Reflections on Cross-Cultural Emotions

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Lindsey’s Thoughts

My aunt sent us some proverbs recently about living in another culture (Jacob’s Proverbs on How to Live Happily in other Cultures, 1973). The first proverb is:

“The psychological space which one is given to occupy in some other cultures is limited. Discovering what that space is in which one can be free is the basis to happy living. Said in another way, there are some things you can change and some things you cannot change. It is futile to try to change something which cannot be changed. Therefore, ponder the dynamics of your situation. Choose very carefully the battles you wish to spend your strength on because many tempting battles are not worth the time it takes to gird your loins. Occupy the space given to you. It is big enough.”

There are a lot of emotional and psychological things that occur when living in another culture. I am someone who likes to have control and order in my life. I have had to let this mindset go while living in a third-world culture. As the proverb reads, we cannot change what cannot be changed. I can’t change people’s behavior, decisions, or driving methods 🙂 I can’t change the deep-seeded cultural values and ways of doing things. I can’t change anything, but my attitude and perception of the people and things around me. 

While we have only lived in a different culture for a little over a year, I have noticed my reaction and emotional response to many different scenarios. And it doesn’t often feel like the me I know. I sometimes feel like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde…one minute I’m fine and carrying on with my day, and the next minute I’m outraged about something (and typically something that isn’t that important in the grand scheme of life). It seems that even the simplest things can set me off. 

So how does one cope with this emotional experience? Well I think grace, humor, and processing help a great deal. I have to give myself a break and some perspective. While our transition here to Southern Africa has gone smoothly, it’s still a very different culture and experience than I am used to. A lot has happened in the last year and few months. It’s always good and healthy to laugh about your observations and encounters. Sometimes I think we take things too seriously in life (I’m guilty of this) and we need to just have a little giggle about what just happened. And it’s always important to talk about about what you experienced or felt. I either choose my co-worker and best friend, Asher or journal about it. 

The proverb also notes that we need to pick our battles or decide what we are going to invest our energy in. Is it worth my time and energy to get upset at the taxi driver who just went around the line of traffic and then cut in where he pleased? Is it worth my frustration at the dog’s incessant early morning or pre-dinner bark off? The list could go on and on. We, even those living in our home culture, have to consciously decide where we invest our time, energy, and attention. Do we wish to engage in the Facebook rhetoric and trolling? Do we decide to get angry at the driver tailing us? Do we participate in the co-worker drama? 

I can’t change my emotional reaction to things that happen here…it’s an unconscious switch that clicks on. BUT, I can learn from my reactions and be cognizant of their presence and meaning. I can also change the depth of the emotional reaction. I can choose to go from being irritated to outraged or I can be irritated, laugh about it, and move on with the day. 

If I’m not monitoring my emotional experience, I could continue to stay in a space of anger, frustration, and ignorance. But if I stay in this space and don’t come up for sunshine or fresh air, I will miss all the beauty around me. I’ll miss the people and relationships. I’ll miss the opportunities. I’ll miss the happiness, hope, and resilience that is around. And that is a much better space to inhabit. I can only occupy the space with which we live and work. And I hope that I continue to be mindful of this space and remain happy and faithful within it. 

Asher’s Thoughts

Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hateHate leads to suffering.” -Jedi Master Yoda

My stream of consciousness is a mess of convoluted thoughts, impulses, and information that includes many random movie quotes. The above quote may not be so random though. Many times over the past year-plus I’ve had to channel my inner-Yoda countless times to try and calmly process frustrations and anger.

I’ve never considered myself an angry person or have I really ever had to deal with on-going anger issues. When one is pulled from their normal environment and routine it can be easy to be bothered by changes and unfamiliar occurrences that are out of your control. Now living in a foreign country, I guess it is not shocking that I get mad or frustrated by mostly trivial things from time-to-time. Overall, I think my ups and downs are pretty typical for someone living abroad and serving overseas. 

Lindsey and I have been here in Botswana for nearly 15 months now, so we are past the honeymoon phase (1) and the initial culture shock phase (2). After these two stages, people tend to gradually adjust to the new culture (3) and then begin to feel at home (4). Life here now seems normal; it’s not just our “Botswana life”, but our life in general. Even though we’ve grown a lot during our time here and don’t get irritated by the same small things nearly as much as we did during our first year; we still ebb and flow between stages 2, 3, & 4.

I wouldn’t say that any frustrations and anger that we feel anymore are due to cultural shock, but more so cultural stress. Cultural stress is the day-to-day stress that we feel living in a foreign culture. Although we still go through ups and downs due to cultural stress and life, we’ve learned how to cope with common irritations and triggers.

A year ago, just driving around town would often cause my head to start throbbing: cars swerving around you at twice your speed, taxi drivers running red lights and ignoring stop signs, and pedestrians darting or sauntering across the road in the middle of a busy street nowhere near a cross walk. I won’t even get going about the stress of driving on highways. Any of these things in the U.S. would cause me to lay on the horn, with the intent of honking someone until they acknowledged wrongdoing. About a year ago, here in Francistown, a taxi driver swerved in front of me during a heavy traffic hour. I gave the driver a long honk, trying to teach him a lesson. Instead I was the one that learned the lesson. He then began yelling and honking at me, he pulled behind me, and then followed me continuing to yell and honk for several minutes. Although he was the one who made the dangerous move in traffic, my honking at him didn’t prevent anything, and only escalated the situation resulting in some serious road rage. How often does honking at someone out of frustration solve a situation?  Does it ever teach the other person a valuable lesson? No, at least not 99% of the time.

How I deal or cope with reckless taxi drivers can be applied to how I deal with all frustrations in life. First of all, is it worth my time to get upset and dwell on frustrating things? No. So how do I deal with these frustrations? Here are some examples of how I cope with just reckless drivers:

-Pretend to play a game called “How long can I keep my cool?”

-Laugh it off

-Applaud/marvel at the creativity of some drivers and the lengths they will go to in order to avoid legal, harmonious driving

-Wave hello or blink my lights (a sign of courteousness in Botswana) instead of yelling an obscenity

-Take a moment to breath, channel my inner-Yoda, quickly process the situation, and then move on

Now back to the Yoda fortune cookie wisdom:

Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hateHate leads to suffering.”

I don’t necessarily believe that fear leads to evil (aka the dark side). However, this quote is actually fairly insightful if you can imagine it being said in a serious non-Yoda-like voice. Fear leads to anger. We often fear things we don’t understand or are not used to, like change or aspects of other cultures. A common result is anger. Often, we become angry when we continue to face things we don’t understand. Anger leads to hate. If we continue to be angry at someone or something, we may become hateful. Hate leads to suffering. Look at conflict, war and violence all around the world that stems from hatred of other beliefs, cultures, and people.

So how is this quote helpful?

As I said, lately I’ve been trying to channel my inner-Yoda. I have been embracing how important it is in my current environment, and in general, to be patient. I came up with a Yoda-esque quote of my own:

“Patience is a path that leads to happiness. Patience can lead to learning & understanding. Understanding leads to tolerance. Tolerance leads happiness.”

Learning to be patient and to deal with a frustration, even when everything in your body tells you to react swiftly and strongly, has helped me immensely. While I’ve been in Botswana, I’ve had to get used to a more laid-back, slower-pace of life (not better, not worse, just different). Over time, some things that naturally occur slowly around here that use to drive be crazy, don’t bother me nearly as much because I have developed patience and to some extent tolerance. Tolerance doesn’t mean that I necessarily agree or disagree with someone, something, or another way of life. It means that I practice patience, give grace to others, and try to develop understanding.

Another not-so-random quote that comes to mind that has been helpful for me, especially in today’s world, comes from comedian Jon Stewart. A number of years ago I saw Jon Stewart give a sincere live speech. Jon Stewart is especially good at using humor to reveal the truth and convey serious points. His speech had a serious point, but in this case, he didn’t use much humor. His speech was ultimately about tolerance. Towards the end of his speech, he used a metaphor that still resonates with me (and that keeps in line with all the driving/traffic threads above). While talking about others with strong beliefs (so everyone), he was mentioning that in life we have to share the road and merge with others:

“…You go, then I’ll go. Then you go, and I’ll go.”

His point was that the world is a better place when we put others before ourselves, even in the simplest of ways.

This fits in with a philosophy of serving others and being patient. You go, then I’ll go. The next time someone swerves in front of me on the road or rolls through the stop sign when I have the right-of-way, I’ll just remember: You go, then I go.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. A great message for all of us!! God bless and keep!! Sharon

    Like

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