Saturday, March 9, 2013

Cultural Disconnect

It is said that some of the biggest changes a missionary will go through relate to culture. As a matter of necessity, one must observe, analyze, and adopt (parts of) the culture in which he will be ministering. In the process, he will lose or intentionally discard some parts of the culture to which he is native.

As our time in the States was coming to a close and our move around the world began to approach, I remember feeling a noticeably increasing disconnection from other Americans. As I would sit and have my lunch break at Chick-fil-A, I remember some of the conversations I heard around me (sorry, everyone; I eavesdrop). Two older ladies sat one day involved in what seemed like a deep, serious talk. "Oh, I just cant believe it!" they remarked in hushed tones. "I'm really going to miss him." "Oh, me, too. I just don't know if it will ever be the same again." I couldn't figure out what they were talking about. It sounded as if someone had died in their family. Then one of them said something like, "I don't know who they'll get to replace him. Those two always just interacted so well together! I mean he's been on NCIS since season 1!" I didn't know someone's life could be so wrapped up in a TV show.

Another day, I remember hearing a group of about 6 business people sitting at a table and chatting about their sports teams. It was amazing to me how much of their own identity seemed tied up in their college sports teams! "Last week, we lost to . . . " "It was our most embarrassing season ever!" "I couldn't be seen in public last week after that loss!"

I won't pretend to be completely innocent on these things. I loved watching Lost as much as anyone back when it was running. And I still love to follow American Idol (though less and less now). Actually, a few months before we left, I was at work one afternoon when two people were talking about "The Voice." They asked me who my favorite singer was and I didn't even know who was competing. I realized I was actually a little embarrassed to say, "We don't have cable." What I should have said was, "We canceled our cable, because I'm in seminary and don't have time to watch TV." I felt so weird, though - like I was already an outsider.

But life is just different now. It doesn't matter anymore. If I may share a personal struggle, it is very hard not to feel superior to others in my country now - as if their lives are so trivial and mine so spiritual. A short while ago, we missed the Super Bowl. Someone had mentioned the previous week that it was coming up, but we didn't even know who was playing until my news app gave me a notification that the Ravens had won. I didn't miss it. I mean, yes, Super Bowl parties are fun and I love having chips and queso and Cokes with all of my friends while we root for our opposing teams, but it just had no meaning on our lives whatsoever (maybe during World Cup we'll get some parties over here!). Then I got on Facebook and saw people raving about how amazing the raunchy halftime show was and I wondered, "Where is the disconnect? Is it just me? Would I have been just as caught up in the game if I had still been there?" I remarked on my Facebook that we'd missed the game and noticed several other missionaries said the same.

So, it's a lesson I'm learning. It's easy to get so caught up in my culture that it negatively affects my life, making it trivial at times. It's also easy to look at my culture without any discretion, merely taking in whatever it gives. In my foreign culture, I'm at the opposite point right now. I see many things in Africa negatively, wondering why the people don't use discretion in certain matters (pastors letting their kids watch American music videos all day). This is a developing process. I must learn to retain only those parts of my culture which are wholesome and meaningful and must learn to adopt any parts of this new culture that are beneficial without harshly criticizing the parts I believe to be negative (though tea time will definitely be adopted!).

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Jonathan, for putting this so well. In many ways, missionaries, aid workers, etc. are people without a country. We can never completely fit in our host culture, and we don't fit back home either. Blessings!