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Becoming Brave Across Cultures: Being More Comfortable in Cultural Discomfort

By Michelle Ami Reyes

Brave Women Series - Michelle's Story


I’ll never forget the first time I tried Korean BBQ.


I went with a group of Korean American friends to a local restaurant that specialized in Korean BBQ, and it was quite the experience! I had never gone before, though, and I didn’t know what to expect.


The first thing I remember when we walked inside was how loud it was. Korean BBQ restaurants often have an open kitchen, so you can see the chefs cooking and chopping in the back. The sounds of sizzling meat cooking echoed throughout the place, and I distinctly remember how the air smelled different. Not bad. Just different.


We sat down at a big rectangular table with a small grill in the middle. The waiter brought out plate after plate of raw meat, beef, shrimp, pork, chicken as well as vegetables, and everyone just instinctively knew what to do…except for me. I watched as my friends grabbed chop sticks (which I didn’t know how to use) and started throwing food on the grill (which I didn’t know how to do).


For whatever reason, I started feeling sick. To this day, I still can’t figure out if it was the smells, the noise, or perhaps the combination in the restaurant. It was just all new for me, and as an introvert it was a bit of a sensory overload as well. My head began to throb. I felt a little nauseous. Everything in my body was screaming to go home. For a moment I contemplated making an excuse to just duck out. But I knew that me leaving would not show love to my friends. They had been so excited to take me out to Korean BBQ and introduce me to their favorite foods. I couldn’t just walk out.


In that moment, I realized I needed to be brave. I needed to bravely sit in this place of cultural discomfort for the sake of my friends, and even for the sake of my gospel witness. I didn’t want to be afraid of this new experience, of foods I’d never tried before. And I certainly didn’t want to misrepresent the love of Christ to the people I was with.


 

"I needed to bravely sit in this place of cultural discomfort for the sake of my friends, and even for the sake of my gospel witness... I certainly didn’t want to misrepresent the love of Christ to the people I was with."

 

In my first interactions with a new culture, it’s sometimes hard to see the beauty. I get frustrated or annoyed or confused. I wonder, “What are they doing?” or, worse, “Why would they do something like that?” But, as a follower of Jesus, who is committed to seeing and valuing the imago dei in all peoples, I’ve learned that I need to do the hard work of better embracing cultural discomfort.


Genesis 1:27 tell us that humans reflect the image of God. Every culture—with its unique bodies, voices, thoughts, actions, and values—in some way reflects the divine. As difficult as our cultural distinctives can be in relating to one another, we must always remember that one of the greatest ways in which we see the rich and vibrant beauty of our God on display is in the people he created.


 

"Every culture—with its unique bodies, voices, thoughts, actions, and values—in some way reflects the divine. As difficult as our cultural distinctives can be in relating to one another, we must always remember that one of the greatest ways in which we see the rich and vibrant beauty of our God on display is in the people he created."

 

Put another way: the differences we see in each other are a different expression of God. No matter your ethnicity, skin color, or cultural values, you have been made as a bearer of God’s image with dignity and worth equal to every other person.


 

"The differences we see in each other are a different expression of God. No matter your ethnicity, skin color, or cultural values, you have been made as a bearer of God’s image with dignity and worth equal to every other person."

 


The truth of Genesis 1:27 is that making biblical and gospel-centered connections across cultures begins with a perspective shift: We must see God in the people we encounter. When I see culture being expressed, whether in food, language, clothing, music, traditions, and more, I have to look at it through the lens of “divine creativity,” “divine goodness” and “the image of God.” If I don’t value the cultural identity of another person, I’m not valuing the image of God within him or her.


 

"Making biblical and gospel-centered connections across cultures begins with a perspective shift: We must see God in the people we encounter... If I don’t value the cultural identity of another person, I’m not valuing the image of God within him or her."

 

That night at the Korean BBQ, it felt ironic for me to feel so uncomfortable. I write and talk about culture all the time. But the honest truth is that, no matter who we are, no matter how “diverse” our life is, we can all get uncomfortable around certain cultures at times. It’s human nature.


With a plate full of new food in front of me, I decided I wanted to lean into the cultural discomfort instead of running away. I wanted to show love to my friends, even when my nerves were tingling, and I felt like a fish out of water.


The first step I took was simply to keep my mouth shut. I didn’t want to say anything that would convey the wrong emotion to my friends. I didn’t want to come across as judgmental or unkind, so I chose not to say anything at all. I just watched and imitated what they did.


Then, I began to pray. In moments of cultural discomfort, I have found that contemplative prayers can be incredibly empowering. Contemplative prayer is not the same as traditional prayer. In contemplative prayer, we come to God with a specific concern, but instead of spending the majority of the time speaking, we remain silent. We bring our worry or struggle to God, and wait for him to speak to us. Through contemplative prayer, we position ourselves to be led into greater wisdom and love by our Abba Father.


 

"Through contemplative prayer, we position ourselves to be led into greater wisdom and love by our Abba Father."

 

I remember placing my hands palm up on my thighs under the table. With my eyes still open, I began repeating quietly to myself, “divine beauty,” over and again. “Lord, I’m struggling. Help me see your divine beauty in these friends.” I still couldn’t eat much food that evening. My stomach never fully calmed down. But I ate as much as I could, and the more I repeated the phrase “divine beauty” the better I was able to relax, enjoy my friends, and thank God for how he had created them and their culture.


What I learned that evening at the Korean BBQ restaurant was that, when it came to other cultures, I want to move from silent disengagement toward joy-filled engagement. No matter how uncomfortable I might feel around another person or another culture, I want to be brave enough to see God’s beautiful image across cultures, and slowly but surely, become more comfortable in the discomfort.


 

"I want to be brave enough to see God’s beautiful image across cultures, and slowly but surely, become more comfortable in the discomfort."

 

 

Brave Woman Manifesto


Make sure to check back next week as another courageous Sister shares her story. And by the way...


You are Brave!


No matter what you are facing, God has made you in His image, which means He equips you with His courage, strength, and power. I would love to connect more and give you a FREE gift - the BRAVE WOMAN MANIFESTO: Five Things to Tell Yourself When Life Gets Hard. Click HERE to sign up for my monthly newsletter and you’ll receive the FREE Manifesto, as well as recent blog posts, updated resources and personal details delivered only to my empowered email tribe.


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About Michelle


Michelle Ami Reyes, PhD, is a race and culture coach as well as the course creator of Seasoned with Grace: THE proven method to leading impactful conversations on race. Her first book, Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead to Lasting Connections Across Cultures, is the recipient of the 2022 ECPA award. Her second book (co-authored with Helen Lee),The Race-Wise Family: 10 Postures to Becoming Households of Healing & Hope, was a finalist in the Family & Marriage category for the 2023 Christianity Today book awards. Her writings on faith and culture have appeared in Christianity Today, the Gospel Coalition, Missio Alliance, Patheos, and more. She’s also appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, NBC News.com, and Good Morning America.


Michelle lives in Austin, Texas with her pastor husband, and two amazing kids. Visit MichelleAmiReyes.com and Instagram for more information.

1 Comment


What a heartfelt and honest reflection. Thank you

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