Yellow Shirts and Wobbly Knees {The Grove: Welcome to Culture Shock}

wobbly knees

I always thought choosing what color I’d wear was an individual right of sorts. I could choose according to my mood, my preferences, my style.

But that was before.

Now, I know otherwise. 

In my host culture, colors have meaning. They represent history, connections, honor, respect. 

And I have had to learn this lesson the hard way, so. many. times. 

Last month, I went to a meeting at work. I’ve learned the protocol for employees of an Asian university, the cultural dress code, so to speak. My hair was in order, my dress neatly ironed, I was wearing closed toe shoes. In all appearances, I was fitting the cultural norms of what a woman employee should wear.

Except I had forgotten one detail.  One very important detail. 

Our nation was in mourning. The mourning period had just been announced the previous day. All government employees were to don the color black for one month as we honored the memory of a former prime minister. 

I pull open the door to the meeting room.

One glance around the room reminds me. Everyone in the room is in black, from head to toe. 

My neatly ironed dress is pink. And so is my face. 

I slink to my chair, feeling the fool. A million “How on earth could I have forgotten?” thoughts clash around in my brain. 

As if my fair skin and 5’ 10” frame don’t scream “outsider” enough. 

Last week, apparently an email went out to all employees saying “Everyone wear yellow to our staff meeting tomorrow.” However, the email went out to everyone except the foreign staff. I am the only foreign staff. Therefore, of the 100 plus employees of our faculty, I was the one and only who showed up in black. 

Do you ever feel like you just can’t get it right? 

I have lived 5 years of my life in my host culture. And I still feel like I make such newborn mistakes. I just told someone the other day, “I guess since I’ve been here five years, I’m acting like a 5-year old.” 

Culture change makes me feel like a child. Like I’m unprepared and unaware and, in all honesty, sometimes like I would like to be afforded the privilege of plopping on the floor, pounding my fists, and screaming. 

My childish responses always make me feel small. Within moments of an outburst of pure frustration at something in my host culture that makes not-a-lick-of-sense to me, I feel so small and embarrassed at how I responded, or how I wanted to respond. Like I used to feel when my anger got the best of me on the playground, or I forgot the rules and shouted at the library.

Perhaps feeling childish puts me in a peculiar place: a place where I can respond to Jesus’ call to come to him as a child. He had high praise for children, and sharp words for those who challenged His love for them. “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:2

Later in that same verse, He specifically names humility as being an attribute of a childlike believer. I wonder, too, if Jesus is calling His followers to cultivate some things that come naturally to a child: things like wonder, innocence, joy.

And then there’s the other side. Childhood is about so much more than the glory. It’s a lot of falling down and getting back up, messing up and saying sorry, slipping in the mud and changing your clothes. 

It’s about dependence, about seeking out security in someone bigger than yourself. It’s about knowing it’s ok to show up at the dinner table with a dirty shirt. It’s about giggling through tears, about needing someone else to tell you what you need. It’s about climbing up into the lap of someone whose arms will protect you from the big, bad world. 

I need shelter from all this learning, all this new. I need to come as a child, come to a place that’s safe to say “I didn’t know” or genuinely “I forgot”. 

That place exists. In his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning writes: “Jesus comes not for the super spiritual but for the wobbly and the weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together, and who are not too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace.” Perhaps cultural adaptation is something He is using to keep me wobbly and weak-kneed. Perhaps this is my unique invitation to come to Him as a child.

I’ll try to stay on top of what color I should be wearing, but when I mess up again (I am certain WHEN is a better word choice than IF) I choose to let this simple reminder keep me childlike and remind me to run to my Father. 

How has adapting to a new culture kept you childlike?

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  1. Ruth August 22, 2019

    Yes, it’s hard to give up that simple custom of wearing what you want 🙂 sometimes the little things can feel so big. Thanks for sharing your thoughts so encouraging as I also feel the stress of constantly learning even after 4 years.

    1. Maria August 23, 2019

      Hey Ruth – it is stressful to be in the learning state for so long! It feels good to me to know I’m not alone in it. Press on, sister!

  2. Phyllis August 23, 2019

    Oh! “I guess since I’ve been here five years, I’m acting like a 5-year old.” That makes so much sense. For us it will be 18 years in a few weeks, and I can say that I’m almost starting to feel like a grown up. Now, obviously, I still make all kinds of blunders, but maybe they’re not kid stuff in culture anymore?

    Other things keep me childlike these days. Kids growing up. Cancer… I’m definitely “wobbly and the weak-kneed” in those areas of my current life.

    1. Maria August 23, 2019

      Phyllis – Cancer – that is such an awful word. I’m sorry to hear it. I’m sure it does keep the knees wobbly, and wow, may the Lord give you grace, healing, and strength as you navigate it.

  3. Sarah Hilkemann August 23, 2019

    I felt so nervous about wearing the wrong thing when I would visit Thailand. I always wanted to be respectful and do things correctly! There were times though when I figured there was a layer of forgiveness because I was a foreigner if I made a mistake unknowingly. 🙂 In Cambodia, I was often worried about using the right term to call someone- would they be an older sister, or an auntie? When did that change to older auntie? I’m sure I messed up far too often. Thanks for sharing this, Maria!

    1. Maria August 23, 2019

      That’s so true, Sarah, that there’s a lot of grace for us foreigners. Even this day when I show up in a pink dress, I whispered a horrified “I’m so sorry” to the lady sitting beside me. She responded by saying “it’s ok, it’s a soft tone. At least you’re not wearing red or something.” I don’t know if that was just her being polite or if it really was true (the norms of mourning clothes are complex), but it did make me feel better.
      And you’re so right about the titles, too!
      Keeping us childlike…for sure.

  4. Rachel August 23, 2019

    You said it so well.
    All these questions and mistakes keep me coming back to the Father and asking Him to help me start afresh. I hadn’t thought about this verse before in that way, and it really connected with me.
    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Maria August 23, 2019

    Rachel – ahhh, so incredibly grateful that we all have a place to keep coming back to…He’s faithful to welcome us back, mistakes and all.

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