Very random cross-cultural speaking tips

Okay, this is quite random. I was just searching for an old email and found these tips I wrote when I was one of the leaders on a cross-cultural team in Bulgaria. It was a list of tips for the team regarding public speaking:

1. Speak with confidence (try not to "ummm..." or "welllll..." so much).
2. Keep hands out of your pockets (it's considered rude here, even when just standing around on the street; pockets are for things, not hands). Never ever cross your arms in front of an audience.
3. Try not to say "you guys..." (e.g. "We've really had a great time with you guys...").
4. Try to put across the fact that we are here to learn about others first and then we would like them to also learn something about us.
5. Look attentive during meetings; even though you don't understand a word of what is said, it's impolite to daze off. There is a certain art to doing this that may take years to master.
6. If you say what state you are from, be sure to add " the United States." (e.g. if you say "I'm from Georgia" here, people will assume you are from The Republic of Georgia).
7. Even when the translator is translating, you are still "speaking." Be sure to retain contact with the listeners.
8. Even if you (as a team) don't know what you are doing next on stage, try to make it appear like you are all "on plan" (try to maintain the appearance that you have everything worked out; first we will speak a bit, then sing, then so and so will give a testimony; rather than conferring after everything you do).
9. This is where you are "on point." Try to maintain enthusiasm; this meeting may be the only time this group of people meet the team; even though you are exhausted, it's important to give a good presentation of yourselves and be enthusiastic (this is a cardinal rule of all presentations).
10. If something happens that is an English linguistic mistake, try not to laugh or make note of it; people will not understand why you are laughing.
11. Don't "bumble about." It's distracting to the people watching. Try to be as smooth as possible with your physical movements and transitions on and off stage.
12. Gentlemen should let ladies enter and exit the stage first.
13. Hands to the sides or in "praise the LORD" mode whilst singing (definitely not in pockets).

This was all for a project through the American Baptist Mission Board; I did month-long cultural immersion trips with them in Japan, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic. I did media for the trips but sort of wish I had it all to do over again with the tools that are available today! I came across another email on suggestions for brands of MiniDV tape but somehow think that's probably not especially relevant anymore. 

Unpacking India

I’m back home in the States after these past several weeks in India; though I packed light (physically and metaphorically), there will be a significant unpacking over the coming days and weeks. I’ve worked or lived in something like twenty countries over the past ten years and have, I think, some resiliency concerning cultural entry and travel. However, this trip has tested some of my limits; it’s not so much India itself (though there is that thing with the full on mass of people and sound crashing headlong upon new arrivals), it’s more the subject matter we were dealing with and my own response to it.
I have some theoretical understanding of trafficking and prostitution (I’ve read a good deal and have come across the issues in past work); however, I’ve never completely assessed what I would have to call my own spiritual response to them. That sounds implausible (or seems so to me) as I’m supposedly concerned with the matter; but there is a difference between what can be a genuine concern and a more complete assessment of the deeper heart connexion between why people do dark things and where those kinds of things reside in one’s own person.

We came to matters that I have difficulty understanding. I can understand the language that was spoken, I understand the reality of what is happening; but I cannot understand within myself how I would do these things. We spoke much about the issues that women face in India; what we did not consider as much are the spirits of men in the country. Yes, the women are in a dark place; but it’s the men looming over that casts the shadow. I’m trying to avoid some kind of blanket judgement as three weeks in any place (especially a place as large and diverse as India) will reveal little about its complete nature. What I must do though is take what we’ve experienced and contrast it with my self-knowledge (as I think that’s the purpose of travel to begin with).

What is my own nature concerning women and does it contribute to that shadow over them? I’m not sure that is the entire question (as it makes an assumption that men are essentially in the position to decide whether the shadow is cast or not—which is a larger discussion concerning the self-empowerment of women and the assumptions that are made concerning power). There are practical manifestations of power in the world that we see every day; but I want to take care not to work from a false paradigm to begin with and then feel all comfortable because I’ve overcome it. It would be relatively simple for me to say ‘I don’t fit into this category of men’ and place myself firmly into another category that is equally dis-empowering (to myself and, potentially, the women I know).

A couple times on the trip I caught myself in a ‘wait; what is happening here inside me’ moment. It’s so easy, especially when considering the extremes of these situations, to separate oneself out from ‘them’. I can’t fathom prostituting my own wife; but wait, there is something there—I cannot distance myself so far from a man who would do this that I need not consider the roots of the matter inside me.

Right now I am massively jet-lagged but want to begin the unpacking while the thoughts are still fresh; much more to come soon.

Monkey roadkill

We flew from Mumbai to Hyderabad the day before yesterday and then rode six hours by Land Rover into the country…far into the country. Not ‘far into the country’ like when I visited the DR Congo and we flew into the interior (there is a good highway system here; the ride itself was fairly direct) but far distant from much of what one would consider developed (e.g. if one wants some kind of western comprehension, we are about as far away from a Starbucks as we can get). That is, of course, not to say we are in the middle of nothingness; there are people all around (mostly agriculture and brick-making here).
The highway was four lane most of the way; or rather, perhaps ‘five lane’ is a more appropriate description. In addition to the travel and passing lane, there is a hazy area of centre lane that serves as a passing stretch depending on the size and speed of one’s vehicle. This goes for the freeway as well as the two lane stretches; we spent a good deal of time pummelling head-on into oncoming traffic to pass the continuous stream of ox carts, autorickshaws, mopeds, busses, and bicycles in the road and any combination of these broken down or stopped to rest in the lane. There were, of course, many people on foot and piles of gravel or produce impeding or otherwise re-directing the flow of traffic. Passing would be otherwise straightforward but the direction of traffic becomes ambiguous when a vehicle is also passing traffic in the oncoming lane (thus, there would be passing vehicles pulling into both lanes simultaneously and all four vehicles would then be driving into each other in both lanes—often this would occur in the undefined centre lane whilst vehicles in both lanes were passing the aforementioned slower vehicles. I am especially thankful we had a week of riding in Mumbai taxis; otherwise I don’t know how I would have faced such a ride with composure. I think, however, that we saw but one accident the whole way; there must be a wonderful hive mind at work that safely moves people and animals out of harm’s way.

We stopped along the way at a roadside eatery (again, it’s very difficult to describe for my Western friends what this is here; it was simply a concrete shed with an open face toward the road. The food was cooked over an open wood fire and brought to the table on metal plates). This was for our driver to have lunch (we had a bite at the airport). At some point whilst we were sitting at the table sipping our Cokes (which, of course, are ubiquitous no matter how far one is from anything), a jeep-load of soldiers pulled up. Man with machine gun came in and checked the place out and then a man who is probably military but is important enough that he need not wear a uniform came in to a little side room to meet with a couple men and eat. The man with the machine gun sat outside and eyed us cautiously (though I would imagine it was obvious to him that we were not a credible threat as our disguise was not especially appropriate for the setting).

This is the first place I’ve been where the roadkill are monkeys. We saw several troupes of them roadside; I saw one in particular making a gesture with an expression of, “what is all this conflagration on the highway!”

We arrived just after dark; as dusk falls, travel becomes even more stimulating; apparently, as long as one can see the road ahead, precious filament in the headlamps are conserved and they remain off. Of course, in a humid country at dusk, the means that one may not be able to see an oncoming vehicle in either the passing or (now especially) hazy centre area. So there was much flashing of headlights to send the message of “My oncoming brother vehicle, let us not collide and put an abrupt end to our perfectly good day of travel.”

So now we are in a quite peaceful rural setting for the next few days; it’s a pleasant contrast to hear night sounds and have fresh air after the closeness of Mumbai over the past week. I’m hoping I can slow down slightly and do a bit more of the work I’m planning to do on this trip; I feel a bit out of practice frankly and it’s taking some time to get up to speed (on top of all the normal adjustment it takes to enter a new country and culture).

The organisation we are visiting here is called the Bharti Integrated Rural Development Society

Walking mind

I am from the country; I’ve lived in (well ordered) cities where cars and people obey a very prescribed set of rules and expectations. There are, I’m sure, a clear set of rules here in Mumbai for pedestrian and vehicular traffic; however, to a newcomer, it seems like full on chaos. We walked most of the day through the city from our hotel to the bay (we are staying in the southern part of the city near the water). I’m not sure if I can fully describe the experience of walking through the city. First, there is the aural onslaught; beyond the noise of various sizes and vintages of internal combustion engines in whatever state of repair, there is a constant chorus of horns (constant—in that all the vehicles are constantly honking. When the light turns to green for instance, all vehicles following the front rank honk in case the leaders forget to link the concept of ‘green’ with going onward). Secondly, there is a hazy idea of what would ostensibly be termed ‘lanes’; as the road is shared by taxis, rickshaws, mopeds, busses, and cement trucks, each finds it’s own space no matter what kind of line would seem appropriate for forward travel. Third, when one crosses the street, there is none of this ‘wait for the green man to illuminate and then, when all traffic has ceased, cross the street in the marked pedestrian lane’ nonsense. Instead, one just goes into moving traffic and squeezes into the (narrow) spaces between the vehicles hurling toward you honking their horns (in case you’ve forgotten the concept of self preservation and the physics of the intersection of a human body and a steel box). And lastly there is the inevitable pollution from so many old vehicles running in the confined space of a city.
From the above, it would seem much more sensible to stay off the street altogether and simply walk on the sidewalk; however, the sidewalk is reserved for commerce (street stalls and hawkers) as well as living space. Everywhere there are people literally living by the side of the street; one walks by a family group cooking over a brazier and just going about their domestic business. So it’s often easier to gingerly make one’s way along right on the side of traffic in the street itself. It’s a wonderful mix of dynamic life all laid out in the open.

I’ve started an online gallery to post images from the trip; most of these will be general street shots as the images I’m making in the shelters we are visiting can’t be published openly as we need to be sensitive to identity protection. Click here for the gallery.

Second day in India

(...and still pretty jet-lagged; I slept for about four hours last night but woke up around midnight and was just awake till morning. Very frustrating when one ‘tries’ very hard to fall asleep but just cannot. I think I’ll break down and drug myself up tonight or I’m going to get all out of whack. Thankfully, the food borne illness from Germany seems to have…passed.)
We met yesterday and today with folk from Jyoti Kalash. They work mainly with prostituted women and their children in Kamathipura the red light district in Mumbai (which is also Asia’s largest red light district). We walked around the district yesterday (I had not slept for over thirty hours; this, combined with the full on onslaught of that is India, made the experience doubly intense—or perhaps numbing). There are perhaps 30,000 sex workers in the district and 100,000 in Mumbai as a whole. The common situation is that a woman will rent a bed in a collective house; this is her whole world where she works, eats, sleeps. Some are basically lockable cubicles but oftentimes it’s just a bed with dividing curtains. The beds are set up on blocks and the woman’s children live in the space beneath. We went into one working home where five or six women live and work in the space of about 12×20 feet.

The children of these women are at risk from a number of established factors (about 50% have TB according to a paediatrician we spoke with at a local hospital). We went today to an outlying suburb of the city to see a home Jyoti Kalash has established for girls who are children of sex workers. This provides a safe place for one but they also provide tutoring for school and such basic secondary services as they would not receive living in a brothel (the girls, by the way are exceptionally bright and articulate. They all speak three languages and we had some very witty conversations in English). Dr. Welch, who I am travelling with, is attempting to asses what they health needs of the children are (or more specifically, how her organisation might come alongside Jyoti Kalash and similar NGOs here and asses what these needs are; the health situation of prostituted women and their children here is a bit nebulous). Surprisingly, when I looked at their textbooks, they were vaguely familiar; they are from the same publisher my High School used.

There is a whole lot more to write which I will parse out over the incoming days (not going to write as much now as I’ve mentally hazy and need some rest to be a bit more articulate). However, in a place where just attempting to walk along the street requires all my mental and physical agility, it’s going to take some doing to tell the story! We already ridden in their ubiquitous taxis, second class on the regional train and an auto-rickshaw. The interactions with people are interesting to observe as well (haven’t seen many westerners); especially on the train back today the men were staring Katherine down—not in a super creepy way, but more like “what is this strange creature” (nobody seemed to notice me but I don’t have bright gold hair).

Not the best start

Though not the worst either; I flew into Frankfurt yesterday from the mess of snowstorms that are playing havoc with travel in the States right now. My flight made it without incident; however, somehow my baggage did not make it here with me. Lufthansa didn’t have it in their system that it was handed off from United to Lufthansa…so, they had to track it down. The service people at Lufthansa are great; they are just very…German. The woman at the service counter handed me an overnight bag with toiletries €100 in cash for the trouble (this is why I fly Lufthansa). The bag magically materialised here at my hotel this afternoon.
I woke around midnight and went straight to the toilet to hurl up most of what I had consumed the previous afternoon and evening. I find it bewildering that I can go years without catching cold; however, I pick up food poisoning at the drop of a hat. More bewildering is the fact that I never get it in dodgy places; it’s always in someplace like Scotland (thank you Gerri and Stephen for taking care of me in the bothy) or the Czech Republic (thank you Andrea for taking care of me—several times). I was supposed to fly on to Mumbai today; however the last time I had food poisoning and ‘felt better’ the morning before a flight, I became even more ill on the plane and had paramedics waiting on the ground when we landed. I thought it would be prudent to delay a day rather than risking a trip to the hospital in Mumbai. So I’m booked for tomorrow’s flight (thank you Travelex Travel insurance for…well nobody was here to take care of me, but they will take care of fees and such later).

Have spent most of the day resting and re-hydrating; also watching the Olympics in German. I just came back from the airport (I’m in an airport hotel); had a leisurely dinner there and watched people go to and fro to all places far and near. I Looked in the pricey shops (was thinking about buying a pair of jeans but they are €100! Though I suppose I could have used the €100 from Lufthansa).

Hopefully the lost baggage and food borne illness gremlins are worked out for this trip and all will go smoothly hereon (knocking on the Holiday Inn Express plywood with veneer table).

Going to India

I’ve, quite suddenly, the opportunity to travel across India in February-March with Dr. Katherine Welch to document an informal survey trip to meet with NGOs who might partner with her organisation, Global Health Promise. GHP is dedicated to protecting mothers and their children from the impact of trafficking, prostitution, and sexual exploitation. Katherine will determine what GHP can offer concerning health issues faced by trafficked people, prostitutes and, particularly, the children of women who are in these situations.
Following that I’ll go to Mysore for a couple weeks to document the work of Sarah Jane Whitehouse, a Glasgow based artist I know from my past life in Scotland. Sarah will do art therapy with girls who were trafficked and now trying to re-enter society. Her therapy will focus on issues of identity, self-worth and trust.

This is sort of a proof-of-concept trip for me; I’m working on several connected projects right now that seem like they will probably coalesce into one at some point (with people I’ve had contact with concerning trafficking over the past few years and with BuildaBridge, the non-profit I’m associated with in Philadelphia). We attempt to place art therapists, via a program we have going at BuildaBridge, with partner organisations that work with children in some of the world’s toughest situations. As follow-up to that, we want to do ‘personal history’ projects and bring their stories out for awareness, support, and hopefully as a way to help people feel validated as human beings. On this trip I’ll take along a small kit of digital cameras and an audio recorder to produce several pieces such as these: MediaStorm (in the incoming weeks I’ll post more specifics on the type of work I’m aiming to do here. It’s a fine balance of sensitivity to keep when working with people who have already been exploited).

I’ve the promise of some preliminary funding for travel expenses; however, we would like to raise some further funding to cover equipment and supplies. BuildaBridge will act as my fiduciary agent for this trip so any donations you might like to make are tax-deductible. I’m hoping to put together some solid media from this trip to show what it is we are hoping to do and then I’ll seek further grant funding (we have already submitted one related grant and have further proposals in the works). Please contact me at if you would either like to make a donation or are interested in the project as a whole (I’ll also publish more detailed proposals in the incoming month concerning the project as it relates to BuildaBridge and, separately, the potential for telling the life stories of trafficked people worldwide. I’m working on a curriculum for training our artists to gather these stories in the field and, of course, empowering people to relate their own).

This has been my back-burner project for several years now; it seems it may come to the forefront soon. Again, this initial trip is an informal survey where I’ll be thinking through how to do the larger project. Much more to come…

Update: There is now a secure donation page for this; click here and then select “storytelling project” from the drop-down menu (be sure to do this as we have several programs on here and the donation needs to be designated towards a particular one).

Also, here is a description on the BuildaBridge site of what we hope to develop this into.

Bitching (abroad and at home)

I flew back from Glasgow to Pittsburgh last evening; I want to bitch for a moment about people bitching about…everything. Americans seem to complain a lot about non-essential matters. I know that these are a limited selection of people I’m observing and, no doubt, I’ve witlessly overheard the same things in other languages around the world—but I’m continually nonplussed with the reactions American travellers have concerning the places they visit. It’s as if everything is not America, then it’s all wrong; excuse me, the point of travel is to go someplace that is not like your home—that’s the point!
I overheard (or was trapped near) several bitching sessions yesterday. Whilst waiting for my connecting flight in Philadelphia, I sat across a middle-aged couple on their way back from holiday (in the Caribbean, I believe; there was mention of islands and they were both browned to a crisp). The woman spoke loudly into her mobile explaining all the woes of the journey; the man sat stone-faced staring off into the distance. She went on about how it rained, things were too expensive, the food was different, there were people speaking languages she didn’t understand, the beach was filled with skinny people (they were both grossly overweight), they should have gone on a cruse instead, there was nothing to do at the resort but sit around, there weren’t enough places to shop, it was hot, on and on and on! Madam, I have a solution for you: Stay At Home! Do Not Leave the Country! If you honestly cannot gain anything from even this limited cross-cultural experience, just don’t attempt it; you are re-enforcing the Ugly American stereotype and we don’t need that at the moment. (The best part was after she hung up, she turned to her husband and said that the person she was speaking with didn’t even ask how the trip was…she just had to tell it all without prompting. Did you consider that this other person might not have wanted to hear your whining?)

There is so much we can learn whilst travelling; yes, it is different and yes there are often difficulties and trials on the journey. Go, see the world and realise you are not the centre of it; realise that the difficulties you face as a traveller are nothing compared to the everyday matters faced by many of the people you are visiting. But, if you are going to have a mental hernia if there is no ketchup on the table or if you feel you must be rude to the locals as a matter of course, don’t go. Stay on your sofa. Watch television. Get fatter. Your carbon footprint for travel is too high in this case.

Okay, I now have that out of my system…onward.