Bridging 9,700 miles and a 12 hour time difference with words
How words helped two women find common ground despite distance and a 12 hour time lag.
Late last year I joined Jeff Goin’s on-line platform building course at www.tribewriters.com.
In one of the practice modules, I found a post by Kathleen Caron that was very critical of Americans and how Americans had grown cold and uncaring in their affluence and independence. By way of contrast, the writer spoke about how some Vietnamese women helped her load her groceries at Costco, a unique occurrence. Praising their culture, she said – “People in the “two-thirds” world understand community. For them, it’s a matter of survival.”
Being Asian and married into the Vietnamese-American community I posted a comment quite different from most of her American audience, telling Kathleen that she’d romanticized us in less developed countries – “We are always saying how Americans are so kind, how they’re not money-minded, not looking out for personal advantage. The grass is always greener on the other side. We’re all human under the skin, with the same capacity for kindness and cruelty. We all need redemption.”
My sharing of writing, recipes and culture with Kathleen, who blogs at http://kathleencaron.com has convinced that indeed “words help” and we are all “human under our skin.” It is in this spirit that I post this interview with Kathleen, a woman who stands with me on common ground despite distance and a 12 hour time difference.
Tell me a little about yourself, where you grew up, your work and your family?
I grew up in a small industrial town and came to loathe the stultifying, close-minded atmosphere of small town life. I got out of there at the earliest opportunity, and as an adult, I’ve always lived in urban or suburban areas. In 1996, our family settled in the suburbs of Washington DC, as polyglot and culturally diverse a place as you will find in the entire world.
I love living in the DC metro area, because of the myriad cultural influences and vibrant energy. Do you want to catch a Bollywood movie, or eat Ethiopian food, or see a Spanish-language play adapted from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel? It’s all here, and more. That’s the upside.
The downside is the frantic pace, the impatience and competitiveness. People are in such a hurry, they will run you down. The sense of community is sacrificed to the speed of life.
My husband is originally from Quebec and grew up speaking French. We have a daughter, aged 22, in nursing school, a son, aged 20, studying economics on an Army scholarship, and a 15 year old son in high school. The 15 year old provides most of my blogging material.
Currently, I work for a nonprofit development/relief organization that helps extremely poor children and families in Sierra Leone
Like Kathleen I was born in what was once a very small faraway place, a previous colony of Great Britain, a tiny island called Singapore. Like her I yearned to get away from my roots and have always lived in bigger cities near or at the centre of things. Now I’m back in Singapore, a place that’s become as polyglot and diverse as Kathleen’s Washington DC suburbs. Like Kathleen, I married someone from a once French speaking country, Vietnam, and we have 3 children, the oldest a girl, the youngest a 14 year old boy. And, like Kathleen one of the things I’m committed to is a charity for poor children, although my children are in Vietnam and not Sierra Leone.
What did you think when you first read my comment about the Vietnamese ladies?
I thought, “She got me.” I romanticize people in the developing world and see in them virtues I don’t discern in my fellow Americans. Several mission trips to Africa reinforced my views. The hospitality and generosity that was extended to me by extremely poor people stood in sharp contrast to my experiences with affluent Americans. I live in one of the wealthiest counties in the US, but instead of being blessed by their wealth and comfort, people seem burdened by the fear of losing it. That “love-of-stuff” sets a stressful, fearful, unhappy tone where I live and work. Yet, I am aware that American people are capable of great charity and valor. So your point was well taken.
Yes! Both of us have a tendency to romanticize the other. I was blown away by the high-mindedness of the American Constitution when I first studied it as a teen. When I came to live in the States as a young married woman, it was the openness of Americans I came to admire. But like Kathleen, I am aware of the kindness of Asians too. And now that I am older, I’ve also experienced the materialism, thoughtlessness and cold-heartedness of the cultures on both sides of the Pacific. It isn’t whether we’re Asian or American, it is a disease of modernism that is infecting the world.
Tell me 10 things you knew/thought/experienced about South East Asians (Vietnamese, Singaporeans, Myanmar) before we began to connect?
- I believed that Southeast Asian people were more community-minded than Americans.
- I have a dear Vietnamese friend whose English is very limited. We met when she volunteered to cut poor people’s hair at the nonprofit center where I work. She lost her daughter in a car accident ten years ago. Instead of withdrawing from life, she reaches out and helps the less fortunate.
- I have never met anyone from Myanmar.
- I helped a lady from Thailand rewrite her resume. The next day she showed up with a huge plate of spring rolls. Do you know how unusual that is? Americans for whom I have done far more didn’t bother to send me a thank you note.
- Southeast Asians are driven and sacrificial, especially where it involves helping their children to get ahead.
- My dermatologist is Vietnamese. English is her second language, but she graduated from Duke.
- I like Vietnamese food. I don’t like Thai food. Cilantro, basil and mint in the same dish? No.
- Everything I know about Southeast Asian politics I learned from the movies “The Year of Living Dangerously” and “Beyond Rangoon.” This is to say, not much.
- Breaking the law in Singapore may result in caning.
- I saw a Thai ballet one time. The music and dance were exquisitely, heart-breakingly beautiful and elegant. There is a lot to love about Southeast Asian culture.
What are the 10 new experiences/realizations you’ve had since we connected?
- You are the first Singaporean I have encountered. Based on that, Singaporeans are generous, observant, truthful and open-minded. And they’re good writers, and they love food. (Hmmm, some Singaporeans are generous, observant, truthful, open-minded and good writers. But yes! Almost every Singaporean loves food)
- The first thing I read of yours was the post about the Delhi rape victim and it blew me away. Tribe Writers is an incubator, a safe place where people do a lot of navel-gazing, and here was someone writing about an explosive topic with courage, fire and depth. (Thank you Kathleen. Tribewriters is a great place isn’t it? And I was frightened writing that post. It was the first time I’d written so frankly. I felt supported by your comments)
- It’s okay to say what you think when commenting on people’s writing. They won’t scream or die or hate you. In fact, they might learn something. (I’ve realized that too.)
- How incredible is it that I have a friend who lives nearly 10,000 miles away, and we’ve never actually met? (Incredible!)
- Although separated by nearly 10,000 miles, we have a lot in common: a teenage son and a 20-something son; a love of books and culture; a desire to write; a cross-cultural marriage and most of all, our faith in God. (Isn’t this something?)
- You adopted your younger son, who was born deaf, and taught him to speak, which makes you my hero. (It was a blessing for me. It made me so grateful about what we are all “normally” born with.)
- You have banana trees growing in your yard, which is awesome. 😉
- You gave me a recipe for my blog, Banana Yogurt Muffins. Everyone loves them. (Singaporeans are born with good taste buds. This is a fact even if no scientific work has been done on the subject!!!)
- I need to see the movie “The Lady” about Aung San Suu Kyi. (Yes, you do!)
- Since Singapore has the third highest per capita income in the world (I looked it up) I wonder if where you live isn’t actually a lot like where I live, with the problems that accompany affluence. (You are right.)
How do you think “words help” in forging new connections?
Words help when people speak the truth kindly and respectfully, and when they are willing to reach outside their orbit. How would I have ever connected with a woman in Singapore, if not for an honest and challenging comment, written by someone with a different take based on personal experience?
Words can inform, console, amuse, correct and uplift. But words can also condemn, accuse, stereotype and humiliate. As it says in Proverbs, “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Words have real power.
C.S. Lewis wrote that “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: “What! You too? I thought I was the only one.” Because of the written word, I have made friends all over the world as we connected through shared beliefs, hope and dreams.
What have words taught you about everyone being “common under the skin” and “all in need of redemption”?
We may be separated by language, and defined by our culture, but at heart, people want the same things: to live in peace and prosperity, to enjoy their families and friends, to do rewarding work, and to be healthy (except for criminals, the insane and megalomaniacs, of course.) All of us, everywhere, desperately need to know that our lives matter, that we are loved and valued.
Every person you meet has something to teach you, and you have something to teach them. We all want to be heard, but we need to start by listening. When we reach across the cultural divide, we see that it was never that broad in the first place. We are all God’s children, and we are all in need of grace and forgiveness.
So there we have it, in the words of someone who’s her own person and also another human under the skin, just like me.
What Kathleen didn’t say: – Her hero is Bishop John Rucyahana in Rwanda. She is kind of political but whether or not she likes you has nothing to do with politics. She loves music, books, movies, food, health, culture, nature, home improvement, self-improvement, art, history, trends, language and sports. She loves God and her family. She loves discovering new things and sharing them.
You will find her sharing her life and loves at http://kathleencaron.com/
And if you want to be part of the Tribewriters community, there’s a new course coming up soon. Just go to www.tribewriters.com to sign in.