Are All Americans Left-Handed?

From time to time we hope to bring you stories from our missionaries and others that take you to the place where they sit and work. Crossing Cultures is a vital part of missionary life and experience. It requires dedication, preparation, and a willingness to lay aside one’s own desires and comforts for the sake of the gospel and others. A missionary goes as an outsider to another culture group bearing a message of Good News. In order to communicate effectively he must become an insider, learning the language and the ways of the people.

As with individuals, each culture also has its strengths and weaknesses. Someone has said that every culture has something to teach us if we are willing to enter it as a learner. Just as every individual is important in the body of Christ, so God created each people group with its own unique contributions. And God desires each to be saved. This brings glory to Him. The Bible looks ahead to the consummation of time when people from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” that God placed on this earth will be present around His throne in heaven (Revelation 5:9).

Through other peoples we catch glimpses of the beauty and diversity that God created in the peoples of this earth. As we bring you these glimpses from other tribes and peoples our prayer is that we can all appreciate the rich tapestry and diversity that God created. May we honor His character. May we lift His name higher. And may He receive all the glory due to His name!


Seeing Ourselves through Others Eyes

The question took me by surprise. We were walking along a path around the side of a mountain on our way back to the “kraal” or homestead, a group of huts and buildings of the extended family where we were staying. Another missionary and I were spending some time at a “live-in” with a Swazi family.

I knew there would be some surprises. The four months of cross-cultural training and ministry in the troubled Watts area of Los Angeles prepared us for some cultural adjustments, sometimes called culture shock. Upon arrival in Swaziland we launched into another two weeks of orientation and an introduction of the language. Then it was off to the “live-in” before being placed in a school as a teacher. We were all eyes and ears as we went into this immersion experience. Away from colleagues and friends and the city it was only we and they, and no way to travel out!

When we arrived the children crowded around to see who these strangers were. The head wife (there were three in that home) came and welcomed us. She introduced us to two boys who spoke a bit of English and showed us to our quarters. The room was comfortable by Swazi standards. In typical African hospitality they went out of their way to see that our needs were met. After a while we felt like a burden, but that was only our Western perception. We were used to our independence. In a rural home, as well as in large families, everybody knows what part they play to make things run smoothly.

The boys especially were curious. They had many questions. They wanted to know what America was like. Likewise we had many questions. Everything there was new to us. “Why do you have so many cattle? What about the terrible erosion from overgrazing?” There were discussions about customs--and spiritual things too. Having much time on our hands, we also took advantage of the daily language learning and practice.

In this culture each group within the family had its own place to eat. The men ate together in one place, the boys in another, the wife (or wives) and the younger children near the kitchen. Two older boys were assigned to keep us company, for I was a young man and single at the time. They ate with us and stayed near us most of our waking hours. Trying to please us they brought out the few pieces of silverware they had. We didn’t want to make a scene and communicate rejection, so we simply accepted and used them. The two boys with us were also given silverware. They were not accustomed to the finer arts of Western style manners and felt clumsy. They usually grasped the food by their right hands to eat. Initially we felt sorry for them. But we still couldn’t speak but a few words of greeting in the language. And they only spoke limited, broken English. And so it went for a few days.

As we got to know each other we became more open in our conversation. A bonding was beginning. One day on returning from a walk, one of them right beside me just put his hand into mine. Walking down the road holding hands!? Even though no one was around I felt so strange, almost ashamed. For in my culture at that time homosexuality was just beginning to come out of the closet. To be seen holding hands with another man in public was an embarrassment of the first degree, a taboo. One was a near outcast in society.

My emotions overwhelmed me for a moment. I felt like drawing back. But in an instant I realized that I needed to respond based on what I knew and not how I felt. Here in a simple way he was expressing his warm acceptance of me as a person. After a few days of getting used to this I found it quite natural to return the affection. What a joy to honor someone with a symbol of friendship so real and personal.

One day we noticed that they were particularly uncomfortable with us at mealtime. Afterwards my partner and I realized they were trying to eat with their left hands like us. We were both left-handed and they apparently thought they also needed to eat with their left hands to fit in and be accepted. They wanted to be like us.

A few days later we were again out walking. They questioned us about various things in America. “Are all Americans rich? Do all Americans drive cars? How can you keep warm if it is so cold during your “dry” season?” They had no real conception of winter. And then out of the blue came the question… “Are all Americans left-handed?” I thought it humorous at first and almost laughed. But they were dead serious. Why would they ask such a thing?

“Of course not. In fact only a small percentage are.”

“But we thought they all are.”

“Why should you think that?!”

“Well, you are both left-handed!” Okay, that didn’t seem odd to us. “And the two Americans that came here six months ago were also left-handed. And a teacher in our school (a volunteer from an American agency) is left-handed. He even writes on the chalkboard with his left hand. Well, we just thought all Americans are left-handed!”

And why not? That is all they ever saw. Can we blame them for thinking that? It was a logical conclusion. In our cross-cultural training we were taught to verify each observation by further evidence and observation. Try to pick up the pattern. Was not that enough? They had done that. Oh, how easy it is to draw wrong conclusions about someone too soon. Yes, crossing a culture takes time, and patience. But love covers a multitude of sins and cultural mistakes.

But their question carried much significance in their culture. It is a serious offense in Swazi life to do certain things with the left hand. You see the left hand is unclean because it is the bathroom hand. It is never used to bestow or receive honor. Even after washing it, the connotation remains. I later had a bright student in my class who could write equally well with both hands. He was ambidextrous, but he favored his left hand when doing certain skills. I learned that as soon as it is recognized that the child is left-handed, the parents tie the left hand behind the back with a piece of cowhide. This practice continues as long as needed to break the child and force him to learn to use the right hand.

The proper manner of giving and receiving of gifts in Swazi culture is held as a high value. It is always done with the right hand or both hands. A humble posture, leaning forward and never looking an elder or respected person in the eye accompany it. It involves intricate respect and appropriate praise. Each family, extended family, and clan has a praise name. On receiving a gift the recipient opens up expressing gratitude using the praise name.

What a beautiful picture! When we receive God’s gifts in His way we bring praise to His name. We praise Him in both word and deed--gratitude in the heart, gratitude in words, and gratitude in our demeanor. On the contrary, to not receive the good gifts God offers us is to offend Him. God is a God of grace. He desires to bestow His blessings on us. But we must meet His conditions and receive them His way. How sad if we would offend someone who loves us so much that He gave His Son to die a sacrificial death to save us- the ultimate gift. To reject such a gift is the ultimate offense.

From that time onwards I was much more conscientious about how I used my left hand and when. Just as the young child had his left hand tied behind his back, I had to constantly remind myself until it became more of a habit--not only in giving and receiving gifts but even the simple act of passing something to another person. I was rewarded with an unexpected compliment. Swazis like to give descriptive names to people they know. My Swazi mother (by that time she said she was adopting us!) decided that my name from that time on was to be Sipho. Sipho means gift in the siSwati language. She saw us as having brought a blessing to their household. The feeling was certainly mutual.

Have you received God’s ultimate gift? Are you expressing your gratefulness and praise to Him? Do you know God’s praise names? He is worthy to be praised for His excellent greatness!
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