Short-Term Missions: All about culture shock in Southeast Asia. Some things you should know before you go!
Disclaimer: I love Southeast Asia. I lived there for two years, as well as doing quite a bit of traveling throughout the area, both before, and after, I lived there. It is a popular place to go on short-term missions trips! There is lots of work to be done: Many non-profits are doing different community development projects, and many unreached people groups still need to hear the Gospel. If you ever have the opportunity, go! It will change your life and the people will capture your heart. (article follows image…)
Here are some cultural things you need to be prepared for, so you don’t get frustrated and angry.
Personal space?…Think again.
It is CROWDED. Singapore, Jakarta, and Bangkok, three of the largest cities in the world, are here. Java is the most populated island on the earth, even though it is fairly small. There are people everywhere! You can’t get away from them. I didn’t realize how much this would affect me until I lived there. Especially if you like to choose your amount of social time per day or who you let into your personal space – This can be a little uncomfortable. Prepare yourself to be living in a fishbowl for a few weeks/months.
All of these people will openly stare at you. They might even turn and gawk at you as they walk past you. They will try out their English by yelling things like, “I love you!” or “Hello, Mister!” even if you aren’t a “mister.” Remember that their English classes are not being taught by native speakers, and many teachers actually teach that these are proper ways to greet in English. They will ask you for a picture and an autograph.
If you’re a woman, men might make rude comments to you, even if you’re wearing long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. You will probably be told you are fat, even if you’re a “small” or a “size 6.” It’s good to remember that in many Southeast Asian cultures, being fat is a good thing, so don’t be offended!
You will probably be asked to eat things, and deal with stuff you never would imagine if back home. But that’s why you are here right? Because you are needed more here than at home. Remember, you volunteered for this.
I wrote a blogpost about street food so that might also help you, because while the smells and sight of some foods offered on the street on in markets might cause your stomach to do a leaping backflip, other street food in Asia is just amazing and sometimes even presented beautifully and artfully. And it’s delicious!
You will probably be asked how much money you make, how much your car, smart phone, and house costs. You can just answer, “Enough.” This is usually an acceptable answer. You might get asked for money or a ticket to America, because they think that all Americans are rich – I mean, you paid to come over there! Explain that you can’t promise those things. If you are over there doing missions or non-profit work, you might want to explain that you didn’t pay for your trip. You’re there because you love them and want to help them, and others helped you come.
This might be surprising if you’ve heard about Asians and “saving face,” or “being sensitive not to offend.” But cultures differ, as does what is considered appropriate conversation, and what is not. This takes some time getting used to. Also, as a foreigner, some of those “rules” don’t apply to you. Yes, it’s a double standard. Get used to it.
Especially if you’re really fair-skinned (as I am), you might get asked if you bleach your skin! They all want white skin, and want to know how you got yours so white. If you have red or blonde hair, they will probably also ask if your hair is real, and they won’t know what color to call it. (more after photo…)
They assume that you get drunk and/or are “easy” (and welcome males approaching you).
They assume that you live in a big city in a high rise apartment, or in a big house, and that you always have snow at Christmas.
You have American television and advertising to thank for these ideas! Help them understand that this is only a portrayal of television, and most of these things don’t apply to the average American.
Despite all of these things, Southeast Asia is one of my favorite places on earth.
The people there are warm and friendly. Many of them are curious about America and are clueless because all they know is TV. Let them get to know you. Let them see a normal person. Allow God’s love to fill you and flow out of you to them, which will transcend any frustration you have with the culture. And get to know them as well! They are normal people just like us, with fears and failures, happy and sad situations.