So you want to be a missionary…

Day 5, July 21. Worms, Germany.

Mission life involves something called “crossing cultural barriers” and “contextualizing one’s life to a new culture.” To some, this may sound glamorous, since learning about a new culture can often seem fascinating in theory from a distance. However, the reality of actually relocating to live within a new culture can be confusing, frustrating, and challenging.

Today I offer some reflections today on “Ten things I did not know about Germany before I visited here.” This could also be titled “How you as an American would have to adjust if you decided to live permanently in Worms, Germany.” Note: Not everything I share below is true in every part of Germany. Just as the United States has regional cultural peculiarities, the same is true in Germany.

First, there are the ecological and environmental cultural differences. (While environmentalism is a good thing, the approach to environmentalism here and throughout the EU could be seen by a newcomer as bordering on obsession or religious passion.

1. Refrigerator temperatures are pre-set – you cannot control the temperature in the refrigerator that you purchase. If your milk is tepid, tough luck. Washing machine cycles are also pre-set. It takes almost 2 hours to do a load of laundry and there is nothing the consumer can do to shorten the cycle. The purpose is, of course, the protection of the environment by saving water and electricity.

2. Children in school are required to use every page in their spiral notebooks. It is not permissible to have a blank page even though the notebook was purchased by the student and belongs to the student. One of the Thomas children argued with her teacher to no avail that she always skips the first page in her notebooks. Fiercely independent Americans do not like to be told these kinds of things. Think of this the next time you throw away a piece of paper!

Second, interesting food practices:

3. You can buy beer at MacDonalds. If you buy the “Party Pack” of chicken at KFC, it comes with a keg of beer. Imagine Joe’s surprise when he took his kids (at the time ages 5, 8, 10, and 14) out for a fun family evening and decided to order the Party Pack. Packets of ketchup at MacDonalds cost 25 cents apiece – Germans do not generally put ketchup on anything so they view ketchup as a “non-essential”.

4. Germans occasionally celebrate “American Food Day” in grocery stores. Some “American foods” offered are ketchup and mayonnaise combined in a tube, pepper cookies, and corn on pizza. Why do they do this? Because this is the kind of food Germans believe that Americans like and eat regularly. (I remember seeing my false assumptions exposed when traveling in Asia. It was there that I discovered that I couldn’t order an egg roll or General Tso’s chicken. Chinese do not eat these things! They are found in Chinese restaurants in America, not in Asian Chinese restaurants.)

5. The mid-day meal (lunch in America) is the main meal of the day in Germany, and dinner (as we often call the evening meal in America) is a light meal in Germany with lunch meats, cheese, etc.

Bonus observation: The town of Worms has established a standard rate for a scoop of ice cream. Anyone who sells ice cream cannot charge more than the established rate. This is to ensure that all ice cream shops remain competitive with one another and that no one has to go out of business.

Finally, a few general cultural differences:

6. Social services has been known to take children from their parents with no discussion if there is a suspicion that the child is receiving corporal punishment. One father wondered why his daughter did not come home from school, only to discover that she had been taken by the government with no advance warning or opportunity for discussion.

7. All tradesmen dress by color – for example, garbage men all wear orange.

8. Germans believe that Americans don’t speak true English – they speak “American” English. British English is taught in the schools, but the influence of American culture makes kids want to speak American English.

9. German drivers are incredibly conscientious and courteous. Pedestrians and cyclists are deferred to under all circumstances. It seems like you would have to be trying on purpose to get hit if you are walking or on a bike. Pedestrians and cyclists in Worms, Germany, never jaywalk or walk or bike against the light.

10. Germans are very interested in and opinionated about American politics (what they know is primarily from international CNN). They overwhelmingly support the more liberal part of American politics. My experience is that most Americans are utterly disinterested in and uninformed about German politics.

Another bonus observation: All Germans are taxed a church tithe by the government, as opposed to tithing individually to the church or ministry of their choice. This tax/tithe goes to either the Protestant or Catholic church, depending on one’s preference. Germans who object to this because of conscience must file the necessary paperwork to be exempted from this procedure.

Some of these differences are just…well, different. Others seem odd. A few might prove irritating. When at home in the USA, I ride my bike a lot. I have a tendency to sometimes make up my own traffic rules, dart in and out of traffic, and cross against the light when there are no cars coming – it’s the American way! So riding a bike in Germany frustrates me with some of the restrictions as I conform to German traffic rules (though I must admit, it seems a lot safer).
Obviously, Germany is a western country with a culture that is nearer to American culture than, say, Indonesia or Papua New Guinea or China. Missionaries to many of those countries are called upon to alter their lifestyles in even more radical ways than the adaptations forced upon the Thomas’.

Adjusting to these kinds of changes (and a myriad of other cultural oddities) is the norm for most missionaries who decide to enter another culture. Such cultural adaptation is essential if one is to identify with a target audience and begin to build relationships for the sake of the Gospel. Taking a missions trip provides the opportunity to see firsthand some of the sacrifices made and the humility and grace that are required if one is to follow God’s call.