This is our local equivalent of “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” In this local proverb, you can’t want God (a spiritual life) while also wanting to eat dates (a pleasurable life). You can’t have it both ways, local wisdom says.
It seems that locals use this proverb for someone struggling with doublemindedness. I learned it from a local friend whose mom had just used it on him as he lamented about not knowing which of multiple good options he should pursue for his future. He was stuck, knowing that to choose one good was to deny another. “I shall be telling this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence!” wrote Robert Frost, recalling a friend who regularly lamented the roads not taken.
Central Asian mamas don’t have any time for that kind of stuff, busy as they are serving their family (including adult sons) hand and foot. “Listen, son, you want God and you want dates? Pick one and quit your drama …and here’s some more chai, sweety.”
At lunch yesterday with some colleagues and local believers, Mr. Talent used a unique phrase to call the waiter.
“Only begotten brother! We’d like some more fermented yogurt water!”
Since it was my first time to hear this particular title, I wasn’t sure if I had heard right. Sure enough, he continued to use it to hail our waiter.
The phrase seems to come from the local word for brother combined with a word that we don’t have in English, which means something like “only child” but can also be applied to an only son in a family of daughters, or vice versa. I can use it for my only daughter, but I can’t use it for my sons. Our King James phrase, “Only begotten” is not too far off, and indeed, this is the local word our language’s translation uses for God’s only Son in John 3:16.
This word also carries with it a sense of special honor and affection. Since it’s organized along male kinship lines, it’s not surprising that our Central Asian culture would bestow this kind of title onto an only son, but I’ve been encouraged to see that this unique honor and affection can also be extended to only daughters. These “only begottens” might even end up a little spoiled.
But I had never heard this kind of special familial term extended in this way to someone like a waiter in a restaurant. It was a perfect example of how honorable titles here are regularly proclaimed onto others in the course of daily business and interactions.
“My lion brother”
“My beautiful son”
“My dear uncle on my mother’s side!”
I’m only scratching the surface here when it comes to the titles that men can use to refer to their neighbors, friends, and shopkeepers.
One of the hardest things for us to learn as Westerners is this constant art of blessing or honorable proclamation – even after we get up the courage to call a man our flower while kissing his cheeks. I still catch myself mumbling respectful phrases when I should be projecting them confidently. At least that seems to be what Central Asian fathers teach their sons, since they all grow up really good at the art of bold title bestowing.
I find myself a little unsure. “What if they don’t want to be called my lion brother?” But my local friends don’t seem plagued by this doubt. It doesn’t seem that the qualification for the title resides in the recipient, but rather in the will of the one bestowing it. Central Asian men are going to call you that honorable thing whether you feel like they should or not.
In this I see a small window into the nature of God, hidden away in our broken local culture. Does God not also proclaim honorable titles over his children, friends, and enemies dependent only on his divine pleasure? And does he not keep on proclaiming them whether we feel worthy of them or not, whether we want them or not on a given day?
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” 1st John 3:1
“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends…” John 15:15
I want to get better at proclaiming respectful titles over my friends and acquaintances here – and not just so that I can become a Central Asian for the sake of reaching Central Asians. I want to become more like God.
In this culture awash with honorable pleasantries, it is not the most skillful orator who will be noticed, but the one whose honorable blessings actually come from the heart. In this case there will be some who truly come to fulfill these titles, to surpass them even. How? As they hear the gospel and are transformed from one degree of glory to another, for all eternity.
It’s hard to discern a potential leader’s character, even in our native cultures. Unlike physical features, the terrain of character is invisible, demonstrated over time through a person’s life. Veteran pastors in the West say it typically takes 2-3 years to really know if a man has character fit to lead the church. How much more difficult is it then to discern character across culture and language barriers?
When that cashier is careful to not touch your wife’s hand when taking money from her, is that because he believes women are inferior and dirty? Or is that because he is wanting to protect the honorable reputation of your wife in a culture where a bad reputation for women can be life-threatening? Which is it? We are faced with a thousand dilemmas like this when we begin doing character work across culture.
Here are 22 questions that can serve as practical lenses for discerning character no matter what culture you’re in. They’re not exhaustive, but I hope you will find them helpful. They are also not original to me, but represent the pooled wisdom of many conversations with pastors, authors, friends, and wise believers. Some of these questions have also practically emerged out of being burned and bitten by wolves.
Before we look at the questions, however, we do need to keep a couple realities in mind. First, biblical principles do not change throughout time and across cultures. They are universally true and unchanging. However, the expressions – the applications – of those principles do vary from one century to another and from one culture to another. This will also be true at times for how character is expressed.
How an American shows respect is night and day different from how Central Asians show respect. Same principle – respect – outdo one another in showing honor. But very different, even offensively different applications. The same goes for hospitality, what constitutes manliness, who should kiss who, how we think about time, etc.
To make it even more complicated, the scriptures sometimes tie a principle and an expression very tightly together – like baptism and the Lord’s supper. The expressions are commanded along with the principle. But other times we are given principles and a large degree of freedom in expression – as with musical worship in the church. Especially for those of us in cross-cultural ministry, this is an area for careful and nuanced study of the Word.
How narrow or broad is the spectrum of faithful expression for a given biblical principle? We should know that spectrum of faithful expression, and then choose a posture according to our unique context.
To illustrate what I mean, imagine a huge Kentucky oak, not a squat mountain scrub oak like ours in Central Asia, but a remarkably tall and straight tree, a couple hundred years old. This huge oak tree has roots fixed in the earth, steady, strong. It’s trunk is firm and unmoving, solid. However, once you get up into the branches, you see some sway when the wind blows. Even the strongest and healthiest tree has some sway.
Our biblical principles are like the roots and the trunk. Our faithful applications are like the branches. Solid biblical principles have some sway in their applications across time and cultures. Disregard the universality of biblical principles and you become a relativist. Disregard the existence of the sway and you fall into a classic error of fundamentalism, which is mistaking an expression for the principle itself.
So then, ask these questions for discerning character, and be aware of how character does and doe not express itself differently across cultures.
1. How does his local church feel about this brother? The local church is often the very best reference we can have on a man’s character. What do the elders see? What do the old ladies see? Do the members of the church commend him as one already leading, already shepherding even without a title?
2. How does he respond to gospel conversation? Do his eyes gloss over and does he insist he has that topic down? Or does his heart burn within him? Does he light up at the chance to revisit the beauty of the good news?
3. How does he handle the word? Does he exhibit a posture of humility and carefulness toward scripture?
4. Does he repent freely? This is a big one for Central Asian culture! You know your local brother’s character is changing when he doesn’t just give a general, “I’m sorry,” but he starts naming specifics – and in front of others!
5. How does he respond when someone sins against him? Or when he is publicly shamed? Does he know how to extend grace and forgive? Or does he keep bringing it up and holding a grudge?
6. Is he a good follower and team player? I never want myself or my friends to follow anyone who can’t be a good follower themselves. And neither should you. The healthiest leaders are those who also know how to be good followers.
7. How does he respond to those with power and position? Does he always gravitate toward the preaching pastor, the foreigners, those with power? Does he seem to be trying a little too hard to look good in their eyes?
8. How does he respond to the vulnerable? To women, children, the poor. Our response to the vulnerable always exposes our character. Is the instinct to protect them, to ignore them, or to take advantage of them?
9. How do his wife and children respond to him? Let’s not neglect to ask the people who live with this man what he’s really like at home. A pastor who used to be a cattle farmer told me they once fired a man for how the cattle acted around him. They never saw him abusing the cattle, but they could tell from how the cattle acted what was happening when he was alone. How do a man’s wife and children respond to him? And what can that show us?
10. Is he quick to deal out judgement? This often means he’s hiding sin or doesn’t understand the gospel. Most of the wolf-types we’ve encountered have been unpredictably judgemental on minor issues.
11. Can he be trusted with money? As one of our top church-killers, money issues are often what make or break the character of a Central Asian leader. He must be above reproach with money or he will not make it in this environment of foreign organizations excited to partner financially.
12. Is he self-aware of his own weaknesses and need for the body’s diverse gifts? Do not appoint a man to leadership who is still in the phase of thinking that everyone else needs to be gifted exactly like he is. Only appoint men who rejoice in others’ diverse giftings.
13. How does he respond when he doesn’t get his way? A man of good character knows how to defer, how to trust others even when they disagree.
14. Does he welcome correction? This is a sign of wisdom. (Prov 9:8)
15. Is he gracious toward cross-cultural mistakes? This is a very practical filter for us. The only local partners that will last with us are those who have a robust category of grace for honest cultural mistakes that we can’t help but make. If they’re harsh with your cultural mistakes, they will be with others’ even from their own culture.
16. Does he always make it about himself? Somehow does the conversation always turns back to his accomplishments?
17. Does he host or serve in ways that don’t get recognition? As one Central Asian pastor has said, pay attention to the Central Asian man who cleans the bathroom or does the dishes. That means something!
18. How does he handle his liberties? Mature christian freedom is freedom for the sake of love, not freedom for the sake of freedom. Will he give good things up that cause others to stumble?
19. What is his reputation among the discerning? Do you have folks around you who are perceptive and discerning? Lean on these people and their gifts of character discernment. I am helped to hear what a certain teammate of mine sees in a person, and to hear how my wife feels about that same person. What they see and feel tends to be validated later as a person’s true character is exposed.
20. What comes out of him in a crisis? Some security police crashed a church meeting at a colleague’s house a couple years ago. A new believer who struggles with fear stood right up, went over to the police, greeted them, told them his name, welcomed them, and acted with great courage and respect. You can’t plan reactions like that. Crises expose what is deep down inside.
21. Does he keep his commitments? A righteous man swears to his own hurt (Ps 15:4). This is foundational for building trust.
And lastly, 22. Does he run when the wolf comes? Or does he lay down his life for the sheep, as the good shepherd did? I was discipling some Iranian new believers in the US and they were bothered by the fact that staff pastors at our church were paid salaries. “How do we know they’re not just in this for the money, like the mullahs back home are?” they asked. “You’ll know,” I said, “when a wolf emerges, or anytime when caring for the sheep means the pastors must sacrifice and suffer. Then you’ll see their character emerge.”
Why is it important that we have some practical filters like this for discerning character? Because it’s hard to see character even in our native cultures, let alone in one where we are outsiders.
These filters give us some tools to have on hand, things to notice as you are walking with potential leaders – or any believer for that matter. How they do with these lenses applied will expose who they are, or who they are becoming.
It’s hard to see character, but a man’s heart is exposed by the fruit of his life (Matt 7:15-20). If we are careful to study the fruit, we can truly “see” the heart, and character will no longer be invisible.
This past week some colleagues were discussing certificate options with a local friend. As you might recall, certificates in this part of the world are taken very seriously. A training or class is often not considered respectable or even real if it comes with no certificate.
We were debating various formats for an upcoming certificate-giving ceremony and trying to fit spots for a couple of signatures, a seal, and a logo on the bottom portion of the paper. Initially, we only focused on the practicalities and aesthetics of the question when an old memory of signature placement and meaning suddenly came back to me.
“Mr. Talent*, will it mean something bad in your culture if we go with this centered design and one signature line is placed above another signature line?”
Mr. Talent had to take a minute to understand what I was getting at.
“You know, your culture feels very strongly about the placement of signatures. One must not sign below their printed name, correct?”
Here I flashed back to my first landlord, a fiery older woman who scolded me when I signed below my printed name on our first rental contract, and indicated for her to do so also.
“Don’t put it there! That’s the way convicts sign things! We are most definitely not convicts!”
I remember being thoroughly confused. Was this true all across the culture or was this simply fiery old Aisha* who once told us she would absolutely go join the anti-government protesters – if only her legs were still strong enough to run when the bullets started flying.
Sure enough, as I asked around I found all my local friends somehow knew that to sign above the name meant you were a respectful person, and to sign below meant you were in prison. I have no idea where this came from, but contextualization means we make sure to remember to sign above that line.
Mr. Talent quickly understood what I was referring to. “Yes! Yes, that means you are a criminal!” he laughed deeply and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
“So then,” I continued, “If these signatures are stacked in the middle of the certificate, will that carry a similar negative meaning?”
Mr. Talent chewed on my question. He is most certainly a true local, but is in his early 30s and a member of what more traditional types call “the iPad generation.” He would be one to scoff at the concept of corpses being preserved through the local practice of avowal, for example.”
“No,” he then replied, “we should be good to stack them like this if we decide we like it.”
Mission accomplished. Having checked with a local about this particular interplay of form and meaning, we could now be sure that we wouldn’t be accidentally insulting our students in the very ceremony meant to honor them.
Living in a foreign culture is full of hidden landmines like this. You might be carrying on for years thinking you are being respectful only to realize you’ve been quietly insulting people the whole time. Having grown up in Melanesia, I found out the hard way that you’re only supposed to reply to polite letters written by single female peers if you have intentions of love and marriage. Back in the US, no one told me you’re supposed to tip your barber. I stumbled onto this after years of cheerfully waving goodbye to my barbers without leaving the expected cultural form of thank you. Here in Central Asia, it took five years for us to find out the proper way to not subtly insult gas station attendants.
This is what makes learning another culture so much fun – and so risky. Deep embarrassment is never far away, so it’s great for your humility – and for laughter. On the flip-side, when you learn or anticipate a new part of the cultural code, you get a very satisfying sense of a mystery now revealed.
So then, if you happen to be in our corner of Central Asia, don’t sign all over the place like some kind of careless celebrity. Keep your non-convict status and make sure to sign above that printed name.
This is an idiom to use when someone has drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid. As in they have completely bought into someone else’s story, system, or philosophy. I have many local friends who believe the US and Israel have created groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS for their own nefarious ends. Next time I hear this opinion come out, I’ll have to drop this idiom. “Bro, seriously? You have eaten flatbread from the mullahs’ hands.”
At our post-service lunch of beans, rice, and flatbread today, a group of us men got into sharing riddles. I don’t know that many riddles, but I did manage to submit a few to the group, including one translated from my childhood readings of The Hobbit: “A box without hinges, key, or a lid, yet inside golden treasure is hid.“
Hint: the answer is something that comes from chickens and is fried for breakfast.
One local rhyming riddle was new for me:
What has a ceiling above and a basement beneath, one shepherd, and four sheep?
The answer was a hand, as held out flat and horizontally. The ceiling – the back of the hand. The basement – the palm. The four sheep? Fingers. And the shepherd? The thumb.
This led to a session of discussing the local names for each of the fingers. I find them honestly hilarious and quirky.
Today I was reminded of three common crises of trust that have occurred in our relationships with local Central Asian believers. These three big questions of trust tend to underlie some of the more serious conflict we have. Cross-cultural differences can aggravate these three concerns, but in and of themselves they are very valid questions to ask. And while we would answer with a “Yes, of course!” to all three questions, we also find them very understandable, given the very real challenges faced by those coming to faith in this context of persecution.
Crisis One: Do these foreigners actually respect us? Though most missionaries working among Central Asians possess a deep love and respect for the locals, this question is surprisingly common. Much of this is due to the fact that respect is expressed very differently in our respective cultures – sometimes even expressed in completely opposite ways. Locals feel deeply disrespected if not visited while sick. Westerners tend to respect a sick person by giving them space to recover. Locals use titles in a very serious fashion to express a respectful sense of hierarchy. Many Westerners prefer first name status over titles, as this communicates a respectful sense of equality. But this question and crisis of trust can also emerge from the timeline Westerners might choose when it comes to handing over authority and money to local believers. We choose to take a slower route in response to the culture’s penchant toward domineering leadership and power grabs. This can be misinterpreted as zero trust and respect when in fact it is an approach of incrementally building trust and respect over time.
Crisis Two: Do these foreigners actually have a plan? This question emerges out of the very different places Western and Central Asian cultures find themselves in regarding institutions, plans, and the Church. When it comes to Christianity, Western missions culture definitely has a post-institutional momentum. We tend to want things to be organic, authentic, and not very institutional. We tend to twitch at the term, “organized religion.” But Central Asian culture has a strongly pre-institutional posture. The desire is for robust and complex institutions and plans to be built – though there’s often not a clear understanding of just how this should be attempted. So institutions tend to be started, but then end up just like the rest of the culture – run by strong-man leadership, instead of by values, bylaws, and constitutions. When Western missionaries lead Bible studies or church meetings, we tend to run these times based on experience or on a loose plan we have in our heads. We may have a long-term vision and mission in which we plan to see churches planted and multiplied. But we often don’t share these plans with the locals in detail. We simply might not think of it, assuming that they are a more “organic” culture, or we might not talk about it due to security concerns. Either way, locals can feel like we are risking their lives without much of a plan – and this sense can seriously undermine trust and commitment. They know that Western culture has historically been good at institution building and planning. So it’s confusing to see their Western friends downplaying these things on a regular basis.
Crisis Three: Will these foreigners actually be there for me? We foreign missionaries are a transient lot. We travel for furloughs, medical issues, vacation, or visa issues. We tend to have a high rate of turnover due to things like burnout and struggling kids. We also live only partway inside the local culture, sometimes unwilling and sometimes unable to intervene when locals face persecution or hardship. At the back of many of our friends’ minds they believe that if things get too dangerous we’ll leverage our passports to get to safety – and they’ll be stuck on their own to face the threats. They are not completely wrong in these fears. If things get too unstable in terms of security, most of us will have to leave. But sometimes we make this concern worse by being unwilling to get into the weeds and find creative solutions to locals’ persecution or suffering. These are very messy situations, and they can compromise our presence locally. But if we always use our privilege to stay out of locals’ dangerous situations, we also risk failing to model sacrificial leadership – the kind where good shepherds lay their lives down for the sheep and don’t flee like hired hands.
Respect, planning, presence – these three questions can simmer in the mind and heart of a local believer, and explode in times of conflict or danger. As such, we need to regularly affirm our respect, describe our plans, and express our desire to be present in the hard times. This will help us to build trust with locals and to better weather conflict. We also need to learn how to show these in ways that will be received by the culture, so that our words will be received as genuine. Time will expose where our hearts are truly at. But our actions, even if they fail, communicate more than we know.
However, we should also qualify these affirmations. In the end, we don’t respect locals as consistently as we should, we don’t always have a good plan, and we will not always be present. We are sinners, we are finite, we will die. Yet the collective community of a healthy church can extend these things truly, if imperfectly, to a local believer. The local church in this age can make a God-honoring impact in terms of true respect, wise planning, and steady presence in the midst of suffering. And the missionary team can do its best to model these things to the church plant.
Whether we succeed or fail in these things, both are actually an opportunity to point locals yet again to Jesus, the only one who extends perfect respect, perfect plans, and soul-sustaining perfect presence in suffering. We can ultimately redirect local with these questions and crises to him. We trust him to hold onto our local friends, even as we also seek to carry them in our hearts in these three vital ways.
In this post, I want to link back to a hospitality guide I wrote some years ago. I wrote this practical guide in order to equip Western Christians to open up their homes and show hospitality to Middle Eastern and Central Asian friends and neighbors. With the new influx of Afghan refugees, now would be a good time to revisit the opportunity that Christians have to “show hospitality to strangers” (Heb 13:2). Statistically, most of these refugees will never be invited into a Westerner’s home for tea, dinner, or for a holiday. Imagine the powerful kindness, then, felt by a new refugee family who experiences an exception and is welcomed into your home – and the format of the evening is even somewhat familiar for them.
While this guide was not written with Afghans in particular in mind, there should be a large degree of overlap. I did consult with Iranian friends while writing it, so there should be a lot of near-culture familiarity. A couple of notes regarding things I have learned since then:
Toilet shoes. Set out a couple pair of flip flops or slip-on rubber sandals in front of your bathroom/restroom/WC area. Since they leave their outside shoes at the door, Central Asians feel very dirty going into a toilet area in only their socks or barefoot.
Order of entry and exit. At least in our area of Central Asia, the host should step outside and insist the guest should enter the house first. The guest will then politely refuse. After some back and forth of this, the host is expected to go first into the home. This is then reversed on the way out. The host should not exit the house before the guest, as this can imply that they are eager for the guest to leave.
Pictures. Many Central Asians love to take pictures and selfies together to commemorate an event. It’s best to take your guests’ lead on this front. But don’t be alarmed if your dinner gathering ends up posted on their social media accounts. It’s polite to ask to take pictures together if you are the initiator. Try to be sensitive to whether or not the men of the family want their wife or daughters included in the pictures.
Here is the link to the post containing the hospitality guide. As you hear of Christian friends who have opportunities to host Aghans that are being resettled, feel free to pass this guide along. And if any of the advice in this guide proves to be irrelevant or unhelpful for Afghan culture, then I would love to know that. Happy hosting.
Tonight we came to the end of a whirlwind eleven months. We’ll be heading out of the country for a few weeks of rest and family events. But what an ending it was.
This evening *Alan was baptized. He’s the new believer who recently came out of nowhere, having come to faith through YouTube videos while isolated from knowing any other believers.
The initial time of singing and exhortation tonight proved to be a very sweet time. Baptisms are always soul-stirring, but in this part of the world they feel especially weighty. The Islamic society here views going under the water as the point of no return. It means apostasy has been committed. Even though Alan had explored other religions before and even was an atheist for a season, his act of baptism will be viewed with a special kind of hatred by his Muslim friends and relatives.
For their part, the local believers were eager to follow up the exhortation from Romans 6 with their own personal encouragements. One word was regarding ongoing repentance. This prompted spontaneous and public repentance from two of the other brothers present – a particularly life-giving thing for me to witness having recently walked with them through the very messy conflict they were repenting of. This was a tremendous example for Alan to witness, the kind of thing that should be a regular part of a healthy church’s life together.
*Patti also spoke up, exhorting Alan to put off the culture he has known and to put on the new culture of Jesus Christ. Patti is the least-literate of the group of believers, so her clear and biblical contribution was especially meaningful.
Then we took a group photo together (only the one being baptized is allowed to request pictures and use their camera for this kind of event) and headed up to the roof where a kiddie pool was ready. One of us the expats and one of the local brothers flanked Alan as they stood together in the water. Not only does this two person dunking make the physical act of immersing the third person easier, it also helps avoid any false elevation of baptism-by-foreigner while still honoring the locals’ desire to respect us by having one one of us do the actual baptizing. Another local brother read the questions, received Alan’s affirmative replies, and then made the Trinitarian proclamation.
And Alan went under. All but the very tips of his knees. Total immersion continues to be quite hard to actually accomplish! Thankfully, this doesn’t mean he will be raised in the new heavens and new earth without any kneecaps.
The rest of the evening was spent laughing and sharing chai and supper together. And yet in this season we can’t seem to stop uncovering deeply-ingrained aspects of culture that we’ve never heard of before, and which seem somewhat concerning. Sure enough, we had another surprising lesson waiting for us tonight.
During dinner, one of the local moms asked my wife if we could bring her daughter’s something back to the US with us. The word she used sounded an awful lot like belly button. Confused, my wife sought clarification. It wasn’t belly button, it was umbilical cord. She wanted us to bring her teenage daughter’s umbilical cord back to the US with us. If you are anything like us, at this point you’d be thinking, “Why on earth would we ever do such a thing?”
Apparently one of our regional cultures saves the baby’s umbilical cord and places it somewhere in the world that would portend a good future for that child, connected to that particular place. In our case, the mother wanted us to bring the remains of the umbilical cord in our luggage to the US and leave it there so that the power of the cord (?) would enable her daughter to reach the US and find success there.
My wife fumbled for words and reminded this sister of what we had been talking about earlier – that following Jesus means we put on a new redeemed culture. Plus, what in the world would we tell customs?
“Anything to declare?”
“Just our friends’ daughter’s umbilical cord.”
Needless to say, we won’t be carrying any umbilical cords with us this time. Nor in the future, at least until we learn a lot more about what is actually going on with this local practice.
But it’s not just the Central Asians. This confused TCK also learned tonight that even some Westerners keep their child’s umbilical cord for sentimental reasons. Again, I had never heard of this before. Western friends, is this a thing? Culture is fascinating. And sometimes just downright strange.
But putting aside all talk of physical cords that have been cut and their reasons for global travel, Alan himself is very much now spiritually alive and part of the family. Though he started his walk with Jesus as an isolated young man watching apologetics videos, he has a community of brothers and sisters now. He will need them, and they will need him.
As for us, we need to get some sleep. Twenty hours of flight time with multiple small children awaits us. And though we’re getting on that plane tired and spent, we are also getting on it happy and thankful.
The church is repenting, new believers like Alan are taking costly steps of obedience, deeper worldview issues are coming out and getting addressed. He is working. Keep the prayers coming.
It’s the kind of polite statement you hear from local merchants all the time if you are a foreigner or even a respectful local.
The merchant running a small sandwich shop or chai stand says this, seemingly with their whole heart. However, what seems to be a generous and hospitable offer actually turns out to be a place ripe for cross-cultural offense.
I once had a coworker who ordered a pizza for delivery. When the delivery driver arrived he was surprised to find out that the customer was an American. His honorable reflexes kicked in and when he handed over the pizza he told the American to put his money away.
“Be my guest!”
The American, wowed at this turn of good fortune, smiled, thanked the driver profusely, took the pizza, and closed the door.
The driver stood at the door for a minute, stunned.
He walked back to his delivery scooter, paused, and then came back to the door, full of embarrassment.
The American opened the door, surprised to see the driver again.
“I’m so sorry, sir,” the driver said, “If I don’t bring back the money from this pizza, I will lose my job!”
“Why didn’t you say so!” responded the American. And he promptly paid up.
Consider also some recent YouTube videos of a young Western travel blogger who visited one of our local cities. “Everyone is so nice here!” she exclaimed. “They all keep giving me free stuff!”
We cringed as we watched this video. While some of the free street food offered wouldn’t be a big deal, we also knew that many of the merchants would later be grumbling about the rude foreigner who actually took them up on their merely rhetorical offer. And ninety nine percent of the time, that’s exactly what it is: rhetorical and hypothetical.
In a highly-verbal honor/shame culture, public displays of hospitality and generosity (or at least displays of intent) are very important. But the whole system gets jammed up when those on the receiving end don’t know that in order to be honorable themselves, they need to politely and profusely refuse these repeated offers.
It’s like a dance. You offer me a free kabob. I turn down the offer and thank you. We go back and forth a few times. The merchant almost always wants and needs the customer to pay for the kabob. But every once in a while, the merchant keeps on and keeps on insisting. At which point both parties understand that it is now honorable to take him up on his gift kabob.
Why not save some time and just take the money? Welcome to Central Asia. Where honor is still way more important than time.
Why not just say what you mean? Well, the local would contend that he is saying what he means. But you are supposed to understand that while he means he is technically willing to do it, you still need to respect him by not letting him do it. He really means it… hypothetically.
While it’s a little more extreme over here, every culture has something like this. When we were still living in the US, it was, “Let’s get coffee some time!” Such an offer from a Westerner shows a friendly politeness. An appropriate response is, “Yes, that would be great sometime!” But if you pull out your calendar right away, it’s likely to get awkward.
A word of advice to Westerners traveling in the Middle East or Central Asia (and Melanesia for that matter). Be very slow to accept gifts from strangers, no matter how sincere they seem. While they genuinely mean for you to be their guest, they often don’t mean this literally.
Be their hypothetical guest, and all will save face.