Podcast Episode 4: What is Culture and Should We Make It?

It has been quite a while since I’ve recorded a new podcast, and I hope that you haven’t fallen into despair while waiting for this episode. This time we are focusing on culture, something that we think about often, and something that I think is very important. I hope this episode is useful and helpful as you think about your own culture and how you can be a positive influence on those in your community.

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A new perspective on change: The grass isn’t always greener

Where’s Sarajevo?

That was going through my head one day in 2003 when someone told me I should go there. Our organization was sending young recent graduates there to work with young people. Go, work, live, play, he said, and it will be the best experience of your life. So I went. And I fell in love.

Sarajevo was everything I could have wanted. It was a city big enough to have everything one could need, but small enough to be conquered by a group of young people. There were so many neighborhoods, so many people, so much culture and complexity. I came to love that city and the people in it.

The only certainty in life is change.

So then came the day when we decided to move to another city. Our organization had decided to open a new location in Mostar, and we made the decision to be part of the new endeavor. It meant leaving the city we had come to love and making a new home in a new place.

After our move, we noticed some interesting things about our new location…

Mostar isn’t actually that hot.¬†We used to think, “it’s so hot there”. We’d often see newspaper articles (in the¬†local¬†newspaper, of course) claiming it’s the hottest city in Europe. When we actually got down here, though, we realized it’s actually cooler on average than Atlanta, or Memphis, or anywhere in Florida — basically, anywhere else we’ve ever lived or visited (except Sarajevo).

Mostar is a lot like a small town.¬†We used to think of it as a city, with different boroughs and different subcultures existing side-by-side. But we quickly learned that it operates more like a small town, with a much stronger local community that includes everyone. You can’t come and go without people noticing here.

Mostar isn’t really a tourist town.¬†We always thought of Mostar as being synonymous with the Old Bridge. Soon after moving here, we realized that there is a very large part of town that Western tourists never see — and it functions just fine.

Change never ends up the way you thought it would be.

We were faced with two very interesting things.¬†First, we missed our old home.¬†We lived there for several years, and it had become a part of us in many ways. But we weren’t there anymore, and there wasn’t anything we could do to change that.

Second, our new town wasn’t the town we thought it was.¬†It wasn’t worse or better — it just wasn’t what we thought it would be.

Change brings complexity.

For a while after our relocation, we thought of Sarajevo often. We miss the things we used to see every day, the people we used to talk to, the places we used to eat. But after a while, we realized that if we didn’t learn to love our new location, we would be robbing ourselves.¬†

So, now that we are looking back at things from a new perspective, here are some things I’ve learned…

You can’t love something if you want it to be something else.

A thing, a person, a place… you have to love it for what it is. If you keep trying to say, “well, it’s not New York, but it’s got some theaters and a big park, so we can manage while we’re here,” then you’re probably never going to be able to really like that place. You’ll just be stuck in a state of continually comparing it to something else.

You can’t love a place if you aren’t there.

If you go away every chance you get, then there’s no doubt — your heart is probably somewhere else. You’ve got to spend some time there, and learn the good things and the great things that make¬†other people love to live there.

You must accept the truth — that there is no “better”.

Conventional wisdom wants us to assign values to things and label things “good” or “bad”. And that’s a temptation we have, especially when we have to leave a place that we like. But the truth will always be more complex than that — our new location won’t be¬†better¬†or¬†worse.¬†It¬†will¬†be different. And if we don’t understand that difference, we won’t be able to fulfill our full potential there.

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5 things I never did when I lived in America

America is its own world, that’s for sure. When I lived in the states, there were lots of things I never thought about — I just assumed they were the way things are done, period. However, when I moved overseas, I discovered that there were many things that are simply different abroad. This list is by no means exhaustive — there are endless differences when you take time to sit down and think about it — but these are little things that my family has experienced as we have adjusted to living in Eastern Europe.

Take off my shoes

In America, we wear our shoes everywhere. When I was growing up, some people associated going barefoot or sock-footed with laziness, similar to spending the day in your pajamas. Taking your shoes off was more appropriate if you had clearly just spent a long time doing some sort of strenuous activity — not as a regular state of being. And, in addition to that, your feet smell! Nobody wants to smell your socks or feet, especially after they’ve been cooped up in your dirty shoes.

However, in most places throughout Eastern Europe, taking your shoes off is a requirement upon entering someone’s home. Many homeowners will even provide generic houseshoes for you to wear while in their home. It’s a way to keep the house clean and free of dust and dirt that comes in from outside. Wearing your shoes inside is often considered impolite, as well.

Don’t leave a tip

In the states, you leave a tip when you eat at any full-service restaurant. It’s understood — waiters and waitresses earn $2 or $3 per hour, and the rest is made from tips that people leave. Don’t leave without leaving a tip, or you’ll get some choice words from the restaurant’s personnel.

Where we live now, tips are simply not customary, unless you are at a very nice restaurant. Nearly all foodservice establishments offer table service, and waiters and waitresses don’t usually expect tips.

Drink things without ice

Eastern Europeans have some very entrenched views about cold things, like the belief that drinking too many iced drinks will give you a cold or strep throat. So, they won’t offer you ice, and in many cases, they won’t have it, unless it’s the middle of summer.

Pay with cash

We pay with credit cards everywhere in the United States, and we don’t think twice, usually. Sure, there are those who tout the virtues of cash and the envelope system, but the convenience and track-ability of using credit cards or online payment for everything just makes it the desired method for all transactions.

But that’s just not how it is everywhere. Come to Europe, and there are plenty of places where you must pay with cash, especially if you want to get some of those nice little souvenirs at the Old Bridge. Count your money and keep track of it — it’s not as hard as you think.

Walk places

In America, a car is a necessity; in Eastern Europe, it’s a luxury. In fact, for American families, the norm is¬†two¬†cars — no question. Here, people don’t think twice about walking places, and cars are simply not for everyone.

Americans think about cars differently, as well. While an American will view a car as important, people in Eastern Europe treat their cars with much more reverence. While most Americans might never even think of buying a brand new car, people here view buying “new” as a viable solution. It’s a way to get peace of mind and ensure that you don’t have to deal with a former owner’s problems. Cars are kept in tip-top condition until they are sold, at which time the owner will use the income from the sale to “upgrade” to a higher class of vehicle.

As I said, this list is just the tip of the iceberg. I hope it just wets your appetite for more new perspectives. These are simple things, but when you begin to put them all together, it certainly changes how you view the world, little by little.

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Leave an email address so we can continue the conversation. You’ll get updates and free stuff as it comes, about once a week. I don’t share this information with anyone; this is solely so I can better connect with you as a reader here at the blog.

Why would an American want to leave America?

Since my recent interview aired on local TV, I have gotten a few questions from friends and acquaintances around town. They usually mention they saw the interview, and then their face becomes a bit confused and they say something like, “all of us are trying to leave this place. Why would an American want to leave their own country and come here?”

I usually say something like “well that is a long story.” But like most things, there’s more to it than that.

A calling

I have a close friend who is a police officer and I often tell him I don’t understand how he can do his job. I know I would never be able¬†to chase criminals around in a car every day.

But over the years I’ve realized, just like a pastor has a “higher calling”, police work is his calling. He’s uniquely equipped to do his work, and he is good at it. That’s a good enough reason as any.

As I ride my bike to my office, organize events, and make strategies to reach out to young people every day, I feel a similar sense of calling to this place. It may not be a perfect place, but I have become “good” at what I do, and I have skills that uniquely equipped me to do what I do. This is my calling — perhaps not forever, but certainly for this period in my life.

The grass is never greener

I often tell people here that Americans say “The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence”. I have to be careful here, because I don’t want to belittle the problems that people face everyday in my current location. Corruption, disrespect for the rule of law, and economic depression prevent thousands of normal people here from leading productive lives. I don‚Äôt mean to diminish that fact.

However, few people in eastern Europe understand the level violence and danger that Americans live with every day. I can remember being in our church in Fayette County, GA, the day after a robbery at a local gas station had produced the county’s first murder in 3 years. However, in neighboring Clayton County, where I lived, there had been about 15 murders that year.

Statistics in urban areas are much worse. In Atlanta in 2015, there were 94 homicides, 170 rapes, 1,995 robberies, and 2,944 cases of aggravated assault. There were almost 5,000 burglaries, over 16,000 cases of larceny, and over 4,000 cars stolen. All this happened in just one year, in a city that is widely considered to be merely average in relation to other large American cities.

Statistics from Eastern Europe simply do not compare. Zagreb, Croatia, for example, a city of about 800,000 people, recorded 5 murders in 2009. For the same year, Ljubljana, Slovenia, had 1. Last year, Sarajevo had 11 total murders in 2016, only 3 of them by firearm.

In Mostar, I can send my 8-year-old son alone to the store 100 yards from my home to pick up a loaf of bread. Everyone knows who he is, and the threat of danger is nearly nonexistent. I doubt that sending a child on such an errand alone would even be legal in an American city.

While I know that the United States will always be my home, I can appreciate some of the practical advantages that living in a foreign country provides. Safety and crime were in no way reasons for leaving the U.S., but they are things that come to my mind whenever locals ask about my decision to leave my country.

Deeper significance

But in addition to these things, the question always provides a chance to go deeper and discuss important things about life in general. I believe my work here has eternal significance. For me, many of the things that Americans — and Europeans¬†— chase after are of lesser¬†significance. I believe that helping people improve their lives and¬†become the people God created them to be is a worthy cause.

In conclusion, the question always brings a chance to get to know people better and inject something thought-worthy into our relationship. It is in itself a chance to fulfil a little part of the purpose for which I came here.

Get yourself on TV. I did.

You really must read this message I got through our Facebook page recently.

Dear sir,

I am a fourth year student at the college of human sciences, with my concentration in communications sciences. I am currently working in my internship with City Television station, and we are shooting one episode in which my assignment is the theme of the day. My desire is to do a piece about how foreigners live in Mostar, and I thought that perhaps someone from your organization would be a relevant spokesperson. If you are available tomorrow or Friday to speak with us, I would be much obliged.

Sincerely…

Unfortunately, I was out of town when the message came, so I sent my regrets and said that if I could help when I returned, I would. She contacted me again, through Facebook, and said that we could just do the piece when I returned. Then she called me. Then she sent more messages on Facebook. I should do this thing, I thought, out of respect for her persistence, if for no other reason.

Soon another message came:

Sir,

My colleagues said that we can arrange the shoot for tomorrow. I have seen several times that you ride your bike to your office. I believe that would be an interesting caveat to the piece. Would it be a problem to film you doing that, for example coming to your office or somewhere in town?

Sincerely…

Are these people watching me?

* * *

I agreed, and we met in our town’s square and did the piece. It went on without a hitch. It was a very interesting chance to connect with¬†someone and voice an opinion or two. I had to speak their language, but I think I got my point across.

Sometimes, opportunities fall into your lap.

Honestly, I did nothing to make this whole thing happen. I didn’t go searching for the publicity, and yet an intern from City Television — a station I have never watched — came calling. There is something to be said here for the fact that, especially if you are watching for it, life occasionally presents you with opportunities that you would never search for.

Being in the right place at the right time is a big part of life.

But getting the opportunities is only half of the story — you have to be in a¬†position to use them. And¬†in our line of work,¬†that¬†is the story that matters: how you use the opportunities you have been given.

Reputation. Values. Character. Those are the keys that unlock this puzzle.

Even when you have the keys, the puzzle is still a puzzle. You’ve got to be in the right place to hear your calling. But one thing is for sure — you can’t get to that place if you have a bad reputation among the people you are trying to reach. And you won’t get that good reputation unless you have strong values. And you won’t arrive at decent values without team members who possess strong¬†character.

What are we doing to get to that place? How can we press onward toward the reputation, values, and character that God wants for us?

Answering these questions will bring us closer to the place where we can be ready to have an impact and make lasting change.

The importance of a good reputation, revisited

From time to time, I’ve written here about the importance of having and building a good reputation in the community where one works. Whether one is in a small town or in the capital city, having a good reputation will¬†bring opportunities that would be otherwise impossible. In our work, two things happened this week that, hopefully, are signs that the work we’ve done to build a reputation is paying off.

Becoming known as capable

The first thing that happened was completely unexpected, and is not something we normally go out looking for. A student from the local law school’s student organization contacted us, asking if we would be interested in teaching an English class for law students, organized completely by them. They have a need for someone who can come and help them learn some legal terms, but they don’t have the means to pay a professor or certified instructor, and so they turned to us, on the basis of the classes we have already been offering.

What an opportunity — one that we would never have gotten, had we not first done the work of putting on English classes for students in the first place. In our effort to provide a service to students, and because we sought to do a decent job, we have become known as a¬†group capable of providing that service.

Becoming known as compassionate

The second thing that happened takes us in a different direction, and is no less special. After we announced our efforts to collect clothes ahead of Christmas, I was contacted by a student from a nearby town, asking about it. She said she had read about it in the newspaper. 

Now, this still has me a little bit confused, but apparently, someone who¬†was involved in one of our events works for the local newspaper. I was able to find the paragraph they wrote — it was pulled directly from our group’s Facebook page, nearly word for word.

What do we want to be known for?

I think there is so much to learn here. Here are just a couple of things

  • Compassion and competence¬†are two things that are contagious — when people see them, they just want more! I would not say we have been big promoters of ourselves, but somehow news has managed to get out, without our knowledge. Fortunately, we have been serving people well in our community, and people¬†have begun to ask us to do more.
  • You are always building something with your time.¬†At times it has been impossible to see the pieces coming together, but over the past year and a half we have managed to be noticed for doing some positive things. The reputation, up to now, was built whether we noticed or not — and now has provided some¬†things we can be happy about.

What now? We thank God, and we trust him to provide us with the time and skills to do these things he has entrusted to us.

Learning the ins and outs of a small town in Bosnia and Herzegovina

For a total of six years, my wife and I lived and worked in Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia may be a small and somewhat remote country, but the capital is fairly cosmopolitan, with a high number of foreign residents, foreign firms, and plenty of options for entertainment and hospitality. As remote locations go, it is fairly accommodating to foreigners.

Sarajevo at night
Sarajevo at night

In 2015, we moved from the center of Sarajevo to the smaller southern city of Mostar. Mostar is many things, but it is much smaller than Sarajevo, and for us it was our first experience not living in a capital city. Thus began our introduction to small-town life, in Herzegovina, almost 2 years ago. This post will explore some of the peculiarities of carrying out our job in a small town, and how it is different from our experiences in past locations.

Some demographic details about Mostar

According to the 2013 census, Mostar has a population of 105.797, with a majority self-identifying as Catholic, a large minority as Bosnian Muslims, and a very small percentage (>5%) identifying as Serb Orthodox. The number of Protestant Christians is very small, possibly around 100 adults, split between 2 evangelical churches in the city.

The old town of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
The old town of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Compared to metro Sarajevo’s half-million-plus residents, Mostar can seem quite small to a foreigner. Knowledge of the local language was a luxury in Sarajevo; here, it is a daily necessity. Neighborhoods are smaller and more exclusive; most¬†people do not often encounter foreigners — especially ones living in the city permanently.

Small towns offer a completely new environment for charity work

One of the most obvious differences we have encountered, compared to our experiences in the capital, is the interconnectedness of the entire place. The woman working on your application for a work permit may be the wife of the head postman, and the sister-in-law of the owner of the corner bakery. She may also be the college roommate of the dean of students at the university where you spend your time. In other words, while it is true that everyone is connected in some way, these connections are much easier to see in a smaller town like the one where we live.

The importance of a good reputation.

In the midst of such connections, reputation is incredibly important, and it is imperative that new groups spend considerable time building a good reputation immediately upon arrival. While people in the big city will not remember what you did last year, your undertakings in a small town can follow you indefinitely.

Two years and a ton of sweat and tears.

Some things take longer in a small town, and — if you are to be successful — you must accept that fact. In the end, when a good reputation has been built, and a community has been developed, it will hopefully be stronger because of the good will you have built, which would not have been possible in a large city.

What are we doing to build a reputation?

Big events.¬†Our group has taken to organizing one large event each semester that will benefit students academically and professionally. We have organized¬†“EQ Seminar” twice in 2016, and each time it was attended by over 100 students — making it one of the largest extracurricular events of its type in the city.

Small educational programs.¬†We teach English in small groups, focusing on conversational proficiency — a skill that is sought after¬†in a city like ours.¬†We hope that serving in this way will contribute to our reputation as people who add value to the community.

Conclusion

A small town emphasizes the pre-existing connections between its members, making a good reputation more important. We hope to learn and grow in our new environment, and contribute to the progress and enrichment of the community. Doing so, we believe, will be the most effective way to make an lasting impact.

Do you live in a small town? What are the differences that you have noticed between small towns and bit cities? Leave your answers in the comments below.

I belong here, and you don’t.

I was waiting for an X-ray at the hospital in Bijeli Brijeg when the technician finally poked his head out the door.

“Um, Jonathan? Do you… um, speak…?”

“Yes, I speak your language,” I said.

“Alright! Wow! That’s great. I’ve never met a foreigner who speaks our language! Come on in.” Said the technician.¬† Continue reading

A New City, A New Adventure

Usually in life, people seek to go from small to big. Bigger cars, bigger houses, bigger cities, bigger families… We aren’t. And it’s not a demotion, either. We are honestly trying to go in a positive direction for our family, our careers, our lives, etc. And somehow that has brought us to Mostar, a city roughly one fifth the size of Sarajevo, where we lived for five years.

I suppose people do it quite a bit, but for us, we never thought we would call a small town home. There are many advantages of small towns, but we are big-city people, and to us, the city is the place to be.

I still love nature. For me, there is nothing greater than to be on top of a mountain ridge, bounding through the trees and grass, taking in the sunshine, and sleeping in a tent under the stars¬†miles from civilization. Those things are great… but only for a weekend. I’ve got to have my home in the city with my people, my buildings, my noise.

It’s not a TOWN, it’s an ADVENTURE

This is one of the big lessons that I’ve learned since leaving my native United States. Life is not meant to be lived in a bubble. The idea of trying to make life easy, with the two cars in the garage, 2.5 kids, the swing in the back yard, and the 9 to 5 job is not a great enough goal. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with having those things — I even happen to have some of them now (except for the two cars… and we’ve rounded up on the kids).

For life to make sense, especially in the hard times, there must be a bigger purpose to it all. For us, Mostar is a calling of sorts. We were working to have an impact on college students in Sarajevo, and now we’ve taken that calling to a new city. In our new city, there’s much less glamor, less prestige, fewer distinguished foreigners, less name recognition.

But there are still people. And those people are every bit as important, every bit as honorable and worthy as people anywhere else. And there are still teenagers and students who need the things that we do. They need someone looking out for them, someone who will share life with them, love them, and encourage them to become the person they were created to be.

We don’t know all the reasons why we came here, but we know that there is a bigger purpose in being here. And that’s what keeps us going, especially in the times when life ceases to make sense. Part of that bigger purpose is to help us understand one overarching idea about life: that it isn’t ultimately about us.¬†