Embracing Expat Ignorance: part 2 of 3

Chalk question marks above businesswoman at blackboardWarning:  The following is a true story . . . and the ending is very sad.

We were down by two with 1 second left to play in the championship game.  I stood at the free throw line and the entire game rested on my shoulders.  It was intense.

I swear this is how I remember it.  The crowd started cheering my name.

“Jerry, Jerry, Jerry”

Everything in the gym moved in slow, slow motion.  The ref tossed me the ball and held up two fingers.  I could read his lips . . . “TWO SHOTS!” but I couldn’t hear him over the growing roar of the crowd . . .

“Jerry, Jerry, Jerry”

I had to sink them both or we were done.  We all knew we could win in overtime but without these points — both of them — it was over.  The first one went up and I felt it the instant the ball rolled off my fingers.

Swish.  Down by one.  The crowd went nuts.

I lined up again and the cheers were deafening at this point.


Again the ref bounced the ball toward me and held up one finger.  “One shot.”

This had to be the most defining moment of my life to date.  The point of no return was right behind me.  One way or another my name would be the most spoken name in school tomorrow.


I would either be the town hero or the kid who blew the championship.  Incomprehensible popularity or instant outcast.  Prom king or school leper.

I breathed deep . . . I dribbled twice . . . and then I shot.  It felt good.


The ball bounced off the back of the rim.


Then off the front.


It rolled twice around the circle . . . and the cheers of the crowd stopped.

All but one.

The hundreds of screaming fans merged into a single voice

Jerry, JERRY, JERRY!!”

It was the, condemning, vulture like screech of Mrs. Grimlock* — my ninth grade Algebra teacher.

“JERRY!!  Would you PLEASE solve for X?!”

I had successfully daydreamed my way through an entire lesson and truth be told — I hadn’t the foggiest inkling how to solve for any letter of the alphabet . . . especially X.

I came face to face with a harsh reality that day that I have relived at least a million times since then.  I was ignorant.  I had no clue.  Nothing.  Nada.  Zilch — BUT — for that moment alone — for one brief second — I was the only one in the room who knew . . . that I did not know.

Facing your ignorance is important — but it is only the first step.


If you haven’t read Part 1: “Facing Expat Ignorance” yet click here and go read it  (I’ll save your spot).


You too my friend, are ignorant . . . you just don’t know some stuff and it’s ok — you’re not supposed to . . . but the more you try to argue that point . . . well . . . the more you prove it.

The question is not, “Are you ignorant?” You are.

The question is “what are you going to do with that?”

Two DoorsImagine yourself standing in front of two doors.  The door on the right says “Embrace Ignorance.”

Seriously?  Don’t think so.  That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of.

The door on the left says “Don’t look ignorant.”

That’s your door right?  No one wants to look ignorant and you certainly don’t want to cuddle up with it.

So you take the door on the left and are instantly greeted by good news.  You realize that you are NOT actually 100% ignorant.  You do know something.  You’ve got this.  You wax eloquent with a brilliant statement on the topic.  You pour everything you understand into one sentence and you firmly establish that you are NOT IGNORANT.

You may even be an expert.

But that’s ALL you’ve got and you spent the whole bit in ten seconds.  You’re done.  Now you’re the expert who knows nothing else.  Your internal organs shrivel in hopes that no one asks you a question.  You’re a fake and the pressure is on to not be exposed.

You should have taken the other door.  It is way more painful to step through but the path forward is rich and golden.


Let’s put it into a cross-cultural scenario:

I’m a painfully typical American.  I try to pretend like I’m not but yeah . . . I am.

One of the closest connections that our family has made in China is an Australian family.  Where I come from (the painfully typical part of America) we know something about Australia.  Unfortunately the full sum of our understanding generally comes from only three sources.

  • Two men, both named “Crocodile” — (Hunter and Dundee)
  • The Outback Steakhouse
  • Foster’s beer commercials

So imagine with me — A first meeting with a real live, authentic, genuine Australian.  I am faced with the two doors.  No one wants to look ignorant right?  So I choose left and go for broke.


“Wahhh! You’re from down unda?!!  I love your accent!  G’day mate! Ever do a walkabout in the Outback? Ever wrestle a gator?  At’s nawt a knoif . . . At’s a noif!  If ee boits me . . . I’ll doi!!  Hey, can you say it?  Just once with your accent?  Come on.  Say it . . . Say, ‘Fosters . . . Australian for beeyah.”


And there it is.  The full scope of my Australian expertise . . . spent.

It is likely that the conversation as well as the relationship goes nowhere from there.


“Expats struggle.  We strain.  We may even fail and do significant damage NOT because we don’t understand something but because we INSIST on proceeding as if we do.”


This is what taking the other door looks like:

“Wow you’re from Perth?  I gotta’ tell you — I’m kind of embarrassed how little I actually know about Australia.  To be honest pretty much everything I do know comes from the Crocodile Hunter.  I’d like to know more though.  Here’s a question I’ve always had . . . what would a painfully typical Australian think about America?”

See the difference?

Both start at the exact same spot — Ignorance.

However pretending like you are anything else multiplies the pressure of being exposed as a fraud.  It cuts you off completely from EVER becoming LESS ignorant AND it guarantees that you are either offensive or comical (neither of which would you be aware of).

Embracing it on the other hand, exposes you instantly.  It leaves you raw and vulnerable for a moment but opens you up to a whole new realm of understanding, relationship and opportunity.

The “Don’t Look Ignorant” door is a beautifully decorated closet.  The “Embrace it” door opens up to the world.  The real world.


In summary

I should have embraced ignorance.  I should have said, “I’m sorry Mrs. Grimlock, I was drifting there for a bit and I can’t really solve for X.”  It would have stung but it still would have been better than what I did do.


I solved for X.  Very, very poorly. 

There was much laughter and a conversation with Mrs. Grimlock after class.

A championship game that ends with Algebra scars.  I told you it was a sad ending.


You’re ignorant.  Embrace it.  


coming next – Part 3:  Erasing Expat Ignorance

click here to read Part 1: Facing Expat Ignorance


*Mrs. Grimlock’s name has been changed for personal safety reasons.  




  1. Yep Jerry, I get where you’re coming from (being Australian and all…). And expat ignorance is something I’m very mindful of. I am an educator and honesty is a big part of my practice. If I don’t know, I will invite whoever I am with to help me find out, to fill the gap. I have no problem with that. But … my students do.

    For some reason, ‘teachers’ are still supposed to know all – and some of them appear to know it (or continue to bluff, never admitting ignorance). And so generally, students expect teachers to know it all. They are ‘experts’ after all, that’s why they teach? If I don’t have an answer, if I appear ignorant, if I answer a question with another question (which I do, often) this will provoke the most discontent and bad evaluations from my students, which has an impact on my status and reputation.

    I will stand by my values here, and from what I’ve read in your posts so far, I think you would too! But there are also issues – and ‘saving face’ is certainly a big one, that do make this more problematic in practice, particularly across cultures (and levels of formal education and/or life experience).

    I’d be very interested in your response (ps I love your work and have referred to in on my own site: http://www.abelspace.wordpress.com ) Gidai maate, chuckanuthashrimponthebarby!

    • Annabelle — So excited to have another Aussie friend. Thanks for reading and for the comment.

      I think you’re spot on to say “there is always something more to it” (am I rephrasing what you said even close to correctly?). When it comes to cultural stuff there is ALWAYS another angle, a different perspective, an exception or a confusing “but what about this?” Embracing what you don’t know when you are expected to know everything definitely falls into those categories.

      I do still think, however, that embracing ignorance works perfectly in your situation. It would be easy to confuse embracing ignorance with simplemindedness or even stupidity but that is the exact opposite. I actually think that it takes much more complex thinking to be aware of your own lack of understanding than it does to think you have it all figured out. Embracing ignorance is remaining open to learning even when you are placed in the position of being expected to know.

      You’re already doing that. You’re learning about your students. About their parents. About their expectations. About saving face and losing it in a culture different from your own (which by the way is something you could spend a lifetime trying to grasp and never come close). However, if you ever come to the place that you think you’ve got it all figured out you’ve locked yourself in the closet. You’re right to act on what you’ve learned along the way and there’s not a thing wrong with being an expert. You can speak with confidence about what you know and still be open to knowing more.

      It is not uncomplex. Makes a great conversation though don’t you think?

      • Yes Jerry, I absolutely do! I do want to have this conversation with those that I work with and I agree with your sentiments. I gather you’ve spent most of your time in China – so how do you ‘lose face’ in a culturally acceptable way? How do you work with colleagues who believe that saving face is so absolutely crucial – and being a ‘white educated native English speaker’ who revels in not knowing the answers? I am pretty confident in my own ignorance and desire to listen and learn, but how can I fulfill a professional role as someone who has been employed to supply answers?


Go ahead and comment. You know you want to.



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