Matt Jones, Missionary to Thailand
In the last CGO article, we spent 1354 words illustrating the reality that when you interact with missionary kids on campus at BJU, it’s pretty common for their insides to not match their outsides. MKs have spent a lifetime on the mission field learning what’s “normal, expected, and appropriate behavior” while kids growing up in the States have spent their lifetime learning how to operate within the cultural norms and boundaries of American society.
Those of you who have traveled outside the U.S. for missions trips or family vacations understand clearly that American culture emphasizes customs, traditions and values that are very different than even neighboring countries like Canada and Mexico. When MKs spend their developmental years outside the boundaries of the continental U.S., the way they approach life will naturally be quite similar to the way people in their host country approach life.
When you see a new international student from Haiti staring wide-eyed at all the choices on the Chick-fil-a menu in the Den, don’t get impatient if they have to take a few extra seconds to order. Similarly, don’t think it’s all that unusual when you see a group of Chinese students grilling bacon and cooking noodles in a hot pot at the gazebo. You might not like the smell of kimchee, but you can tell Korean students love their fermented cabbage. For them, it’s one of the few reminders of “home” and a life they’ve left behind.
So why is it so easy to give grace and be patient when international students on campus at BJU do things that are “different” or “out of place”? Simple answer: Their outsides match their insides. You don’t (or shouldn’t) expect them to know what you know. You don’t (or shouldn’t) expect them to act like you act. You don’t (or shouldn’t) expect them to enjoy the exact same things that you enjoy. When you see them, the differences in their appearance or accent rightfully elicits a sense of compassion and understanding because you realize their background and culture are very different than yours. You understand that they don’t understand all you understand, and you understand that you don’t understand all that they understand.
Simply put, we don’t hold international students to the same set of cultural expectations that we do for those who grow up around us in our American culture.
**Enter missionary kids from stage left**
MKs arriving on campus probably just got off the same plane from Tokyo or Lima or Frankfurt that brought the international students to the States, but our expectations for these two groups are vastly different. When we see them unpacking their stuff in their dorm room, we don’t expect the MKs to be struggling with culture shock. We don’t expect the MKs to be craving the exotic foods they’ve eaten their whole lives which are now only available at Sirin Thai for $10 a plate. We don’t expect the MKs to be struggling to figure out how to use a credit card or pump gas at QT. On the other hand, we DO expect them to know what we know and think like we think. We DO expect them to be able to talk about baseball or American football or the NBA. We DO expect them to be able to order a triple shot dirty chai latte at Cuppa Jones or Bridge City Coffee.
Why do we expect these things? Because these are things that most American college students have been doing for years.
So, let me ask you a question: when someone doesn’t live up to your expectations, what happens to your opinion of them? When someone stands way to close to you when they’re talking, how does that make you feel? When someone pulls out in front of you in traffic after not coming to a complete stop at a stop sign, what’s your reaction? Disappointment? Frustration? Anger? You EXPECTED them to stop because that’s the rule of law; but for one reason or another, they chose to not follow the norms of society. There was an expectation that they would behave in a certain way, and they failed to live up to that expectation. Have you ever considered how many cultural expectations you place on people around you without even thinking about it? We have hundreds of unspoken expectations in American society regarding things like etiquette, personal space, manners, behavior, and the way we dress.
**Enter missionary kids from stage right**
As MKs are learning to navigate and embrace the U.S. culture, it’s really easy for them to step on cultural landmines that can defy our personal expectations of behavior. Maybe in their host country, nobody EVER stops at stop signs so neither do they. Maybe in their host country, people have no concept or appreciation for personal space, so they stand a bit too close when they’re chatting with you. Maybe in their host country, liking cats isn’t considered deplorable behavior. I know—gross, right? Totally unthinkable, but it’s true that in some remote, back-woods, underdeveloped pagan corners of the world, people allow cats to coexist in their presence.
So, what can you do as a red-blooded-mono-cultural-American to help build bridges between where the MKs are coming from to where they are now as undergrad students at Bob Jones University? Good question.
Four Ways to Build Bridges with MKs on Campus
1. Be a Cultural Translator.
Take time to help MKs understand the “whys” behind the things that Americans think is normal. In conversations, double back from time to time just to make sure they are on the same page you’re on. Take time to ask them “Does that make sense?”. If you notice things that they do that are out of the ordinary that might offend some people, explain it to them. They’ll likely welcome the input.
2. Ask Them Tons of Questions.
Take time to try to understand the “whys” behind the things they think are normal. Ask lots of questions about where they grew up. Ask them about their favorite foods and favorite experiences. Ask them what they miss most about their mission field. Ask them when they’ll get to see their family again or travel back to their “home” overseas. Ask them what’s hardest about being in the States.
These types of questions might feel a bit awkward at first because we often reserve questions like these for deeper friendships or until we’ve known each other for a long time. For many reasons, most MKs LOVE to jump right into this level of conversation, so just go for it and don’t be shocked when they ask these sorts of questions about you!
3. Don’t Assume Anything.
Even when they give the impression that they’ve mastered the U.S. culture, realize that MKs are pretty good at being Cultural Chameleons. MKs have amazing skills at adapting in social settings based on who they are with, and just because they laughed at your joke, it doesn’t mean they “got” it.
Also realize that things that might seem harmless to you like touching their heads or putting your feet on their beds might be really upsetting to them.
4. Make the Effort to Find Them.
Ask them from time to time if they need help with practical stuff like getting to Walmart or the grocery store. Invite an MK to a meal once a week. Check in with them weekly and give them a safe place to just talk. Don’t worry about having the right answers or the right words to say; just listening is golden.
MKs on the BJU campus often function like Hidden Immigrants. Physically, they may not look or sound like international students, but they bring to campus a very multi-cultural background that may cause them to color outside the cultural lines of the U.S. society. Rather than interpreting this behavior as strange or antisocial, take time to reach out to them through conversations, meals, and kindness.
Working to build bridges to and from MKs on campus is a rich and rewarding endeavor that will likely create some of your best and most fulfilling lifelong friendships!
Shadrach Nyeko, BJU Seminary Student
Before going to the States for the first time in 2013, I had a lot of expectations that may not have been very accurate. For example, the picture I had in mind concerning the entire United States was that of New York City—skyscrapers everywhere and busy streets full of people! But when I got off the plane in Memphis, Tennessee, I knew that I was wrong. For me, and probably for most new international students, coming to the States was extremely exciting. But that excitement is not without some measure of anxiety and fear of the unknown. So, what should you expect as an incoming international student? And how can you engage the American culture in such a way as to impact and be impacted for the glory of Christ?
Expect some cultural differences.
As you interact and observe American life and culture, expect that some things are going to be different from your own culture; and that is okay. The food is going to taste a little different. I had to get used to eating cheese in almost every food. Expect to be a little bit overwhelmed by the sheer volume of options at any given restaurant. Let a friend help you. The American idea of personal space might be surprising. As a general rule, Americans expect a lot more personal space and label more stuff as personal. So, the best thing to do is to always ask before using an item that does not belong to you. Time management might be stricter. No need to get discouraged by these differences. Embrace what is required of you.
Interact with people.
Don’t isolate yourself. It is very easy to take the easy way out and stand aloof, uninvolved, and unconcerned. But the benefits to that approach are few as compared to engaging and interacting with people—all kinds of people. Perhaps you have found a friend with whom you share a common culture. The tendency is to hang out with only that friend to the exclusion of anybody else. Isolating yourself, whether individually or in a closed group of your comfort, will prove to be detrimental in the long run, and it will not give you the opportunity to maximumly impact the people God has put around you, or to grow to your full potential in all aspects of life.
Learn by observation.
When you interact with people around you—whether its in class, in the dorms, during co-curricular activities like sports and music, in restaurants, or in church—, you get the opportunity to observe what the norms are. As a result, you don’t feel out of place after a while. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Also, in most cases, you can google words, phrases, or idiomatic sayings that you don’t understand. Sometimes people speak with movie references, so if it sounds appropriate, you can google those for the context too. Be careful, however, not to copy everything you see or hear. Use your common sense and Biblical convictions to sort through the things you observe.
Focus on your academic task.
It is easy to become so busy with the numerous activities on and off campus and, consequently, devote less time to academics. This can be detrimental because as a student, your first priority is your studies. You are fully responsible for getting all your work done within the given deadlines. This means that you will have to pick and choose what you can and cannot do. I personally felt pressed for time playing for the collegiate soccer team, coupled with ministry class and church-related responsibilities. In hindsight, however, I feel like that experience prepared me well for my incredibly busy life right now (planting a church and trying to make progress on a PhD). You will have to plan well for your time, not neglecting time for rest and time for prayer.
Recognize your Christian responsibility.
Wherever you are, as long as you are a believer, you possess the privilege and responsibility to continue growing spiritually and to help others to do the same. You are still responsible for making disciples even when you have assignments pending. This means that you cannot afford to just find a comfortable pace and coast your way through. Survival is not the end game. Attempt to make an impact for Christ by living out an exemplary Christian testimony. Find a local church and commit yourself to doing any work of the ministry that is available. Reach out and be a blessing to someone. The rewards will not be insignificant.
In the end, all people are just people. There is no need to get caught up in the cultural differences. God’s grace is ever-present and sufficient to enable you to thrive even as an international student. Remember to enjoy your time in college—make friends, laugh, do fun things (that are acceptable). Consider your time at BJU to be a gift from God!
Lea Ann Wright, iFace Staff
Lea Ann is a staff of InterFace Ministries, an organization that seeks to serve international students in the US. She has interacted with and ministered to many international students from all over the world right here in Greenville, SC.
From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. (Acts 17:26-27, NIV)
Through increased mobility and technology, the world is getting “smaller.” Today, you can learn and experience the joy of cross-cultural friendship right where you are! God is calling once again to His people, “Whom will I send, and who will go for me?” Who will reach out across culture and language to love these neighbors on your campus, in your community, and at your job? Sometimes the hardest part is just knowing how to start. Here are some simple tips for building a cross-cultural friendship.
International students leave everything familiar; for some, it will be the first time in their lives they have been away from their family, friends, the comfort of knowing their community & culture, food, and language. It is an exciting time of their lives but also one with stress and fear. Culture shock, homesickness, and the challenges of studying in English often create a crisis point. This is a wonderful opportunity for us to demonstrate the love of Jesus through friendship, Biblical hospitality, and practical service. Having a caring, Christian friend to help them through these difficulties can create a life-long impression and is a great way for them to experience the living Christ at a point of deep need.
Have open eyes to see the internationals that God has placed around you—dorm, classes, student center, cafeteria, library, etc. Then smile and say hello! Your smile will go a long way to helping them feel welcomed. Introduce yourself and ask them how they are doing. Express your interest in learning more about them. Understand that English will probably not be their first language, so speak clearly and more slowly. Your patience and a smile will be encouraging when communication is difficult. Exchange contact information (cell #, email, WhatsApp, etc.) and follow up! Invite them to meet for coffee, have a meal, or join your study group.
Build a bridge across the Cultural Gap.
Learn to appreciate new cultures and ways of life. What are some things from their culture you can learn about or experience? As you show a genuine interest in what is foreign to yourself, you will begin to realize that there are many ways to bridge the gap: learn their real name and a few words in their language. Take them to a restaurant where their home food is served and expose your taste buds to various dishes. Eat the way they eat (learn how to use chopsticks!). Invite them over to your place and cook with them. More than anything else, ask lots of questions. Have fun and enjoy the fellowship!
As you expose yourself to what you are not used to, help them to do the same—invite them to experience the American culture. Take them to places with your friends. Maybe they have never been to Cookout or Taco Bell. Teach them new words and games. Do you know that many of them might have never played a boardgame before? Explain the differences when discussing a topic, because some things we talk about in the US might not be as popular in other countries as other things. As you continue to build friendships, why not invite them over to your home during holidays? You would be surprised to find out that Thanksgiving and Christmas are not that big of a deal in other parts of the world.
Through the Friendship Partner program, we (iFace) were able to connect many people together. A Muslim international student told me this:
“When I heard you speak about the Friendship Partner program, I thought, ‘Yes, I need someone to help me find my way around this new campus and city—someone who can help me understand these American phrases that I keep hearing people use, and someone to help me understand this new culture which is so very different than mine.’ But what I didn’t realize is that I would be meeting someone who would become my best friend. We have shared so many experiences and had so many talks about the things that really matter. I am graduating and moving away, but I will always take her with me in my heart. We are friends forever.”
Could God be calling you to join Him in befriending the international students on your campus or in the Greenville community? In her book Crossing Cultures with Jesus: Sharing the Good News with Sensitivity and Grace, Katie Rawson says that she believes, as in the book of Isaiah, God is asking us: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us (Isaiah 6:8)?” (pg. 12). She says that by following the incarnational model of Jesus as we listen to and depend on Him, we are enabled by the Spirit to make sharing our faith a normal part of living in union with Christ. (pg. 14).
Jesus said that they will know you are my disciples by your love. An atheist international student said, “I’ve been in the U.S. for nearly two months. What impressed me most is these Christian friends. I can strongly feel their love for other people. I am not religious, but I am moved by these friendly guys who love people from the bottom of their hearts.”
By God’s grace, will you reach out to internationals around you?
It has been a joyful adventure making friends from around the world serving with iFace. If you are interested in learning more or serving with iFace, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.