“This is My Fate” A Lesson in Cultural Humility

by Editor on May 16, 2013

As soon as the angry words came out of my mouth, I regretted them. I was speaking to Rehmet, the woman who helped me care for my kids and my home.

She was a Punjabi woman, uneducated, illiterate, with a smile that stretched across a beautiful, weathered face and a personality as big as her smile.

We were living in Islamabad, Pakistan and Rehmet had come into my life by way of her husband who had done some handiwork for us around the house. She had five children and lived in a slum on the outskirts of the city. She was tireless in her energy and her talking. At one point I despaired to my mom that I couldn’t understand her. “She speaks so quickly!” I wailed. “My Urdu can’t keep up”. My mom began to laugh – “Don’t worry” she said. “She’s actually speaking Punjabi”.

Fate - Homes in a Christian neighborhood in Islamabad, Pakistan. [1500x1000] - Imgur

(photo credit)

We had slowly developed a relationship that went far beyond employee/employer. I considered her my friend. We would sit down with tea, communicating with my limited Urdu and her fluent Punjabi. We would mate socks together, cook, scrub vegetables, and rearrange furniture. She loved my kids, and I thought I loved her.

But there we were. A Pakistani woman and an American woman side by side, me letting my tongue loose. She had ruined some clothes by bleaching them and I was angry. After all, if this had happened in the United States I would voice disapproval over the mistake and demand my money back.

But, I was not in the United States.

Looking back on the event, I cringe in embarrassment. I don’t even remember what the clothes looked like – but I will never forget the sadness and resignation on Rehmet’s face. She looked as though she had been kissed by a Judas, betrayed by one she thought she knew.

I began to apologize. My speech, so articulate while angry, suddenly lost any semblance of cohesion. I was fumbling over my words, over my grammar, most of all over my ugly heart.

She looked at me with tired, brown eyes, her gaze steady and unyielding. Then without pause, she shrugged and said, “It doesn’t matter. This is my fate.”

I went cold. I would rather have heard anything but this. I would rather she yelled, screamed, got sarcastic, quit the job… anything would have been better.

I, the person who talked long and wrote hard about wanting to empower people, had taken advantage of what I knew to be a cultural value – a servant is subservient to the employer. In a culture where she was a minority as a woman and as a Christian she would never have other opportunities, this was her fate. Even if she wanted to walk out on the job, she couldn’t have. Rehmet did not have choices and I had used that against her. I had taken advantage of education, relative wealth, and influence in my ridiculous reaction to a simple mistake.

And I had done this, subconsciously knowing that it would pack a mighty punch. That is what made it so painfully wrong. My white-skinned entitlement made me cringe. Who was I? Why had I reacted this way

It was important to confess – to Rehmet, but also to God. For I had acted in a way that hurt another, had wounded knowing she had no recourse.

Rehmet and I were able to repair the relationship, largely because of her generosity of spirit and sheer joy in life. In her bucket of life experience, this was small change and she would not remain low for long. But the story has stayed with me, for it reminds me of how important it is to have cultural humility.

For cultural humility demands a process of self-evaluation and critique; a constant check of attempting to understand the view of another before we react and recognizing our own tendency toward cultural superiority. Cultural humility gives up a role as expert, instead seeing ourselves as students of our host culture.

It’s a hard subject that demands honesty but what do you do when you have caused offense? When you have wounded in a place where you are a guest? When you have exhibited cultural superiority instead of cultural humility?

By Marilyn Gardner

Marilyn Gardner grew up in Pakistan and as an adult lived in Pakistan and Egypt for 10 years. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  She loves God, her family, and her passport in that order. Find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries and on Twitter@marilyngard

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  • wow. this is a very powerful story. our team is currently meditating on conflict and confrontation, and this fits so well into the category of us not even recognizing the consequences of “our” sense of justice/wrongdoing. thank you for writing this.

    • Thank you. So much to learn — how wrapped up in culture and privilege all of this is! I also have recognized that I am more susceptible to this type of response when I’m tired and overwhelmed. Then the whole cultural humility piece feels too hard and I opt for pushing my own agenda. So not pretty – as I said above, I’m grateful for grace – of those I’ve hurt and ultimately of God.

  • Heidi Thulin

    For weeks now, I’ve been stewing over the fact that I didn’t confront my gardener about how his carelessness killed some of the flowers that I paid him to grow. But now, perhaps, I am relieved that I held my tongue this time. Thanks for your perspective.

    • Heidi – thanks for your honesty. I so relate with the “silent stewing”. So much of this is about approach though isn’t it? The times when I’ve approached with honesty but humility and kindness the result is totally different. Humor works well too….!

  • Terri

    Marilyn, what a heartfelt, poignant reminder of cultural humility. Our first overseas move was to Sudan, where I too was guilty of similar insensitivities. I quickly learned that life outside the USA was very different – a steep learning curve – and that I needed to do a better job of listening and learning about this new culture. What a great life lesson it was to be humbled. Thanks for this wonderful reminder. All the best, Terri

    • Thanks Terri – and for sharing a bit of your own story. But I wouldn’t trade these humbling life lessons from cross cultural living for anything. They could fill a book.

  • Jenni Gate

    Wonderful insights, Marilyn. I’m glad you were able to repair that relationship and continue learning from one another. I think we have all had similar sorts of interactions along the way. In some ways it is inevitable, but it is good to be alert to that potential.

    • You’re right – misunderstandings and cross-cultural conflict are inevitable. It’s in the personal coping skills where the outcome can change from breaking relationships to building bridges. Memories of Rehmet continue to make me smile – there were so many truly funny ones with her…..those are gifts.

  • I walked into my kitchen to find my helper trying to open an can of tomatoes with a Papered Chef knife. The knife costs more than she makes in 3 months. I would never tell her that. I would be embarrassed for her to understand that. I fled the room, running to my husband, and I begged him to deal with it. I was too angry in that moment. I didn’t want her to even see my face. Part of me hates the world where I am rich and she is poor. I never knew I was so rich.
    Your ability to see the culture, to see your failure, to love through the mistakes, makes it all worth it. Thank you for this story and for not shying away from a difficult conversation. I see now, eight years after my feet first touched this West African soil, that it will take decades to really understand. Even then, I think, I will feel I have so much to learn. Oh how He loves us. How I value these lessons I am learning. I am undone.

    • Yes. This. These times where I see my failures so closely through the eyes of another provide me with two responses – either the false guilt that does nothing but drives me into a pit of despair and “I’ll never get it right” or the response you so beautifully articulate….valuing the lessons we learn and understanding how much He loves us. Thank you for sharing your story – Grateful for Grace..

  • i think the fact that i will is inevitable. only the worst kind of arrogance assumes that i’m above making those mistakes.i mean, even in my apologies, i often “culturally” goof it up. the false expectation that i wouldn’t… or couldn’t… is more likely to make my response when it happens more hurtful to those i’ve already hurt.

    but that is also what relationship is all about. getting involved in peoples’ lives, stepping on toes, having our own toes sometimes smashed, loving, being loved, hurting, being hurt, forgiving, being forgiven. i think gentle persistence, continual investment and learning to trust and to be trustworthy are the key. i know i’ve hurt my african friends – but they also know that i love them and would do anything that i could to serve and to care for them so they forgive those hurts.

    • You’re right – I said below to Jenni that the inevitability of some of this is important to realize. Just last week I did a workshop for a group of healthcare workers around cultural competency and health care. We talked about the fact that cultural difference is a given so what matters is both our approach going into the situation as well as the personal coping skills we develop when faced with those differences. I love what you’ve said about relationship here because you’re so right. The other thing I’ve often thought about is how sometimes we have the false expectation that we will like everyone that we meet in overseas settings. The reality is that we’ll still meet people who we clash with and don’t always like or get along with. The cross cultural piece just makes that more complicated.

  • Joy

    A really, really, really good reminder to see (or pray to see) situations through the others perspective — most importantly, through God’s eternal perspective. Thank you.

    • Joy – thank you for this lovely response and reminder of God’s eternal perspective.

  • Sophie Blanc

    I struggled with having home help when we lived in Fiji. I really found that a hard relationship to navigate. And it can go both ways. One lady who was a lovely Christian basically thought that it didn’t matter when she turned up to work or that she did what she was ordered to do by her non-Christian employer but when I asked her kindly to do things she felt she didn’t have to because I was a Christian and wouldn’t get angry. There was massive pressure to continually loan her money or give her her salary in advance on compassionate grounds. Eventually I had to ask her not to come back but by then I was pretty cheesed off. The next home help I had (also Christian) doodled on the rented house’s furniture while she was on the telephone and I believe stole my engagement ring. I didn’t explode but I felt extremely angry and dealt with it as calmly and as kindly as I could but it still leaves me with a nasty taste in my mouth.

    • Totally agree that these can be hard relationships to navigate. In both Pakistan and Egypt I ended up with women who were really my friends. They stayed with me when Cliff traveled and we had amazing relationships. In between those women were others who I didn’t have quite the same relationship with. What you’ve relayed here is a whole other thing of dealing with house hold help when there really has been a violation of trust. Another whole complicated topic….Thanks for your perspective.

  • Marilyn’s Mom

    I struggled so much with having a servant and dealing with this stranger in our home during our early years in Pakistan. And I was not filled with very much cultural humility at that stage. I am so thankful that God in His grace kept us there long enough for me to learn so much from those who served us in our home. There was Taj, a lovely Christian man who came with me to the hills for the summer. I found out he was overcharging on the things he got for me in the bazaar. I was very upset and a few years before I would have confronted him in anger. In my bedroom I took a deep breath, and I prayed. What was going on? Then I wondered, how was he managing his own meals without his wife. He lived in a little room behind our house, and we had given him a small stove. Did he have enough money to buy food for himself? I went out to the kitchen and asked him. I found that he had sent most of his money to his wife. Ralph had told him not to give me any trouble, so he didn’t want tell me. We talked it over and for the rest of the summer he ate out of our food budget. It really didn’t cost that much more, specially since we were feeding teen-aged boys. I had come so close to confronting in anger and here this man who was serving us had the choice of cheating us or going hungry. I was so thankful that the Lord in His grace stopped me before I did damage to our relationship. I wish I could say I never messed up after that. It would not be true, living in Pakistan was a life long learning experience. But I wouldn’t trade those lessons for anything. I could write a book about other servants and my relationships with them,but this is too long already!

    • I don’t think I ever knew this story Mom – what a great illustration of waiting and asking God before confronting or asking. I’m so glad you shared this. Thank you. And about that book – I’d love to hear more of your stories – especially of Mai.

  • Vicki

    Marilyn! What a pleasure to meet up with you here,again, on “A Life Overseas”! What a thought-provoking article-thank you! I love your definition of “cultural humility.” I plan to quote you in a Facebook group page that we use for learning about the Mexican culture. I think most of us North Americans can identify with your story above. Thank you, again!

    • Vicki – this is Vicki from Chicago, right?! You still hold this place in my heart from when I met you while engaged! Thanks for the words on the article. The words hold that necessary encouragement that we continue to be honest about this sort of stuff in order to learn from each other and grow in our ability to communicate across those cross-cultural boundaries.

      • Vicki

        Yes, we met in Chicago many years ago! We have been living in Mexico for twenty years as church planters. I have made a lot of mistakes, but the Mexican people have been very gracious to me. Like you, I have learned that I have to act respectfully even when I don’t feel respectful. I have to say things carefully- especially when I want to speak in a direct manner. I struggle with knowing how to balance my Pennsylvanian egalitarian philosophy with the reality of working in a hierarchical culture. Walking in the Spirit is especially important for strong willed women.

        I appreciate your mom’s story below, too. Great reminder!

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