I’ve long been fascinated with people, specifically their cultures. When I was a little girl, I would go to the library or our family’s set of encyclopedias (yes, pre-Google), and read about different countries and their practices. Sometimes I would try to make costumes like the ones I saw in the picture or food from the various regions I studied. This was not for any school assignment. I was simply intrigued with how culture can determine so much about a person’s life yet be completely unbeknownst by its host.
This love of cultures carried me into a career in overseas work, and I’m still enthralled by culture. My anthropology-degree-holding husband and I have conversations about it long after we should be sleeping. It’s fascinating to us.
But culture is not race. The attributes that we often designate to certain races would be more appropriate under the category of culture. How we talk, how we dress, what we eat, our mannerisms. These are all learned.
Just think about the Chinese child (by “race” and nationality) who is raised in an British home. What is his culture? If he was adopted a a baby, his culture will be British. He may learn of his mother-country or even learn some of the language, but culture is absorbed in day to day actions with family. This is how culture is passed on from one generation to the next. Culture is living. It changes and adapts.
My husband is from Norway. He often finds it interesting when he hears of Americans of Norwegian descent practicing customs from the homeland that expired generations ago. perhaps 100 years ago when the Norwegian immigrants arrived, the practiced those customs. The descending generations of those former immigrants became a mix of American and Norwegian and then whatever else was adopted into their make-up. Their culture evolved.
But skin color is determined by how much melanin we possess. If we have a lot of melanin, our skin is dark. If we have only a little, our skin is light. Now often culture and skin color coincide because usually both get passed down to us from our parents and grandparents, but they don’t always.
I loved hearing that story about the couple who had twins: one baby was light-skinned and the other was dark-skinned. Their coloring was different, but they were both going to be raised with the same culture- that of their parents, their extended family and their community, whatever that would be.
And the thing about cultures is that you don’t even realize you have one until you step outside of it. If everyone is behaving like you, you think it’s normal. It’s like being a kid at your first sleepover when you realize some kids DO get to have sugar-cereals for breakfast! The whole world does not function like your household.
I never realized how much my own cultural upbringing influenced me until I spent a year in Chile and then another 10 in China. Everyone was doing everything wrong! Backwards! Upside down and inside out…What I took as a confrontational style of talking in Chile was merely two people passionately discussing an idea. What I thought was manners in China was actually very rude.
In China, if you invite a guest over, you are meant to ask them if they want something to drink 3 times. It is polite to deny the request twice. The third time, one may accept the offer. Well, I didn’t know this custom. I would have friends over, ask them once if they wanted a coke, and then assume Chinese people didn’t like coke because no one ever said yes.
And this is another whole topic within the culture discussion – assumption. It can get us into so much trouble! We assume out of our own cultural frame the behavior of another person. But any culture other than our own is bound to be seen as strange from time to time and even wrong.
If a person makes fun of me, I would assume she is trying to attack me and most likely become defensive. It’s wrong to demean another person, right? Well, I learned after living in Australia for a season that the rules are not the same there! This is actually a very common form way to express affection between friends and family members. It’s referred to as “taking the mickey out” of someone. The words might feel hurtful to your average American but the heart is likely tender. But interpreted through an American cultural filter, these Australian brothers and sisters may actually be seen as unloving.
In this age of the easily offended, let us look for the heart behind the words, the actions, and the motions. Nine times out of ten, I find a sincere desire to please God. And that my friends, is gold in whatever context we find ourselves.
God loves diversity. He created variety in how we look, in how we talk, in our temperaments and personalities. He enjoys the nuances that can be found from culture to culture -from the more reserved to the incredibly flamboyant. Just because some our different from our own does not make them strange or wrong (even though it can feel like that). And pretending that it’s not hard to bridge the cultural and racial gap at times is not helpful either. We have to lean into God for His eyes to see others, especially those that are different to us.
And we must commit to keep the lines of communication open between the Body of Christ, no matter what creed, race, or culture. This is how the world is meant to know that we follow Jesus -it’s by our love.
For further reading: Foreign to Familiar. This book is my all-time favorite for explaining the major differences and misunderstandings that occur between cultures. I recommend it to everyone!
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