We're Not in Kansas Anymore, Toto (Caitlin)
Last time, I wrote about all the ways our lives are very similar to our friends and family down south. So, it seemed fitting if this time I write about some of the ways our lives differ now. Sometimes I’ll be going about my day when all the sudden it’s almost like I’m experiencing parallel vision, where suddenly I see through both my old lens and my new changing lens. I’d like to let you in on that, if I can.
Loving This Fishbowl Life
One of the biggest differences in our life now is not having our own living space. We live in what you can probably best picture as a church basement that is open to the public with offices that are used Monday-Friday upstairs. Sometimes it’s just our family staying downstairs, but sometimes there are guests who stay for anywhere from one night to a couple weeks. The building is also open for community events sometimes, like using the kitchen for cookout stuff or the main space for a workshop on traditional teas. The other night we ate our spaghetti dinner while an elder sat nearby in the entryway gutting a cooler of fish. It was awhile before I realized that once upon a time that would have seemed much stranger to me than it did. hahahThere have been a lot of growing pains for our family as we’ve adjusted over the last year to sharing space with other people. The idea of “needing” privacy is deeply ingrained in mainstream North American culture. I used to think that I needed complete privacy so that I could truly relax, or to parent my kids, or have authentic conversation with Matt. But I think I’ve learned two crucial things: how to live normally even with other people around, and work-arounds for when we really do need privacy. Basically, it comes down to this being what true community is, people seeing you in your entirety. That’s probably part of why you don’t need to knock before you go into someone’s house here — you just open the door and go on in.And there is beauty to be found as I learn to embrace the authenticity of it. As lots of you know, I have some leftover neurological glitches from past brain bleeds. I’m used to just staying home for the most part if I’m having an off day and my left side isn’t working (on bad days I basically just drag my left half around with me). Is that desire to hide based in dignity? In pride? Probably depends on the day. In any case, hiding from the world isn’t as much of an option here. Authenticity is the name of the game even when you’d prefer to stop playing. But here’s the super cool thing: people here care and they meet you where you’re at. So last weekend when my leg just would not work, I discovered over the next few days that all my responsibilities had been cancelled/taken care of without me even knowing it. No one talked to me directly, but someone called the radio and cancelled Sunday School. The little girl I have been taking care of in the afternoons just didn’t come on Monday and when I texted her mom she just said, “I heard you weren’t feeling well.” Everyone here sees each other’s positives, negatives, needs, and all the in-between and they respond accordingly. This is the beauty of the fishbowl life.
In our home culture, we take it for granted that we generally know what’s happening. That is not the case here, but we’ve gotten more comfortable as we’ve learned to embrace the high levels of ambiguity. Sometimes I think that that is THE key to living cross-culturally: being okay with never knowing what’s going on. haha And I’m not just meaning when this or that event is going to happen. There’s just so much that you don’t know when you don’t share the same context or have the same information at hand. And typically, you don’t know what you don’t know. So you end up either asking stupid/inappropriate questions, or you learn to just watch until you see something one day that makes it all click.One of our minor everyday puzzles was wondering why everyone always asks us, “Is that your baby?” Kids, adults, whoever, will ask me, the only white mother in this community, this question while pointing at Elijah, strapped to my chest in the carrier, the only white baby in this community. Yes, this is indeed my baby. BUT, the other day, Matt was sitting beside this woman at a community event who had a baby on her lap. He asked her, “How old is your baby?” She chuckled and said, “This isn’t my baby…” You see, down south, babies are much more physically attached to one person, generally their mother. Mom is the one responsible for carrying baby around and tending to their needs, ALWAYS. Here, anybody could be taking care of someone else’s baby. I’ve been to a baptism where there were three women at the front with the rest of the family. I watched as through the service one fed the baby, another got him a blanket, the third went and found his soother, and they all took turns carrying him/soothing him pretty much equally. At the end of the service I still had no idea who the mother was. So that assumption we have down south, that the woman carrying the baby is the baby’s mother, isn’t the same here. So, “Is this your baby?” suddenly makes a lot of sense as one of the first questions to ask a woman with a baby, right? And over time it becomes THE question you always ask someone with a baby, kind of like how we ask things like, “How old is your baby?” “Boy or girl?” “What’s his/her name?”So that’s a long story to illustrate a very minor type of mystery that can exist when you’re living cross-culturally. Now imagine trying to figure out things that actually matter, like how to make friends, how to show kindness, how to express your sympathy at the loss of a family member, or even simple gratitude. How to get gas at the store, how to visit people you don’t know (and find out where they live), what to say to them once you’re in their home (and how to communicate if they don’t speak English). These are all things that are so obvious when you’re in your home culture. But if you watch a little kid and the kind of social mistakes they make, you can start to recognize just how arbitrary some of our “rules” are, and how they might not be universally applicable. We are like little kids here. Basically, we pay close attention in social situations and then jump in and hope for the best, but that means a lot of doing things when we have no real idea what we’re doing. Ambiguity. It’s a lifestyle here.
Before we moved, I didn’t realize just how much I liked to feel in control. I knew what kinds of things I liked in my life, and I liked to order my world accordingly. But of course, I wouldn’t have described it as such. Instead, I’d have used phrases like, “I just can’t relax unless the house is clean” to sanitize my desire to control my environment. Well, not having control over our own living space has really shone the light on this area. I’ve had to learn that my physical environment does not dictate my mental/emotional state. It sounds obvious, but like I said earlier, this one especially has caused some major growing pains.I just can’t organize (read: control) my life like I used to. (I’m not saying organization and control issues are the same thing. Just that for me, the motivation for being organized was often so I’d feel more in control.) We don’t always know what our days are going to look like here, who is going to be coming by or moving in or who will need a ride to the airport or if I’ll last-minute be asked to teach Sunday School. Try doing meal planning when you never know for sure what will be in the store on any given day. But here’s the fun part: in making room for the unexpected, the things we don’t control, we’ve opened ourselves up for some pretty cool experiences! “Let’s go over to the teepee and see what’s going on” can morph into several hours of butchering a moose and doing meal prep over a fire while learning Oji-Cree from some really sweet people. Not knowing I was going to be teaching Sunday School means I didn’t spend several hours preparing for it, and it probably went just as well anyway. Rides to/from the airport put us in touch with broader community life and hearing what’s going on. And living in a public building means we come in contact with all kinds of different people, both visitors and locals, all of whom have cool stories we can learn from.So, yeah, in some ways our lives don’t look the same as our friends/family down south anymore. And some parts of it have been really hard to get used to. But I think God has used this last year to grow our characters and teach us solid truths that have deeper value than that of just leading a comfortable life. The last couple months have been a season of seeing the beauty and benefit in things that before were just hard. We are learning to relax into the wider rhythms of community life here, and it is good.