Andrew and I have been here just over 2 months now. We have learned a lot. I never thought the term “foreigner” would ever apply to me, but it is now just one of my many monikers. A fellow missionary recently told us that no one will be as aware of the cultural differences here as we will being the outsiders. No one will notice how out of place we are as much as we will realize it ourselves. I read recently that culture can be described as a concept encompassing all human phenomena that are not purely results of human genetics. A phenomena, it is.
So much of what we’ve encountered to begin with is the language barrier, which is an obvious one. When I think back to Andrew and I starting to lead small groups for teenagers many years ago, it all begins to look so much easier from this new perspective. We all spoke the same language, that in itself is a head start so powerful that it cannot even be put into words. I have learned to tell people I understand and speak Spanish “mas o menos” meaning more or less. If you give off the vibe that you don’t know what’s happening right off the bat, you probably aren’t going to be given the slightest shot. I’ve also discovered a good bit about gender and age differences with respect to how people handle the language barrier. Little kids generally don’t understand why you don’t understand what they are saying. This is especially confusing for them if you speak some Spanish to them but do not understand all of the Spanish they respond with. The little ones are rarely willing to call it quits though. They don’t care how many times they have to explain to you where the imaginary kitchen and television are in their pretend house.
The pre-teen to teenage age is where you begin to see some division between gender. For guys, any two people who pick up an xBox controller and play a video game have an automatic connection. In general, the guys are much more willing to help you stumble through the language differences. We have already started some great friendships with some of the tween/teenage boys here. Andrew can walk through the Bajo and say hey to dozens of boys. For my part in it, I just invite them into my home to let them know I trust them… and I feed them. That’s really the key.
It is a lot different with girls here. It’s a mix between language and culture differences. Jessica says it is more difficult for them to trust people for a variety of reason. I’ve noticed less of the girls are likely to help you stumble through the language. Sometimes it is difficult. I was sitting in one of the tween girls meetings and there were 6 or 7 of us. The leader that night was asking who wanted to pray. There were several shy girls there who didn’t want to pray out loud in front of the group. The leader turned to one of the girls and said there were just a few of us there that night and she (referring to me) doesn’t understand anything anyways. In the US, that would be pretty offensive. Here, I would accredit it more to the sometimes overly blunt and harsh culture. I’ve heard people openly describe someone as fat or out of shape in front of that person. I just laughed it off and responded, in Spanish, that it was true… I couldn’t understand, hoping that it would make the girl feel comfortable enough to pray. The funny part is I don’t think any of them put it together that I could understand enough to respond, and respond in Spanish no less.
In a lot of instances, we’ve both had the passing thoughts that maybe we aren’t connecting enough, or making any sort of difference with the people just yet. Luckily, things happen to help those thoughts move along. In that same tween girls group that I had been attending each week, I was beginning to get a little frustrated with the lack of connection with those girls. That same meeting referenced above, I literally spent almost two hours with them without saying hardly a word. In group activities, it is very difficult to jump into conversations in a language you are not fluent in. It is a bunch of people talking sometimes over each other and without obvious points of reference in the conversation with the subject constantly changing. Think about a conversation in English. You can talk for 30 minutes about a number of different topics and have no idea how you got to where you are with what you started talking about originally. Not to mention, it can be mentally draining to listen and try to understand a language that is not your own all day long. By the end of the meeting, I was ready to go upstairs and be done for the night. The next week, I decided to take a break from tween girls and work on a side project I had started in one of the classrooms. The following day, one of the girls came up to me asking why I wasn’t at the group the night before and if I would be there the next week. This is the same girl who hardly acknowledged me in previous weeks.
We are always grateful to the people who help us through the language and the misunderstandings that take place. Our sponsor child Keylor now comes up to the apartment several times a week to talk. Some of the other guys are also becoming increasingly comfortable to just come and hang out which makes us feel like we are doing something right. As I type this, there are 3 guys watching a soccer game in my living room with Andrew. Neither of us particularly care for soccer, but we picked the wrong culture to be involved in for us to not get over that! We’re also enjoying building relationships with the staff and friendships that will last for longterm.
I am constantly thinking of some of the great advice we received from a friend and fellow missionary… Its not always right or wrong, its just different. We are learning to apologize more than we think we should. On the flip side, we are learning to expect fewer apologies than we think we should receive. It’s all part of learning the way things are here. If there’s ever a misunderstanding and you are in a culture that is not your own, your fault or not… expect to say you’re sorry. It’s an ongoing process to figure this all out. And sometimes it feels like more of a state of confusion than anything else. But we’re making it! Or as one of my favorite phrases goes… we’re faking it until we make it!