Countercultural Living

My wife and I were visiting family and got a question about how we live counterculturally in Southern California (SoCal). They knew we’d been through a rough time adjusting to life in SoCal after 9 years in the Arab world. I couldn't readily answer the question from my in-laws, but it got me thinking about the concept of living counterculturally.

What is living counterculturally?

"Counterculture" is a sociological term that refers to a cultural group or subculture whose values and norms of behavior run counter to those of the region's social mainstream; it can be considered the cultural equivalent of political opposition. (boundless.com)

Living counterculturally could be understood as living in a way that demonstrates your own beliefs, values and norms of behavior that are different from the society around you. Or it could be defying the values of the society around you that you feel are too restrictive. For most Christians, living counterculturally has the connotation of displaying their faith in a non-Christian society.

Being Dutch, I can easily see “what is wrong” with the suburban Southern Californian Culture I have been transplanted in. In the same way, Californians moving to the Netherlands can easily pinpoint what is wrong with the Dutch and their society. Would my in-laws have asked me a few years ago, I would have right away given them a dozen ways in which we would be living counterculturally.

What changed? 

Our culture stress has worn off and we have started embracing life in Southern California. In these past few years, were we really living counterculturally or were we living in resistance to a culture due to culture shock? Moving to SoCal was a move out of necessity, which added to our culture stress and delayed the process of adjusting to and embracing our new host culture. Over time we have met some great neighbors, made great friends and we have come across a lot of things we absolutely love about the place where we live, like a great church and an awesome school community for our kids.

Does it mean that we have now “gone native” and fully immersed ourselves in SoCal culture? Nope. Anyone who knows me, knows I’m still Dutch and that my Dutch-ness is more than just my accent. What changed, though, is my critical attitude toward the locals, which has become more appreciative and affirmative. And with that, we’ve started to blend in more and take over some SoCal habits.

Now is our time to start living counterculturally

Yes, we’re finally ready to live counterculturally. After embracing life in California, we can evaluate what defines us as a family, and how we can continue to live our lives and be a positive influence in our community. 

How to successfully live counterculturally

In a sense, you always live counterculturally when you live outside your own culture. But how do you live counterculturally in a successful way? A way that positively impacts the people around you?

It is a 2-step process. It starts with embracing the culture you’ve been transplanted in and becoming a cultural learner. Learning to love and appreciate the culture and the people you live among. Loving and appreciating a person or a culture does not mean that you agree with them. It simply means that you love and appreciate the people, how they live and express themselves culturally. It also means trying to understand them and their culture. Dealing with Culture Shock is part of embracing your host culture.

A significant part of embracing your host culture is being aware of the plank vs. the splinter principle. It is so easy to see the speck in another’s eye and overlook the plank in your own. (Matthew 7:1-5). Living and interacting interculturally, we so easily notice what is wrong with the other culture and play down the bad parts of our own culture. Many times, because we have become numb to it, or have developed coping mechanisms to minimize exposure to parts of our own culture that would affect us negatively. In the other’s culture, we have not done that yet. Their culture is not worse or better than yours or mine, but just different.

Then comes step 2, where you evaluate what defines you and come to an understanding what values of your own culture could add value to your host culture. Then you live these values in a way that is visible to the people around you and culturally appropriate and respectful towards them. You can also call it becoming a contributor to that culture.

Why are both steps important? It’s very simple. Unless the other feels you love them and value them, they won’t open their heart to embracing your values either. By learning and embracing your host-culture, you also learn how to express your beliefs and your values through the lens of their culture, and that enables you to become a far better contributor to their society. 

To come back to the wording of boundless.com…
Like political opposition countercultural living is most valuable if it has a ruthless focus on building a society, rather than critiquing it.

Published Aug 28, 2017

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