Tuesday, October 26, 2004

America On The World Stage

There's been a lot of press this past year, particularly tied to the the Presidential race, about America's status in the world. There are some bad impressions out there. Democrats want to put the blame on Bush. They always want to blame Republicans. And Republicans like to blame Democrats, too. But as one who travels a lot and interacts with other cultures, I can tell you that I think there is a real mixed impression out there.

America is the richest, most blessed, most successful nation in world history. While a few of our Western "allies" might dispute that, for the rest of the world it is known fact. We have more wealth and power and influence on every level than any nation in the world. So even the most vocal critics I have met, I often suspect, would be the first ones on the boat or plane to come over if they could. America is the "land of opportunity," and, especially in the Third World, they see it as the only path to true escape from their poverty and struggles. So America is still a place where a lot of people want to be.

Additionally, the list of nations we provide economic support to is endless. We have the money everyone is depending on to feed their people and fight AIDS and other problems. And even though the need is increasing daily for aid, without our aid, they would be making no progress. So they have to have it. And they all know that. So they are all indebted and grateful for the help.

But why do they have so many bad things to say about it?

American foreign policy is a big problem. We have been bullying other nations for a long time, Republicans and Democrats. America and American businesses use their wealth and influence to dominate on the world stage, inevitably to the disadvantage of Third World and other nations. But this is especially true with nations who have a hard time fending for themselves. They are desperate for the American aid that is so often tied to these other policies. They surrender because, in the end, they can help more people. But leaders and citizens of these nations grow more and more frustrated with such American bullying. I mean, if you were in need and someone was giving you large amounts of money that could really make a difference, you wouldn't want to give that up, either, but what if that donor started making demands that you paid higher tariffs to import goods to that country or that the donor would get goods for less than market value? How would you feel then?

I am not saying that America should never enjoy the benefits of its prestige, success and wealth. But I am saying that we should treat the benefits and influence with respect and act accordingly, and I don't think we have been very good at doing that. America is often a bully while pretending it's a big brother, and that needs to stop. We really could do much more to feed the hungry, fight the AIDS crisis, and help developing nations succeed. And in the end, it would benefit our nation, because they would provide more and need less. And they would look more favorably upon our partnership. Personally, I think a whole lot of elites out there like things status quo. They like to dominate and don't want to take any chance of losing that power. But I think that is a crime, because people are dying and suffering every day. And we, who have the wealth and resources to do something about it, do nothing.

No wonder so many people out there hate America and love it at the same time. Okay, this is an oversimplification of the problem, but I just wanted to touch on it briefly, because I think it's something a lot of Americans want to forget about or never think about. I think we need to think about it. President Bush is not the one to blame for America's position in the world and/or loss of prestige. We are all to blame, going back decades. And we will continue to be worthy of that blame until we demand more of our leaders in both business and government and do something about it.

Monday, October 18, 2004

On Our Own

Recently a friend in Brazil told me about an American coming to visit and possibly live there. He is 24 and has only recently moved out of his parents home saying he needed to be on his own. My Brazilian friend told me this was not at all common in her culture and would be frowned upon as disrespect. I am certain the same would be true in Ghana. But I told her that in our culture, there is a need to establish a sense of independence and grow into your own sense of responsibility and awareness of who you are as distinct from you parents. I think this is true. But it got me thinking.

Truthfully, I am glad I moved away from home after high school, and, except for one summer, have not returned to live for longer than a week or a few days. For one thing, I think my family would drive each other crazy living together. For another, I really have grown from the experience and it has been good for me. But in a lot of cultures, Latin America and Africa for example, children continue living with their parents until they marry, and often even after (Someone has to care for the parents). In some ways, this is economic necessity. Every one works to support the family and income is hard to come by, so they need each other's support. Additionally, though, there is a cultural sense of community interdependence and respect that is very interesting. I have spent a lot of time studying this aspect of African culture, and now Brazilian as well. I think it is good in that it promotes a greater sense of closeness and respect between parents and children.

Recently, when I stayed with a Brazilian family for two weeks, the brothers even slept in their parents' room so that I could have my own space. I never asked for this and fully expected them to not be very pleasant to me because of it, but I spent a lot of time with the brothers and they were great. Don't know if I could have done the same. The daughters pitched in with daily chores (a good three hours) of sweeping, mopping, dishes, trash, laundry, etc. I never heard one complaint. I also never heard one family member snap at another harshly or talk anything but kindly. I was the crankiest one in the house, and I was the guest. (Hey! Jetlag's murder and I had medical issues plus it was freezing as they had no heat and no air!) But even I had no real complaints against anyone. Can people really live like this? Where did my family go wrong?

I have observed a similar phenomenon in African households. Children always respectful and polite to one another and their parents. Even when one parent was cranky or rude to them. I really think there is something to be learned from this cultural understanding of family and discipline and closeness. And yet, I remain glad I didn't have to stay at home longer. But I sure envy their closeness to one another. My family has to work hard to achieve that, and even then, we can't go a day or two without someone arguing or taunting or snapping. A lot of American families I know are like that. Just something to think about.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Parental Controls??

Okay, so in my welcome note, I mentioned the time my friends' son, 4 years old, turned on Jerry Springer while I was visiting their home in Ghana. Interesting cross cultural phenomenon... The mother didn't even realize what he was watching until I mentioned it, because she runs a catering business from her home and was occupied with cooking, etc. The boy, when asked, told me he watches this every day, because it's funny. The Jerry Springer Show funny to a 4-year-old?! Of course, the mother made him flip it when she realized what it was. But it was interesting to me that so many American parents complain about television saying they don't have time to stand over the TV and screen what their kids watch, and here was the same phenomenon in Africa!

Of course, it also should be said that most Americans can't imagine what constitutes a hard days work for most Africans. Those people really know how to work hard. It is amazing. Most people work from before 7 in the morning to 5 or 6 at night then do housework, raise kids, help with homework, etc. Sometimes the kids come home from school and go to work.

I think a lot of other cultures work harder than the average American does. (This readily includes myself!) In Brazil, according to a news article I read several months ago, the average workday is 17 hours! That means, most Brazilians have never heard of 8 hours of sleep! They are probably lucky to get 4 hours! And this is a regular reality in which they live.

The saying: "We live in a culture of leisure" takes on a whole new meaning in the face of this, doesn't it? I am not saying people don't work hard here, but the standards and necessity are different. The average Ghanaian worker makes $40 a month. That feeds a family of 3-7 children (or more) and the parents. The average Brazilian, last I read, makes around $200 per month. And it takes all those extra hours of hard work just to earn that. Yet I don't know any American who could get by on $200/month, let alone $40/month.

We really do have to count our blessings, I think. And do what we can, when given the opportunity, to help those people around the world who are less fortunate than we are.

Welcome to the Clash!

Okay, so I have never blogged before. Not formally. Though I do post to message boards and wrote editorials. And I'm not a big blog surfer either, so it's learn as I go, but I do spend a lot of time interacting with other cultures. I am an American. And as I interact with other cultures, I become more and more aware of what that means.

Believe it or not, I once told a friend of mine "America has no distinct culture." Okay, I've since changed my opinion. The American culture is a dominant influence around the world. This is not always a good thing, but it is a reality. Everywhere I have been from Africa to Europe to South America, people are knowledgable about American pop-culture and its icons. From Madonna to Mel Gibson, Bruce Springsteen to James Taylor, Dallas to Dawson's Creek -- people around the world are being influenced by us.

I once sat in my friends house in Accra, Ghana, West Africa, and their four-year-old turned on the TV to JERRY SPRINGER! I was mortified. Is that the best our culture has to offer? People are learning who we, as Americans, are and what we are about from crap like Jerry Springer's show. How embarrassing.

There are many people around the world who hate Americans, not because of the culture, but because of the wealth and power we as a nation have now and have had throughout history. Ironically, as you engage in dialogue with them, you find that many of these people would be the first ones to hop on the boat or plane if they were given the chance to come here.

So I thought I could blog with you about my experiences with other cultures and belief systems. Perspectives on being an American in a foreign land and trying to fit in. And how that changes who you are when you come back to your own culture. Maybe very few people will find this interesting. Maybe a lot will. I will admit that I speak from American cultural bias and understanding. And as a Christian missioanry, I also have that. But I wish to just be honest. I don't seek to discriminate or offend anyone. And I am open to learning from you if you feel I am wrong. I also have a number of friends who are serving in foreign countries, whom I will invite to dialog with us from time to time. I currently am in St. Louis, MO, but I travel several times a year doing Leadership Development training with my ministry, Anchored Music Ministries. I invite you to dialogue about your own experiences so we can learn and grow together.

My bias is in favor of other cultures. I think we have a lot to learn from each other. There are many things about African life and culture, which, if we examine them, can be quite beneficial to improving our own. I feel the same about places like Brazil and Mexico. So welcome, and please share your thoughts. And I'll share mine. And I hope together we can promote better understanding and cultural awareness, and maybe even have some fun.

Before we go on though, we need a Disclaimer:

It is funny how people react to honest expression. I never claimed to be the world's foremost expert on cross cultural realities, nor did I expect to find that honestly blogging about my cross cultural experiences would be an issue for some people. People love to pass judgment and snap judgments at that. They read a few words and they automatically assume they know who you are. So silly.Anyway, if you read this blog, please don't do that. If you are a foreigner reading this blog, don't take too much offense that I see the world differently or that I report on things since as both positive and negative. You do the same when you travel and I am sure you would have just as much to say. I try and be graceful about what I write and how I write it, but all of us have prejudices we are not always aware of. My daily quest is to overcome those prejudices and reeducate myself, but it takes time. As much as I am aware of them, I acknowledge them, and I hope you can respect that, as many people do not.

For anyone else, I am writing this blog as much to relate honest experiences and reactions as to provide positive information. And sometimes the reaction to those experiences is negative, but I always try and put a positive spin and my heart's desire is that people who read would desire similar experiences themselves, because I think the world will be a better place the more everyone interacts with each other, especially cross culturally.That being said, the purpose here is to discuss culture clashes. Not to pass judgement on them. If you cannot do that, then you shouldn't read it. But there are culture clashes occurring every day and if we never discuss them, we will never get past them or stop them from occurring. So be it what I will, I will write honestly. And I will try my best to be respectful and sensitive. But at the same time, it will be mostly from my point of view, as I have no other point of view to write from.However, I would welcome comments and discussion as long as they are not vulgar, rude, insulting, denegrating, or otherwise inappropriate (disrespect being inappropriate). I will gladly respond and we can learn from each other. It does no good to share my point of view, if I am not open to yours.

And I cannot become a better cross cultural citizen without learning from others. I do however have it set that I have to approve comments, so if you are of the type I said won't be welcome, don't waste your time. I will not allow it on the site. Otherwise, let's discuss.Finally, a definition of culture might be somewhat helpful. When I talk about culture, I am not just referring to the rich cultural heritage of architecture and arts, etc. Nor am I just referring to history. I am referring to daily life. Those who look at the cultural heritage are right to wonder what some of the daily minutae mentioned here have to do with culture. But those minutae have everything to do with daily culture and that culture, I believe, is what most visitors have the most struggle with or at the most immediate reaction. So that is what fascinates me the most. Everybody deals with different aspects of daily life in unique ways. That is as much a part of their cultural reality as music and design. And it is what makes us different in ways that are more immediately noticable for many people. So I choose to include those things in my definition of culture for the sake of culture clashes, and I discuss them here.