Cross Cultural

My work (and my interests) call me into very different cultures within the geographical scope of my city and county.  While traditionally cross-cultural has been a term largely dealing with ethnic cultural differences, my cross cultural experiences are not determined on the basis of ethnicity.  Much attention has been placed on how America as a melting pot (traditionally) or a collection of independent cultural traditions (more recently) not only fosters cross cultural interactions it is almost synonymous with the idea.  What I hear less frequently is talk about cross cultural experiences that are not defined by ethnicity or differences in geographical heritage, but just very different groups of people that may share a common ethnicity and genealogical background.

Each week I work in the jail, teaching Christian basics to 18 or so men ranging in age from probably 18 to 60.  They span a diverse set of ethnic backgrounds, to be sure.  But my cross-cultural experience with them is not determined by their ethnicity, but by the jail culture.  They are part of it.  i am not.  Some of them are new to it but they are still more versed in the culture than I am.  Yet I am called to bring the Gospel to these people across the cultural boundary of incarceration that separates them from me.  Aiding me in this is the fact that most of these men are not solely part of jail culture.  They have participated in aspects of my non-incarcerated culture, whereas my participation in the jail culture is highly artificial and regulated compared to theirs.  We can communicate mostly because they share more of my culture and are therefore able to understand me.  I continue to learn their culture so that I can communicate more effectively.
But part of the human aspect of cross-cultural work is the desire for acceptance.  The desire for belonging.  It is this desire that keeps many people from engaging in cross-cultural experiences at all – the idea of feeling on the outside is terrifying and depressing.  It’s much more gratifying to remain ensconced in a culture where one’s place has been defined and that definition is an agreeable one.  To take on an undefined -or negatively defined – definition in a different culture is inherently unappealing.  Nobody likes to feel like the outsider.
Necessarily those moments of belonging are fleeting at best, at least initially.  I love moments in the jail where we can all laugh at something together because it is a moment of cross-cultural acceptance and unity.  Similar to those moments when I can see that someone has gotten the idea I’m trying to get across and is now processing it either internally or out loud in questions and discussion.  
One of my other cross cultural areas is the bar pool league I play in each week.  I started that two years ago, took a year off, and returned to it over the summer.  For me it’s too often a guilty pleasure.  I feel as though it can’t really be considered part of my job because I enjoy it – though it could easily be said to be missional!   Also, it takes time away from my family, and when more and more of my time is absorbed with work, time away from family is painful.  But I love pool, and it places me in the midst of people that I wouldn’t otherwise be spending time with most likely.  It seems like an ideal meeting place for my vocation and my hobby.  
That being said, it’s a cross-cultural experience.  It might not seem so initially though.  My team mates are all more or less caucasian American men, roughly my age or a bit younger.  We speak the same language, we all go to work each day.  Yet we’re very different – or at least appear to be so.  We are separated by educational levels, likely by economic levels, by the fact that many of them have been born and raised and still live in the same small town whereas I have moved around a little bit.  There are differences in terms of bar culture and what is considered appropriate and acceptable in terms of intoxication and other forms of relaxation.  We look as though we’d have more in common than I would with my congregants, many of whom are approaching twice my age.  Yet I’m more comfortable with the latter than the former.  We share more of the same value systems, beliefs, and cultural baggage.
I feel out of place with the guys in the pool league.  We’re friendly with one another.  There’s a shared respect.  But there’s always the feeling that I don’t really belong there.  Were it not for my skills in playing pool, I have no doubt that I would likely be the first one to be cut from the team if another person that they knew better wanted to join.  We spend several hours together every week, and yet even after months of shooting together, I still feel like an outsider.  Some of that is my introverted nature.  Much of it has to do with putting myself in another culture and having to endure the fish-out-of-water feeling for however long it takes to acclimate and be more deeply accepted.
Last night was a moment of elation and exception though – an evening where, for a few moments, I seemed to really be accepted as part of the ‘guys’.  We were playing our next-to-last match of the summer season.  We were playing the top rated team in our division, on their home turf.  Our team is strong – arguably the strongest it has been in years – but we’re not overly consistent.  We have dropped from second place to fifth in the division.  Personally I’ve dropped from being in the top 10 in our division to being in the top 20 (just barely!).  So to say the odds were against us last night was an understatement.
It was a tightly fought match.  Our team relies on raw shooting skills.  Theirs relies mainly on the ability to position the cue ball well – to deny their opponents solid shots and play ‘safe’.  They play a much more technically proficient game than we do, in part because on any given evening, one or more of our players is more than just a little buzzed.  Sometimes that has a calming, leveling effect on their play.  Sometimes not.  
I won my first two games, the first of which was the first game of the night and helped set a tone for our team.  The second came late in the second round and brought us back even after we had slipped a game behind.  I won not because I dominated my opponents but because they both made critical errors late in the game that I capitalized on for the win.
My last game of the evening was the second to last game of the night.  We were leading 7-6, and if I won my game, we won the evening.  I was playing a younger guy on their team who had a hot head and a cold, calculating eye.  He was very good at trying to deny his opponent a shot rather than take a riskier shot himself.  I should have beat him, but I wasn’t thinking clearly and missed on the second to last ball.  Then I fouled after he played a safety on me.  That put the score at 7-7.  
Our last guy was on the ropes for a fair part of the game, but he came up with a fantastic play at the end that threw their guy off his game.  We won – miraculously.  There was much celebration, to say the least.  Much whooping and hollering and back-slapping and near hugs and fist bumps and general exclamations of what an amazing evening it had been.  There was a celebratory round of shots at the bar next door (since the bar we were playing in only served beer), and then eventually the gradual goodbyes for the night.  For a few moments we were all together, sharing an experience that transcended our differences.  
It felt good.  Rea
lly
good.  I can understand how people can pursue that feeling of belonging even when it requires them to do and be things that are not healthy for them.  I can well understand the temptation to take a hit or hit the bottle more heavily and regularly, for the sake of blending in better and being accepted.  There are moments when my refusal to do so gets the glance that reminds me that I’m not one of them.  And yet I have to figure out how to maintain the right responses for me while not judging them for their responses, so that eventually, as I hopefully become more accepted as one of them, I have the ability to share more than just a few games of pool each week.  
I’m beginning to understand the tenacity that missionaries in foreign ethnic cultures must have.  The patience to build relationships.  To not push too hard, too quickly.  To seek ways of becoming more in tune with the culture.  Learning ways that they can be accepted without sacrificing who they are in the process, without being swallowed and consumed by the other culture.  It’s an amazing vocation they have been given.  
But I believe that it is a vocation that more of us can have.  Not by moving to a foreign culture, per se.  But by being willing to suffer the embarrassment and the awkwardness of not fitting in. By being willing to be with people and in environments that are different from ours.  Not with the goal of becoming someone different (at least not completely), but with the goal of sharing the love of Christ in that culture and environment.   It is slow work, many times, but not without moments of joy and transcendence.  

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