Since being married to a non-American man who is also an immigrant and often labeled as Mexican, though he is very far from it since he lived the first 30 years of his life in Honduras — since then, I have been more aware of common stereotypes and misjudgments when it comes to how we act/react to people of other cultures both in our own country and in their countries when we go to visit or live or be missionaries. Here’s a list of things I’ve learned.
1. Don’t assume they’re Mexican because they have brown skin. It doesn’t take much more effort to ask somewhere where they’re from than to assume they’re Mexican. It’s true that the highest percentage of Hispanics in the U.S. is Mexican, but there are huge numbers (millions of people) from other cultures that also share the country with us — Hondurans, Costa Ricans, Guatemalans, El Salvadorans, Puerto Ricans, etc. (Side note: Did you know that Zimmerman isn’t Mexican? …like so many threateners assumed. He’s not even from North/Central America. He’s half Peruvian. In case geography isn’t your thing, that’s in South America.)
2. Don’t assume they’re American just because they’re white. White-skinned people come from many different countries, some of which speak English and some that don’t. Including, but not limited to: Canada, England, Australia, Costa Rica, South Africa, Argentina, France, etc.
3. Don’t assume anything and don’t put colors (or accents) in boxes. It’s better that way. If you have questions, ask politely. Most people are happy to answer questions and it’s always less offensive if you have questions rather than assuming something about someone. (I once asked an Aussie if he was British. He was kind enough to laugh it off, but he said he got that a lot and did not appreciate being called British.) It might surprise you to know that not all black people are African or African-American either. They could be from Costa Rica or Australia or really any other country because colors aren’t confined to the lines we drew on the map.
4. Don’t be surprised and don’t complain when their culture is different from yours. You went to their country to visit or live or be a missionary and now you’re complaining — however righteously you might think you are (after all, now you that you’re a missionary you’re called to suffer and sacrifice for Christ) — you’re complaining about little things that are common, every-day things in their country. Remember, you chose to be a part of their culture. Don’t complain about them not having the same American products in their grocery stores, or the taxi driver not speaking English, etc. Other people don’t come to the U.S. and expect that all the people speak Spanish or Japanese or Tagalog. You are joining their culture. So, join it. Don’t complain about how different it is. You knew it was going to be different before you went there.
5. Assimilate, don’t ascend. Don’t look for the house/apartment, cell phone, furniture, etc. that is most like the country you came from and least like the culture you are joining, ESPECIALLY if you are a missionary. Don’t look for the house on the hill with the best view; don’t look for the house with the most amenities; don’t look for a house that is completely unaffordable to the people you are trying to minister to, befriend, or live among. If you want to go and retire and be known as the “rich American who lives in the mansion on the hill,” go ahead and live there. And if you want to have some amenities that are reasonable go for it. (For example, having a washer and dryer in Costa Rica is not common, but it is also not uncommon. If you decide to have a washer and dryer it does not immediately put you above others. Just be careful that you aren’t consistently choosing a way of life that is above the people you want to reach.) But if you want to be on the same level as the people who live in the country that you are ministering to, then be on their level.
So before you go on your next vacation to Honduras, remember it’s not a country full of Mexicans who love to speak English. Educate yourself and go with an open mind. I guarantee it will not only be more respectful to the culture that you’re joining, but it will be more fun and adventurous for you to try new things too.
Note: Though I have not lived an extended time in another country (not longer than 2 months), my husband has and agrees that these are legitimate steps to take toward respecting the culture that you are interacting with or entering.