10 Tips For Cross-Cultural Living + Fluffy Buttermilk Biscuits

Cross-cultural living encapsulates so many areas! Daily life, language, creating a comfortable living space, making local friends, and helping our family adapt to a new culture. I have tidbits of advice in a lot of these areas, so I’m going with a list. I like lists.

10 Tips on Cross-Cultural Living

1. Lower Expectations Last week, Lauren wrote about keeping your high expectations as you move abroad—bringing new perspectives to us “oldies” on the field. I agree 100%! I would, however, say to lower your expectations a smidge when it comes to your living space, where you buy your food, and other local places. I know it will look different for everyone, but for us, it was a hard landing. We knew we’d be living in a hotel the first month with our then one-year-old, but we didn’t know there wouldn’t be a bathtub or that we’d have to wash all our clothes by hand. HELLO, privileged people. I know. I’m keenly aware of that now. When we arrived at our apartment, it was loads better, but we still had to get used to using cold water to wash dishes and clothes, killing ants and roaches, and not letting the toddler toddle too far, afraid he’d bust up something on the hard tile floors. Now, all of these things are completely normal to us, but it sure would’ve been nice to have known some of those norms our first few months! I also wish I would’ve given myself a few pep talks before and along the way that we signed up to move abroad! He called us! So, girl, let go of your wealthy (compared to the world) upbringing and gain a new perspective.

2. Daily Life Changes Your daily life may look completely different than when you lived in your home country, that’s a given. How different, you won’t know until you arrive, get your feet wet, and establish a routine of where to buy food, find what restaurants are good, etc. Although sometimes I long to get in a car and drive to Target to mosey around, when I’m back in the States, I long to walk or ride my bike places. Although I miss friends and family, I love the community culture on a summer evening when everyone comes out to walk, chat with neighbors, and watch the kids play.

3. Learn That Language! I’m a huge proponent for language learning because of how it so drastically changed my heart and attitude for living here. I didn’t love living here the first few years—I was here out of obedience. But since learning (and still learning) the language, I can see much, much deeper into the culture and begin to understand some of the reasons they do the things they do…so, so opposite of my culture! People approach language learning in many different ways; my only encouragement is to study at whatever pace you can handle, and don’t stop! What a blessing it is to have deep, meaningful conversations with locals in their own language. When they know they can express their hearts without having to fumble over English words, they will dive in fast.

4. Make A Home I remember various veterans telling us during training, and for the first few years in, to be sure to take time to make a comfortable living space. Decorate, have someone show you where to buy the things you need, and even a few wants. Aren’t we more likely to invite others over if we have a space where we ourselves are comfortable? I struggled with this the first several years. We moved 3 times in 4 years. That doesn’t make a mama of young kiddos want to put anything on the walls or shelves when she’ll just have to pack it up in a few months. But, I encourage you to do it anyway. I was always embarrassed when anyone would come over at how empty it looked. There are several posts on VA from past writers about how to decorate well, on a low budget, and that’s portable. Go check them out!

5. Beware of the Foreign Ghetto Again, all of our countries and teams will look different. You may be all on your own, or you may live in the same stairwell with your 13 teammates (our current situation). My advice is to not get caught up with living every day where you spend the majority of the time with other foreigners. If we are called to serve the locals, we need to spend a lot of time with them, right? There is definitely a balance—just be aware that being with those similar to your culture is way easier than being with those of an opposite culture. So go on and clash those cultures…in love!

6. Befriending Locals Depending on your country of service, language may be a huge barrier in making new friends. I get it. I lived like that for over two years. But we still made great friends. Thankfully, several people around us spoke decent enough English to hold some conversations. Once we learned how to interpret Chinglish, we enjoyed inviting students and neighbors over for a meal, tea, coffee, playing games, or just to hang out with our kids. Even if we didn’t understand everything being said, we still had fun!

7. Food Love Two vastly different cultures can really connect over food; it’s a deep root in every culture. I would advise doing a bit of research before feeding locals something from your home culture. I quickly learned a lot of Chinese literally get sick from so much cheese (sad, I know!) or dairy (fettucine alfredo, I’ll save you for a family night) and that my go-to one pot meals and casseroles are so anti-Chinese, they just don’t know what to do. So I’ve adapted my meals to fit their multiple-dish traditions, but still kept the American/Italian/Mexican/Indian/Thai-ness originality. Because, isn’t the point to introduce something new? I mean, that’s what my friend’s family did with me last week when they served whole crabs (I couldn’t handle it when they told me the little yellow balls—the crabs’s eggs—were the best part!), shrimp with eyes and legs, and a whole—and I mean whole—roasted chicken “standing” on a skewer. I also have learned to tell them profusely that if they don’t like something, to not eat it. It’s tough eating new things, and I sure wish they’d reciprocate that gesture sometimes instead of being astonished at how we couldn’t possibly love the same things they do.

8. Kids Are Adaptable Kids are amazing to watch in other cultures. If they want to play, they will! Language barriers, what language barriers? Charades and mimicking go a long way in kids’ games! I would encourage you to get your kids into the culture as quickly as possible. That could mean attending a local school or making sure to be at the playground when the local kiddos are there, or having them join a sports team with locals. Language may be an issue in each of these, but as we know, kids’ minds grow and adapt much faster, so take advantage of that window of opportunity!

9. Remember Your Calling When you hit a rough spot—and you will—think back to the excitement you felt before moving overseas. What brought you to this place? If it was a specific calling, hang onto that. Tell others about it so they can hold you accountable and pray for you during the hard, uncomfortable, culture-clashing times. God has a plan for us, we know that, but knowing that is a new level. Dig into His word, listen to His voice, and shed your tears with Him.

10. Do What They Do The longer you spend in a different culture, the more you will want to become like them. And they love that. We all think we doing things the “right” way, right? I never, ever thought I’d be one to drink hot water. In fact, in the beginning, I resisted it by making fun of it. It makes you warmer, really? But why would you want to be warmer when it’s summer? Although I don’t drink hot water in the summer, it’s now a staple during the cold winter months—especially when the heat isn’t on yet, but there is snow on the ground. When we imitate the locals, in little or small ways, we build yet another bridge between hearts. And bridges lead to deeper, more trusting relationships that may just listen to why you are so kind, loving, and compassionate.

Veterans, what advice do you have to the newbies about to move overseas? Newbies, what fears or hesitations do you have about your soon-to-be new home?

*****

I tried many, many biscuit recipes before I found my favorite. I had a biscuit in mind that I was trying to replicate: at least 3 inches thick, flaky, golden brown on the top and bottom, and pillowy soft on the inside. I wanted them just like the ones from Bob Evans. But for years, I kept finding myself gnawing on little hockey pucks, hoping a slab of butter or a dollop of jelly would somehow mask the fact that I was chipping teeth. Finally, I found it! If you keep making hard little hockey pucks, give these a try! I didn’t change anything from the original, so I’ll just share Alton Brown’s great recipe.

Mix a little lemon juice or white vinegar with milk to make buttermilk. Simple!

The tiny butter and shortening chunks are what make the soft, flaky layers.

Super sticky, but don’t add too much flour or you’ll end up with tough biscuits!

Dust the table and the top of the dough–just enough to form a circle without sticking to everything.

You want it thick, maybe uncomfortably thick, to get those tall biscuits!

Biscuit cutter, IKEA cup, whatever. Squeeze in as many as possible the first round because the more you work the dough, the more dense they become during baking.

If they touch each other during making, they will stay soft on those sides. I like soft biscuits!

The sun was setting, and I’m not a pro photog, so imagine these are warmly golden brown.

Do you see that height?! Perfection.

Buttermilk Biscuits

Ready in 40 minutes

Shared from Alton Brown/Food Network

Makes 12 small biscuits or 6-8 large (my preference, which means I double this recipe)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Using your fingertips, rub butter and shortening into dry ingredients until mixture looks like crumbs. (The faster the better, you don’t want the fats to melt.) Make a well in the center and pour in the chilled buttermilk. Stir just until the dough comes together. The dough will be very sticky. Turn dough onto floured surface, dust top with flour and gently fold dough over on itself 5 or 6 times. Press into a 1-inch thick round. (Thicker than you may think! Thick dough = thick, fluffy biscuits) Cut out biscuits with a 2-inch cutter (or your favorite color of kid’s IKEA cup), being sure to push straight down through the dough. Place biscuits on baking sheet so that they just touch. Reform scrap dough, working it as little as possible and continue cutting. (Biscuits from the second pass will not be quite as light as those from the first, but hey, that’s life.) Bake until biscuits are tall and light gold on top, 15 to 20 minutes.

*I realize there are various opinions on shortening/Crisco. I personally only use it for this and 2 other recipes, so I do keep it on hand. I’m sure if you omit it and double the butter, you will still get a biscuit, but I have never personally done it, so tell us how it turns out if you do!

**If you don’t have access to buttermilk, like me, simply add 1-2 Tablespoons (sorry, I don’t measure this part) to a measuring cup, then fill up to the 1 cup line. Stir and let sit for 5 minutes before adding to the dough.

Photo by Adam Sherez on Unsplash

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21 Comments

  1. amanda june August 15, 2017

    This is some seriously solid advice — and the biscuits look amazing! I think #3, 5, and 6 are especially key and are easy pitfalls — it’s all interrelated. When you’re constantly surrounded by (wonderful, likeminded!) foreigners, it sure is hard to learn the language and develop intentional, deepening relationships with the people you came to serve. For me, during my first couple years on the field it began to feel like my life was divided — “work” with locals (language-learning felt like work, always!) and “live” with expats, in English. I gave myself a sort of “immersion” year, living with local friends, going to a local church and being on a more local team, mostly to learn the language but also to develop relationships. It totally transformed me and my life here! For singles I would always, always recommend living with locals if you can.

    Anyway Ashley, you give some great advice. And I can’t wait to try those biscuits! By the way…I washed dishes in cold water for a year and it was just such a pet peeve. Later I found it is really not that expensive or hard in C to hire someone to connect hot water to your sink…just something to think about in the vein of “make it your home”! 🙂

    1. Ashley Felder August 16, 2017

      An “immersion year” is a wonderful idea! My husband did part of his undergrad in Mexico and lived with a host family for 2 years. Compared to other foreigners that lived and hung out with themselves, his Spanish sky-rocketed. It’s so key! And, like you re-iterated, why we’re here!

      I know I could’ve carried a bucket of hot water from the bathroom to wash dishes, but I didn’t. Now, we, too, know how inexpensive it is to get a hot water heater for the kitchen sink. And, they’ll even replace it for free if it breaks after 4 days. 😀 Not that I know from experience or anything…

  2. Elizabeth August 15, 2017

    Regarding #1 — This year a friend explained to me the difference between expectations and expectancy, and the differentiation has helped me so much. We can always bring a great expectancy to our life with God. We can and should expect Him to move in big ways. . . . somehow. But having specific expectations or predictions for what God is going to do, or what we are going to do FOR Him, is what can get us into trouble. As a community we read an entire book on these ideas a few years back (“Expectations and Burnout”).

    When it comes to expectations for daily living, yes certainly we should lower our expectations! Over and over we’ve heard experienced workers say things to that point. And yes, we should bring high expectancy to the work of God in our communities. He is God after all. He can and will do amazing things. We humans just don’t need to tell Him exactly how to work. God often does something entirely different from what we imagine He will do, and that is as it should be.

    1. amanda june August 15, 2017

      love this distinction, elizabeth!!

    2. Spring Davis August 16, 2017

      I never that about the difference in these two words.thanks for this thought

  3. Ashley Felder August 16, 2017

    #nailedit!! You put into words wouldn’t I couldn’t form. Thanks for sharing the differences! Maybe I’ll check out that book. 😉

  4. sarah August 16, 2017

    I would add a cautionary addendum to y’all’s advice on doing a home stay. Home stays truly can be wonderful and insightful and extremely helpful for culture acquisition and bonding, or they can be terrible and damaging. So, before you jump into a home stay or even just rent a place that is within a local’s home, make sure that you thoroughly look into the family or have good references for them, and that you clearly lay out some ground rules with them for what your time with them will be or not be. Also, you may want to consider ahead of time and make an agreement with yourself about what kinds of behavior in the home you can live with and what you are going to break your lease for, as different cultures have different standards on issues like domestic violence.
    3 years later and I’m still not quite recovered from my last experience living with locals… Tho, I also agree that home stays can be great experiences.

    1. Ashley Felder August 18, 2017

      Sarah, this is sound, wise advice. I’ve never lived on my own, let alone overseas, nor with locals. Research, homework, and references are all vitally important. I’m so sorry you had such a terrible experience. May the Father continue to meet you where you are and heal your wounds.

      1. sarah August 18, 2017

        He is. Thanks! Even just in the last couple days since I posted that. 🙂

    2. Michele August 19, 2017

      I agree, Sarah! I also know people who’ve been very hurt and ended up having a harder time adjusting to the culture because of home-stays. I was sort of forced into one, though it wasn’t supposed to be a ‘home-stay’, but just a room rental in a home. I was there for three years and it ended up being a very positive experience for me and definitely a huge part of bonding me to the culture, though there were certainly difficulties to work through. I did find that it also seemed to reinforce the cultural perception of me being a ‘youth’ because I was single, even when I turned 30 in that house. (My teammates, who were five and six years younger, were considered ‘adults’ while I was a youth forever because I never married). There are a lot of things to consider when going into a home-stay situation, and I would definitely not recommend it for everyone. Your advice is good and I would add that a new worker should consider her own personality and ability to adapt. Sometimes a home-stay is just too much stress even if there are no major problems in the family.

      1. sarah August 20, 2017

        Thanks for the understanding , Michele! Yeah, I also thought I was just renting a room in a couple’s house. 😓 But, like you said, in many cultures, if a person is unmarried, no matter their age, they are a child forever. Which I think contributed to the problem- they perceived me as a child joining their family (even tho I was 33), Not as a renter.
        I agree that considering your personality should be a factor when considering a home stay. Tho, with good parameters established ahead of time, I think just about anybody could do some kind of home stay. I know a lot of companies require just a 2 or 3 week homestay for their people to get a feel for local life but also not overwhelming them. Lots of different ways to do it that don’t lead to the bad experience I and others have had.
        Having a safe “out” tho, is a good idea.

  5. Spring Davis August 16, 2017

    This is a great list. I work with a culture within a culture. Working with Deaf means I am not immersed in the language but want to learn it.

    1. Ashley Felder August 18, 2017

      An extra challenge, for sure! But I’m sure you have knowledge within the realms you work in that even locals don’t have. Keep serving and impacting the community around you! The language skills you need–whichever language it is–will come!

  6. Tracy August 17, 2017

    Thanks for sharing this! My husband and I just moved to China with our 1.5 year old about 2 months ago. I’ve been struggling to enjoy being here so your comment about only being here out of obedience resonates with me! I previously served here as a single 20-something and I wasn’t as prepared as I thought for how vastly different it would be doing life here as a wife and mom (5 years later)! This really encouraged me.

    1. Ashley Felder August 18, 2017

      I’m so glad you found this encouraging! I often cling to the words spoken to me that affirmed we should come. I remember my teammate our first year, who had been here 5 already, said it would eventually get easier. I didn’t believe her. After year 4 (I know, it takes TIME for some of us!), it finally really did start to get easier. That first year with just my 1 year old was the toughest! I still struggle (shamefully) with loving these people, so that is my most common prayer…that I would see them through the Father’s eyes. He loves them dearly, so should I. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to one of us, or VA in general! Many of us have been in your shoes. 🙂

  7. Katie August 17, 2017

    I just moved overseas to begin my journey in England as a M. Finding, engaging, and establishing community when you first arrive is my advice for moving abroad. Every place I have moved to I have asked the Lord for the gift of a new friend, even just one incredible girl friend and. a place to “belong”. He has answered it every time in every new country.

    My biggest fear is the cost for my family, that I can love Jesus so much and my shining proof to them is that I move halfway around the world to love and serve “strangers”. But, the Lord has called me to this, he calls those to stay and those to be sent out.

    Katie

    1. Ashley Felder August 18, 2017

      Finding a community is so key! What a blessing that the Father has answered your prayer every time! He desires us to be connected. 🙂 Yes, it is difficult to leave loved ones. For those who understand such a calling, it tends to be a smidge easier. For those who don’t yet know His truths, well, we just have to keep sharing the whys. May our big love for other cultures in order to obey Him be the biggest testimony for them!

  8. melissa August 19, 2017

    I was planning on making cornbread tonight, but then I didn’t have any polenta on hand, and the grocery stores had already been closed 10 minutes (for the weekend…). So, your buttermilk biscuits are in the oven! 😉

  9. Addie August 22, 2017

    I don’t usually love lists, but I love this post! Sometimes I feel like I’m doing this cross-culture thing the opposite direction, coming from SE Asia to North America, so it’s fun reading posts on the the flip experience. I’ve just moved locally to a new home and am looking forward to actually being able to invite people over this year without it being a kitchen party, so #4 made me excited – time to go post-hunting for decoration tips 🙂

    1. Ashley Felder August 24, 2017

      Happy decorating! There’s tons of simply and unique ideas on Pinterest, too. 🙂

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