Unless you are a cultural anthropologist, you probably don’t give much thought to your own culture. You don’t think about what makes your nationality or ethnic group different from other groups. You don’t consider where your opinions come from or what deep seated believes inspire your reactions to the world. You never see all the different colored strands that go into making the tapestry of your world view.
Unless you physically move into another culture, you have very little to compare yourself to. Up until that point, your culture is like a mole on the back of your neck that you never knew existed. How can you possible know it’s there unless someone points it out to you? For example, when we visited Thailand, our missionary friend humorously informed us that Thai people think Americans stink. I was incredulous! We don’t stink! They stink! (Americans tend to think the smells of fish, cumin or garlic are potent, so anyone who eats a lot of those foods will stink to the American nose.) But the amazing thing was that after sweating profusely for 5 days straight, I was out of clean clothes. And so was everyone else in the group. Now I agreed with the Thai people… we do stink. But unless I came in contact with someone with a different perspective than mine, I never would have seen myself from a different point of view… or smelled myself from down wind.
When missionaries enter a new culture, one of the things we pray for is that God would give us friends who can unlock the culture for us… gatekeeper friends, I call them. These are friends that are able to love you for who you are and help explain their culture to you in a non-judgemental way. These are the friends that will gently correct any mistakes you make without causing you additional embarrassment. These are the friends that you can trust with your questions like, “why don’t we flush the toilet paper here?” and “what does it mean when someone rolls their eyes at me?” and “how am I supposed to take my turn if we don’t form a line?” A gatekeeper friend is an invaluable resource for learning a new culture.
I am continually amazed when God gives me friends like this because sometimes it is very difficult being friends with an outsider, a foreigner. Having a conversation takes a lot of work on both sides, for me to struggle through Spanish and for them to concentrate so hard on understanding my meaning. It’s exhausting for both of us! Always having to explain things that are automatic or that are generally taken for granted requires patience. Noticing the tired, glazed over look in my eyes or the look of confusion or of shock means paying attention to the details of someone else and taking compassion on them when their reactions are not your reactions. It’s a lot of work being friends with a foreigner! And I am so grateful for the friends that are willing to put in that kind of work to be my friend. In their compassion towards me I feel the love of Jesus. It’s a beautiful thing!