I should have suspected something was up when Sydney, our dog, didn’t run out to meet our car at the gate. And our usually effervescent house helper Orpah didn’t hurry out to greet our family with her million-dollar smile.
We piled out of our car with the Indonesian Christmas greeting of “Selamat Hari Natal, Orpah!” but she only mumbled a greeting in return, keeping her head down as she helped unload our bags from the car.
It had been a most memorable Christmas thus far for our family, and we gladly regaled Orpah with our trip. My husband David was able to fly us into a remote village where we were fed copious amounts of rice in every form imaginable, along with fish, snails, papaya and cakes. We tramped through the jungle on a hike and played in the river with the village children. We sat through an hours-long Christmas Eve service, complete with traditional dancing, which was followed by more food. That night we were serenaded into the wee hours by village boys making noise with any conceivable object–homemade click-clack toys, bamboo bombs, chainsaws. Christmas morning David preached at the morning service, which was followed by more food. Soon we were airborne again and headed home, bearing gifts of woven baskets and chickens.
Orpah politely smiled at our stories, but after a few minutes she pulled me aside and said, “Ibu, when you mentioned we could have the dog for Christmas dinner, you were being serious, right?”
I quickly peered through the screen door and scanned the yard for our dog, which was nowhere in sight. Sydney, we had decided, could qualify for Southeast Asia’s idiot dog of the year award. She had yet to prove herself a good watchdog, never barking at strangers and occasionally growling at our own children. She had dug up the flowerbed, chased the chickens, and killed one of our kittens. My husband and I had often discussed giving her away, as she had no real redeeming qualities as a pet in our family.
My mind flew back to a conversation Orpah and I had the previous week after Sydney had done something particularly idiotic, and I had joked that maybe we should just eat her for Christmas. Some people in our part of Indonesia eat dogs, known locally as err-way, and we had even sampled some. But being from the dog-loving culture that we’re from, I never seriously thought of giving our dog to someone who might eat her, and, having seen Orpah pet and love on Sydney, I thought she held the same view. Boy, was I wrong.
Orpah, with tears in her eyes, sadly told me that she had thought me serious and had given Sydney to a friend that makes err-way, and then later wondered if she had done the right thing.
Right then, I had a decision to make. Before coming overseas, we had several classes that dealt with cross-cultural living and I felt prepared for the various scenarios that had been thrown at us such as, “The tribe elder offers you a large piece of pork fat, what do you do?” Well, you eat it, of course. But how was I to deal with our dog being eaten on Christmas day?
Often, another culture is something you observe and comment on, such as, “Wow, I can’t believe they drive like this. Isn’t it strange?” But every now and then, culture smacks you right in the face, and it often takes divine help to deal with it in a gracious and loving manner.
Where I’m from, the family dog is like a member of the family, even if an often badly treated member, and no one in their right mind would think of serving up Rover with a side of rice and vegetables. But there is a different mindset here, and if I want a happy life overseas, it’s best to figure out what that mindset is, and adapt to it as best I can.
So I smiled at Orpah, gave her a hug and assured her I was not angry, and silently forgave her in my heart. It’s what I’ve learned to do many of the times cultural frustrations mount and I feel like I can’t go on. I have to step back, pray for a heavenly perspective, then have a good laugh at myself, because if I don’t I could end up in a curled ball on the floor mumbling “next flight outta here…Wal-Mart…luncheon meat.”
They say that you’re really getting a grasp on a new language when you dream in that language. Perhaps the same is true for adapting to a new culture. The other night I dreamed I was offered “err-way” in a nice restaurant and I was surprised at how delicious it was. Almost like a Salisbury steak. But don’t worry, it was just a dream.