“Culture shock is rarely terminal.”
Seven years ago we pasted this Paul Hiebert quote on our concrete wall in Cambodia, right next to silly photos of each member of our family. We did it to remind us to keep a sense of humor when cross-cultural living grows unmanageable.
Seven years later, our homemade poster is still hanging there, and it still makes me smile.
So how can we survive culture shock? Training is beneficial, and preparation is essential. I believe strongly in those things, and my husband and I have written about them. But when a day of intense culture shock threatens to undo us, we’ve found that one of the best remedies of all is a sense of humor.
I have a lot of stories of culture shock from my first year overseas, and if you’ve been overseas any length of time, I’m guessing you do too. Or maybe you’ve just arrived, and you’re right in the middle of culture shock. If so, welcome! Welcome to this ragamuffin group of people who have both suffered and inflicted cultural injuries.
The culture shock story I’m going to share today is from our first year overseas and was recently published in our book, Serving Well: Help for the Wannabe, Newbie, or Weary Cross-cultural Christian Worker.
Serving Well follows the life cycle of the cross-cultural worker, from that all-important dreaming and planning stage, through your initial transition and subsequent transitions, all the way to your return to your passport country. It addresses grief and loss, team conflict, communicating with senders, marriage on the field, raising kids abroad, and more.
We’d love to give away two copies of Serving Well to the readers at Velvet Ashes! Just comment below if you want to be entered into the drawing. One week from today, we’ll do the drawing and contact the winners. If you are in the United States, the UK, or Australia, we can mail you a hard copy of Serving Well. Otherwise, we’ll send you the Kindle version.
Now back to my story. Seven years later, I still laugh about it. I’d love to hear your funny culture shock stories in the comments!
C’est la Vie
Sometimes life surprises me. Like that time when Jonathan was sick with typhoid fever, and I was in the school room, and suddenly the light bulb burst into flame. Literal two-inch orange flames.
That never happened to me in America.
Or that time when Jonathan was recovering from middle and outer ear infections, and he went up to our beloved roof, with its three square meters of peace and tranquility (and several potted plants), only to discover that someone had painted those pots. And the rocks in the pots. And even the plants themselves.
That never happened to me in America either.
Don’t get me wrong—plenty of surprising things did happen to me in America. Like the time a Canadian goose blew itself up when its wings touched two nearby power lines in our yard. Or the time a different Canadian goose attacked my leg while a dog the size of a pony jumped on my back. (That was in my neighbor’s yard, by the way.)
But back to surprises in Cambodia.
Our boys wailed about our painted plants. I was at the end of myself. That week I had dealt with more sickness in the family and fought off more discouragement than is usual for me, and now, my roof, my precious stronghold of sanity, had been vandalized.
But with Otto Koning’s Pineapple Story* at the front of my mind, we set out to solve the mystery of who, and more importantly, why. Next door to us is an orphanage, and there is an old man who lives there. All day long he lounges on a hammock on the roof, watching television and smoking cigarettes. Occasionally he does some odd jobs around the place.
The neighbor children told us that this man painted our pots and plants and rocks, but none of them seemed to know why. The adults were a bit more helpful, laughing embarrassedly at our questions. This man is apparently bored and likes to make things look nicer. While we were at the seaside with my parents, he took the opportunity to improve our rooftop view.
I thought it would be common courtesy to ask before forcing home improvement projects on someone else. But it wasn’t very long until I could see the humor. “My neighbor painted my plants,” I’ll say. And when you ask me why my neighbor painted my plants, I’ll say, “Oh, because he thought it would look better.” You might ask if it did look any better, and I’ll say, “No, not at all.”
The neighbors asked us if we wanted him to paint them again, perhaps all one color? (He originally painted them yellow and white.) We said yes, white is best. (Actually, unpainted is best, but. . . .) And I did have some hope that our pots would get better when we saw him outside this week, painting three tables white.
We played badminton and frisbee on our roof today. And those pots, they were one color, all right. They were one hundred percent yellow. (Surprise! A darker shade of yellow.) But we enjoyed our roof just as much as we did before our neighbor painted our plants.
*Otto Koning was a cross-cultural worker who planted pineapples in his yard. They took three years to grow, but before he could eat any of them, the nationals stole them all. This happened several times, and he was always angry about it. Only when he gave up his “right” to eat those pineapples to God could he stop being angry. The nationals noticed his change in behavior, and he started to have success in ministry.
Don’t forget to comment and be entered to win a copy of Serving Well! What funny culture shock stories do you have? We’d love to hear them!