Families, Children & Marriage, Restoration & Reconciliation

Practicing grace in intercultural relationships

But what we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people, and do our best to help them find their own grace. – Barack Obama

Grace is a tricky subject…a whole lot more elusive than patience.  It’s a gift, something undeserved that gives us freedom to be as we are, while still pushing us beyond the wallowing of the current moment. Continuing the series from A Longer View of Intercultural Marriage, today I’ll reflect more deeply on ways to practice grace in intercultural relationships:  

With those who don’t understand

It still makes me shudder to remember the day years a sweet, kind woman I enjoyed chatting with at work referred to my children as ‘half-breeds’.  I swallowed hard in that moment, wondering if I’d heard her correctly.  As she continued talking, she clearly had no idea how offensive her terminology had been to me.  She was speaking so effusively of them – how beautiful she finds biracial children, how she’s always found mixed race children stunning.  Clearly, her words weren’t meant to offend.  Being a single mom who’d spent her whole life in rural Indiana, she’d had no opportunity to interact with an outside world to understand how offensive her words were to me (frankly, I think it would have horrified her to know how offended I was).  By filtering her words through grace, I was more able to accept them for what they were: affirming words from a kind person.

Perhaps closer to home are family or friends who give well-intentioned advice about how we should approach our choices about relationships or child-rearing across cultures.  When this happens in my life, I must remind myself that while my loved ones do mean well, they simply don’t understand.  (And for that matter, may not be able to.  There are many scenarios I don’t currently have the ability understand like raising a disabled child or being a single parent.)

With those who *think* they understand

For me, this skill is harder than any of the rest combined.  It’s one thing when people admit ignorance, and a wholly different impact when they assume expertise without having it.  I’m sure most people have at least one person like this somewhere in their  corner of the world, so I’ll just leave the specific examples to the imagination.  One helpful skill I learned from author Jan Johnson when dealing with difficult people like this is to pray that God would show me a person’s heart. This helps me to remember that they are fallible and broken just like me, and that perhaps they, too, make a mistake or two every once in a while.

If I’m brutally honest, part of the reason this category of people are so hard for me is because (*gulp*) I’m partial to acting like this myself.  Acknowledging my tendency toward this type of arrogance reorients me toward of the importance of exercising humility, admitting ignorance, and practicing good listening skills.

With each other

In an intercultural marriage, it’s easy to assume we understand because our partners have become so familiar to us.  But even in such close relationships, it’s important to step back and consider if we have really taken the time to understand, or if we just think we do.  When I assigned motives to my husband’s actions based on what I assume to be true, it’s still usually based on what my reality is, not his.  Culture can make this assumption an even bigger err.  For me, practicing grace with my husband means learning to ask questions (something I’m great at in a professional context and lousy at in a relational one).

Some questions that occasionally work for me: (keep in mind I’m not very good at this.  I welcome any tips you have here!)

  • Can you help me understand where you’re coming from?
  • What did this situation look like to you when you were a child?
  • How would your parents (family/culture/elders) see this?

“Trust the validity of someone else’s experience…and your own, ” says professor Chip Anderson (Thanks for the quote, Matt!).  From an emotional standpoint, its easy to assume that someone else is completely ridiculous for their ‘crazy’ belief or practice. Our same-culture friends may even affirm this notion by encouraging us to see things solely from our cultural standards (e.g. asserting independence vs. valuing communal identity).  One of the great values of an intercultural relationship is discovering that contrasting values can hold equal validity.  The trick is learning to balance both sides so that a foundation of trust can be built between the two worlds.

With ourselves

This living between worlds is complicated stuff.  For those who’ve grown up in a monocultural world, developing cross-cultural skills that allow grace to flow freely will take some time.  For those who’ve always lived between worlds (e.g. immigrants, TCKs, MKs), frustration with those who “just don’t get it” may build more quickly than it seems to for others.  Regardless of the world from which we come, we’re bound to blow it at times, to speak too harshly, to assume too much, to judge too quickly.  Practicing grace with ourselves means we admit our lack – to others and to ourselves – and seek ways to grow and change.  For some that may mean finding a skilled counselor, for others reading an book, and still others, seeking out a mentor you trust who understands your particular situation.

Now…your turn!  When has your intercultural relationship required abundant grace?  What actions help you practice grace? 

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2 thoughts on “Practicing grace in intercultural relationships”

  1. I remember an afternoon while visiting “over there,” where circumstances left me with almost nothing to do in the home all day. So, being the neat freak I am, I went to scrubbing the kitchen. When not under any time crunch or pressure, I actually find cleaning to be therapeutic, and with a mind that requires near constant stimulation, I simply had to have something to do that day. To accomplish. No, the residual mess was not my doing, but it was better than boredom! However, upon returning, my not-yet-husband was horrified to see me slaving away as if I was a servant instead of his guest. From a culture where hospitality to the extreme is fundamental, this was embarrassing and upsetting to him, indicating his shortcomings as a capable host. In an effort to put a stop to it immediately, he grabbed the cleaning supplies out of my hand and shoved me away from the stove. In that moment, I remember being shocked nearly speechless that he shoved me. He shoved me! He had never done that before, and I thought never would. In my culture, it would have been good to at least speak up, say something like “No! You’re my guest! Please don’t do housework!” so that I could know what he was thinking. But his knee-jerk reaction sans translated verbalization left me focused on the manner of his act more so than his intent. Yes, he shoved me but he was trying to honor me as quickly as possible. He was trying to honor me. When I got over the shoving, we were able to discuss that being stuck in a house all the time with literally nothing to do but stare at the walls was not exactly stellar hospitality, either. It was kinda like prison. He had limited options, but he did the best he could to help, by borrowing a laptop I could play solitaire on and asking a friend to play tour guide and accompaniment. He spent all his money buying me a ticket for an overnight excursion trip I would like, and helping me find an internet cafe I could walk to during the day. And, he let me rearrange furniture and do laundry.

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