This week a local friend and I were standing on a street corner waiting for another friend to connect us with a realtor. After a while, the friend we were waiting for pulled up in his car with the realtor in his back seat. However, at the mere sight of us the suited realtor jumped out of the car, claiming that he wanted nothing to do with us. My friend who had driven him was shocked, and then quickly lost his temper at the shameful way the realtor had judged us without even giving us a chance to speak. This was no way to treat potential renters, and a foreigner who would make a reliable tenant at that! As he railed at him in middle of the street for how utterly disrespectful he was being, this proverb was one of the tamer things that came out. It’s basically the equivalent of “don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” Except this local proverb hints at the disastrous damage that can come by judging by appearances.
Afterward, we talked together about what might have caused the realtor to act so shamefully. Could it have been the beards? An acquaintance with a hipster-style beard had been with my friend to pick up the realtor. This could have raised some questions. Then when he saw me standing next to my other local friend – himself sporting a starving artist sort of beard – he may have thought we were some kind of Islamists. The older generations really don’t like beards because of their association with radical Islam. They prefer respectable mustaches. Or maybe when he only saw only younger men and no family, he thought we were lying to him and looking to rent a house for prostitution, as young wealthy men here sometimes do. It’s hard to say, but it was an unfortunate event all around. Had he given us the time to speak, he would have likely been excited as he discovered he had a chance of renting a house to an Western family. But since I can pass as a local sometimes, he made a snap judgment, “shot into the dark,” and tried to make his exit. My friend’s honor-shame berating of him in the middle of the crowded intersection finished off any interest he may have had.
Alas, the chance of finding a house through that important realtor’s office is gone. But least I got a proverb out of it! One that will definitely come in handy.
The one upon the slower ways comes upon the blessings.
Local Oral Tradition
This local proverb emphasizes the wisdom of slow and steady gains over those more hastily made. However, the local language word for graves also rhymes with blessings, so if you want a quick snarky reply when someone quotes this proverb, you can respond with “The one upon the slower ways comes upon the graves!” i.e. if you go that slow you might as well be dead.
Personally, I prefer the original. My colleagues tell me I’m an old soul and I do indeed find myself more and more identifying with Tolkien’s Treebeard (a character modeled on C.S. Lewis) and his philosophy, “We must not be hasty.” To our local friends who want to go big and go fast and expensive in starting churches, we have jokingly referred to our church planting philosophy as more like that of faithful tortoises. Not very impressive in the beginning. But give us a hundred years…
In other words, traits and habits present in early childhood (breastfeeding) often persist until someone is elderly. I’m currently leading an English conversation class and the last time we met we were discussing how to discern character. When I shared the English proverb, “A leopard can’t change his spots,” this local gem emerged. I hadn’t heard it before, but it’s a good one to have in the arsenal. We should be able to use it when speaking of the importance of parenting and in discussions about character formation. It could be used to illustrate verses like Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
On a personal level, now that I am in my thirties I am frankly amazed at how much my childhood is still affecting the ways I think, behave, and struggle. It’s as if the frenetic activity of my twenties came to a loud and tumultuous end, only to reveal that little curly haired missionary kid playing in the Melanesian clay, still there, and waving at me. It is strange and encouraging to meditate on the idea that God sees me now while simultaneously seeing me in every season of my life. During one part of my prayer walk this morning I listened to the song, “Future/Past” by John Mark McMillan. I was also meditating on 2nd Peter, including the passage that teaches that God’s relationship to time is different than ours (2 Pet 3:8). I realized that I tend to find it easier to look forward with faith that God will delight in my future self. I wrestle daily to believe that God delights in my present self. It’s even harder to believe that God delights in my past self. Yet surely this is what it means to be known as an adopted child of God. He knows our beginning from our end – and he still delights in us. From our habits of milk ’til our habits of old age.
The LORD your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing. (Zeph 3:17 ESV)
This is the local equivalent of “It’s all Greek to me.” Local walnut sellers count walnuts by the handful. They know exactly how many walnuts are in each handful and are extremely fast at their arithmetic as their hands transfer walnuts lightning-quick out of their large sack and into the customer’s bag. For the uninitiated (like me) it’s very hard to follow. But apparently I’m not the only one. This speedy method of the walnut sellers has become a local idiom for any time information has simply been over your head, too complex to grasp.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t get any of that. It’s like your counting walnuts for me.”
Time is like a sword; if you don’t cut it, it will cut you.
Local Oral Tradition
This is a surprisingly time-oriented proverb among our focus people group, which is typically event-oriented. Things are changing because of globalization and urbanization, but most locals here still consider time as more like a lazy river that must be traveled. It is linear, yes, but not something to be dominated. But then comes this sharp proverb out of nowhere, perhaps functioning as a warning against those who might get a little too relaxed when it comes to the use of time. I guess no matter how a culture is oriented to time, there is always some kind of lifestyle that represents a failure to make use of the potential that time affords.
Were I to teach on the biblical truth of “making the best use of the time, because the days are evil,” (Eph 5:16) I would likely reference this local proverb by way of illustration.
This is a proverb very appropriate for a culture like this one that prioritizes the group over the individual. In contrast to the English proverb “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” this local proverb tells you that it’s better to relinquish or hide your advantage and handicap yourself for the sake of not bringing shame to the community. This is the logic I’ve often heard in this culture for married couples being discouraged from showing affection in public. “Think of how badly the singles must feel when they see that,” is how my local friends put it. Similarly, I’ve read of cultures where it’s shameful for a runner in a race to win by too great an advantage, because that would make the other runners feel too embarrassed. Cultures or individuals who are more individualistic might be fine with displaying an advantage that others don’t have. “What about my rights and being true to myself?” But in group-oriented cultures, this can be considered immodest and even shameful.
You don’t know how to line dance, so you say the ground is uneven.
Local Oral Tradition
Humans tend to blame shift when they are actually the ones coming up short. Apparently we have an English equivalent that goes, “A bad workman blames his tools.” However, I had never heard of this English-language proverb until I came to Central Asia. That could mean it’s from a different part of the English-speaking world, or it could just represent another TCK gap in my American cultural knowledge – these still emerge occasionally. Yes, I’ve still never seen Mary Poppins and I know precious little about professional sports. But no, that is no one else’s fault. I take full responsibility!