Thursday, March 12, 2015

When you invite them into your space...

I really love visiting the homes of my international friends. But I'm limited in the number of houses and apartments I can get into, with my wheelchair. I have a friend who is very allergic to peanuts, so going into a house where peanut oil is used liberally in cooking is not a good idea for her. There may be other obstacles or health concerns that limit the time you can spend in the home of your international friend. But just like speaking different languages, this does not need to be a barrier in your friendship. Inviting them into your space is just as important as being in theirs... and this is something I absolutely love to do.

When an international visits your home, you are the native, and they are the foreigner. So think and pray ahead of time about ways you can make them feel as comfortable and welcome as you possibly can. (This is when visiting their house first can really be a benefit!) Maybe have a comfortable seat available to offer them, and prepare something to drink. I like to keep my pantry stocked with tea and tea cookies! Here's a story about being prepared to be hospitable. Is there something kind and special you could do to honor them? It may be as simple as greeting them at the door in their traditional manner, or turning up your thermostat a couple degrees warmer than normal.

When an international visits your home, they become the learner, and you have the opportunity to be the teacher. This can be a very special privilege for both of you! I've had international friends over for specific things like a traditional American birthday party and Thanksgiving dinner. These are fun times to explain and demonstrate our cultural traditions. If there isn't a "special occasion," make it special by doing things you or your family love. Make a favorite meal like pizza, cheeseburgers, fried chicken, or macaroni and cheese, and introduce your guest to a favorite past time, like a board game, tag-football in the backyard, jigsaw puzzles, Charades, or a TV show. If you normally say a prayer before you eat, explain this and do it. While your routine might seem normal to you, you might be surprised at the response you get from your guest. It is special and unique because it is a glimpse into your life.

It's hard to know exactly how to strike a balance between making them comfortable and giving them a cultural experience. I don't think you need to go so far as eating your meal on the floor with your hands, or trying to prepare some complicated ethnic food. Remember, they have come to your space, to experience how you do things! Wouldn't you feel a bit disappointed if you visited an international home and they offered you a pepperoni pizza from Dominos?

I do recommend that if you are making a traditional American meal, that you include one dish that is a little more familiar to your guest - rice or greens or something. Steer clear (at least in the beginning) of making casseroles where all the ingredients are already mixed together; this makes trying new things intimidating! Don't serve pork or Jell-O until you know your friend well enough to know these are ok, based on their religious background. In fact, it might be a good idea to ask beforehand if there are any foods they are not supposed to eat. As your relationship develops, you could even get together to cook a mixed meal to share. One year for Thanksgiving, we had mashed potatoes, sweet tea, corn, wontons, and sambusa! Here's the story, if you're interested.

Because they are the learner, be prepared to answer a lot of "why" questions... try to anticipate some of these questions ahead of time, and think through good answers, instead of saying "I dunno... that's just what we do." Also take a look around your space through the eyes of your international friend. How does it look different? What do your decorations or cleaning habits say about what you value?

Time is often something we struggle with cross-culturally... If you say "Dinner is at 6," your friends may come early or late, and may hang around a while. In the beginning, meals with short prep work might be best, so as to avoid feeling frustrated over cold dishes or kitchen duty when you want to entertain. As your friendship develops and you gain more mutual trust, you can teach and explain the importance of time sensitivity in American culture. You might be learning to be flexible, but many other Americans will not be so understanding, so this is an important lesson for your friend to learn.

Finally, please remember that hospitality is much more than pulling off the perfect event. Do not get so wrapped up in the plans and preparation that you forget the goal: building bridges and breaking down barriers in cross-cultural relationships. Do this because you love the Lord, and because you want to show love to your international friend.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

When you are in their space...

I need to follow up my last post with this note: You need to find out ASAP what is culturally taboo for your new friends. Are there certain foods they should not eat? Are there places they should not go? Are there situations you should avoid? Are there gestures you should not use? How you sit, look, eat, or touch can be either very complimentary or very offensive. I don't really want to write a post on taboos, because every country, people group, and culture has their own stuff. What I recommend is that you do a Google search: "cultural taboos in -country name-" to learn the major things, and then just observe, ask questions, and have lots of grace!

One of the best ways to learn quickly is to visit them in their space - their apartment or house. Ask if you can come over, and set a time with them. Put aside your hesitations that stem from your American upbringing - they do not see this as an invasion of privacy or an intrusion of their space. In fact, in every situation I've experienced, they love this!

Try to plan this time when you don't have an important appointment afterward... Again, don't have an American mindset: "Dinner with my international friends at 5:00, piano recital at 7:00." Chances are, if you arrive at 5:00, they may begin preparing the meal around 5:30, and you may not eat until around 7:00! To avoid feeling stressed, do not have an agenda. If you must leave by a certain time, make sure to let the host know, when you make plans with them: "My daughter has a piano recital at 7, so I'm sorry but it is very important that I leave your house at 6:30." Read a personal story about being time-conscientious.

It is a good idea to take a small, modest gift for the host, to thank them for their hospitality - flowers, a sweet treat, or something you made... or it could be something to say, "Welcome to America," like a good family friendly movie or a local souvenir.

When you enter their space, keep in mind that you are the foreigner. Do not expect their home to look or sound or smell like yours! The meals may be served on the floor, the thermostat may be set at 80 degrees, and the windows may be covered with big pieces of colorful material. Even though this house may be built in downtown USA, the minute you step through the door you might find yourself in a different country. And that is not only ok, it is beautiful and exciting and adventurous for you! This is where your international friend is in their element - this is their comfort zone and safe haven, where they know the rules and can relax in their own skin.

Because you are the foreigner, submit yourself to the role of learner. Pay close attention to everything! What do you see? Is there a pile of shoes in the entry? If so, take off your shoes too. Where and how are people sitting? Try to sit on a lower level than the oldest person in the room, unless they insist that you have a "seat of honor." What do the decorations tell you about what is valued? Ask questions, if you see something interesting or unusual; point, and say simple words like, "your home country?" or "you make this?"

Inevitably, you will be offered or given something... A bottle of water, a can of pop, a plate of cookies, or a full-blown meal. Take it! If they made a meal and want you to eat, eat it! Unless you have an allergy or legitimate dietary issue, I recommend that you not ask "What is it?" before the meal... sometimes we enjoy things more in ignorance. Read this fun story about a special eating experience I had. If you are sensitive to spicy things, eat small portions slowly, and eat more rice or bread. But please make an effort to try everything that is put in front of you. With that in mind, forget what your mother said about cleaning your plate! If you finish everything on your plate, your host is likely to continue to fill it indefinitely. They want to make sure that you know they have enough food to satisfy you. It is better to leave a little bit on your plate to signify that you are full and don't want any more.

Eating with an international family is an excellent opportunity to learn from them. Do they sit on the ground? at a low table? with their hands? with chopsticks? from a common bowl? using bread to scoop? Take this time to observe, ask a lot of questions, and imitate what you see. Let them correct you, demonstrate for you, and give you guidance. This is an honor for your international friends, to teach you something new.

After the meal, pay attention - who is cleaning up? Ask how you can help. What is everyone doing? Stay and watch the World Cup, or help the kids with homework, or listen to a story, if you can. When it is time for you to leave, thank and say goodbye to each person. If you feel comfortable, you may even ask if you can pray for God to bless the family before you go - blessings are rarely turned down! You may be completely exhausted and overwhelmed when you leave, but know that you have made significant steps in building bridges and tearing down barriers. You've had a cross-cultural experience that was authentic and intentional!