July 13, 2012
Concerning Cultural Adaptation
A few days ago a friend from the US contacted me with the following question, part of an assignment for a college course he is taking on missions:
Did you run across any problems when you first became a missionary, primarily equating the foreign culture with your own? Were there any setbacks if so? If not you personally, have you heard about this issue with another missionary?
In the beginning I believe that any missionary, arriving on a foreign field, looks at his host culture through the glasses of his native culture. The lifelong challenge of the missionary is to remove those “glasses” and replace them with those of his host culture. This is a difficult process, and most of us succeed only partially.
I had at least three distinct advantages in the cultural adaptation process. First, I came to Brazil single. Thus, I didn’t have to worry about the cultural adaptation of a wife and family at the same time I was trying to adapt myself.
Second, my cultural adaptation took place in a dormitory filled with Brazilians who were very eager (sometimes too eager, I thought) to help me remove my American “glasses” and trade them for Brazilian ones. I was deluged with information on how Brazilians see everything, from politics to manners to relationships. The more time I spend in Brazil, the more I realize just how great an advantage this was.
Third, I am married to a Brazilian. For many missionary couples it is the wife who struggles more to adapt to native culture. In my case, it is the opposite, because my wife is a “native”.
That being said, I have made my share of gaffes over the years. For example:
***I remember sitting in the dorm room and mentioning to a couple Brazilian friends how fortunate Brazil was that the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil in the ‘60s and ‘70s was a benevolent one. I was merely repeating a line I had heard in the US press, and from American missionaries who were grateful that the Communists never took over during that time.
There was a pregnant pause after I said that, then my friends began to tell me just how “benevolent” that dictatorship had been. Turns out, they were some pretty bad dudes.
***There were times when I was living in the dorm that I thought “The Brazilians are being mean to me.” Over time, and with the help of some more experienced colleagues, I began to see that what I interpreted as “mean” was actually them including me in their group. They give each other a hard time, and the fact that they gave me a hard time was a sign that they were willing to consider me “one of the group”.
***Brazilian culture tolerates--even encourages--much more physical proximity than American culture. People stand closer to each other when they talk, there are frequent hugs, and a light kiss on the cheek by a stranger of the opposite sex is a common occurrence among single people. All of this can be very disconcerting for an American who is used to about two feet of “private space” around him.
I remember a trip we took to another city where I rode in the back of a pickup with several other students. It was crowded, and I was sitting very close to another young man. Part way through the trip he stretched, and put both arms up on the side of the truck, which meant that one of them was behind me...and we rode like that for the rest of the trip. The American in me wanted to stand up and scream “GET OFF ME!” That reaction would have seemed very odd to a Brazilian to whom that arrangement seemed perfectly normal.
***Brazilians tend to value relationships over projects. There have been a number of times when I have been so eager to see a project come to fruition that I have run roughshod over relationships. It is just one area where being married to a Brazilian has been a big help. Frequently she has had to tell me to “stop being so American”.
The missionary needs to prepare himself for daily setbacks in this area. He will never be able to expunge, completely, the influences of the culture from which he comes (nor do I think this is a worthy goal). However, with time, humility, and persistence he should be able to at least recognize the effects of his own cultural upbringing on his ministry in a foreign land.
Dr. Gary Anderson, president of our mission board, included a phrase in a mailing several years ago that has stuck with me ever since. He said “We must remember that we are called to say ‘thus saith the Lord’ and not ‘this is how we do it in America’”. This is truth, and the sooner a missionary grasps it, the less painful his missionary career will be.
Posted by Andrew on July 13, 2012 9:24 AM.
TrackBack URL for this entry:
Posted by: Andrew at July 13, 2012 10:28 AM