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  • Writer's pictureW. Austin Gardner

Learning the New Culture

Learning a new culture can be either a terrifying ordeal or an exciting new experience. The difference often is the attitude we bring to the situation. If we are afraid of the unknown, we will tend to withdraw into a small circle of friends made up largely of missionary colleagues and national Christians. We will try to reconstruct as best we can an island of Western culture where we can live. The result is a small Christian community largely isolated from the world around it. Here we can carry out our mission work with a minimum of dislocation but with a minimum of witness to the people around us.

On the other hand, we can venture out to learn the new culture. At first, this increases our anxieties, but we soon learn that the risk pays off. As our knowledge of the culture grows, our fears of the unknown decrease. We find, moreover, that studying a strange culture and meeting new people can be an exciting and fulfilling experience. We discover that many of the people want our friendship and are delighted when we make the simplest efforts to learn their ways. They are all too ready to be our cultural teachers if we are willing, to be honest students.

We learn a culture best by being involved in it. Although it helps to read all we can about a culture before we arrive, there is no substitute for participating in the lives of the people. For example, rather than buying a week's supply of groceries, we can go to the store daily and purchase a few items at a time. We can sit with people in the coffee shop or visit with them in the village square. We can invite them to our homes-after all, they are as curious about our culture as we about theirs-and accept invitations to visit them. We will find that friendships and opportunities to participate in the local culture multiply rapidly if we take time to relate to the people on a personal level.

It is important that we enter into a culture immediately before we have established routines that insulate us from the people. As the Brewsters (1982) point out, it is better to plunge into a new culture and experience life as the nationals see it than to first establish ourselves in a foreign enclave from which we launch out to do our work. They add, "From the very first day it is important to develop many meaningful relationships with local people. The newcomer should early communicate his needs and his desire to be a learner. People help people who are in need! Then, when potentially stressful situations come up he can, as learned, secure help, answers, or insights from these insiders" (1982:8-9).

When we enter another culture as genuine students, the people are usually anxious to teach us, for they are proud of their culture. While learning about the culture, we build relationships that make us part of the community.

Interestingly enough, learning a new culture is also an important means of evangelism. We often find more opportunities to witness to non-Christians when we enter the culture as learners than in more formal missionary roles. As we study people, they become interested in us and our beliefs. As their students, we are not threatening to them.

Finally, learning the language and culture well is critical to our future missionary service. During our first years, it is important that we learn to speak the language properly, which takes a great deal of time and practice. We are usually so intent upon learning how to communicate our messages that we overlook the sounds and structures of the language. Consequently, we learn to speak, but with foreign accents and broken sentences. We must take the time at the beginning, to learn the sounds correctly, for errors soon become unconscious habits that are hard to change and stay with us.

Similarly, we need to learn the local culture in our first years. During this time we are more aware of cultural differences. Later we will lose our sensitivities to strange ways, and work will occupy much of our time. If we want to know a culture well, we must begin to study it immediately and continue to do so all our lives. Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries

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