I heard an analogy that culture is like an onion. There are layers to any culture, depending on how deep you want to go. How deep you go depends on the amount of time and energy you want to invest. Like an onion, the deeper you go, the more layers you peel back and the more uncomfortable it can be. Because, you see, with an onion the most potent part is in the middle. Just watch anyone cooking with onions and by the time they have peeled back the outer layers and started cutting the onion, they will most likely have a few tears in their eyes.
It’s the same way with culture. It can be uncomfortable, at times, the deeper you go. I have seen many individuals start to “peel back the layers” of a culture and start to get to know other people, only to feel uncomfortable and pull back. They retreat to what is comfortable and familiar. What people often miss out on is really connecting, because at the middle of every culture is something beautiful. At the core of each culture are the people. And people are a reflection of God because we are made in His image. I’ve realized that beneath the peripheral things, like language, food and tradition, people are very much the same everywhere I have been. We all want to connect and desire meaningful and loving relationships.
There have been plenty of uncomfortable moments for me since I have been in Kenya. There have been countless conversations where I am left more confused than when I started and there have been several times where local food has made me sick. But I am learning to move past the discomfort and try to connect with the people around me. It’s difficult at times, but I know God is using these situations to teach and grow me.
Just the other week I was visiting a client in her home to talk with her and hear her story. It can be difficult for me because every Kenyan will offer Chai (tea with lots of milk) to visitors, and it is taken as an insult if you don’t take it. Since I am lactose intolerant, it can be challenging sometimes. So when she offered me Chai, I struggled with what to say, but kindly refused and tried to explain the situation. While I don’t think she understood, she seemed gracious. I still felt bad. Then she left and returned with a few cobs of corn. These were pieces she had grown herself in her small garden out back. She smiled as she handed it to me. While I knew that eating a raw, dirty, unwashed piece of corn had a high chance of making me sick, I prayed and took the corn. As took a bite, I looked up and she was waiting for my approval. I told her it was delicious. She smiled and I knew I had made her day.
I saw that she was more concerned with connecting with me than following tradition. I don’t think it’s normal to give visitors corn, but she wanted me to feel welcome and apart of her home even though I could not drink Chai with her. Somehow, despite the different language and food customs, she still wanted to know me and connect with me. It was a beautiful act of kindness on her part. Looking back, it may have been slightly uncomfortable, but I am glad that I took a bite!