Sneaky Culture Shock
“Culture shock”. You’ve heard of it, read about it, and know that it is coming. What is so “shocking” about culture shock is that it often appears at moments you’re not expecting it.
The airplane lands. You look out the windows at your new surroundings. At first, they may be dazzling: rows of clay homes rising from the sand; thatch-roofed huts amid lush, tropical vegetation; or colorful, uniquely shaped homes crawling up the mountainside. You’re enchanted. The beauty and uniqueness take your breath away. You enter your new abode and start learning how lights/doorknobs/water faucets work . . . if your country has those. You clean your house, and the next day, the sand has left a thin layer of dust over everything again. Or you wash your clothes, hang them all over the house to dry, but it’s rainy season, and a week later your laundry is still damp. Mildew grows on your walls and ceilings, practically laughing at bleach or other attempts to eliminate it. You have met the new neighbors. No, not the human ones. You’re getting unwelcome visits from Neighbor Scorpion, Neighbor Fire Ant, Neighbor Silverfish, Neighbor Mouse, Neighbor Tarantula, Neighbor Termite, etc. You now look out the window resenting the landscape for the elements that wreak havoc on your daily life.
“The gloss has worn off the photographs.”
That quote is how one of my missions professors defined culture shock. Almost any place is fun to visit for a few days, but living there is an entirely different animal. Add to that missing your family, struggling to speak a new language, learning how to grocery shop and cook differently, schooling your children, searching for medical treatments, navigating new forms of transportation, plus fighting spiritual warfare. It’s a recipe for going bananas.
I remember one day a few months into language school. I was in church trying to ask someone to please bring me something. I’d just learned the imperative (giving a command) the week before. In English, this would have been no problem. We say, “I BRING this. You BRING this. We BRING this. They BRING this. Please BRING me this. Please do not BRING me this.” Bring. Bring. Bring. Easy. In my new language, however, there are at least 62 different ways to say the word “bring”. My mouth said, “Please . . . wait, I learned this this week . . . .“ My brain said, “Bring and take. I always mix these two up. Which is it? Right. It’s an -er verb. To whom am I speaking? Someone above me, so I use the formal. To make the formal imperative of an -er verb, I take the present indicative first person base, add the ending of a second person informal -ar verb. Plus, I’m using an indirect and a direct object, so I add a hybrid of the two at the end, and ready!” A minute and a half had passed while I’d stood by the church piano, glazed-eyed, mouth agape, formulating the sentence. The person waiting for me must have thought I’d had a stroke. But, my mouth finally said, “bring it to me.” The lady smiled, and gave me what I’d asked for. She was happy; I’d said a correct sentence. I was exhausted! A minute and a half to conjugate a verb?! Any “glossy” ideas about language school had just melted off the verb charts. This was going to be harder than I’d thought.
As uncomfortable as it is, culture shock can be a good thing, because what drives us crazy drives us to our knees. We realize we can’t handle living and serving in this country on our own. Apart from God’s grace, we can’t even formulate a sentence, much less evangelize someone! It also shows us how far we’ve come. If we were tourists, someone else would be interpreting for us, cooking for us, and driving us around. We would be foreigners.
The fact that we’ve swept up the dust and couscous, fought the crawly critters, and conquered the imperative verb means that we are adapting. We know how long the course is; we are no longer blissfully naïve. Though it sneaks up on us when we are innocently going about our day, culture shock means we are truly learning life in our new country, and God is making us more usable for His service.
About the Author: When Sarah & her husband, David, arrived in Portugal in 2010, learning Portuguese & Portuguese Sign Language was their first task. Since then they have both taught in local schools and after-school centers, built relationships with neighbors and co-workers, and begun two church plants in Montijo. Their desire is for God to be glorified in Portugal!
Learn more about their ministry by visiting their website: www.boothsinportugal.com