How to grow your culture knowledge

In January Rachel Pieh Jones asked the question How Well Do You Know Your Host Nation? and challenged all of us to move beyond culture learning that focuses primarily on food and language. I have to admit that I fist pumped the air as I read and probably said a few too many

“Yes!”

“Yes!”

“Yes!”

Little did Rachel know, but I was working on just such a resource. Her words felt like a confirmation of God’s heart and desire for us to know the people we have come to serve.

One of the tricky parts of culture and cultural knowledge, however, is that it it’s easy to measure and judge each other, especially internally.

“My language skills will never be as good as hers!”

“Oh my word, I cannot believe that he didn’t know how rude he was being.”

The truth is, there is always someone who knows far more than you and someone who knows far less than you do. So, when it comes to culture, we need to be like runners who keep their eyes on their own lane and focus on making progress themselves. How about instead of judging each other, we encourage and equip each other to keep growing.

Sounds good, who is going to push back on that? But if you’re like me, I want to grow, but the busyness of life can get in the way of my good intentions. That’s why I created a four-week challenge that fosters a culture growth spurt by focusing on one area of culture each week: history, the arts, pop culture, and religion. 

The challenge has two tracks, one for those of you new to a culture, and one for those of you who are old hands in culture. Each week you will be emailed three options for how you could grow that area of your culture knowledge and you choose one of the options. The challenge is designed for a one-to-two-hour time commitment each week.

Growth doesn’t just happen, but you also don’t have to figure out what to do all on your own. This challenge works well for individuals, families, and teams to do together and is available until May 13th. You can join here.

Here is a taste of the challenge. The challenge uses the metaphor of a tree to picture your culture knowledge. This is part of the history week: 

History can be a mixed bag, can’t it?! If you’ve already completed the option you picked earlier this week, you might have learned something about your host culture that inspired you. But it is just as likely that you learned something that broke your heart, angered, or confused you.

History is all of these things! It is inspiring and angering. It is laced with beauty and laced with injustice. It reveals God’s character and reveals the need for God. You need all of these aspects for your culture tree to grow in a balanced way . . . not just one part—a lone branch or leaves without a trunk.

If you haven’t started on the history options yet, that’s okay. Take a moment to think about when you will. This weekend? Tonight? Don’t overthink it, but do block out thirty minutes to an hour.


Just think of where your culture knowledge will be in four weeks if you don’t take the challenge. Probably not that different from what it is right now. But with the guidance and support of this challenge over the next four weeks? When Rachel asks the question How Well Do You Know Your Host Nation? With this challenge you can answer, “Better than I did!” You can join the free challenge today here.

P.S. Thank you Rachel for calling all of us to keep climbing! And here is a Prayer for Old Hands in a Culture — you can pray it for yourself or old hands you know.

Photo by Magdalena Love on Unsplash

How Well Do You Know Your Host Nation?

I’m a bit out of words lately. I’m in seminary full-time. Covid. Elections. Wars. Planes crashing. Racial tension. Political violence. Conspiracy theories.

It’s a lot.

I have way more questions than answers. Some of my questions are around the gaps in the training I received before moving abroad and in the ongoing trainings and mentorships I have access to. By not addressing these gaps, we risk perpetuating problems as expatriates continue to export our culture and values without fully engaging in our new contexts.

I’m going to share some of the questions I am asking myself. I hope you will take some time to think about them.

Do you know the history of your host country from the perspective of its citizens?

            Ancient history, precolonial history, colonial history, and post-colonial history?

            National heroes? Legends, myths, folktales?

            Religious history, from multiple perspectives?

            Racial, class, gender history?

When did women gain the right to vote? How many women serve in leadership? How are they perceived?

Did your country have slavery? Were the people enslaved by others? 

What have been recent and historic conflicts? What were they about? How were they resolved?

Do you know what role your passport nation has played in any of this history?

Did you learn this from Westerners writing about them or from them? Does this knowledge come tainted from an outsider’s viewpoint?

Do you read book written by authors from your host country? 

Do you listen to local music?

Do you read the local newspaper, listen to the radio, follow leaders on social media?

Do you know how people view people of your gender, race, ethnicity, class, stature? Do you know why?

Do you know what people who look like you have done here in the past? For better and for worse?

I meet far too many people who could care less about these things in the countries where they work and are supposedly “serving.” I don’t understand how a person hopes to “make a difference” if they don’t know how things are. What do they hope will be “different?” Unless they mean more like themselves.

Before leaving your passport nation there are some things you need to do, namely start learning about where you are going and commit to never, never stopping. Those of us who are already gone need to do this work. 

I now believe ongoing local cultural training must be required by all organizations who send people abroad. I don’t mean “culture” like food and clothing and language. I mean deep, heart level, historic, worldview forming topics. The possibilities are endless. 

What would you add?

How Do Cultural Factors Influence a Missionary’s Decision to Leave?

by Andrea Sears

In reviewing the cultural factors that are part of a missionary’s decision to return to their passport country, it is relevant to consider where survey participants served. Of the 714 survey participants who answered this question, the following chart represents the proportion that served in each region:

For the purposes of the chart, Mexico was included in Central America with other Latino cultures, though it is technically part of North America. Fifteen percent of participants served on more than one continent, and were given the “various” designation since they could not be assigned to only one continent. All others served in only one country, or in various countries within the same continent. The majority (68.2%) of participants served in one country only, 18.6% served in two countries, 7.6% served in three countries, and 5.6% served in four or more countries during their time on the mission field.

Because survey participants served all over the globe in very disparate cultures, their struggles were at times common and at times very different. We measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be host-country-related factors:

  • I struggled with the local language of my host country.
  • I struggled with the local culture of my host country.
  • I struggled with local relationships in my host country.
  • I missed the developed world.
  • I experienced security issues.
  • I had limited access to electricity and/or technology.
  • I felt taken advantage of by locals for resources.
  • I experienced conflict with locals that grew out of cultural differences.
  • I experienced conflict with locals that was unaffected by cultural differences.
  • I had to leave the country because of immigration/visa issues.
  • I was in danger of persecution because of my faith/vocation.
  • I was in danger of persecution because of my nationality.
  • Political instability or armed conflict made it too dangerous to stay.
  • National economic instability made it untenable to stay.
  • The government restricted missionary activities to the point that I was unable to work in the area of my calling.
  • The climate was difficult for me to live in.
  • A natural disaster caused me to be evacuated.

 

Results
This group of factors has relatively low strength indexes for most of the items. While some cultural factors have very high numbers of people experiencing them, usually these factors did not affect the decision to leave, and if it did, it did so to a small degree.

Two of the strongest factors in this group were: (1) having to leave the country because of immigration/visa issues and (2) having security issues. Interestingly, the issues experienced by the most people are thankfully those that are at least in part within the missionary’s locus of control, such as the first four statements on the list. This is a place to look for preventable attrition and prepare missionaries to better weather cultural stress.

 

Language Study
We also collected data on how long each participant studied the language of their host culture (in a formal sense), in order to see if there is a correlation between length of study and tenure, or between length of study and reporting a struggle with the language.

Based on this data, the greatest proportion of those who studied formally did so for at least 9 months, though there is a small bump at 3-6 months. Those who spent at least 3 months in formal language study stayed on the field for at least an average of 9 ½ years, while those who did not study or studied for less than 3 months had an average of 6-7 years of tenure.

The majority of participants admitted to difficulty with the language, regardless of whether or how long they studied it. However, those studying more than 6 months tended to have their language struggles factor less into their return decision. Those studying less than 3 months more often reported that language was a moderate to strong factor in their return decision.

 

Culture Struggles
We also collected open comments on the following question: “What aspects of the local culture did you struggle with?”

Themes that consistently emerged in the comments, ranked by prevalence, were: (1) honor/shame culture and the resulting style of indirect communication, (2) income disparity, (3) gender inequity, (4) corruption/crime, (5) demands of hospitality and having less privacy, and (6) less focus on order/efficiency.

Other themes also frequently mentioned were visibly not fitting in, language difficulties, fatalism, different concepts of time/pace of life, local supernaturalistic beliefs, and different cleanliness/hygiene standards.

Unfortunately, comments about culture often contained tones of negative judgment, with indirect communication being categorized as “dishonesty” or fatalism being called “laziness.” One thing we can learn from these responses is that our own worldview permeates deep in our psyche and defines for us what we think is the “right” way to do things, leading us to evaluate others unfavorably when they don’t share our values. Part of being a successful missionary is intentionally rooting out our own ethnocentrism in expecting others to be like us (or to work on becoming like us).

 

Local Relationships
We also collected comments on the question: “What did you struggle with in your local relationships?”

Themes commonly mentioned were language barriers, developing intimacy and trust, the time required to build friendship as an outsider, differing relationship expectations, and distinguishing between true friendships and ministry.

 

Conclusion
Culture shock and culture stress are common, but also expected and apparently not a primary direct cause of missionary attrition. But they certainly affect the quality of the missionary experience and impact the overall resilience of the missionary. And lowered resilience certainly does affect missionary attrition.

Conclusions and recommendations include preparing missionaries to cross-cultures well, including a list of topics to cover in training and coaching; learning and using the skill of cognitive reframing to minimize ethnocentrism; curbing certain Western tendencies to adjust to different settings; and self-care.

To see the full detailed report and discussion of results, click here. You can subscribe on the website for notifications when future results are published. You can also email andrea.d.sears@gmail.com for a pdf if you want to save or share the results.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Andrea Sears is co-founder of the ministry giveDIGNITY, which works in the marginalized community of La Carpio in San Jose, Costa Rica. The ministry focuses on Christ-centered community development initiatives in education, vocation, and violence prevention. Her family has been in Costa Rica for 8 years, and served as the Missionaries in Residence at John Brown University during the 2017-2018 year while on furlough.

Don’t Touch My Bacon: Eating, Drinking, and Dressing Overseas

The American teacher stood in the staff lounge with a cup of yellow broth. Look at this, he laughed. It looks just like beer!

A Tanzanian staff member just stared at him. Do you drink beer? she solemnly asked.

He paused for a moment. Yes, he said. I do sometimes.

That was the end of the relationship. From that moment on, she wouldn’t make eye contact with him. Because for many Christian denominations in Tanzania, drinking alcohol is not compatible with Christianity.

When we move overseas, we give up a lot. Christmas at Grandma’s, Girl Scout Cookies, garbage disposals, 24-hour stores, our own language, feeling competent.

So we should be able to hold onto some of what’s important, comfortable, and familiar to us, right?

Sometimes we sure would like to think so.

I should be able to wear what I want in my new culture, because clothes express my unique identity. So if I look cute in bikinis, then I’m going to wear my bikini. If I am comfortable in shorts, I’m going to wear shorts. I’m not comfortable in long skirts or head coverings. And my tattoo is an expression of who I am, so why would I want to cover it up?

I should be able to eat what I want to eat, because asking me to give up pork or eat only vegetarian–well, that’s asking too much. I should be able to drink alcohol, because it’s not a sin, and it’s something I enjoy.

You might take away Starbucks and Target, but don’t touch my bacon.

For those of us from western cultures, we might be nodding in agreement. Of course. We’re used to a culture where self-expression reigns supreme. Conformity is viewed with disdain. Even our churches are pushing the boundaries of what was considered taboo or morally unacceptable. We aren’t legalists, right?

So when our host culture conflicts with our forms of comfort or self-expression, who wins?

Scripture tells us that for those so-called gray areas–which include issues of food, drink, or dress, there is some wiggle room. And in those cases, the Bible is clear that for the sake of the gospel, we submit to the culture’s moral norms. I Corinthians 9 says, To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

So that might mean that if our host culture believes that drinking alcohol is incompatible with being a Christian, then for the sake of our witness, we refrain. That means that if our host culture doesn’t eat pork or even meat, it might be important for us to keep away from it as well. At the least, it’s a way of showing respect, and more importantly, a way for others to feel comfortable in our home.

It means recognizing that modesty is cultural and covering up the way our hosts do is a way to honor them. If shorts or bikinis or short skirts are offensive in our host culture, then we leave those packed in our parents’ attic. Maybe it means taking out the nose ring (or maybe it means getting one), or maybe it means covering up tattoos some or all of the time.

But does it really matter? Yes, it does. As in my introductory story, I’ve seen relationships between expats and locals completely derailed over these issues. And on the other hand, I have a friend who was told, If you didn’t dress the way you do (which included ankle-length skirts and long sleeves), we would never have invited you into our home.

Isn’t that just capitulating to legalism? Why should we condone cultural expectations that feel demeaning to women or suffocatingly oppressive or just plain wrong? Well, sometimes it might be as simple as humbly asking Why? The answers might surprise you. Maybe what we consider an innocuous accessory is associated with witchcraft in our host country. Or maybe what we would consider oppressive is actually a garment of pride for women.

What if there isn’t a good explanation? Then that’s when we have to remember that life isn’t about us, or our rights, or what makes us comfortable. On the contrary, Jesus said we need to die to ourselves. Die to our rights. And when we move overseas, even more so. Life isn’t about us, it’s about the gospel we are representing.

Sure, when a strong relationship is established and the opportunity arises, we can gently train Christian friends on what the Bible has to say about legalism. (And they’ll certainly be able to point out our own blind spots!)  But to get there, we’ll probably need to start by respecting them enough to do things their way.

We must ask ourselves: What’s more important–my rights or my witness?

Of course, figuring this all out is tricky. What is despised in one culture may be expected in another. If you live in a big city, you may be navigating several subcultures that have different moral expectations. How do we even know what offends our hosts? There aren’t any black and white answers, but starting with a posture of humility and self-denial is a great place to start. Here’s some other advice:

Pay attention. Seriously, pay attention. I can’t tell you how many times in Tanzania when I’ve seen some young white girl walking along the side of the road in short shorts. I want to slow down my car, roll down my window and holler at her, Look around! Do you see any Tanzanian women around here dressed like that?  (I know, I know, I’m proving I’m a grouchy old lady for even thinking this.)

But sometimes this can mean more than just modesty. For many years, I dutifully wore my long skirts and loose pants until I realized that in many situations, I was way under-dressed. Tanzanian women may cover their legs, but they are rarely casual and never frumpy. If I was going to present myself as a respectable pastor’s wife or school principal, I needed to beef up my wardrobe.

When in doubt, ask. Ask more than one person and find the right people to ask. Many cultures are very gracious to ex-pats and won’t confront us even if we are being blatantly offensive. Cultivate relationships with people who will be honest with you about cultural expectations. When you are humble and teachable, people will open up. Yes, there will inevitably still be some contradictions in what they tell you. But should our goal be to push the boundaries of what we can get away with in the culture, or rather how we can show respect to the most people?

Don’t take your cues from other ex-pats. Just because another ex-pat eats it or wears it or does it, doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. I’ve lived in Tanzania 14 years and I am still learning. In fact, just a few weeks ago, I discovered that ankle bracelets are associated with either prostitution or witchcraft in this culture. Yikes. I wasn’t an ankle-bracelet-wearer before, but now I definitely am not. So please, don’t ask me about what’s appropriate. But if you do, I’ll point you to some amazing Tanzanian friends who can fill you in.

The Apostle Paul sums it up really well, so I’ll end with him.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

How I Became the Poster Child for Swedish Families Living with HIV — And Why You Should Rethink Your Selfies

Someone recently pointed out that our picture pops up on a Google search for “blended family” (just a few spots behind the Brady Bunch).

 

 

 

That was a pretty cool moment.

I felt a little famous. Like the internet finally found out about the Joneses.

 

Then some more friends passed this little gem on to us.

 

 

 

Our picture had been consentlessly chosen to help people “reflect” on adoption and “how that decision might impact your life and the lives of those around you.”

Sweet.

I think “flattered” is probably the word that best described me at that point. Not only were we showing up on Google’s front page but someone, somewhere out there in Arkansas Cyberland went looking for photos to represent adoption and they chose us.

I love that.

I mean look at us. We scream adoption. Right?

It made up for at least half of the horrible, “picked last” moments from 5th grade gym class.

 

Then came this one.

 

 

 

 

Umm. Ok.

I suppose technically we’re not ACTUALLY “foreign-born step parents” and these are not ACTUALLY our “stepchildren” but hey . . . semantics, right?

That’s how it works in the modeling world . . . even though technically we weren’t ACTUALLY models and this is just our family photo that we received ZERO compensation for.

Semantics.

Right?

I was curious.

So I dragged our photo into the Google search bar (you can do that).

And this is what I found.

 

We were also the poster child for Marriage and Family Counseling.

 

 

AND “Cooperation during the holidays” (for “blended families” because it’s different for us than the “normal” families).

 

AND “Intensive In-Home Counseling”

 

 

And quotable quotes . . . about blended families.

 

 

And maybe my favorite . . . We represent the happiest, blended family in all of Sweden living with HIV.

I mean look at us.

We don’t even seem phased.

 

 

I sought the wise counsel of my friends and got a wide range of reactions.

 

“You can send them a take down notice.”

“You should get paid for that.”

“That is a violation of privacy.”

“That’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.”

 

I found myself swinging back and forth on the whole spectrum.

 

Flattered and violated.

Laughing and frustrated.

Ready to call a lawyer . . . or maybe just write a blog post.

 

And then TWO things happened.

 

ONE: I stumbled across this one.

 

 

Now we had become the “Not Safe for Work” representatives for in-vitro fertilization, sperm switching in which shocked, white mothers gave birth to the children of (and I quote) “random Negros.”

Wow.

Before I vent I should mention — this webpage is a discussion forum. I’ve shown you the first bit and intentionally cut out the rest.

 

So you can see that they cropped my daughter out of the picture (because she didn’t fit the story).

But you can’t see the bit where they repeatedly use the “N-Word” about my son.

Or the part where they say “look how happy the whore is.”

Or the part where they say “Just f•••ing imagine having to resort to artificial insemination due to medical problems and your baby comes out as a f•••ing disgusting mongrel.”

 

Let me be clear — I don’t feel for a moment like this is about my family. These people don’t know us and the sickness in their hearts is not directed at us. They are idiots. Twisted, broken, sick, sick fools leaning on the misguided strength of perceived anonymity.

 

But DON’T EVER call my son a n**ger.

And DON’T EVER call my wife a whore.

And if you’re going to use my picture without my permission then DON’T crop it to fit your sick, selfish agenda.

That’s MY picture. NOT YOURS!!

I’m done venting now.

 

Curious about the second thing that happened? Here it is.

 

As I vented sarcastically via social media about our new found fame and violated personal space. Marilyn Gardener, the brilliantly, humble matriarch of alifeoverseas.com dropped this bomb (which ironically, I use here without permission).

 

 

Boom.

Wow.

I have to admit . . . In my self-centric rant, it hadn’t crossed my mind . . . but challenge accepted.

 

For a brief moment, I got a tiny taste of what it is like to be dehumanized. It was genuinely non-threatening and non-fearful but it in a small way I felt exploited.

Cheapened.

Used.

 

My entitlement swelled.

My “How Dare You” was ticked.

My Westerness roared.

 

Because somewhere, someone treated me as less than human.

Not real.

Just stock.

 

“Sobering” is the right word and so I’ll offer this challenge (but I’ll do it without shaming).

 

Please. See people as people. Even the people in your pictures. 

 

Don’t make them a poster child for something you don’t know they believe in.

Don’t wrap them around your agenda without their consent.

Don’t force them to represent something they don’t.

Don’t tell the story first and then find the picture.

Don’t degrade, demean, dismiss or devalue.

Look at pictures . . . and see people.

Look at people . . . and fall in love.

 

Here’s the “non-shaming” part.

 

If you’re like me you’re scanning your brain for the times that you have done EXACTLY this.

 

Overseas selfie.

“Look at me — I’m helping poverty.”

Grab a photo from Google.

 

What if instead of feeling guilty.

Or getting defensive.

Or making excuses.

 

You just said, “yeah, we’re all kind of figuring this out as we go?”

 

“But something needs to change.”

 

And then you stopped and pondered what you might do differently.

 

That’s a big step.

 

No pressure — but the world would be better if you took it.

 

Here are some resources for the pondering.

 

Woman’s Instagram Post About Kenyan Child Ignites Fury

How to Get More Likes on Social Media

How to Communicate to the World

White Savior Barbie is Here to Save Africa, One Selfie at a Time

The Problem With Africa Selfies

Serving Overseas? 3 Kinds of Selfies You Should Never Take

 

Thoughts?

 

The Five People Who Shape You the Most

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” (Jim Rohn)

Soak in that for a minute. Think it through. Is it true?

For you personally?

For everyone?

For me it is one of those brilliantly profound and profoundly frustrating statements.

It makes sense. A lot of sense. So much sense that a piece of me instinctively wants it to be wrong — a feeling which increases in intensity the more I hear it. I have a visceral reaction to anything so quotable it shows up everywhere but that’s the world we live in isn’t it?

A world of instant cliches.

I’ve pondered this quote though and I wonder if it applies in the same way for people like you and me. You know . . . the cross-cultural types. Help me out because I’m curious to know if this is just me or if it goes with the territory.

Here is my dilemma. I don’t know who I spend the most time with. I literally do not have an answer for who those five people would be. I’m like a TCK trying to tell you where he is from.

Even if I could identify the top five right now (simply based on time spent together) they would be completely different from my five three years ago . . . and three years before that . . . and three before that.

My life moves in rhythms that naturally divide my closest friendships into sections of time and geography. I have a BFF at every port but I have never seen any of them in the same room (which makes me think that maybe they are all actually the same person . . . or Batman).

I love that part of my life. I really do.

I love that I can travel almost anywhere in the world and catch up with an old friend. I love the “hello agains”. I love the picking up where we left off as if we never left off at all. I love that the only indicator of time passed is our growing kids. I love the reminiscing about the seasons when we did spend most of our time together and I even love the falsely hopeful farewells.

“Come visit us.”

“Oh we will . . . one of these days.”

I also love that I’m building more of those connections right where we are . . . in this season.

I love talking work stuff and figuring out life problems. I love wrestling through the challenges of the transition that never ends with newbies, stayers and goers. I love bumbling through cross-cultural things with other bumblers and I love deep, heartfelt, sincere conversations that lean heavily on sign-language and Google Translate.

But five?

Just five?

In one place?

Can’t do it.

I could narrow it down though, to the five that I HAVE spent the most time with. The five who have impacted me the most. The five who would go anywhere and do anything for me and know that I would do the same.

They are the five people that I WOULD spend the most time with . . . if we all lived in the same country . . . at the same time . . . and they weren’t too busy fighting the Joker.

This cross-cultural life is anything but average but if I can be the average of my global list of five guys, I’ll be in good shape.

How about you?

Do you know your five? Are they all in one place or spread out?

 

When Hard Things Happen Back Home

There is something surreal about being on the other side of the world while major events unfold in your home country.  It leaves you feeling both connected and disconnected at the exact same time.

 

It is 7158 miles (11,520 kilometers) from where I am sitting right now to Charlottesville, Virginia (USA) but there is a part of me that is right there.  Thanks to the marvels of modern technology I can tune in anytime I want.  I can get lost in the news feeds, and sucked into the endless vacuum of clickable links.  If I’m feeling brave I can peek into the opinion pieces which are on the same page as the comedians which are just one careless click away from the babblers which are right next to the loud mouths which hang out with the trolls.

It’s a slippery slope.

The difference though, between my two sides of the planet, is that on this side I have to chase that information.  There is no avalanche of “this just in” unless I go looking for it.  The intensity, the tension, the boiling blood and the inescapable super-charged atmosphere is all taking place on that side. I can see it on my 13 inch screen anytime I want — and I can feel it because it is my home and those are my people . . . but it’s not the same as being there.

Connected and disconnected at the same time.

And as much as this life abroad has taught me to zoom in it has also conditioned me to zoom out.  Like a lot of expats I wrestle with global guilt.  I find myself instantly consumed by the overwhelming events from back home and just as quickly reminded that back home is not the only place on earth where overwhelming events are consuming people.

In the exact same week that a man in Virginia drove a car into a crowd killing a woman and injuring 19 others another man drove a van into a crowd killing at least 13 and injuring 100 others in Spain.

And a mudslide killed almost 500 in Sierra Leone.

And 24 people were killed after an election in Kenya.

And 32 drug dealers were killed in the Philippines.

And dozens were killed in a train wreck in Egypt.

And there were floods in Bangladesh.

And a food crisis in Yemen.

And fires in Greece.

Come on fellow expats . . . tell me I’m not the only one who does this.  In one moment I am caught up in the whirlwind of news from my passport country and in the very next moment (if I’m being totally honest) I’m judging them because no matter how big it is, there are bigger things going on in the world.

Connected and disconnected at the same time.  

And then I realize that I would strongly defend the rights of anyone in Sierra Leone or Kenya or Yemen to be consumed by their own news and less concerned about Charlottesville .

And then I realize that I haven’t extended that same grace to my own people.

And then it hits me that I have also withheld it from myself.

And then my heart aches for my homeland.  Tension.  Intensity.  Frustration.  Empathy.

Connection and disconnection at the same time.

There is something surreal about being on the other side of the world while major events unfold in your home country. 

You who once were far off (disconnected) have been brought near (connected) by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one (connected) and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility (disconnection) by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God (connected) in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility (disconnection). And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.  For through him we both have access (connection) in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers (disconnected) and aliens (disconnected), but you are fellow citizens (connected) with the saints and members of the household of God (connected), built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together (connected), grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.  

Ephesians 2:13-22

When Missionaries Think They Know Everything

A few years ago, a video started making its way around my Facebook feed–shared by lots foreigners who live in my part of Africa.  The video showed two African men shoveling sand.  There was a very large pile of sand to their left.  The two men were shoveling the sand into a wheelbarrow, filling it up, and then dumping it…two feet away.

The person filming this video obviously thought the men were complete idiots.  “Watch this!  Wait for it…wait for it…” she gleefully exclaimed.  And when the men dumped out another wheelbarrow of sand just inches away, she could be heard bursting into giggles.

By the time I saw the video, it had over 13 million views and 300,000 shares by people who obviously thought the men’s idiocy was equally hilarious.  I didn’t share it, but I had to admit that it did seem pretty amusing.

That is, I thought it was funny until two African friends set us all straight.  They explained:  While making concrete, in the absence of a cement mixer, a builder will use a wheelbarrow to measure.  One part cement, two parts sand, three parts gravel.  These men were not idiots.  They knew exactly what they were doing.  They were using the resources they had to do something that was actually quite rational.

Oh.

Oops.

I was terribly ashamed.  Not just for myself, but for the millions of foreigners who come to Africa and think that we know everything.  That one little video made me re-evaluate how I view my host country.  It made me wonder how many other times I had the same attitude of condescension about something I knew nothing about.

There was a tag on that video:  #TIA:  “This is Africa.”  This is a common hashtag in my part of the world, but foreigners often turn it into something demeaning.  For example, “Spent all day waiting for my car to be fixed, and then realized they ‘fixed’ the wrong part.  #TIA.”

But let’s step back a minute and take a look at that from a distance.  What is “TIA” communicating in this instance?  That everything always goes wrong in Africa?   That no one knows how to fix anything?  That we should have the expectation that everyone in Africa is an idiot?  What would the mechanic think if he read it?

As Christian missionaries, it’s easy to assume that we are above this kind of behavior.  After all, we’ve been vetted, interviewed, and scrutinized more than most people will be in their lifetime.  We’re supposed to be godly, right?  We’re supposed to love the nations, right?   Missionaries could never be racist….right?

Call it racism, stereotyping, or ethnocentrism, but one thing we need to get really clear is that it dwells in all of our hearts in some form or another.  If we’re really honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we really do think we know what’s best.  Our way of doing things is really the most effective.  Basically, I am better than you.  Or at the very least, my culture is better than yours.

We assume that we could never be that person, yet that’s just the problem.  We ignore the fact that despite the pedestals we have been put on, we actually aren’t saints; that signing on to missionary work didn’t actually get rid of our sin.  We are, by nature, prideful and arrogant.  Insisting that we aren’t just allows it to come out in unintended ways.  The first step to rooting out sin in our lives is by acknowledging that it’s there—in all of us.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we put on rose-colored glasses and pretend that our frustrations don’t exist.  Inefficiency, foolishness, and downright evil exist in every culture, in various forms.  I’m saying we need to check our attitude towards these things.  Are we holding ourselves above the culture as if we’re better than it, and insisting we have all the answers?  Or are we sitting down in the dust next to our local friends, learning to love the things they love and experience the frustrations they feel within their culture?

Marilyn Gardner writes, “Cultural humility demands self-evaluation and critique, constant effort to understand the view of another before we react.  It requires that we recognize our tendency toward cultural superiority. Cultural humility gives up the role of expert, instead seeing ourselves as students of our host culture.  It puts us on our knees, the best posture possible for learning.”

We need to ask ourselves:

  • Would I make this complaint if I knew a government official would hear it?
  • Would I tell this joke about my host country in front of my local friends?
  • Would I write this Facebook post if I knew the pastor of my local church would see it?

And what about my own kids?  How are my children going to perceive our host country if they absorb my attitude about the government, the police, the mechanic, the drivers on the road?  Are they learning from my words and actions to show grace or to display arrogance?

Even if you think you are just kidding around, be careful.  Obviously, even local people complain about certain things in their country and even make jokes.  But remember that playground rule when you were a kid:  It’s okay for you to tease your little sister, but if your friend does it, then “them’s fighting words.”  Even if your local friends disparage or mock aspects of their own culture, that doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to do it too.  We are guests in our host countries.  Let’s be considerate ones.

Of course, there’s a fine line here.  If I see a Facebook post that says, “Saw a baboon on the back of a motorcycle today. #TIA,” well, that’s fun all around.  No problem there.  But keep in mind that it may take you many years before you know where that line is.  And the longer I’ve lived overseas, the further I back up from that line.  I continue to realize how much I have to learn.  As I understand more and more that I don’t have the answers, the more deeply I appreciate the differences that I originally may have mocked.

In humility, consider others better than yourselves.

Even if it means giving the benefit of the doubt to two guys shoveling sand.

 

Dear Life Abroad — I’ll keep my identity, thanks.

“Loss of identity.”

It makes every list doesn’t it?  Right near the top.  Up there with rootlessness, culture shock and horrible toilets.

When you take a two column, pros and cons approach to life abroad, the word “identity” rarely makes it into the pro column.  In fact, if you compiled the sum of all of the pro-con lists out there and put them into a full disclosure, up front and honest sales pitch for a life overseas, you’d be hard pressed to convince a single person to sign on.

“Adventure that will change your life forever.  Exposure to amazing people, traditions and foods.  Community like you’ve never experienced.  Frequent flier miles galore.”

“Oh and your identity is going to be stripped to the point that you will question everything you ever believed to be true about yourself.”

“Sound good?”

“Click here to sign up.”

You would think that living abroad is a first cousin to a witness protection program, which always sounds cool at first — and then you think it through.  New life, new home, new friends but your old life will be gone forever.

I get it.  I really do.

I have expatriated (moved abroad), repatriated (moved “home”) and then expatriated again.

I have felt thoroughly incompetent both far away and in my own country.

I have questioned deeply my role, my calling and my ability to contribute to anything significant.

I have felt lost, confused, broken and paralyzed.

BUT  (and this is a huge BUT).

MY LIFE ABROAD HAS NOT TAKEN MY IDENTITY FROM ME.

On the contrary, living cross-culturally has shaped my identity.  Stretched it.  Molded it.  Changed it to be sure, but there is nothing missing in who I am because of where I have been.

 

Here are three quick thoughts on identity and living abroad.

 

ONE:  EVERYTHING WE DO CHANGES OUR IDENTITY

It’s funny to me that college doesn’t get the same bad rap that living abroad does.  The identity gap between who we are on day one of university and who we are at graduation is the most pronounced of our lives.

Scratch that.  Puberty — then college — but still.

When we talk about the college years we generally say things like, “that’s when I found myself,” or “that’s when I discovered who I really was.”  We don’t often say “that’s when I lost my identity” even though we may be a dramatically different person.

Everything changes us.

College.  Job.  Marriage.  Kids.  Accomplishment.  Tragedy.

All of it becomes a part of who we are.

 

TWO: YOU ALWAYS GO FORWARD — YOU NEVER GO BACK

Here’s where I think the rub is.  I can’t prove it with science but I’ve watched it happen over and over.

Something clicks inside of our brain when we move abroad that convinces us that we have stepped into a time space continuum.  It’s the same basic concept that makes us feel like our kids haven’t changed a bit while their grandparents think they’ve grown like weeds.  We tend to fixate on the last point of connection and even though logically we reason that time continues in other places too . . . it’s still a shock when we see it in person.

Our lives are so dramatically different abroad and the contrast is so vivid that when we return we presume that we are simply stepping back through the portal . . . into the same place . . . with the same people.

So it stands to reason that we should be the same as well . . . but we’re not.  In fact, all of the people involved have never stopped moving forward.

Life abroad is unique in that it is one of the few major life experiences that is marked by a sense of “going back” at the end.

College might be different if we graduated and went back to high school.

That would be a loss of identity for sure.

 

THREE:  YOUR “LIFE ABROAD IDENTITY” IS WORTH HOLDING ONTO

Every year about this time I get to have a lot of conversations with people who are finishing their time abroad.  I’ll give you three guesses what the most COMMONLY REPEATED FEAR that I hear is.

Here’s a clue:  It’s NOT, “I’m afraid I won’t even know who I am.”  That comes later.

It’s NOT,  “I’m afraid I won’t fit back in.”  That’s a big one but it’s not number one.

Ready?

It generally goes something like this:  “I’m afraid I will slip back into my old life and just become who I used to be.  I don’t want to forget what I have experienced and who I have become abroad.”

That doesn’t sound like a LOSS of identity to me.  It sounds like a rich and wonderful ADDITION.

Here’s the kicker — not a single one of those people would say life abroad was ONLY rich and wonderful.

They tripped and bumbled just like the rest of us but through it all they found something in the experience that they never, ever want to let go of . . . to the point that they fear losing it.

 

For me — “IDENTITY” goes in the pro column.

Anyone else?

 

 

People are not our Project

As a zealous, young missionary I seemed to make  the same mistake over and over. Now as a veteran, I find the same never-ending truth must remain continually before me.

People are not our projects.

 

We never set out to do this intentionally. Our mistakes are made in ignorance. Our desire is to do good, to help others, and to bring change.

Even with these godly desires, we must remain ever careful to not walk in superiority and arrogance.

The message “I have something to give you” may be true, but must be balanced out with a healthy dose of humility and a learning spirit.

Because the truth is, we all have something to give each other.

Examine these two statements. Although similar, they can create two completely different perspectives.

“I have walked with so and so for this many years.”

and

“We have walked together for this many years.”

The difference is subtle.

If you are working in an area where colonialism has been present, these subtle differences can be interpreted in ways you would never desire.

As we walk with different people in various cultures, humility requires us to be willing to receive and learn from others.

One particular young man and I have now journeyed together for nearly ten years. The other day we went for a meal and he insisted on paying. Even though I consider him a friend and not a project or my ministry, I could feel some push back in my heart.

Must I be in the place of power, being the one who pays? Do I allow myself to receive…or only give?

I received his offer to pay, and we had a wonderful meal together. But in this event I saw  I must still constantly be aware of this subtle form of pride which creeps up; even after all these years.

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Let’s ask ourselves a few questions:

  • Can we receive from those we work with?
  • Do we learn from the culture we are working in, or is our way always better?
  • When is the last time we were taught at a local church service rather than a podcast or blog post from home?
  • Do we feel uncomfortable when we find ourselves on the receiving end of generosity?

I recently heard the story of a friend who was given a rather lavish gift from someone. It is one thing to accept a cup of tea or a meal, but can we receive an extravagant blessing given by someone who hails from culture we serve in?

If people are our friends, and we view them as equal, then we must be willing to receive.

Bishop Desmond Tutu famously says, “We are stronger when we are together.”

This same image is reflected in Scripture speaking of one body with many parts. Different members, yet all essential.

Recently I organized a conference of Bible School leaders from all over the African continent. I was intentional in trying to create an opportunity to learn from each other, not just present one view from the front. We had a beautiful time discussing difficult issues such as finances, tribalism, and injustice we have faced.

We truly were “better together.”

When we do not view people as our projects, but rather see them as equal image bearers of God, remarkable things can happen.

Let’s preach this “gospel” to ourselves each day.

Photo by Eutah Mizushima

Hello World!

How do you greet people where you live?

I asked this question recently on Facebook because I was working on an essay: To Kiss or Not to Kiss? (check out that piece for a somewhat more thoughtful look at cross cultural greetings). I wanted to see what greetings were like around the world.

to kiss or not to kiss

Even though the kissing isn’t always smooth and sometimes results (my fault) in full on lip smacking with my friends (it tends to bond us), I’ve started to prefer it to hugs. I remember in France in my language class my husband tried to joke about the French being more sexual than Americans because of the kissing. The joke fell flat (as all jokes made in broken foreign languages tend to do) and now I’ve come to think the exact opposite.

A kiss is really a cheek brush (unless you make my mistakes or are greeted by a rural, elderly, nomadic woman – in that case, prepare for the real deal). But a hug? That’s full body contact, that’s a man’s arms around me and my body pressed against his (hence the rise of the side hug, which feels kind of awkward and half-hearted).

The comments on the Facebook thread were fascinating and while I hope you’ll read the more thoughtful essay about greetings, I wanted to simply share the variety of possibilities in saying, ‘hello’. (I didn’t link to each person, but if you’d like to find them and greet them Facebook style, you can find this thread on my Facebook page). Some comments I edited for length or clarity.

Malaysia, from Khalid: A traditional Malay greeting resembles a simple handshake, but incorporates both hands to initiate the greeting. The two people lightly grasp both hands and then bring both to rest, palms down, on their own chest. The gesture symbolizes goodwill and that you greet the other person with an open heart.

Kenya, from Denise: The usual greeting is “Habare za asa bui?” meaning “What is the news this morning?” or “Habare za mchana” for afternoon. Usually, it is shortened to “Habare.”

Nigeria, from Tina: Sanu, How was your night?

Nicaragua, from Amanda: Kiss on the right cheek, but more of a cheeks close together with slight kiss noise.

South Sudan, from Danielle and Lucy: a hand shake and ask “how are you?” and also “how is your family, home, job..” as a sign of respect you might shake hands while placing your left hand on your right arm. When good friends go to shake hands they often slap their hands together like a high five handshake combo.

Uganda, west Nile region, from Elizabeth: One tribe greets by grasping the right hand of the person bring greeted, then touching the person’s hand to the greeter’s chin, then forehead (or forehead, then chin.)

Thailand, from Dorette: A ‘wai’ – palms facing each other (like praying position) and you bend a little while saying ‘sawadeeka’ if you are a lady and ‘sawadee kap’ if you are a man.

Indonesia, from Mary: In rural Java, you say, “Good Morning, or afternoon, evening. Where are you going?” No kissing, seldom a hand shake or a hug. If you know the people the question is “Have you taken your bath yet?”

Paraguay, from Monica: “Air kiss” each cheek. Except men to men, they handshake.

Australia, from Kami: “GDay. How ya goin?” and a kiss on the cheek for a friend.

US, Minnesota, from Tamzan: In Minnesota, we only speak to people we know. (Similar to in Idaho, from Mere)

US, Maine, from Susan: As cars pass each other, drivers lift their index finger off the top of the steering wheel. If the drivers are friends, there is also a kind of backwards nod.

Philippines, from Mary: Filipino greeting— KUMUSTA

South Korea, from Shannon: Seoul: “Anyanghasaiyo” with a bow (usually just a head bow, but if the person you’re greeting is a generation older, you bow at the waist, even repeatedly)

US, Hawaii, from Shannon: More formally, it’s a kiss on the right cheek (cheeks touching, air kiss) for girl-to-girl and girl-to-boy, but never boy-to-boy. Casually, it’s calling “howzit” loudly with a shaka.

Switzerland, from Melissa: “Guete Morge” (in the morning) otherwise “Grüezi” or “Grüezi mittenand” (the last part means to everyone…so if you are greeting more than one person). What you do: say those words if you are passing folks on the stairwell, on the hiking trail, and keep on walking. If you are meeting up with people on purpose: if you are acquainted well, its three alternating kisses on the cheeks. If you are friends, then a hug.

Ethiopia, from Sherri: Men shake hands and shoulder bump. Women at least 3 kisses on the cheek.

Holland, from Olga: “Hoi!” And it’s usually three kisses.

Romania, from Alice: Before about 9am: “Buna dimineata,” from 9am to about 6pm: “Buna ziua,” after 6pm: “Buna seara.” Among evangelical Christians these are replaced by: Pace (peace). Two women will kiss each cheek. A man with a woman he knows well may also involve a double cheek kiss. Men shake hands.

Afghanistan, from Caroline: Women to women or men to men, three kisses on the cheek, right, left right. Hold hands and say at the same time, pretty much over the top of one another “how are, are you well, how is your family? how is your mother? is everyone well? Praise be to God.” You say all that with few pauses and then, if you really want to know you take a breath and say, “You. Are you well?” If a woman or man is greeting the other gender, no eye contact, no touching, place your hand over your heart and ask the same rapid questions, but no personal follow up.

Afrikaans culture, from Jocelyn: Shake hands with people you don’t know but with friends it’s a quick kiss on the lips.

Korea and Cambodia, from Cassie: Bow and say hello using different forms of the word depending on your relationship with the person you’re greeting. The deeper the bow the more respect is shown, so to elders and superiors you bow from the waist and to peers you may bow just your head. There are also different versions of the word “hello” signifying formality similar to English (i.e. hello, hi, hey). In Cambodia hold your palms together pointing upward close to your body and bow slightly. The height at which you hold your hands signifies levels of respect. To peers you put your hands at chest-level, to parents and teachers at mouth-level, to the king at forehead level.

Somali/Afar culture in Djibouti, from Rahma: Women and men shake hands and kiss the hand of the person they’re greeting. When you’re greeting an older person you kiss the forehead/top of the head. The younger greeter is always the one to stand up first to greet an old person. In cities, 2 or 3 kisses on the cheeks, handshakes, or “Salam” with your hand on your heart.

US, deep South, from Gillian: A brief hug among women and/or sometimes a sort-of-kiss on the cheek with older ladies. Men greet with a firm handshake or a hug. Lots of “sir” and “ma’am” whenever talking with someone even slightly older.

I think it is obvious that greeting people is extremely important and how to do it is one of the first things we need to learn and incorporate as we move abroad. But it also gets confusing, especially in areas with multiple traditions mashed together.

Rhonda wraps it up pretty well: We are at an international school in South America. So, with the nationals, we either kiss on the cheek or shake hands -depending on the situation. With the North Americans we shake hands or hug and with the Asians we nod, shake hands or kiss on the cheek. Those are our three largest populations. The rest fall somewhere in the middle. It can be kind of complicated.

How do you greet people where you live?

The Language of Sport

Language study is one of the hardest and most time-consuming efforts missionaries make.

There is, however, a language which is common to the world and far easier to learn.

This is the language of sport.

When my family arrived in South Africa as lovers of sport, we missed a trip to the Super Bowl by my wife’s hometown team. At the time, we just did not know how to watch the game. Now I could tell you many ways.

Instead of watching the Super Bowl, in the early days our TV was tuned to cricket. I attempted to understand this game and its rules. Especially difficult was the idea of playing to a tie over five days!

I’ve seen how learning, watching, attending, and playing the local sports of a nation can build bridges and bond you to a culture.

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Here are 7 things I have learned sports can do:

1. Provide conversation. Wearing a soccer jersey or making a comment about the latest sports match can open up a conversation in an easy manner.

2. Earn you respect. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been met with a quizzical exclamation about my knowledge of a local sport or team. This inquiry is also met with a sly smile of admiration and respect.

3. Tell people you are embracing culture. Multiple times I’ve had people compliment me on my embrace of the culture when they learned my kids played rugby at school or as an American I was attending a cricket match.

4. Give you an insight into the nations vices. Attending sports matches also gives insight into issues a nation deals with. One cannot attend a cricket match in South Africa without observing alcohol abuse to epic proportions. While sad, it brings awareness to the needs of a nation.

5. Provide Exercise. Our staff often engages in weekly soccer/football matches, which opens doors of relationship while gaining valuable exercise. I’ve been able to participate multiple times in bicycle races as well.

6. Help you to have down time away from ministry. All work and no play….happens in ministry often. A balanced, long term missions career must include relaxation. Playing or attending sports makes for wonderful relaxation.

7. Make memories for you and the family. I will never forget sitting in a Cape Town monsoon watching the local rugby team with my youngest son. We make an annual trip to a rugby match as a family. And of course, the early Saturday mornings of watching my kids play these sports will etch South Africa into our family story.

What would you add to this list?

How does the language of sport help you embrace the culture you live and serve in?

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Photo credit: Nivali via photopin (license)