Many of us haven’t had to rub shoulders with people of different cultures and ethnicities for quite some time now. I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to have an unexpected run-in with a stranger at an airport, someone who speaks a different language at the grocery store, or a new neighbor or co-worker from a different country. This pandemic has made us insulated, communicating mostly with family and close friends, and I wonder: Will we struggle more with connecting across cultures after the quarantine than we did before? Building cross-cultural relationships is a muscle that requires practice and strengthening, and many of us have not had to exercise this muscle in a while.
Certainly a lot of us feel like we have grown and changed over the course of this past year. We’ve witnessed horrific racially-motivated crimes against Black and Asian communities that have shaken us to our core and forced us to confront the racial divides in our country. Many of us have read a copious number of books and articles and listened to podcasts all related to race and culture, and slowly but surely our racial consciousness has been growing. These are all really good steps. Though I’m saddened that it took the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor as well as skyrocketing rates of anti-Asian racism to grab the nation’s attention, I am glad that many of us now know better. However, the hard truth is that simply knowing better doesn’t necessarily translate to doing better.
This year is offering us glimpses of possibility. Churches are beginning to meet outside in socially distanced formats, children are reentering classrooms, and families are venturing to playgrounds and other spaces outside their local community. Over time, we will begin to meet more people of other cultures as we become more physically mobile. But it’s important to remember that physical mobility doesn’t automatically translate to cultural competency.
There’s a lot that we used to do that needs correction. More than that, we must realize that just because we’ve always done cross cultural relationships one way, it doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do things or that it’s the only way. I see this extended quarantine as the opportunity to hit the cultural reset button. We will soon be stepping out into broad daylight, rubbing shoulders with friends and strangers alike, and we have the choice to try something new.
We’re all in different places along our journey of cross-cultural relationships, so the application of this challenge to hit the reset button will look different from one person to the next. My encouragement for each of us is simply to commit to change.
The next time you engage with someone of a different culture, be conscious of how you talk and act with them. Instead of asking people questions such as, “Where are you from? No, where are you really come from?”, consider asking instead, “What are your roots?” Instead of interrogating people with all the why’s of their culture (e.g., Why do you eat that? Why do you celebrate that? Why do you think that way?), we can choose to simply enjoy someone for who they are as a unique individual. We can enjoy their presence and leave room for open-ended conversations by asking, “Tell me about yourself” and “What’s your story?”.
We can also be mindful of our emotions and whether we are starting to feel uncomfortable or upset. Too often, when we are confronted with cultural differences we have a knee-jerk reaction to resist or control the situation. We complain, accuse, or even leave. But my gentle encouragement to you is to stay. Stay, learn to keep that opinion to yourself, and choose to love. Connecting across cultures is an opportunity to change ourselves instead of trying to change others.
Loving our neighbors of other cultures will take time, effort, and continual strengthening. We must train ourselves to change and grow; it won’t just happen overnight. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” Christians are compared to athletes, who exercise self-control, discipline their bodies, and choose to persevere.
When it comes to cross-cultural relationships, we have to take time to assess what we’ve done in the past and how we want to do better moving into the future. Before this pandemic is over and before quarantine is a distant memory, let’s consider the ways we can show more love, more hospitality, and more equality to the people around us. We won’t always get it right. We’ll make mistakes. But that’s part of the learning process. Keep hitting that cultural reset button, so you can continue to strengthen your cultural muscles. I promise you, it’s worth it.