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This is about culture, disability, and a game called Barnga.

My first Master’s degree was earned at the School for International Training, which was the original home for the Peace Corps.

It was full of people who had been working in sustainable development or were about to head back off to work in sustainable development. Everyone there had international experience, most everyone was fluent in a language other than English. It was the kind of place where you talk about group norms while holding a talking stick.

It’s also where I learned of – and played – a game called Barnga.

What is Barnga?

Barnga is a game that experientially teaches cross-cultural expectations and communication.

That means that while you are trying to figure out how to play this game, you are learning about the how’s and why’s of cross-cultural communication, about the rules that we have within groups, and about what makes things tick or tock for given groups of people.

Barnga is a Handy Tool

We tend to move firmly in our own groups and spaces with all of our own group rules.

it’s hard to wrap our minds around how different the rules of other groups can be unless and until we travel (and I’m talking really travel, not doing the sterilized cruise ship or only-staying-in-Westins-in-Mexico-thing).

Alternatively, we can spend time locally with groups that are different from our own.

Here in Hawaii, for my family and I, that would be spending time on the Mauna, being an ally for the Kia’i. It’s going to the Buddhist temples.observing mochitsuki, shogatsu.

When we lived in Oakland, it was participating in Dia de las Muertos, being friends with the Tibetan refugee community, participating in Diwali and other celebrations that were important to them.

Why Cross-Cultural Competence with Disability is So Important

Disability is a collection of conditions, it’s a way of experiencing the world.

Disability is also something that every culture on this planet experiences and has experience with.

How disability is interpreted by a given culture can be radically different.

The book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, was a wonderful example of that, as it delved into the Hmong perceptions of epilepsy (- which was that it was a gift and was perfect the way it was) and the Western perceptions (- which was that it needed to be fixed).

I’m a “Third Culture Kid” – which means that I grew up in cultures other than my parent’s own.

third culture kids
Two little third culture kids: I am dancing on the left, and my brother Dana is in the photo on the right

My brother and I developed our own set of norms as we moved and grew up, figuring things out.

The thing about Third Culture Kids (TCK) is that even while we grow up all over the world, there are a lot of consistencies with the end of our experience.

We tend to have a lot in common with each other, even if we might be of different races, speak different languages, or even be of different genders. The commonalities of our experiences in moving through cultures (that are different from our parents) tend to make us very similar.

This relates to disability in many ways.

Growing up TCK made me into something of a clue seeker. 

If someone looks at me funny, I usually ignore it. Growing up white in non-white countries has given me a thick skin with the funny-looks.

But if someone persisted in looking at me funny, I’d go through the possible reasons why:

  • it is because I’m white?
  • is my fly open?
  • are my kids flashing?
  • are my hearing aids giving some annoying feedback that everyone else can hear except for me? ha!
  • do they know someone with a disability and they are trying to connect?
  • OH – must be the stickers on my arms!

I don’t think I have ever – to my knowledge – jumped to a conclusion that people were looking at me in a pitying way, or that they felt sorry for me.

I think I’ve thought that they have looked at me in ways of horrified fascination (- like when I was hauling 3 kids, a suitcase, backpacks and a double BOB stroller off of the trains in Europe by myself in under 2 minutes), but I don’t think “pity” has entered my mental books.

I think that is because of MY OWN cultural norms, and the way that I MYSELF frame disability.

I don’t think my kids or I are pitiable in any way, shape or form.

I know this isn’t humble and I’m sorry for that, but I think we are pretty awesome.

I think we get stuff done!

We are capable and smart and creative and we care about others.

I think we have a good time!

So the idea of looking over at someone who might be looking at me funny and thinking that they pity me, or that they feel sorry for me, or that they think my life is any less SIMPLY DOES NOT OCCUR TO ME.

Back to Barnga

My set of rules for the card game of my life is that my family and I – disability and all – are capable, caring, resourceful, inclusive. In the Barnga of my life, disability is a set of conditions that we experience, and it’s a way of flavoring our world.

Our disabilities are an aspect of culture, and are cultures in and of themselves. 

I think this might be helpful for some parents of people with disabilities and for some people who have recently become included in this most magnificent minority group (- “that anyone can join at any time”, as is said).

I think it might be helpful for those new to this to understand that they are playing Barnga in a new world. They are playing with rules that existed for another group, another culture, and that there are new rules and norms in this new life, and that they need to figure out what it is.

It’s also helpful for them to become clue seekers, and refrain from layering their previous assumptions on to things they may not actually fully understand.

Things are not always what they seem and culture is a complex tapestry, especially when it’s not one that you grew up in.

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