Double macchiato, please
By Sharon Law, Cross Cultural Worker (with Japanese Returnees) for OMF Australia
When I first left Sydney for Japan in 2011, I had a fixed idea of what ‘good’ coffee was (double macchiato, please) and sought to find it in my new country. Not long after my arrival, having sampled a number of hand-dripped coffees and various canned coffee offerings, I declared coffee in Japan ‘not good’. However, through spending time with friends at cafes I gradually became more open to coffee in Japan. Later, my understanding of Japanese coffee and the industry grew even more as I assisted a coffee consultant in Tokyo with his work. By the end of my first four years in Japan, my understanding about ‘good’ coffee had completely changed.
This coffee journey is much like my journey in becoming intercultural.
Over the last ten years, I have grown in my intercultural understanding through my involvement with gospel ministry amongst the Japanese. Growing up as a Chinese-Australian in a bilingual home and church, I thought I had a sufficient sense of cultural self-awareness and understanding to do ministry in Japan. However, I soon realised I had a lot more to learn.
I started attending a Japanese church in Sydney. At the time, I didn’t speak any Japanese and knew little about the culture. Through my friendship with a girl named Yumi and serving with her, I started to gain insight into Japanese culture. My first lesson was on the importance of indirect communication. In an interaction with Yumi, I wrongly assumed that her directness in asking me for help meant that she was a direct communicator. It became clear from subsequent discussions, and mistakes on my part, that her preferred communication style was more indirect. As our friendship developed, we talked more about the differences between Australian and Japanese culture. She became a trusted guide in helping me understand her culture and how to relate with Japanese people better.
I’m thankful for many Japanese friends that God has provided during my first term in Japan and this current season in Sydney. He’s given me great friends who help me practically, and also help me understand the Australian culture I’m from and the culture they’re from.
Shion, who has lived in Tokyo and Sydney, shared about the challenges that returnees (those who have lived away from their home countries and return) face as they re-enter Japanese society. Hearing her experience and passion for supporting returnees has encouraged me to be involved in that ministry. Natsumi and Tomo always have questions to ask about the Bible. As I see them grow in their understanding of the gospel and how they live it out, it motivates me to keep growing myself! I’m thankful that my friends have allowed me to share my cultural understanding with them and help practically, too. These friendships have cultivated mutual encouragement and growth as we develop more understanding about one another’s culture.
I wish I could say I grew in cultural understanding with much openness and grace, but in reality, it often came through frustrations and mistakes. Ministry amongst the Japanese has challenged me to become more observant and sensitive in my attitudes and actions. Learning about cultural characteristics enables me to reflect on how to communicate the gospel in appropriate ways, and not simply do what I have done in the past. It has shown me that while we can have lots of knowledge and awareness of cultural differences, it is more important to remove assumptions, seek to know the person and develop mutual understanding.
Becoming intercultural is a lifelong journey and I know there is still much more for me to learn! As I prepare to return to Japan later this year, I’m looking forward to seeing how God will use all that he is teaching me in the work he has prepared ahead for me.