The family favourite cornbread recipe is dog eared and not a little stained. It’s passed through many kitchens in a couple of countries. Now I’d brought it to Kenya. And it was the reason I was standing dazed and not a little confused in an endless aisle of flours, searching for cornmeal.
“Excuse me,” I said to a fellow grocery shopper, “are you familiar with the item cornbread? You see it’s a family favourite and we’ve just moved to Kenya and I’m trying to get the ingredients to make it. But cornmeal is one of the key ingredients and I can’t seem to find any.”
Her eyes lit up, “Oh I’ve heard of cornbread. My friend makes that. Let me call her.”
One phone call later, three women putting their heads together et voila, the solution was literally staring me in the face.
In Kenya cornmeal is called maize meal, and not only is it plentiful, it was literally right in front of me. I had my choice of several brands.
And so it is with living away from your passport country. With living and working abroad I’m frequently amongst, in between, around and surrounded by ‘other.’ Other languages, customs, animals, driving habits, sense of safety, communication styles, weather, and the list goes on and on.
The pros are I have some of the most diverse and incredible friends and colleagues one could ask for. Life is often an adventure and my learning has been continuous and constant.
The cons are the cost of living interculturally – there are under currents of fatigue, uncertainty and energy sap – with consistently trying to figure out ‘other.’
Whether you live abroad or not, you likely come across your fair share of ‘other’ aka difference, diversity.
Here are 4 tools I’ve found that have helped me dance with diversity instead of shying away.
1. Same situation = wildly different
Pausing to reassure yourself that the same situation can and will be seen very differently depending on the cultural lenses you’re wearing is super helpful. I did some intercultural work for a client for their newly arriving staff. I negotiated part of the contract to include interviewing the local Kenyan staff and asking them what they thought the international staff should know when they first arrive.
Later, when I shared this information with the (way more informal) international staff there were gasps when they realized how offensive swearing was for the local staff (didn’t matter if that the swearing wasn’t directed at the local staff).
2. Know which list to use when: a grocery list or a laundry list
When we do our laundry, it’s pretty much the same way every time. Our laundry to do list is the same. And sometimes that’s the right list to pull out – when you need to bridge differences and look for similarities. Some examples are we all want and need to be respected and to feel a sense of belonging.
When we go to the grocery store though, our grocery list is different every time. Sometimes it’s a full on shop and sometimes we stop off (to a different store even) for only one item. And so it is with intercultural work, when we need to acknowledge and dance with the differences. What respect looks like in one culture can look wildly different from another.
3. Have a fight, flee, flow plan
Working interculturally will always bring delights and sometimes despair so it’s good self-care to have a fight, flee and flow plan.
Fight: what are the things that you’ll take a stand for (because to not do so would mean going against your character)? This will look different for everyone. It could include things like human rights, gender issues etc
Flee: what are the things that you may need to flee or take a break because you’re not feeling safe or comfortable. Bowing out for a bit can help reset your equilibrium.
Flow: hopefully this will be the bulk of your intercultural work, the things that you can join in the flow with. This is the space where learning ramps up; both about the culture you’re working/living in and about yourself.
4. Pack an attitude of curiosity
Approaching difference with an attitude of curiosity makes a world of difference.
Having lived overseas now for 8 years reminding myself constantly that there are many views of the same situation, having a fight, flee and flow plan, coupled with an attitude of curiosity has made a big difference to my professional and personal life. I wouldn’t trade this adventure for anything.
Now excuse me, the rains are here, the power is out and I’ve got to go attend to the generator.
As always, I’d love to hear fro you. What’s your equivalent of ‘other’ and how do you deal?
Want to learn more? Sonja Richter will be our guest speaker at the May 17th, 10am to noon EAT (click here to convert time zones if you’re not in East Africa). She’ll be talking about Learning within Volunteering in the Global South: Individual Development vs. Social Impact.