Category Archives: Personal

Who In Their Right Mind Moves to Pahoa?

PahoaOffering

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

BarefootHippies

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.

PahoaTown

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.)

TinShackDrnks

Who in their right mind moves to Pahoa?

Pahoa2

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.

PunaDemographics

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.

KarateHouse

Pahoa1

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.

Akebono

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!

Plume2

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

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

LavaStreet

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

LavaMalama

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

Intercultural Twilight Zone Hits a Milestone

JILogoHiroshige

The Intercultural Twilight Zone just hit a milestone: 100,000 hits.

Granted, lots of those hits were bogus bots, or seekers of illicit material (boy they must’ve been disappointed when they stumbled onto my anthropological ramblings without the naked pictures), or perhaps fans of the Twilight Zone series?

I didn’t set out to accumulate x number of hits when I started writing my blog in 2008. I started blogging because writing is a therapeutic outlet for me, and it’s an incredible feeling to know you’ve connected with people through words. (You know it when you get lots of hits on a given post and when people take time to comment.) It’s worth mentioning that I intended at one time to write another book, but have found blogging much more attractive. Why? Instant publishing, instant feedback, instant gratification, and I can write whatever I want.

A big mahalo to all my subscribers and to everyone who takes time to read my ramblings.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

Musical Chairs on a Rush-Hour Train: Connecting Cultures Through Storytelling

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“If you want a message to burrow into a human mind, work it into a story.”

–Jonathan Gottschall

I come from a family of storytellers—parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, all of them—it’s in our Irish blood. My favorite childhood story was dad’s annual Christmas-Eve yarn about how our grandfather saved the life of Santa Claus. Dad’s narrative had all the classic elements of a compelling story: good guy, bad guy, problem, climax, and resolution.

The good guy of course was grandpa. The bad guy was grandpa’s crazy next-door neighbor Seamus O’Toole who, one fateful Christmas morning, took umbrage with Santa “breaking into his house.” As grandpa was getting home from Midnight Mass he heard a bloodcurdling scream coming from inside his neighbor’s house. He dashed in only to find Seamus choking poor Santa! Grandpa proceeded to pull him off Santa and a fight ensued. Of course our hero prevailed, Seamus was subdued, and when Santa regained his wits he was so appreciative that he promised “from now on forever and ever, I will always bring presents to the children in the Sullivan family!” And as sure as the sun rises, the next morning we’d wake up with lots of presents under the Christmas tree, proof that dad was telling the truth.

How can anyone not love such a convoluted load of blarney? We ate it up.

This load of blarney is brought to you by Culture, where value lessons get wrapped in wonderful stories. The lessons of dad’s Santa story were unspoken but crystal clear: help people in need, be on the side of good, take action when you must, be proud of your pedigree.

This is the beauty of story: the good ones stick in your head right along with their accompanying value lessons, just as the Santa story is emblazoned in my memory fifty years later.

Long before humans were writing books, stories were told and passed down from generation to generation orally. Folks gathered around the hearth with family, friends, and neighbors, and listened to elders, shamans and raconteurs lay down their rap. Stories were about religion, entertainment, social interaction, and education. Today we’ll focus on the educational dimension of stories, specifically the role of stories in the cross-cultural field. First some background for context.

What’s In a Story?

Psychologist Keith Oatley calls stories “the flight simulators of human social life.” Jonathan Gottschall explains why in his book The Storytelling Animal:

…we are attracted to fiction not because of an evolutionary glitch, but because fiction is, on the whole, good for us. This is because human life, especially social life, is intensely complicated and the stakes are high. Fiction allows our brains to practice reacting to the kind of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species.”

The relevance of storytelling to my situation is that one of life’s most pressing problems, indeed something “crucial to our success as a species,” is the challenge humans face connecting with other cultures. And as fate would have it, this is what I do for a living.

So many ways to skin the cross-cultural cat, but it makes good sense to use stories—both real and fictitious—in imparting cross-cultural knowledge and skills to anyone with the will to learn. Real stories for lecture, fiction for role play if it works. Whatever the context and application, stories rock it in any lecture or workshop.

And what does every story have? Conflict of course. Remember all those Grimm tales we were told as kids? Gottschall itemizes the carnage for us:

…children are menaced by cannibal witches, wolves bolt down personified pigs, mean giants and innocent children meet grisly deaths, Cinderella is orphaned, and the ugly stepsisters slash off chunks of their feet in hopes of cramming them into the tiny glass slipper (and this is before getting their eyes pecked out by birds)…”

If, as author Charles Baxter says, Hell is indeed “story-friendly,” then so it goes for cultures that collide. If you’re paying attention you won’t need fiction, as the cross-culture reality provides ample conflict, problems, humor, even horror. And whatever the outcome of any cross-cultural encounter, you’ve always got your story as a takeaway.

So why didn’t my anthropology teachers tell stories? Or was I not listening? All I remember are models, theories, graphs, charts, psychological references and lots of jargon to obfuscate simple human interactions. When stories were told they were stripped down and clinical in nature. It was painful to learn that way, and as a teacher I never wanted to subject others to that pain. Storytelling mitigates the pain.

Here’s a story I might tell in my seminars.

Musical Chairs

Shortly after arriving in Japan some thirty-seven years ago I was blown away by the kindness, attentiveness and hospitality of the Japanese. They were so gracious, so generous, sharing their food and drink and knowledge, even inviting me into their homes where they treated me like royalty. And I carried this gentle, caring image of the Japanese in my head until precisely the first time I boarded a rush-hour train in Tokyo.

The memory is still vivid. I was standing in line on the platform waiting for the Odakyu train to dead-end at Shinjuku station. The train eased its way in and stopped just short of the bumper. The doors remained closed on our side of the train, but slid open on the other side for the incoming passengers to file out. (And no, you’re not allowed to enter the open doors on the other side, you’ll get scolded if you try–but don’t ask how I know that.)

So there I was, standing quietly in line, thinking how much I loved the gentle, caring, hospitable Japanese people, when suddenly the doors on our side of the train opened and all hell broke loose. Little old ladies and pregnant women were shoved aside as blue-suited men, high-heeled office ladies and rabid students battled for seats. It was musical chairs played by people of all ages, shapes and sizes, and my mind was completely blown. I would soon learn that this wasn’t an aberration, as the same scenario played itself out again and again on rush-hour trains all over Tokyo everyday.

And this seeming contradiction in Japanese behavior dogged me. Were my Japanese hosts gentle, polite and attentive? Or cold-hearted scrooges who would deny a little old lady a seat on the train?

Fast forward several years when, in a flash of enlightenment, it all started making sense. I was a college student on my way home from campus, and had just boarded the very same Odakyu train in Shinjuku station. The same scenario unfolded: doors open, hell breaks loose, musical chairs, watch out grandma!

As a Westerner I’m not culturally programmed to fight for a seat under these conditions. So I slid into my favorite spot near the rear door, where I could lean against the train bulkhead, the perfect place to practice writing Japanese kanji on my scratch pad.

The moment of enlightenment hit when I happened to look up and see a blue-suited Japanese salaryman who had been particularly aggressive at getting his seat, sitting against the window reading the newspaper. As he turned the page he glanced up, and immediately realized that he knew the man standing in front of him, also a blue-suited salaryman. It was obvious there was a connection because the seated man immediately offered his seat to the standing man, insisting he take it. The standing man declined. The seated man, now in a half-sitting-half-bowing position, insisted again. The exchange continued–insist, decline, insist, decline, and lasted just long enough for me to consider sliding into the man’s seat myself. (Only in my imagination.) In the end, the half-seated man apologized for keeping his seat, sat back down, and harmony was restored to the universe.

And that’s when it hit me. The seated man had just out-dueled a little old lady for his seat, and now he was offering it to someone who needed it the least, a perfectly healthy middle-aged man. The more I thought about why this had just happened, the more I realized how rich the spectacle was in cultural meaning.

Cultural Lessons from the Rush Hour Train

It’s generally accepted in Japan that strangers on a train fight for seats, and everyone implicitly agrees on the rules so aggressive behavior is tolerated, even encouraged. Fair enough. But as soon as an acquaintance, friend or family member steps into the picture, inner-group rules kick in.

The sudden transformation of behavior that took place before my eyes on the train that fateful day was a story that stuck in my head: the man went from aggressive rugby brute to humble Confucian gentleman in mere seconds. This is a great example of what Takie Sugiyama Lebra refers to as “situation ethics,” not unusual in Confucian cultures where one’s duties and obligations are dictated by one’s situation in relation to others. Hence, universal rules of behavior don’t apply, and equal treatment is promised to no one. It also points to the importance of “inner versus outer” group behavior in Japan. Outside the confines of one’s inner group, rules for human interactions are minimal; but inside the group it’s a pressure cooker with strict protocol that’s heavy on duty and obligation.

In contrast Western culture has a tradition of absolute rules that apply to everyone equally, in principle if not in reality. And it makes perfect sense. Western culture is built on a Christian tradition that teaches we are all equal and under the moral scrutiny of an omnipotent, omnipresent God who watches us twenty-four-seven. That’s some heavy pressure on the individual when you think about it.

Applying this assumption to the rush hour train, God (and by logical extension, Western culture) expects strong, healthy young people to offer their seats to all pregnant ladies, the elderly, and the less fortunate–whether or not a relationship exists–because Christian morality is framed in universal laws not by “who you know.”

Many Westerners who claim no religion also behave according to universal principles. Whether they realize it our not, their behavior is rooted in these kinds of universal concepts set forth long ago in the Old Testament.

I’d be remiss not to mention here that it’s unfair to paint the Japanese as a culture that denies the elderly seats on a train. “Silver Seats” designated specifically for senior citizens are provided in each train car, although they surely need to be expanded to accommodate Japan’s growing senior-citizen demographic. I’ve also seen compassionate Japanese people offer their seats to the elderly. But looking back it still surprises me (as an outsider) how often it didn’t happen.

And as one digs deeper into the concept of situation ethics, there’s clearly more to teach on the impact of Confucianism on Japanese culture, including the concept of filial piety and the “rule-of man-over-rule-of-law” mentality that puts family and friends even before a government-issued edict.

The point of telling my musical chairs’ story is to illustrate how a story can give meaning and context to a discussion as abstract as ethics and behavior. Stories breathe life into abstractions by connecting them to the real world. In concrete terms the story above suggests how situation ethics might manifest in real life, and invites reflection on how one might adapt to that reality. Discussions can be interesting.

The versatility and power of stories make them applicable to any cross-cultural abstraction imaginable, from collectivism to power distance to empiricism to high and low context cultures. So many stories to tell.

Rockin’ It with Stories

My favorite teachers growing up were storytellers. They engaged me, entertained me, and wove in lessons that stayed with me. But just as important as the knowledge they imparted, their passion and storytelling style inspired me to seek out knowledge on my own. You can’t put a price tag on that.

Sadly we don’t have enough storytellers in the educational field today, and I’m really not sure why. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the Aristotelian structure we imposed on our learning institutions? Did we suck the joy out of learning to make it rational and scientific?

Nor do we have enough storytellers in the cross-cultural field and it’s a shame. So many stories to tell, so little time to tell them all, so many people who could use the knowledge. So I tell stories. And invite others to share their stories too.

For a related article, check out A Critique of Cross-Cultural Mumbo-Jumbo

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2014

Married to an Alien: Can Love Conquer Culture?

TimKurKids

“Do you do marriage counseling?”

Her question came out of left field. I had just wrapped up a half-day seminar at a client’s on cultural differences between Japanese and Americans in the workplace, and now the only Japanese person in the class was asking me privately to offer counsel to her American husband. I laughed but she was dead serious. “My husband really needs this training.”

I never did pursue a marriage-counseling career, but our brief encounter got me wondering, Could I do it? At the risk of offending all the capable, professionally certified cross-cultural marriage counselors in the world, I think I could, certainly when Japanese and Americans were involved. Add my Japanese wife to the mix and our complementary skills would be ideally suited for such a calling.

Our credentials aren’t from academia, but we don’t play according to Hoyle anyway. We’re both college graduates, albeit with no formal training in psychology or counseling, no Doctorates, don’t even have a wretched Masters degree between us. But here’s what we’ve got: we know each other’s cultures intimately; we’ve been happily married for thirty years; we lived in each other’s countries, speak each other’s languages, ask good questions and listen. And if that’s not enough, we’re entertaining as hell. Did I mention we live in Hawaii? All we need are some clients now and we’re good to go.

Cross-Cultural Blues

My fantasy gig aside, it’s not like there isn’t a need to be filled here. Haven’t been able to track down any statistics on cross-cultural divorce rates, but a quick google search shows that cross-cultural marriage counselors actually do exist, evidence the need is there.

And it makes perfect sense. In our dynamic global world, more and more people are venturing abroad, leading to more people tying cross-cultural knots, leading to more cross-cultural knots needing to be untangled, sometimes even cut loose.

Let’s face it, marriage between people of the same culture is tough enough. Throw in a language barrier and a muddy cultural minefield littered with hidden value differences, and things get infinitely more complicated.

Sadly we know of too many broken marriages between Japanese and American couples. Just how many could’ve been saved with the right knowledge and guidance is anyone’s guess. Admittedly some couples should never have gotten married in the first place. But armed with the right knowledge, an emotionally mature, open-minded couple from different cultures has a good shot at creating a lasting partnership. But they’d have to go into it with open eyes and open hearts. It helps to have a sense of humor too.

What Couples Fight About

Amazing the silly stuff married couples fight about. An international couple gets all that and a bag of chips: she eats stinky fermented beans for breakfast, he wants an Egg McMuffin; he married for romantic love, she’s in it for a steady homemaking gig; he’s an old-school disciplinarian, her parents spoil the kids rotten; English is her second language, he speaks English only and struggles enough with that; he thinks she understands everything he says, she understands only half; he loves a feisty debate, she nods her head to keep the peace—especially when she disagrees; he likes to playfully tease, she thinks he’s being mean; his parents are loud and judgmental, hers zing you with a passive-aggressive smile.

And this just scratches the surface. Throw in the crazy idiosyncrasies we all have, the potential fallout from religious differences, not to mention different cultural attitudes toward sex, money and rock-n-roll, and you’ve got a murky brew of marital juices to stew in.

Check Your Identity at the Border

On a heavier note, some folks living in their spouse’s homeland report “loss of personal identity.” Defining exactly what this means is a can of worms we won’t open today. For the sake of this discussion, reflect on how you might answer these questions:

Do you see yourself as an independent entity or fraction of society? Are you ranked in a pecking order or is everyone equal?

How does your culture expect you to behave? Is open debate the norm? Or is feigned agreement encouraged in the name of harmony?

Are male and female roles clearly defined in your spouse’s country? Are females expected to show deference? If you’re a woman, how would you choose to deal with that reality?

And what about self worth? Is it measured by “self-actualization”? Accumulation of money? Status? Approval by the collective? Motherhood? Fatherhood? Career? Other?

And finally, how do you tell right from wrong? Is it always good to tell the truth? Are polite lies expected and encouraged in the name of social harmony? Does the “real you” fight for that seat on the train, or offer it to an elderly lady?

The list goes on but you get the gist. It shouldn’t surprise that lonely spouses living abroad—regardless of gender–might feel a loss of identity. It’s not a stretch to imagine a strong, independent female from a Western country being thrust into a male-dominated culture and feeling smothered. Or the other way–a traditional Asian woman going West.

I was in a different situation and felt anything but smothered. Japan was liberating for me. And yet, over the course of ten years I wrestled with my own kind of identity issues, specifically, the challenge of sorting out which part of me was American, which part had taken on Japanese-like qualities, and which part was just me. It took an eventual move back to the motherland to “rediscover” myself. What I learned was that I never “lost” anything, certainly not my identity. What happened was my identity had expanded with the infusion of Japanese culture into my life. No regrets. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Ignorance, the Silent Killer

The most dangerous scenario in the artful dance of communication happens when both partners assume they are communicating when in fact they are not. This scenario naturally begets confusion. One symptom is the tendency of one or both parties to assign bad intentions to the other party, even when everyone’s heart is in the right place. It happens more than you think. A great example is how Japanese, who haven’t mastered the finer nuances of English, might respond to a negatively stated question such as, “Don’t you love me?”

The Japanese partner, intending to say “Yes I love you,” might respond with “no,” meaning, “No, it’s not true that I do not love you.” Conversely, a Japanese partner, intending to say “No I do NOT love you,” might respond with “yes,” meaning, “Yes that’s correct, I don’t love you.” How about that for getting your signals crossed?

Now imagine all the drama such a misunderstanding could create, and multiply it by all the other unforeseen language and culture gaps that camouflage our good intentions.

Such misunderstandings quickly escalate, and before you know it spouses are sparring—over something they may actually agree on. False perceptions define their reality, and love gets lost in the confusion.

And this really underscores the power of cross-cultural knowledge in international marriages. Only by bringing hidden differences to the surface can they be acknowledged, reflected on, and worked out. Without awareness of these differences, problems not only don’t get solved, they proliferate and fester.

Can Love Conquer Culture?

It might get you through the honeymoon stage, I’ll grant you that. But over time misunderstandings and false perceptions can sour even the sweetest love. When the honeymoon’s over, you either roll up your sleeves and start working at your marriage, or get pulled into a downward spiral fueled by mutual ignorance. We all know where that ends up.

To our credit and good fortune, my wife and I spent a lot of time talking in the courting stage. It helps that neither of us is shy, that we were willing to put in the time and effort to communicate, and that I had already lived in my wife’s country for seven years and had a good grasp of her language and culture. With that backdrop, here’s what was rolling around in my head before I popped the question.

What does “marriage” really mean in Japan versus my culture? Is love part of the deal? What roles would a married international couple assume? Would she be willing to marry me as an equal partner? Or would I have to be subservient!?

What are the positives of our respective cultures? What’s important to her? What’s important to me? Could she learn to love Egg McMuffins? Could I learn to eat smelly fermented beans for breakfast?

Where would we live? Do we both want kids? How many? How would we raise them? Would they speak one language or both? Would we indulge them or use tough-love? And what if we fail and they turn out like me?

What do we expect of ourselves and each other? What are the boundaries of trust? How to show respect? How to show affection? How to disagree? How to resolve disputes? Would I have to sleep on the couch sometimes? If so, will the couch be comfortable?

It all looks so neat and tidy when it’s written down like that. The reality is our conversations were unstructured, messy, a lot messier when we were drinking wine. But we made the time to talk, to share with each other how we had been raised, nurtured, disciplined, how our parents related to each other, and how it turned us into the confused young adults that we were…okay, that I was.

But even with thirty years of marital bliss under my belt, can’t help but think that some guidance and structured conversations would’ve prevented a couple wheels from being reinvented. If I could go back in time and counsel my young bachelor self, here’s what I’d say to me:

When you tease her she thinks you’re being mean. She’ll never get your American-guy sarcastic sense of humor so back off on the teasing.

Don’t let her do the dishes, she hates it and sucks at it. (I recently fired my wife from the dish-washing duties and reassigned them to yours truly. Had I known then how happy this would make her, I’d have done it thirty years ago.)

Read “The Anatomy of Peace” by Arbinger Group!” (The book wasn’t published until 2006 so I’d have to smuggle it into the time machine. But had I read it thirty years ago, there’s no doubt in my mind that I’d have been a better husband and father.)

And if my Japanese wife could go back in time and counsel her young single self on marrying a foreign barbarian, what advice would she give?

Sign up for our Intercultural Marriage Retreat in Hawaii and we’ll talk about it. 😉

For more on cross-cultural marriages check out Samurai Wife: The Myth About Subservient Japanese Women

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013

It’s Not What’s Said, It’s What’s Heard

The essence of cross-cultural communication has more to do with releasing responses than with sending messages. It is more important to release the right response than to send the right message.”

–Edward T. Hall

While working with a client on a project some years back, I shared Edward T. Hall’s quote above with an executive leading the project. He responded with a pithy quote of his own that really nailed the point: “It’s not what’s said, it’s what’s heard.”

Beautiful. So I put it in the title. Lots of meaning packed into those words.

What is “Communication”?

Contrary to popular myth communication doesn’t equal language; language is but one tool of communication. (For more on this see The Danger of Learning a Foreign Language.)

And yet most of us get lulled into believing that if we just string together the right words then communication will naturally follow.

The mind-flip invited by both quotes above, is that the focus should be on the listener not the speaker. 

And the underlying implication is that communication is strategic. It’s all about getting the other person to hear the desired intent behind the message and respond in a certain way.

Anyone who’s ever worked in sales knows this intuitively. When a salesperson walks into a sales presentation her desired response is to get the audience to buy whatever she’s selling. She could have the slickest, flashiest presentation in the world, rattle off a littany of “right” messages, but if she doesn’t get a purchase order out of the deal then she didn’t get her desired response, a failure to communicate in the most tangible sense.

Peddling Planes to China

But let’s shift our focus now in a positive direction. Specifically, let’s examine an actual case study where a savvy U.S. company developed an effective initiative using strategic knowledge about local culture to elicit a desired response.

In 1997 China Southern applied for approval to the U.S. department of transportation to launch a new route from Guangzhou to Los Angeles. The U.S. government, wary of China’s safety record, used the application as an excuse to dig under the fingernails of Chinese airline regulators to make sure they had their ducks in a row prior to issuing approval.

Of course they didn’t.

No surprise China Southern threw a hissy fit, threatening to cancel the airplane orders it placed with Boeing. Imagine that.

Boeing was obviously in a pickle. If the U.S. government didn’t issue approval for the new routes, then they could kiss those China-Southern airplane orders goodbye.

Of course Boeing had no direct connection to the safety woes of the Chinese airlines. But it really wanted to sell those airplanes. So Boeing did what any long-term thinking business would do: it shouldered the burden of helping China raise its regulatory practices and improve airline safety procedures. Just how Boeing approached the challenge echoes the sentiments expressed above: “It’s not what’s said, it’s what’s heard.”

James Fallows explains:

…the U.S. training team was hyper-sensitive about two aspects of this training exercise for their Chinese colleagues. One was to present all their recommendations in terms of meeting international standards for air safety and airline procedures, rather than seeming to say, This is how we do it in the U.S. of A. Presenting the challenge this way made it far more palatable to the Chinese side.” (China Airborne)

In other words, the “desired response” sought by Boeing was for the Chinese to be cooperative. The strategy was to NOT come across as “arrogant Americans,” an approach that would’ve pushed Chinese clients into a defensive stance and make them anything but cooperative. 

According to Fallows, Boeing was so successful in getting their desired response that, “Through the next decade, Chinese commercial aviation, while expanding faster than any other country’s, was statistically among the world’s very safest.” (For more on this topic check out China Airborne by James Fallows.)

The moral of the story is that communication is about selling a message, a point of view, an opinion, a truth, sometimes even a lie. The barometer of success is simple: Are your listeners “buying” your message?

Sometimes we overcomplicate things in the cross-cultural field with our cryptic “academic-speak” and abstract communication models. Sometimes you wonder if we’re talking about people or specimens! So here’s my very simple desired response today: if we all would just put a little more focus on what others might be hearing, rather than on what we think we want to say, pretty sure we’d all get along a little better.

But only if you’re hearing what I’m saying.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2013