Have you ever been on a journey; a jaunt to Paris, maybe a long road trip or even across town to a neighborhood that was centered around a foreign culture? If you have, then i’m sure you’ve felt the relief of finally returning to those familiar walls of home, your senses having been immersed in the colors and strange aromatic breeze of an environment you didn’t grow up in. It was a great time, to be sure, but now the role-playing is over and this savvy “globetrotter” needs to rest and get back to work on Monday, where people thankfully speak the same language and eat the same hoagies.
Ah, but you`re a missionary now, and home is where you hang your hat, right? Well then it’s time to talk about a little thing called culture shock, a potential hurdle to any traveler and enemy to your full, natural colored hair. Culture shock is defined as the personal disorientation, uncertainty and anxiety, that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment. When you seriously think about why this occurs, it makes a whole lot of sense. You have suddenly (or at least as long as the plane flight) been transported to another place whose culture has had room to stretch it’s legs for hundreds, maybe even thousands of years. The people, languages and manners just won’t behave for your tastes, the food has a foreign flavor and even the air is different. Some of the symptoms include; boredom, withdrawal (like spending excessive amounts of time reading, watching movies alone, staying away from natives of the country), feelings of helplessness, sleeping a lot or tiring easily and unduly criticizing local customs, among others.
After 5 years living abroad, I have experienced culture shock myself as well as received counseling on it’s workings, which most generally agree has 4 stages. The honey moon phase is that point of love at first sight. The cultural differences shine with a romantic brilliance and you are fascinated by the new discoveries in food and local habits. After several months, the negotiation phase kicks in and the bright sheen of this new life begins to fade due to; that mysterious language becoming annoying, relationships with local people being difficult to cultivate because of that previous issue, cultural faux pas that you continually commit (ie: Japan- pointing with chopsticks) and the longing for food from back home. Thankfully, after about 6-12 months the adjustment phase begins and you have settled down into routines and problem solving methods for dealing with the ways of the country. You gradually become more comfortable and less critical, while your attention is turned to more domestic needs of home life. Finally, with some effort on your part, you will enter the mastery phase and be able to fully participate in and enjoy aspects of the host country’s culture. I myself take part in karate classes from time to time at a dojo that many of my elementary school students attend.
For the missionary, reaching this final step is crucial in creating the opportunity for real relationships with the people of your missions post. I say “real” so that they can see the light and love of Christ in your life beyond a sermon on a stage or fake smiles that fail to hide that you’re really not enjoying yourself. So what can you do to aide your safe arrival at this goal and with hair still intact? Hanging out with other foreigners can help with the loneliness, don’t beat yourself up for feeling homesick because you need time to adapt, decorate your room with familiar mementos from home, stay in touch with family (skype is particularly helpful), get out and explore! Obtain a driver`s license or a buy a bicycle and see a new town, maybe a seaside village. Taking up a hobby that is central to the ways of the people, but not opposed to the ways of God, will help rekindle that fire for what originally fascinated you in the place.
Also, if there was a particular interest or routine that you had before coming abroad, why not start it up again? That element of normalcy can help you feel at home. Culture shock is real and in many cases, unavoidable. However, that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world, just possibly the black and white one that you knew. Blessings to you on your new journey!
P.S. There will be a series on cultural oddities sometime down the road to help give you a window into what`s out there, but in the meantime, a parting gift!