Archives For cultural awareness

Pride, it's a tricky thing!

November 30, 2019 — 4 Comments

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.

There are websites galore devoted to the expatriate life and how to make the most of it. How to choose the right school. How to recreate oneself as an accompanying spouse. How to make friends in a foreign land. How to have a baby overseas – that one always makes smile. I believe the answer is the same anywhere in the world – you push. 

Living a life abroad is not difficult. And as the world shrinks with the ease of travel and the omnipresence of the internet it has without doubt become easier. In some ways though the very ease of communication and the ability to see films and TV shows from any country,  has created a belief that we are one giant homogenous world with little separating us – a sort of Bollywood comes to Hollywood. And that can lead to unrealistic expectations, to a lack of cultural awareness, a lack of willingness to accept and, mostly, embrace our differences.

It is a privilege to be invited to share in someone else’s customs and traditions. To travel, and to spend significant time in another country encourages us to become more compassionate, more open to inevitable differences, to understand that there is no single way to do many things. It is also too easy to forget issues that may arise whilst living in a foreign country might well have arisen when living in the village of one’s birth, surrounded by family. It is easy to blame external factors for internal problems though like everything there are exceptions.

I think a global perspective helps make us more accepting and in some ways kinder.

What travel most certainly does is introduce new words and phrases into our lexicon that are used without thought in our daily speech, without remembering those to whom we are speaking might be utterly confused.

My 60th birthday was shared with seven girlfriends with whom I have celebrated for over ten years and who, last week, flew in to St Croix from mainland USA and Britain. Sitting on the gallery one evening I looked at these wonderful women who I had met around the world and wondered how many countries had been lived in. A quick tally was 24 countries, and that wasn’t counting overlaps where some of us had lived in the same country. Had we included those the total would have been 42.

Not surprisingly those multiple countries and languages have spawned many phrases in our personal dictionaries. Growing up in Malaysia the word cukup and tidak were daily admonitions from, it sometimes seemed, most adults in my life. Meaning “enough” and “no”. Makan siap called us to the table – the bahasa melayu equivalent of “grub’s up”. Papua New Guinea added em tasol and means “that’s all”. Genoeg and tot ziens came from Holland, another “enough”, and “see you later”. My children, raised initially in Thailand, were quick to learn mai pen rai – “it doesn’t matter”. 

But the phrase I had completely forgotten from my childhood was huggery buggery!

I had left the house early to go and prepare the table at Cafe Christine’s for 14 lovely ladies joining me for lunch. Unbeknownst to me, those staying with me had plans to decorate the house in my absence. (I later understood why everyone kept asking me “when are you going?”, or “what time do you want us there?” I had also been mildly surprised to note my Cruzan friends, who often work to a Caribbean clock, arrived on time and my houseguests all late.)

But back to huggery buggery.

Apparently whilst hustling to decorate the house with all manner of glitzy banners, streamers and balloons proclaiming my advanced age, my multi-lingual pals were searching for sellotape.

“Well she must have a huggery-buggery drawer somewhere!” said Trish, continuing to pull open cupboard doors and tug recalcitrant drawers swollen by humidity.

“What?” The query came from five women.

“The huggery buggery drawer. You know, bits and bobs, odds and ends. Everyone has one.”

Relating this to me later over yet more bubbles, I laughed. It was a phrase used by my paternal grandmother and my father, learned from their days in India. Sometimes it is best not look too deeply into the etymology of a word but goodness it is descriptive. And whilst Trish has never lived in India, she learnt it from an Indian ayah whilst living in Dubai.

Writing this blog brought to mind the teenage glee with which a friend and I, then living in Papua New Guinea, would call her dog to heel. Her travel history included South Africa and her amusingly non-pc parents had named the mutt who appeared one day at their door, Voetsek. Voetsek in Afrikaans is a not terribly polite way of saying, “get lost”.

And so along with kindness comes humour. Two things necessary wherever we live but which is sometimes needed in larger doses when living a global life. Some of the things we build into big events or issues are really very unimportant in the greater scheme of life, and we need a take a kecil out of the huggery-buggery drawer and learn to realize that for most things, mai pen rai!

Now I wonder if there’s an expat website for that!

Note: I’ve just been told that huggery-muggery is listed in a 1700 Scottish dictionary so it seems India borrowed and adapted from the Scots!

Absorbing Cultures

January 15, 2016 — 1 Comment

Culture, a word with various meanings. My copy of the Shorter OED, once we get past the cultivation of bugs in petri dishes, defines it as, “the training and refinement of mind, tastes, and manners; the condition of being thus trained and refined; the intellectual side of civilization.” No mention of “ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society”, which is how an online dictionary interprets the word.

For those of us who have spent large swathes of our lives roaming the globe, living in other cultures, there is often a subliminal absorption of those cultures. Foreign words become part of our family lexicon, not through affectation as some of our more sedentary friends and family might assume, but because they are an audible part of our life wherever we happen to be living. I grew up with words like cukup and tidak, Malay words for Continue Reading…

Cordoba House

August 2, 2010 — Leave a comment

Emotions run high over proposed mosque at Ground Zero in Manhattan…

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