Podcasts, Anyone? Let’s Serve Up a Smorgasbord



Some people scroll Facebook. Some YouTube. Some TikTok (at least for now). Some spend their online time on Pinterest or X or Insta or IG or Gram—and I’m going to stop there, before I pull a muscle.

If you can’t tell already, I’m not a big consumer of social media, but I do have go-to sites of my own. Most mornings I call up a collection of tabs for local, world, and Church news; sports updates; and several blogs. One site that I check daily is MinistryWatch, which helps readers make informed decisions about giving to Christian charities. A couple of weeks ago, MinistryWatch‘s editor, Warren Cole Smith, wrote about the recent online conversation concerning the drop in the number of American conservatives listening to NPR. He says that his “own experience reflects that change.”

“Part of the reason for these changes,” Smith writes, “is technological. The rise of podcasts means that we have a much wider variety of listening choices than we did even a decade ago. As recently as a few years ago, when I got in my car, I turned on the local NPR affiliate. Today, I plug in my iPhone and listen to a podcast.”

Some people listen to podcasts . . . but not me, at least not often. I have listened to season one of Serial (on NPR, oh, the irony) and The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, but that’s mostly it. I don’t have an iPhone and my 2006 Honda CR-V doesn’t speak Bluetooth.

I know that many of you are fans of podcasts, though. So I’d like your help in crowdsourcing a list of them for your fellow ALO readers. What do you listen to? What podcasts do you tune in to to get your cross-cultural-worker information, insights, or inspiration? Maybe you host a podcast yourself. Let us know. Also, what podcasts not specifically in the cross-cultural-worker orbit do you follow—ones that tangentially speak into the CCW mindset and experience?

When giving podcast recommendations at his site, Smith notes the importance of moving beyond one’s own beaten path, writing, “If I am not careful, I’ll end up in an echo chamber of my own design.”

“[I]n media as in other areas of life,” he writes, “a balanced menu is the best approach.”

So let’s make our own menu. Normally, in a situation such as this, I’d prime the pump with my own ideas. But this time it’s all on you. I can slide in The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill for something tangential, but that’s really all I’ve got firsthand.

It’s up to you to provide your suggestions (with links or platforms if you have them) in the comments. Feel free to provide descriptions or plugs or caveats, but those aren’t necessary. My part is that I’ll compile the titles alphabetically into a list here in this post. I’m calling it simply “A Menu of Podcasts Recommended by Fellow ALOers.”

Thanks in advance, and bon appétit!

A Menu of Podcasts Recommended by Fellow ALOers:

[Warren Cole Smith, “Editor’s Notebook: Listening in on the World,” MinistryWatch, April 12, 2024]

[photo by Gil Medina]

When the “Perfect!” Fit Isn’t

There seems to be an awful lot of Perfect! going on these days, at least in my part of the world. I told my server at a restaurant that I wanted fries and steamed broccoli to go with my entree. “Perfect!” he said. A nurse read off my blood pressure. “Perfect!” again. When I offered 8:30 as a possible time for an appointment, I heard “Perfect!” over the phone.

And then I was at a hotel not long ago and saw an advertisement for “Perfect Pizza.” I really, really wanted to run up to the hostess and yell, Elf-style, “You did it! Congratulations! The perfect pizza! Great job everybody! It’s great to meet you!”

I know it’s just a trendy shorthand for “good” or “fine” or “sounds OK to me,” but Perfect! sure bumps things up a notch. It sounds so comforting, so . . . exciting. And while it’s not my go-to expression (“Great!” is my over-the-top adjective of choice), I still see myself hoping for perfection, and wanting to claim it when I think I’ve found it.

For instance, “Please, Lord, bless us with just the right apartment, in just the right quiet neighborhood, with just the right opportunities for outreach, with just the right distance from the preschool and bus stop, and just the right rent for our budget” is like something I might have prayed while we were looking for a new place to live overseas. And when we’d found a new home that checked all the boxes, we’d declare it a Perfect! fit and would tell our supporters as much in our next newsletter.

A Perfect! fit.

Pardon the detour, but have you heard of “wire electrical discharge machining”? At some point I came across videos of wire EDM, a method of cutting metal so precisely that it’s considered to have “zero tolerance.” Here’s an example. (I could watch these videos all day.)

I think this is often the kind of “basically air-tight” perfection that we’re looking for when we make our plans. But then our hopes are so easily dashed. The street in front of our apartment ends up being a popular parade route, the neighbors are distrustful of foreigners, the preschool isn’t taking new students, the bus line changes its route, or the rent goes up after the first month. It turns out that this isn’t the exact fit we were looking for. So instead of us and our surroundings going together like machined-metal puzzle pieces, we feel more like the proverbial square pegs in round holes.

But these pegs and holes aren’t made out of carbide, and that’s a good thing. While God can miracle rigid pieces together perfectly and instantly, that’s not been my experience or what I’ve seen happen to others. Instead, it’s a much more organic process than that. We’re more like branches, growing in a new environment, clicking, clacking, and rubbing against other branches—people, languages, expectations, customs, foods, climates, communities, schedules, traditions. . . . Over time, the bark wears off, a little from us, a little from them, and we’re smoothed into a fit that’s not Perfect! but beautiful.

It’s a beauty that’s revealed by accepting natural forms that twist and turn into each other, that sand down rough edges, that show scars and bends and gaps telling a wonderfully patinaed story. And the result of that story is a growing together that alters us and them, so that if we’re ever separated, someone looking on might wonder what brought about that strange shape in us, might ask what caused the odd changes where we were.

Now I’m not saying that we should give up on our hopes and prayers or that we should simply accept whatever comes our way. (Some things are not only imperfect, they’re simply unacceptable!) No, I’m suggesting that we hope and pray for something better than the Perfect! location, the Perfect! contact, the Perfect! connection, the Perfect! event, or the Perfect! method.

And in so doing, we’ll learn to hold our plans more loosely. We’ll learn to pray more “Your will be done.” We’ll learn to seek and assert less Perfect! and look for more God-blessed serendipity. We’ll learn that while that apartment will never be what we’d hoped for, it can become the place that makes us feel at home. Over time, we’ll learn to make more room for Unpredicted! and Wonderful! and Challenging! and Sufficient! and Flawed! and Lovely! and Unexpected! We’ll learn to find the splendor of God moving gracefully in imperfection.

[photo: “A few pieces are still out of place,” by Timothy Krause, used under a Creative Commons license]

Mom and Dad, Thanks for Letting Us Go without Letting Go of Us

 

My wife and I wrote this “open letter” nearly 19 years ago, in honor of our parents and the parents of other cross-cultural workers. We originally published it in our newsletter after my father died (and I later posted it on my blog). Nineteen years is a long time, so I thought about updating it, but I’ve decided to leave it as it is, with one exception. Apropos of this time of year, I’ve added the line “Thank you for missing us when we miss holiday gatherings.” I hope this resonates with you and yours.

Dear Mom and Dad:

Thank you for raising us to know about God and his love for the world.

Thank you for letting us go without letting go of us.

Thank you for forgiving late birthday cards.

Thank you for praying for us.

Thank you for giving up time with your grandchildren.

Thank you for your e-mails and letters and calls.

Thank  you for sending Barbie Dolls, Tic Tacs, Koolaid, socks, Reader’s Digests, and Lucky Charms cereal.

Thank you for your questions about our new home and work.

Thank you for being patient and understanding when we tell you how exciting it is to live in another part of the world.

Thank you for being patient and understanding when, two days later, we complain about living in that same place.

Thank you for not making us feel selfish for wanting to go.  Sometimes we feel that way on our own.

Thank you for listening to our stories about people you’ll never meet with names you can’t pronounce.

Thank you for being our ambassadors.

Thank you for sending clippings from our hometown newspaper.

Thank you for telling us about our neighbors, classmates, and cousins—all the stories that don’t make the news.

Thank you for letting our brothers and sisters stand in for us when we’re too far away to do our part in the family. (They really should get their own letter.)

Thank you for missing us when we miss holiday gatherings.

Thank you for loving us.

Thank you for trusting Jesus to take care of us when you can’t.

Thank you for being proud of us. We are proud of you.

We chose to be a missionary family, not you, and we understand that our move has meant many sacrifices for you. You are not only a part of our family but an invaluable part of our team.

With all our love,

Your children

[photo by Brant Copen]

For Those of Us Who Aren’t Fluent in a Second Language, Even in Our Dreams

I’ve heard it’s the holy grail of fluency: dreaming in your target language—walking around in your dream world, saying whatever you want to say and understanding everything that’s said. Sounds pretty cool.

Has that ever happened to me? Nope. I do sometimes dream that I’m back in Taiwan, but the people around me tend to say a lot of nonsense words, and when I open my mouth, I can only say the most basic of sentences. Sometimes I’m lost in the city, late for a meeting. I can’t remember the address of where I’m headed, can’t find the subway station, and have no money for a cab. It’s the cross-cultural equivalent of dreaming that I’m standing in my high school’s hallway, finding out I have a test I haven’t studied for and not knowing my locker combination. Oh yeah, and when I look down I’m not wearing pants. I think my dreams have found me pantsless on the streets of Taiwan a few times, too.

Or what about daydreaming about complete fluency, gleefully imagining the moment you take your seat as a translator for the UN? That, too, is a nope for me.

If your dreams are filled with fluent encounters in a second (or third or fourth) language, if language learning is your forte, if it’s as easy as ah, bay, tsay, or if it’s simply a piece of gâteau, this post probably isn’t for you.

But if your language learning has been a struggle, if you’re disappointed in your progress, or if you’ve reached a wall with no door in sight, read on. . . .

Before moving overseas, I’d earned a degree in English and considered myself a good communicator. I was a student of a language already, after all, and I thought picking up another one wouldn’t be too hard. But that’s not how it worked for me as I studied in Taipei. It was slow, difficult, and slow. After I’d worked on Chinese for several months, a more newly arrived, and much younger, cross-cultural worker at our school asked me how long I’d studied for one of the unit exams. He wanted to make sure that he didn’t waste too much time. I told him I hadn’t spent more than a few weeks reviewing. Oh, he said. He was hoping it wouldn’t take him more than a few days.

That was hard to swallow, but he didn’t mean to criticize me. Others weren’t so indirect, though. There was the cab driver who pointed out that my wife’s Chinese was better than mine and a Taiwanese acquaintance in a coffeeshop who overheard another foreigner speaking and said something like, “Now her Chinese is good.” Of course, the voice inside my head was even less gracious when comparing me to others. By “others” I mostly mean other foreigners. I figured I’d never speak like a local, but I was disappointed that I couldn’t reach the level of so many Chinese learners around me.

There was also our landlord who wasn’t very patient in her communication with us, especially over the phone. And there was the man I met on the street, whom I came to think of as a friend. But one day he became angry with me, complaining about my inability to understand what he was saying, stopping just short of accusing me of misrepresenting myself when we first talked.

And there was the helpful official who had me address an envelope to myself so he could mail a document to me. I had studiously practiced writing the characters in anticipation of such an opportunity, but when the letter arrived, he had rewritten it. He wanted to make sure it was legible so that the document would actually make it to our house.

Sometimes I could laugh at my mistakes, such as in low-stakes adventures ordering at McDonald’s, and when I called myself a bicycle instead of a missionary. (It helped that a friend said she’d done the very same thing.) But it’s easier to laugh when the mistakes seem like silly aberrations, rather than everyday occurrences. Those are the things we laugh about with others. It’s not so fun to be laughed at.

As with many language learners, it was easy for me to fall into the trap of simply agreeing with whatever was said to me, thinking I could figure out the meaning later. One day I was talking with the director of our language school to set up a one-session introductory language class for a group of college students visiting from the States. We were standing in the office surrounded by teachers at their desks—a group of people I really wanted to impress. She asked me a question that I only partially understood. Yes, I said. She asked me again. Yes, I said. She asked me again. Yes. But it wasn’t a yes-or-no question. The teachers laughed, the way I’ve laughed when hearing someone unskilled in English do the same thing.

There were some times when I did feel pretty good about my communication skills. It was fun to get a reaction from people who were amazed that someone who looked like me could say “Hello” in their language. And I was never more fluent than when groups from the States came to visit. For all they knew, my Chinese was flawless. And from time to time I’d have a deep, meaningful conversation with a national where my vocabulary didn’t fail me. That helped a lot. There were even times when I truly believed those who encouraged and complimented me. But mostly I was reminded of my limitations.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying on my part, though I now wish I’d tried harder smarter better. I’ve recently learned about the difference between fixed and growth mindsets, and if I could have a do over, I’d like to start with a mindset adjustment. Someone with a fixed mindset believes that talent is mostly innate. Either you’re born with it or not. Someone with a growth mindset believes you can increase your talent with effort and practice. There are a couple ways a fixed mindset can hinder you. One is when you believe you’ll never be good at something, so you don’t try. Another is when you think you are good at it, but avoid challenging yourself for fear you might fail and show others, and yourself, that you’re not what you think you are. As much as I want to have a growth mindset, I see how my tendencies point to the fixed end of that spectrum.

But I see a limit to the growth mindset, too. So if I could start over, or start again, I’d also want to develop a more complete understanding of who I am. While I shouldn’t give up improving myself, I don’t believe it’s true that “you can do anything you put your mind to.” There are just things I’m not going to achieve in this lifetime, whether because of my inner makeup or outside circumstances. I’m still working on being more comfortable, as they say, in my own skin. If I could do that, if I could try less to become more like the people around me and do a better job of trying to maximize who God has gifted me to be, then I think I wouldn’t wander around frantically nearly as much in the world of my dreams.

So how about you? Are you having a hard time with language learning? If so, I hope you’re able to continue to grow in your abilities. I hope that if you’re not thriving in your language acquisition, you’re able to keep on striving. And in your striving, I hope you’re given the time and space to do your best, or as close to that as you can get. When you struggle, I hope you can allow yourself to strive softer. And when your studies can’t take you any further and you fall short, I hope there’s still a place for you on your team and in the work you’re doing.

When encouragements are directed your way, I hope you can trust them. When others point out where you’re lacking, I hope you know you’re not alone.

And finally, when you move about in your dreams, if you feel lost and can’t understand what people are saying to you, I hope you run into some extremely kind people who make sure you get where you want to go, even if they have to use hand gestures for you to understand them. And if they’re extremely, extremely kind, they might even help you buy some pants.

[photo: “Sunny Spot of Greenery,” by Timothy Krause, used under a Creative Commons license]

Chesterton’s Fence: Understanding the Why of the Status Quo before Seeking Change

picket fence

The traveller sees what he sees; the tripper sees what he has come to see. —G. K. Chesterton (Autobiography)

G. K. Chesterton, the turn-of-the-20th-century English author, journalist, and Christian apologist, first came to my attention through quotations on travel taken from his writings. Along with the one above, there’s also

The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land. (—Tremendous Trifles)

and

They say travel broadens the mind; but you must have the mind. (—said by the character Gabriel Gale in “The Shadow and the Shark”)

While these aphorisms apply to travelers and “trippers,” they also are relevant to movers and shakers, those who relocate to other countries and cultures in order to make a difference there. In that vein, I’ve recently found another idea from Chesterton—often referred to as “Chesterton’s fence”—that can relate to the life of cross-cultural workers. Before explaining it, here’s a little background.

Chesterton, born in 1874, was well known in his day as an influential defender and explainer of the Christian faith. C. S. Lewis, a major Christian apologist in his own right, credits Chesterton for impacting his conversion from atheism. In his memoir, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, Lewis writes that in reading Chesterton’s Everlasting Man, he “for the first time saw the whole Christian outline of history set out in a form that seemed to me to make sense.” And the prolific Christian author Philip Yancey writes that if he were stranded on a desert island and could have “only one book, apart from the Bible, I may well select Chesterton’s own spiritual autobiography, Orthodoxy.”

Chesterton began his faith as an Anglican, later converting to Roman Catholicism, with this conversion being the subject of his book The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic. It’s in this work that we find Chesterton’s fence. That concept in a nutshell is this:

When you come across something that you think needs to be changed, you should first find out why it is the way it is. Only after understanding why it came to be can you then follow through with the change.

Here it is again, this time in Chesterton’s words:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

Chesterton aimed his warning at those of his day who would jettison the institution of the family, but it can also be applied to more-modern folks in cross-cultural contexts. Overseas workers are often in the business of “reformation,” helping people through personal and community change. That inevitably means coming across “fences” or “gates,” obstacles that we believe are hindering us or the people we want to serve. Throughout our history, Western workers have too often torn down these fences without the necessary contemplation. This has frequently produced negative effects, ranging from minor annoyances or irritations to major cultural offenses or physical, social, or spiritual harm. Even with the best intentions, our removal of obstacles, fixing of perceived problems, doing things the “best” way, and applying quick fixes can have unintended consequences.

“This principle,” says Chesterton, “applies to a thousand things, to trifles as well as true institutions, to convention as well as to conviction.” Those “thousand things” could range from painting a room a different color or changing a meeting time to overthrowing longstanding traditions or upending cultural norms.

Back in 2004, in Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage, Christian historian Meic Pearse addressed the large-scale impact that years of heavy-handed, ill-advised change brought on by Western entities have had. He writes,

Very many, especially Third World, people have the sensation that everything they hold dear and sacred is being rolled over by an economic and cultural juggernaut that doesn’t even know it’s doing it . . . and wouldn’t understand why what it’s destroying is important or of value.

Gene Daniels, at Missio Nexus, responds to this passage in this way:

What bothers me most about this statement is not that it is generally true, but that it is often as true of Christian missionaries as it is of diplomats, generals, and international businesspeople. Of course, the gospel brings social and cultural changes to receptor societies; however, the careless and insensitive way missionaries often treat the things that others “hold dear and sacred” is disturbing. The rapid advance of Western culture, riding globalization as a wave, seems to have caused an epidemic of amnesia among Western missionaries, causing us to forget our roots.

Whether the changes we’re promoting are small or large, we first need to understand the origin of the status quo and what needs are being met by what’s currently in place. We also need to ponder possible outcomes and examine our motivations. And along the way we need to contemplate such broad (and sometimes competing) issues as ethnocentrism, colonialism, syncretism, contextualization, modernization, isolationism, and globalization. All of this requires investigating, asking questions, listening, partnering, and practicing patience and humility.

Chesterton goes on to further explain his metaphor:

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, or that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

To be clear (as I said before), overseas workers are often agents of change. Some laws, some institutions, some practices, some mindsets should be replaced. Christian cross-cultural workers carry a transformative gospel. And while we shouldn’t mindlessly bulldoze everything that seems to stand in our way, neither should we propose that every fence should be left standing. After thoughtful, careful, sensitive consideration, some of them should come down. Sometimes there is a better way.

(C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, Geoffrey Bles, 1955; Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church, Doubleday, 2001; G. K. Chesterton, The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic, Sheed & Ward, 1929; Meic Pearce, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage, InterVarsity Press, 2004; Gene Daniels, Decoupling Missionary Advance from Western Culture,” Missio Nexus, October 1, 2009)

[photo: “The Fence Line,” by Alan, used under a Creative Commons license]

Ba Da Ba Ba Ba—I’m Learnin’ It: Lessons from McDonald’s Abroad

Not long after we landed in Taipei in 2001, the head of our church’s missions-ministry team asked about our first impressions. Here’s what we sent to him:

people-people-people, stinky tofu, cell phones, smog, construction, dogs, Hello Kitty, noise, taxis, temples, night markets, McDonald’s, squatty potties, ATMs, squid on a stick, scooters, 7-11s, people-people-people

McDonald’s, an icon of American culture, played a big part in our time overseas, whether a familiar place for meeting with friends, a safe(ish) place to practice our Mandarin, or a dependable place for getting a meal. It was also a place for learning—or reinforcing—some valuable lessons. Here are some of them:

Language Acquisition Is as Easy as 1, 2, 3

Before moving abroad, as a family of six we’d become adept at saving money at McDonald’s using our savvy ordering skills: building our own meals out of single hamburgers or fish sandwiches, small fries, and waters. All that went out the window in our new home. Since we didn’t have the vocabulary for separate items, we just ordered by number, which meant each of us got a full meal, even our four year old (I guess we couldn’t say “Happy Meal” either). Ease of ordering trumped frugality. Bring on the giant cups of Coke.

Pride Goeth before the Spill

Most of the McDonald’s in Taiwan are multilevel, so after getting your food, you can then walk upstairs to eat. One day we were on a trip and stopped at McDonald’s and ordered our regular six number ones (or twos, or whatevers). That meant six burgers, six orders of fries, and six sodas. I was nervously carrying all the sodas on a tray up two (or was it 10?) flights of stairs, with extreme care. Then as I got to my family, I mimicked being out of breath and struggling to make it to the table. And of course, my theatrics made all the cups tip . . . and fall over . . . and hit the floor. I’m pretty sure it was all in slow motion. So I had to trudge back downstairs and try to explain what happened, using my book-one, chapter-five-or-so language skills, along with some extremely clever hand signals.

It’s the Little Things

I guess Coke at McDonald’s has given me a lot of memories, but not all of them were bad. I found out that after I’d placed an order, if it seemed as if the wait was taking too long, the person behind the counter would give me a small, Dixie-cup-size cup of soda. Sometimes I hoped for slow service just for that little cup of kindness.

Sharing Is Caring

Normally when I’m in a group sorting out our meals, I can’t help but compare who got the fullest container of french fries (to say nothing of claiming the orphan fires in the bottom of a take-out bag). But I’d see groups of high schoolers in Taiwan sidestep any fry envy by pouring them all into a pile on a tray and sharing them buffet style. Pretty cool.

Where’s the Beef?” Is a Valid Question

One time our local McDonald’s ran out of hamburger. Really. We had friends serving in Africa who wrote in their newsletter about how the axle on their Range Rover broke while they were crossing a river. Yeah, living overseas can sure be challenging. One time our local McDonald’s ran out of hamburger.

It Takes All Sorts

Taiwan is big on recycling and separating food waste from other trash. The trash cans at McDonald’s come in pairs—one for leftover food and one for cups, boxes, and wrappers. Sorting our throwaways after a meal quickly became habit while we were there, but we also readjusted our habits when we came back to the States. When in Rome. . . . I’ve often wondered how we’d handle the riots in the streets here if McDonald’s told us Americans to sort our trash.

It Really Is about Location, Location, Location

I’m not convinced that McDonald’s is all that popular in the States, but it sure is convenient. There seems to be one at every exit ramp. In Taiwan, there seemed to be one around the corner from (or in) every MRT station. And when we moved into a Taipei apartment that was just a couple blocks away from one, our small-town family figured we’d become city people.

It’s Glocation, Glocation, Glocation, Too

Like many international corporations, McDonald’s practices glocalization, so that while their menu offers mostly tried-and-true staples, it also branches out to the varied tastes of the people they’re serving. In Taiwan, that means things such as red-bean sundaes, hamburgers with toasted-rice buns, fried shrimp burgers and pork burgers, fried chicken legs, sweet-potato fries, and corn soup.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Another glocalized item at McDonald’s is the pineapple pie. It’s a new take on the restaurant’s standard apple pie, while Taiwan’s apple-pie version is an old take on a standard. Remember back when their pies used to be fried, rather than baked? They’re still fried in Taiwan. Not as healthy, but mmmmmmmm.

When “foreigners” came to visit us in Taiwan, some of them would avoid McDonald’s at all costs. “That’s not why I came here,” they’d say. Others begged for a familiar meal after having their pallets challenged beyond their limits. Of those who ate there, many would claim that it just tasted different, especially the Coke. It all tasted the same to me. Now that I’m back in the States, it still tastes the same, and ironically, it makes me nostalgic for life on the other side of the globe.

I’ve written about McDonald’s before, in the context of globalization, and the confusion that that can cause. I referenced Den Fujita, who founded McDonald’s in Japan. In Asian Brand Strategy: How Asia Builds Strong Brands, Martin Roll quotes Fujita as saying, “Once a group of Japanese Boy Scouts visited the United States and were asked by a local television station what their impression of America was. One boy replied, ‘I didn’t know that they had McDonald’s in the United States, too.” I have my doubts about the authenticity of the quotation, since there are several more versions of it floating around, such as when a Japanese boy visited Florida, a Japanese girl went to Los Angeles, a French girl came to Times Square, or a young boy visited the US from Indonesia.

Now I’m creating new traditions at McDonald’s—buying Happy Meals for my grandkids, saving money with the McDonald’s app and having my meals delivered curbside, and eating my own Happy Meals. (I just recently found out that you can upgrade your Happy Meal soda to a large for free, or at least a small upcharge. Sometimes it’s the big things).

While we were overseas, McDonald’s in Taipei introduced McCafe drinks, something that I hadn’t seen yet in the US. I’m sure it had come to the States earlier, but it didn’t originate there. That distinction goes to a McD’s in Melbourne, Australia. Today, when I ask someone to get together for coffee, for me it’s usually a euphemism for going to McDonald’s. Sure, my friend can get a McCafe Caramel Macchiato, but I’ll be drinking a Dr. Pepper, something that for ten years I could rarely get while in Asia.

All this has got me wistfully remembering my times reading a Chinese Bible with a tutor in the McDonald’s near Tai Da University or attending multiple “house church” meetings in McDonald’s in Taipei or just sitting at the oversize windows in our neighborhood McDonald’s overlooking Yonghe Road, people watching and praying.

Ba da ba ba ba. I’m missing Mai Dang Lao. And I’m still learning.

[photo: “Taiwan Mcdonald’s 台湾マクドナルド,” by yahiramatu, used under a Creative Commons license]

Conversation: noun, “a turning with”

It’s been 22 years since my wife and I and our kids flew across the ocean to serve overseas. It’s been 12 years since we returned. Both moves had a profound impact on our lives, and both have taken quite a lot of processing. (Does the processing ever end?)

The debriefing that we participated in after our return, through Mission Training International, was instrumental in helping us relocate physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The couple who led our sessions, Steve and Gwen Smith, were the right people at the right time for us, and we dearly value the conversations we had with them. They listened to us, and they believed us.

Steve is the author of several books, including Soul Custody: Choosing to Care for the One and Only You and The Jesus Life: Eight Ways to Recover Authentic Christianity, and he and Gwen also blog at refresh renew restore. Not long after we came back to the States, in a post titled “The Power of a Spiritual Conversation,” Steve wrote,

[I]n the course of life’s seasons, we need to have spiritual conversations with people who are good listeners. Let me be clear here, most people are not good listeners. They listen for facts not feelings. They listen for what they hope to hear. They listen when it may not cost them something.

A spiritual conversation is a reciprocal dialogue between two people where thoughts, opinions and feelings are shared and received. It’s two-way. Not one way.

People who have gone through major transitions—and others who have encountered loss—need good listeners. Cross-cultural workers need good listeners. Cross-cultural workers need to be good listeners. But what is necessary to be someone who listens well, to be someone who nurtures spiritual conversations? How about compassion and empathy and comfort?

Following is a list of words that I associate with good listeners. We all know what the words mean, but we’ve become fairly complacent in using them. Therefore, as a way to jumpstart our thinking and to help us do a better job of living them out, I’m pairing them with the literal meanings from their origins (with the help of the  Online Etymology Dictionary and other resources). My intent is not to “correct” their modern definitions but simply to give depth to what we already know.

For instance, today a companion is a friend or partner. But the word companion is formed from two parts that originally meant “with” and “bread.” So a companion was someone who shared a meal with another. Even now we understand the link between sharing food and sharing our hearts. Here’s what Steve says about companionship:

I wrote in The Jesus Life that spiritual conversations take place at the table where we eat our meals. . . . It’s never an intent when you ask someone for lunch–to share protein, carbs and water with someone. No, when you ask someone for lunch, you’re really meaning, “Hey, let’s get together so we can share what’s been going on in our lives. It’s been too long. How about next Tuesday at noon at the deli?”  That’s the stuff of conversations where hearts connect and souls meet and people who are lonely become spiritual companions.

Now, here’s the rest of my list:

acknowledge: “to admit understanding or knowing”
from a blending of Old English on, “into,” and cnawan, “recognize,” with Middle English knowlechen “admit”

affirm: “to strengthen”
from Latin ad, “to,” plus firmare, “make firm”

advocate: “someone called to help or plead”
Latin ad plus vocare, for “to” and “to call”

comfort: “to strengthen much”
Late Latin com, “very,” and fortis, “strong”

commiserate: “to lament with”
from Latin com, “with,” and miserari, “to feel pity”

communicate: “to make common”
from Latin commun, “common,” plus the verb suffix icare

companion: “eating partner”
Latin com, “with,” and panis, “bread, food”

compassion: “a suffering with”
Latin com and pati, meaning “with” and “to suffer”

concern: “a sifting” or “comprehension”
from Latin com, “with,” and cernere, “to sift”

confide: “to trust strongly”
Latin com plus fidere, meaning “very” and “to trust”

console: “to give much comfort or solace”
from Latin com, “very,” and solari, “to comfort”

contact: “to touch with”
from Latin com, “together,” and tangere, “to touch”

conversation: “a turning with”
Latin com, meaning “with,” and vertare, meaning “turn about”

empathy: “a feeling in”
Greek en and pathos, meaning “in” and “feeling”

encourage: “to add heart or bravery”
Old French en, “make, put in,” and corage, “heart, innermost feelings”

sympathy: “a feeling together”
Greek syn, “together,” plus pathos, “feeling”

understand: “to stand in the midst of”
Old English under, “between, among,” plus stand

May we better understand these ideas and, in so doing, better understand each other. May we put them into practice. May we have better conversations. May we all become better companions . . . and better listeners. And may you find the right people to listen to you.

A version of this post was originally published at ClearingCustoms.net.

(Steve Smith, “The Power of a Spiritual Conversation,” refresh renew restore, September 26, 2012)

[Photo by Ruth]

Send Us Your Photos . . . Yes, for Real

I got several responses to my post last month, “Photographers, Can You Do Us Cross-Cultural Bloggers a Favor?” One of my favorites is “We are debating whether your plea for more photos is an actual plea for more photos or if it was written with sarcasm in mind.”

I replied, “I’ll admit I wrote the post tongue in cheek. I was wanting to point out my own tendencies in photo selection as much as anyone else’s. But on the other hand, I meant it when I said we need more and better photos, so I’m happy that people are asking how they can contribute to the cause. I think it’s great that people with photographic skills are looking for ways to use their talents and creativity for A Life Overseas, and we’re brainstorming ways to help make that happen.”

Well, our brainstorming has led to a solution—a place for storing your pics (in Flickr) where they’ll be available to authors at A Life Overseas but not accessible by others.

So consider this an unambiguous plea: If you’d like to share your photos with us, please send them to alifeoverseasblog@gmail.com. (A maximum width/height of 1000 pixels should do.) By submitting your pics, you’re giving ALO writers permission to use them, but you’ll retain your copyright, and we’ll credit you when your photos appear. If you’d like, label your pics with any important information, and make sure you’re not sending us any images that shouldn’t be posted in public spaces.

Thanks to those who’ve already sent pics our way, to those who’ve asked about next steps, to those who’ve already taken photographs inspired by my suggestions, and to those who will continue to add to the collection. Thinking about all that makes me happy.

When I wrote my post, I wanted to think I could bring smiles to some faces. Your response is bringing a much bigger smile to mine.

[photo: “The Photographer,” by Nathan Rupert, used under a Creative Commons license]

Photographers, Can You Do Us Cross-Cultural Bloggers a Favor?

From a recent edition of the weekly web journal Brigada Today, I found out that there’s a photography conference, “Depth of Field,” coming up, February 7 and 8. It’s designed for pro photographers, but I’m thinking that means amateurs could learn even more from it. And it’s in New York, but the “Main Stage” and “Exposure Stage” presentations will be live streamed. (By the way, if you’re not familiar with Brigada, you might want to check it out. It’s a great place for receiving and sharing all things related to cross-cultural work.)

Why is a conference for photographers relevant to you, dear readers? Because I know some of you like to take photos, and some of you are rather good at it, too. And for those of you, I have a favor to ask. Could you help out us cross-cultural bloggers? It’s not easy finding good photos for the kind of topics that show up in our writing, and, frankly, it can end up adding a last level of stress before we hit the publish button. (Is it really what I’m looking for? Is it appropriate? Has it been used here before?!!)

Take, for instance, the picture at the top of this page. You may have noticed that it’s the same photo as the one I used for my post in July. Or you may just be thinking, “Ugh, another generic plane-wing-out-the-window shot.” Either way, it’s not ideal.

But that’s what we need, some “ideal” photos of, by, and for cross-cultural workers. You may already have your own ideas. If not, let me plant some seeds in the fertile field of your creativity. You’ll no doubt recognize some of these tried-and-true images, but I’m asking for an increase in quantity and quality: quantity, so that we don’t have to reuse the same photos again and again (see above), and quality, so that it doesn’t seem as if we’re using photos again and again (ditto). So when you read “more” below, think “more and better.”

Oh yeah, and free. Free, as in creative commons or public domain.

So more and better . . . and free.

For instance, there aren’t enough photos of world maps and globes. We need more photos of unique maps and globes, antique maps and globes, and maps and globes labeled in non-English languages.

We need more photos taken of the backs of people looking out over an ocean or a skyline or a city. We need a bigger collection of pictures, with older people and younger people, with people from a range of ethnicities, with more individuals and families and couples and groups, and with more ways to show emotions such as hope or longing or anxiety when you can’t see the subjects’ faces. (Yes, I’m asking for that creativity here.)

In general, we need a bunch of more interesting photos of people in all sorts of settings looking away from or walking away from the camera or simply with their faces hidden or out of frame. (It’s just often easier that way.)

We need more views of indistinct international cities, with non-English signage that’s been vetted for unsuitable advertisements or graffiti—cityscapes that vaguely remind us of areas in the world without identifying specific locales.

We need more photos depicting poverty, hunger, crisis, and the like, without exploiting individuals, making them no more than one-dimensional illustrations of their circumstances. (Oh, how my own past attempts have failed in this area.)

We need more photos with the people we’re serving, not just of the people we’re serving. And when we’re with them, we need to show that “we” are not always white, and “they” can be our partners, not just recipients of our help.

We need more photos that wouldn’t embarrass (or shame) the subjects if they saw themselves in the context of what we’re writing about.

We need more photos of people representing a myriad of cultures. And they need to represent those cultures in ways other than being dressed in the stereotypical garb that only outsiders think they always wear.

We need more photos of doors and windows from around the world, and people walking through doorways and looking through windows, sometimes looking through cracked or dirty windows or windows with raindrops on them.

We need more photos of paths, roads, highways, train tracks, long sets of stairs, rivers, and jet trails.

We need more photos of planes, trains, and automobiles . . . and boats.

We need more photos of sunrises and sunsets, over the ocean, over cities, over mountain ranges, and over grassy fields.

We need more photos of single trees on the horizon and single flowers growing out of the cracks in sidewalks.

We need more photos of arrows pointing in all sorts of directions.

We need variations of the two-or-more hands of differing pigments clasped in friendship.

We need more photos of praying hands, working hands, and helping hands . . . and of feet (you know, how-beautiful-on-the-mountains-are-the-feet-of-those-who-bring-good-news feet).

We need more photos of open Bibles, coffee cups, and passports, and open Bibles next to coffee cups and passports.

We need more photos of airports, airport signs, airport trollies, luggage, and seat-back trays. And we need those ever-elusive pics of the inside of a plane and the view through the window at the same time.

And jet wings, yes, we definitely need more photos of jet wings.

[photo: “Fight over Slovenia,” by (Mick Baker)rooster, used under a Creative Commons license]

What’s Your “Fancy Like . . .”?

If I were to say that I was “fancy like Applebee’s” you might make some assumptions about me. For instance, I might be an American, not the richest guy in the world, and someone who listens to country music in his pickup truck.

And if you don’t fit into all those categories, you might wonder what “fancy like Applebee’s” even means. If that’s the case, two step over to YouTube to hear Walker Hayes’ top-ten country-western song from last year. In “Fancy Like,” Hayes sings that his “low maintenance” lady is usually content with eating at Wendy’s, 

But every now and then when I get paidI gotta spoil my baby with an upgrade
 
Yeah, we fancy like Applebee’s on a date nightGot that Bourbon Street steak with the Oreo shakeGet some whipped cream on the top tooTwo straws, one check, girl, I got you
 

Similes (those “like” and “as” phrases) show what we know. They reveal what we identify with and how we use that to describe the things around us, things that are new, or old things that we want to help others see in a new way. Sometimes they get it. Sometimes they don’t. That’s the way it is for country-music stars, and for cross-cultural workers, too.

So if you’re fancy like Applebee’s, it might be because that’s where you go for a a Bourbon Street Steak during your once-a-year trip to the city to get your documents approved or to make a supply run. Or you could be fancy like Swedish meatballs in the IKEA cafeteria. Or fancy like a hotdog combo, with extra sauerkraut, at the Costco snack bar. Or fancy like a Caffè Mocha at the window table in Starburks, (yes, I do mean Starburks).

That’s how we do, how we do, fancy like . . .

In that spirit, here are a few similes I’ve come up with. Some are based on my own experiences overseas, and some I just imagine might be true for others. I hope they make sense to you, but more than that, I hope they inspire you to come up with your own. Give it a try:

As cute as the senior citizens ballroom dancing in the park every Saturday morning

Pristine like the sky the day before a typhoon

As silent as an empty night-market alley after the exterminators have passed through

As welcome as an English-speaking taxi driver without strong political views

As improbable as a mom and a dad and three kids on one scooter

Smooth like bubble milk tea on a muggy afternoon

As awkward as an angry foreigner yelling, “This would never happen where I’m from!”

Terrified like the young workers at McDonald’s seeing a foreigner approach the counter

Bittersweet like hearing church members say, “We’ll miss you, but we’ll take it from here”

Nervous like power lines during an aftershock

As unexpected as a free cup of Häagen-Dazs on a 13-hour flight

Hopeful like not hitting water all week but drilling one more time

Rotund like the koi fish in the pond next to the national art museum

Noisy like upstairs neighbors pouring their marble collection on the tile floor at 2:00 every morning

As gorgeous as a new visa stamp in a passport

Glorious like a family showing up to a worship service for the first time because they’ve heard that they could learn about the creator there

and . . .

As incredible as finding a frozen turkey and a can of cranberry sauce seven days before Thanksgiving

[photo: “Applebee’s,” by Mike Mozart, used under a Creative Commons license]

A Past Voice from the Field: On Darkness, Light, and Skies of Brass

Zermatt, Switzerland

Today I’d like to share a post that connects two others I’ve written. The first one addresses the quotation “Don’t forget in the darkness what you have learned in the light,” attributed by Philip Yancey to Christian publishing executive and author Joseph Bayly. The second discusses the life and work of Lilias Trotter, British artist and missionary to Algeria.

I had read Yancey’s attribution in his book Where Is God when It Hurts? but more recently, it was while thumbing through Miriam Huffman Rockness’s A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter, that I came across

Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light.

While not exactly the same as the words of Bayly, Trotter’s are close enough to show a relationship in the idea and phrasing. And I knew that Trotter’s writing easily predated Bayly’s quotation, as she died in 1928, when Bayly was only eight years old.

Knowing that Rockness authors a blog about Trotter, I contacted her for more information. In response, she not only told me that Trotter had written the phrase in her diary in August of 1901 but also gave me some background on its meaning. Rockness writes that the diary entry came from a time when Trotter was visiting her brother in Zermatt, Switzerland, “taking a ‘break’ from the heavy load” she was experiencing in North Africa. While high up in the mountains, she wrote:

“Believe in the darkness what you have seen in the light” – That was this mornings “first lesson” – For when I opened my shutters about 5.30, there was a lovely clear happy morning sky above the grey gold rocks a[nd] glistening snow of the Weirshorn & Roth-horn. While a thick bank of white cloud lay below in the valley – Half an hour more & it had risen around us till there was nothing to be seen but a few dim ghosts of trees. Yet one knew having once seen that sky, that a radiant day was coming, & that the clouds could do nothing but melt. And me[lt] they did, the peaks glimmering like far off angels at first, & clearing till they stood out radiant & strong, with the fogs dropped down to their feet like a cast off mantle. All depended on what one had seen first.

Elsewhere in her blog, Rockness puts the quotation in more context, describing Trotter’s “heavy load”:

It is interesting to note that when Lilias recorded the above statement of faith in her diary, she was in the midst of an unprecedented and sustained period of challenge in ministry. After more than 3 years of political opposition  and spiritual oppression, their work had come almost to a halt. Activities in Algiers and itineration in Algeria were severely curtailed as they were dogged by the shadow of suspicion.  Even their most beloved Arab friends pulled away in fear of being identified with them.

In A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter, Rockness writes that the difficulties faced by Trotter included the investigation of English missionaries by the ruling French government and the targeting of young Algerian converts by sorcerers using poison and “black magic.” Also, a missionary family that had come to help in the ministry left after six months, unable to meet the demands of caring for their three children in Algeria.

Trotter wrote in 1897, again in her diary,

One literally could do nothing but pray at every available bit. One might take up letters or accounts that seemed as if they were a “must be”—but one had to drop them within five minutes, almost invariably, and get to prayer—hardly prayer either, but a dumb crying up to the skies of brass.

For Trotter, during difficult times, the skies could turn to brass and clouds could obscure the sun and envelop the world around her. But she had seen the “clear happy morning sky,” and she knew that a “radiant day was coming.”

“Believe in the darkness,” she learned, and passed on to us, “what you have seen in the light.”

If you’d like to know more about Lilias Trotter, you can watch the 2015 documentary Many Beautiful Things, featuring the voices of Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings). It also includes insights from Miriam Huffman Rockness. The trailer is below, and the complete film is available free here.

(This post is adapted from an earlier one at ClearingCustoms.net.)

(Miriam Huffman Rockness, ed., A Blossom in the Desert: Reflections of Faith in the Art and Writings of Lilias Trotter, Discovery House, 2016; Rockness, in a comment (September 5, 2016) for “Lilias Trotter Symposium,” Lilias Trotter, August 17, 2016; Rockness, “Believe!” Lilias Trotter, July 28, 2012; Rockness, Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter, Discovery House, 2003)

[photo: “Switzerland-55,” by Strychnine, used under a Creative Commons license]

Don’t Just Missionary On

Onward, Christian soldiers.

Soldier on, Christians.

These don’t mean the same thing, at least not to me.

Paul uses the word soldier to describe someone faithfully acting in obedience to God when he exhorts Timothy, “Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3 NIV). It’s a good thing to be Christian soldier.

But when we use soldier as a verb, such as in soldier on, it can take on a different meaning. Around the early 1900s, to soldier on the job was introduced, meaning, oddly enough, to act as if you’re working hard while only putting in minimal effort. And then the mid 1900s gave us the shorter to soldier on, which means to keep going in the face of difficulty or trouble.

In this latter sense, soldiering on, too, is a good thing. But that’s not how the phrase often comes across today. When I hear “soldiering on,” I think of a joyless trudge, just putting one foot in front of the other without resting, without taking time for reflection, without asking questions, without sharing heartfelt emotions, without asking for help or relief or sympathy or grace.

That’s how the best soldiers do it, right?

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.

Do you ever feel that you’re only “missionarying on”—where your service overseas is a joyless trudge, just putting one foot in front of the other without resting, without taking time for reflection, without asking questions, without sharing heartfelt emotions, without asking for help or sympathy or grace?

Please don’t get me wrong: Suffering is part of the equation. Persevering when things are hard, really hard, is often necessary. And sometimes we simply must put our heads down and do the work that must be done. But if being a missionary feels only like a slog through thick mud, day after day after day, loaded down, with no relief in sight or hoped for, then something needs to change.

If that’s the case for you, tell some someones how you feel—someone who will listen without judgment, someone who knows you well, someone who is on your side, someone who understands, someone whom you trust, someone who can make a difference.

Don’t settle for trudging.

Don’t be content to let your “have to” devour your “get to.”

Don’t assume that carrying an overly heavy burden is all there is and all there ever will be.

Onward, Christian missionaries.

But please, please don’t just missionary on.

[photo: “boot,” by eltpics, used under a Creative Commons license]