Friday, October 28, 2011

Sci Fi Country - a song by Chris Whitler

For the past few weeks, we've been exploring stories and lessons learned from crossing cultures and this is our last entry on the subject.  You can enjoy this original song by me right here by clicking on the player.  If you would like to download the song, listen to more music or subscribe to future Fire Bowl and Whitler audio, just GLONK HERE.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Legend of the Cows - The kids of the Tsartlip First Nations Community

This past summer, several of the fire bowl contributors (along with some other friends) were helping at a community camp for Tsartlip Village, a First Nations community near Victoria, BC in Canada.  During our camp out night, we all wrote this story together.

Many moons ago, there was a cow named Bob and he was really fat and he took over the world.  He had two baby cows.  Their names were Cheese and Hot Dog.  They liked bananas.

Cheese and Hot Dog were sad because they didn't have a mother so they ran away to New York city.  They hated yogurt but they loved to play in the park.  Their little family went in search of a new mother.

One day, while eating grass on the field, they found out that their mother had been assassinated by the mysterious Ben Lomond.  They plotted revenge on Ben Lomond by becoming the best jazz trio ever seen.  As they were performing, Lomond came to the jazz club.  It was then they realized that their mother had been free running with Ben in the woods all along.

They were so shocked that they went and found a shy cow named Flower.  Flower was a blonde cow with three legs and a beard.  Eventually, the entire family was reunited.

Suddenly, they saw an entire mass of Japanese people running toward them and Godzilla came and crushed the entire cow family.  And then shoelaces began falling from the sky.

The cows were on a happy journey to McDonald's to help feed people.  Ronald McDonald came to life and took the cows on a magical journey to Disneyland.  There, they saw a statue of a cow.  A chief from a local tribe, who was hunting in the area, heard the noise and when he got there, he realized it was his cow!

On nights when you can see the moon, you can see four cows jumping over the moon.  One has three legs and blonde hair.

The End.

Monday, October 17, 2011


 Aron and his wife Donna are some of the most hospitable people I (Chris) have ever met.  Aron manages the courthouse in the hottest place in the world, Blythe, CA.  He is better at scrabble than any of us could ever hope to be and knows where to get good Mexican food.  Enjoy!  This is his first post in the Fire Bowl...welcome Aron!

It’s been many years since I’ve been outside the United States, but I am pleased to have had some international experiences in my younger days.  We bring our American baggage to our travels and soon learn that our frames of reference are not necessarily shared by our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, or even by our close neighbors in Canada.

I have visited the Caribbean, Europe (England and France) and Canada (twice, once on each coast).  I got a huge kick out of speaking French in Québec and in Paris, standing in the rain to watch the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace and having to catch my breath when I turned a corner stepping out of the Métro to find the magnificent Eiffel Tower staring me in the face.

I learned a lesson about attitudes toward Americans when I climbed into a taxi in Paris one night and directed the driver to take me to a particular restaurant for a late dinner.  I felt around the seats for a safety belt, but none were in evidence.  Out of (American) habit, I pressed down the door lock at the edge of the window.  Incensed, the driver turned around and yanked the little black button back up.  “Ce n’est pas Chicago!” he yelled.  In other words, how dare I insult him, and by extension all Parisians and the French people as a whole, by insinuating that I had to protect myself from crime in the way that we are accustomed to do over here on the other side of the Atlantic.  I found it interesting that he chose to invoke the name of Chicago, rather than my native New York.  Perhaps he had been read a book about Al Capone.  I bit my tongue to stifle my desire to vindicate myself by explaining that my father was a driver ed teacher and that locking the car door had more to do with wanting to remain inside the vehicle rather than staving off crime.  (Remember the bloody driver ed movies with names featuring the words Tragedy and Agony?  My father brought them home for us to see, and he could recite the soundtracks verbatim.)  But then I suppose the driver would have felt that I was casting aspersions on his driving prowess, which would inevitably have led to me be thrown out of the cab in an unfamiliar arrondissement at midnight.

My visit to St. Maarten in the Netherlands Antilles was a different type of experience entirely.  Rather than wandering about with the aid of a guidebook, I mostly stayed in the cocoon of a large resort, where I could have been anyplace at all in the tropics.  As this was in the days before the euro, I dearly wished to change some money so that I could bring home a few exotic guilders.  Every time I tried the local bank, however, it was the wrong day or the wrong time and it was closed.  It turns out that the local businesses desired American dollars and had no interest at all in gringos changing money.  I suppose the slot machines that took American quarters should have been a tip-off.

So I was glad to head just slightly off the tourist path by taxiing over to the French side of the island, St.-Martin.  It’s not that there were any sights I hoped to see over there, but that was where the ferry launched for a day trip to Anguilla.  I was unprepared to see women sitting cross-legged on the ground, fruit spread out on blankets before them, hoping to sell a plantain or an orange to the rich touristes.  Then again, back in Phillipsburg on the Dutch side, I walked the streets and found little black children running about in their birthday suits as if this were some type of National Geographic special on TV.  As a privileged American who paid a lot of money to stay at a resort, it was too easy to forget that this was a Third World country I was visiting and that there real people experiencing real suffering right at my elbow.  People whose experience did not include eating at Le Lagon Bleu or playing roulette in the casinos.  In fact, I later heard that gambling is illegal for citizens there.  No need to make social problems worse than they already are by permitting the locals to throw their guilders down the hungry gullets of the slot machines.  Let foolish foreign tourists leave their dollars here for us, thank you very much.

I would never have guessed that my few international forays would not provide anywhere near the cross-cultural experience that I would eventually gain right here in the United States.

It all started when I moved across the country to California after 35 years in New York and New England.  My years of high school and college French served me well in Québec and Paris, but I landed hard in the Central Valley to quickly learn that I should have studied español.  The signs on the mercados, bodegas, carnicerias and panaderias in Madera, and later in Modesto, flummoxed me to say the least.  Who was it that said that if you know one Romance language you can easily figure out the others?  It took me some time to learn that many of the delicacies advertised were actually (gasp!) organ meats.  Okay, so I kind of expected this when I spent a few days visiting a friend in Laredo, Texas, directly across the Rio Grande bridge from Mexico.  I did learn a few handy phrases there, including soy perdido (which I thought sounded an awful lot like tofu) and lo ciento (which I had to use a lot).

But here in the golden land of California?  It was pretty ignorant of me to expect English to be as much the lingua franca in Fresno as it is in the 13 Colonies.  I had never eaten Mexican food before, and I did not even know what a tortilla is.  Bagels and lox and kugel, yes; tortillas and salsa, no.  It took several years before I gained an understanding that there were certain types of chiles I could eat without burning my insides out.  One of my favorite Modesto memories is asking the proprietor of a small taqueria what type of pescado they were serving.  The poor man understood my question but did not know what the word for it was in English.  He settled for running back to the kitchen and reappearing a moment later holding the whole fish up for my inspection.  (My other favorite is the time my wife and I were in a drive-thru on McHenry trying to order me a fish burrito, a request that the hapless clerk at the other end of the speaker could not seem to comprehend.  “Pescado!  Pescado!” my wife and I yelled and the same time, erupting in giggles when we realized that we had finally made ourselves understood.)

I quickly caught on to words such as iglesia, cuidado and baños, but I was clueless when it came to quinceañera, viaje and (now one of my favorites) zanahorias and I had no hope whatever of productively eavesdropping on a conversation, say, in the produce aisle in Winco.  (Which reminds me of the time my wife and I combed haplessly through jars of jalapeños and nopales in an attempt to fulfill our young niece’s request for something called pepinos).  There are still times when I feel a stranger in my own land, but at some level I know it’s my own fault for not taking the time to study Spanish.  Now that I live on the very border of Arizona, home of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and ground zero for the immigration debate, I realize that there is more than one viewpoint on the language issue.  My wife, for example, believes that those who live in this country should learn English.  This, of course, is what my Eastern European forebears did after being processed through Castle Garden and Ellis Island and settling in the Bronx and on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  They attended night school, passed their citizenship exam, stood in line to raise their right hands and swear their loyalty.  Much as I admire this, I realize that there is more than one way to skin un gato.  I  believe that if native Spanish speakers should learn English, then the rest of us need to learn Spanish.  I believe that this is a cultural divide we can cross if English and Spanish are named dual national languages in the same manner that English and French are in Canada, not to mention the multilingual standards of Europe.  I am encouraged in that I am beginning to see two-way bilingual immersion programs starting in kindergarten.

To me, “embrace diversity” is more than a catch phrase.  It is the approach this New York boy takes to living in California.  And even if I don’t always comprende what my neighbors are saying, I am no longer cowed at the prospect of admitting that I don’t know what a particular word means and asking for help.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m headed out for some chile rellenos and frijoles.

Hasta luego, amigos.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Welcome Changes - Stephanie Mullen

 Stephanie Mullen has recently returned to the United States from serving the Burmese refugees on the Thai/Burmese border.  She is resting, renewing and waiting on God for the next step.  You can read about her missionary journey at her blog HERE.  Welcome to the Fire Bowl, Stephanie!

My culture-crossing experience when I moved to Thailand wasn’t nearly as dramatic as I thought it would be.  I imagined that I’d feel so out of place, see one too many cockroaches, and have some kind of public meltdown.  While I definitely had my moments of frustration and utter confusion in that year and a half, many of the differences were welcome changes for me.

People see you.  They say hello and offer you something, even if they have very little.    The generosity is so humbling.  They invite you into their home, they feed you, and they don’t waste any energy trying to portray some kind of A+ lifestyle.  They put themselves out there, for better or worse; and they let you do the same.  And thankfully there were no fashion police around.  My hair drier caught on fire the one time I tried using it, so I was fine with settling into low-maintenance mode.

Life is simple.  Homes are small, motorbikes or bicycles are sufficient, and the local shops or markets have everything you need (although maybe not everything you want, like Blizzards from DQ or granola bars).  There were no malls or movie theaters, so you had to be creative and learn to enjoy the simple stuff.  My friend and I used to buy ice cream and go sit in front of our favorite field when we wanted to do something special.

And people there share.  They aren’t possessive of their things, but are happy to give whatever they have if it’ll help someone.  Neighbors look out for each other.  Actually, they need each other.  They rely on one another for the daily stuff just to get by.  In extreme cases, someone in the community will even take in a child as their own if the parents are removed from the picture for whatever reason.
It’s beautiful.  There are so many things I saw and experienced that I want to keep with me back in here the US, but the longer I’m stateside, the less I’m shocked by a commercial for a pill that relieves dehydration, or by our sexualization of women, or our infatuation with celebrities.  We’re encouraged to have more and better, and the clutter can be numbing.

But no culture is perfect, and there were things that I was sad to see in Thailand, too.
Many men cheat on their wives, and it seems to be expected.  Customer service is non-existent at best, infuriating at worst.  Conflict is handled by avoiding it, and it’s not okay to just bring up issues.  I learned this the hard way when my friend was asked to find another place to live after we showed our frustration with her landlord.  Also, it’s okay to tell a woman she’s fat... something I never happily embraced.

I’ve been able to feel at home in two different cultures, and at times feel like I was dropped from outer space into both.  I hope to experience more, though, because seeing different ways to live allows you to decide if you want it or not.  I think God had an idea of what everything would look like, how we’d all treat each other, and that we can see pieces of it in play in different places... like we’ve all taken a shot at trying to live with one another, and we’ve all gotten some things right while falling painfully short at others.

It’s contrary to the way I grew up, but I’m interested now in having less and depending on other people more.  And I hope I don’t ever settle for thinking that I have it all figured out, but will be willing to feel like an alien if it leads to experiencing life more like it was designed to be.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Yes - Aaron Alford

Aaron is currently hanging his hat in Italy.  This is Aaron's 2nd post in the bowl (1st is here).  He is a YWAMer spending a sabbatical year as a citizen of the world. 

Writing a story about crossing cultures should be easy for me.  Lately, it seems it’s all I do.  I am currently in the second half of a year in which my only requirement is to stay out of the United States.  I’ve traveled from Canada to Thailand, from Thailand to Israel and Jordan, to Holland, to a Native reservation on Vancouver Island.  

And within each of these geographical locations, I’ve experienced a dozen other cultures.  I became good friends with Burmese people in Thailand.  I was welcomed into the home of an Arab Catholic family and into a monastery of French monks in Israel.  Here on Vancouver Island, I’ve been hosted by a family that is half Coast Salish Native and half Samoan.

Again, this should be a very easy topic to write about.  But when given the charge, I find myself drawing a blank.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve crossed so many cultures lately that I find it hard to zero in on a single story.  I could tell you about sharing a Burmese cigar with a man living at a garbage dump in Mae Sot.  I could talk about the Palestinian cab driver who invited me into his home for tea and bread.  Or perhaps I could talk about swimming in the Sea of Galilee with some French monks who welcomed me into their community.  There’s also Ollie, the German-born man living in Holland who literally invited us into his castle.  And of course, there’s that time we buried a pig to roast for an Island luau at a Native reservation.  The list goes on.

So I find myself thinking about what it is that unifies these stories, both in me and in the people I met.  What is it that made these stories possible?  

In missionary and NGO circles, we tend to talk a lot about “cultural sensitivity”, and honestly, I find the subject somewhat tedious.  Of course, I don’t want to be insensitive and end up rubbing a Thai monk’s head with my bare feet (I’m sure there’s a series of incidents that could make such a travesty happen), but God knows I’ve known a person or two who was very culturally sensitive, and whose personality was best described with an expletive.  What I don’t want is to become so entrenched in my own pre-conceived ideas of what another person may find offensive that I actually limit my opportunity to experience the life of that other person.

And I suppose that’s what it gets down to.  A person.  What made each of these experiences possible was openness to another individual.  My first rule of travel is, “Say Yes.”  Say “Yes” to the other, in whatever they may offer.  In this, I open myself not merely to “experiencing another culture,” but to experiencing another person within that culture.  In saying “Yes” to their offer, I am in turn offering myself.  It may be for just an hour, or it may be for a lifetime, but I say “Yes” to the possibility of friendship.

We can become trapped in insecurity and close ourselves off to relationship because of our own fear.  We forget that a person is not merely the sum total of their culture.  We must step past our own fears of offending, and embrace the moment.

Perhaps each person is simply a culture of One, each culture rich with what makes it unique.  Each with its own sense of art, of beauty, of tradition.  Each with its own unique way of offering kindness and hospitality.  It’s true that what may be welcomed by one may offend another, but kindness and humility go a long way in forgiving small ignorances.  What makes the journey of crossing over into another’s culture possible is that simple word: “Yes”.

Kindness.  Openness.  Humility.  Love.  Such things are understood in any culture, from Arab cab drivers to homeless Canadians.  We are, each one of us, a culture of our own, waiting for another to say “Yes” to us.  And each of us, each culture of One, has something of great value to give: Ourself.

Frére Dominic and I are taking this trail down to the water.  Would you like to come?



(Hand motions indicating an offer of tobacco)

Ho' ke!


Would you like to meet at Fraser’s house at 5 a.m. to bury the pig for the luau?

(deep breath)  Absolutely!

Would you like to come to my house for some tea?

نعم !

Monday, October 3, 2011

Circular Thinking - James Harrison

This is Jame's 2nd submission to the Fire Bowl (read the 1st here).  He writes from Canada where he serves as a leader in a Youth With A Mission training program.

After three flights of stairs we entered Timothy's office.  The five of us sat down in his small seating area and gladly gave him the respect he was due.  As a gentle, experienced missionary in a very hard place, it was a privilege to spend time with him.

We each sat with slight smiles and focused faces and asked questions.  "How long have you been here?"

"Is it hard having an HIV/AIDS ministry?"

"What is it like living here?"

He quietly answered our questions with exceptional English and revealed that he had a partner who began the ministry with him and that this man had passed away.

Quietly, I asked a direct question: "When did he pass away?"

"We started working together 14 years ago," he began, "after we met..."  The story continued for a quarter of an hour as Timothy shared their history as partners, how they served God together and how the man eventually became very ill.  He ended the story, "He died seven years ago."

Leaving Timothy in his office, I had forgotten that I asked the question that spurred that narrative.  When the meeting was over and we descended the stairs, one of the girls excitedly pointed out what we'd learned about Circular Thinking - a mindset prevalent in Asia where an indirect answer can be given out of respect or other reasons - and how our host had used that when I asked about his partner's death.

I was strongly impacted on how important it was for Timothy to tell the whole story of his partner. Because of how much he meant to him, he had to give the big picture; to list his partner's service and sacrifice for the gospel, even to death. My blunt question was gently answered in an inspiring missionary biography that left me surprisingly refreshed.