Money: When Cultures Collide

you are the stranger here

Money. This is a massive topic we could talk about for weeks and which in cross cultural relationship contains no small amount of landmines.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how upside down conversations about money often are. Western*, financially stable, educated (hello, me) people move to less developed, less educated, financially precarious, countries and money becomes a hot topic. In our passport countries money is still an issue, but it can be easier to ignore. The topic is also impacted by the color of our skin and our passports.

The foreigner is often asked, sometimes on a daily basis, for money either by strangers on the street or by neighbors or friends or coworkers, and it can feel confusing and overwhelming. There are multiple layers of culture happening in each instance but what has struck me recently is the assumption of the foreigner (let’s just say my assumption) has been that we are the ones being asked or having demands put on us that complicate relationships.

(*It isn’t just the western foreigner, here again a wrong assumption is revealed. This affects anyone of relative means and anyone in relationships that are economically imbalanced or part of an organization that potentially has funds, whether a business, an NGO, a faith institution, etc. And it is complicated by all the culture we bring with us without even being aware of it most times.)

Now, if we only think about this asking from a financial perspective, sure, it is potentially true. However, when we leave the conversation there and yet again put ourselves in the position of the one to respond, save, help, give (or not), and fail to see the broader picture, we get lost in frustration and we place ourselves above the people asking. We forget humility, neglect gratitude, fail to see things from their perspective, and cannot understand that we are pompous and clueless.

Do we realize what we are asking of them? Or our local friends and coworkers?

Do we recognize the complications that our very presence brings into their lives?

Are we aware of the massive request we make of them when they patiently listen to us stumble through a heavily accented conversation or when they put up with our awkward cultural faux pas? When they must go out of their way to explain something normal and every day to them, but which we can’t comprehend? When they could have spent the afternoon with someone much easier to relate with?

Will we ever know how they defend us to people who ask about our presence or our work?

Do we fully appreciate what they go through to help us adjust to living outside our own cultures? The extra trips to the telecom office, the loaning of appropriate clothing for an event, the training in bus routes, the help translating at the doctor’s office, the assistance after a car accident, the homework help for our kids as they learn a language we haven’t mastered yet, the smoothing things over behind our backs when we aren’t even aware we have caused offense?

Do we see ourselves as we are truly are; the buffoonish (no matter what level of cultural adaptation achieved, we will never be local) outsider making huge requests of a local person as we seek friendship with them?

Are their requests for school fees or bus fare or a small business loan really so much to ask? Are they, perhaps, a kind of tax we owe for the demands we make on them as they put up with us? Or, less coldly, a gift we can graciously proffer in thanks for all they have to do to endure us? Of course that doesn’t mean to not use discretion but it does mean to consider the fuller context.

This is a rather long but well-worth reading quote from Eula Biss in No Man’s Land:

I was standing on the sidewalk in front of our building in my bathing suit, still dripping from the lake, and a boy leaving the park asked if I had a quarter. I laughed and told the boy that I typically don’t carry change in my bathing suit, but he remained blank-faced, as uninterested as a toll collector. His request, I suspect, had very little to do with any money I may have had or any money he may have needed. The exchange was intended to be, like so many of my exchanges with my neighbors, a ritual offering. When I walk from my apartment to the train I am asked for money by all variety of people – old men and young boys and women with babies. Their manner of request is always different, but they are always black and I am always white. Sometimes I give money and sometimes I do not, but I do not feel good about it either way, and the transaction never fails to be complicated. I do not know whether my neighbors think, as I do, of these quarters and dollars as a kind of tax on my presence here. A tax that, although I resent it, is more than fair.

I think we often have this conversation about giving and financial requests cross-culturally without fully engaging in the bigger picture. I don’t know that this resolves anything or offers solutions to anything, but I think we need to reckon with what we, the foreigner, ask and demand of our local community without even being aware of it. A little humility is in store here.

Your thoughts? Other things regarding money and giving and requests you’d like to talk about?


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