When we visit a new country, especially if we are a short-term worker or on a vision trip to help our church at home understand where God is calling us to work, we fit into at least two categories. We are foreigners, true, but ideally, we also are learners. How can we look, learn, and yet not offend? After years of travel and cross-cultural living, I’ve developed a number of strategies that have helped me observe without offending.
1. Don’t arrive and take over
Take time to sit back and watch what is happening around you. Keep that camera tucked away for at least 24 hours. Watch how people interact, move, and live and think about how you can be least invasive. You are there to learn.
2. Work hard to be unobtrusive
This involves your whole person. Manners, voice, dress, body language. Research where you are going and find out what clothing is appropriate and especially what is inappropriate. Dress as conservatively as possible. Even if you are hot and uncomfortable, remember that you are the foreigner, not the local. How do people walk, move, and sit? Watch carefully for cues that will make you not stand out. I’m a very fast walker, but I have learned to stroll slowly, linked arm in arm with an Asian woman, because that is how SHE is comfortable. I’ve even learned to hold hands walking with another woman in some parts of Asia where they consider that a sign of close friendship.
Tone down your voice, especially when speaking to other foreigners. Your different language will stand out like a flag amidst a babble of another language, but your loud tone could be even more offensive.
Once three of us from SEND were traveling by train across Poland. We needed to change trains in a large train station with a local worker. He was concerned about theft because we were hauling very expensive video equipment (albeit in plain black bags). He gave us dark hats, and told us to follow him and move quickly. “Don’t speak any English,” he said. We walked swiftly through the long corridors, our friend chatting to us in Polish about who knows what. Every so often we nodded. When we boarded the new train we all fell into our closed carriage and laughed, but we had made it through unscathed, and unnoticed.
3. Shadow experienced people
Find out who is already working in that country and try to set up time to simply follow and observe them. They may be from other parts of the world, from other organizations, or very different from you theologically, but they live there and they are great resources.
4. Give yourself the grace to not like everything
Try to strike a balance between “loving everything” and “hating it all.” What you love you may find isn’t as wonderful as you thought on first blush and what you hate may grow on you over time. Or you might just learn to live with it and ignore what you don’t like. It is OK to have a split personality between two cultures/two worlds.
5. Question your questions
Learn to ask good questions that probe gently and don’t embarrass. This may mean finding out ahead of time what questions are considered embarrassing in the culture you are visiting, but mostly it means being discreet. Get people to tell stories and deduce from the stories how things work. Don’t ask “Why,” but ask “How?” or “Can you show me?” or “Could you help me understand?” Instead of telling the local workers or local people all your observations, say, “I’m observing XYZ. Is that correct?” or “How do you understand this or that situation?”
6. Be wary of blanket generalizations
Don’t base conclusions about a different culture on limited data. I’ve seen people arrive for a vision trip who “know everything” because they once had a friend from that country. Or who spend less than a week somewhere and now act as though they are experts; I’ve been lectured by people who spent five days in East Asia on how to do ministry there. Humility tells me that no matter how many times I’m in East Asia – and I’m pushing 30 years of travel in and out with months and months living there – there are many things I will never understand. This summer a conversation with two administrators showed me in a much deeper way how constrained their lives are by government regulations, and these are men I’ve worked with for a decade. While discussing something trivial, I got a huge flash of insight that left me thinking, “Wow. How little I know. How much I still have to learn.”
Next week, we’ll share how the D House internship program in Japan disciples short-termers through the challenges — and joys — of living and ministering overseas.
More about short-term trips
- Two questions to ask before a short-term trip: A solid answer to “why go” builds the foundation for a quick ministry with eternal results.
- Short-term missions resources: A collection of podcasts and videos from SEND’s Canadian office that explore best practices for short-term trips.
- Explore opportunities to serve short-term with SEND International
- Making summer plans? Check out SEND’s internship programs.