How PNG Culture has Changed Me

I’ve been privileged to live in a culture very different from my own the last twelve years. Don’t get me wrong. It hasn’t been easy adjusting to a different way of doing things and a very different world view. Things like expectations of becoming a family friend when you hire a yard worker or having to take off a week for the funeral of your “little papa” (How do those family relationships work?) or wailing at funerals have left me befuddled at times. But the richness of bringing my own culture into focus through the contrast of a different culture has been extremely rewarding.

As we grow up, we learn how to do things and how we should interact with the world around us. This defines our culture and our world view. It is the way we operate and to most becomes the “only” way or the “right” way simply through default. However, each culture has its strengths and weaknesses to which many people are blind or, in the case of not liking something, accept with resignation because we are unsure of how to instigate large scale change under cultural pressure to conform. Often times we rail against the action instead of addressing beliefs, attitudes, thoughts, and needs that underly those actions.

It is interesting to note that in most cases I have landed somewhere close to the middle between American culture and PNG culture. This is most likely because there is both value and disadvantages to both viewpoints. Here are some PNG values that I have learned from while living in the PNG culture.

  1. Relationships are more important than time. When a PNG person does a skit and they want to portray an American, it is often done by glancing at their hand (where a watch would be located). Relationships are most important for PNG people while Americans value timeliness. I’ve decided to try to fall somewhere in the middle with relationships just as important as time.
  2. Extended family is more important than your personal time. When told about nursing homes, an incredulous Papua New Guinean asked, “How do Christians take care of their parents?” There is cultural pressure in PNG to take care of extended family and keep those relationships strong.  I think there is enormous benefit in valuing strong family ties and feel like the PNG way might be closer to the Christian way than American culture. However, I still tend to default back to my own culture.
  3. I help you and you help me. Things are most often done in groups. When I help you, sometime in the future you will repay that help in some way. It may not be in the exact same way but reciprocity will happen. I find it difficult to ask for anything in return or know how to repay but if the giving only goes one direction then it leads to entitlement and a degenerative effect on culture and relationships. I think we should both accept and give help.
  4. Belief in equality. There is also an underlying belief of equality and group advancement over individual achievement. I think a little “group dynamics” injected into American culture could be healthy. Our individualistic society has generated great creativity and advancement but is only possible as long as there is no crisis. A helping hand to those less fortunate and a real appreciation for those who helped you achieve what you accomplished can only benefit a society and your own character.

These last two qualities have resulted in PNG people being some of the most generous and caring people I know. I have seen a pastor take in a stranger for weeks because he had no where to go. I’ve seen people give away their “extra” shirt because someone else liked it. I’ve been blown away by the thankfulness, gifts of produce, and gifts of money from people who have much less than me because of some service I performed for them. I think this is an area in which we could all do better.

There are other areas as well but this is a long enough list for now.

One Comment

  1. Thank you for sharing this insight. We don’t all have the opportunity to look at ourselves through the eyes of another culture, but we have so much to learn by doing so.

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