Barnga: A Card Game for Culture-Stress Show and Tell [—at A Life Overseas]

February 2, 2019 § Leave a comment

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I’ve reworked my original Barnga post from six years ago and put it online at A Life Overseas. Head on over there to read all of it. Here’s how it begins:

Have you ever wanted to show, not just tell, people what culture stress is like? Have you ever wanted them to experience it a bit without them having to travel overseas?

Have you ever heard about Barnga?

Barnga is a simulation game created by Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan in 1980, while working for USAID in Gbarnga, Liberia. . . .

[photo: “Shuffle,” by Melissa Emma’s Photography, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Greetings for the New Year: Hey, 2019, Wassup? Have You Eaten? [—at A Life Overseas]

December 29, 2018 § Leave a comment

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I remember his question well.

One morning I walked to our neighborhood post office in Taipei to take the language exam I liked to call “mailing a package.” I got in the line leading to a clerk with whom I was familiar, practiced and prepped for answering what he would ask me—things like “Where is your package going?” or “What’s inside the box?”

Instead, he glanced at me and said nonchalantly, “Have you eaten?”

What? Did I look gaunt and hungry? Was he prying into my daily schedule? Was he inviting me to share a snack? Was the post office a food-free zone and he’d seen some crumbs on my shirt?

While I remember the question, I don’t remember what I said in return. As he’d caught me off guard, my guess is that my reply was incoherent at best (F for the exam). It wasn’t until later that I found out that “Have you eaten?” is simply a local way to say Hello, particularly among the older generations. (“I’ve eaten” or “Not yet” suffice for responses, with no need for elaboration or fact checking.)

I wish I could say that was the only time I was confused by a greeting in Taiwan. Yeah, I wish.

For the rest of this post, go to A Life Overseas. . . .

[photo: “HI sparklers,” by Julie Lane, used under a Creative Commons license]

Do You Have Your Own Version of “Penn Face”?

October 24, 2018 § Leave a comment

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“My experiences at Penn so far have been overwhelming,” writes Karisma Maheshwari in the Daily Pennsylvanian‘s 34th Street. An exchange student from Mumbai, she says,

My idea of time has changed; it turned into little blocks, each with an allotted productive function, with a few stolen gaps to watch BoJack Horseman. The blank wall above my desk turned into a system of aggressive yellow Post–its detailing my to–do list, which ranged from attending resume workshops to buying razors.

Not only is Maheshwari experiencing a new culture in the US, she’s also acclimating to the University of Pennsylvania’s “hyper-productiveness”—and learning to cope by putting on what her fellow students at the Ivy League school call “Penn Face.” Penn Face is the outer look of I’ve-got-it-all-together even though my stomach is in knots. It’s matching the smiles of those around you, regardless of how you feel. It’s . . . well, Penn students can define it better themselves:

Those on the Penn campus aren’t unique in how they handle stress. Students at Stanford have their own version of hiding what’s inside, calling it “Duck Syndrome.” It refers to the image of a duck placidly floating on the surface of the water while underneath its feet are paddling frantically. Tiger Sun writes in The Stanford Daily,

We put on a brave face and a wide smile when we go to our classes and see our friends, but on the inside, the pressure is slowly tearing us apart. During one of my first weeks at Stanford, I had a talk about this with some other kids: It sometimes feels like the Stanford experience is shrouded in a cloud of superficiality. I think it really helped to talk about this, and I encourage others to engage in this kind of discussion. What’s really going on inside everyone’s heads? Are people what they seem?

Chances are you’re not studying at an Ivy League school (or at Stanford), but that doesn’t mean you aren’t familiar with your own type of Penn Face. Maybe you’re part of another group that puts on masks to make a show of strength.

Below is how Lucy Hu, another Penn student, illustrates Penn Face in The Daily Pennsylvanian. As you read it, replace the occurrences of Penn with your job title or the name of the place where you live. Does it describe your version of the face that you put on for others to see?

Last semester, I was depressed. I had separation anxiety. I planned to take a leave of absence. Above all, I was convinced that I wasn’t strong enough to be at Penn. But sitting at Commons one lunch, I laughed along with friends even though I was too anxious to eat. I described how busy my classes were even though I couldn’t swallow my food.

When your mind tells you that you weren’t cut out for Penn, you desperately protect yourself from others finding out. The last thing you would do is reveal that you cannot handle this place and risk being seen as weak. The facade of being OK manifests as a shield for your reputation.

Hu says this type of behavior “is intrinsic to competitive environments.” And Yana Milcheva, an exchange student from Bulgaria, agrees that competition is a factor. “I think that students [at Penn] are more inclined to be competitive rather than collaborative,” she tells Maheshwari. “They would prefer to work on their own and get a better grade, rather than just helping each other out.”

Funny that the students at the University of Pennsylvania feel as if they’re in competition with each other when they’re all part of the same team.

Funny, too, when the rest of us do the same thing.

(Karisma Maheshwari, “Exchange Students Share Their Experiences with Penn Face,” 34th Street, March 16, 2018; Tiger Sun, “Duck Syndrome and a Culture of Misery,” The Stanford Daily, January 30, 2018; Lucy Hu, “Penn Face Is a Part of Who We Are,” The Daily Pennsylvania,” September 26, 2017)

[photo: “Smile in Subway,” by Maxime Guilbot, used under a Creative Commons license]

Cultural Low Bridges [—at A Life Overseas]

September 27, 2018 § Leave a comment

When you go to a new culture and miss the signs . . . or don’t realize how you don’t quite fit in.

At first I thought I’d just let the above stand on its own . . . but I have more to say.

I’m fascinated by these clips of trucks getting stopped in their tracks, of them having their tops peeled back in shiny silver ribbons, of drivers second guessing themselves and hitting the overpass anyway. Yes, it makes me laugh, but it makes me cringe, too. I have empathy for these drivers, especially the ones in moving trucks, heading to a new place with all their worldly possessions packed up behind, having left the rental company after confidently telling the agent at the counter that they’d waive the insurance. “I won’t be needing that, thank you very much.”

When we moved overseas, we had our share of cultural miscues and language faux pas and just mistakes in general. Then after that, we had some more. And while we laughed at many, some were cringeworthy and some were painful to us or even hurtful to others. That’s what happens when you don’t see the signs or can’t understand what they say. That’s what happens when you think somebody needs to lower the road or raise the bridge, because “It’s not me. My truck is the right size!”

And then when we travelled back to our passport country, somehow the bridges were lower there than when we left. Or had our truck gotten taller? Either way, something didn’t fit anymore.

During one of our furloughs we borrowed a van from some friends for our visits to see supporters. It was a conversion van with a raised roof that the owners had just had repainted. (Spoiler: Yes, this is going where you think it’s going.)

Finish reading at A Life Overseas. . . .

Moving Abroad Can Sure Mess with Your Autocomplete [—at A Life Overseas]

August 31, 2018 § Leave a comment

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We can tell a lot about each other by looking at our autocompletes. For instance, start typing “I can’t find my” into a text message and see what it thinks will come next. For me, it’s “keys,” “wallet,” and “phone.” That’s pretty insightful: I have a car, I’m a guy, and I’m absent-minded enough to have my phone in my hand and wonder where it is. But I’m not all that unique. You’re autocomplete may very well say the same thing (even if you’re not a guy). We, and our autocompletes, are products of the cultures that produced us.

So what happens when you relocate to someplace new and different? Your old autocomplete is now out of whack and needs to be retrained to match your new surroundings. Sure, some of it is dealing with single-word typing discrepancies like theatre vs theater or fighting spell-check battles over your friends’ names (Yes, I really do mean Mrak!). But it also goes deeper than that. It’s a change in how you live and act and think. It’s transitioning from normal to strange to new normal.

I just texted “I can’t find my llama” to my wife. On my third try my phone gave in and swapped out “wallet” for “llama” as one of my choices. It may take a while, but as you transition, your autocomplete will catch up—maybe just in time for a trip back home, far away, that place where the foreigners come from.

So what are your autocomplete settings right now? Where do you fit in with the sentences below?

It all depends on where you are, and where you are in your getting there.

From normal to strange to new normal.

Wow, you can speak two languages? You
. . . must be a genius!
. . . must be average.
. . . must be ready to move to another assignment where you’ll need to learn two more.

Read the rest here. . . .

[photo: “Qwerty,” by Xosé Castro Roig, used under a Creative Commons license]

Culture Stress, Home, and Space, the Final Frontier

August 13, 2018 § Leave a comment

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Traveling to far-away places and coping with new surroundings brings about lots of adjustments—adjustments in thought patterns and in ways of doing even mundane tasks. Few know this as dramatically as those who have lived aboard the International Space Station. But you don’t need to venture into outer space to be able to relate to their stories of exploration and adaptation.

National Geographic’s One Strange Rock looks at our planet through the eyes of eight astronauts. The final episode of this, the first season, is titled “Home.” (Watch it here.)

In it, host Will Smith asks,

Where is home?  Is it where you were born, where you were raised, or where you are now? Is it somewhere you lived, somewhere you left, somewhere that shaped you? If you really want to know you need to leave them all behind.

One of those who’s left it all behind is Peggy Whitson, who, over three missions, spent a total of 665 days in space—a record for NASA astronauts and more than any other woman in the world. She’s come a long way from where she she lived as a child, a farm near Beaconsfield, Iowa, current population “elevenish.”

Whitson says,

As I’ve grown up and gone to college and gone to graduate school, home has expanded from Iowa to Texas to the United States, and since being in space, home is actually planet earth.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield:

One of the biggest changes I noticed within myself as the result of  flying in space was that the difference between us and them disappeared. Somehow going around the world in 92 minutes, not just once, but over and over and over again, turned the entire world into one shared place. I think it’s a perspective that seeps into astronauts. I think it’s a perspective that’s kind of good for everybody.

Astronaut Leland Melvin adds,

I truly believe that if more people could have the opportunity to see the planet from space, looking at the rich colors, looking at the fact that there are no borders separating us, we could see that we are truly all connected as human beings

Back to Smith, on reentry:

Ever been on a trip and seen something new, something incredibly beautiful, or something that changed the way you think about things? Now imagine that trip was to space. You’ve seen something that only a very few people have ever seen.

Astronauts need to tell someone, anyone, everyone. Soon they’re ready to go back down, but it’s actually bittersweet. They’re going back to the place that made them, but leaving the place that shaped them.

About her return, Whitson shares, “It was hard to leave because I knew I wouldn’t be coming back.” She starts to choke up and then blurts out, “Jeepers!” and laughs. “But I was all excited about being back home and  being back on earth, having, you know, wind, and smelling the air and just being on earth.”

“But coming home isn’t easy,” says Smith. “Mother earth doesn’t exactly welcome you back with open arms.”

Repatriation from space, returning through the earth’s atmosphere, is actually the hardest part of the trip, and setting down on the solid ground of Kazakstan isn’t the softest of landings.

Whitson says, “Most people compare it to a car crash. I would compare it to maybe two car crashes.”

And then there’s the transition from weightlessness to . . . weight. “Wow, space was good,” Whitson says and adds with a smile, “Gravity sucks.”

Though he’s not part of the One Strange Rock crew, Scott Kelly has this to say about the reverse culture stress brought about by gravity:

Back to Melvin, in the National Geographic production:

When I got home from space after getting out of my suit, then to have a meal without the food floating away from you, and being able to pet your dog and talk to your parents fact to face, it made me feel so much more connected to the planet.

Another astronaut, Nicole Scott:

I couldn’t wait to feel what a breeze would be like again, you know, what the smell of grass was going to, you know, smell like again.

Hadfield:

It’s the smells of earth, the smell of home, the smells of the natural world, it’s overpowering. It’s kind of overwhelming.

Melvin again:

Just because you physically leave the surface of the earth does not mean you leave the earth, because the earth is part of you.

And Whitson:

I’m not sure whether I feel more like an earthling or a space woman. I think being a space woman’s a lot more fun.

Blast off . . . G forces . . . wonder . . . homesickness . . . rootlessness . . . reentry . . . landing . . . longing—sounds like crossing cultures.

So what is day-to-day life really like in the culture of space? Here are a few glimpses into how the ordinary becomes anything but:

There’s learning to cook without the comforts of your kitchen or a microwave . . . or plates.

What happens when the food doesn’t want to stay down?

You thought squatty potties were a challenge.

Then you have no-shower showering.

And, oh yeah, when you look out the window, there’s the view.

Don’t forget the view.

(“Home,” One Strange Rock, National Geographic, May 28, 2018)

[photo: “GPN-2000-001056,” by NASA Remix Man, used under a Creative Commons license]

Risk and the Cross-Cultural Worker: An Interview with Anna Hampton, Author of “Facing Danger” [—at A Life Overseas]

May 31, 2018 § Leave a comment

Warning

Dr. Anna Hampton, along with her husband, Neal, have lived and worked for nearly 20 years in war-torn Islamic countries. This includes almost 10 years in Afghanistan, where they started raising their three children. Their experiences led Anna to write Facing Danger: A Guide through Risk (Zendagi, 2016), which is based on her doctoral dissertation at Trinity Theological Seminary. 

Many cross-cultural workers recognize the need to develop a theology of suffering, but you write that a theology of risk is also necessary for resilience on the field. You cover this in depth in Facing Danger, but could you give a short elevator speech on how the two are different?

A theology of suffering asks a different question than a theology of risk asks. When I was a young mom facing daily threats of all kinds but especially kidnapping and murder, I needed to be able to evaluate what God was calling me and my children to that day. We hadn’t suffered the reality of kidnapping, but we were facing the risk of it. So how was I to think, to process my emotions, hear God’s voice, and then make a decision on what I was to do?

While risk and suffering are closely related and really go hand in hand, they are not the same thing. A theology of suffering does not answer the challenges of how to think, feel, and make decisions in risk. Instead, a theology of suffering answers how I am to respond to God in suffering, how I am to think, feel, and view God’s heart once I am in suffering. Suffering in many ways is more of a “static” scenario, whereas risk is inherently dynamic—one is moving toward or away from risk and danger, and the situation is often unstable and confusing. A theology of risk answers how I am to act on the opportunities presenting themselves in risk: Risk equals opportunity for both great loss and great gain.

For the rest of the interview, go to A Life Overseas. . . .

[photo: “Warning!” by Ray Sadler, used under a Creative Commons license]

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