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Cross-cultural Incarnation — your identity across cultures

Some Christmastime thoughts on trying to live authentically and meaningfully in a culture not your own. Because the Incarnation (God being born human as baby Jesus), whether you think it’s true or not, is an interesting way to think about living cross-culturally.


(Chinese shepherds visit Chinese baby Jesus)

It’s one thing to study the transmission and transformation of ideas and behaviours across cultural contexts. Those are issues that anyone working cross-culturally has to deal with no matter what field they’re in, whether they realize it or not. But what about how crossing cultures affects your personal identity?

As the outsiders

Here’s a bit from God Spares Not the Branches, an insightful (understatement!) exploration of cross-cultural and development work issues via the story of an American post-grad who volunteers with a local anti-AIDS NGO in Ghana. Emphases mine:

“Bryce,” his father told him, “when you step into the world of other cultures and seek to be a part of that which is different, your difference will be who you are to them. No matter how well you seem to become part of the people and their ways, you are not them. No matter how well they receive you and befriend you, your distinction is your reason for being there. When it doesn’t fit what is expected, you will feel the pain of rejection. It’s always just beneath the surface. That’s life. It’s not fair, but that’s how it is. You have to know who you are and be confident in that and what you are about.”

As a lǎowài I automatically identify with Bryce; we’re the outsiders trying to fit in and the Chinese are “them”. Even when we’re feeling good about how well we’re fitting in, even if to the point that we could momentarily forget how different we are, they wouldn’t let us forget, because they remind us every single day. We’re routinely hit with a myriad of largely ignorant-but-understandable expectations of who we are and what we’re like. I wonder what receiving these “identity prescriptions” every day is like for expats who don’t have a strong understanding of who they are and what they’re about. I suspect I’ve maybe seen that show a couple times over our five years in Mainland China.

As the insiders

But the Christmas holidays have made me re-read the above excerpt in light of the Incarnation. In Chinese Bibles it says, “The Dao became flesh and lived among us.” The idea being that the Creator, the Ultimate Being, became a human being. That’s a major living-standard downgrade, in what we could call the ultimate cross-cultural move:

He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges… [From Philippians 2:5-8]

This reverses the roles: God is the outsider and we are the “them”.

I’m not assuming Dan was thinking Incarnation when he wrote that section, but it’s an interesting angle to consider: Jesus as the ultimate model of cross-cultural identification and authenticity: leaving his home and completely taking on the language, culture and ethnicity of his host nation, while refusing to compromise who he is and what he’s about, even though he knows it will eventually result in rejection.

“…when you step into the world of other cultures and seek to be a part of that which is different, your difference will be who you are to them . . . When it doesn’t fit what is expected, you will feel the pain of rejection. It’s always just beneath the surface . . . You have to know who you are and be confident in that and what you are about.”

Maybe Dan was thinking Incarnation; so much of that paragraph relates to not just the Incarnation but also to how we treated Jesus when he refused to conform to our expectations of what he should be. But I’ll save that for a “Resurrection Festival” post (复活), because I like to keep the meanings of my historically re-appropriated holidays clearly sorted (no crosses at Christmas!). ;)

More about culture & personal identity:

More about Christmas:

P.S. — About God Spares Not the Branches

God Spares Not the Branches gives an intimate look at the complexities of post-colonial West Africa. The events, places and people are so realistically detailed you can’t help but believe this fictional story is actually a collection of real first-hand accounts — and that’s because it pretty much is. Author Dan McVey lived in Ghana for over 20 years, raised his family there, and still spends half of every year there, mostly on his farm. He applies an insight born of first-hand, long-term cultural intimacy to a deep exploration of several interrelated issues (many of which are relevant to China) by embodying them in his characters and their experiences. If you’re more than a little interested in any of the following, I think this book is worth your time:

  • The legacy of colonialism
  • African corruption
  • Problems with international aid and development (like priorities set not by need but by the politics of the donor nations, dependency, etc).
  • Drastic societal change affecting behaviour norms and values
  • The impact on sexuality of economic and gender inequality
  • The influence of the internet, media and Western culture — esp. entertainment and consumerism
  • The cultural hurdles in addressing HIV/AIDS
  • African identity and spirituality, Christianity, Evangelicalism, Islam
  • Muslim/Christian interaction

Two things in particular stand out to me:

  1. Intimate detail and nuance — Dan has lived into this culture and society and conveys a much richer and more empathetic picture of the people and challenges they face than what the best journalists can deliver.
  2. Challenging all around — This is not merely a liberal scolding of conservative Western worldviews, dragging a fictional character through a Western culture war conversion experience in a world of stereotyped stock characters (like in The Help). There’s plenty that will make Western political conservatives squirm, but Dan’s allegiances aren’t dictated by the Western culture wars. His compellingly detailed, uncompromising portrayal of African reality refuses to flinch in the face of events that Westerners, right or left, have difficulty processing. Like a shocking exorcism account, written in the same finely detailed, eye-witness-sounding delivery with which he describes farms. He doesn’t insist the reader accept the account at face value, but he also makes it difficult to casually brush off.

5 thoughts on “Cross-cultural Incarnation — your identity across cultures”

  1. Merry Christmas!

    That is a really fascinating thought to see Jesus as the ultimate cross-cultural outsider. Very thought-provoking. (Of course, as you say it only really works for traditional (supernatural) Christianity, but still fascinating, nonetheless.)

    Hehe, that outsider thing. Whenever I walk out my front door, I hear people saying “waiguoren”. It is especially funny when primary school aged kids say it. I think to myself “hey kid, I have been living in this building longer than you have been alive!”

    Your quote of “The Dao became flesh and lived among us” reminded me of a funny cross-cultural situation I observed several years ago. I had a Taiwanese homestay girl living with me at the time. She was not a Christian, and not at all interested in becoming a Christian, but she and her friends used to go to free English language lessons put on by Christians (who then also supplied free religious instruction). One day I noticed that, during her personal English study times, she had written out “the ROAD is with me, I will not be afraid” and stuck it on her wall.

    At the time I was studying Chinese philosophy, and so the connection between “dao” and “lord” and “road/way” was obvious to me. I guess trying to translate “logos” as “dao” is likely to have this amusing result.

    I am curious about your thoughts on this translation. I mean, “logos” had its origins in reason; “dao” had its origins in action, and there are many different, sometimes contradictory, daos. They are not really equivalent words. And neither had anything to do with the Ultimate Being or Creator. (Yeah, I know words change their meaning over time.) So, is this really the standard translation? And in your experience does this translation help Chinese who are new to Christianity to understand the concepts?

    (Completely off-topic here. I recall several months ago we were having a discussion here about New Atheists, in which I was (at least partly) supporting them. I have been reading a bit of Sam Harris lately, and I have changed my mind somewhat (I wrote my thoughts on a Guangzhou discussion group here — http://www.gzstuff.com/group/gz-atheists-atheism/forum/topics/spokesmen-and-women-for-atheism-who-s-your-favorite ). In some places, Harris is very careful and respectful. But in other places he has a brain explosion and says crazy, ridiculous, insulting things about religion. His brain explosions completely contradict his careful stuff. It is as if there are two different writers. So, I just want to back off from my earlier support of these people. And I can completely understand how religious believers would be very insulted by what is said during those brain explosions.)

    1. Hey, good to hear from you again. Merry Christmas to you, too! I’ll reply inline.

      “That is a really fascinating thought to see Jesus as the ultimate cross-cultural outsider. Very thought-provoking. (Of course, as you say it only really works for traditional (supernatural) Christianity, but still fascinating, nonetheless.)”
      I can’t take credit for that. Using the Incarnation as a model for understanding how Christians ought to relate to others (especially cross-culturally) is a pretty standard. Key concepts there being kenosis (self-emptying) and incarnation (identifying), or “self-sacrificially incarnational” or “going way out of your way to identify with others” (for their sake).

      I think it works as a model to think with even if you reject the spiritual, though there’d be no potential obligation, of course.

      “[…]One day I noticed that, during her personal English study times, she had written out “the ROAD is with me, I will not be afraid” and stuck it on her wall. At the time I was studying Chinese philosophy, and so the connection between “dao” and “lord” and “road/way” was obvious to me. I guess trying to translate “logos” as “dao” is likely to have this amusing result.”
      Huh. If she was studying Daoism in English would she be as likely to translate 道 as “road”? My informal acquaintance with Daoism makes me want to guess probably not? I understand “path” in the metaphorical sense, and much more besides. But when Christianity talks about the “narrow road” or “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” it’s not got tons in common with the Daoist Dao, if I remember right.

      The particular word used there isn’t so important because in the context of John 1 he supplies the meaning, rather than relying on its original meanings.

      I am curious about your thoughts on this translation. I mean, “logos” had its origins in reason; “dao” had its origins in action, and there are many different, sometimes contradictory, daos. They are not really equivalent words. And neither had anything to do with the Ultimate Being or Creator. (Yeah, I know words change their meaning over time.) So, is this really the standard translation? And in your experience does this translation help Chinese who are new to Christianity to understand the concepts? I don’t see how logos and Dao could possibly be equivalent concepts except in the broadest terms. But where they overlap is enough for John’s purposes.

      I like 道 in that translation, as it’s tuned in to what the author was doing in the original language and thought world (re-appropriating a core concept), rather than simply literally translating a word. It gives a little credibility to the original concept, but redefines much more than it affirms it.

      John’s not so much using logos to alter our understanding of God as he is using his understanding of God to alter our understanding of whatever the ultimate concept in our worldview happens to be. So the particular content of logos or 道 matters to a point, but only to a point. And accurately conveying the concept of the Greek logos or the Chinese 道 as it was used in its original contexts is not the point; conveying John’s reworking of those concepts is. “That Ultimate Deepest More Profound Thing you wonder about? Let me tell you about Him…” Paul did a similar thing with, “You’ve got an altar to ‘An Unknown God’ — let me tell you about that…” He’s not terribly concerned with staying true to the original concept because he’s redefining it. They just need enough in the original concept to work as a legitimate starting point. With logos and 道,you’ve got that. But if we tried to use faithful original conceptions of logos or 道 in greater detail to understand John’s God, we’d be missing John’s point, I think.

      We don’t have something like that in English, some special, ultimate deepest concept, other than “God”. It’s not like the English translation of logos in that chapter (“Word”) is super literal: “In the beginning was the Word” honestly doesn’t say much of anything to English speakers; John has to fill in the meaning before it means anything at all in English. But he’s filling in the meaning anyway, whatever the language and worldview.

      Philosophically and theologically, I think John’s the most fun of the four.

      (Completely off-topic here. I recall several months ago we were having a discussion here about New Atheists, […] I just want to back off from my earlier support of these people…
      So considerate, thanks! But I could tell you weren’t really one of them. ;) Much more interesting conversations would be had by all if we ignored them and their theistic fundamentalist doppelgangers (I guess that would be really mean young earth creationists?). It’s not fair to characterize an idea by its abuse or least competent representatives.

      I remember gearing up for the first time to hear Harris speak (via mp3) — it was a debate with what’s his name… slips my mind at the moment, the American research philosopher who Dawkins refuses to engage. Anyway, I was really disappointed in Harris for refusing to engage a serious intellectual challenge to his ideas.

      The debate was essentially a book promotion event for The Moral Landscape (as most “debates” are), and Harris’ foil opened with specific criticisms of Harris’ reasoning, and then gave a (rare) claim to an actual “take-down” argument of Harris’ central thesis (even demonstrating his argument mathematically). For a published, PhD philosopher it was basically shooting whales in a barrel. Harris gets up to respond with, “I’m sure that was all very interesting…” and then launches into a sermon about how bad “religion” is. He wasn’t interested in the ideas at all; couldn’t be bothered to make an effort. The rest of the debate was basically Harris repeatedly asserting his general thesis and raising examples of badly behaving theists as a response to specific criticisms of his ideas. I was surprised by the amount of disrespect he showed a guy who even Christopher Hitchens publicly respected.

      It’s not so much being insulted — non-liberal Western Christians who can’t handle daily insults will die early of high blood pressure (you may have noticed we’re kind of on the outs with the current culture establishment). It’s the frustration, the time-wasting. It’s like, “Look, I’m genuinely interested in thoughtful criticism of my worldview. I can even hand you some. But aside from bombastic rhetoric, you’ve got nothing that wasn’t said in the 19th century. Stop wasting everyone’s time and making such a mess at the popular level.”

  2. My brother, a proudly reformed ex-con and addict, was an expat doing Christian charity work in Mexico City some years ago following his return to the spiritual path. You’ve written an interesting article. I’m curious if you find that the inevitable rejection that you describe is as much from identifying as and being identified as a Christian as it is from being an expat. If so, wouldn’t it be fair to describe a cross-cultural Christian’s plight as being in a foreign land locked in a battle of “identity prescriptions?” It just adds another level of reflection to your article I think. In the story in the bible you might say Jesus comes to “prescribe” the identity of, say, child of god, redeemed, soldiers of light or what have you. And, in a way isn’t that the task of a cross-cultural Christian? Anyway, these are just peaceful thoughts and comments, not intended to provoke or criticize. Merry Christmas and thanks for the ongoing insights into your fascinating experiences there.

    1. Hi, Ben. Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Tried to reply on FB but your account was down? This blog post may have sounded more negative than I intended – I didn’t mean to highlight “Oh how hard it is to be a foreigner in China! Everyone misunderstands you! Waaaa…!” :) I mostly just think the Incarnation gives a lot of relevant food for thought. I’ve replied inline below.

      “… I’m curious if you find that the inevitable rejection that you describe is as much from identifying as and being identified as a cross-cultural Christian volunteer as it is from being an expat.”
      The book excerpt I quoted (the dad talking to his son, Bryce) was development/aid workers, not Christians per se. It’s a pretty typical experience for any Western expat in a developing nation, regardless of their job. Identifying as a Christian aid worker/volunteer or whatever might add to that experience a bit (like they might treat you slightly differently than a regular expat, depending on the situation) but generally speaking, in the eyes of nationals your label as FOREIGNER is much more primary than your job title. They see the difference of you being a foreigner as much greater than the difference of you being a Christian. I have a hard time imagining in China or Africa an expat being seen as a Christian first and a foreigner second.

      “If so, wouldn’t it be fair to describe a cross-cultural Christian’s plight as being in a foreign land locked in a battle of “identity prescriptions?””
      I think you’re right to point out that identity is a huge part of it. A core part of Jesus’ message was, if I paraphrase in light of this conversation, “Hey, I have great news! God loves you like a dad loves his kids, and even though you’ve made a lot of mistakes and things are all screwed up God’s made a way for you to live in his family.” And Jesus then treats everyone according to his understanding of their identity (as valuable, loved people worth having compassion on, serving, and sacrificing for). Similarly, the Chinese will treat us according to how they see us.

      But at least two key differences immediately come to mind (and there are others). First, Jesus’ “identity prescribing” is positive; it prescribes more value and meaning to people and a more intimate relationship with God. Even when it’s negative (calling out religious hypocrites or the privileged, for example), it’s still with their benefit in mind (some very “tough love”). But when Chinese call us “Laowai!”, it might not be a racist term, but it functions to separate us from them, to maintain the distinction between “insiders” and “outsiders”, to keep us on the outside psychologically speaking. (Interesting you bring this up now, because I just saw an article about this.) Not that people are consciously thinking “We need to remember to alienate all those whities!”, but that’s how the label functions whether it’s deliberate or not.

      Second, Jesus’ “identity prescribing” requires sacrifice by the person doing the prescribing. It’d be easier to keep people at a distance, think of them in simplistic terms of a single label rather than getting close and engaging the full complexity of another human being. Never mind relating to them in a way that demonstrates how they are valuable and loved, and worth sacrificing for! But by keeping people at a distance and “othering” them, making them a little less than fully human by reducing them to a label, we also minimize our obligations to them.

      “It just adds another level of reflection to your article I think.”
      I appreciate that! Using the Incarnation as a way to understand cross-cultural Christian service work (both the similarities and differences – some very key differences!) is actually a pretty standard concept. Another key concept is kenosis or self-emptying, which is a key element of the Incarntion. Together I call it being “self-sacrificially incarnational” or “going way out of your way to identify with others.”

      “In the story in the bible you might say Jesus comes to “prescribe” the identity of, say, child of god, redeemed, soldiers of light or what have you.”
      Sure, or maybe to “inform us”, or “make us aware” of our truest (most fundamental) identity, maybe something like: “I don’t care if they call you a or whatever. You’re God’s daughter; I love you. Stop sinning. Don’t be afraid. Come follow me.” (Unless, of course, he’s tearing into religious hypocrites who ought to know better.) Or to increase our understanding of who we are, “You are the salt of the earth…” etc.

      “And, in a way isn’t that the task of a cross-cultural Christian?”
      In a way, sure. But if they’re doing it right, they’re inviting, giving people an opportunity, providing them an alternative identity (and an alternative life narrative), rather than “prescribing” or “imposing” an identity on people. Whether people take on that identity is up to them; if they force it, they’re doing it wrong.

      “Anyway, these are just peaceful thoughts and comments, not intended to provoke or criticize.”
      I appreciate your thoughts. Thoughtful thoughts are always welcome, even thoughtful criticism. ;)

      “Merry Christmas and thanks for the ongoing insights into your fascinating experiences there.”
      Merry Christmas to you, too! Glad you like the blog. I see from FB you are still buff. I once almost got sort of buff, but haven’t been to a gym since we had kids.

  3. Joel, it seems I can’t reply to your reply, so I will start a new reply :-)

    Also, despite ticking the boxes, I never get any email notifications of anyone else’s replies. So, I may sometimes miss conversations here :-(

    You said:
    “Huh. If she was studying Daoism in English would she be as likely to translate 道 as “road”? My informal acquaintance with Daoism makes me want to guess probably not? I understand “path” in the metaphorical sense, and much more besides. But when Christianity talks about the “narrow road” or “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” it’s not got tons in common with the Daoist Dao, if I remember right.”

    I still don’t really know what she was thinking, when she wrote “ROAD” instead of “LORD”. When I asked her if she was thinking of dao, she said yes. But I don’t know if she said yes *really* meaning yes, or yes just to say something. She was not the reflective type!

    My own understanding of the word 道 (dao) is heavily influenced by my study of the classical Chinese philosophers (over 12 years ago now since I seriously thought about it). I was told at the time that “dao” was an everyday word back in the day meaning path, way, road, etc. It was also a very common word for Kongzi et al to use. That is, it wasn’t just a Daoist word. Very roughly, for them it had to do with a way of doing things. Each school of thought had a competing dao — that is, they disagreed with each other about the proper way to do things. And they talked about different parts of the world each having its own dao.

    So, I think, in a very real sense we could say that for Christians, Jesus is the dao (way). Christians fix their dao based on Jesus. And similarly, we could speak of the narrow dao.

    Opinionated view: The Daoists of the day (Laozi, Zhuangzi) *also* used the word “dao” in the same way. They weren’t mystics, and they weren’t talking of some metaphysical absolute Being. They were theorists about language, focusing on ethics (as with all classical Chinese, they believed that language guides behaviour). We know this because (a) they were part of and within the same tradition as the Confucians, using the same language (b) the Daoist texts modified dao in exactly the same way as the Confucian texts did (heavenly dao, great dao, water’s dao, etc) — ie it is grammatically/structurally the same, and the grammar doesn’t make sense to read it as Absolute Being, and (c) if they were talking of Being, that would make their position obviously silly and wrong; they were smart guys and they wouldn’t have said something that obviously silly.

    But I understand that somewhere along the way “dao” took on a more metaphysical meaning (Being, God, etc). It was later Daoists who got into the mysticism and metaphysics, to give “dao” the popular “Daoist” meaning we often see today.

    I hope I have got this essentially right! It is all very complicated, and I am rusty on it!! I really don’t know how much my more academic study of the classics fits in with popularist Chinese understandings of the classics. And I also don’t know how much the classics are considered these days! So, that was why I asked the question above. But as you convincingly explained, all of that doesn’t really matter for John’s point.

    You:
    “But where they [dao and logos] overlap is enough for John’s purposes. … It gives a little credibility to the original concept, but redefines much more than it affirms it.”

    Thanks, that makes sense. I can appreciate that much better now, after your explanation.

    You:
    “We don’t have something like that in English, some special, ultimate deepest concept, other than “God”. It’s not like the English translation of logos in that chapter (“Word”) is super literal: “In the beginning was the Word” honestly doesn’t say much of anything to English speakers”

    Good point. Perhaps in New Zealand the best they can do is translate it as “rugby” :-)

    You:
    “it was a debate with what’s his name… slips my mind at the moment, the American research philosopher who Dawkins refuses to engage.”

    William Lane Craig?
    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/oct/20/richard-dawkins-william-lane-craig

    Dawkins says that the reason he didn’t debate William Lane Craig was because Craig is unknown by philosophy professors.

    Contrary to Dawkins, I recall Craig being mentioned on one occasion during a university undergraduate lecture. If I recall correctly, I was the tutor of the course, and I was sitting in on the lecture, listening to the professor talk. The professor was discussing the cosmological argument, and said that some philosophers have attempted modern versions of the argument. He said, for example, William Lane … He stopped and turned to me. I finished his sentence “Craig” (I assume the professor really knew the name and was just testing me to see if I read outside the curriculum — luckily I happened to have stumbled on some of his writings not long before!). The professor didn’t go through any of Craig’s arguments, leaving it up to the students to follow up if they wished, but he did say that Craig’s arguments still fail for the same reasons he had pointed out earlier in the lecture.

    That was the only time I heard Craig mentioned during my university studies. I get the impression that Dawkins is at least *partly* right, that Craig is not a *central* academic figure, and has not produced any significant works. On the other hand, Craig *is* trained in the philosophy of religion, and probably knows the literature better than Dawkins, whose speciality is neither religion nor philosophy.

    Re Harris’ book: It appears that the central ideas in the book were just too full of holes (even without the whales being shot!). The atheistic philosopher Simon Blackburn also pointed out where Harris went wrong. And Blackburn’s reply was supported by the actively atheistic Brian Leiter. It’s a pity Harris couldn’t just say “hmm, yup, you’re right!”

    You:
    “It’s not so much being insulted … It’s the frustration, the time-wasting.”

    It is interesting that you say that. I read the other side more, and I read about exactly the same feelings of frustration, but this time of of having to repeatedly correct science errors.

    Anyway, thanks as always for your thoughtful blog posts. They are always both enjoyable and educational to read.

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