The Expat Good Samaritan: Cultural Attitudes to Caring

Whether you’re a serial expat moving from country to country with the huge machine of a global company, working in a foreign country under your own steam or emigrate from one country to another, there will be times when disaster strikes and life unravels for a while.

How you respond to any given crisis, and how those around you respond, can differ depending where you are and who you’re with.

Let me explain.

Many years ago, living in the southern United States, our paediatricians (a husband and wife team) suffered two devastating losses. Before we arrived they had endured the loss of a beloved son, born with a heart defeat who, despite transplants, died in infancy. One can only imagine their grief, yet both returned to their profession of healing sick children.

By the time we arrived they had a second, healthy son, life was good and I knew them professionally, no more. Then cruelly tragedy struck again when their second son was killed in an accident. The community was stunned.

The response was immediate, organised and inclusive of everyone. A knock on the front door one morning announced a rotund southern lady on my doorstep in her floral Sunday best, resplendent with clipboard and beaming smile. It seems she was signing everyone up to help this grieving family. Food was today’s priority and although the family lived on our side of town they were not neighbours, rather they lived a couple of subdivisions away.

“Ah subdivision has a rotah for meals which yule sign up for, if you could jus’ fill in your name, and what yule be preparin’, an’ what day yule be deliverin’ it thaat would be mighty fine. Yule need to have it round to them by four o’clock in the afternoon.”

My response was to ask about dietary requirements while my head went into overload – I had no idea what to prepare for a southern couple devastated by loss, and not likely to be eating much. I’d just got off the boat and our family cuisine was English not southern American.

The ample bosomed lady was equally caught off-guard by words like ‘food allergies’, ‘food intolerances’ and ‘personal preferences’ – the thought of non-southern cuisine did not compute at all. She left the doorstep deeply confused without a sign-up.

I called my friends to seek advice on my obvious cultural faux pas.

I felt deeply for this family, thought about them daily and couldn’t imagine the pain they were enduring, but couldn’t see how preparing a meal would be any help at all. They didn’t know me outside their office and to me, my response to their loss was better expressed with a verbal acknowledgement, direct eye contact and a touch on the arm when I saw them. I admit to being horrified at the intrusion into their lives by people they barely knew.

My friends were equally horrified by my response.

Taking food round in a crisis, any crisis, was just what you did, period. They were incredulous that this could be seen as intrusive, but I wasn’t alone in my thoughts. There were friends who had the same misgivings (if you will), who had been raised in a more private culture, where families closed ranks in times of trouble. What I struggled with was organised caring rather than personal, heartfelt connections.

(For the record, in this case huge volumes of food were passed to the homeless shelter so at least it helped someone).

Over the years I’ve watched as close friends, neighbours and acquaintances have dealt with tragedy and disaster. With friends you know instinctively what and how help will be needed, you know the spouse and children well, often parents and in-laws too; you understand how they operate. With neighbours you’re on the spot, practical help with the house, rides to appointments or as an emergency contact in the middle of the night.

I flounder and go to pieces when someone I know, but don’t know well, has a crisis. An offer of help, in whatever way it’s needed, is always there but at that point, for me, it’s up to the individual to tell me what they need. I make the assumption that if they have close family and friends they will in the frontline and let me know what gaps need filling.

As time has gone on I realise that culture and cultural responses to crisis plays a huge role in how we respond as individuals.

Earlier this month I flew out to Houston, as Missy, a new resident in the city, in a new job and only just starting to make new friends, needed surgery. As her mother I was going to be there come what may, but I also wanted to be there because she had not had chance to build the support group of friends she needed at time like this.

An intensely private individual, she had no wish to share her life and health issues either at work or with the few social acquaintances she had made. She knew no one sufficiently well to ask them to attend a doctors appointment with her, despite me having a circle of girlfriends close by itching to get over there and help her.

While I was in town I met up with an old, dear friend I’d met here in the Netherlands. She drove two hours to see me, check that Sarah was indeed as well as I’d said and took me out to lunch so we could talk privately. A health professional herself she gave sound advice, encouragement and suggestions on how to move forward.

She also shared her experiences, only last year, after back surgery. With her children no longer at home she and her husband had the post surgery plan organised. He would leave for work (she certainly didn’t want a spouse hovering around all day) with everything she needed laid out at the correct height, in the correct order. She got up when she could, at her own pace.

She’d kept her surgery private from the small group of acquaintances she had in her town. Word, of course, got out and one morning, during my friend’s slow and painful recovery, one turned up on her doorstep for a visit. That she was holding a lasagne big enough to feed a family of ten (my friend is a vegetarian) was, in her eyes, reason enough to sweep into the house and be offered refreshments and small talk. My poor friend ended up making cups of tea and scrabbling for cookies whilst in excruciating pain. After three hours she could bear it no more and asked the woman to leave. She has since had to write a grovelling letter of apology to the whole group, who were affronted by her breath-taking rudeness.

Whenever I hear of a family going through a difficult time I try and imagine the response I’d feel comfortable with in their situation. It’s a difficult line to walk between respecting a family’s privacy and wading in and taking over their lives. Sometimes even the most private family can suffer such devastating trauma they do need someone to come in and take over; in my world that position is the prerogative very close friends and family. The kind that will fly half way across the world without needing to be asked.

It seems whatever our personal response to the crisis of others, we are all human and care deeply for one another – it’s how we show it that causes confusion.

I would, however, like to make it absolutely clear – if you need me I’ll be there, do whatever you need me to do, just don’t ask me to cook, it’s something you will end up regretting…

About wordgeyser

Our anglo/american family used to live in four countries (USA, Canada, UK and the Netherlands) on two continents, separated by distance, time zones, circumstance and cultures. It has been a scary, enriching, challenging place to be. The only things guaranteed to get us through were a sense of humour and the amazing people met along the way. . . This year everything changed with a move for us from the Netherlands, – and a move along with us for our son and his wife from the UK – to Houston, Texas, the same city as our daughter. With our youngest in Vancouver, Canada, we are now all living on the same continent. How this happened, and more importantly why, will be the subject of this ongoing blog...
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2 Responses to The Expat Good Samaritan: Cultural Attitudes to Caring

  1. Sheila says:

    Your words are so true. We are all different in how we respond to crisis – our own or others. Like you I am reluctant to intrude – but send messages and offer help,
    The response then determines further action. It is how I wish to be treated I do not want situations as you discribe, which can happen frequently, of being put in the position of entertaining people at those difficult times. Close friends and family are a different matter and it is good to have messages of support and know help is there if needed. However often the most unlikely people turn out to be your best support and comfort, at the same time respecting your privacy. I am frequently aware of the kindness of strangers!

  2. Fear not for comfort comes in many forms and your words today, resonate with care.

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