Recently in our home we’ve had a lot of conversations about culture and our identity within it.

As a nation, we seem to be neck deep in this question: Who are we really? Can we hold on to the truths we once deemed self-evident and do the hard work to bring those into being? Or are we doomed to collapse under the weight of our own PR?

Brunswick resident Heather D. Martin wants to know what’s on your mind; email her at [email protected]

Around the dining room table, the conversation has been more localized and tangible. We are hosting a high school student from Italy, and his culture shock has become our family’s conversation.

Let me just state up front, this is a great kid. He is smart, kind, funny and really brave. I’m not sure that at his age I would have hopped on a plane to go live with two total and complete strangers thousands of miles away in a strange country. That takes some doing.

He is also gracious, polite, curious … and he cooks! We are genuinely enjoying having him stay with us.

That said, there really is nothing like living with “a foreigner” to make you reexamine your own assumptions about your country, your town, your family and yourself.  All the little things you take for granted as part of the average day and ways of being get reflected back, often with a massive question mark stamped across them.

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Some of the moments are just flat-out amusing, like his insisting, loudly and with passion, that peanut butter was disgusting – right up until he tried a Reese’s and calmly proclaimed “Yes, I like it. It is good.” Or the nuances of Italian love ballads and gangster rap played at full volume. Don’t even get me started on his deep and profound befuddlement over why America has yet to embrace the bidet.

Sometimes they are quietly profound, like realizing that what would be considered child endangerment in one culture (letting kids drink wine at dinner) is the absolute norm in another. It’s not about being “right” or “wrong” – it is just unsettling (in a good way) to realize there are other perspectives and concepts, each as deeply rooted as your own.

Sometimes the self-reflection is more serious. Like why do American schools have police officers walking the halls to keep the kids safe? Why are there so many mass shootings? Why don’t we solve this problem for real?

The coolest part about all of these “culture clash conversations,” however, has been the distillation to realizing what really is essential, what really matters and what is the same regardless of where we come from.

I’ve found myself talking a lot about “family,” his and ours. I hear the way his mother’s voice warms when she says his name over Face Time, even though I don’t understand any of her actual conversation. I’m aware of how much I truly loved raising my boys, and how proud I am that they’ve each spread their wings and launched. I am so proud to watch our family values lived out as they welcome this newcomer with jokes and friendship.

The news has been particularly scary of late, filled with things I can’t control. Laying out the big questions of identity and belief have helped me see that, nevertheless, I am connected to something larger and more permanent than the latest headline, and that I play a role in shaping what it is, and what it will become. So do you. We each of us craft our own culture of being.

For myself, I am doubling down on the good parts. Insisting on truth, honesty and accountability while focusing on the beauty, joy, and connectedness I see. That is the culture I want to claim as my own.

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