Cross-Cultural Growing Pains

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Learning a new culture is complicated, difficult, and disorienting, and a challenge we don’t often have to face in the United States. Even armed with shiny Liberal Arts degrees, a spirit of adventure, and a commission from all the forces of heaven and earth to go and take on the world, we are scarcely equipped for this task.

There are things that we can do. It hasn’t been too hard to learn the ropes of survival—staying safe, healthy, and sane in a new setting is achievable with a little money, a little creativity, and a little effort. Nor is it difficult to accumulate historical and sociological facts that help paint the demographic landscape broad strokes. Indeed, we are learning a lot, and growing a lot.

But peeking into the heart knowledge of this strange other-world we find ourselves in is nearly impossible. At times, it feels like the only thing we have learned is the limitations of our perceptions. It feels like all we have really learned is that most of what we think we have learned is wrong.

Sure, we know some facts and some tricks, but our deepest knowledge about India comes from our reactions to our experiences. Our reactions come automatically from our hearts, from our deepest intuitions, regardless of what things we have learned in our minds. We react: there are some things we like about India, some things we find challenging, and some other things that we just plain don’t like.

Certainly, there are good things and bad things about Indian culture. But our reactions are too tied up in our upbringing, education, and expectations to distinguish between what is good and bad about the way things work here. When we think that something about Indian culture is good, we are in fact seeing a difference from our culture that we think is novel or interesting—it may or may not be such a blessing to the people who are stuck with this cultural idiosyncrasy their whole lives. And how can we differentiate what is bad about the culture from what personally we experience as difficult to understand, or difficult to adapt to as Americans?

Indeed, our whole perception of the rich diversity of Indian culture seems to be monochromatic, and that color seems to be very closely related to our mood. When we are feeling empowered and on top of things, we can easily rationalize away all of the things we don’t like about our experiences as being the function of forces that we don’t understand and cannot control. When we are feeling small and insecure, we write off every bad experience as evidence of a backward and broken society.

Living with such ambiguous and erratic perceptions is deeply uncomfortable, and sometimes overwhelming. It is tempting to insist that the American way I am used to is objectively and eternally right, and only cooperate with people only when they do business in a way that I understand. It is also tempting to throw my hands up and conclude that I am too different from the people around me to ever have a deep and three-dimensional relationship in this context.

What we fall back on is our sense of vocation. By God’s grace, we are where we need to be, and we are becoming who we need to become. We don’t necessarily understand all of the mechanisms at work in this process, but we do trust the God who is operating them. In the meantime, our job is to stay out of our fortresses and avoid being controlled by our fears, to stay awake and stay aware of what God is doing in and around us. We must take everything we are offered in with wonder and fascination like little children, trusting in our heavenly Father who has placed us where we are.

We can gather strength from the stories of Scripture. To Abraham, God promised children who outnumber the stars of the sky, and a land of his own for his descendants. But after a lifetime of struggle as a stranger in a strange land, he had only two sons and a purchased plot for himself and his wife. Yet in time, God kept his promise. In his life and death, Jesus Christ crossed the ultimate barrier for us, the very barrier which divides men from God. Beside such a sacrifice, what is our feeble toiling?

We know that what we are doing is meaningful and important for our development. But some days it feels like the spiritual equivalent of being forced to eat one’s vegetables. Children are told to eat their vegetables because it is “good for them.” And it is. Vegetables are nutritious, and, in the long run, a person whose palate is acclimated to fresh produce will have a richer experience of food (and of life) than the person dependant on the chemical blends of starches and refined sugars provided by the supermarket pap. But children cannot comprehend these dimensions of long-term benefit. They understand only their immediate sensory reaction to leafy greens and authority of their parents.

So too are we called to come to the banquet of life each day and take what God gives us, even the parts that aren’t sweet, succulent, and easily digested.

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