I was nervous and excited about my very first dinner guests in Turkey. I opened the oven door and peered doubtfully at the delicious, bubbling beef lasagna with tomato sauce and melted cheese. Would they like it? I hoped so. I certainly did not know how to cook Turkish food!
A few minutes later I sat down at the table with my husband, our two children, and our neighbors. As my husband prayed to thank God for our visitors and the food, I looked again at the lasagna. It looked great to me, but would they like it? I cut it and served it carefully onto each person’s plate. I felt butterflies in my stomach when I noticed our neighbor staring at his plate, his forehead furrowed over piercing brown eyes.
“What do we do with this?” he asked, looking at the lasagna.
“Well,” I said, “what do you mean? Um…we eat it.” My son and daughter giggled and whispered to each other.
“Oh, I just wondered,” our neighbor said. “How do you eat it? Do you put yogurt on top of this? Do we just cut it with our knives and forks? What is it?”
Oh great, I thought. This evening is off to a brilliant start. Everyone at the table, including my husband, looked at me waiting for an explanation of what lasagna was and how to eat it. My face went red, and I felt irritated inside. Even if our neighbor had never had lasagna before, at least he could be more polite about it. My enjoyment of the dinner I had worked to prepare was spoiled.
The couple managed to eat the lasagna, and they said how good it was, but their children had a hard time eating it. They looked relieved when the meal was over and I poured glasses of familiar, steaming, Turkish tea.
When at last everyone left, I remembered our neighbor staring at his plate, and my face flushed all over again. Did he not realize how embarrassed he had made me feel?
Opportunities to be Humbled
I enjoy living overseas, and generally Turks are extremely gracious to foreigners, but living cross-culturally puts you in a humbling position of weakness. When you first move overseas you are less competent than most children in your host country. You cannot speak the language properly. You do not know how things work or where anything is. You lack the know-how to get simple jobs done. You cannot even cook a decent meal that people will like. It is humbling to stand out for doing the wrong thing, or for being different.
In eight years I have had plenty of opportunities to feel foolish in front of others. For instance, once at a Bible study group, I handed out new songbooks I had had made. We took an offering to help pay for the books, but one of the members announced to the group, “We should not ask foreigners to do jobs like this. Betsy got ripped off.” I felt so embarrassed that I wished I could disappear.
It happened again the other night at the folk-dancing class I take with my American friend. Our group finally mastered a difficult new dance step, so I smiled at the woman next to me and said, “I think we are finally getting it.” She repeated back to me in an exaggerated American accent, “I think we are finally getting it.”
Later that same evening, my friend and I were talking with our classmates, and several women laughed and made fun of her accent. She turned as red as a beet! One person imitating me did not bother me so much, but I was upset by a group making fun of my poor friend! As we left dance class I was fuming on the inside, thinking, We really do not need this. We give up everything to come and serve the Lord here, and what do we get? People make fun of our accents!
Why do situations like these bother me? They hurt my pride. It is humbling when your neighbor does not appreciate the dinner you spent hours making. Being teased in front of others can be embarrassing. My pride rebels, and I have two natural reactions:
- To justify myself. I do not deserve this treatment. How can they be so rude?
- To compare my country to Turkey. In America people would never make fun of a foreigner’s accent. (Yeah, right. Think again.)
Chances to Grow
In reality, these situations are small chances to grow, but I have to choose my attitude. I can cling to my wounded pride and become resentful, or I can thank God for another opportunity to adopt a humble attitude. Even though it goes against everything inside of me, I want the same attitude Jesus had. He made himself nothing… He humbled himself (Philippians 2:7a, 8b). Jesus left heaven and came to the world clothed in weakness. I have left my home country to come to another land where I am constantly reminded of how weak and inadequate I am.
Every time someone corrects my Turkish, every time someone tells me I got ripped off because I am a foreigner, I have an opportunity to die to my pride. The fact that I get irritated shows that my sin nature is alive and well. So, I can cling to that sin nature, or I can follow Jesus’ example. Jesus would not take it personally if someone did not like his lasagna or made fun of his accent. He would just smile and keep on loving that person. Remembering Jesus’ example helps me to let go of pride and embrace humility. When cross-cultural situations leave me feeling foolish or inadequate, I try to remember the words of I Peter 5:5: Clothe your selves with humility toward one another, because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.
Learning to laugh at myself and not take life too seriously helps too. The day after the lasagna fiasco I was able to laugh about it, and after eight years it has become a part of our family lore. My son will repeat, “What do we do with this? What is this?” And we all laugh, remembering our neighbor’s puzzled expression.