Many people today live overseas. Some go away for their jobs, others for adventure, for studies, others because they have family living in another country, and others because they are diplomats or missionaries. Maybe you’ve heard about “culture stress” and wondered what all the fuss is about. After all, even people who never moved away may feel they live ‘overseas’, because of migrant workers, refugees and immigrants who have moved into their area.

One of our friends once said that he felt he had “emigrated without crossing a border”.

When you live in your own culture, you don’t need to think about what you should say in certain situations, unless you have one of “those days” …  You don’t have to think about what kind of clothes to wear on particular occasions, nor how to greet people. You know what to do at a funeral, well sort of. You know that the nicest treats at a birthday party are on the children’s table outside, and not in the living room where all the grown-ups are.

It all comes naturally; it is almost as if you live by habit.

But, when you live in another culture, you have to think about every single thing you do and say. Who to greet first at a gathering of people, for example. You have to do currency exchange in your head all the time to know what things really cost. And you have to remember to leave your shoes at the door before entering a house! You have to concentrate the whole time in order to do the “right thing”.

You don’t live by habit any more, but by decision.

So what do you wear to a wedding in your new culture? Well, that was easy when we lived with the Iso. All the women dressed the same! Once went in my own clothes – felt like an alien. Promised myself never to do that again!

I always had to wear a headscarf in the village when I went outside of the house. In the beginning I often forgot. The old lady next door would chase me home, saying: “Go back home. Dress properly. You’ll shame your husband by walking around in the village without a headscarf”. Like going to the the mall dressed in a bikini – just the idea of that makes me shudder! To them I was immodest without a headscarf!

I had to learn to live by decision.

Having to consciously make small decisions all the time for years on end causes ongoing culture stress. This may come to you as a shock (yeah, it’s a pun), but there is a difference between culture shock and culture stress. Culture shock is what you get when you travel for short periods to a different area or culture, like on a short-term missions trip. You might be shocked by extreme poverty, having to ‘go’ behind a tree, or when given roots to eat. Maybe you see a weird religious ceremony. Or worst of all - there may be no peanut butter in that place! But such cross-cultural experiences are usually only for a short period, then you go home again.

So hang in there: see it as an adventure, not a hardship!

But you know what, as my wise husband says, there is a very thin line between an adventure and a nightmare!

Okay, so you are living in a cross-cultural setting. You have culture stress. So what?  Actually, it is a big deal. Culture stress can cause fatigue and discouragement. Or you could feel negative, frustrated, depressed, homesick, anger and even cause physical illness. Stop!!

Here are five things you could do to cope with culture stress ...

  1. Accept that you have culture stress. It is not just the heat, the flies, or too much coffee.
  2. Talk to someone about it. Not to someone in your house who also has culture stress, though. Rather someone else with a cool head and listening ears.
  3. Laugh a lot. If you cannot laugh about yourself, the mistakes you make, or the situations you’ve been in, you are in trouble. If you don’t have a sense of humour, get one quickly!
  4. Be kind to yourself. Don’t go on a pity party, though. Just do something meaningful, like watching the stars, reading a book, eating peanut butter – that sort of thing.
  5. Spend lots of time with Jesus. This one should be first, but I put it last, just to end off on a good note. Jesus is good, right?

Reflection

Matthew 11:28-30, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (The Message)