Report from a Fat Girl in a Skinny World – My Cross-Cultural Life

I totally get cross-cultural
misunderstandings. Largely because I regularly feel lost and misunderstood in the context of my own culture.

I’ve spent the past month training almost one hundred coworkers how to listen. I’ve done so much listening myself that I’m ready to send my ears on a long week-end.

During the course of this training, I’ve had to communicate with the wide-range of colorful characters employed at the YMCA and it has certainly played out like a cross-cultural experience.

I already feel like a foreigner in the health and fitness industry, being a middle-aged woman who can’t run, has never paid more than $20. for a pair of sneakers and carries around an extra thirty pounds. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d find employment in a place where I’d be surrounded by mirrors, weights and people who live comfortably in spandex. I’m part of a new hiring philosophy that purports the idea that people of all sizes need to feel comfortable at the gym and if you’re a new member just beginning to exercise (again) it helps to have someone there who looks like you.

My boss is way ahead of the curve on this so for my first year, whenever we attended regional meetings she would talk about our progressive philosophy and indicating me say “And so now we’re hiring more fitness staff who look like the people coming in our doors.” Yup, that’s me. That perfect “before picture”. Well, at least I know I have job security.

This had happened to me when I took karate, eventually earning my black belt. My Kyoshi would regularly pull out a humorous newspaper article I’d written when I first “got up off the chair” from watching my children do karate and joined the class myself. He used the article to motivate other parents who were currently spectators. It seemed I was the perfect poster girl for “If this woman can do it, so can you.”

So, largely due to my desire to be actively interacting with people who don’t know Jesus, I have found myself for the bulk of the past ten years, the chubby, clumsy spectator in a world of tri-athletes and aerobics instructors. I am always out of my element and frequently pray to be reassigned to a third-world country.

So, now I’m training all of these experts in the fitness (now known as the Wellness) industry, how to listen. I’m facing rooms full of weight lifters, yoga teachers, Zumba instructors, swim coaches, lifeguards, cyclists, basketball players and office managers. I’m facing them with the radical notion that to build bridges and to deepen understanding, we need to listen to one another and that is hard work requiring specific skills that can be learned – not unlike any sport or physical undertaking.

In these groups are older teens and college students. Many of them are suspicious, at first, that this training has little to do with their lives but they actually embrace the ideas pretty quickly. Also in these groups are seniors, people in their sixties, seventies and eighties. They, too, seem game to go along with this adventure.

Then, there are those who are most like I am – those in their thirties, forties and fifties. This group seems most resistant to learning to listen. This group really seems to know everything. As far as they’re concerned, they’re doing just fine with their relationships and there is enough work in life without turning conversation into an effort. Besides, they’ve listened plenty – they’re all experts now and it’s time for others to listen to them.

Yeah, it can be a cross-cultural experience simply talking with people my age, my nationality, from my geographic region!

But, listening is vital to understanding, to building collaboration between people with different worldviews and to learning the heart language of another person so we are better able to be heard when we speak. I’ve spent much of the past three years listening to all kinds of people who come in to exercise at the Y.

I’ve listened to the people who spend hours in the workout rooms and learned a lot about why that works so easily for them. I’ve listened to people who struggle to exercise and learned much about the challenges they face. I’ve listened to people who look simple and unassuming on the treadmill only to find I’m in the presence of someone with enormous impact on our society. I’ve also listened to people who act like they rule the world only to discover that the gym is the ONLY place they feel confident and in control.

I’ve heard caregivers who struggle to make time for themselves and feel guilty stealing even thirty minutes to bike. I’ve heard men who spend hours lifting weights to stave off their fear of aging and death. I’ve met people with physical challenges who “used to be” athletes but now are thankful to be able to keep breathing through twenty minutes on a bike. And still others who have lived lives of heroism and adventure and now face their eighties with the same grit and determination. I’ve seen people who overcame their fears and their challenges to reach goals they thought were beyond them. And I’ve seen many who face setback after setback but persevere despite the odds against them.

I no longer walk into a workout room and see a world of “others”. Now, I see people with stories. I see more than bodies – I see hearts, souls and creative minds trying to find their way in the world. All of this is open to me now because I was willing to be a foreigner in a strange culture and listen and learn the language of others.

One of the most neglected verses of scripture has got to be James 1:19, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”

How about you. Are you listening?


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1 Comment

    The Conversation

  1. Cheri says:

    Good post, Lori!

    My two favorite parts:

    “But, listening is vital to understanding, to building collaboration between people with different worldviews and to learning the heart language of another person so we are better able to be heard when we speak.”

    and

    “I no longer walk into a workout room and see a world of “others”. Now, I see people with stories. I see more than bodies – I see hearts, souls and creative minds trying to find their way in the world.”

    If we would each endeavor to approach life in this manner, what an adventure it could be!

    Thanks,
    Cheri