The first time I crossed a cultural boundary; I was but 1 year old! And no, it wasn’t my parents whisking me off to some far-off tropical land; it was my family returning to the US after a term of service in Pakistan. My mother says that my older sister and some of the children travelling with her (you should hear THAT story sometime) spent hours in the London hotel bathroom flushing the toilet because they had never seen such a thing before. Obviously, I have no memories of that experience.
My second cross-cultural experience, and the first one that I remember, was 6 years later, when, once again, my family decamped from Pakistan back to the US for a year. I remember that things in the US were different, but don’t remember much ‘culture shock,’ because at that age, so long as your parents are nearby and you’ve got other kids to play with, that’s all that matters. I do remember the easy access to candy, though!
After that home leave, we returned to Pakistan for another two years, before returning to the US permanently. I was 14, straddling 8th and 9th grades (a confused age anyway), so I have vivid memories of the culture shock I experienced then. I’ll spare you the details, but what I remember most clearly is the feeling of alienation, of being different. In Pakistan, I was different — that was simply a permanent state of affairs. What tripped me up when I moved to the US was feeling different in a place where I was supposed to belong!
Then I learned to live in China, and now I am learning again to live in the United States. I may not be an expert a culture shock (who wants to claim THAT title?), but I’ve certainly had lots of experience. Herewith are seven important things about culture shock that I have learned along the way:
- The term was coined by Cora DuBuis in 1951, but popularized by Kalvero Oberg in 1954. Workers who served overseas before that no doubt experienced all that we now call ‘culture shock,’ but they just didn’t have a fancy word for it. Maybe they just used the word “hard.” I asked my mom, who began serving in Pakistan in 1956 if she or my dad or her co-workers had ever heard of that term when they went. “Nope,” she said.
- There are typically four stages of culture shock: 1) “Yippee! I’m here.” 2) “Whatever was I thinking?” 3) “I can do this.” 4) “It’s beginning to feel like home.”
- Each person cycles through and experiences those stages at different rates and duration. This can be especially complicated when spouses or children or teammates are at different points in the adjustment cycle than you. I remember a teammate in my first year in China (1984) who was furious with me because I was still in the “Yippee!” phase while she had already crashed into “whatever was I thinking?” “This (cultural difference) doesn’t bother you, and that makes me mad!” she said as she stormed out of my room.
- It’s about the rules. You are in a new place that has a completely different set of rules. Your rules from ‘back home’ don’t apply, and you don’t (yet) know the new rules. What makes this so alienating is that these rules are the basic stuff of life – how to eat, how to communicate, how to get things done. Sometimes the unfamiliar rules have to do with the role you are playing (teacher, doctor, student, preacher). As Don Larson, my mentor in this area used to say, “learn the rules to play the roles.” Good advice, I’ve always thought.
- There isn’t a point at which you ever say, “There! Done!” Remember those cycles? Well they go round and round and round. This means that if you have been in a place for years and years, you can still experience the confusion and alienation (and even disgust). Culture shock is a part of cultural adjustment, and that is a forever endeavor.
- Learning the language can mitigate the effects of culture shock. There are few things that can make a person feel more alienated than not being able to communicate with those around her (or him). So it stands to reason that learning the language – learning how to communicate – is a big help. It allows you to enter their world and learn how they understand and process reality. It allows you to learn the rules, and to communicate to the locals who YOU are. This is incredibly freeing.
- Learning the language can exacerbate the effects of culture shock. As you learn the language you encounter the deep structures of the culture – the values and the beliefs about right and wrong. In some cases this can make things more difficult as you encounter values and beliefs that are diametrically opposed to yours. Adjusting to different eating utensils is one thing; adjusting to looser understandings of truth and justice is another thing.
When dealing with culture shock and cultural adjustment, I have always taken solace Paul’s admonition to his brothers and sisters in Colossae:
“At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col. 4:2-6)
Wherever you are in your adjustment process, may this be your prayer as well.
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