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June 16, 2013

east meets west

The air is heavy with moisture; I feel it sitting on my skin. The skies are emptying themselves onto our housing complex yet again. I hear the irregular rhythm of the droplets as the drive themselves into the concrete six stories below. After months of hot, dry weather, monsoon season has arrived.

"Did you play in the rain last night?" asked one of our young employees, after the first big rainstorm of the season. No, I hadn't. She explained that in the rainy season, they go out on the streets and terraces and play in the rain. Afterward, they eat hot corn and drink steaming coffee in the middle of the night. Sounds fun, actually.

Our employees are always giving us cultural insights. Some days it is interesting. And some days I want to curl into a little Canadian-Brazilian ball and dream about autumn or pão de queijo instead of constantly bridging cultural gaps in every area. But my coworker is good at starting conversations that help both us and them to learn and grow between our cultures. This employee in particular spent a few years in America and one day my coworker asked her to share best and worst parts of life as a foreigner in (North) America. 

She had good things to say about her experience there, about how most everything was more organized, efficient, cleaner andmy favourite of her remarks"the firemen were handsome!" 

But what I found more helpful, though, were her criticisms of Western culture. (She was only criticizing because we asked for her perspective). For North Americans wanting to engage people from this part of the world in friendship, I thought her three key complaints could be educational. From her time there, she found (North) Americans to be:

1. Racist. Our employee was both surprised and disappointed by the prominence given to racial differences. The white people talked poorly about the black people. The black people dissed white people. As a "brown person", she didn't even know which category was hers...she just knew she didn't like the racist comments. 

2. Unfriendly. For an immigrant coming from a culture where there are always people everywhere, and complete strangers happily invite you in for a meal, North America must have been extreme culture shock. People here amaze me with their hospitality; they love to share meal with you, whether they've known you five minutes or five months. They are friendly and warm.

For that reason, some use the terms "hot" and "cold" cultures to describe our differences. North Americans, Europeans, Australians, etc. are from cold cultures. Latin American, African, and many Asian cultures are hot cultures. Cold cultures are task-oriented; hot cultures are relationship-oriented. When a hot moves to a cold, it must feel cold indeed.

Realizing that our time- and structure-consciousness can easily come across as (and be) cold is one step in the right direction...the direction of showing a kind spirit to people who are new to your land.

Loving people of another culture is costly. You're building common ground where sometimes there seems to be little; you might rather hang out with people you can understand and by whom you are understood. You're sacrificing time you could spend with your well-adjusted, local friends to be friendly to someone you just met. And it's worth the cost, because authentic friendship is an embodiment of authentic Truth.

3. Liberal. Lastly, she described Westerners as being "too free." While there is a growing, modern wave here, for the most part, many people from this part of the globe are more conservative than Westerners. The women dress more modestly, with their long, loose tops and multi-layered clothing. They value family, heritage, traditions, and arranged marriages. They value some form of chastity and lasting marriages. They believe in the spiritual realm and value spirituality. Some do not drink alcohol of any kind. The same things could be said for much of the East. In a culture that is indeed "too free", Followers have many values in common with these immigrants. While the heart behind our conservative actions is vastly different, many key values we do share: modesty, family, purity, enduring marriages, spirituality. Our employee's comments made me realize again that our common values can be a relational bridge. For us, they are not just rules, but practiced in relationship with the Creator...the one who made us all and gave us a shared, basic sense of right and wrong.

My point is this: when engaging newcomers from conservative countries, it is good to keep in mind that they likely expect you to be unfriendly, racist, and liberal.
If they came over with family, they're probably spending most of their spare time in that sphere and not building many bridges out to the people who are unknown to their family. In the case of our employee, the diet she maintains because of her religion would hardly allow her to eat outside her home (she does not eat meat, eggs, garlic, potatoes, onions...). Let the Love that lives in you surprise them, as you show warmth, acceptance and sharing of conservative values. 

Living between two cultures causes soul-searching in perceptive souls, as to what is right and what is wrong. This easily leads to conversations about values, meaning and purpose.

I love reading and listening to stories about people who've been drawn to Truth. The stories never get old! And two stories are never quite the same, but the commonality in nearly all of them is this: the Father uses people as part of the process. The neighbour, the sister, friend, the stranger at a bus stop. He uses available people. People who are dying to their own interests (ie: a tidy schedule, convenient relationships) and living for His (loving people).  I could say so much more...but my roommate just sent me a message. She wants me to go play in the rain with her. And after writing this post, I don't dare tell her that it doesn't suit my schedule.


  1. Glad to hear what vibe we're giving off. I know that living in a small town in Canada I do get the opportunity to say "hi" to people as I pass by and sometimes chat for a couple seconds. But we both have things we're headed off to do and it is easy to say a quick "hi" and head back into out own thoughts. As someone looking to work in another culture (don't know what one yet), it is good to be reminded that we do not all think alike and that we need to be open to and aware of other perspectives.

  2. As a missionary living cross culturally, I appreciated your cultural observations and insights. You are right on tract.