After growing up in New York City, it has been quite an adventure living in an Asian country for the last 18 years. I think I’ve learned a few things about surviving in a different culture. Some things I’ve expected, and many things have surprised me.
Here are the top seven things I’ve learned about surviving in a different culture:
1. When you think you’ve got the culture figured out, think again.
After several years in a foreign culture, you begin to settle in and get a bit comfortable. The church I pastor has become one of the largest in our small community, and our people seem to connect well with me. But recently a local politician referred to me as “that arrogant man.” Wow! I know I may not be on the top of the humility list, but now I am learning a totally different sub-culture within this culture.
2. Be ready for a disconnected season in your life
Living in a different country disconnects you from your “former” life. Social media, Skype, and Magic Jack has been great, but life is certainly different. After 18 years, I feel disconnected from the culture I grew up in. I’ve had to learn to accept this as a reality and as a price to pay for my calling and commitment.
3. Embrace loneliness gracefully
Loneliness may be common for many leaders, but I’ve found this to be even more prominent when living in a different culture. People see you as a “specimen,” someone to learn from, or someone to learn English from. It’s difficult to develop friendships at a personal level just for the sake of friendship. There are just too many cultural issues and preconceived ideas that block genuine relationships.
4. Don’t try to reason out and understand everything – just accept it.
We tend to evaluate other cultures from the perspective of our own culture and understanding. From that vantage point, nothing may seem to make sense. I’ve now reduced my “Why do you…” type of questions. I’m learning to accept the culture just as it comes — even when it seems to violate some of my strongly held convictions – “gulp.”
5. When others misunderstand you, just smile. You can’t explain everything
My days of explaining myself are over. When I try to explain myself and why I do or think the way I do, I simply see a mist of confusion on their faces. Now I just smile and say something like “I’m glad to be here.”
6. Don’t fear ambiguity. Just trust God
I grew up expecting clarity and simplicity. But I now realize that you just have to let things alone. I’ve asked lots of questions, but many have looked at me compassionately with a look of pity. They say to me “Look, that’s just the way it is.” Now I have learned to say “Oh, I see.”
7. Look at their heart
Ultimately, we must learn to look beyond the external and see their heart. They are genuine and well meaning. They may not follow your rules. They may violate your deeply held values. “But how can I overlook those things that are so important?” Just look at the heart.