Maintaining Otherness. Why Do People Fail to Adapt to a New Culture?

I want to focus on one reason for failing to adapt to a new culture, but before I do, I suppose I should list some other reasons first.

#1. Unintentional Ethnocentrism. This is the belief that “Our Way is the Only Way.” This may be unintentional because the person comes from a monocultural setting, perhaps, where there is a homogeneity of beliefs and behaviors. I think this is probably a less common option today. The internet and increased travel makes experience with other cultures much more common. Additionally, when one moves to another culture, unless one is almost completely unreflective, eventually one will make decisions intentionally.

#2. Intentional Ethnocentrism. This is the belief that “Our Way is the Best Way.” In this, the person has thought about adapting but chooses not to because she or he thinks their home culture is better.

#3. Local Collaboration. I am making up this term, but I have seen this a lot. When a foreigner enters a local culture, the locals will often support maintaining the otherness of the foreigner. This is done especially in cultures where hospitality is strong. So locals will make a point of talking, or trying to talk, in the language of the foreigner, so that the person doesn’t feel uncomfortable and have to learn the local language. Other things may include making sure that the foreigner has spoon and fork,or is given a place to stay that conforms to the foreigner’s home setting, These are done to be helpful, but it slows down adaptation.

#4. Expatriate Bonding. Often when a foreigner enters a new culture. Often other foreigners will take the new people under their wing. This is meant to be nice, but it like the previous one. Thomas and Sue Brewster spoke of this sort of bonding for missionaries. Missionaries adapt faster if they don’t bond to missionaries in the field.

I am sure I am missing a lot of others, but I want to spend more time on one.

#5. Maintaining the Advantages of Otherness. With this one, the person is intentional in maintaining otherness, but not necessarily due to ethnocentrism. Rather, there are advantages seen in maintaining a form of foreignness. Some jobs are helped in this. If one owns an ethnic restaurant, is a practioner of ayurvedic medicine, or yoga, or martial arts, there may be economic advantages if one’s persona is is more foreign than local.

A rather unpleasant example is in the area of maintaining power imbalance. Lesslie Newbigin gisves a wonderful example of this in his book “The Finality of Christ” in a letter from a British Colonial governor in India dated 1798.

To preserve the ascendancy which our national character has acquired over the minds of the natives of India must ever be of importance to the maintenance of the political power we possess in the East; and we are well persuaded that this end is not to be served either by a disregard of the external observances of religion or by any assimilations to Eastern manners and opinions, but rather by retaining all the distinctions of our national principles, character, and usages.

Lesslie Newbigin “The Finality of Christ” (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1969), 13. The quote originally from a letter in 1792, is quoted by F. Penney “The Church in Madras, Vol. 1” (London, 1904), 419.

Essentially, the writer appears to be saying that the British can keep the natives under their control if they see the British as different, mysterious, and superior. If the British start adapting to the Indian culture, the locals might start seeing the British as “Just like us.” This letter is not a unique attitude. It was very much the advice of the day. It still can happen today when we don’t pay attention.

Religious leaders often support a certain otherness as well— dressing different, acting different, and such. After all, the pope throughout history has avoided being seen eating in publich NOT because he doesn’t need to eat. Rather, there is the goal to think of the pope as “not really like us” and sharing a meal undermines this.

Jesus actually was quite annoyed at the religious leaders in first century Judea, and this comes largely for their desire to maintain a false front before other people with the hope of that otherness will be interpreted as holiness.

Missionaries can fall into this as well. Ultimately, the example of Jesus was quite different. He was God with us in such a literal way that He was faollowed event though behaving in many ways as “One of Us.”

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