Everyone in this village knows more about hygiene than we do, we have lately discovered. While we were washing and swimming in the stream any old place, there were rules, it turns out: wash clothes downstream, where the forest creek runs into the crocodile river. Bathe in the middle. Draw water for drinking up above the village. In Kilanga, these are matters of religious observance, they are baptism and communion. Even defecation is ruled by African gods, who command that we use only the bushes that Tata Kuvudundu has sanctified for those purposes -- and believe you me, he chooses bushes far away from the drinking water. Our latrine was probably neutral territory, but on the points of bathing and washing we were unenlightened for the longest time. We have offended all the oldest divinities, in every thinkable way. "Tata Nzolo!" we sing, and I wonder what new, disgusting sins we commit each day, holding our heads high in sacred ignorance while our neighbors gasp, hand to mouth.
~The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
The Poisonwood Bible is a challenging book, especially for Christians. Reading it to some degree requires a swallowing of one's pride, as it is never fun to see one's faith described in an unflattering way, and it is easy to get offended and fail to catch her broader point. Kingsolver doesn't paint cross-cultural mission work in the most positive of lights, but she is also intentionally going to the extreme, and for me the book is useful as an instructions manual in reverse -- what not to do. The story follows the Price family on their journey from Georgia to the Congo in 1959 with the well-intentioned, though very poorly executed, goal of bringing the "Word of God" to a remote corner of Africa.
On their first night in their new village, Nathan Price alienates his new neighbors by ruining the welcome feast with a fiery sermon about the sinfulness of nakedness (a common practice in the village, where the women were frequently topless), but demonstrates a remarkable level of ignorance to the offensiveness of his family's own habit of the women wearing pants -- an unthinkable practice in this culture. As things progress, Nathan becomes so obsessed with baptizing the locals in the river and hence proving they are "converted," that he fails to observe the fact that no one gets in the river due to the crocodiles. As a result, the villagers begin to believe that Nathan wants to kill their children, as they can think of no other plausible reason for his insistence that they get into the river.
Nothing is as it seems in Africa for the Price family. Nathan arrogantly goes to Africa with a belief that his ways are far superior to the local ways and that he is doing them a favor by shedding light on their darkness. What he fails to learn is that he does not know it all and that his beliefs and culture cannot be simply carried to Africa as one carries luggage on a plane and set-up in an exact replica of "back home." Life is far too complex and far too different in Africa for that; his downfall is his refusal to learn instead of teach.
I've come to learn that as Americans we often like to believe that we do not have a culture. We prize our independent minds and ways and often believe that we are truly individual in everything we think and do, not realizing that this in and of itself is a sign of our culture. Another thing I've noticed, unique to the Christian community, is that without really thinking about it, we often assume that our American expression of Christianity can be duplicated and replicated around the world with very few changes to its format, method, or practices; and, I venture to say, many of us believe the way we live out our Christian faith is the right way and that others would do well to follow suit. Please don't misinterpret this as a criticism; none of us hold beliefs that we know to be false, so naturally we all tend to think we are "right" to some degree. The trick is to hold on to the non-essential beliefs lightly, so that we can easily adapt and change to circumstances as they present themselves.
As Jacob and I prepare to move to China, this is a challenge of which we are aware. We desire to live as closely to the Chinese as we can and to accept their way of life and their practices as our own. The challenge is doing it! (Jacob will be better than me, as he is naturally more of a quiet observer.) In our past experience, it has proved very difficult, as learning a new culture is not an easy thing to do. I remember one light-hearted example... in our hotel room, Jacob and I would walk around in our bare feet or in our socks. One afternoon, one of our Chinese friends (who previously hadn't been around many Americans) was in our room, and she was shocked that we would do something so dirty! She encouraged us to wear the slippers that were provided in the room for just that purpose. Another funny example has to do with squatty potties -- Americans tend to think they are very dirty, while the Chinese tend to think Western style toilets are dirty since they require you to sit on something that another person has sat on. We've had other experiences that were not so trivial, but I won't rehash those here.
So, one prayer request that we have is that we will have wisdom, patience, and grace to learn the culture we are moving into. We desire that God opens our eyes to the invisible cultural undercurrent of what is going on around us and constantly reminds us that we are the ones who need to adjust, not the other way around. We never want to be seen as "holding our heads high in sacred ignorance while our neighbors gasp, hand to mouth," but we'll need His help to accomplish this.