It is a special piece of writing that can make someone laugh, learn, and then unexpectedly think and reflect.
International traveler and development practitioner Aaron Ausland keeps a blog called Staying for Tea. In this blog he builds off of his experiences from living in Columbia, his experience in global relief projects, and in this most recent project, from his time in Mali.
The blog, titled The Culturally-Sensitive Butt, is really just an exploration of language, misunderstandings, cultural differences, laughing at yourself, and humility. The title alone is an attention grabber. Amid his jokes and playful jabs at himself and stereotypical Americans, Ausland weaves a picture of what is going on Mali and his experiences there.
This is not the typical “what happened on my trip” blog.
Ausland begins the blog with a joke poking fun at language barriers and Americans. He writes about what he’s been seeing. And then he shares a joke that he uses to break the ice when he does not know how to speak a language. The joke makes him the “butt” of the joke.
If they happen to speak a bit of English, I tell them this joke:
- What do you call someone who can speak three languages?
- They say, “I don’t know”
- A trilinguist.
(If they don’t speak English very well, we stumble around this for a few minutes until they understand what I’m saying and then, after a while, realize that it’s not the punch line and swallow their fake nervous laugh.)
- What do you call someone who can speak two languages?
- They get this one right: “a bilinguist?”
- Yes, and what do you call someone who can speak just one language?
- “…um, I don’t know.”
- An American!
Pause…wait for it…riotous laughter! Backslapping, broken ice, best friends, and free beer! A good joke can go a long way, especially when you’re essentially the butt of it.
Why this blog post is great, why this is so good, is because it’s self-deprecating. The best person to make fun of is yourself. While humbling himself, he makes genuine statements about the world and appreciates those around him. He writes for humor, but he writes to be real.
If you have ever tried to learn a new language then you have probably had an awkward situation, either from a mispronunciation or misunderstanding. Ausland shares some of his most awkward and hilarious situations (like “announcing we’re quite pregnant following last night’s drinking binge, confusing embarrasado – pregnant for vergonzado – embarrassed”).
Ausland brings together his anecdotes together to make a point about trying new things and how that can mean the most to someone. He writes about a group of people who remembered a man and thought he was great (who was the president of the company) because he “ate everything [they] gave him.” The most wonderful way to open doors is by making an effort.
There is no faster way to connect with people and build a small platform of trust than to share a meal – their meal – together.
Ausland says this does not just apply to food. He is attempting to learn French, which will help him communicate with many more people.
Language is a bit like this. A willingness to learn and use even a few words demonstrates a willingness to be vulnerable and to make an effort to accept and use what is local. It recognizes that you are the visitor and honors your host.
Ausland ties together the self-deprecating jokes with a perspective on being a visitor and showing respect for other people’s culture. He concludes very graciously and humbly with:
Even so, I will continue to make an effort to embrace that which is local, be it food or language, if only to remind myself that I am the guest, that my language and food and culture are just ones among thousands of similar inherent value.