Tag Archives: Personal

The Question is Free

Before moving to Germany, I thought I knew a few things about cultural differences. I’d lived in Malaysia for a year and Singapore for five, travelled widely across Southeast Asia and elsewhere, taught students from dozens and dozens of countries, and considered myself reasonably culturally competent. In many ways this was, and is, the case. However, moving to a small town in Germany, meeting German friends, and teaching mostly German students have taught me more about culture than I expected.

To begin with, I really hadn’t thought there would be as many cultural differences between Germans and people from my part of North America. There are plenty of cultural differences between Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans, and Germans just seemed so much closer to people I knew. Unsurprisingly, I was mistaken and, as any moment of pause would suggest, I really should have known better. There are cultural differences between people who live in cities mere hours apart; obviously I would find cultural differences between people continents apart.

Additionally, I didn’t know any Germans prior to moving to Germany. I knew a little bit about Germans, or thought I did based on blogs that I read and language courses that I followed, but most of that was just a willingness to peel back stereotypes until something close to truth emerged. But as with anything, there’s only so much one can learn out of a book. And when it comes to people, that amounts to very little.

Something I knew before coming here is that Germans are extremely direct when speaking, but I didn’t know how that actually played out in social situations. I have found relatively little beating around the bush (at which I am an expert), but rather honest questions simply asked that demand honest answers. Social niceties do not play the same role as in my part of North America and as a result, so I gather, social bonds in Germany are quite different than what I have known before. Germans have many Bekannte (acquaintances) and it is special to be accepted as a friend. Friends are not made overnight.

To take a different example, last night I was asked a serious question that required a serious answer. I had thought for weeks about asking the question myself and had decided against it without really coming to a conclusion. I just didn’t want to put anyone in a potentially awkward position, so I hadn’t asked. When I heard the question and gave my answer I added my reasoning for not having asked myself. I was told, “In German we say, ‘the question is free’.” Of course it is. In Germany, the question is just a question and the expectation is it comes from an honest place. No awkward situation required.

For as direct as I am in my professional life with students and colleagues, I tend to be quite the opposite in private. I find forthrightness difficult and this has been a problem in a range of relationships. I have a similar problem with making decisions that involve other people, though I am quite decisive when something only affects me. I’ve been getting better at decision-making, trying to think about choices in terms of simple questions and answers. “Where do you want to go on a bike ride?” merely requires me to state where I want to go; I don’t need to first wonder what the asker would like me to say and then try to say it.

The same logic then ought to apply in other situations, such as asking hard questions and engaging in hard conversations. This requires honesty rather than conforming to whatever expectations I think might be there. Conversations are a different dance under new conventions and I suppose better to learn this late than never. Better to actively learn how to behave in a new culture with new people than to assume that what I have always done is just the way things are to be done.

If the question is free, ask the question. And if the question is not free, as challenging as I find it, I still have to think it is worth asking. As many of us know, if you don’t ask the question, it never really fades away. We might not like the answer, but at least we don’t end up wondering what would have been had we asked. If we ask the question, we know.

The implications are then clear: The way to build a relationship is to approach it with openness, clarity, and the courage it takes to say what needs to be said, ask what needs to be asked, and listen to the response. If I learn nothing else from my time here, I am glad to have learned this.

On Women and Power

8 November 2016 – There were tears in my eyes when I voted for Hillary Clinton.

9 November 2016 – There were tears in my eyes throughout the silent ride to school. My carpool of strong women could think of nothing to say. Like many of my colleagues, I cried at work that day. I sat in a school-wide meeting called by our director, stunned, as he explained to the students that at our school, we value dignity and respect. We accept everyone, he emphasized, and we do not believe in hate. How to explain this to middle school students who, like the rest of us, had just watched hate win?

10 November 2016 – Our carpool was no longer silent. Shock and despair turned to anger and we realized the most important of lessons: Our voices were all that we had. I had the good fortune to be living in New York City and I was well aware that life would remain largely unchanged, despite the persistent chill in my chest.

22 November 2016 – It took about two weeks to accept that I was afraid.

December 2016 – Plans were formed and we waited.

18 January 2016 – Preparations finalized and we waited.

21 January 2017 – Women’s March on New York City. Women’s marches everywhere.

February, March, April, May, June 2017 – The carpool to and from school became an opportunity to call government officials at the local, state, and federal levels. We gave donations, signed and circulated petitions, read the news aloud, listened to the radio, joined online interest groups. We attended marches and protests. We spoke up because we could. We spoke up because we could not stop reading about people living in places that had become openly repressive and dangerous. We spoke up because these people could not speak.

And we realized, our voices were all that we had.

My political awakening came during the Obama years. I voted for the first time my first year in university, there was a financial crisis and promises for changes afoot, and I was studying to be a social studies teacher. Politics took on a relevance it never had before and I was excited to be involved. By the time Hillary Clinton won the Democratic Party nomination for president, I assumed the United States was ready to join the nations that had already elected women to the highest offices. It was 2016, after all.

Like more than half of the country, I was wrong. The people may have been ready but the Electoral College was not, and it is the Electoral College rather than the people who make this decision. So much for demokratia. The people hold power . . . except when they don’t.

This was not an issue of politics. This was an issue of women.

I have watched from afar, in horror, as the United States has increasingly restricted what can be taught in schools and what books are available for young people. I have watched from afar, that sinking feeling again in my stomach, as the nation’s courts deny women the right to their own bodies, again and again and again.

And I ask: What are they so afraid of? What are they running away from? What are they scrambling to hide?

I am a student and teacher of history, and this is the pattern of the world repeated over and over.

So I answer: Power.

After all, we do not silence people who we do not fear. We do not delegate inferior status to those we exclude without repercussion. When we do not feel threatened, we need not respond at all. In fact, we likely don’t even notice.

This leads me to the conclusion that men in power fear women. They fear opposition. They fear ideas that could harm the illusion they have built around themselves. And this illusion? That whatever power they think they have is, in fact, theirs. If it were, if that power were rightfully earned and positively utilized, there would be nothing to fear. Nothing to hide. Nothing to silence.

Clearly, there is a great deal to repress.

And this says a great deal about power.

Criminalizing a woman’s right to her own body suggests that the people making these laws are afraid of everything that makes a woman. And so I ask: If this is the case, who actually has power?

Head held high, I needn’t answer. I need only act. With my very self as the threat, my existence proves stronger than your resistance. Power lies in me and of me and through me. And no amount of you can take that away.

Women’s March on New York City – January 2017

Building Peace: A Greeting

In May 2016, I started a series of blog posts entitled “Building Peace”. This led, two years later, to a book that tied together many of the ideas presented in these posts, ideas that remain fundamental to the role I want to play in this world. I have written just a couple “Building Peace” posts since then, perhaps because I find this theme far more obvious now than when I first began tugging at stubborn threads. Somewhere along the road, these nascent ideas coalesced into an identity.

And it has been a road.

A significant personal change is that I like who I am; the adult can speak to the child in me without crying. In optimistic moments, it’s enough just to know that. In pessimistic ones, I still find that it helps to spend time among trees.

Rereading, I stand by what I wrote back then. So maybe it’s not that I have changed, but that the way I understand myself has changed. Not so lost after all, perhaps.

December in the Gregorian calendar situates us at the end of a cycle. There are certainly other means of marking time, but standardization allows for a more connected world, and a blog is a product of such a world. Readers of this blog come from 151 countries and this is astonishing to me. I thank you for the privilege of writing and I thank you for your patience in reading.

Western tradition says that this is the time of year for us to reflect on the past year and resolve, in the new year, to act differently. To push back on convention, as usual, I would like to suggest that the best time to make a change is the moment in which you recognize that a change should be made. Walk peacefully.

But in keeping with convention, which has a time and a place, I offer the greeting that ends many yoga classes. It takes different structures, forms, and languages, and it has meant different things to me at different times. I share this greeting because it is a reflection of how I try to walk in the world, behave in relationships with others, and consider my actions in relation to the planet. I hope that it resonates with you, too. And regardless, I wish for you what you wish for you.

Hands to the heart reminding us to have clear and loving intentions.
Hands to the forehead reminding us to have clear and loving thoughts.
Hands to the mouth reminding us to have clear and loving communications.
The light in me recognizes and honours the light in you.

Schalkau, Germany – September 2021