THAT IS THE question. Every time someone starts pouring cups of Coke or Postobon, my conscience has an internal battle: do I accept this sugary substance at the expense of my health, or do I stick to my convictions at the expense of politeness?
The same thing happens when I’m offered deep fried flour for breakfast or the choice between a hamburger and a hotdog when what I really want is kale.
If I was like the rest of the world — i.e. normal people who joyfully consume sugar and grease, I wouldn’t be having existential crises every time I go to a party. Funny enough, though, these trifles have led me to see what I hadn’t before:
I am a guest.
Growing up in two cultures, I thought I’d arrived at superstarguestdom. For my White hosts, being a good guest typically meant arriving at six on the dot, not eating too much or too fast, and commenting on house decor. For my Asian hosts, being a good guest usually meant arriving half an hour late (or intentionally arriving early to help or chat), helping myself to three servings while not taking the last portion, and offering to do the dishes. And when norms weren’t clear, I knew how to adapt.
In Barranquilla, hospitality is on a whole other level. When they say make yourself at home, they mean it. Instead of putting apps on a table, they bring them out on a tray and serve guests one-by-one.
I’m slowly learning that being a good guest here means accepting whatever is offered you, and when you’re absolutely not feeling it, you can say no without making a fuss. You follow the overall conversation without having too many side convos. It’s completely acceptable to ask your host to bring you something or to take your plate. You can help if you want, but you really should just sit, relax and enjoy the company.
But when I say I’m a guest, I don’t just mean adopting new manners. It’s more than that.
I am a guest of this culture.
A huge area of growth for me is to observe without judging. So many times I’ve questioned the efficiency of a task or the motive behind a question or statement. One event in particular made me stop and think.
Earlier this month, I went to the beach with a group from my church. An afternoon of laughter and fútbol made me feel so comfortable that I forgot we were speaking Spanish. Yet as I laid in bed that evening, I felt completely drained. Flipping through the day’s events in my mind, I replayed my faux pas, reheard the side comments, relived the embarrassment of not comprehending the words spoken to and around me…
Loudest of all, the words ¡Sophy! ¡Siéntate! ¡Ven! ¡Cuidado! echoed in my memory. Why did they keep commanding me to do stuff? In my confused rebellion I actually refused to sit several times.
Shame came over me as I realized I’d been living as a tourist, one foot in, one foot out. Despite everything I’ve read and experienced about incarnational ministry, I was subconsciously comparing everything to my life in the States and rejecting the parts in Colombia that didn’t match up.
So I went to work. This past month has been about shifting lenses, readjusting steps, peeling back the layers of my North Americanness – all in an attempt to pinpoint and part with my prejudices in order to see Colombia for what it is, in all its facets.
To be a good guest.
It hasn’t been easy. I’ve probably made one inch of progress in this marathon. But that one inch has opened my heart to recognize that being a good guest in Colombia ultimately comes down to this: respect.
Accepting hospitality in all forms
Honoring the values and norms of my hosts
Trusting the precautions of my hosts
Learning how my hosts do things
Offering my opinion without imposing it
Understanding that the constant Asian jokes come in a different context
(that’s a different post altogether)
Even and especially when I disagree
To be clear, respect is not assimilation. It’s not surrendering my personality and beliefs for the sake of blending in. That would rob our relationships of diversity.
Respect is sacrifice. Because I naturally hold myself in highest esteem. Because I am called to always recognize the dignity of others. Because it is a choice, and sometimes that choice means giving up a day without pop/soda/Coke to share in the revelry of your new friends, who are worth so, so much more.
And let’s be real. As much I’m “sacrificing,” it’s really my hosts who are going out of their way to take care of me, waste time while I try to form a complete sentence, and be friends with me. I am grateful to be their guest.