Horns, smARTpower, and eventually getting there on a bike

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Learning happens everywhere and when we are out and about in the world, particularly outside our own linguistic and cultural safe-spots–we are continuously encountering something new, strange, and fill in the blank. Traveling and living abroad changes a person…it has certainly changed me. Indeed, as I reflect on my educational experiences, very few of those memories are related to classroom learning. This explains my obsession with informal education! People-to-people connections have the power to spark radical change but many of us struggle as we try to connect with individuals from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds for a variety of reasons. My guess is that many (if not all) of those reasons can be distilled into one: fear.

Perhaps the most daunting obstacle to cross-cultural exchange and communication is the (perceived) language barrier. Communicating–trying to communicate–in a language that is not a mother-tongue or one which we can skillfully command in order to express ourselves fluently…well, it’s frustrating, requires humility, a dash of brute effort, and a willingness to look like a darn fool. But Oh, the Phrases You’ll Undergo! (Okay, that was a super-lame play on the title of the Dr. Seuss book…). Actually, it might be more accurate to write, “but Oh, the Phrases Your Listener Will Undergo.” Case in point:

When I lived in Cairo, I made a brilliant (ahem) discovery that I just KNEW would help me break the language barrier much more quickly than I would if I hadn’t found such a luminous key. What is it? You’re desperate to know? How do I learn Arabic FAST? Well, hold your horses, it really isn’t all that exciting…or fast. The thing is…before moving to Egypt I had studied and acquired a reasonable proficiency in Persian-Farsi–enough so that I could read a newspaper (yet, somehow, struggled to ask for toilet paper…but that’s another story!). However, I did know that many words in Persian came directly from Arabic but were pronounced differently. Well, then! Let’s go to town!

I’m running late…really late…but I have no idea how to tell the taxi driver this. He only sees my crazed expression and a palpable sense of urgency. There are two school girls in the back of the taxi–we are sharing the ride, which happens very often in Cairo. My brain shifts into high gear and breaks into a conversation that unwinds something like this:

Kelly the Truba (truba means ‘horn’ in Slovak but is used to indicate dumbassedness): Crap! I’m SOOO late!

Spark of Genius: ajaleh daram is how we say “I’m in a hurry” in Farsi…but in Egyptian Arabic the letter ‘jeem’ is pronounced like the ‘g’ in Gulf…and to say “I have” in Arabic is ayndi (3ndi; عندي)…AHA! Spark of genius that I am, here is a brilliant solution! Let’s “translate” into Arabic.

Kelly the Truba (speaking out loud and with nervous emphasis): AYndi Agalah! Ayndi Agalah!

(REAL translation: I have a bicycle!! I have a bicycle!!!)

Spark of Genius (or Kelly the Truba…you be the judge): What is WRONG with these people! Why are they looking at me as if I am INSANE?!?!

Ah, the phrases you will heap upon others. In fact, I wonder just how much confusion (at best) and animosity (at worst) arise from our clumsy command of languages as we travel and interact abroad….Well, it appears that the U.S. Department of State was concerned enough about the limitations of language that they felt compelled to encourage us innocents abroad to shut the heck up and share a picture. Check it out:

U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Bronx Museum of the Arts launched smARTpowerSM., a new initiative that sends 15 American artists and collaborative artist teams to 15 countries worldwide to engage in people-to-people diplomacy through the visual arts.

smARTpower builds on Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s vision of “smart power diplomacy,” which embraces the use of a full range of diplomatic tools – in this case the visual arts – to bring people together and foster greater understanding.

For up to 45 days during the next year, the following American artists will travel to all corners of the globe, where they will partner with local arts organizations to engage with underserved youth and create community-based projects. The first smARTpower artist, Kabir Carter of Brooklyn, New York, will depart October 24 for Istanbul, Turkey. Other artists will follow throughout 2012 with travel to China, Ecuador, Egypt, Ghana, India, Kenya, Kosovo, Lebanon, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Venezuela.

The artists participating in smARTpower, the countries to which they will travel, and their in-country partner arts organizations are:

  • Duke Riley of Brooklyn, New York – Shanghai, China
    Partner Organization: Arthub Asia
  • Chris “Daze” Ellis of New York, New York – Quito, Ecuador
    Partner Organization: Cero Inspiración
  • Arturo Lindsay of Atlanta, Georgia – Cairo, Egypt
    Partner Organization: Medrar/Nagla Samir
  • Rochelle Feinstein of New York, New York – Accra, Ghana
    Partner Organization: Foundation for Contemporary Art
  • Caroline Woolard of Brooklyn, New York – New Delhi, India
    Partner Organization: KHOJ
  • Miguel Luciano of Brooklyn, New York – Nairobi and Dadaab Province, Kenya
    Partner Organization: Kuona Trust
  • Samuel Gould of Minneapolis, Minnesota – Pristina, Kosovo
    Partner Organization: Stacion Center for Contemporary Art
  • Ghana Think Tank (comprised of Christopher Robbins, John Ewing, and Maria del Carmen Montoya) of Little Neck, New York; Roxbury, Massachusetts; and Corvallis, Oregon – Beirut, Lebanon
    Partner Organization: Arab Image Foundation
  • Pepón Osorio of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – Kathmandu, Nepal
    Partner Organization: Kathmandu Contemporary Arts Centre
  • Brett Cook of Berkeley, California – Lagos, Nigeria
    Partner Organization: Wy Art Foundation
  • Art Jones of Bronx, New York – Karachi, Pakistan
    Partner Organization: Vasl
  • Mary Mattingly of New York, New York – Manila, Philippines
    Partner Organization: Green Papaya Art Projects
  • Xaviera Simmons of Brooklyn, New York – Colombo, Sri Lanka
    Partner Organization: Theertha International Artists Collective.
  • Kabir Carter of Brooklyn, New York – Istanbul, Turkey
    Partner Organization: PiSt///Interdisciplinary Project Space
  • Seth Augustine and Rachel Shachar of Los Angeles, California – Caracas, Venezuela
    Partner Organization: Centro Cultural Chacao

More than 900 individuals from nearly all 50 states and U.S. territories applied to the program. Those chosen include both emerging and established artists who work in a variety of media, from site-specific happenings to portable art installations. Selection criteria included the strength of the artists’ work, and their experienced commitment to community-based art making.

smARTpower is an initiative of the U.S. Department of State in partnership with the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Click here to learn more about the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and click here to learn more about The Bronx Museum of the Arts.

What a relief! Apparently my “smart power” diplomatic efforts involving incomprehensible linguistic acrobatics was not cutting the moose-tard.

How do you communicate across cultures and language barriers? What was your most embarrassing or hilarious interaction abroad?

Cultural Lenses

When I was in graduate school, one of our professors asked us each to reflect on our cultural lenses and consider how our experiences shape us as learners. I’d like to share my response here:

Wow, what an intimate question we’re starting from. It’s taken me several days to mull over this charge to “identify my cultural lenses” and honestly, I don’t think it’s possible. In my estimation culture is a dynamic context through which we experience, learn, communicate, and categorize the life force. However, there are several key experiences in my personal background that have leaned heavily into my worldview.

I grew up in a family for which the effort to jump tax brackets was pursued with such force, single-mindedness, and vengeance we ultimately found ourselves without a center. My mother was raised in a very poor family: My grandfather worked on a ‘honeywagon’ (a truck that emptied people’s cesspools) and he was old-fashioned enough to prohibit my grandmother from working. She did however, along with my mom and her sister, take in ironing from other families to make a bit of extra money. My grandparents on my mother’s side did not receive much formal education: My grandfather completed the third grade but was made to resign from school in order to help support his family.  My grandmother completed the eighth grade but never made it to high school. My grandparents were not educated people, they didn’t keep books in the house; they worked.  This environment—and the sting of growing up impoverished—made a deep and negative impression on my mother who spent most of her life running like a “bat out of hell” (as my grandmother would say) to escape its legacy. “You need to go to college” my mother would tell us repeatedly, “The masses are stupid” was her mantra, which obviously originated from her deep sense of unease with her own position in the social order.

My father grew up in an Irish-American Catholic family and attended Catholic school from kindergarten through 12th grade. His grandparents on both sides had immigrated to America and settled in the area of South Philadelphia known as Devil’s Pocket. My dad, in his own words, “grew up on the corner,” which means he spent a lot of his time as a young person being a punk, getting in fist fights, and getting into relatively innocent mischief. He was intensely pro-Irish, anti-British, and aggressively working class but in some respects a natural intellectual (he was always reading and had an ear for languages). As much as my mother sought to escape her working-poor roots, my father sought to assert his. This combination of forces shaped my brother, sister, and me in profound ways. We all suffered, to varying degrees, to feel at home in any community yet yearned to belong. My brother expressed this pathos intellectually: He went on to college and majored in sociology, became obsessed with Marx, and flirted with socialist and communist ideals yet has never (as far as I can tell) really managed to connect his scholarship with living. To clarify: my sister and I refer to him as “the man of the people who hates people” or sometimes, “the anti-social socialist.”

The culture of our household led me to trust learning as a route to freedom—an imperative that linked itself easily with my spiritual work (which I embarked upon as a young teenager when I discovered a book on Yoga philosophy from Swami Vivekananda). However, like my brother, I found it very difficult to connect with others and too often the pursuit of learning was approached aggressively and defensively. For many years this aggression leaned into the manner in which I lived in and perceived the world.

By the time I graduated from high school and was ready to attend college, my parents made too much money for me to get any kind of sufficient financial aid and they were unwilling to support me financially. At that time, as school was financially out of reach, I moved out on my own to study life.  It sucked. At twenty-five I joined the US Army, completed basic training, and completed a one year language immersion course in Persian-Farsi. The Army sucked but becoming bilingual was the most magical experience of my life. After separating from the Army, I managed to get into the University of Pennsylvania, where I majored in Middle East studies and gawked at my impossibly rich and brilliant colleagues. Penn was an amazing and strange experience—an intellectual wonderland but an incredibly isolating experience as well, because I felt like an imposter.

After graduating from Penn I moved to Cairo, Egypt, where I lived for three years, studied Arabic and got my brain pureed by the humiliating and transformative powers of culture-shock therapy. While there, I met my husband, who was born and raised in Slovakia and then immigrated to the United States in his early twenties. His job brought him to Cairo. Soon after we married, his job brought us to Japan.

SO, when you ask me to identify my cultural lenses it takes me a week to even know where to begin.  Because of my early experiences, I always felt somewhat of an outsider. Ironically, having lived abroad for nearly eight years and being part of a bi-cultural marriage, studying Arabic, Farsi, Japanese, and Slovak languages, I have learned to feel and be more connected to other people. More than anything, these experiences have added up to cause me to spend a lot of time thinking and walking around ideas in effort to approach them from various angles.


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