Crossing Cultures in Stealth Mode

May 16, 2019 § Leave a comment

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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.

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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.

[photos: “Moth in Stealth Mode,” by feck_aRt_post, used under a Creative Commons license; “Double-Decker Bus,” by Kevin Oliver, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Storytelling: The Bosphorus Bridge between Cultures

July 10, 2014 § 2 Comments

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At one end of Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge, says Elif Shafak, is a sign that says “Welcome to Europe.” At the other end, another sign reads, “Welcome to Asia.” Shafak, the most widely read female author in Turkey, knows well this city that spans the Bosphorus Strait and connects two continents. She also knows well the push and pull of Eastern and Western cultures in Istanbul. She writes in Time Asia:

East and West are not water and oil. They do mix. And in a city like Istanbul they mix intensely, incessantly, surprisingly. That can leave the city confused about its identity. We Turks like to brag about straddling past and present, East and West, but we are not quite sure what we mean by that. We think of these two civilizations as boroughs we can go in and out of randomly. . . . But things are not so simple.”

Expanded Circles: Elif Shafak

Shafak has lived out her own cross-cultural experience. Born in France to Turkish parents, she was later raised by her mother in Turkey. Then, after her mother became a diplomat, they moved to Spain, Jordan, Germany, and back to Turkey.

Everywhere I went,” she says in a TED Talk, “The Politics of Fiction,” “I felt like my imagination was the only suitcase I could take with me. Stories gave me a sense of center, continuity, and coherence, the three big Cs that I otherwise lacked.”

While living in Madrid, Shafak attended an international school where she was the only Turk. While she describes the school as “a miniature United Nations,” it was not “a cosmopolitan, egalitarian classroom democracy.” Rather, she first encountered cultural stereotypes there. In her later moves with her mother, she saw more and more the general human penchant for retreating into “cultural ghettos”:

Now we all live in some kind of a social and cultural circle. We all do. We’re born into a certain family, nation, class. But if we have no connection whatsoever with the worlds beyond the one we take for granted, then we too run the risk of drying up inside. Our imagination might shrink; our hearts might dwindle, and our humanness might wither if we stay for too long inside our cultural cocoons. Our friends, neighbors, colleagues, family—if all the people in our inner circle resemble us, it means we are surrounded with our mirror image.

Shafak’s tool for helping break us all out of our cocoons is her fiction. She is the author of a number of novels, including The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi, which bridges 13th-century Persia and present-day Boston, and Honor, which tells the stories of Kurdish twins, one who grows up to live in London, the other staying in a small village in Turkey.

I’m not saying that fiction has the magnitude of an earthquake,” says Shafak, “but when we are reading a good novel, we leave our small, cozy apartments behind, go out into the night alone and start getting to know people we had never met before and perhaps had even been biased against.”

Intersecting Journeys: O. Z. Livaneli

I have not read any of Shafak’s novels, but I did recently finish Bliss: A Novel, written by O. Z. Livaneli in 2006. (It was made into a film in 2007.) Livaneli, like Shafak, is one of Turkey’s most prominent and most-read authors. And, like Shafak, his works often investigate the meeting of cultures.

In Bliss, the cultures are embodied by three characters: Meryem is a fifteen-year-old from a small Turkish village. After being raped by her outwardly pious uncle, she is shunned by her community. Then she is taken to Istanbul by her cousin to be killed. Cemal, a soldier, newly returned from fighting rebels in the mountains, is the cousin chosen to carry out the “honor killing.” And Irfan is a Western-educated professor who abruptly leaves his wife—and his wealthy lifestyle—to sail the Aegean Sea. It is on his journey that he meets Meryem and Cemal.

At first the novel tells three seemingly unrelated stories, each from a distinct viewpoint. Then, as the characters come together, their stories, and their perspectives, intertwine. The settings are varied as well: the shack where Meryem is imprisoned, given only meager food and a rope for hanging herself; the dangerous mountains where Cemal kills ruthlessly so that he won’t be killed; and the university offices populated by the colleagues whom Irfan despises. And then there are the locations that bring them together and expose them to people of still other backgrounds: the train compartment on the way to Istanbul, the chaotic city center and its decrepit surroundings, the home of an eccentric retired ambassador, and the close quarters of Irfan’s rented sailboat.

Through it all, the three have their worlds expanded, in dramatic and often very painful ways.

The Gift of Bridges

Thankfully there are storytellers around the globe such as Shafak and Livaneli, authors whose works juxtapose cultural differences and uncover similarities. These writers allow us to pick up their books and step outside the mirrored walls of our houses and onto bridges that traverse oceans and connect cultures.

By walking these bridges, we reach distant shores, and when our feet touch foreign ground, we find signs that read, “Welcome,” even when it’s not so simple.

(Elif Shafak, “Pulled by Two Tides,” Hurriyet Daily News, August 13, 2006, first published in Time Asia, August 7-14, 2006)
[photo: “Bosphorus Bridge,” by Simon Q, used under a Creative Commons license]

Please Don’t Ask Me to Eat That

June 16, 2012 § 6 Comments

Earlier this year we were with a group of missionaries who were asked to name the worst food in their host country. One lady, who had spent time in Belgium told us about a raw hamburger dish that I remember her calling something like “American beef.” No, not American beef, but American something. . . . Then I saw this article from Public Radio International. Filet américain. That’s what it’s called. Of all the dishes named by the missionaries, this is the one that most kicked in my gag reflex—just to hear about it. Some people eat it with a raw egg on top. That’s just going too far. The author of the article voices his own fear of this Belgian favorite, but not for health reasons. Rather, he’s afraid he’ll actually like it. And then, one thing would lead to another . . . .

Try it once, and soon you’re asking for it regularly at lunch, along with half a liter of red wine. And then you’re having coffee after, along with a digestif. Your afternoon productivity, what’s left of it, starts to slump. Like a good Belgian, you simply shrug your shoulders. . . . Six months go by, and you’re slipping out after you’ve finished a plate for a few quick drags on an unfiltered Lucky Strike. You try to go grow a handlebar mustache. . . .

And then you apply for Belgian citizenship because you know you’ll never get your filet américain fix back in the US.

Maybe it’s not an unwarranted fear, that you’ll become addicted to something that disgusts you. One of the foulest foods in Asia is the durian. Most people can’t even stand the smell. But, they say, try it once, you hate it. Taste it the second time, it’s tolerable. Try it again, and it’s your favorite.

I have a theory. One day our great great great grandparents were going through a famine, and they were forced to eat something that no one had ever needed to eat before. Out of necessity they got used to it. And then when times got better, they still kept it as part of their diet. Maybe it didn’t taste good, but it felt right. It became part of them, part of their story. And then it became part of everyone’s story, kept alive, if by no one else then by the person who could always get attention with “No, I really do think it’s good. Watch me eat some.”

Having grown up on a farm in the Midwest US, I learned to like a few things that might make my city friends squeamish: cow tongue and heart, calf brains (well, I never really enjoyed that one), and Rocky Mountain oysters (fried calf testicles). But I don’t have to go back to old-time examples of Americana to find foods that could gag my international friends. Take for instance a new item soon to be introduced on Burger King’s menu. I’d love to see what my non-American friends would think about their recently announced sundae: vanilla ice cream topped with fudge, caramel, and that all-américain favorite topping, bacon.

(Clark Boyd, “The ‘Américain’ Dream,” PRI’s The World, May 31, 2012; Dylan Stableford, “Burger King to Introduce Bacon Sundae,” Yahoo! News, June 12, 2012)

[photo: “Filet Americain (Raw Beef),” by Kyle Taylor, used under a Creative Commons license]

That’s What You Are, but What Am I?

March 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

We in America know what we think about Europeans, and we think we know what they think about us, but do we know what they think about each other? An interactive site at The Guardian shares the stereotypes that Europeans hold about their neighbors and then lets the labeled parties respond. In answering what the French, Germans, Italians, Poles, and Spaniards have to say about them, the Britons reply, “Despite everything, Britain is not broken. And if that’s hard for some of our European neighbours to accept, then they should hear what we say about them.”

(“European Stereotypes: What Do We Think of Each Other and Are We Right?” The Guardian, January 26, 2012)

[photo: “A Man from English Uniform Store,” by Yunchung Lee, used under a Creative Commons license]

The Global Church Is on the Move

March 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

According to Peter Crossing of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, one hundred years ago, the statistical center of Christianity was in Spain, with over 80% of Christians living in Europe and Northern America. But today, broad changes in the Christian population have moved the statistical center to Western Africa. “This 100-year shift is the most dramatic in Christian history,” said Crossing, who spoke in October of last year at the Global Christian Forum in Manado, Indonesia. Other statistics noted at the forum were

• In 1910, less than 2% of Christians were in Africa. Today, 20% live there.

• While 60% of Christians now live outside of Europe and Northern America, their share of Christian income is only 17%.

• The top five languages used in churches are Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, and Chinese.

• 32.39% of the world’s population consider themselves Christian. The next largest group, Muslims, make up 22.9%.

• In 1960, evangelical Christians were 2.9% of the world’s population. Today they have reached 7.9%.

(Mazda Rosalya, “For 100 Years, Christians Make up One-Third of World’s Population” and “Christianity Underwent Greatest Cultural Shift in 2,000 Years, Says Scholar,” Oct. 10, 2011, The Christian Post.)

[photo: “Praying Together” by Boyznberry, used under a Creative Commons license]

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