Study history. Try to understand the history of your new culture. You may not be a history buff, and that is okay. But the more you learn about what has happened in the past in the country or region where you live, the more the present will make sense. Understanding the past will help you be more effective in your interactions with the people of your new place.
One day I was making one of my typical culturally insensitive remarks to an Argentine I met on the street. “Why don’t Argentines try to save their money? They wouldn’t be in such financial difficulties if they would look ahead to the future.” The woman to whom I was speaking gave me an angry full-on lesson in the importance of understanding history: “You didn’t live here in the days of hyper-inflation! If people didn’t go out and spend their full paycheck on the day it was received, they didn’t have anything to show for it, because in a day or two, the value had dropped to almost nothing. If they saved, they lost everything! It’s kind of hard to put that behind you.” Well, that was humiliating, but was one of my first realizations of how history shapes who we are and how we act.
Questions to ask: Who were/are the oppressors, and who were/are the oppressed? What is the religious history and how do its tenets influence daily life? How have the country’s and region’s economic developments impacted the individual’s choices? Look at the tensions between groups and ask, “Where did these come from? What happened in the past between these groups and why?” Ask these questions of your own culture to help you understand yourself and why you look at life differently from those of your secondary culture. Go from the country’s history, to the region’s history, to the city’s history, to the ethnic group’s history, to the family’s and individual’s history.
While living in Kolkata, neat traffic lines were non-existent. You could rant and rave about the lack of orderliness, but it wouldn’t do much good. Look at history, say, how about the taxi drivers’: Many of the taxi drivers came from poorer states outside of West Bengal. They were from backgrounds where one had to fight tooth and nail to meet daily needs. If you didn’t scramble and compete for everything you could, you were pushed aside and needs went unmet. So you learned to push and shove and grab out of self-protection. Put that on the road now. See how that affects traffic patterns?
The more you can learn of history and how it has played out in both your own and your adopted cultures, the more you will be able to develop a heart for what makes the people who they are, and the more you will appreciate how they handle life. You still may not like it, but you will at least be able to understand some of the whys.
Guest author: Joan Perkins lives in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, with her husband, Bill, and two youngest sons. She spent 25 years living overseas, in Costa Rica, Argentina, Bangladesh, India, and Thailand. Joan graduated with a M.Div. degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and enjoys teaching women. She and Bill have six children, and one grandchild.