Laughing in the Face of Culture Shock (and a giveaway!)

Laughing in the Face of Culture Shock

“Culture shock is rarely terminal.”

Seven years ago we pasted this Paul Hiebert quote on our concrete wall in Cambodia, right next to silly photos of each member of our family. We did it to remind us to keep a sense of humor when cross-cultural living grows unmanageable.

Seven years later, our homemade poster is still hanging there, and it still makes me smile.

So how can we survive culture shock? Training is beneficial, and preparation is essential. I believe strongly in those things, and my husband and I have written about them. But when a day of intense culture shock threatens to undo us, we’ve found that one of the best remedies of all is a sense of humor.

I have a lot of stories of culture shock from my first year overseas, and if you’ve been overseas any length of time, I’m guessing you do too. Or maybe you’ve just arrived, and you’re right in the middle of culture shock. If so, welcome! Welcome to this ragamuffin group of people who have both suffered and inflicted cultural injuries.

The culture shock story I’m going to share today is from our first year overseas and was recently published in our book, Serving Well: Help for the Wannabe, Newbie, or Weary Cross-cultural Christian Worker.

Serving Well follows the life cycle of the cross-cultural worker, from that all-important dreaming and planning stage, through your initial transition and subsequent transitions, all the way to your return to your passport country. It addresses grief and loss, team conflict, communicating with senders, marriage on the field, raising kids abroad, and more.

We’d love to give away two copies of Serving Well to the readers at Velvet Ashes! Just comment below if you want to be entered into the drawing. One week from today, we’ll do the drawing and contact the winners. If you are in the United States, the UK, or Australia, we can mail you a hard copy of Serving Well. Otherwise, we’ll send you the Kindle version.

Now back to my story. Seven years later, I still laugh about it. I’d love to hear your funny culture shock stories in the comments!

C’est la Vie

Sometimes life surprises me. Like that time when Jonathan was sick with typhoid fever, and I was in the school room, and suddenly the light bulb burst into flame. Literal two-inch orange flames.

That never happened to me in America.

Or that time when Jonathan was recovering from middle and outer ear infections, and he went up to our beloved roof, with its three square meters of peace and tranquility (and several potted plants), only to discover that someone had painted those pots. And the rocks in the pots. And even the plants themselves.

That never happened to me in America either.

Don’t get me wrong—plenty of surprising things did happen to me in America. Like the time a Canadian goose blew itself up when its wings touched two nearby power lines in our yard. Or the time a different Canadian goose attacked my leg while a dog the size of a pony jumped on my back. (That was in my neighbor’s yard, by the way.)

But back to surprises in Cambodia.

Our boys wailed about our painted plants. I was at the end of myself. That week I had dealt with more sickness in the family and fought off more discouragement than is usual for me, and now, my roof, my precious stronghold of sanity, had been vandalized.

But with Otto Koning’s Pineapple Story* at the front of my mind, we set out to solve the mystery of who, and more importantly, why. Next door to us is an orphanage, and there is an old man who lives there. All day long he lounges on a hammock on the roof, watching television and smoking cigarettes. Occasionally he does some odd jobs around the place.

The neighbor children told us that this man painted our pots and plants and rocks, but none of them seemed to know why. The adults were a bit more helpful, laughing embarrassedly at our questions. This man is apparently bored and likes to make things look nicer. While we were at the seaside with my parents, he took the opportunity to improve our rooftop view.

I thought it would be common courtesy to ask before forcing home improvement projects on someone else. But it wasn’t very long until I could see the humor. “My neighbor painted my plants,” I’ll say. And when you ask me why my neighbor painted my plants, I’ll say, “Oh, because he thought it would look better.” You might ask if it did look any better, and I’ll say, “No, not at all.”

The neighbors asked us if we wanted him to paint them again, perhaps all one color? (He originally painted them yellow and white.) We said yes, white is best. (Actually, unpainted is best, but. . . .) And I did have some hope that our pots would get better when we saw him outside this week, painting three tables white.

We played badminton and frisbee on our roof today. And those pots, they were one color, all right. They were one hundred percent yellow. (Surprise! A darker shade of yellow.) But we enjoyed our roof just as much as we did before our neighbor painted our plants.

*Otto Koning was a cross-cultural worker who planted pineapples in his yard. They took three years to grow, but before he could eat any of them, the nationals stole them all. This happened several times, and he was always angry about it. Only when he gave up his “right” to eat those pineapples to God could he stop being angry. The nationals noticed his change in behavior, and he started to have success in ministry.


Don’t forget to comment and be entered to win a copy of Serving Well! What funny culture shock stories do you have? We’d love to hear them!

101 Comments

  1. Sarah B. August 20, 2019

    Enter me for the book drawing please. Thanks!

  2. Kathryn Stoltzfus August 20, 2019

    I would love to receive a copy of this book!

  3. Lisa Anderson August 20, 2019

    I’m eager to read this book! I do think laughing is the best way to deal with culture shock, but as you say, sometimes it takes a while for something to become funny and not just a stolen pineapple! 🙂

    1. Elizabeth August 20, 2019

      True, Lisa!

  4. Jamie Lath August 20, 2019

    Enter me in the drawing! We just moved to Japan, and I’m in the thick of culture shock!

    1. Janice August 24, 2019

      Sounds like a book we could appreciate! I’m 2.5 years in, but my husband has been here 7 years – from him I at least have the perspective that it gets easier as the years go on.

  5. Jess August 20, 2019

    I would love to be entered! Thank you!

  6. Kaylee August 20, 2019

    Love the painted plants story. The things we just don’t understand in those initial stages! One time I showed up at a church potluck (introduced to the church years before by another “m”) with a fruit salad. I went through the line and it wasn’t there so I figured they weren’t putting all the dishes out at once. At the end of the evening I went to pick up my dish and it was still full of my salad. I asked someone if there was a reason it wasn’t put out. The reply, “it’s a dessert and you didn’t bring enough for everyone so we couldn’t put it out.” My husband and I had a good laugh and enjoyed the fruit salad at home.

    1. Jamie August 21, 2019

      I would love to win a copy of this book. My daughter and I just moved to East Africa 3 weeks ago for our first term overseas. Thanks for sharing these stories and experiences!

    2. Elizabeth August 22, 2019

      That is funny Kaylee! Glad you got to enjoy it yourself though!

  7. Kathy Vaughan August 20, 2019

    I love the painted plants story! Once, when I was leaving my house all dressed up to attend an introduction (a big celebration party in Uganda), my bodaboda driver (motorcycle taxi man) whom I love dearly, seemed hesitant to leave and finally said “Uhm, Jaja, uhm, did you forget your necklace?” Sure enough, I hadn’t realized how absolutely essential it was to wear big gaudy jewelry with my gomezi. I loved Matthew for reminding me so I didn’t commit a big cultural faux pas. I would love a chance to win a copy of your book.

    1. Sharon August 21, 2019

      I would love a copy of your book and feel it would be really helpful as we minister in Mozambique.

    2. Elizabeth August 22, 2019

      What a sweet driver, to do that for you, Kathy. Even if it felt awkward at the time.

    3. Jonathan Trotter August 28, 2019

      Congratulations, Kathy! You’re one of the two winners of a free copy of Serving Well! I’ll email you some more details here in a minute…
      — Jonathan Trotter

      1. Kathy August 28, 2019

        Thank you, thank you! I so look forward to reading the book!

  8. Jenny August 20, 2019

    Please enter me in the drawing and thanks for the stories. It is often only looking back at those moments that I amable to laugh but it definitely helps.

  9. Ruth August 20, 2019

    We have been through most of the stages. Now we are re-entering our passport country again, after 9 years overseas. Someone recently told me that for them to re-adjust to their passport country, they had to think of it as beginning from scratch again. Then they could adjust. It wasn’t like “going home.” We are finding that this may be true for us too. We have lots of cultural stories from each of our transitions. We can see the humor in them now better than when we were going through them. We are hoping we will see the humor in this transition as well, one day.

    1. Michelle August 20, 2019

      I’d love to win a copy! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    2. Elizabeth August 22, 2019

      That’s good advice, Ruth — to see it not as going home but as a new beginning. Wishing you some laughter in the days ahead!

  10. Tia August 20, 2019

    One of the biggest things for me in terms of culture shock is when people start touching my children especially when we don’t know them. I always get comments about my babies not being dressed with hats etc or warm enough. They call whites “gringos”, so now I respond with my babies are born with gringo blood which is stronger 😂😂!
    Would love to read the book!

    1. Elizabeth August 22, 2019

      Oh that’s a hilarious answer, Tia! And I agree – having strangers touch my children, especially when they were old enough to know what was going on and to not like it, that was hard.

  11. Michele August 20, 2019

    Your story reminded me of my first months in Indonesia, where my employer had rented me a couple of rooms on the second floor of a large family’s home. There were two horrendous wall-hangings- one an ugly cross-stitch and the other looked like someone had cut off the front part of a carnival prize stuffed dog and framed it. And these (as my SE Asia friends have already guessed) were hung on nails waaay up high toward the ceiling. There were other not so lovely touches to the little living room area I had, which the family passed through on their way to another upstairs room or the roof. I had been given a beautiful vase from some friends serving in Thailand, so I put it on the coffee table- only to find it filled with ugly fake roses wrapped in plastic the next day!
    I learned to laugh at these things- and slowly found things I ‘needed’ to put on those nails, so I could take down the ones hung there for me. Fifteen years later, when I got my first flat in Nepal, I could only laugh when I came to measure the windows before moving in, only to discover that my kind landlords had painted all the walls for me- in mint green! I’d long since given up my right to have a home that might be look nice to me or other Americans, so I could only laugh and be thankful I’d found out in time to find curtains that would kind of go with it!

    This book sounds great! I love you and your husband’s blog posts!

    1. Elizabeth August 22, 2019

      The ugly fake roses wrapped in plastic are especially hilarious, Michele! And I love the mint green walls — very much like my painted plants!

  12. J K August 20, 2019

    I’d love a copy of this book.

  13. Christian Arnold August 20, 2019

    Please enter me into the drawing!

  14. Casie Sachse August 20, 2019

    This had me laughing with tears as I read it outloud to my husband! Thank you for sharing! I’d love to be entered to win your book. Your stories are always so relatable and refreshing!

    1. Elizabeth August 23, 2019

      I’m so glad it made you laugh Casie!

  15. Elinor G. August 20, 2019

    “That never happened to me in America.” 😂 So refreshingly simple! I’m headed on the field for the first time in January, and I would love the chance to receive your book. Thank you for your ministry in Cambodia and for offering this gift to VA readers!

  16. Nan August 20, 2019

    I would love to read your book!

  17. Margeret August 21, 2019

    I would love to get a copy of the book! You made me interested after reading the blog :).

  18. Dana August 21, 2019

    I would LOVE to win a copy of the book!!! 🙂

  19. Lynn August 21, 2019

    Please enter me in the drawing. Thanks!

  20. Melissa August 21, 2019

    I’m doing language and orientation for our newbies. I’d love to read this book.

  21. Laurie August 21, 2019

    I think painted plants and painted pots might bring me close to my breaking point. Especially if they were my on my rooftop haven. Thanks for the reminder of the pineapple story and that we don’t have a right to “have things our way”.

    1. Elizabeth August 22, 2019

      We all have our breaking points — and this came pretty close to mine! I hope you have a haven of your own these days. . . .

  22. Phyllis August 21, 2019

    What is it about flaming light bulbs? A friend told us a hilarious story about one of her language mistakes when her light bulb burst into flame.

    I’d love to read your book.

    1. Elizabeth August 22, 2019

      Yes, truly, what is it about flaming light bulbs?! We’ve had other outlets catch on fire in the time since, too.

  23. Emily August 21, 2019

    Would love to read this myself and then share with other expats in my community. Thank you!

  24. Kim August 21, 2019

    Well said! Laughter is medicine.

  25. H August 21, 2019

    I’d love to read your book.

  26. Kristin August 21, 2019

    I am so grateful to hear your story as well as those in the comments. This is my third week in East Africa, providing member care for missionaries. I look forward to reading your book so that I am better prepared to support others!

  27. Jody Hesler August 21, 2019

    I had just moved to Ukraine. It was 1993. I knew nothing about the culture. As a single woman with no Bible college degree, I was going to simply hold the place until more qualified workers (a family) would answer the call and fulfill the role. I’d been in the country for a couple of days and my stomach went into full-on rebellion. Yep. That ugly kind. You know what I’m talking about. Both ends. I had been in a village doing some evangelical outreach and had returned home where I lived with a wonderful Ukrainian babushka (granny). She was so concerned. The “advance team” aka my Ukrainian teammates had warned her I’d been sick for a couple of days. She lovingly drew me a bath, which was no easy feat in those days. Luckily we had water that day and enough gas pressure to heat up water for a comfortable bath. I settled in that warm bath for a good soak. My back was to the door and when I heard it open my heart lurched. But it didn’t stop like it almost did when Babushka began to scrub my back! I distinctly remember telling myself, “Jody, you can laugh or you can cry. But, if you start to cry you might never stop.” I chose laughter and have chosen it many times over the last 26 years. I’m still abroad although no longer in Ukraine. But, by the way, I did live there and successfully minster there for 11 years. God does indeed qualify the called, because I was not qualified by anyone’s definition when I was called!

    1. Michele August 21, 2019

      That is a fabulous story! Giving up privacy was a HUGE part of my cultural adjustment… But I’m not sure how I would have handled having my back scrubbed!

    2. Elizabeth August 22, 2019

      This is a great story, Jody, and similar to a friend of ours — when something terrible happened 25 years ago, she felt like God was saying to her, you can either laugh, or you can cry. And she chose to laugh 🙂 So glad you were able to stay and minister so long.

  28. Britney August 21, 2019

    We just finished our first year on the field and I’d love a copy of your book!

  29. Mandy August 21, 2019

    Sounds like a great book. I agree, sense of humor is very important. So is sleep!

    1. Elizabeth August 22, 2019

      Oh my goodness, yes, sleep! Enough sleep makes our senses of humor work so much better!

  30. Hannah August 21, 2019

    I’m in the throes of culture shock! Just arrived a few weeks ago and finding it harder than I first thought it would be…and I thought it would be hard! I have been doing a lot of laughing too though. Like the other day when I was trying to enter a store, my bag on one arm and my toddler in the other. It was a stressful day of trying to find shoes for my girl. Well, I decided at the last minute that I didn’t want to go into this particular shop after all (and face the insistent shopkeepers when I didn’t see anything I wanted to buy.) I turned to leave, only to jab my bony elbow right into the chest of a man squeezing into the door beside me! I don’t know who was more surprised, he or I. (In this culture, men and women never touch each other). The look on his face was priceless though as he clutched his chest and looked at me like I was an alien. Thankfully, I knew the words for “I’m sorry” as well as could understand his response equaling “it happens”. 🤭 I have innumerable stories already. I should be writing them down. It could be a good comedy book. 😁 All the best to you all. And if you want to reassure me that I’ll make it through this season, I’ll be blessed. 🤗

    1. Elizabeth August 22, 2019

      You should definitely write down your stories! It’s too easy to forget them otherwise. Language mistakes are especially funny. I’m glad you were able to get out of that sticky situation with some grace. And yes, you WILL make it through this season. Culture shock is rarely terminal 🙂

  31. Erin August 21, 2019

    Love your idea of pasting your mantra on the wall. The phrase “Flexible, Flexible, Flexible” was written on the underside of my bunk bed on my first ever mission trip, and I’ve since adopted that as MY missions mantra.

    1. Elizabeth August 22, 2019

      I love that, Erin. Flexible, flexible, flexible. It’s good for all of us, at all times 🙂

  32. Rebekah Allen August 21, 2019

    Starting our overseas adventure to Malawi in just under 3 weeks! Happy to receive all the advice we can get! Would love a copy of this book!!

  33. Karlene August 21, 2019

    4 years in Africa and 6 in Mexico have definitely given us many experiences with culture shock. I would love to be entered in the draw for this book! Thanks!

  34. Val August 21, 2019

    I would love to be entered! I live overseas but also work with groups that go overseas and I share with them about culture shock and reverse culture shock- your book seems like a great resource! Thanks for sharing.

  35. Kimberly August 21, 2019

    I’ve been in my host country now for over five years, but I go home every summer. I think I now experience more culture shock going back to the states than I do returning here. This past summer in the states, I just sat and watched TV commercials. I don’t remember them being so weird! (Note: I don’t have a TV at all in my host country, so I have no idea what their commercials are like.) I was fascinated! I was like, “What?!?!” and just laughed over them with my nephews.

    1. Elizabeth August 22, 2019

      Yes! Commercials are SO weird. Reverse culture shock is definitely a thing, and it has reduced me to tears at certain points. But it’s good to be able to laugh some, too.

  36. Elise Mergillano August 21, 2019

    I love reading culture shock stories, and would love a copy of your book! The story that readily came to mind is from my first visit to Mongolia. I went horseback riding with some other expats at a tourist spot in the countryside. When we got back to where we started, I realized my fleece pullover was entirely covered in horse hair. The lady running the place noticed too and was horrified. She immediately spit into her hands and ran them up and down my torso, using her saliva as a lint roller. My instinct was to run, but I was no stranger to culture shock by then, so I stayed and let her clean me off. As soon as we left, I started laughing. It made no sense to me, but it did to her…and it worked 🙂

    1. Elizabeth August 22, 2019

      Oh that is really funny, Elise, and I can just see it happening in my mind!

  37. Claire August 21, 2019

    Please enter me.
    I have experienced some culture shock in my time abroad and looking to go back out there, so hopefully this book may help!

  38. Becki August 21, 2019

    Even thoughi would be a pro, spent umpteen years in the big C, we just moved to Thailand and we’re starting over. I’d love this book.

  39. Myndii August 21, 2019

    Learning to laugh about things has been vital to our ministry as well. That, and getting over the fact that what I think is pretty or nice is linked to my cultural perspective, not truth. I have learned more about “my” culture by having to look at things through a different cultural lens. In the interior of The DRC, there are plenty of opportunities to see things differently.

    I think I need to read your book… so wether or not I “win” the drawing, it’s now on my list 🙂 Thank you for this article!

    1. Elizabeth August 22, 2019

      Yes, it’s very eye-opening when we realize that so much of what we thought was true, was merely cultural. I think that’s actually something people don’t talk about much, but maybe we should!

  40. Heather August 21, 2019

    Your book sounds really helpful. We are in the throes of culture shock in our first term. We’ve had the language blunders, unexpectedly been shocked in the shower, and forgotten things that indicate respect or modesty here.

    1. Elizabeth August 22, 2019

      Oh, the situations we realize we were disrespectful of culture or people, those are hard. 🙁 But I would love to hear more about your unexpected shock in the shower!

  41. Anna August 21, 2019

    This sounds like a great book! Please enter me in the drawing.

  42. Maria August 21, 2019

    This book is much needed, there’s so many adjustments to make on the field and too many things that feel too strange. That said though life would be boring if everyone and every place was the same. I love the quote that you hung in your home, what a wonderful reminder that as we embrace these new places the culture shock won’t be the death of us! I might need to hang that in my home too as I remember this place and the quirks are temporary but heaven is eternal.

  43. Shelee August 21, 2019

    I’ve been struggling on the field for 4 long years and just last fall came upon Velvet Ashes and A Life Overseas; both have been such a gift to me!! Thank you for being brave enough to share, for sharing your gifts of writing and insight. And yes, I’d love to read the kindle version of your new book Serving Well.

    1. Elizabeth August 22, 2019

      I am so, so glad you have found Velvet Ashes and A Life Overseas. Finding like-minded community is so important for our hearts and minds to thrive. I’m blessed to hear that these online communities have blessed you.

  44. Linda August 21, 2019

    Please enter me in the drawing for the free book. Thanks.

  45. Isabel August 21, 2019

    Sounds like a very inspiring book. Would love a copy.

  46. Bayta Schwarz August 21, 2019

    That is such a great story! And yes, laughter is so important! I’ve taken to giving people facing transition one of those soap bubble toy things, just as a reminder to play and laugh, even (maybe especially) in the stressful times! And those bubbles – they work their magic on everyone! So fun seeing people laugh and enjoy themselves! And they still talk about it weeks later!
    Would love a copy of your book – sounds so great!

    1. Elizabeth August 22, 2019

      Oh I love that — a reminder to play! I think even when we are out of the initial culture shock, we still need the reminder to play. I know I do, when I’m in a season of stress.

      1. Bayta Schwarz August 23, 2019

        Oh absolutely!!! One of the best things about introducing bubbles at the trainings and debriefs I lead? I get to join in the fun! Always does my soul good as well!

        1. Elizabeth August 26, 2019

          Fun!

  47. Johnna August 21, 2019

    Need laughter. Book please! 🙂 this post brought me some needed chuckles. Thank you!

    1. Elizabeth August 22, 2019

      I’m glad this story made you laugh!

  48. Angie August 21, 2019

    I’m reading your book already! If I win a copy, I might give the copy back to the person who loaned it to me. 🙂

  49. Anne August 21, 2019

    I would love to receive a copy of your book! I just moved overseas and will be here for a year so I am in the thick of cross-cultural shock.

  50. Irene August 21, 2019

    I would love to recieve a copy of your book!

    1. Jonathan Trotter August 28, 2019

      Congratulations, Irene! You’re one of the two winners of a free copy of Serving Well! I’ll email you some more details here in a minute…
      — Jonathan Trotter

  51. Ruth August 21, 2019

    Would love copy if the draw hasn’t happened yet!

  52. Verena Schafroth August 22, 2019

    Please enter me in the draw.

  53. Sara George August 22, 2019

    Please enter me in the drawing. Thanks!

  54. Sheila August 22, 2019

    🙋 would love to get your book.

  55. Christina August 22, 2019

    Loved it and would love the book!!

  56. Kat August 22, 2019

    Haha, I always appreciate a good culture shock story 😂😊

  57. Carly August 23, 2019

    I would love a copy of your book! I just started my second term in India…and oh my! I have plenty of similar stories, though I haven’t had my plants painted :). I have had my fair share of things exploding on me though! My first six months included at least 3 knocks on my door at 2 am from my neighbors-apparently my porch loved to catch on fire from the transformer box :0. Inspired and reminded to laugh and enjoy the little things. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Elizabeth August 23, 2019

      “I have had my fair share of things exploding on me.” Laughing with you! And thankful for such kind neighbors for you. Ours banged on our door a few weeks ago because we had forgotten to pull our moto into our house. Very kind of them!

  58. Amber August 23, 2019

    Thanks for the beautiful post! I’d dearly love a copy of your book.

  59. Morgan August 23, 2019

    I’d love a copy of the book!!

  60. Missy August 24, 2019

    Thanks for sharing! I’d love a copy of the book!

  61. Petra August 24, 2019

    These culture shock stories are so funny once you look back. When I was in my third month I was invited for a wedding (I knew the brother of the bride). Here the wedding starts a few days before with haldi function followed by mehendi function. So at the haldi function they put that yellow paste over there arms, legs and face. First to the bride-to-be and then all other ladies will put for themselves. So I joined in that, putting the haldi paste on my arms and face. Only to find out the next day that my skin had a yellowish glow!!! It took a few days for that yellow glow to fade away.
    Well at my own wedding here in India I skipped the haldi function for sure 🙂

    1. Elizabeth August 26, 2019

      That first wedding in-country is such an experience! Kind of a thrill, actually, and full of funny moments too. I wrote a whole series about my first wedding, there were so many awkward moments! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  62. Elise August 25, 2019

    I enjoyed reading this article! And I’d love to throw my name into the drawing for your book—thanks!

  63. Jessica August 25, 2019

    Please enter me!

  64. Sophie Bond August 26, 2019

    I would love to read your book.

  65. Sharon August 26, 2019

    Loved your post — and reading through all the comments. Laughter is so good for the soul. Would love a copy of your book – if I don’t win, it’s definitely on my list of wanted books!

  66. Sarah Hilkemann August 26, 2019

    Hey everyone! Just a reminder that Elizabeth and Jonathan will draw for a winner on Wednesday, August 28th. Thank you to everyone who has commented so far!

    If you’re not one of the winners but you’d still like the book, check it out on Amazon (print and Kindle) here: https://amzn.to/2ZpZEpd . Also, it’s worth noting that churches and organizations can get a 40% discount on purchases of 5 copies or more by emailing our publisher. Send an email to [email protected] and let them know who you’re with and how many copies you want.

  67. Christine August 26, 2019

    No matter how long you’ve been in the field, there’s always something new.

    Would love a copy of this book to help navigate the never-ending ‘new normal’.

    1. Elizabeth August 26, 2019

      Always something new — true!

  68. ANNALISA August 28, 2019

    In case it’s not too late, I’d like to be entered in the giveaway as well.

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