My husband thought I worked for ASIO

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When I first met my husband (Shanton) he thought that I must have secretly worked for ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation). He also thought that I stared at him a lot. I didn’t find this out until much later, and at the time he told me, I thought this was hilarious and when I share this story to people in workshops or in life, they also find it funny.

Whenever I talk to friends, family and clients and deliver courses, the topic of conversation inevitably turns to culture – this includes many aspects of cultural differences as well as how to show respect and build rapport, and since meeting Shanton nine years ago these are subjects I have learnt a lot about and continue to learn more about as time goes on.

I have written in a previous post about how we do cross cultural marriage, so if you want to read a bit of a back story of how two very different people met, fell in love and make it work, feel free to check that article out here.

So, back to ASIO. The reason he thought this was because of the fact I asked so many questions. I have always been a curious cat, curious in the extreme really, just ask any of my school teachers since the beginning of time and anyone who knows me. I ask a LOT of questions.

In Shanton’s culture however, questions are considered rude. They can’t ask questions of people who are senior to them, they can’t ask questions such as what a person does for a living, how old someone is (this is particularly important if the person is senior to you) you can’t ask about marital status, and the biggest taboo question of all is when a woman is pregnant to ask when her baby is due. I met countless people who Shanton introduced me to as his wife and I never got the name of most of them either and I didn’t ask. One day I asked Shanton what our neighbour James’ mum’s name was, so I could address her properly, he looked at me curiously and said, ‘It’s James’ mum’.

I could fill a dictionary of all the things you don’t ask, so it’s easier to just summarise by saying – don’t ask. My best advice when dealing with anyone from a culture you aren’t familiar with is to be guided by how the person engages with you. Questions such as ‘how are you?’ ‘how is your family?’ and ‘how is your health?’ are usually ok across most cultures. My Mum often laughs when recalling Shanton coming home to bring a friend to introduce to her and mostly he didn’t know their name, so he would say ‘Mum, this is my good, good friend’.

Somehow, in Ghana they get to know enough about each other to not need to ask questions like we do. It boggles the mind of people like us in Australia, because that’s how we get to know people right? Maybe it gets back to the fact that people mostly live in a community setting and already know enough about each other to not need to ask too much?  I don’t know, even after all these years it puzzles me, but one of the things I learnt about living in another country myself and with a person from another culture is to be guided by them when it comes to relating to other people. Showing respect is paramount and if a person feels disrespected you can forget about building any kind of relationship, no matter the culture.

Now the staring thing. In the West, we show respect by making eye contact when someone is talking to us or we are talking with another person. However, in many cultures direct eye contact is seen as threatening, rude and inappropriate. This has variations from culture to culture and there are subtleties about eye contact that can vary between married to single, junior to senior, male to female etc. When it gets down to it eye contact in developing countries and some of our more traditional cultures is more often than not seen as inappropriate. Shanton really felt I stared at him, I saw it as gazing lovingly into his eyes of course. He initially saw it as strange and rude and didn’t know how to respond. We had an interesting conversation about this just today which has led to this post. After so many years in Australia he now appreciates, and values eye contact and it has become the norm for him.

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When he visits Ghana however, he is now seen as odd, and people often ask him why he is staring at them, one man asked ‘Sorry do I know you? Why are you staring at me like that?’. Today he told me something that he hadn’t shared or perhaps realised before. He recently returned from a visit to Ghana, and he told me that his uncle has been unhappy with him, although he didn’t tell him directly. Shanton was told it was because he no longer showed him the respect he previously had. Other people have also commented that he no longer respects his senior family members. The difference between the past and now is one thing – eye contact.

I found this fascinating. The fact that he was in his newfound way showing respect, was in fact having the opposite and unwanted effect with his family and friendship groups back in Ghana.

These are just two of the myriad of cultural differences that I find so interesting. I could write a book there are so many, but these are particularly important, as showing respect and building rapport are the building blocks of establishing a relationship of any kind. It is even more critical when you are supporting someone in a counselling or therapeutic relationship or informally when checking in to see how they are going, perhaps when offering Mental Health First Aid.

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Here are a few ideas I have found helpful so far in terms of building the initial relationship with someone if you are unsure of how to engage and to ensure you are showing respect.

  1. Be guided by the way the other person engages with you, and follow suit. For instance if they make brief eye contact and look down or away, don’t take offence. They may be showing you deep respect. This is hard to get used to, as we have been taught the importance of eye contact but it can be quite confronting for some.
  2. Don’t assume physical contact is ok, for instance don’t shake hands if the person doesn’t initiate it. Better to greet warmly without reaching out unless the person reaches out first. For some people shaking hands is just not ok, and especially between men and women.
  3. Be careful with the use of humour, particularly sarcasm. This is a particularly Western way of interacting but it’s usually lost on someone not accustomed to it. Humour varies greatly and it is tricky to navigate, so tread lightly. My husband still doesn’t get my dry sarcastic wit sometimes, although he now proudly states “this – is going straight to the poolroom” when he gets a gift. Over time he has become a huge fan of some of our iconic Aussie comedy films.
  4. Approach sensitive topics gently and gauge the response before probing too deep. Observe the person’s non-verbal reaction to your question or comment before continuing along that line of conversation.
  5. If you inadvertently do something that seems inappropriate, don’t be afraid to apologise, we are all human, and showing vulnerability and genuine concern is always appreciated.
  6. If you do ask questions, consider the motivation behind them. Before he got used to being bombarded with a gazillion questions, Shanton occasionally asked me ‘what are you going to do with this information?’ a response I found intriguing. When you are working in a supporting role, it is always helpful to check yourself before enquiring and consider ‘for whose benefit am I asking this question?’. We often ask questions out of our own personal interest, especially when faced with something different to us, but in fact when helping someone, questions should largely be for the benefit of the client or person you are talking with. Questions should assist an individual to find the answers within themselves, unlock what they already know or assist them to move forward.

Lastly, and most importantly, enjoy living, laughing and learning from the incredibly diverse, wonderfully rich and beautiful blend of cultures we are blessed to call family, friends, colleagues and community in this great big delicious melting pot we call home.

My life is certainly richer for the experience.

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How to be polite in Bali

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As everyone who knows me or has ever read anything I’ve written knows well, I love Bali – a lot. I’m privileged to have a little villa here and I consider it my second home and feel very protective of it, like it’s somehow mine.

I spent the day today wandering the streets of Ubud as I enjoy doing and some of the things I saw and have seen this trip and on previous visits made me feel like I want to talk a little bit about manners. If I am completely honest, and I usually am, I sometimes feel embarrassed to be an Australian visitor to this glorious place.

So, here are a few things I would like to suggest to do and not to do when visiting the magical island of the gods, to make your holiday enjoyable and leave the locals smiling after you leave.

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  1. Please do not walk around in shorts that show parts of your anatomy that should be kept private, and that goes for boys and girls. Believe me when I say I am no prude, but seriously we don’t need to see butt cheeks and other bits and pieces hanging out. I saw a girl wearing a pair of shorts the other day that looked and fitted like underpants that were a few sizes too small, and half of her backside was hanging out, it was so not a good look. Oh and girls, please wear more than a bra or bather top when walking around the streets of Ubud. I find it very disrespectful to see some of the scraps of material barely covering anything on the streets. Yes it’s hot, but a tank top and shorts or skirt are just fine too and probably just as cool.
  2. Please barter, but don’t go over the top. I hate seeing people haggling for the sake of 50 cents or $1. Really? Let it go. I enjoy haggling, it’s good to treat it like a bit of sport and fun and always stay good natured about it. Be fair.
  3. Please use your manners. Please and thank you are not hard to say and they go a long way. If you really want to go the extra mile, say thank you in the local language. Everyone here speaks Bahasa Indonesian so you can say terima kasih for thank you. If you know for sure that the person you are talking with is Balinese, then try saying suksma (sook some mah) and you will really make their day. They will respond with a happy smile and suksma mewali. If you really want to build rapport you can say sing ken ken when you want to say no worries or no problem.
  4. Please tip where you can. I know we Aussies don’t come from a tipping culture but it’s a lovely thing to do to leave a little extra if you have the means. I have been horribly embarrassed when I have been with people waiting for the waitress to return with their $1 or $1.50 balance from the meal. Seriously, what’s a dollar or two a day on the average two week holiday? Not much to us, but a lot for them. So round it up by a dollar or two if and when you can.
  5. Yes I know the constant cries for ‘transport’ ‘taxi’ ‘massage’ and the rest can be overwhelming after a long day of it, but remember this is someone’s livelihood. I have seen so many people be disrespectful and rude, and it’s unnecessary. I try to smile politely and say thank you where I can. Trust me it’s appreciated. Can you imagine trying to get a job all day and being completely ignored or attacked? Be kind.
  6. Remember you are in a developing country where things will never be the same as home, no matter how many Starbucks or McDonalds pop up. Also when communicating, remember English is not the native tongue, so please bring your patience, understanding and respect. I heard some women outraged they weren’t able to get a coffee somewhere the other day and another time a woman was horrified there was no wifi in a tiny ice cream shop. I’ve seen a woman screaming at a confused attendant in a supermarket as she herself didn’t understand the currency and I had to intervene. Enjoy what is available, when and where it is available, and hey why not try something new – you never know, you just might like it.
  7. While wifi is common here, we certainly don’t have it at home, so don’t act like it’s the end of the world if it’s not available. If it’s important to be connected, buy a sim card, they are only a few dollars.
  8. When the toilet has a sign asking you not to flush, please respect it. The plumbing systems are not built to cope with our copious use of toilet paper as the locals use water. In fact, why not give the bum hose a go, I am a complete convert and have bought my own. Read about my experiences with it here. There is nothing quite like having cool nether regions when you are stinking hot everywhere else.

I’d like to finish with the most important thing of all. Enjoy, relax, take a load off. Look around and appreciate the beauty of this magical island of the gods and it’s incredible people.

It’s paradise.

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What really happens in Bali?

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Have you ever watched those shows that claim to expose ‘what really happens in Bali’ or ‘the dark side of Bali’? I’ve seen them all, I have no idea why I sat through them, but I did, and I saw another one yesterday as YouTube automatically selected a video based on my previous choice of Balinese music on my TV.

These shows drive me crazy. I get so angry and annoyed when I see the sensationalistic journalism that claims to show the REAL Bali. Drugs, gangs, theft, rape, drink spiking, murder and accidents. Oh and have you heard the statistic that one foreigner dies every nine days here? These deaths are largely due to pre-existing medical conditions and misadventure, but still one every nine days. It must be a dreadful place! These kind of things ONLY happen in Bali right?

Bali must be the only country in the whole world with any kind of theft, gangs, illegal drugs, bouncers that beat people up in clubs and robbery. It must be the only country where people can hurt themselves, break limbs and get very sick or killed in motor vehicle accidents.

Please.

The worse offender was the Channel 7 series “What really happens in Bali?”. It was so badly titled, and should rather have been called “What happens when Westerners behave like total twats, drink too much, disrespect culture, jump off high cliffs, ride motorcycles without helmets and break the law”. But no, it must be Bali.

I’ve been coming to Bali regularly for over 14 years, I’m here for the third time this year already. I have written previously many times about the things I love about being in Bali. I’m well travelled and I’ve been to many countries in my life, but this place has my heart and a piece of my soul, so I will continue to visit regularly and most likely retire here one day.

I understand if somebody doesn’t feel an urge to come here, it’s not for everyone. That’s what makes the world go around, diversity and different tastes. I’ve never had a desire to go to some countries that others love, and that’s fine too. What I do want to say is that people should never be put off by journalism that misrepresents the truth. What about Thailand? I’ve been there three times. Trust me, the same stuff happens there, but do the media give it the same kind of beat up? No, and it if happens, it’s rare.

Sure there are problems here. Corruption is rife, there is a massive issue with disposal of rubbish, there is poverty and inequity, but I’m sad to say this isn’t the first country I’ve visited where I’ve experienced these things. It’s everywhere. It is particularly prevalent in developing countries. The best we can do as visitors is try to understand how things work here, show our respect, tread lightly on the earth where possible, and enjoy the fact that we are able to visit this piece of heaven on earth.

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So what really happens in Bali? For me what really happens is I see beauty everywhere I look. I see an amazing culture and a reverence for nature and spirituality that has been maintained, despite the rapid growth of tourism and influx of Westerners. I see ancient traditions, beautiful architecture, incredible landscapes, beaches and temples. I see people, community, love, family and respect. I see amazing food, incredible scenery, and a feeling that simply cannot be expressed in mere words. I see life in all its craziness blended together in a great big melting pot.

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I see paradise.

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Bali I love you

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Anyone that knows me, knows I have had a love affair with Bali for many years. I absolutely adore the place and come here a lot. I say here because I am here now, I arrived tonight. It is my 50th birthday in 5 days and I could think of nowhere I would rather spend it than my beloved Bali.

People often ask me why I love it so much. It is not as if I haven’t been elsewhere; I have been to Thailand, Vanuatu, Fiji and Singapore, just to name the countries closest to home. But something about Bali is in my heart and Bali has taken a piece of my heart in her as well.

The minute I walk out of the airport into the open air, the sounds and smells are like home. Heady incense, frangipanis and jasmine, blend with clove cigarettes, smoke and petrol fumes. I inhale deeply, taking it all in, the warm air humid and sticky. Sweat tingles immediately on my skin and I immediately feel a sense of being where I belong.

The traffic is crazy, 2 lanes become 5, families travel together from newborn to parents with kids all ages in between on one motorbike, but a sense of peace evades even on the incredibly chaotic roads. If ever there should be road rage it’s here, but it doesn’t exist. Car horns toot, constantly but it’s good natured, no malice is ever intended.

The Balinese people have maintained their culture, spirituality and appreciation and respect for their arts, crafts, traditions and country, whilst catering to the growing demands of tourism and tourists. The Hindu traditions are an integral part of their daily life, with frequent offerings being left in auspicious places, regular visits to temples and all important and special days are honoured, including Nyepi, where the entire island comes to a standstill. No flights in or out, and nobody is allowed even to go out onto the street.

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Everywhere you look you see the beauty of this incredible culture. Sure there are thousands of hotels and tourists, and sadly a whole lot of rubbish if you look hard enough that is difficult to dispose of, but amongst it all, they have kept the essence of the “island of the gods” intact.

I could write and write and write about Bali, I have so much to say. I will save some for tomorrow and the next day as I share this special time for me here on my page with you.

Until tomorrow – sampai jumpa lagi (see you later again)

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