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]

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Did You See That “60 Minutes” Interview Last Week?

April 1, 2018 § Leave a comment

What an interview! Last Sunday, “60 Minutes” pulled in its best ratings in nearly 10 years, with 22 million viewers tuning in. Did you see it?

Yes, I’m talking about the sit-down with that compelling personality, the “Greek Freak”—none other than Giannis Antetokounmpo, forward/point guard for the Milwaukee Bucks. Born in Athens to Nigerian parents, he and his family faced the poverty that is common to African immigrants in Greece, with him and his brothers selling glasses, watches, CDs, DVDs, and other items on the street. But as he grew up, he really grew up (he’s now 6′ 11”) and developed his skills as a basketball player, catching the attention of NBA scouts.

In 1993, at the age of 18, Antetokounmpo came to America as a first-round draft pick for the Bucks. He soon found out that not all of America is like New York, he fell in love with smoothies (though ordering them isn’t always easy), and he learned that “buffet” means you can go fill your plate up more than once.

His fame in Greece has expanded his salesmanship beyond the sidewalks of Athens, as his image is now being used by Aegean Airlines . . .

. . . and Milko.

In 2015 he visited Taiwan to support Cathay Youth Madness . . . and to find some souvlaki.

Since his arrival in the US, his broken English has improved to a high level of basketball-speak, but he still has a lot to learn about American football (such as there’s no pitcher on a football team).

You can watch the full 60 Minutes interview with Antetokounmpo at the show’s site. Just to let you know, though, there’s another segment in the first half of the hour—something about the indescretions of an actress and a politician—but don’t let that distract you.

Sleep Sounds . . . for Those of You Whose Sandman Lives in the Big City

July 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

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On the evening of the Fourth, as my wife and I were getting ready for bed, the fireworks in our neighborhood started kicking in. Boom! Boom! Ka-boom!

“Here we go,” said my wife as she pulled back the covers.

Then I crawled into bed . . . and fell asleep. Maybe it was because our neighbors ran out of bottle rockets. Or maybe it was because fireworks don’t bother me as much after living in an Asian city—where the lunar new year is like one big month-long Fourth of July. In fact, we got used to sleeping with a fan on while we were in Taipei, to mask the loudest of the city’s sounds. We still use a fan now that we’re back in Missouri, but it’s not because of the noises outside. Instead, it’s the lack of noise that we’re masking. Sometimes quiet can be so loud.

So last week, when I saw this T-Mobile commercial, I could relate.

I couldn’t find this couple’s ambiance video, but that didn’t stop me. If you’re soothed by urban clamor, here are two loooong tracks that should get you well on your way to slumberland (population 5 million).

And if your city soundscape needs some pyrotechnics to complete the full auditory scene, try mixing in one—or both—of these below. Ahhh. I can almost smell the stinky tofu.

(Still not catching any Zs? Maybe long international flights are your recipe for a good snooze. If so, go to “A Biscoff Cookie, an Inflight Magazine, and Some White Noise . . . Welcome Aboard.” It takes all kinds.)

[photo: “Busy Taipei,” by Jen-Hao Kuo, used under a Creative Commons license]

When It’s Hard to Want to Want to Be Back [at A Life Overseas]

April 26, 2017 § 3 Comments

Our pictures are on the walls!

It’s been a year since I wrote about the long process I and my family were going through fitting back into life in the States and not yet feeling at home—still not having our pictures hung up. Since then, quite a few things have changed, and I would be remiss if I didn’t pass that on as well. I have a new job and my wife is able to stay at home, and we’ve unpacked our pictures and they’re all hanging in the house we’ve been able to buy.

We are so grateful for the ways God has helped us move forward.

But though it’s been over five years since we came back, we can’t say that the transition is completely behind us. It’s still there, just now in less obvious ways.

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This post is about reverse culture stress, but it’s not about the difficulties of fitting back into a home culture or family culture or church culture. It’s about the undercurrent of feelings that flow in the opposite direction of our physical move. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to fit in. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to want to.

What are some of the things that hold returned missionaries back from pouring our whole hearts into settling in? What are the feelings—good or bad, right or wrong—that can keep us from jumping into this new chapter? Here are a few I’ve noticed. . . .

Finish reading at A Life Overseas. . . .

A Soldier’s Letter, Unopened and Unread

November 11, 2016 § Leave a comment

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To the men and women in the armed forces, thank you for serving our country. The sacrifices you make are more than I will ever truly know.

I just listened to a re-airing of a 2012 NPR interview with Brian Castner, author of The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows. Castner served as commander of Explosive Ordnance Disposal units in Iraq. The entire conversation is well worth listening to, but one part that jumped out to me was when Terry Gross asked Castner about a letter he’d written.

When groups visited us on the mission field, we’d have them write letters to themselves before they left, and we’d mail them the letters several months later. The idea was that the notes would be a reminder of what they had felt and experienced—sort of an encouragement to their future selves. We also think this is a great thing to do with missionaries who come off the field as a way to help them process the changes that they are going through.

Castner’s letter is one he wrote to his sons before he went to Iraq, a letter that they were to read if he didn’t come back, a letter that still sits in a safe, a letter that now frightens him. It’s not always easy to get a message from the person you used to be.

“You haven’t read it since you’ve gotten back,” says Gross, “and you don’t even remember what you wrote. So I guess I’m wondering why you kept it, and yet why you haven’t read it.”

Castner replies,

You know, as a bomb tech, you don’t spend a lot of your life being scared, but I’m scared to read that letter. I don’t want to read it, because I don’t know what I put in. And I’m afraid that it’s going to just be full of bravado and flag and country and this is my great purpose and a lot of the things that I felt that just don’t make a lot of sense anymore.

I kept it because it is honestly who I was, and either when my sons are older or after I’m gone, it’ll give some insight, I suppose. I feel like I can’t throw it out unless I read it first. And since I’m too scared to read it, it’s still sitting there.

The host on NPR says that Castner recently came across the letter, and he reports that it remains unread.

(“‘The Life That Follows’ Disarming IEDs in Iraq,” “Fresh Air,” NPR, July 8, 2012)

[photo: “Envelope,” by skeptical view, used under a Creative Commons license]

Another Song, Another Memory: The Call

June 10, 2016 § Leave a comment

Speaking of songs, here’s another one I like: “The Call,” by Regina Spektor. It shows up at the end of Prince Caspian, the second film in The Chronicles of Narnia series.

I watched the movie with my kids during one of our times on furlough/Stateside service. It’s easy to draw parallels between the Pevensies’ travels and cross-cultural service, and given the Christian underpinnings of C. S. Lewis’s writings, the missionary aspect isn’t too far away either.

The lyrics of “The Call” certainly are evocative for me. They begin

It started out as a feeling
Which then grew into a hope
Which then turned into a quiet thought
Which then turned into a quiet word
And then that word grew louder and louder
‘Til it was a battle cry

I’ll come back
When you call me
No need to say goodbye

The song plays over the closing scene of the film, as Peter, Susan, Lucy, and Edmond return from Narnia to World-War-II London. If you’ve ever come back “home” after living abroad, you know the feeling. It’s as if nothing has changed, but everything has—in big and small ways. Susan is called by the wrong name and Edmund realizes he’s left his new flashlight behind.

Of course, the lyrics don’t fit the missionary “call” perfectly, and “The Call” isn’t a “missionary” or “Christian” song. That makes sense, as Regina Spektor isn’t a Christian songstress. Born into a Russian Jewish family in 1980, the Spectors moved to the Bronx when Regina was nine. She tells The Village Voice,

I don’t even know half the time what exactly I believe. I do know that in some moments, I’m sarcastic about religion, and sometimes, I’m in awe of it, and sometimes, I’m angry at it, and sometimes, I love it.

The Village Voice says Spektor “can’t explain the meaning behind any of her songs, because she doesn’t so much write them as much as let them happen” and then goes on to cite “The Call” as an example of that process. Spector refers to writing the song, which she did late at night after a private screening of Prince Caspian, as “one of the most pure things that ever happened to me.”

If even Spektor doesn’t claim to know what her songs mean, I figure that gives me liberty to work my own meanings into “The Call.”

It also lets me stop trying to understand “Samson.”

Samson went back to bed
Not much hair left on his head
He ate a slice of Wonder Bread and went right back to bed
And history books forgot about us and the Bible didn’t mention us
And the Bible didn’t mention us, not even once

(Cristina Black, “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Regina SpektorThe Village Voice, June 10, 2009)

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]

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