Category Archives: International Neighbors

This category will include my stories and tips on meeting people from around the world in your own hometown.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

A few nights ago hubby and I went to a training with Spero Project, the refugee organization here in Oklahoma City. The training was called Restorative Relationships and focused on how our job is not to “save” the refugees but rather to become their neighbor. The discussion made me realize that I need to change my own perspective and reflect on the composition of a neighbor.

We moved to Oklahoma City just a year and half ago. The move was tough as we didn’t know anyone here. But in the midst of the challenges, there was our neighbor Lynda, who has showed me repetitively what being a neighbor really means. The night we moved in, she brought us dinner. When I was outside picking the pecans in our front yard, she came and joined me. She’s offered to watch Eleanor, asked if I needed anything from the grocery store, and we regularly meet for coffee. Lynda has never made me feel like she was “saving” me but rather that she has been in my shoes and knows that a little extra help would be nice. Personally, I feel like this kind of neighborliness is a dying art in the US. So often we don’t even know the names of our neighbors.

After watching the relationships within the refugee community, they also seem to get the meaning of neighbors. They watch out for each other’s kids, give each other rides to work, and always are ready to boil a pot of tea for a spur of the moment conversation. I think Spero has to do the Restorative Relationship training with us because in all honesty, the refugee community has a lot to teach us about being a neighbor. It is so often our tendency as Americans to walk in and try to fix things rather than to build relationships. We see an under-resourced community and forget that the community has so much to offer us as well.

Every year in Oklahoma City we get 165 new neighbors who are refugees from Myanmar, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and several other countries. So as hubby and I get more involved with Spero, our hope is we can reach out to our new neighbors and make them feel as welcome as Lynda made me feel last year when we were new to town.

Have a great weekend and if you have a chance, try to meet your neighbors!

Calling All Expats: Opportunity to Lead Students Abroad

I love that through this blog I have met so many great people around the world. It has only enhanced my ability to be global from home by extending my international network. For all my lovely expat readers and friends that I have met through the blogosphere, I have an opportunity that wanted to share.

I am looking to hire expats as On-site Program Coordinators for our short-term faculty-led programs through CISabroad. If you are someone who is currently living outside of the U.S. and would be interested in guiding a group of college students and their professor around your host country, this is the perfect gig. The primary role of this position is to facilitate the in-country implementation of the assigned program and provide safety/emergency support as needed. During the program, the On-Site Program Coordinator is responsible for managing the day-to-day logistics of the assigned customized program and providing in-country support to both the leading faculty and CISabroad students. These positions are contracted and last anywhere from 10 days to 4 weeks. We cover all travel expenses, food, housing, and provide a small stipend.

If you or someone you know might be interested in working with me at CISabroad this spring/summer, I would love to answer questions. You can check out the position and find directions to apply on the CISabroad Career page.

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How Do You Say It In [insert language here]?

There is a sweet little girl I work with regularly whose family has recently come to the US from Myanmar. English has not been a breeze for her but she is working hard and it is coming along. Today her third grade homework was to read a story about a tiger and then continue the story and answer the questions. We had read the whole story but when it came to making up a sentence or two to finish it off, she was stuck.

“How do you say tiger in your language?” I asked. “Kya” she responded. “Well, write that,” I said. In her imperfect print she wrote out “In my language a tiger is called kya.” This started a conversation amongst the other kids on how to say tiger in other languages. All of the sudden I heard tiger in Arabic, Georgian, Russian, and Spanish. I even added in Italian for good measure.

Siberian Tiger – taken by National Geographic

I think this will now be a regular question I ask these little ones. It helps them connect with their home country, teaches the other children and me something new, and keeps them speaking their native tongues.

Want to know some other ways to say tiger? Check out Wiktionary’s list. I’ve included a few for practice.

  • Afrikaans: tier
  • Amuzgo: kítzia
  • Belarusian: тыгр (tyhr)
  • Burmese: kya:
  • Czech: tygr
  • Finnish: tiikeri
  • Georgian: ვეფხვი (vep’xvi)
  • Hindi: बाघ (bāgh)
  • Irish: tíogar
  • Japanese: 虎 (torá)
  • Rohingya: bag
  • Russian: тигр (tigr) 
  • Swahili: chui-milia 
  • Zulu: ingwe

Tell Me About It

This past week was International Education Week in the US. Colleges and universities around the country celebrated the week by hosting various events of an international nature. I was able to make a trip to Stillwater, OK and visit the campus of Oklahoma State University on Friday and attend a few of their International Ed Week activities, including a gallery display by a group of students who had studied abroad this past summer in Kenya.

As I walked down the hall viewing the poster displays, I saw a few students gathered together. I asked them if they had gone on the program and immediately they perked up. “Tell me about it,” I said. From there I heard all about their itinerary, the local students they were paired with, the orphanage they visited, and the baskets they bought from the local women who were trying to develop a self-sustaining community. These young women were so enthusiastic about their experience. Just by standing with them for ten minutes, it was obvious how much studying abroad in Kenya had impacted them and opened their eyes to the world around them. I identified with their emotions and it reminded of how studying abroad changed me.

For those of us who have traveled, I think we all yearn for someone to say to us, “Tell me about it.” So often I hear from students that they return from abroad only to realize that their friends and family are not all that interested in hearing about their experience. But for those of us on a mission to be global from home, living vicariously through others who have traveled recently is so important. Not only do we provide an outlet and a listening ear for the traveler, but the traveler also helps us stay engaged with the international community through their stories.

So dear readers, the next time a friend or family member returns from abroad be sure to ask them about their experience, and if you ever need someone else be on the listening side of your travels, let me know. I happy to hear all about it.

The Culture of a Line

A few weeks ago I played Four Square for the first time in probably 20 years. All the kids were done with their homework so we headed out to the playground. It started with just 4 of us but within 15 minutes we had 20 kids playing the game ranging from 5-years-old to 15.  To me it was amazing that the older kids had no problem playing with the little ones. They even gave the smallest ones second chances so they wouldn’t have to get out so fast.

The only problem that came up during the game was waiting in line. No one wanted to wait their turn and if someone even stepped out of line to throw a candy wrapper away, their place was lost and they were forced to go to the end or fight to get their spot back. I never once had to referee the game but I ended up settling disputes about the line for the entire hour we played.

As I waited in line for an hour and half to vote last week, I had plenty of time to contemplate the cultural aspects of waiting in line. Behind me was a gentleman who continuously got out of line to talk on the phone, but the strangers around him let him back in each time. In Italy, I doubt that would have ever happen. In fact, from my experience, there would be no line. There would just be a herd of people who would eventually funnel their way into the door. It reminded me just how drastically different the concept of time and efficiency is my beloved Italy compared to my hometown of Oklahoma City.

Yep…this was my election line

I’m curious now if the problem of waiting in line for Four Square was an age issue or a cultural one.   Are these kids who came to the US from Iraq, Myanmar, Honduras, and Sudan taking on the impatience of American culture or just being kids who want to hurry up and play the game? It’s a question that I believe I’ll have to ponder on for a while, but in the meantime, I’ll just enjoy another game of Four Square.

Culture in Unexpected Places

Everyday I drive by this cute little florist shop called A Date with Iris. Their store window is creatively decorated for Halloween with skulls and spider webs and has an atmosphere which draws you in. At least it drew me in a few weeks ago. The owners are lovely and welcoming and the shop is full of gorgeous flowers and unique gifts. It is also now my go-to for Oklahoma postcards for my Postcrossing correspondence.

But not only is A Date with Iris overflowing in local hospitality, but currently they are serving as hostesses with the mostest to an international guest. As part of an entrepreneurial exchange through the University of Oklahoma, A Date with Iris is hosting a florist shop owner from Taka, Bangladesh named Tanya. Upon finding out about their exchange, they graciously invited me to meet her. So yesterday I sat in the back of their florist shop and we talked culture, food, politics, and education.

One of the most fascinating parts of our conversation was to hear Tanya’s views on wealth and her questions on why Americans send their jobs to Bangladesh and China. She expressed her great frustration on how America places stipulations on regulations on other countries while not paying any more for the goods or being knowledgable of the economic and social structures of the countries it is dealing with. One of the most challenging aspects of our conversation was about child labor. Tanya’s explained that many factories in Bangladesh have large signs across them that say, “We do not use child labor.” However, she explained, if a child doesn’t work, it does not mean he is in school or will be taken care of by the government like here in the U.S. Instead the child will be on the street begging and hoping someone will feed him. She asked me the question, “So is it better for the child to work or for the child to starve?”

Sitting a florist shop in the middle of a neighborhood in Oklahoma City, I had a conversation that I doubt I will ever forget. I  learned so much in that 90 minutes and found culture in an unexpected place.

How the World Views Us

I’ll never forget standing in the Metro in Paris and being horribly embarrassed by the college kids who were a few cars down. They could be heard by every passenger as they swore and rough housed with each other. With their college t-shirts, flip-flops, and southern accents, there was no denying they were Americans. It made my friend and I start speaking in Italian just so we wouldn’t be associated with their bad manners. That experience has made me stress to my own students just how important it is to be aware of how we as a culture and people are viewed by others.

I came upon the Listening Project trailer just this week and it was reminiscent of my Metro experience. As I engage in the American Presidential Debate on foreign policy, this film has reminded me that we are not a nation that functions in a bubble, but one who is dependent and depended on by the world.

Where Are You From?

In the past, if I heard anyone speak with an accent, I would always wonder where they were from but would never ask. I thought it might be rude or make them feel uncomfortable. Well, I’ve thrown that notion out the window. For someone who is trying to be global from home, that just won’t work. Over the past several weeks, I came in contact with three individuals who were clearly not born in the U.S. based on their accents. Rather than just smiling politely and going my own way, I took the risk of asking where they were from.

The first was a Mexican man who was working at a restaurant here in OKC. I noticed he was a little shy telling me where he was from, but when I immediately responded that I had recently been to Mexico and really enjoyed exploring it, his mood visibly changed. He began to tell me about his hometown, how long he had been in the States, and then asked me my opinion on safety in Mexico. He said he had not visited home in years, but based on the news, he questioned how safe it would be to return to Mexico with his family.

My second experience was with a man who had recently come to the United States from Iraq. He told me about having to leave his wife and baby daughter in Baghdad but has hopes that he will be able to bring them over soon. He told me he wants to get his master’s degree in engineering and how his father went to college in the U.S. at the University of Georgia. We ended up spending several minutes talking about taking the TEFL and the quality of the Georgia football team this year.

The third person I met owns a furniture store in Atlanta and moved to the U.S. from Turkey 18 years ago. But before coming across the pond, she also lived in France and the UK. She talked about having her mother still in Turkey and the challenges of going back home to see her three or four times a year. She told me how she speaks four languages and her brother speaks five. We talked about technology and how something that is suppose to help connect us, often disconnects us from the person sitting beside us.

What I’ve been discovering is that behind the accent there is a story. Leaving your home country and moving is never easy – there are language challenges, family left behind, and new customs to learn. And while I certainly hope that I’m not offending the people I meet, I am so curious to hear about their stories. I am entranced as they tell about what they’ve overcome to be where they are, and I’m eager to hear why they left the familiarity of home to come here. In the end, each time I ask the question “Where are you from?” I believe I am taught something new about the world that I never would have learned if I had to decided to be just be polite and mind my own business.

 

Guest Blog: Hosting Your Host Family

When Jennifer, a dear student from San Diego, posted on Facebook that she her host family from Spain would be visiting her in California, I immediately asked her if she would do a guest post. I couldn’t think of a better way to be global from home than welcoming the family that showed her so much care and support in Spain to the U.S. As one of the most entertaining and genuine people I know, I’m so excited to share this guest blog from Jennifer on her experience.

Guest Blog by Jennifer Guerra:

Host: a person who receives or entertains other people as guests
Family: a person or people related and so to be treated with loyalty and intimacy

The sky was dark; there was a table covered with a cherry design tablecloth that had obviously been used for several years filled with food plates I did not recognize; laughter echoed from everyone in attendance and there was the sound of flamenco music in the background. I was immediately greeted with kisses on the cheek and tight hugs and was pointed to my seat. The chatter ceased and a prayer was offered to bless the food and the fellowship. Everyone quickly started back to their conversations while passing the plates of food around. I was completely overwhelmed. This was the first Sunday away from home and I was missing my family, my church, my friends, my comfort. As I smiled around and attempted to make conversation, my host mom would often interrupt saying, “She is our daughter from the States.” My host dad made sure my cup was always filled with lemon flavored Fanta and would often check in with me with his eyes. At the end of the night, once the guests were gone and the music of the crickets was all that could be heard, my host mom held my face in her hands and kissed my forehead. Looking back it was that night that sticks out in my head as my favorite time that I spent with my host family. There was genuine intentionality, love, empathy, care, and understanding.

Landing back into the US leaving that behind was one of the hardest transitions I have had to make, so when I got the news that they had the opportunity to visit, I was thrilled!!!! One of the nights they were home, I made sure to take them to the beach. There was a bonfire prepared along side with worn out beach chairs and all the works for hot dogs and s’mores. The night followed the pattern of that fist night in Seville but the roles were reversed…it was I who had to make sure to make eye contact with my host dad and reassure him that his marshmallow would indeed be ok even if it has been engulfed in flames. It was I who made sure that my host mom’s soda can was replaced, and it was I that reminded her that “host mom” was no longer a proper name for her. She was now “mi madre Española” (my Spanish mom).

You know, if you learn to enjoy the journey, the finish line will be bittersweet. It is a reminder of all the moments and struggles that made that finish line so worth it and valuable. The drop off at the airport was the day we had all been avoiding. There was a huge difference this time. The first goodbye was in a tiny airport in Spain; we truly never knew if we were going to see each other again, if the connection would ever be developed. This time around, we said “see you soon” for we are family now and family will move mountains to see each other and keep in touch. Instead of exchanging tears, we exchanged hugs and laughter as they walked into the crowd of people and disappeared. We will see each other soon and not care how many days, weeks, months and years pass by until we embrace again.

Jennifer (far right) with her American and Spanish family (sitting)

Talking to Strangers

Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak with me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you? – Walt Whitman

My husband has always said that I can talk to a wall. He loves bringing me with him to parties because he knows I can small talk. However, my skill is also a frequent topic of jest as I do not limit it to parties. I find random people to talk to at grocery stores, airports, the line at the DMV, etc. Part of my problem is that I’m naturally nosy. I often listen in to other people’s’ conversations and jump in if I have something to say. For example, when I was standing in line to board the plane a few weeks ago, the guy in front of me asked another passenger for advice on what to do in San Diego. I couldn’t resist chiming in. (Plus, all the other guy said was to go to Sea World…REALLY?)

Fortunately my nosiness frequently gets me into some pretty interesting conversation. Like on Friday, I overheard the accent of another passenger on the train. She was visiting from Adelaide, Australia and we got into a great conversation about studying abroad. She was actually in the States visiting a friend who had studied abroad at her school. We talked about her impression of the States and how she loved San Diego but was overwhelmed by New York . We talked about how travel changes once you have friends in the location you are going to visit. She was absolutely lovely and I can’t tell you how glad I was that I talk to strangers.

When we are traveling abroad or being global from home, I think talking to strangers is something we have to push ourselves to do. It’s the way we learn. I think back to all the times I refused to ask a stranger a question and I’m immediately filled with regret. It reminds me of when I was in Switzerland and would not ask anyone how to purchase a tram ticket. Instead I spent the whole trip on foot because I was too scared to ask for help. There was also the time I went to the Asian market and quickly dashed through the store rather than stop and ask questions at the different counters and really learn how the market is set up. When I’m too scared to ask, I think I miss out on so much.

With our move coming up this Friday, I think this is a good reminder. In order for me to learn the lay of the land, get involved, and make friends, I need to throw the time-old advice of not talking to strangers out the window. I just hope I meet some good people along the way.

Graphic courtesy of whoischick.com