Tuesday, October 28, 2008

It's All Relative

[what's brewing: tastes rich to me!]

In hindsight I can see that I probably would have accomplished much more in the technical aspects of language learning if I had gone with a professional language tutor rather than an acquaintance who had been recommended by several other missionaries for her work as language tutor. Our social connections have become the grounds for getting severely off track during the majority of my lessons. While I get frustrated at times that we aren’t progressing through the book as quickly as I’d hoped, I have to admit that our tangential discussions have proved to be a good language learning tool, as well as a great forum for understanding the culture here and who I am in relation to it.

We have discussed many safe and simple topics, as well as several controversial and more significant topics like domestic abuse, sexuality, and the handling of sin within leadership in the church. I occasionally find myself a bit shocked by what she’s telling me while simultaneously incapable of properly expressing my point of view. I am stretched to my language-ability limits by these conversations, but even so, I love the way they challenge my thinking.

Recently she asked me a question that has stuck with me and helped to formulate my own thinking on the issue.

“Is it true that compared to other people in the United States, missionaries don’t get paid very well? A missionary once told me that she feels like people think she’s made of gold but in reality she has to be careful with her spending just like we all do. Do you think she was a poor missionary, or is it true that missionaries don’t get paid very well?”

I hesitated, wanting to respond carefully. My mind was already filled with the complexities of discussing finances in a way that wouldn’t belittle the experience of the people we work with, nor dismiss the “luxuries” of our lifestyle as insignificant reflections of our financial status. When the ownership of standard items in the US such as a car, laptop, digital camera, or television and DVD player would indicate certain wealth in this area, how could I explain that although we own not just one, but all of those items, we are not rich?

The truth is that we are very rich in relation to the poverty around us, but we’re not rich in relation to the cultural standards of the United States.

In that moment I was haunted by my own negative remarks just this week about the stress of living on a support-based budget. I had complained about the cost of postage to send a batch of personal notes off to our supporters, and then about the extra expenses we had this month for the anniversary celebration of the church. Our personal financial stressors are real, but they pale against the background of poverty and the socioeconomic limitations that plague this community.

I too have felt the frustration of being perceived as an endless money source, or being “made of gold”, but I have never voiced my frustration because relatively speaking, that perception is understandable. I could not bring myself to dismiss the comforts of our life as standard possessions for many Americans when many people around us struggle to meet their daily needs. At the same time, I want others to know that we’re not as “rich” as we may appear to be, perhaps to appease the guilt I feel when considering my own material blessings in relation to the culture around me.

I continually struggle with issues such as this. I’m curious about you, dear readers.

Do you ever wrestle with the disparity between your own resources and those of the people you are working with? Do you feel guilty for the comforts of internet access, digital cameras, vehicles, etc.? Or do you choose to live without them to align yourself with the people you work with? Last week one of you used the term “my adopted nation” in your comment, and that phrase has stuck with me. How do you integrate the norms of your “home nation” with the realities of your “adopted nation”?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Did You Just Laugh??

[what's brewing: a missionary walks into a coffeeshop...]

Given all the great discussion last week on the process of language learning, it seems rather fitting to share the highlight of my week with you all. In my Guidebook to Language Learning, I didn’t even touch on the issue of cross-cultural humor. I’m still so baffled by it, but it is definitely a key player in the process of language learning, and the cross-cultural experience in general.

Every month our secretary updates the office bulletin board with announcements, birthdays, events and adds a few photos and jokes just for fun. Every month, I read the jokes and stand there wondering what’s supposed to be funny about them. I think I understand the words correctly, it just doesn’t strike me as particularly funny.

We’ve hosted dinners for church members in our home and have utilized some icebreakers to get everyone interacting on a more personal level. Each time, someone makes a comment that causes the whole room to erupt in laughter while I sit there wide-eyed, looking around for some hint of what was so funny. Sometimes I laugh too after receiving an explanation, but many times I’m just as baffled after the explanation as I was before.

When it comes to humor, word choice is crucial. Many times I think of something funny to say, piece it together and say it aloud, but am met with blank stares. Then Jason repeats the concept of my comment but with a slight twist in the words, and everyone laughs. And then they think he’s the funny one!

I’ve become pretty comfortable with the fact that I still don’t get the cultural bounds on humor and am content with getting my humor fix from the little kids at the Children’s Home who will laugh at almost anything. I continue trying to express myself with adults when I find something to be funny, but brace myself for the courtesy smiles and nervous giggles offered to appease my expectant look. So you can imagine my delight this week when I made a joke based on the content of the discussion we’d just finished in Bible study and dear Anna burst out in laughter and then proceeded to repeat the joke to the women sitting next to her. The ladies all laughed and looked at me approvingly, nodding their heads as if responding in unison to the question of disbelief in my head, “Did you just laugh at my joke?!”

I sat up straight, proud as could be, with a beaming smile spread across my face. The meeting had carried on despite the laughter I had created among the women, and it was all I could do to restrain myself from interrupting Jason to tell him what I had said and proclaim that all the laughter was about MY joke!! It was ME that caused this distraction!! It really wasn’t all that funny, what I had said. In fact, it was more sarcastic than anything, but they understood why I thought it was funny and were enjoying the moment with me. The sound of their laughter was like dipping my toes into an oasis in the middle of the desert of language learning. Thank you, Lord.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Guidebook to Language Learning

[what's brewing: Vous avez cafe au lait?]

The world of language learning is a rather complex one, and as I’ve continued my journey through it I have made a number of observations in my guidebook. These observations probably wouldn’t have made the process any easier, but are interesting to note nevertheless.

Rule #1: There are no hard and fast rules.

- While learning a language is generally easier when you are younger, this does not mean it is easy if you are young.

- While learning a language is generally easier when you don’t have children to care for as well, this does not mean it is easy if you do not have children.

- Asking the “why” questions of language rules and conjugations to someone who has been fluent in the language since a young age generally results in one of these responses, “I don’t know why, it just is that way,” or “I don’t know why your rulebook doesn’t apply here, but trust me, I’m right.”

- What you understand in a controlled classroom setting generally makes no sense at all the first few times you attempt to utilize the information in a social setting.

- God is good to give us nonverbal cues to follow in addition to verbal statements. Tonal inflections, facial expressions and body language can speak quite clearly even when the details are muddled.

- You must be willing to take risks in order to advance your understanding and language abilities.

- One-on-one conversations can become the most terrifying experiences when the content goes beyond your understanding, especially when the other person is crying about whatever it is they are saying.

- Even though it can get you in trouble, the simple act of smiling and nodding can be a lifesaver at times, especially after seeking unsuccessful clarification multiple times in a row.

- People usually know when you are simply smiling and nodding but don’t really understand.

Rule #2: Remember the "CG 60/100 Formula".

- The only mathematical formula that applies to language learning is the following:

60% understanding = 100% confusion

- This mathematical formula has been evidenced over and over again in my life and the lives of many others which, I believe, establishes it a verified formula in the scientific world.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Candygirl Confessions

[what's brewing: coffee with sugar, hold the coffee]

Had the name of this blog been determined this week, you very well could be reading Candygirl Confessions, for I have consumed far more candy this week than I’ve consumed of coffee in the past month! No parent would ever allow their child to consume the amount of sweets that Jason and I have indulged in, but that’s the beauty of being an adult.

Our first visitors arrived this week. In addition to their own luggage, they kindly brought along an entire extra suitcase thoughtfully filled by my family back home. We coordinated to have some things sent along that, over time, we realized we needed here, as well as some fun supplies for the Children’s Home. It felt like Christmas-in-October as we rummaged through the bag and found the items we’d been waiting for, along with many thoughtful extras that had been included.

But the items producing the most instant gratification were, hands down, the bags of candy and goodies.

It quickly became clear that my suggestion of opening only one package and rationing the others through out the month was not going to be observed. All of the bags were opened in a matter of 15 minutes and we were sampling small handfuls of each one: Reese’s Pieces, Peanut M&M’s, Swedish Fish, red licorice (both Twizzler’s and Red Vine’s to satisfy our personal preferences – Jason and I will never come to agreement on the issue), a Costco-size bag of NestlĂ©’s chocolate chips and a homemade batch of my favorite chocolate, peanut butter bars.

We’re now in a state of blissful sugar overdose, due to our “confessed” gluttonous indulgence (see previous post), and feeling rather remembered by our loved ones back home. I am occasionally tempted with the thought that moving so far away has moved us to the peripheral margins of the lives of those we left behind, and then a giant Christmas-in-October package like this arrives and reflects the careful listening that my family has been doing to put together so many treats and surprises. To think of it creates a warmness that nearly feels like the actual warmness of their embrace.


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