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Reflecting on Expats and Silence

February 7, 2013

Landing at Dallas-Fort Worth was like sliding onto a large smear of orange marmalade as we descended through a light mist late in the evening. Just another city in North American, 1.2 million and another 250,000 at Fort Worth, it’s a big country or a collection of smaller ones – I’m not sure which.

I can’t blog on Texas I’ve only rotated within a small radius of the airport, one day I will be back – Austin is worth the effort they tell me.
Today however it’s just time for reflecting on being an expat in a very big very complex country. I feel very much that at some future time when someone asks me if I lived in North America my honest answer will be “no I only lived in Northern Virginia, but while there I visited many other parts of North America’. It’s too false to claim you’ve lived in America – I can only expect to lay claim to living in a small corner of it.

Every new place I arrive in reminds me of visiting a city for the first time as a child. No idea where to begin, little if any understanding of what makes it tick, wondering where to go, what’s safe, what the people are like, what the ground feels like under your feet, what this town may have which another doesn’t ,where the excitement is, why this city became bigger than its neighbors, what it would be like to live here, crime, fashion, design, architecture?

The questions haven’t changed much over the years, and the answers are only slightly less evasive due to the advent of the Internet. Indeed any accurate answer is almost totally evasive for those visiting and only slightly less so for those arriving to live here late in life, such as myself.

I wonder whether my girls will be more sensitive to understanding the intricacies of a society than I am with my life long habits and preconceptions about what happens and why?
I pride myself on embracing change but this of course is a relative thing – I know the reality is my first impressions will be strongly shaped by my past experiences, and my actual ability to change subtly undermined by my subconscious trying to keep some semblance of order ( for example I’m terrified at the thought of going to my first Black Tie function ).

When skiing the other day, teaching Chrissy and the girls to Ski at the same time,we commented that it was a great age for them to learn – that it is easier when younger and somewhat casually remarked that it was because they don’t fear the experience or the consequences.

Thinking further other factors are at play – a greater sense of adventure, fewer preconceptions, a lack of evidence that there are things in this world they can’t do, a lesser sense of embarrassment, they learn and adapt more quickly because there is less clutter in their lives. Fear is only an outcome of what we hold onto, it is a smaller part of a bigger Question or process, and it is frequently out of proportion to reality.

At the outset as parents we need to encourage a sense of wonder and adventure, the confidence to try what they haven’t and to believe that everything is possible and there are few things they should fear, in fact we hardly ever use the word.

Life as an expat requires thinking in a sense of wonder and discovery all the time. It involves parking ‘fear’ way back in your mind. There are few if any cosy refuges, or put another way if you find a cosy refuge you have lost the value of being an expat, as I explained to a colleague last night there is little sense in living passively.

There is much that is foreign to us here, and day by day we have decisions to make as to whether and how we wish to encounter or partake in the many different experiences. Religion for example is a regular topic. As a young adult I would have prodded and probed and challenged much of what I encounter here. Now I simply listen and only offer an opinion if directly asked and tend to keep it as neutral as possible, not a natural act of diplomacy for me!

And therein lies a tension – if I don’t discuss then do I deny my opportunity to learn? Can I learn something more by saying less? What can others gain from my silence? What might they gain from my comment? Will I disaffect others if I answer candidly about my beliefs or challenge theirs ( which must amount to the same thing )? What do i fear? Does my silence confer with my acquaintance an understanding of acceptance, or does it promote suspicion and mistrust?

It’s a dilemma I have seldom experienced and one that I can expect to encounter often while in North America.  The first person I chose to go and visit in North America is a deeply religious person whom I regard with the utmost respect and admiration, as mentor and friend. On the matter of faith we remained silent. It is clear we respected each other, but what about our differences? Am I that transparent? Does it matter?

A debate around the country at the moment is the recent announcement by the Boy Scouts that they will now accept gays within their ranks. The debate has been loud and active and of course it crosses many lines and challenges a lot of old thinking.

I heard one caller who noted herself a Baptist that this was against their beliefs and she could not support it, on the other hand we have very good friends here who are also Baptists who we know to have several gay friends – hold on let me rephrase that – who like most of us embrace all people In their lives irrespective of their personal choice religious beliefs or preferences.

As one more rational caller noted, after having honestly commented that 20 years ago he would not have had such a worldly view, ‘we emancipated the slaves, we are founded on equality and acceptance of religious belief, acceptance of race, freedom of speech – to me it is unconstitutional that we continue to sideline gay’

It’s a point well made. Why should we deem ‘gay’ as some disorder or illness any more than we do religious preferences, having a gun in the house, my love of mountain biking or preference for espresso coffee?

And then it raises the question, how do we promote the evolution of a society when we also promote tolerance? Have North America and potentially many other society’s become so politically correct that it is stalling their own evolution as a progressive society? Does a society need to ensure we are all kept from our cosy caves or at least made to walk out and smell the roses and see how others live and think about the meaning of that on a regular basis? Is acceptance a good thing?

Could a process to promote disruptive and constructive dialogue be made safe and somehow more effective than talk back radio (which certainly on my observations never changes the callers mind, though hopefully it influences a few of those listening in – has anybody ever studied that outcome?), scarily it may also help polarize listeners?

How open are we? Really?

If you aren’t open are you contributing as well as you might to society?

Do we need more dinner time conversations ( of course) – not just nice agreeable ones but active ones with differing views and challenging debate, certainly not fighting, but at least more wreckless banter?

Are the educated the biggest offenders?

Have we become too kind to be cruel or are we being cruel by being too kind?

What value do we put on keeping relationships safe by preserving the status quo and keeping everything bright and shiny, slightly shallow and well, nice?

My own experience is that personally with my wife I have learnt to put honesty and discussion above all else, and yet socially as part of society I have become a much less active participant in the dialogue of life and society.

Have I and millions of others got this wrong?

Is saying nothing the worst thing we can do, the equivalent of not voting, of throwing stones at the glasshouse, of being part of the problem and not the solution?

Living 90 minutes from the Smithsonian I find it wholly ironic that so few people believe in evolution. However this gives me some sort of clue as to what only partly works. Evidence without dialogue is of little value, how we humanize the experience is important, and dialogue must be at the core of that.

As Daniel Kahneman says we often answer the easy question and not the one that was asked. For example if I ask you if you are happy, your answer will actually be in association to the much simpler question ‘how do I feel right now?’ because to answer the actual question is too complex and too challenging, and the response ‘ I feel great ‘ satisfies both of us as a close enough approximation.

What I am now thinking is that the ease of not participating is an approximation to the question of ‘how can I be a good citizen?’ The answer to that question is too hard, too complex, too different to what has become familiar to me.

My many questions raised are my first attempt to try to find some better answers to questions I may never have asked had I not come here as an expat.

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Richard.

    I absolutely love the challenge of the expression, “the ease of not participating.” Dang, I feel that.

    It’s easy to withdraw. It’s safe. It’s stagnant, too.

    I love my privacy. My home that remains a comfortable distance out of town.

    Some of this is about control. I love my own environment because I think I control it….

    Well, you gave me some introspection time. I usually don’t read blogs posts as long as yours…but I chose not to withdraw. Glad I did..


    • Thanks Dan, you are always generous with your time and your ‘you’. I apologise for the length of the post – I kept thinking of your ‘less than 300 words’ – I’ll blame the perils of long plane flights (on which i drafted this), also probably a long gestation of inactivity in the blogosphere. I very much look forward to reconnecting. thanks again. Best, Richard

      • I visualized you sitting in our front room while I read your post… I could almost hear you. 🙂

  2. Ha that made me smile Dan 🙂 . One thing further i should have made better for this post – i don’t regard believing in evolution and having faith or belief in a god as incompatible.the question it leaves is – have we got the story right?

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