I was ready (or so I thought) for the impending culture shock. I read the studies and I paid careful attention to the diagrams presented in training. I was aware of the emotional, physical and spiritual cues to look for and knew how to track them through the stages. I was prepped, ready and somewhat terrified of how it would manifest in my own life once I got overseas.
When I landed my new home, which was an overpopulated Asian country I patiently awaited the impending doom of culture shock. It did happen and it came on quick. The place we landed was physically overwhelming and intense, with little western comforts to offer me as an escape. I sat on my rock hard bed and cried, there were points when I didn’t want to go outside, and I talked myself out of leaving several times. Knowing about culture shock helped in that I knew what it was but when you’re in it the studies and diagrams offered no relief.
It wasn’t until I met a fellow missionary serving in this country. She described being huddled in a fetal position on the floor sobbing. She served in this country for nearly seven years at this point and looked at me and said, “It gets better, it doesn’t last forever, you will get through it.”
So, here I am to tell you not only does it not last forever, but you will have a richer, more beautiful life after going through it. There is a beautiful other side to culture shock that we rarely hear. In missions we hear a lot of, “Yikes. Yeah, culture shock is rough. Some people give up in the middle of it. Make sure you don’t visit home while you’re still in culture shock because you won’t go back. (insert personal anecdote that isn’t super helpful).”
We serve a God who does not disappoint. God has the ability to make all things work for the good of those who love him. We don’t serve a God who just wants us to “get through it,” and eventually make it to heaven. He has given us the Holy Spirit who brings joy and a fullness of life, so you better believe the other side of culture shock is awesome.
A few reasons why I call the other side of culture shock beautiful:
- We become bi-cultural: Those of us who go through it come out on the other side of it bi-cultural, meaning we can call two completely different cultures home. I wasn’t sure what bi-cultural meant or if it really even existed before experiencing it myself. The initial feelings of your new culture being strange, foreign and scary have mostly subsided. I gained a sense of a new normal: one where we pick out fruit on the street instead of a grocery store, one where we speak a different language to communicate with the people around us and one where eating with your hands is proper table etiquette. I learned so much about myself and the world as a whole by figuring out how to find a normal in a radically different culture. It’s a cool place to be where you are just as comfortable haggling for a price over tomatoes as you are walking into a grocery store and placing the pre-washed tomatoes that are carefully displayed for you into a clean (never-used-before) plastic bag.
- We learn how to go through the fire: There’s something rewarding about going through a hard season and successfully coming out of it, you are refined! We learn we CAN do all things through Christ who strengthens us. When I came out of culture shock this was one of my favorite feelings. I loved being able to look back and see how far I had come and be reminded of God’s faithfulness.
- We learn complete dependence: America doesn’t value complete dependence on anyone or anything very high, however, the Bible talks about depending on God for everything. There was something special about looking back and knowing God was with me on my hardest days. I came out of it knowing God can be trusted even in a foreign context, even when there are no familiar comforts. I love this bonus of going through culture shock because I grew closer to God than I had ever been before because there was a desperate dependence. I learned HE IS ENOUGH. I had to learn to trust Him with my security, finances, and ability function (the most basic things in life). It’s given me a deeper appreciation for complete dependence on Him and reminds me that He does go before us and is always with us.
- We gained more family members: I am and have always been incredibly close to my family and my husband’s, so leaving them behind was the hardest part about moving overseas for me. However, there was this bond that took place between us and some of the locals here. We feel at home with them and consider them our family. I love walking into our local family’s home here and hearing, “AHH My girl, How are you?” and receiving a warm hug. It’s an amazing gift to be able to have family all over the world, to have people who love and care for you deeply back in the U.S. and now in this country too. It’s become hard to leave both places we now love. It’s a beautiful thing to be on one side of the world but missing people on the other side – no matter where we are.
Getting to the other side of culture shock allowed me to experience a fullness of life I had never known. I was blessed with a richness of cross-cultural relationships and learned to endure and get through the fire. Remember He is enough and we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.
Remember – Just keep swimming.