Monday, August 24, 2009

Multilingual Mosaic

I was recently made aware of this audio montage of 25 different languages on the song from The Prince of Egypt, "There Can Be Miracles." I was originally told it was all the same singer, presumably Sally Dworsky, who recorded the original English soundtrack along with Michelle Pfeiffer. (Check out Sally's MySpace page to hear some of her own original songs -- very nice.) My research indicates that probably was not the case -- but it is nevertheless a stunning patchwork.
If you have some inside information on this soundtrack that would be useful, post your comment!

Facebook or e-mail format readers, click here to see the video.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Happy Day for Hungary

In 1989 my family and I were living in Lausanne, Switzerland, when the earth beneath Europe began to shake. The fall of the Berlin Wall is what attracted the world's attention; but the necessary shaking had begun three months earlier when Hungary decided to open its border with Austria, allowing hundreds of people to flee communist Eastern Europe.

Twenty years later, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is from formerly communist Eastern Germany, travelled to Hungary to thank the Hungarians for their courage at an event celebrating the so-called "Pan-European Picnic" on the Austro-Hungarian border. In Merkel's words, 'they gave wings to East Germans' desire for freedom.' What ensued was an irreversible domino effect such as the world has rarely seen, symbolized by the culminating fall of the Berlin Wall.

We have a piece of that wall. Just an ordinary piece of concrete -- but it's a simple reminder of a momentus event that changed history forever.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"God Grew Tired of Us"

My wife and I recently watched the moving documentary, God Grew Tired of Us, about the Lost Boys of Sudan. In 1987, the Muslim Sudanese government decreed death for all male children in the predominantly Christian and animist south. As a result, 27,000 boys made their way on foot to neighboring Ethiopia, where they stayed about four years in squalid conditions. In 1991, they were forced to flee south to Kenya, where they settled in a refugee camp in Kakuma, not far from the Sudanese border. Of the original 27,000 only 12,000 made it to Kakuma. The taller boys -- no matter what their age -- were expected to look after the young, and small, improvised family units were formed.

The documentary follows the odyssey of a handful of these young men, all the way into the third year of their immigration to the United States. It's a heartbreaking story of disjuncture, as the jobs the boys take prevent them from seeing each other, not to mention those they have left in Kakuma. The sense of community they had relied on all their lives is now removed, along with everything else familiar. Many Americans have the impression that, if the refugees can just make it to American soil, their quality of life will automatically improve; God Grew Tired of Us illustrates the fallacy of this kind of thinking. The challenges are just beginning, as the immigrants are faced with learning an entirely new way of life -- from electric lights and appliances to Western-style toilets, from strange food to taking on multiple jobs in order to send money home out of a sense of obligation and duty to those left behind.

Some of the Lost Boys ended up in my own city of Nashville (not shown in the film), where they have started a foundation. Some friends of mine recently told me they had sent their children to an art camp at a downtown gallery run by the Lost Boys Foundation, where they delightedly learned how to make African masks and other creations. If you are aware of colonies of Lost Boys in your city, find out how you can be of support to them. Some of them are pursuing degrees in order to return to Africa and help lead their people to higher ground.

Coming soon to this blog: an interview with one of the Lost Boys.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Matter of Perspective

I'm working on a project I'll tell more about later -- but it involves interviewing expat residents of the US -- whether they're recent immigrants or have lived here most of their lives. This past week I interviewed a Bulgarian woman who arrived in the US two days before her wedding. Imagine getting married in the middle of jet lag, not to mention culture shock.

I asked this tall, elegant lady what adjustments she's had to make since living in the States (it's been two years now). Among (many) other things, she mentioned the 'crisis' she hears people talking about. Not wanting to belittle the fact that we are indeed in the midst of a recession, she said, "It's just that the word 'crisis' means something different for me. For me, 'crisis' means we'll only have bread to eat that day -- and maybe butter, if we're lucky."

Speaking of adjustments, I've just made one myself.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Traveling in Comfort

If you've traveled abroad, you know what I'm talking about -- chances are, the airplane passengers or the tourists wearing white tennis shoes at the Eiffel Tower are Americans.

While travelers from many cultures don one of their nicer outfits for the trip, Americans opt for comfort. As Sarah Lanier puts it in her book, Foreign to Familiar, there is something in the American mindset that says being comfortable is of higher importance than looking appropriate.

There is a reason for this, Lanier goes on to explain. It turns out that cultures that are generally more informal -- including not only the US, but also Australia, the modern state of Israel and Canada, for example -- are the younger countries who have had less time to develop age-old traditions piled high on top of each other. The older, more traditional cultures are called "high-context" cultures, while the newer cultures are "low-context'. Even in poor countries, the people dress their very best when going to a meeting, out in public or to someone else's home for dinner.

Americans, Australians and other low-context cultures are quick to address each other by their first names. Even though I've now been back in the US for fifteen years after living in Europe, I'm still taken aback at times how even in somewhat formal situations, such as in TV or radio interviews, the first name is used immediately.

Remember, we're not talking necessarily about right or wrong here -- but what is important is that the traveler be oriented to the host culture he or she is visiting. Otherwise, innocent mistakes will often be interpreted as insults. This works in both directions: the Korean culture, for example, is one of the oldest on the planet, therefore extremely high-context. Koreans immigrating to the US should be prepared for the shock of informal American culture. Many Koreans prefer to be addressed by Mr., Miss or Mrs. and their surname, and are often offended when immediately addressed by their first name.

The quintessential low-context culture is southern California, which explains why many people in California, whether natives or recent arrivals, feel a sense of freedom to be creative, start new trends, or be different.