Welcome back to the Journey Podcast! In this episode, special guest, Shelby, returns to the podcast. Shelby shares her eye-opening story on how moving from Iowa to Bolivia changed her perspective from what was once critical to acceptance and excitement in combining 2 different cultures.
Transcription of the Podcast
Shelby: If you’re listening to this and you think like, “Well, I’m not going to go to a different country and definitely not right now,” you don’t have to go to a different country to challenge some of your perspectives on your own culture. Have conversations with people that are different than you. And like I said at the beginning, have those conversations and let them be influential.
Terry: Today, we’re going to talk again with Shelby. We talked to her once before. Shelby did something really interesting. She left our beautiful state and she went to Bolivia. And when you talk about getting to know a whole other culture, that’s a giant leap. So I want to introduce Shelby, let her introduce herself and then we’ll go on from there.
Shelby: Hi, I’m Shelby. I’m so happy to talk about cultures today. I’m no expert, I will say that, but I have I guess a different experience than maybe some living here in Iowa. So my husband is from South America. We have children who are being raised in a bi-cultural, bilingual family. We continue to travel to South America and it’s just interesting to see them growing up in a family that is back and forth between countries and that, that will be a part of their story. Very different from mine because I grew up in farm country here in Iowa and I was surrounded by my own culture. I didn’t have very much diversity in that growing up.
Terry: Can you paint a little picture of what that was like for you to grow up in Iowa?
Shelby: Yeah. So I have family on one side. We have generations from Czechoslovakia, on the other side, from Germany. And we took a lot of pride in that growing up that our grandparents spoke different languages and that they had immigrated here and I knew that was part of our story, but I think even more so, we were like a farm family, grandpa farmed our uncle’s farm. We grew up in the country. I grew up in a small town school and so I think that was important. We took pride in that and loved that, but I didn’t realize how everyone else around me also grew up the exact same way. And so I didn’t get to hear very many perspectives and I didn’t realize that.
Terry: So growing up you didn’t have people from other cultures that kind of showed up at your school or anything like that? It was pretty similar.
Shelby: I would say here and there, and I think a lot of people would probably say, “Yeah, growing up, I came in contact with other cultures,” but not with very heavyweight, like those people from other cultures or different life experiences and perspectives, didn’t have a very big sway, influence or say in my life. So I felt like I could check off that I know a lot of people from other cultures, but they didn’t really have very much influence on me.
Terry: So what gave you the idea to leave the farm community of Iowa and go to Bolivia?
Shelby: Well, I think God had that idea.
Shelby: Because it was not part of my plan. I didn’t have a specific country in mind. I just wanted to have a gap year before I started school before I started paying my own bills and kind of I got settled into the routine adult life in America. And I thought this is a perfect time, in between high school and adult life to travel. And with me, I thought, I’m going to use that traveling to volunteer and to do some mission work. And so I just started researching mission organizations that would have bases elsewhere. I wasn’t set that I needed to get out of the country, but there was this opening for someone that needed to fill a role at a children’s center in Bolivia. So it was not in my plan ever, but obviously, it was in God’s. So.
Terry: Had you taken Spanish in school at that point?
Shelby: I took Spanish in high school and I really enjoyed it. I was decent at it, but high school Spanish is pretty minimal, but that was all the Spanish I knew. And I’m like, “Yeah, man, it’ll totally be fine.” And then I got there and I think it is definitely the best way to learn a language to be totally submerged, but I was submerged. There was maybe one other person that I knew in that country that could help me with English. And otherwise, it was like, you’re on your own.
Terry: What was it like to just get off the plane that very first day?
Shelby: It was scary and it was so much culture shock. Looking back, I think everything was just like, “Oh my goodness, what?” And now, I get off those same planes years later and I’ve done it several times and it’s like, “Ah, I’m home.” But the first time I got off that plane, I was like, “Why are they driving like that? And why is that tree there? And why is that person talking like that?” Everything was just so foreign and strange. But it’s just crazy how my heart has changed by having different perspectives in my life that now, it’s like, “That’s not strange. That’s normal. That someone else is normal.”
Terry: Right. Did it seem strange because it wasn’t Iowa?
Shelby: Yes. Yes. And I look back on my thoughts when I got off the plane the first time and I’m a little bit embarrassed. I’m like, “Why was I so judgmental?”
Terry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Shelby: But I was coming from this place of never being exposed to anything else. And so my first thoughts to anything that was different than my norm was judgment. And now, I’m exposed to those exact same things, exact same scenario, get off that plane, see the same stuff, and it’s like, “It’s totally fine. Why was I so judgmental about that?”
Terry: I think that’s a huge point. Did you know or did you realize at the time that you were feeling judgmental or did that just kind of come with experience?
Shelby: I think I did know I was being judgmental, but it was almost like I was justified in being judgmental, like I had a right to complain about the way people drive in another country because, well, my culture drives better. But now that my husband lives here with Iowan drivers, he’s like, “Uh, not necessarily.”
Terry: Because he had the culture shock coming back the other direction.
Shelby: Yeah. Yeah. And he went through the same things of being very judgmental about things that were new to him and strange at that point and now he’s come to terms with. They’re just different.
Terry: That’s awesome. When you think about that first few days or weeks when you were there, were you getting lost a lot? Was there some, I mean, how did you navigate those first few weeks?
Shelby: I have a really good sense of direction so I won’t lie and say I got lost a whole lot but I remember just feeling so fatigued. My body was tired because my mind had been thinking so much.
Shelby: And I was just, didn’t have any emotional capacity to be friendly to people because all of my energy is going into figuring out the word for a four-way stop, just really simple things that were just draining me.
Shelby: And I saw that in my husband too when he came here just like he had just reached his limit in his mind, and you could see it in your body that culture adjustment is, it’s huge. It takes a toll on everything, not just your mind but your emotions and your physical health.
Terry: When you’re trying to translate in your brain the language, when you hear somebody talking and that sort of thing and you’re still thinking in English and guessing and trying to translate that into Spanish, but we know that only about, I’m going to say, an estimate of about 20% of what we communicate is actually verbal, the rest of it is nonverbal. And I would assume that some of their non-verbals would be different than what you might have here and just, how did that all fit in as far as trying to communicate with people?
Shelby: Totally. I think I was probably over-sensitive because I took everything personal instead of just taking it as, it’s a different form of communication, the same tone of voice or the same facial expression might be offensive in American culture, but it’s totally normal in Bolivian culture. And I remember just down to the most simple things, like what movie do you want to watch tonight? And me saying, “I don’t care,” and it being very offensive in the way I said it in Spanish but I’m like, I’m just trying to be like flow… go with the flow. I’m like, “I don’t care.”
Terry: You were trying to be considerate of their feelings and you ended up offending them?
Shelby: Right. And it just kind of was a light bulb to how often within cultures being in relationship with each other does this happen, where it’s just no one’s trying to do something wrong and we get offended easily, be sensitive Sally like me, or we get hurt or we say something we didn’t mean to and it just takes a lot of grace, a lot of grace to combine cultures I think.
Terry: Sure. Well, and as you stayed there, because you were there for a year, and as you went there and interacting with people, tell me about that, what was that like to… because it seems like there’d be some growth that would take place during all of that.
Shelby: Yeah. I think it was really humbling when I went into it and I will venture to say, the way a lot of Americans go into mission work, it was with a savior complex that Jesus is the savior but he’s using me to save, and that’s just not true at all.
Terry: Here I come to save the day.
Shelby: Yes, yes. And of course, I would say, “No, that’s not what I think.” But that is because of our worldview and that is what I thought is that I have been given so much monetarily or physically and there are physical needs, of course, I can help. But it was a humbling process to just see that the need is always Jesus. Yes, there may be physical needs, but someone in a different country is in no more need of Jesus saving their soul than I am of Jesus saving my soul. And that was so humbling and good to be put on an equal level. I think that’s really key for any kind of mission work, whether it’s you being intentional to love on your neighbors or you going across the country, or you going across the world, you have to first come to terms with that even playing field that we are both centers in need of a savior and I’m no better than you. So.
Terry: That’s really good. Anything else you can think of that our listeners might be interested in about your trip to Bolivia?
Shelby: I think that it is interesting to hear and know just how long it takes to build relationships, but how important those are in mission work. So I think a lot of people would like to just go in and do a good deed than dip out of the situation. It’s hard to sit in the hurt with people and to sometimes not have a resolution, but just as important. So I worked with a children’s center for underprivileged children, providing them tutoring, snacks after school, just like organized games and sometimes, a little medical care here, like dental training and just teaching them how to brush their teeth or to clean to avoid infections and that kind of thing. But there wasn’t always a resolution to some of those problems. They’re just living in poverty. Their lives were very difficult. And my job, our team’s job was not to solve it, it was to walk through it with them.
Shelby: And I think that is impactful and that can be applied when you go overseas, that can be applied when you are in your neighborhood. That’s not like a big huge idea, it’s very simple that there sometimes isn’t a resolution to people’s problems. That’s not your job to resolve it, that’s under the control of God. But your job is to walk alongside people, and that can be more impactful. I’m a big believer in just relationships and it takes time and it’s hard, but it is so worth it to build into people.
Terry: Well, and you saw some extreme poverty. Did you see some ways that they were richer than us or things we could learn from them?
Shelby: Yeah. Beautiful, beautiful character. I really admire so many things about Bolivian culture. My husband is from there and his family lives there and I just admire how families function and come together. So I think there’s a lot of countries that have similar cultures, but where grandma, mom, grandkids, even great-grandkids will all be living together and bearing each other’s burdens. Whereas I think in American culture, we outsource a lot of that care, care for grandma or care for childcare instead of being a family unit that kind of pushes in and makes their own community within each other. So I admire that and I admire the work ethic and just the joy that they can have in having little. I think it’s a culture shock for a lot of Americans to go to countries where they don’t have very many things and they’re not very comfortable in American terms, but they’re totally okay. They’re happy and can find joy in that. And it’s really inspiring and encouraging to me.
Terry: That’s really cool. So now you’re back here, your husband is here, you’ve got these three little littles, and tell me about what you’re doing to help them to kind of grow up in a multicultural home.
Shelby: Yeah. I think just letting them know that they have been blessed and not making them feel bad that they’ve been blessed, but knowing that American culture isn’t the norm for everyone in the world and that having all of these things isn’t the end-all. So we’ve been able to do that by going back to my husband’s home country and just living life there and them being exposed to having a bouncy ball and that is enough for the entire day. That’s okay. But also, just having a heart of generosity, whether we’re here or whether we’re there, that things are not our own. Whatever God has given us, it’s to steward well within our family or to give and be generous with. So we’re really trying to build a generous heart. I think that’s something that my husband has because of his culture that he grew up in. They’re very generous. And we just want that to apply wherever we are, whether it’s here or there or another country that can transcend all lines.
Terry: It’s fascinating, and especially when you think about someone from a culture like that where they have a really generous heart and here, we have so much and sometimes, we don’t.
Shelby: Yeah. It’s really crazy. And sometimes, I feel like those are just, those moments that are kind of a gut punch, like, “Why is it that I’m so selfish when I have so much?” And so even in just having my husband and me with our different worldviews or different perspectives or different cultures in the same house, we’ve really challenged each other in some of the behaviors that we have. Like, “Why do you act that way? Is it because of the culture you grew up in or can you see benefits of the other person’s culture that you could put into your life or characteristics that you could take on from each other?”
Terry: Sure. Well, and I think the other question I have for you is, what’s in the future? Do you have any plans to do any more mission work?
Shelby: Oh, this is quite the question. I don’t know. Missions are definitely not off the table. I’m a social worker, so it’s just kind of ingrained in my mind to see needs and that’s a blessing and a curse because I know that God’s the main provider so it means I have to always bring it to him. But I always feel that heart of like, “Okay, we should go, we should serve.” When we’ve talked about, should we live there, should we live here? And the cool thing about our marriage and our family is that nothing is set in stone. When we got married, it was this contract that we might live who knows where and that’s okay. So it’s been kind of peaceful to know that it’s up in the air and that’s how God wants it. So, I don’t know, there may be mission work in the future. We’ve talked about moving back to Bolivia at some point, just that our kids can even grow up in both countries. But only God knows really what will come next.
Terry: Well, and it’s neat that you feel like Bolivia is home too.
Terry: I think that makes a huge difference too. If you end up living in Bolivia for a while, it feels like home.
Shelby: Yeah. I think that’s been the work of God, to humble me and to remind me that our allegiance is to God and that we’re both and we’re all in every country, we’re all looking forward to eternity and heaven together, but because we have that firm foundation, then we can look at each other’s countries as a place of home while we’re here on earth.
Terry: Awesome. Anything, any last words or anything that you want to leave people with today that might be helpful for them?
Shelby: If you’re listening to this and you think like, “Well, I’m not going to go to a different country, and definitely not right now,” you don’t have to go to a different country to challenge some of your perspectives on your own culture. Have conversations with people that are different than you and like I said at the beginning, have those conversations and let them be influential. Don’t let them just be a small voice in your head, but really take people’s perspective and give them a little bit of weight that their perspective matters and it’s important and it’s just equally as important as yours.
Terry: Awesome. Very, very good. I love that. Well, I think we’re going to wrap this up today. Thank you for joining us today and I just really appreciate, and everybody who’s out there listening, we really appreciate Shelby coming and sharing with her, her life story. I think one of the first things we do with journey coaching, with the process, is we talk about our stories. The coach first gives their story to the person who they’re coaching and then the other person comes back the next week and shares their story, and it’s through our stories that we identify things like our strengths, our weaknesses, and we identify what’s our worldview, what view of the world do we have, where did it come from? And then we start working on, where do I want to go from here and how do I want to get there?
Terry: And so if you have any interest in getting involved with journey coaching, let us know. Definitely listen to some more of the podcasts if you get a chance to, and we will see you again in another session.
Thank you for listening. Tune in next time, and make sure you like and subscribe. Visit us at journeycoaching.org and check us out on Facebook and Instagram. Start your own journey at journeycoaching.org.