The Upsides of Local Houses

“Hm, there’s nothing especially pretty about the local architecture, is there?”

This comment from a visitor a few years back is a pretty good summary of how most Westerners feel about our local houses. Cement rectangles finished in plaster, paint, and tile maybe aren’t exactly something to write home about. Aesthetically, it’s like the sharp corners of the 1980s have been awkwardly wed to hints of Islamic and communist design. And yet, there a quite a few aspects of these houses that we’ve come to appreciate. As with so many other areas, the culture has even seeped into into the architecture, leading to houses that themselves communicate things about their environment and the people who live in them. Despite their challenges, my family continues to live in a typical house here, our third one now since moving overseas. Here are a few things I now appreciate about local houses.

A Separate Hosting Room. Most houses here include a room for hosting guests who come visiting. This room is typically well carpeted and the walls are lined with either couches or with local sitting mattresses. This hosting room is usually separated from the rest of the house by a door and often has its own entrance. This allows guests to be honorably hosted, but also contained out of sight of the necessary workings of the household and hospitality. The meal will often be served in this same room, with a long plastic or fabric table cloth laid on the floor. Guests can also sleep in this room, with the sitting mattresses doubling as beds and with the door providing adequate privacy. This compartmentalizing of hospitality means hosting is much more practical since all the required household business can still happen out of sight, even when guests are present. Just make sure one of the family members is in there with them, the guests are munching on something or someone’s working to bring tea or snacks, and the TV is on.

Diverse Toilets. Many local houses will now have both kinds of toilets, western and eastern. An eastern toilet is also popularly known as the squatty potty. It’s basically a porcelain hole in the floor complete with side treads for your feet so that you know you’re positioned correctly. I’m not going to go into details but let’s just say that it’s ideal to have both kinds of toilets on hand, both for hospitality and for dealing with different kinds of sicknesses! There’s also often an extra guest half-bath in the courtyard, just outside the hosting room, so that guests can use it without needing to pass through the family part of the house.

Flat Roofs. The flat roofs of our region mean that you have an accessible area for placing water tanks, random supplies (but only if they can survive the blistering heat), and air conditioning/heat units. The roofs also make great places to step out onto for a quiet moment or to sit around a fire at night. In the past, many families would sleep on their roofs during the summer, since the night air was much cooler than the air inside the cement house, which had soaked up the heat of the sun during the day. Many locals will also use the roof as a good place to hang up, beat, wash, and dry their Persian carpets, and sometimes to hang their laundry.

The Practical Kitchen. Why have only one kitchen when you can have two? Many local houses have two kitchens, one which is kept spotlessly presentable for guests, and one which is used for the messier stove-top cooking and food preparation. This second kitchen is called the practical kitchen and it is often built in a different room which is only partially sealed to the outside air. This is so that the heat of the stove can escape without being trapped in a house which is already overheating in the summer. Our practical kitchen contains our stove, our hot water boiler, and a chair for when my wife needs to find a quiet place to pray out of sight of the offsprings.

Courtyards. Though much smaller in modern houses than they used to be, courtyards still provide a vital space for the family to work and play with the privacy provided by a high wall and gate. The courtyard is considered part of the house so it gives the women of the family protected access to sunlight and often a small garden/yard area and a cement or tile floor where they can do necessary work. Like many locals, we are working hard to turn our small tiled courtyard into a small garden of sorts, a green refuge from the dust and cement of the city.

The Hamam. This room is a fully tiled space that is used for showers. Why limit yourself to a small tub and curtain in the corner when you can have your own tiled sauna room? Locals will often put their water boiler beneath the tiled floor so that the floor itself is heated as well as the water. As a Westerner who greatly appreciates hot showers, I have to say that the shower experience of the hamam is far superior to the Western-style corner or tub shower. That is, unless it’s like our previous house, where the floor of the hamam was somehow conducting electricity!

Light Wells. What do you do when you live in a country with inconsistent electricity? Build houses with light wells throughout, a shaft that goes up to a skylight on the roof, so that most rooms have access to some kind of window that receives natural light. In the dark of winter these light wells can make all the difference.

Local houses are quirky, no doubt. The quality of construction is not very good so things break all the time. I am nearing the completion of about a hundred small repair repair projects in the house where we currently live. In one sense, it would be much simpler to live in one of the new Western-style apartment towers that are being built. And yet there are things about these houses we have come to really appreciate. We can see how they have been built by a people who really care about guests, about family, about comfort, and about making the best out of an unreliable infrastructure. They have their own charm, even if it takes a while to recognize it.

And if I ever build my own house in the West somewhere, count on it, I will be including at least one squatty potty.

Photo by Sohaib Ghyasi on Unsplash

But They Really Do Resemble Their Mother

“You know,” said my host, “in Islam, it’s approved for a Christian girl to marry a Muslim man.”

“Yes,” I responded, “but it’s forbidden to happen the other way around, isn’t it?”

With a sheepish grin, my host admitted that it was true. Muslim men can marry women from other religions, but Muslim women are not allowed to marry men from other religions. My village host had been jesting (mostly) about having our single teammate marry one of his sons.

“For us true believers in Jesus,” I continued, “we won’t do it in either direction. Both men and women won’t marry someone who doesn’t share their same faith. Our faith is that central to us. It’s the same for our single friend here.”

Our gracious new teammate was already being jokingly called the family’s “bride” and she was enduring it admirably. But it was important for them to know that jesting aside, this was out of the question.

The seemingly inconsistent Islamic position on marrying nonbelievers is not inconsistent at all when you understand the cultural belief that it sprung out of – something called patrogenesis. This Middle Eastern and Central Asian belief holds that children biologically generate only from the father. Mothers are merely carriers, vessels, but they do not contribute meaningfully to the biological or spiritual makeup of the child. Strange as it may seem, this was the dominant view in this part of the world until quite recently. It now exists in an uneasy tension with the growing knowledge of genetics and modern medicine.

Because of this belief in patrogenesis, traditional locals do not believe that a child can be half one ethnicity and half another. They are considered one hundred percent the ethnicity of the father. This also holds true for religion. It simply doesn’t matter if the mother is another religion. If the father is a Muslim, the children will be born biologically Muslims. Therefore it’s no threat to the faith to have a Muslim man marry a Christian woman. Rather, it means the tribe has gained a “carrier” from a rival tribe. However, in this understanding any Muslim woman who marries a man from another religion has been lost to an enemy tribe, and is no longer able to contribute to the continuity of her own community. Hence why it was outlawed from the beginning of the faith.

But that’s not fair! No, it’s not, but it is awfully convenient, and one of the many aspects of Islam that allowed it to slowly squeeze the life out of the religious minorities in its domains over the last 1,400 years. This belief also has Islamic legal ramifications. Children legally belong only to the father, and not to the mother, since they are considered the fruit of his loins alone. You can imagine the terrible position this puts local mothers when dealing with an abusive man.

Even when it comes to small talk, it’s traditionally a shameful thing for children to be said to resemble their mother’s features. In the West, it’s a celebrated thing that all of my children look more like my wife – she is by far the prettier one in this relationship! But here in Central Asia, it’s kind of awkward for more traditional locals (who still point it out for some reason) and I find myself having to attempt to rescue them from the shameful situation their comment just created, “Look! They really did get my ears, Eh?!” While thinking to myself, Why are you publicly questioning my virility? How is that not weird?

Worse still, the presence of patrogenesis presents the possibility of heresy for the new believing community here. “Congratulations, a new believer has been born!” was how one believing friend greeted the birth of our third-born, much to our horror. The cultural logic makes sense. Dad is a believer, so newborn is a believer. The problem is this cultural belief is radically anti-gospel, the kind of dangerous assumption that means the gospel can be lost in one generation as the parents come to faith and the children are merely assumed to be believers by nature of their father’s blood. It has already happened to communities of Christians present in the Middle East from ancient times as well as those converted to Christianity by missionaries in the 1800s. Most of them have become new ethnic people groups, and the gospel emphasis on the new birth has been lost. This is where the tragic term, CBB (Christian background believer), came from.

Some cultural beliefs are not wrong, just different (as every culture-shocking new missionary constantly repeats to himself). Patrogenesis is not one of them. It’s not only scientifically wrong, it’s also morally wrong, denying women their equal dignity as co-contributors to the biology of their offspring. Patrogenesis relegates them to the status of a mere carrier and denies them equal parental rights. It’s an affront to the image of God that equally resides in every woman and to the wonder of the created female body. Frankly, it is an idea that requires the oft-overlooked contextualization category called rejection. Good contextualization means recognizing that part of the culture is downright evil, and needs to be discarded as soon as possible. Discarded – yet replaced with a better theology of the image of God and the wonder of two people conceiving spiritual-physical beings that have a real beginning in time, but who also live forever.

It’s these kinds of landmines that propel us ever onward in our attempt to learn the cultures of our lost friends. These sorts of underlying assumptions can go unknown and unchallenged for years, even when Muslims have believing friends who are sharing the gospel faithfully with them. Though it takes time, getting into these areas of worldview and belief is essential because they touch core issues of identity, how a certain enculturated person answers the crucial “Who am I?” question. And last I checked, a biblical understanding of identity has something to do with genuine faith.

These are the kinds of issues that run through my mind when believing Western friends genuinely ask if focusing on learning culture is really that biblical and necessary. “Can’t we just preach the gospel?” Yes, technically you can just preach the gospel. But surely you will be a more skillful and effective preacher if you dig deep into what your audience actually believes about life, birth, and death – rather than assuming they share your assumptions about these things. As those called to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3), that also means attacking those worldview beliefs that radically disagree with the word of God. And that means tearing down anti-gospel strongholds like the belief in patrogenesis.

Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

You Need Pain Medicine? Why?

We’d like to believe that medicine is a hard science, unaffected by something so, well, unscientific as culture. In reality, culture exerts massive influence over how equally-intelligent doctors and healthcare professionals think about and practice their craft. The day my youngest was born gave us some rather unforgettable illustrations of this truth.

When my wife was pregnant with our third child we were hoping for a natural birth and planning to have the baby in our adopted Central Asian city. But very few doctors here are experienced now with natural birth and most vastly prefer C-sections. Still, we were hopeful as we planned for the birth at one of the premier private hospitals in the country. Then we found out that the cord was wrapped around the little guy’s neck. This and other unexpected developments meant we needed to change our minds in the middle of the night and prepare for a C-section. At this point they told me that I needed to go be prepared in case something went wrong in the surgery and my wife lost a lot of blood. They told me to go down to the lab with a slip of paper. At that lab I would be given a cooler full of ice. Then I would need to leave my wife alone (in stalled labor) to trek across the city with my cooler to the blood bank, pick up two units of blood from the blood bank, and bring them back to the hospital. I remember asking, “Wait, you don’t store blood here at this hospital? How can that be? What about emergencies?” They assured me the twenty-four-hour blood bank would be open (it was 3 a.m.), and no, they didn’t have any blood at the hospital. And no, they didn’t have a phone number for the blood bank.

I called up a local believer who worked as a policeman and was often awake all night. Thankfully, he came to our rescue and went to the blood bank on our behalf. Turns out the twenty-four-hour blood bank was shut down for the night. So our wonderful friend spent the night in the hospital parking lot and then went back and banged on the blood bank gate at the hour they were supposed to open. They didn’t have my wife’s blood type on hand. “Go tell them to call their relatives to come and donate the blood for them.” At this point my friend had had it and basically threatened to bring the wrath of the police down on their heads if they didn’t produce the needed blood ASAP. And somehow they were able to suddenly scrounge up one unit from somewhere. He rushed it back to the hospital and made the hand-off. I delivered the blood and worriedly told the nurse that they only had one unit. She replied with a strangely cheerful, “Well, Inshallah she won’t need it!” All I can say is, Praise God she didn’t.

Later on that day, the little guy already born through a successful C-section, the doctor paid my wife a visit. By this point, my wife was in quite a bit of pain from the surgery. She asked for some pain medicine. The doctor cocked her head and in all earnestness said, “You need pain medicine? Why?” And then prescribed a couple of Tylenol. We learned very quickly that the locals don’t really use heavy duty pain meds. In fact, they often send women home on the same day that they’ve given birth. This is super normal to them and they discharge women with their IVs still attached, who then hobble down the street and are likely buy some fresh flatbread on their way home. Our local friends and the hospital staff were quite bemused at the strange foreigners that opted to spend three nights in the hospital. “Nobody does that!” We were quite stunned ourselves both at the pain tolerance of the local mamas and the lack of any meds stronger than an ibuprofen in one of the best hospitals in the country.

We went home just as my wife started to develop severe debilitating pain in her neck. The outer layer of the spinal cord had been punctured too severely by the epidural shots and too much spinal fluid had leaked out, meaning she couldn’t sit up without incredible pain. She spent the next four or five days completely bed-ridden while I played nurse and hosted all of our local friends who had come to congratulate us and bring my wife a special post-birth recovery mash of flour, sugar, and oil.

The amazing thing about all of this is that our third-born turned out to be the most easy-going, sweet baby that we’ve had. To this day we marvel at his perceptive and kind nature (He’s a two year old now, and a cute curly-haired little ewok). Our other two were born much angrier, angstier babies. And yet he had, by far, the most traumatic birth experience of the three of them. We shrug our shoulders and attribute his easy-going nature to him being the only one to enjoy the delicious local diet while in the womb.

When it comes to the local medical system, we’ve had our fair share of shock and surprise, both in this situation, and later, when our daughter was hospitalized with new-onset type-1 diabetes. But in spite of the cultural differences, we do really thank God for the doctors and nurses in this country. There are some things we will always scratch our heads about. Sometimes we can see clearly how their culture has canceled out sound medical practice. But at the end of the day, they are a common grace from God. They’ve saved the life of one of my children and potentially of my wife and youngest as well. And to be honest, I’m sure we also have our own cultural blind-spots in the West that get in the way of good medicine.

And now I know. If local surgery is required, best to beforehand round up a crew of “relatives” with the right blood type just in case the only blood bank has run out. Forewarned is forearmed. I may still feel it is a very badly designed blood bank system, but as long as you know what to expect, even bad systems become, well, somewhat normal.

Photo by Christian Bowen on Unsplash

The Cow As Local Shibboleth

Shibboleth [ shib-uh-lith, ‐leth ], noun

  1. A peculiarity of pronunciation, behavior, mode of dress, etc., that distinguishes a particular class or set of persons. (Dictionary.com)

A shibboleth has come to mean a type of signal, usually verbal, that betrays what group someone actually belongs to. Having spent some years in the Philadelphia, PA, area, I know that locals pronounce water as wooder and call sub sandwiches hoagies. These verbal cues betray that they have been shaped by the dialect of a particular city. My wife being originally from the Rochester, NY, area, means that she happens to add and “L” sound into the word both, pronouncing it as bolth. Arabs usually can’t say the letter “P” and instead of Pepsi, they say bibsi. And Americans have an awfully hard time with the “Q” sound of Arabic, often mispronouncing the name of the country Qatar as kataar or gutter.

The term shibboleth itself comes from the book of Judges, from one of the many tribal conflicts that takes place in that book of uniquely highlighted human depravity.

Then Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought with Ephraim. And the men of Gilead struck Ephraim, because they said, “You are fugitives of Ephraim, you Gileadites, in the midst of Ephraim and Manasseh.” And the Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, “Let me go over,” the men of Gilead said to him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” When he said, “No,” they said to him, “Then say Shibboleth,” and he said, “Sibboleth,” for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan. At that time 42,000 of the Ephraimites fell. (Judges 12:4–6 ESV)

Alas, the dialect of the Ephraimites had lost the sh sound and so their tongues gave them away when they were asked to reproduce shibboleth, the Hebrew word for ear of grain. As one who struggled even as a six-year-old to pronounce the tricky American “R” sound, I feel their pain. But I only had to go to speech class and miss my 2nd grade Thursday afternoon movie. Once their lie was exposed and they were found out to be Ephraimites, they were promptly killed.

I was surprised to hear a very similar account echoed by my Muslim neighbors here in our corner of Central Asia. Our region, like many tribal and mountainous areas worldwide, has many diverse dialects. These dialects are supposedly all part of the same language (though linguists debate at what point a dialect becomes its own language). The dialect of our new city is surprisingly different from the dialect of our previous city, for being geographically as close as they are. We are currently in the throes of learning a whole new set of vocab that we thought we had already mastered. Turns out many of the words that are commonplace in our previous city are just not used here, and vice versa. I’m talking about words you use every day like spoon, nose, neighbor, y’all, and cow. Well, maybe we don’t use cow every day, but it would have been a word used daily until the very recent past. But the term for cow used in our city and our previous city are as different as the English words mail and saunter. In other words, there is no connection between them whatsoever.

Not too long ago there was a civil war between these two cities and they unknowingly performed a live-action remake of Judges 12. As they say, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. But instead using shibboleth as a shibboleth, they used the words for cow instead. When someone was caught at a checkpoint professing to be a friendly member of the soldiers’ side, they were put to a linguistic test.

“Say cow.”

Their answer, at least until word got out, determined their fate. Their chosen word for cow, of all things, was the difference between life and death. Though civil war is always tragic, locals do find humor in this tale of their recent conflict. It seems to somehow appropriately highlight the absurdity of conflicts that really boil down to the basic competition between two tribes, and nothing deeper than that. “It was a stupid war,” locals will say. “To this day we really don’t know why it even happened.”

Stupid and inexplicable. Like most human conflict. In the new heavens and new earth, if we still have shibboleths, I’m sure they’ll only be used for fun. “So, you’re a Philly boy, eh? I caught that usage of wooder.” Thankfully, the age where shibboleths are used for evil will then have finally passed away.

Photo by Hilde Demeester on Unsplash

It’s Not Real If There’s No Certificate

Those who have spent time in this part of the world soon realize the importance of things appearing official. Seals, stamps, big desks with name plates, suits, important-looking dossiers… and certificates. One must not underestimate the importance of certificates in Central Asia.

One of the core questions of a worldview is this: What is real? In Central Asia, this coincides closely with what is respectable. In fact, if something is informal or unrecognized, if it doesn’t reach a certain threshold of respectability, then in a very real sense it’s not understood to be serious or real.

One of my close friends who grew up in this region told me a story from his youth. A respected teacher offered to give him private lessons without pay on a certain subject. My friend thought this was a kind offer and took him up on it. However, when his father found out about this he was not pleased at all, even though this situation was saving him money and giving his son a superior educational experience. “No,” said my friend’s father, “If you are not in the paid class, then you will not receive the certificate. And without the certificate, it’s not real.” My friend promptly withdrew from the free private tutoring and joined the paid group class. And in time he received his certificate.

Notice how the free private tutoring was not valued by my friend’s father because it would not have produced the all-important certificate. In this case and many others, Central Asians will often prioritize a certificate over the actual value of the content they are learning. This is not because they do not recognize quality of education. It’s simply that they believe that most education without the paper proof – sealed and signed and hung on the wall – is not really real at all.

The certificate is indicative of a broader trend that runs throughout the entire culture. Central Asians are loath to attach themselves to anything that has not sent the appropriate signals of seriousness and respectability.

Enter a global missions movement of post-institutional Westerners that focuses on planting organic, grass-roots, informal discipleship groups and house churches, and you have a situation ripe for misunderstanding – and ripe to be rejected as not really respectable or real. While many missions methods focus on the importance of reproducibility (not an unbiblical concept, depending on how it’s defined), few methods that I’m aware of are really asking hard cultural questions about respectability and reality. The Westerners make their pitch for house church and the locals wonder why they should be expected to risk their necks for something that seems so unplanned and so flimsy, so unreal. A crisis of trust emerges between the local believer and the missionary. Do these foreigners I have entrusted myself to actually have a plan?

However, the fact that most of Central Asia also contains some measure of government or societal persecution means that it’s often impossible or at least very tricky to start a church in a way that would be considered respectable – even if you could find a missionary willing to help start said respectable church (which might end up feeling very old-fashioned and unreproducible to them). So the Westerners end up with an aversion to the forms of church the locals are more naturally drawn toward, while the locals have a cultural aversion to the forms of church the Westerners are excited about. So much for contextualization.

The Westerners, in their own cultural stage of post-institutional ferment, can’t understand why Central Asians aren’t into house church, as their training had assured them they would be. The Central Asians, only recently emerging from a tribal past, recently urbanized, and seeing in their own society corrupt and phony institutions, are starving to experience healthy organizations and institutions. They can’t understand why the Westerners seem to be so against all the markers of respectable entities. But these things seldomly get spoken of openly.

In our previous city, a local believer with terrible English was an extremely loyal attendee at the international church. Knowing he was receiving very little spiritual edification by his attendance at this registered English service, his expat friends repeatedly urged him to join the local-language group they were trying to start. He stubbornly resisted, seemingly unwilling to commit, always talking about the need for a complex plan for that kind of a group to actually work. The verbal explanations about simply following the Bible that he was repeatedly given were not having their desired impact. One day while chewing on these things, I encouraged one of his mentors to try an experiment. I told him to write out their strategy, plan, and biblical principles for their local group and to present it to their friend as a thick portfolio. Feeling like anything was worth a shot at that point, they indulged me and did this very thing. The experiment worked. The thick stack of paper outlining their plans for this local church startup made something switch in our friend’s brain. It was real now. And as such, he was willing to risk for it. He started visiting their local group the next week.

Again, it will not be possible in much of Central Asia (or the Middle East) to plant officially-recognized, fully open local churches. But I am concerned that many of our favorite forms, because of where we are coming from culturally, are somewhat repellent to our Central Asian friends, because of where they are culturally. We dream of flat, bottom-up movements that never institutionalize (“forever young”) while they dream of hierarchical, top-down healthy institutions that are mature and serious. If house churches are popular among the hip middle-class residents of the Pacific Northwest, we should ask why that is, and we should not really be that surprised that they might not resonate with war-weary Central Asians. Somehow, we must find the areas of overlap between our cultural preferences and missions books, and what Central Asians consider real enough to risk for.

We may not choose to give out certificates, but if not, we should wrestle seriously with why our local friends are so upset if we do not. When it comes to what Central Asians think is real and respectable, how can we at least meet them half-way? When locals start new organizations, associations, or entities, what elements do they consider necessary in order to be viewed as legitimate?

We shouldn’t claim to be serious about contextualization if we do not wrestle with what our local friends believe is actually real. I might not care at all about a stamped piece of paper. But I am not planting churches based on my personal cultural preferences. Or am I?

Photo by Lewis Keegan – Skillscouter.com on Unsplash

A Blast of Honorable Words

How is verbal communication different in an honor-based Central Asian society versus a justice-based Western society? And what does that mean for cross-cultural workers and the establishment of a new culture among local believers?

In the field of intercultural communication, honor orientation and justice orientation refer to how a culture thinks about right and wrong. Honor-oriented cultures tend to believe that what is honorable is right and what is shameful is wrong. The way the community views a certain action or person is what is most important. A person is wrong if the community says he is wrong – even if he did not commit the thing he is accused of. Justice-oriented cultures tend believe that an action is right or wrong by nature of the action itself. A person is guilty if he does something wrong regardless of the community’s knowledge or lack of knowledge of it. He is similarly innocent even if the community believes he is guilty. This orientation toward honor or justice deeply impacts the way a culture thinks and speaks.

Our local Central Asian culture is strongly honor-oriented. Justice tendencies are there deep down as well, but they are woefully underdeveloped. As such, all action, including communication, is done in order to gain and preserve honor and to avoid or decrease shame. Honor and shame function like a kind of currency which can be given or taken away by the community. Local culture is intractably built around the honor of the patrilineage, the line of males and attached family members extending back into history and into the future. The communication of the individual affects the honor or shame of his patrilineage and his honor or shame is in turn affected by the actions and communication of the other individuals within his extended family, especially on his father’s side. For a Western culture parallel, consider the treatment of family honor and shame in Jane Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice. In this classic novel, the scandalous speech and behavior of a younger sister puts all her sisters’ marriage prospects in serious jeopardy. For no honorable man would attach himself to such a shameful family.

Our Central Asian neighbors aspire at all times to honorable communication, which is understood locally to be high-volume speech that reflects the values of the culture: generosity, respect, hospitality, purity, and loyalty. In order to advance the honor of the patrilineage and avoid shame, locals go above and beyond in what seem to outsiders to be very lavish verbal expressions of respect – almost blasting clouds of honorable words in the general direction of the respectable recipient. In place of simple greetings, locals will effortlessly proclaim a stream of pleasantries and blessings upon the person they are greeting, machine-gun style, even if merely passing an acquaintance on the street, and even while simultaneously speaking on the phone with someone else. This honorable verbosity is typical not only of greetings, but also of farewells, requests, and replies. In these interactions both parties work to make sure their own honor and the honor of other party is affirmed in a public and highly verbal way. Sometimes this is done with such speed, skill, and genuineness as to leave Westerners stunned that any human society could be so poetically respectful. Other times, well, Jane Austen again provides us with a comparable, if exaggerated, figure in the over-the-top verbosity of the character, Mr. Collins. Listen to how Mr. Collins praises his patroness and relatives ad nauseam, and you will get a window into how this kind of “honorable” flattery can get off-balance for some in these types of cultures.

Sadly, because of this honor-orientation locals will also lie, stretch the truth, or deflect in order to avoid bringing shame to themselves or another party. This is often simply expected as a normal part of civility. If someone feels they cannot refuse an invitation honorably, they will often accept, while planning to cancel later. Or, the phrase Inshallah is used as an indirect no, where the will of God in circumstances takes the fall for the local not wanting to respond in the affirmative, and thus shame is assumed to have been avoided. These practices have led to a deep disillusionment among locals who know that many praise them to their face, and then quickly insult them behind their backs. We’re all hopelessly two-faced has become a sort of curse that many feel they cannot escape.

Christian workers among this kind of culture need to be aware of this honor-orientation of the culture and the ways it will pose challenges not only for daily life, but also for effective gospel communication. There are many areas in which Christian workers can contextualize their own communication toward this honor orientation. Lavish and respectful greetings, farewells, requests, and offers can all be made with genuine love and sincerity that is even deeper than that of the culture itself. This is possible because believers have a relationship with the God who is blessing all the nations through Christ. Care can be taken to speak of difficult things in contexts and ways that will not make the recipient feel in danger of unnecessary shame. The question can regularly be asked: “Is there a way I can carry out my spiritual work with this friend in a way viewed more honorable by the family and the community?”

Nevertheless, many aspects of gospel work will inevitably be viewed as shameful by the community. Christian workers will need to emphasize Christ’s enduring shame for the joy set before him (Heb 12:2) as a model for themselves and their local friends. There are many ways in which Westerners can grow in indirect and honorable communication that does not involve deceit. The ministry of Jesus actually provides a fascinating case study here. However, local believers will also need to learn to repent of the ways in which their honor-shame orientation has often led to lying and duplicity. Ultimately, the goal is that speech normally leveraged for the honor of the physical patrilineage will be instead be leveraged for the honor of God and his household of faith.

How can I honor my heavenly father and his family with all of my communication? Provided the idea of honor is infused with its biblical content, this is not a bad filter at all to be controlled by.

-For more on Honor vs. Justice communication, see Scott A. Moreau’s Effective Intercultural Communication

Photo by Darpan Dodiya on Unsplash


He Thinks the World is Round!

When I was a tenth grader my family visited some dear friends working among a very remote tribe. This tribe lived on the tops and sides of several remote jungle ridges which sloped down to the roaring convergence of two major rivers. It is one of the more beautiful and remote places I’ve ever seen. As it would have taken three days to walk to this tribe from the nearest road, we were flown in on a missionary Cessna to the airstrip that the villagers had recently built.

Because of lack of space, this airstrip was built on a short slope, complete with a steeper slope and drop-off at the end. When landing, the upward slope would help the plane slow down. When taking off downhill, the pilot had to make sure he had enough speed once he reached the end of the dirt and grass airstrip. If not, his plane would be smashed into the canopy of trees far below. This had already happened to one plane belonging to someone trying to fly out sacks of coffee beans. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the greatest danger to the pilots. Their worst nemesis turned out to be the village pigs that would tear up the airstrip in their search for edible roots and sometimes run out in front of a plane, causing a collision that could be fatal for all parties involved. It may have been at this same airstrip that this type of collision took place in following years. The plane and the pig were totaled, but the pilot was miraculously spared.

The older Korean missionary couple that we were visiting (Papa S and Mama M) had become like grandparents to us. So this visit to their tribal location was a very sweet time. I learned a lot from their wisdom about how to live a lifestyle that was closer to that of the villagers and how to think more communally about our belongings (like tools) for the sake of the gospel. As they worked to translate the Bible with their local teammates from a neighboring tribe, they truly modeled relationships of equality and dignity, even given the vast education, cultural, and material differences.

My older brother and I spent the days sitting outside in the sunny ridge-top yard of their modest tribal house, reading (my first of several attempts at reading Desiring God took place here), having fun with the hornbill bird that had adopted our friends, and telling stories with the small crowd of villagers that were almost always present. While we didn’t know the tribal language, enough of the tribesmen knew the trade language for us to be able to communicate easily. However, most of the elderly and the children did not know the trade language, so our conversations took place with a constant background hum of the tribal tongue as they interpreted and remarked and made jokes. I’ve often characterized my Melanesian tribal friends as quick to laugh, quick to joke, and quick to fight – a fascinating combination of playful and dangerous, honor-bound yet always wearing their hearts on their sleeves. As is also true of so many of my Central Asian friends, they make the most wonderful of friends and the most daunting of enemies.

Friendly hornbills make for pleasant, if goofy, companions.

One afternoon my mom had decided to bake some chocolate chip cookies in a wood-fired stove Papa S had made from a metal barrel, the kind of barrel that gasoline for the generator came in. Her hippy-missionary skills would prove to be remarkably successful, but as we waited we got into a fun conversation with a group of villagers about distances from their village to other places, such as where we lived, and how far it was to other countries. We were struggling to explain to them just how far away America was when I remembered that there was an inflatable globe inside the house. I went and retrieved it.

I sat down on a split-log bench. With my impromptu geography class huddled around me, I began to show them their country, the countries next door, and all the way on the other side of the globe, the country my parents were from. Confusion followed. This may have been the first time they had ever seen distances displayed on any kind of a map, let along one shaped like a ball. We talked about what their village would look like to a bird or a plane (the same word in the trade language), what their province would look like if they went higher up, and then what the round planet earth would look like if someone were able to go even higher. It began to sink in. Or so I thought.

Then, someone shouted something in the tribal language and the distinctive communal laugh burst forth. I’ve never seen this anywhere else in the world, but in that Melanesian country, when crowds laugh, they laugh in unison with a climax of a joyful and high-pitched whoop, something like dozens of voices all together exclaiming, “Hahahahaaha…Ha wheeeeee!” This would happen when someone did something funny or embarrassing in front of church, or when a rugby player got taken down in a particularly epic tackle. But this time apparently I was the joke!

I was finally able to get a translation of what was going on. “He thinks the world is round! The skinny white boy thinks the world is round! This is too much!” My short-lived geography class was falling apart as villagers, still laughing, began to make their way back to their huts to tell the story.

“But,” I protested to the few who remained, “It’s true! The world is round like a ball!” To no avail.

“Son,” One man said to me, “Look around you. Are we not on top of a mountain? Look at the horizon. Is it not flat? The world is definitely flat. We simply cannot believe what you are saying when we see this with our own eyes.”

My geography lesson had been an educational failure, however much comedic relief it may have brought to the village that week. I left scratching my head at the whole thing. Munching on a cookie and trying to place myself in their shoes, I began to realize just how outlandish my claims must have seemed to them. If the oral tradition of your ancestors, the only human source of wisdom and education you’ve ever had, claimed the world was flat, it was going to take a lot more than a random sixteen-year-old foreigner with a ball to convince you otherwise. Such is the power of a community’s self-evident truth.

I’ve often thought of that tribe in the years since as I’ve spoken with those in the West or in Central Asia, challenging the accepted truths of their culture with the universe as the Bible presents it. Incredulity sounds remarkably similar, regardless of language or culture. “What? You actually think homosexuality is a sin?” “What? You don’t believe that Islam is the fulfillment of Christianity? Everyone knows that.”

Group-think is universal. We are each limited in our perspective by our own unique cultural-historical time-slice, just like my village friends who thought I was crazy for suggesting the earth is round like a ball. Hence why we need a God who is outside of creation and yet who speaks his truth into it (props here to F. Schaeffer) – an eternally unchanging source of stable truth that takes things we feel (or learn) are absurd and helps us see that they are in fact true, wise, and beautiful. This is why missions is necessary. Yes, so that we can learn things that are true about geography – all truth is God’s truth, as they say. But even more important, so that we will be able to actually respond to the remnant whispers of conscience and stop trying in futility to save ourselves through appeasing and manipulating the spirits (as in Melanesia), through hoping our good deeds outweigh our bad (as in Islam), and through trying to be true to our authentic selves (as in the West).

The world, the earth, is round. And man cannot save himself through animism, religion, or whatever pop morality is dominating Twitter today. Rather, he must be saved by the Son of God, who became a man, lived a perfect life, died a sacrificial death on the cross, rose from the dead, and ascended to be at God the Father’s right hand. The God who is outside of creation and yet speaks into it has told us that this is the only way to be reconciled to him. Perhaps the way in which we’ve heard that message conflicts with the prevailing wisdom of our tribe – but so be it. The path toward truth often begins with a terrifying realization that our tribe has been woefully wrong about many, many things.

Photos by ActionVance and Axel Blanchard on Unsplash

His Honor Will Have Departed

My painter friend has provided valuable insight a couple of times now into how local culture thinks about money. A year and a half ago he was my point-man for the different renovations we needed to do once we had finally located a house to rent (a process that involved somewhere around fifty realtors!). It was an interesting working experience, and in the hottest part of the summer. My focus was on fixing things thoroughly so that this house could provide several years of stability for my family, while my painter friend was always pushing back and telling me not to spend so much money. I didn’t quite know what to do with the fact that my contractor kept trying to discourage me from employing him and his contacts on further projects!

One day I asked him about whether we should put iron bars on our ground floor front windows. Our house is essentially a cement row home, with a front that faces the street and sides and a back that connect to other houses’ walls. Envision the narrow Philadelphia row homes from the film Rocky, turn them into cement/plaster/tile structures, and you’ll be getting close. We have a skinny house front facing the street, a small tile courtyard with a gate, and we have a back roof that we can walk out onto. The door to the roof and the window have metal bars on them. But unlike some of our neighbors, we don’t have bars on our ground floor door and windows. The painter’s response was interesting.

“Nah, you don’t need ’em.”

“Why do say that?” I asked.

“Listen, if anyone’s gonna rob a house, he’s gonna do it through the roof, where the nosy neighbors can’t see it happen. Neighbors are always watching who comes and goes through the front of the house.”

Well, that’s a bit unnerving, I thought to myself. Better take note of that for future Bible studies.

“Nah,” he continued, “You’ve got bars on your roof window, so you’re fine. Besides, everyone knows that your a Westerner and Westerners are different with their money.”

“What’s that mean?” I asked.

“Westerners keep their money in banks! Everyone knows that. I bet the cash you have in your wallet right now is the only cash you have around this whole house, right?”

I nodded.

“See? Nothing to worry about. No one will bother to rob Westerners because you’re not stuffing tens of thousands of dollars into a mattress or hole in the wall like we locals do. All your money is in a bank. It’s not worth it.”

What an interesting and unexpected perspective, I thought to myself. Growing up in Melanesia, crime and robbery were a big problem. Westerners had to be extra careful. Here, being a Westerner might mean I’m less likely to be robbed!

Fast forward a year and a half to last night, and we were having dinner with my painter friend and his wife. Once again, I found him to be an unexpected source of insight into theft and money. He began laughing and telling us about some foreigners he saw in the money exchange bazaar taking pictures of the tables piled high with stacks of cash.

“That’s a strange thing for all of us foreigners in the beginning,” I said, “Those tables are just sitting there with thousands of dollars on them, yet no one tries to steal anything! Your culture has an amazingly low rate of theft. It’s really unique. What’s going on there?” I asked him. “Even nearby surrounding cultures aren’t like that.”

“Well,” my painter friend said, “If anyone tries to steal anything, the police and the secret police will be after him right away. He doesn’t stand a chance. Sometimes you don’t even need the police! The crowd will take care of him. Stealing is such a shameful thing.”

(I remember experiencing a similar thing in Melanesia. A man had robbed one of my classmates. We were able to yell and holler and send a crowd chasing him down. The police saw him rounding a corner, pursued by an angry mob, and they decided to arrest him and rescue him from the wrath of the mob. Might have saved his life.)

My friend continued to elaborate, “For us, it’s a matter of honor and reputation. To be known as a thief is one of the worst reputations you can have. You’ll never get rid of it. You’ll never be able to marry a local girl. Their families won’t let them marry a thief.”

“Really?” we responded.

“Even his father will be marked forever. People on the street will say, ‘Look at that man, his son is a thief!’ And his son will never be able to marry. Oh yes, they will all say, ‘Look at that man, his son is a thief.’ Indeed, his honor will have departed.”

A teammate leaned over to me to emphasize this final phrase, “Did you catch that?” he said, “His honor will have departed.” I nodded. Now there’s a phrase to memorize for those seeking to communicate the fallenness of humanity. All of us have sinned, and all of our honor has departed.

“So that’s why thieving and robbery are so rare?” we asked.

“Yes!”

“But what about government corruption?”

“Ha!” My friend responded, “Yes, we have a lot of that. The normal people don’t steal, but the political class? They’re sneaky. They steal billions in deceptive ways. Such is our situation.”

And such is the surprising nature of theft and money in our corner of Central Asia. In general, you don’t have to worry about pick-pockets, people breaking into your car, or kids stealing from shops in the bazaar. But you have a project worth hundreds of thousands of dollars? Watch out. At that point the thieves will come calling.

Photo by Colin Watts on Unsplash

The Importance of Permission

A local friend just struck a major deal with a big media company here. As a friend and possible participant in some of his projects, I was invited into a couple of the meetings. It was fascinating to observe because the method of how to pitch an idea here is the exact opposite of the way Westerners typically do it.

In the West, we make sure our research and proposal is in order, then we might do a small pilot project and try to build things from the ground up and to provide a demonstration. We do the research and detailed prep first and that’s how we get the credibility and approval to go official. It’s a process rooted in meritocracy. Here, you meet with the important potential patron first, gain their trust relationally, then once they give you the go ahead, you go and figure the details out. You can’t begin your research until someone with some societal clout has given you permission to do so. It’s a process rooted in patronage.

A few years ago I visited a ruined Christian monastery with a local friend. I was curious about what the locals in the nearby town knew about this historic site. I had stumbled upon some recent archaeological research claiming that this was a monastery and citadel built around the year AD 500 and destroyed about five hundred years later. First, we visited a local religious leader, an important mullah. Even though his mosque was just down the road from this site, he knew very little about it. Most locals believed it to be an old Zoroastrian or Islamic site. The mullah did know that a few years previously a team had dug up two bodies which had been buried facing Jerusalem, not Mecca. He said that strengthened the case for it being a Christian or Jewish site.

Next we paid the mayor of this small town a visit. With it being a sleepy summer afternoon, I didn’t think anything of dropping by this government office to introduce ourselves, have a cold cup of water, and ask a few friendly questions. After all, my friend and I were respectable English teachers, an honorable profession in this part of the world. The mayor knew even less about the site than the mullah did, but we had a seemingly friendly conversation nonetheless. Still, it amazed me that the leaders of this community had no idea about the important historical site that sat right next to their town. I indicated that I hoped to do more research on the site in the future.

Upon leaving, the mayor motioned to us,

“Let me give you some advice. The next time you go around asking questions, make sure you have an official letter saying that you are approved to do so.”

His comment caught me off-guard. Approval to ask questions? Isn’t it my right to ask questions and do research and hold off on the approvals until I’m actually ready to commit to something? Not in Central Asia. Here you have to get permission to even ask the questions.

I saw this same dynamic working out this week as my friend met with this company’s CEO. Once he earned his trust and gained approval, the sky was the limit. He had secured a patron, so my friend wasn’t concerned about cost or details. There was abundant time now to figure that out. The most important piece was in place – the relationship with the CEO.

My friend’s team, a motley crew of very young and diverse Westernized locals, were nervous about the lack of detail. Interestingly, they had assimilated enough to global culture to understand the steps of the process to be backward – as I had with the monastery. But having gone through that experience with the mayor and run it by a good many locals for understanding, I was able to calm the team down. My friend and the CEO were operating in a tried and true Central Asian process, almost a dance, where a potential patron and a client explore forming a new working relationship. That relationship now agreed upon, the cornerstone for all the other work was now in place.

Now, they had their “letter.” The patron had been assured of their loyalty and of the potential for them to do good work. He had promised them his full backing. So now, they could go get to work on the details.

Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash