Thursday, December 21, 2006

Christmas Culture Clash

When I think of Christmas, I think of carolling, gathering around a tree the family decorated together, an advent calendar, opening presents one by one, each in turn, the special breakfast caserole, rolls, etc. my Mom makes. These are the sights, sounds, and memories I cherish. This year, I face a culture clash. It is my first Christmas with Bianca in Brazil. Last night, I tried to get her to tell me what their traditions are and all I could get was "talk and eat and talk." That doesn't sound like a complete Christmas to me. I hope I discover she's wrong and that there are traditions so common to her family she doesn't recognize the traditions. I hope it is still festive and with a sense of magic, because I have had some Christmases without that, and it is always disappointing.

Don't get me wrong, I don't expect it to be the same. And I will be excited by the differences. In case you haven't guessed, I love cross cultural experiences. But I also have a fondness for the sentimentality of the holidays, too. Being with Bianca is indeed the best present of all, after Jesus' birth of course, but still, I will miss my family and our traditions, and hope that whatever happens I can still feel a sense of Christmas. and I am aware that may take years. Because this is my first Brazilian Christmas and I don't understand the culture or her family well enough yet to accept or appreciate it fully from the cultural standpoint. Differences still stand out to me more than they probably should. That is just part of the growth process in learning a culture.

As Bianca said, we will make our own traditions next Christmas as we start our life together as spouses, which can encompass traditions from both cultures. We can decide what we want our Christmases to be like. I look forward to it. In the mean time, my expectations are culture clashing. I know, not right to preconceive or prejudge, but it's hard not to. To be honest, I have not had many Christmases that captured the magic I still remember so fondly from childhood in the past decade or two. Once you go to college and you are not kids anymore, Christmas changes. I had hoped with my nephew's birth, we could recapture a bit of that, and we did. But still, it is never going to be the same. And I guess I have to get over that.

There are rich cultural traditions of Christmas in most cultures. When I was in Juarez a few weeks ago, the decorations at their mall were stunning. In fact, they had actually trees growing through the tile. It was impressive. And the decorations were opulent and well done. In Brazil too, having been there just after Christmas last year, I know there will be decorations and the whole atmosphere. And that is neat to see, especially given that the temperatures lately have been 107 yesterday and 106 the day before. I mean, if it can't feel like Christmas, the least it can do it look it, right? But anyway, it is their summer. And when I am in Arraial Do Cabo the first weekend in January, enjoying crystal clear ocean waters, sand, etc. I will not mind it looking like the tropics in the least.

I guess all I'm really saying is that I hope there will always be magic to Christmas no matter which culture or location I experience it through, because Christmas should be magic. The birth of a Savior for the sinful world is magic, and we should always remember it that way.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


Okay, so here is my take on the culture clash of the great US-Mexico border wall. While I disagree with anyone who argues that the risk to our borders of terrorists is not an issue, -- it is whether it has happened in the past or not because of the new climate of the world in which we live -- I agree the wall is a ridiculous proposition, but I am also sure it will never happen. It was political. The Republicans, of whom I am one, wanted to look strong when they were fighting for election victory. It is too impractical to ever actually be built, though there will be postering about it for years to come no doubt.

I also think blaming Congress alone is silly. The American people are as much to blame. I travel in country and out frequently, and I can tell you, I have discussed this issue with lots of people. The American public at large is woefully ignorant. They actually think if immigrants did not come in to take low wage unpleasant jobs, then Americans would have more jobs. But I have seen the jobs they are talking about and no American would take them. They are unpleasant and they require long hours, low pay, and little dignity. At least most of the jobs. American companies are looking to cut wages every way they came. Removing immigrants would just result in them trying to find other ways to meet those needs.

Additionally, the American public seems to be woefully suffering from memory loss. Immigrants founded this country. It used to be everyone could proudly trace their roots back to immigrants. Now people just think of themselves as Americans with some God given right to live here and prosper and they don't remember the circumstances of our nation's founding. Why shouldn't people faced with the level of poverty in Mexico try and seek a better life for themselves and their families? Just across the border in West Juarez last Saturday I saw conditions reminiscent of African villages. And just across a dry river bed were visible signs of a lifestyle that seemed royal by comparison. I would try and cross and so would you. If we really want to change immigration, we need to allow our tax money to be used to help the Mexican government build infrastructure, provide education and training, and get those people jobs, houses, plumbing, clothes, food, etc. to eliminate poverty. Only then will they stop desiring or needing to immigrate. But most Americans would roll over in their graves before they would allow money to be used that way. Because we have no sense of poverty.

There is poverty in the U.S. in places like the mountains of West Virginia and the inner cities of Chicago which people are so far removed from they never think about it. We do nothing about it, and we do nothing about this either. And that is a shame. Because our real problem and cause for concern is our woeful lack of concern for the world. We so often move to better our own interests without concern for others' needs. We are the sole superpower. With that comes great responsibility to fight injustice and police the world. But with it also comes a responsibility to use our wealth to better human kind. And we do not do much of that. You can argue we are one of the largest donor nations on Earth, but we allow those donations so often to sink into miring pits of corruption and bureacracy so that they never have real impact. Get out on the dirt with these people. Go to their homes. See what they deal with. Spend a night as I did in a home with no heat, where the walls are so cold the cold transfers to the pillows and mattress leaving you no escape. Eat table scraps turned to soup. I am not doing enough either. And I know I need to. We all do.

To me, these things are the real heart of the wall issue. And as long as we continue to use stupid diplomatic ideas to try and resolve them (ignore them really), we will continue to be hated and mocked around the world. And nothing will really change. And we will actually have reason to fear people attacking us with hatred. Why shouldn't they when we selfishly sit back and prosper, wasting millions of dollars on ipods and fancy cars and other meaningless things while they are fighting to survive.

Immigrants suffer so many humiliations to be here, even legally. And what they go through from their families who are less fortunate than them is also so much harder than anything most Americans ever face. It is admirable that so many of them do so much for others, when they have so little themselves. We should admire them for it, and we should seek to learn from them. Our culture is richer for all the immigrants. We would not have any Mexican restaurants, Chinese restaurants, Brazilian restaurants, you name it, if it weren't for immigrants. For one thing, even if those restaurants are owned by U.S. citizens (which not all of them are), those who staff them are most often immigrants who work hard at lower pay than any of us care to acknowledge or would be willing to do ourselves. We owe them for so much. Not just food. Clothes, music, sports, etc.

What do they get for it? This giant legislative slap in the face. This giant taken for granted political statement. And are they angry? Yes. And so am I.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

American Bashing

One of the most frustrating and disappointing realities of cross cultural interrelations that is all too common these days is American bashing. Not just bashing the country, bashing anyone who lives there as if they are to blame for anything the countries has done, does, or ever will do that is disagreeable to the basher. While I am conservative and Republican, I don't agree with everything our government does, has done or will do. I don't feel 100% or even 70% represented most of the time by our leaders. Sometimes it is less than 10%. I think our current foreign relations stink. And I think our President, though I personally admire him for many reasons, has a bad habit of expressing himself in ways that make it worse. Either he has bad advisors or he is winging it. But some of the things he says are very insensitive and I can understand people's negative reactions. What I am frustrated and disappointed about is that I am so hated for it.

I frequently contribute to Brazzil magazine for instance. And even when I try to engage people in chatting with their comments, no matter how polite or respectful I try to be I get arrogant condemnation back. They don't try to understand me or give me any credit for trying to understand them. They hate me and they hate America and they lump me in with all of it with no awareness or consideration of who I am as a person. This seems to be particularly true with Brazilians for some reason. I never encountered it in Mexico. I did encounter it on a smaller scale in Ghana. To be honest, I think if you want to call someone else arrogant you need to not be arrogant yourself. Otherwise, it is hypocrisy. And yes, I know this applies to me. I said they are arrogant in their condemnation and I mean it. I feel free to disagree with anybody. I avoid insults and I try to always hear what they are saying and be respectful. I cannot abide people who don't have such common courtesy.

Okay, I do fail sometimes to hear people or be as sensitive as I had hoped. But I am the first to apologize and to try harder. And while my country has made many errors and mistakes and even done wrong at times, that is not my decision or my fault. I don't blame Iraqis in general for Sadaam's crimes or Al Queda in Iraq either. So why should I be blamed? And truthfully I don't know a lot of Americans who read cross cultural websites or go as tourists to places and interact with people who don't try to understand, appreciate and respect the culture. So the types of Americans they are lumping us in with tend to be the kind I don't even know or associate with myself. Have we really broken down that much in this world? If so, it is not a good sign.

I failed to see it and approve it until today, but my friend Chuck wrote in July about the fact that many of our complaints are often the result of our desire for something better. And that is definately where I coming from in this posting. I go to Brazil and Mexico and Ghana and other places with a sincere desire to learn. I eat the food. I try things. I try and learn language. I ask questions. I try and understand why they do what they do and why things are as they are. I make a sincere effort. Of course, I have cultural bias. Cultural bias is what makes the people spewing such hatred at me speak as they do. But the difference is, they deny their bias. I can admit mine. And I am often painfully aware of it. I work hard to overcome it. But as I often tell Bianca, my fiancee, she has to help me. She is Brazilian, she sees the world through different eyes, so she has to help me see and understand with those eyes. It cannot just happen. I need help. And I make the effort. So I sure wish people would make the effort too.

Okay, enough griping. I just wanted to point out this phenomenon and ask you all to pray about it and remember it. It makes things very tough for those of us working as missionaries. And it is making things very difficult for Americans everywhere in the world. And the problem is only going to get worse and become more of an issue in cross cultural inner cities, if we do not do something t0 change it. We at least have to make an effort to talk to each other more and attempt reaching some understanding. We have to set aside hate, prejudice and anger, and try not to react in kind when it is hurled at us. It is very, very hard. But the problem is not getting any easier so neither can be the solution.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Shopping in Mexico: LOVE IT OR HATE IT

Okay, some people love it. They love the bargains! The variety! They love the game! I hate hate hate it. Shopping in Mexico or Brazil or Africa at markets. It is such a hassle. I am learning to be much better at it. But I still hate it. Nonetheless, it is a quintessential cross cultural experience. And there are differences everywhere you go.

In Ghana, they shout obruni obruni everywhere you go. There's no way around it. White people just tend to stand out, and they don't discriminate. They do it to everyone. And so you become a target. To them, all white people are chosen of God and blessed with wealth, because they see rich white people on tv and in movies. Clearly the white people's world is so much different than theirs that God must have ordained it. So when white people come, if they can just get their attention, maybe they can actually make a little extra. You are a target and no amount of silence or even looking away will deter them.

In Mexico, it is similar. But here you are the gringo. And gringo's mean money. They come with cash to spend. So all of a sudden, it's "my friend, I have something for you." They say this in Ghana, too, but it takes on a more annoying spin in Mexico, I think. And in Mexico the prices are much higher. In Africa, even if you don't bargain at all, most of the time you are getting steals. Even though the starting price might be cut down to one-third if you made bargaining attempts. But in Mexico, they know Americans can afford more, and they go for it. The scenario is something like this: you show the slightest interest in an item. Bam. They are all over you. And they always have more beautiful items you just have to see.

In Brazil, skin color is so varied that you only stand out when you speak English. So they only hassle you when they hear you speak or if you look foreign or flash money. But then it is full on. And they have the best deals. Here haggling is not so easy. At least to me. Because the prices are somewhere in between Ghana and Mexico. I don't like to take unfair advantage but at the same time, I want to get a good deal. Most of the things I am buying are hand made and somebody worked hard to make them. I actually feel somewhat guilty taking them for such little prices. But at the same time, why should I pay gtossly inflated prices compared to what they might get from someone else?

So what do you do? First, I am learning to never look too excited about anything. Unless I know it is a good deal. For example, in Mexico I found guayaberas at prices almost better than the prices where they are made way south. My Mexican companion Wilbert even commented on it to others that he was amazed the prices were so good. The most expensive of them was $35 and satin. So comfortable! They were all good quality, he told me. So I did not try and bargain too much, though by buying two, I got $5 off each. I bought the third one by itself later, so I paid more.

Second, I go low. They will not sell if you are too low. So just go for it and work your way back up, but know going in how much you want to pay and stick to it. They will not take a loss. they will not sell it if they cannot make money. So you have nothing to worry about.

Third, be willing to walk away. For example, while looking for a particular chess set, I saw a clay painted sun which intrigued me. It was a unique color scheme from the others I have seen. I asked how much it cost. I did not say it with entusiasm. Just tossed it off: Cuanta cuesta? Of course, any sign of interest and we are off. He said "That is a very nice sun, senor. Very special. I make you a good deal. $18. Very cheap." I looked at him, shook my head and said $10. He said, "oh senor, please, it is very nice. $16." I stayed at $10. He stayed at $16. So I said "Your problem is, I don't want it. I just thought it looked interesting. Have a nice day." As I started to walk away, he said "14, senor." I shook my head and kept walking. I went to look at another vendor. A few minutes later he came running after me. "Please, my friend, ok, good deal. $12." I said $10. Finally, I bought it for $10. It helped that I was the first sale of the day because vendors are superstitious about the first sale and believe it is bad luck to lose that sale.

The point is, shopping in these places is tough. That's why I recommend places in Juarez like JJ's Market and Casa Bonita where the prices are set and the owners have reasonable expectations. Nothing I bought at JJ's was more than one-third of sticker. He knew I would buy a lot and come back so he just hit me with great deals right off the bat and it worked. I spent $100 in his store. At Casa Bonita his prices were a little higher, but still reasonable, and he had a good selection. I will go back to both, get what I can and only go to the market for what is not available there, because I hate the hassling crap. But if you want the real experience, you definately have to experience the market once.

Love it or hate it, it is a way of life there. In Africa, watching the natives bargain was a real education. These people were tough. And if you get lucky, they will remember what you wanted and go back instead another day to buy it for you at African prices. Then you will save amazing amounts because the fact they were seeing a white man just made prices double right off the bat (double is generous, usually it was quadruple). In Brazil and Mexico it is harder, but some enjoy the game. Not me. Still, I am richer culturally for the experience.

I in no way want to leave this post without commenting on the fact that these people are mostly genuinely poor compared to most of us. I don't write this to encourage you to take advantage of them. In most cases, the work is worth more than they make. However, I do feel that there is nothing wrong with desiring fair prices in the process, market value, and trying to not let them make you pay much more than most people who know a little bit more about it would have to. They will not sell if they are losing money. So try and get them to a price that is reasonably fair to them and you, and be happy. Trying to push them to make no profit is completely not at all what I have in mind, and I hope no one who reads this will do that.

US Tribute with Tex-Mex Taste: a Serendipitous Find in Brazil

A brief pause in my musings on Mexico for another Brazil article which was just posted at

US Tribute with Tex-Mex Taste: a Serendipitous Find in Brazil

Written by Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Monday, 11 December 2006

I am a fan of history and modern day living museums are particularly inspiring. I love to walk the streets of Ouro Preto, Mariana, and other Brazilian historical cities, to let my eyes pan the insides of the amazing old churches of Brazil, or even step back in time with a visit to a Fazenda. But imagine my surprise when I found a place in Rio which took me back in time with a glimpse at my own country's history.

It's not a museum but it is clever marketing - an experience restaurant in Botafogo in Cobal do Humaitá, a shopping and dining area with many cross cultural dining experiences.
Restaurante Rota 66 (Route 66) is a theme restaurant founded in 2001 which features great Tex-Mex food and an interior decorated to pay tribute to the United State's first coast-to-coast highway, founded in 1926, Route 66.

Okay, so it actually only stretches from Los Angeles to Chicago (not really coast to coast) but that is how it is recorded in history.

Certainly Route 66 is an indelible part of American cultural history. People make treks to follow its remains, visiting popular sites along the route. Restaurants and stores along its route use it in their marketing. Considering that it passes by blocks from where I live in Saint Louis, finding such a place in Rio intrigued me.

Bianca and I found it when I was looking for a place where she could experience Mexican cuisine - a personal favorite native to the area where we will be living after our marriage next year. Our original destination was another Mexican place at Cobal do Humaitá, which was closed the day we went, so we wandered through and found Rota 66. Being a current resident of the Route, we just had to stop.

The interior of the restaurant, surrounding the large bar, is decorated with Route 66 memorabilia from Road Signs to Lady Biker signs to neon signs and various other items connected to the Route 66 theme. There is seating at the bar or at tables on two levels. Service was fast and efficient and the owner herself stopped by numerous times to be assured we were well taken care of.

Open from 11:30 to 4 daily for lunch and nightly for dinner, the restaurant is located on Rua Voluntários da Pátria, number 448. While it is priced for tourists, rather than Brazilians, the food was worth the price.

Appetizers include nachos with guacamole or various salsas or melted cheese, flautas, quesadillas and batata apimentada. They offer a variety of combinations for main courses ranging from tacos to burritos to enchiladas, to salads and sandwiches. They even have ribs and T-bone steaks as well as Picanha Texana.

Bianca and I went for a combination featuring flautas, tacos, burritos and enchiladas with an appetizer of fried potato balls and quesadillas so she could sample as much food as possible. It was a little more expensive than a simpler combo but perfect for two people and there wasn't a single item that didn't exceed expectations.

Drinks include pretty good margaritas, including strawberry and frozen, as well as soft drinks and a variety of beers and mixed drinks. And the desserts are impressive as well. But then who has any room left for dessert after the delicious food. Certainly this is among the best Tex-Mex available outside of the U.S. Southwest.

Our combination with margaritas, bottled water, sodas, and appetizers ran around US$ 38, which is not bad for two people. Quantities were sizable too and we both left feeling as if we could not eat again for days. In fact, we even took leftovers with us.

I do recommend one caution: for Brazilian palates unused to the spices common to Tex Mex, having plenty of water on hand is a must. Bianca had a few anxious moments waiting for the water to arrive to relieve newly discovered sensations about which she was still forming an opinion.

It was interesting to watch her reaction to the various differences between Brazilian cuisine and Mexican cuisine. It was certainly a surprise for her to note how different it was from her own culture.

Her reaction was favorable for everything but the burrito which I found mild, but she found too spicy. Given that her friend who lives in Mexico City had told her Mexican food was abhorrent, it was a rich experience to see her enjoying it so much.

For an American in the world of Rio, despite having visited Rio three times, it was fun to be in a place that seemed less unfamiliar and more like what I was used to. So often you find foreign cuisines represented differently than we are used to in our own culture when visiting representative restaurants in other countries, but that was definitely not an issue here. Everything tasted the way I expected it to taste and they even got the details right from guacamole to the choice of cheeses to their salsa.

Additionally, I enjoyed discovering Tex Mex cuisine of such quality in place I never expected and sharing it with someone who had never experienced it. So often you find foreign cuisines represented differently than we are used to in our own culture when visiting representative restaurants in other countries, but that was definitely not an issue here. You will too.
Restaurante Rota 66 -

Bryan Thomas Schmidt, M.A. is the Founder and Executive Director of Anchored Music Ministries, Inc., St. Louis, Missouri, USA, which provides leadership development training in the worship arts around the world. He has traveled four times to Ghana, West Africa, four times to Brazil, and also worked in Mexico and the U.S. Anchored Music teams have also worked in Bulgaria, and Italy. His articles have been published in newspapers and magazines around the U.S. He has also served as guest lecturer and instructor in Missions at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He can be reached at

Sunday, December 10, 2006

American Musical Invasion???

One concern I have cross culturally from my recent time in Juarez is the proliferation of American music on the market there. I know American music tends to dominate everywhere but the artists I hear, especially in Christian music, are clearly imitating musicians in the country to the north. You don't hear a lot of Christian Norte music, cumbia, or Mariachi, at least that I found or heard about. Even my favorite Mexican rock band, Mana, which is quite popular all over Latin America, is clearly modelling itself after U2 and other groups.

I find this disappointing because Mexico has a rich cultural heritage all its own, musically, artistically, architecturally, etc. So why do they feel like the American sound is the most valid expression? I was similarly shocked in Brazil when I found that most churches there sing American worship songs and hymns translated into Portuguese, with the same arrangements we hear in the U.S. Vineyard even set up Vineyard Brasil music using the background tracks from the U.S. versions with new Portuguese lyrics sung by Brazilian singers. Oh sure, I like some of these songs. But I liked them in English. My like for them says nothing for any appreciation of Brazilian culture. And Brazilian music has influence the world over. Bossa nova, samba, afoxe, etc. all heavy influences on American and other Western artists.

So I am wondering where are the artists who are truly attempting to write indigenous music in Mexico? Emphasized by their cultural heritage? Is the Mexican public truly so out of touch that those artists quickly fall into bankruptcy because none of their work sells? If so, I may have to work hard to teach cultural appreciation to my students there. And, as a foreigner, that will be a real challenge.

I like American music. I am an American musician. I am proud when people enjoy my music, whatever culture they are from. In fact, it works out nicely because I play like an American musician so if they didn't like American music, well, I'd have a hard time finding an overseas audience. But I take great joy in discovering the unique musical traditions of the areas where I travel -- buying and listening to CDs, live music, etc. Reading about it. Studying it. I even love to let it influence my own style and approach as much as I can. I love to learn songs in different languages and have my own translated to sing. So I am not against American music. I just feel that music is a unique language at the heart of any cultural system, and when a people are more focused on another culture's musical language than their own, I think they are missing something.

Maybe you don't agree. But I sure wish I understood why this is happening. Even in a place like Brazil where Americans are so often badmouthed and hated these days. It is amazing how people can pick and choose aspects of a culture while disliking others. The unfairness of their hate because of their dislike of the President aside, isn't there irony or even hipocrasy in despising a people but enjoying the fruits of their culture at the same time? I sure think there is.

Anyway, I hope to discover why this is the case and encourage a reevaluation and renewed appreciate of their own culture with whomever I work because part of what I gain most in going there is the result of appreciating, discovering and studying the cultural richness of their cultural milieu. I would hate to think that I left them appreciating their own culture more than they do.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Toilet Pressure: Africa/US v. Brazil/Mexico

Okay, I have to ask this question because it causes me a culture clash. Why is it that in Africa they have better water pressure for their toilets than they do in Mexico or Brazil? In Africa you can flush the paper. In Mexico and Brazil you have to throw it in a trash can. Yes, this is gross. But this is a huge problem for many westerners who travel there. I, for one, manage to forget at least once every trip and the resulting embarrassment is not fun. (Not to mention the potential overflow). At least this time, I did not do it in a private home, but a hotel. They are probably used to it.

Africa was weird because they did not have running water for our showers but the toilets were superpower flush. I mean, you felt the power. I don't get that either, but it's another issue. Their toilets were at least able to handle things similar to the US.

I realize it should not be a big deal to remember this, but somehow old habits die hard. And I do think that it is something people who visit should be aware of so as not to inconvenience themselves and others. The only explanation I have got is that plumbing systems in Mexico and Brazil outside of fancy tourist hotels are not strong enough to handle the paper.

To be honest, given other factors about Africa, Brazil and Mexico are still often more comfortable places to visit for Westerners because of more modern conveniences and sanitary conditions, at least where I have been. I am sure you can look and find all sorts of things. I did visit an area of Juarez, last Saturday, which looked much like Africa -- dirt streets, cobbled shacks, no plumbing or electric. It is a hard life for those people and I am sure sanitary conditions are not up to Western standards nor ordinary conveniences either.

But in Juarez, at least, I felt while some things seemed less modern at times, it was clean and not startlingly different. Except for food and language and dress perhaps. And don't get me wrong -- I love exotic places with differences abounding. I do. I love the sense of adventure and seeing it for myself. I enjoyed sleeping in the unheated home last Saturday night because I had not done that and I know many Mexicans and others around the world experience that every day. To truly understand them, I need those experiences. It was hard for me, as I wrote, but it was a blessing. And it is also a blessing that I don't have to do it every night, too.

To me, one of the saddest realities is that basic functions like plumbing are just not standard in so many places. And until they are, we will see ongoing crime, starvation, violence, etc. Everyone talks about building a wall between the US and Mexico as a stop to immigration. I say help the Mexican government meet their people's needs better and shore it up for the long haul and immigration will be way less of a problem. After all, people are coming here to escape such conditions. If those conditions were not so common, they would have less reason to go elsewhere. The wall is not a solution, better infrastructure and jobs are. Of course, a lot of Americans, sadly, would roll over in their graves at the thought of using our tax money to do the Mexican government's job. That's because the immigrant connections of most people here are generations past and they have lost their sense of connectedness. That's one reason I love my opportunities to travel -- they connect me with people from other places and remind me why America was founded and what so many people went through to make it what it is.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Clash Of The Linguas

One interesting culture clash I have begin to take more notice of, now that I travel a lot, is how spoiled immigrants here are compared to those in other places. In every country I have visited -- Ghana, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, etc. it is assumed that if you come there, you will make an effort at learning the native language. Schools teach in it, signs are posted in it, everyone speaks it and thus so should you. Sure a few hotels and restaurants and shops which cater to tourists have people who might speak some halting English or even be fluent, but these are the minority. The obligation is on you to make the effort.

It is interesting to me how this contrasts with our own attitude of creating Spanish catering schools, shops, etc. for Hispanic immigrants (just as one group for example). We are too nice to actually require them to learn our language. Instead, we will conform to them. Why should they be penalized for being in one of the largest nations on Earth and not knowing the language. How absurd of anyone to think they should do that!

To me, this is another example of the culture clash of values presently ongoing in our own culture. The Feminist-Homosexual-Political Correctness types who want everyone to feel loved and happy and wholy accepted and never see anyone offended. I say these groups because they are leading voices, not because they alone believe this. It seems to be the opinion of a larger and larger segment of our population every day.

Take it from someone who is very sensitive, loves immigrants, travels a lot, and works hard to understand and empathize with other cultures on a regular basis -- we are not doing them a favor! This idea is actually hurting them. It is helping take away their motivation to participate in a land they are calling home. And in the process we lose -- we lose their voices, we lose their full participation, we lose the opportunity to learn fully from them and allow them to help shape who we are and to know who they are. And that is a big loss. There is a lot to learn from other cultures.

I had never given this policy much thought until missionary friends on the border said they think our country should require people to learn English and stop spoiling them by trying to cater too much to their own lingual needs. It was then that it hit me how right they are. Why should someone who moves to another country be offended that they have to learn the local language? I was not offended when I needed to do this in Brazil or Mexico (as I am now). It makes sense. Interpersonal communication is necessary to everyday life. So of course one has to learn it to function for long periods in such a place. Now that I have thought about it I am actually more offended that some of our fellow countrymen actually want me to believe I should feel sorry for people who just have to make the same effort I or anyone else would to go to their country when they come to ours.

Okay, some people are already offended by this. Que pena! Too bad! God made a multicultural world with many languages to enrich the world. If we stop trying to benefit from learning from each other, we are the losers. And we are going against His will and design. And maybe some people want to live that way, but I don't.

And before you get started whining about how hard it is to learn other languages, don't waste my time. Of course it's hard. But no harder than trying to live in another country without being able to communicate. If it was easy, we would all do it. But that is beside the point. Besides, part of what people in other cultures have told me they like about my efforts to speak their languages is that my efforts shows respect for their culture. So why can't immigrants to America make some effort to respect our culture. Most of them came here because they desired aspects of our culture in their lives anyway, so since language is at the heart of a culture, one should expect an effort to be familiar with language. It's natural.

I am not anti-immigrants. I am not pro-assimilation. They don't have to lose their cultural identity to live here. In fact, I strongly desire that they don't. After all, as I said above, we have so much to learn from them. I am just suggesting that a fundamental requirement of daily life anywhere is knowing the local language enough to communicate basically with natives. And that requires effort anywhere in the world. They expect it of us when we go to their cultures, so we have a right to expect it of them. We deserve the same respect for our culture which they want us to have for theirs.

Something to think about...

Monday, December 04, 2006

Rollin', Rollin', Rollin', Dang My Behind Is Frozen...In Mexico

Okay, I have not written in a while, but I have not had as much cross cultural travel lately. But I just spent 9 days in the Southwest between El Paso and Juarez, Mexico, and I have several things I can think of. First, Saturday night.

Saturday night I went to stay in the home of this wonderful sweet Christian family from one of the churches I visited. The husband is an elder and breaks his back in one of the well know maquiladoras, factories in the borderland. His wife sews and raises their two cute girls. They live in a lower class neighborhood, I am guessing, in a small house with a bathroom, two rooms, and a family room/kitchen. Their house was nice though sparsely decorated. But what got me is they really have no heat. They have one heater in the wall near the bathroom.

Ok, so I have been to Africa. FOUR TIMES, I have been to Africa. I have seen no AC, no heat, no windows, no plumbing, dirt floors, thatch roofs, etc. I have seen toilets that are a trench or even just a hole. But man I can tell you one cold night in Mexico really challenged me. I don't know how they do it. These people are wonderful. Their house is small but they keep it nice, and have some nice things, and they make the most of what they have. This is in NO way a criticism of them. It is a commentary on my needs, mostly. And the culture clash that resulted from being deprived. So even though they don't speak Spanish, if someone reads this who knows them, it is not meant to say anything bad about them, because I have absolutely nothing bad to say.

They took me in after having met me once, maybe twice. They let me stay under their roof even though I arrived at 11:30 and don't speak their language. They made their home my home. They slept in a room with their two daughters so I could have a room. And they fed me well. They were very gracious. The food was good. And they had music on. So we sang. I did puzzles with the girls. I even sang hymns in Spanish with the Mom, though my Spanish is horrifying (I am certain of this). So no issue with them.

But this week there was snow in Juarez. It did not stick. It is rare to see snow there. But what happened is, while the snow did not stick, the temperatures dropped all week, and that night, I am guessing, it must have been in the 30s or even the 20s. And the cinderblock wall next to the bed was so cold, that the pillows got cold. I had three blankets and I was able to sleep, but I woke up always cold the few times I woke up. And there was NO hot water. Yes, people live like that all over the world. And despite several times in Africa, I have not been able to adjust. In Africa, we used pitchers with coils to heat the water. I need to buy one of those things for myself because the Africans provided them. I need to travel with one. Because I did not shower. I self-determined that I did not stink, and so I did not shower because the water felt like ice. And so, I just couldn't bring myself to do it.

In defense of my pathetic self, I might say that I had developed a bad cold two days before and was sick and did not want to be sicker. I did have to sing that day. And I was far from home. But really, my only excuse is, I can't take it. I cannot take the cold. I am weak. And yet people live with it every day. All day. It never ends. I wish I knew how they do it. I wish I were a better man. Not so spoiled, perhaps. I wish I could do it myself. But I just couldn't.

So I send my respects to those who do. You have strength of character I do no possess. I am sorry you have to suffer that way, but even as I say it, I KNOW you do not consider this suffering. You don't mind cold showers. You have not been spoiled by hot water like me. And you are just happy to have running water at all. I am ashamed at my own wealth and privilege -- the privilege to know that hot showers exist at all. I hope to keep learning from those less privileged. I hope it changes me. And I hope my writing about it here makes you want to change too.

Peace & Understanding.