Recently we had a chance to talk to some folks just preparing to go out as cross-culture workers. What a joy it was to have a part in preparing them for what they would face on the field. That made me think about what some of their greatest challenges would be. As we all know, there are few things more challenging than learning to live and serve effectively in a host culture. Just thinking back to our early years and first posting can give us the shakes! How did we ever manage? And how did our new friends tolerate us? Ultimately it was, and is Father’s faithfulness.
Some years ago I did a little informal survey of some PWs. Their answers fell into nine categories. I thought it might be a good time to take another look at these challenges. Keep in mind as you look at them, that many of these are stresses we, as workers, cannot change. We find ways to adapt and adjust our expectations. This isn’t bad, but it takes work on our part and grace from our Father- lots of it.Common Challenges of Cross Cultural Life
When our schedule is not under our control, it is difficult to do all the tasks we consider important. We feel like we steal time from our family and other personal relationships, and that leaves PWs open to bitterness and isolation. Time seems to evaporate in tropical heat. Heavy traffic, crowds, and sudden downpours make every errand take longer than expected. Time management is a huge challenge whether we are new on the field or old timers.
We all immediately think of learning a new language. But even if English is the common language, the way it is spoken, the addition of dialect words, accents, and local usage can lead to some serious misunderstandings. After many years in this country we still do not know what “just opposite” means when someone gives us directions. Communicating our message of hope in culturally relevant ways is a major challenge. Communicating our needs and expectations with those we work with can be another challenge. We may look the same on the outside, but we are so, so different.
Often we do not notice cultural norms and cues until we make a mistake. Who knew that people would be offended by the colors one wears to a funeral or wedding, and would see us as bringers of bad luck? How about patting a child’s head? Or taking a picture of a sweet old lady? How long is long enough, but not too long, to stay when visiting a neighbor? Which hand do you use to pass money, or to pick up your food? Do you need to learn to eat a sandwich with a fork and knife or get chicken off a bone with a fork and spoon? It’s a jungle out there – even in a city!
We need money to do the work. Sometimes folks back home send their support late, yet we still must make ends meet. After years on the field, monthly reports, and regular home visits, some sending organizations and supporters still don’t understand that it costs many times more to live on some fields than it does back home. Getting money into and out of some countries can take whole days and cost a significant part of the amount being transferred. All of us know stories about workers who paid duty for a package of used clothing that was more than the clothes were worth.
Isolation/Lack of Privacy
Wives who care for their children while their husband goes to language school top the list of isolated workers. Single women in fields without a supportive team often feel very isolated. Electronic communication helps many workers feel less isolated. But what about those where internet access is extremely slow or non-existent?
Then, there is the almost total lack of privacy that is a very real challenge to many PWs. Many communities do not understand our craving for privacy. Even team members do not understand it sometimes.
New Local Friends
We need to help them understand that just because we come from a rich country doesn’t mean we are rich and can buy them everything they need. Helping our local friends find and establish their own identity is tricky. Teaching them that we are only there as support personnel until they can take our place is very important, but also difficult.
That is never easy, and for some of us requires extra grace. Waiting to see the fruits of our labors is hard, especially when folks back home want to see numerical results. Waiting for national workers to mature and take the lead seems to take forever. Waiting for others to “catch the vision” drives us crazy. If only they could catch the vision as easy as they catch a cold.
So much for the spiritual side; now for the physical. We wait in long lines for shopping, banking, immigration- everything! Feels like such a waste of time. Waiting for our child’s fever to subside can fill our minds with all kinds of fear when we know medical care is hours or days away. Waiting is a challenge when clothes won’t dry because of non-stop rain for three weeks. We will always have to wait, so it’s better if we just embrace it.
We need to stay healthy to complete our race. Disease carrying mosquitoes, contaminated water, polluted air, not enough rest, and no fresh fruits or vegetables make staying healthy a challenge. One lady had to deal with two bouts of hepatitis that kept her in bed two out of four years on the field! In one country where we served, my jogging nearly caused a panic in our compound. Our students wanted to know what was chasing me, or what I was chasing. I had to rely on climbing the steps to our apartment to keep me physically fit.
Our priorities and limitations seem to be in a pitched battle sometimes. Living cross culturally magnifies the struggle. One young woman in China was overwhelmed by the need for people to hear and respond to the message. She could hardly ride a bus or walk down a street without being overcome by grief for the lost. She needed to remember her priorities and the limits of her calling. No one of us can meet all the needs that surround us. But each of us doing our part will accomplish the task set before us.
Facing challenges is part of our calling, so we need to be able to sort out which of these challenges we can do something about. Is there another way to do our job that would cause less stress? Would it help to look at some of these stressors as coming directly from the Father’s hand? You might have the most meaningful conversation of the day while you stand in a long line. Pray about each challenge and watch for improvement. Your faith will grow.
Whether you have managed your stress well today or blown your top, no one understands your challenges like Jesus. Be encouraged as you remember our Greatest Example of a cross culture worker.