Posted by: Catherine Weston | September 26, 2012

Words of welcome

This month marks our twenty eighth year of welcoming newly arrived international students. Checking our visitor’s book, I find that on Thursday 26 September 1985 we welcomed Mustafa, Ahmed, Claudia, Christa, Stefan, Gabriela, Marcel and Rolf into our home for a meal. Nationalities may only be guessed at, but I think they include Turkey, Italy and Switzerland.

I realised recently that there’s someone who’s been welcoming visitors to our country a lot longer than I have – sixty years in fact. Not long ago I watched part of a TV documentary about the daily life and work of our Queen and was interested to notice what the camera captured of an occasion when she welcomed some foreign delegations for an informal audience.  Once the introductions were over she asked an individual, “Have you been to Britain before?” and followed up with “Is it what you expected?”

I am told that encounters with royalty tend to cause normally confident speakers to be reduced to inarticulate mumblings! The Queen has clearly learned over many years what questions are helpful to open up conversation in an unthreatening way and thus put people at their ease. Sometimes closed questions like the first one are useful for clarification, but the more open follow up clearly gives someone permission to talk about their experiences of Britain, without appearing to be rude to the monarch!

Here are some of the things I have learned about striking up conversation with someone who has just arrived from another country.

DO be prepared to introduce yourself first and talk a little bit about your life so that your listener is not threatened by a barrage of questions. It’s not very British, but it’s particularly helpful in relating to E Asians.

DO listen carefully to yourself as you ask questions and avoid most of the ones that could be answered with a yes or no.  These are known as closed questions because they can quickly close down the conversation or at least make it very hard going.

DO speak clearly avoiding too much idiom and jargon. (Speaking louder is unnecessary and patronising). If you take the trouble to pronounce the end of each word fully (rather than slurring words together as we often do), you’ll find you naturally go at a pace that aids comprehension.

DO remember it takes time to adjust to the speech patterns of native English, even for a fluent ESL speaker.  This is especially true if your accent deviates widely from the ‘standard’ pronunciation they will be more familiar with! This means taking time to wait for an answer before jumping in with a rephrased question, something I am still learning!

DO ask open questions like “What do you notice that’s different here?” “What do you like to do for recreation?” Or give invitations like “Tell me about your family” or “Tell me about your home town.”

DON’T ask “What do you like about Britain?” when they’ve just arrived, or worse “Do you like it here?” They may be homesick and jet lagged, had a long queue at immigration or just endured several days of all that British weather has thrown at them. (Later on, when they’ve settled in a bit, is the time to ask what they like and don’t like about living here.)

DON’T make assumptions.  Canadians don’t like to be thought American any more than Kiwis like to be thought Australian. Remember the storm caused by mixing up North and South Korean flags at the start of the Olympics. Much better to always say “Where do you come from?” rather than “You’re from Japan, aren’t you?” to a Chinese.

DON’T latch on to some half remembered negative news item about their country for a conversation opener (as in: “isn’t there a problem with child prostitution/corruption/pollution in your country?”) Ouch. If you don’t know much about their country, admit it and say “Tell me what are the things you are proud about in your country” because a) there will be many and b) you’re less likely to hear about them in the news.

If you’re involved with welcoming new international students, take time to savour the privilege and opportunity to learn more of God’s world through the people he brings to our nation to study.

Posted by: Catherine Weston | September 5, 2012

A summer to remember

Apparently we have just experienced the wettest summer in Britain for a century.  Slugs have eaten our potatoes and the butternut squash are currently barely the size of my thumb.

However, there have been some very positive things about this summer in Britain. Not least, for us, the chance to take life at a slower pace, to enjoy the garden produce (yes, the rhubarb and the beans have enjoyed all the rain) and catch up with family and friends.

So in this post I bring you a brief, pictorial survey of some summer highlights

Olympic fever hit our household along with most others, so we were thrilled to secure last minute tickets for athletics and had a great day out. Favourite moments from the opening ceremony include ‘the Queen’ parachuting into the stadium with James Bond and the Czech athletes’ appearance with wellington boots and umbrellas. (There’s a good subject for another post or two – the British sense of humour and attitude to weather.)

A green Olympic Park

We missed the Jubilee celebrations by being out of the country at the time (this wasn’t deliberate) but came across this horticultural tribute in St James Park, on a recent trip to London, to celebrate thirty years marriage. Three decades on we’re still glad and thankful to God about the choice we made!

Green crown in St James’ Park, central London

We visited Hill Top, author Beatrix Potter’s former home, which was only twenty minutes walk from the holiday cottage where we enjoyed a week with our sons. It turns out that that the house is a place of pilgrimage for the Japanese and wondered about the particular appeal of the Peter Rabbit books and merchandise in that part of the world.

Hill Top, Cumbria

Peter Rabbit?

If it’s been holiday time where you are, I hope you too have enjoyed some refreshment from the Lord and his good gifts.

Posted by: Catherine Weston | August 6, 2012

On being flexible

A few weeks ago, knowing I had a free afternoon, I’d suggested Nelly* (from Vietnam) might call round after lunch, at about 2.  She’d just had to re-sit an exam and had been feeling a bit low. Meanwhile we’d recently heard from our French houseguest that his classmates wanted to come over to cook a Mexican meal.  They had just finished delivering their assessed presentations – an important part of their masters degrees – and needed a day or so off to relax before starting to write their dissertations. Cooking seemed to be a good way to unwind!

When I arrived home, just after noon, I was hungry and looking forward to my lunch of Mexican food. There in the kitchen, just arrived, were Cedric and his two classmates Pablo (from Mexico, hence choice of food) and Odette (also French).  The cooking had clearly barely begun, so, giving my rumbling tummy a stern talking to, I retreated into the study to find some work to do in the meantime. Past experience has taught me it is best to disappear when others are using your kitchen, once you’ve given them a tour of the facilities.  I have to curb my control-freakery otherwise I could end up being very annoying to some young adults who are clearly quite competent with handling food. After all, no one is going to die if oranges are being sliced on the cheese board using the bread knife.

Was Nelly coming? The phone networks had been down and we weren’t quite sure if she had got the Facebook message. We hadn’t heard anything, but we’d learned she often didn’t reply to invitations if she planned to come.  Is that an Asian thing, we wonder, or just the Facebook generation? Delicious smells waft from the kitchen when Nelly turns up as (sort of) expected at 2 pm.  The food isn’t quite ready yet; will there be enough for her to be included? After all I am not really the host for this meal.

We have a conversation on the doorstep that goes something like this:

Nelly: Are you going fruit picking?

Me: Oh! Yes, I’m free today – would you like us to do that this afternoon? (Thinks: I remember she asked about this before, let’s seize the moment)

Nelly: Maybe another day, so we can organise a group – that would be more fun.

Me: But I am free to take you this afternoon! (Thinks: I don’t have the car next week).  Do you have an umbrella? (Like much of this summer there’s rain threatened). I look at her feet – neatly shod in flimsy pumps – and wonder how to fit her size 4s into my size 7 wellies.

Cedric and friends had other plans after the meal so Nelly phoned her housemate about fruit picking and we sat down to a delicious Mexican meal at 2.30 pm, Nelly included.

Incidentally, we did get to the farm to pick strawberries (in the rain) with Nelly and two Chinese girls. The large wellies did fit when worn over her shoes thus keeping them mud-free.

After many years of sharing life with international students I’ve learned the importance of putting aside my own plans and routines so that guests can feel comfortable. Spontaneity and flexibility are not natural to my personality OR culture, but I’d be a lot poorer without them.

(*I have changed all the names to protect the privacy of our friends)

Mexican lunch

Posted by: Catherine Weston | July 6, 2012

A nice cup of tea

Recently I bought an electric kettle.  The most obvious reason for this, I suppose, is that our old kettle, which had for some time had a dodgy lid mechanism, finally decided to fall apart, exposing the wiring concealed in the plastic handle. But I have come to the conclusion that the underlying reason for my buying a kettle is because I am British.  There is something about being a nation of tea drinkers which means that a kettle is considered an indispensible part of British kitchen equipment.  Travel anywhere in Britain and you will find this is true.  Every Bed & Breakfast establishment, every hotel bedroom will have the requisite tray with the means of making hot drinks – principally a small electric kettle with some tea bags and instant drink sachets (the quality and variety variable, of course).

However, if you visit the equivalent in the USA, for example, you will usually find a coffee maker only. If you are lucky you might find a tea bag, but as the boiled water has to pass through the coffee maker, it’s debatable whether the drink truly classifies as tea! Crossing the Channel you might think kettles would be more common. Don’t other Europeans drink as much tea as the British? Maybe not. Once in a holiday cottage in Belgium I looked in vain for a kettle in the kitchen cupboards.  I had to boil water in a pan. My French houseguest has confirmed that a kettle is not usual in France, either.  If you want a cup of tea, you boil water on the hob, in a pan. Simple really – why would you need a special bit of equipment to do something so straightforward as to boil water?

On our visit to China last year, we observed in our son’s apartment a special dispenser for hot and cold drinking water, which I suppose is more common in parts of the world where you don’t drink the tap water. (There was something similar in my hotel in UAE). A large plastic bottle of drinking water is inverted over a dispenser.  When the heater is switched on, you can draw hot water out of one tap to make tea, otherwise cold drinking water comes from the other. So no kettles there either.

The lesson is this:  never assume that what is normal in your part of the world will be normal somewhere else.

Posted by: Catherine Weston | June 15, 2012

Big Church

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in a 5,000-seater auditorium waiting for the Sunday morning service to begin. Behind the stage, where the orchestra sat, was a bank of raked seats into which filed a robed choir of 150 strong (about the size of my congregation back home). We had a good view from up in the balcony, but it certainly helped to have the big TV screens so we could see close ups of what was going on.

During the service we sang some good songs, saw two couples commissioned for long term missionary service and about twenty people prayed for who were heading out for short term missions trips around the globe. As the pastor pointed out, you’re either going, praying, giving or disobedient! A collection was taken and a brief opportunity given to greet those around you.

Then the word baptism appeared on the TV screen and behind the choir some screens parted to reveal an alcove high up in the rear wall where a baptistery was secreted. There a family of four was baptised. Finally the lead pastor came on stage to give a message from a John’s Gospel, concluding a series that had taken two years. Another song and then everyone was dismissed to attend various Bible classes (and to allow the next congregation to use the auditorium).

It’s always good to experience ‘church’ in other parts of the world (I’ll leave you to guess which country we were visiting). So much of what we do on a Sunday morning is determined by our culture or subculture, so it can be helpful to see and hear what others do and see what there is to learn. Coming as outsiders we can also be in a position to critique, as we may not have the same cultural blinkers.  The same is also true in reverse.  I hope we are always ready to hear what brothers and sisters from other countries have to say about our churches!

So here are some strengths we observed:

  • God had clearly blessed this church with material resources undreamt of in a UK context. The building complex was like a small university campus with state of the art facilities for education, conferences, worship, recreation and catering. This enabled an extensive range of programmes reaching the wider community.
  • The church is totally committed to mission, both locally (particularly in poorer districts) and globally.  The missions’ budget alone came to £40 million annually!

However we did come away with some questions as to whether this congregation of many thousands could really classify as ‘church’ in the New Testament sense. The service was carefully stage-managed and impressively slick (I guess it would have to be on that scale) which meant that we felt more like spectators than participants. Is there a danger of professionalising the leadership too much?

That scale and level of expertise is great for the occasional celebration, but every Sunday? Maybe I’m just expressing my ‘small is beautiful’ European outlook, but I think there are inherent dangers in this model of church.

If I’d had the opportunity, I would want to ask how the leadership ensured their church members experienced the kind of Christian community where, through personal, servant-hearted relationships, they had the opportunity to grow as disciples rather than exist as consumers.

However, it is clearly possible to foster community and discipleship even if you have a morning congregation of close-on 1,000 souls, judging by our experiences in a different city church the following Sunday. Though large by British standards, the style of this church was much more personal. On this occasion we were led in full-throated song by two singers, a piano and a guitar. There was no orchestra, but the congregation is clearly used to singing from musical scores and the harmonising was terrific!  Here also were four baptisms, with each candidate interviewed for their testimony, which gave an immediacy and connection not really evident in our experience the previous week.

Is there an optimal size for a church fellowship? Does it depend on one’s cultural context?  What do you think?

Posted by: Catherine Weston | May 1, 2012

Respect for teachers and other matters

The other night the conversation around the table turned to the subject of how we address a teacher or university lecturer.  “I was so surprised the first time I heard people address the professor by his first name!” said our Vietnamese friend, who studies at our local university.  In the cultures of Asia, no one would dream of being so disrespectful to a teacher.  Even in France, as one of our other guests testified, it would be typical to address one’s teacher or professor as ‘Monsieur’ or ‘Madame’.  Why is it that in Britain we have become so informal in the way we address one another?  Why do our lecturers insist ‘Please call me Martin/Mary’? Many international students find it surprising – even shocking – and hard to get used to.

Our friend from Central Asia chipped in: when filling in application forms in Britain, you are not asked for your age or marital status, unlike in my country, she pointed out.

So, two different examples of behaviour highlight a British cultural value – that of equality.  In the university classroom the lecturer wants to encourage students to challenge the teacher, ask questions and think for themselves – easier to do if you think of yourselves as equal peers on first name terms? When assessing applicants, the theory presumably is that you can treat them more equally if you don’t know their age or marital status.

Actually often the reverse is true.  When people are very different (from a different culture for example) and we treat them as if they weren’t, they experience inequality, because their individual needs haven’t been taken into account. And that’s a good thing to remember when befriending international students.

Posted by: Catherine Weston | February 28, 2012

How to Cross a Road in Sharjah

A couple of weeks ago I was standing by a busy road, attempting to cross.  My destination was a small grocery store on the other side. It was only one block away from my hotel, perhaps a five minute walk, but here was the problem:  how was I to cross the road to reach it?

After five minutes waiting fruitlessly as heavy traffic streaked past, I began thinking along these lines: maybe unattended women should not be walking out in the middle of the day trying to find a grocery store?  What if the drivers of the cars speeding past were thinking, “What is that crazy foreign woman trying to do?” or “Why doesn’t she shop at a sensible hour, or go to the mall like everyone else?”

The road was dual carriageway, with a strip of grass and palm trees in the middle as a buffer zone. I was in a built up area, but it was like trying to cross a motorway. There was no sign of any kind of pedestrian crossing either. I toyed with the idea of hailing a taxi, and asking the driver to take me round the roundabout at the end of the block and bring me back on the other side, all of 50 metres away.  Then I spotted a pharmacy on my side of the road.  I entered and found a young woman, wearing the traditional black robes and headscarf of the local people, chatting on the phone.  “Do you speak English?” Yes of course she did, quite fluently. “Forgive me, I feel rather foolish but I am a stranger here.  I have just arrived.  Please can you tell me how I can cross the road here?”

The young woman smiled ruefully and said, “Yes, it is a problem.  You just have to go slowly, slowly – and then RUN!” So I took my courage in my hands and did exactly as she said.

The lesson I learned is that, in the culture of the Gulf states, the right to drive very fast in your top-of-the-range motor is more important than the convenience of pedestrians.

A two-and-a-half-week trip to the United Arab Emirates provides little opportunity to make any conclusive observations about the local culture, particularly as 80% of the population are foreigners!  However I do have another hypothesis about the Emiratis, based on two further encounters – they are friendly and warm people with a keen sense of fun! But my reasons for drawing that conclusion will have to wait for another day.

The road in question, but without any indication of speed!

Posted by: Catherine Weston | February 2, 2012

Hot and cold taps

So why do most British homes have separate hot and cold taps (see December post)? (Note for transatlantic readers, tap = faucet!)

Reasons of history:

A high proportion of British housing stock dates to the 19th and early 20th century, before efficient mixer taps and modern valves were available. Some of our housing is much older than that – one of the consequences of living in a part of the world which has few earthquakes (see August post). When interior plumbing was introduced it would have begun with a simple system piping cold water straight from the mains into the kitchen.  Hot water was later added separately, hence a dual system.

Reasons of health and hygiene:

Early plumbing systems used pipes of lead, so while cold water from a lead pipe may be potable, you wouldn’t want to drink hot water that has come through a lead pipe, as the higher temperature will have caused it to pick up contaminants. I am not unusual in having grown up in a house built in the 1860s, which had some original pipe work. For this reason my mother always insisted that the kettle or any water for cooking should come from the cold tap. It made sense to keep the systems separate.

So much for history, what about today? Mixer taps with sophisticated valves are readily available and new homes are built with plastic water pipes.  All the same, even though many old houses in Britain have had their plumbing and sanitary ware modernised, why is it that you still find separate hot and cold taps?  Here some other factors come into play.

Reasons of cost:

Single taps are cheaper to buy. When it came to renovating our 1930s bathroom on a tight budget a few years ago, the choice between mixer and singles was a no brainer. I guess single taps may also be cheaper to fix.  They may need to have a washer replaced from time to time, but homeowners competent in practical tasks can maybe do it themselves (and we did).

Reasons of practicality:

Who says that mixer taps are more convenient?  In my current bathroom (only 2 years old, but not renovated by me) I would much rather the wash hand basin had one tap in each corner, because the one sticking out in the middle gets in the way if I want to wash my hair in the basin. Seriously! – That’s how I always did it growing up! In some contexts a combined tap makes sense – like the one in the little basin in my downstairs cloakroom, where space is limited.

This discourse was triggered by the thought that cultural values (which we often don’t realise we have) affect every day behaviour and attitudes.  I think the real reason why we Brits hang on to our single taps is because as a nation we are prepared to tolerate minor inconveniences if the alternatives are a) more expensive and b) involve changing a familiar system which works perfectly well. To my American friends who are baffled I say – what’s the big deal?  Learn to use the plug like we do!

Separate hot and cold taps in my utility room

Posted by: Catherine Weston | December 6, 2011

Why do they do it like that?

The guests were well fed with chicken curry and were sitting in a big circle in our living room with the questions coming thick and fast.  Why have you kept your Queen?  Why do you drive on the left?  Why do you keep miles and pints? Why do the shops close so early? Why doesn’t the heating come on sooner?

We had talked first a bit about what culture is and how our surface behaviours and customs are based on underlying values (which in turn are based on what we believe to be true about the world….).  Then we gave our guests the opportunity to ask ANY question they chose about their observations of Britain after living here for two and a half months.  It is always an instructive experience seeing ones own culture through the eyes of others!

As the British hosts (members of our church) searched for answers we came to a number of conclusions about the things we value as a culture.  For example, we don’t like change and we don’t like being told what to do by EU bureaucrats! We also have a stoical approach to life and are prepared to put up with cooler temperatures indoors if it will save heating bills.

In the past I have occasionally felt threatened by these sorts of questions and felt the need to be on the defensive. It’s particularly so if the questioner is in the midst of culture shock and feeling very negative about everything. But once we realise no single culture (including my own) has the monopoly on the best way of doing stuff, it becomes an enjoyable and eye-opening exercise.

Sometimes things may be better where they come from (it would indeed be less confusing if the UK stuck to one system of measurements, instead of the muddle we have now!).  Other things may be better here  (A South African young woman said how much she enjoyed the feeling of safety when going out after dark).  Some things are just different and once you know what the rules are (like shop opening times) you adapt accordingly.

One question we weren’t asked, which surprised me a little, was ‘why do we have separate hot and cold taps?  Perhaps it’s because we had no North Americans at our gathering as, judging by online discussions, this seems to be a particular source of bafflement to our friends over the pond. You can give all sorts of historical answers to this, but I have concluded that the real answer lies in the difference in certain underlying values between Brits and others – but more on this in another post.

We had an enjoyable evening, which certainly kept us on our toes.

Posted by: Catherine Weston | November 4, 2011

Remember Remember

Isn’t there something uniquely evocative about the combined smell of damp autumn leaves and gunpowder at this time of year for anyone who has grown up in Britain? Tomorrow night the sky above the park just up the road from our house will be ablaze with fireworks and a massive wicker sculpture (designed by local children in a competition) will be burned as a finale to the display. It’s a hugely popular event attended by thousands every year.

I went a couple of years ago with an Iranian student (among others).  She and I linked arms in the dark so as not to lose one another in the crowds and we bonded during the long cold wait for the fireworks to start – at least half an hour after the advertised time! Cultural events like this are a great opportunity to create occasions for internationals and locals to get together, so for the third year running (since we moved into this home) we’re hosting a meal after the fireworks.  Already we know around 20 international students who are coming!

But how do you explain, to an international audience, a custom which was once vehemently anti-Catholic and includes burning an effigy of a hate figure? Thankfully today those associations are mostly overlooked and the event has become an excuse to have some family-friendly firework fun. It’s an innocent celebration of the awful thing that never happened – domesticated, if you like, by the passage of the years. Still, I’ve always thought it worth looking into the origins of our customs thoughtfully, to see what connections we can make with important values and truths we might want to share with our international friends.

So when I tell the story of Guy Fawkes tomorrow night I will describe it as a story of what happens when religion and power politics become mixed, when there is oppression of a minority group, and what some desperate people will do when they lose all hope. Despite the story being 400 years old, it has a contemporary ring, doesn’t it? We’ll also take the opportunity to ask our guests tomorrow night if they think there’s a cause worth dying for … and briefly point them to the One we know who did.

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