by Sheryl Takagi Silzer
Cross-cultural adjustment theories suggest that the longer you live in another culture, the more you learn about that culture, and that your increased knowledge results in greater adjustment. This was not true of me.
Sixteen years as a missionary in Asia did not prepare me for my final two years there. When my husband was asked to take an assignment in another part of the country, I thought my previous experience would allow me to face anything. After all, I was not moving to a new country. I was already familiar with the language and culture. However, these two years proved to be the most stressful of my quarter-century of missionary experience.
Cross-cultural adjustment theories suggest that the longer you live in
another culture, the more you learn about that culture, and that your
increased knowledge results in greater adjustment. This was not true of
me. My cultural background was, as Lingenfelter states, a "prison of disobedience," a set of habits that prevented me from adjusting to other cultures. My own cross-cultural adjustment was not a matter of time, but of understanding who I was in Christ and seeing how my culture prevented me from sharing the gospel with individuals God had placed around me.
When I was a new missionary, my father exhorted me to be sure to work an eight-hour day for the mission. We were used to hard work in my family. My grandfather emigrated to America in the early part of the 20th century and began farming. He started three different farms, moving from place to place over the years. After each move he was more insistent that hard work eventually would bring stability. My father, meanwhile, made every effort to succeed, whether in farming or in church work.
I joined my mission as a Bible translator and went to Latin America. I was assigned, with another single woman, to work among an isolated people group. When my new husband and I got married, we took another assignment. However, since my husband was also a Bible translator, I assumed that we would eventually complete a New Testament.
We went to Asia and, two months after our arrival, were assigned to a language group. We participated in a three-month workshop and made great progress in language learning and analysis. Then I got malaria and spent a year and a half out of the country for treatment and visa renewals. In the meantime, the mission leaders decided my husband should lead the work with national translators. The mission’s leaders suggested that we move to a more accessible language group to enable us to complete a New Testament more quickly. So we began work in this language and completed the translation of Mark and other passages from the life of Christ.
Then the mission asked my husband to get a graduate degree in linguistics, which took us out of the country for two years. Upon our return, my husband was asked to take a temporary assignment in administration to oversee 25 language projects. The two years grew into three, then four. Then my husband was asked to take the position permanently and give the translation work to another couple. At a critical time, my husband was asked to take a job in the capital city.
"NO JOB" STRESS
To this point I had begun work in three languages. Each time I had not been able to complete a New Testament. Until the move to the capital, however, I had felt like I was contributing to the mission, either working on Bible translation myself or helping others do it. But when we moved to the capital, no job fit my skills, and I couldn’t obtain a work permit. I began experiencing high levels of stress.
A number of factors contributed to my stress: changing from (1) a rural to an urban location, (2) part-time to live-in employees, (3) one main employee to 11 employees in two years, (4) an MK school to an international school for our two children, and (5) having two mission jobs to no official mission job. The last change affected me the most. During my 25 years of mission service, I had thought that God’s will for me was to fulfill an official mission job. When I didn’t have one, I thought that God was displeased with me.
STRESS AND WORK GOALS
My work ethic, passed down to me by my father and grandfather, drove me to continually prove that I was contributing to the mission’s goals. I felt that my supporters expected me to work hard. My self worth was based on my ability to fulfill a work goal-completing a Bible translation. As long as I was productive-meeting mission goals in language work or in an office job-I felt good about myself. When I didn’t have an official mission job, I began to feel bad about myself. I would then take out my frustrations on others. I also compared myself to others. If they were doing more than I was, I criticized them for working too hard. If they were doing less, I faulted them for not working hard enough. I would never be satisfied until I completed a New Testament. My training had given me the skills to reach this goal, but my mission experience hadn’t allowed me to fulfill it.
My goal blocked, I focused on my difficulties with household employees. Each time a worker quit, I had to (in my mind) waste time looking for another. When I had workers, I thought I was only responsible for their work, since that’s what I was paying them for. The local cultural standard, however, was to care for an employee like a family member. I felt like I was being imposed upon to pay for their food, housing, and medicine and didn’t think it my responsibility to monitor their social activities, since they were all adults. I assumed that my work values were the same as local work values.
I tried a number of things to reduce my stress, such as taking breaks and eating better, but they did not address the real issue. I believed God wanted me to have a full-time work position in the mission; if I didn’t, God wasn’t pleased with me.
My focus on work goals blinded me to the idea that God might want me to evangelize the employees that came through my home. My behavior was colored by my focus on work, a prison of disobedience preventing me from a focus on lost souls.
A NEW UNDERSTANDING
Following those stressful 20 months, we returned home for an extended furlough. A year later I was diagnosed with breast cancer, which runs in my family. Following surgery and chemotherapy I was very tired and unable to lead a normal life. I felt useless and began to ask God why this had happened to me. Was God punishing me for not working hard enough?
Although having cancer was far from enjoyable, God used it to stop me and raise questions about my identity. Classes in intercultural studies at Biola University have helped me understand that I had high work goals, but a low view of God. When ! reflected on my childhood, God began to show me that my drive to work came from trying to please my father and from my grandfather’s frustration with not completing tasks. I associated doing mission work with pleasing God. Without an official mission job, I had no means of pleasing God. 1 then projected my unhappiness on the people around me, complaining about all the things that kept me from doing real work. I didn’t realize that my family background had created a false identity based on accomplishments, in particular work for wages.
Once I began to uncover the source of my work drive, I began to see my true identity in Christ. This identity is not measured by the work that I can do, but by the qualities that reflect his character-love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:23-24). I am only beginning to learn how these qualities grow out of my relationship with God rather than from my own efforts to do good things (John 15:1-10).
1 saw that I am a valued human being, whatever I do. Little by little, God began restoring my joy. God loves me not because I have a particular job, but because he made me. In love he created me to reflect his image. This image is not just to work, but to express love through responsibility for others. My individualism had blinded me to my responsibility to share the gospel with my employees. I had been so intent on doing my own work for the mission that I hadn’t seen the mission field God had placed right in front of me. Now I am free to spend more time with each one, discovering their deep felt needs and desires. God has begun to do a new work in me.
Sheryl Takagi Silzer has been a member of Wycliffe Bible Translators since 1967. She has served in Colombia, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. She is part of the Summer Institute of Linguistics training team at Biola University and an adjunct instructor at the School of Intercultural Studies at Biola University and Talbot Seminary.
Copyright © 2000 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.