Somewhere in the Midst of the Insanity

“Oh, look! A foreign child!” a lady says to her three year old daughter as I push the stroller into the grocery store, “What should we say to the foreign child?”

“You should say ‘Nihao'” I reply, “we speak Chinese, too” I bluntly inform her in Mandarin, effectively ending the conversation.

Ugh! What is wrong with me?! That was rude. Why did I leave the apartment today? If I can’t say anything nice to the public I should stay home. However, instead of continuing to beat myself up, I choose to give myself some grace. I’ve been here for eight years. And I’m still treated like I just got here. And, I’m snippy because I’m jetlagged and I’m adjusting because I did just get here. Wait. What?

What am I currently adjusting to? Well, a lot. Thanks for asking. Please don’t take this as complaining. Let me explain. My culture of origin and the culture I’ve found myself living in for most of the past decade are 180 degrees different. The painful process of switching between the two cultures feels like falling into a black hole and finding myself stuck in a wormhole (Interstellar reference, anyone? Anyone? *crickets chirp*)

Every summer, we have the privilege of returning to Texas for 5-7 weeks. As soon as we hit the ground running, I get to deal with jetlagged kids and try to stop reeling from sharing the same cubic foot of space with a toddler on an airplane for 14 hours straight and figure out how to interact with the world going on around me.

And it sure doesn’t help when I’m processing all of this and someone says, “You grew up here. What’s the big deal?”

Well, the big deal is when I arrive in China every August, I have to modify my American self in order to continue my meager existence from one day to the next (and possibly, by October, feel like I’m able to live well). If I don’t make these adjustments, I’m pretty sure my head will explode, leaving frustrated foreigner brain juice on the white concrete walls of my apartment. Disgusting? I know. And it would be super hard to scrub off. That’s why I go through the trouble to prevent dying from an extreme angst overdose triggered by culture confusion.

I tweak the way I shop, cook, eat, talk, act and think just to get by. Then, after I’ve finally got my “expat in China” self figured out, I get on a plane and cross the world to land in a place where, even though familiar to me, requires many changes. These alterations don’t magically happen overnight because my stubborn brain doesn’t switch gears that fast. Once again, I adjust the way I shop, cook, eat, talk act and think just to get by.

Somewhere in the midst of the insanity, I start to wonder: why can’t I just be myself no matter where I am? It’s a simple question with a complicated answer consisting of more questions. Well, who am I, anyway? Am I a phony who pretends too much so I won’t stick out? Or am I a chameleon, gifted at taking on the appropriate color of my surroundings? I hope to be a chameleon. Changing colors doesn’t make me a phony, it’s what I do to survive and hopefully, in time, progress to the “thriving” category.

If that means I fine-tune the way I laugh in China to fit in with cultural norms and grunt and make funny “ah! ah! ah!” sounds during conversation, or I throw in Spanish phrases and an occasional four-letter word and no one bats an eye because that’s what I do in Texas, so be it.

I know I make the mistake too often of comparing the two places when I’m feeling confused or overwhelmed and that certainly doesn’t help those around me. This is the hardest part of the whole ordeal no matter where I am. At some point I need to stop asking “Why?” and decide to live with it.

“It’s not like this in _____!!! Why can’t this place make sense??” I yell at anyone who will listen.

Why do Chinese people voraciously continue buying cars and crowding the neighborhood? Why is everything broken when I arrive back to my apartment after a long summer? Why is it so freaking hot outside and inside? Why do people spit on the sidewalk? Why can’t they stand in line? Why are they staring at me? Why won’t they leave my kids alone? Why are imported chips and salsa so expensive that they’re traded on the gold market?

Why do people in Texas insist on saying “excuse me” when they actually mean “excuse you”? Why are Americans obsessed with T-shirts? Why is the sushi here covered with so much sauce and why is there cream cheese in it and why do I care? Why are organic vegetables so expensive and why do people buy them? Why do people dress like slobs when they go to Wal-Mart? Why are we expected to tip waiters 20%? Why, why, why, why?!

Stop with the questions already! And, I really don’t need answers! A week or so after landing, things start to seem bearable and less confusing. After two weeks, the whys dwindle and after three weeks I’m almost there. All I know is God didn’t make us robots with a “home culture” on and off switch. He made us complicated in ways we’ll probably never understand and that adds fun and interest to the adventure. So as I go through the bewildering adjustment, I’m going to relax a little and enjoy the ride as I tell myself I’ll get used to life here and it will be fine. And, usually that’s true. Except for the chips and salsa thing. Seriously, why?

How long do you find it takes you to adjust from one culture to another? What helps you?

23 Comments

  1. Casey September 15, 2015

    Great writing, M’Lynn! We have been overseas almost 3 years this term, one year of which we lived in our new home in a small village. This furlough, so far, has had the biggest reverse culture shock/confusion we’ve ever experienced. We’re two weeks in, and I’m still in a state of confusion and asking “why?”. I wonder how the time frame of adjustment relates to the level of difference in lifestyle???

     

    1. M'Lynn September 16, 2015

      Good question! For graphs and charts loving people like myself, wouldn’t it be easier if we could just find ourselves on some x/y axis and know right where we’re at along the sloping line of cultural adjustment? I think the hardest part for me is when I’m right smack in the middle of it and I really don’t know how long it’s gonna last.

  2. Kim September 15, 2015

    Thanks for sharing so honestly, M’Lynn! Transitioning is just flat HARD. As a fellow chips and salsa afficionado, I can empathize with your frustration at the inflated prices. When I find chips in the store, I get SO excited. The prices here aren’t ridiculous but availability is extremely sporadic, and I haven’t seen salsa in years (unless I make it myself).

    1. M'Lynn September 16, 2015

      And…for me….if I make it myself, I’m too lazy to put it in the blender, so I always end up with pico de gallo. 🙂 Right now, I’m missing lime juice because I was too cheap to shell out 30 RMB (roughly 5 USD) for a small bottle of it when I saw it a few weeks ago. I’m kicking myself for that because my pico will be missing proper kick!!

      1. Kim September 16, 2015

        I like cilantro in my salsa and it is nigh unto impossible to find it. Only one vegetable store carried it occasionally, and they closed (due to the death of the owner). Salsa just isn’t the same without it. Limes are also scarce and I’ve never seen lime juice at all. So my homemade salsa isn’t anything close to what I’d make back in the states, but it’s better than nothing. My husband’s mantra is: If you add enough garlic, who notices what’s missing? hahaha

  3. Rhonda September 15, 2015

    I hear ya sister! I feel the same way each time I make a trip home to Canada. Often I have asked myself the same questions you have. Thank you for a great expression of thoughts and feelings!

    1. M'Lynn September 16, 2015

      I’m just glad to know I’m not the only one! Some people make it look easy (and I try very hard not to compare myself with them)!

  4. Elizabeth September 15, 2015

    You made me laugh M’Lynn! (Your posts tend to do that for me — so thank you, laughter is always such a gift in our line of work 🙂 )

    “Why, why why” indeed. I ask that all the time here — I’m getting to the point in the term (aka The End) where culture fatigue is setting in, so I ask those questions about my host culture.

    But then, I know there will soon be things in my passport culture that cause me to ask “why why why,” too.

    Thanks again for the post.

    1. M'Lynn September 16, 2015

      Well, I’m glad someone out there gets me 🙂 ha! Thanks for chiming in!

  5. Ann van Wijgerden September 15, 2015

    Ah thank you M’Lynn, I really needed to read this! Your humour and insights… like a ‘balm to my soul’, they are!  My husband and I have been in the Philippines for quite a few years, this latest stint has been for almost 8 years. Am currently in process of ‘bouncing back’ after a month away in Holland and the U.K. The adjusting and readjusting, the goodbyes don’t get any easier, the “insanity” doesn’t get any saner.
    But I think the awareness of God’s faithfulness and grace, if anything, only gets stronger…

     
    To answer your questions: It usually takes us about 1 – 2 weeks to adjust. What seems to help: time, enough sleep, conversation and fellowship with friends, music and a bit of exercise… plus the so-totally-recognisable-words of folk such as yourself! 😉

    1. Elizabeth September 15, 2015

      Love your tips for adjusting Ann! All of them are so good!

    2. M'Lynn September 16, 2015

      “in the process of bouncing back” I LOVE that!!! It is a process and it is painful. All the things you mentioned are such a help. Great reminder! Also, I like that you mention music helps, but I have to watch out which kind of music I listen to during this time…is it music that’s feeding my soul or my frustrations? (although the music that feeds my frustrations sometimes helps me allow myself to feel what I’m feeling) And, country music is forbidden (for a season) as soon as I step on the plane to leave Texas because it will just make me cry!

       

      1. Ann van Wijgerden September 16, 2015

        Oh yes, agreed, we can be amazingly susceptible to music! And yes, taste in music can be intensely personal. Also, what speaks to you one moment, might be silent the next. Having said all that though, JUST IN CASE it might help someone else, here are the 2 songs that had a major influence on me in this latest bouncing back process: First ‘Hang On To You’ by Luna Halo had a deep impact (as in yanking-out-of-the-pit). Then a couple of days later ‘Crags and Clay’ by Gungor sealed the deal. Good stuff. 🙂

  6. Rachel Sawyer September 16, 2015

    Oh. I hear ya. On all counts. I think the process is almost like a repeated grieving (doesn’t necessarily get easier but one learns some things to cope) combined with feeling like being an alien anywhere you go. In fact, I think the alien thing might soften the blow a bit . . . This world is not my home – even the parts of it that I expect should be. After 10 years of here and there and back again, I think it’s safe to say that each adjustment phase is different (while seeming similarly the same :), requires the grace of God towards self and others, and is an opportunity to splay our lives wide open to the Lord for Him to saw off those stubborn, rough edges – sounds painful because it is. Thanks for your words and spring for the lemon juice, friend.

    1. M'Lynn September 17, 2015

      yep. The longer I do this, the more confusing the word “home” gets. Third Culture Adult problems!!! There’s so much wisdom here in your comment. Glad to hear from you!

  7. kylie September 16, 2015

    So timely! My husband and I have been having some conversations working through these types of thoughts and feelings this week.

    Your opening story made me think of a post I just posted a couple of days ago . . . it’s always nice to remember that we’re not in this alone!!

    http://justfootnotes.com/2015/09/he-sees-you-too-dear-stared-at-one/

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Melissa September 18, 2015

      Kylie- great post!  I have a crew of 4 little blondies and we get ‘glass house’ syndrome a lot in latin america…  and I think after a week in the US, it IS harder to get used to!  Thank you all for sharing your struggles.  It is awfully nice to not feel alone in mine!

       

  8. Julie September 17, 2015

    Sometimes I wonder if it would just be easier to not visit our home cultures yearly if it would make for fewer hard transitions back and forth. I think the ability we have to go back and forth between cultures now-a-days is a mixed blessing. I’ve heard of some orgs that used to have or maybe even still have a policy that doesn’t allow people to go back to their homeland for a few years after moving abroad, to sort of solidify the transition to the new culture. Part of me understands the thinking behind that, but perhaps a bigger part of me says the refreshing-ness of going home definitely outweighs the extra transition stress that sometimes comes with all that travelling :).

    Julie (a fellow chips and salsa lover)

    PS – I wrote this a few years ago about some of the transition difficulty but the joy in knowing its all worth it: http://www.simplicityandpurity.blogspot.de/2013/10/one-flock-one-shepherd.html

    1. Ashley Felder September 17, 2015

      I agree, Julie! It’s not easy for me to always think this way because I often miss my home culture more than my hubby does, but I’m always thankful by the end of the summer when we haven’t had to make 2 ridiculously long trips over the ocean with 3 small children. 🙂

  9. Anna September 17, 2015

    I find myself asking, “Why?” frequently, too, whether it is my home culture or host culture.  The things I know to expect, I’m prepared for, but sometimes those little things take me by surprise. We were back in the US for about a week the first time someone was talking about dieting and counting calories, and I was nodding along, but thinking, “Wait… What?”  So different than any conversation I would hear or have in Congo.

    To try to make things easier, I make as few decisions as I can.  It seems as if there are about 1 million decisions when traveling/moving internationally.  So if there is a path of least resistance or a tried and true thing, I stick to that.  I can make changes when I have more stability.  This is especially true when shopping in the US.  Who knew there were so many kinds of band-aids?  I could probably spend 20 minutes (or more) making the right decision on that.

     

    1. ErinMP September 17, 2015

      Anna- love bandaids comment… I told everyone when I came home for vacation that I would not be making any decisions. Why are there so many choices at Subway? Why does Walmart have 5 aisles for everything? I survived Starbucks by ordering the exact same thing every time (the last thing I remembered getting the last time I was in the States). I was prepared for this and avoided the stress also through- Velvet Ashes! I felt fairly warned by everyone here that that would happen aahaha.

      Love the Congo reference. In West Africa now and I must say it is SO refreshing to not be around a culture obsessed with dieting and losing weight. Every culture has its pros and cons I guess. 🙂

  10. ErinMP September 17, 2015

    Thank you so much for this post! When I adjusted from one country to the next I adjusted in unexpected ways. I went from teaching at a Korean-run school to an American-run school. One huge difference is that in the Asian school I was upsetting everyone by not asking permission from everyone above me about everything and running everything by the boss and basically not getting every detail from my superiors first. I’m not sure if anyone else has noticed this…but this is much more common in Asian culture than American culture, at least from what I expected. So then I drove people crazy here with my questions, double checking, and running everything by my “independent American” bosses and culture. I hadn’t even realized how much I had adjusted to the Korean-run school until I came here and had to re-adjust to the American “way.” I now see the pros and cons for both, so that’s nice. But this time around it took me about a month and a half…to adjust back to what used to be natural for me! Thanks. 🙂

  11. Ashley Felder September 17, 2015

    Great post, M’Lynn! I can connect on so many levels. A tip about the chips: this year, we bought a deep fryer, mainly to fry tortialla chips. It was 100kuai on TB. We can fry a whole package of corn tortillas (which makes a LOT) in about 4 batches/30mins. Also, we buy our lime juice on there. Can’t remember exactly how much, but under 20kuai. Let me know if you want the links. 😀

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