Don’t think everyone is (or should be) the same
We often think that our Friends are basically exactly the same as us, except poorer and with a funny language. Different cultures do have different values, and different economies do give rise to very different situations. Worldview is a large topic for a different day, but in short, trying to turn our Friends into little Americans is an unworthy goal. Whether it is in theology, politics, economics, or foreign affairs, that they are different does not (necessarily) mean that they are wrong. It just means that they are different. Perhaps their way is less efficient, but perhaps it provides benefits such as better relationships which our way doesn’t. Or perhaps their way is more efficient. Wow! Maybe we can learn from them!
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some areas that are black & white. It just means that the size of those areas is likely much smaller than we think. Ask an open-ended question when you don’t understand something, and you may get a thought-provoking answer.
Don’t think everyone is different
On the other hand, your Friend’s hometown is so strange! It looks different, even the traffic flow is different (how about them roundabouts‽), it sounds and (definitely!) smells different. It is more humid and hot. The food is funny, and even the food that is normal just isn’t quite right (what’s up with the ketchup?).
One of the big benefits of travel is discovering that our Friends are not so different in the important ways. Kids are kids everywhere. Parents love their children and want what’s best for them. Courtship and sexual relations are likely extremely different, but there is some culturally acceptable way for two young people to connect, get married, and start a family. Everyone is sad when their family members die. Some small number of people are rich and powerful, and a large number of people are poor.
Don’t think everywhere is the same
When we talk about other countries, we often use words whose meanings convey firm pictures in our minds: country, government, police, hospital… We assume that those things mean the same thing in our Friends’ countries. They often do not. This can lead to huge misperceptions. This problem is common in western journalism concerning the developing world.
For example, when we use the word “hospital”, we mean more than the physical building. The word image includes doctors and nurses, cleanliness, gloves, needles & IVs, and instant availability of any prescribed drugs.
To Friends in the developing world, the same word, “hospital” may connote nothing except a physical building in the capital, where most people go in extremus during childbirth or when so sick that everyone assumes they are about to die. There is no preconception of abundant supplies or personnel. They understand that the family will have to prepay for any doctor or nurse and provide everything such as food and medicine, or often even bedsheets.
Don’t think everywhere is different
Conversely, we often think of the Developing World as – well – less developed. It is, but what that means varies widely. It often means electricity is irregular, but whether that means a few hours a week, or a handful of outages a week makes a huge difference in local productivity. Westgate Mall in Nairobi was the equal of any western shopping mall. Likewise, much of Lagos, Nigeria, is comparable to the U.S. or Europe.
In some ways, the developing world actually leads the western world. Both in raw numbers and as a percentage of population, more people own mobile phones in both Africa and Asia than in the United States. Likewise, the “Global South” has more Christians and is rapidly sending more cross-cultural missionaries than the United States.