Crossing cultures doesn’t simply happen when you board a plane or go overseas. There is nothing like marriage into another family or visiting a friend’s home to underscore the reality that we cross cultures all the time. We traverse from our work culture and school culture into friend culture or family culture.
Sometimes crossing cultures happens across a dinner table.
If you’re going home for Thanksgiving, you probably have images, smells, and tastes in mind that will greet you when you arrive. You know who will be around the table and who won’t be around the table. You have an idea of what the culture there will be like and how you relate to others within that culture.
My family’s Thanksgiving celebrations, for example, often included friends who had nowhere to go on Thanksgiving. Our guests were people that our whole family knew.
When I married into my husband Dave’s family, I had to get used to celebrating Thanksgiving with strangers. Dave’s parents had always extended hospitality to international students at Cornell University during Thanksgiving, and that didn’t change when their now-grown kids returned for the holidays. Dinner was often a hodgepodge of “traditional” Thanksgiving foods and foods from our guests’ countries of origin: mangos, spicy noodles, fried plantains, or sweet pastries filled poppy seeds.
I felt uncomfortable making small talk around the table, especially when it was loud and there were language barriers. At times I wasn’t quite sure what to talk about and wished for the ease of just doing what was comfortable with people I was familiar with.
Yet as the years went on and the trips to Ithaca, New York, for the holidays continued, I found myself asking how my attitude was contributing to my own discomfort. A few years ago I remembered the “Approaching Differences” diagram I learned about as a college student. It asks the question: Is what I’m thinking, saying, or doing building trust or undermining trust?
I could choose to resent what was unfamiliar or to ask questions and be open to trying something new and relating in different ways. And I could do so with resignation or with gratitude that hospitality was being demonstrated in such a practical way.
In Matthew 25:35 Jesus describes how, in caring for others, we demonstrate our love for him: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”
We can meet the practical needs of people by inviting them to Thanksgiving dinner when they have nowhere to go. But many times the hunger we deal with at the holidays isn’t simply physical hunger. We have hunger and thirst not satisfied by the dishes that crowd our tables. We can grieve with people who have lost someone important to them and are hungry for comfort. We can extend patience to relatives or friends who irritate us with their eccentricities or habits and realize they are thirsty for love and acceptance. We can choose to serve rather than be served wherever we are, whether we get on a plane to go somewhere or pass the mangos across the table.
Crossing cultures at home or overseas is about asking how I can demonstrate love to and build trust with the people whom God has called me to love right now. And it’s about being thankful that even in challenging situations God is able to give us enough love for others.