Time does not fly.
At least not in a missionary’s first year. Through the OMF Serve Asia programme, I got a taste of the challenges and joys of missions in my year-long missions exposure in the remote island of Mindoro, Philippines. Immediately after graduating from my undergraduate programme in Environmental Studies, I left my home country, Singapore, hoping to gain a more realistic experience of missions (rather than the 3-day or 2-week trips I had gone for before), and see how environmental conservation and missions can be integrated for the holistic discipleship of the church.
The three stories shared here is an attempt to capture my greatest takeaway – the importance of learning language, appreciating culture, and understanding worldview in cross-cultural missions.
Everyone’s viewpoint and consensus is more valuable than time.
The first is a brutally honest comment a friend made when he learnt I was working with Filipinos. “What is it like [to work with them]? My dad always gets very frustrated when working with his Filipino colleagues because things move so slowly.” The relational and communal Filipino culture often frustrate people where I’m from, who have been brought up to value efficiency, meritocracy, and pragmatism above all else. When we meet people different from us, we expect others to become like us, or remain excluded from our society. However, the picture painted in Revelations (7:9) of the global church is “of a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” The same four groupings of culture and identity are used in Revelations 5:9 to describe the people that Christ the Lamb died for. How unprepared we are for the end of time when we have to worship God together with people who are so vastly different from us! Instead of complaining about the inefficiency, I am learning to walk a detour route home so I can say hi to a new friend; greet someone with “Kumusta ka?” (How are you?) and be prepared to listen to a long story about their family problems; and appreciate prolonged meetings because everyone’s viewpoint and consensus is more valuable than time.
How do you even survive?
The second is a comment made by a 72-year-old man who kindly allowed me to join him in planting rice. After a back-breaking, head-aching, sun-scorched mere fifteen minutes of pushing the rice seedlings into the soil, I gave up. I attempted to explain my incompetence by telling the old farmer that “Singapore walang bundok, walang bukid”, that there are no mountains or farms in Singapore. He thought I was joking. After insisting several more times to him that my home country, a city-state with no countryside or rural area, really had no farms and mountains, he replied, “What kind of a country is that? How do you even survive? You mean if you have no money, you cannot grow your own food to eat? You must be very sad to live in such a place, no?” This conversation happened not once, but many times with many other farmers I worked with! I realised how narrow-minded I was in subconsciously thinking that these people were poor and in need of help. From their perspective, Singaporeans were obviously the ones who were in need! Although this is an example of lifestyle rather than cultural difference per se, it illustrates how blind we often are to weaknesses in our own culture, and how quick we are to think ourselves superior to others.
From whom do you buy your fish?
The third is the Tagalog word “suki”. Language is the expression of perceptions and values of a culture. “Suki” refers to a regular customer or stallholder. It can be used like this, “From whom do you buy your fish?” “From my suki.” The English translation cannot fully capture its essence, unfortunately. Rather than seeing the act of buying and selling as merely transactional, suki expresses the immense value this culture places on relationships and loyalty. Also, listening to my Filipino friends talk about the different foreigners they have met taught me that they evaluate people based on how well a person is able to connect with others. Is he able to tell stories and make people feel comfortable? Is he able to joke and laugh at himself? Is he able to eat the food we eat or does he reject our friendship by complaining about it? This is worlds apart from the way I have been brought up in my country to evaluate people – based on socio-economic class, educational achievements, possessions, rankings, etc. Thus, it is critical in cross-cultural missions to enter into the world of our host culture and observe their way of life, their values, and how they perceive things.
Time does not fly…
Time does not fly in cross-cultural missions because the process of breaking down prejudices, appreciating the global church, humbly acknowledging weaknesses in our own culture, recognizing strengths in other cultures, learning a new language, and connecting to people in a culturally-sensitive way is a long and arduous one.
On previous short-term mission trips, I used to ask questions like, “What is the programme? What lessons will we conduct? What games will we facilitate?” Now, I am learning to ask, “What are some basic phrases in their language? What are some cultural values from my upbringing I need to lay aside to become part of their culture? What are some cultural values I can learn from them? How can the gospel be presented to them in a culturally-sensitive way?” These questions are time-consuming, but the relationships built and the rewards reaped last beyond time – for eternity.
Would you like to experience life on the mission field in the Philippines?
Search the OMF Opportunities site for short-term mission opportunities in the Philippines.