Thursday, October 06, 2005

Musings on cross-cultural work

dinner 6/10/05
My dinner tonight, a.k.a a narcissistic blogging moment
iWelcome t-shirt
It's nice to have a bit of a breather tonight, not that I can breath much thanks to a cold I caught yesterday. I've have had a really interesting week last week, as I've been involved with welcoming international students into Oxford. The university isn't exactly the best when it comes to helping international students settle in, and the Christian Union, seeing a gap that could be filled, offered to meet that need. I think it's a great idea; I would have appreciated it so much 2 years ago, when I first arrived.

Anyway, it involves us hanging around coach or train stations, looking decidedly shifty as if we're planning to mug somebody...okay, maybe not, the bright yellow t-shirts mean that we can't be missed anyhow! But we hang around looking to help international students with their luggage, bring them to their college, show them where the supermarkets are (a popular question!) and whatnot. Some had alreay emailed beforehand to tell us they'll like us to meet them, while we surprise the others. By far, one of my favourite moments came when a mother, accompanying her daughter and some immense pieces of luggage, looked at us and asked bluntly: "This is a joke, right?" and looke around, half-expecting some Candid Cameraman to pop out somewhere. When it became clear that we were genuinely offering help, she was totally flummoxed. It was especially amusing when she whipped out her video-camera, videoed us helping, and added her own running commentary, ending with the words: "...and they aren't kidding!" Wow, are people so unhelpful nowadays?

Two groups of us took different shifts, and when we were off-duty we were attending cross-cultural seminars, which turned out to be pretty stimulating. The induction session we had with Chris from Friends International, which specialises in outreach to international students was one I found particularly illuminating. He showed us the particular concern God has for the alien in both the Old and New Testaments. Then he gave us that gem of a line: "What I communicate is not what I say but what the other person understands." So, taking the sentence: "Jesus is the Son of God!" and say it to a

Muslim: oops, you've just completely blasphemed, since you just intimated that Allah has had sex.
Buddhist: a statement that has no meaning to him, since an impersonal reality is the aim.
Hindu: cool! Just add him to the pantheon of gods I already worship.
Jew: You've blasphemed again. There is one God and one God only.
New Ager: ...as are we all...

You get the idea.

Perhaps the thing that I got most out of this session though, was actually the next simple statement, that we are all ethnocentric in some way. Ethnocentricity is to regard one's own race as the most important, or see our way of doing things as the only "normal" way. Now, I've always thought that I knew a bit about crossing cultures - since I am from a nation that postively revels in its multiculturalism after all, and as an international student in the UK, I've have had to cross cultures. But I kept this in mind over the whole week I was helping out, and was appalled and humbled at the same time when I caught myself repeatedly holding a cultural prejudice of some sort or another. And here I was thinking that I was pretty objective and empathetic! Once I was helping an American, and as soon as I saw the nose stud and black apparel, I went: "Goth". Which didn't turn out to be the case.

On a related note, I'm going to be co-leading an international students Bible study group this year at church, and one of the books we had to read was From Foreign to Familiar. It's a very short book written by a cross-cultural specialist who used to work with YWAM, and presents an interesting thesis: that broadly speaking, cultures can be divided into two kinds, hot-climate (relationship-oriented), and cold-climate (task-oriented). She admits from the outset that she is working in generalisations here, and that they sometimes overlap. Still, it was a very readable and incisive treatment of the subject, as she discusses over the next few chapters categories of cultural difference, such as direct versus indirect communcation, individualism versus group identity, privacy versus inclusion , different concepts of hospitality, formality and time (I bet Malaysians would love to look at the last topic). I found myself nodding quite often at her anecdotes. Of course, the book ultimately isn't nuanced enough, since it only deals in terms of culture, without also looking at different personalities within each culture, nor does it really take into account the effects of globalisation and the media, but it never claims to be taken as gospel anyway. The book does, I think, what it aims to do, serving as a good introduction on ways to think broadly in cultural categories.

Thus, Chris' advice that ultimately we need to focus on the person is very sound. If each person has dignity and value, made in the image of God, then we must treat him or her as such.

One of my favourite stories that I heard was that of a Middle Eastern lady who came to stay in England for a few months. She was all alone in a foreign land and culture, but the Christian family who hosted her took good care of her, showed kindness and patience to her, and was sensitive of her religion(Islam) even as they weren't afraid to show that they were Christians. At the end of her stay, she said, "My perception of Christians have changed because of you. When I go back to my country, I will remember that as I go about my job." Curious, they asked her what her job was. She replied, "In my country, I have the final say in the granting of missionary visas." She may not have become a Christian, but the cause of Christ was advanced.

Sorry about the rag-tag nature of this post, but I'm tired. Off to bed I go.


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Anonymous Wynn said...

that's my plate! hahah!

9:00 am  
Blogger BK said...

I'll give it back soon!

5:50 pm  

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