The Glass Darkly

Monday, January 30, 2006

Cultural Views of Community

I have to say that there are many things I had to overcome in going to Cambodia. Most of the things were attitudes which I had to be willing to lay down so that I could learn new views. One of the aspects of culture that hit me first was that of community. I realized immediately that individualism is looked down upon. The basis of Khmer culture is relationship. The language clearly portrays the relationship between all aspects of the community. Maintaining peaceful relationships is very important to Cambodians, so cooperation, conforming to the status quo and communal living is essential and consistently practiced in Cambodian communities.

When I first moved in, Cambodians could not understand my insistence on doing things myself in my home. Helpers, whether they are older children, nieces, aunts or neighbors, are essential parts of every Cambodian home. Cambodian women told me time and time again that foreigners who did not want to hire locals to clean their houses or cook their food made Cambodians feel like they (the foreigners) did not trust Cambodians or want to have a relationship with Cambodians. Also, Cambodians viewed people who wanted to do everything themselves as foolish. At first I thought they viewed it as pride, but that was my cultural interpretation. Cambodians really have no concept of individualism or its connection with pride. No, they simply see it as foolishness – the ignorant acts of someone who has not been trained to understand the value of community – or more seriously, the acts of someone who is deliberately choosing to reject the community.

There are so many examples where my clashes with Cambodian hospitality, working practices, living arrangements, learning patterns and world view exposed my American upbringing. My culture says: I need privacy; I need to do things on my own; I need to be self-sufficient; innovation and creativity are praiseworthy; I deserve what I earn; success is based on my abilities alone; etc. In contrast, depending on others, doing the same as others do and have done over the generations; rejecting a need for privacy; having two do the job one person could do . . . Westerners often label these traits as negative, inefficient, or rude. Yet it is these traits that help to maintain Cambodian culture, and more specifically, the peace and order within the community.

Who can really argue that cooperation, sharing with each other and esteeming the good of the community over the desire of the individual are bad traits? Even Aristotle promoted such ideals. I believe that Americans could learn a lot from this ethic rather than looking down on those who admit their weaknesses and need for help. In fact I have heard many Americans claim that we as America or Americans really don’t need any help at all. No matter how mighty we think we are, the reality is that we all really do need help – we can’t get through life all by ourselves in a healthy way. We need each other within the community, both locally and globally speaking. I wonder how much closer we could come to living peacefully as Americans if we were humble enough to admit that?

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Language – A Window into Culture

The Linguistic Creed (Elson, 1987) states, “Any language is capable of being a vehicle for complicated human interaction and complex thought, and can be the basis of a complex culture and civilization. Therefore, all languages deserve respect and careful study.” This statement makes a challenging assumption. Even though it uses the verb “can be,” it suggests that language is the basis for culture and civilization. I always thought it was the other way around: language is based on the culture in which it develops.

In fact, my first reaction to the Linguistic Creed was, “so which came first, the chicken or the egg?” In other words, which came first, language or culture? I immediately conjured up example after example in my mind of how language adjusted and changed due to various changes and evolutions in cultures. Adaptations to outside influences such as technology, Western practices, media and materialism have contributed to most of the changes in the Khmer language in Cambodia over the last 10 years. Additionally socioeconomic situations and trends have changed traditions and ultimately the language as people adjust the ways they describe their world and the way they live. This affects both spoken and written language. In the US and around the English-speaking world, for that matter, technology has encouraged the invention of new written languages: texting, instant messaging, emailing/internet, formatting of letters, etc. All these examples, contrary to the premise stated in the Linguistic Creed, seem to support the idea that culture forms language and that the essence of a person is really his culture, not his language.

However, as I started to consider the interconnectedness of language and culture, I decided to re-analyze my experiences and ask the question, “in what ways is language the basis for culture?” I reflected back on when I first started to learn the Khmer language. I remember one of my first Cambodian teachers encouraged me to start learning to read and write right from the start rather than just learning conversation as many do. He said that my pronunciation will always be limited in accuracy if I don’t learn how to spell the words. He was right. When I could see how words were spelled, I found out that the endings of words were not an ambiguous silent sound, as my ears perceived, but words really had specific consonant endings which made the difference between meanings. Suddenly it was like a window was opened up to me and I could see how sounds, previously hidden to me, were very clear and important to Cambodians understanding what I was saying.

I connected this idea to my study of Cambodian culture. In the same way reading and writing opened a window to my ability to speak better, learning the language opened up a significant window to my understanding the culture. As I began to speak and think more like a native speaker I learned my place in the pecking order of relationships. I realized how I should respond to situations. I was better able to predict how other listeners and speakers would respond to what I said. Basically, I learned the culture by tuning into the language cues. This helped me understand how language can be the basis of culture.

After I thought through all this, I remembered what God did at the Tower of Babel. I understand that He divided the people by language, after which they formed cultures. So as I reflect on the “chicken and egg” question, I realize that language most likely arrived first and also is what has helped people groups develop their ways of living, traditions and cultures.

But setting that question aside, what is more important to remember, I think, is that culture study will never fully be effective apart from language learning. For language is the window through which we can see the connectedness of what happens in culture and how people relate. The deeper one understands the language, the wider the window opens and the bigger the picture of a culture grows.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Working through Culture Shock

About five months after returning to the U.S. from seven years overseas, I found myself overwhelmed with trying to express my "re-entry" reflections. Part of the problem was that it took us that long to find a home. So we were still figuring out how we were going to live as a family in the United States. I think I was rather naive. I expected culture shock to last a few months. I knew we would miss our home and life overseas and would need to get adjusted to a new one . . . but, afterall, the U.S. was my native land and culture. Despite what the books told us, I still reasoned we could adapt quickly and jump back in where we left off. It took me almost a year to realize that re-entry occurs in layers, from simple adaptations like food and language to more complex ones like politics, religion, family living, etc., and even deeper ones like family relationships, values/culture issues, friendships, etc.

I wrote the following poem at the five month mark when I was feeling a very strong pull between my life, friends and home overseas and my new ones in the U.S. I realized that my interpretation of things I heard people say, things I observed, or things I had to make decisions on were strongly tainted by my emotions and experience in a different culture. This poem is an attempt to describe my frame of mind at that point.

Blending of Waters

Two streams converged in a distant wood,
And I found myself pushed along
In a current of confusion and starry-eyed wonder,
Two realities within me came crashing together

Two lives, two journeys, suddenly became one
Flowing through a land which seemed
Comforting, yet alien . . . its features familiar,
But unlike I had ever experienced before.

The volume of activity, the conflicting of thoughts,
The juxtaposition of cultures,
It made my mind spin and my body weak;
I couldn’t think clearly or coherently speak.

I feared I might drown in my confused emotions
Which, ironically, held me afloat.
How I longed for my past, my journey of old,
When I bore only half of what I’ve just told.

It is true that before, then did I carry
Two hearts, yet I chose but one life
Then the streams flowed apart, my hearts not together
Only the memories of one mingled in with the other

Now the roar of the water was deafening as it
Tossed me along with such force,
I fought to focus, to hear all around
I mourned the loss of clear sight and full sound.

The truth we must face is that streams keep flowing;
The journey can never repeat.
Though I struggle now, deep down I fear
That soon the stream will again veer

Then back to one life, that is divided in heart,
I am comforted only by this:
Streams that diverge are changed forever
Enriched by the presence of water from the other.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Webs of Significance

A couple years ago I took a course on language and culture. I was intrigued by the questions and issues surrounding our interpretation of each and how it impacts human relationships. Specifically, the class focused on how issues of language and culture impact teachers and school classrooms.

A quote which stood out to me depicts culture in a word picture. Geertz (1973) says, “… man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun…” Geertz goes on to say that culture is the webs, and “the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.” He reminds us that our analyses of cultures can never be complete. I have heard many scholars of language and culture echo this idea when they comment how complicated the issues surrounding language and cultural differences are, since they are so interwoven.

A web woven by a spider under
the influence of caffeine.

I am fascinated with the "web" each of us spins in our lives. I love the idea of culture being a web constructed in reaction to the influences around us. But the more I think about it, there is no one who can say he/she has had the exact experience as the next person, even if he/she has been part of the same culture, family, country or school. The truth is that we, as humans, spin our webs of significance based on our personalities, how we perceive situations, the stage of life we are in, our previous experiences, etc. Each person comes with his/her own story. If we take time to listen, our stories reveal how significant points have shaped us and made us who we are. I think that if we choose to at least try to understand the culture(s) which have shaped those with whom we connect, it can help us become more intuned to and appreciative of the uniqueness we each carry and offer to our communities.

Geertz quote taken from:
Ovando, Coller & Combs. Bilingual and ESL Classrooms: Teaching in Multicultural Contexts (3rd edition). Boston: McGraw Hill, 2002, p. 189.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Lonely America

The other night I was listening to a new mother answer the question, “so how are you adjusting to motherhood at home?” This woman is very talkative and social. Just the thought of her personality made me wonder the same question as she is now home alone with her new little baby boy every day while her husband is at work. She admitted that it took a lot of getting used to. She was very lonely at first. It made her realize how individualistic and private American culture is. No one ventured over to see how she was doing; she was really all alone! My heart went out to her. But to her credit and personality, she went on to say that after a short time of the lonely experience, she determined she was not going to let this happen. She said she calls people everyday. She inferred that she is on the phone a good part of the day! I had to chuckle, because I wouldn’t have the nerve to bother people like that each day. And here I am, reinforcing the downside of my culture . . . doesn’t my use of the word “bother” reveal my cultural upbringing?!

This woman went on to point out how years ago (and in many cultures today) women spent time together teaching each other the skills of homemaking, caring for babies and raising children. She is open about the fact that we all need advice and have questions and it is imperative that we support and help each other. I admired her attitude and courage. I also felt sorry for her because I thought about the fact that she needed to go searching for that support.

Why is it that our society doesn’t provide that kind of support automatically? My mother thinks I am too idealistic. Her comments to me when I talk about support and help include, “well I didn’t have that when I raised you kids! Women today think they need all this help. . .” I listen to my mother and I feel like I should just pull myself up by my own boot straps and put my nose to the grindstone, hiding my loneliness and uncertainties deep down inside behind a big confident smile. But after living abroad for most of married life up till now, I know better. American society has, for better or for worse, chosen to be a lonely society and we scorn those who can’t seem to make it on their own.

Unlike Jesus American society prefers to accept only those who can survive on their own. What happens to the low socio-economic status Americans? What happens to the low-educated? What happens to those who are dependent on others or addictions? Do we accept them in the same way we accept our middle class brothers and sisters or are these less-fit Americans only accepted as charity cases? Is it possible that they can become our friends too? Do we accept non-ethnic Mennos the same? Do we accept non-family members the same? Do we accept broken families the same? We quickly accept “fit” members of our communities, but it takes a lot more work and love to accept the less fit as Jesus did.

Friendship and love go a lot deeper than, “hi, how are you doing?” Friendship means that we make time to listen and follow-up on what we hear. Friendship means that you are the person your friend wants to talk to when you meet at church, not just because it is his job or she is just trying to be nice, but because he/she can’t wait to hear how your doctor appointment went or how your daughter did on her exam. Friendship is an act of giving but also making room in our schedule and heart to receive. Friendship provides the grace to forgive words, wipe tears and try again when our humanness gets in the way of sharing the love that is needed. Friendship is what nurtures community, and community is what nurtures the growth of the Church. Maybe I am idealistic, but my heart goes out to those who live in lonely America. Is it possible for American Christians to overcome American cliquishness, privacy, individualism and become open-communities where lonely Americans find friends who share life and the love of Jesus?

“Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . “

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Just Look Me in the Eye!

Have you ever heard someone say, “look at me when I’m talking to you!”

I was talking with a friend the other day about her experiences when she traveled through the Middle East in the late 90’s. She started in Egypt, traveled through some Palestinian territories, and most interestingly, ended in Israel. One of the questions I asked her was what it felt like as a woman in the different cultures. She described how she had to be more careful to be respectful in a Muslim country. One comment which stood out to me was that in Egypt, she was very careful never to make eye contact, especially with men. In her words, “it could be dangerous.” I had heard that before from an American woman working in an international school in Cairo. Eye contact can take on so many meanings.

In Asia, where I lived for several years, the use of eye contact was something I had to learn about. I was told that it is considered disrespectful. When people talk, they rarely or never look directly at one another. Direct eye contact is used when someone is speaking angrily at another person or daring another person toward a fight. Basically, someone who dares to make eye contact is asserting authority, either presumed or earned, over another person who better submit . . . or else.

In contrast to both these examples, American culture labels eye contact as an act of respect. From little on up children are taught to look at who’s talking and look at the person to whom they want to speak. I have even heard American teachers say, regarding students from other cultures, that they can’t understand why the students don’t look at them when talking. Teachers sometimes misinterpret this behavior as disrespectful, suspicious, extreme shyness, not paying attention. Culture Clash. I wonder how the student interprets direct eye contact from the teacher.

I also wonder what other cultural interpretations there are for looking someone in the eye.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Mental Challenge of Suffering

When we try to understand our lot as humans on this planet, it truly is baffling. How can we reconcile human suffering with the belief in an all-powerful God? According to Kreeft and Tacelli's (1994) Handbook of Christian Apologetics, the problem can be summed up by the apparent contradiction between the following four propositions:

1) God exists
2) God is all good
3) God is all powerful
4) Evil exists (p. 129)

If we affirm any three of these propositions, it seems we must reject the fourth. For example, if we accept that God exists, is all good and that evil exists, we must reject the idea that God is all powerful, otherwise He would put a stop to evil. Or, if God exists and is all powerful and yet evil also exists, then God must not be all good, because He wills or allows evil to exist.

The decay and destruction which evil causes is apparent all around us. We live in a fallen world where even the natural order of things is damaged and sometimes dangerous to us. At some point we need to come to grips with the reality that we have little control over life. There is a mystery to our existence wrapped up in God’s perfect plan of redemption. How can this all be true? I don’t know. I guess that’s where faith begins.

Monday, January 09, 2006


Why did God allow brokenness to enter the world? Why did he allow the suffering that comes with it break the ties He had with man? Was it all a test right from the beginning? Is God just trying to find out where our loyalties lie? Or is God a capricious God who loves to test our limits or keep us guessing about His intentions? Or maybe God just wants to make Man pay for his bad choices in the Garden?

Our world is torn and grieving for the pain and suffering of brokenness. Loneliness and shame seem to be the hallmarks. Humans don’t innately know what to do about pain and suffering they see around them. And when they shy away from those who suffer, it leaves the sufferer lonely and reinforces shame. The sufferer is ashamed of his/her condition and others are ashamed because they didn’t know what to do about it. I suppose shame also started in the Garden. Physical and relational shame was the result of Adam and Eve’s choices.

So where is God in all this? The age old question is, “If God is a God of love, why does He allow suffering? And if He cannot control the suffering, then is He really God?” Is it possible to see a God who weeps with us, a broken and hurting people? Can we believe that in God’s plan to redeem all things back to Himself, he will need to stand by at times and watch His people suffer and choose not to intervene? Is the transformation from brokenness to wholeness really possible in this world?

Friday, January 06, 2006

My Invitation

Ok, I can't believe that I am doing this. My decision to finally take the plunge and start a blog makes me feel both scared and excited. I am at a place in my life where I have a lot more time to reflect, analyze and wonder. But there are so many scattered thoughts I toss around in my head! I realize that forcing myself to sit and write them out is one step toward organizing them. The majority of my writings are in the form of journals and essays on various topics. I start them and then add to them or change them a bit. The more I edit, the more organized my thoughts become. I have found this process to be very therapeutic because disorganization is one reality which causes stress in my life and I am happy when I find new ways to manage both stress and disorganization!

But what makes me scared is the potential public arena a blog can become. I am conscious of the fact that my thoughts often start out in a very raw state. It takes time for me shape them into a form with which I am comfortable. So I have yet to decide how I want to set up my blog. I would prefer it be organized by topics rather than by date. On the other hand, I already have my journals from which I will pull many of my postings, so I was thinking that a blog may provide me benchmarks for my journey. For that is how I view my thought development.

Which leads me to my final thoughts in regards to this blog. My main focus for this blog is on culture and the human condition. I love to hear from the experiences of others and I thought a blog may be a forum for just that kind of interaction. But, as far as my personal thoughts, I want this blog to be a window into my journey, not a documentation of my dogma. Despite how I may appear at times, I am not really a dogmatic person. Instead I am one who likes to offer my thoughts but then hear from others who have other insights to add. It is within that context that I glean commonalities or struggles. My philosophy is that the more I glean, the more I learn, the closer to a complete picture I may get. But this means that my understanding can grow and change over time.

The title I chose, "The Glass Darkly," is an attempt to encapsulate this concept: can we ever FULLY understand the struggles in our world until the time we meet our Lord face to face? I really don't think it is possible to FULLY understand all the aspects which affect culture and the human condition, but I believe the struggle and striving is one way I can promote a more peaceful and understanding world.

The starting of this blog is my way of inviting others to join me in my journey and mission.