June 9, 2011
This week I taught a class to the mission interns about culture shock, and I got the chance to reflect a bit on how "exciting" that can be. Okay, maybe exciting isn't the BEST word! It's quite a trying process, but one that has benefits if we let God do His work in us at whatever stage we're in.
The Bible gives us several examples of people who left their home culture to live in another, and we can look to them for wisdom. Folks like Daniel, the 3 Hebrew children, Ruth, Paul, Esther--dare I say it?--even Jesus, left what they'd known and ventured into a new world, and God was able to use that for His benefit.
Most folks agree that culture shock comes in four basic stages, as I'll talk about in a bit. It was kind of nice to think back on going through those stages at different points since our move here, and to realize how faithful God is to hold my hand through it all. It's also a bit unnerving to think about the reality of culture shock, which is that it is a never-ending process for those who choose to live outside their birth country. The stages may not always be as difficult, but we cycle through them over and over in varying degrees, because we can never unlearn the cultural values we grew up in.
The first stage is akin to the honeymoon, when all is new and cool and just the greatest thing on the planet. Then a bit of loneliness sets in and all the strange new things can be overwhelming, causing a retreat of sorts--sometimes manifesting as fear, sometimes as depression, almost always as an urge to avoid the new things and people. The third stage is rejection, when all these new ways of doing things are not just seen as different, but as WRONG. There is much frustration and judgment that the new stuff is all bad. At last comes a time to fit in with the culture and find ways to blend the old with the new, keeping your identity but being flexible enough to "roll with the punches" and enjoy this new world.
I remember different feelings and situations within each of those stages, which vary in duration for each person. Fortunately, the four of us cycled through these at different times and could try to help each other out. There are things that can be done in the middle of whichever stage to help alleviate the stress of it all, but the main thing is to remember that this is normal and can't be avoided. Those who resist tend to take longer to cycle through and sometimes never fully reach the last stage. It's fun to meet other expats and be able to have a general idea where they're "cycling" at the time.
The good thing is that each time you work through those 4 stages, God peels back another layer of self and exposes things you may not have known were inside you. Those weaknesses that have been hiding deep don't have much space left to hide when the safety nets are removed, such as extended family, friends, church services in your own language, traffic laws you're familiar with, police that can be trusted, food you recognize. Take these away and put something else in their places, and all those ugly little character traits like anger and fear and irritation come right up to the surface. So culture shock can be seen as a cleaning out process, making it a positive thing for most. Think of it as boot camp that gets you ready for war.