The picture above is of our cat, Aurora, and one of the cats who lived in our house in Mibu. Are they hugging? Fighting? Is Aurora just annoying? It’s tough to tell. And this is how we feel about some of our relationships in PNG. It’s tough to tell.

In my previous post, I mentioned the expectation of reciprocity in relationships. When I used the word “reciprocity” I meant that there is an expectation that friendship will involve a mutual, though not necessarily equal, exchange of material possessions. Because of this expectation, it is often difficult to discern whether a given PNG national is a friend or just a mooch. Here are some examples:

  • The very first time we met with Hoax and Margaret after only one previous brief introduction, Hoax gave me an arrow and Margaret gave Elizabeth some produce from their garden. I believe that, in their minds, this cemented the fact that we were entering into a relationship. Since then there has been some give and a lot of take. Despite the inequity of the exchange, I’m convinced that Hoax and I are legitimately friends; I think that he cares about us and enjoys our company. However, he recently said he wanted to put up a volleyball net near his house and asked if I would buy him a ball and, additionally, ask another missionary, whom Hoax taught in the past, to buy the net. In America, I would think I was being taken advantage of, but here I think that’s just part of the culture.
  • When we first got here, one lady who lives just outside our fence was eager to spend time with Elizabeth. After only a short time she invited us to eat with her family. Since we were looking for cultural experiences we were glad to accept the invitation. She then asked us to buy the (expensive) meat while she provided the (inexpensive) veggies from her garden. Since then, we have learned that she does this with most of the new missionaries who come here.
  • We’ve seen multiple examples of individuals with school fees, legal fees, medical fees or dowry payments taking up a collection from all of their family and friends to meet the obligations.
  • We’ve heard that it is not uncommon for someone with a job to blow his or her paycheck before coming home knowing that bringing the money home would mean giving much of it away.

While there might be some positive parts of this system, it seems to keep people from achieving too much. There is little motivation to succeed economically and those who don’t “spread the wealth” are looked down upon.

Molly, does that help?

  1. Molly

    Thank you for expanding. The picture of the cats helped.

    It seems like a strange combo of the example of the church in Acts sharing their possessions to those in the body in need (albeit practiced unbiblically by natives) and that weird feeling you get when someone is asking for something, without asking, except in PNG they ask. but it’s still weird. my strong sense of justice is completely baffled that this style of interaction is culturally acceptable.

    But i so appreciate those examples, really. And for you two, and others there, putting up with the frustrations and confusions that must come with learning this culture and loving them.

    • Kelly Keever

      Well said Mols.
      I am still trying to wrap my mind around the similarities and differences in relationships there and in the States.

  2. Kristen Belflower

    I have thought about this post all weekend, trying to figure out if this all sounds weird because I live in a western culture that prides itself on independence or if I’m drawing my stance from the Bible (I’m trying to mesh the hard-working no-debt ants from Proverbs and believers from Acts together.). When you were in the bush, did you see any differences in the reaction to this part of the culture with those who had accepted Christ?

    • Joseph

      No, there wasn’t much noticeable difference when we were in the bush. I’m not sure if we understand it thoroughly enough at this point to say whether or not it should be different with those who accept Christ or how much should change.

  3. I don’t really know, but would guess, this is just one of many times you will face a clash between our western culture and the PNG ways. How do you learn to think outside your ingrained norms about relationships/economics/generosity and get beyond the tendency to prefer what we are more familiar with? Do you struggle with bringing it back to the goal of communicating the gospel truth rather than imposing western practices? I like Kristen’s & Molly’s thoughts above where they are seeking how to apply a genuine Biblical model, but as a non-PNG’er it’s hard to discern if cultural standards in PNG are necessarily non-Biblical, or just different. So much to ponder…

What do you think?