Living cross-culturally is difficult. Language and culture learning are constant companions on this journey.
At times, language learning can be a slog. It takes commitment to put in the hours needed to master a language and, like everything else, it’s a task we do before God to glorify Him.
Culture learning is just as tough. After we learnt the basics in Central Asia—like which hand to hold a teacup with or how much tea to pour into a guest’s cup (if you pour too much they will get the message that you want them to go home!)—something new would happen like a neighbour dying and then there was another whole set of cultural norms to learn.
It can be exhausting constantly trying to follow the cultural rules – some of which no one ever thought to teach you, because it’s the only way they know to do things and it has never occurred to them that others might do things differently.
And then finally a moment arrives!
You’re not really sure how you ended up there, but everything falls into place and you instinctively know all the cultural cues and ways of doing things and you feel comfortable enough to speak into someone’s life in a real way. It doesn’t happen often but when it does it makes all the language and culture learning and stress worth it.
I experienced a day like this not too long ago…
Almas’ mom brought him to visit us at our disability office a few times. He had quite a severe disability, but the first time he visited we got him playing and standing with the help of a specialised standing frame. That first day Almas’ mom left with tears in her eyes.
“The doctors told me that Almas wasn’t even human and that I needed to get rid of him at the orphanage. But you have shown me that he can play and smile and stand. You have given me hope!” she said.
Six months later, during a particularly cold winter, Almas contracted pneumonia and passed away in the hospital. I had just returned from our second home assignment when I heard the news. In my jet-lagged fog I wept.
Once again I had to ask about the cultural practices and how to appropriately send our condolences. We went to visit Almas’ mom for what is called the ‘sitting in’ – a time where we take food to the family and simply sit with the mom in her grief.
And that was the moment when all my language and cultural learning fell into place. We cried together and shared God’s love with her. We told her how much God loved Almas and how his life had had meaning. Unfamiliar food and strange tea rituals when I first arrived in the country were now so familiar that it was comforting as we shared our sorrow. Before we left she gave us permission to pray for her.
If you are starting out on the language and culture learning journey or if you have been at it a while and are feeling tired and despondent, I encourage you to persevere. To stick with it and pray for strength to continue. Keep asking questions and keep learning about the culture.
Maybe you’re not living in a different country, but you’re trying to reach a neighbour of a different culture–keep leaning in.
And perhaps you’ll find like I do, that it helps to pray and ask God to give you those moments which make it all worth it.
Beth is from the global South, and she loves the ocean and cold Christmas dinner on a hot day around the pool. She is married to an adventurer, and they have three wonderfully unique children.