Returned missionaries who served in foreign countries play a key role in helping BYU-Hawaii students understand other cultures and appreciate cultural diversity, according to Dr. Phillip McArthur, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities.
In one occasion in Samoa, McArthur joined a western LDS Church leader to train some local church leaders. The leader noticed that as he was talking to a Samoan elder, he would never look him in the eyes. The leader kept trying to get the Samoan elder’s attention, but it was in vain.
The leader felt frustrated and told him about the perceived “lacking of respect” to church leadership. McArthur then explained to the leader that in Samoan culture, avoiding eye contact was not an expression of disrespect but actually a nonverbal expression of utmost respect.
According to MacArthur, missionaries who serve in different cultures have a privileged opportunity to help others understand their mission countries’ cultures. He said, “I’m not saying that every missionary who goes to another culture comes back cross-culturally competent. Some go and they never unpack their cultural baggage. Their cultural baggage keeps them protected as a little cocoon around them and they never open up to that culture.
“Other missionaries really invest and lose themselves in it like the great missionary Ammon. He wanted to understand where Lamoni was coming from. Those kind of missionaries are very effective. They come back from those places learning not just a verbal language, but they learn all the non-verbal languages of communication. They understand the implicit ways of thinking and doing things.”
Mitch Furnace is a Washington sophomore majoring in political science who served his mission in Japan. He shared how he helped his Japanese fiance understand why other cultures might not seem as altruistic as her home culture. He recalled how “Bushido, the way of samurai” has shaped Japanese culture throughout history into a culture of sacrifice and respect for others, something completely opposed to “American individualism.”
J. Tyler Ray, a sophomore from Arizona majoring in business management, served his mission in Mexico during a time of high political tension with the U.S. presidential election and President Trump’s candidacy. He said he felt his service helped to ease some intercultural tensions.
“I feel like I helped break social and cultural barriers and stereotypes,” said Ray. “Many people in Mexico think that Americans are all stupid and don’t want to learn another language and don’t want to learn another culture. But by seeing me and other American missionary companions, they learned that we were different and willing to learn and help.”
When students are faced with another culture, MacArthur suggested they avoid an attitude of “they are weird and strange.” Instead, they should say to themselves, “‘I don't understand it, but if I take the time to understand their perspective it will make as much sense. And the way or reasons why they think and do things will makes sense. It just doesn't make sense from my own cultural lens.’”
“The appreciation for diversity allows us to find our common humanity,” McArthur concluded.