Thursday, February 14, 2013


The thing about a trap is that the boundaries are set on all four
sides.....Then they start to close in.

On one side, hundreds of police are roaming the streets. All have these
long sticks. A guide tells me "those sticks are for striking, nothing
else."  Black Toyota pick up trucks zip up and down the boulevards. They are
filled with police all holding the long striking sticks. Sticks poke off the trucks in random ways, giving the pickup a spiky, porcupine appearance. 

The other side a pocket full of worthless money, an empty stomach and
platters full of delicious street food in the French speaking Capitol
of Togo.

Yesterday the hostel proprietor showed me the safe room. A cage that
locks on the inside. "The last time Togo had elections, there were
riots, many were killed. We don't suspect we will be targeted."  As I start to regret my timing of this
visit to Togo, West Africa, the other side starts to pull in close.

While standing in an empty bank with a machine gunned guard, and a
slick dude with a big toothy smile who entered a minute after I did. I
wait for the teller to arrive at the window. I never have this much
cash on me unless I am changing it, and I feel the walls start to close in
on me. Just one knowing glance between the slick looking dude and the
machine gunner and I know the trap it set.

CLICK is the sound you hear in those Vietnam movies when the soldier
steps on a land mine. In the movie, all soldiers freeze on the spot, a trickle of sweat runs down the unlucky victim.  After that knowing glance, my body freezes, the sound in my head was a precise and tightly wound CLICK.

I stand there motionless. I feel as though I am stuck in a box. The
bank teller at this point is telling me about money transfer
restrictions around election day, but my mind is racing to get out. My
body shoves blood to my legs, which I feel in a warm rush. My body's way
of preparing me to run. However, my mind knows that I can't outrun

If you have a thick piece of rope that is tied in a knot, sometimes
you can just push against the rope to loosen it. So I pushed.

As the smooth talker, with the toothy smile, tried to weave a story, I
shook his hand in one of those long West African handshake kind of
ways. Except, I applied pressure to the handshake in a dominate
American type of way.

Absolute Confidence is my to push out of whatever plan this guy has with
the machine gunner, my money and himself.

I caught his eyes and locked in an unbreaking gaze. "I'm so glad to
meet you. And think we will meet again" The warmth of my words  were
frozen by the strength of my shake and cut of my stare.

I turned and walked out of the bank and straight towards the porcupine.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Intercultural Baby Names

When trying to learn about other cultures in a deep and meaningful way, it is best to learn about your own culture. I adapted this approach to choosing a baby name. I rather enjoyed my name as a child and an adult. It seems that whenever I travel to another country, people have their own pronunciation for Alexander. I was recently as far as Ethiopia. When I introduced myself, people would feel a relationship. “Alex, I have a brother Alemeyu, that is Alex in Amharic”. Its like wherever I go, I have a name that connects me with the place. I am Sasha in Russia, Alejandro in the Spanish speaking world and İskender in the Turkey. In this way my name and its intercultural adaptability represent my values.

The name my partner and I came up with is Eden. The name derives from the old testament and therefore has relevance in areas where Judaism, Christianity and Islam are relevant. In areas of the world where the big three religions are not as relevant, the name can work as well. The Garden of Eden is a Jungian archetype. This means that the name could be translated to languages beyond the Western tradition.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Japan and September Eleventh 2001

He leaned over the arm of the chair and showed me the text on his phone. Two images of a tiny flame flipped back and fourth in a flip book animation of a flame. "Look at that," he said, “I didn't know you could send animation through these things.” looked at the flame, then read the text. AMERICA IS UNDER ATTACK. Busy noises of keyboard and mouse clicks that filled the internet cafe were silent. The combination of the crude image and my colleague's mild response ignited a little spark in me. I faced forward and turned to the glowing box of information. I typed the address for the NY Times, but my response timed out. The storied newspaper was gone, and the spark ignited into a flame. I typed the address for Yahoo and saw the headline that confirmed it. The country that I just left 5 days earlier was under attack. The second tower had fallen, but there was no more sense to be made. Comments under the headline blamed the Zionists and Illuminati, but actual news was scarce. Who attacked, what was the context of this? As the flame inside me was building, it narrowed my focus. In one sweeping motion, I got up, paid for the internet time, and left.
With each step towards my apartment, the manic scene of purpose started to burn hotter. My feet fell flatter on the ground with my forehead tipped towards my destination. I saw a fellow foreigner in the train station. I had only been in Japan a few days and already started to identify myself as the group of foreigners. He was one of my people. I could see from the ease in his step he was not aware of the doom that had fallen. I wanted to reach out in some way and spread the news, somehow spread the flame the burned inside me. I thought of saying "The towers are down, the U.S. is under attack, what can you tell me?" But I stopped myself and kept walking.
My mind raced, I'm in Japan should I be?, what about my family?, will the attack spread?, Then I remembered, my dad regularly went to the Twin Towers for business. I had to check on him. I ran to the AM PM, the closest convenience store. I entered and ignored the usually powerful aroma of boiled rice and fish snacks. I saw a fresh faced attendant and an empty store. "How could his face not reflect the terror that was happening?", I thought. Despite not speaking Japanese, I thought that the sheer intensity of the moment would allow us to escape our distinct language. I made a gesture for making a phone call, my hands purposefully enacting the game of charades, by my eyes burning with an intensity. While he was speaking, he picked up a phone card. I pointed to the phone booth outside, hoping the equation of phonecard you are holding+phone I am pointing to out there, could be solved. He put the card down and slid another off the rack. He placed the card on the table, I studied it and tried to decipher how to work the thing. I figured the card worked the same as in the US, put down my last 1,000 yen, and walked straight to the phone.
Still, as I recall, I don't know how the next event fully transpired. With all my focus and single minded determination to check on my family, you would think that I could have been more careful. I placed the phone card on the back of phone so I could read it while dialing. Then the thin card slipped in a narrow crevice between the phone and the booth. I could not retrieve it. Where on earth could it go? I thought. I shook every thing in the phone booth, but it was all secured. I started to put together the situation. My money was gone, I didn't have access to money till the banks open tomorrow, I was looking at a phone that would connect me with the people I love, but couldn't use it. A could shiver ran straight up my back and I suddenly felt alone. I squinted at the phone and looked at it for what seemed like the first time. The contours of the phone came into sharp focus, the colors of the phone radiated. I don't think I have ever focused so hard on anything my whole life. This device is what connects me to the ones I love, I must solve it. I could not fine a solution.
I walked back into the AM PM again and tried to bargain for another phone card with a wallet empty of money and a receipt for the phone card I just lost in the phone booth. My increasingly frantic game of charades were not succeeding, for good reason, what I wanted was off the script. What I was asking for was charity, "give me a card for free because I am out of money." Things were going nowhere and my emotions were a raging blaze of desperation, purpose and determination. The fire inside me was burning out of control. In my desperation, I depicted the two planes smashing into the twin towers with my hand and arm and tried to convey my concern for my dad. I don't know exactly what was communicated with my manic gesticulations and wavering voice on the verge of frustrated sobs, but something was communicated. He quickly gave me a card, fearful of what I would do next.
I felt my pointer and thumb grip tightly the thin paper card, pushing the blood out of both fingertips. I marched back to the phone, entered the code and my mom picked up the phone. "Its Alex" I said....then the line went dead. I dialed the code again to learn that I had spent my 500 yen and only had 500 more. I dialed again my mom picked up again and knew what to do, "Dad's, ok, everybody we know is ok...." the line went dead after that and the card was out of money. My fire was quenched for a time.
Later that week I returned to the AM PM to buy groceries. There was a sign in the window that said "We regret the events of September 11th." I purchased my ramen noodles and left the store. It wasn't until several months later that I realized that I was the only English speaker that shopped at that store. The sign was written and pasted on the front door of AM PM for me and me alone. As my understanding of Japan increased, I realized how special that sign was. Due to hierarchical society, the boss of the the store or maybe even the regional director must have authorized the sign. Therefore, the story of my desperate attempt with the phone card must have spread. Also, Japan is a country where the group is vastly more important than the individual. Therefore, the fact that a sign which most customers could not read was pasted on the front door extremely powerful. The flame that burned inside me spread like wildfire, and compassion was left in its wake.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Stereotypes the world over

“All Muslims are terrorists and all Protestants are copiers”-An Ethiopian man sharing his view with me while in a car.

While doing an intercultural adventure, it is important to find people with strong opinions and who are willing to share. Perhaps it is because I am from Minnesota, where people are less obvious about their views. I believe that behind every opinionated person with strong and perhaps negative views, there are a dozen silent people with similar views. I find exploring the negative options of others especially illuminating. Let’s take the “All Muslims are terrorists” line for example. From this quote I can understand a few things about the gentleman. Considering there is a 32% population of Muslims and a dearth of Muslim terrorist attacks in Ethiopia, I can deduce that the man has formed his opinion based on media or gossip.

What I found the more interesting portion of this comment is the assertion that all Protestants are copycats. This indicates a few things. First, I could deduce, he is proud of his Ethiopian Christian Orthodox tradition and recognizes the value of its time tested traditions. Second, he places value on the age of the religion. Christian Orthodoxy traces its origins to the beginning of the faith, consequently one could understand how the Protestant tradition could be seen as a copy of an older tradition.

I find stereotypical views like these so insightful, for the sheer reason that they are not often expressed. How many other Orthodox Ethiopians, I wonder, view Muslims as terrorists and Protestants as copiers? Can I use this insight to covertly shape a more tolerant message with others I meet along the way? With this knowledge I feel more compelled to share my positive experiences with Muslims with others I meet in my Ethiopian journey.

Eventually I felt obligated to share my experience. "I have Muslim friends who are not terrorists." I felt it best to stick with my direct experience, rather than something more abstract, such as "Powerful groups will often terrorize others in order to obtain control." Or something more pointed, such as "I know plenty of Muslim Oromo people in Minneapolis who say they were terrorized by Orthodox people." People are more receptive to new ideas, when they don't feel like they have to justify their ideas. Really, what is the guy going to say, "No you don't have friends that are Muslims." That would just be ridiculous. He did not say this however. He changed the subject to how he would like to see Yani live in concert.

Intercultural Tip: The best argument seldom influences. Often, your personal experience will introduce enough doubt into a rigid world view to slowly influence.

Ethiopia Archives: Mass of Humanity

Not only was there technological differences to live in Ethiopia, but there were also cultural similarities. Jessi was telling a story of how there was a mass of humanity in Ethiopia. This “mass of humanity” is how I describe the experience where we were always shaking hands, bumping shoulders, squeezed into spaces with others and holding other peoples’ babies in Ethiopia. The “mass of humanity” is the one over arching experience that I had while in Africa both when I went to West Africa in 2007 and most recently that I enjoyed. With it you get this sense that you are a part of a massive, shared human experience. Although it could be considered gross, crowded or stressful, there is something about hearing adults laughing, while a baby cries, while smelling everyone’s’ sweat while squeezed into a mini bus that seats 9 actually seating about 14. Although not something one would traditionally be described as pleasant, it gives you a sense of this raw human experience that we are all sharing together. Everybody eats, sweats, cries, laughs and dies no matter what language is spoken or technology is possessed. And although one can understand this concept intellectually or can rehearse the previous sentence and repeat it. It is the experience of being on a crowded bus that one can really feel it.

I was surprised to hear of my Dad remember when he moved from his small town that he shared with his 13 other immediate siblings, that he missed this as well. He remembers being in Minneapolis while working at a big accounting firm and missing the constant noise, physical attention and constant humanity that was his life in the small town.

Although the “mass of humanity” is an experience I was able to put words to due to my experience in Africa, it is an understanding that belongs not to a single continent, but to a way of life that is more rural. In one way I felt that this experience that I had while in Africa brought me closer to my parents. It was almost as if I had to all the way to Africa to understand the living situations my parents grew up in while in their own rural “village.”

Mass of humanity near and far

While discussing the village life Jessi and I experienced while in Ethiopia, stories started pouring forth from my parents. I learned for the first time that my extended family didn’t have a running water toilet in their house until the 1980s. I also learned that my mom went to a one room K-8 school where all students would use a single outhouse for a toilet. Before eating lunch each student in this k-8 school would reuse water from a single basin to wash their hands. The last student to wash her hands got the dirtiest water. It was funny how Jessi and I thought we were having this real village life experience with limited electricity and running water. To our parents, this was nothing new. I am a little disappointed in myself that I wasn’t able to bring these stories about my parent's history to people we met outside the main city in Ethiopia. It would have been nice to share with them because it would illustrate how America is not this shining metropolis on the hill where every family and household had running water and electricity since its invention. Perhaps it would have given the people we spoke with the confidence to see how technological development is a developmental process.

Intercultural Tip: Technology can either widen or shorten cultural divides.