There’s No Rule Book for Building Cross-Cultural Bridges

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Clients occasionally ask me to incorporate a list of “dos and don’ts” into my cross-cultural training. I always balk because I don’t have any rules, at least none that I haven’t broken. But if I did have rules, they’d go something like this:

1) Be authentic.

2) Don’t do dos-and-don’ts.

Let’s start with authenticity. It’s a beautiful thing and grossly undervalued. For people who are self-aware and authentic by nature, it’s an effortless state-of-being that serves them well. Other people spend a lifetime searching for their true authentic selves and never find it. The rest of us are somewhere in between, doing our best. But however evolved and self-aware one may be, nothing is more powerful than authenticity in connecting with people, whether within or across cultures. If you can’t be yourself after all, what’s the point of making a human connection in the first place?

Here’s an extreme example of authenticity trumping cultural differences, one that’s so counterintuitive I struggle to believe it myself.

I have an American friend who is loud, brutally direct, and obnoxious—even by American standards. He once bluntly told a dear Japanese friend in a public setting that her English was incomprehensible (it wasn’t), and that she should “really work harder on improving it.” (This coming from someone who struggles with his own native tongue.) And yet, this friend is also one of the most authentic, attentive, and caring people I know. In a bull-in-a-China-shop sort of way.

Now if I were to list the traits most likely to alienate the Japanese, loud, direct and obnoxious would be at the top. Which means that in no known theoretical universe should my friend be getting along well with Japanese folks. And yet, all the Japanese people who have met him are crazy about him. His authenticity and attentiveness somehow cancels out his brashness and lack of tact. As an interculturalist, I can’t explain how he does it. All I can do is point to his personality and shrug my shoulders.

And while I believe adjustments in cross-cultural interactions with Japanese (or any other culture) are critical in building bridges, going to the extreme of “acting Japanese” is a horrible and ineffective option, as it will only creep out the Japanese; they value authenticity just like the rest of us.

But hitting the cross-cultural sweet spot is indeed a tough balancing act. For even the most sincere, authentic person in the world struggles to find that elusive balance between staying true to oneself and making just the right adjustments to build that bridge.

The question then is how to strike the right balance. The challenge is finding your cross-cultural sweet spot, a place unique to—and only discoverable by—each person. We’ll come back to this. First, let’s put to rest the dreaded dos-and-don’ts list.

As mentioned above, any cross-cultural rule I could possibly make, I could just as easily break. Let’s use a real example. We all know that Japanese greet each other by bowing. We also know most Japanese will adjust their greeting style by shaking hands when meeting Westerners. But anyone who has regular contact with Japanese folks also knows they don’t hug. Exceptions exist, of course, but hugging is not a common Japanese pattern of behavior, even within Japanese families, much less with overly affectionate foreigners. In other words, if I were so inclined, I could incorporate a “don’t-hug-Japanese-people” rule into my training. It’s safe to say that following this rule would be advisable in most encounters with the Japanese.

Before proceeding any further, full disclosure: I come from a family of huggers, and after living in Hawaii for fifteen years, I’ve become even “huggier.” My Japanese wife is—thanks to 33 years of intensive hugging therapy in the U.S.—a recovering non-hugger. Together we break the no-hug rule every time a Japanese guest visits us on the Big Island of Hawaii. And we get away with it, because it’s all about authenticity and context.

Here’s the context: we always pick up our Japanese guests at Hilo airport. Upon their arrival, we put leis around their necks then move in quickly for our hug. The move surprises them, but it also breaks the ice and makes them smile; they know they’re on our turf now, and are happy to suspend their hug-less existence to experience life like a Hawaii local, however briefly.

Could it be the magic of Hawaii? Maybe. If it is, that magic travels well, for when I meet these same folks in Japan, they greet me with a smile and a hug. (And even seem to enjoy it.) And this illustrates in concrete terms the effectiveness of strategically breaking a “rule” in the name of authenticity and making a human connection.

But there is no rule book, no prescriptive paint-by-the-numbers scheme for every possible situation and personality one might encounter in a cross-cultural interaction. Connecting with people is an art, not a science. Education helps, but it’s up to each person to design and build a unique, customized bridge, one that starts from a place of authenticity and reaches across cultural and linguistic gaps to connect with a unique human being on the other end.

While I don’t recommend you start hugging Japanese people willy-nilly, you will be more successful at communicating by not letting one-size-fits-all rules limit how you engage. Find your sweet spot. Be authentic.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019
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How a Bearded Barbarian Won Over His Japanese Mother-In-Law

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We were resolute but worried. After an eight-month courtship, I had finally popped the question to my Japanese girlfriend. She accepted, and with that, we were committed to tying the knot come hell or high water. But we still had to break the news to her parents. We were cautiously optimistic they wouldn’t try to stop us, but we had concerns. Mostly about dad.

Her parents had met me six months earlier, when my girlfriend decided—against my better judgement—that it was time to ease me into the family fold. It’s worth noting here that I am three years younger than my wife, so at the time she viewed me—somewhat condescendingly—like the little brother she never had, a formidable barrier in getting her to consider me as a serious suitor.  But alas, I was too in love to be deterred, so was more than willing to overlook a little condescension. Like an obedient little brother, I did what I was told. It was time to meet the parents.

When girlfriend called her parents to let them know she was bringing home a guest, she referred to me ambiguously as otoko no ko, which literally means “a young boy,” even though I was 24 years old at the time. Hilarity would ensue, although it wasn’t funny at the time.

Honorable girlfriend was a teacher by profession. I would later find out that Japanese mom and dad were half expecting their daughter’s mysterious guest to be a young student of elementary-school age. And they were half right: I was a student, in my 3rd year at International Christian University. Unfortunately, I was also an idiot, a fact bolstered by my lack of proper grooming. Think wild, disheveled hair, scruffy beard, and sloppy loose-fitting clothes that could easily be mistaken for pajamas. My heart was in the right place, but I lacked the wherewithal to dress the part. I would find out later after we left that day, that intense debate ensued within the family on whether I looked more like Jesus or Socrates.

Now try to imagine the look on Japanese mom’s face when she greeted us at the front door. The scene is still vivid in my memory even after 36 years: door opens, mom looks downward expecting to see a little kid, her eyes track upward until she stops abruptly at my unshaven mug and curly, wild hair. Normally a stoic, pokerfaced woman, she couldn’t hide her disdain. It was obvious even to common-senseless me that I’d blown my one and only chance to make a good first impression. Here’s what I looked like:

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Bearded barbarian in his pajamas.

Dad’s reaction was tougher to read. I had no clue what he was thinking, which was, in a weird way, more disturbing than knowing for certain that he disapproved. The only saving grace at the time was that neither mom nor dad knew the nature of my relationship with their daughter. To them, I was just a “friend,” albeit a barbarian friend who didn’t have the good sense to change out of his pajamas.

Fast forward six months, back to our impending engagement announcement. In retrospect, why we were more concerned about dad than mom is beyond me. Maybe it’s because we knew his approval carried more weight. Or that we overestimated mom’s tolerance for foreigners. Whatever we were thinking, they both threw us a curve ball. Here’s how it unfolded.

Girlfriend phoned home to break the news. Dad answered because mom was out and about. A straight-shooter by nature, my wife-to-be didn’t mince words:

“Dad, remember that foreigner I brought home about half a year ago?”

“You mean the guy wearing pajamas who looks like Jesus?”

“Yes, that’s him.”

“What about him?”

“We’re getting married.”

“Oh, that’s good. Anything else?”

“No that’s it. Could you let mom know?”

“Sure.”

Click.

Girlfriend was stunned. Bearded barbarian was equally stunned. Dad didn’t object! And suddenly we were hopeful. That is, until half an hour later when mom called back in a tizzy.

“You’re going to marry that hairy foreigner who looks like Socrates?

“Dad said he looks like Jesus.”

“Well I still don’t approve!”

“Dad didn’t object.”

Pregnant pause.

“Are you sure about this? Don’t you know that all foreigners get divorced?”

“They don’t all get divorced. You worry too much.”

“How will you communicate?”

“He speaks Japanese, mom, remember?”

“But he’s going to take you back to America, and I’ll never see you again!”

“No, he wants to live in Japan forever.”

“But what does his family think?”

“They are fine with it.”

<Sigh>

Then just for fun, my fiancé dropped another bombshell.

“Oh, and before we get married, we’ve decided to live together for half a year, just to see how it goes before we make it official.”

Needless to say, fireworks ensued and it wasn’t pretty. But my fiancé held firm.

We would later learn that dad put the kibosh on mom’s objections when he told her, “If I had listened to my parents, I’d have never married you. Our daughter is a grown woman, we raised her to make good decisions. We have to trust her, and let her live her own life.”

And that’s when we realized just how cool Japanese dad was.

On the other hand, it took a big adjustment to my grooming standards—not to mention help from a trusted friend—to move the needle with mom. My Japanese guarantor, a well-respected researcher with a steady job and doctorate degree from a highly respected school (Kyushu University), was kind enough to drive out to the homestead to assure mom that, despite my appearance to the contrary, I wasn’t the devil. By then my friend had already met my parents, and understood that I came from “good stock” (or so he thought). His ringing endorsement went a long way in mitigating the situation, as Japanese mom quickly went from “absolutely not,” to “grudging acceptance.” Not optimal, but it was a start.

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Newly clean-shaven me tickling wife-to-be, while honorable guarantor attempts to crack a smile. Japanese mom is on the right, looking somewhat reassured.

The following year we officially tied the knot. I buckled down on my Japanese studies, graduated from college, cut my hair, became gainfully employed, and even upped the ante a year later by producing (with some help from my wife) a grandson for my in-laws, making it virtually impossible for mom to withdraw her support, however grudging it was. The only glitch occurred when I was offered, and accepted, a job with a Japanese automotive parts supplier committed to building a new factory in America’s Deep South. This was a career-altering opportunity, a two-year stint that my wife enthusiastically supported, which means we had to break that little promise about me living in Japan forever.

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The (re)bearded barbarian trying to fit in with the Tennessee locals.

Well, that two-year stint turned into a thirty-three-year stay in the U.S. So we didn’t just break that promise, we blew it to smithereens. As penance, we gave Japanese mom another grandchild, which compelled her and Japanese dad to come for a visit. After meeting their second grandson and a face-to-face with my parents, there was no turning back. Mom was now firmly trapped in “grudging-resignation” mode.

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The in-laws finally meet. Cross-cultural awkwardness ensued.

From that fateful day thirty-six years ago when my wife brought me home to meet the parents, winning over mom has been like turning a battleship around in the water. Four years ago during a Japan visit, mom finally came clean about her strong opposition to our union. (I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d been privy to this all along.) Most impressive was that she openly admitted she’d been “wrong” to oppose our marriage, that she could see how happy her daughter was, and that she was genuinely glad we had gotten married. And yes, her precious grandchildren had a lot to do with it too. But she still likes to remind me how pathetic I looked the first time we met, and we laugh and laugh. Still, words can’t express how good it felt to officially win her approval, and how much respect I have for her ability to reflect, transcend her prejudices, and admit to me she was wrong.

And today we’re as thick as thieves.

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Older barbarian delivering an unexpected kiss.

After thirty-three years in the U.S. we’ve come full circle. Sadly, Japanese dad passed on three years ago, so mom now lives alone. We are in the process of moving back to Japan permanently to care for mom in her old age.

I’ve spent my 40-year career helping Japanese and non-Japanese connect in the workplace, often going into hostile environments to defuse explosive situations with the goal of coaxing clients into “kissing and making-up,” so to speak. And yet I consider the relationship I’ve built with Japanese mom to be my ultimate cross-cultural accomplishment. If I can bridge a culture gap on this scale—further compounded by the poor judgement of my reckless youth—then I can bridge just about anything.

And here I am today, back in Japan, a cross-cultural business consultant looking for new challenges. Can’t wait to hit the ground running.

Yoroshiku onegai shimasu.

Who In Their Right Mind Moves to Pahoa?

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I’ve always had a rebel streak in me. Got it from my dad, a grown man who relished finding ways to break rules without technically breaking them.

Dad liked to say he didn’t “play according to Hoyle,” a reference to the famous book of rules for card games (see According to Hoyle). Clueless at the time about the Hoyle reference, I knew from context what dad meant: he liked to do things his way.

How dad navigated our expressway tollbooths speaks volumes about him, and by extension, me. He’d always have exact change in hand when pulling into what was then considered an automated tollbooth (long before the days of ipass scanner technology). He’d toss in his coins without coming to a stop, punch the accelerator, and race toward the tollbooth red light, his goal, to trip the alarm before the light turned green—ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!

And on the rare occasion the green light beat dad to the punch, he was visibly disappointed, a lost chance to stick it to the man–or at least tweak him–without technically breaking any rules.

I still remember asking dad why he did it. His answer was borderline blasphemous: “I don’t have time to wait for the goddamn light to turn green—I’m a busy man!”

And with all due love and respect to my dad he was full of shit; he blew those tollbooth lights because he didn’t play according to Hoyle.

These moments are still etched in my memory forty years later. And even with all the teenage relationship issues I had with my dad at the time, every time he’d trip those annoying tollbooth bells, I remember thinking he was about the coolest guy in the world.

With that kind of role model it’s no surprise I turned out the way I did. And not so outlandish that I ended up in Pahoa, a place where folks don’t play according to Hoyle.

From Outlaws to Barefoot Hippies With iphones

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Pahoa has an outlaw reputation that was well earned back in the 1970s and 80s during its pakalolo heyday. Pakalolo (literally, “crazy weed”) is still around of course, but the heydays of yore are well behind Pahoa–for reasons beyond the scope of this post.

Hoyle and his rules notwithstanding, Dad wouldn’t have liked the old outlaw version of Pahoa, nor would he have been thrilled with today’s version either; way too many hippies for his liking, and not a single tollbooth to violate.

But dad would surely have appreciated the historical significance of Pahoa Town, and grudgingly acknowledged its funky Bohemian charm.

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Interestingly Hawaii’s own locals are harder on Pahoa than most mainlanders. Shortly after moving here it surprised me to learn that Pahoa’s reputation extended to our neighboring islands. I still remember exchanging business cards with a client in Honolulu who, upon seeing my Pahoa address, asked with tongue in cheek, “Who in their right mind moves to Pahoa?”

I’ve even heard of folks born and raised in nearby Hilo—just 30 miles away—who have never in their lives been to Pahoa Town, not even the Puna district, because of the bad rap we get. So bad is our rap, that even Dog the Bounty Hunter’s crazy wife Beth once warned viewers that, “Puna is a place you don’t want to be after dark.”

There’s a story behind Puna’s outlaw reputation, a topic for another day. Suffice it to say that the “Wild East” days of Pahoa Town are well behind us, but the reputation lives on.

Last time I ventured into Pahoa there were no outlaws, no bounty hunters, just some barefoot hippies drinking lattes and gazing at their iphones. (But let’s not tell Dog and Beth.)

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Who in their right mind moves to Pahoa?

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If my circle of friends is any indication, people in their “right minds” actually do live in Pahoa, but they tend to stand out. The good news is, Pahoa tolerates normal people too.

For context it’s worth touching on local demographics. In addition to the native Hawaiians, Pahoa and the surrounding area is populated by locals of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, many of mixed heritage, many third and fourth generation Japanese. Being that this is their turf and all, the local folks would logically represent “the norm” in this context–which by default makes the rest of us the oddballs.

The area has also had a new influx of transplants from around the world over the past decade, mostly from the mainland. Last I checked Caucasians are still in the minority in the Puna district, and that’s fine with me, as my former life in Japan taught me to embrace being the only white guy on the block.

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It’s useful to think of Puna locals as a completely different culture, richly diverse, but generally much closer to Asia than mainland U.S.A. The fact that the locals speak English can almost lull you into thinking otherwise, but deep below the familiar linguistic surface, culture gaps abound.

To an outsider–even folks from Honolulu–the Puna district seems like a strange, exotic foreign country. But most Puna locals I know, within the context of their own cultural norms, tend to be a socially conservative lot. So let’s forgive them for thinking us newbie transplants are a little strange and not quite right.

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But all bets are off for the rest of us who moved here in search of Hoyle-free horizons. We colored outside the lines of our respective cultures, and were just crazy enough to move to the world’s most isolated landmass at the foot of the world’s most active volcano. I think Pahoa is a better place for it.

After living through two disasters in just the past three months, you’d think I’d be ready to pack up and run for the hills. Amazingly these disasters have had the opposite effect: after being on the receiving end of so many kindnesses–through hurricane Iselle and now this sputtering lava flow–I’ve fallen deeply in love with my community.

I’d be remiss not to mention that Pahoa has more than its share of warts: crime, poverty, alcohol and meth addiction, spousal abuse, homelessness—the same stuff we had back on the mainland. So if you’re looking for trouble in Pahoa–or anywhere in Puna for that matter–it’s easy enough to find.

But if you’re looking for good-hearted people who have your back when the power goes out or the lava hits the fan, well, they’re even easier to find, and sometimes they find you. (Learned this firsthand in the aftermath of Hurricane Iselle, when on three different occasions during a 5-day power outage, folks showed up at our front gate with free ice, two of them complete strangers.)

No matter what happens with our ongoing lava flow, no regrets moving here: so much good has come to my family, so many new friendships formed, such a rich, meaningful life we live. Did I mention the weather is awesome? No, we’re not going anywhere.

And if my dad were alive today he’d tell me what a dumbass I was to live at the foot of an erupting volcano in a house anchored to a concrete slab sitting in the path of a lava flow. If he put it that way I’d have to agree with him. But I’d remind him that I don’t play according to Hoyle either, and he’d understand–at least I’d like to think so.

Stay tuned for more ramblings on Pahoa. If you like classic rock from the 60s and 70s, check out these two jams we stumbled onto in our town’s main parking lot behind Luquin’s one lucky evening.

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We ended up hanging with a bunch of old hippies, the real deal. (Unlike dad, I’m totally chill with the hippies). Together we took a musical trip down memory lane while we lamented the passing of Pahoa, now looking like a premature eulogy with the flow front stalled. But here’s what things looked like from town back then!

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What the clips below mean to me, is that Pahoa has the magic–the mana–to make a group of strangers hold hands and feel like old friends. (And please forgive the dark image, I took this at night with an iphone; but hopefully the spirit of the moment comes through):

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

Glimpses of Culture Through a Lava Flow: Bomb the Crater or Clean Your House?

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Kalapana lava flow (photo by Kurumi Sullivan)

A contrived reality show couldn’t be more compelling. Survivor’s got nothing on this. If I made documentaries or movies or even cheesy reality shows, I’d be camped out in Pahoa right now.

Since yesterday our friendly neighborhood lava flow has advanced a paltry 50 yards, the continuation of a gradual slowdown that’s been happening over the past several days. Just days before that the flow had advanced a whopping 150 yards in a single day, and right before that it had stalled for almost a week. There’s no rhyme or reason to this flow.

And the longer I observe the flow the more I’m convinced it has a mind of its own, although I might just be losing my mind. This flow has given me a serious case of lava fever: it’s the ultimate mystery story because no one has a clue–not even our smartest scientists–how it’s going to end.

What I’ve learned in the past month about this particular flow (besides its unpredictability) is that it not only burns a swath of land in its downhill path, it also creates compelling human stories. Throw into the mix two distant cultures dealing with it in completely different ways, and the intensity level goes off the charts.

That’s what happened at a recent County-sponsored informational meeting on our lava flow conditions here in Puna. It was surely not intended, but the meeting ended up showcasing some mesmerizing cross-cultural exchanges. Thankfully Big Island Video News was there to capture the highlights.

Whatever your personal beliefs, life doesn’t get more real and compelling than this. And if cultural anthropology happens to be your thing—even if it’s not—prepare to be enthralled.

The embedded clip at the end shows a segment of the town meeting that followed the County’s presentation on the lava update, during which time those in attendance were invited to ask questions of the Civil Defense Director and Geologist from Hawaii Volcano Observatory. I can only speak to the footage on the linked clip since I wasn’t at the gathering in person. My guess is that some folks actually did ask questions during the meeting.

But not so for the folks in the clip. Well, technically they asked questions. But the questions were just thinly veiled attempts to give advice: Could we use D9s to divert the lava flow away from town!?

And the Hawaiian speakers on the clip were less concerned with asking questions, and more concerned with refuting the notion of messing with the volcano in any way, shape or form.

Keep in mind that the Civil Defense Director has stated publicly numerous times that no attempt will be made at diverting the flow. The stated reason for the county’s stance is the danger of unintended consequences: any attempt at diversion could conceivably create more damage to residential properties that are not currently in the projected flow path.  (And just imagine the liability issues!) The Director also mentioned, as he should have, the cultural sensitivities at play with Native Hawaiian religious beliefs.

As you’ll see, based on comments made subsequent to the Director’s remarks, the County’s stance against any kind of lava diversion apparently didn’t sink in with everyone, as the Director had to repeat it more than once during the question-and-answer period. (I think you’ll agree that he handled it with grace and impressive restraint.)

Bomb the Crater or Change Your Bedding?

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”—Genesis 1:26

As I type this a molten lava flow creepeth upon the earth just five miles uphill from my neighborhood. And as far as I can tell, no man has dominion over it.

What’s so fascinating about this slow-motion disaster, is how differently folks are dealing with it. And it’s a testament to the power of culture in driving not only our respective behaviors, but in predisposing how we choose to view events like these.

So it didn’t at all surprise me that someone from my cultural tribe would suggest diverting the lava flow—or even bombing the crater as the third speaker suggested. As a guy who stands to lose a lot should the lava keep coming, I completely get the rationale. Why would thinking people passively stand by and watch their houses and businesses go up in flames?

In contrast, some of the Hawaiian responses (certainly on the video and in local online forums) are completely counterintuitive to my culture’s way of thinking. The last Hawaiian to speak in the clip, Pi’ilani Ka’awaloa, did in fact make it a point to invite “tutu Pele” to come to her house!

As a product of the West, it’s a big cultural stretch to understand exactly where Pi’ilani is coming from. But as fate would have it, there’s a story behind the story to help us understand.

With lava in the news, a local TV news station recently ran a special segment in their newscast on Pi’ilani. The gist of the piece is that on three different occasions lava flowed up to her family’s home and stopped. Pi’ilani explains what her mother told her when lava reached their driveway:

Mother: “What do you do when an important guest comes?”

Pi’ilani: “You clean the house, mow the yard, change the bedding.”

Mother: “We are getting ready for a very important guest…And if the guest wants to stay at the house, the house is there. And if she doesn’t want to, then she can leave. But at least we made an offer.”

Putting literal interpretations aside, truth and humanity are clearly behind the symbolism. Woven into Pi’ilani’s mother’s words and actions is a resignation that the flow is going to do what it’s going to do no matter how she might feel about it. From that assumption she chooses to transform a devastating event, completely out of her control, into a positive experience within her control, by welcoming the encroaching lava as “an important guest,” rather than casting it as an antagonist.

(On a personal note, I’m learning firsthand that there’s an added psychological benefit to staying in a routine. Mowing your lawn, cleaning your house, changing your bedsheets and other mundane tasks have a way of keeping folks grounded and focused during times of stress and uncertainty. I’m still sane so it must be working.)

And this brings us to the essence of the gap: does your culture predispose you to repel lava flows with bombs and D9s? Or welcome the lava as an important guest? And why such starkly different responses to the same phenomenon?

Here are some of the key cultural drivers at play:

-My culture has traditionally put man above nature, and with that position comes license to control and manipulate it as he chooses. Hawaiian culture on the other hand, sees nature as a manifestation of divinity, and man as subordinate to nature’s whims, especially to those of the volcano.

-My culture separates God from nature. As an offshoot of a desert religion, the traditional Judeo-Christian view casts nature as a foe (albeit an unconscious foe), an antagonist to be feared, battled, fled from, and overcome. This metaphor of nature as foe is so deeply ingrained in the Western mindset, that bombing a volcano doesn’t seem like such a crazy idea. Traditional Hawaiian culture in contrast is shamanistic; it animates nature with spirits, and believes nature to be alive and conscious. The notion of bombing the crater is blasphemous.

-My culture believes that man can “own” land; Hawaiians believe that they are “children of the land.” This explains why the Western mindset laments the prospect of losing land to the lava flow, while Hawaiians believe it was never our land to begin with, and that we should all just be thankful to Tutu Pele for allowing us to live here as long as we did.

At the risk of stating the obvious, these are some incredibly wide gaps to fill. Some are too wide to even try. The trick is figuring out which cross-cultural connections are possible, which are not, and setting realistic priorities accordingly.

Where Does the Twain Meet?

Cross-cultural cooperation is the art of the possible.

It’s possible to not focus on issues beyond your control (like trying to change the beliefs of others).

It’s possible to respect others’ rights to believe what they want without accepting those beliefs yourself.

It’s possible to focus on common ground and cooperation for achieving mutual benefit.

All these are conscious choices that must be made by all parties involved for any kind of cross-cultural cooperation to happen.

Even as someone who is not a follower of Hawaiian spirituality, the Hawaiian justification against diverting the flow based on religious grounds is a non-issue with me, as it should be with everyone else.

I choose to be respectful and focus on points of agreement, in my case, that we should not mess with the flow for any reason. Admittedly my reasoning comes from a different place: I’m convinced that we do not possess the knowhow to do this, as our County still struggles just to design safe traffic intersections. It’s tough to envision these same folks diverting the flow without causing disastrous unintended consequences. There is much debate about whether anyone has ever successfully diverted a lava flow. I’m obviously on the non-believer side of the issue.

So I’m in lockstep agreement with the Hawaiians on leaving the flow alone, and I can’t think of a single reason to initiate a religious debate. It’s not my place to challenge others’ beliefs anyway.

And while I personally believe tolerance is all about showing respect for my neighbors whatever their religious beliefs may be, some folks from my culture struggle mightily to get past their disagreement with indigenous Hawaiian beliefs. The heated exchanges on local forums can be brutal.

But even for non-believers, there are a couple practical reasons to avoid a religious debate: it will not change the Hawaiians’ beliefs, nor will it change the County’s stance. So why bother? It will only serve to alienate people within the community during a time that we need to be sticking together. There are many more productive places we can focus our energies.

Differences aside, I think the County has struck a wonderful chord with the community by making their lava-update meetings an educational event. It is slowly turning all of us–Pele believers and non-believers alike–into amateur geologists.

The community might be scared and divided on some issues, but everyone I’ve come in contact with is engaged and interested in learning about the science behind the volcano. After attending three such meetings in person, these educational sessions with the geologists seem to have had a positive, almost therapeutic effect on the community. It also keeps the focus on something that can truly connect us: shared knowledge.

But Pi’ilani’s appeal at the end of the clip really drives home the reality: we need to put aside our differences and start helping each other if we hope to survive and get past this lava flow as a community. Can’t think of a better reason to link arms and work together.

There’s a whole other discussion on the role of myths in our respective cultures, a subject we’ll handle in a future post. In the meantime, some food for thought from the late and great anthropologist Joseph Campbell:

“Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

Ramblings from the Wrong Side of a Lava Flow

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Plume from the lava flow approaching Pahoa Town

As a kid growing up on the north side of Chicago I never imagined my house might one day be in the path of a lava flow. (Lava only flowed in Saturday morning movies, and usually involved dinosaurs). Never once did I entertain the notion that I’d someday live on an active volcano; it was an undreamt future that, against all odds, somehow came true.

It happened eight years ago when my family decided to trade in the brutal Chicago winters for life in the subtropics. We up and moved to the Puna district on the Big Island of Hawaii, at the foot of the world’s most active volcano. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

When lava started flowing from the north flank of Pu’uo’o vent on June 27th of this year, I wasn’t paying much attention, nor were many other people. After all, the flow front was still well over ten miles away, plenty of time and space to sputter out.

So everyone went about their business: homes were bought and sold, progress on the new park and shopping center didn’t miss a beat. Restaurants continued serving food, stores peddled their wares, the town loiterers loitered. Life went on as it always did in lower Puna.

But the pesky flow kept coming. Weeks later it was advancing in an easterly direction with no hint of slowing down. It now had our undivided attention.

Clueless about the subtleties of our island’s topography, I rationalized: it’s clearly going east into the cracks in the rift zone; with a little luck it’ll drain into an old lava tube and come out somewhere downhill, far away from my neighborhood.

And the lesson here is, don’t believe everything you think, especially the wishful stuff. I had no idea.

Living On the Edge of a Lava Flow

For a while we were doing okay, right up until the lava overflowed from those darn cracks, spilled over onto the north slope, and started flowing in a northeasterly direction. It was now headed directly for our beloved town. And beyond Pahoa, downhill just a few more miles, is my subdivision, Hawaiian Shores.

Yikes.

FlowPath2House

Notice the location of my house: I’m living on the edge of the projected flow path. Red arrows are mine to indicate general anticipated direction based on paths of steepest descent. (Source: Hawaii Volcano Observatory lava maps)

And still I was hopeful—or maybe delusional is a better word. But even in the depths of denial I couldn’t help but worry. Surely the flow doesn’t have the legs to reach Pahoa Town…does it?

Well, as of today it’s had just enough “legs” to crawl within a few miles of Pahoa. And based on the topographical information provided by county scientists, it’s now poised to roll right through the middle of town in the general direction of our Post Office. It will literally cut Pahoa in half.

For better or for worse, the flow has stalled for the past several days, but it’s slowly starting to advance again, so who knows? Talking to the folks from the county, all their plans and actions moving forward are predicated on the assumption that the flow will continue to advance, and eventually cross highway 130, lower Puna’s lifeline to Hilo. They urged all residents to plan accordingly.

And that’s exactly what we’ve done.

Waiting for Pele

The downside to our holding pattern is how nerve-wracking uncertainty can be. And yet, we’re always being reminded that uncertainty is part of life. Intellectually we know it’s there, but it feels so good to pretend it isn’t. Slow-moving lava has a way of shoving uncertainty in your face.

And here we are–waiting for Pele.

This disaster is a strange one; so devastating and yet forgiving. It’s all happening in slow motion. On the one hand it will allow nine thousand souls to escape a fiery death in orderly fashion. But it will also leave every one of them to a future that promises only uncertainty. What we know for sure is that no matter what happens, life in lower Puna is about to change forever. Some would argue that it already has.

The worst case scenario for lower Puna would be if the lava ever reached the ocean, a potential reality that would cut off lower Puna from its only remaining direct lifelines to Hilo. In other words, the main highway and both alternate routes on the east side would all be covered in lava, and the twenty-five mile drive to Hilo would become a seventy-plus-mile trek on a very substandard road, at least a several-hour, one-way commute under the best of conditions. If and when the situation ever reaches this point, you can bet there will be lots of houses in lower Puna sitting empty.

We’ve resigned ourselves to accepting whatever Madame Pele throws at us, which we’ve concluded isn’t so horrible. In the event that we lose our home, we take comfort in knowing we’ll live to fight another day. We also know that things could be much worse, and it makes us thankful that they aren’t.

Still, part of me wishes Madame Pele would be a little more decisive here, just so the nine thousand people in my community can move on with their lives.

But we all know that’s not how the fiery lady rolls. Until the flow actually crosses the highway, those of us who remain on the “wrong side of the flow” will continue to flounder in lava limbo.

Life Goes On

Even with all the talk of gloom-and-doom, life goes on in Puna today. The postman just delivered our mail. Folks are hauling their garbage to the dump (now the closest point to the lava flow). The electric company is servicing power lines, our favorite restaurant is still packing in hungry crowds. Many other shops are open too. Even our loiterers seem to be sticking to their routines.

But beneath the façade of normalcy tension simmers, you can feel it. Uncertainty is in the air. People are scared. Some are desperate–they have no place to go if the lava flow cuts off access to Hilo.

But no one knows for sure what will happen, that’s why this story is so compelling. And it’s one reason my wife and I have chosen to stay: we need to watch it unfold and share our perspective, even if it’s from the wrong side of the flow.

For a perspective on the cross-cultural dimension of this flow, checkout Glimpses of Culture Through a Lava Flow: Bomb the Crater or Clean Your House? 

In the meantime, some recent pictures of Pahoa.

Kaleos

My favorite restaurant, their food rocks. Was thrilled to hear the owners say they’ll stay open “until the lava reaches our steps.”

MikesPizza

Ah Mike’s New York Pizza, an enigma. Mike and I had a rough start but I learned to like his pizza and overlook his shortcomings, lol. Mike’s not even there anymore. My wife says we should call it “Not Mike’s New York Pizza Anymore.” Need to eat there at least one more time.

BoogieWoogie

Boogie Woogie Pizza

Akebono

A true relic of the past. Based on current projections, it won’t be close to the flow.

Luquins

Luquin’s, our Mexican restaurant

PelesKitchen

Pele’s Kitchen, a great place for breakfast

PahoaPainting

Classic Pahoa!

Sukhothai

(Blogger’s Note: Through all the sadness and human tragedy associated with this flow, I am completely captivated by this story and can’t stop watching. The flow is creating genuine human drama in our community; a contrived reality show couldn’t be more compelling. We’ll cover the ripple effect of the flow in future posts, with a focus on the cross-cultural ramifications.)

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

Aloha in the Aftermath of Iselle

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The Puna district on the East side of Hawaii Island took a direct hit from Tropical Storm Iselle on August 7th. Here’s what every other street in my neighborhood looked like.

DeadEnd

DownAlbezia2

In our case the power was out for five days. Got our internet back a couple days after that.

And we were one of the lucky ones: we were well prepared for the worst-case scenario and, thanks to the fortuitous direction of the winds, we suffered minimal damage.

Unfortunately, not so for all our neighbors. The good news is that no one died from the storm, truly amazing in light of the devastation, especially if you see what happened in Kapoho.

But even dire situations have an upside. Witnessing so many acts of kindness in our community from friends, neighbors and complete strangers has been uplifting and inspiring. For whatever reason, disasters seem to bring out the best in people. In our case, on two different days two different strangers showed up at our front gate with free ice. We didn’t need it but their kindness and selflessness made us feel wonderful. (On both occasions we humbly accepted the ice then paid it forward by sharing with our elderly Japanese neighbors.)

Our Kona friends and island neighbors also pitched in. A shout out to Hawaiian Airlines for doing their part in flying over pallets of bottled water donated by Hawaiian Isles Water Company. (Mahalo HIWC!) Another shout out to Kona’s Liz Heiman for rallying her neighbors around Puna in a time of need. Also special thanks to Mike Sato (Reptillian Tank) and friends who organized Ride the Breaks and solicited donations for Puna. And last but not least, a heartfelt mahalo to local comedian Augie T who showed up at Maku’u farmer’s market to lift people’s spirits and raise awareness for the cause.

I’d be remiss not to mention all the hardworking folks at HELCO who made things happen very quickly. I’ve never been a big fan, but have to give them their props on this one: they stepped up their game working late into the night under tough conditions, even during heavy downpours. Very impressive how quickly they restored our power, so a big mahalo from all of us.

HELCO

Thanks to lots of hardworking folks our personal situation is now stable here in Pahoa. But lots of other folks are still without water and electricity. Help from both inside and outside is still needed and much appreciated.

It will take time for Puna to recover. But our community has pulled together and we’re stronger for it. Didn’t realize just how tight-knit we could be until this happened, the proverbial blessing disguised as a disaster.

In light of the massive scale of devastation, Puna’s pace of recovery is much faster than anyone had anticipated (although admittedly the folks in remote and devastated Kapoho might beg to differ–my heart goes out to all of them).

I can only speak for myself, but the aloha around me continues to inspire. Didn’t think it was possible, but I love this place even more than I did before. So proud and thankful to be part of this community.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

The “Cool Japan” They Don’t Show You on TV

KeniTimCrop

“Dad, your friends are so cool!” said my 13-year-old son after meeting my running buddies from Japan for the first time. He said it with genuine surprise. Hard as he tried, he just couldn’t fathom the notion that anyone “cool” would ever be friends with the likes of me.

This all happened about fifteen years ago when, after more than a decade of living in the U.S., I finally brought my family back to Japan for a visit. My kids had only heard stories from me about our former life in Japan. My stories obviously fell short in capturing the coolness of my friends.

But have to give my son his props–his assessment was spot on: my friends really are the coolest people you’ll ever meet. And on my recent trip to Japan earlier this year, I was reminded just how precious and wonderful these friendships are. Or maybe I’m just getting sentimental in my old age? But thinking back over my ten-year stint in Japan in the 80s, I was so lucky to be on the receiving end of so many kindnesses from the coolest friends a guy could ask for.

How Japan Adopted Me

I got to Japan in the first place thanks to Uncle Sam. Two and a half years later when my Navy enlistment was up, instead of going back to the US and starting civilian life like most normal Americans, I took my discharge in Japan and planted roots.

Problem was, my Navy roommate at the time was being discharged too. He had just married a lovely Japanese lady, so parting ways was in the cards anyway. My friend chose the conventional route and took his wife back to the States. (He would return to Japan five years later and never leave, so turns out his route wasn’t so conventional after all.)

Well, I was in dire straights at the time and needed to find shelter, preferably with a compatible roommate. The stars aligned one night in a bar called Bonanza, when I befriended Keni Inoue, a great guy and wonderfully talented musician who played soulful guitar and made a living doing it. When my Navy gig ended he was kind enough to let me move in with him. Soon after, Keni took me under his wing.

In all we lived together for four years and I had the time of my life. Keni’s influence will forever be tattooed on my soul. He became a big brother; he taught me that modesty was cool; he coached me to err on the side of polite speech, and encouraged me to speak “beautiful Japanese.”

He taught me to indirectly suggest rather than hit people over the head with the blunt truth. He taught me to pay attention to subtleties I’d otherwise have missed.

Here’s a true story that still makes me laugh.

When Keni and I would go out to eat together, I had a bad habit of ordering extra cheese on burgers, pizza, etc. Most Japanese folks don’t request extra condiments like that, they tend to go with the flow and accept whatever the honorable chef offers up. But not me. I was the quintessential pushy, individualistic American who wanted extra cheese damn it! And I was more than happy to pay for it.

Unfortunately I always failed to articulate the part about paying extra when I ordered. So Keni, concerned that I wasn’t communicating my intentions properly, instructed me to say this:

“Tsuika ryokin wo haraimasu node, chiizu wo takusan nosete kudasai!” (追加料金を払いますので、チーズを沢山のせてください!)

Translation: I’m happy to pay extra, so please add lots of cheese!

(Reflecting on my behavior back then, it’s painfully obvious what a bloody, clueless, insensitive American I was!)

Too many kindnesses from Keni to list here. Suffice it to say he opened up a whole new world of understanding about Japanese culture, and introduced me to so many cool folks who also became good friends.

And without Keni, it’s unlikely I’d have met my best friend and wife of thirty years. So as friends go, he was definitely a game-changer.

Real Friends, Fake English Students

So many other Japanese friends have had my back over the years. Shortly after my discharge in Japan when I was unemployed and desperate, thoughtful Japanese friends once again came to the rescue. My good friend Tatsumi Nagasu pushed free food and drinks on me at his bar for months, knowing I was struggling to make ends meet. He also made sure his Japanese patrons knew I was available to teach English to anyone who wanted to learn. (When I started school at Waseda and later ICU, he’d help me with my Japanese language homework while I ate, drank and socialized at his bar–did I mention I was having the time of my life?)

Several of Tatsumi’s patrons eventually became my students, even though (as it turned out) they really weren’t much interested in learning English. They simply took pity on the poor foreigner, and refused to let me fail. Without them, I would never have lasted long enough to get financially stable and survive. How can you not love friends like that?

And as these friendships deepened and my situation stabilized, I eventually stopped teaching them English and started drinking beer with them instead. The irony is that they ended up teaching me Japanese. Thirty five years later, we are all still friends.

So where are all these “cool friends”?

As fate would have it, you can see most of them in the three youtube clips below, all shot recently.

The first clip is a blues jam in late March of this year. The lead guitarist is none other than my ex-roommate Keni Inoue. On awesome harmonica is my ex-Navy roommate Dave Steenken. The tight rhythm section is Hideo Inoura on drums, and Takashi Onzo on bass. (These guys seriously rock.) I’m the white guy sitting in the middle, pretending to play the acoustic guitar.

The second clip was taken the same evening, Inoue Ohana making beautiful music. It’s an original by Keni, a sweet “feel-good” guitar instrumental called Sunset Surfing. If you enjoy this kind of music then check out Inoue Ohana’s facebook page, and throw ’em a “like” if the spirit moves you.

The third clip features the other thoughtful friend mentioned above, Tatsumi Nagasu. Did I also mention he’s a talented musician? Oh yeah. Tatsumi playing live at Paradise Honpo (at a previous gathering last year), with lots of happy friends in attendance.

Enjoy.

 

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014