Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Elizabeth Gilbert: Arriving in a New Culture

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her popular book, Eat Pray Love, tells this story to describe her arrival in India:

When I was growing up, my family kept chickens. We always had about a dozen of them at any given time and whenever one died off—taken away by hawk or fox or by some obscure chicken illness—my father would replace the lost hen.

He'd drive to a nearby poultry farm and return with a new chicken in a sack. The thing is, you must be very careful when introducing a new chicken to the general flock. You can't just toss it in there with the old chickens, or they will see it as an invader. What you must do instead is to slip the new bird into the chicken coop in the middle of the night while the others are asleep. Place her on a roost beside the flock and tiptoe away. In the morning, when the chickens wake up, they don't notice the newcomer, thinking only, "She must have been here all the time since I didn't see her arrive." The clincher of it is, awaking within this flock, the newcomer herself doesn't even remember that she's a newcomer, thinking only, "I must have been here the whole time. . ."

This is exactly how I arrive in India.

It is a great story that resonates with how we accept the new—new ideas, new proposals or new people.

When we’re confronted with a new teacher at the beginning of semester, it is natural to murmur what the Greek audience said when Paul of Tarsus climbed the soapbox—‘What will this babbler say?’ (Acts 17:18)

The timeless words that another teacher uttered, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me’, take on a greater proportion when one thinks: Will we or will we not put out the welcome mat? As Elizabeth Gilbert implies, new people consciously or unconsciously challenge the existing pattern, they threaten the pecking order as by their manner or ideas they may knock someone else off their perch.

The parable from the chicken coop also has insightful ramifications for the best way that a person might enter into a new culture.

Source: Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), 125.

Dr. Geoff Pound

Image: “You can't just toss [the new chicken] in there with the old chickens…”

A review of Eat Pray Love is posted at Reviewing Books and Movies.