Friday, April 20, 2012

Culture Shock

"That 'thing' you experienced last night at dinner..." Dave's smile is gentle, empathetic, "you know, when your family..."  I jump in, finishing the sentence for him, "had a total meltdown?"  He smiles affirmation, "Well, that was because you were experiencing culture shock."

Oh.  That's what that looks like?  It's my turn to smile, "That would have been nice to know five years ago."

I read this today in a travel book, "Culture shock is what afflicts people who spend prolonged periods of time in another country.  It pertains to how people cope with the stress caused by the newness of the environment, culture and people.  The stress can feel like an illness and can cause physical problems such as allergies, backaches and headaches, or interrupt the normal digestive processes.  It can bring on emotional stress expressed through unexpected and inexplicable tears or vehemently expressed anger over minor offenses.  It can also unsettle a person intellectually to the point where they don't know who to trust and can't distinguish between reality and the fabrications of their imagination.  People who are already under some emotional stress will feel the effects of culture shock much more severely than those who are not. 

Culture shock happens to everybody to some degree or another.  Even people who have experienced it before must go through it again in a new country and culture.  You are hardly aware of the stress and changes you've been through until you watch other newcomers go through it and remember your own similar experience and feelings in those situations, and how much more comfortable you feel with the passage of time.  Knowing what to expect can help, but it cannot prevent it."* 

The book went on to explain three stages of culture shock including why it occurs, "...because of the human condition of expecting others to behave, think and feel as we do." 

And all I can do is smile long in this knowing way.  Visiting developing nations -- like Nepal -- takes its toll.  To witness broken systems, lack of resources, and hurting people.  My feeble attempts to wrap my mind around the normality of the four-year old girl squatting in the gutter defecating as buses and motorcycles whoosh by only a couple of feet from her.  And why, why??, was that little boy in the "holy" river, standing in muck up to his shins, looking as though he was searching for something valuable?  That muck a mix of human ashes, decaying bodies, fecal waste, and garbage.  why?  I wanted to take him up in my arms, search for understanding, change his world.  But he was on the other side of the river -- the side where they were doing ritualistic cremations -- and all I could do was let this image burn deep, let it unsettle me. 

So... culture shock on the other side... as our family embarks on this journey of moving back to the States.  I can't help but wonder how each of us will cope.  Our family has had a plethora of moments in these last five years when we've coped poorly through culture shock, whining about various discomforts, arguing over trivialities, worrying in the small things.  I'd love to be able to say that we've matured past culture shock.  But we haven't.  And I find great comfort in hearing Dave say that it's not a maturity issue.  Culture shock is something that just is.  However, it helps to know that it's coming and to recognize the signs when it's happening.

Ahhh... {long sigh}  Today was a difficult day.  I hit a funk and spent the afternoon struggling through it.  Eli, in an effort to help me out of my funk, asked, "Are you having a hard time with the fact that you live in the 21st century?"  I laughed in spite of myself.  He's right.  I think I'm experiencing culture shock as I go through my day with plenty of water -- water that I can safely drink... right out of the tap.  We have electricity; every day; all day.  People drive on their own side of the street, meaning we don't have to swerve to avoid head-on collisions.  I can walk barefoot outside without worrying about getting tapeworm.  Such blessings!  Causes to celebrate, to be sure.  What a modern, "developed" and luxurious world I live in!!

Surely, there must be a reason.

Reasons for such blessed grace gifts: that beautiful gift of being wrecked for the ordinary... the gift of restlessness... the gift of brokenness... the gift of exposure to different ways of behaving, thinking, and feeling... the gift of culture shock... the gift of a thousand more questions instead of answers... His extravagant faithfulness in spite of my doubts... the gift of His unchanging sovereignty... the gifts of beauty... and laughter... and praise... and celebration... the gift of His ways are not my ways... the extraordinary grace of gratitude...

(#'s 186 - 199 in counting His never-ending grace gifts...)

Linking up today with Emily...

...and Ann...

* Culture Shock! A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette, United Arab Emirates, (pgs. 100 - 101)


  1. oh friend, this culture shock, it's so hard... and yes, i've experienced it on both sides of the ocean, too. praying for peace and comfort for you as you seek to find your footing in him. e.

  2. I struggled with culture shock a lot coming back to the states...weird to have shock coming back to your own culture! Everything here is so convenient and accessible...and unnecessary! Iphones and satellite tv and stores/fast food open 24/7. The slowness of life in Italy that drove us crazy now seems nice and, slow! You all will be in my thoughts and prayers as you make the transition back!! (Where are you headed?)

  3. Ah. . . culture shock. So that's what happened when our family returned to the U.S.! I knew, of course, that it was culture shock that induced feelings of panic in huge stores like Walmart (quite different from tiny, clean, polite Japanese shopping experiences), and that caused a dis-taste for American food and customs. But I didn't realize it was also responsible for the tears, marital stress, feelings of hopelessness, digestive issues, etc. that happened in our first year to year and a half here. I'm glad that's over. Since you're moving back to Spokane--which is my hometown--we'll be kind of neighbors. Blessings on you and your family in your return!