On your mission trip, you will undoubtedly be confronted with many unforeseen circumstances. Here is a heads-up on some aspects of other cultures that may catch you a bit off guard and also some suggestions for handling the surprises. Remember, this is a learning process for everyone involved, and each new insight into one another's culture will only strengthen the bonds of the many friendships you will develop on your trip.
In India, it is called SIT (Stretchable India Time), in West Africa, it is called WAWA (West Africa Wins Again), in the U.S., it is called rude. In many parts of the world, schedules are approximate, not on the dot. Meetings may begin an hour late. Your ride may show up so early you are still in bed or so late you worry about missing your plane. Bring a water bottle, snack bars, a book or notebook to help to pass the time comfortably. This "stretchable time" can be a result of cultural differences and also a result of unreliable transportation. Americans are known around the world to be impatient and demonstrating patience, especially in these situations, will delight your hosts.
Just a few words
You are an important guest, and your hosts may expect you to talk to a group. Veteran public speakers are rarely overwhelmed when asked to "just say a few words." As for the rest of us, this invitation can cause anxiety. It is helpful to have a few bullet points tucked in your pocket for these occasions. If you do not speak the language, you can help your translator by keeping your words and thoughts simple. Here is an outline that has worked well for many who have been in this similar situation:
First, thank them for their hospitality. Next, bring greetings from your family, church, school, office or whatever is appropriate. If it is toward the beginning of your visit, tell them what exactly it is that you are looking forward to while on the mission. If it is toward the end of your visit, tell them three things you most enjoyed. Complimenting the food you were served and the people who prepared can also serve as a gracious gesture. Just a few words will turn into a few minutes. Be open and engaging and your audience will surely appreciate the kind words. You can always add a bit of humor if appropriate, one example I remember, "Raise your hand if you were surprised to see my red hair," got a nice laugh from our hosts.
Food and Beverages
In many cultures, guests are handed a glass of water immediately upon arrival. If this happens to you, accept it graciously but be cautious. Do you know if it is safe for you to drink? If you have reason to believe it is not safe, you can pick up the glass a few times and touch it to your lips, but do not drink it. Some people you visit will not understand that water that does not harm them may harm you.
Food can be trickier to deal with. Serving you a meal is an act of hospitality, and sometimes comes at a great expense to the family. How can you not eat it? First, "vet" each invitation to a home. Will it include a meal? If you suspect the food may cause you harm, say that you will visit, but not for a meal. Of course, you may be surprised when a host brings out some food. A good rule to follow: if it's not piping hot or you can't peel it, do not eat it. They certainly do not want to cause you harm, and you certainly do not want to be rude. However, you must protect yourself from germs that could cause harm. It is also acceptable to thank them and explain that you are fasting.
Everybody Line Up
Lining up is a social convention that is not practiced in many cultures. When the bus arrives or the ticket counter opens, do not be surprised to see a small stampede. Some hang back until others have completed their business but if you risk missing a bus or plane you will have to get into the thick of it. In these situations, the women generally wait for the men to board the bus or receive service. You may ask to "cut in" a line, particularly if time is critical. If you do not know the language, you can point to your watch, raise your eyebrows, and point toward where you need to be.
Are my pants on backward?
Do not be surprised if you feel like you are being stared at. It may be your skin color, your clothes, or even your "funny accent." You will be a curiosity, so do not be offended. Look around and smile. Most people will smile back. One woman told about being the first white person to visit a mountain village in Haiti. The children screamed and ran away from her, thinking she was a ghost. In some parts of the world, Westerners are seldom seen. Be gracious and remain calm.
The "comfort room"
In the Philippines, you may be asked if you would like to visit the C.R. When you ask for an explanation, you will be told "the comfort room." It may take a few more questions for you to realize the inquiry was about visiting a restroom. In Latin America, if you ask for the bathroom, you may be taken to a shower stall, not quite what you had in mind. Before you leave home, learn the words in the local language for "water" and for "toilet." Try to find out what types of toilets you may encounter and if they are different, how to use them. It's never a bad idea to carry pocket size packs of tissues.
Did they really just ask me that?
In the U.S., it is rude to ask new acquaintances their age, marital status, number of children, the state of their souls, and other personal questions. In other countries, it is good manners. The people you meet may want to know about your family. In countries where Christianity is not the dominant religion, you may be asked, "How long have you been a Christian?" To persons born into the faith in a Judeo-Christian society, this is often a surprising question. To new converts, it is an important question.
If you are visiting a faith-based organization or group, you may be asked to say a blessing before a meal. This is an honor. But for people who are not comfortable praying aloud in public, this request may cause unease. What should you say? Most people on mission trips go prepared to say grace. If you have no idea what to say, you can teach them a simple table grace your family or church may use. Another option to get everyone involved is to say the whole two or four line prayer and then say it again, having them repeat after you. Another gracious way to make them feel sure the food has been blessed is to say, "In my family, we say grace by everyone saying what they are grateful for. We'll go around the table. I'll start. I'm grateful to be among new friends in this beautiful country." After everyone has spoken, end with "Amen."
When we set off on mission trips, we are sure to run into social and cultural differences. By preparing before you leave and following these suggestions, your group will expect the unexpected and be ready to get the most out of each moment while on your mission trip.