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What does it mean to you?

March 12, 2024

Andrew Hedinger

"If you are 30 years old, and you do not live at home, you are a bad son," my friend said emphatically. "It means you are so bad that your family could not stand you and has kicked you out." My friend and I were discussing life in his native country of India, and comparing it to the United States, where he had been living for about a year.

"In the United States, if you are 30 and you do live at home, it means you are a bad son." I said, chuckling. "It means that you have not matured enough to be responsible for yourself and you are being lazy and making your parents continue to provide for you."

Our conversation moved on to other topics, but this exchange stuck in my head because it illustrates one of the most important questions that the cross-cultural worker must ask in a host culture. What does it mean to you?

What does this behavior mean to you? What does this item used in daily life mean to you? What does this holiday celebration mean to you? It is the question that unlocks the heart of a culture, and the question that, if we don’t ask it, will predispose us to misinterpreting a culture.

In his book, The Ethnographic Interview, James Spradley says, "Ethnography is the work of describing a culture. The central aim of ethnography is to understand another way of life from the native point of view."* This requires asking about meaning. He goes on to say, "The essential core of ethnography is this concern with the meaning of actions and events to the people we seek to understand."*

My friend and I were discussing one behavior: living at home at the age of 30, but our understanding of what that action means was completely different. For him, living at home after the age of 30 suggested community cohesion; it meant the son was willing to take responsibility for his parents and care for them. In my context, the same behavior was interpreted as a lack of responsibility; an unwillingness to grow up and make your own way in the world.

For the anthropologist, the goal of understanding a new culture is simply information, or a clearer understanding of human nature; but for the Christian cross-cultural worker, the goal of understanding a new culture is an issue of life and death.

but for the Christian cross-cultural worker, the goal of understanding a new culture is an issue of life and death.

In 1 Corinthians 9:20-22 Paul says, "To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law – though I myself am not under the law – to win those under the law. To those who are without the law, like one without the law – though I am not without God’s law but under the law of Christ – to win those without the law. To the weak I become weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some." (CSB) The Christian cross-cultural worker must have the same attitude; but how do we put this attitude into action? By asking about meaning.

If I, as an American, were to move to India I would observe that many people live with their parents into their 30s, 40s, and beyond.

As a Christian cross-cultural minister, I would have to decide what to do with this observation. If I decide that many people living at home into adulthood means that they are lazy and immature I might find myself reacting to them based on this assumption. I may find myself spending more time trying to convince them to become independent than I do preaching the gospel. I may overlook mature and responsible believers, who could help lead the church, because of my cultural assumptions about the meaning of their living arrangements. Alternatively, I could take the time to talk with people in my new culture, asking them, “What does living at home into adulthood mean to you?” I may discover that living at home is a sign of willingness to shoulder the responsibility of caring for one’s family. It might change my whole perspective on what it means to live at home when you are 30.


* 1. James P. Spradley. The Ethnographic Interview. (Orlando, Fl: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc. 1979), 3.

*2. The Ethnographic Interview, 5.


Andrew Hedinger grew up as a missionary kid in central Mexico. He now lives with his wife and children in Portland, Oregon where he serves as the Director of Admissions for Western Seminary.



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