Ethnography. Unless you’re deep into missionary training, you have probably never heard this term. It is the study of other cultures and customs. It is a fancy word — a $10 word at least. We have many expensive words in the world of missions and ministry. But this one may be my favorite. It sounds like a word blazer-clad intellectuals throw around pretentiously at midday alumni reunions. But to be honest, it is just an expensive way of saying, “Get to know your neighbor.”
It is one of my favorite words because it also means, “Let’s eat.” If you want to know and understand another culture, go to their dinner table. It will tell you quite a bit about who they are. We listen to each other better around a table. When you learn to love what another man’s mother cooked for him as a boy, you begin to build the cultural bridge that Christ can cross over to reach your new friend. All that out of a fancy word and a good meal.
A meal, ethnography and missionary training
A meal, a $10 word and ethnography were the reason I recently found myself in a West African restaurant in the South Bronx. As part of my missionary training, I was looking to build cultural bridges. Bridges my Lord and Savior could later walk across. And so, I found myself staring at a menu I knew very little about.
Now, you have two basic choices when facing unfamiliar cuisine. You can simply throw a dart at the wall and hope you get lucky. Or, you can punt. You ask someone. In this case, I asked the proprietor of the establishment for a recommendation.
But here’s the rub: If you are going to ask for a suggestion, it is simply poor manners not to act on the said recommendation. So, when the gentlemen suggested peanut butter, goat and fufu stew… I ordered peanut butter, goat and fufu stew. I like peanut butter. I like goat. I like… well… fufu sounds likable.
When they set the stew before me it smelled delicious. It looked delicious. The fufu was certainly likable enough. And it was delicious. Boom. I hit the trifecta. Except… there seemed to be a bit of heat at the end of that last bite. Better go in for another taste and assess the situation. Oh, okay, a tad spicy. It seems to be building. No worries. Tasty enough. I will just deal with the heat, the building heat, the heat that seems to be rising like a swirling inferno and setting my tongue on fire.
The real deal
I soon realized this was nott jalapeno spice or cayenne spice. This was the real deal. This was chili oil spice. I could see it floating there on top of the stew. Mocking me. Taunting me. By about bite number 10 I was sweating so profusely I was having to wipe my forehead after each bite. The nose would go soon. I could feel it.
Here is the thing. The restaurant owner, the guy I was really hoping to get to know, was basically standing over me. He wanted to see how I liked it. How did I like his peanut butter fufu? I was trying my best to just fight through this. Just smile, sweat and keep shoveling goat and chili oil into my face.
I eventually finished the meal, had some pleasant conversation with my new friend, paid the bill and left. My mouth was scorched. It felt like I had spent a day practicing to become a circus fire eater.
Ethnography – not just a word
Ethnography. For some, it is just a word used in classrooms while discussing far-away people. For the person in missionary training, the worker in the field, laboring to sow the gospel cross-culturally, it is a calling. We are called to go unto all the world. Sometimes that means eating strange new things. Sometimes those things are delicious. And sometimes they are so ridiculously spicy that all you can do is wipe the froth from your mouth and try to smile politely.