in its swift current; and he finds that, after all, it is possible to feel at ease behind the closed gates.
. . . . .
People as well as buildings ceased to seem curiosities, as I learned to know their hobbies, families, careers, unhappiness and hope. No, I was not so perpetually startled now—far more absorbed. perhaps had ceased to observe, so clearly and directly; but then I had unexpectedly begun to sympathize.
I like this idea that the final goal of travel is to arrive at sympathy—not in the sense of pity, or even compassion. Rather it’s the true “feeling together” that the word means. This kind of sympathy is a destination not easily reached, but, as Beard writes, it’s an “evolution,” a “steady submersion of the ego in a stream of life” that is well worth the time and effort that it takes to get there.
(Ralph Waldo Emerson, Letters and Social Aims, Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vol. 8, Houghton Mifflin, 1876; Walter Moonaughy, “American Image of Japan,” address given to the Japan-American Society of Washington at the National Press Club, October 2, 1961; Miriam Beard, Realism in Romantic Japan, MacMillan, 1930)
Instead, I’ve created a much different kind of list. First, it is a collection of book titles—for cross-cultural workers—but there aren’t real books to go with the names. Second, these titles aren’t any kind of best, and probably shouldn’t even make it to the printing stage.
While compiling a list of made-up titles may not seem like much of an accomplishment, I do want to point out that, slowly but surely, I am moving up in the publishing world . . . sort of. Three years ago I created some clickbait headlines for expats that only lacked people to fill in their stories. Now I’ve come up with titles for whole books (see the progress?). This time, though, the stories don’t need to be filled in.
Solomon writes that “of making many books there is no end.” Let’s leave these books unmade:
Ethnocentrism, Ethnoshmentrism: Incontrovertible Proof that Your Customs Really Are the Best
How I Arrived in Country, Lost My Passport, Got Arrested, Wrestled a Crocodile, Built a Clinic, Organized a VBS . . . and Then Got Ready for My Second Day Abroad
This Airport’s Not My Home, I’m Just A-Passin’ Through: Wild and Wacky Tales from Gate C38