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“…For Now You Shall Laugh”

Living cross-culturally sometimes leads to awkward miscommunications, cultural blunders, and many opportunities for laughter. Rather than keeping these to ourselves, we thought we would share a few stories from RMM workers to give you a dose of the “best medicine.”

Jordan (Himalayas REACH team, ‘10 – ‘11)

We entered our host church for another “all-night prayer.” These meetings, although not entirely accurate in name due to the fact that they only lasted from about 9 until 12, were nonetheless quite long enough for us. It’s not that we were entirely unspiritual, we just felt exhausted from teaching at the Discipleship Training School and teaching English, struggling to use fire to cook, etc. So the arrival of yet another spiritual activity did not garner the typical amount of joy you would expect from short-term missionaries.

We all prayed together, joining with each other to ask for more of God’s spirit for us and the surrounding area. Our host’s prayers, which had been labeled by us as “Attila the Hun Prayers” for their ferocity, decibel level, and obvious spirituality, were in full force at this meeting. Although we admired his faith, we struggled to keep up and our bed of straw covered with blankets was calling deeply.

“A hush fell as all questioned within their hearts what had just happened.”So, when I was assigned to have the closing prayer, I concocted a devious scheme. Around 45 minutes before we were to be done I sensed a lull in the praying. I quickly jumped in and prayed a quick prayer and said, “Amen.” A hush fell as all questioned within their hearts what had just happened. A very awkward silence ensued. Had my plan worked?

Unfortunately, our host was not so easily tricked, he usurped the honor of last prayer and began again in his native language. There would be no early dismissal I realized very quickly. I regretted that I had betrayed my lack of spirituality for all to see. Needless to say, I was never given the opportunity of having “closing prayer” again.

Sarah* (worker in North Africa)

As I sat in the living room surrounded by women of the extended family that we had gotten to know through the classmate of our daughter, I was aware of being the foreigner, but one who had been included. When each new family member came into the room, my friend would introduce me to the woman who just arrived and she would greet me warmly with kisses on both cheeks. It was the first day of the Eid (the celebration in Islam where a sheep is slaughtered for each head of household and the families all come together to eat and remember the sacrifice that was made in the place of Abraham’s son, which they believe to be Ishmael) and the festive feeling was palpable. The four sheep had been slaughtered that morning for each head of household for this extended family, which means that there was plenty of work for the women to do as they prepared the liver wrapped in fat to be made into kebabs, cut the lung and stomach and cleaned the intestines to be made into tajines.

As I interacted with the group of women, I could see the surprise on their faces as I spoke the local language with them. I had always struggled a little to understand the women in this family because their dialect was slightly different from the one we had studied. So when one of the women turned to me and said something about cumin and salt, and pointed to her hair, I made the connection in my mind to an interesting spa experience, where one’s hair would be treated luxuriously with this unique combination of spices. It only took me a few minutes to realize that she was actually talking about how they would prepare the head of the sheep to be eaten at breakfast the next morning, but by then I thought it was funny enough to share with them. I explained to my friend that I had thought the woman was inviting me to an interesting spa experience the next morning and she couldn’t stop laughing. She explained it with lots of expression to the group of women and we all had a good laugh. I have brought it up often in my interactions with family and it has served not only to make me seem more normal, but to provide a good laugh whenever one is needed.

William* (worker in East Asia)

Where we live in Asia, the subject of one’s boyfriend or girlfriend needs to be discussed in the proper context. Inside families, same-sex discussions are the rule. A mother and daughter might talk about the daughter’s boyfriend, but the daughter likely would be embarrassed to speak with her father about that topic. A father would also be too embarrassed to talk with his daughter. If a father wanted to communicate something about boys or boyfriends with his daughter, he might talk to his wife and use her as a mediator. Fathers and daughters generally avoid the topic when together.

After several years of living here, I had learned some of the language and culture, but I was still not careful enough to avoid shaming others. On one occasion Susan,* a female friend of ours, was about to go to the United States for university education. As Susan, her father, my wife, and I casually discussed Susan's upcoming trip, I laughingly teased in the local language that Susan might come back from America with an American boyfriend. “You can catch an escaped horse, but you cannot catch words once spoken.”Susan spoke to me in English so that her father would not understand, “Please, do not say that in front of my father.” Thinking that she was simply trying to sidestep my needling, I repeated my statement in the local language. Her father, without a word, rose and left the room. I was horrified, and my wife was shocked at my impudence.

I apologized profusely to Susan. A local proverb says, “You can catch an escaped horse, but you cannot catch words once spoken.” I did not say anything to Susan's father. To say anything of the incident would simply have amplified the awkwardness of the situation. Later, we ate a meal with the family in which the father participated. All of us pretended that nothing had happened.

The father evidently chose to overlook the offense. In fact, he later became our landlord and allowed us to live in the house in which I had embarrassed him and horrified myself. He even gave us the house, rent free, for four years.

*Names changed for security