November 24, 2007

An obvious lesson on culture that still takes 900+ words to explain

Sometimes I like to pause for a moment and try to remember what I was like before a certain experience. For instance, when I graduated from university, I tried to remember the Jesse Zink of four years earlier to see how much university had changed me. I’ve engaged in similar exercises with graduate school and my time in Nome and various other experiences and it is fascinating how much I can learn from a brief period of reflection.

I’ve started to think about how much I identify with the Jesse Zink of just three months ago who set out to South Africa not knowing what to expect, with only a vague idea of what he would be doing, but full of conviction that he would be doing something good. The answer is, not very much.

It truly is remarkable how much my ideas on development, mission, cross-cultural communication, and so forth can change (some would say mature) in just a few short months. For one thing, I quickly realized that what I am doing is less important than who I am. I also awakened to the centrality and fundamental shaping power of the cultural barriers that are inherent in this sort of work, which I had tended to minimize and/or believe I would be able to overcome fairly easily. And even though I came here with the belief that I would learn more than I would give, actually putting that into practice can be harder than saying it.

When it comes to cultural differences, I think my initial inclination was to take a laissez-faire approach to the issue, i.e. let’s all just practice our cultures together; I won’t judge yours if you don’t judge mine. This belief was no doubt shaped by the idea that culture mainly consists of a group’s songs, clothing, dances, worship habits and so on and so forth. That might be a starting point but it’s not sufficient for any substantial work. In order for me to truly be able to help people in Itipini, I have to get to know and understand how and why people act the way they do. This is particularly important on cultural issues like attitudes towards women or beliefs about the length of the work day, to name just two of the truly important factors that make a people a people. It is hard to put all this in words but life in Mthatha is so different to the Protestant-work-ethic-driven, efficiency-prizing, results-maximizing culture I am familiar with in North America that I can’t just let this culture carry on past me; I need to struggle with it and learn about it and understand it to be even moderately effective. You can’t just transplant someone from one culture and expect him or her to be immediately effective in another, which sounds obvious to me now but is not perhaps something I understood three months ago as clearly as I do now.

On many issues, I am happy to learn what the people of Itipini have to teach me, particularly when it comes to music and food, again the surface issues of a culture. But when it comes to topics I think I already know something about, like medical care or education, I think, “Well, I know how to do this – here’s what we’ll do.” Sometimes, the obtuseness of the new way of doing something seems so flagrant I want to scream and shout and grab somebody by the neck and shake them before I realize this is perhaps not the best way of realizing God’s reconciling mission. This might be more the result of a personality trait than anything else but it is hard in these situations to truly put into practice the idea that I can learn more than I give. At the very least, it is not my first reaction.

Many American doctors come to Bedford Hospital, where I live, to volunteer for a month. They are universally lovely people and I have felt privileged to know them… and watch them struggle with this exact issue. They show up, thinking they know a thing or two about orthopedic surgery (which they do) and want to operate as they do back home. But then they get stymied by long lunch breaks, anesthesiologists who show up late, different attitudes about health care, and a whole host of other issues. In my own way, I have the same struggles at Itipini, which I’m not always aware of as such but as I think of them more I’ll try to share those specific stories.

All of this has implications for my thoughts on how best we can help the developing world. But none of those thoughts are fully-formed (or even partly-formed) as yet so I’ll hold off on them here.

I once saw a representation of culture as an iceberg, with the parts we can easily observe (music, clothing, etc.) as the 10-percent above water. Of course, there’s the other 90-percent of the iceberg/culture we can’t see but that still affects what we do. In fact, I’m becoming convinced we can never truly surmount cultural barriers. What we can do, however, is attempt to surmount them and break down bits and pieces of them in ways that show forth our best, faith-based qualities.

So the moral of the story is cultural differences matter and I’m learning that and changing as a person as a result. Sometimes it helps to re-learn the obvious.