WHAT EXPATS CAN DO

…. to bring hope to the world

The essential role of humanities in our times

“Now, as then, we must value the humanities even in the midst of conflict and division. Only through the humanities can we prepare leaders of empathy, imagination, and understanding—responsive and responsible leaders who embrace complexity and diversity. Our institutions must also play a leadership role by making the treasures of the humanities widely available. It is our responsibility to prepare the leaders of tomorrow, and to elevate and protect “the heritage of the human experience” that we all share.”

Source: Why we need humanities more than ever

 

For years I have been convinced that training in science, technology and economics is essential to prepare the young to the working world. Humanities certainly are interesting and important, but I always considered them as accessories.

My life abroad has changed this assumption.

While reading the above article, I found myself reflecting on which process I instinctively learned to set in motion when I have to face a relocation in a new country, and I want to find out more about the people living there. Despite my initial beliefs, I never start by investigating the scientific development and the technology level reached in the country. I certainly look into the economic development level, but this is an aptitude I learned from my university education that allows me to quickly understand the possible life style of population in function of the economical infrastructures available.

However, if I want to find out something about the people in order to be able to connect with diversity, I spontaneously start from literature. I read books, preferably novels of local authors. Literature tells me about a way of thinking, it tells me stories, it gives me hints on habits and ways human interactions are managed in that country.

humanitiesThen, if they are available, I go to exhibitions and local markets to find art crafts: art, and especially photography, makes me understand the feelings and the way local people interpret reality, it tells me about their lives, it is a mirror of how they see and go through life events.

And if in this journey through humanities I meet something I cannot relate to, I focus on it and make an effort to know more about, because most of the time that is the place where the difference is hidden: it is a part of humanity I do not understand yet.

With time and repeated culture shock, I realized that scientific discoveries, the level of technology and the economic development obviously give a lot of information about the people and their lifestyle, but they alone cannot illustrate cultural differences.

I wouldn’t know what I would do without humanities in my expat life: it is one of my most powerful tools to face culture shock. How many people should I get to know and how long would it take me before I can gather enough information to start understanding something about local culture? How can one neglect this aspect of human nature and think of being able to quickly build bridges between cultures and countries? Where there is no reciprocal understanding, communication becomes difficult. Education of new generations should stimulate this practice to open up to other cultures through humanities.

See our current challenge linked to this reflection.

Cristina Baldan
June 2017

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Red spades and black hearts?

How much of our knowledge is influenced by our experience?

How many times we see only what we think we are seeing?

Facing diversity can be tricky: are we aware of how our brain is working?

Are we open to other possibilities that we did not take into consideration?

In our expat experience, how many times did we realise that what we were thinking was in reality something different?

These are some of the questions that came through my mind after watching this video.

Now I cannot stop thinking: how many red spades and black hearts did I miss?

 

Cristina Baldan
April 2017

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Linguistic empathy

What is linguistic empathy, and why is it important to practice it?

 

According to a survey of the Ethnologue, there are 7,099 distinct languages in the world, but only 23 of them account for more than half of the world’s population. Mandarin and Spanish rank first and second, but it is English, with its third place on the scale of most spoken languages, which is widely regarded as the lingua franca in most business and human interactions across countries.

Every language is the expression of a culture. Even little heard of languages like Angika, Glaro-Twabo and Tremembé stem from the repeated verbal interactions of the population that speaks them. Every single language in the world has its own particularities, grammatical structure and colloquialisms or slang. Some are common to most languages, some are not. Some languages do not have words for colours, others do not have the past tense. Some need to be reinforced by gestures; others rely only on voice tone.

What must never be forgotten is that language does not only come as a set of sounds and organised terms, but that it tells the story of a whole culture, conveys the feelings, frame of mind, pace, habits and codes of a cultural group. And it should be approached as such.


When a person speaks or writes in a language he has not mastered perfectly, he resorts to what is more familiar to him in terms of written and oral expression. He will transpose the structure of his native language and apply it to the other. When seeking for examples, he will refer to his own experience, and depending on the culture he comes from, he might resort to long words, colourful gestures, or convoluted phrase constructions to make himself understood.

To be understood. Think of a person who lands in a new place, and does not know its rules: What she’ll need is a space to express herself and be taken in. Language is the first vehicle to communicate with people when a culture is still unknown, but it takes time to build the ability to use it in a satisfactory way.

As expats, we know all this. We have both been in a new place without knowing its language, and have welcomed dozens of newcomers into our social circles, who could hardly express themselves. We are used to speaking, reading, writing and listening to foreign languages and going beyond the pure meaning of words, because often-times we don’t know the meaning. We encourage people to express themselves freely when they have not mastered a language, because we’ve been there. We have experienced what it means not to be able to express ourselves or to be understood, and we can therefore practice our linguistic empathy.

Linguistic empathy means never to forget that behind a language lies a culture and a human history, that has influenced the outcome of the use of that language. And that if we stop at what we hear with our ears or read with our eyes, we probably miss what the person is trying to say.

Practising linguistic empathy means never saying “I don’t understand, this is not how you say it in English”, but asking oneself where does the person who speaks come from? What could he possibly be wanting to say? What would he tell me in his language, what is he communicating with his body, eyes, posture, or perhaps in the overall content of the article he wrote?

Practising linguistic empathy requires us to always be connected to the whole of our human experience. It means listening and interpreting using all we know about the culture that person comes from, or the particular situation or experience she is going through.

It requires a lot of creativity, warmth, energy and motivation. And a lot of love for human interaction, and of hope for a better world.

 

Claudia Landini
March 2017

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Art to express empathy

Claudia relates on her visit to Dia.Lo.Gue, and art gallery in Jakarta, and shares a reflection on how art can spread empathy.

 

I recently visited Dia.Lo.Gue, a beautiful art gallery in Jakarta. While admiring the art exhibition, What Expats Can Do was constantly on my mind, and I could find lots of links between the art works and the issues I have been particularly careful about since we launched it.

Dia.Lo.Gue is a modern art gallery that regularly invites artists to express themselves around a specific topic. The one the current exhibition is about is “The sea”, and it was interesting to observe how this call had set young artists in motion in a variety of ways. Whatever piece of work they had created around the sea, it always had an element of empathetic observation and sharing.

This one for instance:

art work

 

It stages the funeral of the coral, the same way funerals are carried out in Indonesia: The corpse is laid on a carpet, his picture on the wall, and mourners come to pay respect.

Right in front, another art work was a praise to the women of Muara Angke, a neighbourhood on the sea, in the northern part of Jakarta. Muara Angke is known for its intense activity that revolves around fishing and preparing fish to be sold at the warungs (little stalls that sell food). While locals call it a “fishing village”, expats define it a slum because of the appalling living conditions of its inhabitants. In particular, according to this artist, of their women: They spend their days working under terrible conditions, and have nowhere to put their children, so they take them along and keep them on the spot the whole day, while they clean, cut and press fish. The terrible smell of dead fish fills the air, while these women talk about the hardship of their lives, the husbands who have left them, the children who get sick. The artist chose to represent breasts as symbols of motherhood. In this context, breasts have been dried up and are filled with clam shells, to explain how the inhuman work has replaced mothers’ milk, and therefore, life.

 

art work

 

On the other side of this work of art was a more cheerful but not less important one. The artist had chosen to concentrate on a certain era at the beginning of last century, during which a group from Makassar (Sulawesi) traded sea cucumbers with the Yoingu tribe from Northern Australia. Apparently it was a time of frequent and warm contacts, and what the artist chose to recreate is a symbolic composition that the Australian group put together to welcome the Indonesian traders: A closed circle made of stones symbolized unity, friendship and embrace.

 

art work

 

The last artwork also talked about the hardship of Muara Angke. It consisted of a carpet of clam shells, a wooden hut and a video. The idea came to the artist when she visited the portion of the Muara Angke where mussels are processed to be sold. They are boiled in huge pots, then spread on the ground, opened with bare hands and set aside to dry before being sent to the shops. Smoke from the burning wood to boil the mussels, vapors, high temperatures and clam shells fill the environment. The workers and their children sit on dirty and cutting clam shells, and to show this, the artist made a carpet on which visitors can walk, hearing the cracking sound of the broken clam shells and figuring the working conditions. They even build their houses on them, with whatever piece of wood they can find. The hut is a replica of these adobes, and the video explains what the imagination cannot grasp.

 

art work

 

A friend of mine who had come to visit me in Jakarta a while ago had been to that neighborhood and had showed me some pictures, like this one:

 

children working

Photo ©Jean Clauzet

 

Seeing this work of art brought back the memory of the shock I had felt when I had seen them. I decided I’ll visit the neighborhood in person after the Christmas break – as a way of nurturing my empathy and express it to others.

The stories these artists chose to tell through their works have obviously touched them to a certain extent. The inspiration sometime came from tragic and demeaning situations, more rarely from uplifting ones. In any case, they chose their art as a means to share what they witnessed. All through the visit I thought that what these artists do is What Expats Can Do: Observe with empathy, take in and give out to the world. They chose art as a way of communicating; we can choose any means we deem appropriate. What is important, though, is that we never forget that we are in a privileged position to observe things that our communities back home will probably never witness first-hand. It is our duty to talk about them.

 

Claudia Landini
Jakarta, Indonesia
December 2016

Photos by Claudia Landini

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What I saw today – Not Just A Number, International Friends Play&Share

I don’t know if what I saw today matches our current Challenge, but for sure curiosity was what pushed me to jump into my car and go to “International Friends Play&Share” event. I already knew about the project and its importance, but I had never visited them. Curiosity is what you need to go out of your comfort zone and create connections in real life.

 

I joined them at their usual weekly meeting.
There was a medium-sized community hall.
There were carpets and toys on the floor.
There were hot drinks, cakes and snacks.
There were women, of different ages.
And there were their toddlers.
There was also a grandma accompanying her daughter, and there was me, a middle-age woman, whose children are definitively too old to participate.
A diversified group of women.
A young one, who clearly knew how to handle toddler educational activities, was leading the games.
And then, more toys, interactive games with children, music, singing in three or four different languages, dancing, and even a singing exercise for the adults.
A very pleasant and enjoyable hour.

children paintingIt could have been an ordinary well organized expat playgroup, like many I used to go to with my children in the past and in other countries.
In this group there were 2 people from Finland, 1 from Australia, 1 from Italy, 1 from Syria, 1 from Georgia, 1 from South Africa.
Two of them were refugees, but to anybody entering the room while we were playing with the children, it would have been difficult to understand who was coming from where.
All barriers were left outside the door: you don’t need cultural norms or a specific language to play with a toddler… just a carpet, some toys, materials to touch and manipulate, music, dance. That’s it.

The magic is done!

What I saw today was a group of women enjoying an hour of their time with their children, leaving their complicated lives outside the door for a while, relaxing and connecting with other women, most of them never met before.

Empathy is possible, it is real, it happens.
It happened this morning at “Not Just a Number”, it happens every Thursday morning there.
We can make it happen every day in our lives.
And it is not so difficult.

Cristina Baldan, November 2016


 

International Friends Play & Share
www.notjustanumber.org
Emma and Poyer, both expats, are the souls behind this project and I asked them introduce it to you.

As newly arrived expats, we met in September 2015 at the Maastricht International Playgroup along with another dear friend, Christa Somers. This weekly gathering gave each of us a firm grounding and social outlet as internationals in this new environment. It allowed us to feel welcome, supported, and comfortable as we began to find our way in this new town.

We discovered we shared concern about the welfare of newly arrived refugees and together we envisioned welcoming refugee families into the fold of the international community using the playgroup concept. Our idea was supported by comments from a very active local social entrepreneur and Syrian refugee, Nour Khatib, who is a board member of the local refugee support NGO called Not Just a Number. He told us that while there were several local NGOs supporting refugees, none had managed to facilitate connection between local Maastricht community and a particular subgroup of the refugees living at the local shelter – namely mothers with young children.

what-i-saw-today2These women continued to be socially isolated and had little reason to leave the refugee shelter except to shop for food and clothing. Most of their time is spent indoors, caring for their young children without the aid of their own toys or care items, such as pushchairs/buggies and highchairs. We believed the playgroup concept would be a good way to reach out to these women and children. It also held promise of a way to pass on things like clothes, toys and baby-care items – things that are readily available from international families in our networks who are often on the move.

With the help of a large group of supporters — mostly parents of students attending the United World College Maastricht — we set ourselves up in the football clubhouse next door to the Maastricht Asiel Zoekers Centrum and began running weekly playgroup mornings from December 1stGrowth of the playgroup was rapid and it wasn’t long before people waiting to access the donated items overtook our comfortable play space. Our solution was to separate the arms of the project, thus creating International Friends Play and International Friends Share. We scheduled separate days and recruited a new team of volunteers.

International Ffriends Play is now a calm environment where mothers can enjoy a hot drink, snacks and a chat while our children play. The inclusion of music classes has injected high energy and fun, and serves as the perfect ice-breaker for new visitors. Professional musician Jana Debusk has brought great enthusiasm and a wealth of knowledge, sharing songs and rhythms from around the world through her collaboration with the Funikijam music program in New York.

International Friends Share attracts an average of 50 visitors every Monday within a 3-hour ‘shopping’ period and we pass on about 600 donated items within that time. About 12 volunteers help to run this event and collectively they work over 70 hours in that single day. Re-sorting the messy aftermath occurs on Tuesdays, with another team of about 6 collectively working 20 hours.

The wealth of wisdom, skill, and diversity on our volunteer teams has ensured the success of these projects and ongoing support of refugees in Maastricht.  Our shared commitment to serve community holds us firmly together and it is the broad skill set we can call on that ensures results. Our expat members have purchased supplies, shared freighting resources, provided multiple language translations for flyers and posters, given clothing and household donations, rejuvenated old discarded bicycles, fetched, carried, sorted and re-sorted many tons of clothing and most importantly they have given greatly of their time.

Our expat community is now an integral part of the cultural experience that is shaping the social integration of hundreds of refugees seeking a new life in the Netherlands.  In turn, our lives have been enriched as we each discover that we are all cut from the same cloth and by working together we can flourish.

 

Emma Bendall and Poyer Conforte
Co-founders – International Friends Play & Share
Not Just a Number
www.notjustanumber.org

 

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The empathic civilization

Francesca sends us this recommendation for the book The Empathic Civilization, interesting food for thought from sociologist and economist Jeremy Rifkin. Human beings have many things in common, including a deep-rooted instinct for social relationships and the ability to form a new consciousness, both global and collective. Simply the act of reading an account of this kind means testing our preconceptions about human beings and trying to consider events and phenomena from another perspective: one that views our fundamental nature as human beings in a different way. Here’s what Francesca has to say.

 

empathic-civilizationThis book takes us on a fascinating journey through human evolution, a journey covering ground that our collective sentiment, for the most part, has not yet explored. The discovery of mirror neurons – so-called empathy neurons – during the 1990s offers a completely different interpretation and is leading scientists from a wide range of disciplines to rethink the theories that characterized the age of reason. Today the cognitive sciences seem to recognize that the most profound human instinct is not the anticipation of pleasure, nor even the struggle for survival or the selfish fulfillment of our own needs, but rather the creation of social ties.

Rifkin takes us back through the biological, economic, cultural and social history of humankind, which is being rewritten by the scientific community of the present day. Our modern, technologically advanced civilizations have led to an unprecedented mixing of peoples and expansion of consciousness, but not without consequences. The path of this new ‘homo empaticus’ is, in particular, characterized by the empathy/entropy paradox – the gradual deterioration of a system to the point where it is no longer possible to replenish the energy it uses. Our huge consumption of natural resources is leading to the depletion of these same resources.

Never before have we been as aware of what we are, never have we been as clear about our potential for developing a new consciousness, both individual and global, as we are today. Yet all this is made possible by our greater and greater consumption of the planet’s energy and natural resources.

Will what Rifkin describes as humanity’s ‘biosphere consciousness’, an awareness of ourselves as part of the earth’s system, be able to guide us towards the solution to this paradox? Will we manage to reach the level of global empathy needed to save ourselves and the earth that is our home in time? The human race is facing the most important challenge of its existence.

This book has affected me deeply. In practice, it’s science telling us we’re better than we had always thought. This can only fill me with faith and hope that things can improve for us and for this world of ours. It won’t be easy, but it’s certainly possible. And this can come about not by denying who we are, but instead by following and listening to what, it turns out, is our true nature. For some cultures this has always been clear; we Westerners are finally getting it!

 

Francesca Passini
Italy
October 2016

 

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Life from a motorbike

Motherhood is something that always makes me feel close to women, no matter where they come from. Distance disappears when mothers talk about their children. In Jakarta, where I presently live, there is a habit of travelling with the whole family on a motorbike – children included – often without helm, and this is something that makes me feel unease because I know I would never share a motorbike with more than one person, and certainly never put my small child on it without a helmet. But this is my way. I know there’s a wider picture. I wrote the story below in an attempt to identify myself in the feelings that go beyond the danger, and that are common to all families – love, warmth, sense of unity and belonging.

 

Life from a Motorbike

‘Open it!’ My mom’s eyes are glowing. I lift the upper part of the cardboard box and there it is, a bright new motorbike helmet, exactly like my father’s, orange with a black tiger on it, but smaller.

“Happy birthday.” My dad grins. He knows how much I wanted it. Children’s helmets have appeared recently in Jakarta, and they are expensive. Still, we spend a lot of time on my dad’s motorbike, and we hold every object and rituals linked to it in high consideration.

life-on-a-motorbike2My family is not rich. My mom works as a maid and my dad moves from one casual job to another. The motorbike is essential for my mom to reach work every day, for my dad to job-hunt, and for us to go to school. Every morning, when it’s time to leave the house, my sister and I argue:

“Angun, today it’s my turn to sit in front.”

“No way,” I reply.

“Mom said I could ride in front the whole week if I helped her clean the room.”

The roar of the engine interrupts the discussion, and my father heaves us onto the motorbike. He is the one who usually drives it, though my mom is not a bad driver at all, and occasionally takes the handlebars.

We take our seats, trying all combinations: me and my sister sandwiched between Mom and Dad; Dad, me, Mom and my sister in the back; me in front, then Dad, sister and Mom. My dad is not keen on having me sitting in front. I don’t think he worries for my well-being, though. He probably wants to have a bit of free space to play with his phone at traffic lights.

life-on-a-motorbike4The trip is long. We leave early from our neighbourhood in the suburbs of Jakarta, a depressed area packed with makeshift homes where sewage flows in the open, and rats share space with humans. Hanging laundry and piles of garbage dot the area, until the first shops appear, taking a bit of the squalor away.

We take a shortcut under a big grey bridge, which takes us straight to the first skyscrapers. Huge buildings with shining panes are surrounded by one-storey wooden houses where everything is done outside: Women wash their laundry, children play, men chat and smoke.

I have a lot of time to absorb all the details. Some of the traffic lights in and around Jakarta last forever. Lots of bikers crowd under them and patiently wait for their turn to go. You can feel the stress mounting after a couple of minutes. In the heat it’s made even worse by the revving engines: drivers pump the gas, bikes inch forward, engaging in a tense battle to conquer a meter.

I spend my time at traffic lights looking around. I love to see the patterns on the helmets – some are plain black or white, others have colourful designs that entertain my eyes for a while. I enjoy observing what other families on motorbikes do to kill time during the long wait. Children mostly sleep. Adults check their phones, chat with the neighbouring biker, smoke a cigarette or clean their nose and ears. All around engines fume and roar. Cars are kept behind.

You see, motorbikes are like water in Jakarta, they naturally occupy all free space and adapt to the surroundings. So it is always an army of two wheels in front of and around cars. Cars are less interesting anyway. Most of them have darkened windows, which makes it difficult to see what goes on inside.

life-on-a-motorbikeSome traffic lights are more interesting than others because of the hawkers. It is fun to see new things coming up all the time – colourful feather dusters are my favourite, they come in bright blue, pink, yellow and green, and I would give an arm and a leg to be able to touch them and feel the softness of the feathers. At the beginning of the year, huge calendars are on sale, and after elections, the portrait of the president and vice president are at all traffic lights.

I particularly love a junction where a little girl with a tiny blue guitar entertains drivers for a coin. Her mother moves from one car to another selling tissues, and the girl approaches the cars, barely reaching the windows, and plays an off-key tune. I can’t say if I am more envious of the sense of freedom she exudes, or of her bright blue guitar: I would do anything to have it.

But I always look forward to the traffic light where we sometimes meet the foreign woman. The first morning I saw her I was strangely tired. I leaned against my mom’s back, and was not interested in what was going on around me. I could barely keep my eyes open. Through the mist of fumes I suddenly saw a woman in a nearby car watching me. Unlike like the other cars, hers had open windows. What struck me most though, was that she was different from anyone I knew. She was fair-haired and her eyes were blue. I shuddered and turned away.

life-on-a-motorbike3A few days later, at the same traffic light, her car was close to our motorbike again, her window open. She flashed me a huge smile and spoke to me. She was using my language, but I could not understand what she was saying. She said: “Saya dari Italia.” I had never heard that word, Italia, before. Plus, I was intimidated by how strange she looked, with her hair cut short and many different necklaces around her neck.

One day, a full week after I had last seen her, her car was at our side. She was holding a little black box. I was scared. My mom must have felt my tension on her back, and turned to check. The woman talked to her in a different language, but my mom could not understand her either. Other bikers joined the conversation. In a mixture of English, Bahasa Indonesia and lots of gestures, she explained that she was writing a piece to describe life on motorbikes in Jakarta, and needed to have a picture of a family on a motorbike. The box was called a camera and it was a machine that made pictures. She took one. My parents smiled and everybody around applauded.

She’s not scary any more: I smile and wave every time I see her now. It makes going to school easier. I don’t like leaving my parents in the morning. My mom says that school can teach me a lot, but I know that nothing compares to what I learn when I travel through Jakarta on my dad’s motorbike.

 

Claudia Landini
Jakarta, Indonesia
October 2016

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