We went out to dinner Saturday night. There is one restaurant in our town that has a playground. It’s the type of playground we had in the US when I was a kid, rather than the kind you see in the West now, but it’s what we have. They set up a trampoline last year, and it’s the main reason we go there now.
After getting tired of bouncing, my kids sat on the merry-go-round. It’s much too high off the ground to self-push, but another child saw them and ran over to push them. When they eventually came back to the table to eat dinner, my husband and I were asking about it. Did they make this younger kid push them? What was his name? He was pushing of his own free will, so that was good. But they didn’t ask his name. The conversation went like this:
10-year old: “We didn’t ask his name because he doesn’t speak English.”
9-year old: “Yes he does. He said, ‘I’m going to push.’”
10-year old: “No. He said, ‘Nitasukuma.’” (Swahili for ‘I will push.’)
Clearly they understand enough Swahili that they could have spoken with the boy. But it wasn’t their natural inclination.
Chapter 6 of Beyond Colorblind by Sarah Shin, “Trust Building with Ethnic Strangers,” starts with some pretty basic stuff. It seems common sense. But maybe it doesn’t really come naturally. Maybe we complicate things in our minds before we even get started. For those new(er) to the field of cross-culture work, the simplified instructions make the task conceivable, manageable. For those who are more experienced, getting back to basics is refreshing.
We get started by simply saying “hello.” In preparing to move cross-culturally, this is one of the first things you learn, right? Greeting someone in their language, in their context is the first way to reach out. And when you move somewhere like coastal Kenya, you learn not just the word for “hello,” but very long, complicated greetings. People feel seen when they are greeted in the way they are accustomed to, and this is the first step of building trust.
To Americans living in the US, Shin says, “…visit a community that is ethnically different from yours, entering in with a learning posture.” Listen, observe. And when an ethnic minority enters your community, be the first to welcome them. You don’t need a dissertation prepared. Start with hello. It’s so simple!
And yet: “We need skills to live in multi-ethnic community.” There’s a warning here. We must remember that we’re not reaching out to have a token friend from a particular culture. We are making an effort to build real relationships. These take time, commitment, humility, discomfort.
We also have to consider what we represent (our culture or ethnicity) to the people we are interacting with. What has our culture/ethnicity done to theirs? How have they been treated? We will be seen and judged in that light. Four categories are listed:
- A person whose people have been friendly with their people
- A person whose people have been hurt by their people
- A person whose people have hurt their people
- A person whose people have avoided or remained distant from their people.
How are you seen in your cross-cultural context? How does that affect the way you approach interactions and relationships?
Later, Shin described how she asks people about their ethnic backgrounds. This one caught me by surprise. There are many wrong ways to do this – like when you first meet someone or by saying, “What are you, anyway?” She admonishes us to ask, “What is your ethnic background?” only after we have gotten to know the person a bit, when the relationship has gone beyond small talk and niceties.
There are more Cross-Culture 101 lessons in the chapter: ask questions from a learning posture, avoid generalizing, avoid offensive language and stereotypes (and if you’re outside your native culture and language, you may have to do some research to find what is offensive), and “Let go of the mindset that your normal is the right normal.”
Towards the end of the chapter, we look at implicit bias, and this is something we need to apply to living overseas. Explicit bias is easy to see – that’s why it’s called explicit. Implicit bias lies under the surface of our consciousness, unacknowledged, and unnoticed by us. Though hidden, it affects our relationships with people. What can we do? First of all, “the best way to get rid of your implicit bias is to realize you have one.” Then we have to identify the assumptions and stereotypes we have bought into regarding the place we are living and the people we are living among.
What are you processing about this chapter? How is trust built in the culture you’re living in? How have you been able to identify your own implicit biases?
Here’s the schedule for the rest of the book:
November 10: Chapters 7 & 8
November 17: Chapter 9
November 24: Chapter 10