Cultural Low Bridges

When you go to a new culture and miss the signs . . . or don’t realize how you don’t exactly fit in.

At first I thought I’d just let the above stand on its own . . . but I have more to say.

I’m fascinated by these clips of trucks getting stopped in their tracks, of them having their tops peeled back in shiny silver ribbons, of drivers second guessing themselves and hitting the overpass anyway. Yes, it makes me laugh, but it makes me cringe, too. I have empathy for these drivers, especially the ones in moving trucks, heading to a new place with all their worldly possessions packed up behind, having left the rental company after confidently telling the agent at the counter that they’d waive the insurance. “I won’t be needing that, thank you very much.”

When we moved overseas, we had our share of cultural miscues and language faux pas and just mistakes in general. Then after that, we had some more. And while we laughed at many, some were cringeworthy and some were painful to us or even hurtful to others. That’s what happens when you don’t see the signs or can’t understand what they say. That’s what happens when you think somebody needs to lower the road or raise the bridge, because “It’s not me. My truck is the right size!”

And then when we travelled back to our passport country, somehow the bridges were lower there than when we left. Or had our truck gotten taller? Either way, something didn’t fit anymore.

During one of our furloughs we borrowed a van from some friends for our visits to see supporters. It was a conversion van with a raised roof that the owners had just had repainted. (Spoiler: Yes, this is going where you think it’s going.) During an overly stressful trip to what we thought was a familiar city, we were looking for a place to park and found a parking garage with a seven-foot-something clearance, which sounded close to being OK for our vehicle, which was probably not quite that tall. Sure enough, it was quite that tall and we heard a sickening scraping noise as the ceiling narrowed down above us. I was sure that we were wedged in so tight that we couldn’t go forward or backward, with a line of smug little minivans and their scowling drivers packed in behind us. We weren’t, but it took several seconds of panic before I figured that out.

We backed up, and continued on. And then for the rest of our trip, I dreaded telling our friends what I’d done.

When we returned the van, I took the rip-the-Band-Aid-off approach and told the husband and apologized as quickly as I could. He had his own several seconds of panic as he hurried over to see the damage. The scratches on the roof weren’t as bad as he’d probably feared, and our friends were generously gracious and forgiving. But I feel pangs of anxiety even now as I relive this 13-year-old memory.

I’ve got a lot more embarrassing stories from our time on the other side of the ocean. (None involve driving, since I didn’t do that over there. . . and “over there” is better off for it.) Some of the stories are funny. Some not so much. For both, I’m glad that we were surrounded by so many kind people who recognized our efforts and looked past the mistakes.

I’m thankful for people, regardless of where they live, who express grace and forgiveness. I’m thankful for people who translate the signs. I’m thankful for people who let us borrow their vans. I’m thankful for people who tell us which roads not to take. I’m thankful for people who laugh with us instead of at us. I’m thankful for people who are good at putting trucks back together. And I’m thankful for people who don’t set up cameras at the low bridges.

[photo: “Low Bridge #1,” by David Brodbeck, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at

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