cross-cultural understanding

1st Anniversary Edition: the Top 7 Downloads

World to the Wise Podcast

This weekend marks the first anniversary of the launch of the World to the Wise podcast. For me personally, it’s been more fun than should be legal – to talk to so many fascinating people, hear their stories, and pass these stories on to you so we can all grow and be challenged together. Challenged to broaden our perspectives and travel vicariously to other parts of the world; or, as the case may be, to other subcultures within our own borders. To mark the occasion we’ve decided to do a roundup of the top seven downloaded episodes from this first year of our existence. We thought this would not only be a great way to celebrate, but also give you a chance to hear a synopsis of some episodes you might not have caught so you can go back and listen. It’s never too late to catch an episode because you can just click on the podcast tab on this website.

Here are the top seven most downloaded episodes from the first year of this podcast adventure:

  1. Dr. Lee Camp, professor of theology and ethics at Lipscomb University. Lee discusses his insightful and incisive book, Who is My Enemy: Questions Americans Must Ask About Islam -- and Themselves. A great interview with a thoughtful man, and a must read!
  2. Drs. Eric and Rachel McLaughlin, an internist and OBGYN, respectively, at Kibuye Hope Hospital in the impoverished East African nation of Burundi. You'll find their work and their words inspiring.
  3. From the land of New Zealand, our dear friends Neil and Jill White are given the chance to brag on their fair country, where Becky and I enjoyed an unforgettable visit a couple of years ago. You should save your money (or miles, as we did) and go -- and stay at the Whites' Air Bnb!
  4. Author, entrepreneur and adventurer Chris Guillebeau talks about his quest to visit every country on the planet. Chris shares about lessons learned in all his travels, and he also has a lot to teach us about thinking outside the box -- entrepreneurially!
  5. Author and speaker Sarah Lanier is a long-time friend and former colleague who has a wealth of knowledge and experience to share in the area of cross-cultural dynamics and communication. In this interview we discuss her book, Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot- and Cold-Climate Cultures. Don't let the title intimidate you -- this is a short but powerful read, where Sarah leads us into a greater understanding of the basic cultural differences between people groups and the importance of this understanding. A must read -- in fact, it's required reading for our Global Studies students!
  6. If you haven't already, you'll fall in love with Eleni Melirrytou, of Athens, Greece. Nowhere is there a bigger heart to serve the displaced people of this world; they have come by the hundreds through the doors of her downtown Athens church, been fed by her, loved by her, changed by her. Her testimonial will stretch the corners of your heart and challenge your thinking about the worldwide refugee crisis -- and perhaps the refugees in your own city.
  7. Number seven comes from our series on American subcultures. Bill Moser was a successful architect living in an upscale suburb of Detroit when he met some people who changed the course of his life. Bill and his wife became Amish. The radical change in his belief system and, consequently, lifestyle is nothing short of fascinating, as told through his childhood friend, Jeff Smith, in the book Becoming Amish.

We could go on and talk about the next seven, and the next...but we'll let you discover those for yourself.

Thank you to those of you who have been faithful listeners over this exciting first year! We realize what a privilege it is to be "in your ears" every week!

A Mexican, a Gringa and Six Children

Imagine you’re a single, white, American woman with a big heart to serve.

World to the Wise Podcast

Imagine you’re a single Mexican man with an equally big heart, and you’ve been designated to meet said American woman at the airport in Mexico as the two of you are destined to work together serving the poor.

This is the story of Martin and Karen Arroyo, who now, 26 years later, are the parents of six children, and have spent their lives serving the poorest of the poor — first in the metropolis of Mexico City, and more recently in the city of Juxtlahuaca, in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. We’ll hear them share from their hearts about the challenges of being a bi-cultural couple, about raising their family in some tough conditions in Mexico, and how racism is not just an American problem. And yet through it all they continue to serve, love, and inspire wherever they are. I hope you enjoy their story…

You'll hear Karen mention a book: Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans, which you'll find here:

A Lesson Learned on Bias

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Many years ago in Switzerland I had a voice student named Catherine. Catherine taught me something I've never forgotten, although it will take me a lifetime to fully put it into practice. A little background: as you may know, Switzerland is composed of three main regions. By far the largest is the German-speaking area in the north, center, and east. There is a small Italian-speaking region bordering Italy in the south, and the French-speaking region, where I lived for a total of six years, in the southwest.

The French speakers, whom I of course am the most acquainted with, have a bit of an attitude toward the German speakers. They detest the Swiss German language (there are dozens of different dialects, all of which sound different from the High German spoken in Germany), and for the most part would rather speak English with a German-speaking Swiss. There are of course exceptions, as many French speakers have Swiss German ancestry or relatives. (Personally, I love the sing-song lilt of Swiss German, but I'm not Swiss.)

Catherine is a French speaker, born and raised in the Lausanne area. So what is the lesson she taught me? At some point she realized she harbored some of the bias against German speakers common among her fellow French speakers. She then did something crazy -- she looked for and found a job in Zurich, the largest city in Switzerland, and moved there for a full year just to get to know some German-speaking Swiss personally as well as learn their language.

She turned around and looked her prejudice in the face.

And of course Catherine came home having made some dear friends and with a genuine appreciation for these people who, after all, are her compatriots.

All because she did the difficult work of facing herself. And once she had identified the problem, she took tangible steps to do something about it.

This continues to challenge me. You may think I'm bias-free because of what I preach. The truth is that we all have biases, and there is never a lack of work to be done in overcoming them. So with an occasional "ouch," I often think of Catherine.

I'm not sure she learned all that much from me in the area of singing, but I certainly learned a life-long lesson from her.

Any of this ring true for you?

Friends from Faraway Places

World to the Wise Podcast

Welcome to the first episode of Season 2 of the World to the Wise podcast. I hope you’ve had a chance to catch up on Season 1 during our break, because we have a whole set of new and fascinating people and stories for you in Season 2.

We’re also excited to tell you about our partnership with Patreon, who makes it possible for you to become a sustaining patron of this podcast. The truth is, we believe passionately in what we’re doing here at World to the Wise, and it takes quite a number of hours to put each episode together. When you choose to partner with us, even if it’s just $10 a month, you are helping to ensure our being able to provide great content that continues to challenge, inspire, and inform. You can find us at patreon.com/worldtothewise. We won’t wear you out with pitches like this, but we do want to ask you to seriously consider becoming part of the patrons’ circle. You can read more about what that looks like on the website, which again is patreon.com/worldtothewise. Thanks so much.

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And now — imagine that you were born and raised in America’s heartland. You’re a white male, and your world is pretty much white Americans. Then your world is rocked when you start meeting and developing friendships with people from all over the world — without even leaving the shores of your own country. Meet Stuart Stokes, a film maker and vlogger, originally from the Missouri Ozarks, now living in Nashville. I hope you enjoy listening to his stories and find yourself challenged like I was.

You can find Stuart on Twitter at Skip Stokes, and on YouTube under the same name. If you’re interested in his documentary on the life of Ken Rideout, you can follow the film’s progress on Facebook at Rideout: One Last Summit or at rideoutfilm.com.

Stereotypical Stereotypes

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I was at a symposium last night on Russian-American relations moving from the Obama years into the Trump era. While most of Dr. Mark Katz's remarks and the questions asked of him centered on Trump and Putin's relationship and speculation about what that might look like moving forward, one question was asked that got me thinking about stereotypes. The question was something to the effect of, "How fair is it for Americans and other Westerners to believe that Putin's strong man persona is representative of the Russian people and culture?" The question put its finger on a common and universal tendency: to assume that everyone in a given group or culture is the same. We would of course deny that we think in such base and ignorant terms, but most of us are guilty of this at one time or another.

In the case of Vladimir Putin, we might think that most all Russians only understand the language of power and force, as Putin's MO is widely believed to be. And it is true that there are many Russians who are glad to have a leader who stands up to the West and is committed to restoring Mother Russia to her former glory.

But there are probably just as many Russians who would like a "kinder and gentler" leader who doesn't enjoy provoking the West and suppressing dissent. The few Russians I know personally are kind, caring people who have mixed feelings about their president -- like most of the world feels about its leaders. Some will point out that Putin is a vast improvement over his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

We could think of other examples of stereotypes. Are all Germans super organized and efficient, with a hard exterior? Nope.

Are all Japanese workaholics? Nope. Not quite!

Are all Australians laid back? I don't think so, but I'm still looking for an uptight Aussie.

Aha. So here we see that there is often a kernel of truth to certain stereotypes. There is usually a reason why they were formed in the first place. The truth is that stereotypes can at times be useful, up to a point. If I were putting together an international team, I wouldn't be wrong to go to Switzerland or Germany to look for an administrative type, for example. International marketing firms will tell you that stereotypes based on studies and market research prove invaluable in their marketing strategies.

But stereotypes can just as often get us into trouble. Chances are, as soon as we allow the stereotype to take shape in our minds, one or more exceptions will present themselves.

In the current dialogue in the US about race, this is particularly dicey. It's a little too easy to assume all members of a certain race feel or behave the same way (racial profiling comes to mind). Polls and surveys and market research may help, but true understanding won't come until we sit down and listen to each other.

I'm going to have just such an opportunity on Jan 27, when I have been invited to moderate a round table discussion on the current state of race relations in the US, including in the American church. If you're in the Nashville area, we'd love for you to join us. Details here.

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy cover
Hillbilly Elegy cover

In my last post, I mentioned being impacted by J. D. Vance's powerful and tragic book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. My wife and I actually read it together -- sort of. I read aloud to her while she crocheted -- a favorite pastime of ours. Although Vance calls the book a memoir, he admits from the start that he's not old enough to call anything he writes by that name. The term 'elegy', a song of lament or mourning, was a harbinger of the emotion I was left with after reading the book. Vance, a Yale Law School graduate now practicing in Cincinnati, seems ambivalent throughout the book toward the subculture in which he grew up in Eastern Kentucky and Western Ohio. On the one hand, he is not afraid to call out the tragic flaws and shortcomings of what he unabashedly calls hillbilly culture; on the other, he is not ashamed to identify with them still today, using the pronoun "we" when referring to them, even though he himself has risen out of the struggling socioeconomic conditions he came up through.

The childhood Vance describes growing up in Kentucky does nothing to debunk the stereotypes most people have about Appalachia: much of it sounded like it could have been lifted right out of the Hatfields and McCoys. The towering figure in his life was his maternal grandmother, Mamaw, who was largely responsible for raising him in the frequent absence of his drug-addicted mother. The young J.D. lived in a constant state of instability, unsure when his mother would freak out, divorce her current husband and marry another, or come back begging for forgiveness -- or money.

When J.D. was a young teenager, he moved with his mother, sister, and grandparents to Middletown, Ohio, where it turns out thousands of other Eastern Kentuckians have ended up since the Appalachian coal mines began their demise. Even though Middletown was a larger town than his native Jackson, KY, there were so many transplanted Kentucky hillbillies and working class folks that his world view was hardly challenged. Because of all the unrest at home, J. D. almost flunked out of high school, but he somehow managed to graduate and, deciding he wasn't yet ready for college, enlisted in the Marines.

According to Vance himself, the Marines were the best thing that ever happened to him. He credits his two years with them with much of his later success, not to mention self-esteem and a host of other qualities. But the highest praise goes to Mamaw, his foul-mouthed, church-going, rough-and-tumble grandmother who never ceased to remind him that he could do and be whatever he wanted to, as long as he worked hard (a creed she apparently found easier to preach than practice).

The fact that J. D. Vance was able to graduate from college, let alone attend and succeed at one of the most prestigious law schools in the world, is nothing short of miraculous, given the many factors working against him. That story in itself would make for compelling reading. But his vivid and at times painful depiction of his family's dynamics and the culture they hailed from is an important window into a pretty broad swath of the American population. He places the shortage of well-paying jobs right alongside a streak of laziness and tendency to blame the government for what ails them. With the shrinkage of the white American majority and the changing demographic of the America they knew, he portrays a people whose religion is patriotism. But the America they once knew and loved seems to be slipping through their fingers.

I wish I could say I came away from this book with a new ability to relate to this piece of the American patchwork; I must say it left me as perplexed as before. What it did do is paint a powerful picture of a people group that, like it or not, makes up a substantial portion of the US population and, as it turns out, the electorate.

So, happy ending? Not so much. Only inasmuch as Vance himself reminds us, through his life experiences and personal successes, of what his Mamaw and Papaw taught him:

"Whenever times were tough— when I felt overwhelmed by the drama and the tumult of my youth— I knew that better days were ahead because I lived in a country that allowed me to make the good choices that others hadn’t."

That country is in desperate need of healing right now, and if it's going to happen, we must continue to seek to understand -- perhaps through reading about real people and real experiences as in this book -- but better yet, by engaging the very people we don't understand. Ah, there's the challenge.

Love Thy Other

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In his book Cultural Intelligence (a phrase I happen to use quite a bit), David Livermore says the "first step toward becoming culturally intelligent is to become more aware of our own cultural identity." The last few weeks have shown me -- and us -- that we in the US don't know ourselves as well as we thought we did. It seems there were surprises at every turn during the (interminable) election season. My Friday morning breakfast buddy, David, and I would look at each other months ago and assure each other there was no way Trump would be elected. Yet here we are.

The events and conversations surrounding this election, as well as other historic events such as Black Lives Matter, have had a way of revealing -- not creating -- some real gaps in understanding the Other, whoever that may be. Like a personal trial uncovers traits in us we may not have even been aware of, the same thing seems to be happening on a national scale.

One not-so-attractive trait I've discovered in myself is a tendency to paint people with too broad a brush. The truth is not all Trump voters are the same or voted for him for the same reasons, and the very same can be said of Clinton supporters. And all of these people are so much more than Trump or Clinton supporters. One of the toxic byproducts of this election cycle is the tendency to divide the country into those two camps -- as if we had no other way to define ourselves.

One thing Livermore says in his chapter entitled "The Average American" hit close to home:

"I've been gently challenged by friends in other parts of the world about my tendency to treat my fellow Americans with the same kind of paternalistic arrogance that I accuse them of using with others. One Asian friend said, 'But, Dave [bringing it even closer to home], might it be that the very things you accuse your fellow citizens of doing in relationship to people from other cultures is the way you're relating to them? Maybe the Other for you is a less-traveled, less-thoughtful American neighbor!'" (Bold print mine.)

Ouch.

So I took David Brooks' advice and read, with my wife, J.D. Vance's book Hillbilly Elegy, which I will review in a forthcoming post. Suffice it to say for now that it is a poignant and in some ways tragic depiction of a demographic that I am still trying to understand. (Do not understand me to imply that all Trump supporters are hillbillies; if you do, you're missing the point here.) I have to confess that I often feel I relate better to people from any number of foreign countries than I do to this subculture in which Vance grew up in Eastern Kentucky and Western Ohio and unapologetically calls "hillbilly".

Livermore reminds us that self-awareness is the starting place. Once we become more aware of what drives our own assumptions and values, we can begin to contrast these with those of the Other. And if you're anything like me -- and I know I am -- you have more than one Other to seek to understand.

I suppose Socrates had it right when he said, "Above all, know thyself."

Probably the best way to "Love thy Other."