Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Thoughts on building a bridge

Quite a few years ago, I enjoyed the rare privilege of becoming involved with a group of international students at my university. A large majority of the students were from Southeast Asia: places such as Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and the Phillipines. Most of them were ethnic Chinese, but on account of their national origin, they tended to enjoy the highly spicy and seasoned curries of that part of the world. Although I'm 100% European-American, I somehow found it to be easy to fit in with this group. Perhaps it was their strong sense of hospitality, or maybe my sense of being a stranger in my own land, but whatever the reason, I had no difficulty with becoming part of their crowd. For better or worse, this happy season didn't last very long. My friends were, after all, students, so it was inevitable that each one would eventually graduate and return home.

Since then, I've not had occasion to enjoy such an immersion into the fellowship of strangers, but yet the lessons I learned back then continue to benefit me. Of these lessons, perhaps the most useful has been that I don't need to look or act like a person in order to be his friend. Our backgrounds and philosophies may be very different, but if we can find something to build a bridge between us, those differences can mean a whole lot less. Although it's good and right to respect the customs of both neighbors and strangers to a certain extent, there's no need for me to try to turn myself into a carbon copy of the person whom I wish to befriend. Garden variety respect can go a long, long way to building a bridge.

Another thing that I've found to be useful may seem counter-intuitive: rather than try to adopt someone else's culture, get to know your own. As I've taken the trouble to get to know Western fine and popular arts, I find that many non-Westerners actually respect me more. Perhaps that's because they see in me the same kind of love of my culture that they see in themselves. Obviously, a xenophobic viewpoint would have quite the opposite effect, as that would imply that I think that only my way is good and right. Instead, I strive to respect what is good and proper in my culture as well as in the cultures of others.

As for customs that contradict the Christian Scriptures, I obviously avoid making any kind of endorsement, but strive to express kind and tactful disagreement when it's appropriate to do so. Although taking such a stand inevitably entails the risk of offense, in practice I find that I can often avoid undue offense in such cases on account of the enthusiastic respect I show for the customs of which I can approve.

Thus, I find that I'm well equipped to befriend people who are very different from myself. Just as there's no need for me to have plastic surgery to change my appearance to better match that of my friends, there's no need for me to turn myself into a carbon copy of the strangers who are closer to home. For instance, I don't need a single body piercing or tattoo before I can treat my local "bod-mod" fan with kindness and respect. He most likely doesn't expect me to look or act like him anyway. Instead, it's generally more than sufficient to look beyond the surface--food, drink, clothing, cosmetics, etc.. After all, that's how I want folks to treat me, so shouldn't I treat others accordingly? So, if you can't handle spicy food or you lack the inclination to get your body pierced, don't let that stop you from being a friend to the stranger who's in your midst.

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