The Imaginary Line Around Which We Balance

Ever wish you had the power to shift time?

Many of us are respectfully quiet this week, contemplating the massive destruction in Japan from the earthquake. Over 400,000 people homeless and a death toll that could hit 25,000. Exposed radioactive fuel rods that they can’t cool down. It’s almost impossible to imagine. 

That very earthquake shortened our day by 1.8 microseconds. It also shifted the Earth’s axis by 6.5 inches, affecting our normal orbital wobble. NASA reports that we need not worry, because the world is always wobbling on its axis, and the length of our day increases and decreases all the time by fractions of a millisecond and no one ever notices.

This time, we noticed. What can one write about on a blog such as this, after tens of thousands of people’s lives have been turned upside down in one day? When 4,000 are confirmed dead, and 9,000 human hearts are missing? And we don’t know what is coming next?

This is all I can say…

I’m teaching a business communication class at a local university. Our focus this week is cross-cultural communication. Nine of my 17 students are from countries other than the United States.

I asked if the class could interview them—ask them questions about customs and traditions, expectations and rules—all regarding communication in their home country. Some of the students are still refining their English, and are just becoming comfortable speaking out in class. But surprisingly, they all agreed.

The students sat at the front of the room, individually and in small groups, and shared insights about how we communicate differently in the U.S. than where they come from. They said it’s funny how Americans say, “Hi, how are you?” when passing by each other, but that we never stop to listen for the response. When we’re checking out at the grocery store, and the cashier asks, “Are you all set?” they said it is an odd expression—are we all set for what? Some of the students said they’d have a hard time calling me “Kellie,” even if I asked them to. They feel it would be disrespectful. They insist on calling me “Miss,” or “Miss Kellie.”

We learned many things: In China, they wear black to weddings, and white to funerals. In the Phillipines, they use terms of respect when talking to family members, and they bless their elders when leaving church by grasping a hand and touching it to their forehead. Filipino time means everyone knows an event that starts at 11:00 am will really start at 12:00 pm. Did you know they eat rice and peas in Jamaica on Sundays? (At first, I thought they meant they eat rice and peas on sundaes—we all got a laugh about that.)

In Vietnam, they don’t use last names—they communicate only using first names. And we learned that it’s more common in Burma for two men to be touching when walking down the street, than it is for a couple to show displays of affection publicly. 

The students sat straight up in their chairs and fired questions at each other for two and a half hours. It was clear that it’s simply fascinating to talk about what makes us human, what makes us connect, what makes us the same and what makes us different.

So we can’t shift time. And we can’t stop earthquakes. But we can sit and laugh about putting peas and rice on sundaes and together build tiny bridges that reach across the ocean.