MISSIONARY SURVIVAL GUIDE #20: REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK

urlThe missions road has been a long and arduous one, winding through dark valleys, forests of confusion and ascending steep mountains that test your faith.  Now, by the grace of God and the prayers of His people, the food is no longer so strange, the smells familiar and the people more and more like friends, like family.  You finally begin to settle into this new life as the Lord`s ambassador across the sea.  Then a trip back home or a skype call brings you face to face with a new mind-bending mystery: why does home feel so….foreign?

reverse-culture-shock

Stages of culture shock and reverse culture shock

What you are facing is called reverse culture shock and it is a very real challenge for missionaries and long-term world travelers alike.  Where as culture shock is the disorientation encountered in a foreign environment, reverse culture shock is the same experience when returning to our original surroundings.  The human being is surprisingly adaptable, once we quit fighting and set our minds to the task, and long periods of time in diverse cultures change us.  This change is sometimes subtle and other times alarming to our loved ones back home.  After all, it is possible for families to be experiencing drastically different lifestyles on opposite ends of the globe, leading to choices, actions and subsequent reactions that alter the way we see the world, how we interact with it.  Then when we suddenly come back in contact with the world we once knew, perhaps in the form of an old friend or a childhood street, well, it can be dizzying for some.

This is called a "hutong", an old Beijing street retaining much classic charm.  Can you easily get used to skyscrapers after years of this?

This is called a “hutong”, an old Beijing street retaining much classic charm. Can you easily get used to skyscrapers after years of this?

Here are a few scenarios that may better illustrate the topic:

-Back home, that food that you came to love abroad as a staple part of your diet is scarce.  Everyone thinks it`s strange that you eat it.

-You smell…odd: the food that you came to love as the locals do is now in your system, in your pores (ie: kimchi)

-Family and friends, even strangers in the street are not courteous enough (or maybe too polite).  It annoys you.

Then there are some that are a bit more specific to the missionary:

-You think, “Why is everyone so materialistic?  There are people starving back at my post…”

-The Christians overseas seem much more passionate about Christ and pursuing Him.  Everyone here is too laid back…

A classic American breakfast, one which I could not put down after 4 years of rice, fish and miso soup.  Looks delicious though...

A classic American breakfast, one which I could not put down after 4 years of rice, fish and miso soup. Looks delicious though…

Regardless of the reasoning behind some of those statements, you are bound to encounter these situations nevertheless.  When I think about dealing with this issue, two things come to mind.  First, and most importantly, never change completely who you are.  An older missionary gave me some great advice recently.  He said, “your character in the missions experience should be 150%: 75% retaining your old culture and 75% adaptation to the new one.”  You need to learn the ways of the people in order to respect them, which creates a comfortable enough atmosphere to share the gospel; but you also cannot lose who and what you have become in God`s hands or you won`t have much to share, nor the confidence to match.  In both areas, you remain equal, but still going the extra mile to accomplish God`s purpose.

Second, remember that the people back home haven`t seen or experienced what you have in the field.  Earnings can be lean, the diet tough but cleansing to the body, and spiritual warfare more intense than back at mom and pop`s church.  It`s a transformation that will happen to anyone that follows the Lord`s leading into the missionary life, but those believers at home are engaged in the Lord`s work as well, just in different areas.  So, pray and ask God for freedom from the judgmental spirit and the grace to adapt yet again.  When you return home, hang out with friends, family, the church and take it slow on your senses, and your gut (eating like you did before you left for the mission fields may be daunting).  Finally, stay in touch more often while you`re away to ward off any sudden shocks after long periods of time immersed in foreign cultures.  We may be in different parts of the world, but still fighting the same battle as one body in Christ.

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