Cultural Tug-Of-War

“This is not America” my colleague says under her breath as she rolls her eyes and walks past my conversation with another teacher, both of us caught up in a discussion as to how things “ought to be.”

“This is Liberia” is what another teacher says as he shrugs his shoulders and teases me in my frustration as we start yet another staff meeting 30 minutes late.

I grit my teeth and try to smile back; I don’t need either reminder.

When I left the US and came to Liberia, I traded my skinny jeans for flowy skirts and my cute workout shorts for baggy cargo pants. My sandwiches and salads for soup and rice. I traded my quick smile and wave greeting for a handshake and a lengthy conversation.

I’ve slowed down my speech, adjusted my grammar, learned new words, and adapted a new accent all for the sake of more effective communication. I’ve had to let go of my uncontrollable need for deadlines and structure and learn to wade in the waves of ambiguity. I’ve traded my watch for a bench and gotten used to passing the time rather than watching the time. I’ve learned to tame my desire to be independent and unique in an effort to belong and be unified with the larger group in harmony.

In the beginning when I moved to Liberia, I knew there would be things I would have to adjust to, but I didn’t mind. I’d been on mission trips and managed in a new setting for a few months at a time plenty of times before. Besides, there were so many things about the country that I admired. I was happy to adjust a few of my preferences and get rid of a few of my old habits. But then it all became too much.

Every single part of me, my clothes, food, dance, language, and rights, has been relinquished from my grip in some way or another. And still, it feels like this country keeps pulling and pulling and pulling on me, asking me to give up more and more.

Some days it feels like all I’m doing here is playing a constant game of tug-of-war. They pull me to become more Liberian, to talk this way, dress this way, and think this way. At times, I go along willingly, trying my best to please them or gain their adoration and approval, but other times I dig my feet into the ground and hold on tight, clinging to the American mantra of being “unapologetically myself” no matter what. I try to pull them towards me to see the worth of my American culture’s values like timeliness, efficiency, and independence. They look at me and shake their heads and laugh, leaving me to pull on the rope and falling back as they just simply let go, done with the game all together.

I never did like tug-of-war growing up, and I don’t like it now. And yet, I foolishly keep standing up, grabbing on to the rope, and tugging as hard as I can.

When will they will start bending toward me? When will they start loosening their grip as well? Haven’t I given up enough? Haven’t I let go of the rope and allowed them to tug me towards their side long enough? At what point do my needs and wants matter too? At what point will I stop being the American missionary and just be a friend, a friend worth changing just a little bit for? Doesn’t it go both ways?

Deep down, though, I know this is not what it’s all about.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:22 that “I became all things for all people.” Why did he do this? Why did he give up his own rights and freedoms? Why did he give up his way of life? Why did he not dig his heels in and fight for what he believed to be right? Did he give up on the fight so that others would praise him about how well he was fitting in or how much he had sacrificed? Did he do it so he could make friends, expecting that others might do the same for him in return?

No, he did it for one reason and one reason only. He did it “so that by all means, I might save some (vs 22).” “We put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ (vs 13).” “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (vs 23).”

This cross-cultural ministry life is hard, and it is draining. It is life-altering and identity-shaping. There is a constant tension between who I was and who I am, and who I am and who I want to be. There is a constant tugging, stretching, and pulling.

My immediate tendency is to blame the ones I see in front of me for the pain and loss that this process entails, but I know that they are merely the pull of my Creator’s hands.  I feel the tension, and I attribute it to the horizontal tugging that I see between them and me, but in doing so I inadvertently ignore the upwards prying that is also at play as I wrestle with my own identity and rights.

Rather than pulling back and forth on this rope, sweat running down our faces and grunting and gritting at the other, what would happen if we instead directed our eyes to the center of the rope? It is there where I see God reaching His arm down and grabbing hold and pulling upwards. The further up He pulls, the closer we get to Him and therefore each other, and the further behind we leave our earthly identities and woes. I wonder, then, is this merely the pain of a tug-of-war between two cultures that we feel, or is it the deeper sanctification of our humanity?

The goal in our life and our ministry is not just a mere adaption or transformation from one culture or the other. Nor is it a total abandonment of culture altogether. But it’s also not a lifelong game of cultural tug-of-war where we pull each other from side to side endlessly.

It is neither my identity as an American or as a Liberian transplant that I should be grasping for the tightest; it is my identity in Christ. It is not the culture in which I was born into that I should be holding onto for dear life; it is my born-again identity in Christ which actually gives me life.

The goal for Christians is that we might pull each other more towards Christ, spurring one another upwards, not just tugging each other endlessly from side to side (Hebrews 10:24).

Rather than looking at our cultural differences as something that allows us to be pulled back and forth and side to side, what if we allowed them to instead be a rope that tugs us upwards, closer toward our Creator?

Rather than looking at all these cultural differences as things that God is doing to us, what if we looked at them as something that He was doing for us? What if those tugs on the rope were not from the host country nationals, but from God Himself? What if this tension was meant to show us where our priorities truly lie? Where we have been placing our trust and our hopes? Where we need to let go of some ground? What if instead of blaming one another and always trying to change one another, we thanked God for the gift of our differences and allowed them to instead be used as opportunities that can pull us closer towards Him?

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of playing the same old game of cultural tug-of-war and falling face first in the dirt after fighting yet another losing battle against my host country. I don’t want to dig my feet in anymore and fight for my own rights when I could be using that energy to instead fight for the gospel. I can see the places where I’ve been digging in and wearing myself down for the sake of my own “freedom,” and I think it’s finally time to let go.

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Anna Glenn

Anna Glenn served as an agricultural missionary with her husband in Liberia, West Africa from 2016-2022. She now works back in her home state of Maryland doing agriculture education and youth development while staying involved with local and international missions. Her writing now focuses on her experiences integrating back into the American culture, reflections on her time in missions, and advocacy for better missionary care and support.

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