TILL DEATH DO US PART (Part 1 of 2)

Yow, Jamaicans grieve different enuh!” (Jamaicans grieve differently you know).

This was the somewhat annoyed utterance from a Radio Talk Show Host in reaction to the newspaper headlines that some Jamaicans were aggrieved that there would not be an open casket viewing for a prominent and revered former political leader whose body would lie in state at various points across the island. “Jamaicans are obsessed with viewing the dead!” he continued, noting how many times in the past, his fellow countrymen had been upset at not being allowed to view a body at the final farewell, no matter how gruesome a passing the person may have endured.

His comments brought back a flood of conversations I have had with my own friends in recent years on the rather morbid subject of the treatment of the deceased and funeral rites etc. The most recent memory was of a Trinidadian friend who in the midst of his sorrow at the passing of his father earlier that day, was able to chuckle when I asked about the date of the funeral. It would be very imminent he assured me, “because you know we don’t keep the dead long like you all”. I smiled in response, recalling our conversations in the past when we had discussed how Trinidadians were appalled at the sometimes very long gap of time between the death of a Jamaican loved one and the funeral. While in our Jamaican culture the funeral of a loved one will be scheduled for anywhere between 2 weeks to a month after the passing (because we absolutely must wait on every distant relative twice removed by marriage and living in some far flung corner of the earth to put their house in order and travel back to the island to pay their last respects), Trinidadians by contrast are mortified (no pun intended) at the thought of the body getting “stale” during all that time. In their culture, three to four days after the passing is just about acceptable, a week outrageous, and the time lag often observed by Jamaicans – well, absolutely unthinkable!

Funeral Blog Pic 11

My first inkling that we Caribbean people didn’t all treat with death and the rites and procedures surrounding it in the same way had come a few years earlier when I sat with Barbadian relatives to plan the funeral announcement of my late father. The announcement for the Jamaican newspapers, short and as sweet as an announcement of that nature can be; the announcement for the Barbadian press – well let’s just say itmentioned just about everyone in several generations of the bloodline, save the family pets.                      

A few years later, attending the funeral of a relative in Barbados, my sister and I were surprised to learn that the family formed a receiving line at the entrance to the church as mourners streamed in for the funeral. We had not previously encountered this practice, accustomed as we were to the Jamaican tradition where on arrival at the church, the family proceeds straight to their seats at the front of the church, and mourners if they so wish, can approach them there to express a quick word of sympathy. In the Jamaican case, the receiving line as it were, usually becomes a large untidy cluster of persons around various family members outside of the church at the end of the service.

Thrown into the situation, my sister and I adjusted quickly to the Barbadian Protocol. The tradition we had noticed on previous visits to Barbados of identifying and “contextualizing” yourself when meeting new persons was, we realized, as important in death, as it was in life. So we found ourselves automatically doing a quick synopsis of the family tree and our connection to the deceased in response to the quizzical looks we received from persons streaming into the church.

One Caribbean…..different cultural practices.

The Talk Show’s host comment also triggered the memory of another discussion – this time with an expat from Europe with whom I had done cross-cultural training as he settled into Jamaica a few months back. He was scheduled to attend the funeral of a relative of one of his Jamaican work colleagues and wanted to know the protocol surrounding the Jamaican ceremony. Having briefed him on appropriate dress, what to expect and a few do’s and don’ts, he recalled attending a funeral while residing in another European country. Accustomed to the strict protocol and solemnity that surrounded such occasions in his own country, he was somewhat miffed to encounter what he perceived as several “don’ts” in his host country. The scenario he described was more of a social gathering – with persons popping in and out of the church for a chat and a smoke in the church yard. Even though he was recounting this story years later, I could tell that his sensibilities were almost as equally offended by that casual approach as that of the Trinidadians at the thought of a body getting “stale”!

One Europe……different cultural practices.

Death is a given in any culture, but how we treat with it is not. In my next blog I will offer some recommendations as to how to treat with some of the protocols surrounding this sensitive subject from a cross-cultural perspective.

Until then, here’s some lighter food for thought from a Jamaican proverb which says:

Weh nuh dead, nuh call him duppy!”
Literal meaning: “If something is not dead, don’t call it a ghost.”
Translation: “Never underestimate people, even when they are down”. Or more simply, “Where there is life, there is hope!”

Funeral Blog Pic 4

Keep Calm and Make a Friend!

In my introductory blog, I promised to take my readers on a journey across borders on the road to developing or honing your cross-cultural skills. I recently took a cross-cultural journey of my own – for the second time when I rediscovered my journal from my sojourn in Japan 10 years ago. It was an interesting read, reliving many of the new and fascinating cultural experiences that had come to characterize my every day life. It was even more interesting to note my sometimes sub-conscious chronicling of my own cross-cultural adjustment to a society and a way of life far different from my own.

There were vivid descriptions of the culturally and symbolically rich tea ceremonies and the well-preserved traditions reflected in Japanese festivals and sports such as archery. But there was also the rude culture shock of suddenly finding myself thrown back to my childhood days, feeling like I was a helpless three year old again. I am sure it wasn’t funny at the time of writing, but I couldn’t help but laugh as I re-read my account of my first solo trip to the supermarket. What should have been a “quick pop into the grocery” turned out to be a much extended and confusing exercise, with me poring over milk cartons in Aisle 3 trying to decipher whether this box was full cream or low-fat milk, and if the latter – well what percent?!! Kudos for actually recognizing the milk though – I apparently wasn’t that lucky with the tuna, the labels for which didn’t match the complex characters I had diligently (and probably quite incorrectly) copied down from the can in my kitchen cupboard at home!

Travel Journal5“Suddenly I feel like an unintelligent illiterate moron”, I wrote, “pacing back and forth through the aisles trying to find something, anything I can recognize. Bread!! That’s easy enough! Why can’t tuna, soup and every thing else be packaged in see-through plastic cellophane like the bread? Why can’t things just be written in English??!” the pages of my journal screamed!

Needless to say, I survived that ordeal, and went on to survive two more years in Japan. As the scale attested (protested!) on my return home, I certainly didn’t starve (so maybe I didn’t find the low-fat milk after all!), and as memory serves, there were no unfortunate incidents of cat food mistaken for tuna…… Did my helplessness disappear overnight? Of course not! And my ability to read Japanese food labels certainly didn’t improve overnight either. What did change was my approach; an acceptance of my new reality and of those circumstances I was not in a position to immediately change. I also had to press my coping skills into service. These are important elements of cross cultural adjustment.

I recognized that I wasn’t quite ready to go ‘solo’ and still needed help in adjusting to my new and very different environment. My bilingual colleagues and acquaintances, both local and foreigners made it on to my speed dial list immediately. This put me on a path to an easier and less stressful adjustment. Fast-forward a few pages in my journal, and trips to the supermarket are no longer a feature, proving that if you keep calm and find a friend, you can make it through that initial culture shock, and enjoy a smoother transition to your new host culture.

Adjustment to new environments is a process and it requires patience. When moving to a new culture, particularly one where the language is unfamiliar to you, prepare yourself mentally for that “step backwards” that you will inevitably have to take, and acknowledge that you will need help in getting adjusted and learning your way around. Things you took for granted in your every day life at home such as going to the supermarket, doing simple bank transactions, and explaining to the doctor where it Helphurts will be challenging, and you will need a buddy, (preferably a bilingual one!) to help you out. Don’t fight it – now is not the time to prove your super independence – that will come later! And don’t allow yourself to get frustrated, or to think of yourself as stupid for not being able to ‘figure it out’ or get by on your own. Rather, think of the times when you have seen a foreigner in your own country looking lost and confused, and how you stepped in to help them out. Go ye and find likewise!

Also focus on the positives – the incremental steps you make in adapting to your new cultural context, and celebrate them. I remember laughing at my British colleague and thinking how silly she was when she told me she had done somersaults on her bed the first time she was able to call a taxi company and request a taxi for the correct pick-up time and addrJump for Joy 1ess in Japanese – all by herself! Well, wasn’t so long before I was doing my own cartwheels after successfully completing a transaction at the ATM all by myself! Okay, so I had gone to the bank armed with the detailed instruction sheet which a bilingual friend had helpfully prepared for me, complete with diagrams showing what sequence of buttons to push when. And yes I had anxiously consulted the crumpled paper over and over again throughout the “simple” transaction while the line of (patient!) customers behind me stretched down the block, but the point is, I eventually got it done, and hooray – I had made another positive step in my cross cultural journey! Why, in just a few weeks, I graduated from being a three year old to at least a five year old!

There are many more steps one will have to take on the road to cultural adjustment, but keep in mind that some times they will be baby steps, and other times giant steps. With each step, big or small, you will feel more comfortable in your new environment and more confident in maneuvering your way through difficulties and doing things on your own.

Finding someone or someones to help you make even the baby steps will set you on your way for making the giant steps, quite possibly on your own. So don’t panic, keep calm, keep journalling and go make a friend!

“No soy de aquí ni soy de allá”

I recently saw the phrase “No soy de aquí ni soy de allá, and thought how apt it was to describe a passionate cross-culturalist like myself. Literally translated it means – “I am neither from here, nor from there”, or “I belong neither here, nor there”. As a Cross-Culturalist, I chose to interpret the phrase in a different way – it could also mean I am not from any one place; meaning I can fit in anywhere.

Now of course I am from somewhere, we all are, and moreover I am fiercely proud of where I am from – I am a Jamaican through and through, “a yaadie to de bone” in local parlance, but despite what my passport and birth certificate say, I like to think that I truly could be from, or fit in anywhere. That is to say, that I could learn and adopt the social values, behavioural characteristics traditions that define another group of people and their culture.

Would I stop being Jamaican or lose my Jamaican identity? No, never! But by opening my mind a bit, perhaps I could experience and learn something from another culture, just maybe I could taste, enjoy and even benefit from a bit of “allá”.

Now doGlobe of Flagsn’t get me wrong – many people think that developing cross cultural competence means that you have to be completely open to every aspect of other cultures, and lose your own in the process. Not so at all,. Think of it like a marriage – you know the age-old saying that we always hear at weddings “I am not losing a daughter, I am gaining a son”, or vice-versa. Cliché, but true – transferred to the cross cultural context, when you immerse yourself, or even take the trouble to scratch the surface of another culture, you are not losing your own culture, you are ‘gaining’ another one. Not all at once of course – after all, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and adapting to another culture isn’t either. It’s more ofa gradual and slowly illuminating process, sort of like the courtship which eventually leads to the parent gaining that son or daughter.

Moreover, and very importantly, it’s entirely up to you to determine what aspects of a different culture you like, appreciate and feel comfortable embracing, and what aspects you have no interest in pursuing or no palate for. Take me for example, I lived in Japan for two years and never developed a palate for squid and octopus, holding firm to the belief that anything that has the potential to strangle you should not be eaten! Nevertheless, as unappealing as that part of Japanese culinary culture was for me, it was made up for in plenty by my more than healthy appetite for a wide range of Japanese cuisine, as well as various other non-culinary aspects of Japanese culture including ikebana and taiko, a Japanese form of drumming. Rather than feeling like I had “lost” my own culture I developed a much healthier appreciation for it (try not speaking patois for two years except to yourself because that’s the only “other” person who can understand it!). The food, the music, our unique Jamaican sense of humour and ability to “tek-bad-tings-mek-joke” all assumed a much higher reverence with every passing month I spent away from home.

And if indeed at any time I “lost” my culture, I did so deliberately – losing pieces of it to my Japanese students as I taught them to make Jamaican dishes, to dance reggae, to speak a few phrases in Jamaican patois, and as I shared tidbits about our every day life and traditions. So in effect, my “loss” was their gain. And not only did many of them vow to come to Jamaica one day to experience its culture first-hand, some actually did. Hmmm….so in fact, not only their gain, but our collective gain too.Jamaican Booth @ Miyazaki International Festival 2002

Hopefully my blogs will help you to understand this process and gradually fine-tune your cross-cultural radars. I hope to help you see that developing cross-cultural competency is not that hard –  it’s a discipline yes, and must be learnt to some extent sure, but it’s not a text-book, “swotting-for-an-exam” kind of hard. Think of it more as a natural and voluntary process –a journey if you will. And as we journey and take a bit of our cultural differences from aquí and mix them with our cultural experience from allá, I guarantee you we can eventually create a sum that is far richer than what we each started off with. Slowly but surely we may begin to think “No soy de aquí, ni soy de allá”……..   

                                                                                                          Janet in Kimono_1