The multiculturalism of the United Nations is found in the United Bible Societies fellowship, too! Our Bible Societies work in more than 200 countries and territories, so it’s not surprising that when we come together, we bring with us very different expressions, outlooks, habits and preferences.
So when I recently attended our Publishers’ Convention in Seoul, South Korea, attended by nearly 200 people from 83 countries, I expected to have a rich multicultural experience. But I also knew that this would depend, in part, on my own attitude and approach during the course of the event.
Online vs face to face
I made sure I sat next to different people at mealtimes. Sometimes I would sit with colleagues who I’ve worked with online for years but don’t normally get to see face to face. I find that getting to know each other better in person helps to make our online work more efficient. And other times I would sit with new people, too.
Some of the people I spent time with were from my own region of the world – Latin America – but there are some interesting differences between us. We speak Spanish differently and have different kinds of food, folklore, dancing and music. And yet, because we were in a totally foreign place, we felt united as Latin Americans! I think the fact that we all speak Spanish played a large part in that!
And this brings me to a multicultural quandary I experienced at the event: how to greet people from different countries? We Latinos like to greet people – even strangers – with more than just a handshake but I realised that this could be awkward for some. So in the beginning I held back a bit. By the end, though, when I’d got to know some people better, I was able to say goodbye with a hug, with no awkwardness!
Just like the handshake or hug dilemma, the whole event confronted me with fascinating contrasts. Seoul is a melting pot of history and modernity. One morning I walked in a park scattered with traditional buildings. The same afternoon, we visited the Samsung Innovation Centre, full of the latest technology. At every meal, we could choose from food from around the world. There was plenty that I was familiar with, but I deliberately sought out local food. Some of it wasn’t to my taste, but the experience is one I’ll never forget.
Back home again, it’s easy to slip back into familiar ways. But I want this experience of other cultures to remain with me and to shape how I work. Maybe I’ll meet some of these people again at another event, but I want to be more deliberate than that. My job is always very busy, but I’ve made a point of scheduling time to nurture these new friendships. There’s so much we can share – best practices, words of encouragement, our knowledge of different cultures – and we’re so blessed by the rich variety of Bible work.