Keywords: Reflection, Context, Design Research, Culture
Being an “expat” comes with many benefits, and challenges. Topmost on the list of the latter for a majority of those living this life is adjusting to new cultures, and their associated norms. This often means that the scale of the challenge is directly proportional to the deviations between your known “normal” and the new one you find yourself residing in. Being an American living in India, this adjustment took some time, and it didn’t really hit home how much this notion of normalcy has changed over the past 4+ years until recently.
I’m from a very small town in Western New York state in the U.S., population of less than 2,000 people, and I moved to Delhi in February 2012, a city sporting nearly 20,000,000 inhabitants. In all fairness, I didn’t move straight from one to the other; I share those factoids more as a way of setting context a bit. Despite living in cities all over the U.S., and overseas, it is the experience of growing up in small town America that set the foundation – or lens – for the viewing the world around me, for better and worse.
The smaller the town, the larger the echo chamber as the potential for exposure to different opinions, ways of life, and customs and traditions are lessened by a greater degree; people of shared experiences tend to have shared outlooks, which leads to an acceptance of what one believes to be “normal” is a universal truth, and any deviation thereof is perceived to be threatening, or in the very least just wrong. Capitalizing on this, or even fomenting it, has long been a tradition in politics, both in America and abroad, and is nothing new. This year’s manifestation of Donald J. Trump is probably one of the most disturbing examples of it run amok, complete with racist, xenophobic, and jingoistic overtones. This understandable, but dangerous naivety no longer something to question and despise, but rather idealized; the cause célèbre has become cause for celebration.
It is such then, that traveling overseas and engaging with new and different cultures was viewed by my family as a necessity. My parents were huge supporters of me and my siblings and our travels, and some of my fondest memories as a young child came from the slide-shows my Dad would take us through of his travels around the world in the 1950s. In the days before the Internet, it was mind-blowing to a child to be exposed to such radically different scenes. As I grew older, overseas travels began shifting from the tried and true locales of Western Europe to further flung reaches throughout Asia and the Pacific region. It was in such locations that I was first made to realize how starkly different the world is depending on who you are and what your socioeconomic status is. And that’s not just in the very black-and-white view of the economic reality of globalization (e.g., if you have money, you have opportunities), but also in virtually every aspect of life.
I grew up Catholic and attended faith-based educational institutions all the way through college. Other than those claiming to be atheists, I genuinely can’t think of any non-Christians growing up. Seeing the grand mosques in Turkey, the Hindu mandirs in India, and the Buddhist temples throughout Southeast Asia, as well as having the opportunity to engage with people of different faiths in each was like revelation to me. When your previous exposure to such is so limited, it’s easy to have preconceived notions, or even prejudices, about what people will be like. Only after engaging with people in their contexts and experiencing a bit of what their daily realities are like are you afforded a real taste of just how dumb you can be. I often say that one of my favorite aspects of traveling to a new place is to see just how wrong my assumptions or expectations are, and almost always is this because a place and its people are far better than what I imagined.
The smaller the town, the larger the echo chamber as the potential for exposure to different opinions, ways of life, and customs and traditions are lessened by a greater degree.
That’s not to say that religion is the lone basis for comparing one place or people to another, it just stands out as being one of the most memorable. That said, food is certainly another point of divergence, particularly as an American. I add that last bit due to the fact that people overseas seem to never tire of telling me how God awful the American cuisine is, if only due to portions. I will say, though, that having grown up with a palette attuned to the American diet, I was always a very picky eater, preferring what I had come to associate with standard fare for each meal. This largely means sugary sweet breakfasts and lunches and dinners built around heaping masses of meat for protein and complemented with smatterings of carbs in the form of potatoes and perhaps a few leafy greens for good measure. Perhaps no other place I’ve ever lived or visited stands in starker contrasts to this than Cambodia, where I ate everything from snakes and tarantulas to grasshoppers and fertilized duck fetuses.
These are two, albeit significant, touchpoints out of thousands and thousands that exist in comparing one culture/place/people/context to another. The point I’m trying to make is that your experience is just that: yours. The unique nature of each individual’s experience shapes their perception of reality, and this in turn shapes what is the baseline for determining the difference between “normal” and “abnormal”. The more you experience, the farther you go, the more you realize that these subjectivities are a fool’s errand; there is no one universal truth that dictates whether one context is better or worse than another, it’s all in the eyes of the beholder.
Herein lies the challenge inherent in working across cultures and markets, which is particularly poignant when looking specifically at the development sector where you have organizations and foundations attempting design solutions whilst physically thousands of miles away and contextually much, much further. The inability or unwillingness to step out of one’s comfort zone and to experience another’s reality, or to accept that a solution that is effective in one context does not ensure its efficacy in all contexts, can lead to outright disastrous consequences, particularly for the target audience or beneficiaries of the intervention being designed.
The very nature of our work at Quicksand (i.e., design research in frontier markets) lends itself to regular immersion in different and challenging contexts. So above and beyond the personal lifestyle adjustments inherent in the move here came a drastic change in professional norms. Within a week of arriving here I visited my first slum, and within my first two months here I was conducting home-stays in the same. We engage with people in their contexts to experience their challenges firsthand and work with them to better understand the drivers behind perceptions and habits then seek to design responses seeking to improve situations. You’re constantly finding yourself in places that cause you to wonder how you would even cope with the surroundings and the life they facilitate, let only thrive in them as so many people we work with seem to do.
Over the past year the work I have been involved in has shifted from a social development context to one in the humanitarian or crisis response space in countries across Africa. Above and beyond the emotional toll of working in such literally life-or-death situations, each opportunity has come with the need to pivot and adjust to areas that stand in stark contrast from one another. For example, in South Sudan there is famine, war, and internally displaced people on a massive scale; in Tanzania, there are refugee camps 100 times the population of my home town, with residents having been there for decades and little sense of hope for the future, all in one of the most naturally beautiful settings; in Mali you have a level of modernity tempered by a strong terrorist presence that has forced a level of isolation that’s leading people to desperation. All this on top of geographic, socio-cultural, religious, linguistic, ideological, and economic differences.
Each project I have the good fortune to work on provides ample opportunities to hit the reset button on any concrete conclusion I think I may have arrived at regarding the state of the world, and what is “normal” and not. It can be overwhelming at times, the uncertainty, but also incredibly exciting. Every engagement provides the professional opportunity to work with people to understand what the challenges they face are like through their eyes and to design potential solutions collaboratively. The personal benefit, arguably much greater, is that you get to see that, though there are differences between people and places, they only add to the richness of the world, and should be celebrated more than they are denounced.