Repost: 11 Ways Moving Abroad Is like Skiing to the North Pole

May 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

In May of 2004, explorer Ben Saunders completed a solo, unsupported trek to the North Pole—on foot. He set out on his trip from the Russian side on March 5, reached the Pole on May 11, and was picked up by plane on the Canadian side on May 14. So here’s a repost, in honor of the thirteenth anniversary of his return.

Also, today is notable because it’s Mother’s Day, and point #9 below is a shout-out to moms, including a very emotional and very long-distance telephone call. Have you called your mum today?

 

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Ben Saunders sits on top of the world, the youngest person to reach the North Pole alone and by foot.

In 2004, 26-year-old Briton Ben Saunders became only the third person, and the youngest ever, to ski unaccompanied to the North Pole. As it turns out, there are a lot of ways that making a solo trek to the North Pole is a like moving to another country. Here are 11 things that the two adventures have in common, all taken from Saunder’s February 2005 TED Talk, “Why Did I Ski to the North Pole?”

  1. Luggage is a drag
    Saunders describes his specialty as “dragging heavy things around cold places.” He says, for his trip to the North Pole, “I was dragging all the food I needed, the supplies, the equipment, sleeping bag, one change of underwear—everything I needed for nearly three months.” That sounds like trying to put every necessary item in your carry-on bag, just in case your checked luggage gets lost. (If you think your bags are heavy, Saunder’s supply of food and fuel weighed 400 pounds.) Sometimes your destination has harsh conditions. And sometimes it doesn’t have chocolate chips. How many bags of those should you bring? Can’t be too prepared.
  2. It can be lonely out there
    One of the challenges of Saunder’s voyage was that he had to make it alone. Very alone. When he arrived at the northern-most point on the globe, he was the only “human being in an area one-and-a-half times the size of America, five-and-a-half thousand square miles.” Most of us don’t go to such remote places, but even if you’re in the biggest city, surrounded by millions of other souls, you can easily feel all by yourself.
  3. No, Virginia, there isn’t a Santa Claus
    When Saunders got to the top of the world, he didn’t find Santa. No Santa’s workshop. No elves. In fact, he says, “There isn’t even a pole at the Pole. There’s nothing there, purely because it’s sea ice.” When you go to another country, expect the unexpected. Don’t be surprised when what you find doesn’t match the photos in the magazine article. “I’d read lots of books,” says Saunders. “I studied maps and charts. But I realized on the morning of day one that I had no idea exactly what I’d let myself in for.” Photoshopped and cropped pics don’t do us any favors. If GPS and street signs say we’re in the right place, don’t waste time—or emotions—trying to find something that doesn’t exist.
  4. Sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back
    According to NASA, during the year of Saunders journey, the ice conditions were the worst on record. Ninety percent of the time he was skiing into headwinds and the drifting ice pulled him backwards. “My record,” he says, “was minus 2.5 miles. I got up in the morning, took the tent down, skied north for seven-and-a-half hours, put the tent up, and I was two and a half miles further back than when I’d started. I literally couldn’t keep up with the drift of the ice.” When you’re in a new place, learning the language and culture, get used to those backward drifts. But always keep your compass set on your true north.
  5. The only constant is change
    Because the ice is constantly drifting over the North Pole, Saunders says that if he’d planted a flag there, it wouldn’t be long before it would be heading toward Canada or Greenland. Like Saunders, don’t be surprised when the emotional flags you plant aren’t permanent. The ground may not move under your feet (earthquakes not withstanding), but other kinds of landscapes certainly will. Find a special restaurant that serves your favorite dishes? Wake up the next day and it’s become a plumber’s shop. Make friends with some other expats? You may soon have to say goodbye. But, repeat after me, “Change can be good. Change can be good. Change can be good.” Maybe, just maybe, that plumber’s shop will end up being exactly what you need.
  6. Culture stress can be a bear
    Literally. On his first try at the North Pole, Saunders went with a partner, but they failed to reach their goal. Saunders says that from the outset “almost everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. We were attacked by a polar bear on day two. I had frostbite in my left big toe. We started running very low on food. We were both pretty hungry, losing lots of weight.” Yup. Sounds like culture stress to me.
  7. Coming back can feel like the bear wins
    When his first attempt fell short, Saunders says he “was physically exhausted, mentally an absolute wreck, considered myself a failure, in a huge amount of debt personally to this expedition, and lying on my mum’s sofa, day in day out, watching daytime TV.” His brother texted him an encouraging quotation from Homer Simpson:
    “You tried your hardest and failed miserably. The lesson is: don’t even try.” Repatriation can feel that way. Maybe all the people who’d said you shouldn’t go were right. But Saunders didn’t let his failure define him. Instead, three years later he made history.
  8. People aren’t sitting around waiting to hear your stories
    When Saunders reached the North Pole, he got out his satellite phone. After warming up the battery in his armpit, he made three calls: “I dialed my mum. I dialed my girlfriend. I dialed the CEO of my sponsor. And I got three voicemails.” OK, that’s unfair to say they didn’t want to hear what he’d done. They were just busy at the time, that’s all. But . . .
  9. Some people really do want to listen
    “I finally got through to my mum,” says Saunders. “She was at the queue of the supermarket. She started crying. She asked me to call her back.” There are special people who will make time to listen—when they can focus on your story without distractions. Thanks, Mum.
  10. Don’t let others draw boundaries on your map
    When Saunders was 13, he got a school report that said, “Ben lacks sufficient impetus to achieve anything worthwhile.” Saunder’s response—”I think if I’ve learned anything, it’s this: that no one else is the authority on your potential. You’re the only person that decides how far you go and what you’re capable of.”
  11.  One of the three most important questions will always be “Where is the bathroom?”
    Saunders gave his TED Talk to answer three questions:
    (1 ) Why?
    (2) How do you go to the loo at minus 40?
    (3) What’s next?
    That second question is very important at the North Pole, because it seems that “at minus 40, exposed skin becomes frostbitten in less than a minute.” Your question number two will be more like “Where’s the bathroom?” or just “Bathroom? Bathroom?” Then, once you see the facilities, you may ask yourself, “How?”

As for the answers to those question, in short, Saunder’s responses go something like this:

(1) “For me,” says Saunders, “this is about exploring human limits, about exploring the limits of physiology, of psychology, and of technology. They’re the things that excite me. And it’s also about potential, on a personal level. This, for me, is a chance to explore the limits—really push the limits of my own potential, see how far they stretch.”
(2) That’s a trade secret, no answer here.
(3) Antarctica. Saunders and Tarka L’Herpiniere are currently on the first leg of their trek from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back again—1,800 miles in all—unsupported and on foot. You can follow Saunder’s daily blog posts here. Why the South Pole? See answer number one above. Somebody’s got a severe case of wanderlust. [Saunders and L’Herpiniere completed their expedition on February 7, 2014.]

[photo: “North Pole (3),” by Ben Saunders, used under a Creative Commons license]

Three Authors and the Coming-to-America (and Back-to-Their-Roots) Stories They Share

May 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

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I can’t say that these are newly published stories. All of them have been out for a while. But I’ve come across them over time, and I’d like to highlight them here together. They all share the topic of crossing cultures at a young age (well, one is about a 22-year-old)—and they’re all skillfully told.

Thanhha Lai
Thanhha Lai was born in Saigon, Vietnam, coming to Alabama with her family following the end of the Vietnam war. In Inside Out and Back Again, she writes about her experiences through the story of a fictional 10-year-old named Hà. After losing her father in the war, Hà, along with her mother and brothers, travels by boat to a tent city in Guam, then makes her way to the American mainland, where she encounters the difficulties of fitting in. Written in 2011, Inside Out was named a Newberry Honor Book and won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

In 2012, she followed up with Listen, Slowly, about another girl facing cross-cultural issues. Mai is California born, the daughter of Vietnamese parents. When her grandmother travels to Vietnam to find out the fate of her husband (he disappeared during the war), Mai reluctantly follows and learns about her family’s, and ultimately her own, story. This book won its own accolades, honored as a New York Times Book Review Notable Book and a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. But Lai doesn’t count her writing accomplishments as her greatest achievement. On her author page, she says that “most importantly” she has started the not-for-profit Viet Kids, which purchases bicycles for poor students in her birth country.

Jung Henin
Jung was born in Korea, and at the age of five was adopted by the Henin family in Belgium. Now a graphic artist, one of his creations is the graphic novel/memoir Couleur de Peau: Miel. The title is French for “Color of Skin: Honey,” which is written in his adoption papers. In 2012, he turned his story into an animated documentary, interspersed with real footage, including scenes from his trip as an adult back to Korea. Titled in English Approved for Adoption, it’s a raw (PG 13-ish) look at Jung’s life—that ultimately has a positive message.

Before his adoption, Jung stayed for several months at Holt International’s Ilsan Center, along with other children, orphaned and abandoned as a result of the Korean War. About the film, Jung tells Holt, “I’m adopted, so I tell that story, but the different thematics—identity, uprooting—it’s universal. It’s a story about relationships.”

Linda Sue Park and Salva Dut
Linda Sue Park was born in Illinois, the daughter of Korean immigrant parents. As an adult she moved to London, where she taught ESL and married an Irish man she’d previously met in Dublin. She currently lives in New york and is now a successful author of children’s and teen’s books, including A Single Shard, for which she was awarded the Newberry Medal in 2002.

In 2010 she wrote A Long Walk to Water, telling the true story of Salva Dut, along with the fictional story of Nya, a girl living in South Sudan. Salva is from Sudan, one of the “Lost Boys” of the country’s civil war. At the age of 11, he joined thousands of others who escaped to refugee camps in neighboring countries. Eleven years later, he was selected to come to the US as a political refugee, and was taken in by a family in Rochester, NY. When he later heard that his father was alive in Sudan, he traveled there to see him, finding him sick from drinking contaminated water. After returning to the US, Salva founded Water for Sudan—which became Water for South Sudan following the vote for independence. As of this month, the organization has drilled 300 wells in the world’s newest country, where “millions of women and children trek for up to eight hours a day to collect water from marshes, ditches, or hand-dug wells where water is often contaminated with parasites and bacteria.”

(Billie Louwen, “Approved for Adoption,” Holt International Blog, April 29, 2014; Thanhha Lai, “Author,” Thanhha Lai; “Water for South Sudan Transforms Lives,” Water for South Sudan)

[photo: “Child’s Globe,” by John Cooper, 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. . . .

Furniture for Non-Spacious Spaces

April 20, 2017 § Leave a comment

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One great piece of furniture we miss from our time overseas is our storage bed. It had a platform under the mattress that lifted up on gas pistons to reveal a storage area underneath. I’ve seen a couple versions of the same design here in the US, but in Taipei we were able to go to a store down the street, give them our measurements, and get one made to our specifications and delivered to our apartment—for a great price.

On the great plains of the Midwest, we’re not as concerned about saving space as people are in highly populated cities. But as they say, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” so there are plenty of folks in tight places who’ve invented their own space savers.

One company that’s doing its part is Canada-based Expand Furniture. Here’s a video that gives a sampling of what they offer:

Cool, huh?

And then there’s Resource Furniture, out of New York City. I particularly like their hide-a-bunk-bed at 2:52.

Singapore’s Spaceman has their own collection, too, including a pull-down “ceiling bed,” at 1:55.

And from Germany, here’s a quirky little film on a quirky little table. (Or is it a painting on the wall?) At its Vimeo site there’s a description that could fit most of the furniture shown in this post. I don’t think it was originally written in English, but that makes it all the better:

The underlying innovation is: its inventive folding mechanism, the evoked astonishment due to the second-to-second transformation of the room situation, the easy handling and the therewith connected pleasure of converting, the particular invisibility of the currently not used version as well as the newfound use of space diversity.


[photo: “Miniature Striped Mattress and Bed,” by Stéphanie Kilgast, used under a Creative Commons license]

Missionaries, Ministers, Money, and Manure: Don’t Pile ’em Up, or So They Say

April 13, 2017 § 3 Comments

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I once heard a friend (and fellow missionary at the time) say something on the order of

Missionaries are like manure. Pile them all together and they stink, but spread them out and they do good things.

He isn’t the only one who’s used fertilizer imagery to point out that missionaries tend to cause each other problems when they’re in close proximity to each other. But where did the missionary-manure comparison originally come from?

Well, one blogger cites a quotation from Luis Palau, in which the evangelist credits a Wycliffe missionary in Mexico for coming up with the phrase, after watching a cow walk by. But that doesn’t quite jibe with the testimonies of others (including Philip Yancey, in Church: Why Bother? [Zondervan, 1998]) who claim that Palau applied the simile to the church:

The church is like manure. Pile it together and it stinks up the neighborhood; spread it out and it enriches the world.

Comparisons of manure with types of people aren’t limited to only “missionaries” and “the church,” though all the ones I’ve been able to find do concern people who have an involvement with religion. Consider these examples:

The reference to “ministers” above is from a sermon by William Sloane Coffin, given in 1978, in which he says he heard the correlation to manure from a “distinguished theologian” twenty years earlier. That version is

Ministers are like manure: spread out in the field they have a certain usefulness. But when brought together in a heap, well, the odor gets pretty strong.

But a more precise earlier dating comes from the Proceedings of the Nineteenth Annual Meeting of the State Bar of California, volume 19, published in 1950. In it, the speaker refers to his “dear friend Lord MacMillan,” who tells about a Scottish minister who couldn’t bring himself to attend synod meetings, saying,

Ministers are like manure; when they are spread out over the land, they are very beneficial to the community.

But people aren’t the only things that are like manure. Nope, not just people. There’s

This last one is significant, because it deals with money, which leads us closer to the great-great-grandfather of the “is like manure” idea. But first lets take a look at a great aunt . . . from the mouth of Dolly Gallagher Levi.

In 1953, Thornton Wilder wrote the play The Matchmaker, a revision of his earlier work The Merchant of Yonkers, from 1938. In it, Dolly quotes her late husband, Ephraim:

Money, I’ve always felt, money—pardon my expression—is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread about encouraging young things to grow.

In 1964, The Matchmaker was made into the musical Hello, Dolly! which then became a movie in 1969. (The about in the above line becomes around in the musical versions.) This is probably where “money is like manure” gained the most attention in modern times, but it certainly didn’t originate there. Over a hundred years earlier (August 20, 1836, to be exact), Horace Greeley’s The New-Yorker included this “adage”:

Money is like manure, of no use until it be spread.

And now we get back to the oldest relative of the phrase—at least the oldest one that’s been found in print. It’s from Francis Bacon’s Of Seditions and Troubles, way back in 1625:

Above all things, good policy is to be used, that the treasure and monies in a state be not gathered into few hands; for, otherwise, a state may have a great stock, and yet starve: and money is like muck, not good except it be spread. This is done chiefly by suppressing, or, at the least, keeping a strait hand upon the devouring trades of usury, engrossing, great pasturages, and the like.

Where did Bacon come up with this? Well, in the same year, he also published Apophthegmes New and Old. Collected by the Right Honourable, Francis Lo. Verulam, Viscount St. Alban. One of these apothegms (wow, I just looked that word up and found out I’ve been mispronouncing it) he ascribes to a Mr. Bettenham:

Mr. Bettenham used to say; That Riches were like Mucke: When it lay, upon an heape, it gave but a stench, and ill odour; but when it was spread upon the ground, then it was cause of much fruit.

In a letter written to Thomas Hobby, Bacon references the death of his friend “Mr. Bettenham” (The Letters and the Life of Francis Bacon [collected by James Spedding, 1868]). Assuming this is the same person from Apophthegmes, the saying would have to predate 1606, when Bacon penned the letter.

So all told, that’s a more-than-400-year history, which means my friend didn’t come up with the idea on his own. And neither did J. Paul Getty or Will Rogers or J. I. Packer or an acquaintance of  Francis Chan. No, the complete line of succession is not nearly so straightforward . . . or recent. Rather, to quote another quotable source, the venerable REO Speedwagon, it instead hews closer to (sing along with me)

Heard it from a friend

who heard it from a friend

who heard it from another. . . .”

And so it—usually—goes.

(for more research on the money-manure connection, see The Quote Investigator and The Big Apple)

[photo: “Cow Manure,” by Ian Barbour, used under a Creative Commons license]

Adding to Your Story-Letter [at A Life Overseas]

March 31, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Ahhh, newsletters. (And by “Ahhh,” I’m guessing you know what I mean.)

Living outside your passport country means finding ways to keep people updated about what’s going on with you. Some of those people need to hear about what’s happening and some of them simply want to. The newsletter can take care of both, which is a good thing. But sometimes it can feel like one more burden, especially when there’s not much interesting or exciting (or not much of anything at all) to report. What if your day-to-day goings on don’t feel newsworthy?

How about thinking of your newsletter as a way to tell your story in serial form? A story-letter, if you will. I’m not suggesting that your collected writings would need to be novel-esque. It’s a problem when we think that what we write isn’t enough: not inspiring enough, not impacting enough, not poignant enough, not powerful enough. It doesn’t have to be any of those things. Your story is your story. It is what it is. And we need more “what it is.”

But my main point here isn’t telling you how to write—many of you are already great story tellers. I’m just wanting to help you fill in the gaps when you hit a dry spell. With that in mind, imagine your newsletters bound together, like chapters in a book. What kind of cover would that book have? What kind of illustrations? And what would you add to make your memoir more memorable? Why not add those things now?

So, when you’re sitting in front of your computer screen and you feel stuck, give these a try . . .

Continue reading at A Life Overseas.

[photo: “Large Coptic Bound Journal Covered in Handmade Paper,” by Krispy and Dennis, used under a Creative Commons license]

Stealing Cookies and Borrowing Stories

March 26, 2017 § 2 Comments

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I recently listened to a TEDx talk by Scott Geller, a psychology professor at Virginia Tech, entitled “The Psychology of Self-Motivation.” In it, he recites “The Cookie Thief,” a poem by Valerie Cox.

Wait a minute. Hadn’t I heard that a-stranger-stole-my-cookies-in-an-airport story before? In fact, several years ago, as I recalled, I had seen an actor on a late-night talk show telling how the thievery had happened to him . . . but maybe it had taken place in a train station. I was unclear on the details. I also couldn’t remember which show it was on, but I was pretty sure it was a British actor, since he called the cookies “biscuits.” It’s a funny story—with a great punch line—and I’ve retold it a few times. But is it true, or too good to be true? And regardless of its truthfulness, who can lay claim to its origin?

I did a little digging, and here’s what I found (with thanks to those who’ve dug before me). . . .

First of all, the British “actor” was actually a British author: Douglas Adams, who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He was a guest on Late Night with David Letterman, and videos of his appearance on the web give the show date as February 14, 1985. Adams was there to promote his novel, written in 1984, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, “the fourth volume in the Hitch-Hiker Trilogy.”

Letterman asked him if he used his own life experiences in his writing, which was, I’m guessing, a pre-planned question to set up what came next. Adams answered,

Yeah, well occasionally. Actually there’s one story I put in this book, which I fi— I wanted to put in print, because it’s something that happened to me a long time ago. And I’ve told the story pretty regularly now, with the result that other people are beginning to use it, so I wanted to put it in the book to say, “Hands off, guys.”

The gist of his story (minus Adams’ comedic flair) is this: At the train station, Adams buys a newspaper and package of cookies (biscuits). He puts his purchases down on a table and sits down across from a stranger. The man across from him opens the package of cookies and proceeds to eat one. Adams is perplexed, but saying nothing, eats a cookie himself. Back and forth they go, with Adams wondering how anyone could have such gall. Finally, the cookies are gone and the stranger leaves. When his train arrives, Adams picks up his newspaper to depart, and, much to his surprise, finds his unopened package of cookies lying there.

In 2001, Adams again recounted the story in a speech to Embedded Systems, saying that it had occurred in Cambridge in April of 1976. After Adams’ death in 2001, the Embedded Systems retelling was included in The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time, a collection of Adams’ previously unpublished works.

So Adams’ story predates Cox’s “Cookie Thief,” which was published in 1996 in A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul. But his rendering is still not the beginning.

Jan Harold Brunvand writes in The Choking Doberman: And Other Urban Legends that the biscuit/cookie story is one of many variations on “the unwitting-theft legend,” a general category for which he finds examples from as far back as 1912. Though the origins of Adams’ account don’t seem to be quite that old, they still precede his 1976 timeframe. Brunvand points to a letter written to the editor of the journal Folklore, in 1975. In it, A. W. Smith writes that he has seen the story in print three times, in July 1974, July 1972, and some indeterminate time earlier. The sources are, in that order, London’s GuardianOxfam News, and (possibly) London’s Evening Standard. Smith notes that in all these versions, the traveler is British (in Oxfam News he’s the director of Oxfam Scotland); the encounter takes place in a train station, near a train station, or in a dining car; the offending stranger is from another country, a West Indian, African, or Pakistani; and the foreigner kindly offers the Brit half of the last cookie. On the last two details, Smith asks, “Does the essence of the story concern the patient and indeed saintly character of the often despised and rejected?”

While Adams’ and Cox’s version leave out the cross-cultural aspect, Cox’s telling does include the stranger’s kind (but irritating) act of breaking the cookie in half.

Back to where we began, here’s Cox’s “Cookie Thief” in video form.

(Douglas Adams, appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, NBC, February 14, 1985; Adams, The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time, Del Rey, 2005; Valerie Cox, “The Cookie Thief,” A 3rd Serving of Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 More Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit; Jan Harold Brunvand, The Choking Doberman: And Other Urban Legends,  Norton, 1984; A. W. Smith, “Letter to the Editor: Yet Another Modern Legend?” Folklore, vol. 86, issue 2, 1975)

[photo: “dark chocolate digestive BISCUITS,” by SimonQ, used under a Creative Commons license]

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