Part of learning to live within another culture is learning to observe and draw conclusions. For example, when we lived in Mexico City I wondered why there were so many speed bumps and so few stop lights. After a few months of observing the way Mexicans drive I decided that the speed bumps were a way to slow down on-coming traffic just enough to let you slip into the gap. No one has to fully stop unless the whole line of traffic is backed up. Another example comes from our first trip to Panama. We noticed that there were plenty of stop lights at night, but during the day the lights were turned off and a police officer was directing traffic. Why? To create jobs during the day. At night it’s easier to see a light than a person. So sometimes a little time spent in observation yields great dividends in understanding the ways of this new culture.
But sometimes I just can’t connect an observation with any logical conclusion. Sometimes I’m just stuck with a behavior that is disconnected from meaning. For example, after two years of living in Costa Rica, we have actually seen the inside of a real Costa Rican’s home only a handful of times. (That’s not counting all our “Gringo” friends who live in “Tico” style homes.) So one day my curiosity just overwhelmed my patience for observation and I asked a direct question.
I was sitting around the table in the teachers’ break room with 3 other Costa Rican teachers. I had worked with these ladies for a year and a half and not only did I really like them, I respected them. They also understood Americans because their students were nearly all missionaries from America. So I decided that they could handle a direct question and would give me a true answer.
I started gently. “So, I’ve noticed something about Costa Ricans, tell me if you think it’s true. Costa Ricans don’t invite people to their houses for dinner very often. Is that a correct observation?”
The air around me crackled with peals of laughter and squeals of pretend shock. Hands flew expressively into the air and over mouths and on top of heads, “Oh no! NO!” they all affirmed, “You do NOT invite people into your home! Only family is invited into the house.”
But WHY? I pressed. “The home is very private. You might as well invite someone into your bedroom to go through your closets!” My friends all gasped at the horror of the thought. “Once you invite someone into your home THEY ARE FAMILY and you can never get rid of them! They can ask you for things. They can show up any time they want. They will stay as long as they like. It’s such an imposition. You have to be very certain that you really like this person, because once they come for dinner, you’re stuck with them. And it might take 4 or 5 or even 10 years to decide if you like someone enough to invite them over for dinner.” I guess we’re going to be here a while, in that case.
One of the teachers who had studied in America remembered how shocked she was when Americans invited her into their houses just to get to know her better. She concluded accurately that Americans use their homes as a tool to get to know people, while a Costa Rican would prefer to go OUT for coffee to get to know someone better.
At first I was horrified to hear this thinking about how many times we had invited groups of students and pastors and other friends over to our house for dinner or a barbecue. We’ve been making social blunders all over the place! (But the students REALLY LOVE coming over to our American-style house. We always draw a huge crowd. I guess it’s a novelty.)
Then I got a little teary eyed when I thought of the few times that we had been invited to a Costa Rican’s house for dinner. (We have actually been invited to STAY with some friends on more than one trip outside of the city. If dinner is a big deal, then a week long visit is over the top!) Suddenly I knew how they felt about us. We were family. We had been invited into the inner sanctum of familial love and closeness. It made me so humbled and happy to know that THIS is how they feel about us.
We are far away from our real family, but God has given us friends that love us like we were family. And that amazes and humbles me and fills me with joy.