Apr 2 2013

7 ways to increase cultural awareness through letter writing

CFCA sponsored child

Arbie, a CFCA sponsored child in the Philippines, writes a letter to her sponsor.

When you sponsor a child or aging friend, you open the door to another culture — your new friend’s culture. By writing to their friends, sponsors deepen this connection across cultural, geographic and economic divides.

These letter-writing ideas can help you on your journey to greater cultural awareness:

  • Find some news headlines from your sponsored friend’s country.

These can make great conversation starters. As you search for headlines, pay attention to the news article’s tone as well as the information. Is it lighthearted or somber? Does it focus on institutional matters or social concerns? See who is quoted — politicians, celebrities, government officials, etc.

Practical tip for your next letter: Set aside a few minutes each day for a week to scan some headlines from your sponsored friend’s country. Mention one or two of them and ask your friend for some context. What makes this news? Is it unusual or typical of the challenges the country may be facing?

  • Watch the weather and how you react to it.

If you come from a cold climate, you’re probably used to wearing gloves, scarves and winter coats. If your sponsored friend is from a tropical country, she or he may have a hard time relating to descriptions of winter and cold.

An interesting resource to check out is Sarah Lanier’s book, “Foreign to Familiar: A Guide to Understanding Hot — And Cold — Climate Cultures.” Her hypothesis is that cultures in hot climates tend to be more relationship-based, while cultures in cold climates tend to be more task-oriented. Check it out if you haven’t already read it!

Practical tip for your next letter: Outline the typical seasons you experience in a year. Ask your sponsored friend what his or her seasons look like. Wet or dry? Spring, summer, fall, winter? How does your friend’s housing situation reflect the weather? (For instance, in Kansas City where CFCA’s headquarters is located, residential houses are designed in such a way that winter snow falls off roofs more easily.)

  • Talk transportation.

Many of us depend on cars to get around, but families living in poverty often depend on a time-honored mode of transportation: walking!

A remote village road in India.

A remote village road in India.

In Guatemala, for example, a sponsored child’s mother walks 20 minutes every day to to reach a clean water source and fetch water for her family. Other options for families may include public transportation or bicycles.

Practical tip for your next letter
: Encourage your friend to describe her or his transportation options, especially if the family lives out in the country. Ask how long it takes to travel from home to school, the market, etc.

  • Explore some cultural norms from the region where your sponsored friend lives.

Sometimes perfectly innocent gestures in one society can have negative connotations in another. Did you know, for example, that white flowers are used for funerals in India? Or that smelling food in Tanzania indicates that you find the aroma unpleasant?

Researching these cultural norms will help you understand your sponsored friend more. It will also provide you with some interesting ideas you can write about as you explore each other’s cultures.

CFCA sponsored child in Guatemala

Mayra, sister of a CFCA sponsored child in Guatemala, enjoys the sights and sounds of a CFCA awareness trip.

Practical tip for your next letter: Think about your own childhood and ways you were taught to interact with others. What are some cultural norms you grew up with? Explain these to your sponsored friend as if you were observing these for the first time. Then encourage your sponsored friend to explain some of her or his cultural norms to you.

  • Discuss your favorite foods and how you prepare them.

Have you noticed how every culture has its comfort foods? Whether it’s U.S. apple pie, Salvadoran pupusas or Indian chapatti, there’s probably something you crave that’s warm, filling and fragrant.

Food preparation can also differ from country to country. In Mexico, for instance, it can take two days to make these tamales, which involves sauteing chicken, soaking corn husks and skinning chiles. That’s not something you can whip up in the microwave!

Practical tip for your next letter: Find out your sponsored friend’s favorite food, including details for preparation and how often your friend gets to eat it. Then describe your favorite food and any fond memories associated with that dish.

  • Consider your communities.

Rural or urban? Hillside or valley? Our communities help shape our lifestyles and interactions with the people we meet outside our families.

CFCA in Kenya

Elizabeth and Dominic, parents of two sponsored youth in Kenya, worked through the CFCA livelihood program to earn money as urban slum farmers.

Practical tip for your next letter: Take a picture from your community to send to your sponsored friend. It could be of you in a volunteer group setting, at a local landmark, or in the city where you live. Then invite your sponsored friend to describe her or his community to help you visualize it.

  • Compare holiday traditions.

Some special days you may take for granted, such as St. Patrick’s Day and Thanksgiving, are probably days your sponsored friend has never heard about. And they may celebrate special days and holidays you have never heard about.

Even if your sponsored friend and family share some holidays with you (such as Christmas, Independence Day or New Year’s Eve), they may celebrate in a different way. For example, there’s never a white Christmas in countries such as Kenya, the Philippines, Tanzania and Uganda!

Practical tip for your next letter: Talk to your sponsored friend about your favorite holiday tradition. Then ask what their holiday traditions are and whether fireworks, food and other festivities are involved.

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