Tag Archives: cultural differences

Um, Thanks… I think.

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Last week I went to a graduation where I saw several Costa Rican friends that I hadn’t seen in a few months.  One friend dramatically exclaimed, “Oh my goodness!  Have you lost weight?  You look so good.  The last time I saw you, you were much fatter!”  Um, thanks… I think.

This is one cultural difference that I have yet to get comfortable with.  In Latin America, a physical description of a person’s body is just that… a physical description of a person’s body.  This is in contrast with American culture where a physical description of one’s body can be the same as a judgement of character, a determination of worth, or an obvious truth which must be carefully danced around to avoid being “politically incorrect”.  It is a touchy subject, a taboo.

tug-of-warIn America, a person is very much judged on their presentation.  If someone looks professional they are treated differently than if they dress like a student.  However, we are proud of our individuality and religiously defend our right to express ourselves through our appearance.  These two features of our society pull at women like a child playing with silly putty.  Women feel a strong pull in the one direction to live up to a particular standard of beauty and another pull in the other direction to be a unique individual.  It’s a difficult balancing act.

In Costa Rica, I have observed that women are proud of their curves.  It does not matter what your body shape, every woman can dress sexy if she wants to.  I feel none of the body consciousness that I feel in America.  I actually don’t feel like I look all that bad compared with other women.  But in America, the pressure to be something you aren’t is intense and unrelenting.  It’s nice to be in a place where the female body is accepted and even celebrated in all it’s shapes and variety.

In Costa Rica, it does not matter how much money you have.  Every woman can dress professionally if she wants to.  I remember when we first arrived here we would drive through very poor neighborhoods with dilapidated shacks as houses.  I watched in awe as the doors would open and professional looking business men and women would emerge to start their work day with a walk to the bus stop.  Clearly these people took a lot of effort to rise above their circumstances and try to make something better of themselves.  I was impressed.

Here, people dress how they want to dress, and speak frankly about their bodies.   I really do find their disregard for political trip-wires to be quite refreshing.  People say what they want to say and no one takes offense.

fatmouse_lPeople refer to each other by their ethnicity, skin color, physical features and eating habits.  Within one family you could have the nicknames Chino (for someone who looks Asian), Negr0/a (for a family member with darker skin), Gordo/a (for a chubby loved one), or Chancho (piggy).  And the Costa Ricans love to add “-ito” or “-ita” which is the diminutive for adjectives making Gordita into a term of endearment.  So one might call their wife “my little fatty” like we would call a baby a “butterball”.

The honesty can be refreshing… until someone calls ME a little fatty.  Then I don’t like it at all.  I really never know how to respond when someone comments on my weight so directly.  I usually just smile and say “Thank You”.  I know they mean no malice.

Photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/people/71164184@N00″>Sumith Meher</a> / <a href=”http://foter.com”>Foter.com</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>CC BY-SA</a>

Photo credit: <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Bigplankton”>Bigplankton</a&gt; / <a href=”http://foter.com”>Foter.com</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/”>Public Domain Mark 1.0</a>

You want ME to teach THAT?!?

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In addition to teaching 5th grade, I also teach Bible class for 9th grade.  The theme for this class is the book of Acts.  (I tried to get out of teaching this class by telling our Baptist administration that I’m Pentecostal, but they were willing to overlook that fault.  They just wanted me for my Bible School training.  I asked them, “Do you REALLY want someone who’s Spirit filled teaching ACTS?!?  ‘Cause if it’s in the Bible, I’m teaching it.”  They were nervous, but desperate.)  We have taken a long pause in Chapter 14 to talk about an event that happened on Paul’s first missionary journey.  Because about half of the class is missionary kids, we are really taking time to pull apart these lessons for missionaries that we find in Acts.

In Chapter 14, Paul and Barnabas are in Lystra and they heal a crippled man.  The locals are stunned by this miracle.  They shout in their local dialect, “These men are gods in human bodies!”  They decided that Barnabas was the Greek god Zeus and that Paul, because he was the chief speaker, was Hermes.  The temple of Zeus was located on the outskirts of the city.  The city also had a belief that once the gods had visited the city in human form and no one honored them with a sacrifice.  So the gods destroyed the city.  The people didn’t want to repeat their mistake, so they prepared to sacrifice oxen to the apostles at the city gates.

Unfortunately, Paul and Barnabas didn’t speak the local language.  They spoke Greek which was the language of commerce of the Roman Empire, the only language they had in common with the people.  So they were slow to catch on to what was happening, and they didn’t know the history of the gods’ previous, disastrous visit to the city.  So they were at a distinct disadvantage in this story.

When they realized what was happening, the apostles dramatically protested and interrupted the religious parade.  This made the locals irate.  They stoned Paul and threw him outside of the city, assuming he was dead.  He was one tough missionary though.  He got back up and went back into the city.  Paul and Barnabas later escaped with the help of their friends.  It was not a good day for these missionaries, but it was a lesson for us to learn.  It is important to know the local customs and to speak the local language, if possible.

Here we paused to discuss how modern day missionaries can find themselves in similar cultural blunders or dangers.  We talked about how a missionary must consider, before hand, what is actually a Christian, Biblical mandate and what is just part of our culture that we brought with us from our home country.  I gave my class 8 different categories that contain pitfalls for missionaries, things they must consider.

For the next few days I am going to blog about stories that I have heard from other missionaries or things that have happened to me related to these 8 categories:  clothing standards, holidays, governmental or political issues, Church and State relations, vices, virtues, living conditions and material wealth.  So join me for the next few days as I tell stories of how some missionaries have struggled to find harmony between their own cultural assumptions and the reality of the culture they hope to minister to.

Paul said that he tries to “become all things to all people so that he might win some”, but what does that look like, in a practical sense, for the modern day missionary?  I will show you some possibilities.  If you have stories of your own, I would love to hear them!  Leave a juicy comment below.

Kissing Friends

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air kiss greetingOne of the first lessons you learn when you arrive in a new country is how they greet each other.  Sometimes it’s a handshake, a pat on the back, a hug, a kiss or a combination of any of these gestures.  It’s cultural adaption 101.

Here in Costa Rica, the standard greeting between friends is to lean in and go right cheek to right cheek.  Then you air kiss by the ear and pat the left shoulder at the same time.  Then if you’re close friends or family you also follow up the kiss with a warm hug.  You would think for a Minnesotan like me it would be a difficult adjustment to make to learn to kiss everyone, but it really wasn’t that hard to get into the kissing mode.  Everyone was doing it, so it quickly became natural!

So the other night I had a really funny moment.  Our best friends Chino and Marcela, who we consider our Costa Rican family, live not very far from us.  So my husband had invited Chino to go play softball with “the guys”.  Chino came over a little early and spent a few hours playing X-box with my son and husband.  I arrived home later to a living room full of cheering male voices, a happy scene in our home.

When it came time to leave, my husband came over and kissed me good-bye and told me they would be home late.  My son came over and kissed me on the cheek, “bye Mom.”  Next in line was Chino!  I gave him the usual cheek-to-cheek air kiss with a hug and told him to have a good time.

When they all left I chuckled to myself thinking about how “normal” that strange scene seemed to me in the moment.  My husband, my son and my friend all lined up for a kiss before they go off to play.  All I can say is that I am sure to freak out some of our Minnesotan friends if I try that back home.  Cultural adjustment does weird things to you.

Behind the 8 Ball

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8 ballDo you ever have those seasons in life where you feel like you’re barely hanging on by a thread.  You feel like you can never get caught up on all you have to do.  Just when the “In Box” is at it’s urgent fullness, life dumps an avalanche on your desk.  Latinos have a saying, “All the Gringos have watches, but none of them have time.”  Hurry, Rush, Busy Busy Busy!

I don’t like going through long stretches of time feeling like I’m just doing enough to make it through today.  I’m a planner.  I want to get stuff done so I don’t have to think about it for weeks on end.  For example, in school I do my lesson plans for an entire month at one time.  I have a yearly plan that is less specific.  I don’t want to plan too far in advance because things happen and the schedule needs a cushion to accomodate unexpected changes.  But I want to plan far enough in advance that I don’t have to scramble each night to prepare for tomorrow’s lessons.

Unfortunately we have to be flexible.  Back in Minnesota we had the occasional “Snow Day” and school would be canceled.  Here we have various natural disasters to contend with.  We had a huge earthquake at the beginning of the school year and we lost a day for that.  Two years ago we had a huge mudslide on one side of the city and the government closed school all over the city for a few days to keep parents from having to drive around the closed off area.  And in Mexico City sometimes they close school for “Smog Days” when it’s just too polluted for kids to be playing outside during recess.  One of those days can throw off a whole month of lesson plans.  Being flexible is part of life.

But on the Mission Field, my commitment to flexibility is tested almost daily.  Plans change sometimes hourly.  I either adapt or go through life frustrated.  My skills in “flying by the seat of my pants” come in handy when someone doesn’t show up for a meeting (usually without calling) or an event is canceled the hour it’s supposed to begin.  I have to “wing it”.  This means I constantly feel like I can’t rely too heavily on my plans.  I still DO plan, because it’s my nature, but I can’t get upset when plans fall through.

This makes me feel like I’m constantly making decisions in the moment, living behind the 8 ball, but that’s how the world runs here.  No one is upset by this but the Gringos.  No one expects things to happen on time except the Americans.  No one is surprised when plans change except the Foreigners.  Change happens.  What’s the big deal?  Go with the flow, “just keep swimming,” and you can survive here in Latin America.  Flexibility is a necessary life skill.  It will either make you or break you on the mission field.