Living cross-culturally is awesome. Most people move to a new culture because of the excitement and fascination with other other cultures.
But, I suspect you would get a similar and surprising answer if you interviewed 100 expatriates and asked, “What have you learned the most about other cultures?” The answer would be along the lines of, “Frankly, I’ve learned the most deeply about my own culture.”
I remember being in a conversation with three people from three different African nations. Two of them were “orientating” the third person to “Westerners”. They got really enthusiastic as they explained the way we Westerners work.
“First of all!” the one said, “When they ask, ‘How are you doing?’, they don’t actually want to know ‘How you are doing.’”
“What! Then why do they ask?” he replied.
“They are just saying ‘Hello’, if you actually tell them how you are doing they will get a funny look on their face.” (I imagine it is a mix of a blank stare and aggravation… just a guess)
The three of them all burst in to hysterical laughter and I couldn’t help but join in. The newbie now knew to just say, “I’m fine” and elaborate no further, when a Westerner asks.
“Then what DO they want to know?” the third enquired.
“Oh, oh, oh! Ask them ‘What do you do?’ That is a very common and polite way to greet a Westerner that you have never met before”.
As I listened I was getting schooled… in my own culture and in all of life.
I asked all three of them what a common greeting would be after saying “Hello” in each of their countries. All three said the same thing…. “Where have you come from?”
I thought about this for a long time after that day passed.
Two ways of relating:
“Hello. What do you do for a living?”
“Hello. Where have you come from?”
Isn’t this the essence of building true relationships? Knowing what a person “does” is great information. But, does it really reveal who I am? Does it reveal me? Perhaps a little.
Knowing where I have come from. Retracing my journey. Talking about my stories and hearing yours. Those are the things that truly build friendship.
I see the same with God. Really, how do I deeply know God in a way that is beyond the surface? I know Him because He has told me His story. From Genesis right through to the end… all the joys, the pain, the unfaithfulness of his people. The moments of His dramatic rescue of a dramatically inept people. It’s all laid out on those pages.
What does God do? He does Grace. How do I know it, truly and deeply? Because I’ve heard and lived His story. I know it. I’ve seen it.
This is what I know about my “Western” culture:
First we tell what we do.
Second, we tell what we are like.
Third, we tell our stories.
Telling our stories is at the bottom of our relational list. The reality is that we rarely reach that third place. We stop short.
“I’m Lindsey, I work at a University and I like South Africa”. I feel so empty just thinking if all my relationships stopped there. If people truly knew me and understood me, they would know my story.
This year, I want to tell my story more… to show people who I really am. This year, I want to truly hear people’s stories. It will take time. It will take people I trust.
Our stories are valuable because we are people of value.
When is the last time you told your story? When is the last time you sat down and truly listened to another person’s story?