Straddling Cultures

(By Alyssa)

If you read Lindsay’s blog post below then you will understand why my usual answer to the question, “What are you most looking forward to about being in America besides family and friends?” is “Anonymity!” I long for the day when I can go on a hike or walk without attracting hoards of people staring at me and calling out “muzungu.” I look forward to shopping without the chaos of a Burundian market with all its stressors of both people staring and having to barter awkwardly in Kirundi. And I eagerly anticipate driving around by myself in a land where the traffic rules are clear and there are no goats, small children, or huge potholes to avoid white-knuckled while simultaneously being aware of all the roadside attention bestowed on the rarity of a white, female driver. 

But now I’ve been in America for two months of my home assignment, and what has surprised me has actually been the isolation of life here. I walk my parents’ dog in their zero-lot line neighborhood and rarely come across another person. Does anyone actually live in all those climate-controlled houses? I run errands and sit in traffic alone in my little bubble with just a quick greeting to the cashier. And in waiting rooms and checkout lines I join my fellow Americans in quickly pulling out my phone for work or entertainment or to make sure I haven’t missed anything. 

Maybe the grass is greener on the other side. (Course it literally is greener in Burundi where green banana palms greet the eye in all directions instead of the concrete of development!) 

But I feel torn in observing this great cultural difference. Burundians prioritize relationships and would probably find the independance of American life strange. It seems when I walk alone there that people want to join me because they can’t fathom why anyone would want to be alone. They live with their extended families and even all share the same bed, so it must be hard for them to fathom why I would live by myself. As for me, I think my first phrase as a toddler was “do by self!” And I’m embarrassed to report how often that is still my first thought! But as much as I was looking forward to anonymity in America, I actually find myself missing the more constant people time in Burundi. Lives are intertwined there to a greater degree than is comfortable for most North Americans. But there’s beauty in the messiness and our hope is to welcome others as Christ welcomes us. And as we fail at that, we remember once again how much we need the gospel - for Christ to redeem our hearts that often struggle in welcoming others at inopportune moments. In the end I think the communal vs. individualistic cultural differences are just that - ways of life that are different but neither right nor wrong. I long for both at different times of my life, and I feel privileged to get to experience the unique life of two different cultures on a regular basis. But I also no longer feel fully comfortable in either culture. I eagerly anticipate the day when God will bring each of us and all cultures to full redemption in his eternal Kingdom and we will finally truly be home. In the meantime, living cross culturally isn’t always easy in Burundi or North America, so please pray for more peace and grace for our team and for those we live and work with as we encounter cultural differences. 

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