International Series: A Call for Tolerance, Self-Awareness, and Temperance

We are thrilled to feature new voices and new perspectives, many from women who are posting for the first time in English. Their voices have been missing from the conversation about gender and Mormonism, and their posts highlight the diverse experiences of LDS women throughout the global church.

Today’s post comes from Anne Lawrence.  Anne was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. She has lived in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, North America, Europe, and Oceania. Her passion for travel started at an early age with one of her first words being “go.” By 21 she had visited over thirty states, a US territory, and had literally been “around the world.” After graduating from college she was sealed in the temple and moved overseas to work and discover what the world had to offer. She still works overseas and enjoys traveling the world with her husband and what she affectionately refers to as their “troupe.”


When I asked my non-American mother in-law if she ever felt like she belonged to an “American” church she instantly replied “no, because the church is true” and continued on by explaining that all of her leaders had always been locals. I respectfully disagreed with her opinion, so I went along to some other English speaking non-Americans and asked them the same question anticipating that they would think that the church was American. To my surprise they consistently said no, that they did not feel as though they belonged to an American church. My Australian friend told me “it [the church] only feels American during General Conference, I mean let’s be honest that is a good American show! You have the old lady voices going, people getting emotional, and lots of references to things that only Americans understand… but when you’re in Australia it’s all us baby.”

One comment which has stayed with me was my Canadian friend saying that it only felt American when she moved overseas and into an English speaking ward. In many large non-English speaking cities you have an English speaking branch or ward. You’ll find these meetings all over the world and they are a mixed group of nationalities with the meetings taught in English. People in these wards are often referred to as “expats” and the ward is usually called an “expat ward” (expat is short for expatriate – a person temporarily or permanently residing outside their homeland). I currently live in one of these wards and have spent most of my adult life attending expatriate wards and I would say that they feel “American” to me only because Americans usually represent the single largest nationality in contrast to the rest of the ward which is comprised of Europeans, Canadian, Filipino, Kiwi, South African, Japanese, etc. Collectively the non-Americans may be a larger percentage of the ward, but Americans usually remain the largest in number.

I have also lived in two other native English speaking countries for a total of about seven years and was able to attend my local wards rather than an expatriate one. The sisters from these countries did not feel as though they belonged to an American church either and when I lived in these countries I did not notice a prevailing sense of Americanism like I do in expatriate wards– in England my Bishops were both English and so were their counselors. In New Zealand it was the same. On a week by week religious experience my wards in these countries felt natural and familiar albeit with slightly accented English.

Overall, the sentiment I have picked up from years of attending expatriate wards throughout different non-English speaking countries is that many non-Americans feel a heavy presence of American culture in these wards. On the whole we’re a boisterous bunch and we can easily overlook how our everyday comments may seem patronizing or condescending to other ward members. For example, even the nicest American comes off as patronizing when they introduce themselves for the first time in Sacrament by saying “I’m from Ogden” or “I grew up in Phoenix” – as if everyone in the ward knows that those places are in America. When an Australian introduces him/herself for the first time she says she’s from Australia, not from Perth or from Brisbane. The Japanese member says Japan, not Hokkaido. And the Spaniard says Spain, not Cadiz. Why? Because they don’t assume that everyone knows their country’s geography like many Americans seem to.

Most alarmingly, is that we are seemingly oblivious to our impact on expatriate wards. I love our enthusiasm, but in every expat ward I’ve lived in there are always fellow Americans who constantly talk about the wonders of America and site our founding fathers and our divinely constructed constitution in their Sacrament talks or during class as examples of our greatness which to the non-Americans comes off as condescending. I feel like saying, “can we please just stick to the gospel of Jesus Christ and save the God bless America comments for when we’re in the USA?” Like most American girls I grew up listening to the rhetoric of freedom and the challenges that Americans have overcome to make our nation what it is today. My parents have an American flag hanging out front. I even have a sibling in the military, so make no mistake, I love America and I am proud to be an American, but there is a time and place for touting American rhetoric. I’m convinced that an expatriate ward is not the correct place.

If I could emphasize three thing s for myself and my fellow American members overseas, they would be tolerance, self-awareness, and temperance. When our newly called non-American counselor mixed up the order of Sacrament one morning, it was an American brother who stood up and publicly berated and admonished him for not conducting the meeting “correctly.” Our Filipino Bishop kindly told his counselor he was doing just fine and to keep going. That brother’s brazen behavior just reinforced American stereotypes and left me holding my head down in shame and shock. We had Kiwis, Brits, and Canadians in that ward – I recall the British brother saying “you all (i.e. the Americans) are a bunch of bastards.” On that particular day, I couldn’t have agreed more.

We are part of a wonderful international community. It is my sincere hope that we may one day collectively become less egocentric and more open minded when we are interacting within our global community. That we will talk less about how we do things in America, and instead appreciate how they are done in our host country.

Some helpful tips for Americans who are planning to attend church on their vacation or moving overseas are:

1. When you introduce yourself, remember that you’re overseas now. I suggest that you say “I’m visiting from the United States” rather than your first inclination which would probably be “I’m from California” or “I’m visiting from DC.” The latter is appropriate when you’re traveling domestically, but when you’re overseas, remember to say your country first and then your state or city.

2. I suggest that you not talk about how the church is the same everywhere, because it’s not. Instead try expressing gratitude in being able to attend church in different parts of the world and feel the spirit. If you really have to go down the “sameness” route then be specific – what’s the same? The lesson manuals? Hymn books? Similarities in the building design? The feeling you get when you’re there?

3. DO NOT proselyte or leave Book of Mormons with your written “testimony” in countries where we are not allowed to have missionaries. It puts all the members in that country who are meeting privately at RISK! If you feel compelled to leave church paraphernalia on your vacation then please leave it where we have missions already established, otherwise refer interested parties to the church website.

4. Bring your kids. Children and travel are not mutually exclusive. Rest assured, we’re always happy to beef up the numbers in Primary and Youth.

5. If you’re moving overseas and have commissary privileges, an APO address, or diplomatic pouch and bag access, don’t whine about what you can’t get in the host country.


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9 Responses

  1. Hedgehog says:

    Fun post!
    “I suggest that you not talk about how the church is the same everywhere, because it’s not.”
    I was attending an expat ward as a Brit in Tokyo for a few months (more than 20 years ago now) when a new US move-in bearing his testimony was explaining how when his US colleagues had asked how he could be so sanguine about moving to Tokyo he had specifically compared it to McDonalds, explaining how the church was the same everywhere. I recall thinking, so he hasn’t been to McDonalds yet then. At that time they did a number of Japanese influenced foods in Japan: melon and yoghurt flavoured milk shakes, teriyaki burgers, and my favourite, something called a chicken tatsuta – a chicken burger in a Japanese style bun with shredded white cabbage, ginger and soy sauce.

  2. Amanda in France says:

    Great tips! Also, don’t complain about the limited number of translation headsets. And please please don’t invite yourself to the ward lunch. You’re a tourist, so you’re coming empty-handed, and it’s not fair to eat. Our hungry children thank you.

    Thanks for this post.

  3. Jenny says:

    Great post! When you described the American patriotic zeal overseas, it reminded me of an experience I had working in a very touristy place in Germany one summer. On the fourth of July I could easily spot all the Americans clad in American flags. Many of them would come up to me, not knowing that I was American, and say, “Happy 4th of July!” One man that I worked with said that they can always count on this phenomenon every July 4th. He thought it was comical.
    I love this line of your post: “It is my sincere hope that we may one day collectively become less egocentric and more open minded when we are interacting within our global community. That we will talk less about how we do things in America, and instead appreciate how they are done in our host country.” Love it!

  4. EFH says:

    What you have written about is true. But trust me, every nationality has the same limitations (more or less) when they live abroad and participate in some kind of activity that unconsciously they identify to represent their culture.

    I admit that Americans are at some disadvantage because the country itself is surrounded by two big oceans and then the communities in the north and south border are not super different from those inside the border. At least this is my impression. But this is not the case every where else. Consequently, I think that Americans have not had enough opportunities to see and understand how different the world is from theirs. And in fact, I think that the population that differs more from the rest of the world is the american one. Every where you go, the customs for welcoming guests (for example) are similar in principle. But in America, you are encouraged to bring the dessert or salad/drinks and pick up your own plate.

    I do think that people truly need to be more self-aware and this comes only with experience and after living a life full of gaffes.

  5. Ziff says:

    Thanks for this post, Anne. Your suggestions sound particularly helpful!

  6. spunky says:

    Brilliant post, Anne. I agree with all you have written… I wonder, have you considered moving back to the US? From the expats I know who have lived abroad, those who are in tune to the local culture grow more and more unlikely to want to return to live in the US.

    And as a total random thing, I LOVE McDonad’s in India. No meat, just veggie burgers and non-greasy fries. It was beautiful.

  7. EmilyCC says:

    Thank you for this post, Anne! Next time I leave the country, I’ll be sure to remind myself of these tips 🙂

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