Aaron and I have both spent a lot of time in reflection as the reality of returning home has grown larger. How have we changed, what have we learned, how will our lives be different once we’re back home?
I love culture. My undeniable draw to it led me to study it throughout my time in college and grad school, and ultimately has played a role in bringing us here. The stark contrast of different cultures does so much to highlight differences in one’s own way of life verses those in other cultural contexts - some of them good, some if them bad. So much learning can result if we enter a new culture open minded. And especially within a religious context, it is fascinating to see what different cultures elevate and highlight within the biblical narrative.
But throughout my education and my time here, something that has always caught my attention is how poorly people often talk about, or regard, their home culture. Of course there will always be a “grass is always greener on the other side” sentiment in life. But especially when talking about the USA, within my interactions with fellow classmates and colleagues, America is treated as a cultural and spiritual wasteland compared to the simple and romanticized way of life of so many other countries around the world.
In one regard, as an American citizen, born and raised in my country and culture, I have a right to voice my opinions and to challenge others to push for change. But something has recently started to catch my eye in my own life as we have wrapped our time up here in Cambodia.
Aaron and I’s rule of thumb when it comes to interacting with our friends and coworkers in another culture is to always, ALWAYS give them the benefit of the doubt. One of the biggest lessons we have written and talked about over the course of the year has been that of “submission” in regards to those around us, which is basically letting them do things the way that they feel is best, and trusting that they understand and know their culture better than we do. Sometimes this would leave us feeling confused or in the dark for a few days, but every single time that we just “went with the flow,” and trusted our Cambodian friends and leaders, it worked out.
We understand that our American minds literally run in a different pattern than the minds of our friends here. Our habits are different, our problem solving is different, but neither is better or worse, simply different.
And even after a year of getting to know this culture, if there is a misunderstanding or small offense, I still have to sit back and admit, “You know, they have lived and worked here their entire lives and do not need my input or understanding to work this out. I’m sure whatever this has appeared to me outwardly is rooted in a completely pure intention, and in a few days I will see the big picture and my American brain will finally understand. And until then, I can be patient and wait.”
This attitude not only has never failed us here, but has led to successful relationships and avoidance of unnecessary drama.
But you know what I realized? I have never once extended this mercy to someone in my own culture.
Sure, there is a lot less room for “culturally misunderstanding…” But is there really? Even though I have grown up in the US with friends and family from the same language and broad patterns of habits and learned traits, it does not mean that everyone is the same, or that I understand them.
An individual’s culture is created by environment, upbringing, specific relationships, circumstances, possibly income bracket, geographic region… you name it.
If I apply the mindset that I was trained to approach a foreign culture with, to those around me at home who I write off as understanding - or who I generalize into defined “labels” or “people groups” - the picture drastically changes.
I drastically change. I would become a much gentler, patient and unassuming person. I would grant a lot more mercy.
Just because I feel I have learned a lot in this country does not mean that I will automatically view my familiar context differently. But it is my prayer that as I return home, I don’t forget that I don’t know everything about everyone, and that letting go and putting trust in others more often will probably result in some of the same blessings I got to enjoy here.