Vines and Bifocals: Realizing Cultural Differences 

   “We seldom realize, for example that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.” ― Alan W. Watts

 

I love that Quote! There is SO much truth packed into it. We are (so much more than we realize) a product of the culture from which we come. It forms us, teaches us to do things a certain way, shows us what “normal” is “supposed” to look like. And that is important! Culture helps to give us structure and guidance. But the important thing is to realize that no culture is perfect. Each one has its pros and cons, ups and downs, rights and wrongs, and that “Normal” is subjective. Realizing that and living as a missionary in another country (a bicultural life), I have to learn to understand, act, and think in 2 different ways(cultures).

This is a struggle for me in many ways. Because of the culture I was raised in, certain “standards”, “normals”, and preconceived ideas are woven into the very fiber of who I am. (Not that they are wrong, just the awareness that they exist is what is important here. ) In the woods behind my childhood home, we had these vines that would grow on the trees, grow with the trees. Weaving in and out, winding around and around. Growing almost as one with the tree. Now, they weren’t actually the tree, but they had grown together and become so intertwined, that by the time the tree had grown to be fairly mature, it was as if the tree and the vines were one. And at that point they were basically inseparable. And while it was still undoubtedly an Oak Tree or a Pine, the tree had been shaped and molded from the weight and strength of the vines.

We are the tree, and the vine is the culture we grew up in. While culture can’t define who we are personality wise or character wise (that’s God’s area), it does become such an ingrained part of our being that it defines how we act, move, and think, and react, based on the weight and form of the culture. As I said before, this is not wrong. What is important is to recognize that we have a certain vine, and that it is not the only type(nor the only correct type) of vine in existence.

Ok, point taken, we have a vine. I have a vine. The thing is, because of that vine, without even knowing it, I am going to act/react in completely the opposite way of the culture here. Or not have any Idea how to act/react at all. Here, they have a totally different vine. One that I know nothing about. One that often makes no sense to me whatsoever. And this makes it very difficult for me to grasp many of their perceptions.

Sometimes communication is very frustrating. Sometimes our feelings get hurt. Sometimes we get angry. The cultural barrier is huge. And all because we don’t see things the same way. We need glasses. Bifocals to be exact. We need to be able to see through the lenses of 2 different cultures. Without bias. Without pride. With God.

The problem with these lenses is that they don’t come pre-made. We have to make them ourselves. We start out with one lense( our culture), and then slowly, over time, by asking questions, studying, making mistakes, praying, and living in the new culture, we begin to form a second set of lenses that go right alongside our originals. Now, they’re not flawless, and they’ll always be changing as we learn more, but they are vitally important.
     

 So regardless of whether it’s them communicating to/misunderstanding me, or me communicating to/misunderstanding them, we all have different perceptions and powers. And what matters is not that we have them, but how we choose to use them. 

Know that it is ok to not understand, to feel bothered by things you start to notice in your/their culture, to like something better in their culture than in yours and vice versa. The important thing is that no matter what our vine looks like or how developed our bifocals are, we are all equally important In The eyes of our Father. And it is through Him, and only Him, that we can bridge the gaps between our differences and grow together with our Brothers and Sisters in Him.

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