I had just spent an amazing two months in north and south of a South Asian country. The sights, sounds, and smells (especially those smells) still hanging in my most recent memories… and on my clothes. I was excited to be home, euphoric almost. However, I didn’t expect to come home to this: friends were moving on from my work place, from my life. They were my family and I didn’t understand the change. My responsibilities at work had increased. My dearest friend was about to leave for two months. Some people didn’t understand why I wanted to talk about India so much. All of this on top of jet lag, guilt that I had just come from sewage-in-the-street slums of India, annoyance that we Americans have overabundance of everything was overwhelming to say the least. Within 24 hours of stepping off the plane, anxiety, depressive symptoms, and irritability had started sinking in.
What’s Wrong With Me?
Culture shock and culture stress come in different forms. There is culture shock when we go to a new culture, or even a culture we are familiar with and we have to learn to do things differently. I’m talking about basic things like: using a strange toilet, taking bucket showers, or showering while hovering over the toilet because a lot of nations don’t have a partition between the two– soggy toilet paper, anyone?
“I just want a cheesburger!”
The stress of a new culture is more than trying new foods or learning to eat with different utensils. It ranges from, “Why do we have to run on and off the train like we’re cattle being herded?” or “Why is everyone staring at me?” to “I just want a cheeseburger!” I am referring to the psychological or emotional aspect of spending time in a different culture. It can be exhausting! There is even some stress when the culture is similar to our own. For example, on country roads of the midwest U.S.A., many people give a slight wave or nod in acknowledgement to one another, but try that in Los Angeles or New York City and the response will most likely be different.
Not all the differences are negative, like the time a New Yorker friend of mine said, “People in Louisville are so nice! Cashiers ask me how I’m doing and get to know me!”
Finally, as I described my experience above, there can be a reverse culture shock upon returning home from a nation. After growing accustomed to an unfamiliar culture, returning to your own culture can mean adjusting all over again.
Stages of shock
First, let’s identify the stages of dealing with a different culture:
- The Honeymoon Stage: everything is new and exciting!
- The Distress or Crisis Stage: the initial impact of the unfamiliar–the shock. This is when the new starts getting old real fast.
- Recovery Stage: The unfamiliar starts to become understandable to you. You are making sense of cultural cues such as picking up on nonverbal communication. You’re still irritable, but you’re starting to get it.
- Adjustment Stage: the, “I’ve got this! I can not only do this, but I can do it with a good attitude!” stage.
Culture shock is more associated with stages 2 and 3. Whereas, culture stress is part of the adjustment stage. At www.misionarycare.com, culture stress takes place during “the adjustment stage in which people accept the new environment, adopting new ways of thinking and doing things so that they feel like they belong to the new culture.” Some factors that contribute to culture stress are differences in values and personality and understanding or misunderstanding communication (What Missionaries Ought to Know about Culture Stress).
Whether it is culture shock or culture stress, many of the results are similar: a quick temper, anxiety, sluggishness or fatigue, homesickness, and symptoms similar to depression (What Is Culture Shock? by Deborah Swallow).
What to do?
How do we successfully navigate these waters without biting off loved one’s heads or yelling at the McDonald’s worker for not caring about their job?
Through my own cross-cultural experiences and research, I have discovered that you have to start with acceptence. No matter how seasoned a traveler you are or perhaps how accustomed you have become to other cultures, culture stress and shock are going to happen. Dr. Deborah Swallow, an international speaker and consultant on intercultural communication (specifically within businesses and working cross culturally), has a great list of ways to overcome culture shock.
She starts with understanding that this is normal. Don’t beat yourself up and waste time wondering, “Why am I such a jerk?!” She recommends asking for help, focusing on what you can control and not wasting time on what you can’t, staying in touch with people, and asking questions. Get to know the people around you. What makes them them? What do they know about people from your country? What is important to them? Basically, you need to be a learner and accept that you don’t know everything there is to know about the culture you are in. In essence, you need to humble yourself.
Faith, Hope and Love
On the website Missionary Care, they give similar advice and then some. Along with acceptance, gaining cultural understanding, and not isolating yourself from others, they add, “The factors that help you cope with stress are summarized in the three enduring things mentioned by Paul at the end of 1 Corinthians 13,” Faith, hope and love. Put your faith in God to help you through. Have hope, not only in eternal life with God, but hope for your life here and now. And have love. First Corinthians 13:4-7, says, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Not only should we have patience for people of a different culture, but for ourselves too. When you make a cross cultural blunder, show kindness to yourself, don’t keep a record of your wrong, humble yourself, and move on. Also, don’t keep records of what they are doing wrong. Sin is wrong. Having to wear a scarf in 106 degree temperature might feel wrong, but this isn’t sin. We have a teacher that comes to YWAM Louisville and says, “Different isn’t wrong. It’s just different!”
Live Those Words
Maybe culture stress, culture shock, and coming back into our own culture wouldn’t be so stressful if we lived out those verses in first Corinthians. Paul not only wrote them (inspired by the Holy Spirit), he lived them. He became a Jew to the Jews and a Gentile to the Gentiles. I doubt he had meltdowns about burgers or worried over dressing differently during his travels. No, I bet Paul took most things in stride. He continued entrusting himself and his circumstances to God. He had hope for his circumstances and the future. He loved himself, others, but most importantly, Jesus Christ! Now, don’t get me started on Jesus’ missionary journey! #deathtoself #enduredthecross