A winning approach for cross-cultural experience in an impoverished country

Dean Tinney on 9 July 2011              0 Comments

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A genuine live-like-the-natives, cross-culture experience may encourage romantic notions of exotic adventure abroad or discourage you from ever returning. Please note that we are talking about visiting an underdeveloped nation with no key to a five-star, air-conditioned hotel room with a pool and a gourmet restaurant.

The highly developed, cosmopolitan country of Singapore, for example, with its mega income, technology, communication and transportation systems, does not qualify. McDonald’s, Burger King, K-Mart and a zillion other U.S. multi-national companies are embedded in the landscape. Mercedes and BMWs abound and virtually everyone speaks English.

On the other hand, you can travel to Belize, Central America, where English is the official language, and have the feeling that you have just stepped back in time about one hundred years and more in the jungle villages and banana plantations like Cowpen. Some missionaries from the outset, or in time, may enjoy most of the comforts of their homeland. So much depends on the mission location and objectives. You may be going to an established mission base or compound complete with a washing machine and telephone.

Perhaps you have the funds, or the faith, to rent a place of your own and enjoy normal conveniences in town or a rural area. Conversely your mission service may necessitate a pioneering effort far from normal creature comforts and ongoing Christian fellowship.

Usually new recruits for term mission service in developing nations should be prepared to give up frequent contact with relatives, old friends and their home church. Familiar foods, reliable transportation, smooth roads, plenty of gas stations, dependable mail and telephone service may be gone, as well as local schools, local medical care, honest police, and a ready source of clean drinking water. The security of dialing 911 and being with people who speak English may also be noticeably absent from your environment.

The reaction to some or all of these changes, coupled with a sudden new majority of people who think, speak, act and dress differently can be one of shock. Webster defines “shock” as “a sudden disturbance of the mind, emotions or sensibilities.” Is it any wonder that our society has called this overwhelming apprehension “Culture Shock”?

Culture shock is not limited to tourists and new missionaries. For example, after several years of ministry in Mexico, I went to Bogotá, Colombia to help street children. I was walking down a tree-lined, residential street next to a military base that looked more like a golf course. Suddenly a mass of uniformed Colombian young people came rushing toward me. Hundreds of aggressive-looking teens were advancing too quickly for me to escape.

When the frenzied onslaught ended, I was still alive and realized that high school classes a block away had just ended for the day and students had simply hurried past me to get to public buses. This event was an unexpected cultural experience exaggerated by machine-gun toting soldiers at the military base across the street in a city with an international reputation for violence.

Not knowing what to expect is uncomfortable for most people. Seasoned missionaries are better able to cope because they have learned to expect the unexpected.

While traveling along the Amazon River from Leticia, Colombia to El Tigre Island, Peru, different tribes of Christian converts fed me fish head soup, but gave my two traveling companions delicious looking fish fillets in their soup. Hungry, but growing weary of fish head soup after a few days, I gave my portion to our Peruvian navigator. He was delighted and so were our hosts.

I didn’t understand why the tribe wasn’t offended until later. These Amazon River people honor visiting leaders with the head of the fish (a delicacy), and I unknowingly conferred this honor on Delfonso, one of their own people. When we are finally reconciled to expect the unexpected and initially accept the unexplained, we become much more flexible and patient. These two qualities alone are sure to earn respect with the nationals and big-time sainthood.

Tips for overcoming cultural differences and getting along with nationals

1.  Learn as much as you can about the people and country before you arrive. Acts 7:22

2.  Determine to go as a servant or Good Samaritan and not an ugly, self-centered American. Ephesians 4:2-33

3.  Do not condemn or complain about your food, accommodations, transportation, neighbors, and leadership or work assignments—not even privately. II Thessalonians 5:18

4.  Do not ask for favors, funds or preferential treatment because you are involved in a good work for the poor, etc. God doesn’t need Christian beggars to accomplish His purposes. Psalm 37:25

5.  Always be known for impeccable integrity. No bribes, cheating or broken promises—ever! Don’t be quick to make promises to anyone—including God. Just promise yourself, and then deliver. Job 31:6

6.  Go the extra mile. Don’t just do enough to get by. Remember, God is your real supervisor and He doesn’t like slothful, lazy attitudes. Colossians 3:23

7.  Don’t touch the gold, the girls (guys) or the glory. Proverbs 16:18-19

8.  The most valuable international language is love. I Corinthians 12:1-3. Other well-known communications are a smile, courtesy, music, art, sports and gifts to the poor.

9.  Think and pray BIG. You are ready for anything when you have been faithful (not perfect) in everything. Ephesians 3:20 and Daniel 11:32