For the last few summers, my friend Kathy has traveled to Ethiopia on a short-term mission with her church. The other day, she mentioned that her church trained the travelers to absorb the Ethiopian culture through this filter: Is it wrong? Or is it just different?
I wish I’d had that filter when our family first moved to Hong Kong and I was reeling from culture shock. One morning, I remember trying, numerous times, to get into an elevator. I grew more and more indignant as people shoved past me to get into the elevator and then the doors would close. Again and again. It took me a while, but I finally “got it.” In a crowded Asian city, you don’t wait politely for your turn. You go!
But here was the real lesson: It wasn’t personal. It wasn’t wrong. It was just different from a westernized “queue” of waiting your turn for an elevator.
Kathy’s comment applies to more than advice for overseas traveling. “That thought has helped me in countless ways,” she said. “It’s even helped my marriage. When my husband does something I don’t like or I don’t understand, I’ve started to ask myself if it was really so wrong . . . or just different from how I would have handled it.”
What struck me about Kathy’s comment was that it provided a frame to developing tolerance, something that has become a rather complicated topic in today’s world. Some things are wrong. Most things are just different.
The tricky part is knowing which is which.
What about you? Have you traveled to another country and experienced culture shock? Looking back, was it wrong? Or was it different? Would love to hear your memory!
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Yes! That is also what we were taught when we went to Haiti in March (I linked to the story if you’d like to read it). Other cultures are so different than we are and that doesn’t make it wrong. If we required every American to go on a mission trip to a third world country, we would have an entirely different attitude here in the States. It is the most eye opening thing I’ve ever done. It’s one thing to see poverty beyond belief on tv but it’s entirely something else to physically touch it and feel it. And you can’t ever be the same. You just can’t.
Mel–Thank you for your comment! I don’t see the link but I’d like to read your story. Loved your remark about requiring every American to travel to a 3rd World Country! Definitely transforms you. Warmly, Suzanne
My husband I were stationed in Germany in the mid sixties. The war hadn’t been over all that long and the Germans really really didn’t like us still being in their country. I didn’t leave the base very often for that reason. One day I ventured out and I needed to go to an upper floor in a building. I pushed the button for the elevator and then realized too late that pushing the button stopped the elevator…completely. I could see people’s heads and I didn’t understand German…but it didn’t take much to realize how mad they were. I used the stairs from then on, smile.
LOVED that story, Sandi! I didn’t know you had been stationed in Germany. So much to learn about you!
My husband visited Germany many years ago. Two Americans not speaking German trying to find the right train to board. Oh my! Luckily, a nice British gentleman was very kind. Life goes on all around you and sometimes, no one takes the time to help when there is a need. I guess we all need to be more mindful of others.
Thanks, Melanie! Love hearing your memories.