Sunday, September 27, 2009


“Oh, how interesting.” That’s what people usually say when I share with them one of the dozen or so ways I might explain what it is I do for a living. And sometimes they mean it. Other times they are just being polite.

But when I meet people who live the same kind of life as I do, they volunteer a connection that lets me know that we are fellow members of a far-flung tribe: travelers, that’s part of it. Internationals, in a way. People who have lived and worked in other countries, not just vacationed there. People with global connections. And not just consumers, but people who have what I sometimes hear called “a heart for the world.” I don’t know if I like that term, though I can’t suggest a better one.

You probably know that tribal feeling; most of us belong to more than one or more such defining community. I feel much the same at the airport when I line up for a flight to Seattle and look around at the other people getting on board. In some hard-to-place way I can tell they are my kind of people; not like the ones lining up at the next gate for a trip to Dallas. Yes, we’re from the Pacific Northwest, the Left Coast. We’re dressed for rain. We recycle.

Similarly, I bet the kids at last week’s anime festival in New York feel the same way about each other. Or a group of NASCAR fans, or stay-at-home-moms, or Eritrean immigrants. (Maybe there’s even a club for NASCAR-loving Eritrean immigrant stay-at-home moms.)

I suppose I’m unconventional. But I’ve never been one of those people – are they, in a way, a tribe too? – who take pride in being weird, different, special, not like everyone else. Part of the appeal of spending time with people I think are like me is that they won’t look at me as if I’m some strange exotic creature.

The last few days I’ve had a lot of interaction with people who are part of that “internationals” tribe, and not just my coworkers and the people who write the usual flow of emails and articles I read.

  • There was the woman who called asking if we’d ever done ethnography on the lives of Somali refugee women, or knew someone who had. I gave her some good tips.

  • And the fundraiser – er, development officer – for a mission agency who dropped in for some research help. He’d been charged to write a paper about why raising Western funds for major building projects might not be the best way to build up churches overseas.

  • The same day I had coffee with a friend I’d worked with on a project in the Balkans and who recently adopted four kids from Liberia. We talked about African orphanages.

  • Another friend, who leads a church-planting team in Senegal, came through town and wanted to catch up; she needed a place to spend the night on Saturday.

  • At a concert Friday night I met a pediatrician, recently moved to Denver, whose fiancé is working as a surgeon at a Christian hospital in Pakistan. They expect to go back overseas together, probably in the DRC (Congo).

So, Friday afternoon, I was taken by surprise when this happened: Friends of mine who work for another mission agency get together regularly for multi-ethnic potlucks, and sometimes I go, too. This month the theme was Middle Eastern. Someone brought mint tea to round out our repast. “Have any of you ever had mint tea in Morocco?” I asked casually.

They all laughed.

It was the wrong question or came out the wrong way, I’m not sure which, but I immediately realized my words had set me apart. Sure, all of them had traveled, but not to the Middle East, and nobody had been to Morocco. They thought it was funny that I asked.

I was swamped by a wave of embarrassment.

Oh, I got over it. I still told them about the big sprigs of mint in the bottom of the glass, the tea poured over them from two or three feet in the air. But I wished I hadn’t brought it up.

How do you feel when you discover people who have done the unusual things that you have done, or had the same experiences? Do you like having “exotic” stories to tell or feel awkward about being different?

I have four speaking engagements next month. At least two of them will only work if I can do a good job telling culture-crossing stories from my own experience. So this is a good time to push aside any discomfort I have about being part of this tribe.

1 comment:

@ngie said...

Hm, good questions. Like you expressed I like having exotic stories when I am with the 'international' tribe because they seem to appreciate it. When I am with 'local yokels', so to speak, I feel like the only part of me that is exposed is my rarity. People want to hear the stories, but I have a hard time pulling them past the stories to a conversation that doesn't have a 'freak show' feel.

Our next time through we are going to have to try to get that cup of coffee you mentioned.

God be with you in your speaking engagements, especially in your story telling.