I grew up overseas in multiple countries. And as an adult I have lived in several more in addition to five U.S. States. The total country count where I’ve called “home” over the past thirty years is now 10. Over the past two years as an independent intercultural consultant, I have lived part-time in Muskegon county in Michigan while travelling for work and vacation the remainder of the year. Now, with the COVID-19 season, all my work travel is cancelled because all appointments are postponed and all my vacation plans are non-existent. I’m happy I got to California in January and Florida in February and Massachusetts in March. It’s been an interesting transition for me to consider the indefinite amount of time I’ll actually be at “home” here in Michigan. At first, the feeling was one of limitation, but as I shifted my perspective to more deeply understand this community, I have begun to see the culture of it better and how it is shaped by certain values. I’d love to share them from my multicultural, multi-”home” perspective.
Loss of Connection is also a Gain of New Ways to Connect
It can seem paradoxical. We can’t gather together in person and yet my social calendar seems to be fuller. My phone buzzes with texts and I’ve discovered how annoying my current ring tone is. The “Google Hangout” and Zoom call invites populate my inboxes. While I do strongly believe that in-person face-to-face socialization and business meetings are the best for relationship building and clear communication, it is equally important to note that connection, care, and empathy can be extended and received through a screen.
If I may encourage you to continue to check in with your community. Even if that means through online means. This COVID-19 season reminds me of when I was growing up overseas the option to sustain relationships across time, space, and distance only became possible in my teens because of the new and ever-improving and more affordable virtual communication platforms. These new modes of communication made the “goodbyes” a little less bitter. Also, I’m rediscovering the art of handwriting letters. A piece of snail mail can fill the need for touch or demonstrate the investment of time with the thought of this way to demonstrate love.
In relation to my local community, I am finding that individualism – a value that shapes U.S. American culture with work and with socialization – is shifting along the spectrum to more of a collectivist nature. This looks like asking the nuclear family, neighbors, elderly community members, and other acquaintances like gym buddies, church members who sit across the aisle, and store clerks and cashiers how we can be more mindful of their needs to serve them better. We can and should value unity during this time. We can and should value connection over comfort or what we may have previously deemed as “inconvenient”. When is the last time we went across the street with a homemade baked good? Even six weeks ago we wouldn’t have necessarily noticed who we interact with in a store or who lives on our street. We’re challenged to connect in new ways.
Loss of Work and School Rhythms is also a Gain of Exploring Your Own Backyard for Breaks and Recess
It can seem like a calendar-less year. Or that we are living in Groundhog’s Day. I’ve heard it and seen it from colleagues and community posts: “What day is it? I’ve lost track.” We’re operating on new schedules, establishing new routines and navigating different household rhythms. Living, working, playing, and sleeping within the same four walls can begin to feel like they are creeping in on our sanity. But the directive of lockdown doesn’t restrict us from our own backyards or taking a walk around the block. It can be a time to get acquainted with your surroundings – as micro as your front porch to as macro as the hiking trail in the next county.
In my experience growing up overseas, I never knew what our house would look like in the country to which we were moving, let alone if we would have a yard. Unlike some companies that provide families (or at least the principal worker and accompanying partner) to do a “go see” visit to check out a new home assignment, we experienced the “you’ll get what we have available and will have the ‘welcome kit’ (sheets, pans, pots, etc.) in it when you arrive” treatment in the diplomatic corps. I remember checking out every corner of our new house and how each family member would begin to “nest” in different areas of it.
I find myself these days hanging pictures on the walls I’ve never gotten around to doing in my sporadic travel. I’m taking walks in the neighborhood and discovering how very unique each yard is. Growing up abroad, our houses were typically behind walls and so I’m discovering the “openness” of a typical U.S. American neighborhood. I love seeing the yard landscape creativity and the freedom people have in choosing paint colors and exterior decorations. The values and privilege of space, privacy, and difference shape our American culture in the way we pride ourselves on how we maintain our properties.
How we value public space is also observable in keeping our parks clean and accessible during this time. How fortunate I am to live in an area that has space to discover while keeping social distancing directives. Be mindful about how unhurried time can be a gift to you and your family in making memories during “break time.”
Loss of Mobility is also the a Gain of Perspective-Change
It can seem like a time of loss of freedom and independence; two values that shape U.S. culture in the way we value entertainment and travel. The ability to go where you want to go when you want to go for as long as you want to go is a freedom we celebrate and the absence of it can be disorienting. The loss of mobility has been disorienting for me in the way I’ve built my career to be “office-free.” Now, my home is my office.
This COVID-19 season reminds me of two different times I lived overseas as an adult and felt the restrictions of travel. One time was when I was a postgraduate student in Greece and having completed my master degree there at the American College of Greece, I was seeking employment in the country. But, because my visa was a student one and not a work one, I was not able to stay there. The second scenario was similar. I was working in Hungary and needed to make the choice to renew my teaching contract or to return to the U.S. Again, not renewing the working visa meant I would need to repatriate. It was a challenging decision at the time and I felt restricted because of my U.S. citizenship. But, I ultimately decided to return to the US to pursue other opportunities. In both of these scenarios I could focus on either being bitter about having to leave the country I was calling “home” because of government regulations or I could celebrate the time I had left and the memories and relationships I would also have in repatriating to the U.S. I find myself in a similar situation now: am I angry that I can’t travel or am I grateful for this time to explore my local surroundings and home.
I’m not stuck at home. I’m safe at home and you’re not stuck at home, you’re safe at home. Let’s expose that truth and claim it.
Loss of Understanding the COVID-19 Source is also a Gain for Us to Unify as a Human Race
It can seem like a blame-shifting game. At several levels, we see news reports of casting blame on world leaders, country leaders, State leaders, and even county leaders about their decisions and retractions about how to keep communities safe. We see reports of the worst side of humanity with racist remarks and we see reports of the best side of humanity with acts of service.
Growing up overseas, I was sometimes in environments and situations that I was the only U.S. citizen in the group. I’ve had the “power” placed on me to be “The Spokesperson” for all of the United States. Imagine, this was when I was 12 years old. Questions and statements directed at me like, “Why is American policy this?” “Why do Americans do x, y, z?” “It’s disgusting that Americans act this way…” created this weight I carried as a mini diplomat at times that I didn’t know how to not internalize or process well as a child. The impression that I was a voice for all of America considering I was the only U.S. citizen in a particular group is quite humorous to me now considering I hadn’t grown up in America, and thus, how could I ever respond accurately.
I find we can learn from this situation in that we can’t cast blame or make assumptions or speak ill about people during this time based on physical appearances or passport origin. We have a duty to protect one another and to lean in to understand one another better, listen more, and mitigate fear, not create it. I’m specifically alluding here to the focus on anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiments that come from the myth that COVID-19 is a Chinese virus.
Do your part in your community to make lasting positive change. Do your part to consider if it’s kind or not to wipe the grocery store aisle clean of every canned good or TP. Our U.S. individualist value needs to be broadened to protecting self means protecting others and protecting others means protecting self. Be aware of how you talk to your family, friends, and larger community about this virus. Be mindful to spread facts, not fear. We’re in this together.