Thursday, March 05, 2009


There are moments in cross-cultural settings where I feel totally clueless. Or I do something strange that might leave the other party thinking either they're missing something, or I am. Somehow, someone is clueless.

Like when I keep wanting to shake everyone's hands... The Taiwanese don't really do a lot of that. In Kenya, you shake hands with a LOT of people EVERY DAY. You rarely say hi to someone (even neighbors you pass on the footpath, or kids walking by the river, or colleagues whom you may have already seen earlier) without shaking hands.

So when I walked into the choir office tonight, it felt so very wrong NOT to shake hands with people I recognized. Or new people I met. There were a few times I actually shook hands, because it was appropriate to do so, but almost every time I got the "umm, did I miss something? am I clueless? or are you foreigners just weird?" look.

Speaking of choir. it did my heart well to be back at choir! Talk about being clueless, though... Everything is in Chinese. Actually, we're singing a Schubert piece in German and Mendelssohn's Elijah in English, but all the talking is in Chinese. So I've got to learn music terms in Chinese again. 'Cause I'm mostly following the instructions by watching the conductor's body language when he stops us, or simply paying very close attention to what my neighbors do. 'Cause I don't want to be totally clueless and make a fool of myself.

Which is inevitable.

But I avoid it when I can.

Speaking of avoiding things, I had a bizarre encounter in the subway station today. I noticed a 20-some-year-old blind guy walking through the busy main station with his walking stick, but talking on his cell phone. He was so into the phone call (looked like it had to be a girl he likes on the other side...) that he wasn't paying any attention to what he was doing.

So he walked straight to the escalator that was coming up. He wanted to go down. And because he wasn't paying attention, he was ready to step onto the fast-moving steps (going in the wrong direction). People just watched. I ran over and grabbed his arm, apologizing profusely for intruding, and explaining that he would've fallen. He just smiled and kept talking on the phone. It was really a bizarre situation. I have a very dear friend who is blind, and I'd never ever think of yanking her arm. But I also know that she pays attention to where she goes... If I saw her heading into a dangerous situation, I'd yell. But I didn't know how to yell "Stop!" in Chinese, so I grabbed the guy's arm. Oh, well, I may have been clueless, but at least the twitterpated young man isn't toothless tonight!

Very last thing before I go to sleep: I've been passing a series of pictures in one of the subway stations, as you take this really-really long escalator ride to change from the blue line to the brown line. It's an ad for Benjamin Button, and the one poster has a poignant quote at the bottom that I've been looking at every time I pass on the escalator. It says,

"Your life is defined by its opportunities... even the ones you miss."

I think more often than not, we're clueless about the opportunities we have missed. Chances to do something new. To try something new. To help someone. To make a difference in someone's day, or in their life.

But tonight, as I was going by that poster after almost 3 hours of singing my heart out, practicing Elijah, I thought, "I'm so glad I didn't miss this opportunity to be part of something so beautiful... despite the fact that I risk doing something silly 'cause I don't really understand everything the conductor says, 'cause I'm the only person in the room that speaks very little Chinese, 'cause I'm the only person in the entire room that doesn't sight sing."

Sometimes More often than not, it's worth taking the risk. Even if you end up looking clueless at times.


  1. Great entry. :) And you can shake my hand anytime! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and heart. I'm thinking about my opportunities.

  2. Thanks, Linda. Actually, I prefer hugging more than shaking hands, which can be even more of a cultural awkward moment... :)