My Mama Didn’t Teach Me

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?


  1. Ashley Felder September 7, 2016

    Lots of mine are in the kitchen, too. My mom did the cooking growing up, but she never claimed to be good. Bless her heart. So I didn’t know much, let alone how to make anything from scratch, or how to substitute so many items on some of my “go-to” recipes! I’ve just had to learn by trial and error. Some other things: how to ride a bike or e-bike through ridiculous traffic of pedestrians, other bikes, cars, vans, and semi-trucks (all on a university campus!) and how to pack a suitcase weighing 49.9lbs (ya know, just in case my scale is a little off).

    1. Krista B September 7, 2016

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ashley! I hadn’t thought about the art of packing a suitcase right at the weight limit. Definitely an essential skill! And, ironically, one that I have occasionally had the chance to teach TO my mama!

  2. Deb September 7, 2016

    Love this article.
    My Mama never taught me how to eat chicken heads. i spent 10 years in China teaching English in Teacher’s Colleges and Universities.
    During my first New Year break I was invited to a student’s home in a village. Our hosts were so kind and generous. During a special dinner I was presented with the chicken head which is considered an honor. I was somewhat in shock seeing my first chicken head ever staring me in the face in my rice bowl. Even if I was willing to eat it , I had no idea what one was to do with a chicken head! Fortunately, God’s grace and direction kicked in and as i passed on the Chicken head to my student I said,” No, this is not for me, this is for you.” My hosts smiled and were happy that I wanted to honor my student, and all was well.

    1. Krista B September 7, 2016

      Well, Deb, I can honestly say my mama didn’t teach me how to eat chicken heads either! So glad you were able to find a culturally appropriate way to pass on that honor to someone else. Thanks for joining the conversation!

  3. Elizabeth September 9, 2016

    “My mama didn’t teach me.” I love that! While I know we can’t use that as an excuse for everything we don’t want or know how to do, it sure is a good explanation of why things are hard! Love the phrase — thanks for adding it to my vocabulary 🙂

    1. Krista B September 9, 2016

      No worries, Elizabeth. May it serve you well! 🙂

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