Dealing with Culture Shock
One afternoon a year or so ago, the school children were playing kickball just outside the office where I was assembling paperwork for the teachers’ work permits. Every couple minutes, the ball would splat against the side of the house, rattling the screens and dislodging a fine layer of dust. I would wipe the grit off my papers and grit my teeth.
Later I was paging through letters I’d written when we first arrived in Belize. I’d gushed about the school being in our yard—how I loved hearing the children sing during devotions and having my husband teaching just beyond our bedroom walls. What had happened? I didn’t realize it that day when the ball kept hitting the house, but I was going through the second stage of culture shock where the honeymoon was over, and I was slogging through the frustration stage. Pulling up roots and leaving everything familiar for an unknown country is a wonderful, strengthening experience for one’s faith. But it also causes culture shock.
Much like the stages of marriage, experts divide culture shock into four stages: Honeymoon, frustration, adjustment, and acceptance.
In the honeymoon stage, everything is new and exciting. There is lots to see and take pictures of. People in this stage are cooperative, eager, and flexible. “A family of seven will be living in the guest house for a month? No problem!” “Cook for the VSers every night? We’re cooking for ourselves anyway.” They are delighted with new discoveries about their host country. “Look! Coke in glass bottles!” “An orange tree in the yard!” Everyone in the new church seems friendly and only the most glaring of problems are obvious. Minor inconveniences are excused. “No cheese? Who needs cheese when there are such delicious tostadas, tamales, and empanadas around.”
The frustration stage is also called the irritation or hostility stage. In the frustration stage, missionaries battle with homesickness. They have developed surface relationships with the local believers but are still working at building deeper ones. They often seek out fellow Americans who understand what they’re going through and stereotype those around them. Differences between the new country and home country, such as lack of driving laws, corruption in government, and unchanging seasons seem huge. They long for foods or comforts from home. I remember our first Christmas season in Belize as an especially trying time. I did not make any special food or buy any gifts for our children. Somehow it seemed like ignoring the holiday would make it easier.
In the adjustment stage, humor and perspective return. Missionaries begin to understand some of the logic behind local customs—everyone carrying home plates of food after a fellowship meal, afternoon services rather than evening services, locals keeping only enough food on hand for that day, mothers covering babies with a blanket even when it’s very hot. They begin to see there are several ways to approach a problem rather than just the way they were raised with. They even begin to prefer some of the practices of their new country. They can laugh at some of the things that used to annoy them.
The final stage of cultural adjustment is the acceptance stage, where missionaries feel like their new country is home. It takes everyone a different amount of time to get to this stage, sometimes several years. Their new country no longer feels foreign and they’re able to appreciate aspects of it that maybe they couldn’t before. Our minister’s wife is the model to me of someone in the acceptance stage. Every time she returns from a trip to the States she has such a pleased, satisfied look on her face. She often makes comments like, “It was so good to wake up in my own bed with the birds singing outside my window and the tortilla truck blowing its horn.”
I asked my husband which stage he thinks I’m in, hoping he’d say acceptance stage because after all, we’ve lived in Belize for over three years. He laughed and said he thinks I’m sometimes still in the frustration stage. Ouch! But there is something to the up-and-down feelings missionaries can experience. Experts call it the w-curve of culture shock where foreigners plunge from honeymoon into frustration, begin to climb toward adjustment, relapse into frustration, and finally make it to acceptance.
While everyone plunged into a new culture will experience some shock, there are ways to ease it and adapt to a new country more easily.
1). Learn to know your neighbors and develop relationships with local believers. Relationships tie your heart to a place.
2). Learn what you can about the local customs, culture, and folklore. Ask many questions about why things are done the way they are. People are usually pleased to tell you.
3). Try new foods—not just eating them, but also cooking them. Ask for cooking advice from other women.
4). Search for the lessons God may be wishing to teach you. Do you need more patience? Humility? Empathy? Being on the mission field reveals much need for sanctification.
5). Remember the reason you are there in the first place—to minister to souls. Keeping the big picture in focus can help to ease some of the day-to-day discomforts.
Perhaps the biggest blessing of culture shock is that, as we miss our former homes and struggle to adjust to a new one, we are reminded our true home is not on this earth. We are all only strangers and pilgrims on the way to our Real Home, heaven.