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  • Writer's pictureW. Austin Gardner


Another solution to the problem of living in two worlds is compartmentalization. In choosing this option, we adapt ourselves to whatever culture we are in, but we separate the different cultures in our mind.

For example, in Africa we act and think African. In the United States we act and think American. And we keep those two worlds apart.

All bicultural people use compartmentalization, and it often provides the simplest and most immediate solution to living in different cultural worlds.

Colin Turnbull (1968) describes some modern African leaders born and raised in tribal villages who today live in modern houses in the city. Their city wives dress in Western high fashion and send their children to English schools. They drive cars, drink whiskey, travel the world in jets, and stay in international hotels.

But when they visit their relatives in the village, they dress in dashikis, speak their native language, eat their tribal food and, in some cases, have a second and third wife who raise their village children according to traditional customs. Turnbull describes one leader who lived in the city in a two-story house: the upstairs was modern, and the downstairs was tribal!

Missionaries, too, compartmentalize cultural worlds. We often move from one culture to another, and from one context to another within a culture. We visit with Brahmin leaders in an Indian village in the morning, with untouchables in the afternoon, and with government officials the next day. This requires "shifting gears" mentally.

We learn to live in many different settings and cope with the mental stress created by moving from one to the other.

If carried too far, however, compartmentalization can have serious consequences.

First, a particular missionary may be accused of hypocrisy and duplicity. So long as the people in one culture do not see us in another setting, this danger is slight. But eventually this barrier breaks down.

The nationals read the reports and articles we write for our home churches, and they see us in the company of foreign visitors and government officials. If they notice too great a change in us, they suspect us of playing games and of identifying with them not because we love them but to achieve our own goals.

Second, compartmentalization does not deal with the inner tensions we face when we live in two worlds. Not only is there the inevitable stress of moving from one context to another, there is also the mental conflict of living in two cultures that have contradictory beliefs, feelings, and values.

For example, we are raised in the West to respect individual ownership, but we may serve in a society in which everything-food, clothing, and tools-belongs to the group and can be used by all. The constant shift from one culture to the other can lead to confusion and insecurity and, in the extreme, to an identity crisis and cultural schizophrenia.

Compartmentalization is a tactic all bicultural people must use in certain areas of their lives, but it does not resolve the deep problems raised by living in two or more cultures.

Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries

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