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Everyone Makes Mistakes

Making spit juice in the jungle (and other new experiences)

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August 6, 2018

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In our early days in another culture, we may learn culture and language more through our mistakes and missteps than our triumphs. We asked Pioneers around the world what cultural blunders they’ve made that are now seared in their minds.

Those subtleties of language

Many shared language-related mistakes that took them into embarrassing topics:

  • One reported that in his first years on the field, a taxi driver repeatedly offered him female company. “I finally gathered my newly acquired language to say, ‘I don’t want that lady because the woman I love is my wife.’” At least, that’s what he thought he said. What he actually said was, “…the woman I love is your wife.” The man was stunned. Oops!
  • Another shared, “As my hostess urged me to take more food, I used my limited language to communicate, ‘No thank you. I am so constipated. Praise God.’” Uh oh! “They responded first with silence, then raucous laughter. Eventually, they were able to help me understand my mistake.” (Wonder if that explanation was as awkward as the initial mistake?)
  • A Pioneer in North Africa explained that in the local dialect, the words for eat and speak are very similar. “Early on at the gym, I told people I wanted to only eat [North Africans].”

Manners, manners, manners

Learning to appreciate and navigate new cultures is at least as important as learning language, and many Pioneers remember best the lessons they learned by doing—or almost doing—something culturally offensive:

  • On his first visit to the Arab world, a Pioneer had to use the bathroom and saw what he believed was the local equivalent of a urinal. At the last minute, he saw and opted to enter a stall with a more familiar-looking toilet. Only later did he learn he’d nearly desecrated what was really an area for ceremonial washing before prayer!
  • Another Pioneer, serving in an area that had a national church, joined them for Christmas caroling. He was asked to play the part of Father Christmas and distribute candy to the children. “Everyone tries to guess who is in the costume,” he explained, “So I took great care to cover every inch of skin, took off my American-made watch, wore gloves and put on locally made shoes.” He even refused to speak so his voice wouldn’t give him away. The next morning, people asked if he’d been Father Christmas. The clue? He’d passed out candy with his left hand (an insult in that culture) and seemed to do it with such cheerful ignorance. Since then, he reports, he’s had several last-minute hand-switches to avoid giving offense.
  • Guests in a local home, a family with children rushed out when their child threw a tantrum. Only later did they learn polite leave-taking involves a thirty-minute process of making indirect comments and seeking permission to depart. Rather than letting their misstep end this desirable relationship prematurely, however, they sought out the family, confessed their mistake and brought a gift. “Luckily, we’re in a culture of people who are very gracious and expect us to mess everything up because we’re foreigners, so they forgave us and kept talking to us.” Whew.

A story from the jungle

Most of us don’t like to share our most embarrassing moments. Yet those who are willing to give others a laugh at their own expense may reap surprising benefits. A Pioneer serving in South America finds that the story of one of her early blunders is a good way to affirm the ways of her host community and endear her to the local women.

“The most culturally significant food in the jungle is masato, or as I like to call it, spit juice. Women make it by mashing up yuca (cassava), chewing and spitting it back out. They leave it a few days to ferment and then mix it with water,” she explains.

“I’ve already drunk my fair share of saliva. When I got my first opportunity to make masato with the women, I knew I had two options. I could feel deeply grossed out. Or I could feel deeply honored that they were inviting me into one of their most treasured activities, one that they knew outsiders often judged.”

“I could feel deeply grossed out. Or I could feel deeply honored that they were inviting me into one of their most treasured activities, one that they knew outsiders often judged.”

You may like it!

This Pioneer was in for a surprise.

“Once I started chewing the yuca, I discovered that it had the exact consistency of mashed potatoes. It was so good that I chewed it up and swallowed it right down! Thankfully, the women burst out laughing because they had never seen anyone swallow the mashed yuca instead of spitting it out.

“My partner, meanwhile, was doing a great job of not swallowing, but her spitting skills left something to be desired. She went back and forth between awkwardly dribbling her yuca down her chin and launching it onto the wrist of the hostess. Today, she loves to tell this story.“

These mistakes might have been the best thing to happen to our relationships with the women. They couldn’t stop laughing at our blunders. Ever since then, this has become my go-to story with indigenous women. Between the surprise of hearing that foreigners made masato and the comedic relief of our blunders, nothing loosens up a quiet woman’s shyness faster than telling her that you love chewing mashed yuca so much, you swallow it all straight down.”

Willing to go out there and make your own mistakes? We’re always looking for new Pioneers.

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<p class="rich-text-callout"><strong>See Also: </strong><a href="#"><em>Discerning Your Calling: How Do You Know If God Is Leading You to Serve Cross Culturally?</em></a></p>

Take the next step

Watch A Canyon A Cathedral, a short film documenting what happens when a group Christian and Muslim guys hike through a slot canyon together.

Aron served in church leadership for 13 years before God called him and his family to serve in Peru. In this episode of Relentless Pursuit Podcast, Aron tells us about their transition to life on the edge of the Amazon jungle.

Going Deeper

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