Culture shock in Cambodia - He said what?!

Published 30 November 2012  |  
It was a hot Cambodian evening. The air was thick, sticky, sweet and sour all at the same time. Thirty of us were crammed on a bus travelling back to Phnom Penh in time for the massive water festival celebrations. My husband, Andrew, and I began chatting to the guy sitting across the aisle. We talked about our cultures; what people do when they 'date' each other, the cost of housing, our studies; everything important to three twenty-something's trying to make their mark on the world. We were delighted to find so many aspects of kiwi culture were very similar to Khmer culture.

Our friend got up to leave when the bus reached his stop, he turned to us and said how nice it was to meet us, and that we must keep in touch via Facebook. Then he looked directly at Andrew and said: "I hope you will have a baby very soon, your wife looks like she will make good children". Andrew smiled politely and thanked him as he walked off the bus. I looked after him, wide-eyed, eyebrows raised. 'He said what?!' I thought. We hadn't even been married for a year!

In every culture there are unwritten, unspoken 'rules'. Things you say, things you do, and the way you say or do them. Most Kiwis would consider it very rude (or facetious) to make a comment like our Khmer friend did. But that wasn't his intention at all. In Khmer culture married couples try to have their first child right away. A honeymoon baby is ideal. This proves the marriage is, um, legitimate. Almost everyone we met in Cambodia asked us why we didn't have children and told us we'd better get started.

It was their way of encouraging us in our marriage. In New Zealand people behaved rather differently! As a young wife the most common advice I received was to 'wait' and 'establish yourselves as a couple'. Either that or they didn't mention children at all.

Navigating differences can be tricky and is often cause of all kinds of grief for cross-cultural workers. We can be blinded by our own cultural lens, and get easily hurt, or hung up on something unimportant if we don't have realistic expectations.

Cultural clues

More importantly, we run the risk of being poor representatives for Christ when we fail to recognise the significance of cultural cues in communicating our values and beliefs. If communicating cross-culturally is tricky, where do we begin?

The apostle Paul was one of the most revered and successful cross-cultural workers in recorded history. He wrote to the Church in Corinth:

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel that I may share in its blessings. - 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

Paul's message to the Corinthians is clear – culture is important. He realised that in order to make God's message clear to different people he needed to present his message in a way they understood. Paul is not saying the gospel should be changed or watered down; he's talking about adjusting behaviour in order to present the gospel as accessible to everyone.

Paul's attitude towards other cultures is a good guide for how we should approach cross-cultural ministry: with a servant heart. Paul goes so far as to call himself a slave to everyone! He is not condoning an acceptance of sin, instead illustrating his readiness to joyfully lay down his own rights and preferences for the sake of communicating the gospel.

Further on in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul expands on the heart of ministry:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. - 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

Undergirding

Love is the essential ingredient in ministry. Paul is clear that a genuine love for God and love for others must undergird all service of others.

This is helpful teaching to remember when we consider the difficulties of cross-cultural mission service. Like Paul we should travel with an attitude of learning and service of others; ready to give up our cultural preferences and practices if it serves the gospel and we can remain without sin. We must remember that we are ultimately guided by our love; first for God, then for others.

We were blessed to have some excellent teaching on cross-cultural expectations before our trip to Cambodia. This prepared me to receive numerous comments about our fertility with good humour, in appreciation of what was really being communicated – the desire to encourage us.

Laying aside our cultural differences led to all sorts of experiences: eating deep fried bugs, using Asian-style toilets, haggling for bargains at the market, encouraging one another in faith and, best of all; worshipping God in two different languages at the same time as we shared in the blessings of the great and glorious gospel.

Sophia Sinclair is a writer living in Christchurch, New Zealand. After studying, working and training in Theatre, English Literature and Journalism, she joined the non-profit sector to work for the Anglican mission organisation NZCMS where she writes about, ponders, talks about and promotes mission around New Zealand.

Sophia Sinclair's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sophia-sinclair.html

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