Originally published Thursday, 17 April 2014.
I was recently asked to share some thoughts with a college group about what it’s like to live in a cross-cultural setting. So far I’ve had the privilege of visiting Mexico, Honduras, India and Lesotho before spending a decade living in Cape Town, South Africa.
Perhaps I should preface this by saying that cross-cultural living is not for everyone. There are those who might thrive in a foreign setting but never get the chance to travel. Others might live in foreign contexts for work or as a result of other, external circumstances, but struggle the whole time. Nevertheless, even if you only have the opportunity to visit another culture without actually settling there, I would highly recommend it.
I was blessed to have had a wonderful experience, but it did not come without its challenges. Based on personal experience, here are some pros and cons to cross-cultural living.
Pro: It offers a richness to one’s life that cannot be manufactured. Travel books are great, but one can’t learn richness from a book. Movies can give a glimpse, but will never do justice to the smells, the tastes, the smiles, the accents, the people, the memories. In a word, it’s exhilarating. The experience gained can’t be replicated any other way.
Con: It can be hard, sometimes shocking, to re-enter one’s ‘home’ culture after seeing the world through new lenses. It’s even possible to develop a bitterness toward materialism and the surplus of choices. One can also experience an air of superiority toward those who don’t know any differently.
Pro: It will increase your dependency on the Lord like you won’t believe. You’ll need His help like you never knew you could need it before.
Con: It will make you feel like you’re two years old again when you realize you can’t do anything by yourself. By that I mean that you won’t know which exit to take off the freeway, or how to find the freeway in the first place, or even which side of the road to drive on, or which side of the car to get into, for that matter … You won’t know the difference between a grocery store and a hardware store, or what to buy at the store or where to find it, or how much it will cost in your home currency.
Con: It is exhausting. It took me five full years living overseas before I wasn’t constantly doing mental gymnastics every moment of every day. Trying to figure out currency conversions, unit conversions for things like temperature (for anything from the weather outside, to the setting on the oven to bake brownies, to the thermometer for my kid’s fever), cultural nuances, directions and locations, foreign brands. Add an unfamiliar language to the mix and the difficulty level of the gymnastics is multiplied a hundredfold.
Pro: It is stimulating. Mental gymnastics can be a good thing. It will expand your horizon and broaden your worldview. It will break you out of your mold of thinking things can only be done one way. Before I lived overseas, I never knew it was possible to make brownies without a box. Now my daughter has been raised to make brownies from scratch, moves to America, and finds boxed mixes to be the definition of boring.
Con: You will miss out on a lot from your ‘home’ culture. I cried like a baby when my firstborn had her first birthday overseas and nobody from my extended family was there to celebrate. I literally broke down in a parking lot and was convinced it wasn’t worth it, this whole ‘living far away’ business. Even after ten years, the ‘missing family and friends’ part never really got any easier.
Pro: Not always, but often, the Lord will provide new and deep relationships right where you are. These will obviously not replace the friendships you left behind, nor are they intended to, but they can help cushion the ache a little and add comfort while in a foreign place.
Pro: It will increase your desire and excitement for heaven. You’ll get a teeny tiny taste of what it will be like when “the great multitude … from every nation, tribe, people and language” will one day gather “before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).
Con: Well, there just isn’t a corresponding con to this one. To have every nation represented in eternity will be beyond amazing.
I absolutely loved the decade I spent living in a foreign context. I offer the ‘cons’ here only as a pinch of reality to temper the starry-eyed, honeymoon mentality that can sneak into the suitcase when traveling overseas.
And ultimately, even where there are challenges and frustrations, we can “rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4).
Having said that, I sincerely hope that the picture painted here is one in which the scales are heavily weighted in favor of the ‘pros.’
Cross-cultural living is hard, but so worth it.
What about you? Have you experienced any of these pros or cons? What would you add to the list?