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(Personal) What I Brought Back From Texas

Myth 150After two weeks in Belgium, I flew to Dallas, TX for the final week of my training. It was a pretty wild swing from one place to the other — Belgium is almost stereotypically European, with tons of small stores, few chains, narrow streets and close spaces; Texas, on the other hand, is wide and flat and full of box stores. I’d like to say it was just the thrill of being back in somewhat more familiar settings, but Dallas felt wonderful while I was there, and I learned a few things as I visited friends and re-adjusted to American portions. Texas felt like an extension of the discomfort I felt leaving the bubble of California, a place not as shockingly different as Europe but strange enough that it didn’t feel like home either. One of the things I love about the US is how enormous and varied it is; you can learn so much by going into these environments with openness and acceptance.

The cheeseburger really is a distinctly American food.

Belgians are big on French fries. I had assumed that since cheeseburgers were such a ‘natural’ complement for them they’d have a pretty solid burger game — but I was wrong. The patty is formed as a puck, maybe two inches thick, with the dense and highly-processed consistency of compressed pate. It sits there in a bun too large for it, unseasoned and laying it wait to spread misery to the poor unsuspecting diner who takes a bite of it. I was fooled not once, but twice, by this devilish concoction — though to be fair the second time was at an establishment that had advertised itself as a “burger bar”.

I would never have expected it, but if someone had asked me what I missed most about the United States I would have to go with a good cheeseburger. The very first thing I did with my coworkers once we got through customs in DC was go to a restaurant and order a big, greasy cheeseburger. It was the welcome home meal I needed in the worst way, and I now have a greater appreciation of this humble, ubiquitous, American food.

Texas is much more purple than you think it is.

If you don’t live in Texas, most of what you hear about the state is its politics. This is, after all, the place that gave us Rick Perry and Ted Cruz; it’s been the epicenter of a legislative attack on women’s reproductive rights, LGBQTIA issues, and home to very troubling incidents of police brutality against people of color. This is the state where James Byrd, Jr. was killed being dragged from the back of a car; where Alfred Wright was found mutilated in the woods just three years ago. If you don’t live in Texas, it’s easy to see the state as a theocratic nightmare where people of color could be killed at any moment.

I’m not here to downplay the very real issues Texas has both politically and socially, but we also tend to forget just how many people of color there are in the state, how many activists, artists, political operatives, liberals and fighters who are working hard to change the state from within. Most of the state’s population lives within cities — around 85% in fact — and those cities are liberal and open. I was surprised to find Dallas was so diverse, with a thriving artist, student and geek scene. The city council removed the statue of Robert E. Lee from a prominent park the week I was there; while it shouldn’t have been up there in the first place, the fact that it was so quickly and decisively removed is a sign of progress, however small.

Texas isn’t perfect, but then neither is California. The people there aren’t all gun-crazy yahoos, doomsday preppers or unmitigated racists. It’s easy to start believing the stereotype you’ve been fed over time; now I’ll take less offense when people characterize Californians as health-food-obsessed, neurotic hippies.

There is strength in staying put to fix a hostile home.

A good friend of mine took me to an author event at a brand-new bookstore opening up in Dallas, Interrabang Books. The author was east Texas native Attica Locke, there to promote her new novel Bluebird, Bluebird. I was really taken with Locke almost immediately; her prose is so evocative and distinct, steeped in the history and culture of her ancestral home. She clearly loves where she’s from, but she’s not blind to the fact that there’s a long history of racism inextricably tied to it. That clear-eyed affection informs her work and allows her to open the rich, complicated tapestry of the state.

One of the things that struck me is that there is a clear respect for the people who stay behind to make a hostile territory better instead of leaving for greener pastures, and it’s something I had not thought about before. I left Baltimore when I could because I couldn’t imagine a good life for myself there; it fascinates me that there are people who not only can, but are willing to fight like hell to get from where things are to where they ought to be. It takes strength, resolve, and dedication to community to make that choice, and I honor the people who still claim Texas as their home while working hard to change it for the better at the same time.

It’s also OK to opt out of a situation that causes you stress.

While we were in Dallas, one of my coworkers was chosen to drive the rental car we got for the trip. He was, to put it bluntly, not a good driver. On the drive from the airport to our hotel he got lost multiple times, nearly crashed twice looking at directions on his phone, and even went the wrong way down a turn lane because he couldn’t navigate a construction detour. Even after that, he had a tendency to slam on brakes, look down at his phone way too often, and he didn’t take directions or criticism well. Things came to a head when he recommended we just not complain to him about his driving; after that, another coworker and I decided to take a Lyft to the airport. Our driving colleague was not happy about it, but I still feel it was the right decision.

It’s OK to choose to leave a situation that is more stress than you feel it’s worth. There will never be a completely stress-free choice in life; everything we do will require discomfort, especially if it’s worth doing. But there are times where we need to give ourselves permission to walk away from something that is bringing us unhappiness and very little else. Choosing what those times are isn’t easy, by a long shot, but it’s important to know that it’s an option. It’s important to look after our own well-being; it allows us to be better than we would have been otherwise.

Take what you need, but only what you need.

The portions in Texas are as oversized as the ones in Belgium are smaller than I’m used to, and it was almost impossible to actually finish a meal whenever I ate out. I think this trip cemented a tendency I had been drifting towards for a while now — simply opting out of the push to eat everything on my plate. It really isn’t necessary, and it gives you a warped sense of what you need to be satisfied. Filling yourself to bursting just to ‘get your money’s worth’ isn’t the best move most of the time; moderation is a much better way to go.

That being said, it’s important to take time and space to give yourself what you need. If you need more food, eat. If you need space to be alone, find your solitude. If you need to plant your foot and demand something, do not be moved. It can be difficult to know what you need and harder still to ask for it, but it’s vital to our own self-care. Respect really does start from within; we have to learn how to respect ourselves before we can respect anything else.

My three week business trip taught me a lot more about myself and how I’ve come to see the world than I thought it would. (And I thought it would teach me a fair bit.) I’m still absorbing these lessons, trying to find a way to shape them in ways that serve best, but I can safely say it was definitely life-changing. I have a clearer sense of self-worth and what I find important; I know more about just how different people and societies can be; and I have a better appreciation of my home and the cultural forces that shape the people here. I know travel is often seen as a luxury, and I see why. It’s expensive, and people tend to talk about it in terms of enjoyment or self-actualization. But in today’s climate it’s imperative to be exposed to different experiences and viewpoints, to accept them and reflect on them. Nothing gives us the opportunity to do that quite like going somewhere we’ve never been.

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2017 in mental-health, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) What I Brought Back From Europe

In August and September, work sent me one of their headquarters officers in Belgium for training on the product we support as part of an effort to foster more collaboration between the Support teams in Europe and the US. I was there for two weeks, with a “gap weekend” in Paris visiting a dear friend teaching there. It was my first time out of the country, and I had just enough time there to get a small taste of how life was different there and gain a few lessons about how I’m living here, day to day. Basically, spending a couple of weeks working in Europe taught me a lot about the pace of life here, how we relate to people, and how simplicity really can be a better way of life. Here are five broad lessons I’ve brought back with me from Belgium and France.

Culture shock is real.

If you’ve never experienced a culture different from your own, it’s not something you can ever be prepared for — especially if you’re spending a significant amount of time in said culture. There were so many things, both big and small, that shook me out of my comfort zone constantly. Belgium is a country with three distinct cultures and languages — French, German, Dutch — and they’re used to speaking multiple languages to get by. For someone like me who only speaks English on a regular basis, that lingual fluidity was much more difficult. The cuisine was different, of course; Italian dishes, beef and potatoes were the order of the day with very little seasoning. Mealtimes were a social event, where the expectation was that significant time would be carved out to eat and speak at leisure. Even the small interactions were different. People were less open but more friendly, stores were a lot smaller and more personal, coffee culture is way more geared towards espresso, and the volume of life is much quieter — even in Paris.

There are so many things we take for granted as universal to the human experience when it really isn’t. Beyond cultivating different personalities, cultures can also work from pretty different foundations about life’s purpose or an individual’s responsibility to society. And those foundations can sit beneath structures that are similar on the face, but baffling to navigate through. I know I’m not a worldly rabbit, but I try hard to recognize and accept those differences when I come across them. Even still, two weeks of that kind of discomfort was much more exhausting than I had anticipated.

Discomfort is a good thing.

The two weeks I spent in Belgium and Paris were almost constantly uncomfortable. Right up front I fought through jet lag, and after that was the harder, steadier work of navigating culture shock. There was the more familiar discomfort of building relationships with a small circle of coworkers who came over with me. There was penetrating a very different office culture and learning a complicated piece of software on top of that. There weren’t a lot of familiar comforts to be found; everything was new and required active engagement.

That wasn’t a bad thing, though. After making peace with the reality of the situation, I learned that constant engagement could be fulfilling and fruitful all on its own. That discomfort meant I was being tested, and learning how to move forward through that taught me a large amount in a relatively short time. Rest is important, of course; so is taking time to sink into comfort. But I think we’ve prized comfort far too much. Difficult things will cause discomfort, because building the skills we need to do them demands a lot of effort. We have to gauge whether or not this discomfort will lead to empowering us later, and not all hard situations are worth pushing through. But I think we’re too afraid of being uncomfortable in general. We treat it as an enemy instead of a sign that we’re doing something that changes us, makes us better.

Understanding people is hard work, but totally worth it.

The trainer in Belgium was a fairly difficult man to get along with, and it made training a lot more difficult. Beyond the culture and corporate clash, there was the fact that he didn’t have a personality well-suited to being in a room full of people all day explaining things and answering questions from a wide variety of students with different learning speeds and methods. After six or seven hours of this, we were set free on the city and had to muddle our way through conversations in English, Dutch and French. The whole time, I looked for non-verbal cues that might give me insight into conversational tone that might not be obvious from language alone.

In so many situations, it’s not just important to know what someone is saying — it’s also important to know what they *mean*. That means active listening, paying attention to not just the words but the context in which they’re being said, all the non-verbal cues that accompany them, the personal and interpersonal foundation the conversation is building on. Communication is not just the words we use, but the intent behind them and the skill of expressing that intent consciously. While sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, it’s also important to ask and accept why someone is saying something to us in the manner they’re saying it. Then, we have a better chance of knowing the best way to respond.

Slowing down and shutting up is something everyone should do on a regular basis.

I think the thing that impressed me most about my time in Europe is how the expectation is to slow down and focus on what you’re doing is baked into the culture. On our way back from the office, or while we were roaming around hunting for dinner, we’d see so many people sitting in front of shops and enjoying a beer in silent company. Television shows were so much more low-key in a way that’s difficult to describe, but things were designed to draw attention to what was happening — not diffuse it amongst a whole lot of sound bites. Focus and contemplation are encouraged; constant activity is not.

Taking a minute to shut up and think about the things we do and say is something that’s sorely needed. I think in American culture there’s a need to “join the conversation” regardless of whether it’s helpful or necessary to do so. We’re encouraged to be productive, to do great things, to admire those who are doing a billion things at once. While there are definite drawbacks to slowing down and focusing more intently on one thing, the benefits are obvious. We experience fewer things, but we experience them more deeply. That’s not a bad thing.

News should be designed to empower and inform, not agitate.

While I was in Belgium Hurricane Harvey was flooding Houston; not long after that, Hurricane Irma destroyed Barbuda and many other Caribbean islands; then, Hurricane Maria caused a tremendous humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico. I watched a lot of news on these events in Belgium, Texas and California, and the difference between BBC and CNN is incredibly striking. The BBC is more of a traditional newscast, reporting on major events, giving facts (without immediate ‘analysis’ or ‘conjecture’), even offering insight on what could be done about the situation to help. Watching the news on CNN, the breathless commentary constantly running about the day’s events struck me as incredibly unnecessary and unhelpful.

I think it’s time for us to step back and think about what we want out of the news, as a society. So much of our news cycle these days is designed to agitate us, to make us afraid or angry, because we’ve said through our feedback that these are the stories that gain the most traction. Even nominally ‘neutral’ outlets are full of crawling chirons underneath split screens or constantly-updated sidebars spitting shallow bits of information faster than we can properly absorb them. It doesn’t allow us to focus on what we find important; it just keeps throwing things at us to keep our distracted attention.

Being immersed in a slower culture that prizes focus and being present has helped a lot to recontextualize aspects of American culture that I think contribute to a lot of the fear and anger this country has been gripped by. One of our biggest problems, I think, is the constant fight and fragmentation of our attention; we’re bombarded by advertisements, calls to action, demands for focus or emotional investment almost all the time. I think we as Americans should discourage this kind of attentive pollution and treat our focus as a precious, limited resource. We pride ourselves on more of everything — bigger portions, more productivity, more wealth. But for the time being, I think less is more; eliminating distractions to focus on what’s most important is what I need.

 

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