Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Cross-Cultural Journey

Note: The following was submitted to a local contest asking residents of the Naperville area to write their stories of a "journey" related to Thanksgiving. This captured my favorite journey, with our son (above), Macrae.

A Cross-Cultural Journey

He was diagnosed as having brain damage. That explained why he was kept in a separate hospital wing in the Moscow orphanage.

The video taken by own oldest son, however, told a different story. The little 13-month old guy who weighed only 15 pounds—in the early nineties, food and medicine were in short supply in Russia—seemed alert and engaging. He interacted with his caregivers, and he played with the few toys in his area. His movement, his emotion—all appeared to be normal.

And so it was that we made a three-week trip to Moscow and wound our way through the social service system to finalize our adoption of little Pavel, soon to be known as Macrae. It was not only a journey across an ocean, but across cultures. In Moscow, we were the foreigners in a strange land, but we and our hosts were also bound by a common desire: to secure a loving home for that eager boy in the video.

Little did we know that the most meaningful part of the journey would occur during the ride home.

And some ride it was: Thirteen hours with an excited toddler squirming on our laps. After seeing only his hospital unit for his short lifetime, Macrae was far too excited to be in the real world to ever fall asleep.

I held him close, and he looked up at me.

Our eyes met.

He pulled his head back just a bit.

Bump! In a flash, he tapped his forehead against mine.

I was a bit startled, but stroked his head and continued holding him.

Back went his head.

Bump! This time his head hit mine harder. Ouch!

I shifted him back on my lap and the sequence began anew.

Our eyes met.

He pulled his head back.

CLUNK! This time it was a big knock against my head.

What was going on? A dim voice within me entertained an awful thought: Maybe he really *is* brain damaged!

It made for an interesting trip: holding Macrae close, pulling away to avoid getting head-butted, and him starting the action all over again.

When we returned, I called the social worker in Moscow. As casually as I could, I mentioned the head butting. She laughed and explained:

In the orphanage, the care givers played a game with the male children. The game was called “ram”. They would count to three and touch heads, just like rams.

Only I wasn’t playing the game! I wasn’t counting, and I wasn’t touching heads. So, with ever greater insistence, little Macrae tried to get me to play. Quite literally, he was attempting to knock some sense into my head.

It was the greatest journey of all: the journey of understanding. Our new son didn’t have a problem. He was trying to bond with us in the only way he knew. I was the “brain damaged” one, unable to pick up on his communications!

How many other misunderstandings in life—between people and between cultures—could be resolved if we just took that journey to understand what is communicated, not just what is heard?

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