Wikipedia says that the term “ugly American” is a pejorative term meaning “a term used to refer to perceptions of arrogant behavior by Americans abroad.” OUCH The real problem is not that the locals “perceive” arrogant behavior by Americans… It’s that there really is actual arrogant behavior by my fellow countrymen. While this is merely either annoying or source of amusement for sophisticated Parisians or harried Londoners, it can cripple a short term missions trip’s effectiveness.
I have witnessed missions teams who never speak to anyone outside of their group.
I have heard first hand stories of “helpful” short term missions teams who painted a house without asking the occupant, because “they thought it needed it.”
I have watched children run at moving cars of (obviously) Americans with their hands out yelling, “Sweeties!” because all they know is that American teams hand out candy to starving kids.
Now, I will admit that some of this stems from my fellow Americans truly believing that WE KNOW THINGS, and that those things would benefit… well any- and everybody else in the world. We have our melting pot culture, our way of doing things, our embarrassment of riches, and so we think we must be doing something right.
Even when we go with a heart and mind that’s REALLY just wanting to help, we often make a fundamental mistake: we ignore the culture. Or, probably more accurately, we assume that we can act like we do within our own culture and everything will be okay. Maybe we don’t even realize (because we didn’t do our research) that some things we do without even thinking might be considered rude or even insulting in a foreign country.
So, in the spirit of world peace on a small scale, here are 5 things you should ALWAYS do before visiting a foreign country, especially if you’re going on a missions trip. I’ll be using Uganda as my example, but please keep these in mind when visiting virtually any country that isn’t the USA. Even Canada, eh?
1. DRESS IS VERY IMPORTANT
This really should go without saying, until you fly internationally on any airline leaving any US airport, and you realize that a good tenth of the people flying are in their pajamas.
Let me repeat that. THEIR. PAJAMAS.
Now, an airplane isn’t a foreign country, but if you can’t get dressed to fly, I despair of your wardrobe in your destination country. Let me say this as clearly as I know how:
PAJAMA PANTS ARE FOR YOUR BED.
No one in any airport or on any plane in the entire known universe wants to see you wearing the Grinch, Tweety Bird, or the logo of your favorite sports team while schlupping your pillow onto the plane. I get it – travel to Uganda is about 30 hours. Seats are small. You need to be comfortable. Decent looking sweats? Great. Yoga pants WITH A LONG TOP (this is key)? Perfect. Lounge wear that looks like actual clothes? Fine. Ladies, DO NOT wear any pants without a long top to cover. Trust me, it’s just wayyy too much information for the rest of us.
What does this have to do with your destination? Well, there is nowhere in the world where forgetting your pants is an acceptable option. Nor is wearing pajama pants in public if you’re older than 2. And believe it or not, in most countries — like in the US thirty years ago — people dressed as much out of respect for OTHER PEOPLE as they do for their own sense of style. Also, many countries are quite conservative.
In Uganda, there is actually a law against mini-skirts.
Let that sink in.
I know. Your American self is starting to think about your rights and your style and all that stuff. But here’s the thing, especially if you’re on a missions trip. YOU ARE THERE TO SERVE. You are not there to make a statement about your personal fashion or your Constitutional right to dress however you want. You’re there, at the pleasure of the authorities that issued you a visa or stamped your passport, to visit their country.
RESPECT THAT and dress appropriately. In Uganda, that means not showing your thighs, and barely showing your knees. It means looking nice – what we’d call “church clothes” or “dressy casual” these days. Clean, unripped, unstained clothes. Not a sloppy tee. Nice jeans and pants. For guys, slacks and a polo or button down if you’re doing ANYTHING with elders around. For gals, a maxi or knee length skirt and a nice top. You won’t die from it, I promise. You might even feel pretty nice most days!
2. MANY CULTURES DON’T DRINK ALCOHOL
Or, I guess I should say, there is likely a large segment of people who don’t. In Uganda, for instance, Ugandan Christians DO. NOT. DRINK. They just don’t. Muslims also don’t drink.
So guess who else doesn’t drink? That would be you!
If you’re in an expat place, or with Western friends, and they’re imbibing, by all means, enjoy a couple. But if you’re working with Christians who don’t drink, please pay attention to Paul: …take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. I Cor 8:9 Just don’t drink. There are a lot of problems in poverty stricken communities with alcoholism and illegal moonshine – just don’t do anything to cause confusion!
3. CHILDREN ARE “FREE RANGE”
One shock about place like Uganda is that you see tiny little children wandering along the road or alone in front of a house or store. No adult is noticeably paying attention, if, indeed there is even an adult around. THIS IS OKAY and not cause to a) call police, b) snatch the child up and try to find a parent, or 3) ask the child if he/she is lost.
America has gotten really…. weird… about kids playing outside. Even if you’re not weird about it, you will find the way many many Third World Countries handle their kids very strange. You will think that they are neglected or abused or ignored. They’re not. You’ll think they work too hard at too young an age. They do… But they have to and that’s how it’s done there. Even in Europe you’ll see lots and lots of kids walking to and from schools that are far away (by our standards).
Trust me, it’s fine. And if you do approach one of these kids to “rescue” them, you will quickly find that there are not only parents but also grandparents, neighbors, siblings and friends who all knew exactly where that child was and what it was doing.
4. TIPPING IS UNNECESSARY (AT BEST) AND RUDE (AT WORST)
I know, this is hard to wrap your head around. We are so used to tipping everywhere – restaurants, bars, hair salons, even cruise ship staterooms. But in most places, they don’t do this. Ever. At all. And no, the wait staff isn’t in slavery or anything — they’re just paid a wage like everyone else.
If someone really stands out and you want to bless them, leave a little monetary blessing and a note. Everyone in the world appreciates that. But in general, find out about your country before spreading your cash around (think of it as a budget saver). In Uganda? No tipping.
5. ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS RESPECT ELDERS
Here in the South we still have a small smidgeon of the old “respect your elders” culture. Kids learn to say, “Yes, ma’am,” and “Yes, sir,” and sometimes they even say it. But in general in our country, older people are not only not given extra respect, they are actually looked down on as weak, frail and old.
This is NOT the case in most other cultures, particularly Eastern ones like in Africa and Asia. Let me repeat: ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS pay elders respect.
There are a lot of ways to do this: open doors, give them the first food or drink, call them Mr. or Mrs., or, if you know them better, Mama or Auntie. LISTEN. Pay attention to them. Bow your head in acknowledgement of their wisdom.
Trust me. And do this to ANYONE in a position of authority, such as a pastor. If you don’t, almost nothing else you do will matter.