Brian Rotert has become my best friend. He’s one of the only people who calls me just to chat, just to see how I’m doing and he does it regularly enough that it has really minimized the pain I feel in not being in Ancona anymore.
One of the last times he called me I was telling him about my week, about work and I stopped, realizing how it must sound – so different, so American, so business-owner-in-training, so thoroughly…un-missionary. After a moment’s pause he asked me, ‘Who are you?’
Who am I? I am a cultural chameleon. I am. I learned through some difficult years in junior high and high school to adapt between urban Chilean and rural Nebraskan cultures. During those foundational adolescent years I was heavily involved in role-playing games which emphasize the player’s ability to create and assume the roles of fictional characters and to respond to various situations that are thrown their way. My brother and I played these games for hours, I’m convinced, because there was something intrinsic in those games that hit a cord deep within our missionary kid souls – a cord inscribed with this: the necessity to adapt.
I am a cultural chameleon. I am. I recall the early weeks and months of our time in Italy and the thrill of exploring, learning and the wide openness to adapting. Teammates made comments that it seemed like I wasn’t struggling with culture shock at all and it really was minimized. I adapted, taking on aspects of the Italian culture and learned to thrive there.
Now, almost 12 years later this chameleon is putting on an oversized, Texas-colored skin. This son-of-Americans, born and raised in urban Chile, transplanted to rural Nebraska and then Missouri who then spent a third of his life in coastal, central Italy is facing a deluge of The New: new schedules, new meal times, new paces, new rhythms; new foods, new budgets, new currencies, new rituals; new dialects, new political views, new climate; new home, new car, new furniture, new church, new job, new driver’s license, new barber, new small group, new keys, new school, new routes, new friends, new, new, new.
So I go back to the question: who am I? The more I thought about a chameleon, the more I realized that the essence of the chameleon stays the same. It is a reptile that simply adapts to the environment around it and even though the outside changes, its identity doesn’t change.
I think that is one reason that transition for the mission worker is often so difficult. We set off thinking, even after studying anthropology and culture that we are defined by our behaviors and actions, our habits and rhythms but really, we are not. All those are simply external manifestations of our true identity, of a deeper set of values that is rarely changed and even then only with much difficulty and often in the fires of the hardest pains or the thrills of the greatest joys.
Who am I? I am a cultural chameleon. I adapt to survive and eventually thrive no matter where I am and though some of my behaviors and external characteristics may change, I am Jason.