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.

It Isn’t Easy Getting to Brindisi


 I have never considered myself fearless.  I avoid walking over suspension bridges and my bucket list will never include climbing to the top of Mt. Everest. 

Recently I encountered parents that led me to think more about the nature of being fearless.  These parents encouraged their children to choose colleges that would provide challenges and opportunities for them to stretch beyond their comfort zone, at the expense of being close to home and within reach.  I call this fearless love—a gift of not constraining their children.

When my daughters each reached the age of 18, I reflected on what I was doing at that age—I was a sophomore in college and spending a semester studying in England followed by several months wandering the continent.  This experience included hitchhiking (never alone), sleeping on trains, and going to the end of a train line in Norway to catch a 24 hour ferry ride to spend the longest day of the year north of the Arctic Circle—alone.  It also included a very sketchy round-trip arrangement from Brindisi, Italy to Greece which included being stranded in Corfu en route, a train strike in Italy, and feeling the hand of a train conductor on my leg in the middle of the night.  My mother later told me that she woke up in the middle of the night and felt she needed to pray for me.  The phrase my fellow travelers and I used to recall that particular leg of the trip was:  It isn’t easy getting to Brindisi.

What were my parents thinking?  No internet, extremely rare and expensive phone calls—letters that I picked up at the American Express office only if my parents correctly anticipated where I was.  What WERE my parents thinking?  They only asked that they eventually have a chance to come meet me to join the adventure, and that there be comfortable hotel accommodations.

It is always a choice—do you take the safe route, or do you take a risk?  I moved my daughters, aged 10 and 13, to New Zealand for a semester.  In the midst of the arrangements I recall thinking that this was just too much work!  Why didn’t I just take my sabbatical and stay home?  But then again, that would mean I would be staying home…  We went to New Zealand and I mastered driving on the left side of the road, consciously modeling for my daughters that I wasn’t too old to push myself out of my comfort zone. 

Recently a colleague and I were talking about the less-than-wise things we had done in our lives—the types of things that might have gotten you killed that you didn’t want your parents to know about.  I lit up just thinking of a particular experience in New Zealand.  It began with the fact that I had a 4 wheel drive vehicle for a couple of months.  We lived with friends who had two young daughters.  Richard suggested that, along with his wife Penelope, we all take our girls in this 4 wheel drive vehicle around the end of Cape Palliser, a 13 kilometer off-road track that ran around the southeast edge of the North Island.  Who was I to argue with a local?


Richard called a friend to check out the safety of the trip.  We made a lunch of scrambled eggs sandwiches, packed the cooler, and headed out.  First stop was the Cape Palliser lighthouse at the end of the road.  At the beginning of the track we waited for someone to come through, again checking that it would be safe.  All systems were go, having gotten some advice about one particular part of the track.  The word was to stay to the left in the “desert,” a sandy beach early in the route.  As an extra caution, we decided to follow another vehicle.


Needless to say, we got stuck in the desert, not realizing that we needed to physically turn something on the wheels to turn on the 4 wheel drive.  That solved, we proceeded.  At one point we had to drive along a one-lane sand ledge with drop offs of several hundred feet.  As we went around the ledge, my daughter who was sitting in the front seat screamed—turn around!!!  In the meantime the younger girls were all being fed chocolate by Penelope in the backseat.  And at that point, Penelope felt compelled to tell me that my insurance didn’t cover a vehicle on roads like this. The young men in the car in front of us assured us that this was the worst of the track.  Well, maybe not…  First the desert, then the sand ledge with the drop-off into the ocean, and then the track ascended a rock mountainside at a 75% grade up, and then down.  We made it.  But the windy (paved) road home left the girls carsick so the screams turned to moans.  For days afterward, the adults would just look at each other and shake their heads.

I still don’t do Ferris Wheels, I avoid swing bridges, and I once gave away my ticket for bungee jumping.  I really didn’t see the point.  But get me thinking about getting to the Chatham Islands by cargo ship, or to Hudson Bay by train across the tundra, and I might start dreaming and scheming…Surely there would be a way…

Bless all the parents who give their children the gift of being allowed to go, to be risk-takers (and for praying for their safety).   It gives us adventures to share.


The Games People Play


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I became a New Englander over the weekend.  How did this happen?  I went out and participated in several rounds of Candlepin bowling.  This is a variation of “normal” bowling that is found in the Canadian Maritime provinces and New England.  A short version of the comparison to standard bowling is that the pins are narrower (looking like candles from a distance), you get three chances to hit them down (though still only two to gain a strike), the downed pins stay there throughout your turn, and you roll a standard ball that is the size of a softball that weighs around 2 pounds.  As with regular bowling, I started out well and then raced to the bottom of the pack over the course of the game.


In spite of globalization, games remain regional.  Other games that are at least more prominent in New England than in the Midwest are lacrosse, field hockey, and crew.  Lacrosse has Native American origins and when I lived in Louisiana, one of the local tribes played a version that was referred to as stick ball.

In 1993 when I was living in Iowa, they ended the era of 6 on 6 girls’ basketball which had dominated that state for decades before (http://www.iptv.org/iowastories/detail.cfm/sixonsixhalf-court).  This gendered basketball form is not to be confused with the half-court basketball that was promulgated in places in the U.S. to help protect girl’s reproductive capabilities.

In New Zealand, girls played a version of basketball called netball.  I can’t say that I ever saw a game played, but my older daughter described it as basketball where you weren’t allowed to dribble.  Once you had the ball in your hand, you had to stay put.  She found it to be utterly mystifying and unsatisfactory, similar to my assessment of cricket where bats are flat and nothing seems to be happening.   

My younger daughter did pick up on a game similar to jacks when were in New Zealand, called knucklebones.  It used to be played with the knuckles of sheep, but now comes in the form of metal pieces in the same shape.  You compete with each other as you work through a series of more complicated moves.

Ping pong and badminton dominated in Hong Kong, lawn bowling in Canada and the UK, and curling in Minnesota.  This latter sport involves sliding stones across ice toward a target.  As I remember there was something related to a broom and the ice in Minnesota also.

Cold winters and ice seem to be the breeding ground for particular types of games.  In the U.S., people of all ages and gender participate in softball leagues.  Churches, businesses, and organizations each field their own teams and summers involve the schedule of weekly softball matches.  When I lived briefly in Canada, it was clear that seasons were reversed in terms of community-spirited competition.  Everyone joined community hockey leagues. 

When I moved away from Iowa, it just so happened that I sold my house to someone moving from Newfoundland.  In one email exchange on the details of the cross-border move, the purchaser of my house asked about hockey leagues.  I told him that there were none.  He responded, “You are kidding, right?”  I’ve always wondered if he joined a softball league…



I associate the sound of Morning Doves with my grandmother’s house in Minnesota.  As a small child, probably 6 years old, I remember hearing them in her yard and asking someone (who did I ask?): What is that sound?  I have heard Morning Doves in other places, but they remain vividly tied to a particular place and the visual image of my grandmother’s yard with its evergreens.  When I hear Morning Doves, I can’t help but go back to that place.

I’ve been trying to think of other sounds that have strong associations similar to this seemingly passing experience of an adult giving a quick explanation to a 6 year old.  The sound of a very hot, humid night where the insects sound as thick as the air?  I can imagine playing “kick the can” as the darkness falls and the noise of the night creatures increase, ending with the voice of a parent calling the first child home in the neighborhood.

Most of these sounds, that elicit such memories, seem to be from childhood, like the sound of the International Harvester morning factory whistle, that marked the change in shifts, but also the start of my day.  I can see myself laying in my bed as a child, listening for the whistle.  Sounds unconsciously shape who you become.

I can always tell if it has snowed overnight.  As I lay in bed, I sense the quiet of the world around me–a world blanketed in snow.  I find myself, in that world between sleep and waking, listening for the rumble of the snow plow to confirm what the rest of me already seems to know.  And recall the joy of going into my girls’ rooms when they were school-aged and whispering in their ear–snow day!


Midwestern Values

As I sat enjoying my hot soup in my warm house, I thought about the fact that most tall tales are based in fact…

After the snow storm hit, my assistant, Cathy could not even fling herself out her sliding door like she had in the past. The windows were plastered with snow.

Meanwhile in Grand Rapids my family and I had a Christmas dinner with ham.  My mother suggested that I take the ham bone home to New England since my mother was leaving for the warm southwest in early January. The ham bone was put in the freezer to await its flight.

Back in Rockport, Cathy did not want to abandon her mother when she went exploring outside.  She strapped her mother to her back, both having had relevant experience in the Andes Mountains.

Meanwhile back in Grand Rapids, I packed the ham bone in my bags, preparing for my trip home.

Back in Rockport, Cathy and her mother went through a window in order to get to the roof and get the lay of the land and see the results of the storm.

Meanwhile, in Grand Rapids, I put the ham bone back into the freezer when my flight was cancelled.

Back in Rockport, Cathy and her mother could not identify the landscape nor identify which lump of snow hid their car.

Meanwhile in Grand Rapids, I packed the ham bone in my bags for my rescheduled flight back to Boston.

 Back in Rockport, Cathy and her mother could not identify the landscape nor identify which lump of snow hid their neighbors.

 Meanwhile, in Grand Rapids, I put the ham bone back into the freezer when my flight was cancelled.

 Back in Rockport, Cathy and her mother sat and viewed the beauty of the snow from their rooftop framed by the ocean and the winter sky.

 Meanwhile in Grand Rapids, I packed the ham bone in my bags for my rescheduled, rescheduled flight back to Boston.

 Back in Rockport, Cathy and her mother continued to enjoy the view from their roof.

 Meanwhile in Grand Rapids, I packed the ham bone and unpacked it when my I got the cancellation notice for my rescheduled, rescheduled, rescheduled flight back to Boston.

 Back in Rockport, Cathy called me from her rooftop, claiming that the weather had warmed and that I was obviously telling a tall tale and trying to keep the ham bone from arriving in Boston.

 Meanwhile in Grand Rapids, I packed the ham bone and went to the airport to take my rescheduled, rescheduled, rescheduled, reschedule flight to Boston.  It was cancelled.  At 4:30 a.m. the next morning I drove the ham bone through the Arctic vortex to Detroit to catch a direct flight to Boston.

 Back in Rockport, Cathy’s mother, finally tired of being on the roof, commanded her to fly off that roof.  The neighbors ran to their windows to see a flame of red hair streak through the sky…

 And then, finally, after an ice storm, a 2-foot snow fall, an arctic vortex, 4 cancelled flights, a Michigan Christmas ham bone that came to Massachusetts, a Cathy that was came back to ground, and one mother warmly established back in her home and another off to Phoenix, the holiday season came to an end.

 And I enjoyed my spit pea and ham soup, thinking how proud my Midwestern grandmother would be of my persistence in not making a ham bone go to waste.