I cannot begin to count how many times I have made cultural and life mistakes while living in Asia. Pat Ku, upon moving to Asia gave me this advice regarding Chinese culture and the language. . . “however you do things/say things in America, do the opposite in Asia and the Chinese language”. Though a little overly simplistic, it was solid advice just the same.
As a result of this, I have come to embrace one of the most helpful life lesson I have learned by living and working cross-culturally. Whenever you enter a new environment, whether it be a new job, school, family, or in my case, country, FIRST notice what the local customs and norms are, THEN respond in all situations essentially in the same manner. This is THE fundamental skill in cultural and life adaptation.
This might sound as if I am endorsing conformity. Nothing could be further from the truth. At least not at a core values level. Your values will stand firm and keep you grounded where ever you go in life. However, styles, culture, and general ways people carry themselves around others will be different everywhere you go. In order to be heard in and have a positive impact upon a new environment (of any kind), you must first learn to communicate and interact in a way that earns the trust of those around you. It is the same in all situations.
Your family has a certain way of communication that is different from all other families. When I worked at IBM, they had a very distinct corporate culture. If you were going to thrive there, you needed to know the local terrain, vernacular, even work styles, or you would not do well.
Here in Asia, I learned this lesson quickly. I had learned the word for “chicken” within the first week of arrival. We eat a lot of chicken here, so it was necessary. Soon afterwards, I was with my roommates buying cellphones. The salespeople, women, were wanting to practice English with us as we waited for our phone order to be ready. One of the women would not attempt to say the words we were helping them practice. Playfully, I called her a “chicken” for not trying. Innocent enough. . . or so I thought.
Upon the words falling from my carefree mouth, there was a stunned silence that fell upon that cell phone shop. The girl I had just called a “chicken” looked both embarrassed and mortified at the same time. Though I am not the most intuitive male, even I notice train wrecks. This, in fact, was a massive train wreck unfolding in front of my eyes. Worst of all, I had NO IDEA what was happening.
What I did not know was that the word 鸡 (chicken) is a euphemism for “prostitute” in this culture. Instead of innocent little banter with a sales woman that I had just met, I had, in fact, been supremely insulting to her.
People eventually realized I was a stupid foreigner that had a combined vocabulary of about 50 words. They cut me (and the poor sales woman) some slack and we moved forward. Not before some painfully awkward moments that felt like hours, though.
I learned that day that humor was not something I needed to attempt in this country until I understood not just the language, but also the culture.
Paul taught the same universal truth in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.
19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
In order to have an impact on various types of people in different places and cultures, Paul sought first to understand them and then “fit in” to the environment. He did this so that he could have a positive impact upon them for the Gospel.
Paul subjugated his own personal cultural and societal preferences in order to be most effective in loving and communicating with new peoples and places.
We even see elements of this in God Himself. God took on our culture to the point of becoming a man through the person of Christ Jesus. He left His environment and took on ours. He did this to both communicate to us on our terms and to save us on His terms.
In all environments, it is helpful to think “seek first to understand and not to be understood”. The Chinese were right through this parable. Everywhere you go, whether it is countries, jobs, or even new relationships, there is a new and distinct culture and set of customs you are entering.
“Seek first to understand”, and even conform, to certain elements of new cultures and environments. When you do, you have the possibility to both better enjoy your new situations in life and have a positive impact upon the people and place.
Hold fast to your beliefs and core values. Hold loosely to your customs, preferences, and ways of doing things. You will do well in different countries. You will do well in life.