May 16, 2019 § Leave a comment
Have you ever been overseas and wished that you could just blend in—going unnoticed, attracting no stares?
Sometimes, that’s hard to do:
But other times, you’re in a place where you look as if you could fit in. For instance, that could be me in England, where my ancestors are from. I have the genetic foundation for looking like a Brit, but it’s the extra things—the add ons, so to speak—that are harder to manage.
Below is an interesting video featuring Jonna Mendez, the CIA’s former chief of disguise. In it, she says that her goal in the agency was to help people disappear in plain sight. “You want to be the person,” she explains, “that gets on the elevator and then gets off, and nobody really remembers that you were even there.”
But a physical disguise can only go so far. Especially, it seems, for those of us from the States. According to Mendez, “Americans are oblivious to what it is that reveals them to a foreign crowd, or a foreign intelligence service, when they’re out in public.” She then goes on to point out how we use silverware differently than Europeans do (they cut their meat and eat with their forks staying in the left hand, while we switch our forks to the right hand to put food in our mouths), how we hold cigarettes differently (they put their smokes between the thumb and first finger, while we put it between our first two fingers), and even how we stand (Europeans tend to stand with their weight evenly balanced between their feet, while we put most of our weight on one foot or the other).
Of course, clothes can be a giveaway, too. If you’re an American in Europe and don’t want to be a target for those who prey on tourists, she suggests, you could wear clothes that you’ve bought from a local store or put a local pack of cigarettes in your pocket.
Ladies, if you want to blend in in France, here are seven clothing non-nons from Marie-Anne Lecoeur, author of How to Be Chic and Elegant. I must say, I love her accent, especially as she describes tip number two, “No plunging necklines.” I’m pretty sure she says you don’t want to wear a top where “a lot of your bust is explosed.” How appropriate.
Lecoeur is something of a fashionista. American travel guru, Mark Wolters, is nothing of the sort (something he is eager to point out in this next video). But he does have apparel tips for Americans traveling in Europe, aimed mostly at the male population over 35.
Of course, this all requires that you don’t blow your cover by opening your mouth and saying something.
Once, in London, I was taking a ride on a red double-decker bus and saw two women, fellow visitors also enjoying the sights. Wanting to strike up a conversation with some fellow Americans, I asked, “Where are ya’ll from?”
“Well,” one answered. “Now we know where you’re from. We’re Canadians.”
I can’t even blend in with the tourists.
February 2, 2019 § Leave a comment
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. . . .
January 23, 2017 § Leave a comment
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.
January 4, 2017 § Leave a comment
At the age of nine, in 1920, Tyrus Wong left Guangdong Province in China, boarding a ship bound for San Francisco with his father. To get around restrictive American immigration policies, the pair used fake identities to gain entrance to the US. Wong later attended art school and as an adult joined Disney as an inbetweener, drawing fill-in artwork between main animation frames. Then, when the studio was creating Bambi, Wong’s landscape paintings, influenced by the style of the Song Dynasty, became the driving force for the film’s breakthrough look. Though not given much credit at the time for his contributions, in 2001 he was officially named a Disney Legend. Wong died last Saturday, at the age of 106.
Below are four short videos, piecing together aspects of Wong’s life. The first is a trailer for the 2015 documentary Tyrus. The second tells about Wong’s ordeal at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay. The third details his work on Bambi. And the last shares the story behind his art.
October 14, 2016 § Leave a comment
Inspiration can come from almost anywhere. Take, for instance, a recent trip to Kirkland’s, the home-decor store. I’m not talking about their Bible verselettes painted on pallet boards (not that there’s anything wrong with that) (it seems pretty popular right now). I’m talking more about things that get me thinking about crossing cultures, relocating, transitioning, and the like.
So on that trip to Kirkland’s, as I thumbed through the stack of framed art leaning against the wall (stampeding horses, bikes on Paris streets, a flower garden), I saw a print of an Asian lady surrounded by hummingbirds carrying keys. Interesting. I wondered who’d painted it, and I had to look no farther than the tag attached to the frame. It was Duy Huynh, a Vietnamese-born artist who came to the US in the early eighties. According to Huynh’s website,
With difficulties adapting to new surroundings and language, he took refuge in the art of comics, cartoons, and graffiti. His first art commission came in the third grade when a classmate hired him to draw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Payment came in the form of 2 dollars and chocolate milk for the week. More importantly, Duy learned it was possible to make a connection through the use of a visual language.
His “about” page goes on to say that a common thread in his art is “geographical and cultural displacement.”
Ethereal characters maintain a serene, precarious balance, often in a surreal or dreamlike setting. With his figures, Duy explores motion along with emotion in order to portray not just the beauty of the human form, but also the triumph of the human spirit. Images that recur, such as boats, trains, suitcases, and anything with the ability of flight relate to travel, whether physical or spiritual.
Below are some of Huynh’s works that grab my imagination. I could tell you how they represent “geographical and cultural displacement” for me, but it’s better that you interpret them yourself. And don’t search online for the artist’s explanation of his images. He wants you to supply that on your own.
Maybe you’d like some of his other works more. He’s got quite a few to choose from. But if you want to buy Fair Trade Frame of Mind, don’t go to Kirkland’s. It sold out a couple weeks ago and isn’t available on their website anymore. That makes me sad, because it never even went on green-tag sale.
Of course, Huyn’s style may not be your cup of tea. Kirkland’s still should have you covered. Maybe you’re more into psychedelic cows. Apparently that’s a thing, since more than one version is available (not that there’s anything wrong with that) (inspiration can come from almost anywhere).
Fair Trade Frame of Mind
Homestead and a Steed
Of Wind and Water
Never Mind the Clouds
April 18, 2015 § 8 Comments
What do you see when you see a dock?
A place for studying the horizon?
For dipping a toe in the water?
For casting off?
Or a place for lowering your sails?
For stepping onto dry land?
For coming ashore?
Is it a place for setting out or coming back? Much depends on the compass of your heart.
If for you, the dock is too short, out of desire or necessity, you build it forward, step by step, plank by plank, as you go—through the spray and the mist and the fog. And when you’ve built till you’re more coming than going, you see another shore—build, step, build, step. You are there.
This is crossing cultures. This is creating a bridge. This is going from home to home.
Then, at some point, out of desire or necessity, you step back onto the bridge. You must have been gone a long time, because what was once a complete span is now incomplete. You need to build to close the gaps. And at times you’re simply on a dock again, building to a shore you cannot yet see. Strange. It was a bridge before.
This time while you’re crossing, you find that in the mist there are others with you, and when they talk, you understand them, because they are speaking your language.
“Where are you from?” you hear someone ask, and the answer, “That’s an interesting question.” “You, too?” one says. “Me, too,” another replies. You understand them, not because you use the same words, but because when you speak those words you agree on the impreciseness of their meanings: near, far, hot, cold, friends, enemies, rich, poor, family, strangers, here, there, hello, goodbye. Their meanings are slippery, like the damp boards beneath your feet. And the slipperiness is comfortable.
In time, you cross the bridge again and again, sharing familiar greetings with those in the misty middle. But never do you set out without having to repair what was built before. You continue . . . build, step, build, step.
What is a bridge, but a paradox, leading from home to home, from not-home to not-home? Your heart’s compass spins. The shores, they push and pull, they give hugs at arms length, they don’t plan on changing, but they do. The same can be said of you.
And then, out of desire or necessity, you settle down farther inland. You put down roots in loose soil. There’s a dock over the next, next hill. You go to visit from time to time and walk its length. You listen to the slap of the waves. You breathe in the smell of the ocean. You taste the salt in the air . . . and you remember the sounds and the smells and the bitter-sweet flavors of where you used to be.
What do you see when you see a dock?
You put down roots in loose soil, but you still speak the language of the bridge.
These thoughts are inspired by Mission Training International‘s “Pair of Ducks.” MTI uses two rubber ducks—a “yay duck” and a “yuck duck”—to show cross-cultural workers and their kids that all the places where they’ve lived have their good and bad parts.
February 14, 2015 § Leave a comment
If you were to draw a picture of reverse culture shock, what would it look like? What images would you show? What colors would you use?
If you were to make a video, what kind of video would it be?
Photographer and visual artist Jenna Rutanen was born in Finland, attended university in London, and now is continuing her studies and working in the Netherlands. She has turned her experience in crossing cultures into an art installation, consisting of two videos projected on opposite walls of a room. She calls it “Waiting to Belong,” and here’s how she describes what she is representing:
I am experiencing reverse culture shock during each visit to my home country, Finland. In the past, all the winters that I had spent in some sort of hibernation, would now start to suffocate me because of the darkness. As a child, I spent my time playing in the forests, making tree houses and snow castles but now I can hardly venture going into the forest on my own after being away from it for such a long time. It seems as if I have lost the ability to adapt to the surroundings that I used to belong in and as of yet, I haven’t been able to adapt to my current surroundings either, which has kind of left me stuck between two different worlds. All I can do is wait to belong.
Installation art often seems pretentious to me, and this may strike you that way. You may say, “I could have done that.” You may wonder why Rutanen in her “portrait” is so glum. You may wonder what the big deal is.
But watching the two videos of “Waiting to Belong” is very thought provoking to me, and I think it would be even more interesting if I could stand between them, turning from one to the other.
It’s the anticipation—and tedium—of waiting for something to happen, and (spoiler alert, if you haven’t watched the videos yet) nothing does. That’s one of the things that makes reverse culture shock difficult. It’s the nomad gazing at the horizon, waiting for herself to adapt or for her surroundings to become more accommodating, or waiting for both to re-become what they used to be. And it’s the pale landscape waiting itself, staring back at a daughter who has returned a stranger. It seems to say, “I am what I am. It’s up to you.”
These are frustrating feelings to have. And if you become impatient watching the videos, maybe that’s part of the point.
(Jenna Rutanen, “Artist Statement: Waiting to Belong,” jennarutanen.com)