I’ve been spending a lot of time this summer with *Darius, one of the faithful local men who is a part of our church plant. Darius has a wonderful gifting – that of a person who is becoming truly bicultural. People like him are able to function well in two or more very different cultural settings without rejecting either culture. They make great students if their teacher is, like me, from another culture. They also make wonderful teachers themselves, since they still deeply value their home culture and are willing to explain it. It’s no coincidence that 1st Corinthians 9, “becoming all things to all men” has been a passage Darius keeps coming back to lately. All this has made him a lifesaver when it comes to the holes in our cultural knowledge that we still have, even as we approach six years in this context. Here are some of the things we’ve recently learned from him.
Gas Station Attendants. In order to display respect to gas station attendants, it’s honorable for the driver to disembark from his vehicle while being served. Here it’s still the norm for gas station employees to pump the vehicle fuel, not the driver. But to remain seated in the cab is apparently to communicate a certain sense of one’s own superiority over the man pumping the gas. So, just as men should get up (or attempt a half-stand) when another man enters the room, so a driver should get down from his seat and stand on an equal level with the attendant. It’s a small thing, one that we would have likely never spotted had Darius not mentioned it to us. But now that we know we have one more area of daily conduct in which we can act respectfully.
Toilet Shoes. The grossest thing in the world to a local is a home bathroom that has no toilet shoes. These are rubbery slip-on sandals that are worn by locals when they visit the W.C. In order to be a good host, these slippers must always be available, conveniently lined up outside the toilet area. Do they ever get washed? Not that I’ve ever seen. But wearing these toilet slippers communicates cleanliness to locals, and to approach a bathroom while barefoot (outside shoes are never worn indoors) is to be faced with deep horror and dismay. We already had bathroom shoes available most of the time for our guests, but now we have become hyper-vigilant to make sure we always have them at the ready.
Shaving Armpits. And speaking of personal cleanliness, Darius and the other local believers were recently scandalized to learn that Western men don’t shave their armpits on the regular. We foreigners were somewhat shocked to hear that local men do shave their armpits, and that they find it to be a cornerstone of regular personal hygiene. “In our culture that’s really dirty!” our local friends said to us. “In our culture that’s kind of unmanly!” we said to them. Who knew? Apparently we had not gone swimming together quite enough to notice this crucial difference in approaches to body hair. Needless to say, neither side has acted yet on this newfound cross-cultural difference.
If you ever serve cross-culturally, pray for a friend like Darius. Little tips like these are immensely practical as we seek to avoid needless offense and to little-by-little put on the local culture and lifestyle. We won’t always choose to practice these kinds of things ourselves. Local men find it unmanly to wash the dishes, for example. But if we don’t know what the differences are, then we are not free to choose which behavior will best commend ourselves and our message to our local friends.
Sometimes we will not put on the local culture, so as to drive home an important contrast. I will most certainly wash the dishes for my wife, regardless of the locals who might snicker. But most often, we will put on the local culture (and yes, the toilet shoes). This is to be like Paul, so that by any means, we “might save some.”
*Names changed for security