Posts Tagged ‘cross-cultural issues’

I’m going to make up a Bible story.

Once upon a time, Jesus was teaching his disciples, saying, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” (Ok that part is real; it’s in Matthew 5…the rest I’m making up.) But someone in the crowd, wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus, “But who is my enemy?”

Now, in my story, if I was more creative, Jesus would tell a really great parable that turns the question on its head, asking the crowd, “Who am I treating as an enemy?”

If we try to answer that question, we may note that our killing sprees are infrequent, and we no longer push people down on the playground. We would probably find ourselves repenting over ways that we have treated a spouse like an enemy, or ways that we bulldozed our son’s boundaries, or spoke harshly to a coworker. But I’d like to go a bit beyond that to ways that I have seen myself treating people as enemies in the past.

You know how we don’t really notice the aroma of home until we’ve been away, or how our hometown landscape is invisible to us until we’ve lived in a different place? Well, I noticed something about American Christian culture when I moved toBahrain. I noticed that Christians feel like a lot of groups are their enemies, even though we don’t call them that.

American Christians often feel like a small, persecuted minority. Other people don’t see us that way. In fact, others can feel overwhelmed by the strength and prominence of the Christian presence inAmerica. Christians feel like others have an agenda to take away their freedom of religion, and Christians feel the need to defend themselves. Others feel that Christians fight to have their own rights trump the rights of other groups.

Some of these feelings lead Christians to feel that we are being attacked. But we don’t call those people enemies. Sometimes I wish we would. I wish Christians would just say, “Yeah, I think (fill in the blank–Muslims, Democrats, gays, atheists, immigrants, or non-Christians) are our enemies. I think they are intentionally trying to destroy our way of life.” Because if Christians would admit that we think people are our enemies, wouldn’t we have to make the connection that Jesus told us to love those people?

But suppose we don’t ask “Who is my enemy?” Suppose we ask, “Am I acting like an enemy?”

Maybe we would see that we take whole groups of people and the individuals in that group, and we assume negative intentions on their part, and then treat them accordingly. We might discover that we don’t really listen to others’ perspectives, but insist on believing that we know what they “truly” believe, or what their “real” agenda is. We might find out that when we say things like “love the sinner, but hate the sin,” we have no idea how deeply we are hurting the so-called “sinners.” Especially when “loving the sinner” is theoretical, whereas “hating the sin” is well-practiced and oft-articulated.

I want you to know that I’m writing this because I feel deeply grieved over the ways in which I have done these things. I have valued rightness over kindness, honored evangelism over unconditional love, and held so tightly to my foundation of certainty that I wasn’t able to truly respect people who believed or lived differently from me. It took some pretty big (and painful) paradigm shifts in my life to see how unloving I could be at times—especially when I thought I was being loving.

I would love it if you would share your thoughts about who we treat as enemies.

Photo by Aislinn Ritchie, CC license


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This says,"I am Muslim, and I love my Christian brothers and sisters."

Men kept touching me. They have this way of reaching out in the middle of a crowd and brushing your body in inappropriate places without ever looking your way. Then you doubt yourself, because no one looks like they did it on purpose. But it’s too targeted and personal to be an accidental touch.

I had only been in Bahrain about a year, but I knew that none of my friends were having this problem with guys. I was doing everything I could to dress and behave modestly and appropriately. But it kept happening.

One night I was home alone and the doorbell rang. We had an intercom, like everyone else, but I couldn’t understand the person on the other end. I went out my front door and unlocked the gate to find a Pakistani man standing there. “Give chance. Give chance,” he said. I thought he wanted to wash my car.

After several attempts to communicate, he asked, “Russia?” “No…America,” I answered, puzzled. I closed the gate, and by the time I got inside it dawned on me—he thought I was a Russian prostitute. I was stunned, and also ashamed and nervous. Why would he think I was a prostitute? Was he watching the house to know that I was alone? Was I safe? Were there others?

Several days later he came back. I ran up to my roof to see over the wall and confirm that it was him again. I called my neighbor, a Bahraini man with several daughters who I knew would help. He called the police and came over and held onto the man until the police came. I was really shaken. And all the police questioning makes you feel like it’s your fault.

Funny, even writing this now, I wonder, will people think this was my fault? I felt that shame much more back then–because women often feel that way, because Middle Eastern culture tends to put responsibility on the woman in these kinds of incidents, and maybe mostly because I was trying so hard not to draw attention to myself, to be above reproach in that culture.

As these incidents added up, they started to weigh on me. I was nervous. My stomach would knot when I pulled up behind a truck full of Pakistani workers. The stares unnerved me. I felt jumpy dealing with men at shops or in the souq.

After a while, some ideas started to rise up inside of me. Two Bible verses became mantras to me, not just to say them, but to imagine them. One was “The name of the Lord is a fortified tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.” (Proverbs 18:10) I would imagine God as a tower with strong walls all around me, and it helped me to feel safe. The other verse was “But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the one who lifts my head high.” (Psalm 3:3) In many ways the hijab, or veil, is a symbol of honor and protection for a woman.* But my physical coverings didn’t seem to be doing their job. So with this verse I actually pictured God wrapping a cloak around me that hid me from those who wanted to take advantage of me. The part about God being the lifter of my head helped me let go of some of the shame I had been feeling.

These practices, done consistently every time I felt uncomfortable or frightened helped me recover a feeling of safety and security. But that wasn’t enough. I wanted to move from feeling protected to actively loving. So there was another component to my practice. As is often the case, my fears had generalized to all men of similar ethnic origins. So it wasn’t just a handful of people who hurt me that I was now afraid of—it was lots of people. So every time I felt uncomfortable I would ask God to bless those people that I was afraid of—I would try to desire from my heart  that God would do good things for them.

Recently I have been thinking about how negative experiences with a few people can grow to become anger toward and fear of a whole group of people. It happens all over the world, but my heart particularly aches when I see this happen between Muslims and Christians.

Individual hurts have taken place when Americans have been affected by terrorism, when Muslims have been bullied or hurt by hate crimes, when people from each group try to convert each other in disrespectful ways, and when we assume the worst about each other. But those hurts that happen on an individual level, or on a small-group level become culturally ingrained fears, prejudices, and inability to love.

There is no magic formula for overcoming these hurts, because they affect us each individually in different ways. I shared my story as just one example. For me, the emotional touch points were fear and shame. It’s important for each person to invite healing into their lives in a way that is personally meaningful, in the way that your gut tells you you most need it, and then to turn around that healing toward the people who hurt you, even toward their whole ethnic or religious group.

My story ends with a dramatic, but not immediate transformation. I had to keep the practice up for a significant period of time before I noticed that I was settling into a feeling of safety and love again, but it was a big change from the fear and anxiety that I had been experiencing.

Do you have stories of seeing this kind of change happen in you? Do you have experiences that you would like to see turned around from hurt to love? Tell us about it in the comments.

*Note: Yes, there are ways the hijab can be used negatively as well—it is a mixed bag that is experienced differently by different women, but I think it’s important to understand that it can have positive connotations.

Photo by Gigi Ibrahim

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Who is that? I think frantically to myself. I’ve just come out of the store, and a woman completely covered in black has just called out my name. All I can see is her eyes. They say the eyes are the window to the soul, but I’m not sure I know this woman’s soul well enough to tell who she is. Of course she recognizes me—I’m a blonde American wearing an abaaya. I stand out. We kiss and exchange greetings, and I finally figure it out—she’s the oldest daugher of my neighbors, here visiting from Qatar.

Rather than seeing people out and about, I much preferred sitting in women’s homes with them and drinking tea. Then I got to see them without all the coverings. I got to see them be funny and passionate, exuberant or sad. I got to glimpse who they really were.

Relating cross-culturally, it can be hard to get to that place. Because once you get off the literal veils, which don’t really matter that much, you still have a lot of unveiling to do. Invisible veils cover who we really are. There’s awkward communication and cultural disconnects, trying too hard to adapt, worry about unknowingly offending, feeling like you stick out like a sore thumb, wondering where your commonality lies, and if you have any at all.

But this is not just a cross-cultural phenomenon. It’s true for anyone, anywhere. There are veils of who I think I ought to be and trying to please people. Veils of being ashamed or insecure. Veils of reactiveness and triggers. Veils of how we get what we think we need and what it takes to feel safe. Veils of our paradigm for seeing the world and how we mistake that for who we really are.

I heard a beautiful illustration this week. A woman sits in the middle of the room. Each participant reads a sentence about painful experiences in her life, and then drapes a scarf over her head. One after another they read and drape, until it’s impossible to tell who is underneath the layers of cloth. Then, when we interact with her, we see all those coverings, not who she really is.

If we could see it, all the people we interact with, and we ourselves, are walking around hidden by layers of scarves, or swathed in black like my friend inBahrain. But we know and believe that underneath is something beautiful. Underneath is the image of God, the person we really are, the beauty we were created with. I want to see through the veils and recognize that reflection of God in each person I meet. And I want others to see that in me too.

Photo by Emerentian, CC License

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On Thanksgiving morning I checked my facebook, as I often do. I clicked on a link a friend from the Middle East had posted, and all of a sudden I was face to face with pictures of a man whose head had been blown open during the Arab Spring protests. As I clicked the images closed, I felt almost as violently assaulted with the juxtaposition of this suffering and pain against cheery Thanksgiving messages.

All day I struggled. Physically, I was in the world of turkey and stuffing and apple pie, but mentally I was feeling guilty and ashamed to be celebrating in a safe place with my family when I have friends hurting in other places.

When I talk about this kind of survivor’s guilt, other people’s heads nod in solidarity. It’s a common experience, but not a road that ends well.

Here are some thoughts I have about survivor’s guilt and combating it:

Recognize dichotomistic thinking. When we see thousands of people dying, wounded, and homeless from an earthquake, our brains tend to go to a place where our lives are perfect and their lives are terrible—and why should we have it so good? We separate “our lives” from “their lives,” and we paint a sharp contrast between the two. Not only is the reality is less clear cut, but this automatic way of thinking separates us from those who are hurting rather than connecting us.

Focus on our connection rather than our separation. In truth, our lives are not all good, and their lives are not all bad. Though we may not have experienced the same disaster or magnitude of suffering, we do know pain. Whether we are faced with a large-scale tragedy or a friend who is hurting, opening our hearts to the common experience of loss and heartache allows us to replace guilt with empathy.

Accept our shared helplessness. I think feeling guilty is one way we cope with the terror of seeing the helplessness of the human condition. We cherish our sense of control and the related fantasy of fairness in life. When we are confronted by undeserved tragedy, it helps to allow ourselves to grieve over the powerlessness of both the sufferers and ourselves, rather than mentally fighting to maintain our illusion of control.

Choose actions carefully. Acting from guilt or from separation rather than from connection can do more harm than good. For large scale problems, we may desperately throw money at the tragedy without carefully considering the most helpful channels for those resources. For more personal problems, we may feel inclined to try to fix the problem or make it go away in order to deal with our discomfort. This often ends up coming across as “helping” from a position of superiority, rather than from a place of equality, and it belittles the sufferer. In either situation, slowing down, allowing ourselves to connect and be vulnerable enough to empathize, and waiting for wisdom can lead to more purposeful, calculated, and useful action.

Do you struggle with guilt when you see others in pain? What helps you overcome guilt and move to a more constructive place?

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Every year, halfway through the month of Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting), kids in the Arabian Gulf dress up in traditional clothes and go around the neighborhood from house to house collecting candy, nuts, money, and chips from the neighbors. In the more cohesive communities, families and groups have tables with sweets and drinks set out, strings of colored twinkle lights decorate the neighborhood, and music plays in the streets.

Girgaoun was one of my favorite cultural activities in Bahrain. In recent years, we spent Girgaoun across the main street from our house in the village near us.  Our side of the street was a newer neighborhood with a mix of families from different backgrounds and different areas, even a few different nationalities, whereas the village nearby had been around for years, with families living and dying together and marrying each other and all knowing everything about each other. It has a typical small-town feel, but it was right across the street from a suburb-style neighborhood.

Now, the complication of Girgaoun is that, within our small country of Bahrain, it can actually be celebrated on three different nights. It all has to do with the clerics sighting the moon at certain times, and of course there are politics involved, so often Sunnis celebrate on one night, Shi’a who follow one cleric celebrate the next night, and other Shi’a celebrate a third night. Sometimes members of a single family have different religious allegiances, so a wife may not even be celebrating on the same night as her husband (not to mention starting and ending the fast on different days too!)

So each year I would call my friends and try to get the inside scoop and feel out the most likely day for our village to have their festivities. I always felt a little nervous getting the kids dressed up and wondering if we were going to show up in the streets all decked out only to have it turn out that it was the wrong night.

Girgaoun 2005


Finally, we would make it out, wondering on the walk over whether it was the right night or if we were going out too early.  We would get all nervous and jittery and finally breathe a sigh of relief when we rounded the corner and saw kids trip-trapping around in their glittery dresses and fancy vests and carrying a bunch of plastic grocery bags just to manage the loot.

 Girgaoun at Bethany’s preschool ’04
Even though we did not live in that village, people recognized us and always seemed happy to see us. Grandmas and moms and dads sat outside giving out treats, urging the kids and even the parents to take more. (Americans never give candy to the parents, so that one really surprised me!) One notices how the women are more visible during Girgaoun than at almost any other time of the year. In fact, the whole community is more visible. So many holidays are celebrated indoors with the extended family, but this one is an out-in-the-streets, let’s-all-party kind of holiday. It doesn’t even matter that it’s nearly 200 degrees out and if we could harness the watersource pouring down the middle of everybody’s backs, we could probably stop Bahrain from being a desert.

In any case, it was one of those glimpses I used to get from time to time of what it felt like to really be part of the community there in Bahrain, instead of being an outsider, and I loved it.

Girgaoun at Josh's preschool 2007

We affectionately referred to making the Girgaoun rounds as “trick-or-treating,” but this year Bethany and Josh experienced the American version for the first time. Josh, who loves dressing up in costumes, especially if he can scare people, changed his mind about his costume several times a week from September onwards. Bethany approached things more cautiously, feeling very uncertain about what constituted an appropriate costume in this culture, and finally decided to be a pirate. Josh was a skeleton.

The county informed residents of the Halloween rules: Trick-or-treating should take place from 6 pm until 8 pm. Only children 12 and under can participate. Try not to use masks. Inspect candy carefully.  I remember parents being worried about poisoned candy back in “my day,” but the official rule sheet was a surprise to me. Things have changed.

We went out at the stroke of 6, nervous that we weren’t out at the right time, wondering about unspoken rules and feeling like a foreigner and outsider just the way I used to in Bahrain. But we relaxed once we saw the first group of costumed kiddies out with their parents. After that, we had fun. Josh was totally in his element. He loved the spooky stuff; he loved that adults kept telling him how scary he looked in his skeleton costume; he definitely loved the candy. Bethany felt that the experience was essentially different from Girgaoun (even though she sang the Girgaoun song on one of the empty streets), largely because the spookiness factor of Halloween contrasted sharply with the celebratory atmosphere of the Gulf holiday.

For me, it felt familiar. Neighbors out in front of houses hanging out as they handed treats out to the children. Children giddy from the costumes and high on sugar. Neighbors happy to see each other and gushing over kids that they would normally overlook. Halloween was my first glimpse into feeling like this American neighborhood might be a community. I felt emotional and nostalgic, partly from missing Bahrain, but even more because just like those celebration days in Bahrain, Halloween was a tiny little window into something that I haven’t quite reached yet in America–a sense of belonging.

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It is now less than a month until our big move back to America. Getting ready for a huge life change is a roller coaster ride. Steve and I keep reminding ourselves to expect and roll with the ups and downs. Aside from really losing it a few times when thinking about having to leave close friends here, my dominant emotion has been excitement. I’m excited about being near family and friends without having to say good-bye after a couple of months. I am looking forward to my kids getting to be with their grandparents more.  I can’t wait to go out and walk in green, green Virginia and go for picnics in parks. I’m already drooling over having access to a public library and keeping a mental list of all the books I want to devour (A Primate’s Memoir, Stephanie Plum #16, a couple of Jennifer Weiner books, Pema Chodron…to name a few).  I am hoping to watch the Colbert Report as often as possible, and I’m looking forward to seeing Season 6 of The Office. I am excited that I will get to homeschool both kids this coming year. Even though I slowly waded my way into homeschooling , I have thoroughly enjoyed diving in  full time this past year with Bethany, and I am excited about coming into it with a little more experience this year.

Cooking is kind of a hobby for me, and I’m looking forward to having more ingredients available to play with. I want to take my kids to the museums in Washington, D.C. and to let them see Virginia in the fall when the leaves look like warm, colored snow. Winter, autumn, and spring have all been pretty much theoretical since we’ve lived in Bahrain, and I’m ready for them to be real again. And did I mention I can’t wait to soak up all that green? (you know, grass and stuff)

Of course, all that forward-looking excitement likes to alternate with anxiety.  Culture stress is one aspect of that, and starting over with a new life is another.  Whenever we visit America we experience that feeling of being out of sync, like watching a movie dubbed in another language. There are different particulars that catch us off guard with each visit, but some are always the same. I always feel strong anxiety in grocery stores in America. Go figure. Shopping is disorienting and overwhelming even though I  look forward to the products available.  Church is often the place of biggest culture shock to me, even though I feel like I “ought to” fit in there.  I also find that I don’t know what is “normal” about me and what is not. I don’t really know what daily life is like for other moms because I’ve never been a mom in America.  When I am at the playground surrounded by folks in my stage of life, I know that I look just like them, but I don’t know if I am like them or not.

I also really wonder how Bethany and Joshua will do with the culture change. Even as their mom, I can’t fully see all of the ways they have been shaped by growing up in the Arabian Gulf. Their differentness is invisible, and I hope I won’t miss seeing the things that affect them the most.

What scares me most is also what I am most deeply looking forward to–starting over. There are many reasons that we decided to move back to America. I find it hard to capture the reasons in words, and sometimes the factors are different for me and for Steve. One way to explain it would be that we have changed a great deal over the past few years. There has been stress and burnout and depression and disappointment…which all sounds pretty negative, but we feel like it has been a catalyst for a lot of positive change in our lives. The problem was that our life didn’t seem to fit right any more. We are still in a state of internal transition, so we are in the uncomfortable but hopeful place of knowing we want to change direction but not knowing what direction we are to head in next. So, we are ready to feel our way forward step by step in a new place.

I am incredibly grateful for this chance to start over, to let go of some of our goals and even long-time dreams and to find a new way of being. It is scary too.  I’m not scared of being in the dark or of not knowing what’s next. I’m scared because I don’t know how to communicate who I am to people right now. I’m going to meet new friends, and I don’t know how to define myself to them. Scarier than that is people I already know–I have changed a lot, but I am too much in the middle of the process to be able to defend that change. I fear that I will not be who others expect me to be, and I am worrying about that a lot.  In the last few years, I’ve been wriggling out of the expectations cocoon, which has taken a good amount of courage, but going back to America and not being what people expect is a really big jump for me on the bravery continuum.  (As a side note, this is one of the reasons I have been rather sluggish with this blog–I keep second-guessing whether I really want to be authentic and honest about who I really am and what I’m really thinking.)

So there you have my excited and my scared, my hopeful and apprehensive. I feel really good deep down about this move, even about the bravery I will have to summon to confront my fears. I’m grateful for my friends on both sides of the ocean who walk with me through this process.

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This was Steve’s and my fourth trip through Saudi Arabia as a couple. As residents of a GCC (Arabian Gulf) country, we cannot get visas to visit Saudi without a business invitation, but we can get transit visas to drive through to somewhere else. So, Steve and I have taken advantage of this opportunity to make some road trips. We drove to the UAE, Yemen and kuwait (sorry, my keyboard is having problems and I can’t capitalize certain letters)–all pre-kid adventures–and now Jordan. Each trip has taken us on a different route, which is fascinating, because Saudi is a large country featuring many different types of … sand. (ha ha) Seriously, I have been amazed by the unexpected beauty and differing landscapes of this desert country. On the trip to Yemen, we saw families of monkeys sitting by the roadside in the Western mountains and coconut-shaped huts peeking out of the dry grass in southwest Saudi. On this trip, we marvelled at the many different shades of sand, some very beautiful, and the striking rock formations.

Steve had to do all the driving, since women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, so I got to sit back and look at the scenery in between reading to the family and feeding people fruit, crackers, coffee, and peanut butter and nutella sandwiches (I never want to see another one as long as I live!)

The borders went very smoothly, the kids were pretty contented, and the ‘hotel’ that we stayed at in Arar was all that I expected and more (less, actually, in that I didn’t see any cockroaches).  low expectations are a good thing sometimes. We had been preparing the kids and ourselves for ‘adventure’–read ‘things going wrong’–but we were pleasantly surprised in that respect.

I really only have one notable incident to tell about the first trek between Bahrain and Wadi Ram in Jordan. Just after crossing the Jordanian border, one passes a small town called Mudawwara. We were looking for a dirt road going off to the left, supposedly sporting a signpost. As sunset neared and we had not found the turnoff, we turned back to Mudawwara to ask for some help. As far as I could tell, Mudawwara was made up of 15 or so bedouin tents, a few cinderblock houses, some goat pens, and a couple of government buildings. We pulled off the road toward the nearest home, which happened to be one of the cinderblock squares, which in my mind feels like it was shorter than I am and barely large enough to fit a family in–but it probably wasn’t really that small. A woman was walking toward it, so Steve voted for me to be the one to ask directions. Fortunately, bedouin Arabic in Jordan is a lot more similar to Bahraini Arabic than urban Jordanian dialect is, so I was able to communicate with her. She told us to keep going (farther than we had tried) until we came to the police station, and then to turn. Then she invited us into her home, which we politely declined.

Here is what was so striking to me about this encounter. She related to me as if I was not the least bit different than her. She didn’t treat me with distance, reserve, suspicion, or formality. It is difficult to describe the nuances of the interaction that make one feel like an outsider or an insider. I felt  like an insider with her, even though I was walking into a situation where I had ‘outsider’ written all over me. It was a very touching experience for me…one that I will tuck away in my shirt pocket and hope that it will soak into my heart in a way that allows me to give others that same gift. 


To see some more pictures of the trip, check out my facebook page.

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