Monday, February 3, 2014

Recycled Knowledge

The candidacy requirements at Globe International require that you read a number of books on cross-cultural living, fundraising and bringing the gospel to the world. I read the first two books on cross-cultural living and psychology in four days and wrote two book reports. The following is what I learned in a more personal format!
The two books I read were, Survival Kit for Overseas Living, by L. Robert Kohls and Psychology of Missionary Adjustment, by Marge Jones.
When we head overseas we pack our suitcase with our clothes and toiletries, but we also take with us our cultural baggage: our customs, beliefs, values, morals, ideals, language and accepted ways of behaving (among many other cultural indicators). This cultural luggage often reveals where we come from, even before we take out our passport.
Through the use of commonly accepted stereotypes we often form assumptions about certain people groups even before meeting someone from that group. Having a set of expectations is fine as long as they are not set in stone. Being flexible and adaptable is key to remaining sane in any cross-cultural setting. That doesn’t mean giving up your culture, it simply means knowing your culture and why you react to another culture the way you do. It also means understanding that other cultures are different, not necessarily wrong.
The Survival Kit provided information about culture shock and reverse culture shock, both of which I’m intimately familiar with. Having traveled abroad as an exchange student at the age of 17 and then in a semester abroad in college and then as an Au Pair the year after I finished college, I can vividly remember facing many cultural challenges. 

 One stands out in my mind. I spent Christmas in Spain as an Au Pair with a Catalan family. They were so welcoming and hospitable, but the food and customs were very foreign. One dish they had on Christmas Eve looked like small worms. Their eyes stared up at me from the hot oil in which they were boiled. I was given something else to eat, but as soon as lunch was done, I called my family in Minnesota just to hear what they were doing. When I hung up, I just sat by the phone and cried. I felt like life was going on without me, like I would never understand my surroundings or get to enjoy Catalan customs.
I never did try the worm dish, but I did become a big fan of the Catalan people and culture. Spain will also represent a transformative time in my life…not all of it good, but I learned so much about myself.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that experiencing other cultures changes you. That’s what the reverse culture shock is about. Fitting back into your own culture isn’t as easy as you would think because you are slightly different than you were when you left. Your world-view has expanded, your horizons have broadened, your rose-colored glasses are a bit clearer. You’re a new you. Enjoy it!

The Psychology of Missionary Adjustment offered information about how missionaries adjusted or didn’t adjust to life in the field. It addressed the issue that a lot of missionaries face of being treated as some sort of celebrity because of their willingness to answer God’s call in their lives. Just so you know, when you are called you will know it and even if you drag your feet like I did, sooner or later you will probably say yes, and it feels like the most natural thing in the world. It doesn’t feel like I’m doing something out of the ordinary. So when people get all excited about it, I just feel perplexed and a little embarrassed. If everyone were called to be missionaries there wouldn’t be doctors and teachers and pilots and garbage collectors. We have all been called and if you were listening to God, He has told or is in the process of telling you exactly what your ministry is. Maybe it’s your office mate, maybe it’s a relative, maybe you need to walk in and volunteer at the homeless shelter you pass every day on the way to work. We are all called. So let me slide off the pedestal you propped me up on and get on with my work. Because I’m human and I make mistakes and I lose my temper and I step off the path sometimes.
Jones also talks a lot about the process of becoming a missionary. I didn’t go through the traditional process so that part of the book was very interesting to me. I’ve never been good at doing things the proscribed way, so even though I usually end up in the right place, I usually take the most untraveled or never traveled before paths to get there. God meets us where we are and starts working in us and through us immediately! How great is that!

There was another chapter on learning the language of wherever you are called. I was talking to a friend about this the other day. I spent 10 years learning Spanish. I can think in Spanish without translating it in my head first and God called me to Kenya where after 13 years I still don’t speak fluent Swahili. In my defense I have never studied Swahili the way I studied Spanish. I am determined to learn Swahili but may have to go to Tanzania and learn it properly. Kenyans have polluted the language kabisa (a lot)!
There was also a chapter on bonding and differences between acceptance, adaption and integration. It is interesting to read about different missionaries’ experiences in this area. When I lived in Barcelona, I had long hair and a spiral perm. I looked a bit Spanish because of my Armenian ancestry. Cataluyans would ask me directions on the street. I understood Catalan but I couldn’t speak it so I would answer their question in Spanish. They just looked flustered and walked away. (Most Cataluyans speak fluent Spanish.) It wasn’t that they didn’t understand me; it was what they heard that they weren’t expecting. I fit in by appearance until I opened my mouth. It’s like Black Africans who come from other parts of Kenya which are not Swahili speaking, they can only blend in so far.
Cross-cultural relationships are work. God created us to be in community but he didn’t say there wouldn’t be misunderstandings. Getting to know your neighbor if they have a different language and culture is the Mt. Everest of relationship barriers, but with God’s love and wisdom there is always a way to forge a friendship.
Another chapter I want to tell you about is called The Fish Bowl. I have been using that analogy for years, especially since I live in the small town of Ngong. I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me, “I saw you yesterday in town by the bank talking to so and so wearing such and such.” Yesterday as I was walking from my house to the matatu, a random stranger asked me if they could take my picture. No! It’s like being a Hollywood celebrity without the income bracket!
I don’t think any amount of orientation can prepare you for the lack of privacy or misinterpretations of your actions that will occur while in the field. The best you can do is be as transparent and communicative as possible about who you are, what you are about and where your boundaries lie.

When things don’t go as expected, because missionaries do fail sometimes…there is something called the Let Down. One of the authors, Myron Loss, mentioned in Psychology of Missionary Adjustment, offered 15 tips for survival in the missionary field.
Because these are really universal and could be of use to almost anyone in any situation I will list them here for you to mull over:
1.     Set reasonable goals.
2.     Don’t take your job description too seriously.
3.     Be committed to joy.
4.     Maintain good emotional health.
5.     Remember that you are human.
6.     Don’t be afraid of being a little bit eccentric
7.     Be flexible.
8.     Don’t take yourself too seriously.
9.     Reduce your stress where possible.
10.  Make your cultural change gradual.
11.  Forgive yourself. Forgive others.
12.  Establish some close friendships with people from the host culture.
13.  Be thankful.
14.  Be an encourager.
15.  Take courage, someone understands.
After you have thoroughly mulled over this list write a couple of these survival tips (or the whole list if it helps), in your journal or planner and make a conscious effort to incorporate them into your lifestyle.
That’s the end of my reports. I hope you’ve enjoyed the recycled knowledge. I added some artsy photos so you wouldn’t get bored. They don't have anything to do with the content except the one below.
Next up for a book report blog is Funding Your Ministry, by Scott Morton. That one might take me a while to crank out, as I’ve also started the Perspectives in Global Missions online course, which has a mammoth amount of reading included in it.
Not that I wish I was in Minnesota right now, but it would be much easier to stay inside and read if the view out my window wasn’t this!