Ask a Missionary: Host Culture

I’ve got a whole bit of a series going on about missionary life. A while back, I wrote a post about what questions you could ask a missionary if you were stuck for ideas.I began to answer them. So far I have answered the basic questions and then questions about getting out and about. So this is the third in the series (hopefully there will be more). This one focuses on my relationship with what is sometimes known as the “host culture.” That’s the culture that they are surrounded by the most. This might not be the majority culture within the country as often missionaries work with ethnic minorities and tribal groups. Also, some missionaries will work with multiple cultures.

What is the predominant host culture? 

Cambodia is very homogenous, so is predominantly Khmer. There are other minority groups within Cambodia that missionaries live among or work with. However, I do work and live with Khmer people.

Tell me something about what you’ve learnt about your host culture. 

I’ve learnt quite a bit in the three years that I’m here, but I know I’m just scraping the surface. I think one major consideration is the difference between urban and rural culture and the intergenerational differences in culture are quite significant.

What do you like most about your host culture? 

Their hospitality and how welcome they are, their cheerfulness and light-hearted nature, their care and compassion. In 2016, I wrote a whole list here and not a lot of it has changed.

What has surprised you most about your host culture? 

How far they would go to help you and how, if you are “in” their circle, they will go out of their way to make sure you are looked after. (When I’m talking about circles, I do not mean cliques. In Cambodia, there is a definite sense that you have a group of established relationships. This can be landlord-tenant; colleague; friend; relation. When you fall in that circle you fall into a set of reciprocal responsibilities of care and respect. Those bonds are pretty binding.)

What advice would you give to those visiting to your country about your host culture? 

Expect relationships to take time and start off small, gradually allowing that relationship to form. Cambodians are generally quite shy and reticent to make friendships but once you are welcomes in, you’re set.

How is your own culture and the host culture similar? 

I think how we form relationships. Someone asked how I had managed to create quite close bonds with Cambodian people. I think he went in trying to be friendly and chatty straight away. I started off with a smile the first few times, then a conversation and then worked from there. In the UK, it can often take years to form strong relationships.

What differences have you found it easy to adjust to? 

The food, the friendliness, the karaoke parties. I think just sitting and watching is also perfectly acceptable so there isn’t too much pressure in social situations to be the life of the party.

How integrated do you feel with your host culture? 

I feel integrated with my Khmer family (the one I live with). However, a part of this is due to their acceptance and ability to be flexible with foreigners. I think in situations where I’m a stranger, I find myself feeling more alien.

What barriers are there for you feeling a part of your host culture? 

There’s still a bit of a language barrier. I’m also an introvert so I can often find situations overwhelming and exhausting.

Have you experienced culture shock yet? What do you think contributed to it? 

I have been very lucky. I have not had major culture shock. I have had moments of cultural conflicts (not fights but clashes in cultural values and expectations) and they will be on-going for many years. These tend to crop up every now, especially when you are tired, rather than being constant issues. However, I have not felt the need to flee the country or have not had any resentment or long-lasting frustration with Khmer people. One reason is that I often ended up in places where the Khmer people already understood how foreigners might approach things so they were considerate and flexible. Another could be that I had a team that were careful to warn me about potential issues. It could be that, at first, I a short time in Phnom Penh then moved to Siem Reap. Perhaps this transition interrupted the usual process of culture shock slightly. Lastly, I’ve just been blessed by getting to know some amazing Khmer people.

What conflicts are there between your cultural background and your host culture? 

I’ve written about some of them here. I also wrote about how I needed to adjust to some of the cultural conflicts created by moving in with a Cambodian family.

Where might your perspective have to change in order to understand your host culture better?

My attitudes have already been changing and it means that I often inhabit a bizarre grey area or have a Cambodian way of doing things and a British way of doing things. One clear example (that fortunately does not come up that much), would be gift-giving and relationship building. This is what I call the social phenomenon you might call bribes. Now, I would probably not hand over a gift at the point of need, especially if it was a judicial matter and if there had not been a prior relationship formed. However, if I was in a role or situation where diplomacy was needed or where I often had to use the services of those in official positions, I would definitely try to establish a good relationship with them just to make the process better for everyone. I am naturally deferential and respectful of authority, so it is just a more tangible expression of that. It is not a bad thing to recognise kindness or the help of those who did not need to help you, is it?

Where are there Biblical conflicts with your host culture? 

The drinking at parties can be very enthusiastic. There is idolatry of status and the status symbols. (Of course, there are some other major conflicts with Biblical principles but this is not the whole of the society, only the criminal elements. This is true of all societies.)

What does your host culture do that you feel is in line with Biblical values? 

I think their hospitality, desire to show care and community orientation is more in-line with Bible practices.

Which language / languages are you having to learn? 

Khmer. I may learn another language after I’ve done this, but just as a hobby (perhaps Vietnamese or a Chinese language).

How is language learning going? 

It’s going well, I think. I can read and write quite well. I can type in Khmer, which seems to amaze everyone. It’s just that you have to remember which Khmer letters correspond to which Khmer keys. However, there is a bit of logic to it, so that makes it easier. It’s only when you get to the more obscure letters that it gets annoying and you just end up bashing your keyboard in various combinations. There are about 100 characters (including punctuation markers, etc.) that you need to find so that means they are often found in various combination.

What have been the biggest successes in your language learning journey? 

I had to write and give two long talks on two different subjects. The first was about the social problems in Cambodia. I spoke about how poverty was the reason, or at least factor, for the other social problems within Cambodia, including trafficking, drug and alcohol dependency, domestic abuse, prostitution, poor health, etc. Although a deep and intense topic, it was interesting to talk about. I also had to give a talk in Khmer about the Bible. I chose Joshua 1. I was really proud I was able to do that.

I thought I was doing well! Then I asked for corrections…

What challenges have you faced in language learning? 

The trilled r sound. In fact, getting my mouth to do what it’s meant to be doing.

How do you feel about language learning? 

I generally enjoy it. I love it when I learnt a word or piece of grammar and I get to use it in a real life context or hear it and understand what someone is saying. It might seem a bit sad but it I really enjoy it. There are of course frustrations, when you can’t make yourself understood or when you simply can’t get a word right.

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