Don’t talk to me!

I cannot believe they eat that stuff!

I made a mistake in coming to live here …

It feels like you are in a bad dream, but you are awake. And, it is not going to end soon.

These thoughts and feelings could be going through your mind when you hit culture shock. For some, it could be just an undefinable overwhelming feeling, or a mix of longing for home, sadness, anger, and frustration. It could feel like you are mourning a loss that is not tangible.

When missionaries go to live in another culture, they are confronted by different cultural customs, and have to adapt to some of them. This process of adaptation can have a great emotional impact on them. This low point - when culture shock hits - is actually only part of a longer process.

Spectator

When missionaries first enter their new culture, they are excited! They have made it through a long period of preparation, support raising, and training. At last, they have arrived where God has called them to! Everything is different and exciting, and looks exotic. They don’t even notice the rubbish on the side of the road or the extreme weather.

Travelling by public transport feels like an adventure and the unusual sights and strange food are a good source for photos for their first newsletter.

During this phase missionaries are almost like spectators at a sporting match. They experience all the new things around them as dynamic, free, and exciting. But they aren’t really part of it yet.

Culture shock

After this initial period of excitement, they usually go into the ‘shock’ phase which is a gradual process. It does not happen overnight. This can be a deeply emotional time. Missionaries may start to compare their own culture to the culture of the people group, and become critical of their new culture, or even of their own cultural habits. The missionaries may even feel disorientated, because they don’t know how to react to certain situations, and may feel like outsiders. They don’t understand ‘the rules’ yet, and this can make them anxious.

Suddenly, they not only see the rubbish, but also smell it. The public transport takes hours, and the food does not agree with their stomachs.

They start to realise that they have given up certain parts of their previous life, certain unique cultural habits, together with its comforts. This realisation could result in a kind of mourning phase, where they mourn for their old life that they have lost. They realise that they will probably never go back to the life they knew ever again. For some people, the shock and mourning phases go by quickly. For others, it takes much longer.

The ‘Return ticket’

I sometimes refer to this mourning phase as the ‘No return ticket’ phase. Let me explain. People who go on short term mission trips, may go through the first ‘spectator’ phase. Some may be shocked at the new and different things they see, things they are not used to, such as extreme poverty. Or perhaps when they struggle to eat food they are not accustomed to. But they know that they will only be there for a week or two, and then the hardships will be over. They have a “return ticket” in their minds.

Long term missionaries have no such ‘return ticket’. One day, they realise that ‘this is it’. This is not just a three-week outreach, but a new way of life. There is no house or job to go back to. The culture shock experienced by long-term missionaries is much more than just being overwhelmed by strange customs and habits of another culture.

Recovery

Eventually, by the grace of God, missionaries come out of the shock phase and go through a period of recovery. They are usually still busy with learning the language at this point, and are becoming used to some of the different cultural behaviour. Their stomachs can handle the food now, and they even start enjoying some of it. They start seeing the good things in the culture, and start to understand why people do things in certain ways, which helps them to start feeling less confused and frustrated.

Acceptance

Finally, missionaries arrive at the place where they have accepted their new way of life. They start to feel confident, and enjoy some local cultural habits. There is a kind of “bonding” that happens between the missionary and the people from the new culture. This ‘initiation’ process is easier if you understand that it is normal to go through culture shock.

I was born for this ...

Culture shock could take months before it hits. Missionaries usually experience the ‘shock’ phase only after around six months since relocating there. Sometimes, they go through another shock phase after about 18 months.

Reverse culture shock

And then, just when missionaries have adapted to the culture, it’s time to go to their home country to visit family, supporters, and friends. A big surprise awaits many – some get “reverse culture shock”! It is the same as the culture shock they just overcame, but what is unexpected about this, is that they have the same kind of feelings again, only this time when they re-enter their own culture! Strange as it may seem, sometimes reverse culture shock is worse than the original culture shock, because you do not expect to be ‘shocked’ by your very own culture!

Culture stress

Not living in one’s own culture, even though one has adapted well, always brings some measure of stress. This low-grade but constant stress usually stays with one until leaving the field. Look out for a follow-up entry on culture stress.

Reflection

Joshua 1:9 "Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go."

Resources

Cultural adjustment: culture shock. Read here.

Hiebert, PG 1985. Anthropological insights for missionaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

Kotesky RL. What missionaries ought to know about culture stress. Read here.

Loss, M. 1983. Cross-cultural stress. In: Loss, M. Culture shock: dealing with stress in cross-cultural living.  Winona Lake, Indiana: Light & Life Press, pp. 47-59.

Oxford dictionary definition of ‘culture shock’: “the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes”.

Steffen, T. & Douglas, L.M. 2008. At home in the culture. In: Steffen, T. & Douglas, L.M. On-field preparations. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, pp. 201-223.

What is culture shock? Read here.