Have you ever imagined how your habits and beliefs might appear through the eyes of someone from a different culture?
I’m getting that opportunity this month as I host two foreign exchange students from Germany, Svenja, 17 and Lisa, 15.
As I hear the girls make phone calls home, I wonder if some of the things that seem logical or comforting to me may seem strange and quirky to them.
I listen as their shy voices quickly change into excited ones — or in one case, a homesick teenager — and I imagine what they might be telling their parents.
“Norris over articulates his English. He also smiles and laughs a lot, but I have no idea what he’s laughing at.”
Whatever it is they are saying, I do know that it would be easy for us all to let our early impressions become discouraging. The truth is that it’s very common to allow our culture, our tradition or our language to create a barrier in a way God never intended – I’m determined for us to share our culture for the summer.
I once enrolled in a Spanish class with similar determinations. I wanted to narrow the gap between myself and our Spanish-speaking patients.
My progress was poor, but a Spanish speaking doctor encouraged me by engaging in basic Spanish conversation with me. On one occasion I butchered my response and found it too embarrassing to continue.
“I know the feeling,” he told me as he recalled the ridicule he encountered from Americans as he tried to learn English. “Give it up!” they told him. “You’ll never be a doctor in America!” they predicted.
“Don’t be embarrassed!” he pleaded with me. “In my country we consider it an honor when you attempt to learn our language.”
Gaining strength from his encouragement, I later initiated a visit with a Spanish-speaking woman who was awaiting the immanent death of her husband.
After I tried to read aloud the 23rd Psalm using my Spanish 101, the woman’s daughter anxiously translated her mother’s reaction. “I barely understood a single word of that, but tell him,” the woman said with a grin, “I think he knows Spanish in his heart.”
We need not know every culture, but we can show a determination to “know them in our hearts.” When we demonstrate honor and appreciation toward those who come from different faiths, traditions and nations, we also honor the principles that melted and molded us into a nation.
There’s a story from the U.S. Occupation of Japan after WWII when an American serviceman witnessed a Shinto worshipper distribute rice over his ancestor’s grave.
The soldier asked the worshiper, “When do you think that your ancestor will eat the rice you left?” The man politely replied, “About the same time that your ancestors come smell the flowers you left.”
That story keeps me grounded with an awareness of how we tend to think of our culture or religion as the right one or the only one. Helping to acknowledge and celebrate different beliefs doesn’t mean we have to forfeit our beliefs. However, I do think that in a world that is fighting so many differences, it’s time we quickly account for our similarities
When I got back from talking the students to their language class, my wife noted a speck of green amidst the healthy crop of gray hair emerging from my shirt.
“What is that?” she asked.
After a momentary self-exam, I announced, “It appears to be breakfast debris.”
“That’s horrible!” she said. “I hope the girls didn’t notice.”
“No worries,” I replied, “they probably thought it was cultural.”