America has just celebrated Thanksgiving, an important day in my adopted land. It is a day wherein the country is a moving mass as people try to get home, often battling inclement weather, to celebrate the pilgrim’s first harvest.
I have enjoyed every national or festival day in whichever country I have happened to be living. All twelve of them. From Loi Krathong in Thailand to Chinese New Year in Singapore to the Ganzenhoedster Festival in the small Dutch town of Coevorden. Or maybe Deepavali in Malaysia. And don’t let’s forget Hogmany in Scotland. I admire the national pride that keeps these traditions alive.
I name these countries, these festivals, as a precursor to this piece. Not only have I lived in many countries, I have also been employed by multinational corporations to help employees and their families understand the idiosyncrasies prevalent in countries in which they might conduct business, or indeed live.
In every place I have been fortunate enough to call home, whether for a year or a number of years, I have made an effort to learn a little of the language, to understand and recognise, if not always embrace, the culture. And to engage in local activities, whether as a foot soldier or a board member.
My peripatetic life began at a month old which, in essence, means I have spent my life ‘not quite fitting in’. It’s not something that has ever concerned me, as I consider it a privilege to be a guest in another country and do my best to be respectful of that culture.
And so the past few days, having been accused of cultural insensitivity, have been spent wondering “what could I have done better?”. The details are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how carefully I worded the email that started the firestorm. It doesn’t matter that the recipient found issue with subjects not addressed in that letter. It doesn’t matter that I apparently provoke “a bad taste in my (his) tongue”. What matters is that somehow, and I have searched my words, conscience and intent, I have caused great offence. Enough to make the man write, “I will not allow someone from else where come to my homeland and talk to me however they would like, I am proud Crucian and I stand with pride for what I do in my community.”
That is the sentence that rankles. No, actually it hurts. Because I do not know how this chap got to that place of intense dislike from my actions or, indeed, my words.
Then I started thinking about words like identity, ego, pride – all of which, if used with a dose of reality, are important words for defining who we are. It’s when the dosage gets out of the kilter that things go pear-shaped. It can happen with tyrants of tin-pot regimes, wannabe dictators of western countries, and lesser mortals. The common denominator being that all have lost the ability to recognise the world works best when we are able to feel humility, to admit to mistakes, to accept guidance. It is these people who manufacture threats from without their immediate sphere of influence. Their hubris becomes a crutch behind which they cover inadequacy, incompetency and sometimes a lack of intellect. And every culture is littered with those whose ego is easily dented.
As I consider the past few days, and give thanks for the island on which I spend most of my time, I reflect on Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If. He too was an expatriate, having grown up in India before returning to England then emigrating to America.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
The words might appear dated but they resonant as I try and master my anger and disappointment. If I can do that, I shall be on my way to being a stronger woman.
I shall also contemplate Kipling’s other masterpiece, The Jungle Book. Because juggling different cultures and sensitivities can make it feel it is a jungle out there. But maybe, if I work hard enough, next Thanksgiving I can truly focus on what makes me thankful for being on this beautiful island.