Thursday, February 22nd, 2018
BEING AT HOME IN TWO CULTURES
I have been attneding the San Miguel Writers Conference for the past week. It is a side benefit of living in San Miguel during February when the conference is held. It started thirteen years ago and is now a major big deal. It is a cross-cultural event and highlighted for me the importance of being at home in two cultures.
People from all over the world come and big names speak. I remember when Margaret Atwood spoke a few years ago. The hotel ballroom was packed (3000 people). Margaret was speaking and all of a sudden a deluge of rain closed down the sound system. There was a bang of thunder and lightening and (for whatever reason) the sound came back on full force. Ms. Atwood paused and looked at the ceiling and said, “I just love punctuation!!” The conference is like that.
I had an odd experience this year. My own cross-cultural confusion paralyzed me. I have been speaking primarily Spanish for the past two months. My social relationships have all been with our Mexican neighbors. I was hit hard by the sudden large block of Americans. I was going to say, “wave” but that word is too gentle. I was suddenly reminded of my cross-cultural work within the global company I worked for–The DelHaize Group. The American companies and leaders were surprised and irritated to learn that they were perceived as arrogant, dominant and loud. I have to admit that this was my experience at the conference.
I felt shoved aside, invisible and ignored. There was no welcoming accessibility. I would have to be aggressive, intrusive and determined to make contact. (That is what Americans might call friendly.) The networking had a frantic quality of quick skimming to check on the value of the person standing or sitting next to you. I was most comfortable with Mexican participants, an Iranian woman, a Swedish woman and a quirky wonderful woman from New Mexico. I had lost my cultural footing.
This is not a new experience for me. I lived in the jungles of Panama with the Teribe Indian tribe for two years followed by a year in Puerto Rico. I was three years away from the United States. My first moment in a grocery store was a crisis. I had a panic attack in the cereal aisle. So many loud colors and choices screaming at me. I did deep breathing and slowly found my way out of the store, to my parents’ house and took to bed for a week.
I soon go from Mexico to Maine for a two week trip for doctors and book publishing work and to see family there. It will be a familiar and gentle trip. But I am on the same cusp I lived with following my Peace Corps experience. Who, what and where is my home base? I have lived on the edge of two cultures for quite some time. My husband has joined San Miguel this year. He writes a column for the local newspaper, has joined the Rotary Club, a kayak club and a Sufi center. (Yes, he is eclectic to put it mildly.) I say ‘no’ to joining in some kind of loyalty to Maine as my primary connection.
I think of myself as a global citizen. Almost all of us are whether we want to be or not. I don’t think there is any going back to tight, tight, country boundaries—with or without a Mexican boundary wall. And so we/I have to widen the experience of what is “home”. As a global executive, I had to learn to keep all of my worlds alive and real and not shut one off as I traveled. If I didn’t do that, there was hell to pay when I got “home”.
I have been saying too much “no” to keep things simple and my worlds separate. I am coming out of that kind of retirement. I am committing to a larger “yes”—to complexity and complication and cumbersomeness. And to staying very alive, even if uncomfortable and sometimes homesick without knowing for what home. Being at home in two cultures is an essential modern skill with far flung families/tribes connecting and disconnecting often. The cultures don’t have to be exotically different like Maine and Mexico. Think of family differences particulary as kids marry. Think of bi-racial children. Think of The trick is to not shut off one world to be in the other. Being at home in two cultures.