While in England, we dined at a nice restaurant with a great group of people. The conversation was very nice and we seemed to be hitting it off well. Since I felt a level of comfort with these new friends, I went ahead and started asking all my cultural questions about England. Most of them revolved around the differences in the names of food. I had expected to go to England and understand the menu, but instead I found myself surprisingly confused by words I didn’t recognize. Once explained, I understood and ordered a tasty meal.
But as we headed out, I wanted to use the bathroom before we got back in the car to travel to our next stop. I didn’t think twice, I just asked, “What do you call the bathrooms in England? Do you use the term bathroom, or is it water closet or something else?” The looks of confusion caused me to wonder if I had just asked too many questions or been improper while trying to be more culturally aware. In case you’re wondering, the answer is toilets.
I don’t think I actually offended these people with my questions, but it certainly made me become a bit more introspective about my questions habit. Am I being offensive or rude with my line of questioning or even just annoying? Do other people want to talk about the differences in our cultures or is it just me? Is my curiosity for other cultures a personal trait or does everyone have it? I certainly don’t feel shy about asking questions. Over our visit I asked some other clarifying questions and really learned a lot. Still, occasionally, I saw some strange looks when I said things that might not have been quite understood because of my American way of interacting.
How to Learn…
This leads me to yet another question, what are appropriate ways to learn about other cultures, especially the ones in my own back yard? Obviously, reading is a wonderful way to learn. I love to read up on a country’s history before visiting. I can also watch documentaries about different cultures and hope they’re giving the correct information. But, what I really want to do after I’ve had a glimpse into another culture is ask questions to someone from that culture.
But how close of a relationship do I need to have with a person from a different culture before engaging in this type of dialogue? Can I read about Latino-American culture and then just jump into asking a ton of questions to a person from that culture? Can I watch an adoption training video on black hair care & styling and expect that it’s acceptable to then ask questions of just any African-American that I come in contact with?
Conversations about Culture…
The obvious answer is that it’s best to have conversations about culture with friends or close acquaintances. I agree. However, I find that my natural exuberance to talk about what I’m learning and ask questions leads me to try and engage in conversations with any person that I perceive as knowledgeable and with whom I feel comfortable. In my mind, I respect this person’s opinion, so I’m asking. But sometimes I wonder if it’s looked at as ignorant, distasteful, or even condescending.
My hope is to emanate love and acceptance through my desire to understand a person’s culture. What do you call the bathrooms in England? Why is Amsterdam’s flag and coat of arms three X’s (XXX)? How do the habitants of Brussels interact so fluidly with people from so many nations? Why are dreadlocks called both dreads and locks? Do Christians of Mexican heritage participate in the Day of the Dead and how do they view it from a spiritual perspective? How do the Chinese feel about population control?
My questions can go on and on, but who’s safe to talk to? How do I know that it’s all right to ask my questions to a particular individual? I guess, sometimes I’ve just asked and had a favorable response. As an aside: Thanks to anyone who’s answered my curious questions! There have been others who opened the conversation first and so it was as easy as responding and going from there. Thank you! And still others have invited me to ask when a question comes up. There are people in my life who know we’re planning to adopt interracially and they have offered their wisdom and guidance for the present and the future. Thank you. This means so much to me!
In an age where I could search the internet to find my answer and troll social media, I find that I’d rather speak with real people who are living out the answers to my questions on a daily basis. I want open conversation between me and other cultures with an understanding that my seeking for more knowledge is my way of honoring the differences between us and not a way to exploit them. I see this as especially important as we’re moving closer to the day when we’ll have a child of a different racial make up than us as part of our family.
So, I guess the answer I’ve come to is Relational Capital. It’s important to have relational capital with people when asking questions that might be sensitive in nature. Being aware of the relationship I have with others and how much I’ve given to it versus how much I’ve taken from it is really important. Assessing this can help me know more fully who’s appropriate to ask questions to and when I should look for another person instead. Not only is it helpful to me, but it’s showing respect to the other person. It’s actually considering the other person and choosing whether I can ‘make a withdrawal’ or should ‘make a deposit.’ All people and relationships are different and worth being considered when my cultural curiosity speaks up.
I’m thankful I have people in my life who I’ve cultivated relationships with, like those who have already offered to be a safe person for me to bounce my questions off of. They have given me a hope that I won’t be alone when the questions come. I have more confidence in moving forward with our interracial adoption because I know that I have people who will walk me into understanding as the need arises. I don’t have to learn only from reading books and watching videos. I have real, live people who want to see me succeed and want to help me in this new space. I am aware of the people that I have relational capital with and who value sharing their experience with me.
When I think about these people, I know that I too want to be a safe person for someone else to ask questions of, even if the relational capital is on the low side. I want to be open to sharing my experience with many people. Do you want to ask about American politics? Do you want to know about white skin & hair care? Do you want to know what it’s like being married to a pastor? Do you want to know more about getting into singing or music? (See video on releasing tongue tension below) Do you want to ask me something? I invite you to ask me. I’ll do my best to see the curiosity in your question and the desire to understand and through our dialogue I hope we’ll continue to build up our relational capital.