Given the high interest to my last post, I thought it relevant to repost a slightly updated version of an oldie-but-goodie that I published years ago on Burnside Writers Collective (they *still* have the wrong byline on the post after repeated requests for a correction, grr…) as well as here on my blog. It explains more specifics of the many things I’ve learned along my path toward cultural humility.
“Many waters cannot quench love,” I pondered Solomon’s words sitting on a dusty porch in West Africa, the afternoon downpour pounding on the tin roof over my head. “But they certainly do a good job trying to drown it.”
My boyfriend was spending the summer at his parent’s home in Sri Lanka while I was teaching English in Burkina Faso. At that time, there was little access to phone lines or email, so our only form of communication was the relentlessly slow exchange of letters. From the beginning, we had both sensed a unique kinship between us in spite of our cultural backgrounds. However, we also realized that such a relationship carried many complexities, and that our cross-continental lives would not combine easily. When our respective summers ended, we reunited for the fall semester, somewhat unsure of our future together.
“You remind me of a Sri Lankan girl,” he told me one day, raising his deep eyes to meet mine. I had no idea what a Sri Lankan girl was like, but I was thrilled. Obviously, he connected deeply to something in me, regardless of my cornfield upbringing and blond hair. From the first day we met, I sensed an eerily similar reflection of myself in him. There were moments, of course, when we weren’t sure how to connect – meeting our families, interacting with hometown friends, navigating the chasms between third-world realities and first-world luxuries. While these cultural differences were a significant part of our relationship, our similarities ultimately prevailed. Nearly four years later, we married in a joyful ceremony, surrounded by family and friends from around the world.
Guide me, oh thou great Jehovah. These words sung at our wedding reflect our desire to follow God’s guidance in the steep task of uniting contrasting worlds. We entered the world of intercultural marriage as pilgrims in a barren land, knowing few role-models who had attained such unity across cultural boundaries. Together over 13 years now, we’ve moved from coast to coast, have two children and love journeying together through life.
While comparatively few are called to such an intimate cross-cultural partnership, all Christians have a responsibility to seek reconciliation across barriers. In an increasingly diverse society, our ability to establish unity across cultural boundaries is rapidly becoming a key factor in the strength of the church. Because we practice these skills daily, I have found lessons I’ve learned from our relationship to be a microcosm for cross-cultural relations at large.
Here are some skills we find useful in seeking unity across our own cultural differences:
Pay attention, be intentional
Sri Lanka is half way around the world from the U.S. At times, it feels very far away. Being so far removed from our lives, it is easy to fall into an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” mentality with this part of my husband’s life. This has, at times, caused division between us because an essential part of his personhood lies neglected. Therefore, it is essential to pay close attention to the Sri Lankan part of him, and to seek to incorporate it in our daily lives. We both read the news and follow current events on a regular basis. Our home is filled with reminders of Sri Lanka, from batik wall hangings to photos of sari-clad relatives. We visit Sri Lanka as often as we can afford, prioritizing this over other vacation options, even when inconvenient or complicated. We try to maintain regular contact with my husband’s family through phone calls, email, and pictures.
In the same way, many live in isolated communities and interact little with other cultures. People in these communities can make intentional efforts to consider differing perspectives by reading books or watching films, as well as by traveling to places where they interact across cultures. Just as I must intentionally seek to pay attention to my husband’s culture, so can people pay attention to cultures outside their own as an effort toward unity. As current events, dialogue, and perspectives from other cultures are encountered, a broader way of thinking and interacting with others naturally develops.
Share honestly, listen carefully
Romance, while breath-taking, is not particularly characterized by honesty. As the passionate romance of our relationship has settled into a committed, deeper love, we have shared many moments of intense honesty. At times, it is simpler to avoid such conversations, for we each have our own interpretation of “normal” and fear looking ignorant or prejudiced. However, this kind of honesty brings about true compromise, and ultimately, inner change.
Having grown up in a wealthy, stable, and efficient country, I have struggled with certain aspects of Sri Lanka’s developing and conflict-filled environment. My husband has experienced these aspects as “normal” for much of his life. Because these perspectives form an integral part of our core-beings, we feel strongly vulnerable when sharing our fears. This fear creates a reluctance to relinquish my expectations of order, cleanliness, and safety, causing me to shut out a cherished part of my husband’s life.
In a similar vain, he has experienced certain “looks”, discomfort, and ignorance when interacting with people from my home. While I hold deep affinity for my home, it is helpful to separate from my personal attachments in order to hear his emotions. In doing this, I listen without defense, letting him process his feelings honestly.
Ultimately, honesty between cultures is not about being right or wrong. It’s about listening and considering another’s experience without defense or justification. In order to create a safe place for trustworthy relationships, people need to feel they will be heard when sharing honestly.
Be salad, not soup
The idea of a “melting pot” denies the individual characteristics that exist within cultures. A mixed salad is a more accurate comparison, as it contains various ingredients that compose one dish, yet retains unique qualities rather than dissolving everything into the majority flavor. Likewise, in our marriage, we attempt to value the individuality of each other’s cultures.
One way we love each other is by knowing about each other’s homes. For example, my husband knows things about my small hometown that only “insiders” know. He knows where the locals eat a hot breakfast, and the names of high school basketball players. Because he pays attention to my cultural background, I sense a deep love for who I am and where I come from. In the same way, I don a shalwar kameez (a traditional Sri Lankan dress) every so often, can cook a mean curry, and enjoy building relationships with his family and friends. Each trip to his home – no matter how many mosquitos involved – increases my understanding of who my husband is.
When the majority culture blindly expects others to follow their lead without knowledge of other perspectives, they subtly send the message, “You are not important to me. Your importance is to make me comfortable.” Loving across cultures means that both sides release their grip on familiarity in order to experience deeper flavors of diversity.
While many waters could not quench our love, their rough waves have certainly smoothed our rough edges. In all of these ways, we embrace our own culture while keeping our arms open to the other. Guided by our great Jehovah each step of the way, we find deep richness in loving across cultural boundaries. Our hope remains that the church will deepen in its ability to love across such boundaries as well.