I really wanted to title this Four must reads for cross-cultural work, but I was concerned that some of you would see the word “cross-cultural” and think “well that’s not me” and move on. But wait! Do you know anyone with a different religious view than you? Grew up using different utensils for eating? Is from a different part of your country? Might not support the Denver Broncos? (Shocking, I know.)

We all are blessedly cross-cultural. Surprisingly, in China some of the greatest cultural difference for those working on a team have come not from the Chinese (because we expected those) but from fellow Americans from different parts of the country.

Books are a wonderful way to fall into another world and see things in ways we might have missed. Here are four must-reads when it comes to cross-cultural themes. They cover the broad spectrum of cross-cultural experiences: bad, innocent, good, and true.

  1. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – Placed in Africa, this story chronicles a family of six moving as missionaries to a village. The story is told through the voices of the wife and daughters with the father prominent in the story. Kingsolver’s ability to capture the uniqueness of each female is some of the best writing ever.  Be warned, you may want to scream at times.
  2. The Sparrow by Maria Doria Russell – While living in the US several years ago I attended a book group that without fail, no matter what they were discussing referred back to “Priests in space.” I knew it was a must read. Russell wrote this in response to Columbus’ 500 year anniversary. Many were critical of Columbus and she wanted to remind us that people of that era came with the best of intentions and did not intend for it to go so poorly!  A group of Jesuit priests go to another planet to observe two species; they took great pains to alter nothing, become involved in nothing, and return home leaving no “footprints.” (Disclaimer: one part is not easy to read, but that’s true of cross-cultural work too!) Children Of God is the follow-up book when the main priest is forced to go back, allowing for many confusions to be answered.
  3. City of Tranquil Light: A Novel by Bo Caldwell — Will and Katherine moved to Guang Ping Cheng, China in 1904 where they lived for the next 20 years. Burying their only child, living through famine and war, setting up a clinic and school and starting a church — a picture of the dance between seeing amazing things happen among very ordinary and hard times.
  4. Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle (True story) This book makes me want to be a better person. Period. Anyone who can take working with gang members and ex-cons and some of the most tragic situations and find The Light and the light side is someone I want to follow. Father Greg consistently challenges the deeply rooted belief that some lives are not as valuable as others. There is also a beautiful chapter on success and failure and what they look like when you are working with people … things are messy!

(Bonus book: Fieldwork: A Novel by Mischa Berlinski). In part two, I will share a few things I’ve learned living cross-culturally.

What books would you add to the list?

Part two here