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Crossing Cultures: Table Manners

From the series Ministering Cross-Culturally

Food is a big part of culture, not just what is served but how it is served, how it looks and tastes, and the table manners that go along with the meal.

I remember one of my first meals with Chinese brothers and sisters. Several of us, Chinese and American leaders, were together in a secluded mountain retreat discussing collaborative ministry. We met at the airport and traveled together on a bus to the retreat center. I was surprised that the bus driver often dodged over to the right shoulder of the freeway to pass slower moving traffic, and I was thinking—this is not how busses travel on US highways.

We passed through a stunningly beautiful bamboo forest with multiple shades of green from cultivated bamboo plants, some small and growing, others large and swaying in the breeze. To this rice farmer, the multiple shades of green were beautiful. Later we ate bamboo shoots—delicious—and I snacked on salted bamboo roots—a tasty treat, but impossible to swallow.

Our first meal at the retreat center was a feast, multiple delicious dishes served hot and with many different colors and textures. Some were surprised I could use chopsticks, a skill learned in the early 1960s as a child when our family would go out to eat at Charlie’s Restaurant.

We sat at a large round table with many dishes on a lazy Susan, and as the bowls came by, I happily scooped portions from each bowl and put them on my plate and began to eat. Delicious! But, as I looked up, no one else had food piled on their plates: they were all taking one or two bites from the bowl in from of them, then rotating the lazy Susan, and again eating a bite at a time from whatever dish was in from of them. I asked, “Am I doing something wrong?” The gentle reply was, “It is okay for you to eat that way, but it kind of means you are trying to get more for yourself.”

I had crossed cultures, but I was not eating cross-culturally.

My memory jumps forward several years to another meal eaten with some of my closest Chinese friends. We shared hot pot, each dipping our chopsticks into the steaming bowl and eating one bite at a time the food we had each added to the common pot. Even the duck intestine tasted good. I wish I could be there in that moderately sized city (about seven million souls) sharing that meal again with my friends whom I have not seen in five years. I have, however, seen a video of their church being raided.

I had learned to eat cross-culturally. And I loved it.

Ministering cross-culturally means much more than appropriate table matters. Culture is extraordinarily complex and serves as a social map or guidelines that inform our behavior, what and how we think, what we find beautiful and praiseworthy, and how we treat and respond to others. We learn culture at our mother’s knee and from our father’s words and examples. Our cultural assumptions are deeply rooted, living and autonomously active in our unstated presuppositions, in the fundamental worldview expectations that organize, that inform, that motivate and empower our lives.

Ministering cross-culturally is critical for fruitful missionary engagement. As the Chinese missionary movement matures and expands and goes where no man or woman of the gospel has gone before, cross-cultural ministry praxis will become increasingly critical.

My intent is to offer a series of thoughts and encouragement toward ministering cross-culturally in this blog series. Topics will include understanding God’s mission, transforming personal cultural assumptions, missionary action and reflection, missions as franchise vs. indigenization, the Apostle Peter’s ethnocentric conversion, and becoming a 150% person.

May we become imitators of the one who left all his rights and power behind as he crossed the uncrossable barrier between his home and ours.

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Image credit: diGital Sennin via UnSplash.
Ken Anderson

Ken Anderson

Dr. Ken Anderson serves as board chair for ChinaReach, an indigenous missiological training effort intended to help China move from a mission field to a mission force. Dr. Anderson holds DMiss and MAGL degrees from Fuller Theological Seminary. From 2011–2021 he served as an itinerant extension biblical training missionary in China …View Full Bio

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