Adjusting to a New Culture
Summary of interview with WF and FF, 2004:
She wanted to be home with her young children so she had a teacher come into her home three hours a week. She feels that it was crucial to have friendships with both the nationals as well as with those from your similar culture.
He remembers a time when he was a very bad guest. A man cut in front of him in line and he confronted him, and in China that is seen as a very bad thing to do.
From interview with Ms. G, by AD.
The hot/humid climate was difficult to adjust to. The living standards in Taiwan are lower than in America. Many people were rude and blatantly would make fun of you. By eating-out in restaurants, one can get to know the culture better BUT the food was very different. She ate the same foods for about the first month because she was afraid to try any of their other foods
Interview with Ms G by SK. You are always in tension because you don’t look but you can speak and understand culture but you never completely Chinese. He Prepared ahead of time by getting cassettes
Summary of Interview with Dr. B:
Dr. B was not very prepared for adapting to the culture in West Africa and he feels that the biggest thing was “to sink or swim.” Good advice given to him was in 1 Corinthians 9 about becoming all things to all people. About a week after he arrived on the mission field, him and his wife were invited to a home and when asked if they wanted a drink and then the man proceeded to climb up a tree, cut down a coconut, and hands it to them. His wife could see all the hair and dirt floating in it, but Dr. B. drank it, so his wife followed suit. Dr. B. feels that this is a metaphor or illustration for what he tried to do in adapting himself to the ways of eating, dressing, walking, talking, and the other normal ways of the people. This approach to missions was starkly different from most missionaries in that time who lived in compounds in the western way of life.
During the first three years, Dr. B was probably sick one of those years with many diseases because he did not take care to drink clean water and other precautions. He did this with purpose though: to build an immunity. He felt that the first three years were an investment into not having to be separated from others. He did absolutely everything he could to adjust to the way of life without compromising his faith.
One example of a time in which he was in a situation that could be compromising to his faith was when he was asked to be involved in sacrifices. You will have some things you will need to say no to if they are in contradiction with your Christian faith. But even then you need to find a kind and sensitive way to say no without belittling them.
One thing that was a struggle for Dr. B. was that he wasn’t as “efficient.” He would have to stop working at 6:00 every night because that is when the sun went down. He had to adapt to a different understanding of time and he’s not sure if he ever fully adapted. Communication with his family back home was hard. He supposes it was similar to Abraham in leaving Chaldea, and Dr. B. developed new family on the mission field in a sense.
Summary of Interview with JC:
The first issue in adapting to a new culture is language. You have to figure out a strategy to deal with the language. You never quite figure it all out because you aren’t a part of the culture. He never saw a missionary who was totally able to figure a language out completely. If you really want to get into the heart of the people group then you really must learn their heart tribal language.
It was hard to find people reliable for teaching language and culture to him and his wife. In West Africa if a person says they will be your cultural teacher, they will take all the burden on themselves. J’s cultural teacher would get in trouble when J messed up.
It’s easy to think “geez that’s stupid’ about cultural differences. At first you think it’s neat but then you get sick of it. (in reference to a new culture)
Women were not equal to men in this culture and for a westerner that is often hard to take. However, J’s wife was viewed as more of a man there.
Corruption within the culture is hard: Things such as having to pay off the guards and having people constantly asking him for money . J would pull the Koran out of his back pocket with it all underlined and that is not an acceptable way to treat a holy book! J wanted to be like the people so he ate what they ate. The only difference was that he lived in a cedar block house. He built a polova hut outside of his home and this was a place where men would sit and argue (polova means to argue) and discuss for hours.
The key thing in West Africa is friendships. People would stop by J’s house to see how they were doing and people would say, “why haven’t you come to my house?” To J and his wife. You didn’t just drop by someone’s house, but they learned through experience that the circle keeps going of them visiting you and you visiting them.
J learned to make a tea that people drank in the market, so when people would come to his house he’d serve them this.
People were very offended to see white American missionaries scrubbing the floor or doing any form of manual labor. This is something J continued to do despite the disliking of others. Eventually people became more open to J doing so, regarding it as “exercising” for his health rather than working.
They were expected to employ people and they did: laundry, cook, security guard. They got to know these servants and would feed them while they worked to compensate them.
From interview with Pastor B:.
Good camaraderie between missionaries is important when adjusting to a new culture.
Traffic habits of others were frustrating in his new country, and then even more frustrating when he returned to the US;the traffic flow and laws were very different between the two countries.
Spiritism and Materialism were the two largest religions/gods there.
Interview with Mr. M by SK, 2004.
He had learned in orientation to be receptive and patient. He made it a point to LISTEN and see what they think, and not to jump in right away. He ate local; later hired a cook to give her a job. He emphasized that one must try to live and eat like the people.
Maintaining a home in a foreign country (from KB video):
Think about what’s really important to you
Keep with you something familiar (something that means “home”)
Take those things that you do not think you can live without
Be prepared: your home will be different from what you expect
“Basics” may be provided, but what is considered “basic” may be different.
Be prepared to be flexible and creative in making adjustments
Be ready to share and use your home for hospitality (it’s likely better than other homes)
Maintenance in the home is often a problem
Plan for clothing needs
Household help may be a necessity (Examine ideas of household help in that country)
Household help might be a necessity when living on the mission field. It might be accepted that you have household help. People may know you have money, and will consider you to be “unselfish” or “unwilling to share your wealth” if you do not have household help. Interview of KB. BP
From SK 2004: from TR Video – God Gave the Growth (Phiippines)
Step out of the way and let the local leaders do the job the Lord has given them. They have been where the people have been – you have not.
Realize that as an American, you will always be an outsider. View national Christians as your partners, not as children.
To reach churches one would have to travel by foot horse or motorcycles
Solar power is what we run on. Gravity fed system which has given running water. Drinking water needs to be filtered and boiled and kept in special containers
Different sense of privacy-extended family/close quarters. Native style porch so they would feel comfortable and come visit
3 hours closest American school so we prefer homes-schooling. The US aids in giving books
From Interview with BO:
When you don’t know the language it’s very hard to communicate with the people. All you can do is pray for them.
Don’t eat anything raw; cook everything!
It’s good to be able to eat local food. When I have the freedom to eat the food, I enjoy the culture more.
From Dr. C interview:
Accept gifts when they are offered. The place where you live, even though it is in a foreign country, begins to feel like a “home.”
Interview with SW:
People will treat you as a guest (most cultures will anyway). They will treat you very well, be very giving, want to take you out and show you attractions etc. Yet, if you treat yourself like a native, so will they. If you speak their language and live like them, they will treat you like one of them.
Interview with A and M K.
Difficult time economically in other countries, stand in lines Only one choice of toothbrush, so thankful to get ONE in Africa. Sugar, bought it when you saw it, may not be there, learned to hoard, because there may not be there anymore
Interview with CVB:
To Latins, she said “it is much more important to spend time with their family and friends than to get to a meeting (or church or whatever) on time.” In the U.S. we seem to get carried away with business more than some other cultures, not that that is always bad, but that mindset clashes with that of another culture. Relationships between men and women were curious to her as well. Single women were expected to live at home until they got married so they had a hard time with me being in a different country without a husband or my parents.This created a wall between herself and those around her.
She recalled walking through the streets of Bolivia with a native friend. They walked past somebody her friend knew. Her friend told the guy that he could not stay long because he was with her -pointing at the American. What he meant was that there is not time to be social around Americana busybodies. This is true, and a wall between missionaries and the people they work with. It is not a missionary’s job to change these cultural norms, rather to change to meet them.
Sacrificing her American ways and views was part of her experience. While she was frustrated with the lack of resources at her library, she found that she didn’t really need it as much as (she) had thought. She got used to waiting for people at chosen rendezvous, she just learned to bring a book or something to read. She even found that though many people were “late,” that they often stayed longer than Americans would, who often have to run off to get somewhere else. This began to make sense to here, as did other things. Things started falling into place for her, she didn’t adapt as well as some of her friends, but it was better than when she started. Becoming friends with nationals also helped me a lot in understanding their points of view. Relationships became the way she connected with and understood the Latin culture. That is a good reminder that ministry is primarily relational, and working cross-culturally is no exception.
Without that mindset, you will never be viewed as more than a tourist, just traveling through and not really belonging. Missionaries aren’t tourists, or a checkbook. The consequence of not wearing a different culture is appearing as if you are too good to interact with the people you want to express unconditional love to. People won’t really accept Christ for themselves, but rather for the benefits that come from being friends with the missionaries.
There is balance here. She had seen people who wanted to look just like the locals, so they move to the “sticks” and lived in grass huts. This may have seemed a good idea, but they never got the respect of the people. A missionary needs to have both authority and humility, resources and flexibility.
Friendships, flexibility, and trying to see the “why” rather than the “what” of their happenings are key ways to understand another culture. C was in a situation where she left her purse over the back of her chair. She did not realize that this told people she was a prostitute. A friend of hers was kind enough to take here purse down and tell her what the problem was. The other people were afraid of insulting her. Without this relationship, she would have been giving the wrong impression to others, and she understood more about the culture.
Textbook summary by student LW, 2004: Introducing World Missions, by Moreau, Corwin, McGee, 2004:
A VERY good source for obtaining cross-cultural knowledge is the popular Persectives on the World Christian Movement course which is available in many settings across North America. To find locations go to www.perspectives.org
When training for knowledge of a specific culture while in the U.S. it is highly possible and a good idea to find a people group that has nearly the same culture in which you will be traveling to and get to know them.
Mentoring from a missionary who has significant cross-cultural experience in your target culture can provide invaluable help. Make sure you keep in mind that each missionary provides only one person’s perspective (184).
Throughout our lives we have learned thousands of “scripts” for events in our daily lives. One of the ways culture shock hits is when you realize that your scripts no longer work.
Social skills are one of the crucial areas of specific knowledge that a missionary needs such as: knowing what type of eye contact is appropriate, how to greet and leave, what communication patterns are between sexes, how to deal with an older person, self-disclosure, making or refusing requests, etc. The process of learning new ways to do familiar tasks will take extra time and energy and will drain you more quickly than you realize. Until these new skills become second nature, the missionary will feel like an outsider (185).
The role of learner:
Crossing cultural barriers for the work of the gospel or for any purpose raises significant issues of role. This is because roles will undoubtedly have different expectations attached to them in a new culture. Often the most tricky is explaining why you have come to this new culture. Though you will ultimately want to communicate that it was the love of Christ that compelled you to come, there is a more basic place to start: the role of learner.
Advantages to the role of learner:
It is universally received and appreciated.
It communicates that you think highly of your hosts, their culture, and their language.
Rather than rushing to drop ‘gospel bombs,’ yu listen and learn from them nurturing a relationship of trust and mutual respect (208).
You will learn that before anyone can reap a harvest, ground must be tilled, seeds planted, and seedlings watered and weeded (208).
“Adjustment Problems Common to First-term Missionaries,” article by Dr. Harold Malone
You are there, but you are also not there in the sense of being or feeling a part of the action. All of what you have learned — your previous training, your accumulated experience, your gifts, skills, expertise that had significance in your previous involvements — all these are relegated to the shelf and mean little or nothing to others present (11).
One missionary said, “I feel that if I don’t find something to do that is important to someone, I’ll go nuts.” Doing something “important for someone” can become a symbol of worth and could reach the level of idolatry when life becomes so dependent on this (12).
In 1 Chronicles 11:16, King David said longingly, “O that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem…” A drink from the Bethlehem well symbolized all that with which he was familiar that he was separated from. Some first termers will find themselves with similar longings: “Oh that I could be back in Minnesota,” or “Oh that I could have pizza.” (13).
Probably the most critical matter relates to the loss of identity. A woman’s loss of identity may relate to being away from her “things,” such as having her household jobs taken away from her by helpers, and her past professional job gone.
From the book Stepping Out
Be willing to laugh at yourself (147)
View people within a new culture with acceptance, openness, and trust (148)
Get informed quickly about the particular health hazards in your locale (chapter 31)
You’ll discover that the recipients of your generosity are, in ways, superior to you (114)
Remember – Every good gift comes from above, and all wisdom and knowledge come from Jesus Christ. Just as our Creator delights in a variety of colors and smells, just as He has ordained an amazing spectrum of cultures, He has programmed into people the capacity to make culture to enrich His world (114)
We aren’t to be conformists to any culture. Neither are we to be dropouts. Rather, both at home and abroad, we must be creatively different, people of conviction in the middle of the mass, the salt of the earth. (114)
No list of hints can guide you through what you’ll face. The simple solution is to spend time with the local people as much as possible (115)
Live with a national family, especially in first couple months
Use public transportation sensibly.
Be aware of local judgments on specific American material goods, and live simply.
Learn to like their music, sports, games, and conversational styles
Get your news from local media
Learn to like the culture’s values
Have a disciplined program for learning the language; there’s no better way to begin sharing their thoughts.
Find some of your closest friends from among members of that culture.
Concepts from Stepping Out by AK. Your new culture may require you to relate in different ways to different people, such as degree of formality, age and place in hierarchy, Gender.
Use Conversational Style: well-told stories will be appreciated, including stories of your life in Christ
Time: go with the flow of that culture
Groups: learn to tolerate a crowd
Anger: keep quiet; defuse explosive emotions in your journal or in prayer.
Photos: know the rules about where/when to take pictures
Beggars: follow the country’s philosophy
From the book Culture Shock
Culture, in its broadest sense, is what makes you feel like a stranger when you are away from home (47)
Culture stress strikes the one hardest who is settling in to a community to make it his new home for possibly a lifetime. It is then that depression and disillusionment become real enemies.(49)
Spending so much time just to sustain life can be very frustrating. These time-consuming ways of getting things done begin to convince the foreigner that he is incompetent and inefficient. (54, 55)
Involvement cannot be avoided without seriously limiting the effectiveness of the missionary worker. Though personal social relationships are stressful, they are necessary for reaching missionary goals.(55)
If absolute cultural adjustment is the goal, then the missionary will feel frustrated: for no matter how much he may desire otherwise, he will always be considered a foreigner by the people. (56)
For most people, the early experience within the new culture is one of fascination with the sights and sounds. Gradually this fascination gives way to dissatisfaction with the inconvenience caused by the culture, and eventually ends in one of four responses: (1) total rejection of the new culture, (2) total rejection of the old, (3) grudging coexistence, or (4) healthy integration of the new with the old. Only in the latter are behavioral irregularities minimized and wholesome adjustment possible. (58)