What is Culture Shock?

At some time in their first year or two of service, nearly every missionary comes to the bottom of themselves, and it’s usually not a pretty place. They feel alone, or even abandoned. Things that have never bothered them before are now driving them to irrational expressions of emotion. God, who led them into all this, seems absent, or at least deaf… or worse, uncaring.

Welcome to the experience that is culture shock.

I am generalizing to an extent. Everyone reacts differently to the increased stress that living in another culture brings. Still, it is honest to say that most of us have not experienced this kind of existence before. Even MKs (missionary kids) experience culture shock if they move to serve God in a country other than the one in which they grew up. My experience has been that it just takes them longer to get to “the bottom.” It is like their experience in multiple cultures has just given them a bigger trash can in which to stuff the stress. It eventually overflows and they are left wondering why, just like everyone else.

Let’s be honest: Living in another culture is hard.

We find out just how culturally specific we are and how strongly we hold to the socialized beliefs that make us who we are. If you are from the United States, individuality and having freedom to direct your life is ingrained in the fabric of who you are. If God leads you to a culture where freedom is not available to all and where individual rights are not honored, you are in for a surprise. When the first person cuts in front of you in line, you will excuse it as different. When the fourth person cuts in front of you in line, you will be calling on patience from the Holy Spirit. When the 10th person cuts in front of you in line, you will swear at them (probably just inside your head… but that will be better than grabbing them by the arm and telling them off, making a wonderful “Christian” scene out of it all). Once you have been in the country for a couple years, you will be cutting in front of others in line! Even so, it will feel “wrong” as you do it because it violates such a deep-seated belief.

The best way I can explain culture shock in general terms is that it feels like an irritation that never goes away (we like to call this “the thrum“). At first you ignore it, but over time you start to put up with it, then fight against, until you finally resign yourself to the fact that it will always be part of your existence in that culture.

Cross-cultural living will limit what you are able to accomplish for the Kingdom. But it will not limit God, so don’t let that worry you. It is just a reality. Here is what you do: Begin your missionary journey with low expectations. Work on learning culture and language. Give yourself time to figure out just how expensive this existence is going to be on your energy level. Then, slowly, add things to your plate. Evaluate after each new work is added to make sure you don’t commit yourself beyond what you can take on. You simply will not be able to accomplish all that you can in your home culture. Accept it. If you try, the stress will chew you up and spit you out into an airplane seat back home.

It is one of the hardest things you will do… so have fun!

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