The International Traveler in the Domestic Terminal

*a version of this was first published at Babble, in 2014.

When you are the international traveler in the domestic terminal, you look and smell really bad. Everyone else has just come from home or one other connection. You left home twenty-five hours ago and have already endured three or four airports.

Your kids are screaming or quietly sobbing or simply babbling nonsense. They are laying on the floor, sleeping, and drooling. Or they cheer when you pass McDonalds.

You have no shame. You brush your teeth and do your makeup (if you have the energy) and change clothes in the bathroom. You walk like you’re drunk – swerving as the onslaught of lights beckon and disorient you, as utter exhaustion and instant sensory overload makes your knees buckle. 

You start to cry when it is time to board and they change your gate. It is just the next gate over but at this point, even that is asking just a little too much.

You keep saying biyo or de l’eau when you want water and you notice people look at you funny when you say, “No ice.”

You are dizzy from the overstimulation of understanding the news, the airport announcements, and all the conversations going on around you. You can’t understand, can’t focus, when the flight attendants directly address you even though she is speaking your native language because you weren’t expecting that.

Your kids don’t know what they are supposed to do with that plastic sheet on the toilet seat in the bathroom. Your youngest stops at every single drinking fountain and uses both the short one and the tall one.

You try to pay for a Starbucks lemon poppyseed bread to share with the whole family and can’t find any American coins. You use your credit card because in this country, they accept credit cards! When you say that out loud, the cashier stares at you blankly.

When you eat the lemon poppyseed bread, you find that it tastes like chemicals and is way too sweet. You go to throw it away.

But then you find yourself standing in front of the six different trash bins, confused. You read all the signs on all the bins because who knew there were so many ways to throw things away? What if the thing you want to throw away is a combo product? Even throwing things away becomes stressful. You don’t want someone to snap a photo of you throwing a plastic thing into the paper bin. What if they post it on Instagram and you get social media shamed for destroying the planet? Come to think of it you also used a straw. And you’re flying in a plane. Shame. Shame. Shame.

Your eyes are red and puffy and for crying out loud, the flight you are about to board is just flying from Chicago to Minneapolis. You are in the domestic terminal. Come on, international traveler, pull it together.

You have a headache from the onslaught of culture shock and just want a deep breath of fresh air. Soon. Soon. Unless you’re delayed.

Someone talks about flying from California and mentions the time change and how disoriented they feel and you laugh. If only. The laugh sounds like a croak because you are dehydrated. You also have crusty boogers and some serious gas.

It feels good to be around people who wear blue jeans and tennis shoes. Almost as quickly, it feels uncomfortable to be so conforming. No one is paying attention to you except when you start to cry and your kids drool into the carpet.

Now it is time to board, one more leg until you can leave airports behind. You will be the only ones clapping upon landing. Who claps for a pilot landing a flight after 45 minutes?

Have a good flight and welcome home(?).

(if you’d like to avoid airplane travel altogether, try these options instead, straight from the Bible. A whale, anyone?)

Barnga: A Card Game for Culture-Stress Show and Tell

Have you ever wanted to show, not just tell, people what culture stress is like? Have you ever wanted them to be able to experience cross-cultural confusion without having to travel overseas?

Have you ever heard about Barnga?

Barnga is a simulation game created by Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan in 1980, while working for USAID in Gbarnga, Liberia. During a coup, his team’s vehicles were commandeered by the military, so Thiagarajan and his colleagues stayed in their compound, passing the time playing Euchre. Born in Chennai, India, Thiagarajan had learned how to play Euchre after moving to Bloomington, Indiana, and as his Liberian coworkers hadn’t played it before, he gave them a copy of Hoyles Games to read up on the rules. The trouble was, after their crash course, they all came away with different interpretations of how to play. Rather than clear up the arguments, though, Thiagarajan let the players work it out, and after three hours, the group had settled on their own unique version of the game.

“This interesting episode presented me with a blinding flash of the obvious,” writes Thiagarajan in Barnga: A Simulation Game on Cultural Clashes. “Serious conflicts arise not from major, obvious cultural differences, but from unrecognized, minor ones.”

From this, Thiagarajan developed Barnga, one of 120 simulations and games that he has created during his career.

The concept of Barnga is simple. Each player is handed directions for a card game called “Five Tricks.” The participants have a few minutes to familiarize themselves with how the game is played and then they give the rule sheets back. During play, they are told, they won’t be able to talk or write out words but must communicate only by using gestures and drawing pictures.

While learning new rules and facing difficulties in communication seem like the point of the game, there’s another twist (don’ read the rest of this sentence if you don’t want to find out what it is)—unknown by the players, there are slight differences in the rule sheets they’ve studied, so they’re not all the same.

After the cards are dealt, the results are many and varied. There’s confusion and frustration. Some think that others are cheating or just can’t understand the rules. Some assert authority or claim superiority, while others give up or give in. Some love the game. Some don’t want to play any more.

Yup, sounds like culture stress to me.

The instructions for Barnga include not only how-tos for the simulation and printouts of the rules but also guidelines for directing the follow-up discussion—wherein lies the real meat of the experience. It’s when people are allowed to talk and share how they feel about the game, and about each other, that the shift is made to the realm of cross-cultural interaction. Though it’s possible with as few as four players, the simulation works best with about 20 to 40, allowing for numerous interactions through tournament-style play, and more voices for the follow-up conversation.

Possible uses for the simulation are numerous: as part of a class on cross-cultural issues, for pre-field orientation, for teams visiting overseas workers, as a preparation for receiving international students or other foreign visitors, or for supporters of missionaries or those involved in member care.

The 25th-anniversary edition of Barnga comes with rules and discussion guides in English, French, German, and Spanish and includes updates to the original publication. Copies are available from several sources, including Thiagarajan’s website, The Thiagi Group, and Amazon.

I’ve participated in Barnga and I’ve facilitated it, as well. It’s always interesting (and entertaining) to see how players’ attitudes change as the simulation progresses. And even if some figure out what’s going on, they have to make decisions about to how to deal with that knowledge. When it comes to culture stress, it’s not just the differences you face, but how you and those around you react to them. And dealing with that, regardless of the setting, can show and tell us a lot about ourselves.

This post is adapted from “Barnga—When Cultures Play by Different Rules.”

(Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan, with Raja Thiagarajan, Barnga: A Simulation Game on Cultural Clashes, Intercultural Press, 2006)

[photo: “Shuffle,” by Melissa Emma’s Photography, used under a Creative Commons license]

Airlines We’ve Known

It’s Friday. Friday means different things in different parts of the world. For some of us, Friday is our day of worship. How well I remember Scotch Presbyterians arguing that “One could never worship on a Friday” when Pakistan changed its weekend to Friday and Saturday.  A year later said Scots were worshiping on a Friday.

For others Friday signifies the start of the weekend where all things feel possible. At least for the middle-class among us.

Still others close out their weekend with Fridays, rushing to finish tasks that will remain undone until the next weekend if we don’t get to them.

So in the spirit of this start or end of a weekend we offer something fun today.

A chance to rate your favorite airline.


I flew before I walked and can’t count the number of flights I’ve taken, or airlines and airports I have had the privilege to meet. At the risk of sounding annoying and “remembering the good old days”, when it comes to airlines, it was the good old days.

When I was tiny international flights often included overnights in major cities world-wide at the cost of the airline. All inclusive packages with meals and transportation vouchers to and from the airport were the norm. In-flight meals, drinks and toys were complimentary and we even got little wing pins to proudly place on shirts or jackets that said “Fly the Friendly Skies.“ Extra baggage didn’t come at an exorbitant fee and you could often talk your way out of the cost through smiles and thanks.

So in “Airlines We’ve Known” we want to hear from you: what airlines do you recommend and why? What airlines do you avoid like a plague?

To start us off I vote for Swiss. With their hot towels to refresh you in economy class and their attention to detail and comfort, even with a delayed plane, they rise to the top.  A stop in Zürich, particularly if you have young children, is a treat as the airport has a fully equipped play room/nursery with a special room just for babies. Memories of hours in that nursery remind me that it saved us from what could have been miserable times of waiting by gates during long lay overs – we owe this airport our sanity. A close runner-up could be British Airways as I have always had lovely flights on British Air.

Virgin Air gives a cheap but uncomfortable flight to London, and if you are patient you can usually find British Air tickets for almost the same price. I have heard that Singapore Air could probably get a world-wide award for the best airline (which I tend to believe as the efficiency in Singapore is legendary) but I can’t speak from experience on the airline. Lufthansa could be up there as a competitor, though not winner, and after our recent trip to Egypt, we would swear by the Egypt Air New York/Cairo Nonstop flight.

I’ve been told that Iceland Air is the bottom of the barrel internationally so I will not be swayed by their cheap prices, realizing I will pay the cost some other way (like having to make sure of change in my pocket in order to use the bathroom). I assure you I am not being dramatic – Ryan Air out of Ireland I’ve been told does have a “pay when you go” policy on using the loo. You may be able to change my mind on that if you’ve got a good story or review.

So what about the airlines you’ve known? Who gets the awards from your experience? Would love to have you weigh in – Favorite Airlines, Worst airlines, Worst airline stories – we want to hear it all!


Image credit: forestpath / 123RF Stock Photo


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