Cross Cultural Connections

July 26th, 2013

This week I read a book entitled, Cross Cultural Connections, by Duane Elmer.

It was timely, and an easy read. At one point he listed about fifteen symptoms of culture shock, and I think I basically had all of them, or at least go through waves of feeling each of them at times. Including, “Wanting to withdraw from the local people,” “Doubts about being in the new culture,” “Criticizing local people and their culture,” and, “Feeling physically ill from the emotional stress.” The ones about wishing I were “home” didn’t apply as much, because I don’t feel like I have a home anymore. My honest feeling would be more, “I wish I weren’t here, because here is painful, but I’m not confident where would be better – America can be painful too, for different reasons.”

I’m reading another book, The Kindness of Strangers, about a guy who hitch-hiked across America (another thing on my short list of things to do) and in South Dakota he meets an older, down-to-earth farming couple. He spends the weekend at their place and meets extended family and community. Before leaving, he makes this comment:

“Throughout this journey, kind strangers tell me how brave I am to cross the country with no money. They  can’t imagine doing what I’m doing. Truth is, I can’t imagine doing what they’re doing. Pete and Doris have been married 43 years. That takes a kind of commitment I’ve never been able to fathom, much less display. While I’ve roamed, searching for life, they’ve stayed put and built a life. As I pack to leave, I’m filled with envy and regret. It’s only a rhetorical question when I ask myself, who’s the braver?”

There is something to be said for planting yourself. There is also something to be said for roaming.

Anyways, regarding me and culture shock, I’m sure people here in Ravine Seche think I get tired easily. In fact, I’ve been told that. But I wish I could explain that I only have so much cross-cultural energy and each time I have to communicate in Creole or respond to people asking me for things, that energy takes a hit. By afternoon I’m usually tired of the difficulty in trying to understand others, have them understand me, and be a combination Santa Claus, celebrity, and  “caring camp counselor” to the teenage boys – all in one. What is normal daily life for the locals is different and stressful for me.

Back to reviewing Elmer’s  culture book (the topic of this blog), it cursorily touches on many of the important points of understanding and dealinng with cross cultural differences (or differences in general, he said the book would help my marriage too), but I wished he would have dealt with the “messiness” a bit more. For instance, he repeatedly reminds us that most differences aren’t right or wrong, they are just diffferent. Which is very true, and something I often remind myself multiple times a day. Like when Haitians throw their trash on the ground. That’s not inherintly wrong, it’s just different. Or when I’m routinely brazenly asked for money and things. Not my style, but not wrong, per se. In fact, they may at times be trying to honor me with these requests, because in their mind they are giving me the “opportunity” to play the part of rich benefactor, a prestigous position in their culture.

But what about beatings? Those can’t be ok.  Kids DO get  beat around here. Or the frequent screaming I hear as background soundtrack to my life? Frequently Moms towards their kids. I saw a mom in a fit of rage even pick up an empty glass beer bottle and throw it at her son. He dodged, fortunately, but I felt it was “wrong” for her to have done that, and not just “different.”

I hoped the book would give me answers, but I found it at times simplistic (both its strength and weakness).  For instance, the part about the frustrations of language differences. The book focused on the aspects of not being understood. I’m at the point where I can almost always make myself understood. The tension comes from not understanding others! I was down by the ocean a few evenings ago and got to talking with a local fisherman. He began seriously telling me about the problem of orphans in the village and what he thinks would help them, and while I really wish I could have understood because I’m interested in the topic and his opinion, I could only catch about 25% of what he said. I got frustrated. The fisherman, who is a simple man with no cross-cultural training and little patience in language barriers, also realized he wasn’t being understood, but unfortunately wasn’t willing (or able) to slow down or speak with small words.

The upshot of not being fluent is that I think I’m generally seen as someone totally ignorant, which is a blow to the ego (probably healthy). When kids talk to me paternalistically and condescendingly because I don’t know basic things about life in a rural Haitian village, that is humbling at best, and hurtful at times.

I would say in general I’m not treated as an adult, but more as a child. That is because that’s where my language skills put me (and my general ignorance about things they think everyone should know, like cooking rice the “correct way,” how to fish, or the performance of the Haitian national soccer team, etc.)

The only advice in the book about language barriers was to relax. Maybe that is the only advice there is? but it doesn’t negate the frustration of constantly having to repeatedly ask, “What?” and listen as hard as I can, only to have them get exasperated at  me, or worse, make jokes about me and laugh, but I can’t understand the joke, only that it was about me, and derogatory.

Another example where the book took the “easy side” was in the story of how an American couple tried establishing a friendship with another couple in an African culture by inviting them over to their house at a set time. The African couple came, and everyone had a good time, and even though this was repeated multiple times, the African couple never reciprocated the invitations. What the American couple should have done, says the book, was to drop in unannounced, because this is how African cultures express their desire for friendship. Wonderful. But that doesn’t help me in this situation (which is essentially African culture) where people “drop by” my place all day long. In fact, they are at my door waiting when it opens in the morning. The book goes on to say it is a good idea to unexpectedly stop by at your Africans friends house at mealtime, because they always cook for extra people, and will think it’s great you want to share a meal with them. But the book doesn’t advise on how to respond when others show up at your house at mealtime, expecting free food, expecting to be graciously entertained, etc

The most stressful aspect of my life right now probably regards food. I’m not much of a cook, and am regularly expected to provide food for a group of teens and young adults, who think it their right to impose, but honestly don’t think they are imposing.

The major point the book repeatedly makes is recognizing that just because the host culture does things differently doesn’t mean what they do is wrong, and we should be very slow to judge. He extrapolates this point to interpersonal relationships and makes the point that friendships grow in a climate of acceptance and trust, and that attacking others over differences which aren’t “wrong” is a relationship killer. Like long hair, tattoos, alcohol, whatever. He goes on to say the same principals apply in church, where issues of worship, dress, style, etc are often different in cultures of the 2/3rds world than from the West, but those differences aren’t wrong, and they are Christians too, accepted by God. I agree with all that. Good points.

“You worship God with your head. We worship God with our whole being.” – Zimbabwean Pastor

But there are two sides to the coin. While I try desperately not to judge Haitians over mere differences (and try to be accepting of people who hold different views than myself in general, even trying to keep an open mind and often asking myself the question if perhaps their viewpoint is superior to mine? and should I be the one to change?), I find here in Haiti very little reciprocal slack. I find the people here often not willing (or able) to realise I’m often not “wrong” in how I do things, just “different.” Like the other day I was washing my clothes by hand, and several teens offered to help. Naturally, they had to critique my technique as, “Wrong.” But just because I can’t do it as well as them, and even was modifying the “approved” style because my wrist was bleeding from chafing, doesn’t mean my way was wrong, the clothes I was washing were still getting clean. And it was my clothes anyway, why did they feel they have the freedom to openly criticize?

Or for another example, since I’m sick with a cold, they are annoyed at how I still use my fan because it will make my cold worse, they say. Of course its nearly 90 degrees and my shirt is wet with sweat, but my little fan is going to give me death of cold. I asked if riding my motorcycle was bad for my cold too then because there is a 50mph wind blowing on my face down the highway? Of course not, they retorted, and I just needed to use some “logic” if I wanted to understand the difference.

Another thing that’s not good for my head-cold, apparently, is to take a shower after it has turned dark out. The Pastor came by last night and the first thing he wanted to know is if I’d shower yet. No, but told him I was going to before sleeping. He was very disapproving of this action as it was very bad for me.

The only bad thing about a shower at night that I can tell is  negotiating with the cockroaches. I shoo them out of the little concrete room first, but last night I noticed cockroach tentacles begin sticking out of the center of a roll of TP sitting there, and a big roach started crawling out, but I quick put my plastic soap holder over the hole, trapping it inside. Ha.

My point is, it seems like the locals put nearly everything different I do in the “wrong” category, instead of the, “not wrong, just different,” category. So I think the book should add the important point that, when entering another culture, besides the character trait of graciousness, one will also need to be thick-skinned because the host culture will likely not be gracious to you.

There. That’s my book review rant for the day. It really was a good book overall, and I recommend it as a good starting point. It has a Biblical perspective, which I appreciated, and gave me new ways to think Biblically on several issues such as shame vs. guilt cultures and time-focused vs. event-focused cultures.

The final chapter on reverse culture shock was also quite interesting, and I’m curious if I’ll have any upon returning.

There were many good quotes littered throughout as well. Here are several:

“The more we retreat from the people and the culture the less we learn about them; the less we know about them the more uncomfortable we feel among them, the more uncomfortable we feel among them, the more inclined we are to withdraw.” – Craig Storti

“The great common door through which most forms of negativity enter is pre-mature expectations.” Hugh Prather

(this blog post written from my telephone)

4 Responses to “Cross Cultural Connections”

  1. Luke Says:

    Well, is it “wrong” or just “different” that everyone else thinks you’re “wrong” and not just “different”?

    We probably all have the tendency to judge more than we should, and practicing acceptance is no doubt a good idea we could all use more of. Nevertheless there are times we must allow ourselves the freedom to possess a personal judgment of others or other things, even negative ones. Though we may find our lives better if we keep these judgments to ourselves, we can’t shy away from them categorically. Some things and some people are better or worse than other things and other people, at least in our perception. We may allow our perceptions to be imperfect but we can’t deny them completely without risk of going bananas.

    As for books and difficult problems, there are many of both in this world. In my experience the more focused a treatise becomes on an intractable and complex difficulty, the more often it misses the mark, oversimplifies, and becomes useless. There are no “easy” answers to the stupefying conundrums of life for the same reason there are no “hard” answers to some of them either. That is why any answer whatsoever can come across as a cop-out. The real answer may be that there isn’t one. CS Lewis was one of the most eloquent, perceptive and astute analysts of the human condition, but what also sets him apart from other philosophers and sages of our time is his penchant for conceding that he just doesn’t know certain things. I have not read that line in a book in a very long time.

    You may be interested to know that the most profound book on the world’s difficulties is the one I didn’t write, because I am wise enough to know it can’t be. It has not yet made it to the NY Times best-seller list so you may not have heard of it.

  2. Lisa Says:

    Something that helped me was that I realized the people weren’t attacking me, they were trying to help me. They do not have the ability to understand my culture, never having experienced it. They’d tell me what to wear, that I wasn’t wearing enough layers, that I didn’t eat enough, that I needed to gain more weight, that I was too fat, or really tall…and I guess somewhere in there I learned to laugh, and ignore, or change the subject. The fact that they cared to show me or tell me meant in their culture that they cared. But I’d still do some things the way I wanted to, because I wanted to. There is a balance.

    About the people showing up to eat, that happens a lot in Asia as well. One of the greetings is “Have you eaten?” Best way I coped with it was to be flexible, and take at least one night for a breather to myself. Unplug the telephone. Turn off the cell phone. Don’t answer the door. We have friends there that still do this just because there is a little space one needs for oneself…and entertaining is time consuming and energy zapping. I didn’t think of it as selfish—but as taking care of myself so that I had energy to love on others. Otherwise the irritation level gets pretty high quickly. It is strange now to have to ‘invite’ people out or plan a night because for so long that isn’t how I functioned. I rather prefer drop-ins these days, but they don’t happen very often out where we live.

    And language–I’ve had lots of things said about me but on days when I was particularly sensitive to having my feelings hurt I didn’t go out but stayed in and studied some new words and had a friend over to practice with. It wasn’t very often. Engaging in conversation was how I learned, and it moved from children’s words to more complex words. Sure, I’ve been made fun of before, and I knew it, and I remember coming home upset about it but it seemed to drive me to get better at language and also helped me realize what an uphill battle it was for my English students to learn English.

    Beating–I still remember the times I’ve seen people beaten…one with a bike chain, another with a bottle, and another with a belt and bare fists. Domestic violence and violence is not something that is dealt with but is covered up in the culture.

    Reverse culture shock was terrible for me (and happened mostly when I was getting to know Joseph) double complicating things a bit. Lots of people wondered why I didn’t make up my mind faster to marry Joseph since he was a ‘good guy’. I experienced it again the year we got back–about 6 months at home and things were a bit better.

    Each person’s experience is subjective–so it is sometimes dangerous to take one person’s experience and cross apply it for what ‘should’ happen. So there’s my chaff in the wind…

  3. Seth Says:

    Interesting thoughts, Nick (and Luke and Lisa). I suppose regardless of any advice, just reading about someone describe the very situation you are in & the feelings it invokes is good for your sanity. It shows that what you are experiencing is common to everyone who find themselves in a different culture, is definable, and is overcome-able.

    Whenever I’ve gone to a foreign country and attempted to learn the language, I’ve usually just worked at the language for the sake of language itself because I think language is interesting. The only bad thing about language is that it requires other people. However, if I had some deeper goal, as you do, which could only be accomplished through knowing the language and culture, I can see how that would be even more frustrating. For me, learning the language WAS the goal and that was frustrating enough. If my goal was to help orphans or build connections and this dang thing called language was in my way, it would seem a formidable obstacle.

    The other thing about learning the language is that it is easier when you find things in the culture to admire or that inspire you. It’s difficult to be motivated to learn a particular language when you don’t care for the culture (including the geography, or history, or food, or attitude, etc). For me, it has always been easier to become inspired through books about that target culture, versus actually interacting with the people. People inevitably disappoint & make me not want to learn their silly language.

  4. Nathaniel Says:

    Hi Nick,

    Thanks for your faithful updates. Always great to hear from you (and learn a lesson or two on culture and society)! May God bless you in a special way today. Praying for you.

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