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Rethinking time in South East Asia

The Coronavirus pandemic has changed the plans for many who serve with CMS. Some have been unable to return to their location, others have been stranded, waiting for flights to Australia. As CMS worker Rowan has waited to return to South East Asia, he has reflected on this ‘new normal’ and how different cultures think about time. 

The ‘new normal’ 

There has been a lot of talk recently about what the ‘new normal’ might look like as the world adjusts to and begins to emerge from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The phrase “Life wasn’t meant to be easy”, made famous by Malcolm Fraser in 1971, has got a workout in some parts of the Australian media landscape, generally with a focus on how difficult things will be rather than as an encouragement to embrace the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.  

Different cultural norms 

The concept of discovering and adapting to the ‘new normal’ is something that CMS cross-cultural workers experience when they move to a new location and take up life there.  

It may mean learning a new language, experiencing new foods and becoming used to new public holidays and festivals. It might mean learning to drive on a different side of the road and learning new road rules and regulations. However, these are just some of the obvious aspects of the ‘new normal’. 

Some of the less obvious aspects might be different understandings of personal space, gender roles, notions of modesty, and time.  

Two views of time 

As I have learnt more about culture and values in my ‘second home’ in South East Asia, I have gained a deeper understanding of the differences between the ways Anglo-Australians (like me) see and value time in contrast to the way South East Asians see and value time.  

In their small book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself, the authors (Steve Corbett, Brian Fikkert, John Perkins, and David Platt) make these helpful observations: 

‘Cultures around the world exhibit contrasting views of how time operates. The monochronic view sees time as a limited and valuable resource. Time can be lost or saved. Good stewardship of time means getting the most out of every minute. The favourite monochronic proverb is “Time is money.” … The biblical injunction to “redeem the time” brings visions of to-do lists being completed day after day.  

‘A second perspective of time is the polychronic view. In this understanding, time is a somewhat unlimited resource. There is always more time. Schedules and plans are mere guidelines that have little authority in shaping how one spends one’s day. Tasks typically take a backseat to forming and deepening relationships. While fewer goods and services might get produced in a polychronic culture, people in such cultures often have a deeper sense of community and belonging.’ 

Australia is, by and large, a monochronic culture, whereas my South East Asian country is overwhelmingly a polychronic culture. However, within Australia, indigenous culture and communities as well as a number of Asian and Middle Eastern communities would also be more polychronic than Anglo-Australian communities. In these cultural mindsets there is a wisdom that reaches beyond efficiency and ‘the bottom line’. Mission is about inviting people into relationship with the living God, who is outside of time.  

I’ve been blessed by, and learnt so much from my South East Asian friends about time and the infinite importance of individuals and relationships—and I know that I still have much more to learn. People not only matter more than things, they matter more than time.  

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
   mortals that you care for them?  

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
   and crowned them with glory and honour. 
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
   you have put all things under their feet, 
all sheep and oxen,
   and also the beasts of the field, 
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea…” (Psalm 8:4-8 NRSV) 


Pray that CMS workers like Rowan would continue to trust God in these difficult and uncertain times. Ask that God would open the door for him to return to South East Asia at the right time.