Early in the orientation course in Papua New Guinea, we learned a polite way to refuse food offered to us. “My mama didn’t teach me how to eat that.” Considering we started interacting with our hosts with linguistic capabilities and overall usefulness of four year olds, I am sure many of our host families wondered what exactly our mamas spent our childhoods teaching us!
“My mama didn’t teach me…” is a flimsy excuse, but it saves face for everyone present and avoids giving offense to the hosts. The truth is, though, I eat a LOT of things my mama never taught me to eat. The foods available in the Papua New Guinea highlands are drastically different from my hometown. I make substitutions my mama would never dream of because she lives near a well-stocked 24/7 grocery store and I don’t. I started with what my mama taught me, but have expanded beyond that in my cooking out of both necessity and enjoyment.
Has a day has gone past in the years I’ve spent overseas that I haven’t done at least one thing my mama never taught me to do? I honestly don’t think so. My childhood instruction was decidedly lacking in everything from using powdered milk to bleaching vegetables, and from managing visa expirations to planning multi-country travel.
One of my ongoing challenges is that my mama didn’t teach me how to drive a stick shift. I remember backing a vehicle out of a parking space only to stall repeatedly trying to move forward. The gate guard came over to offer his sympathy and suggestions, which I met with the trade language equivalent of an embarrassed, “My parents didn’t teach me how to drive this kind of car.” He advised me to let the clutch out very slowly, which was exactly what I was trying to do. Which, incidentally, doesn’t help much when you’re trying to start it in third gear! If only my mama had taught me that.
Building a life in Papua New Guinea has been about fusing two cultures—taking what I need from my American childhood and my local context to learn to serve well. Humility and patience are key to navigating that process.
- My childhood and early career in the US taught me to accomplish tasks and meet deadlines. My Papua New Guinean colleagues have taught me to slow down and value relationships. Most days I need a little (or a lot!) of both.
- As a former lifeguard, I learned to recognize and respond immediately to crises. My Papua New Guinean friends are much more laidback and less likely to interpret a given situation as a crisis. Sometimes the crisis orientation triggers appropriate, timely action and sometimes I should join my local friends in carefree waiting.
- My American culture values self-sufficiency. Missionary life has very little to do with self-sufficiency. Success and survival both require dependence on God and interdependency of the team. O Lord, I do depend, help my independence!
The past shapes us, but it does not limit us. Imagine how absurd it would be if in Papua New Guinea I only ate the foods that happened to overlap with the German-style cooking of my mother and grandmother back home. Amazing fresh pineapple? My mama didn’t teach me to eat that. Papaya and passion fruit? No, thanks. Thanksgiving dinner made with local chicken instead of $9-a-pound imported turkey? Never! And don’t get me started on boxed milk and brown eggs.
Obviously I have had to add significantly to my repertoire of everything from recipes to cultural responses. We can find comfort in the familiar, but we can’t cling to it. God designed us as a body, and the parts that are different are essential to accomplishing His overall purpose.
It can be refreshing to spend time with fellow Americans who have a shared understanding of this cultural mishmash. But if they happen to serve food I don’t like or that I know doesn’t like me, it’s nice to be able to say—with a smile—“My mama didn’t teach me to eat that.”
What essential cross-cultural living skill have you picked up that your mama didn’t teach you?