“Say it again,” they urged me. I felt like an animal in a cage, surrounded by the watchful eyes of gleeful children who poked at its helpless form with a stick. My fellow college-aged camp counselors hailed mostly from Canada and the Northeastern United States. Much of the kitchen crew came from the United Kingdom. The oddity of my red hair and southern drawl quickly earned me the nickname, “Georgia Ginger,” and now they wanted me to speak on command like a trained parrot.
I hadn’t traveled outside of the Deep South much before and didn’t realize I had a different vocabulary than people from other parts of the United States. When I said I was fixin’ to go somewhere and they laughed, I felt exposed and uncertain of what I’d done that warranted their teasing. I never realized my place in the world unknowingly shaped me in ways that were unlike other people.
Understanding the world
I was young and unaware of how acutely our understanding of ourselves, others, and even God, is formed by the location and people we are born into or by the proximity we allow ourselves to cultures unlike our own. I later learned the word for it in my seminary studies: worldview. James Sire in The Universe Next Door explains a worldview as “a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart” and says a person’s worldview “provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.”(1)
The place, family, religious tradition, and culture in which we grow and learn shapes our understanding of the world and how we will interact with it. Each person has a unique vantage point shaped by our circumstances, background, and life experiences; but we share common beliefs and commitments to those who are like us, who share our place in the world. This is the foundation upon which we build our beliefs about God and the universe God created.
My upbringing in what’s called the “Bible Belt” didn’t just influence the way I speak. The phrases y’all and bless your heart aren’t the only takeaways I gained from growing up in the former Confederacy. As I stepped further outside of the boundaries of the Mason Dixon Line and the Atlantic Ocean, I learned just how much that red clay had been the fertile ground for a particular view of God.
The shock to my body as a young adult who was transplanted into the Western Sahara Desert was nothing compared to the shock to my soul. Wide-eyed and newly married, I sat on the hewn rock pews of the largest church in the Middle East and listened to Arabic sermons next to my new Coptic Orthodox neighbors.
I learned fresh ways of seeing everything I had ever known along with new words for God and the way to understand and explain faith. I must have looked like my camp counselor friends in those early days, mouth agape with shock and delight, “Say it again.” Abouna. Father. Eid. Feast.
After eight months of slowly dipping my feet into the churning sea of my adopted South Asian home’s culture, I’ve barely gotten past the surface. This country is much less diverse than America in terms of a melting pot of many nations. Our white faces draw crowds wherever we go because seeing foreigners is less common than in other more touristy locations in Asia. Yet, the diversity within this single culture is so staggering, I can’t navigate it well enough to place my finger on generalities.
One friend was married at age 13, a common practice in many villages. Another is still single nearing 30, her parents constantly trying to arrange her marriage. This girl covers her head while another wears jeans and a t-shirt. That woman wasn’t educated past third grade and can only write her name while yet another runs a school teaching the language to foreigners. One fasted the entire month of Ramadan and has been on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Another casually claims Islam but isn’t really observant. She has never left the small radius of her village. She is one of the few women in the capital city to drive a motorbike. She attended a small madrasa. She studied at the top international school in the country. All of these women are just as “normal” as the next, breaking the molds that try to contain them as women, as South Asian and as Muslim.
A co-worker has lived in this country for nearly a decade and has been outside of her passport country for 20 years. I thought surely she would have a good grasp of cultural norms and so I looked to her for guidance...
The holidays have always been a time of togetherness and feasting for my family. When crispness enters the air, bringing relief from the stifling Georgia summer, my mind turns to standing in my mom’s kitchen and making noodles or pound cake, pulling out the card table to make room for everyone in the kitchen.
The year my husband and I found ourselves living in a land that was still new to us when the holidays rolled around, we had none of the familiar traditions to anchor us to the season of feasting and family.
Our family was celebrating together over 6,000 miles away. Fall for us in the Middle East was marked by one uncommon rainfall, not falling leaves. We spent Thanksgiving with a group of internationals, eating turkey alongside stuffed grape leaves, the familiar next to the new. There was food and laughter, but it didn’t feel like a feast.
Homesickness settled in over my soul in the middle of the holiday season, pictures from home brought reminders of all I was missing out on. The poinsettia and little Charlie Brown tree in the corner were the only evidence of an approaching Christmas until an amazing thing happened.
Twinkling lights started adorning the buildings next to us and lanterns were strung between balconies. Candies and dates piled up in the produce section of the little grocery store and makeshift stables were erected in the streets outside our flat.
The Muslim holidays occur at different times each year following the lunar Islamic calendar. Eid-al-Adha, the cause of all of the decorations and excitement, happened to fall only a few days before our Christmas that year...