To Say or Not to Say?

…and how much? These are my questions on Missional Mondays when I want to share Africa with my readers and loved ones.

Missionaries live their lives getting a taste of what it means to be a pilgrim, to be in this world but not of it. No matter where we are, we don’t completely fit in. We are people of two cultures–the one we came from and the one we’re trying to assimilate for the Gospel’s sake.

The culture we’re living in (I’ll call it “Culture #2”) does not understand us–and really doesn’t usually try. And when we go back to our own culture (“Culture #1”), we can’t remember what it was like to only know American culture. The longer we’re away, the harder it is to converse on what seems like narrower scopes every time we go “home.” The only people who can really understand what it’s like to know both cultures are your teammates (if you have them), and oh the letdown if they don’t understand–or worse, if they do understand yet disagree with you!

If we tell culture #1 about the culture we live amongst, we walk a thin line of whether or not to say this or that and how much to describe. If we say more in an effort to really explain and increase the hearer’s understanding, it can come across as complaining, self-pitying, unloving, judgmental, critical, politically incorrect, or perhaps fault-finders might even use terms like “hateful” or “racist.” That is, if we didn’t already lose attention to their iPhone’s incoming text message.

Or even worse is when you try to explain this or that facet of culture #2 to a person from culture #1, and in the greatness of their misunderstanding and inability to form a concept of a worldview and culture outside their own, they proceed to inform you–the missionary who has loved and lived among those people for X amount of years–how you don’t understand and the situation is really like this, and what you ought to do, say, or think.

Perhaps this happens, and perhaps this happening has become more normal, because of the popularity of social media and Blogland, where everyone has a say, whether they know or understand much of what they’re talking about. But that’s another topic. Which leads me to yet another angle of how a missionary feels self-muzzled: if you summon the bravery to attempt to subtly (or openly) talk to culture #1 about perceived errors inside it (potential or real) that you feel your stay in another culture has enlightened you to, it’s like you’re speaking another language. There just seems to be a disconnect in understanding your bottom line.

I was asked to speak at a ladies’ missionary society when I go “home” on furlough, and I haven’t decided what to speak on yet. I thought about speaking on “Things I Usually Don’t Tell Americans Because I Think They Won’t Understand,” but I’m not sure they would understand. 🙂 And I’m not sure I can even formulate it or should try after 8 years of service. Maybe it’s something I will be better and wiser at after 20 years here.

Usually missionaries resort to safer subjects, as I generally have on Missional Mondays–something concrete like what we’re actually doing or something blasĂ© that doesn’t completely communicate our challenges, thoughts, or lives. I would like to give a clearer picture than that, but when you’ve been misunderstood a couple of times, especially on your first few times even attempting the communication, you get shy.

I had a best friend in college with a Southern accent. I felt like she could get away with saying whatever she wanted in that sweet Southern drawl. She’d tell her roommates, “Y’all jest need to pick yer stuff ah-up!” and they’d practically hug her and take her out for ice cream; whereas I would say, “Um…would you mind…moving that pile a bit when you get a chance?” And the hall leader would have to be brought in to clean up after World War III.

So maybe that’s the solution. I’m going to try to write more about our views on culture and ministry in an African setting when I have the time to re-read and re-edit my rough draft a 1,000 times first ;), and y’all jest need to read it with a Southern accent, ‘k?

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Seeing in black and white.

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About Amy

I'm Amy, a missionary wife and mother of four children, blogging about our lives and perspectives on culture in South Africa.
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10 Responses to To Say or Not to Say?

  1. zebranay says:

    Excellent article Amy. Your point comes across quite cleary with a touch of humor for seasoning. I enjoyed this post & think I learned something too!

  2. Katie says:

    Boy-oh-boy Amy! Did you ever describe the missionary “self-muzzle” (a new term to me, but I love it! – it fits!) perfectly!!!! Even wanting to be open and share with other missionaries isn’t always taken well, because all missionaries are DIFFERENT!!!!!! I guess all the blank looks from my own culture and second culture along with the lack of understanding, sympathy, or even effort to care has caused me to clam-up over the years — not sure thats the best thing. But, the one good effect from the clamming-up is that it has kept my husband as my best friend and it has led me to a greater understanding of the sweetness of fellowship with the Lord! By the way, have you read Third-Culture Kids? A very helpful resource as we raise our children in a culture different from our birth-country.

    • Amy says:

      Yes! Yes, yes, yes. Whenever you reply I feel we’re on the same page Katie. Hmm, think I need to read Third-Culture Kids. I’ve heard of it before but not looked into it.

  3. Christie says:

    So thought-provoking, Amy. I want to say, “I’ll be the one that gets it for you!” But that’s reaching beyond my ability as only a one culture person… and proving your point. = ) I definitely don’t know all the problems with America, but I do know that we need to be shaken up. Will be praying that God gives you wisdom and courage in your opportunities to speak. And… looking forward to good conversations when we see you!!! Yay!!!

  4. Debi Morrison says:

    I look forward to hearing anything that you feel led to share. I have only lived in Canada so while I haven’t experienced a true second culture I am extremely interested in your insights for both cultures. I look forward to your coming on furlough.

  5. johngoossen says:

    Thanks for this post. Not fitting in either culture helps sharpen my hunger for our Lord. Philippians 3:20.

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