Relationships and a Cultural Chameleon {Book Club}

Relationships and a Cultural Chameleon

“Relationships are built in the silences. You spend time with people, you observe them and interact with them, and you come to know them–and that is what apartheid stole from us: time.”

As we read Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, I’m learning more and more about apartheid. In my mind, I had always equated it to Jim Crow laws in the US, but earlier in the book, Noah said: “In America you had the forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of those things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.”

Now, he describes how people who were colored (apartheid definition of colored being mixed race, black and white) could get “upgraded” to white if they looked close enough and filed the right paperwork. What?

Noah describes himself as “mixed but not colored–colored by complexion but not by culture.” As he grew older, he and his mother moved into a colored neighborhood. He learned that “…it is easier to be an insider as an outsider than to be an outsider as an insider.” In other words, when someone seems like one of us, but acts like one of them, we reject that person. On the other hand, if someone who is one of them starts acting like one of us, they will be accepted. This was demonstrated in the willingness of apartheid to reclassify someone’s race if they met certain requirements. And it was demonstrated in Noah’s story: he lived in a colored neighborhood as someone who was apparently colored, but he acted black. The neighborhood kids rejected and bullied him.

The worst time, Noah tells us, he manipulated his mother’s boyfriend (Abel, who would become his stepfather) to confront the bullies, when Abel was drunk and violent. I was cringing throughout that story. I wouldn’t expect a kid to know better, but his mother obviously did. She begged Noah not to tell Abel what happened. She had made good decisions at other points in her life, and I have to wonder why she was with Abel and why she ended up marrying him.

When he was younger, Noah visited his father (Robert) covertly, but regularly. After Abel came along, though, he wasn’t able to see Robert anymore, and Robert moved to Cape Town. They fell out of touch with each other for 11 years.

Noah’s mother wisely advised him to find his father. She said, “Too many men grow up without their fathers, so they spend their lives with a false impression of who their father is and what a father should be.” It took some time, but finally Noah was able to send Robert a letter via the Swiss Embassy. Then, he wrote, “He chose to answer my letter. I was wanted. Being chosen is the greatest gift you can give to another human being.”

I adore both of those quotes so much! First of all, I know many of these men who grew up without their fathers. It was a problem in Noah’s culture, but it is even bigger than that. My husband and I refer to these as Human Problems Not Cultural Problems. Absentee fathers are found in all cultures.

And the second quote, yes! What a difference it makes when someone chooses to have a relationship with you, when they want to spend time with you and want to get to know you.

Noah discusses other relationships in this section, including his dog Fufi. How hilarious was it that they didn’t realize Fufi was deaf? He talks about navigating the bureaucracy of his first Valentine’s Day (and losing his first Valentine to a white kid). And he talks about learning to fit in again when he started high school.

Remember high school cliques? Trevor Noah was more successful at finding his place in high school than I was. He wrote, “Since I belonged to no group I learned to move seamlessly between groups, I floated. I was a chameleon, still, a cultural chameleon.”

His description of joking with each group according to their interests reminded me of the apostle Paul saying, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22) As cross cultural workers, we can learn something here.

Maybe you aren’t a jokester, but to find some commonality, some way of relating to people is an “in” to their group. What are some ways you have found to relate to people in your host culture? How have you found your way in with different groups of people?

Come on in to the comments! What new things are you learning from Trevor Noah’s memoirs? What stands out to you? What is interesting or troubling to you?

P.S. The reading schedule is:

September 17: chapters 12-16

September 24: chapters 17-18


Beginning October 8th, we will be reading Glorious Weakness: Discovering God in All We Lack by Alia Joy. We’ll be slowing our pace down so we can dig deep into this book over eight weeks in October and November.

Here’s a summary of the book from Amazon:

As a girl, Alia Joy came face to face with weakness, poverty, and loss in ways that made her doubt God was good. There were times when it felt as if God had abandoned her. What she didn’t realize then was that God was always there, calling her to abandon herself.

In this deeply personal exploration of what it means to be “poor in spirit,” Joy challenges our cultural proclivity to “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” She calls on readers to embrace true vulnerability and authenticity with God and with one another, showing how weakness does not disqualify us from inclusion in the kingdom of God–instead, it is our very invitation to enter in.

Anyone who has struggled with feeling inadequate, disillusioned, or just too broken will find hope. This message is an antidote to despair, helping readers reclaim the ways God is good, even when life is anything but.

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash


  1. Amy Young September 10, 2019

    Rachel, we are on the same vibe!! Like you, I keep wondering why his mom is with Abel, especially when she is a strong woman, willing to buck societal pressure. And those two quotes about dads and being wanted . . . . priceless. They say so much with so few words.

    1. Rachel Kahindi September 13, 2019

      same vibe high five! 😉

      1. Abigail November 4, 2019

        I know that I tend to be more outgoing and entertaining when communicating in Mandarin with local friends or strangers, than in English. I find it very interesting for sure. And I have realized it seems God has given me the ability to move between cultures, including in the Philippines for midwife studies. And joy in it. It helps me really GET some things about people from other cultures, including international students in my husband’s hometown. Things like the need to have enough rice in a meal to feel full. 🙂

  2. Sarah Hilkemann September 11, 2019

    That quote about being chosen is so, so good! I want to make that a life anthem, because it is a gift to give to other people.

    Trevor’s mom kind of amazes me. She is such a strong, independent person and made brave choices in really hard times. I haven’t figured out the pull to Abel, since when she had Trevor she told his dad that she wanted a baby but not a husband. He’s already given some spoilers of how that relationship with Abel goes, but I’m curious how it all plays out based on what I’ve learned about his mom.

    In some ways I think being a cultural chameleon is a skill we learn as overseas workers. We have to learn to fit in in our host culture in order to build relationships and not constantly offend people by our cultural ignorance. 🙂 But then we have to learn to fit in yet again in our passport culture when we return for home assignment or more permanently. I see the benefits of learning how to adapt and make connections with different groups of people, but I wonder about the ramifications of never really fitting anywhere.

    1. Rachel Kahindi September 13, 2019

      You know, as believers, I think we have to walk a fine line. We do assimilate local culture to an extent in order to form relationships. But, we’re called to follow Jesus, living counter-culturally. Whether we’re in a home or host culture, there should be areas that people wonder why we’re not like everyone else. Maybe it’s good to not fully fit in.

  3. Jenny September 13, 2019

    I’ve found that talking about children and food — two of my favs! — help me get an “in” with people from various places.

    This book is hilarious and also tragically sad. I’ve been astounded at these two extremes. I was reading it after putting my daughter to bed one day last week, and I laughed out loud (muffled, of course, to keep from waking her). Then there are moments when it’s so very tragic, it almost hurts.

    1. Rachel Kahindi September 13, 2019

      I totally agree about the funny/sad balance. It’s such heavy material most of the time, but then I find myself laughing. It’s funny, but not light hearted at all.

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