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The International Root Beer Incident


If you are ever bored, call any missionary friend who is able to take your call and ask them to tell you some stories about cross-cultural confusion. This, of course, assumes that all your techno-gadgets have fallen prey to something catastrophic and that only those dependable underground cables linking hard-line phones are functioning.

[For our younger audience: Yes… some phones have wires attached to them, don’t take video, send text messages, or allow you to play games during those excruciating seconds of waiting for someone actually present to speak.]

Take for instance, what I have come to affectionately call the International Root Beer Incident.

On my first trip to the Koinonia School of Ministry, in Pune, India, I had not yet gained the status of friend, and stayed as a guest with my two oldest children and my nephew in the home of the Bishop who was running the school. Had I understood the difference between friend and guest in their culture I might have avoided a lot of trouble for everyone involved, but, alas, I was ignorant and too sick to care.

Something akin to a flu had swept the house like a horror movie demon. I went down in the middle of the night just a few hours shy of a Sunday Sermon I was supposed to deliver with a translator—insidious nausea, violent gastric expellings, terrible head and body aches, high fever, trembling with cold even in the stifling 90 degree heat… and the flu symptoms were even worse. The only available fluid was bottled mineral water that sat on my stomach like cement, worsening my nausea. I arose at dawn at the first signs of life, stumbled into the dining area where the Bishop and his wife sat before breakfast, explained my situation (I would not be able to preach that morning) and set down some rupees (their money) and asked if they could take one of my children with them to the store to buy me some root beer for my stomach.

After years of vomiting I have learned what does and does not work with my body, and have discovered two things about root beer. 1. It sits easy on my stomach no matter how sick I am. 2. If I must regurgitate what I drink there is nothing better going down and coming up than root beer…tastes just as good in either direction and eliminates acid burn… almost makes puking a pleasure.

Thus it began. While I dozed and made frequent visits to the porcelain god of this world, India began to swirl in mad confusion outside my door. A guest made a request in his illness and it must be met. They had no idea what root beer was, hated to bother my kids with the responsibility, and decided to cover their bases by guessing. When more than an hour passed, a few of the leaders, having abandoned church themselves to scour the countryside looking for my need, showed up at my door with a beer. They don’t drink. They frown upon drinking. They shamed themselves in the community walking into a liquor store to get me my beer. I frowned, realizing the confusion.

I said, “Oh, my, no, no, no… I’m am so sorry to have put you through this. Never mind the root beer… I’ll be fine.”

The elder said, “No Sir, if this is not it, then what do you want? We must get it for you.”

“Forget it. A root beer is not liquor; it’s a type of soda. If you must get it, just bring my son to the candy store down the street and he will get it. He knows what I want.” An hour or so later, there is a knock on my door. I slither to open it. The Elder is standing at the door with seltzer water. I smile weakly and say, “Thank you, this great.”

He can tell, however, that it is not what I wanted. He said, “Oh no Sir, we do not understand… what is this root beer that you need.”

I say, “Please, stop. This is unimportant. I will be fine. Just, please, go back to service.”

The elder says, “Okay, Sir, but what is this root beer you are seeking?”

I grimace. “Root beer is a kind of soda, a type of pop, a tonic, like Coke or Pepsi. It doesn’t matter though.”

Three hours later, my nephew walks into my room with two bottles of orange Soda in his hands and broiling irritation on his face.

I discover later that they removed him from church and took him from pharmacy to liquor store around the city making him go inside. He kept protesting that what I wanted was not inside any of those places. He used every phrase he could to explain Soda… they had soda, he’d seen it advertised on the sweet shop signs. No matter how many times he told them to take him to a candy store, a sweet shop, a convenience store, and any other name he could think of to describe it, they could not understand. Root beer was locked in their minds and they just didn’t know what it was. Finally, he’d seen a store selling orange soda and yelled, “There it is, I see exactly what he wants.”

When he walked in with the orange soda, I looked up and saw them. I said, “What? No root beer?”

Fortunately, he did not smother me there an then with a pillow.

The next day, I asked the Bishop, “What do you call Coke and Pepsi?”

He said, “Coke and Pepsi.”

“No, I mean what kind of drink are they? We call Coke and Pepsi, “soda” or “soda pop.”

His eyes lit up and he understood. He said, “We call them “cold drinks.”

I smiled and said, “Root beer is a favorite type of cold drink in America.”

He said, “Oh… we don’t have that here.”

But a week later, a returning faculty member brought a six pack of IBC Root Beer to me. He’d been in the USA and they told him to buy some after he got through security. I was no longer ill, but I was a guest and I’d made a request.

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