“Only first time travelers experience culture shock.” “It is a disease of the emotionally unstable.” “Culture shock goes away with time.” These are just a few of the misconceptions about a very common problem for those who live outside their home culture.
When capable, independent people are thrust into a situation of almost total dependence, stress is inevitable. Language barriers, cultural differences, climate changes, and the unavailability of familiar goods and services add stress to individuals. Providing adequate education for the children, dealing with domestic help for the first time, and separations from immediate family members cause increased family pressures.
For those who have not yet gone overseas, preparation for the field is helpful to lessen the intensity of culture shock. Learn as much as possible about the people and their culture before arrival. There are a set of books called, “Culture Shock: Name of the Country”. See if there is one for the country you will be serving. Include the whole family in the preparations. Although little children won’t understand all they are told, they will be “infected” with enthusiasm that will make the move an adventure instead of a disaster.
A short exploratory trip can be extremely helpful. Although it can’t prepare you for every eventuality, it can make the new place seem familiar when you make the move.
Readers’ comments on culture shock
Culture shock is not the first blast of tropical air when you step off the plane, or even the first stomach upset from different food. Judy says, “During the early months we can suffer cultural confusion, but full-blown culture shock does not usually set in until after three months. Culture shock occurs because all the familiar cultural cues (words, gestures, facial expressions, customs, and norms) we have grown up with are no longer present. When we realize this, the result is a shock to our systems.”
Some of the most common symptoms are: psychosomatic illness, excessive concern for the place where you sleep or your living quarters, fear of physical contact with the people, daydreaming, wanting to go home, fits of anger over small things, excessive fear of being robbed or cheated, forgetfulness, and crying for no apparent reason.
Judy shares her experience with culture shock: “For me, when culture shock hit, we had been in Indonesia for about six months. Suddenly all the little annoyances began to bother me excessively. It began to dawn on me that this was not temporary, but that we were here to stay. I can remember thinking, “These people don’t know the slightest thing about how to run a country!” I was also struggling with the language and my inability to make myself understood and to understand. I was questioning why we were there and feeling like we were pretty useless. All the things that had been novel and fun in the beginning were no longer fun.
I became extremely depressed to the point that I felt if God did not do something, I was not going to be able to stay. After about a month of going through this torment, we were in a village, sitting on the floor of a new thatch church as it was dedicated. As I looked around at the faces of the people, God spoke to me and said, “This is why you are here.” That got me over the hump. I still went through more times of struggle, but the biggest hump was past.”
Luanne adds that “there are two parts of culture shock, internal and external, and they tend to gang-up on us.” From her list of “external shocks,” not being able to find the ingredients for favorite foods, being with your spouse 24 hours a day, extreme weather, clothes ruined in the laundry, nosey people, slow mail, and ruined packages. From her list of “internal shocks,” feeling my husband doesn’t understand, feeling that if I were a better mom the kids would like it here, feeling that I don’t like these people, feeling very lonely and isolated, feeling hopeless about learning the language, and having serious doubts about everything. To see Luanne’s lists, see her comments below.
Lea talked about the best way they found to deal with cultural differences. She says, “When we come up to cultural obstacles (yes, even 13 years later it still comes up from time to time) we learn what is appropriate for the area in which we live and learn how to act accordingly. We aren’t in America, it doesn’t matter what we do in America so we’d better learn how to live here and understand the culture here. It sounds harsh, but it is, in our opinion, the best way to deal with cultural differences that come up. Since our children have been raised here, most of the time the cultural differences don’t affect them even to the degree that they may affect us as adults.”
Learn about your host culture. Try to discover the “logic” of their ways. Locals can teach you many time and energy saving ways to live and work in their environment. When the bathroom is tiled from top to bottom, why not use a hose to wash it? Resist the temptation to make “snap” judgments. Accept the host culture as different, not bad or wrong. Don’t make a habit of comparisons with home.
Avoid stereotyping local people. Meet each one as an individual and enjoy the rich variety God will bring your way. Find nationals or long-term residents to interpret the behaviors and situations that confuse you. After moving from Nigeria to Malaysia we were once offended by a gesture that in Nigeria meant, “I curse you.” A Malaysian friend explained that in Malaysia it simply meant, “Your turn signal is still flashing.”
Not taking yourself or your symptoms too seriously also helps. Every so often one or another of us would say, “I’m homesick today.” We all let that one know we knew they were feeling bad. We gave a little more room and grace for awhile. Then we would find a way to distract them from their blues and go on with life. A healthy sense of humor goes a long way to relieving the stress.