I’m a compulsive observer. I think it is partly due to a very curious nature, partly due to having grown up overseas, and partly due to training that I received in acting classes in college, when our professor would send us out into the community to just sit and observe. We would sit for hours in the shopping malls (winter in Minnesota, you know) just observing things: the size, shapes, and demeanor of people; social interactions; the physical surroundings. You name, it we were told to take note of it. “Look for patterns and recurring themes,” we were told. That skill has served me well in my cross-cultural sojourn, whether in language learning (listening for patterns) or just trying to figure out what is going on around me.
Which brings us to the mops. A couple of years ago I started noticing mops. That might seem strange to you given the fact that where most of us come from, mops are tucked away in closets, which means that noticing them perhaps involves me rummaging around in the broom closets of other people’s homes, something I can assure you is NOT the case.
What I started noticing was that in China mops are everywhere –leaning against walls, hanging from trees, propped up against bicycles, sitting in the corners of restaurants, stores, and even banks. Right there — for everyone to see. They are a part of life. There is no problem in China, it seems to me, that cannot be solved with a mop and a bucket.
I also realized that there was a culture learning lesson to be had in this strange obsession that I had developed. Learning culture is more than just learning about (and adjusting to) the different behaviors and activities of everyday life; it is discovering that there are different ways of THINKING behind those behaviors and social patterns.
In other words, while mops in China have the same use and function that they do in my home culture, it’s how we THINK about them that is different. They are not things to be hidden away, but full participants in everyday life.
Since the beginning of my obsession with mops (noticing , not using ), I have been taking pictures of them. I compiled them into a slide show which I use in cross-cultural orientation sessions that I conduct.
Are there everyday things that you can start observing in the communities where you live? Maybe you’ll start seeing mops or maybe something else of special interest to you. For ‘newbies’ of course the newness of it all means that you’re observing everything. For those of you who have been around for awhile, maybe you just need fresh eyes with which to view the ordinary (but meaningful) things that you have stopped noticing.
One of the unintended consequences of this is that there are now hundreds of people all over China and SE Asia who think of me every time they see a mop. I suppose that is a good thing….
What are you going to start observing today?