Apr 28, 2013

Widening Out America and How Hollywood Killed the Explorer

There's America, then there's the rest of the world. To the majority of Americans, there's just America. America is overly aware of itself. We're sheltered, quarantined, narcissistic on a national level. The rest of the world is aware of each other, and America. The rest of the world is even aware that America is not aware of them. Sad but true.

I've said it before, every culture has something to bring to the table. And by table, I mean the opportunities for people of different backgrounds to come together that result in a meaningful exchange of experiences. Now here's the problem: America is not at that table. It's in front of us—America is the proverbial melting pot, for Moses' sake!—but the table is too far outside of our comfort zone to approach it. Two more problems there: first, that comfort zone is very big and comfortable and easy to get lost in, and second, we don't appreciate what the table has to offer, nor can we unless first experienced; it takes a leap of faith to sit at it.

Friends of mine have openly expressed how they just can't imagine themselves ever moving to a foreign country. They have no desire to leave or change anything or learn anything new at all. That would constitute an "adventure."

Don't panic!

You're overwhelming yourselves before you've even set foot outside your door. Now you don't have to move to another country to experience something new. But dining out for Indian or learning the Salsa doesn't cut it either. The customs are only sprigs. People are the root of a culture. The goal is getting to know how they tick. If you can figure that out, it puts you in a position of awareness. Awareness that there is something else out there beyond our borders. Different people, different mindsets, different strengths, different weaknesses. And once you home in on one of those "variances", you can compare it to your own thing and, ultimately, examine how they both line up with scripture. It can be a nourishing situation to find oneself in.

That idea of "kingdom culture" made so much sense to me. I loved that. That's exactly how I've felt it should be while coming to terms with the differences in American, German, and African culture. It happens very naturally when you're a minority—not just amongst one culture, but caught between polar opposites. Of course you are more comfortable being around people who think like you and act like you and like all the things you like, but will you grow in such a stagnant environment?

One day in the States while out in service, we spotted a foreign language group working nearby. We commented to the effect that "they're doing their thing, we'll carry on with ours." There was no interest in walking over and saying hello. Later on, that car-group spotted us and did a U-turn, just to say hello, even struggling to do so in their broken English. And our response? "What language are you? Wow, you're a long way from home!" How might that have been received if they already considered themselves to be home—albeit a new one—while putting forth effort to be accepted? Now I don't think they were offended, but I was offended for them. I'm sensitive to thoughtlessness. It was disappointing and embarrassing to me, personally knowing what effort goes into that, and what positive outcome is desired. But it illustrates the difference between Americans and the rest of the world: there's very little interest in us to explore and learn.

What's ironic is that the United States was founded by explorers, established by pioneers, and contributed to by people willing to do just that: learn. But that spirit has been gone for over a hundred years. It's still a very multi-cultural nation, well-suited to the task of personal exploration. All we have to do is reach out. There is plenty of willingness on the other side. But just like the behavior of popular school kids, we tend to ignore the outsiders. Are our own circles too big that we can't widen out any more? Or is that an excuse not to exit our comfort zone? On our own, we won't, which is why we are constantly being reminded to do so. And quantity is definitely not the right determinant of having done so. The best parameter is variety.

Concentrate on those of a completely different background, even if it means finding someone who isn't local. It only takes befriending one individual, couple, or family, and you'll be amazed at how much we all still have to learn, not only about others but ourselves as well. You will see how pliable and applicable that knowledge can be in so many areas of life. It also makes widening out in the future come more naturally.

Now I keep pointing my fingers at America on this one. Of course they're not the only nation in a bubble. North Korea has a serious perception problem. But they're also a self-reliant dictatorship! America has no excuse. No other nation enjoys such a rich diversity of cultures within its own borders, nor are its subjects freer to travel abroad.

Germans are often accused of being narrow-minded. But they can also be very inquisitive, or at least quietly observant. Living amongst them, the question I get asked the most is, "Why are you here?" While I could take offense at the unwelcoming tone it is asked in—especially when they ask it with that exacting stare and face void of emotion that I've come to expect—I know better. It's that quiet curiosity in them coming out. It's rare to meet an American living in Germany. I also know that Germans are informed about what's going on in America, and they have a good idea what kind of people we are.

Most Americans, on the other hand, initially think of Germans as beer guzzling sausage lovers who dance on tables in lederhosen. And while that does happen on occasion, the majority of them are nothing at all like that, and resent the stereotype. And I can't tell you how many times after revealing my German background that a Nazi joke was shared on my behalf. A classic, yes. However, as a standalone response it exposes a lack of any current, sensible facts. We can thank Hollywood for that.

These are just the rantings of an overly busy mind. If it moves you to do something, I take no responsibility for the outcome. But seriously, America, you should get out more. If you can move abroad, do it. If you can't, do it anyway. It's not that difficult if you do it for the right reasons (not the ones stated here). You already have an advantage: English is spoken just about everywhere now. And there's plenty of work to be done in the English field.

At the very least, look around you. Find somebody different than you. Break your bubble and invite them over for a meal. Think of a lot of questions to ask them. Don't be afraid of asking wrong ones; when that happens you'll know, and it's just one of the many interesting things to learn! People vary so much from one place to another and that's never going to change. We are designed with a propensity for expanding and diversifying. Might as well embrace that now.

Apr 27, 2013

Woes of a World Citizen

Is anything better than finally finding your way home?
Is anything worse than finally reaching home, and finding that you’re still lost?
— Matthew Stover, Traitor

The longer I live in Germany, the less I care about blending in. The American side of me is becoming more pronounced than it was before. There are some good things about us; qualities that are worth holding on to. And I might have not appreciated that had I not moved to a country where I would not so readily find them in others. Perhaps exhibiting them is my way of coping with that reality. But I’m also confident that the good qualities I have are worthy of imitation. German culture emphasizes a particular way of thinking. Perhaps I might serve as an example to them of how, for instance, kindness is better than correctness.

It’s my second visit to the States since moving to Germany four years ago. Being back, I realize the opposite is also happening. It’s impossible to avoid seeing things differently than before. I’ve changed. But I’m afraid of hearing those words from someone else as it can be acknowledged positively or negatively. Some people can accept that without a problem, but others need time. My few weeks visit wouldn’t have been enough. So instead of risking estranging myself to anyone, I got through some situations in stealth mode, being cautious as I could not to say or do anything differently. It’s kind of sad I would have to walk on egg shells at times, but not as sad as the alternative. ‘There’s no going home again,’ they say. That depends largely on the type of people you’re going home to. And while I have no doubt that to my friends it should be of no matter, if in this regard we are alike, I don’t regret erring on the side of caution for those few who wouldn’t have had sufficient time to come to appreciate the different ways of doing and seeing things that are possible.

Every culture, every people, every tribe has its good qualities. We all have something to contribute and to learn from one another. We also have to admit we’ve got some trash to take out. What helps are the many opportunities to learn from those around us. The question is, Are we making use of those opportunities? I’ve found myself in a situation that forces me to reconcile cultural divides. I’m sifting through the things I grew up with and the things I’m learning about people, adopting the best and discarding the rest. I know it'll take me at least a thousand years to get it right, but that doesn’t justify postponing the process, even if it means being different when at first it isn’t popular.

If people ask me the right questions, I get to open these different points up for discussion, and love the opportunity to do so. To you, my far-flung friends around the world, look for some of them here in upcoming posts.

Feb 19, 2013

You’ve got something there...down a bit. You got it.

Scenario 1: A friend of yours lost an eyelash. You notice it didn't get very far. It's chilling on his face. But he doesn’t know that.

Scenario 2: Your “regional manager” approaches you before a small, close-quarters “meeting” is about to begin with the rest of the “team”. You notice a little pale green boogie that's crawled out onto the tip of his nose. It’s waving. But he doesn’t feel it.

Scenario 3: You're standing at a bus stop and notice some punk kid has suddenly stopped lip-syncing to his after-workout wind-down playlist because the girl walking by made him laugh and stare, like a punk. The bus comes and you end up standing next to that girl. You notice she’s munching on her hash brown in a hurry. Probably doesn’t wanna stink up the bus. Good girl. Then you catch a glimpse of something red on her face. Upon closer inspection you see ketchup slathered all over her cheek. She doesn’t know. How cute.

What would you do in these situations? I know you would probably just reach out and take care of your friend’s renegade eyelash. But would you honestly come to the rescue of the other two people: a person of authority whom you see on but two or three occasions in a year, and a total stranger on the street—of the opposite sex even? Would you say something or would you let them go on looking like that, maybe even have yourself a good chuckle and a hilarious story to tell your friends later on? I was in both of these situations this week and I did not hesitate to intervene.

I’m not sharing this because I’m particularly proud of myself and want a pat on the back (*pat-pat-pat* you don’t need to do that anymore). This is personal. This is something that lies close to my heart. The thought of some people not doing this booooils me to the core. My cauldron of justice is brimming, so back off and let me vent this pet peeve of mine. Bonus: I just got to use the term “pet peeve”. And that’s a little like using the word “neat” in a sentence: you feel safe in the awareness of it being a funny word. Something so uncool that it’s cool again—like mustaches and bangs, earmuffs and really big glasses—ironically all things of or related to the face in some way. Segway...

Ah, yes, the face again. This time it’s about how we in western culture put so much emphasis on keeping it up to date with the latest trends. Depending on wear you live, the current selection of men’s styles range from vintage Ray-Ban frames with a full beard, to a Hitler Youth haircut with a close shave, to the budget-friendly ’stache. The point is, people want to look “interesting”. Choice of clothing is important, but your face is the ornament. Like a carefully arranged storefront it should beckon passersby to come in and at the same time say: “I’m too cool for you. Members only.” Don’t misunderstand. I’m not speaking down about it. I pay attention to these things too, albeit less than before. We should want to be presentable. I hate to see how age is creeping up on me (although I’ve already learned to embrace it and wish I could skip the transition and just be old already). But if there is something practical that can be done to preserve the handsome to my tall and dark, I’ll do it. And it would be most appreciated if you could be my mirror when I’m not standing in front of one. On the other hand, I shun those people who are so focused on themselves that they lack the decency and courage to tell others, even a friend, that there is something wrong about their face. Or mine.

Maybe you’re not a selfish person, nor do you find pleasure in another’s unsightliness. But unless you are farsighted, you’re not being a pal by remaining silent in such a time of need. To think you are dignifying a person by ignoring it is completely misguided. And any feeling of shame or embarrassment you might get from saying something is unjustified. It’s just dumb. It shames you not to speak up. On top of that, it shows a serious lack of personal interest and forethought on your part. I can forgive that. But if you don’t change, that’s really dumb.

Some food for forethought. Now, think: Who hasn’t come home only to look in the mirror and be horrified at what had been clinging to his face all day? But you would’t have learned anything from that experience if the only thing you felt was pity for your own self-image. Well, you might have had a lesson in paying more attention to your reflection. But a healthy dose of disappointment would have been in order on behalf of all those people who could have and should have alerted you. People you are supposed to be able to rely on. Next time, think about them. Confront them. Maybe then you’ll help a brother out when he’s wearing tomato sauce lipstick. Or even a stranger.

Nov 7, 2012

The Face

Sometimes the Hamburg Germans make this face when you talk to them that, as an American, gives you the impression you're saying something really stupid. To be fair, we often do say some pretty stupid things which automatically puts one on the defensive. But still, I don't like getting that feeling in the middle of a sentence, leastways through a visual cue; I realize it myself soon enough. But although this face has "Patronizer" written all over it, I'm pretty sure that's not what's going on beneath that masculine forehead.

Nevertheless, even if it's not what they are thinking, I still can't look them in the eyes while maintaining my train of thought without derailing. If I were to make such a face in conversation with a friend from back home, they would stop talking and be like, "Are you alright? What's with the face? Do you think I'm stupid or something?" That's what I read in this face because that's what they would read in my face. Now I usually give little things like this I discover a special name, but since I don't like this one I'll stray from my customary naming mechanism and refer to it as simply, The Face.

The Face is comprised of a stretch-to-fit smile, glaring eyeballs, and raised eyebrows. The Face typically remains frozen, accompanied by a short and gently paced up-down nod (unlike the typical down-up nod, this raises the nose above the speaker, adding an air of superiority to the listener). Spurts of rapid blinking are also known to occur. And watch out for the eyebrows—they furl. The Face is not recommended for those with an inferiority complex. And now for The Face:

It took me many tries but I don't feel that I have accurately portrayed it here. After all, I can't genuinely convey a facial expression that doesn't appeal to me and I would never make use of myself. For a better example of The Face I would have rather gone to a native Hamburger, but I didn't bother trying knowing well enough that such a revealing request would have been immediately declined. Not because the context I'm putting it in is subjective or potentially self-degrading, they're just ├╝ber paranoid about data protection here. A lot of Germans tend to think everything is connected to their bank account. Even a picture of their face doing The Face might somehow provoke a fraudulent bank withdrawal.

However, I did ask a good German friend of mine about The Face and he verified its existence, but denied my interpretation of it. All the same, I feel offended by it and wish it gone. And then my roommate came home; he's not German, the perfect test subject. So I made The Face while he was talking to me and then asked him how he felt about it, and he said "I don't like it" and went into the kitchen. I rest my case.

Sep 23, 2012

Find x


Does time really "fly" when you're having fun? It was during my green middle school years that I formed my perceptions of time and space (and appropriate behavior) passing many a day in ISS (In-School Suspension). There I was. No windows. No talking. No fun. The only movement in the room coming from the seconds hand on the clock. That unforgiving keeper of time demanded the attention of those subject to it, hanging on high as a symbol of hope; but a false symbol as it soon revealed its true nature—an insidious torture device! Now, bigger than it was before, the sound of its internal workings growing heavier with every stroke. A foreboding presence, like a judge staring down in contempt, meting out your punishment in the smallest of increments, every detail of your crime being recounted, every tick a slap in yo face. Oh yes, I know what it's like for time to come to a painful standstill. So does time fly when you're having fun? Did the streetlights always come on too soon? Did I loath the call of my mother to come inside and take a bath? I suppose in shorter spans of time, the day-to-day, this phenomena has truth. But it doesn't apply to the pace of life in general.

Three years of my life in Cleveland felt like a relatively short period of time in comparison to the last 3 spent in Germany. I guess it's because living in an entirely new place has forced me to experience new things at a rate faster than what I was accustomed to back home, where my young adult life, a time that ought to be full of adventure and learning, went on without much change or surprise. Now think about that: this suddenly increased rate at which new experiences are made, in relation to my perception of the passage of time based on my previous, slower rate which I am accustomed to, leaves me with the feeling that a longer period of time has elapsed than actually has. If I were any good at math, I might be able to delineate this concept into a workable equation. I can at least try to explain the theory. I'll leave it up to the nerds to sort out the x's and y's. (Indulge me.)

We must first establish the average rate of experience gain based on the rate at which new experiences (x) are made per a given length of time (t) in a familiar environment; this is the accustomed rate (r). In the new environment, the equation must be worked backwards to find the perceived passage of time. Based on the predetermined accustomed rate (r), we use the higher number of new experiences (x) to find the perceived length of time passed (p). This, of course, is complete nonsense and shouldn't be taken with an ounce of seriousness.

By the way, my life is exciting and full of new experiences! I live in a converted dungeon near the city center, I'm working part-time illustrating 3D tattoo designs (otherwise known as "body embossing"), I'm earning some pocket money teaching Early Klingon to groups of Kindergartners, and as of recently I'm happily married to an Esperantist! Just to finally set straight all those rumors floating around about me.