Of Friends and Transitions

Living overseas seems to bring with it a mobile and transitory lifestyle of a caliber foreign to those who steward the home traditions. We become accustomed to a series of pronounced and frequent life transitions. In Tokyo foreign friends would transfer to assignments in other exotic locations every three to five years. It makes it nice for traveling, a privilege to be able to stay with friends around the world, but their departures leave huge holes in our lives. In Mazatlán there seems to be a frequent seven to ten year cycle to expat life, with beloved friends moving to the interior of the country or back home, closer to grandkids, so they can be an integral part of those children’s lives.

Transitions are a normal part of life; I know this. Life is comprised of cycles; I know and believe this from the depths of my heart. Yet dealing constructively with transitions is the reason I made a career as an interculturalist oh so many decades ago. I am not good at them. They hurt. Things change. They can even change for the better, open new doors and windows for which we’ll forever be grateful. But, they involve change nonetheless. Someone “moves our cheese.”

Read full article: Of Friends and Transitions

Become a Certified Facilitator

Register now to learn to use Cultural Detective’s robust and personally customized online system to improve intercultural competence in your communities, organizations and teams—bridging the issues that polarize our societies and leveraging differences as assets.

We have two upcoming workshops, one in San Diego USA in October and the other in Vienna AUSTRIA in November. Proceeds from both events will support the respective SIETAR (Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research) organizations. You will leave the workshop with a developmentally-sound set of tools in your hands and the knowledge and skill to use them. You will form meaningful, long-lasting relationships with leading professionals. And, as a certified facilitator, you will receive a 10% discount when you license our printed materials, a listing on our website, and one-month access to Cultural Detective Online.

Below is the flyer from SIETAR Austria, and following that is a video from SIETAR USA:

CD Vienna 2017 p1CD Vienna 2017 p2

Click on the link to learn more or secure your seat now.

Free Resources, all in one place

Freebies.jpgCultural Detective is very committed to building respect, collaboration, equity and justice in our world by developing intercultural competence. To that end, we publish extremely effective and affordable materials, we conduct an extensive series of free webinars, and we frequently share activities, designs and resources on this blog.

In order to make it easier for members of our community to access these complimentary resources, we’ve done our best to gather most of them into one place: the “Freebies” section of our website. Gathering all of them is rather untenable, as we’ve been giving stuff away since 2004, but if you find something on our sites that you feel deserves a listing in the Freebies section, please let us know.

I plan to do a series of blog posts about this new page, and I’ll start at the bottom, Tools for Training and Education. There you will find some truly incredible things.

  1. The Four Phase Model for Task Accomplishment in multicultural teams, taken from the classic Ecotonos: A Simulation for Collaborating Across Cultures. It provides a proven model for using differences as assets that combines well with and supplements your use of Cultural Detective.
    There are an additional three articles on ways to use Ecotonos in various settings, including in a business class, for conflict resolution, and in a science laboratory.
  2. A terrific article by one of the intercultural field’s most respected researcher/practitioners, Jackie Wasilewski, titled “Collide-o-culture or Kaleid-o-culture? GPS for Human Beings.” If you haven’t read it, you should.
  3. An article written by Barbara F. Schaetti, Heather Robinson, and myself on our go-to approach for developing sustainable intercultural ability, EPIC: Essential Practice for Intercultural Competence.
  4. Powerpoint slides and information on Interculturalidad in Latin America, and how it compares to similar concepts in North America, Europe and Asia, written by Adriana Medina-López-Portillo.
  5. Link to download a terrific learning game on the refugee and migrant experience, developed by Caritas France and called “On the Road with Migrants.” The game is available in French, English, German, Greek, Italian, and very soon in Portuguese and Spanish.

I am proud of the generosity of our team of authors and our community of certified facilitators and users, to help us make these tools available to all of you. Please use them frequently and well. Together we can promote respect, understanding, collaboration and justice!

2 Continents, 3 Opportunities

Would you like to improve your skills for working in a multicultural, geographically dispersed team or organization? For leading such teams? Are you charged with developing diversity and inclusion competence, or intercultural competence, in your students, colleagues or clients? Would you benefit from an intercultural competence tool that looks at people as unique individuals influenced by multiple different cultures (organizational, professional training, age/generation, spiritual tradition) and teaches critical thinking in context?

If so, you will want to attend a Cultural Detective Facilitator Certification programs. Use of Cultural Detective does not require certification—the Cultural Detective Method and materials were designed with the idea that they could be used by interested non-specialists. However, the Cultural Detective Series is so robust that users ask for in-depth workshops to learn more about the many applications and strengths of this versatile approach, and to network with peers using the Cultural Detective Method.

Cultural Detective Facilitator Certification Workshops are designed for small groups who share two-and-a-half days of intense, guided interaction; the current schedule of workshops is below. We explore what “intercultural communication competence” means and offer ways to use Cultural Detective to enhance intercultural effectiveness in your organization or community.

We have three public sessions on the calendar for 2017:

  1. IRELAND, Dublin, 22-24 May
  2. USA, Portland OR, 22-23 July
  3. AUSTRIA, Vienna, 23-25 November

In the video below, George Simons, a prolific Cultural Detective author and trainer of facilitators, explains what you can expect in a Cultural Detective Facilitator Certification. While his focus is the training in Dublin in May 2017, the process and content apply to any of our public certifications worldwide.

Register now to secure your seat for the workshop of your choice as spaces are limited. Certification Workshops are a wonderful way for the advanced practitioner to reflect on the things that matter, and develop the ability to combine and integrate various theories, approaches, and tools in the field. Those who are newer to the intercultural field will learn a developmental process that is theoretically grounded and proven effective, and that supplements and dovetails with the frequently used dimensions-based approaches. We explore the impact of multiple cultures on each of us, the idea of layering Value Lenses to visually represent these influences, and a variety of ways to incorporate Cultural Detective into your training, teaching and coaching.

We all very much look forward to seeing you there!

Cultural Detective at the Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication

SIIC 2015The 39th annual Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication (SIIC) offers professional development opportunities for people working in education, training, business, and consulting, in both international and domestic intercultural contexts. One of the premier gatherings of professionals in the field of intercultural communication, SIIC presents a unique opportunity to explore the field and network with others in a stimulating and supportive environment. Cultural Detective is proud to have long played a role in SIIC, and 2015 will be no exception. Sign up now as workshops are filling quickly!

The workshops below will all include Cultural Detective components; the Certification focuses exclusively on the Cultural Detective Method.

11. Gaining Gaming Competence: The Meaning Is in the Debriefing
Monday-Friday, July 13-17, 2015
Dianne Hofner Saphiere and Daniel Cantor Yalowitz

Psychologist George Kelly has suggested that learning isn’t being in the vicinity of an event, it’s the sense we make of it. If this is so, then experiential learning through games and simulations requires special knowledge and skills to derive the most significant learning. This experiential workshop focuses on current best practices and theories for creating, facilitating, and debriefing meaningful intercultural games, activities, and simulations. We will emphasize the critical importance of debriefing, including the ethics of appropriate responses in challenging situations and a variety of successful strategies that you can use in diverse intercultural settings.

Redundancía and Demonstration of Cultural Detective Online
Tuesday July 14, 2015, Evening Session 7-9 pm
Dianne Hofner Saphiere

Redundancía is one of the most powerful nine-minute learning games you will ever play. It builds empathy for non-fluent speakers, helps develop listening and communication skills, and captures the dynamics of power in conversation. It is a tool that can be used in a broad variety of educational and training situations.

Cultural Detective® approaches cross-cultural collaboration as a process, not a set of dimensions. It looks at people as individuals affected by multiple layers of culture, including nationality, gender, generation, spiritual tradition, and sexual orientation.

After we play and debrief Redundancía, the facilitator will provide a short tour of the Cultural Detective® Online system.

3. Facilitating Intercultural Competence: Experiential Methods and Tools
Monday-Friday, July 13-17, 2015

Basma Ibrahim DeVries and Tatyana Fertelmeyster

One of the main challenges for trainers and educators is finding meaningful methods and tools to develop intercultural competence. Actively engaging with conceptually grounded and widely used approaches to intercultural communication competence, such as communication styles, conflict styles, learning styles, the Cultural Detective®, and Personal Leadership®, this workshop will equip you with creative methods for training and coaching for both culture-general and culture-specific contexts. We will focus on effective group dynamics, co-facilitation, adaptation, and strategic management of participants’ and clients’ needs, as well as the creation of your own activities. You can expect to be creatively, experientially, and reflectively engaged.

Cultural Detective® Facilitator Certification Workshop
Saturday and Sunday, July 18-19, 2015

Cultural Detective® is a core method for developing intercultural understanding, productivity, and effectiveness. It serves as a powerful design backbone for courseware, coaching, and teambuilding, or as a stand-alone tool for conflict resolution, learning and dialogue. A few advantages of the facilitator certification workshop include increased ability to:
  • Use Cultural Detective® as a backbone to design, reinforcing learning from a variety of activities and experiences in a coherent developmental spiral
  • Develop competence in a broad variety of international, cross-cultural situations
  • Foster collaboration and ongoing process improvement in organizations by using a consistent method and vocabulary in multiple locations

H. Gaming Agility: Getting More Out of Our Tools
Saturday July 18, 2015

Dianne Hofner Saphiere and Daniel Cantor Yalowitz

During this highly experiential workshop we will participate in a number of different intercultural simulations and games, and then re-introduce, conduct, debrief, or modify them for varying purposes. The day will be fast-paced and high energy. There will be much work in small groups, and participants will take turns facilitating the large group. We will emphasize the critical importance of debriefing and the ethics of proper debriefing, as we illustrate that using different questions and methods can make a single activity produce learning that is applicable to a diversity of purposes. Come ready to engage!

Ecotonos: A Simulation for Collaborating Across Cultures
Tuesday July 21, 2015, Evening Session 7-9 pm
Dianne Hofner Saphiere

The Intercultural Communication Institute now publishes this classic simulation on intercultural collaboration, teaming and decision making. Be sure it’s part of your repertoire!

Powerful and extremely adaptable, Ecotonos breaks the usual stereotypes and barriers. Participants improve their skills and strategies for multicultural collaboration and teamwork.

Ecotonos can be used multiple times with the same people by selecting a new problem and different variables, with each replay offering new and different cross-cultural perspectives.

38. Training Methods for Exploring Identity 
Thursday and Friday, July 23-24, 2015
Tatyana Fertelmeyster

Self-exploration is the most vital learning for anybody who wants to guide others in their identity work. You can expect to be engaged in two days of self-discovery processes, from icebreakers to individual and team exercises, which can be used to explore identity. We will examine different ways to set up and integrate identity exercises into programs that resonate with various work groups, and discuss both the ethical and practical considerations we need to keep in mind when doing identity work. We will address why identity work is essential in intercultural training, leadership development, and team building.

Rajel messouab ta hed ma y sed lou el bab. “All doors open to the person with good manners.”

morocco_purchWe are pleased to be publishing a wonderful addition to our series, Cultural Detective: Morocco. It’s perfect for those working with Moroccans, or wanting to do business in or relocate to Morocco. Perhaps, however, you are like me: you have seen tourist posters, watched Casablanca, eaten at Moroccan restaurants, and dreamed about visiting this seemingly exotic place. If so, then you will also enjoy wandering through our new package, even if you have no immediate plans to visit or do business in Morocco—at least not when you start reading the package!

One of the delightful things about Cultural Detective: Morocco is the feeling of almost participating in the culture that begins as you read the introduction. The oral tradition of Morocco is clear throughout the package, and the stories and examples show the hospitality and warmth of the people. To truly navigate successfully within Moroccan culture, you will need the advice of an inside perspective—a cultural informant—to help you develop and maintain the relationships and connections so necessary to doing business in this fascinating country. Cultural Detective: Morocco can provide you with that ongoing guidance, with ideas to save you from being unintentionally rude, and with suggestions that may help you communicate more comfortably and successfully with Moroccans. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

Cultural Detective: Morocco has truly been a “labor of love,” coming to fruition due to the determination of two very dedicated professionals, Catherine Roignan and Youssef Zahid. Currently, one author lives in France and one in Morocco; both have a great deal of international experience, both have more than full-time jobs, and both have family responsibilities that take up every spare moment. In spite of these challenges, they wrote, revised, and wrote some more.

What is even more remarkable to me is that they wrote in French and then translated their work into English so I could read it. I made suggestions, did some editing, and then my suggestions were translated back into French for their consideration. (While the current version is in English, we will soon publish the French language version.) Of course, part of the authors’ discussion was also about Arabic words, as they explored the nuances of Moroccan culture and the particular choice of words used to describe it. This was a truly multilingual, multicultural creation process, weaving observations from inside and outside of the culture, and shifting worldviews as the authors worked to share the culture of Morocco with us.

One of the Moroccan values highlighted in the package is Daba baada (the present comes first): the only thing one can be sure of is today; one cannot know what tomorrow will be like, as things may change at any moment. We hope you will take the time today to explore this terrific new package, either via the PDF version or by viewing it as part of your subscription to Cultural Detective Online.

She’s Been in 68 Countries in 21 Years

CarouLLou-LOGO What??!!!

I have been fascinated with CarouLLou ever since I met her online about a year ago. She and her husband have been global nomads together for 21 years (and on their own before that). They are, however, unlike any other global nomad I have ever met. Initially they would live two years in a given location—fairly normal, expatriate-type stuff. Over the years, however, as the internet came into being, as communication became easier, as it became possible to rent furnished apartments online, and as visas became more complicated (e.g., non-EU citizens may stay in Europe for six month per year, but only three months in a six-month period), CarouLLou and her “mystery photographer” became more and more nomadic, living in each location for shorter and shorter periods of time. Nowadays, they often stay in a place one-to-three months.

Do they feel like tourists? Well, they do some touristy things; they see the sights, particularly when a place is new to them. But, that place, at that time, is their home. Their only home. What they love is feeling like locals: eating where locals eat, discovering hidden treasures that only locals know about, and doing things even locals wish they could do.

Sound familiar? I know it’s true for me, and I’m confident it’s true for many of you readers as well. How often have we been told we are more Japanese or Mexican than many born to that nationality? Untrue, of course; a metaphor, of course—but a compliment that reflects a desire on the part of the global nomad to put ourselves in the shoes of other people.

In the video below, CarouLLou answers my question about feeling like a tourist vs. being “at home,” what home means to her, and she tells us an interesting story about their life in Venice.

Why do CarouLLou and her husband choose this lifestyle? Isn’t it difficult? It surely isn’t “normal”! To hear her tell it, the global nomadic life is almost addictive, with the constant stimulation of new experiences and learning. Below she explains why they live the way they do, and the advantages and downsides of their extreme global nomad lifestyle.

CarouLLou.com-CarouLLou-in-luggage-NB1

Photo courtesy CarouLLou. Click on the photo to learn her packing tips!

CarouLLou and her love travel with one medium-sized suitcase and one carry-on each—65 kilos of luggage. Remember, those suitcases contain everything they own. It definitely puts the quantity of “things” I have in my 3-bedroom condominium to shame. And my stuff has been actively downsized for several years now! So many of us want to live simpler, lighter lives. CarouLLou definitely lives lighter, if not simpler, than most of us.

I am fascinated that all her belongings fit in one medium-sized suitcase and a carry-on, because CarouLLou always looks so gorgeous, so put-together, and so in her element—whether she is in Mexico City, Tokyo or Rome. How in the world does a woman look that great and own so few pieces of clothing and accessories? Her response seems a good guide for many of us.

I well know that the life of an entrepreneur, local or global, can get lonely and isolated if we’re not careful. We don’t have an office full of people to work with everyday, so we have to reach out and actively build community more than some others. The very creative CarouLLou found an innovative way to connect with like-minded people in new cities in which she lives: “brainstorm lunches.” Click on the link to read a full article about these, or view the video clip below to hear her talk about the fit between treasuring friends and family, and the life of a global nomad.

CarouLLou speaks four languages, but obviously she has visited a lot of places in which she doesn’t speak the language of the place. How does she get along? I asked her to share some tips with us on how to communicate and get what we need when we don’t speak the local language.

There are so very many countries in the world, and even though CarouLLou and her husband choose to live mostly in metropolises, how do they choose where to live next? How do they decide whether to go to a new place or revisit a previous “home”? And how do they agree? I love her answer; based on decades of experience, it provides a sound guide for any traveller or sojourner.

Are you curious to know whether, after 21 years of nomadic life, CarouLLou still experiences culture shock? Here is what she says about this challenge.

The Facts This couple has been in 68 countries by the UN nation-count, 82 countries according to the “Travelers’ Century Club.” They like urban areas, and tend to travel East to West, following the seasons. They have twelve or so absolute favorite cities in which they feel at “home” and revisit regularly, and they rotate favorite places with places they’ve never before been to.

CarouLLou.com-jump-unknown1

Photo courtesy CarouLLou

In 1994, CarouLLou and her husband began traveling, subletting their Montreal apartment, but in 1996 they announced to their family and friends that they were “jumping into the unknown!” They sold all of their belongings—minus a couple of suitcases full of personal items—and a FAX machine—to make their home portable.

How does CarouLLou support herself? She became “location independent” years ago with her marketing business, and then with her coaching business, because she could meet with her clients via fax and phone. (CarouLLou actually gave her clients and collaborators prepaid phone cards so they wouldn’t incur extra charges to communicate with her; how fast technology has changed!) She got her first email in 1998—quite late to the technology world, in my global nomad experience—and started a few online businesses as well as a photo site for her family and friends.

Currently, CarouLLou provides consulting on life potential, for start-up businesses, and marketing strategies, has several websites, some information funded by publicity, and others with affiliate partnerships (among them her travel site, as well as hotel booking and apartment booking sites). She loves fashion; in her blog and Facebook photos she always looks perfectly put together, and her looks are her own, yet change with each city in which she lives. She also has an online jewelry store to enable us to share some of her “finds,” and shares her inspired “looks” for various cities and sells clothes online. She is an investor, engages in currency trading, and has passive income from international organizations she’s set up over the years. CarouLLou also has several paper.li papers: Style, Nomads, and Travel.

Her philosophy includes:

  • “When we travel with an open heart, our world is full of hearts.”
  • “Don’t try to spend less, try to find ideas to make more! The more you spend, the more people benefit.”
  • “Remember the word currency comes from ‘current,’ so be in the current!”
  • “Work a little everyday, and do something special every day… and you will feel on vacation all your life!”

You can subscribe to CarouLLou’s blog, or follow her on most every social media. Like Cultural Detective, she has about 20,000 followers on social media, and she definitely shares our passion for cultural diversity and competence.

Vinnan göfgar manninn. “Hard words break no bones.” (Icelandic Proverb)

CD Iceland coverI have the best job in the world: working with our Cultural Detective authors—I always learn so much! Recently, I had the pleasure of working with our authors on the Cultural Detective: Iceland package—the most recent addition to the CD series. This is a culture I know nothing about, therefore, I had no preconceived notions about how it would be to work with these bright ladies, or what I would learn.

Fortunately (from my US American point of view), being direct and straightforward is generally considered being honest, and is highly valued in Icelandic culture. When discussing a topic, everybody tends to share ideas (without evaluation) and then the best course of action is chosen. Questions are answered directly, and disagreement usually is not considered a personal attack. To those from a less direct culture, this style of communication may feel rude and blunt, while to Icelanders it’s just contributing their ideas.

The authors shared a delightful example of language and culture being intertwined: Icelanders do not use the word “love” as US Americans do. Their word for love is used in relation to family. It is a “very expensive/high value” term with a special use for a special purpose. Therefore, the use of “love” was very confusing to our authors when they first arrived in the United States. They were surprised that people loved their pets, loved ice cream, loved a movie, etc. In contrast, one of the authors told me that if her husband ever said he loved her, she would know she was dying! She told me, “Icelandic husbands love their wives so much that they almost tell them!”

This relatively small country (population 320,000) has seven universities, the oldest parliament in the world, and dynamic, high-energy, optimistic people. We look forward to introducing you to CD: Iceland, and a culture whose Viking roots impact the freedom and respect for the individual that are the heart of Icelandic values today. Be sure to check it out, put it to good use, and let us know what you think!

The Almadraba: A Dying Cultural Tradition?

almadraba10Every May, thousands of Atlantic bluefin tuna (atún rojo) swim through the Strait of Gibraltar at over 30 miles per hour to spawn in the Mediterranean. And for 3000 years fishermen have intercepted the large tuna in a fishing tradition called the almadraba in Andalusia and tonnara in Sicily.

The almadraberos are often sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons of almadraberos, and feel a brotherhood with their fellow fishermen. They tend to be proud and tough, with a strong respect for history and the sea. They catch the tuna by putting out a maze of underwater nets that the bluefin swim through until they reach a final pool, el copo (diagram of a net, below).

LA ALMADRABA

Tuna swim east to the Mediterranean, going through various areas of the net until they reach the “copo,” where they are hoisted up out of the water.

Once the copo is filled, the fishermen circle their boats, working together to haul the huge net to just a few feet below the surface—the levantá del atún, or “raising of the tuna.” There are so many tuna jumping around in such a shallow space above the net that it creates the illusion that the water is boiling.

At this point the copejadores assume the treacherous task of jumping down into the net to hook and hoist the often 1000 pound-plus tuna, whose tails may be longer than the fishermen are tall, into the surrounding boats. Most copejadores have suffered many injuries over the years: broken knees, ankles, wrists, and noses. Some people call the practice slaughter, equating it to what they perceive as the savagery of bull fighting, while others perceive it as a noble tradition.

PESCA-ALMADRABA

So what is endangering the historic almadraba tradition?

  1. Tuna have been overfished: there are half as many bluefin tuna in the Atlantic as there were 39 years ago. Some almadraberos report that they used to catch 1000 tuna a day, whereas now they are lucky to catch that amount in an entire season. The Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (thunnus thynnus) has been listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN’s “red list”) since 2011. But conservationists do not generally blame the almadraba for the species’ decline.
  2. Technology such as sonar tracking and huge vessels have brought stiff competition to traditional fishing methods such as the almadraba. Most research that I have seen in a web search equates overfishing to the larger, high-tech vessels and, ironically, to tuna farming—fishermen catch the young bluefin and then fatten them up in farms—rather than to traditional fishing methods such as almadraba.
  3. Do you like sushi? Japanese regard the cold-water Atlantic bluefin as the best fish in the world for sashimi, and atún rojo has turned the southern Spanish coast into a gastronomic destination. With prices for bluefin in Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish auction higher than ever (you’ll remember one fish sold for $1.8 million in 2013), demand has skyrocketed, which has resulted in the overfishing.tuna2_l

Video of the raising of the nets:

Video of how the almadraba nets work, and a bit of history and geography:

Video of the levantá del atún, right through to the filleting of the meat:

What traditions in your culture are in danger of extinction? How do we determine if it’s time to let go of a practice and flow with the changing times, or hang on to our ancestral practices? And, what makes a tradition a tradition?

Remember How We Used To Celebrate? Culture and Holiday Rituals

image002

Photo from Martha Stewart

Below is a guest blog post by Carrie Cameron, co-author of Cultural Detective Russia.

Another year of enjoying Halloween in the USA just passed. Each year, I notice a bit more shifting of the traditions. For example, commercial haunted houses are proliferating; they seem to be a way for teenagers and young adults to express their Halloween fervor. These days, children don’t only go trick-or-treating around their own neighborhoods as when I was a kid, but often their parents will drive them to neighborhoods that are known to celebrate the evening more vivaciously. Many houses and yards are decorated more and more elaborately every year, probably analogous to the Olympic-grade “competitive” Christmas decorating seen in some parts of the US these days. It’s not just a jack-o-lantern on the porch anymore! And, living in Texas, I have noticed that, over the last five years or so, Mexican Day of the Dead-style imagery has become very popular and even somewhat trendy. (Sometimes I want to remind people that Christians already have two days of the dead, forgotten by many: All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2.

I look forward to Halloween and all the fall and winter holidays every year. Like most people over the age of, say, 30, I have fond memories of the way holidays were celebrated when I was a child, and contrast these memories with the way the holidays are celebrated today. But I never realized how intensely emotional and culturally bound these personal representations of holiday traditions are until I participated in an intercultural panel discussion of holidays, years ago, at a SIETAR meeting (Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research).

modernmarketingjapan.blogspot.com

Photo from modernmarketingjapan.com

The discussion began with an Anglo-American woman telling the story of how the practically sacred—for her—ritual of decorating the Christmas tree was misunderstood by her Japanese immigrant husband. He saw it as merely one more task in the holiday preparations, like wrapping gifts or putting lights on the house. She didn’t understand his apparent indifference because the tree-trimming ritual was such a fundamental part of her assumptions about Christmas. This triggered an argument that neither of them really understood. This same woman was shocked to find out, sometime later, that one of her closest friends from a similar background also viewed tree-trimming as a task, rather than a pleasant ritual.

Photo from the Long Beach Post

Photo from the Long Beach Post

Next, an African-American man related how his grown children had begun to insist on celebrating Kwanzaa, which he definitely wasn’t interested in. After a couple of years, he began to accept and enjoy it, and Kwanzaa eventually became an important new part of their family life together.

Photo from dawn.com

Photo from dawn.com

A Pakistani man told of how he felt excluded from the apparent “universal” joy of Christmas. He struggled to understand why small gifts were presented to children in socks—didn’t that seem unhygienic? (This upset some of the Christians in the group.) He also shared his feelings about the “universal” joy of Eid, and how that deep down, he couldn’t really understand the indifference of his US American friends and colleagues when Eid came around.

A Mexican-American woman found it puzzling how many Anglo-Americans celebrated Easter as a seemingly frivolous children’s holiday. To her, it was a solemn occasion. The Asians saw New Year’s as a time to be with family, rather than at the most glamorous or wildest party of the year. (Do any of the US Americans remember having a family New Year’s Day dinner, or do you still celebrate the holiday in that way??)

But for everyone in the room, the most touching moment was when a woman told her story of growing up mainstream Christian in the US, and how her parents converted to another sect when she was about ten years old. The new sect did not permit Christmas to be celebrated with gifts, decorations, feasting, and parties—it was a serious and purely religious event. As she told of how she and her brother had suddenly become walled off from all of the traditions, activities, images, music, and food surrounding their previous understanding of Christmas, she began to cry, having never had the chance to consciously mourn and articulate this loss. All of the hearts in the room were breaking for her: same holiday—different symbolism. At that moment, I realized just how truly profound a part of our being our cultural symbols of the holidays are. They are irrational, deep within us, and sometimes the source of surprisingly intense emotion.

Having the opportunity to verbalize, compare, and process these intimate personal and cultural meanings was a tremendously valuable experience for everyone in the room. Going beyond the “face value” of the symbols to their significance was a powerful bridge-building moment, and I think we all felt the universality and peace of the holidays a little more brightly that year.

Post-script: As I was writing this, I received a text from a friend in Japan about a “peanut bird wreath.” It was accompanied by a photo of a woman wearing a pin that consisted of a silver pine cone, a yellow ribbon, and a cluster of peanuts in their shells. My knee-jerk reaction, seeing the word “wreath” and a silver pine cone, was that this was some kind of Japanese interpretation of a Christmas item. I immediately thought, “The ribbon is not supposed to be yellow, and peanuts have nothing to do with Christmas.” A few moments later I received a follow-up text informing me that they were at the Bird Festival. Gomen nasai. I guess I am a cultural being!