25 Kilo Turkeys and Cultural Humility

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We bought a turkey on Saturday – an almost 23 pounder, with no additives and gluten free (really — they had to tell us it was gluten free? Aren’t all turkeys gluten free?)  As this time of the year comes around I think of Thanksgivings we have spent all over the world and all across the country. Pakistan, Chicago, Essex, Haiti, Egypt, Phoenix, Cambridge – all the memories make me smile.

But one stands out in my mind and to this day makes me laugh. 

To give context I did not cook a turkey until I was 34 years old and had four children.

Attending an international boarding school while growing up in Pakistan meant that we were never at home for Thanksgiving, that quintessential American holiday. Instead, the boarding school I attended graciously took the holiday and created their own version of a special meal (skinny chickens and mashed potatoes) followed by a musical concert. We called it thanksgiving and it was, for we were grateful for those scrawny but tasty drumsticks.

Furthermore turkey as known in the United States at that time was not available anywhere in the country outside of the American commissary, so Christmas dinner was generally chickens filled with homemade stuffing or the rich meat of wild duck.

It meant that I  never helped my mom cook a turkey. I didn’t know how to do it. I knew nothing about making a turkey or a roast, or any of those things that are considered good solid American fare.

But how hard could it be?

At 34 we found ourselves in Cairo on the Island of Zamalek responsible for 18 American college students in a semester-abroad program. I decided now was the time. So armed with my best Arabic I headed to a grocery store I knew well in Maadi.

The conversation went like this:

“Hosni, I would like to buy two 25 kilo turkeys for our feast”.

“Madame – I don’t know if I can find turkeys that big!”

“Hosni! I am having a lot of people. A lot of people ….I need TWO 25 kilo turkeys” He shook his head muttering but he had dealt with the likes of me before and knew there was no arguing.

When he called to tell me the turkeys had arrived, he apologized – he couldn’t find two 25 kilo turkeys, instead he had one that was 13 kilo and one that was 10. “I told you I needed BIG turkeys” I wailed. Hosni laughed “Oh, they are big!”

And then I went to pick them up.

They were massive. They filled two large boxes and packed beside them were their severed heads. In an instant I realized I was forgetting the weight difference between the metric system, used worldwide, and the American system, used only in America.

I had ordered over 110 pounds of turkey.

I was duly rebuked and humbled – no wonder Hosni muttered. We both laughed – he with glee and me with chagrin.  I often wondered if he enjoyed telling the story of this insistent white woman and her huge turkeys. Each year after we would laugh together about the 25 kilo turkeys.

It’s a good story to remember. The arrogance of my white-skinned insistence makes me cringe. This was only one of many times of having to admit that I was wrong; I didn’t have a clue. One of many “25 kilo turkey” moments of cross-cultural learning.

When we cross over into other cultures, we function most effectively when we can take 25 kilo turkey moments and recognize our need to listen and learn. When we cross over that bridge it is important to have cultural humility. And cultural humility put into practice means a few things. 

It means being a student of the person, or the community — not an expert, sitting at the feet of those who can teach us.

It means admitting what you don’t know, and seeking to learn what you need to.

It means seeking out those who can function as cultural brokers, as cultural informants and asking them questions, learning from them.

It means knowing the importance of culture for all who we encounter.

It means being capable of complexity. 

Thanksgiving dinner that year was amazing, the turkeys cooked to perfection. And the 25 kilo turkey moment remains a reminder, not only of an amazing Thanksgiving, but of the need for cultural humility, ceasing to be an expert and being willing to be a student of the culture where I was making my home.

This year we will share turkey with people from across the globe, who are making the Boston area their home for a short time. And our turkey will taste the better for the joy of sharing it with friends from across oceans, languages, and cultures. And we will probably tell the story of the 25 kilo turkeys and Hosni’s patience.

How about you? Do you have cross-cultural holiday stories to share? Do you have stories that highlight the importance of cultural humility? Share your story in the comment section! 

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/turkey-wild-turkey-49673/

An Encounter with the Great Interrupter

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Two years ago my brother and his wife had an encounter with the Great Interrupter. In their case the encounter put them in a place of selling a home of over 15 years, leaving a church of the same, leaving a community where they have loved hard and been loved back, and leaving the only home their children remember. They embarked on a mid-life journey to begin a life in the Middle East. Like a train heading one direction only to switch mid-journey to another set of tracks, so was their interruption. Who needs a mid-life crisis when the Great Interrupter is in your life?

As a community at A Life Overseas we know intimately about these encounters with the Great Interrupter. When your life seems to be heading one way, the trajectory clear, and then in a slow but steady encounter with the Great Interrupter you realize that your life is being disturbed. No longer can you settle comfortably in the familiar because the voice of the Great Interrupter is strong and powerful, compelling if not always clear.

These interruptions are not easy. There are the myriad of details that boggle the mind and include everything from the first announcement made to friends and colleagues to changing lights so that the bathroom will be more acceptable for the realtor. Details that include sorting through children’s elementary school papers and art projects, dusty from storage, to giving away furniture. There are garage sales and goodbyes, more sorting and midnight tears; there are the tense arguments that burst forth unexpectedly when everything seemed to be going so well. There are the endless “What do we keep?” “What do we take?”  “How can we possibly do this?”

And then there are the pets. In my brother’s case there was the giving up of a cat to their newly married daughter, knowing that Shasta would no longer watch them from her perch on the chair or window. And the “lasts” — the last Thanksgiving in this particular house, the last Christmas, the last __________.(Just fill in the blank.) How I hate “lasts”. The finality puts a nervous pit in the stomach.  But through all this, the interruptions continue and the Great Interrupter continues to guide, and push, and remind us in whispers and in shouts that none of this is possible without His direction and great love.

Throughout history God has interrupted people’s lives, moving them from comfort to the unknown and asking them to trust along the way. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and more are in the ranks of those whose lives were interrupted and who walked in faith. They lived in a world without cell phones, email, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They didn’t even have the pony express. Leaving and saying good-bye was final.

As I watched my brother and sister-in-law I saw a quiet trust that sustained them. It reminded me and other observers that when God as the Great Interrupter is involved, although it may not make sense to some,  you are in a safety zone  and your soul can rest in this knowledge. For with great interruption comes great expectation.

Have you encountered God as the Great Interrupter? What is the story of your interruption? Join us by telling your story in the comments. 

This post is specifically dedicated to Laura Parker and Angie Washington, the two women who came together to start this online community, both of whom have had major encounters with the Great Interrupter these past few months. Thank you for your heart for all of us, more so for your heart for God.

Picture credit: http://pixabay.com/en/seemed-track-threshold-train-soft-102073/

Sacrifice, Sheep, and Raising Children in a Cross-cultural Context

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Beginning Monday evening through all day Tuesday, Muslims around the world will celebrate Eid al Adha – the feast of sacrifice. 

Eid al Adha is the second of two feasts that occur after Ramadan. This feast is the biggest and most important holiday of the Muslim year and concludes the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and one of the five pillars of Islam. It is considered the ‘Greater Eid’.

Significant to Eid al Adha is the sacrifice of an animal. A goat, sheep, camel and sometimes even a cow, is sacrificed and cooked to perfection, a feast for family and friends.

Thinking about Eid al Adha takes me back to both my childhood in Pakistan and to raising children in the Middle East. My mind returns to a walk-up apartment, a dark stair-well, and a bleating sheep.

Every year as Eid al Adha came around our neighbors purchased a sheep and, in the absence of green space, the sheep made its home in our stairwell. At the time we had no household pet and our children bonded with the sheep, delighted with the plaintive brown eyes and the friendly “baa” that greeted us every time we came and went from our apartment.  This was ‘their’ pet. All the while my husband and I knew that this sheep had a preordained purpose – to be fattened in anticipation of the Feast of Sacrifice. The leftover vegetables on our stairwell were indicative that this would be one fat sheep to slaughter.

And so the day would inevitably arrive. The stairwell was silent as our children trooped downstairs. “Where’s the sheep? What happened to the sheep?” 

As parents we were in a predicament. Not only did we know that the “pet” sheep had been sacrificed, we knew that we would be offered tasty meat from our neighbor’s kitchen later in the day. What do you tell your kids?

You tell them the truth.

You tell them it was never their pet and that our family would be invited to share a feast with people who graciously invited us to witness and celebrate something that meant a great deal to them, and that included eating meat from the sheep. We needn’t have worried about communicating the truth; children make things far less complicated than adults – they accept, they learn early that the world is bigger than them, that people are more important than pets and dogma.

When you are raising children in a country where you are graciously received as guests, you learn valuable lessons of what is important. My own parents had modeled well respect and love for their adopted country of Pakistan so it was not difficult to remember what the bottom line was — and that is relationships and loving your neighbor as yourself. Growing up in Pakistan I don’t remember big religious debates, but I do remember a lot of tea being served, a lot of laughter, many holiday celebrations with neighbors and friends, and in all that some wonderful talks. It was this that was important as we celebrated Eid al Adha with our neighbors and friends.

As guests in the country of Egypt, we were treated kindly despite our frequent mistakes and gaffes in both language and culture. While we didn’t hold to the same truth claims, bridges were built and relationships strengthened as we shared in the celebrations of our Muslim friends and neighbors. And in doing so we prayed that some of the nails in the coffin of misunderstanding between east and west, between Muslim and Christian would be removed.

Sheep were going to come and go but our neighbors and friends? They would be staying. And so our children learned early and reminded us later (when we, their parents were prone to forget) that people and our relationships with people were key to living out a life of authentic faith in a cross-cultural context. 

What have you learned from your children about understanding and acceptance in the context of living an authentic life of faith overseas?

Marilyn blogs about communicating across the boundaries of faith and culture at Communicating Across Boundaries and can be found on Twitter@marilyngard

Image credit: ostill / 123RF Stock Photo

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