I had a bit of a revelation the other night about cultural insight. This post is an excerpt from a letter I wrote to my youth group explaining what I learned. I hope you blog followers find it interesting as well.
I wanted to tell you guys some things about culture that I think you'll find interesting. One of the most important things to remember if you ever go out on the mission field, or even just a trip is that things are going to be different. When I was an exchange student it was explained to us like this: It's not necessarily better or worse than in America, it's just different.
Learning about other people's cultures is extremely important. Through learning about this, it's possible to connect with people on their own level, one that they understand. I include language learning in this. Language and Culture are intertwined and it's impossible to separate them. I encourage you all to, even if it's a short term mission, learn as much of the language as you can before you go. It will make you more effective and people will appreciate that you've taken the time to learn about them.
Also, don't be afraid to make mistakes or ask questions. It's all part of the learning process. When I was an exchange student, I was often afraid of speaking up. I didn't want to sound silly or dumb. I was afraid of being judged for not knowing anything if I admitted I was wrong. This time around though, I'm much more open. If I don't understand, I'll say so. If there's a word I don't know, I'll ask what it means. In some ways, my learning experience here in St. Petersburg is a lot richer in only two weeks than probably half of my exchange just because I'm trying to open up and connect with people, even when my language skills are lacking.
Let me give you another example. This time dealing with how things can be different. I recently had a conversation with one of the brothers here, Dima. He was explaining to me that a Fire Inspector was coming on Friday and how it might be necessary to essentially pay him what we Americans would consider a bribe. I said that things like that often happened in Russia and that I thought it was strange and dishonest. He then informed me that things Americans do seem strange to Russians. I asked him for examples and he cited things like taking each other to court all the time and whistle blowing if someone is breaking the law. An interesting cultural thing he pointed out was that often Americans will say "Maybe" when they mean "no" I was kind of mentally laughing when he said "It's dishonest." That made me stop and think.
I like to think of myself as culturally aware. But I'm still American and embedded in that culture as well. Sometimes I think we (and I include myself in this) tend to look down on people because they don't have the same ideas that we do about life, freedoms, security, government and so on. We might say "Oh it's wrong for the Russians to have to pay bribes to pass fire inspections and they should have the same ideas about basic rights as we do" but if you stop for a moment and look at the historical events that have shaped each culture it makes perfect sense why each country feels the way it does.
America was a state founded by people who were trying to escape oppression. When they set up the government, they wanted to make sure the oppression they escaped from wouldn't happen again. Because of this, they wrote out the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. The ideals that every man had basic rights and freedoms was extremely important to them and became embedded in American culture. They felt that the government's job was to serve the people, not the other way around.
Russia has always been a country where the government was the be all, end all. The people were to serve the government not the other way around. In earlier times, the Tsars ruled. These monarchs were seen as fatherly figures whose job it was, as head of the "household" to make decisions. Father knows best as it were. Later on, during Communist times, telling on people meant you were working with the repressive government. It was necessary to pay bribes to get things done. Everyone was supposed to cooperate in order to build a utopian society.
What I'm trying to say is that we, not just Americans, but everyone need to be respectful and understanding of other cultures. Does it mean we have to deny who we are culturally and take on characteristics of other societies? No. We just need to understand that people have different values and we need to be respectful of those values when we interact. Remember, it's not better or worse it's just different.
Keep on keeping on!