Monday, February 14, 2011

Hello Baby!

It’s Valentine’s Day, and the restaurants of America are swathed in red and pink. Roses, ribbon, and lace adorn cards, billboards, and even gas station attendants. Glittering jewelry and chocolate of every kind imaginable are pushed to the front of stores with huge SALE signs trying to attract last-minute panicked shoppers. Some call it the Day of Love. Some call it Single’s Awareness Day.

Either way, one part of Valentine’s Day trumps all others in its garish nastiness.

The Sweethearts.

For 364 days of the year, this candy remains in disintegrating plastic bags in the back of storage facilities reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. There they harden so much that mold can’t even take a hold, and once you manage to crack them with your teeth, losing all benefit of the thousands of dollars in your orthodontics, they taste like chalk. Or concrete dust mashed together with a bit of corn syrup for binder.

Nevertheless, people continue to endorse these cobblestones as candy simply for the endearments typed onto the heart face. Be Mine. Love You. Yes Dear. But in some cultures, knowing what to call your loved one is a bit more challenging than you might first expect.

Aside from the obvious relationships celebrated on Valentine’s Day, kinship relationships (mother, father, husband, wife, child etc.) are extremely important in many cultures, and often, understanding and fitting into the kinship system can be critical in order to develop relationships. For example, in some situations names are completely dependent upon relationships with other people (“wife of X,” “father of Y,” “3rd born daughter” etc.). As you might imagine, this can present challenges when single missionaries enter the culture and they have no “family” to be related to.

Eileen Gasaw tells a story of when she and her translator partner Heather went to live in the Sai village among the Girawa people of Papua New Guinea. As the first white people—and single women at that—they drew a lot of curiosity. “How could your family let you go so far away?” they were asked over and over. After all, girls in Girawa culture stayed with their families until they were married, and then they went to live with their husbands. These two white strangers simply didn’t fit into any imaginable pattern in the villager’s worldview!

After much thought, the women in the village came up with the perfect solution. They gave each of the women HUSBANDS! Immediately, Eileen and Heather became a part of a Girawa family. They had mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunt and uncles as well as in-laws. Now they had names. Now they could relate. Now life made sense.

And the best part of the situation? Their husbands were only 2 years old!

Happy Valentine’s Day!