A friend recently asked if we can receive letters and packages in the mail in Peru. The answer is yes. We get cards and letters all the time. Receiving packages is also possible, but requires a bit more work. For a package, we need to know ahead of time what is in it and how much the contents are worth (since we have to pay customs/taxes on many items). Also, it is best if letters and packages are sent to my legal name, William Shrader, which is printed on my government ID; rather than Bill--which, in another culture, looks like a different name. These lessons have been learned the hard way; that is, the "culture shock" way. Culture shock is when one experience is interpreted two different ways and both interpretations make sense -- depending on your cultural context. When you live overseas, you stumble onto culture shock experiences without warning. Your success as a missionary greatly depends on your willingness to see the other's perspective and to keep a good sense of humor about it throughout. Here's just one of my "culture shock" experiences and my attempt to laugh at it now.
|Who is Bill Shrader and why do you want his mail?!!!
Twice I've been summoned to customs and interrogated. They didn't put me in a dank room with a single light over my head, but it was still stressful. It was more like a big post office where they held my package hostage--which I'm sure was a very frightening experience for the package. They questioned why I was receiving packages using an alias, rather than my legal name. They insisted that I come clean and confess, demanding "Who is Bill Shrader?!!!" I resisted the urge to say, "Bill Shrader is a sensitive, yet complicated man, who enjoys a night at the ballet even though he's embarrassed by their outfits." Instead, I explained that “Bill” is such a common nickname in the U.S., that all Americans know that Bill and William are the same name. That didn't fly, since (as everyone can see) Bill and William start with different letters.
They then demanded that I tell them what was in the package to confirm that I was the real recipient. Their logic was that the real recipient would know that the package was coming and what it contained. I knew neither. The package (I later found out) was sent by a church and I had no idea it was coming or what was in it. Their heads exploded. The customs agents could not believe that someone in another country would send something without telling the recipient what it was and that it was coming. I explained that sometimes, even in Peru, friends send a gift without telling you what’s in it. (The problem with that analogy is that, in Peru, nobody uses the mail. They don't trust it. So, while they may give a gift and not tell you what is in it, they really wouldn't "send" it. I knew my argument was weak, but I stuck to it.) I asked them to tell me who sent it and that I would call and find out what was inside. That was not acceptable, because they believed that once I knew who sent it, they could no longer prove that I was NOT Bill Shrader. So, they asked me what it was worth. I explained that not knowing what was in the package made it very hard to determine its value. I advised them to open the package and that we would all discover its contents and value together. This took a lot of convincing, since they still didn't believe that I was Bill Shrader -- which meant, from their perspective, that a stranger was telling them to open somebody else's mail to see if he wanted what was inside. We were at an impasse. I approached it with American logic and they responded with Peruvian logic--both of which makes sense in their own cultural context. Eventually, I won. It helped that I lived at the same address as Bill Shrader and I had the same phone number, too.
So, what was inside? A bag of coffee and some garage sale items like used children’s books and T-shirts. It was a very thoughtful gift. Finding english children's books in Peru is nearly impossible. So, some good coffee and five Hardy Boys books from a garage sale is a great missionary gift. The problem, then, was the issue of value. What's the value of garage sale items in a country where they've never heard of a garage sale? I explained that the books were not new and that in the US, people sell used things on Saturdays in their front yard and that all their neighbors come looking for a bargain. It was as though I had told the Customs agents that Americans let random neighbors pick through their drawers looking for clean underwear—then they mail it to strangers.