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 Compassionby 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

Leave A Comment

  1. pltk June 21, 2012 at 8:30 am - Reply

    Loved the first two, which I have read and own… will have to check out the others.

  2. LeAnne P June 21, 2012 at 9:28 am - Reply

    Good suggestions. Maybe I see a good cross-the-ocean read in my very near future! I fear I have slipped into frustration and cynicism these last couple of weeks and need an attitude realignment.

    • Amy June 21, 2012 at 11:12 am - Reply

      Nothing like a good book to help with attitude :)! (or maybe hurt …)

  3. Mike Packevicz June 21, 2012 at 9:46 pm - Reply

    Another book that I thought was brilliant on the issue of cross-cultural living was Ursula LeGuin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness.” In this book, a planet is observed by a galactic federation for a great length of time, and then a single envoy is sent to the planet to persuade them to join the Federation. While it smacks of Star Wars and Star Trek, the book is less those than it is an exploration of how those who are aliens to one another can–with intentionality and grace–learn to understand and even appreciate the Other. And as Amy says above, cross-cultural living is not only about going to different countries; our lives offer many opportunities to “cross-boundaries” every day.

    • Amy June 21, 2012 at 10:01 pm - Reply

      Thanks for adding that one to the list! It is one of my fav’s and now seeing it here — it’s like, “no-duh!” Amy

  4. Loren Pinilis June 21, 2012 at 10:33 pm - Reply

    It’s so interesting to see how novels can be used in this way. They’re such a wonderful way of seeing the human heart and really capturing the human condition. I read The Poisonwood Bible back in college. There were parts I didn’t really agree with what the author was getting at, but it did make you think.

    • Amy June 22, 2012 at 10:56 am - Reply

      That’s what I appreciated — it really made me think. AND her ability to write in such different voices for each female … impressive writing!

  5. Bonnie Wilcox June 22, 2012 at 8:45 am - Reply

    Interesting list, Amy. I think The Poisonwood Bible is a must-read to anyone visiting another part of the world, especially those places that have not been heavily influenced Westerners. I own #4 — and #2 & #3 are new to me — and intriguing! Thank you.

    • Amy June 22, 2012 at 10:56 am - Reply

      You’re welcome! I love books :)

  6. erraffety June 25, 2012 at 12:04 pm - Reply

    So glad to find your blog (and fun, seeing as it seems we have much in common- including our format)! Also thanks for these suggestions, aka nudges- I’ve had Barbara Kingsolver on my reading list for maybe decades, and have recently hit a reading rut, so I’ll be sure to really check it out now. Also the fieldwork novel sounds interesting. Can you offer a brief synopsis?
    I’d also add The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Ann Fadiman and Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder (about Paul Farmer) to your list…definitely game changers. A good Biblical-based cross-cultural read is Learning from the Stranger by David I. Smith

    • Amy June 25, 2012 at 8:58 pm - Reply

      Hi Erraffety, and I’m glad to have found you as well! Loved “The spirit cathces you!” and have just added “Mountains” to my reading list. A brief snypopsis of “Fieldwork” — starts in modern day Thailand with an expat dying in prison for a murder of another expat. Working back, the story takes you to a village in China, a people group in Thailand, and touches on missions, research, understanding a people, anthropology — all the while wondering “how did all of this end up in murder?!” Good for a read AND for thinking.

  7. Caris Adel June 27, 2012 at 2:45 am - Reply

    Learning about other cultures is one of my favorite things about reading. A couple books I remember reading that I really liked were:
    The Mango Season
    Sister of My Heart
    In the Land of Invisible Women – not fiction, but good. I love reading books about other parts of the world. For awhile I was on a big India kick and fell in love with Bollywood movies…those are so much fun to watch!

    • Amy June 27, 2012 at 6:24 am - Reply

      Thanks for the recommendations! I’ll have to check them out. Have you read “A Fine Balanace” — an Indian novel?

      • Caris Adel July 3, 2012 at 5:32 am - Reply

        ooh I’ve never heard of it….looks good though. On my list!! I just realized I could check comments through my wordpress account, lol.

  8. Cynth July 2, 2012 at 3:09 am - Reply

    Have to add “Don’t Sleep, There are snakes” (Daniel L .Everett) to your list. It is a non-fiction about Daniel’s journey with the Piraha people. Lots of twists and turns-emotionaly, relationally, linguistically and spiritually- in this text. A must read for people who view themselves as foreigners in strange land.

    • Amy July 2, 2012 at 6:33 am - Reply

      Thanks … I’ll have to check it out!

  9. […] haven’t read any of her books in Pt. 1, heard about some of them but they look good. Share […]

  10. Kristi Magi July 6, 2012 at 2:52 am - Reply

    I just stared reading The Sparrow. It’s the first “recreational” reading and work of fiction I’ve read in quite a while. Like it so far.

  11. Rhonda June 30, 2013 at 1:06 pm - Reply

    Cross-Cultural Connections by Duane Elmer and A Doctor’s Devotion by Dr. Harry Holwerda.

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  12. Sharon Walker July 1, 2013 at 4:36 am - Reply

    First We Have Coffee….by Margaret Jensen

    • Avatar photo
      Amy July 1, 2013 at 8:36 am - Reply

      great! I’ll have to check it out … thanks!

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