Laughing and Learning from Culture Shock

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The cafeteria is packed, and I am trying to find a seat close to someone I know. A friend of mine approaches and invites me to follow him. We seat on a table full of students I don’t know. While I am taking my seat, I look at each one of them with a smile, ready to say, “Hi, I’m Lucas. Good to meet y’all.” I wish I could say that they responded in kind, but most of them offered to my friend a warm greeting: “Hey man, what are you up to?”. At that moment, my mind instinctively made up a plan for the next 45 minutes: eat as fast as you can and try to find someone in the lobby to have a conversation.

A few moments later, a girl across the table asked to a guy close to me if he liked the chicken. He answered, “O no, dark meat is gross. I don’t eat that.” I think to myself, “I love dark chicken,” and I proudly look at my plate. What I do not understand is why I am trying to hide my chicken under my salad and start using salt and pepper to change that chicken’s flavor. It is strange to find that although you are completely comfortable with your worldview, behavior and tastes, you are also willing to change all of it just to fit in. Personally, I think fitting in is a social disease. There is no good argument for my claim and no scientific concepts to support it either. It is just a personal conviction. I like to compare it to the flu—nobody likes it, but everybody suffers from it once in a while.

I could keep writing about different culture shock situations I’ve experienced, but I’d rather point to the reason it happens: we are different. Understanding that our differences are good rather than awkward might help us not just adjust to, but also celebrate the cultural and behavioral distinctiveness we have. Trying to understand and to appreciate different cultures makes you open to new relationships, new values, and ultimately more emotional and cultural intelligence.

If you are planning to visit Rio de Janeiro for the Olympic Games, I can offer a few tips. If you are a non-American willing to visit America, I can also prepare you for some scenarios, not to help you avoid them, but to smooth the culture shock you will experience. However, instead of listing dos and don’ts, I’d rather open your eyes to some “cultural behaviors.”

For instance, generally, Latinos and Africans are event oriented, not time oriented. That means that if you stop by my house to deliver something, or just to check in, you will be invited to sit down, have some coffee, and so on—unless the house is a mess, because my wife would kill me! Or, if you come to have dinner at my place, the event ends when you want to because we are ready to have you there for hours. Often, dinner with friends means food, dessert, talk, a movie (why not?), or music, or games—whatever you feel comfortable doing.

On the other hand, if you are coming to America, understand this: they are practical. Having sandwiches or burgers for lunch is normal here. If you, like me, needs either rice or pasta as part of your meal, avoid having lunch with Americans. Just kidding! But, be ready to have a different meal. One important piece of information you need is this: in America they are taught that you need to establish some connections with the other person to have a good conversation. Americans often feel extremely uncomfortable chatting with someone they don’t know anything about.

The most important lesson about culture shock is to understand that both sides feel uncomfortable with the behavior of the other. Neither side is a hundred percent right about the way they do things. You are just different. For instance, I’ve learned that for an American, it is disgusting if you move your hand to your nose when you sneeze—you should use your elbow. Personally, I prefer using nothing because either way makes you breathe your sneeze again! In general, however, Brazilians are educated to use the hand. Another example relates with “cleaning (blowing) the nose.” In America, it is completely normal to get a rag or a napkin and push out your soul from your nose, as loudly as you can, no matter what, and it doesn’t matter where you are—church, a classroom, the dinner table, etc. Every time that happens near me, I feel sick, because in Brazil we are taught that some things you just do if you are in the restroom—making noise to clean your nose is one of them.

Leaving the cultural preferences aside, it is essential to understand that our differences are a mosaic in which the image of God is represented. The apostle Paul uses the language of the body to describe the church, but I’d rather use artistic language, because in art, every small detail has a uniqueness that has worth, beauty, value, function, and, most importantly, constitutes something capable of impacting people with amusement, emotional reactions, and ultimately, spiritual connection. Our different colors, tones, tastes, and behavior are unique, and when they function together, we reflect the image of our graceful and merciful God. That’s how people can “see” God. If we are honest, we will confess that our prejudices push people away from Jesus. Our inability to overcome cross-cultural boundaries is not an expression of God’s character and love.

Imagine if we work on our posture and values, because we want to honor each other. Jesus taught us that we need to live in humility if we want to be called his disciples. So, imagine if we are open to welcome others and to demonstrate acceptance and respect for the uniqueness we each possess. I believe it would be easier for people to believe and trust in God if we are willing to be that godly mosaic. Let’s dedicate our time looking for beauty in each other. I hope we understand that prejudice is evil, just as pride is. I wonder which part of God’s mosaic we are. What a privilege is this to be made in His image!

Lucas Bonates is a regular contributor to Soul Care Collective. Thanks, Lucas!

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