What makes the first year on the field so tough? Here are some answers from those who have been there and helped others through that time.
Some things that happen before you go to the field make a difference about how difficult that first year will be. A one month field trip is invaluable. Lea says, “This sounds like expensive advice but I have found out through lots of experience working with PWs that it is one of the best investments anyone can make. This month long visit not only helps prepare a person for what to bring when they come out but also opens their eyes to a few of the difficulties they may face overseas. ”
Developing a close relationship that you can continue through email would be a lifesaver. We all need someone we can confide in and having someone not related to our board or field will give us much needed perspective when we go through rough water. Many of us have found, however, that the “folks back home” cannot relate to our field experience, so someone who has lived overseas would be the best type person for a confidante.
The effort of leaving home, raising support, selling off possessions, buying supplies, packing, shipping, and saying good-byes can leave you exhausted before you even arrive. Arriving weary makes the whole transition that much harder. If at all possible plan a few days of R&R between leaving home and arriving on the field.
Carol mentioned a web site with on-line magazine articles about cultural adjustment. You can find it at www.mti.org They say, “The initial patterns of behavior and response set during the culture-entry stage will influence the way you function for as long as you are in that culture.”This explains why it is so important to keep the right attitudes and become as comfortable in the new culture as possible.
The first year is a year of adjustments. This year on the field is made so difficult because of adjustments to a new culture and language, adjustments to a new climate and living conditions, adjustments to new social mores, adjustments to new schedules and responsibilities, and adjustments of expectations.
Lea said, “A wife and mother’s first priority becomes learning how to cook and keep things clean so her family stays healthy.”This is not as simple as it sounds. Shopping for food and learning how to use different cooking utensils and appliances are major hurdles that cannot be put off. Dealing with domestic help, especially if you don’t speak the language, complicates the process.
Learning the language is vital to good adjustment. But language school has its own set of built in difficulties. We will devote a whole issue to that topic in the future. But for now, the lack of visible results for all the effort is the difficulty we want to mention.
Married couples must adjust to the customs for couples within their culture. We had to learn to say our good-byes at home because a hug and kiss at the airport was not acceptable.
Lea also mentioned, “PWs may not be received with open arms by nationals.” It is important NOT to arrive with the Mighty Mouse mentality, “Here I come to save the day, Mighty Mouse is on the way!” The nationals may have experienced Mighty Mouse PWs in the past and aren’t all that happy about your arrival. They may never have seen ex-patriots before and don’t know what to expect. Or they may know what you are there to do and don’t want that.
The first year is a year of dealing with expectations. Jennifer had some good things to say, “I think the first year on the field is a little like the first year of marriage. You are continually dealing with expectations. Expectations about a place you have never lived, expectations about your team, and expectations about your job. Most PWs find they are not doing what they were “hired” to do.”
Another difficulty Jennifer mentions is personality conflicts. “Even though you are warned about them in training, the reality may be a rude awakening.” She goes on to talk about one of the major causes of conflict being “that we depend on the same small group of people for fellowship, social life, co-workers, and neighbors. Back in our home culture we have co-workers we like, but with whom we don’t choose to socialize exclusively. We have friends at church whom we love dearly, but don’t want to do everything with. Yet we expect our fellow PWs to fulfill all these roles in our lives. Sometimes this is unavoidable, in isolated situations, but where possible, avoid it.”
With all these difficulties how does anyone survive? Again, the ladies had some wonderful suggestions. Carol mentioned “the key is that the whole family must be part of the settling process, and the quicker you can move out of your own culture and into the new one, the easier the transition. Families who spend more time within their own culture (with other PWs or ex-pats) often seem to take longer to settle, than those who deliberately spend time moving out and meeting the host culture.”
Finding a mentor to assist this process is so important. Find people who are really at home in the culture. We were really fortunate to have a local man who befriended us. Every time he visited he taught us about the food and how to prepare it, customs, and where to get the things we needed. He made the whole process of learning the culture an exciting game. His attitude permanently flavored our experience in that country.
Jennifer told the story of one poor young man who was just paralyzed with culture shock. One older PW displayed a tremendous lack of sympathy by laughing at this fellow’s pain. “He DID make it and went on to become a field leader, partly because his own board was willing to work with his weakness by assigning him to an easier post in a big city, rather than the small town situation he started out in. Later he and his family moved to the bush and lived there happily.”
“Learn by silent observation during your first term before you make your opinions strongly known in team meetings. Ask a lot of questions, “Jennifer said.
“The most important key to success in the first year and throughout your cross-cultural experience is your ever-deepening relationship with God,” said Lea. “Through spending time with God in prayer and meditation in His Word and fellowship with other believers our spirit-man is encouraged and empowered to keep us on track. The mistake many people make during the first year overseas is looking for relief from their stress outside of their relationship with God. They’ll forge relationships with other PWs who never have properly adjusted to living overseas and are themselves out of sync with what God is wanting for their lives. God is the One Who sent you to the field and it is He alone who can give you the grace you’ll need to make it not only during that first year but for all the years that follow.”