Friday, November 2, 2012

Cultural Awareness

 All Rights Reserved. F holding jasmine offerings for Buddha at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. 2012.

I’m starting to wonder if I’ve lost my edge a bit. My ability to swiftly and comfortably navigate between cultures.  I’m learning that I have a lot to learn.

I’ve always prided myself on being culturally aware, open, and sensitive. I attended a small, private university in Hawai'i of mostly international students. It wasn’t a great university.   I had opportunities to attend very good schools; but, I wanted to study multi-cultural literature and thrust myself into every culture that would have me.  OK, OK, being on a tropical beach surrounded by Polynesian men had a little bit to do with it, too.

Surprisingly, quite a few accepted me with wide open hearts and arms. Uh, cultures; not men!  (I wasn't that popular.)  

I was that crazy palagi who lived with a Samoan family for awhile, which inspired me to take Samoan language classes.  Later, I lived with ten girls in a rusting, ant-infested shack of a house two blocks from the ocean, where I was one of two Americans. My best friends were from Malaysia, Samoa, Fiji, Laos, Tonga, Niue, New Zealand, Korea, Hawaii, the Philippines, and Japan.  I had a boyfriend from Kiribati. I picked up a little bit of Hawaiian pidgin and my friends back home would make fun of how slowly I started to talk. I already spoke slowly: I’m from the Pacific Northwest!

 The beach two blocks from where I used to live in Hawai'i.

I’ve been lucky. I’ve scratched the surfaces of cultures just enough to be given nicknames in Samoan, Hawaiian, French, and Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia). I was even given a sign name from a deaf friend which was, and is, quite an honor.

Despite marrying inter-culturally (husband is from England, ex-husband is from Cote d’ Ivoire), despite thinking I am very accepting and easily pick-up on cultural nuances, I feel pretty ignorant about Myanmar.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m older and more stuck in my ways, or because I haven’t been very exposed to SE Asian culture.  Perhaps it’s because I never met anyone from Myanmar before I moved here. Prior to moving to other countries, I’d known people from those cultures, which helped me understand differences and what to expect.

Understanding another person’s culture – at least a little bit – makes such a big difference. It makes you more patient. 

When we lived in Ethiopia, locals were tickled I could greet them in Amharic. I understood people kiss you three times and ask you three different ways how you’re doing while greeting them. 

All Rights Reserved. Ethiopian Orthodox Priests in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia.  2003. 
I understood that greetings can take quite awhile and people will ask not just how you are doing, but also how everyone of significance is doing. I understood everyone always said everything was OK, even if it wasn’t. You had to look closely for small facial expressions letting you know there were actually problems.

I don’t know if this same sort of thing happens in Myanmar or not. I feel a bit embarrassed that I don’t know. Yes, I can say maybe three words in Myanmar language, but that’s pitiful.

I’m up for the challenge. I’m not that old and stuck in my ways, really. 

It’s time for me to learn more about Myanmar culture. I need a Myanmar volunteer to spend some time with me and tell me all sorts of wonderful, strange things so I can feel a bit more integrated. 

If that's you, then raise your hand!


  1. Good for you for recognizing your limits, so many of us don't. It's exciting to think of all the interesting things you will learn.

    1. Hi Gaile,
      Thank you! It is exciting to think about the things I'll learn. When we traveled to Inle Lake, I had the opportunity to talk with a couple people for a few hours. They poured lots of information on me, but I knew I only scratched the surface. I loved it, and it proved to me my spark and curiosity for learning more/digging deeper in cultures has not been snuffed.

  2. I love reading about your life and all of your experiences and I love the way you embrace new situations and challenges with such gusto. Yay, Becky!

    1. Hi Janice,
      Thank you!! :) I have so much to learn about Myanmar, but I will reach out more, learn more. ;)

  3. Just your openness will take you a long way. How wonderful for you.

  4. Becky, What an interesting life you have had and have. I love to read your blog, it makes me think about things I would not have otherwise. You have a lot of stories still unwritten, no doubt...looking forward to reading them all. June Maddox

    1. Thank you very much, June. :) Yes, I suppose some things have been interesting in my life. A lot hasn't been. But I think we can find the most interesting things in the every day. Not that I'm always good at seeing that. :)

      Thanks for leaving a comment, lovely June!


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