Even though I had been warned, the kiss rattled me. I had expected to be warmly greeted; after all, the congregation had been anticipating our arrival for a year. Still, when a golden-toothed Babushka grinned, wrapped her wrinkled hands around my face, puckered, and popped a true to life Holy Kiss on my lips, it took all my resolve not to cringe. Back home, the Holy Kiss is not a part of our church culture, in fact, any kissing outside marriage is pretty much taboo. However, as I stared at these kind women, who all wanted to kiss me, I suddenly realized that I had to adjust. Holy Kissing had to become part of my culture, and although it wouldn’t be something I would bring back to my home church, I needed to accept it and even practice it while I lived in Russia. I pasted a grin on my astonished face and puckered, hoping I wouldn’t fail this first tentative step toward cultural sensitivity.
Every culture is different. Even in America I discovered a profound diversity between my Minnesotan heritage and the culture of East Tennessee where my husband attended school. But cultural sensitivity is more than learning the right intonation for y’all, or developing a palate for soup beans and corn bread. Cultural sensitivity means understanding why people behave the way they do and actually embracing their lifestyles. Why? “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.” (Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, 9:19) Cultural sensitivity means loosening our staunch grip on the social landscape that defines us, and embracing instead the territory of a people without Christ, for the sake of the gospel.
How do we earn an A in cultural sensitivity? Here are some study hints:
Adopt a Friend: What is Stinkhead fish and is it edible? How do you avoid drinking Kenyan Moresic, and do you want to? Can Russian Sala kill you? Only a friend can answer these delicate cultural questions, and that is why asking the Lord for a social navigator who can steer you through the obstacles is essential. Native friends will help your son use the restroom in a country without public bathrooms (bring a plastic bag), teach you the art of dickering in the marketplace and can interpret your badly spoken Tagalog. “My friend Evelyn, who is a Filipino, is almost my best friend in the whole world now,” says Bertha who served in the Philippines for two terms with SEND International. “She accepted me exactly the way I was. She was also blunt with me and corrected me and I appreciated that about her. I often asked her how to help my children fit into Filipino culture. She helped me so much.” Friends can answer the sticky questions that aren’t covered in the orientation manual. Ask the Lord for a friend.
Ask and Listen: If you are a guest in a Kenyan’s home, why don’t you drink all of your goat’s milk? Why do some Filipinos prefer to eat rice with their fingers? ASK! There is a reason for everything and the best thing a global worker can do is ask questions, and truly listen to the answers. Jennifer, a missionary kid who grew up in Asia offers some advice to global workers from her own cross-cultural experience in Russia with the Navigators. “When I lived in Russia, a key point for me to realize was that if I tried to understand Russians from my perspective, or in my framework, I would only become increasingly frustrated. In an effort to learn their culture, I had to stop trying to answer my questions with “American” answers. I had to find Russian answers. Ask and listen, and then ask some more.”
Abandon your Cultural Boundaries: “When I was pregnant, the village I was living in asked me if I would give up my baby to an older, childless couple. I responded that if I had triplets, I would give them one. I got to thinking later that I hoped God would give me only one baby!” Robin, who worked with the Aleut Indians on Kodiak Island for twelve years, learned quickly that her cultural boundaries were about to be challenged. “When we had a birthday in our family, just like everyone else, I had to make enough food to feed the entire village – about 150 people. It was an enormous undertaking, but an expectation in that culture. The village was like our extended family, and we learned to be interdependent. But interdependance gave us great security and we needed that to survive a hostile climate.” Abandoning your cultural boundaries means being willing to step out of your comfort zone and eat moose tongue at a funeral, or drink tea in the nude, with fellow women, at a Russian banya. There is a difference between stepping over God’s moral outline, and breaking through our cultural comfort zones. Be willing to be all things to all people as long as it is within God’s standards.
Appreciate their lifestyles: Cindy, who served in Russia for two years with the Navigators, loved to play volleyball, and so joining the Russians as they played beach volleyball was a natural way for her to blend into their world. “I was so happy when people thought I was Russian because to me it meant I could now enter into a certain intimacy level with a person of another culture.” Embracing cultural activities and celebrating native traditions shows that you value your new community. “I try and find a need they can help me with,” adds a TEAM global worker from France. “For example, this summer I bought material in the USA which made me think of my friend here in France. I showed her the material and said, ‘I thought you would like it because it is all squares and plaids.’ I realized there was enough material to make two tree skirts, so we decided to do it together. In the urban lifestyle its impossible to ‘find time’ for others. Deciding to do this project together helped meet this challenge. I supplied the material and the “how to” and she supplied the sewing machine. It’s been fun getting to know her better and I have had the joy of talking about Jesus with her, MY favorite thing in the world to do.” My friends have taught me how to make such Russian specialties as palmeni, or peroshki, and through this food bonding activity, I appreciated their traditions and showed them I loved them.
Cultural sensitivity doesn’t come easy. Often it is a painful, even at times a humiliating and decidedly unpalatable experience, like eating skinned and boiled muskrats in an Aleutian village. But we can take our lessons from the One who is cultural sensitivity Incarnate: “Your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:5-8) Suddenly the Holy Kiss takes on a whole new perspective.