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A Vanilla Life: 5 Questions to Consider as you Build Cross-Cultural Friendships

Lorna Johnston /Thursday, April 20, 2023

 

My phone chirps.

Another text with a video from my friend.

I watch the video with confusion… I don’t understand what it's about or why she sent it to me--but I LOVE that she did!

She’s reaching out to me…trying to be a friend. I wonder what things I do that confuse her? We’re learning together—she newly arrived from the Middle East; me a lifelong Canadian.

A ‘Vanilla’ Life

This newly developing friendship is unexpected given my ‘vanilla’ life growing up. ‘Vanilla’ describes most of my childhood: Food was predictable, community was homogenous, and the exotic or unusual was reserved for travelogue shows on TV.

Vanilla was my ice cream flavour of choice. It was safe, predictable, and delicious. All those other flavours might not be as good…and risking ice cream disappointment seemed unimaginable to me. It wasn’t until my teens that I discovered the delights of Mint Chocolate Chip, Maple Walnut, and other wonderful flavours.

Back to my friend. She’s similar in age to me, married, with children and she likes gardening. But that’s where the obvious similarities end.

Her life experience couldn’t be more different than mine.

  • She’s eastern; I’m western.
  • She has fled war; I have lived in peace.
  • She is dependent on the kindness of strangers; I live in comfort and security.
  • She is Muslim; I am Christian.

Her life has been a different ‘flavour’ than mine.

Trying new flavours of ice cream is pretty straightforward. Friendship across these huge cultural differences is harder.

5 Questions to Ask when Building a Cross-Cultural Friendship.

So, here are 5 questions to ask and answer when building cross-cultural friendship.

1. Will I make space in my life to develop the friendship?

Friendship takes time. It isn’t enough to drop a bag of groceries at the door or say a quick hello.

Depth of friendship is directly related to time invested. Drink tea together. Go for walks. Chat. Do nothing in particular but do it together. Time is precious.

Invest time in growing friendship.

2. Will I level the table?

My friend is at a seeming disadvantage. She is in my culture, learning my language, navigating my community.

  • I know things - she doesn’t.
  • I am the teacher; she is the student.
  • I have things - she doesn’t.
  • I am the benefactor; she is the recipient.

True.  But wait…check that attitude. Friendship cannot develop when one is superior and the other is inferior.

Level the relationship table; sit together in honest conversation—as equals. Expect to learn and be surprised by a different perspective.

Enjoy the give and take of true friendship.

3. Will I learn the art of asking questions?

Some of the things my friend does seem odd to me. I don’t understand what’s going on.

Confusion and misunderstanding are an opportunity - either to make assumptions that are probably wrong, or to ask questions that build understanding and friendship.

An honest question asked with humble curiosity can lead to deeper conversation and reflection than any other form of communication. Anything can be asked, if asked with love, humility and respect.

Ask, listen, explore, learn.

4. Will I expect to be changed?

A good friendship is transformative.

My life-experiences are limited, but a growing cross-cultural friendship can explode my tiny worldview, presenting a whole new perspective for how life can be understood and approached.

My understanding of the world has grown, my perspectives have been stretched, and my faith in Jesus Christ has been strengthened by the exploration that happens in deep conversation with friends.

5. Do I really want to be friends?

(Perhaps the hardest and most important question, that demands an honest answer.)

Friendship is the bridge upon which the truly important questions of life can be considered. Companioning together through life’s complexities, exploring the truly important questions of life, death, truth, faith, and hope is a privilege that must be earned.

Cross-cultural friendship is an investment. It has cost me more than time and effort. It has challenged my assumptions; my ignorance; my quick judgements; my glib answers.

It may seem easier to continue on in distance and isolation, unchanged and unchallenged in thinking, but the cost of this is seen around the world in racial, religious and class discrimination.

Far better, I think, to follow the example of Jesus Christ, who levelled the relationship table by becoming human, living and walking among us, asking thought-provoking questions, and inviting us to restored relationship with God through his sacrifice and service.

As Christ followers he is our example—will we follow him?

Will it be costly? Yes. Worth it? YES!

Recently I’ve discovered the sensory delight of salted caramel ice cream. The risk of mixing savory and sweet would have been unimaginable to the ‘vanilla me’ of my childhood. Why risk ice cream disappointment?

Maybe you’ve had a ‘vanilla’ life up until now?

Join me in the adventure of discovering the wonderful flavour, richness and depth of cross-cultural friendship. Together, let’s consider and reconsider the world and our place in it, through the lens of our new friends.

Add a little flavour and richness to your life!

*This article was originally published on the Outreach Canada blog and has been republished with permission. 


Lorna Johnston is the Diaspora Ministries Leader at Outreach Canada. She leads two national teams -- Simply Mobilizing Canada (SMC) and Loving Muslims Together (LMT). She works with teams of diverse and experienced leaders and ministries across Canada to alert and activate the church in Canada to the changing opportunities to engage God's mission right here in Canada.



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