When Your Cultural Identity is Adrift

Who Am I? That’s a difficult question for anyone to answer, let alone expats nevermind the children of those expats.

I remember my first time living abroad. As an American, we delight in our ethnic heritage, saying something like “I’m 50% Irish, 30% Polish, 10% German and 10% Cherokee”. I had said something to that effect to an Irish guy at a pub one night. He lashed out at me, ” You are NOT Irish. You are American. Nothing about you is Irish and you know nothing about Ireland, I bet.” It stung, and he shattered my cultural paradigm. I was deeply humbled. Although I might be a 3rd generation Irish, he was right, there was nothing about me that declared I was Irish other than this family history. Culturally I walked, talked and dressed like an American. I thought like an American. I liked American music and movies. I cared about American politics and issues. It was really the country and culture that I identified with. From that point on, I embraced being American, rather than caring about my genetic lineage.

But technically I haunaltered home.jpgve lived over 12 years overseas, a significant portion of my adult life. When I come back to America, I often go through reverse culture shock. I have a hard time relating to other’s view of the world, and what they feel is culturally significant like the Bachelorette or Unicorn drinks. This past summer was so challenging for me, with all the politics, I really struggled with all the intensity and polarization. Moreover, I really couldn’t understand how we had come to such a juncture in our history that hatred and misogyny were becoming a “thing” again. It really devastated so much of the tenderness and appreciation I have for my country and the people who I love there. So now I find myself in a strange sort of void, in which I do not really resonate with the culture I live in geographically but don’t really feel American all that much either. Although my accent remains, so much of national pride has withered away with my lack of attention and focus on America. It’s a strange and terrible feeling. It now seems like my cultural identity has become untethered, and will remain adrift.

For my daughter, she too is somewhere in between 2 worlds–the worlds of her parent’s heritage and the country in which she lives. They have a name for her kind: Third Culture Kids. She has lived most of her life outside of her parent’s culture and is used to traveling and living in different places in which things are foreign. She connects with others not through language as much as feelings. However, I didn’t expect last year’s summer trip to impact my daughter so greatly. As much as she loved being with my family and friends, enjoying new foods and experiences, it really stressed her out. She stared at these “real American” children with confusion and amusement, literally, and at one time, when we were camping, some boys called her a freak and pretended to shoot her. It genuinely stunned her. Luckily since she is so well traveled and resilient, she managed it well, but as one month turned into two months, her nerves did fray. My husband told me about one day when she fled downstairs to the basement in tears, wondering if the “black men” were coming and how he could protect her. It was all the conversation and media messages that she was exposed to with the “Black Lives” vs. “Blue Lives” Matter debate that got her feeling paranoid, which was sad since ironically she is a child of color, as my husband is dark skinned.

In 2 months from now, we will touch down in Chicago, spending 3 weeks in America– a much shorter visit this time. As much as I look forward to seeing my family and friends, I absolutely dread this feeling of disconnection, especially with Trump’s presidency bringing tension and conflict to an all-time high. After this brief visit, I will step out of my homeland and my foot will land upon a new country, Laos, with its own complexities and challenges which my family will have to navigate. I remain hopeful that we will set down roots there, an antirumi field.jpgdote to this unease, making friends and building a life of joy and peace there. However, Who Am I? clearly is not a question that can be answered with nationhood or birth origins. Its answer, I imagine, that is somewhere in a vast space, the field that Rumi writes about in his poem.

Perhaps I will see you there.

Innovate Yourself

There are many great people whose stories provoke me and have made me wonder if I was indeed doing enough with the gifts and abilities that I have have been born with. Currently, I am on the verge of one of a cathartic moment, as I read the biographical book Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. I know it wasn’t on A Tentative Reading Lists for 2017 but it’s a must read. I am so inspired by him that it’s actually taken me a while to even attempt to articulate why it is that I feel the way I do. His struggle to envision the future to me is heroic, on par with my other heroes of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, due to his infinite pursuit of a dream that is larger is than himself. Now I know what you’re thinking–you’re comparing him to those great men?  Yes, yes, I am. Why?-because he stares at the abysmal status quo and is willing to do whatever it takes to disrupt it in an effort to move humanity forward. He has created a movement in technology and innovation that so is understated and he continues to doggedly persist in solving problems that seem impossible.

I think there are probably too many smart people pursuing internet stuff, finance and law. That is part of the reason why we haven’t seen as much innovation.

Elon Musk

I mean, how many of you worked on, let alone sat and pondered these issues?

  1. Making life interplanetary
  2. Accelerating the transition to sustainable energy
  3. Artificial Intelligence

So many great scientists and engineers have asked questions that are beyond one’s comprehension. However, Elon staunchly believes that ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they choose to make a commitment to asking insane questions in the quest of serving the needs of humanity. When your curiousity collides with your passion, a life’s purpose emerges and you can do things so much bigger than you could ever imagine. He challenges the assumption that innovation is a natural outcome of civilization as if evolution is set on an inevitable course. But without drive and intelligence, nothing new emerges and people and the planet languish in complacency’s wake. The notion that something is “good enough” is the antithesis to improvement and growth.

People think just automatically that technology gets better every year, but actually, it doesn’t. It only gets better if smart people work like crazy to make it better…otherwise it actually gets worse.

Elon Musk

As I reflect on these ideas, it appears obvious to me that when people accept what is average, what is the bare minimum and don’t demand more of themselves and each other, then they are ultimately in a death spiral. Doing the same thing over and over again is actually going backward (such as thinking that drilling for oil is the answer to our energy needs now and in the future). I remember a famous quote from Albert Einstein that stated, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”, which if Elon Musk was to rephrase it, it might be: It’s absurd to think that doing the same thing over and over again will yield innovation.

Of course, you might just be thinking that’s all well and good for the development of plasma TVs, internet speed and space rockets, but so what, What does innovation have to do with me. I’m not an engineer or scientist, and I certainly not a millionaire. That may be true, but there is NO area in life that couldn’t be innovated; it only takes a willingness to acknowledge that failure is a possibility and do it anyway.  Take, for instance, Gandi. He went against the British government and won India’s independence through non-violence. Non-violence?! This idea still is revolutionary and to my knowledge, Martin Luther King is the only other man who has attempted to use it against oppressors with success. But the idea works! And yet we still wage war–outdated, archaic and what should be obsolete methodologies–when you look at the power of this innovative strategy. It’s the equivalent of riding a horse and buggy to work, and yet so many people favor guns and bombs over the more impactful approach of non-violence. This astounds me. Yet I digress….elon musk

If you were to trace the trajectory of anyone who did anything amazing, they did things in spite of their fear and knew that the person who they were now was not the person they needed to be, thus they had to innovate themselves. Not only did they seek to educate themselves, but they supplanted their beliefs so that the importance of their cause was too cemented in order to slink away from daunting challenges. These people have loads of fear but their faith in the do-gooding nature of their intended movement has more power over them. Going back to Gandhi, he was a rather wealthy lawyer from India who transformed into an incredible man whose heart was impenetrable to the evils of his self-doubt and worry cast upon him from naysayers. He legacy still remains: Be the Change You Wish To See In The World. This could be a true mantra for a life worth living if we were willing to make small, yet extraordinary changes in our thinking. These incremental changes have a snowballing effect over time. There is a level of willpower that must be developed and exercised so that we can overcome the mentality of the status quo and accept a higher version of what we could create with the intelligence we were given.

Obviously, this is something that I am ruminating on diligently–what sort of mental program do I need to download so that my small-mindedness gets an upgrade? What am I capable of that I am allowing fear to be my obstacle? In what ways can I innovate myself so that I can pay it forward to humanity?

Perhaps you too are haunted by these thoughts as you examine your life. How about we give each other permission and get set to work to do something amazing?

 

My Mind Drowning in the Wet Cement

I joked to one of my friends that the only vice I have left is swearing–I don’t drink or smoke or eat junk food or lie or even watch T.V.–but she assured me that I have other vices. The nerve, right?! But I think I found one.

The other day my family and I were walking back from shopping when I decided to dodge one of the fire stove “popping machines” that you commonly see on street corner here in China. It makes a popcorn-like treat and, when it’s ready, has this booming noise that scares the bejeesus out of my daughter. So my husband went towards the popping machine while my daughter and I  took a long way around and encountered fresh wet cement. We jumped over it–as the area wasn’t roped off and no sign was posted–but then a strange and sudden urge took me over. My eye spotted a narrow scrap piece of PVC pipe by a tree stump and I picked it up. Before I knew it, I had written Hannah’s name in the wet cement. Hannah asked “what’s the big idea” but then she added a smiley face after I pitched the pipe.  All of a sudden it hit me–I probably just committed a crime, in broad daylight, in China, with my daughter as an accomplice. What kind of parent am I?  And all the mischievous fun that spurred this impulse suddenly vanished and I felt awful–like nearly wanted to cry because of the shame and guilt that was summoned up by my reflection of this event.Why had I indulged in such a frivolous action? I had spoilt the wet cement and there was no way to fix it. What had I done?!!!!

When I came around to the other side of the “popping machine”, I confessed to my husband who shot a barb–“Judy, they’re cameras everywhere! They totally know it’s you!” He was right. This is a police state. I was certainly busted. Inside, you would have thought I had killed someone. I was ready for the police to handcuff and cart me to jail. For at least 15 minutes, I was definitely imprisoned, in my mind, awaiting trial and execution. However, when Ryan realized that I was seriously upset, he tried to console me–“They will probably think, ‘oh wow, cool, it’s English’. Don’t worry.”

And it occurred to me–why am I beating myself up? I  can’t go back and fix it. My action was silly and irresponsible, certainly not a good role model for my daughter, but it wasn’t dastardly. I didn’t harm anyone. The real crime is if I don’t forgive myself and move on.


Weeks have passed now since I first started writing this post and I finally summoned the courage to take a look at that spot where I had written Hannah’s name in the wet cement. When I saw it, I laughed out loud because it was sullied with bicycle tire marks and footprints. You can barely make out my writing.

Although I had intentionally defaced the sidewalk, there were numerous amount of people who had unintentionally done the same. Did that make them “bad” people? Do you think they lost sleep or mildly trembled with the thought of their carelessness? Doubtful.

I am still pondering the lesson of this wet cement and the inability to forgive myself. Did I suffer such a strong reaction to such a minor infraction due to the fear of getting in trouble in China or because I was a poor example to my daughter? Not sure, but I know that it was my perspective that caused my self-disappointment, and it has made me reflect on what other trivial things I beat myself up for that aren’t really probably worth the time or effort.

Can anyone relate to this?

 

Awareful

That’s not even a word, so my spell-checker tells me. And it doesn’t even have any suggested alternatives but I swear it’s real. I’m going to attempt to define it through this post.

Have you ever heard about the Dhamma Brothers?  Years ago, I watched the documentary about these high-security prisoners that were taught Vipassana meditation and how much it changed them, inside and out. It’s profound, but you can hear about its synopsis in the TEDx talk below.

 

I think what I love most about this story is that they learned to not be victims anymore, to take personal responsibility for their lives (past and present), and recognize that they have a choice. Even in their environment of violence and despair, they can take a moment to reflect on how they feel, what thoughts they are having and the quality of their relationships. We all have that opportunity–we all have that choice, to recognize how our actions, words, and deeds can impact, not only ourselves but others. This is how I am going to define this word: AWAREFUL

I believe that most of us going through life thinking that we are victims of circumstance-someone did something and now we all are paying the price for what THEY did to US. Maybe it’s the politicians or the bankers or the teachers or the lawyers or our neighbors or our families. It doesn’t matter who you think did what when you blame another, you give away your inherent freedom of personal choice. Even in the most oppressive environments, one has the power to choose. Choose what? Your attitude!

Your attitude is the sum of your beliefs about life and your place in “the big picture”. Do you feel powerful or powerless? Do you feel connected or disconnected to others around you? Do you feel well being or sickness? Do you feel happy or discontent? However you feel, it makes a difference in your behavior and affects the “vibe” you bring wherever you go.

You don’t have to convince me about that–I teach 3-5 year olds! They are sponges and act like mirrors. I know that I have to get my attitude in order if I am to teach them or they get completely nutty. I may jest that “it must be a full moon or something” but I know in my heart that they are just responding to what I am projecting upon them through my energy, words, and reactions to them. They provide excellent personal data, I tell you what!

With that in mind, being awareful is a chronic habit timg_3278hat I have been developing. Throughout the day, I have these reminders on my phone that go off, suggesting that I take a moment to breathe and get in touch with my body or ask me how do I want to feel? I want to develop my focus so that I can be more mindful in my actions. It is my intention to develop proper attention. And some days I’m awesome at it, and other days…..um… I could improve. lol  But I know, I always have a choice, and if I don’t choose to be mindful, then it’s MY choice–no one else is in control of me. And me taking personal responsibility for that choice? –well, that’s a work in progress! But at least I am aware that it’s a choice of mine to make.

To Africa, with Love 

A long time ago I had a friend from Senegal who used to admonish me for telling kids at camp to finish their food because “there are starving kids in Africa”. He would tell me that there is so much more to the continent of Africa than kids with bloated bellies and he didn’t want me to spread this message. It has taken me years to finally grasp what he meant. I owe him a sincere apology.

I reckon most people from the western world don’t travel to countries in Africa unless they want to go on safari or are involved in some religious/charity work. I don’t know what compelled us to journey to South Africa exactly but we ventured there during our long Chinese New Year holiday. It’s been, hands down, the most amazing time spent as a family.

From the moment we boarded our Ethiopian Airline’s flight in Shanghai, the whole atmosphere of the airplane was different. It was a full flight with seeming strangers but I immediately felt like we were apart of a community, in which fellow African passengers helped each other with their luggage, made jokes and referred to each other as “brother” and “sister”-even though they were not even related.  I am not a person who knows much about the history and culture of many African nations, but it was obvious to me that they shared some common values which were easy to connect with, no matter the age or language barrier between them. I’ve done a lot of traveling but I’ve never experienced anything like this before. Needless to say, it left an impression on me.

I’ve known quite a few people who feel drawn to the soils of Africa and now I totally get what they cherish about it. Even though I only spent time in Addis Abbas and Cape Town, I believe that you can be anywhere in Africa and have a similar experience. And what experience is that? An experience of breath-taking beauty–not just of nature but of the human spirit. And it was a place full of contradictions, particularly between poverty and wealth. It’s really hard to even relate this in words. Words can not capture what it is that I want to say, but I am utterly grateful for my experience there. And, I urge you, the reader, to go visit and experience for yourself. And if you keep your mind and heart open, I believe that you will have an unforgettable experience that will leave an indelible mark on your consciousness.

What’s its Name?

It probably shouldn’t surprise you that in a country of over 2 billion people, 32 babies are born a minute. In my China Love post, I’d like to take a moment to discuss names. Here in China, I dare say in Asia, there are quite a few customs that differ from the western world.

name

Here are a few interesting things I’ve learned about names in China:

  • When you write someone’s name, their surname or family name goes first. This has to do with identifying the clan you were born into, which was especially important during more ancient times. Name order confuses me all the time here, and even at school, they write western names this way.
  • In the past, girls weren’t really called by a name. When your parents yelled for you to come to supper, you were called “1st daughter”, “2nd daughter”, etc.. I’m not sure if this was due to infant mortality rates or that the previous attitudes about girl children were that they would become her husband’s “slave”–so what’s the point of naming someone who will inevitably not “belong” to you?
  • Unlike many western cultures, the Chinese do not take their father’s surname and often use their mother’s instead. Also, middle names are uncommon.

In a country that names their children, “great” (Zhang Wei), “brave” (Wang Yong)  and “glamorous” (Wang Yan), I  often wonder where they get their inspiration from when deciding their English names.

  • Chinese people often have an “English” name, which comes in handy since my pronunciation is quite poor. I don’t know how these names come about, but some are rather cute, like Apple, and others seem a bit odd (see above).
  • Just like people in other cultures give their children strange names, people here also have been known to name children after special events which would be translated into words such as Space Travel, Olympic Games or even the @ symbol.

Chinese names are meant to convey special meaning, with the given names often expressing the best of wishes on the new-born. Some imply the birthplace, birth time ornatural phenomenon, like Jing (Beijing), Chen (morning), Dong (winter) and Xue (snow); Some embody the hope of virtue, like Zhong (faithful), Yi (righteous), Li (courteous) andXin (reliable) while others express the wishes of life, like Jian (health), Shou (longevity), and Fu (happiness). Source: People’s Daily

I am just scratching the surface here, but just like most cultures, the history and etymology of names are simply fascinating.

A Love Protest: The Donald’s Presidency

My doubt and questioning is not the point of this blog post. However, for sensibility’s sake, I make my disclaimer: I did not support Donald Trump to become President. For the same reason why I want a highly qualified teacher in charge of my child’s learning at school and also why don’t want my manicurist to fly my plane to China–I believe that not just anybody can do any job, especially without proper training, even a business celebrity like Donald Trump. However to allow this to become a rant would be useless, and, quite frankly, doesn’t move us forward in our humanity.There are all kinds of data that are expressed through this man, which I feel could serve us in developing our consciousness. I think there is a wonderful divine lesson to be learned if we can get beneath the story of this election and the personality of this man, taking a moment to reflect and connect with the threads that bind us.

First of all, everything happens for a reason. Whether you study the science of the cosmic or the microscopic levels of life, there are integrated pathways that are set into motion with the slightest effort.  We all conspired to make this a reality. Let’s take responsibility for that. We, as a humanity, agreed to this, even if it wasn’t consciously. There was a deep yearning to “Make America Great Again” long before Trump, and he just happens to embody this ideal. (Maybe some of you didn’t have him in mind as the leader to this anthem).

Truth: You Can’t HATE Your Way to Love.

No matter how hard you squeeze an orange, you are not going to get apple juice out of it. Likewise, there is no amount of hating that will bring about love and personal peace. Not going to happen, people. So you have to make a choice, do you continue to point out his shortcomings and secretly wish to avenge the other half of your friends and family who voted for him? Or do you transform your disdain by practicing principles of equity and acceptance, beginning with the guy who cut you off in traffic?

When you hold people in judgment and anger, it’s like that idea of building a wall on the Mexican border.  Yeah Trump thinks Mexico is going to willingly finance it, but you also irrationally believe that the person you are cussing out in traffic is also going to pay for his misdeed and suffer. Nope, that person has moved on, and so should you. You can’t build walls of hostility–there’s a price that you pay for your acrimony. The Chinese proverb reminds us of that: if you aremartin-luther-king-quote seeking revenge, best you dig 2 graves–one for yourself and one for the other person.

So, get clear that you have to love no matter what. No matter how ugly, profrane and stupid you may find people or ideas, there’s always something valuable in them. Start looking for possible ways to find the silver lining and become connected to our common humanity. I love the advice that the hero Martin Luther King Jr offers during his call to action during the Civil Rights Movement, which couldn’t be more poignant today.

So, as we move forward in the next 4 years of this man’s leadership, here are some ideas that I intend to employ when embracing the “pussy grabbing man who colludes with the Russians”.

  1. See the child-like innocence in the person–if they knew better, they’d do better. Even Trump.(And I hold this level of compassion for my own failings, which are many). I trust in the goodness in one’s intentions and try to extend goodwill towards them.
  2. Remind myself: We are all learning here! Some are mentally, emotionally and spiritually in kindergarten and others have advanced degrees. However, having an advanced degree doesn’t make you an expert unless you exercise your knowledge in meaningful ways.
  3. We are different versions of each other and act as a mirror, reflecting what is “good” and “bad” in ourselves. The same faults or virtues are contained within the human seed, so I need to look more deeply at how I judge others. So what is Trump showing me about me? How am I thin-skinned? How am I shallow and petty? Likewise, what am I charismatic about? What ideals can I renew (make America great again)?

Speaking of  Greatness?

The idea of making America great again is a vision that all of us support. You god-confusioncould say greatness is strength or power, but I think defining it is personal. And so is the task of being great!

But it’s not something outside of us, it’s not done unto us, but through us–through our actions, words and deeds. So I am deciding now to tune his Tweet diplomacy out and focus on ways that I can be a better version of myself. To look at him through the eyes of the heart, feeling grateful that he has brought up so many issues that need to be reviewed and reflected on. And, it is my hope that I can come out a better, more peaceful human being as a result of this experience. At the end of the day, no one is in charge of my Joy except for me. So it is my responsibility to practice goodness, kindness, and compassion to facilitate the greatness that I believe is possible. It is my intention that I  develop the courage and determination to go to the outer limits of loving humanity so that I may be transformed into the teacher, mother, and wife that I aspire to be.

I’ve heard that nothing proves that you love someone more than mentioning them in your prayers. So let this prayer for Trump demonstrate to my commitment to love:

As God is the molder of human clay, I pray for that you are shaped into a model of compassion, strength, and love. I pray that you lead with a sound mind and your judgments are wise. I pray that your thoughts be soothed so you speak peace. I pray that your heart feels empathy deeply and you connect with a broader perspective of the people you serve. I pray that you look upon God’s creation, our natural resources and creatures large and small,  and desire to protect it. I pray that you bring about actions that unite, not only America but the whole world. I pray that your decisions bring about prosperity for all.   I finally pray for your health and the wellbeing of your family. 

I pray this, not only for you President Trump but for all the leaders in government.

Amen.

(As I look at this prayer, I think that I could just an easily pray this prayer for myself as I could for Trump. Hmm… as I look in “the mirror”, it seems that all the fear and hope that I have for him also resides in myself. Perchance you feel the same way .)