Who Am I? Reflections on Religious Pluralism

The Gordon College community, where I work, has been traumatized in the last few weeks.  My personal silence has come from the need to reflect in order to speak from my heart in a way that builds understanding rather than fuels more misunderstanding, anger, and mistrust.  I’ve been struck by the rhetoric that fails to engage the real issue facing our country, which is the issue of religious pluralism and how we are going to develop the skills of listening, of understanding, and of working together toward the common good.

Religious pluralism is a reality in the United States.  We have communities of faith that are Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and even New Age.  Native Americans are increasingly drawing on their spiritual roots.  Out of that plurality of religious traditions, my faith tradition, inherited from generations before me, is evangelical pietism.  My religious tradition goes back centuries, has its roots in Northern Europe, and found a strong home in the Midwestern U.S.  But increasing number of immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa come from the Evangelical Pietist tradition as well.  Congregations are springing up across New England and urban America that reflect the Evangelical Pietist tradition among these new immigrants.  Are we going to figure out how to engage with them?

One of my daughters was newly arrived in New England on July 1.  She came from a month of doing educational programming in a rural community in Appalachia (with a Catholic organization).  She has followed my family’s faith tradition.  And she says her world has shifted this month.  She has never seen such a lack of understanding of the plurality of religious faith traditions in our country, nor has she ever seen them so stereotyped as she has since arriving in New England.

In many ways, our Christian tradition is most akin to Catholic monasticism.  The tradition can be characterized by the practice of spiritual disciplines within the support of a faith community in order for us to deepen our relationship with God and conform our lives to the image of Christ.  It has a central element of sacrifice of self and individual desires for the good of others—modeled after Christ.  In my family it looked something like this:  I come from generations of pietists who practiced prayer and the reading of scripture, along with other pietistic practices (choosing not to smoke or drink alcohol for example) with the support of a faith community in order to better listen for what God might be asking of them.  For my grandfather, this meant he visited the local jail every Sunday morning and quietly gave away most of his wealth to those in need.  My grandmother and my parents were always taking in people to live with their family for extended periods of time, and my daughters and I did similarly.  My father, a Baptist minister, initiated the development of the Headstart program and community mental health center in my home town, and reached across the racial divide to the African American Baptist pastor during the civil rights era.  Today, the last congregation he served is led by an African-American pastor, something that he would have celebrated as the result of God’s spirit working in the hearts of that congregation.  In their retirement my parents volunteered for organizations like Habitat for Humanity and Love, Inc.  My family’s religious tradition was the fuel out of which service for the common good arose.  This is the same religious tradition that led the entire French village of Le Chambon to take in their Jewish neighbors during WWII.

Another way to see this tradition is an emphasis on holiness—the choice to subsume your own desires in the context of a faith community, for the good of others.  So for example, the evangelical pietistic Christian tradition has traditionally honored the choice of someone remaining single in order to be free to better serve others.  This is why evangelical pietism has commonalities with the Catholic tradition where monastic practices of chastity, spiritual disciplines, and the choice to live within boundaries develops virtues that enable the greater service to others. My mother would often say that my father could have easily been a Franciscan monk who spent his life in prayer and service.

This comes out of a central tenant of the tradition—that our central identity is our faith identity.  Our community is made up of people of different ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and social classes.  What holds us together is our central faith identity.  Do we struggle to understand how to incorporate the diversity of backgrounds into a central faith identity?  Daily for 125 years.  Gordon, which has its 125th Anniversary this fall, welcomed women, people of all colors, and all social classes into its community from its beginning.  One of our early deans of the faculty was a woman.  What keeps us working at community within this diversity is our faith identity—it provides our center and calls us to keep learning and listening respectfully to each other.  Finally, this tradition sees every human being made in the image of God.  Thus the tradition asks that we develop the self-control, and virtue needed to make every encounter with another person worthy of our faith commitment.  It is a tradition that is focused on transforming ourselves—not imposing on others—our choice to conform ourselves to particular spiritual disciplines and practices is that—our choice for ourselves.  It is not about imposing on others—all are welcome to partner with us in working for the common good, or to come and enjoy programs that any campus provides—whether it is to enjoy the beauty of nature in our natural areas on campus, to challenge yourself through our outdoor recreation programs, to explore the richness of the human experience through the arts, or to come join us for lectures that encourage respectful conversations, a phrase that shapes the culture of our campus.

Coming out of an evangelical, pietistic faith tradition, contrary to popular belief, does not lead to intolerance, but quite the opposite.  Our students are able to engage deeply with other traditions because they understand and appreciate the depth at which beliefs are held.  We take belief seriously.  This has meant that we have always welcomed people of other faiths, or no faith, to dialogue with us at Gordon College.  This has included LGBT community members.  We are a place that desires and wishes for difficult conversations because it requires us to think more deeply about our faith.

Furthermore, our faith asks us to focus on the transformation of ourselves into the image of Christ in order to love and serve all others without prejudice since each person is made in the image of God without exception.  This gives us the ground on which to demand high standards for the Gordon community in its interaction with our geographic neighbors, and other faith communities.  And we know and recognize that we fail daily.  But in spite of our failings, we continue to reflect and offer welcome to any who would engage with our particular faith community in a mutual journey of understanding.

Every religious community has documents and practices that call its members or people back to faithfulness to their tradition.  Each has a rich history and tradition behind it that resonates with those from within the community.  When we in the Gordon community affirm our statement of faith, we are reminded of what is at the center of our identity and our life together as a community—an evangelical faith.  And we read this with a particular history in mind, a context.  The statement itself has a history and context to it—we are coming up on our institution’s 125th Anniversary, meaning that our history and understanding of ourselves precedes the terms Christian fundamentalism (which arose in the 1930s), the religious right and the moral majority (which came about in the 1970s and 80s). When we affirm our life and conduct statement, we are reading the context of our tradition—going back hundreds of years—into the document as well.  It is a document written by us and for us.  It is a document that governs our life together.  It asks us to daily choose to love our neighbor, to seek holiness, to sacrifice our individual needs and desires for the common good, to serve the poor, and reminds us that we fail in all these areas daily, and we need forgiveness to begin anew.  It creates a context in which we have the ability to be consistent across our curriculum and co-curriculum to challenge (not punish) our students to go deeper and to demand higher standards for themselves, in a context of giving each other grace along with mutual accountability.  And they in turn demand much from us.

If we are going to learn to live together—Evangelical Pietists, Catholics, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, “nons”, we are going to need to stop throwing words, and begin listening.  We at Gordon are waiting and open.  In the meantime, I have been praying for my Muslim and Mormon neighbors, who each may have different belief systems that mine, that they may feel safe in the midst of this firestorm.

From Wainui to Woonsocket

Capture I love place names that just roll off your tongue like “Woonsocket.”  Every time I drove to Rhode Island I found myself repeating “Woonsocket” over and over again.  Then I moved on to the other “–ets” like Pawtucket, Muskeget, Nantucket, Narragansett…

Wait a minute!  What does this “–et” mean that is spread across the landscape in New England?

Patterns in place names should cause us to stop and ask questions about the indigenous language all around us.  I searched for some meaning to the “–et” and found that it seems to generally mean “place of.”

The indigenous place names of New Zealand don’t roll off your tongue as much as sound like the even beat of a drum:  Whangarai (fang gore I), Whanganui (fang ga new ee), Tauranga (tow rung gah).  Te Puke (Tee Pook Ee).  Whakatane (Fahk A Tahn Ee).  You get the idea.  They sound like a Maori war dance when you read them off.  I have a New Zealand friend who lived in the inner city of a U.S. city and would just start saying New Zealand place names when she felt threatened.  She figured it sounded like she was putting curses on people.  I did find one New Zealand place name that did seem to roll off your tongue and on for a distance:  Wainuiomata (Wah New Ee Oh Maht A)–Wainui for short.

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And then there are the place names that are totally indecipherable.  At the top of my list if Natchitoches, Louisiana which is not far from Nagadoches, TX.  Natchitoches (nack a dish) took some time for me to learn to pronounce as well as spell (spelling not being one of my strengths).  Nagodoches (nack a doe chez) makes much more sense to my phonetic approach to spelling.  Both of these are not far from Baton Rouge (Bah’ toh RRRooozh).

Transformative Cross-Cultural Relationships

Every year, as we decorated our Christmas tree, one of my daughters would pull out one particular brightly colored ornament that would prompt me to recall, one more time, the Chinese friend from graduate school who gave it to me.  And every year I wondered:  Where is Ji?  I so hope he is well.

Ji joined my office in graduate school in the early 1980s.  He had come to the U.S. on a one year program from his work unit–it was early in the process of China opening to the world.  We called ourselves the “office of failures” because we had all done something prior to coming to graduate school.  The office included a failed bureaucrat, failed historian, failed book seller, failed missionary, and Ji became our failed communist.  He endeared himself to us by putting up with our humor.  If someone came into the office and needed a chair to sit on, we would point to Ji’s chair and say “sit there–that is the People’s chair.”  He had this wonderful smile in response.

Ji was always asking questions and observing culture and language which also led to much amusement.  A roasted pig was served at the wedding of a graduate student and Ji concluded that Americans roast pigs at weddings receptions.  We corrected his assumption.

Ji was welcomed into my extended family.  He joined us for a ten hour car trip with members of my extended family to visit my parents one Thanksgiving.  I remember listening to him practice American expressions in the back seat such as  “Amazing”  “That is so interesting.”  We kept ourselves amused by speculating on cat-dishes in China:  sweet and sour tabby;  Garfield with beans on the side.  Over that Thanksgiving my father took him all over town to introduce him to small town America–to a farm, probably to a mortuary (my father taught death and dying), to just about everywhere.  Ji put up with us–though might have been confused–when my father’s friend sent a pizza box that was gift wrapped for my father’s birthday.  Inside was a cow pie.

Over the years, about once a year, my aunt asks me–remember that trip?  Where is Ji?  I hope he is well.

Ji also got to know my grandmother.  My grandmother was known for being able to strike up a conversation with anyone she met and find a connection to someone she knew.  When she first met Ji we just held our breath and waited to see if she managed to find someone that he knew in China…

Later in her life, she would say to me–remember that person from China?  That was so interesting.

Ji got an extension to stay a second year and then attempted to get into graduate school in order to apply his classes toward a degree.  He was denied by the university because he had gotten his undergraduate degree during the cultural revolution so it was not considered valid.  He had to return to China and his work unit.  I remember leaving him off at the airport, wondering and worrying about his future and whether I would see him again.

Literally every day I continued to think about Ji.  He was on my mind and in my prayers.  We sent him greetings in recordings from a family gathering.  I thought of him daily, if not multiple times a day.  Eventually he was able to get into another graduate school in the U.S. We helped by putting his name on our bank account–well, it never actually got on there because he didn’t sign the card, but we added the name for awhile. In the midst of all those transitions, one day I realized that I had not thought about Ji for several days.  I found out that I had stopped having him on my mind the day he had left China for the U.S. graduate school.

We met several times in the years after that but then I lost track of him.  I searched occasionally on the web.  My father, as he declined, would occasionally ask me:  Where is Ji?  I wish I knew he was doing well.

When living in Hong Kong, I would occasionally look at the map, seeing Ji’s hometown just north of Vietnam and think about going there.  He had called it the garden city.  I wondered if I could somehow find out what happened to him if I went there.  My mother recently asked me–Where is Ji?

This past month, I managed to work through a friend who knew someone from the graduate school he attended, who then figured out a way to search for him, and directed me to a university in China.  A Chinese colleague of mine read the website to figure out the email address that I could use to reach him.  We have exchanged emails and news about families!  I am so happy that he is doing well, and especially that he has a family.  My aunt and my mother are so pleased.

This Christmas, when I take out the Chinese Christmas ornament for my tree, I am going to think of Ji–and his family.  But I don’t have to wonder about whether he is well.

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Nature or Nurture: Are Geographers Made or Born?

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People who share my discipline often say that geographers are born, not made.  They recall being the children that always spent hours pouring over maps and atlases, and serving as the family navigator on road trips. I certainly experienced a certain “coming into my sweet spot” experience when I discovered the field.  I could study aspects of the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities in order to understand what I saw around me.  I could use abstract concepts to explain concrete patterns on the ground.  I still find it incredibly satisfying, a pleasure that I have to monitor around my daughters

What is it that makes us different, we geographers?   Are we visual learners? Is that the distinction from others?  Or are we “lumpers” rather than “spliters”–people who naturally are trying to understand phenomenon as wholes rather than reducing them into smaller and smaller parts?  Or are there developmental experiences that shape our interests?

I contemplated whether I was born a geographer, or became one this past week when I visited Winston Salem, North Carolina.  I had not been to Winston Salem since I lived there as a five year old.  I spent my first five years on the prairies of Iowa, went to North Carolina for one year, and then returned to the prairies of the Midwest.  I believe that in some way that one year fueled my imagination and my ability to image all possible worlds.  Did it make me a geographer?

As a five year old, I can remember the strangeness of the place–the Appalachian mountains and its coal beds, the hilly terrain, the red soil, the smell of the clay, the Baptist church my father pastored that was filled with tobacco farmers, and civil war bubble gum collecting cards.  I adapted overnight and took on a southern accent, yet maintained a northern identify in my bubble gum card collection.  Did I ask questions about all of this of my parents, or was all this processing going on in my mind?  And is it the multi-sensory nature of how I interacted with this place, almost feeling it in my bones, that characterizes me as a geographer?  I smelled.  I saw.  I heard.  I felt it.

A discussion with my mother and brother on the apartment complex where we lived that year, finally identified its location.  My mother thought is was east of the Baptist hospital where my father was in chaplaincy training, but my brother, who was 7 when we lived there, remembered the street.  I wondered if I would recognize it.  I remembered red brick apartments buildings with a hill behind our particular building (I slid down the hill using a plastic covered winter coat in a rare snowfall) and a parking lot at the bottom of the hill.  I could see myself at the bottom of the hill in the parking lot talking to my friends about the Civil War cards and could also picture a playground nearby.

DSCN0817 DSCN0822When I drove down the street, it wasn’t the detail of the buildings or the inside of the apartment that I remembered, but the context–the hill, the parking lot, and the grassy lot–and it was all there.  I think I know which building I lived in from that larger context–the visualization–whereas my brother remembers exact numbers and streets (he is a medical doctor).

I went by the Presbyterian church where I went to kindergarten.  North Carolina didn’t have public kindergartens at that time–something else that became part of my memory.  I was surprised that it was right across the street from the larger apartment complex.  It had had no relational spatial location in my memory.  It’s location was not part of my mental map.

DSCN0821Did this experience of living in a different world at such a young age make me a geographer, seeking out yet other possible worlds to explore over a lifetime?  Or did I see, smell, hear, and feel this place in the way I did because I was born to do this?

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Rules for Living (and traveling)

I have a rule that I try to live by:  Don’t fly into or out of airports in the southeastern United States in the late afternoon or early evening during the months of June, July, and August.

My rule comes out of the knowledge of the climate of that part of the world.  This Humid Subtropical region has very unstable air in the heat of the summer, meaning that the air has a tendency to rise if slightly heated.  The intense rays of the sun during the summer months during the day start this upward motion as as the day progresses–convection.  By late afternoon, the air has risen in the atmosphere to the level where it reaches condensation point, giving off even more heat energy which reinforces the upward movement and builds quite violent afternoon storms.  That is the scientific reason for my rule.

There is also a practical reason for my rule illustrated by the way that my week unfolded.

On Monday I left with a group for North Carlina to spend the week visiting campuses.  We arrived mid afternoon and only had to drive through the late afternoon storm en route to our hotel several hours later.  On Wednesday I had booked a round trip ticket from North Carolina for the day to go to D.C. for a meeting.  As I left the hotel at 5:30 a.m. to drive to the airport, leaving my suitcase and computer and everything behind, I thought briefly about taking my toothbrush and phone charger with me, but quickly pushed the thought out of my mind.  The meeting went well, and ended in plenty of time to get back to the DC airport. The plane loaded on time–5 p.m. and left the gate.  Two hours later we were still sitting on the runway waiting for a route to be established that would take us around the storms that had developed in the southeast.  We finally went back to the gate, were told we had 20 minutes and then would reload, but the flight was soon cancelled.  After standing in line I got booked on a flight that left at 10:40 p.m.  It was eventually cancelled.

After standing in line I was finally informed that I had a flight from North Carolina to Boston on Friday–I already knew that.  Given that reality they were trying to figure out why I was in DC.  After much searching, I was told that the only flight to North Carolina was the next day, Thursday, and it went from DC via Boston, stopping in Philly and reaching North Carolina at 10 p.m..  But, I said–I live in Boston and my luggage is in North Carolina!–circumstances that again, could not be easily explained.

I asked–How about just sending me to Boston this evening or early tomorrow?  No can go–my ticket was for DC to North Carolina so it had to be written to get me from DC to North Carolina no matter where it took me in-between.  All this time I was monitoring the power left on my phone, worried that I would not have enough left to finalize arrangements for a hotel.  I knew I needed to go buy a power cord for my phone if I was staying overnight but as I headed toward the stores, they were shutting down for the night.

Finally around 11:30 p.m.  I had my ticket to North Carolina via Boston and a hotel booked.  I went out to the taxi stand to find 91 people in line (as reported by the teenager in front of me).  I scribbled the name of the hotel down and its address before my phone died.

Arriving at the hotel at midnight, the desk clerk was confused by my lack of luggage-.  It is a long story, I explained, reporting that I was from Boston but my luggage was in a hotel in North Carolina.  He let me plug in my extra battery for my phone into his phone cord for the night while I went to my room to unwind and try to sleep.

The next morning I received an email from an un-named airline, reminding me that I was booked on the 10:40 p.m. flight the night before. Strengthened with a Starbucks cappuccino, I took the subway back to the airport, got on standby for an earlier flight to Boston, arranged for a colleague to get my luggage and empty my hotel room in North Carolina, and arranged for a shuttle to pick me up in Boston.  I purposefully did not make my connection in Boston.

I am glad to be home because my colleagues are returning today from North Carolina on a late afternoon flight…

 

Points, Lines, Areas, and Depth

Geographers often refer to spatial phenomenon as being represented by point, line or area symbols, depending on their areal extent, whether there is directionality to them, or other characteristics. I recently completed a road trip that took me through areas, following a line of the route, but encountering points along the way. 

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          The trip started at my home north of Boston with my older daughter who flew in to help me drive west to Michigan.  We had two choices for a route lines, one along the south shore of Lake Erie along the northern edge of Ohio or another through Ontario.  The Ontario route was shorter, but required taking a risk of long waits at the border crossing points.  We took our chances.After following the Erie Canal route across New York, we crossed into Ontario at Niagara Falls.

          While Niagara Falls is a destination point, it actually is part of the Niagara escarpment which crosses across southern Ontario, northward creating the Bruce Peninsula and a line of islands.  This is a ridge of hard dolomite that shapes the areas on either side of it.  As my daughter and I drove along Lake Ontario through the fruit belt of Ontario, the escarpment was on our left, the lake on our right, and the fruit in the small area in between where a unique micro-climate exists.My daughter had been in kindergarten when we had lived in Ontario for a few months.  Now she was driving me across the landscape.  I asked about her memories of that time—did she remember visiting the peach orchard in the fruit belt?

          As I looked around me, I saw all the elements that represented the region for me—green barns and Tim Horton coffee shops.  I wondered if I could have ever come to be a Canadian and wondered what kind of emotional attachment I would have had to the region if I had sought a different life on that side of the border.

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          When one traffic lane disappears and merges into another in Ontario, a mysterious event happens—in the U.S., the middle line disappears as you merge to the left—in Ontario the two lines meet.  This took me weeks to figure out when I lived in Ontario.  I would find myself totally confused and not able to identify why—two lines were not supposed to meet!  So during this trip I just sat and watched what happened to my daughter as she was driving in the right lane and it started to merge with the next lane on the left.  Sure enough—she screamed as she tried to figure out how to merge without crossing a line.  I was entertained.

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          We arrived in West Michigan for my younger daughter’s graduation from Calvin College.  I have lived most of my adult life with Dutch North Americans—areas of settlement across North America, interconnected by lines of migration.  In many ways, I probably identify or at least see “normality” in this ethnic group and their communities—Dutch names, jokes about Canadians (the migration crosses the border), conservative libertarian politics, high levels of education.  The pot holes and Middle Eastern food of West Michigan also made me feel at home. But in looking at the names of the list of board of trustees and graduates at my daughter’s graduation, I again wondered about my relationship to these places in which I had invested so much.  I’m always a translator between regions—between Canada and the U.S., between Dutch Reformed and other groups.  So is it like a colleague recently said to me—“the irony of my career teaching Spanish is that I can never, by the nature of not being born as a Spanish-speaker, become an expert in my field.”  When you are a translator between, in which space do you stand?  Or can between-ness in itself be an identity?

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          In West Michigan I picked up my mother, my younger daughter, and a family friend from Illinois where I grew up.  We began our road trip back toward Boston, along a route that involved points.  Often you think of a linear route as one directional, but in some sense the linear route took us back and forth through time, somewhat like Dr. Who. 

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          We stopped overnight south of Indianapolis to intersect with friends from Central Illinois who met us there—friends who had known me since I was eight years old.

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           We stopped in Morgantown, WV to have coffee with a friend who I had known in Minnesota in graduate school—we have geographer-colleagues spread across the world with the University of Minnesota as our point of reference.  We stopped in Pennsylvania at a meeting spot to have dinner with a couple who I had known for 30 years—they had visited me in Iowa and in Michigan and I had seen them at my geography meetings regularly.  I had gotten to know their son in the past 10 years and he ended up living in Hong Kong when I lived there.  We had breakfast in State College, PA with friends who had lived in my building in Hong Kong just two years ago.

          Points, time, and lines intersecting along our route.

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          Our route took us through Appalachia where I left my daughter at Mt. Laurel, WV to work with a couple of catholic nuns who work in educational programs in a remote area. 

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          Driving through the narrow valleys and coal areas of the Cumberland plateau intersected with some of my earliest memories.  When I was 5 years old we lived in North Carolina.  I can remember traveling from the flat region of the Midwest to the area of windy roads of the Appalachians—I can almost feel the big trucks on the narrow roads.  I can still see a girl who came to visit who had part of her family in the hospital from an accident on one of these narrow roads with a truck.  I recall the smoke of coal in coal mines abandoned yet still smoking from fires.  I can hear the voices.  I can almost feel my five year old self in a strange region. 

          My younger daughter’s future intersected with my past.

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          Finally we reached home (my home).  But then we made one more short trip.  My mother and I went to New Hampshire to meet someone who grew up in my home town who now lives in Maine.  We met at a middle point on the route between.  We talked about people who tied us together in the distant past in a place where our lives intersected long ago.

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          Points of intersection.  Areas of influence.  Routes along the way.  And the people who have shared parts of the journey and given us depth and dimension.

Encounters that Shift Worldviews

 In the Frontline film, American Game, Japanese Rules the viewer is confronted with how fundamentally different cultures can be, and how what appears to be the same on the surface is often underlain by entirely different sets of rules.  Case in point?  The strike zone in Japanese baseball expands in response to the increasing strength and ability of an individual batter.  What an American would consider to be unfair—the changing size of the strike zone—is perceived to be only fair under Japanese rules—the creation of a more even field of play.  The result is a high level of disorientation and frustration on the part of American baseball players who join Japanese teams.

Rules on how the world is supposed to operate become embedded into our entire being from the time we are born.  An ability to shift across cultures is a unique gift that few possess.  As a colleague recently said to me, of her time living in China, “Reading about culture does not make you able to make those deep shifts.”

Another element in the film above, is a conversation between the film-maker and Japanese middle managers.  They are out eating and drinking late at night after a typical long day at work and the film-maker asks:  “How many days of vacation do you take each year with your family?”  Silence follows.  Finally the businessmen begin to say how interesting it is to be asked this question.  Nobody has ever asked this question before.  An outsider arrives and asks a question, and that question alone creates disorientation and culture-shift.

I recently asked a group of individuals around a dinner table about the cross-cultural encounters that most changed them.  I was thinking of my younger daughter when I asked the question.  On our way home from 4 months in New Zealand, I virtually saw her shift from seeing the world centered on herself, to seeing the world from above, with its great variety and inter-relationships apart from herself.What followed my question were amazing stories.  Some stories were about going to another culture.  One person, a bit like my daughter, all of a sudden saw that the world was bigger than herself and that it wasn’t made up of English-speakers.  Another, in a visit to Honduras, was changed through trying to reconcile both his life of comfort and Honduran poverty, and the joy and richness of their lives with their lack of material wealth.  Likewise one around the table had gone to Ethiopia, only to have their local hosts take them for ice cream at a Sheraton Hotel because they were so proud of its being there.

The other stories were about outsiders visiting them.  One of my earliest memories falls into this category.  I must have been 3 years old when we had a visit from a minister from Nagaland to our church in rural Iowa.  He told me about his ten children, the games they played, and how his grandfather had been a head hunter.  My world was expanded and I can still picture him sitting in a chair while he talked with me.  The stories from amongst our group—of visitors from the outside—came from two individuals who grew up in Hong Kong.  One talked about meeting an Australian couple who came to meet her at her school because they were paying her way through secondary school.  Strangers from a far off place—another planet—who changed the direction of a life, a life shift of enormous magnitude as a young woman tried to imagine why these people from so far away had done this.  Another talked about taking English at the YMCA in Hong Kong when he was in high school and having a young man from the University of Iowa as a teacher.  He was so amazed that someone would come so far and from so far away (where was Iowa anyway?) to teach English, and with such passion, while living on the building rooftop where he had to share a common toilet with others.

“How many days of vacation do you take each year with your family?”  An outsider arrives, asks a question, or stretches our imagination just by their very presence, and changes our lives and worlds forever.

 

 

 

 

Particular Encounters that Lead us to Universal Truths

DSCN0666I recently returned from a 10 day trip to Hong Kong.  It was a study trip with friends, staff, and alums of Gordon College. The individuals in the group had a range of experiences with Asia, from having grown up in Hong Kong to having never been to Asia.

We heard lectures on the history of urban development in Hong Kong.  We ate great food.  We had discussions with people who work with the church in China.  We ate very good food.  We recruited students at a local international school, and then had great Dim Sum.  We learned about, and visited, a Swantou Baptist church.  We went to a great Chinese buffet.  We toured Hong Kong Island and had a fabulous lunch at the apartment of an honorary alum of the college.  You get the picture–great learning; great discussion; great sights; great food.

Near the end of the trip I asked the group to reflect on what they were taking away from this time together.  One person talked about being able to see what you read about–exponential economic growth and the shear volume of everything including population.  Another reflected on seeing how he had had a very naive view of China and now recognized a much greater complexity to their social fabric and argued for our need to do away with stereotypes in order to be effective in building a relationship with China. A third person talked about seeing that the Chinese church had the same challenges and concerns as the North American Church–concerns with materialism, family life, and education for their children.

Isn’t this what comes from all rich cross-cultural encounters?  We have to experience it and see it ourselves to begin to understand it.  Others, like ourselves, are more complex that we ever imagine from afar.  And, in the end, we need to remind ourselves that we share common concerns.

And food is always at the center of the practice of hospitality and the building of community.

Clueless in New England

I have a confession.  I have live on the North Shore of Massachusetts for 18 months.  I listen to the weather each morning on the radio.  I am a geographer.

For the entire time I have lived here I have been wondering:  Where are these Capin Islands that they are always talking about?  I have never heard of them before!

Just yesterday it came to me.  The weather announcer is talking about the Cape (Cape Cod) and the Islands (Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard):  The capin islands.