Eating rice and beans most days was just one custom we had to adapt to when we moved from our home country to live with the Iso people in Africa. Culture shock after a few months in,and subsequent culture stress are well-known phenomena for people who live cross-culturally. We were not spared from this initiation into our new world. It meant going through a painful period of adaptation, and learning to ‘live and let live’ in a culture which was not our own. In spiritual terms, we had to die to ourselves.
Some of the cultural habits I had to adapt to were quite strange. Others were subtle, and yet others — just plain fun! There were many challenges, yet living with the Iso made me feel alive, full of purpose, challenged, and most of all totally dependent on God.
A different kind of inquisitiveness
One of the first things I learned was that I could let go of my cultural tact. I could now simply tell someone straight if I didn’t like their dress or headscarf. I could even give the reasons too. I could tell them if I didn’t feel well — not just the normal ‘Hi-how-are-you-I-am-well-thank you’ ritual.
I could walk barefoot between the straw-roofed mud huts if I wanted to, and on occasion I danced with others in the sand-street alleys during celebrations. I was free to greet everyone, because I knew everyone would greet me back. Then followed questions about our respective family’s health, which could be quite in detail — depending on the size of the family. And then some more why, what, why and how …
“Where are you going?” “Why?”
No holding back on curiosity. Seeing someone returning from the market, you were free to ask them what they bought, and how much they paid for it! And of course ask them to give you some! No more wondering about the contents of your neighbour’s shopping bag. And if you didn’t like their purchase, you could tell them that. What a relief, no more little white lies just to be polite. And why are such lies “white”? Would have loved to try purple lies.
The downside of this freedom to ask all these personal questions, was that I was also subjected to those same questions wherever I went!
“What did you buy?” “How much did you pay?” “Give me some!”
Knowing the cultural clues
After living with the Iso for a while, we came to a point where we were very much accepted and part of the community. By this time we knew cultural clues and what to do in certain situations — but this knowledge only came after some serious dying to self.
Like when they cooked something, and they offered it to you. At first, we always accepted all what was offered us. Eventually we realised we should rather just follow the honest route, and tell them if we didn’t like it. If you told them — diplomatically — that it tasted nice (meaning you did not like it, but did not want to say so), they would actually believe you, and send their kids over with a bowl of the stinky little fish with the staring eyes every second day.
We usually brought them gifts when we returned from a visit back home... like mint chocolates. Chocolate wasnot freely available there, and way too expensive for them in any case. After great excitement in receiving mint chocolate the first time —and the last time —my friends spewed it out in disgust. No!
“Why did you bring us chocolates with medicine in?”
… those were my favourites!
Our perspectives on personal space — the physical personal distance people prefer—are influenced by the culture we are part of. Unfortunately, the invisible ‘rules’ of personal space become evident only when you violate them.
The Iso were okay with very little personal space —they were very close to others all the time. I had to get used to having people sit right up against me, half-way on top of me, children playing with my hair and constantly pulling the hair on my arms, and my girl friends holding my hand when walking down the street.
This cultural assault on the senses was worthwhile: to be able to sit most days on a straw mat with Iso believers, while teaching them in their language and enjoying Jesus’ presence with them, was precious. Despite the heat, the flies, the mosquitoes and the sweat trickling down my back, all vying for my attention, my insides silently screamed with joy: THIS IS WHAT I WAS BORN FOR!
Rude comments or kind compliments?
The biggest challenge I had to overcome though, were the blunt comments on my ‘full figure’.
“What are you eating?” “You are really getting fat now!”
Since we had come to live with the Iso, I had been constantly trying to lose weight. The forced change in diet there had also changed my figure. The last thing I wanted to hear were the dreaded ‘FAT’ comments, which just added insult to injury.
“Wow, you became fat since I last saw you!” — which, by the way, was the day before!
I soon realised that comments like those were intended to be BIG complements (yes, that is a pun!)They actually meant that I was prosperous and healthy. In many African cultures fuller figures are a sign of good health. Praise the Lord! This belief makes sense, because many of these countries are coming out of wars. Malnutrition and diseases like cholera are endemic. Many Iso are thin, and they try everything to look fat —even going to the length of putting on many layers of clothes despite the tropical heat! Being skinny, or losing weight, was a sign of sickness or hardship.
I slowly changed in this respect —my mindset, not my weight!
Reverse culture shock
For many missionaries, visiting home means adapting back into their own culture. This is called reverse culture shock, and is often worse than the initial cultural shock when entering a foreign culture. True for me too. One missionary summed it up succinctly, saying that she ‘felt like a foreigner in her own country’.
But I often giggled silently to myself when visiting home ... what would my friend think if I were to tell her that she had really become fat since I last saw her? Or if I asked an ex-colleague what his salary was? Or, if I told my mother-in-law that her new sofa was ugly?
I came to the conclusion that the solution to this challenge was to become like a chameleon. When amongst the Iso, I could be rude and love it, but back home I needed to adapt to a more subtle shade of inquisitiveness.
A change is as good as a holiday, they say. Well, these constant back-and-forth changes are not what I would describe as ‘holidays’, but they surely make me feel alive, with my sense of humour button permanently at the ‘on’ setting; all the while holding tightly onto God’s hand — sometimes with a somewhat desperate grip.
Phil 4:13 I can do all this through Him who gives me strength. (NIV)
What would be difficult for you to let go of if you had to?
How does God strengthen you when you are in a difficult situation?