Adjusting our cultural lenses

It is far too easy when visiting another country to focus on the cultural differences you can see, rather than the similarities that unite the two cultures. It is hard to adjust the cultural lenses that have been sitting in front of your eyes since you first learned to speak, and it is easy to dismiss another culture as inferior as a result of its differences.

We were repeatedly taught these ideas during our preparation for Fiji, but as any Christian will tell you, there is a big difference between knowing something in theory and knowing it in practice. Our first week in Fiji has been all about bridging that gap; learning how to engage with (or even to survive in) a culture which is, at least on the surface, completely different from our own.

Though, in a sense, our mission started months ago and with the preparation we undertook during Fiji Training Week, the actual trip began with tearful but excited goodbyes at the airport. Once we settled into our flight, some of us looked wistfully out of the windows, already wishing we were back home in bed. But most of us simply watched movies, content to wait for it all to begin.

Probably the biggest shock came when we finally arrived at Sabeto Christian Camp. All our water had to be purified. Despite this, our spirits were high and we were eager to get going. We certainly weren't disappointed; our first day was non-stop! We went straight into visiting Nagoda village when—and this would become a theme of our first week in Fiji—plans changed at the last minute and we weren't able to visit Korobebe village.

The village visit was eye-opening. We got to experience a traditional welcome ceremony, which included the option to try some kava. In my opinion, it tasted just like you’d expect muddy water to taste. After the ceremony I noticed the formality in our interactions gave way to mutual joy and friendliness. We were entertained and entertained in turn with singing and dancing. We visited the local school to find classrooms not far from our own primary school days—except I think the children were much better-behaved than their Australian contemporaries would have been!

After sharing lunch and sitting with the villagers, we had to leave. We were all really struck and challenged, though, by the generosity and hospitality of the villagers in their willingness to perform for us and in small touches like not starting eating until we had finished.

However, there was little time to contemplate this, as we returned to camp with an hour to prepare an entire youth program for four different churches. Despite the short preparation time, the evening was very encouraging for all of us, prompting some great conversations with the youth and allowing us to get a sense of what being a Christian is like in Fiji.

One of the key issues we have faced and tried to tackle in our time here so far is how to differentiate ourselves from all the tourists who come through this beautiful country. From the constant shouts of "Bula!" on both sides, to the matching bright blue shirts, we inadvertently come across as just more transient visitors, merely here to observe as we pass through.

Nowhere was this more obvious than at Treasure House children's home. Treasure House is home to 23 children, many victims of abuse and orphans, and some great work is done with the kids. Unfortunately our messages didn't get through and when we arrived they weren't expecting us, so we could only stay for half an hour.

Tourists visit the home almost every day to see and to play with the kids, and we became just like any another group who turned up there for a short time, never to be seen again. So we tried to differentiate ourselves by helping out in a financial and practical way: we got a shopping list from the house and bought and delivered the goods the next day. Year 13 try hard to build relationships year on year with such organisations, but sometimes, despite best efforts, it is not always possible.

But there have been some real encouragements too, particularly our visit to Nasikawa Vision College. We were able to teach Scripture to every class of kids at the school. The response was very encouraging as they were engaged with the material and eager to learn.

But even more encouraging were the conversations we had with the students during morning tea and lunch. We were able to build and continue relationships over two days and the students were really great fun to talk to. Our chapel service on the second day was a chance to see them worship, and that was also a fantastic experience.

So, despite the difficulty that we have all had in adjusting to the differences in culture—whether it be the bustling, messy streets or the generous hospitality (we all feel uncomfortable eating all our food before our hosts start)—we have felt excited, encouraged, strengthened and satisfied. God has had his hand over us, keeping us safe and providing everything we need. Praise God that he has provided this opportunity for us!

By Toby Saer (above - with students from Holy Trinity Primary School, Suva)