Missions in Reverse: How Southeast Asia Helped Me Engage My Own Culture

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I’ll be the first to admit that reverse culture shock is hard. After living in Southeast Asia for nearly two years, America was both strange and familiar, welcoming yet uninviting.

In the midst of eating all the Chick-fil-A I could and catching up with friends and family, I found myself often confused in conversations, sometimes even angry. I criticized people for how they spent their time. I couldn’t understand the topics people chose to talk about.

I heard it explained that I came from a square culture (America) and moved to a circle culture (Southeast Asia). My constant efforts to understand a circle culture as a square turned me into a triangle, resulting in me not fitting into my own square culture upon my return. While explanations like this helped me not to feel crazy, they really didn’t give me a way to live as a triangle in a square culture. Basically you’re told you’ve changed, no one gets you and now you just have to deal with it.

But then someone told me I didn’t have to settle for “that’s just the way it is.” I could use the differences in me to make an impact on my home culture.

You see, to be a triangle means you have the unique privilege to be a constant learner of culture.

Although I’m really just beginning this process, I have noticed a few things that my time in Southeast Asia taught me about engaging my own culture from the inside.

1. To engage culture, you have to understand it, even your own.

As a missionary, I entered Southeast Asia with a constant drive to learn—learn the language, learn the culture, learn the needs. At least some part of my day every single day was spent asking, “Why do they do it this way?”  and often “How does the gospel link to that?”

But that was just for Southeast Asia, right?

Someone told me that I needed to approach my culture with the same enthusiasm and grace that I had in Southeast Asia. I am forever grateful to that person. Once I stopped seeing reverse culture shock as something I just had to endure and started trying to re-learn my home culture despite the frustration, things began to change.

I realized that God had given me the unique opportunity to start over with the culture I’d grown up in and approach it as a missionary. As a triangle, I could notice things about the squares that they saw as normal life and I could explore why people care about the things they do.

But you don’t have to live in another country for two years to be able to learn your own culture. Anyone can step back and say, “Why are my friends interested in this?” or “Why does this issue make people so mad?” And the list goes on.

People might actually listen to you if you first listen to them.

I’ve noticed that you can learn a lot by asking questions, either to yourself or others, even if it’s about something that you’ve done all your life. You’d be surprised what you discover and how you can understand the desires, interests, fears and dreams of the people you barely know or have known since you were born.

If you understand where someone is coming from and why they think or do what they do, you can find ways to tell them about Jesus that will mean something to them. They might actually listen to you if you first listen to them.

2. The gospel will offend some people, but that isn’t an excuse not to share it.

I think I struggle with this the most in my home culture. America seems hyper sensitive about things that other cultures accept politely, and one wrong word can get you blasted on social media. But the gospel is counter-cultural and does offend many people.

As a missionary in another culture, I spent time trying to figure out how to share the gospel so that people would understand. But I didn’t spend much time on trying not to offend people (not to say I was trying to be offensive). To share the gospel was to tell them the religion they’ve believed since childhood is wrong. To talk about salvation was to tell them their loved ones who died without knowing Christ are eternally separated from God. That’s offensive.

The interesting thing is that although I knew these things were offensive, I knew I had to tell them. Their eternity was worth it.

Coming home, I have noticed that Christians (including myself) are silent because they are too afraid to offend someone.

I’ve been convicted even in writing this post that I avoid some people because I know I will offend them. But if the gospel is offensive anyway, why do I not share it? Just as it was for my friends in Southeast Asia, my American friends’ eternity is worth it.

For now we have freedom to share the gospel in America. In some places that is not the case. While we have it, we should use every opportunity to share the full message of the gospel. It may very well offend some people. But as I saw in Southeast Asia, it doesn’t offend everyone and often opens doors for more conversations.

3. Everyone is looking for something that they can only find in Jesus.

I sat in a dimly lit room in South Asia while a man who had once burned Bibles and persecuted Christians told me how he has given his life to Jesus. Like everyone else who gave a testimony that day, he was born a Hindu and had heard the gospel and believed. Person after person related their stories to me, and while each was beautifully unique, one phrase reverberated time and again.

“When I found Jesus, I found peace.”

In another part of South Asia I met a group of new Christians who had been driven from their homes when their government demolished them without warning. No one came to help them. No one, except a pastor and his friends.

Everyone is looking for something, and it’s our job to show them that the something is Jesus.

When I asked these people what made them want to give their lives to Jesus, they said, “No one came to help us. Our Hindu neighbors didn’t help us. Only the Christians showed love to us.”

They searched for love, and they found it through Jesus.

These kinds of stories could be repeated for people all around the world. We are all looking for something in life—peace, love, fulfillment, success, purpose. No matter what someone is looking for, they can always find it in Jesus.

As a triangle, I have yet to really understand what my fellow Americans around me are looking for. It seems harder to pinpoint with people who seem to have so much and in a culture that is post-modern or post-religious. But everyone is looking for something, and as Christians it is our job to show them that the something is Jesus.

These observations mean that living a life focused on taking the gospel to the lost takes time and effort. To engage my own culture, I will need to study it as I did Southeast Asia. To know what people are looking for that they can only find in Jesus, you have to talk to them, get to know them, listen to them. And to present the gospel to people who might be offended, you need to have an eternal mindset combined with sincerity and humility. This doesn’t happen naturally for me. I am prone to think about my wants and needs and avoid situations where I will feel awkward. But engaging culture takes work, and the work is more than worth it.

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Harper McKay

Harper McKay is a news and information specialist at Southeastern Seminary. She enjoys writing, editing and telling stories about what God is doing around the world. Harper and her husband live in Wake Forest, North Carolina, where they attend seminary.

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