Burning Man Project’s Kim Cook has—literally—danced on the cross-cultural divide. She recalls lessons in cultural competence from her work in creative enterprises like theater and hip-hop. (And one day … there was that chocolate cupcake.) For Kim, humble persistence is the way to overcome our inevitable gaps in cultural understanding.
I have consistently collided with cultures; I have never entered gracefully. I have this ambition that I could be like those Olympic high divers… just like you enter and there's no ripple. And I feel like I constantly belly flop. And it's like a big old wave of like, kabam, man she's got big feet and big elbows and wide hips and like she's just bumping into everybody and everything.
In one of our most revealing episodes yet, Kim Cook, the director of creative initiatives at Burning Man, opens up to us about some of her most memorable teachable moments in cross-cultural relationships. An artist and dancer, Kim shows us that though we may not be graceful when we encounter different cultures, what matters is the grace with which we accept our mistakes. And, our commitment to getting it right. I’m David Yang, this is Culturally Attuned. Stick around.
Many years ago, I was working with an artist and at the time, I was actually a fellow at the Kennedy Center here in Washington DC. So I was flying home to the San Francisco Bay Area for a meeting to do some work on an original script and performance project. So I got up very early in the morning, I flew back to San Francisco, I got there around lunch. I hadn't eaten. I met the artist in North Oakland. And she proposed that we go to this cafe that was new in the neighborhood called Bittersweet. Bittersweet had all things chocolate, from chocolate milk to hot chocolate to chocolate cake, brownies, and as it turned out these very big, delicious, luscious chocolate cupcakes with icing dripping off the top.
And so this artist said to me, what would you like, let me buy you something. I said I’d really love one of those cupcakes. And she bought herself a beverage and we sat down and I took a look at this cupcake. And I was like, OMG I’m going to eat every bite, I am so hungry. I'm so tired. I'm so happy with my chocolate cupcake. And I thought to myself, okay, the right thing to do is to ask her, “Would you like some of my cupcake?” And I also thought, I really don't want to share my cupcake.
So I said to her, “You know, I know I should offer to share my cupcake with you but I am just going to delight myself in every single bite to myself. So if you would like some cupcake, I'd be happy to buy another one so you can have some but I'm just warning you, I'm going to eat this whole thing by myself.”
She looked at me kind of funny. And we began the conversation that we were there to discuss around the work we're doing together. But I could really feel the energy was off, so I dialed back and I asked her I was like, “Are you upset with me” And she's very polite. She was hesitant to say something, but I could tell like something has gone wrong. And I asked her again, like, “Could you tell me if we're okay?”
And she said, well I'm just trying to imagine who other than a white woman in America could ever say that she wouldn't share her food? Snap. So that was a super good lesson for me.
We explored the question further, what did that mean? And she said to me that in migrant communities, in her experience, there was always enough to go around. And if someone came along and there was less food, you just shared the food. So even the idea of keeping something to oneself would have been so outside of the norm as to just not even enter somebody's mind. So the awareness in that interaction for me, was one this idea that from where she was situated it is a sort of American mindset to even conceptualize keeping something to oneself, that that's just not at all familiar to her as a choice one would make. And as such, it was a rude and selfish expression, not sort of confessing that I wanted the cupcake all to myself but I'd be happy to get her another one. But rather just that that excess, that privilege that like, there's plenty to go around, as long as I get you your own and I keep mine. This is just a completely American concept and not something that she could have ever imagined encountering. And I think the lesson for me was in part about understanding her point of view, but also in part about having greater awareness about how my perspective and my point of view could be innocently and yet definitely offensive to her.
Before you ever set foot out the door, you have to find the space within yourself, to be receptive to the input of others, even if that leaves you with some egg on your face.
As Kim found out, some cultures prize the community’s well-being over the individual’s. Being aware of these different value systems can make our cross-cultural work more harmonious. Maintaining a beginner’s mind is equally important, as Kim learned while in East Africa.
Several years ago, I went on tour with a theater piece to Kenya for five weeks. I had not been in East Africa before. And while I had traveled some, I certainly hadn't spent five weeks with sort of carryon luggage going from city to town to city touring art on a very, very small budget. We had grant funding but most of what I was being paid had gone into my plane ticket and getting myself there. When I arrived, the guy who was our producer, who had been hired for the project had been living in Kenya for like 30 years as a theater director and producer. So he was very skeptical about what value I was bringing to the equation as he was a specialist, both in theater production and in things Kenyan and I was being paid more than he was. We had a production assistant who was being paid, maybe the equivalent of $14 something like that. And just this really disproportionate relationship between what the cost of things were in Kenya, what the cost of things were in the United States and what my particular value to the project was or was not. So on one hand, for me, I was making very little money compared to my costs at home. But relative to the costs in Kenya, I was being paid a great deal more. And so I was very concerned and trying to be sensitive about that.
So we went up country to a place called Narumoru, it's a very small village, no real cars, people on bicycles and on foot, farming, a place where a white person was absolutely an anomaly. You know, the little kids would follow them around, shouting “mzungu, mzungu!” And we began to work on this piece together, while I was trying to navigate the newness of the things that were there. So for example, we had sort of rainwater and solar heating. And so the minimal use of water was essential. But I didn't really have the tools and the skills to take a shower in a bucket that also became the water by which you flush the toilet. And just even figuring out that, like you could heat the water in a pot on the stove and then add that to your bucket and get yourself somewhere outside the realm of a cold shower and into something warm I mean, I just really had no skills. And I was rapidly going through the clothes that I had brought, I was maybe two weeks into a five-week trip and I needed to wash my clothes and I didn't know where or how to go about that. And again, I mentioned the limitations of available water. And so I learned that the woman who lived next door actually did washing for a part of how she did her wage.
And so again, I was like confronted with this, what is the right scale of money to spend? I paid her 700 Kenyan shillings, which was $11 what I would have paid in the States and it was considered a gross overpayment. But I felt a whole bunch of guilt about my situation and the relative poverty. I mean, this woman's husband would ride a bicycle each day, his commute with his three kids who were riding on a bicycle. And he was like riding on rutted ground for you know, three miles to get them to school, one on the handlebars and two on the seat and him standing up like, I just didn't really have a way to fathom and integrate and think about money in my world and money in this world. So I paid her what I would pay in my world.
And so the following day, as we were leaving Narumoru and a car came to pick us up and myself and the production assistant, the artist and the producer and someone said to me, did you give her your panties to wash? And I was like, yeah and they were like, “We thought those were your knickers on the line.”
And so what I found out was that household help hand washes, of course the clothes and that it is extremely impolite to hand over your panties with the wash, those are something you should wash yourself. So also this expression of knickers on the line was so interesting to me, because it's this parallel of being exposed, you know, that is like my knickers were on the line through the whole tour in Kenya. Like I didn't know what I didn't know until I got there and being able to fathom my small challenges around wash, which are insignificant relative to the challenges that people around me were facing. And yet even navigating this small piece of daily routine when traveling and working in an unfamiliar environment can be a challenge, can be a challenge. And that challenge is petty, but real.
So I think this piece around cultural awareness becomes important to self-reflect, to learn, to apologize and to take it on, you know, take it in and be able to change them to shift.
I did wash my clothes in the bathtub when I was back in Nairobi. The next time I needed clean clothes and they all turned gray and they took like three days to dry. And I said something to the artists who was herself Kenyan that, well I had made a new attempt at doing my laundry. And she said to me, 13 people were beheaded last night in Nairobi and you're worried about whether your whites are white.
So yeah it's really not always easy to navigate this unfamiliar territory. And again, the sort of perceptual reality of what might be something that I'm trying to address, in contrast with the realities of the social dynamics is it can be, it can be difficult.
Stepping into an unfamiliar culture can leave us feeling off-kilter and unsure of how to behave. Owning up to this gap in our cultural knowledge can help build bridges and develop trust. So does being open and honest.
I will also say that the body and the ability to move my body has done me a good turn. Because I spent so much time from a little girl, seven years old, doing dance that came out of the African diaspora West African highlife dance, Haitian dance, Cuban dance, belly dance like I always moved to the drama, it was always something I knew, inherently. So there was another occasion in New Orleans, where there was an award being delivered to my institution. And I was newly there, I didn't feel that my institution really deserved this award, it was being offered by a historically black college and university in HBCU. I knew for a fact that my institution had been predominantly serving in the white community. But I went to the thing, and I went to the Friday night party and I danced. And it was kind of like a church, basement dance you know with all the old school stuff. So like, I knew these dances like the four corners and the funky chicken and the bump. These are not things that you know how to do unless you did them back in the day, like in the way back day. And people that Friday night didn't really speak to me too much. But on Saturday morning, when I arrived at the award ceremony, people were like girl, I saw you dancing last night, you know and I realized that the code inside of my body had telegraphed things that I couldn't have said about myself. And showing up and doing the work that you do will speak for itself. And sometimes that's as simple as just embodying movement and dance.
And then the other piece of that was like, when I stood up to accept the award, I was very straightforward about the fact that I did not feel that my institution was worthy of that award, that I did not see that we had in fact been present in their community in the way that we ought to. And I made a commitment to a more highly engaged and sort of cross-pollinated cultural experience between my institution and the black community of New Orleans. So I think in that moment, the combination of showing up, being in my body, telling the truth allowed for receptivity of me that did let me go on to do what I think was good work in that city.
Developing cultural fluency demands that we continually take risks, experiment, and learn from our experiences—and from how people respond to our actions.
I have consistently collided with cultures, I have never entered gracefully. This for me essentially becomes the tool that I have, is to recognize that I will do the best that I can to have a posture of a guest, to be listening acutely to understand myself as a learner. And to really be able to own the fact that the likelihood is that I will put a foot wrong and how can I own that and hold that with a certain amount of grace? How can I honor it, how can I surface it when it needs to be surfaced because I can see that something has gone wrong. And then you know, really do my best to adjust. Right? To make the change within myself.
But the change within myself has never turned out to be figure it out before you go and then do it perfectly when you get there. It's really been accept that you may not do it properly and learn as you go. And you know, hold space inside of your own body for the sort of grace of it's possible to learn, it's possible to recover from a mistake, it's possible to move forward and do the work that you want to be doing in the world.
Kim’s stories prove that we can all increase our ability to work in harmony. The first step? Taking the time to reflect on our own culture and recognizing how our cultural lens shapes our values, beliefs, and behaviors. Don’t retreat or withdraw when things don’t go as planned or envisioned. Continue to learn, work to connect, and always stay engaged.
The next time you enter another person’s world, how can you demonstrate humility and a willingness to listen when working with people from a culture that is different from yours?
Thanks for listening to this episode of Culturally aTuned. This has been a production by the United States Institute of Peace, with big thanks as always to our partner, Burning Man Project. If you like what you heard, be sure to tune in to more episodes and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Culturally Attuned Credits
Executive Producer: Dominic Kiraly
Co-Creators: Christopher Breedlove, Kim Cook; and Dominic Kiraly
Audio Engineer and Sound Designer: Tim O’Keefe
Contributors: Honey al-Sayed; Jeffrey Helsing, Ph.D.; Kye Horton; Justine Ickes; Stuart Mangrum; Namiko Uno
Narrator: David Yang