While some people enter the field with years of life experience under their belt, there are many of us who enter it with little to none.
I was twenty-two, bright-eyed, and inexperienced. Not only had I never been on a service trip in my life, but I was also a fresh college grad. I knew little to nothing about cross-cultural service, and just as little about life as a working adult.
Serving overseas takes an immense amount of adjustment and energy, and so does a college graduate’s transition to the “real world.” My year overseas felt like a double whammy of adulthood. Yet, the challenges God presented me with taught me vital lessons for first-year survival, and how to establish a support system. While I am an expert by no means, I know the following advice—some of it given by co-workers, some of it learned the hard way—is the kind of stuff I will always carry with me.
By all means, read up on culture shock. Culture shock is very real. It’s so real that investing in a book, or two, or three, is completely worth it. Going through the adjustment is already hard—going through it blindly is even harder! Only after struggling on my own did I finally invest in reading about cultural adjustments overseas. Since then, I’ve found this research-oriented approach applies to just about anything you encounter in the adult world.
Expand your understanding of culture shock by talking with your American co-workers. The ups and downs of culture shock can make us feel shameful and embarrassed—why does everyone in this new place seem completely at ease, while you feel anxious, scared, upset and, at times, downright insane? The reason: they’ve all gone through it before. So ask them what it was like, and how they got through those first stages. Bringing this hefty topic out on the table will ease your transition and allow them to apply their expertise.
Educate yourself about your host country and its culture. Whether it’s through books, newspapers, websites, or conversations you initiate with locals and Americans, understanding your new home’s history and its people’s way of life will transform challenging situations into ones that are less baffling and more tolerable, paving room for fascination and even joy.
Find an expat mentor. Seek someone who’s lived in your host country for a while, is knowledgeable and fond of the culture, and could make a good friend. She will help you immensely. Without my mentor, I would’ve gone insane! She taught me so many things about my job, life, and faith. Pray for someone who will take you under her wing.
Seek out a local mentor. Not only can you gain a deeper understanding of your host country through this friend, thereby easing your adjustment, but she can also act as a bridge for you to become part of the local community. In addition, you’ll feel more welcomed. Because forming a friendship with a local will take more time and effort than with an American, ask your work colleagues, both local and expatriate, to introduce you to someone who has had ample experience with foreigners.
Make self-care a top priority. Take time out for yourself, and even more than usual—because of the hardships you’re facing, you need to be extra generous. Whether it’s extra time alone to decompress, or more time spent socializing, make it a priority. You deserve it.
Know that your struggles, though painful, are lessons of gold. Overseas, everything that was once familiar to me, that I had identified myself with, was gone. More specifically, the crutches of my own society that had substituted for my faith all those years were no longer around. The struggles I faced brought me down to the dirt and mud, and it was there, crying out, that I found Christ in a way I had never known Him—dirty and muddy, too, for our sins. Without those struggles, I wouldn’t have grown in my faith, and I wouldn’t have the relationship with Him I have today.
Trust that God is good. You may wonder the following: What am I doing here? Why is this so hard? and Where is God? For me, these questions weren’t in the back of my mind, light and wandering—they were at the forefront, igniting panic and fear. But God is always with you; He will never leave you or forsake you (Deut. 31:6). As my closest friend and mentor would tell me, time and time again: God is good. He loves you; He has a plan for you. And He will provide.
What tips would you add?