Cross-Cultural Economics

by Heather Pubols

About a week after my husband and I moved to Kenya in 2009 I took my first real trip through the grocery store to look for items that I needed for our home. The store near where we lived had an amazing variety! You could buy everything from a loaf of bread to a new kitchen table and everything in between. It was like a Kenyan Super Wal-Mart!

Much was similar to my shopping experiences in the United States, but one difference that I didn’t anticipate was prices. I remember picking up a medium box of corn flakes, doing the currency conversion, and discovering that it would cost me almost $10 USD compared to the $3 I’d probably pay at home. On the other hand, I remember visiting the butcher and discovering that we could buy a nice piece of beef filet for less than it would cost at home. We began to see this with all kinds of other things, too.

When we bought a car, we were in for another sticker shock. At that time, no cars were manufactured in Kenya. All cars were imported. With the help of a trusted agent, we found a reliable 8-year-old car.  However, because of import tariffs, shipping and agent fees, the final cost of this car, like the others on the market, was around double what we would have paid for it in the US.

On the other hand, we lived very close to a national park filled with wild animals that we could only see in a zoo in our home country.  Because we were residents, our entrance fee to the park was about $10 – a fraction of the cost of what a foreign tourist would pay to get into the same park. We also had easy access to many of Kenya’s all-inclusive resorts and hotels. At times in the off-season some offered prices similar to moderate to cheap hotels in the US.

All of these experiences became daily lessons in cultural economics.

 

Economies are cross-cultural, too
Before living overseas, I thought that if a country had less wealth, then products would be cheaper. Clearly, those ideas needed to go out the window!

What I came to understand was that a variety of factors impacted local prices. Those include local buying preferences, taxes, and what is made locally versus imported. When we lived in Kenya, I learned that labor for services was often less, but products (especially those requiring manufacturing or import) were usually more expensive and fewer people could afford them. The supply was less because the demand was less, so the price was higher. This was a different economic model than I was used to.

Understanding the various costs of living where you will live is important as you create a budget for living in a foreign country. Mercer provides a helpful annual global cost of living report. Their 2019 report has some surprising results. Eight African cities are in the top 50 most expensive cities in the world.  In fact, N’djemena, Chad, in central Africa, was listed as more expensive to live in than Geneva, Switzerland!

One other factor that needs to be considered is constantly changing currency exchange rates. Like most missionaries, we received funds in the currency of our home country, so changes in its value against the currency of our host country impacted our costs. For example, our 50,000 Kenya Shilling per month rent could be $350 US dollars one month and $500 USD the next all depending on the KSh/USD comparative value. This changed our cash flow from month to month at times from famine to feast or vice versa.

 

Explaining economic differences can be a challenge
All of this can be difficult to explain especially to friends, family and ministry partners at home. Some may have the same ideas that I did about costs of living; they may not understand a high ministry budget for work in a developing country. Others could have hidden jealousy when you are able to do or have something that could be unusual or extravagant in your home country.

Help build a bridge through your communication. Invite your community into “your world.” A good place to start is in your regular ministry communication – your newsletter or blog. Tell stories about silly faux pas and language mishaps and your experiences with $10 boxes of corn flakes and $10 park entrance fees. Explain cultural differences, including economic ones, and what surprises you about them with a view of how God is expanding your worldview.

However public communication isn’t the best forum to share everything. Discussions in small groups and conversations with people one on one are great places to share more details or explain things that may be more controversial. Be patient, use wisdom and let your focus for sharing information about economic differences be on nurturing knowledge that lets your community grow with you.

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Heather and her husband served as missionaries based in Africa and Europe from 2009 to 2018.  After moving back to the US, Heather launched a new ministry, LeMotif, which focuses on helping Christian organizations with marketing and communications. You can learn more about her ministry at www.lemotif.org

 

How to Communicate so People Will Care

Newsletters. Prayer updates. Itinerations. Reports. Furloughs. Presentations.

Are you stressed out yet?

For most of us, living and serving abroad means communicating back to senders. A lot. But this isn’t what we went to school for, and besides that, communicating in person or in print is scary. It’s exposing. It’s like learning a new culture and language; sometimes when we mess up it’s funny, sometimes not so much.

We’re all too familiar with the dangers:

Communicate too much and we’ll annoy people or people will say we’re not protecting the privacy of the nationals.

Don’t communicate enough and we’ll get dropped; people or churches will stop supporting us, because “out of sight, out of mind.”

Talk about the right stuff in the right way. One missionary recently told me that you have to appear miserable enough that people will still support you while not appearing so miserable they want you to come home.

To be sure, communicating with senders (via newsletter or a live missions report) is a unique form of communication, blending a bit of travelogue with a side of sales pitch, and then adding a large spoonful of sermon. It’s like a Christmas Letter got married to a Church Bulletin and had an Amway.

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Extreme Sports, Convents, and Space Missions
As crazy as it seems, some people actually love talking. We call these people 13-year-old girls. I’m just kidding. Yikes. Anyways, for some of you, communication is like an extreme sport, full of excitement and danger and the very real risk of serious bodily harm. And you think it’s fun.

For others, communicating (in print or person) makes you feel like you’re wearing the appropriate attire for a European beach when you’d much rather be wearing the appropriate attire for a convent. Communicating, for you, seems dangerous, and dangerous, for you, is never fun.

Writing or speaking can feel like launching a space probe into the cosmos hoping it just might land on a tiny comet and provide even a smidgen of feedback. And when you get one positive e-mail or comment back, you’re all like, “Whooohooo! Mission Accomplished!”

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Celebrating at the European Space Agency after the successful landing of the Philae lander on a comet after a journey of 4 billion miles. Or me, when I find out someone actually read my newsletter.

 

So, You Want People to Care? Try This…
Speak from the heart.
Or be funny.
Or both.
But never neither.

That’s it. Communicate like this, and you’ll change the world. Or at least your newsletter.

 

Why This Matters – The Bride of Christ
It’s our great privilege to speak back into the lives of those who send us. They sacrifice too, and not just money: many of our senders have given up relationships and friendships, children and grandchildren. Simply put, they are worth our time.

Additionally, communicating from the field is an amazing opportunity to minister to the Bride of Christ. We can help them see God’s passion for His glory as the Kingdom spreads globally. We can enlarge their vision of God and His mission, reminding them that national politics is a small bit of what’s going on in the world. We can remind them that the Church is alive and well and the Spirit of God is moving in the hearts of people. Of course, none of that happens if we’re snooty.

Even a church missions presentation can be ministry, if done with care and thought. A report could be part of what Walter Brueggemann calls “prophetic imagination,” helping folks see an alternative reality, where the Kingdom is advancing and there’s more to life than the daily grind.

Please be careful not to love the Church only where you serve. Love the Church where you came from too. She is no less Christ’s Bride.

 

Why This Matters – They’re Volunteers
The folks reading your newsletters or listening to your missions talks are volunteers; they don’t have to pay attention to you or your words. They have chosen to listen to you (except maybe the 6-year-old boy in the third row who’s been threatened with “No McDonald’s” unless he sits still and pays attention).

They are giving you one of the greatest gifts ever: time. Value their gift, and give something back. Make them glad they came. Be wise and “make learning a joy.” (Proverbs 15:2)

Remember, you’re speaking to volunteers. They don’t have to pay attention to you, but if you speak from your heart or you’re funny or both, they will.

 

It’s Not Just Data – Speak from the Heart
Very few people get excited about data. We’re all tired of data. So, stand in front of a church and give them facts and percentages, sure, for maybe five seconds. And then give them your heart. They can get facts from Google, but they can only get your heart if you give it to them.

Want an easy way to do this? Tell them the Why and the Who, not just the What and the Where. People will care a whole lot more about what you’re doing when they see the heart behind it. Show them that heart.

Why are you going?
Why do you live there?
Why are you doing what you’re doing?
Who’s behind the newsletter?
Who’s the project for?
Who is God transforming?

What are your newsletters and presentations full of? Are they full of What you’re doing and Where you’re doing it? That stuff’s important, but it’s pretty sterile. If the majority of your communication is full of details and factoids, please stop. You’re boring people, and missions should be anything but boring.

Take a step back and ask yourself how to incorporate more of the Why and the Who. Put some heart in it.

You’re talking about people, right? So don’t reduce them to a stat or a large group photo of 50 people no one in your audience knows. There’s enough dehumanizing going on in the world already. Go ahead, show the group photo, but then tell a story about one person in the group who was impacted.

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Cecil the lion, shot and killed in Zimbabwe, July 2015

Why did Cecil the lion get so much attention? It’s because he wasn’t just a stat — another lion poached. He had a name and a family. He had a story. If we can give a lion in Africa a name and a story, can’t we do the same for people? God does.

So speak from the heart. About people, not tasks. About hearts, not projects.

Ask for God’s help. Ask Him to help you see people as He sees them, because once you connect with the heart of God on the matter, it’s all over. You’ll never be the same, and neither will your audience.

 

How to Be Funny
Sometimes, our theology erases our joy. Does yours? I realize that humor and joy are not synonyms, but really, do we actually believe the folks who look completely miserable while they grunt through gritted teeth, “I know I’m not happy, but at least I have the joy of the Lord”? Is there a laughter and peace that comes from God that is actually – really and truly – fun? We take ourselves way too seriously.

God is still in control.
God is still good.

So when was the last time you laughed? Like, really belly laughed?

Life is filled with heartache and pain. I am not immune to that, and I’ve spent a good bit of my time at A Life Overseas writing about outlawed grief, and bleeding grief, and feeling worthless.

It’s just that people are really funny creatures.

We should pray more for the joy of the Lord in our teams and churches and families. There is a time to mourn, for sure, but there is also a time to laugh and dance. Make sure you stay balanced. And remember, there’s nothing holier about sadness, just like there’s nothing juvenile or immature or sinful about enjoying life so much that you LOL.

Remember, Jesus got in trouble for having too much fun. Be like Him.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you want to be funny in your communications, learn to laugh, and laugh long and laugh hard. Wrap up your kids in tickle fights and joke about the crazy stuff.  Look at other drivers on the road and make up stories about their lives; create a running commentary. Practice various accents. In our family, one person’s good at Russian, two are great at British, another imitates Jim Carrey’s Grinch scarily well, and the last one’s four.htc5

But please, if you don’t think you’re funny, don’t worry. This is not supposed to make you even sadder and even more not funny. If funny’s not your thing, it’s not the end of the world, just make sure you communicate from your heart. No humor required.

 

CONCLUSION
Speak from the heart.
Or be funny.
Or both.
But never neither.

Try it out. See if it changes anything.
And then add me to your newsletter list.

 *photo credit

Words Matter

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In health care we have a story we call “The 71-Million Dollar Word Story”.

It involves a young man from Cuba, the absence of a skilled interpreter, and a misdiagnosis.

The man was 18 years old and had just graduated from high school. He was riding around with his friend when he complained of a bad headache. He thought it was because of the strong smell of gas in his friend’s car but by the time he got home the pain was so severe that he was crying.  He went into a coma soon afterward and was transferred to a local hospital in a comatose state. The family was sick with worry as they waited in the emergency room for this man to be assessed. The word ‘intoxicado’ was used and, in the absence of a professional interpreter, it was assumed that the young man was ‘intoxicated’, had taken a drug overdose and was suffering the effects. The family had no idea this was the way the words were interpreted. Had they known they could have attested that the young man never used drugs or alcohol, that health was extremely important to this young athlete. Rather, ‘Intoxicado’ was a word used in Cuba to mean a general state of being unwell because of something you ate or drank. It was the only word they could think of to express the sudden onset of his symptoms.

The misinterpretation of this word caused a misdiagnosis resulting in an 18-year-old becoming a quadriplegic, for in reality he had suffered a brain bleed and lay for two days in a hospital bed without proper treatment. Had the hospital staff made the correct diagnosis the man would have left the hospital in a few days, on his way to college and a normal life.

This tragic event resulted in a lawsuit and if this man lives to be 74, he will receive a total payment of 71 million dollars.

Because words matter.

Words are our primary way of conveying everything from symptoms to silliness.

All misuse of words doesn’t result in tragedy. Sometimes the results are humorous. Like when Pepsi translated a “Come Alive! You’re the Pepsi Generation!” ad into Chinese it was translated literally as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead”. Or when the “Got Milk”  campaign was adapted for a Spanish market, the phrase was understood as “Are you lactating”.  And then there was the more personal time when my friend called a Pakistani man a laxative instead of by his name – just the slip of one sound resulted in a not easily forgotten faux pas.

Because words matter.

Those of us who work across cultural boundaries understand and experience this on a daily basis. From asking for juice at a local grocery store to communicating during emergency situations, we need our words. Words are something we miss most when we first arrive in a country. We know what it is to struggle to communicate, to struggle to find words.

Most of all, we long for words to communicate the gospel story, long to put words together to form sentences and thoughts that have meaning; life-giving, God-breathed meaning.

There’s a well-known story in the New Testament where Jesus used words, words to convey living truth to a thirsty heart. He used words that confound and challenge, attract and puzzle. He used words with a woman who was culturally from a completely different background than his own. He communicated across cultural barriers and boundaries to a woman at a well who was just getting water, a normal part of her every day life. Jesus used words to change a woman’s life.  He used words to change hearts and ultimately an entire community.

Every time I tell the story of the 71 million dollar word, I am challenged anew. For as big and as tragic as the 71 million dollar word is, there are many times when our words have eternal implications that go beyond lawsuits and tragic life events.

Words matter. And so I work to use words in a way that brings hope and life to thirsty hearts.

How have you used words in the past week to bring life to the community where you live? Have you longed to use words more effectively lately? Join the conversation through the comments.

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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Newsflash: We’re Not Better Because We Live Overseas

I read a lot of missionary blogs.

When someone comments from Peru or Vietnam or Sudan, I click, and I read. Because the world fascinates me. It is a big, beautiful place, and God is doing amazing things on all corners of it. Absolutely.

But, as I have read missionary blogs, and as I have watched videos about world races, I am struck with the subtle arrogance of the Western missionary’s language. Things {something} like this are all over our websites and newsletters:

“I knew that there was more to life than the 9-t0-5 in America. I was just a businessman, and now I get to be so much more.”

“I felt God calling me into a bigger story. One that wasn’t so comfortable and easy.”

“I am living a good story, because I am moving overseas to Africa.”

“I’ve spent my whole life in the normal, but now I am embracing real adventure.”

“There is desperate need in India, and I finally get to become Jesus’s hands and feet.”

Okay, friends.  Put yourself in the non-missionary’s shoes. What does this kind of language communicate? Reading our overseas blogs from North Carolina or Colorado or California, what are we saying to all of those who aren’t choosing to live in a foreign country?

That their story isn’t good because they aren’t feeding African children?

That they can’t see God work in miraculous ways in the West?

That there is something selfish about simply rooting where you are planted?

That God doesn’t show up in dramatic ways in the “normal,” that there isn’t need in the States?

That their Christ-following is somehow, less?

This is wrong. All of it.

Because yes, the video of the white guy with the poor kids and the inspirational music in the background is dramatic and inspirational, but his story isn’t better by any means than the housewife who is trying to flesh out her faith in the same hometown she grew up in.

It. is. not.

Despite what our media sells us. Or our Christian circles tell us. Or the popular communicate in their highly-edited videos.

Following Jesus and loving others well can happen anywhere. Is hard anywhere. And can speak transformationanywhere.

And, so, friends who might read here and who aren’t choosing to live overseas, let me officially apologize– on behalf of myself and on behalf of all the missionary-media you’ve seen.

If the power of your story has felt devalued because you have chosen to do the hard{er?} work of staying and loving others right where you are, I ask your forgiveness.

Because a good story most definitely does not require a passport.

And, to my missionary friends, please, please, forthelove, be careful in your communication. Be careful that you are not subtly telling your followers, your supporters, your friends back home that they are less.

The choice to usher in the Kingdom deserves respect, wherever it takes place.

*Version originally appeared on LauraParkerBlog, March 2012

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Do you communicate, or believe, that the “more Godly” move is an international one? How does that attitude play into our communications with our support back home? Or even our sense of pride?

Laura Parker, Co-Founder/Editor, Former Aid Worker in SE Asia