An Open Letter to the Kind People in My Host Country [at A Life Overseas]

February 20, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Dear neighbors:

When my wife and I and our four children stepped off the plane in your country, with our 12 carry-on bags—and all our plans, enthusiasm, expectations . . . and naiveté—you welcomed us. In fact, the customs agent greeted us with a smile. And during the following years that we lived among you, we lost count of your kindnesses.

We weren’t refugees, we didn’t arrive on your shores having been forced out of our homes, we weren’t stranded. We had chosen to come. You didn’t find us naked and bloodied at the side of a road, but still you were often good Samaritans to us. When you saw us sitting on the curb, so to speak, facing roadblocks or not sure where we were headed, so many of you did not simply walk by on the other side.

For this we thank you.

To our language teachers who patiently, ever so patiently, led us through vocabulary lessons and guided us on the nuances of your culture, laughing with us but not at us, thank you.

To the food-cart vendors who listened to us practice the names of what they were selling and cheerfully rewarded us with wonderful tasting snacks and meals, sometimes putting something extra in with our order, thank you.

To the policeman who loaded up our family in his patrol car and took us home after we got lost on a walk, even though we ended up being only three blocks away from our apartment building, thank you.

And to the people near our home who didn’t think the worst of a family, who, for some reason, was riding in a police car, thank you.

Finish reading at A Life Overseas. . . .

[photo: “Post Office Shoot8,” by Bryan Pearson, used under a Creative Commons license]

Empathy at a Cultural Threshold

January 23, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Empathy has taken somewhat of a beating lately, as Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion has made the rounds. I’ve not read the book, so what I know of it comes from third-party reactions, not enough for me to make any intelligent critique or defense. After all is said and done, though, I would guess that most of us would champion empathy, even if we agree that it can have a negative impact when misguided.

Christopher O’Shaughnessy is author of the book Arrivals, Departures and the Adventures In-Between. He’s also, per his website, an “international speaker and globetrotting adventurer” and, per the video below—an excerpt from his keynote address at last year’s Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference—an empathy advocate. In fact, the video begins with him saying,

I want to tell you a story that emphasizes for me when I first sort of imprinted how important empathy was.

His story takes place after he entered a new school as an eighth grader and met an Eastern European girl who had just made her first international move. O’Shaugnessy, who was born in England to US military parents and spent chunks of his growing-up years on alternating sides of “the pond,” understood what she was going through and befriended her while others made her the object of their bullying.

His first story ends with a second story that takes place years later, in a bank, with a suspicious character, a note passed to a teller, annoying hope, and leaping tears.

It’s worth a listen.

This video is posted at Youtube in the Culturs.guru channel, which says that “CULTURS is a global multicultural philanthropic brand that brings lifestyle content to liminal identities.” I wasn’t familiar with the word liminal, but quick Google search told me that it means “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.” I like that. There’s plenty of room for empathy in that place.

[photo: “Empathy Picture,” by The Shopping Sherpa, used under a Creative Commons license]

Pre-Tripisms

December 8, 2016 § 1 Comment

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First expatisms, then airportisms, and now . . . pre-tripisms. Because we simply don’t have enough ways to talk about things.

metapacking
Carrying a suitcase in a suitcase so that you can bring back more stuff than you take. This can be as simple as a duffle bag inside another piece of luggage, but in its purest form, it is a checked bag precisely fitting inside another checked bag. The term metapacking can be extended also to encompass using a cheap or broken suitcase to transport items one way and then disposing of that suitcase after you arrive. Seasoned travelers always keep a broken suitcase lying around.

eurekathing
Something you find inside your luggage when you start packing—something you haven’t seen since you’re last trip. Discovering it brings out such responses as “Oh, that’s where that is,” or “I do have one of those.” A wad of ten-dollar bills is eurekaching, a piece of jewelry, eurekabling.

flotsam and jetsam and thensam
The abundance of things that people give you and your children right before you leave for the airport or get on the plane. This include gifts, souvenirs, snacks, word-find and sudoku books, coloring books with a four-pack of crayons, and those faces with metal shavings that you form into a beard with a magnet.

tetrisness
The feeling of accomplishment one feels after packing every necessary item just right in a suitcase. A landmark study out of the University of Gatwick-Hempstead shows that tetrisness activates the same portion of the brain as when one successfully folds a fitted sheet.

bait and glitch
You find a cheap plane ticket online and go through all the steps to buy it, double and triple checking all the details, and then when you select “confirm,” you get that encouraging message that says, “The fare you’ve selected is no longer available.” Maybe it’s because the search site wasn’t up to date or because someone else recklessly grabbed the last seat while you were prudently making up your mind. If it’s the latter, it just proves the old standard, “Time flies when you’re choosing flight times” (or something like that).

vontrappish
How you feel when you’re ready for bed the night before a morning flight, with all your luggage placed neatly (more or less) next to the door—lined up like the Von Trapp family ready to sing “So Long, Farewell.” You may have mixed feelings, and you may or may not sleep. In extreme cases, you hear yourself humming the tune.

So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, good night
I hate to go and leave this pretty sight

I’m glad to go,
I cannot tell a lie
I flit, I float
I fleetly flee, I fly

So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye
I leave and heave a sigh and say goodbye—Goodbye!

fortnightlies
Countless requests for coffee, a get-together, or a meal made by friends who have just realized that your departure for a long or permanent stay is only. two. weeks. away.

direct flight to the dog house
This is what you receive after you proudly show the money-saving itinerary—that you just booked—to your spouse, and said spouse points out that it includes a 14-hour layover (also known as a “wayover”) and that you and your four children will need to collect all checked baggage between each of the five connecting flights. Travel to the doghouse does accumulate frequent-flyer miles, but they can only be redeemed for undesirable trips, such as to overnight stays on the living-room couch.

disafearance
Leaving your tightly locked up (?) house thinking you might have left the iron on (even though you don’t remember having done any ironing) is one thing, but watching your hand zip your passport into the front pocket of your backpack and then just two minutes later checking to see if it’s actually there because you’re afraid that you didn’t in fact zip your passport into the front pocket of your backpack but instead, due to a muscle spasm, may have opened the car window and tossed your passport onto the shoulder of the highway—or what if it just spontaneously combusted, leaving no smoke or ashes?—that’s disaffearance.

TSAT
The TSAT (pronounced Tee Ess Ay Tee or Tee-Sat) is an oral exam in which family members yell questions and answers from room to room concerning Transportation Security Administration regulations:

Is it the 3-1-1 rule or 1-1-3 . . . or 3-2-1 or 9-1-1? Does deodorant count as a liquid? What about wet wipes? Or snow globes? Or chocolate-covered cherries? Can I take nail clippers in my carry-on? What about tweezers? Duct tape? Scotch tape? Chopsticks? Toothpicks? Javelins?

[photo: “We live in a wonderful world,” by Kate Ter Haar, used under a Creative Commons license]

Goodbye: Making a Hard Word Easier

July 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

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From my post this month at A Life Overseas –

goodbye /gə(d)-ˈbī/ excl. / salutation spoken at a departure, extremely unpopular for certain English-speaking tribes, such as cross-cultural workers, TCKs, their loved ones, and the like.

Many of us know from experience that saying goodbye can be hard, really hard. And practice doesn’t make perfect. In fact, it often makes it worse.

But what makes goodbye so tough to voice? It’s not because it’s hard to pronounce. That’s simple enough. Rather, it’s the meaning behind the word that’s difficult. Is that because we don’t actually know the definition of goodbye? To quote that great linguist/philosopher Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Goodbye actually comes from God be with you, which, in it’s older form, was God be with ye. From there, it morphed into such shortened versions as God be wy youGod b’w’yGodbwyeGod buy’ ye, and good-b’wy. The replacement of God with good was influenced by the similar phrases good day and good night, which takes it even further from the original. Seen in this way, goodbye is related to the French adieu and the Spanish adios, which mean “to God,” as in “I commit you to God.”

So what’s so hard about saying, “God be with you”? What’s so difficult about giving someone a blessing? Why do we so often hear, “I don’t want to say goodbye”?

Maybe it’s because we do actually know what it means—at least for those who move far away. . . .

Continue reading

[photo: “Goodbye Summer 2011,” by deargdoom57, used under a Creative Commons license]

I’m Not a Tourist, See?

April 23, 2016 § 2 Comments

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When you’re a tourist, it’s mostly fun to be a tourist. Most people like to help you and you’re treated as a guest. Sure, when you go to buy something you might get taken advantage of, but you don’t know any better, so you can still think that you got a bargain. And if you break a cultural rule—or even a law—you can play the I-didn’t-know-I-don’t-live-here-maybe-even-get-out-of-jail-free card.

But when you do live in a new country, you don’t want to be treated like a tourist. You want to be treated like “one of us,” or at least ignored. So how do you look as if you belong? Maybe it’s the language, but you’ll have to talk first, and that could hurt more than help.  Maybe it’s your clothes, but it’s easy to go overboard on that one. Or maybe it’s what you’re carrying around. Of course, it’s what you’re not carrying, as well, for example, a camera or a souvenir bag that says “I ♥ (name of country).”

In my post yesterday at A Life Overseas, I quoted author Tahir Shah’s views on acclimating to a new culture, from his book In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams. Shah had moved to Casablanca, and he didn’t want to be treated like an outsider. He writes that one day his maid, Zohra, overheard him talking about getting “eaten alive” by the salesmen in the vegetable market, and she gave him some great advice.

“Tsk! Tsk! Tsk!” she snapped. “Of course the salesmen trouble you. It’s because they think you are a tourist.”

“But there aren’t any tourists in Casablanca!”

“Well, they don’t know that!”

“So what am I supposed to do?”

Zohra motioned something with her hands. It was round, about the size of a dinner plate. “You have to carry a sieve.”

What?

“No tourist would ever be carrying a sieve,” she said.

That’s it. A sieve. Gotta get you one of those.

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(Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams, Bantam, 2008)

[photo: “I ♥ Tourists,” by Lain, used under a Creative Commons license; “Markthal Rotterdam” by Kattebelletje, used under a Creative Commons license]

Culture Stress, when There’s No Hook to Hang It On

April 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

Head over to A Life Overseas to read my complete post.

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When most people open up their closets in the morning, they usually ignore the out-of-style shirts on the edge, the wrong-color sweaters, the too-tight pants. Instead, as much as they can, they grab something that looks right, something that fits right, something that feels right.

When you transition between countries, your cultural closets get switched. Your choices become limited, and you often have to put on things you’d rather not wear. You’ve given up comfort for other purposes. Some of this discomfort is just an annoyance, like a scratchy tag inside the collar of your shirt. But some can seem unworkable, like that same shirt two sizes too small.

It’s the Water and the Dirt

When I and my family moved overseas, we weren’t surprised by culture stress. We may not have been fully prepared, but we weren’t surprised. What did surprise us, though, was that we couldn’t always identify the causes of our irritation and pain.

For many stressors, you know just what hook to hang them on. Singing at church feels a little off? It’s because everybody’s clapping on a different beat than you are. Can’t sleep? That’s because of the all-night traffic outside your window. Nagging cough? Pollution.

Being able to name a problem helps us sort things out. It gives us vocabulary for talking about it with others. It helps us better understand our new home and ourselves. It helps us find solutions. It helps us cope.

But sometimes, there is no hook, at least not an obvious one.

A few months after we landed in Taipei, my wife developed a “cold,” a cold that lasted on and off for over a year. Our doctor couldn’t find a solution and none of his remedies helped (one medicine caused her heart to race). Finally, he diagnosed her with shui tu bu fu, which can be translated as “not acclimated to the water and soil.” That’s odd, because we didn’t drink the water, and with all the concrete, and we rarely saw the soil. . . .

Continue reading . . .

[photo: “038,” by glassghost, used under a Creative Commons license]

Standing Up Crooked Together

March 22, 2016 § Leave a comment

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The Crooked Forest outside Gryfino, Poland

Here’s an intro to my post this week at A Life Overseas.

Standing Up Crooked

There’s a tree near Colorado Springs that I admire. It’s a pine tree sitting on the property of The Hideaway Inn and Conference Center, where I and my family attended MTI’s Debriefing and Renewal several years ago.

This tree is surrounded by other pines, but this one’s different. While its trunk starts out on a vertical path, after a several feet, it breaks to the side at a ninety-degree angle. Then, over a few more feet, it makes a slow curve, working again on an upward climb.

Near the end of the retreat, we were told to find a place to be by ourselves, and I knew where I wanted to be, sitting in front of that tree. I must not be the only one who appreciates it, since there’s a bench facing it close by.

I don’t know what trauma caused the tree’s shape. Maybe it was a storm, maybe a disease, maybe the blade of an axe. Or maybe it was more of a heart thing—a promise unkept, a hope deferred, a joy shattered.

Regardless of the cause, the reason I admire this tree is that though having faced trouble, it still reaches upward. It’s “persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed;” wrecked, but not ruined. No, not ruined at all.

Can you identify with this tree?

Have you ever had your feet knocked out from under you because of some tragedy?
Have you ever tried to take hold of something beyond your reach and fallen in the trying?
Have you ever been bent to the point of brokenness?
Have you ever been laid low by the realization that you are the cause of someone else’s pain?
Have you ever wrestled with God, refusing to let go until you get a blessing, and walked away limping?

[photo: “Krzywy Las w Nowym Czarnowie,” by Artur Strzelczyk, used under a Creative Commons license]

Finish reading at A Life Overseas.

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