July 22, 2016 § Leave a comment
From my post this month at A Life Overseas –
goodbye /gə(d)-ˈbī/ excl. / salutation spoken at a departure, extremely unpopular for certain English-speaking tribes, such as cross-cultural workers, TCKs, their loved ones, and the like.
Many of us know from experience that saying goodbye can be hard, really hard. And practice doesn’t make perfect. In fact, it often makes it worse.
But what makes goodbye so tough to voice? It’s not because it’s hard to pronounce. That’s simple enough. Rather, it’s the meaning behind the word that’s difficult. Is that because we don’t actually know the definition of goodbye? To quote that great linguist/philosopher Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Goodbye actually comes from God be with you, which, in it’s older form, was God be with ye. From there, it morphed into such shortened versions as God be wy you, God b’w’y, Godbwye, God buy’ ye, and good-b’wy. The replacement of God with good was influenced by the similar phrases good day and good night, which takes it even further from the original. Seen in this way, goodbye is related to the French adieu and the Spanish adios, which mean “to God,” as in “I commit you to God.”
So what’s so hard about saying, “God be with you”? What’s so difficult about giving someone a blessing? Why do we so often hear, “I don’t want to say goodbye”?
Maybe it’s because we do actually know what it means—at least for those who move far away. . . .
March 22, 2016 § Leave a comment
Here’s an intro to my post this week at A Life Overseas.
Standing Up Crooked
There’s a tree near Colorado Springs that I admire. It’s a pine tree sitting on the property of The Hideaway Inn and Conference Center, where I and my family attended MTI’s Debriefing and Renewal several years ago.
This tree is surrounded by other pines, but this one’s different. While its trunk starts out on a vertical path, after a several feet, it breaks to the side at a ninety-degree angle. Then, over a few more feet, it makes a slow curve, working again on an upward climb.
Near the end of the retreat, we were told to find a place to be by ourselves, and I knew where I wanted to be, sitting in front of that tree. I must not be the only one who appreciates it, since there’s a bench facing it close by.
I don’t know what trauma caused the tree’s shape. Maybe it was a storm, maybe a disease, maybe the blade of an axe. Or maybe it was more of a heart thing—a promise unkept, a hope deferred, a joy shattered.
Regardless of the cause, the reason I admire this tree is that though having faced trouble, it still reaches upward. It’s “persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed;” wrecked, but not ruined. No, not ruined at all.
Can you identify with this tree?
Have you ever had your feet knocked out from under you because of some tragedy?
Have you ever tried to take hold of something beyond your reach and fallen in the trying?
Have you ever been bent to the point of brokenness?
Have you ever been laid low by the realization that you are the cause of someone else’s pain?
Have you ever wrestled with God, refusing to let go until you get a blessing, and walked away limping?
Finish reading at A Life Overseas.
August 19, 2015 § 2 Comments
Let me add my voice to those who are praising Pixar’s Inside Out as a great movie for the cross-cultural community. I think we’ll be showing clips of it to expats, repats, and TCKs for a long time to come. (If you’ve not seen it and don’t know what it’s about, I suggest you read Kay Bruner’s discussion of the movie, from a counselor’s point of view.)
I hope that someday Inside Out is made into a Broadway musical. I’d like to hear Sadness and Joy sing a duet at the end.
Dealing with Loss
My wife and son and I saw the film in the theater a few weeks ago. It was rather cathartic, as the past several months have been a time for us, like Riley in the movie, to deal with our emotions—while our emotions learn how to deal with each other. It’s been an especially difficult time for my wife. Her father died in March, and then a brother died last month.
Those events have brought back memories of difficulties we faced while we lived overseas. During our time outside our passport country, we experienced the deaths of my wife’s mother and another brother and of my father.
When you lose loved ones, it can trigger so much emotional confusion. When you live far away from them, a whole other set of complications come into play.
It’s not just losing someone we love, it’s often losing the opportunity to say Goodbye or the ability to grieve together when traveling with the whole family isn’t possible.
When should we go back? Who should make the trip? How long should we stay? What if we don’t meet others’ expectations? What are the rules?
And when sadness comes into the life of the missionary, it is so easy to ask, “Where is my joy?”
Read the rest at A Life Overseas.
January 18, 2015 § 2 Comments
When does a house become a home?
I asked that question of some friends a while ago. One answered, “When your mess is everywhere.” Another said, “When you feel part of the neighborhood.” My wife said, “When you hang your pictures on the wall.”
When we first moved to Taipei, another missionary family let us live in their apartment for a few months while they were back in the States. We needed a house to stay in while we looked for a place of our own. But it wasn’t our home; it was theirs. Their clothes were in the closets. Their books were on the shelves. Their beds were in the bedrooms.
Later, we found that place of our own. It was on the 17th floor of a 21 story building. While we enjoyed living there, the family who owned the apartment had left some of their furniture there, so we always knew it was someone else’s place, and sure enough, after about two years, they told us they wanted it back for themselves.
When we moved, we ended up in a great apartment with a huge balcony . . . and a hovering landlord. She wouldn’t let us forget that we were in her house, like the time she dropped by on Sunday morning to prune the plants on our balcony so that their leaves wouldn’t clog the drain. The next day she saw me at the post office and commented on the strong odor in our house. It was my wife’s cooking, I said. Spaghetti. Not a good smell, she replied, frowning and shaking her head.
So when we got ready to move back to Joplin, Missouri, we should have been ready, right? Well, while we were busy moving from house to house in Taipei, the city itself had become our home. We had developed routines there. We had made friends there. We had a found a purpose there.
But we needed to move, and move we did. Though that was over three years ago, Joplin doesn’t yet feel like home again and neither does the house we’re in now. We’re renting, and we’re not making long-term plans to stay here.
Actually, it’s the third non-home house we’ve been in since our return. The first was a residence that our church had purchased for visiting and returning missionaries. We were there for about six months and are very grateful that it was available. We certainly weren’t the only ones in Joplin in transition at that time. It was June of 2011 and we were living across from the parking lot of the church property where two “tents” stood, distributing food and prayers to those affected by, as everyone here calls it, the tornado.
While we were there, the items that we’d had shipped from Taiwan arrived and we unloaded them into the garage. From there we moved to a rental house, with me still looking for full-time work and all of us wondering what the future would bring, praying about where we’d land.
In Taiwan, I remember reading news about the recession in the States, but I didn’t anticipate how much it would affect my ability to find a job once we returned. Ask anyone looking for work and they’ll tell you how difficult it is right now. Add to that the fact that being out of the country makes a person out of sight and out of mind for potential employers. With so many people looking for employment, those doing the hiring hold most of the cards, and they’re reluctant to take chances on someone who could do the job. Rather, they’re looking for someone who’s already doing the job. And the risk is much lower if they choose someone whom they’ve known for a while.
Since our arrival, I’ve worked at a number of money-making ventures, often overlapping. They include being a janitor and a paraprofessional at an elementary school, cleaning at another school, working at a multi-media ministry, teaching ESL, driving a delivery truck for an auto-parts store, recruiting international students at a university, and donating plasma.
We’re still not sure if we’ve landed yet or if that will come later. And the pictures aren’t on the walls. Instead, they’re still packed up, stored under our bed. When we finally do open them up, I think we’ll find some that we forgot we have.
When I asked my question about a house becoming a home, another friend had this response: “It’s when you can go to the bathroom at night without turning the lights on.”
That reminds me of a passage in a book I read several years ago. It was discussing people who had been blind for a long time and then had regained their sight. Now that they could see, navigating their surroundings obviously should be much easier. Yet when they needed to move through their house—their home—quickly in an emergency, they would close their eyes. That was more familiar to them.
When we’re under stress, we rely on the familiar to help us find our way.
That’s home . . . the familiar place, the comfortable place, the place where we can close our eyes and know we belong.
August 24, 2014 § Leave a comment
What personality types make for the best cross-cultural workers? I like to think that there’s room for all kinds, but it makes sense that certain types of people would find themselves drawn to or more suited for vocations that cross cultures.
When Peter Farley surveyed female missionaries from the UK, he found that, using the Myers-Briggs scale, there are more “intuitive” (N) and less “sensing” (S) women among missionaries than in the general population. (The numbers are 42% Ns and 58% Ss among missionary women compared to 21% Ns and 79% Ss as a norm). The most common personality type is ISFJ, at 23%, but that is similar to the overall female population, while INFJs make up 12% of female missionaries, significantly more than the 2% norm.
Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, has a different scale for evaluating personality. It’s the “Culture Profile.” By answering the 24 questions of the assessment and choosing your country, you can see how you compare to your countrymen in eight areas:
- low vs high context communication
- direct vs indirect criticism
- principles-first vs applications-first arguments
- egalitarian vs hierarchical leading
- consensual vs top-down decision making
- task-based vs relationship-based trust
- confrontation as a help vs hindrance
- linear vs flexible time
You can take the assessment online at Harvard Business Review. Before you begin, I have a suggestion. Grab a pen and paper so you can jot down your answer to each question (you respond to each one on a scale ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”). This way you can see your evaluation alongside different norms by choosing a different country each time. Otherwise, when you retake the profile, your answers are reset, and it’s difficult to exactly duplicate your responses each time, especially since it’s easy to start overthinking your responses after seeing the outcomes.
When I took the test, I found that in several areas I don’t fit in with the American norm. One of these is the high context/low context scale. Here is Meyer’s description of “context”:
In low-context cultures (such as the U.S., Germany, and the Netherlands), good communication is precise, simple, and explicit. Messages are expressed and understood at face value. Repetition and written confirmation are appreciated, for clarity’s sake. In high-context cultures (such as China, India, and France), communication is sophisticated, nuanced, and layered. Reading between the lines is expected. Less is put in writing, and more is left to interpretation.
So the US is a poster child when it comes to low-context cultures. But my answers to the profile put me closer to the high-context extreme, where China resides. Maybe that’s because my ten years living in Taiwan altered my preferences, or maybe I was originally drawn to the Chinese culture because it fit my personality. It’s probably a little bit of both.
So take the survey. It may tell you something about yourself you didn’t know. It may show you that you’re a prime example of your country’s cultural norm. It may help you see why you sometimes don’t “get” the people around you, and why they sometimes don’t get you. It may show you some changes you should make in behaviors or expectations. And it may show you a place far away where being yourself would be the perfect way to fit in.
(Peter C. Farley, “Psychological Type Preferences of Female Missionaries,” Mental Health, Religion & Culture, November 2009; Erin Meyer, “What’s Your Cultural Profile?” Harvard Business Review)
[photo: “Me, Myself and . . . Dr,” by DraconianRain, used under a Creative Commons license]
April 23, 2014 § 6 Comments
I was wanting to mail a letter to our friends back in the US, but I had a problem. I had just been to the front counter at the post office and told the postal worker my plans. She pointed over my shoulder and said something about “over there.” I turned around, trying to act as if I knew what she’d said. (I’d only been in Taipei a few weeks, and the only thing I understood clearly was her pointing.)
Behind me, against the wall, was a table with a couple bowls of what looked like wall-paper paste, with a small brush in each one. They were for sealing envelopes, since the envelope flaps in Taiwan—and I assume, most of Asia—don’t have adhesive on them. I’ve been told this is because in the high humidity, the envelopes would glue themselves shut while waiting to be used. That explanation sounds perfectly plausible to me.
Behind the paste were two slots in the table. Each had a sign with a few Chinese characters on it. I went to the table and pretended to sort my mail for a while, pondering what I should do. What did the signs say? “Local Mail”? “Air Mail”? But the only time I’d ever seen slots like those were in the tables at the bank where you can fill out deposit slips—you know, the slots for throwing away your trash. So maybe the signs said, “Place Wastepaper Here,” and “Not for Mail.”
Beside the table was the door. Maybe the postal worker had pointed outside—to some mailboxes I hadn’t seen.
I made my decision, tossing my letter into one of the slots. I didn’t look back. I didn’t want to see the lady at the counter shaking her head at me. Instead, I hurried home and emailed our friends: “Let me know if you get a letter from us. Either I mailed one to you or just threw it away.”
A week later, they wrote back and said it had arrived. Sometimes, in spite of myself, I got things right.
It took me quite a while to get over my nervousness going to the post office. For expats, it can be a pretty scary place—in large part because there’s so much at stake. You’re often sending important documents or valuable parcels (like hand-drawn pictures to Grandma and Grandpa). And once you stick on the postage and drop them in the mailbox, there’s no do over.
Lick at Your Own Risk
Not long ago, here in the safety of the US, I was helping a friend from Asia prepare some papers for mailing. I handed him the envelope, and seeing that there wasn’t any paste available, he tried to peel the backing off the self-stick flap. The trouble was, the flap wasn’t peel-and-seal. When he realized he needed to lick it, he laughed and said he’d heard about people putting poison on the adhesive. I told him that’s never happened, because . . . uh . . . that’s never happened . . . right?
Well, I did some research, and I’m sticking by my assertion, but it seems that my friend is more up on American pop-culture than I am. How about you?
First, there’s this cautionary tale that began circulating by email in 1999:
Whenever you go to an automatic teller machine to make deposits, make sure you don’t lick the deposit envelopes. A customer died after licking an envelope at a teller machine at Yonge & Eglinton. According to the police, Dr. Elliot at the Women’s college hospital found traces of cyanide in the lady’s mouth and digestive system and police traced the fatal poison to the glue on the envelope she deposited that day. They then did an inspection of other envelopes from other teller machines in the area and found six more. The glue is described as colourless and odourless. They suspect some sickco is targeting this particular bank and has been putting the envelopes beside machines at different locations. A spokesperson from the bank said their hands are tied unless they take away the deposit function from all machines. So watch out, and please forward this message to the people you care about . . . Thanks
Completely false, says the urban-legend site Snopes.com. But when has that ever stopped an internet fable from gaining traction?
Snopes also tackled another email that made its debut in 2000. It’s about poor lady number two falling victim to the dangers of envelope glue:
This lady was working in a post office in California, one day she licked the envelopes and postage stamps instead of using a sponge.
That very day the lady cut her tongue on the envelope. A week later, she noticed an abnormal swelling of her tongue. She went to the doctor, and they found nothing wrong. Her tongue was not sore or anything. A couple of days later, her tongue started to swell more, and it began to get really sore, so sore, that she could not eat. She went back to the hospital, and demanded something be done. The doctor, took an x-ray of her tongue, and noticed a lump. He prepared her for minor surgery.
When the doctor cut her tongue open, a live roach crawled out. There were roach eggs on the seal of the envelope. The egg was able to hatch inside of her tongue, because of her saliva. It was warm and moist. . . .
This is a true story. . . . Pass it on.
Actually not true, but extra points for the graphic detail.
The Website TV Tropes reports that over the years, the poison-envelope theme has occurred in several TV crime shows. But the most famous example was part of the comedy Seinfeld, when George’s fiancée died after licking the toxic adhesive on some 200 cheap wedding invitations.
So no wonder my friend didn’t want to lick the envelope. Oh, sure, I could tell him his fears are based on urban legends, ridiculous story lines, and misguided fear. I could tell him that expats are especially susceptible to rumors and fantastic stories. But still . . . there was Mr. Fechheimer, mentioned in the 1895 New York Times:
S. Fechheimer, formerly a merchant of New-York, died here yesterday from blood poisoning as a result of cutting his tongue while licking an envelope. He was a rich man until a few years ago, when the panic came and brought ruin. He was the senior member of the firm of Fechheimer, Rau & Co., New-York shirt manufacturers.
So please be careful. And the next time you have to mail a letter, you might want to use a sponge.
(Barbara Mikkelson, “Dial ATM for Murder,” Snopes.com, September 2, 2006; Barbara Mikkelson, “Cockroach Eggs,” Snopes.com, January 22, 2014; “Finger-Licking Poison,” TV Tropes; “Poisoned by Licking an Envelope,” The New York Times, May 4, 1895)