“This is my favorite Tagore song,” my language tutor exclaimed, handing me her phone, which showed a video. “It is so beautiful. You must learn it.”
As I watched the singer perform the folk song, my ears cringed in horror at the style of singing. It was almost yodeling – or wailing. But I had asked to learn a folk song. I couldn’t back down now. The words referred to the beauty of God’s creation, and I could appreciate the message.
So I posted the words on my mirror, bookmarked the video, and spent the next two weeks wailing the anthem until it ran unceasingly through my head.
And then came the shock – I started liking it.
My Mennonite upbringing and family setting gave me strong opinions about quality singing. South Asia directly confronted that. However, I eventually realized that, beyond the differences in style, the emotions and concepts portrayed in the music are the same. This is part of what we call culture.
The Basis of Culture
Culture usually begins when an experience or set of events inspires a specific belief or value. This belief, once gradually embraced by a group of people, may inspire the creation of laws within that society. Sometimes these are written laws, but more often, they are deep principles that are taught to small children within their first few years.
For example: my parents trained me to finish my entire plate of food before I was allowed to leave the dinner table, even if that meant sitting alone for an hour after the family had left. My parents had several reasons for this lesson, but one was that they were motivated by a value for food and believed that no food should be wasted.
Recently, another American and I were sitting in a friends’ house, sharing a meal with an Asian family. The food was wonderful, but the pleasure began to fade as our hostess continued to ladle more rice and sauce into our bowls faster than we could finish it.
At last, too full to continue, we assembled a phrase in their language that roughly meant “My stomach happy.” Laughing at our declaration, our host and hostess finally understood and took away our unemptied dishes. Apparently they believed that, as long as we kept eating, we were still hungry.
Since hospitality was such a strong value in their culture, they would have preferred to waste food than to let us go hungry.
The Secret Ingredient: Humility
Experiencing culture usually consists of short-term fascination and participation for your own interest (such as tourism). Crossing culture, on the other hand, actually connects with other individuals on a personal level, regardless of varying customs.
Connecting with those of a strange culture is, quite honestly, difficult. It is hard to show love when you aren’t sure what is viewed as loving and what is inappropriate or rude. The most loving thing you can do when first immersed in a different culture is to humble yourself to simply learn.
Donald N. Larson writes: “Entering a new community as a sincere learner (of language and culture, to begin with), the missionary approaches the local residents with humility, offering dignity to the people from whom he learns.”1
In the eyes of the locals, you inherit the task of learning upon arrival – but you must earn the right to teach. That privilege comes in small steps, as a result of the acceptance given when you are found to be teachable.
Observe how the locals behave. Be humble enough to apologize. Learn to laugh at yourself. Find a local who is willing to give you honest answers and advice – and then listen to them.
Humility at Home
What happens when we are the locals encountering newcomers to our own culture?
This is when humility is the most difficult – we tend to feel that we have a right to the role of teacher. Actually, in this age of information, a person can learn much about a country without even speaking to a native. You may have a lot to offer, but they have just as much to offer you.
I once welcomed an elderly neighbor from South America with a Spanish greeting meant to be used among peers. Later, a friend confronted me. The language of my neighbor’s culture demanded more respect for the elderly than I had given her. My American culture had allowed me to slip into the habit of treating my seniors with a low amount of honor.
I’ve discovered that my international friends can often spot these cultural flaws more clearly than I can, and I would do well to heed their concerns.
Interestingly enough, the only person who ever had the intellectual and moral right to exalt himself over others did not do so. Jesus lived thirty humble years as a carpenter in a new culture before he began his ministry. He then turned away from the temptation to popularity and an easily attained kingdom, continually choosing the route of hard work and finally a death of intense degradation.
If Almighty God humbled himself to such a degree, his followers have no right to live in self-exaltation.
Paul said it well in Philippians 2:3-7: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”2
You can offer one thing to a stranger that no one else can – your friendship. After all, there is no one else in any culture quite like you or like the newcomers that you see around you. Christ’s commandments to us are fulfilled in loving God and loving others as we love ourselves. This is the reason behind crossing cultures, whether at home or overseas.
The evening was getting late. My sweet local “mother” and her many family members sat around me, chatting together in the native language and smiling at me. I couldn’t think of anything else to say with the few words I knew, but I wished I could bless them somehow – to show them how much they meant to me.
So I asked if we could sing. I started to sing the song of my language teacher in the typical, yodeling way. Their faces lit up as they recognized it, and soon they were joining in. The music seemed to draw us closer.
Then my adopted mother began to sing her daughter’s favorite song. The daughter had moved to America three years ago, and they had not been able to see each other since.
Listening now, I understood only a few of the lyrics, but I quickly realized by the tone of her voice and the tears in her eyes that I was glimpsing the great depth of her heart’s sorrow.
Suddenly, I realized how badly I missed my own far-away family, for the song had touched the same tender spot in my heart. The song – different style or not – immediately became beautiful to me as I grasped the familiar longing behind it.
If differences in culture stand in the way of our calling to love others, let’s not hesitate in confusion or fear. Instead, may all God’s people humbly and courageously reach out in spite of the differences, and intentionally bring the story of Christ’s love to those who may have never heard.
Rachel Brubaker is a pseudonym, because she prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons. She is frequently shocked at her journey towards missions, which God has led her on throughout the past several years. She loves her dear family, a good pun, anything artsy or musical, real-life God stories, people who expect an honest answer to “how are you”, and of course, coffee and chocolate. Oh, and she also really wants to go skydiving someday.
- Larson, Donald N. “Closing the Gap.” Perspectives on World Missions, 4th ed., William Carey Library, 2009, p. 455.
- Holy Bible, NIV. Philippians 2:3-7. Biblica, Inc: 2011