Today’s questions continue to address issues surrounding travelling with children. However, the information presented here is vital to anyone considering short-term missions – not just families with small children. So take note and/or pass it on.
How do I prepare my kids for experiencing another culture?
- Go online. Learn about the place you’ll be visiting. Look at pictures of what people wear, what the buildings and houses and streets look like, what the food looks like, what people look like. If the language is different from your own, learn a few basic phrases. Learn some statistical information: population, climate, agriculture. Learn a bit about the religions, politics, history and economics. Does that seem like a lot of work for a mere two weeks there? Too bad. If you think you can serve graciously and humbly without knowing anything about the people you’re serving, you are in for a nasty surprise. At best, you’ll embarrass yourselves and your hosts. At worst, your ignorance (which may come across as racism and superiority) will offend and infuriate the people you’re supposed to be embracing with God’s love. Good luck with that.
- Eat. If you can find a restaurant that serves food from where you’ll be working, go there. Sample different dishes. Ask your server about manners and cultural expectations surrounding meals. What you learn may contradict what your mother taught you and what you have spent years trying to teach your children. Now you may have to adjust your meal-time rules about cleaning your plate, eating with your hands, belching and saying ‘thank you’. And even if you can’t find the right cultural restaurant, you should still make your children practice sampling foods they’re not used to. Yes, I’m saying you need to make your children eat food they don’t like. I’m not saying they need to force down a full platter of fried grasshoppers, raw squid and monkey brains. But they really need to practice eating a few bites, smiling, and graciously thanking their providers. If they (and you) can get through that, then it’s much more acceptable for you to excuse yourself from eating the rest of the meal by explaining that your stomach is a little upset from travelling, or that you’re not used to such spicy food, or that you’ve had several social engagements and you are very full. But please, for the love of donuts, do not let your darling munchkins scream, “GROSS!!!” while they fling their plates away and dry-heave behind both palms pressed firmly across their mouths. If they can fake their way through a few bites, then as soon as you’re out of sight of your hosts, they can devour the Fruit Roll-Ups and Ringolos that you have wisely stashed in your backpack for such a time as this.
- If you can find out some cultural do’s and don’ts ahead of time, then do some role-playing with your children. Practice age- and gender-appropriate greetings, including handshakes, bows, eye contact (or not) etc. Practice not showing excitement over every single little thing that you see in a market stall. Practice how to react when a beggar approaches you or when strangers want to touch your blond hair or white skin. You may even need to practice peeing outside without sacrificing all modesty. (My apologies to your neighbours if your yard isn’t adequately private.)
How can we be a blessing to our hosts?
Let’s face it. Short-term mission trips are largely about the travellers, not the host missionaries or the nationals. The benefits to you as short-termers vastly outweigh the benefits to the people you’re going to serve. That’s just reality. Whatever work you’re going to do could probably be done by locals, in a fraction of the time or at a fraction of the cost, and without all the hassle of hosting a short-term team. There are still benefits to both parties, though, which is why the practice of short-terming lives on. However, you need to be very realistic about how much work your hosts have to do in order to make your experience positive. It’s a lot. It’s more than what you think. And then some. So, doggone-it, you’d better bless their socks off in return!
Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- Bring presents. At least half of your team/family’s luggage should be filled with stuff to give away. Chocolate, cheese, kids’ cereals, Sweet Chili Heat Doritos, maple syrup… Ask your hosts ahead of time what kind of treats they miss and if there’s anything they need. Maybe they don’t have access to decent dental floss or tampons (just keeping it real here, folks) or duct tape. Maybe you can pick up a few seasons of TV shows that they miss. Maybe they just want to see some current magazines. Ask, and then bring more than what they suggest. Be outrageously generous, and guilt – uh, I mean, kindly request – the people around you to donate to this cause as well.
- Be generous. This may sound like I’m repeating the same point, but it’s more than just gifts. Pay for parking for whoever picked you up at the airport. If you eat at a restaurant with your hosts, pay for their meal. If their house worker does some of your laundry, cover her salary for the week. Buy extra supplies or make a donation to the ministries that are near and dear to their hearts. At the end of your trip, if you have leftover funds from your budget, give the money to them.
- Be respectful of your host family’s routine and limited resources. Remember that they have full-time responsibilities PLUS looking after you; they don’t get to stop doing all the kajillion and twelve things that fill up their normal days just because you are in town. Make no assumptions on their time, resources, availability or space. Let me be more specific:
- Do not assume that your host’s vehicle is at your disposal. They may actually have other places they have to go. Ask them to help you rent a car or use public transit. And if they do drive you around, insist on paying for gas and mileage.
- Do not linger late into the night. I am so guilty of this one, and it’s especially hard when you’re already good friends with your hosts. But try to be disciplined – for your sake, for your children’s sake, for their sake and for their children’s sake. Just say good-night and get some sleep.
- Please, oh please, oh please, do not ask your hosts to babysit for you. If there is some vital team function that you must attend without children, you could ask your hosts to recommend a babysitter. But I cannot state this emphatically enough: don’t just drop your kids off for Mama Missionary to parent while you go gallivanting about the country.
As I said, these are suggestions to get you started. They’re not rules. Here are the rules: Be flexible. Be creative. Be generous.
If you say to me, “But my hosts told me I don’t have to do all that,” then I will respond, “Of course they did. They are missionaries. Their lifelong occupation is all about being gracious and sacrificial. So do it anyway. What’s the worst that can happen? They don’t like Sweet Chili Heat Doritos? Please.”