Sunday, May 20, 2012

Hey, can we talk?

I’ve been thinking a lot about communication lately. Being an expat it’s generally a topic that’s thrust to the forefront of my daily life – well pretty much all the time. It’s something people struggle with inside a singular culture, family unit, friendship – it’s not easy apparently. Throw in multiple languages, cultures, etc., woah baby.

I recently read an article by Debito Arudou about the daily grind of cross cultural conversation and how it boils down to about the same five things, no matter how long you’ve been in a country or how well you can speak the native language. If you look foreign, you’re foreign, end of story. I’m not fluent in Thai and I haven’t been here that long, but what I realized recently was that I don’t just feel this from Thais – I feel this same kind of pressure from ‘home.’ What really stood out to me was not so much the experience of being foreign in Asia, but how I’m dealing with the same thing from both continents.

What do I mean, exactly?

Well, here, I have daily passing conversations covering the usual topics posed to foreigners. What do you do here? When will you go back home? Can you speak Thai? Can you eat spicy food? Litany of questions about my reproductive life, doubts that I even like men, what’s my salary, how long is my contract, yada yada. It’s the same nod, smile and move on conversation most of the time. It’s a sea of seemingly harmless, but nosy questions – and a very poignant lack of dept in many interactions.

I truly cherish the moments when any kind of depth or understanding really crosses the language barrier – you can see it in each other’s eyes when a real meaningful connection and human understanding is made, and it can be had in under 3 words, sometimes without them.

That’s not there when someone goes through the motions of “what you should ask foreigners,” making a sale, etc. It’s about a depth of human communication, and it takes some mutual understanding and willingness to change worldviews (from both parties).

Now though, since I no longer inhabit the sphere of American existence in a physical, day-to-day sense – I get the same thing from back home. So, when are you coming home? Aren’t you going to do x, y and then z? Well you WILL move home eventually. When are you going to grad school/getting married/moving to another country blah blah blah. Again, these are not malicious questions or presumptions. These are not particularly harmful or uncaring questions.

But I rarely have a normal conversation anymore, like – this is what I did today or these are the things I talk about with my friends when I get to see them in person; on either side of the pond, in person or on the internet – because SO much of the communication I do manage to engage in boils down to “things to ask a foreigner” or “things to ask the American that no longer lives in America.”

It’s no particularly malicious, but it’s no different from the frequency with which my students use the word ‘teacher.’ When 200 people rush you in the course of one week and chant teacher teacher teacher and try to get your attention RIGHT NOW, anything else is drowned out in the background. (I’m working on breaking my students of this – at least the ridiculous frequency).

It’s the same thing. As an expat, local people, well-meaning people from back home, if they keep in touch with you, they all ask the same questions. Have the same assumptions. Where’s the common ground? People think the only common ground is now those questions they’re asking. But I still just want to talk about what I had for lunch, or the book I’m reading, or any of those things that people get to discuss in their native tongue on a daily basis when they’re living in their home culture. When’s your next flight home? Is not a meaningful conversation, especially when repeated ad naseum.

Where do I really belong if I so rarely engage in a conversation that doesn’t leave me feeling like I’m a nomad that belongs nowhere? I’m a Non-Immigrant in Thailand, an expat from my home country; a wayward traveler in legal documentation and social standing – right down to daily conversation. And you all know how much I like to talk.

Just like students, the people engaging in these behaviors cannot see the bigger picture of how that behavior, taken as a collective, affects the teacher. They mean no harm. The student has no life experience to compare to the teacher’s position. The citizen that has not lived abroad doesn’t see the position unique to the expatriate. And truly – there is a prevailing view that it is up to the expatriate to do all the adjusting. THEY chose to leave. THEY chose to go somewhere else. All responsibility lies with them. No one else need adjust their worldview based on another person’s experience.

I’ve heard lots of things when I’ve brought this subject up.
“Just ignore it.”
“Just cut those strings.”
“Go home then.”
“Find a different place.”
“Oh, you’ll get that everywhere.”*
“Chill out.”
“Oh they just don’t know.”
“Try to be understanding.”
“That’s why you should keep things within your circle of trust.”
“You’re being racist.”
“You need to be more open minded.”
“Try to accept the culture.”
“They’re just trying to show they care.”

On and on the suggestions go. Humans are designed to be social creatures. And right down to the people I care about most deeply and trust most – I get this sense of communication that scratches the surface and leaves me in a box between two cultures – I fit in neither. I lack depth in either. I don’t need advice. I don’t need suggestions. I just want a real, truthful conversation. It doesn’t have to have deep meaning – just a true connection. But I don’t know many people I can have those with any more.

When frankly, I’d really just like to hear about how you had to work 1.5 hours of overtime, got a flat tire and then played Angry Birds when you got home. You think that’s boring, talking to the expat off on that crazy world adventure of theirs that you’re not having. It’d be better to just let her be, her stories are so much more interesting. As I’m shouting them into a vacuum here on the podium of internet cyberspace. That’s not a conversation. Maybe lots of people read what I write – and that’s wonderful. When’s the last time we spoke? Emailed? Anything?

Perhaps it’s odd to argue that a conversation of the day-to-day banality of general living is more fulfilling than asking ‘bigger’ questions about life abroad. But if you’ve never experienced the vacuum that occurs without it – you wouldn’t have the frame of reference to realize that asking the ‘big’ questions while ignoring the small ones leaves a huge gap. And really, have we yet learned how to communicate in this hyper connected world? *Oh, you’ll get that everywhere. Perhaps we’re simply losing the art of deep, connected conversations in this age of status updates, blog posts and the like. Maybe it’s just starting with the populations that are already experiencing more isolation than others, but are simultaneously globally connected because of our social media explosion; because it doesn’t matter what culture I’m in – almost all our conversations are lacking depth. I could move ‘home’ today – and I’d still be in this pickle. And that’s not something I know how to get back regardless of which culture I’m immersed in, including my own.

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