It Starts with “Hello” {Book Club}

It Starts with "Hello" {Book Club}

We went out to dinner Saturday night. There is one restaurant in our town that has a playground. It’s the type of playground we had in the US when I was a kid, rather than the kind you see in the West now, but it’s what we have. They set up a trampoline last year, and it’s the main reason we go there now.

After getting tired of bouncing, my kids sat on the merry-go-round. It’s much too high off the ground to self-push, but another child saw them and ran over to push them. When they eventually came back to the table to eat dinner, my husband and I were asking about it. Did they make this younger kid push them? What was his name? He was pushing of his own free will, so that was good. But they didn’t ask his name. The conversation went like this:

10-year old: “We didn’t ask his name because he doesn’t speak English.”

9-year old: “Yes he does. He said, ‘I’m going to push.’”

10-year old: “No. He said, ‘Nitasukuma.’” (Swahili for ‘I will push.’)

Clearly they understand enough Swahili that they could have spoken with the boy. But it wasn’t their natural inclination.

Chapter 6 of Beyond Colorblind by Sarah Shin, “Trust Building with Ethnic Strangers,” starts with some pretty basic stuff. It seems common sense. But maybe it doesn’t really come naturally. Maybe we complicate things in our minds before we even get started. For those new(er) to the field of cross-culture work, the simplified instructions make the task conceivable, manageable. For those who are more experienced, getting back to basics is refreshing.

We get started by simply saying “hello.” In preparing to move cross-culturally, this is one of the first things you learn, right? Greeting someone in their language, in their context is the first way to reach out. And when you move somewhere like coastal Kenya, you learn not just the word for “hello,” but very long, complicated greetings. People feel seen when they are greeted in the way they are accustomed to, and this is the first step of building trust.

To Americans living in the US, Shin says, “…visit a community that is ethnically different from yours, entering in with a learning posture.” Listen, observe. And when an ethnic minority enters your community, be the first to welcome them. You don’t need a dissertation prepared. Start with hello. It’s so simple!

And yet: “We need skills to live in multi-ethnic community.” There’s a warning here. We must remember that we’re not reaching out to have a token friend from a particular culture. We are making an effort to build real relationships. These take time, commitment, humility, discomfort.

We also have to consider what we represent (our culture or ethnicity) to the people we are interacting with. What has our culture/ethnicity done to theirs? How have they been treated? We will be seen and judged in that light. Four categories are listed:

  1. A person whose people have been friendly with their people
  2. A person whose people have been hurt by their people
  3. A person whose people have hurt their people
  4. A person whose people have avoided or remained distant from their people.

How are you seen in your cross-cultural context? How does that affect the way you approach interactions and relationships?

Later, Shin described how she asks people about their ethnic backgrounds. This one caught me by surprise. There are many wrong ways to do this – like when you first meet someone or by saying, “What are you, anyway?” She admonishes us to ask, “What is your ethnic background?” only after we have gotten to know the person a bit, when the relationship has gone beyond small talk and niceties.

There are more Cross-Culture 101 lessons in the chapter: ask questions from a learning posture, avoid generalizing, avoid offensive language and stereotypes (and if you’re outside your native culture and language, you may have to do some research to find what is offensive), and “Let go of the mindset that your normal is the right normal.”

Towards the end of the chapter, we look at implicit bias, and this is something we need to apply to living overseas. Explicit bias is easy to see – that’s why it’s called explicit. Implicit bias lies under the surface of our consciousness, unacknowledged, and unnoticed by us. Though hidden, it affects our relationships with people. What can we do? First of all, “the best way to get rid of your implicit bias is to realize you have one.” Then we have to identify the assumptions and stereotypes we have bought into regarding the place we are living and the people we are living among.

What are you processing about this chapter? How is trust built in the culture you’re living in? How have you been able to identify your own implicit biases?

Here’s the schedule for the rest of the book:

November 10: Chapters 7 & 8

November 17: Chapter 9

November 24: Chapter 10

Photo by Joey Huang on Unsplash

6 Comments

  1. Phyllis November 3, 2020

    Okay, this chapter was more relatable for me. This I can understand. 🙂

    I really liked the very specific wordings she gives, not that I really have chances to use them. I do get to be one of the first to greet at our church. If someone who looks different ever does show up, they’re probably an English-speaker, and our family usually checks to see if they want translation.

    1. Rachel Kahindi November 8, 2020

      I’m glad it was more relatable for you! I felt the same.

  2. Sarah Hilkemann November 5, 2020

    This did feel like a Cross-Cultural 101 chapter! 🙂 My first thought was, “Hey, we’ve got this”. Most of us have had either formal cross-cultural training, or years of experience on the field. But then I started thinking about my life right now, and the ways I can still grow. We don’t stop learning, do we?

    On page 111, Shin says, “Instead of shallow attempts at conversation, become a story gatherer…”. I loved that phrase! No matter where I am or who I am around, this is such a great posture. This feels important right now as I’m in my passport country and everything feels so divisive and heated. As I interact with people who have a different opinion than me or different worldview, can I be a story gatherer? It feels like a humble, caring place to start.

    1. Rachel Kahindi November 8, 2020

      I loved that idea, too.

  3. Amanda Hutton November 5, 2020

    I loved this chapter! What stood out to me was the concept of asking EVERYONE I meet about their ethnic background, not just those who look different than me. Sarah, I was going to highlight the same concept of becoming a story gatherer! I actually think this goes beyond ethnicity (although asking about ethnic backgrounds is an area I could grow in).

    A few days ago it was my late Father’s 60th birthday. He passed away when I was three years old, so I hardly knew him. A good friend of mine sat down with my husband and I and asked to hear stories about him. He has been gone almost 27 years, and it was the FIRST time anyone had ever done that, probably because they don’t want to offend me or talk about my “scars,” so to speak. It meant so much to me that someone would ask and that I could share the good and the bad!

    As Christians, we cannot avoid the uncomfortable topics, because they are sometimes where the most important ministry happens. And the more we go there with people, the more skilled we will become at interacting with people who have different stories than our own. When Jesus rose from the dead, he shared his scars with his friends. He did not deny that there was a whole lot of suffering involved in redeeming his people. Our redemption story would be nothing without those scars!

    1. Rachel Kahindi November 8, 2020

      That’s such a great point about uncomfortable conversations. Coming from a culture that avoids them, it takes practice to not feel threatened when uncomfortable topics come up.

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