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!
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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.