What You Don’t Know

It’s commonly said that there are things you don’t know, things you know that you don’t know, and things you don’t know that you don’t know. It’s the things in the last category that are most likely to trip you up. If you don’t recognize your own ignorance, you won’t leave space in your mind for alternate explanations. You will assume that you understand already and move forward with a mistaken idea. This causes damage.

This can happen when you are running a neighborhood outreach or improvement program. Most neighborhoods are a mixture of ages, ethnicities, socio-economic levels, and even languages. You yourself probably come from one of those subgroups, and you understand it well. But do you understand the other groups? Do you know what you don’t know?

I’ll give some examples from my own work. My people are Vietnamese immigrants, and they live among White people (mostly born in America) and Black people, some of them born here, and some of them recent immigrants from Africa. That means that their neighborhoods are not homogenous. There are many different ways of thinking and doing things. And it’s up to leaders to try to learn and understand as much as they can.

For example, when I was newly in America, I brought my American sponsor a special gift. It was a silk ao dai, the traditional dress of Vietnam. Ao dai are beautiful and often heavily embroidered. They look like high-necked tunics with long sleeves, and they reach below the knees. But they fit tightly to the body, so to make it possible to move, they have long slits up both sides, reaching almost all the way to the armpit. There isn’t a modesty problem because they are supposed to worn over loose silk trousers.

I thought my sponsor understood these were supposed to be worn over trousers, but she did not. And she told me with much embarrassment, “I’m so sorry, I can’t wear this—it’s too sexy!” I asked why, and it wasn’t until she started talking about the open sides of the ao dai that I realized she didn’t know about the trousers.

That was a fairly harmless mistake, since she never actually wore it that way to church! But more harmful ones can happen, too. For instance, there is a practice in the Vietnamese community known as coining or cupping. This is a medical practice where someone puts menthol-smelling medicine oil on someone’s back or arms, and then scrapes at their skin with the side of a spoon or coin. It creates extremely superficial marks that don’t really hurt, but the practice has the effect of relaxing the muscles and making the person feel like they’ve had a massage and a heating pad. The marks look like you’ve been flogged with a whip, but they go away in a couple of days. Cupping is similar, though it produces strange, round, bruise-like marks that look like a giant octopus has attacked you with its suckers. It is also good for lung infections.

Now, you can imagine the effect these marks have on a White or Black doctor who sees them in the emergency room! Or, for that matter, a teacher, neighbor, or social worker. People instantly leap to the conclusion that the person is being abused. Children have been hot-lined because of this, and it is all too easy for them to get taken into foster care for what is essentially a home medical treatment, similar to using a heating pad.

I’ll give one more example. Suppose you help a family from an Asian background in a way that they consider substantial, even though you yourself don’t think of it that way. For instance, you help them file immigration papers. They are very likely to feel a sense of imbalance in the relationship because you have given them something valuable and they have not reciprocated. So, they will try to even the score. They may, for instance, present you with gold jewelry or with an expensive piece of art, and they will be offended if you refuse it. You don’t know how to react; you feel uncomfortable accepting such a thing, and you had no idea they would do this, because it’s not a part of your own culture. You may also be under rules from your organization that don’t let you take gifts. There’s even the possibility (God forbid!) that you might see this as a bribe of some sort and get angry.

If instead you had learned about this culture ahead of time, you could have provided yourself with a safe alternative that keeps everybody happy. For example, my wife told everybody how much she adored Vietnamese coffee and jasmine tea. And when word got out, everyone who felt gratitude and wanted to “even the score” started bringing us tea instead of gold, which was far more appropriate and less likely to create ethical problems! (It also meant we always had plenty of tea for church functions.)

So, if you’re working in a neighborhood with multiple cultures, take time to learn and ask questions. Find people in each group you can build a trusting friendship with, and run your questions, ideas, and plans past them before you implement them. It will be time well spent.

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