Cultural Humility and Perspective

Aside from just being a lot of fun, foreign travel changes the traveler. For example, Chris likes to say that everyone should travel abroad so they can experience what it means to be in the minority.

Unfortunately, the stereotype of the obnoxious traveler can occur, I believe, when we enter another culture without the proper respect and appreciation for our host country. Foreigners sometimes criticize cultural differences (or similarities) rather than embracing them, and thus may come across as arrogant and unpleasant. For example, I overheard Americans commenting at length about the graffiti observed from the train… as if the French shouldn’t have graffiti when we have it all over our major cities.

As a minority who was born and raised in America, I’m pretty sensitive to being a racial minority but oblivious to being a cultural minority. In other words, a Caucasian traveler in the US may feel culturally conspicuous as the customs or language of the host country may be vastly different from their own.

When in the cultural minority when I travel, I find the language barrier mortifying.   I have never been very good at learning other languages, including the one that I should be able to speak (Mandarin, since I’m the daughter of Mandarin-speaking immigrants; this is particularly embarrassing for me). It’s almost worse when the locals speak English yet I can barely speak a word of their language while I’m visiting their country. To me, this disparity feels intensely disrespectful and I’m all the more impressed with others who are at all fluent in a language other than their native tongue.

In addition, foreign travel gives one a fresh appreciation for differences in culture and custom resulting in a new perspective of one’s own customs (What? We have to weigh our own fruit?).   There is so much about our own culture that I completely take for granted, so being submerged in another culture reminds me that many perspectives and approaches are equally valid, valuable and important, not only across countries but between cultural backgrounds within our own country.

Unfortunately, those differences are all too easily misunderstood (No, we’re not stupid. We’re ignorant). I believe a disadvantage of being American is that for most of us, foreign boundaries are all too far away and we often take for granted that the American way is THE way. Even if we don’t feel that way, it’s too easy to fall into complacency about our cultural assumptions. The problem with that complacency is that we are a large and extremely diverse country and it’s too easy to make assumptions about how ‘it should be’ when it may not necessarily make sense for another American with a different cultural sensitivity.

This subject came up recently when discussing what it is like for international students at our university. In other words, how can we accommodate and respect the cultures of those students but yet set certain standards on campus? We’re walking a fine line where we expect foreign nationals to respect and abide by our cultural norms while trying to respect theirs. The university setting is just a microcosm of our culture at large… we face the same issues on a national and even international scale.

I don’t really know the answer to such questions as I’m simply a pharmaceutical scientist and positive psychology practitioner. Perhaps the first step is to simply try to understand someone else’s perspective, withhold judgment as much as possible, and try to find the upside of that perspective even when we disagree with it. After all, isn’t that how we would want to be treated?


Princess For A Day or Three

I’ve never understood the girlish fascination with princesses and being a princess.  Raised by Chinese immigrants in America, I was familiar with the concept but never really got it.  I think I was nearly 40 before my parents ever referred to me as their princess.  Back when I was growing up, the princesses in popular culture looked nothing like me:  I looked more like the evil stepmother.

The culture in Texas in the 70’s and 80’s also reinforced my sense of not being special.  Rather, I was pretty invisible, usually being ignored in restaurants, at deli counters and by men in general.

I’m not writing this as an ode to Poor Me.  I’m simply observing the juxtaposition of those expectations of usually fading into the background with my experience in the last few months where I have been Princess Galore:  50th Birthday Party (surprise party, no less), Graduation and a wedding, all in about 6 weeks.   Center of attention.  Photos.  Toasts.  Gifts in abundance.  Pampering.  Friends and family from afar.  Compliments and congratulations.

Wanting to hide beneath the covers.

Don’t get me wrong.  It was pretty sublime and there is literally nothing better than having those that you love most surrounding you and helping to celebrate the most important moments of your life.   I wouldn’t want it any other way and am so incredibly grateful to my loved ones for taking the time and effort to join me/us.  Truly, I feel so unbelievably blessed and fortunate.

But being a Princess is not the normal state of affairs for the 99.9% of us.  At some point we go back to our daily lives where we instead try to make other people feel special each day.  If I got too used to being Princess, I’d feel deprived and resentful for not being doted on like that on a regular and frequent basis.

So I feel that being a Princess once in a while is pretty freakin’ amazing, but I’m glad I was not raised to expect it.  Instead, when Princess happens, I can view it as a special gift from a loved one and savor every precious moment.

We get married!

We get married!

Coming Back Around To The Power of Love

I used to say, “What is the point of remarrying?” after the end of my 20-year marriage.  After all, it’s not like we’re going to having babies at our age, and having dogs does not merit a marriage license.

Chris used to laugh at me when I’d say these things.   Perhaps, absence of positive psychology degree-notwithstanding, he is a better judge of human nature than I am.  Or it’s just another example of the annoying nature of blind spots.

Or maybe not.  Maybe it has to do with hypocrisy and my inability to practice what I preach.  After all, I have always tried to preach to others the value of making decisions by moving towards desire, not away from fear.  And trying to be in a relationship again after the separation/divorce was the scariest thing I have done since I decided to go into academia so many years ago.

Being in a relationship again was more like an evolution, rather than a revolution for me.  First was the baby steps of online dating, then came falling in love, next was moving in together, and now, tying the knot.    Strangely, the early steps were the scariest.  I was literally shaking in my shoes in those early days when starting each of these processes.   You’d think I’d be terrified now, remarrying at my old age, but I’m not at all.

I think this fact speaks volumes about my sweetheart.  It takes a special man to change the mind of a stubborn woman like me (for those who believe in horoscopes, I’m a Taurus (the bull) and a dragon.  Need I say more?)

However, as my BFF says, I also cannot be changed if I’m not willing to change.  I had to be open enough to believe again that love can be forever, healing, and positively transformative.  No, there are still no guarantees, but I have faith once again and am moving enthusiastically toward my desires.

I am eager to partner with this extraordinary man so that we may nurture ourselves as both individuals and as a couple.  We will create fertile soil to enable a spectacular garden, but also pull the weeds as we go to ensure its sustenance.   Though the garden is ours alone, we will invite others to enjoy the fruits of labor and strive to help others with their own shared and individual gardens; after all, love is for sharing.

Unlike the laws of physics where matter is neither created nor destroyed, love is a fertilizer and a catalyst that is generative:  a little dose of love creates lots more love.   And so formalizing our union not only feels so right, but also the right thing to do.

Taming the Inner Demon

Your heart is pounding. There is a white noise in your ears. You feel like screaming or pounding something. Or perhaps you want to run and hide, cry. Or maybe your mind goes blank.

We all have some version of that feeling when our buttons get pushed, and this welling of emotion starts to consume us.   Observers wonder why we’re so freaked out over what is nothing, or maybe something relatively trivial. On some level, we know they’re right, or we try very hard to convince them that they should be as freaked out as we are.

At these moments, I feel like such a freak for being out of control.   But I’ve gotten much better about managing those feelings, both on the front end and in the midst of a freak out. It’s not perfect though, so sometimes I cave to those feelings and off I go…

However, this is what works for me in the moment.   First, I have to get away from the situation and find a place/environment that’s soothing and comforting. A walk. The gym. A hot bath. A quite and beautiful spot. Somewhere that I can get away and find a new perspective and some emotional distance from my feelings.   Usually I just try to clear my mind and then try to take another look at the situation, this time with the volume knobs turned down as much as possible.

Next, I reappraise. I have already realized that I have tendencies to view the world through a distorted lens and that lens does not always provide the most accurate or healthy interpretation of the world. Therefore, that distortion can send me off on a wild emotional goose chase where no good will come from it. I find that little thread of reason and doubt and pull to unravel the core of negative emotion.

The reappraisal looks something like this: “I’m freaked out but I tend to overreact on this subject. Even if I have been honestly mistreated, I don’t need to react to this degree. What are the other more forgiving interpretations of this situation? How am I mistreating myself? How am I mistreating this other person? Why might a reasonable person do or say that to me? What is the most loving thing I can do for them?

Turning the focus 180 degrees in another direction is a great exercise for taking me outside my bubble of indignation and self-justification. Once I infuse doubt into that process, the light that shines in on my self-righteousness tends to illuminate my foolishness.

If I can notice and reverse my foolishness before it becomes so blatantly obvious others, I may mitigate the damage before it occurs. If not, I go down that same pathway where they’re wondering what demon has possessed me yet again.

The more I practice this emotional distance then reappraisal, the better I get at it. If I can catch it as it’s starting to occur, then I avoid the need to leave in the middle of a meeting to look for a hot bathtub, often not readily accessible. I also can avoid spending hours or days roiling from what is likely an innocent comment from an unsuspecting colleague or family member.

In other words, I retain my personal power. My faculties and emotions intact, I can continue to engage with my day as I would prefer rather than taking an emotional detour that sets me back for hours. Keeping my cool also helps me be more effective managing the situation at hand. After all, if I’m having trouble keeping my cool, my problem-solving and listening abilities go down the drain.

What do you do to keep your cool and personal power? Share with me.


Warning Will Robinson

Warning Will Robinson

Many items fall into the general category of crazy-making. For me, it’s slow cars, slow lines, slow talkers. Others will list impatient people.  Though others can certainly drive me to feel crazy, it’s especially bad when I’m the one making myself crazy(er).   It’s one thing to do it unintentionally, like a bad mistake or an oversight. It’s another when I do it knowingly.

And like my own fly on the wall, I’m watching myself during the moment of decision and thinking: this is a very bad idea.  I have a choice, and in the moment I know I’m making a choice. That I’m writing about those bad choices today means that I don’t usually have the willpower to make the sane, crazy-avoiding choice.

Yes, I have some occasional lapses of eating too many potato chips or too much dessert. That’s fairly harmless as long as it’s the exception rather than the rule. But my Really Bad Habit is overscheduling. Sure we can get across town, run into Costco, and get back in 45 minutes! Sure I can go to 6 meetings in a day spanning both campuses and one off site! Sure I can do a full time graduate program while working full time! Sure! Sure! Sure!

My better angels watch all of this crazy-making with morbid fascination and amusement every time.

The problem is, I can usually make it work.   I might have to apologize for forgetting something or being a bit late (which also makes me crazy), but I often pull it off pretty well. And when it works well, it’s amaaazzzing (except for all those meetings).

Talk about rewarding bad behavior. No wonder I keep doing it over and over again until I and everyone around me collapses.

The same is true for when I open my mouth to talk about something maybe just a teensy weensy bit on the edge. At that moment, part of me is doing the Lost In Space robot arm wave warning.   My intuition is saying simultaneously Go For It and Stop and Desist Immediately. My tendency is overwhelmingly on the Go For It side of the equation, for better or for worse, and there I am, overscheduled again.

So the bottom line of this blog is: I don’t know. When it works, it’s great. When it fails, it’s butt-ugly.   I guess, in the end, I’d rather die trying rather than die sitting.

Maybe I have found my wisdom on this subject after all.