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]

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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]

Tyrus Wong, 1910-2016: From Inbetweener to Disney Legend

January 4, 2017 § Leave a comment

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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.

[photo: “Tyrus Wong,” by KCET Departures, used under a Creative Commons license]

Duy Huynh’s Ethereal Art of Displacement

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 Mindfair-trade-frame-of-mind

Mindful Migrationmindful-migragion

MindfulNest Cultivationmindulnest-cultivation

Homestead and a Steedhomestead-and-a-steed

Of Wind and Water
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Never Mind the Clouds
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What Is a Bridge but a Paradox?

April 18, 2015 § 8 Comments

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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, strangershere, 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.

[photo: “Harbour Bridge,” by D.Reichardt, used under a Creative Commons license]

Reverse Culture Shock: What It Looks Like from Between

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?

30a781c45c859eecc26383ae27dc0c2aPhotographer 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)

[illustration from Bechance, at bechance.net, used under a Creative Commons license]

10 Things I’d Rather Not Hear When I’m Hurting

September 26, 2014 § 5 Comments

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“Every time there’s transition, there is loss. So when people are feeling strange about their situation I ask them, ‘What did you lose?’ Because where there’s loss, there’s grief.” —Ruth Van Reken, author of Third Culture Kids

The losses involved with cross-cultural transitions are many, and not all will be voiced as simple answers to the question “What do you miss the most?” They include relationships, dreams, purpose, status, identity, and some things that defy labels.

When someone is grieving a loss—whether of a loved one or of opportunities or of “home”—we tend to search for something to say rather than for a chance to listen. And when we speak, we too often don’t invite the person to express her sadness. Instead, we say what we hope will make the grief go away.

Why are we so uncomfortable with grief? Of course, we don’t like for our friends to be sad, but how often does our discomfort also come from not wanting to be around sad people?

At the risk of being hypocritical, I’ve made a list of things that I don’t like to hear when I’m sad and hurting. I’m afraid that I’ve said most of them myself and probably will continue to do so from time to time. But I’m trying to listen more and talk less. I’m trying to allow grief to run its course in others and not try to make it go away so that can get on with life.

I need to give credit to a small book, A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help, for it’s inspiration and validation. At just over 100 pages, this guide by Ginny Callaway is full of practical advice for what to say and what not to say, for what to do and what not to do when helping a grieving friend. From her own experience—Callaway’s ten-year-old daughter died in a car accident—and from talking with others, Callaway knows what she’s writing about. Even though the subject of her book is grief caused by the death of a loved one, her advice is valuable for dealing with people grieving other losses as well.

You may not agree with my list. Some items may seem rather picky, and some may be the things that in fact cheer you up. But if I do nothing else, I’d like to initiate an inner conversation on how our words may sound, even if they come from the best of intentions.

10 Things I’d Rather Not Hear . . . and Shouldn’t Say:

1 – I know how you feel.
(This was first on Callaway’s list, too.)

We don’t know exactly how others feel, and even if we’ve gone through something similar, it’s only similar, not exactly the same. We don’t know everything from a person’s past that has culminated in the present emotions. “I know how you feel” doesn’t invite much further sharing. You might try saying something like, “I know a little of what you’re going through,” that is, if it’s true.

“I know how you feel” often leads to . . .

2 – Let me tell you what happened to me.

This is not a time to one-up someone. We shouldn’t invalidate others’ experiences or their emotions. Maybe my friend moved three times in a year. Telling her that I’ve moved six times says, “Compared to me, you don’t have the right to feel sad.” This phrase is a close cousin to “We all have our problems.”

3 – Do you mind if I take this call?

When we’re having deep, important conversations with others, a you’re-important-enough-to-me-that-I’ve-set-aside-this-time-for-you talk, we shouldn’t even have our phones out, ringing, beeping, or buzzing. Just being able to see a cell phone during a conversation distracts from building relationships. We shouldn’t acknowledge a ring unless it’s to silence the phone. And we shouldn’t answer our phones unless we’re on call for an emergency situation. It’s not always possible to escape distractions, but that means we need to do a better job of choosing our times and places.

4 – Everything happens for a reason. (It’s all part of God’s plan. It wasn’t meant to be.)

I actually don’t believe this to be true. Maybe you do. Either way, it’s not a cure-all that makes the pain go away, even though that’s often how it’s used. It’s become something that too many people say with little thought to the theology behind it. This often sounds like “Why are you sad? This is the way it’s supposed to be.” But if the things that have occurred happen not to feel like good things, then remember . . .

5 – When one door closes, another one opens.

A more spiritualized version of this is “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” I haven’t figured out which chapter of the Bible this verse comes from. It’s one of the many platitudes that people say to make everything OK. Feel-good sayings tell the listener just that: “Feel good.” They are often used to tie problems up in a bow and to do the same for many a conversation: Now that we’ve solved that problem, we can talk about something else.

6 – Let me know if you need anything.

Many people who are huting emotionally feel as if they’re burdening others and can be embarrassed by how needy they’ve become. Saying “Let me know if you need anything” puts the ball in their court to ask for help. And even though we’ve made the offer sincerely, when someone considers sharing a need, it’s very easy for him to feel as if he’s imposing. Instead, we should continue to ask what his needs are . . . and also help without an invitation.

7 – It could be worse. (You have so much to be thankful for.)

Of course it could be worse. But that’s not the point. It’s bad enough. Words saying that a person’s problems don’t deserve the grief being expressed can lead that person to hide his sorrow, convinced that his feelings aren’t justified. Hidden sorrow doesn’t go away, it just shows up later as unexplained despair, anger, physical ailments, and the like.

8 – You need to move on.

It’s no fun to be stuck in a difficult place, but that place may seem like the only option. When the routines of the past are gone, and the future is frighteningly unsettled, what does progress look like? It’s not simply putting on a smile so that others feel more comfortable.

9 – I want the old you back.

There’s a good chance the grieving person wants her old self back, too. It may seem as if the grief is the cause of the change, but often, one of the losses that the person is grieving is the loss of the person she used to be. That loss wasn’t chosen. It wasn’t planned, expected, or wanted. And coming “home” doesn’t mean the changes will automatically go away.

And last, but not least . . .

10 – This is just a season.

Doesn’t it seem that for Christians every period of time has become a “season”? When people tell me that my difficulties are only a season, I hear them say that they will end soon, and spring is around the corner. How do they know? What if my winter lasts for 8 years? Why don’t we call the good times “just a season”?


I Need to Listen with Grace, Too

Now that I’ve gotten all that off my chest, I’ll step down off my rickety soapbox and look at things from another angle. As a sometime recipient of the words above, I also understand that I need to receive with grace my friends’ efforts—even when I’m hurting. I need better to hear their concern even when the words don’t feel right.

Missionary Rachel Marie Stone and her fellow authors address this in their Christianity Today article, “Go Ahead, Say the Wrong Thing.” She writes that “listicles” of “things you should never say” are all the rage but often misguided.

I’ll stand by my list, but I’ll also take her point to heart:

Just before I returned from a very difficult time as a mission worker in sub-Saharan Africa, I talked to my therapist on Skype. She’d been a mission worker herself, and understood my anxiety:

“I just can’t stand the thought of all the stupid things people at church might say to me about this experience,” I told her.

“But people will say stupid things,” she said kindly. “The question is, how will you receive those stupid remarks?”

It seemed to me then that my own sense of the importance of right words did not necessitate my hair-trigger outrage at hearing “wrong” words. I could survive thoughtless remarks, choosing to hear, beneath them, the genuine concern and impulse to connect that underlies so much of our imperfect human communication.

When I’m helping, I’ll do my best not to say the wrong things. When I’m being helped, I’ll do my best to hear those best intentions.

(Peter Katona, “More and More Americans Consider Themselves ‘Hidden Immigrants,’” Columbia News Service, February 27, 2007; Ginny Callaway, A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help, High Windy Press, 2011; Rachel Marie Stone, Megan Hill, and Gina Dalfonzo, “Go Ahead, Say the Wrong Thing,” Christianity Today, August 5, 2014)

[photo: “365 0127,” by Tim Caynes, used under a Creative Commons license]

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