Bad or just Unfamiliar?

In this article, Clark Miller, a development agent for G.O.D. Int'l, reflects from the field on the challenges and complexity of navigating a foreign culture. He offers perspective from his education and experience into how seeking cultural awareness and understanding can make us more responsible, appropriate, and effective in our development work efforts.  

Upon entering a new culture we tend to think everything citizens of that country do is wrong. Why? It's a reality I first became aware of through third world development training at the Institute for G.O.D. Int'l and have since experienced during my almost three years living in the Philippines: we think things are wrong because they are different than what we are used to. By default we think what we are used to is how things should be. We like what is comfortable and familiar and what we like is what we think is right. Likewise, we dislike what is uncomfortable and unfamiliar and what we dislike we see as bad or wrong. When our cultural preferences go unexamined, the tendency is to place a negative judgment on others, rather than seeking to understand their behavior and worldview.

As students await morning announcements at school, personal space is not a consideration in line.

As students await morning announcements at school, personal space is not a consideration in line.

When working abroad, social situations arise that test our level of comfort. In the Philippines, where I’ve lived since 2013, there is a saying that states “there is always room for one more." When boarding a jeepney, a primary mode of public transportation, the conductor or driver will ask you to compress your body to fit one more passenger. And when you leave space in a line, it’s common for a person to cut in front. Are they bad for doing this or is it my fault for leaving a large gap? I’ve learned that in Filipino culture the expectation is that you “leave no space,” which explains why people get so close behind you when standing in line. Their nose is penetrating your hairdo, not because they’re checking your scalp for dandruff, but because they don’t want anyone to cut in front of them. Foreigners often complain about Filipino’s personal bubbles being too small, but fail to examine why they feel entitled to an expanse of personal space.  

Filipinos value close knit families and friendships. Their external closeness is indicative of internal feelings of connectedness. 

Filipinos value close knit families and friendships. Their external closeness is indicative of internal feelings of connectedness. 

Because we desire to bring positive change to the Philippines it can be easy to critique such things. And coming from a first world country where certain amenities are available, it can be very easy to find things that could be better. However, we always need to evaluate ourselves. Sometimes things do need to change. A person digging through trash to survive, kids running through the streets without any supervision, women selling themselves- these things need to change, and we need to be a catalyst for that change. But, there are other things as well, things that are bothersome to us that we would like to change, however, these things are not unethical or immoral, but rather are simply particular to a society. Striving to change a cultural practice that has nothing to do with an ethical situation causes us to focus our energies in the wrong place.

When what we consider to be “normal” is pressed, we can choose to complain about a situation or adapt to it. For a development worker, the condition referred to as Culture Shock can become overwhelming to the degree that a person reacts by retreating from that host society with no return plan. How do we prevent this? Motivated by values of faith, hope and love, we put in the work and time required to learn all we can about the cultural realities of that host society. In the process, we become more aware of our own enculturation. Seeking cultural awareness and understanding can make us more responsible, appropriate, and effective in our development work efforts. All this is to mainly say, think before you speak, choose your battles wisely, and don’t put too much coffee in your sugar.