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Out of Your Comfort Zone: The Odd Feeling of Cross Cultural Work

Updated on July 20, 2013

Feeling at odds...cultural adaptation, culture shock and working in a foreign field

I spent 8 years between high school and college in the study of Spanish. It was my minor, but when I graduated from college, I was still timid about my skills. An early experience in my marriage involved trying to translate for my husband's coworker when hubby invited him to lunch with us. I couldn't, for the life of me, translate salad dressing (aderezo). Oh, well, it was fine in the end. Imagine being immersed into a world where English is a limited option and you are interacting more with your second, not so familiar tongue. Phew!

There's more than just language differences at work when you cross into another culture, especially if you are to live in that culture for a long period of time. You see, it's easy to take a quick trip, see the sites, interact a bit and go home. It's different when that culture affects your grocery shopping, your clothing choices, your foods, your water source, your access to money and even your medical care. Did I mention that I lived in Mexico as a missionary for a few years? It was exciting, but definitely, it had challenging moments. I remember the odd feeling of watching women in the church we attended converse after a service and feeling very alone and outside. Still, I wouldn't trade those years was a sweet time of getting to know many beautiful people, but it took time to build relationships.

Language Learning...a Great Primer - A unique approach to gradual language learning...

My husband attended a class given by the author of this book, and he gained a lot of cultural insight as a result. I like the way the author introduces Spanish phrases in the middle of English sentences so that the new vocab has some context. If you don't think you can learn a new language, just keep in mind that hubby was 40 when he started seriously learning...mostly through immersion. He speaks excellent Spanish and can conduct many kinds of business in the language at this point in his life as a result. You have to have an open mind for corrective measures and for risky settings.

We had a humorous moment when we visited a telephone shop and he mistakenly called his coming trip (viaje) an old lady (vieja)...I've had some great laughs over that moment, but it's an icebreaker in my ESL teaching today as I can convey my understanding of the challenges and the worry over misspeaking.

Spanish for Gringos Level One with 3 Audio CDs (Barron's Educational Series)
Spanish for Gringos Level One with 3 Audio CDs (Barron's Educational Series)

Learn with in context placement of foreign vocab alongside English.


Have you lived in a foreign setting?

Do you relate to culture shock or cross cultural challenges?

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Cultural Sensitivity

Learning to avoid offenses is a challenge. You can feel odd in certain behaviors. Developing a relationship with Mexican women in the community, for example, led me to be very comfortable with the traditional cheek kiss. In the states, it can be very awkward when you kiss your friend's cheek.

Make Memories

One thing that's exciting in the life in another country, especially if you venture out and take risks, is the chance to make important memories. This image is an example. An annual tradition, the church held a baptism at the local bay. While the ceremony was exciting, the post-baptism celebration was an amazing time of sharing...yummy foods, lots of kids swimming, and plenty of fun. One of my fave recipes derives from this event, Chicken Chorizo Burritos!

Please note that this is NOT very is muy sabroso...very tasty! Chorizo, at least the kind I'm used to, becomes greasy and liquidy when heated. Cook it well, though, especially if you are buying from a Latino market.

Image: Hanging out after lunch and the baptism ceremony.

Cook Time

Prep Time: 1 hour, give or take

Serves: No Idea...Stretch it as far as you want


  • Chorizo
  • Chicken breasts
  • Onion
  • Flour tortillas


  1. Heat your chorizo and cook thoroughly in a fry pan. As it liquifies, add chopped onion and saute. Dice and cook your chicken breasts in a separate pan until well-cooked. Stir contents together and fill warmed tortillas.
  2. If you need to keep your burritos warm for a crowd, wrap individually in foil while hot and place in a small ice chest, tightly covering after each addition.
  3. You can use some lime juice for additional flavor. You can add diced cooked potato as well. You may even want to line your tortilla with a thin layer of refried beans or a sprinkle of cilantro before adding the chicken chorizo mixture. There aren't set's a stretcher meal that can go as far as you need it to based on how much of each ingredient you use.
Cast your vote for Chicken Chorizo Burritos

At Odds in Both Worlds...Having a Child in Another Country

Did I mention that three of my children, the youngest three, were born during our time in Mexico? They were. The first had people on both sides of the border wondering. Are you going back to the states to have the baby? Until he was actually born, they doubted we would actually go through with a Mexico birth. Once he was born, something interesting happened. Our child was now very precious to many around us...a Mexican. There was a new sense of belonging. The image at the intro to the lens is from my baby shower before his birth. Games, good food, lots of fun. It's nice to be included in such festivities, but the birth was an interesting point of connection.

Benefits of Cross Cultural Experiences

There are tons of short term mission trips, and a lot of them involve going, doing a project and coming home. I feel very much at odds with a lot of these projects because I've seen some of these groups ignore the people in order to complete a task. The people are the point of going into a mission field, and I am very opinionated about using people to make oneself feel good. I've tossed I don't know how many bags of ratty clothing that was sent to an area where there was plenty of good clothing. However, I know that everyone begins at a certain level of understanding and advances based on interest and desire. It's not a matter of judging them, though it might seem so. It's more of a sorrow for what is missed. When you go without spending time getting to know the people, you cheat both them and yourself.

On the flip side, many short trips inspire future missionaries. The ability to go is the means for vision to be planted. Responsible leadership is essential in providing people of all ages with an awareness of the impact that is truly made. Projects without relationships are cold and produce the wrong kind of fruit. Investing in relationships while completing projects can be beneficial. However, I place the priority on relationship rather than on project. It can be a bit controversial, but you have to be on the other side watching the short term group produce an adverse effect to understand. You know things have changed when the woman at the holiday dinner at church says, "Hermana, ven para su bolsa." Sister, come get in line for your bag of goodies from the visitors.

Measures and Money

One of the ways life in another country is challenging is in getting used to another currency and different units of measure. Buying meat in kilos instead of lbs. and paying in pesos rather than dollars can take time to get used to.

Recommended Reading for Cross Cultural Work

These kids' books are powerful insights into the lives of many missionaries and their experiences in cultural adaptation. The kids and I have read each of those represented here, and I am inspired by every story. A life of leaving what is known for something new and different is frightening, but directed by God, amazing. You can't really test His faithfulness without stepping out on that cliff and trusting. There are tough moments, like the time my husband was hit over the head with a monkey wrench at the gas station. Or the time that our tire sheared off just coming out of the hills and over a bridge. However, it's an adventure that has dramatically formed my understanding of God's provision and faithfulness. Check out these inspiring stories for a glimpse of that faithfulness in dramatic proportion.

George Muller: The Guardian of Bristol's Orphans (Christian Heroes: Then & Now)
George Muller: The Guardian of Bristol's Orphans (Christian Heroes: Then & Now)

A story of caring for those in need and experiencing miraculous provision.

C.S. Lewis: Master Storyteller (Christian Heroes: Then & Now)
C.S. Lewis: Master Storyteller (Christian Heroes: Then & Now)

A wonderful read for those who love the Chronicles of Narnia.

Amy Carmichael: Rescuer of Precious Gems (Christian Heroes: Then & Now)
Amy Carmichael: Rescuer of Precious Gems (Christian Heroes: Then & Now)

One of my faves, this provides an amazing story of a woman who may have been a bit frail in body but never in spirit.

Eric Liddell: Something Greater Than Gold (Christian Heroes: Then & Now)
Eric Liddell: Something Greater Than Gold (Christian Heroes: Then & Now)

What an amazing story of living a life of principle and faith.

Cameron Townsend: Good News in Every Language (Christian Heroes: Then & Now)
Cameron Townsend: Good News in Every Language (Christian Heroes: Then & Now)

The beginnings of Wycliffe and an amazing testimony of the impact a man made without formal language training.


Have you lived in another culture?

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    • GregoryMoore profile image

      Gregory Moore 4 years ago from Louisville, KY

      Never lived in another culture, but visited many.

    • Michey LM profile image

      Michey LM 4 years ago

      I was born in Europe - Romania where I spend 1/2 of my life, 6 moth in another European country Austria, and now I am living the other 1/2 in USA, so yes the States is another culture for me, but I think I adopted and adjusted very well and I am comfortable.

    • lesliesinclair profile image

      lesliesinclair 4 years ago

      Yes, for half a year in a Caribbean country, where the intermingling of native born and foreign peoples was uncommon.

    • SheilaMilne profile image

      SheilaMilne 4 years ago from Kent, UK

      Yes I was brought up in Africa, then lived in Ireland England, Scotland and France. I wouldn't have missed any of it for the world.

    • profile image

      memoboard 4 years ago

      I lived in Columbia and Ecuador in the mid 1970s. This experience had a profound effect on my life. One of my favorite ways to get to know a new city is to get on a bus and see where it goes. Eating foods sold on the street is also a plus. My children have also had this experience and I see they have grown in maturity from each experience. Every culture has something you can appreciate.