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A Much-Needed Vacation But Always an Opportunity to Learn

Japan: Bowing and Language

First, we went to Japan, where we visited Mt. Fuji, Shibuya Crossing, Shinjuku, Shinto shrines, and so many other places. There are so many things about Japan and Japanese culture that are outstanding. They have fewer trash cans than any place I've been, but it is the cleanest place I've been. They don't generally accept tips, but offer some of the best customer service we've ever had. Their service—wow!

Shibuya Crossing, Mount Fuji, Electric Town, and Sumo in Tokyo

One thing that really stood out to me about their service was the way they bowed. After they loaded us on our bus, they stood on the curb, and bowed as we departed. When they entered the workplace, they bowed. When they exited work, they bowed. After they served you, they bowed. That ritual contained so many layers to it. In some ways, serving you is an honor, and bowing is a sign, or a symbol, of respect and gratitude. 

Then there was their language. When they accidentally bump into you, they say, “sumimasen;” when they greet you as you walk into their store, they say, “sumimasen;” and, when they do not have something, like a fork or spoon, for example, they say, “sumimasen.” In three different contexts, sumimasen means three different things. In the first, it mean, excuse me. In the second, it was kind of like, “welcome” or “how may I help you?” In the last case, since they do not really have a way of saying “no,” sumimasen is an indirect way of saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry.”

There are so many more examples of this, but I must move on to China.

China: Umbrellas and Personal Space

In Shanghai, the most populated city in the world, we visited an ancient water town, ancient gardens, and a plethora of other places. But there was one experience that really blew my mind. When I was jogging through a park, I saw hundreds—maybe thousands—of opened umbrellas on the ground. So I sat down to try to figure out what was going on. Come to find out, it was a marriage market. What is that? Well, every Saturday and Sunday in Shanghai (at People's Park, in People's Square), parents and grandparents of unmarried adults fill the park to trade information about their children, hoping to find a spouse for them. They arrive early in the morning to claim their spots with umbrellas, and attach little biographies (advertisements) to the umbrellas that include things like height, weight, hobbies, jobs, and the monthly incomes of their unmarried offspring. I've never seen anything quite like it! An umbrella, in my mind, was merely a tool to protect you from the rain (or maybe a weapon in a dark alley). But I never thought that it could function as an advertisement for marriage. Because of that, I will never look at an open umbrella the same.

Marriage Market in Shanghai

There was another thing in China that made my family somewhat uncomfortable. In China, I lost count of how many people stopped, stared at, took pictures of, or tried to touch my daughter’s hair without asking. When we asked one of our guides about it, she told us that many people from China's countryside have never seen foreigners (especially black people, or black children), and, as such, their touching of my daughter’s hair was, for many of them, a gesture of endearment. For the most part, we were okay (if at times uncomfortable) with the staring and the pictures. We were not quite yet comfortable, however, with random strangers touching our daughter or children without our (or our childrens') permission. So Alice and I politely blocked (or gently pushed away) countless hands during our time in China.

Ancient water town in China. My son said, “Dad, this is like a Chinese Venice!”

Australia: Buddy and No Worries

In the “Land Down Under,” we had a marvelous time in Sydney and Melbourne. We stopped by the Opera House, a couple zoos, Manly Beach, and whole host of other places. Speaking of culture, there were a couple things that I’d like to mention about culture. During my encounters with several Australian men, they kept calling me “buddy,” as in, “No worries, buddy,” or “Hey, buddy. Good to see you.” Being called “buddy” was, at first, a bit bothersome. Where I am from, the only people I refer to as buddy are kids, like, “Hey little buddy.” However, to call a grown man, “buddy,” where I’m from would be considered condescending at least. After people kept calling me buddy, I began to gather that referring to someone as “buddy” in their culture is just another way of saying, “Hey, man,” or “what’s up, dude” or “hey, boss."  Also, when I said, "thank you," they did not resond with, "you're welcome." Instead, they said, "no worries."  Language is so fascinating to me.

Sydney, Australia

All the above experiences are about culture, and, from my studies, I have learned that navigating different cultures requires awareness of one's own cultural frame of reference; knowledge of the host culture's values, symbols (especially language), and rituals; and, skill at respecting and using, as best as one can, those values, symbols, and rituals in context-appropriate ways. Still, that is much easier said than done. The fact is understanding people from different cultures is not easy. Learning about their symbols, heroes, and rituals requires you to revert to the mental state of an infant, in which the simplest things must be learned over again. This often leads to feelings of distress, of helplessness, and of hostility toward the new environment.

To try to reduce some of the cultural shock that I knew we would experience as a family, we took Japanese and Mandarin language lessons before our trip. The basic introductions to both languages and cultures prepared us greatly, and really came in handy throughout the trip. We learned how to greet people, ask for directions, express our gratitude, and a few other things. We even learned the proper way to enter a Shinto shrine. However, there was still so much that we did not understand about those cultures. We still had so many questions, and at times, we were just plain lost.

What might this have to do with you? When it comes to serving others, even people who are from your own country, new leaders, especially new teachers, often experience culture shock. They feel anxiety, and at times, feel very lost. One of the best ways to overcome culture shock is to try to learn the language of the people with whom you would like to work/serve. It is nearly impossible to become bicultural without first becoming bilingual. Words are vehicles of culture transfer. 

Let me explain. A symbol is an object, sound, action, or idea to which people arbitrarily assign meaning, and there is no necessary relationship between the symbol and its meaning. Language, then, as a collections of sounds, is a symbol; and the meaning of a symbol—a word—is only recognized by those who share the same culture. That is why symbols, such as language, on their surface, are enigmatical. They are puzzles meant to be solved. Text that is meant to be read.

Once human behavior is seen as symbolic action—action that signifies, like phonation in speech, pigment in painting, line in writing, or sonance in music—the thing to ask is, “what is getting said?” By seeing people, and their words, their gestures, articles, and clothes—every aspect of their lives—as symbols that have a deeper meaning, people’s lives become like ink on a page, or words in a manuscript, or like an acted document which ought to be carefully read. If you are eery going to understand the people you serve, you must first seek to read their symbols.  

You and I are not going to get it right a lot of the times, but that's okay. Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist who helped define what anthropology is ultimately about, and who has been tremendously helpful to me during my own journey of understanding culture, says, “Cultural analysis is (or should be) guessing at meanings, assessing the guesses, and drawing explanatory conclusions from the better guess, not discovering the Continent of Meaning and mapping out its bodiless landscape.” In other words, when you encounter a different culture, you do not need to understand everything about that culture; rather, you ought to simply try to understand something. In the same way, when serving others, we ought to do our best to “fix” as accurately the meaning of what we have seen and heard, and humbly admit that what we have “fixed” may not be accurate. It is not necessary to know everything in order to understand something. In our quest to serve others, then, our job is to keep guessing at meanings in order to understand something.

Indeed, in your own work, what are some symbols, heroes, behaviors or rituals that are unfamiliar or strange? Ask questions, and guess at meanings. Try to figure out how those things might function in that culture, or what those things might mean to those who use them. Guess at meanings, and keep guessing at meanings, until you begin to get a better understanding of the people you feel called to serve. If you will do that, I believe you will be one step closer to being a more competent servant-leader. 

Thanks for reading, buddy. =)

Love,
Manny

 

End of the Year for Homeschooling

We have finished our first year of homeschooling our children! I don’t think you heard me, so let me say that again: WE HAVE FINISHED OUR FIRST YEAR OF HOMESCHOOLING OUR CHILDREN! This has been some kind of year for us! Between juggling marriage, fatherhood, doctoral work, speaking, and leading Ink, homeschooling our kids has been one of the most challenging, exhausting, yet fulfilling things my wife and I have ever done. While I started the year off strong by assuming primary teaching responsibilities, my wife, ever supportive, stepped in to help carry the load when I attended class or had to travel for a speaking engagement that required me to fly commercially. 

Together, we have managed to lead the kids through second, first, and kindergarten, respectively. Berkeley is reading and writing very well, and is ready to begin first grade Saxon Math. Christopher, our most ambitious child when it comes to school, is well ahead of his grade level in reading. Last time I checked, he was reading at a fourth grade level. He has been waking up at 6am on his own to begin school. One night, I walked into his room at 3 in the morning, and I saw a light coming from his bed. I asked him why he was awake, and noticed that he was doing some of his schoolwork! With what kind of kid have I been entrusted? He is so focused that he has been finishing his schoolwork early every day. I normally like to go until 11am or 12pm, but Christopher is sometimes finishing at 9:30 or 10am, at which time, I tell him to do fun reading. 

Manuel is doing very well, too. He is very smart, but sometimes has had the hardest time focusing. So Alice and I have had to adjust our teaching styles for him, which is what good teachers do. He is a much more kinesthetic learner, and needs to be physically involved in each lesson. So we have been doing jumping jacks, building, stacking tiles, drawing pictures, listening, watching videos, singing, rapping, marching, exercising, all while learning about arrays and fact families and multiplication and prepositions and history and geography. Of all our children, Manuel is the one who has forced me to grow the most as a teacher. Of course, I’m still a work in progress, but I have grown a great deal.

To celebrate their (our) success, we will be going on vacation. That will give Alice and I a chance to recover from a very intense season of speaking and teaching, as well as give us all a chance to explore other parts of the world. 

Once we return, we will begin first, second, and third grade. For now, we’re going to vacate, and rest, and prepare for what will be our busiest year yet.

(If you want to check out my reflections from this first year of homeschooling, check out the series of posts here!)

Washington State Hay Growers Association

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON

Several times a year, I get the opportunity to speak to groups that are not educators or people who work with youth. One such group was the Washington State Hay Growers Association in Kennewick, Washington. I love learning about new industries, and thinking of ways to add value to their lives, and this group allowed me to draw from my own background and education in my address to them. 

But I first had to get to them, so the family headed out to Seattle, Washington, on a 5+ hour flight! The headwinds were really intense the whole flight there. It was our first time flying on Alaska Airlines, and my wife and I both were pleasantly surprised. They had comfortable seats, excellent flight attendants, rentable tablets on which to watch movies and play games, and edible snacks and meals. 

We landed late at night in Seattle, and went straight to bed. I woke up the next morning and ran eight miles to orient myself to the city, and to get my body and mind right for the day. To give the kids a field day for homeschool, we took them to the Space Needle first, and then the Chihuly Museum, which is right next door. We stopped by the first Starbucks store, then enjoyed all the sights, smells, and sounds of Pike Market Center. Seattle is really a wonderful city!

(Space Needle)

(Chihuly Museum)

(Inside the Chihuly Museum. The glass art is simply breathtaking!)

(Pike Market Center)

(The infamous Gum Wall!)

After an eventful day of enjoying Seattle, we drove three hours to Kennewick, Washington, where the Hay Growers of Washington State were meeting. Before my presentation, I did my homework on their industry, and learned a lot about what making hay entails: how to grow, cut, cure, rake, process, store, and sale hay involves so much more than most of us really appreciate. It is a difficult, but very important line of work for one to have. 

I learned that the hay industry, a $21 billion industry, has been dealing with some challenges lately. Last year there was a drought that significantly limited their ability to produce quality hay; and more recently there has been a surplus of hay, but there have been challenges with exports in which international buyers were not able to receive their shipments in time. This delay added a kink in the relationship with their clients, resulting in a need for growers and sellers to regain the trust and confidence of those clients. This has also led to a surplus of products here in the states, which has increased supply, and thus lowered the demand, and the prices of hay. In short, the market is messing with the money of the hay makers. Having heard me speak at another conference of farmers, their leaders believed I could add value to their group.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve, and even more grateful for all of the farmers and hay growers in our country. The hay serves as fodder—food—for cattle, horses, goats, and sheep, which serve as food for the rest of us. If that hay is not healthy or available, those animals will suffer, be malnourished, become sick, and die. That could lead to unseen problems in our nation if that happened. What many of us do not realize is that famers are the backbone of America, they are the foundation upon which this country was built, and they are the hard-working folks whom the rest of us need in order to survive. Although they are often unappreciated, and unacknowledged by the majority of people in our country, without them, and the great, necessary work, they all are doing, we as a country wouldn’t be able to make it. So I made sure to thank them for their work. 

Although I personally know very little about farming, I have learned to become a student of my students, employing rapid ethnographic assessment procedures, in order to understand and serve them effectively. In doing so, I tried to give them some perspective about their challenges, some clarity about the nature of the work, and an appreciation for the cosmic significance of their daily responsibilities.

(Speaking to the Hay Growers of Washington State)

After I was done speaking, several farmers approached me to thank me for my inspiring presentation. One guy said emphatically, “That was THE BEST sermon on farming I have EVER HEARD IN MY LIFE!!! I wish my whole family coulda’ heard that!” Between those affirmations, and the several business cards I received to speak to other groups, and the invitations I received to visit their farms, I really felt a genuine, authentic connection with the fine farmers of Washington State. I hope to return in the future to work on some of their farms so that I can really learn about what it takes to be a hay maker! 

After the event, we tried to drive back to Seattle, but the freeway was closed because there was an avalanche blocking the roads! Yeah, I had never really been too close to an avalanche, and didn’t plan on doing so that night. So we pulled off the freeway and found a hotel for the night. The next day, the roads were cleared, and we were able to make it to our flight, and our home, safely.

(The roads to/from Kennewick, Washington)

Week 6 of Homeschooling: Good Week Until my Wife Threatened to Report Me!

This week was a lot better than last week, but I’m still working to get back into my regimen of going to bed by 10 or 11, waking up at 5:30 A.M. and starting school by 8:30 A.M.  Over the last two weeks, when we were traveling to 8 states, we did not get to bed some nights until 1 or 2 in the morning (unsafe weather conditions, delayed flights, unsatisfactory hotels, or just staying up too late). Sleep deprivation made it increasingly harder for me to wake up at 5:30 in the morning so I could plan lessons, exercise, prepare myself mentally and spiritually to teach my kids and to speak to large audiences. The fatigue eventually caught up to me, compelling me to take naps in the middle of the day, which, in turn, resulted in me staying up later than usual, further exacerbating things.

That’s why I am so glad to be home this week and next.  To start the week right, I stayed up late last Sunday night preparing the 32 lesson plans I needed to teach throughout the week. Getting that done made this week remarkably easier. I even got a burst of inspiration, and created check-lists so the children could manage and monitor their own progress for the day. I had to print them out nightly, which wasn’t the best use of my time.  To fix this, this weekend, I think I am going to create a checklist for their entire week and see how proactively they will work through their assignments. 

(The kids built wooden towers for Fine Arts)

(Manuel put Minecraft characters on top of his tower)

One of the benefits of homeschooling is the flexibility it has given us.  When the boys and I were at the barber shop, they worked on their math and history lessons; when Berkeley was at the doctor’s office, she worked on her handwriting; and when we needed to visit the clinic for Manuel’s checkup (had a wart removed), we reviewed more history and grammar lessons.  When the kids were at the barber shop, the fellas asked our kids what they liked and didn’t like about school.  The boys both said, “The good thing about public school is that it is easier; the bad thing about it is that it’s so long. The good thing about homeschool is that it is shorter than public school; but the bad thing about it is that the work is a lot harder.” If that is their biggest complaint, then I’ll take it. 

With the aforementioned flexibility, we decided to use Thursday (instead of our usual Wednesday) as our field day because it was Manuel’s 8th birthday.  It had to be one of the coolest 8 year old birthday parties I’ve ever seen.  My wife really pulled out all the stops on this one. In the morning he had his presents waiting for him in the kitchen. Later in the morning, they picked out their Halloween costumes. In the afternoon, after all his friends got off school, we had a party in the back yard, with cake, ice cream, and a mini-petting-zoo!  We had a pony, several rabbits (the baby rabbits were adorable), a ferret, two little pigs, and several poodles. The kids played with the animals, rode the zip-line, played football, wrestled, and played video games. A nerf-gun-war broke out for a while too. After the party, Alice gave each kid a goodie bag to take with them. Even the grown ups enjoyed all the festivities.

Before we decided to homeschool our children, one of our biggest concerns about homeschooling pertained to the socialization of our children.  We believed all the traveling we would be doing, and all the people we would be meeting, and all the playgrounds would visit, would help them develop their social skills.  We also believed that if homeschooling were going to be effective, we would have to be intentional about maintaining and cultivating relationships with the friends the kids had had from pre-school, public school, sports, the neighborhood, and from church.  Manuel's 8th birthday party provided a great opportunity for them to do that.

(Manuel pulling Chris on a pony)

(Manuel riding the pony)

(Berkeley and her friend, Lily, holding baby bunnies)

(Chris holding a dog)

(Manuel's birthday cake with a football and pictures of his stuffed animal)

We are teaching our kids to be tolerant of, and have love for, people who do not share our faith or convictions. Our family is proud of our ethnic roots and unapologetic about our Christian faith, and we have developed good relationships with our neighbors who are Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist, Jewish, and agnostic. One day, Manuel asked me what a Muslim was, and rather than trying to explain the origins, beliefs, or diversity of Islam, and I simply pointed out that his three friends who live next door to us are Muslim. He asked, “Can I still be friends with them?” I smiled, and said, “Of course!” I then explained that even though we as followers of Jesus Christ have some different beliefs than our Muslim friends, we should still love them and treat them with respect and kindness.

With all the racial and political tension brewing in the country right now, my wife and I are being intentional about having these kinds of conversations more often. We are trying to get our children to understand that there are good and bad people everywhere, and that they should evaluate people based on how they speak and live. We are teaching them that there are good black people and bad black people. There are good white people and bad white people. There are good cops and bad cops. There are good Christians and bad Christians. There are good Muslims and bad ones… In time, we will be able to get into a deeper conversation about ethics and axiology and defining "good" and "bad."  For now, we just want them to learn how to life with faith, love, gratitude, humility, integrity, honesty, and self-discipline. I’m sure laying this foundation will take up a good deal of our time. =)

(Manuel's Birthday Party)

All in all, it has been a good week. Alice and I had a good laugh on Friday. Here's why. Friday morning, I slept in a  little later than I expected, so I had to rush downstairs to make sure the kids started school on time.  I got them started on their math, spelling, and handwriting. Every time I tried to go get myself together, one of them needed help with something.  Well, about an hour later, when Alice came downstairs to greet all the children, she looked at me and asked, “Do I need to contact the Georgia Department of Education?” I asked, “Why?” She replied, “Because I’ve never seen a teacher teach a class in just his underwear.”  We had the best laugh!  I think I took casual Friday’s a little too far. 

Thanks for reading. I hope you have had a great week.

Blessings,
Manny