How to Love People from Other Cultures

Whenever I hear someone say they have fallen in love with [insert people-group here], I cringe.  I mean, they’ve gotta be exaggerating, right?  Do they know anyone from that culture?  Have they lived there for more than 2 weeks?  How about this one…”[Moroccans/Tanzanians/Whateverans] are sooooo friendly.”  I’ve actually said this before, but now, nails on a chalkboard.

This is a touchy subject for me.  Matt and I have not done a great job of loving the people around us.  It has not come easily.  And though we are conscious of the barriers we erect between ourselves and those from other cultures, we find ourselves doing it over and over.  People like us = comfortable, easy; People not like us = awkward, difficult.

I should have figured this out about myself long ago when I got a substantial case of culture shock moving from North Carolina to DC (who were those uber-political, inside-the-beltway Hill staffers anyway?).  Then, the first week in Tanzania, I locked myself in the bedroom and watched out the window as Tanzanian women walked down the road with fruit on their heads.  I bit each nail down to the quick.  Those Hill staffers became my friends, and by the way, not a day goes by that I don’t think about Tanzanians with the utmost fondness.  But Rome was not built in a day.  And maybe Rome is a strong word because we are still in the burbs, looking towards downtown and longing for the day when culture will not matter.

Refreshingly, cultural differences don’t matter much among kids.

But while this is a touchy subject, it is also one I am passionate about.  We’ve accumulated a string of international friends and each friendship has caused us to rejoice.  There is something about connecting with another human being from across the planet that is cause for celebration.  By now, I almost crave the international community and the joy it brings.  Politics and theological differences are stripped away and we are simply people, made and loved by God.

It only takes one thing.  It’s easy to assume you are worlds apart from someone who looks or speaks differently from you. For me, this is especially true when I see someone who is dressed in non-western clothing.  The first time I ever saw a woman with her head covered was at college.  My first thought was, “She looks strange.” My second thought was, “We obviously have nothing in common.”  Now, of course, this seems silly to me.  Muslim women surround me everyday and surprise(!), they are a lot like American women. I have lots in common with these “normal” women, like dealing with temper tantrums and cursing bad drivers.

It only takes one thing in common to break a cultural barrier.  I had an acquaintance from Brazil that I kept at arm’s length for a while until I found out we are both urban planners.  I felt silly that I wasted time feeling like there was no common ground.  There’s a West African woman I watched from a distance for a while.  She’s delightful.  We have daughters about the same age and she has a hardy, contagious laugh.  Her husband is one of Matt’s favorite people here.  And there’s a Columbian woman who looks a lot like my mom, so naturally, I think we are best friends (although I don’t think she agrees).  Find that one thing in common and build from there.

We both like tea!

It only takes one person.  If you are living as an expat, it’s easy to get down on the culture where you are living.  Even if you try to focus on the positive aspects of a foreign culture, there will many days that you feel like you just cannot muster the energy.  Observations become annoyances and annoyances become generalizations and generalizations become barriers.  But here is the thing.  It only takes one person to redeem an entire culture in the eyes of a skeptic.  Everyone needs to let that one person speak for his or her culture.

In Tanzania, our gardener, Issa, was that one person we could trust.  He explained all the funny Tanzanianisms to us.  We laughed about Americanisms.  When others around us were trying to take advantage of us, he made sure we were treated fairly. In Morocco, it’s Malika, our house help.  She takes pride in her work.  She has the utmost integrity.  I can and do trust her with everything.  When I leave this place, I will remember Moroccans by Malika and I am certain that Morocco owes a debt to her for this.

A rare moment.

It takes practice.  Being out of your comfort zone is way unfun.*  I’m convinced though, that there’s such a thing as being comfortable with being uncomfortable.  I hate starting that first conversation.  I hate realizing that a conversation requires hard work.  But if you practice enough, the awkwardness becomes more bearable.  And maybe less noticeable.  In all likelihood, you have to keep working and working to know someone beyond the surface, but the good news is that if you know someone, it’s much easier to love them too.  

The cool thing is that you don’t even have to know the same language to communicate love.  Sometimes, basic hand gestures, or a touch, is all that is needed.  When I visited Indonesia, I couldn’t speak the language, but I could understand a small girl when she told me I was prettier when wearing my head covering.  I might have disagreed, but she pinned my hair up like a local and attached my scarf in just the right way.  I will remember that forever.  

It takes a silly game.  My brother Jack plays a game on vacation that makes us all laugh (except for my brother Andy.  Andy doesn’t think it’s funny).  Jack locates someone in a public place and names a friend or family member that resembles that person.  In 95% of the cases, there is little resemblance, but for some reason, it’s hilarious anyway.  I do that in Morocco.  I pass people on the street and try to think of someone they resemble.  And suddenly, Moroccans don’t seem so foreign anymore.

Hey look, it’s my Uncle John!

Hey look, it’s my brother Andy!

Do it with Grace.  And lastly, all of your intercultural encounters should be filled with grace.  And then whatever grace you can muster, add more grace onto that and it should be about right.  Someone may not respond in the way you hope.  They might call you fat (or ugly without your head scarf).  They might try to take your brown sugar (true story).  So do it with grace.  The rewards will not disappoint you.  

*My virtual dictionary tells me that “unfun” is not a word, but I beg to differ.