of Cultural Integration and Understanding

Hm, weighty subject to discuss today.. since culture is the basis of our entire lives . It helps us to form our own identity and idea of self.

I watched Wolverine today. I found it interesting; the fight scenes were good, but there was also a degree of portrayal of the difference between eastern and western cultures. The scene that inspired me was where Wolverine is eating with Mariko, a Japanese heiress. He puts his chopsticks upright in his rice bowl, and Mariko immediately corrects him. They then proceed to have a short conversation about family and dishonour – and Mariko says to him (something along the lines of) “I do not expect you to understand, because you are not Japanese.”

This reminded me of my time in London, where many of my English friends failed to understand why we bowed to our teachers in school, and why, despite being an ‘adult’, we were always obedient (as much as we could) to our parents. Some of my friends accepted this idea, whilst others would argue a little bit (or quite a lot!) as to why they felt certain cultural practices were illogical. As I have spent my life living in a country surrounded by people of different cultural practices and celebrating religious festivals with my friends, I might have found some of their practices a little strange, but it was their culture, I did not really question them much.

When I lived in London, I began to meet English people who had never had the opportunity to mix with people of other cultures. I made friends with people who found me culturally strange and frustrating (particularly with my sense of duty to family). As I learned more about what being a Christian was like, I began to be increasingly involved in evangelising to international students. All these combined with my attempts to get my international friends to meet local friends showed how difficult cultural integration could be, and merely putting people from around the world in one room did not mean that they would get along and understand each other. Naturally, everyone gravitates towards people who are more like themselves, particularly in strange situations. When I was in high school, the mainland Chinese scholars would not make friends with the local students, and instead congregate with other mainlanders. I’ll talk more about this in a bit.

In the book of Revelation, God showed us his vision – his New Creation that we are so looking forward to. In attendance will be every tribe and tongue and nation who will be worshipping God together. They will all be united in their salvation from the penalty of sin, and united in their love for Christ. During the international students’ bible studies that I attended, we made sure to exhort to our new international friends that our God is not an English God, or a Chinese God, or a Spanish, Malay, Indian – whatever God. He is God of everybody, and his word matters to everyone.  Mixing with people of other ethnicities, cultures – to engage with them so that they may see God in our lives, and that we might speak his word to them.. Is that not part of being involved in God’s good work, towards the New Creation? I ask that of course, as a rhetorical question.

So why is cultural integration so difficult? We know from the bible (Genesis 11:1-9) from the story of the tower of Babel that God cursed mankind to speak many languages, that they might be separate from one another and not rise up against God. We also know from earlier parts of Genesis (chapter 3) that God curses the relationships between man and woman. I hope I am not wrong in extrapolating that therefore the relationships between people in general have also been cursed.  So we are a cursed species. We have already been separated by language, and we like hurting each other to get ahead, or even hurt each other without meaning to. Even within our own culture groups, we can still find strife. With the additional barrier of different habits and practices, engaging with people can be a problem. I still haven’t really answered the question though. I guess the main thing is comfort. Like I mentioned earlier, we like to stay in our comfort zones, we like familiar things. We stick with people we know as far as possible. Otherwise we are shy and afraid of socialising, perhaps afraid of making mistakes, afraid of not being able to fit in, and many other reasons that I have not mentioned/thought about yet.

Another thing is we just don’t understand each other. We might all be speaking plain english, but when it comes to talking about things such as family, or food – we might be completely different. Cue disgust when I express a fondness for braised chicken feet, or duck tongue, or fish heads. (Not much would gross me out in the food world compared to my Western counterparts) How much more of a problem it becomes when we talk about what is closest to our hearts – our families? I am perfectly aware that there are different kinds of families. You have a whole spectrum. From the crazy ones, amazing ones, close ones.. all the way to the ones that hate each other so much they all have to be on different continents. I am not massively fond of my family at times, but they are my family, and like it or not, I have been brought up to be loyal to my siblings and obedient to my parents. This brings to mind the old phrase that is oft used by teachers in Singapore: “Your friend tell you to tiao lou (jump off a building and commit suicide), you also must follow is it?” (Singlish grammar for those who don’t know) So no, as an adult, I won’t jump off a building even if my parents tell me to, but there might be cultures I am unaware of where it does happen. (On a more realistic note, there are families out there that disown their relatives and make them leave the family home etc) But if my parents counsel me about jobs, and work, and how to deal with my money.. then I would take their advice! This is where it gets difficult.

I am a Christian. A baby one, one suffering growing pains -constantly-.. but still a Christian. I try to identify myself as one as far as I can. Herein lies the dilemma. My mum in particular (when I refer to my parents – I always mean her) often worries (as mothers will) about my lack of a job and an income. This is a common Asian parental mindset. My mum wants me to climb the career ladder. When we discuss full time ministry (like.. for 5 minutes), she always gives me the impression that such a work is fine for someone else’s children, just not hers. I am not actually thinking about full time ministry, as I do not really think that I am cut out for it.  My mum is a baby Christian too, but she hasn’t had the learning opportunities that I have, and doesn’t always seem to understand why I have certain priorities. She always says – “so what will you do about your future?” It is a foolish idea to be flippant and say, “God will take care of it”, but it is also foolish to say “I must find the best paying job there is, I must have a good career and a good future plan!” Either way I am a fool.. Jokes aside, I am finding it terribly hard to get the balance right. Not that I will get it perfect, but I do want to get it right. At the moment, I have not yet had the chance to talk to my mum about my idea of success. Even if I was a toilet cleaner (though I hope not, for my and my mother’s sake), if I remained a Christian to my last day, God would still say “Well done for finishing.” She doesn’t like the idea of stagnation. She doesn’t like the idea that I might remain a ‘lowly’ tuition teacher for the rest of my life. She doesn’t like the idea of ‘merely’ giving tours in the science centre. It is true that some jobs are not suitable in terms of income and for raising a family (which she assumes I will do, and I would like to if God gives me the chance), but I have no idea about what is OK for me at my stage in life. I don’t just want to wait for opportunities to drop on my head (守株待兔 for my chinese friends), but I’d like to trust that God gives me everything that I need and to work with what I am given.

How does that work? I think it means putting one foot in front of another in faith to find out. It also means constantly reviewing your spending and your financial needs. My mum has taught me to save for a future generation – Her favourite saying (out of many) is that Asians always save money for their children, the ang mohs (westerners) don’t understand saving. Whilst this is a gross stereotype, it does give you an idea of what kind of plans I might want to make. Since there seems to be no right or wrong  in God’s eyes for this kind of future planning (providing for your adult children financially), I am free to choose what is best. So I would need to think about what I need, that I am not a burden to my church family, and that I am not on the streets. It also means thinking about how much I want to give to God’s work (based on financial situation and income). It means looking at what God has given or is giving to you, and things like that. It might mean not shopping at Waitrose all the time (not that I do!). There’s a lot of things that one will need to think about regarding being godly with how you think about your job and thus your money. BUT there is also the parental expectation to consider! It is very painful to disappoint your parents by living a life that they do not find ideal. Yes, my life is not theirs, but I must emphasise the great importance that many children put on their parents’ words, whether they are conscious of it or not.

This stuff makes me dizzy. Thinking too much I mean. Luckily I have some time as I am still on my own and live with my mum. Money talk aside, I hope this gives you an idea of what someone might struggle with (speaking as a Singaporean Chinese person) in terms of making godly decisions within their cultural identity, but above that, their identity as a Christian. I am aware that some of the problems I listed above might sound quite common. This is because I am not so good at writing about subtleties and nuances between cultures. I hope to improve on that. Thanks for reading to the end. I was going to talk about expatriates in Singapore, but I think it can wait. i’ve written nearly two thousand words, and unless you’ve read this in instalments, your eyes must be tired. (It is also 2am on a Sunday morning and I am going to church soon) You are all awesome. Please pray for an international friend that you know, please pray for yourselves, and pray for me. Please ask that we might be wise with honouring our parents, but make godly decisions that reflect our identities as Christians.

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