Coming or Going during Turbulent Times [—at A Life Overseas]

August 1, 2020 § Leave a comment

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In October of 2001, my wife and I boarded a flight and moved our family from the US to our new home in Asia. Nearly ten years later, in June of 2011, we moved back to our old home in Joplin, Missouri. Those dates may not jump out at you, but the first was one month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The second was one month after an F5 tornado destroyed about a quarter of Joplin, killing 161.

When you relocate to a different culture, your world is turned upside down. How much more so when the earth itself seems to be tilted off its axis.

Some of you are making a cross-cultural transition right now, in the midst of a global pandemic, a global recession, and far-reaching upheavals confronting racism. So much emotional multitasking. So many unknowns. You’re not only tackling culture stress or reverse culture stress, but you’re trying to get used to a new normal when the old normal is challenging enough already.

There’s another term for new normal. It’s abnormal (at least for a while).

Speaking of culture, you have your own “cancel culture”: cancelled flights. cancelled church services, cancelled good-bye gatherings, cancelled welcome parties, cancelled support, cancelled camps, cancelled vacations, cancelled retreats, cancelled trainings, cancelled conferences, cancelled debriefings, cancelled classes, cancelled job opportunities, cancelled leases, cancelled assumptions, cancelled plans.

And when you get to make your trip, your first experience after you land is to self-quarantine for two weeks.

To read the rest, go to A Life Overseas. . . .

[photo: “Storm Front 4,” by mrpbps, used under a Creative Commons license]

Listening to a Wonderful Immigrant Story in the Walmart Parking Lot while Everybody Was Stocking Up on Bottled Water

May 6, 2020 § Leave a comment

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I was sitting in a Walmart parking lot, a few days after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the WHO. It was back when stores weren’t yet limiting the number of shoppers. People were still hoarding toilet paper and making a big deal about how people were hoarding toilet paper, and there wasn’t much of it left in the stores by that time. I had a list in my pocket of things to buy, but I stayed in my car for a while listening to NPR as I watched shoppers file out with their carts piled high with their necessities—bottled water seemed to be a must-have that day. I was in the middle of a Moth Radio Hour and I wanted to hear the end.

The edition playing that day was called “When We Were Young,” and in the second segment, “Sandwiches & Neighbors,” Oanh Ngo Usadi tells about her family of seven leaving Vietnam as refugees when she was twelve. They ended up in Port Arthur, Texas. and she introduces us to their landlords, Mr. Water (not so nice) and Mrs. Water (much nicer). “Water” wasn’t their actually surname, but that’s what Usadi’s family called them. She shares how her father opened a sandwich shop to give McDonald’s “a run for its money” and how they were introduced to the significance of April 1 (the hard way) and how a trip to Costco brought about an unexpected affirmation. And that brings me back to Walmart.

I didn’t have a mask with me, because we weren’t doing that yet, but I had in my head all the reminders to wash my hands and not touch my face. Regardless, I found myself wiping my eyes as Usadi reached the end of her poignant story.

You can listen to the entire episode at The Moth site, and I hope you do. It starts with “Is Love Wild, Is Love Real?” from a man who grew up outside London. His parents were Pakistani Muslims who didn’t believe that love was a useful ingredient in a husband-wife relationship. As he is looking for love anyway, his mother is looking to set him up in an arranged marriage. Enlightenment comes by way of Bruce Springsteen.

And the third, and final, story is “Kid Religion.” In it, the speaker tells about his time as a child in western New York, attending a small Methodist church. His mother, a “labor lawyer from a Catholic Puerto Rican family in the Bronx,” volunteers to teach his Sunday-school class and gets fired for how she answers a question. Years later, after developing a relationship with a girl in a school play, he comes to believe that his mother’s answer was the right one.

If Usadi’s narrative makes you want to hear more about her life, you can read her memoir, Of Monkey Bridges and Bánh Mì Sandwiches: from Sài Gòn to Texas.

[photo: “Walmart,” by Mike Mozart, used under a Creative Commons license]

Plans Unfurled, Change the World: A Poem for Cross-Cultural Workers [—at A Life Overseas]

February 29, 2020 § Leave a comment

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I had fun writing a travel poem for my son, so I thought I’d try it again, this time on the topic of working cross culturally. Here are the first eight lines. The rest is at A Life Overseas.

Hear the call
Like St. Paul?
Kneel to pray
Lots to say
Plans unfurled
Change the world
Ready, set
Not quite yet . . .

[photo: “Sandles,” by midnightcomm, used under a Creative Commons license]

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]

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]

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