Dealing With Cultural Differences Overseas



Last month, God used a funeral, Twitter, and random strangers to reveal some heart junk and cultural biases I'm still hanging on to after nearly three years in Cambodia.

Funerals are one of my least favorite parts of living in Cambodia. First off, someone has died {obviously}. But how Cambodians traditionally mourn is not something I have been able to adjust to.

One afternoon in January, loud temple music and chanting started broadcasting over the neighborhood, letting everyone know that someone had died about half a kilometer down the road. It went on til about 11pm. The next morning, the music and chanting began again at 4:30 am, accompanied by loads of feedback.

I tried to cover my head to drown out the noise, without avail. And I felt angry. So I tweeted, "4:30am & monks are yelling over a megaphone next door for a funeral. Not a great start to my day. Jesus help me! #Cambodia"

Thing is, when you use hash tags, it goes out to everyone in the whole world looking at #Cambodia. I quickly got a reply from someone I've never met: "aww, somebody died and is being honored in a way that is traditional in their country, where you are. so much inconvenience."

me: "funny thing is, even my Khmer friends tell me how much they dislike it [meaning, the 4:30am start time]. but we just suck it up and deal with it - part of the package!"

him: "nobody likes it. a human life ended, leaving wounds and emptiness. complaining about monks & invoking Jesus is not sucking it up"

me: "you are right. if it was my friend i'd feel different. thx for the reality check."

someone new jumps in: "welcome to cambodia. don't expect another country to change just because you're there. good morning. :)"

So what did I learn from this little exchange?

First - I'm still ethnocentric and self-centered when it comes to cultural differences {which is something I wish I knew before I moved overseas}. It amazes me that, even though I feel like I've lived in Cambodia for a "long" time, I still struggle with accepting that Cambodia is really different from America. I get angry when I'm woken up at 4:30am because it is inconvenient for me. I think, "Don't they know people are trying to sleep here?! Why can't they just wait a few hours?"

I don't try to understand why it starts so early, or why it's so important for them to have monks chanting over the dead person's spirit. I don't sit up and pray for the family that has suffered a horrible loss. All I can think about is how it affects me. And that right there is reason enough for repentance.

How do you think my Cambodian friends would feel if I'd said those words to them? Maybe they would have agreed. Maybe they'd have felt angry that I wasn't trying to understand their world more. And maybe I would have just fulfilled another stereotype of the clueless American.

When Jesus dealt with the suffering of others, he walked with them and showed them a better way, instead of being concerned of how it affected his agenda. He sought to serve, not to judge. I don't have to agree with every Cambodian tradition. But unfortunately, many times, I'm more upset about how the tradition affects me personally than what its spiritual significance is.

Second - God can use even random strangers {one of whom is a Buddhist scholar} to reveal my heart junk. When people criticize me {especially strangers or nonbelievers}, I get defensive. I think it's a natural human response, but it comes from my pride. But when I saw those texts, I remembered who I was supposed to be representing: Jesus. And I realized they were right. I was expecting Cambodia to not be...Cambodian. I was more concerned with my own comfort than my neighbors' loss. And God used complete strangers on Twitter to point out my selfishness. I read it, repented, and agreed they were right.

So how do we, as followers of Jesus, deal with cultural differences while living overseas?

First, remember that people are watching our lives. How we respond is a reflection of who Jesus is - but it's up to us whether that reflection is accurate or not. Our words and actions are so easily misinterpreted by others, especially when they come from a different culture. I learned to be much more cautious and prayerful of my words and what I put online. My Khmer friends can read it. And my American friends may read it and get a totally inaccurate picture of Cambodians.

Make an effort to understand the culture. Obviously, there are reasons why funerals happen the way they do, as well as other traditions. Honestly, it is tiring being in a place that I don't understand, and sometimes, I stop trying to learn more about Cambodia. But the minute I stop learning and growing, I'll also stop being an effective worker in my host country. And I'll lose my ability to connect with nationals and understand them.

Stop expecting Cambodia to be like America. It's not. I expect Cambodians to have the same cultural values as me, but they don't. And it doesn't mean it's better or worse; it's just different. My standard of right and wrong can't be my own traditions, but it has to be Scripture. When I hold up Scripture to both cultures, I see a lot of good and a lot of bad. I don't have to enjoy being woken up at 4:30am by chanting, but I do need to stop complaining about it. I need to accept that it has a significant place in the culture of my host country.

And - I pray for heart change. Only God can turn my self-centeredness around and put my view on those around me - their needs, their emotions, their suffering. I can have all the cultural understanding and knowledge in the world, but if I don't love the people around me, it's completely worthless. And that's what I'm praying for most all in learning to navigate cultural differences overseas.
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