I first heard of the metaphor of the circle, triangle and square on from a blogger, Naomi Hattaway. It has been very helpful as we have been processing our last two months of re-entry back into life in the USA. The idea is relatively simple, but I think speaks volumes to what a person who has had the opportunity to live overseas experiences as they relate to their home culture again.
Imagine a place called Circle Country. Everyone who lives inside of its borders are Circle Citizens. The Circle Country has very specific culture, holidays, celebrations, food preferences, a language that is unique to them as well as music, education and political categories.
Let’s also talk about Square Society. Everyone who lives inside of its borders are Square Settlers. The Square Society also has the culture, holidays, celebrations, food preferences (and on and on) as the Circle Country, but they are completely different.
One day, a Circle Citizen got on a plane and flew to Square Society. That Circle landed squarely (pun intended) in the middle of the Square Settlers and their Square Culture.
Circle Citizen now lives in the midst of Square Settlers, and he or she may adapt to a degree, but will never become a truly Square Settler. At the same time, this Circle Citizen will also start to lose a bit of his/her Circle culture.
The normal circle things start to blend together with the new square culture. The major holidays in Circle Country might dissipate a bit to allow for the celebration of Square festivals.
Favorite comfort foods that remind her of Circle Country give way to the acceptance of new Square foods. The Circle culture never quite gives way to the new Square norms and at the same time doesn’t go away completely either.
He or she slowly – and seemingly unconsciously – evolves into something completely different. The transformation to a Triangle Tenant begins. Being a Triangle means you have some of your original Circle culture mixed with some of your newly adopted Square culture.
You are no longer 100% Circle, but you’ll never again be 100% Square. You are left – almost hanging – somewhere in the middle. (taken directly from Naomi Hattaway’s blog with permission)
This dynamic, along with the grass-is-always greener heart condition that so many of us can find ourselves living in, creates unique moments of fondness for us to be living in the US, and also moments of missing Italy so much. One of the areas in which I experience this the most has to do with efficiency or the pace-of-life and the two different prospectives from Italy and the US, and my response to them.
Upon first arriving in the US, I was loving the way Americans appreciate efficiency. On day 2 of being back, I dragged my jet-lagged self to sign a lease on an apartment (we had made some arrangements online before we landed), walked away with the keys to the place and signed up for 2 cell phones and internet service. This took us at least two months to have this set-up in Italy 5 years ago when we first arrived. I was loving it! I felt like we were on our way to feeling at home in no time. I was wrong….In fact, in other moments I would begin to resent how fast paced American culture can be at times. After different meetings we attend, Americans all leave really fast, and sometimes without saying goodbye to everyone, mostly because they value getting on to the next thing. It is not bad, but I had grown to love how Italians linger after things are over, and how it would be considered rude to not baci (kiss the cheek) of everyone at the meeting you were at in saying goodbye to them. It would sometimes even be rude to not send greetings to the family of the person you were saying goodbye to if you happened to know them as well, and it was expected that you actually do it (not just lip service). Albeit, Italians are late every where they go because they are busy kissing everyone in the last place they were at, but there is a very high value in the relationships in front of you.
There is a mantra is cross-cultural training: “It’s not wrong, it is just different”. This concept helps the cross-cultural worker synthesize the new things they may experience, and not live in a “Why do they do things this way?” mentality (at least not all the time). Just because two cultures may do the same thing in two very different ways, doesn’t mean that one is better than the other, but just an example of diversity. It’s not wrong that Americans in general move on to the next thing rather quickly. It’s not wrong that Italians can value the person so much that they are often late. It is just two different neutral values playing out in a given society. But we can often feel like the triangle being bounced around in Circle Country or Square Society, feeling either frustrated that a value is being lived out in an opposite way to what we learned in our new foreign context or maybe even overly positive that a certain value is king and needs to be held in priority no matter the cost.
But I would go a little further and say “It’s not wrong, it’s just different, unless it’s wrong”. Now, as Christians, this whole conversation on culture needs to go one step further. We need to remember the culture of the Kingdom of God. The Bible paints the picture of a culture whose values haven been written by God as the best values to hold for humanity to function the way it was supposed to. The Bible also says that God made man in His image. In doing so, each culture and the values it holds share some aspect of who God is. Cultures share in retaining some of God’s character. But then, we must also take into account the consequences of sin, that is the consequences of each individual man’s universal inability to live the way God designed him to live. While an individual culture may retain some aspect of God’s character in its values, it also is fallen because of the collection of imperfect men that make up that culture. It doesn’t mean that the aspect of the culture which resembles God’s image isn’t there, but it is totally tainted by the effects of sin.
The point of it is that for Christians living cross-culturally, sometimes the differences in a culture that we can experience can be wrong if they don’t agree with the values of the Kingdom of God. Also, each of our own home-cultures have a fallen, sinful aspect alive in its values. No culture is perfect, just like no person is perfect. And yet, as Christians we are called to be citizen’s of God’s culture presently seeking the peace of the city that we live in. In a sense, we should all feel the tension of the cross-cultural worker as we interact with values and parts of culture that are not in line with the culture of God’s Kingdom that we can learn about in God’s word. And yet this should not cause us to recoil and shrink back from the culture itself. Rather we should enter into the culture more fervently, “seeking the peace” of the city or culture that we find ourselves living in.
I am not always able to get to the point of seeing culture the way God does in my cultural musings. Sometimes I am left feeling frustrated that I am often the last person at a group meeting wondering where all the people went. Or sometimes I can feel unknown in a society of people always moving on to the next thing, but I find the most hope in the truth that we should all feline foreigners here on Earth. We were not ultimately created to be totally comfortable in the cultures that we live in. We should all feel the discomfort as we confront the imperfections in our own lives and those of the culture we live in as we think about God and his perfection. We should all contemplate how to move forward in that discomfort. As a Christian, I confront it with the peace to my soul that I can find in Jesus. Jesus is God, and his coming to Earth was the most intense cross-cultural experience in the history of the world. God in His perfection has come to Earth, and in doing so, and dying for the imperfections of the world on the cross, has made a way for our souls to feel at home. At home spiritually in the wholeness that Christ provides for us, even though we are not “at home” anywhere here on Earth. With the hope of being fully reunited with God physically one day. The day of our homecoming.
Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper Jeremiah 29:7