Intercultural life is hard. It’s also very interesting and full of stories. They are hilarious (like when you use the wrong word for something), heartbreaking (like when you come face to face with the realities of inequality), heartwarming (like when a family makes you one of their own), and flabbergasting (like when systems conspire to keep families apart).
For some time now, I’ve been dreaming of creating a forum and inviting others to share stories and insights from intercultural living. Is that something you would be interested in? Would you listen to a podcast dedicated to that type of content?
One of the unexpected delights of quarantine living has been new, truly excellent content by creatives. Phoebe Judge has been reading classic mysteries aloud and releasing a chapter daily. I love listening to books and it has been great.
Last night, I listened to Chapter 6 of The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. In light of my musings about intercultural life, I found this paragraph fascinating. The author is describing a young man who grew up attending international schools abroad.
At the age when we are all of us most apt to take our colouring, in the form of a reflection from the colouring of other people, he had been sent abroad, and had been passed on from one nation to another, before there was time for anyone colouring more than another to settle itself on him firmly. As a consequence of this, he had come back with so many different sides to his character, all more or less jarring with each other, that he seemed to pass his life in a state of perpetual contradiction with himself. He could be a busy man, and a lazy man; cloudy in the head, and clear in the head; a model of determination, and a spectacle of helplessness, all together. He had his French side, and his German side, and his Italian side—the original English foundation showing through, every now and then, as much as to say, “Here I am, sorely transmogrified, as you see, but there’s something of me left at the bottom of him still.”
Guys, this is so, so good.
I learned the word transmogrify. It means (according to Google): transform in a surprising or magical manner. Google’s example involved cucumbers to pickles (haha). What an apt description of those of us who have lived abroad.
There is an aspect of an intercultural person that is disjointed. At least there is for me. I hope I am mostly a person whose different cultures are well-integrated, but the truth is that they aren’t always. Sometimes they are in conflict with each other. Often they are in conflict with the culture I live in.
When we embrace a new culture, we do change. It is good, it is beautiful, and it is hard.
|Family photo, May 2019
It has been so long since I have blogged. Since I last wrote, I have lived in Botswana for five more years (almost 6 total), had three little girls, and experienced a life very different from the one I had before. I have learned what it is like to not have the expectations and benefits we first-world people rarely even realize, deeper than “first world problems.” I’ve lived abroad before, but never married to a local, living on a local salary, figuring out how to provide for a family.
And I only know what that’s like when your husband is a highly educated professional who also happens to be an extremely hard worker, and especially gifted in business. I’m still white, and often treated with a special level of respect because of that (a topic for another time). I still have a family who would have helped us if we ever couldn’t have figured things out on our own. I still have a US passport and credit card. And we live in one of the most stable countries in Africa, and most peaceful in the world.
It’s different than I imagined. I was pretty naive to many of the struggles people from other places face. I was pretty naive about many luxuries I take for granted. In some ways, I have come to treasure, and in other ways despise, the first-world assumptions I grew up with.
A moment that stands out most to me was when we had been here for about six months. KG was still doing his pharmacy internship and was working at the main government hospital as a pharmacist. He had a terrible, debilitating toothache, and decided to see one of the hospital dentists.
The dentist explained that all of the dental imaging equipment had been sent away for maintenance, and they didn’t expect it back for months. ALL of the equipment. At one time. Based on the pain of his tooth, she decided she should remove it, and he agreed. He would do anything to get rid of that pain.
He was not given pain killers and they pulled that tooth out of his head. He says it was excruciating. When the tooth finally was out, she looked at it and said, “Oh, that’s a shame, this tooth is healthy. It probably just had a minor cavity.”
Guys, when he got home and told me that story, I seriously wept. I know it’s just a tooth, but it was the principle of the matter. This would never, ever happen in my world. If it did, heads would roll. But it wouldn’t happen. It was over five years ago, and it still bothers me.
KG, on the other hand, was never very bothered about it. He could not understand the grief it inspired in me. His expectations are just different.
Living abroad is such a rich experience, but it can also be disorienting and confusing. I’ve experienced so much change these last five years it’s sometimes hard to know where to start. In some ways, I am really different. In others, I am very much the same. Similarly, when I look at the States, I see lots of differences and similarities from the country I grew up in.
And all of this feels really important, because we are moving to the States in less than a month. I’m now a wife of an immigrant and mother to three Batswana-American children. I am learning a whole new role in life, and I’m aware of how much I don’t even know I don’t know.
I hope there is some of the “me” that I left behind still there, and that I can rediscover parts of myself. I hope that I will be quicker at understanding jokes and have to think a little less about day-to-day interactions — I’ll be back with people who grew up like I did. I hope I will feel more free to step out on a limb, inspire change, and lead, than I have here.
I hope I’ll also be more mature, that the lessons I have learned in the nine years since I was primarily living in the States will have given me wisdom and grace. I hope I’ll be humble, and remember that the experiences I have had are not shared with most of my peers. They have answers and experiences I don’t have, and I hope I can reenter my culture as a learner.
Even with all of these hopes it is probably obvious that I am scared. I realized a few weeks ago that I feel a little like someone who wakes up from a coma, only to realize that it has been ten years since they interacted with society. Now, suddenly, there are self-driving cars, different political and social perspectives, new products and new norms that may have been heard about through the fog of the coma, but not with much actual understanding.
At the same time, I’ve had a very full, busy, different, interesting life during these nine years. Now I’m mommy. Now I’m a website designer and marketing professional. Now I’m a permanent resident of Botswana, with a whole family who I love very much here. The transition feels big.
Ah culture differences. Gotta love them:-)!
I wrote most of this post the week we arrived in Botswana but never finished it. I finally decided to finish and post it now. Note: this was before I was showing my pregnancy at all.
It was great to arrive in Botswana on Tuesday. Kagi’s mom and brothers and uncle were all waiting for us at the airport, along with another lady (we’ll call her Auntie) who I met on my last trip here. We were greeted with hugs and smiles, and ushered out to the waiting cars.
Arriving at the car, Auntie grabbed my hand and said with enthusiasm, “You’re too fat!” Not knowing what she meant, I smiled — it must be an English mis-speak. I don’t think I’m too fat, and certainly am much trimmer than she is. Sensing my confusion, she repeated her statement enthusiastically, “You’re too fat!”
Kagi saw the exchange and laughed. “She’s complimenting you, Laura!”
“I… I know, thank you,” I stammered.
Apparently I gained a few pounds during my first year of marriage, and this lady was genuinely happy for me. Honestly, it was sweet and funny, and I wasn’t offended. Maybe at another point in my life I would have been, but not this time.
The other factor is that the word too is used differently. It’s used instead of very or more. People often talk about your house being “too big,” meaning it’s nice and spacious. They don’t mean it’s ostentatious.
I love the way this points out cultural differences. My Canadian friend has shared similar stories. It’s funny to compare our often less than gracious reactions. Genuinely, comments like this are meant as compliments. I plan to take them as such.
I’m not sure if the Starbucks Tax Scandal
has made the news in the States, but it is a big deal here in the UK. It won’t surprise many of you that Starbucks comes up in my conversations fairly frequently (since I love coffee and like Starbucks a lot). So, for the last six months, every time it comes up I have heard a little more about the scandal. I actually don’t know tons about it, but apparently Starbucks took advantage of a tax loophole and has not been paying income tax in the UK. There have been protests and boycotts. It’s big news.
|What my siblings and I call the “Green Circle of Pleasure,” just the sight of which gets the serotonin flowing!
My immediate question the first time I heard this was, “So wait, did they do something illegal?” to which the answer was, “No.”
Americans think very differently about taxes than Brits do.
This difference is something I am convinced is deeply true, and this is just one small example. American companies’ first obligation is to their stakeholders, particularly their customers, employees, and shareholders. They are, obviously, bound to obey the law, but I don’t think many Americans would consider it immoral to not pay taxes which are not required by law.
In England, though, this is a very different thing. In the UK, taxes are used for things which people highly value, like the National Health Service (NHS) and benefits meant to create equal opportunities. There is an expectation that the State can and should care for its citizens and a high value for government programs.
We (typically) feel so differently about this in the States. I realize that I come from a conservative background in America, and I also realize that I live in a particularly liberal part of the UK. But even with this acknowledgement, I think that there are longstanding cultural value differences stemming back to the founding of our various nations.
In a monarchy, there is an expectation for the king or queen to take care of his/her people. My theory is that this translates much more easily into a state with large and strong social services, because whether or not it works perfectly the people have a value system which allows for this. And because the system is relatively consistent with the values of the population people feel comfortable making it work. Paying taxes is a huge part of making the system work. Starbucks, therefore, seems to have committed a moral wrong in the perspective of the British value system.
However, we Americans have a very high value for individual achievement and we tend to distrust large structures, especially the government or those mandated by the government. I think this goes back to the American Revolution, the outcry against “taxation without representation,” and the entire political system that developed out of that. We tend to think more about keeping it in check than in making sure it gets its dues. If there is a tax loophole, we all want to know about it so we all can take advantage of it. I think this is why tax accounting is such a huge business. We figure that it is the government’s responsibility to close up the loopholes (we probably would consider if immoral if they don’t). I have every expectation that the companies I invest in are not paying taxes that they don’t need to. I would be very unhappy if they were.
I find it interesting that a company like Starbucks, which has a reputation of taking the high moral ground on issues like health insurance for part-time employees and etc, has ended up in this scandal. I think that it is a very interesting matter of cultural value mis-match. I am guessing that they never saw the public outcry coming.
For me personally, it is another reminder of the difficulties of cross-cultural living. There are phenomenal opportunities to have our values and expectations challenged. Maybe what I’ve always thought isn’t actually right after all. Or maybe what I thought was an absolute is actually more a matter of opinion. Or maybe my culture is right on this thing or that, and I need to remain committed to it even when it’s not popular in another context.
It’s kind of nice to know that massive companies commit cross-cultural faux pas too. Somehow, it makes mine feel a little more understandable.
Today I watched a new show which BBC produced called Make Bradford British
. It was a very interesting look at this city and some of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural realities of this place. It reminded me of many conversations I’ve had here and really why I love this city. Although many look at the diversity as a down-side, it is the reason I was drawn to it and why I continue to love it here.
I’m not sure if you can see this show in the states. In the UK it can be viewed here: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/make-bradford-british/4od… let me know if you can get to it in the States, OK? If you’re interested, this will give a good introduction to where I live at the moment.
It is interesting to me how the “melting pot” reality here is different than it is in the USA. I guess that’s all I’ll say here now, but I’d love to have conversations to understand it better!
Today I found out that one of the phrases I remember my mom using regularly… after all her clean mouth mandates… is a swear phrase after all! I was telling my friends about the kid next door yelling and used the phrase “screaming bloody murder,” which was the best way I could think to describe what I heard.
I should have seen it coming… when I think about what that means literally it isn’t very nice. Apparently it’s really bad here!
I especially should have seen it coming because we’ve been playing a lot of Banana Grams (a game like Scrabble) lately. Sometimes a word I think is a little on the edge but wouldn’t find offensive (ex: turd) gets a much stronger reaction than expected from my British friends.
Well… just another example of how, although we speak the same language, there are so many nuances between British and American English. I think I’m mostly fluent in British English but occasionally slip up like I did today.
Yet another reminder to think before I speak… and always a little more when in another culture!