Cultural expectations strike again

We get a lot of emails from people across the world that read this blog who are in or are about to be in an intercultural marriage. It has been a blessing to get to develop relationships with some of you and to hear your stories. I just want to take a moment to say thank you for reaching out. Though the combinations of cultures differ, we all pretty much face the same challenges, and I’d like to think we can find some solidarity in one another. So, I wanted to write today’s blog specifically for this particular demographic.

Facing a new challenge… again?

One of the biggest talking points for newly married cross cultural couples is cultural expectations. As I’ve been saying the past few years that I’ve been writing this blog, culture plays a big part in how Ray and I understand each other, and without earnestly seeking to understand each other’s culture, this marriage would have been over long before it even started. #truth

In our first few years of marriage, we mostly focused on cultural expectations as they related to our marriage – what he expected of me as a wife, the assignment of marital responsibilities, and the like. But as we are currently working on our third year of marriage, we’re discovering the importance of discussing cultural expectations regarding people outside of our marriage, specifically family members.

Before we got married, my husband was the man of his mother’s household, as his stepdad had died some time ago. Culturally speaking, it was his responsibility to take care of his mother and his siblings. Leave alone the fact that he had become the man of home, there is also a general cultural expectation that once a child gets on his feet financially, he should always be aware of his family’s needs and provide whenever possible. I might even go so far as to say it’s more like a rule, not just an expectation.

I’ve shared this before, but when we had our African wedding reception, we didn’t just feed each other wedding cake; we also fed cake to his mother and grandparents as a sign that we would always take care of them. I had no idea about that wedding tradition or the implications of what it meant for our marriage until later. (Side note for people marrying into other cultures… take time to learn the significance of the traditions you will perform at the wedding. They will give you great insight into your spouse’s cultural expectations. There was no rehearsal before our African wedding, so I was totally clueless about what I was supposed to do or what anything meant. To this day I wish we had done things a bit differently. This is Sam. Sam didn’t take time to learn the significance of Luhya traditions before her Kenyan wedding. Don’t be like Sam.)

The tension of transition

Once we got married, Ray encountered a lot of emotional anxiety because I was crying, “Leave and cleave, bruh!” while he was feeling the pull of cultural responsibility to his family. If you know Ray, you know he has an incredibly big heart for people and an even bigger place in his heart for his family. Even when he came to the States, I was busy focusing on how to pack my entire life into three suitcases, while he was considering foregoing packing his suitcase with clothes so that he could fill it with gifts for his family. Because he had also given a bunch of his clothes away before he came to the States, I made him get clothes for himself, but for months after that he complained about feeling like he hadn’t given his family enough.

In the beginning this issue actually caused lot of fights between us, because my perspective was that his only obligation was to me. As far as my culture is concerned, once you’re 18 you’re on your own, and once you’re married… fahgedaboutit. American parents typically don’t support their children financially after they hit those two milestones, and there is no expectation that the child should support the parents unless the parents can no longer take care of themselves. Generally speaking, what you do with your money is your business.

It took some time before we realized that the tension we were feeling was stemming from cultural differences. He just assumed that I was a miserly, selfish woman (as I’m sure many other Kenyans assumed and still assume is true of me to this day), and I just assumed that he cared about everyone else but me. There may be some truth to the fact that I’m a tight wad and my husband is overly generous, but we also were raised with different expectations about what money and marriage are supposed to look like.

Considering a compromise

As a couple, we’ve really had to work together to come up with a compromise that prioritizes our marriage while being as helpful as we possibly can to his family. For us that means if someone is requesting an amount under $10, he can give out of his discretionary fund, and he doesn’t have to tell me. That’s his prerogative. We’ve decided to do it that way simply because I have overreacted numerous times in the past.  So instead of selfishly asking him to stop giving, this was the next best happy compromise. We also have designated a fund just for requests we might receive from family, and once that fund is empty, that’s it. We don’t dig into our personal money or make ourselves broke and we don’t allow ourselves to feel guilty about it. We do what we can, and that’s that.

If there’s anything cautionary I can say about cultures similar to the Kenyan culture, it’s that I’ve seen young people really incur financial loss on account of family members needing to borrow money so frequently. If the young person doesn’t have a financial plan or doesn’t know when to say no, they can easily give what they can’t really afford to give and later on they find themselves resenting their family for putting them in a hole. As a whole, the culture can pressure people to make unwise financial decisions, which makes it difficult for anyone to get ahead, and it just perpetuates this cycle of constantly needing people to bail you out of financial problems.

But, if there’s anything encouraging I can say about cultures such as the Kenyan culture, it’s that you can rest assured that when you give to those in need, they will be there to support you when you are in need (for the most part). There have been times we’ve had to rely on the kindness of family to get us through a dry spell, when we didn’t have any work coming in or when we had exhausted our savings. Because of Ray’s connection to family, he can reach out to them, and they will do what they can to give a few dollars here and there. One of the greatest attributes of Kenyans is their giving nature.

A Word to the Wise

Now, to those of you embarking on an intercultural marriage, I would urge you and your partner to talk about this particular matter thoroughly. This has truly been a source of stress in our marriage, and considering money matters are one of the biggest reasons for divorce these days, you may want to commit to paying special attention to this area. Trust me, it can come to a head fast. Even the first week that we arrived in Kenya, after only two months of marriage, we came face to face with this issue, and we fought a lot. Seek to establish a cultural compromise for your money matters, and then tweak it along the way as your financial situation changes or even as your perspectives change.

Also, as I’ve said in other posts before, if your family is the side putting financial pressure on your marriage, you are the one responsible for being the spokesperson to share whatever you have decided as a couple. Your spouse should never feel like they have to defend decisions you made together to your family. It’s easier for you to deal with disappointment from your own family than for your spouse to deal with disappointment from their in-laws, if you know what I’m saying.

No matter what, protect the integrity and reputation of your spouse. A lot of Kenyans used to tell Ray that they thought I was controlling, but Ray has always vehemently stood up for me and asserted that we make decisions together. I can’t tell you how much that honors me as his wife and makes me love and respect him all the more. Hopefully you can learn from our mistakes and instead of fighting about money, foster love and respect in your own marriage as well.

Much love!

Life can leave you so bitter

The Apostle James warned us to beware the power of the tongue. Though it’s small, it can set a whole forest ablaze. For the past few weeks, maybe even longer, my tongue has been out of control. Within in the confines of our home Ray has practically been assaulted daily with constant negativity about this person and that person, and even that person’s mother’s brother’s step-baby. I had something to say about everybody.

A bitter revelation

Last night, as an argument Ray and I had about money led to a time of prayer and repentance, I began to feel convicted about my recent behavior, so I confessed and acknowledged that I knew I was doing wrong and asked the Lord for help. Normally I “confess” and “ask for help”, and then get up and go right back to what I was doing before. It’s no wonder that Jesus never felt inclined to share any insight with me about what was happening or how I could change. But this time my confession was accompanied with tears and a broken heart, so in response the Lord gave me one word: bitter.

Unbeknownst to me, bitterness had crept into my heart, and like a silent killer began to spread its influence abroad. My tongue was only a symptom of my sin-sick soul, of course because out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.

Truth is, I have a lot of reasons that I could be bitter, and when God first gave me the word, my mind went straight to those issues, but none of those things seemed to really touch on the root of my problem. Remember the argument I mentioned that led to the revelation? Remember what was it over?

Money.

Let’s begin again

When Ray and I moved to Kenya, we decided to stay out of ministry entirely for the first year of marriage, so we were just hanging out in Nairobi getting better acquainted with each other and learning how to support ourselves. In the beginning we really struggled financially, but we had both agreed to this lifestyle, and in truth, we were happy. At that time there was no bitterness to be seen anywhere near my heart. I honestly felt a little proud of myself for being able to hack it in spite of what people thought or said I could do.

Finally we started a business and literally made over $1,000 a month. For us, especially in the Kenyan economy, that’s a pretty big deal. It was during that season in our life that we decided we always wanted to work for our living. Even once we got into ministry and I could finally claim my long awaited status of missionary, we agreed not to raise support for personal expenses, only for ministry needs. Yes, we want to serve the people here as missionaries, but Kenya is our home. We’re not just here for a season. We will raise our children here, and we want to build our family legacy here from the sweat of our own brows. It’s just a personal conviction we have.

Moving to Kitale meant we had to start over, and once again it took us a while to get back on our feet. There would be dry spells and then we’d have a bunch of jobs all at once. Before this week we were in a dry spell… for two months. We already had practice living off of 100 shillings (about $1.50) a day, sometimes less, so it was no big deal really. We were used to it.

The inciting incident

The catalyst behind my downward spiral into negativity came as the result of a plan we made to travel to the States to surprise my niece for her 6th birthday. Though we were on track to making that happen when we lived in Nairobi, Kitale proved to be perfect for ministry purposes, but not so perfect for business. Nevertheless, God took care of us and we never went hungry or without shelter. Ray was able to use his skills to do odd jobs here and there that kept us afloat, and I’ve said it before and I’ll say it many times again, our spiritual parents here have really covered us. God has used them to make this transition bearable in numerous ways. He has shown us time and time again through them that He’s got our backs.

I’ve written before about how I usually try to be overly optimistic or live a faith-filled life instead of admitting that I have a problem, so even though our savings for plane tickets began dwindling away to cover living expenses, I maintained that I had faith that God would work out all the arrangements. Meanwhile, I watched others travel, shop, eat, and spend like there was no tomorrow, and bitterness began to set in.

I promise you I had no idea I was becoming bitter at first. Every once in while I would comment on how I wish I could live like so and so or how it would be nice to be able to afford to get a new cardigan since mine had holes in it, but that didn’t seem bitter, it just seemed like a normal human response. But you give bitterness an inch and it will rapidly take a mile, so here we are today with me coming to the realization that as content as I thought I was, I really was just bitter.

Time to make a change

Now here’s the thing. I know that the answer isn’t more money. No matter how much money we acquire, I would never be able to rid myself of the greenish film that tints my vision. I would still be a jealous, envious, and bitter person; I’d just be a jealous, envious, and bitter person with a fist full of cash. God knows that better than I do, so I know that He’s revealing this to me now so I don’t crumble under the pressure later. Work is picking up again, some friends have helped us get our plane ticket fund restarted, and we’re coming out of the dry spell, but that alone won’t change my attitude. I have to.

Now more than ever I’m feeling the need to dip myself into the permeating presence of a God who is overflowing with love, joy, and peace. I need to take my eyes off of others and self, and put them back where they’re supposed to be, gazing into the fiery eyes of the King of Glory. My hope is not in wealth, but in God, who richly provides us with everything we need.

A more serious symptom of my sickness was a lack of desire to spend time with God. I can’t say that I was bitter towards Him, but I did feel like escaping our situation through movies and mindless Internet activity was a more appealing option than reading the Bible or praying. I was so wrong. It was the very remedy my soul needed!

I know that bitterness doesn’t just go away overnight. My confession kicked over the table it was feasting on, but it will keep trying to come back for scraps. When I hear stories of opportunity that money has afforded other people, I have to make the choice then and there to say no to bitterness. I have to deny it again and again to the point that it becomes starved and is forced to leave in search of a better host. It’s only by the grace and power of Jesus that I am able to achieve that, so I ask those of you that have it on your hearts to keep us in prayer, that you pray for me in that wise. I’m sure there are plenty of other roots of bitterness or whatever in my heart that need to be dealt with, but this is what God is highlighting to me in this season. I’d sure love your prayer support.

I’d also like to say that though my particular struggle with bitterness is centered around money, I believe this blog post can be applicable to many situations: singleness, marriage, children, material possessions, time, etc. As I search my heart and bring its contents to the Lord for illumination, I pray that this post encourages you to do the same.

Much love,