James Hudson Taylor came to the decision that CIM missionaries ought to wear their hair shaved on top and in a long pony tail at the back, and dress in silk jackets and trousers, in accordance to local Chinese custom. This was in contrast to missionary convention, which had maintained western dress.
This is an ongoing missional question: when entering a new context, to what extent do we embrace local norms in regard to universals (such as what people eat, wear, the language they speak; this approach is often called ‘incarnational’) and to what extent to we acknowledge our difference?
There are no hard and fast rights and wrongs. The outsider who comes into a culture is different from the locals, and will remain different in many ways however long they stay and however much they immerse themselves in the host culture. Difference is not only unavoidable; it has a positive side: to choose to live somewhere, not because you were born there or grew up there but because you chose to move there, is to pay a real complement to a community. But difference has a negative side, too: if the incomer believes that their values in relation to universals are better than, rather than simply different to, local values. Diversity is good; colonialism bad.
One of the first things I have noticed here is that most (though not all) men have their hair cropped short, in a crew cut. I’m also noting what they wear. Hence Hudson Taylor: ought I to have my hair cut short? Is that necessary, or at least helpful, if I want to be able to build relationships here? And if so, when should I get my hair cut? To do so too quickly is, perhaps, attempting to be seen as an insider before I have been accepted as (not an insider but) a welcome incomer. And that might have as negative an impact as getting my hair cut short at the right time could have a positive impact.
I am not going to go out and get a Liverpool makeover: that would be false. You can’t wear another man’s shoes until you have some understanding of the streets he has walked on. But, I suspect that what I wear, what I eat, how I speak, and even how I cut my hair, will change over time to reflect this new context: for, conversely, you can’t understand a man until you have walked in his shoes. And the incremental changes will chart my journey into this community...