Not Quite Over It: Culture Shock on the Mission Field

I arrived here with a naive blend of terror and pride. Terror from warnings about culture shock and its destructive blows to marriage, hope and faith, and pride from… well… me. 

Please do not expect this article to be written by someone who is “over” culture shock, because like many experience when they arrive in their host countries or try a recipe off of Pinterest, expectations never line up perfectly with reality. In reality, I am not quite over it. 

My initial nosedive into culture shock has, thankfully, passed, but I still find myself riding with mysterious ebbs and flows that sneak into the dinners I cook and the English lessons I teach. 

Culture shock for me was a lot of feeling like a victim, crying, driving very poorly, and getting frustrated with the language, grocery store products and literally everything else around me. More than all of it, even with my amazing, supportive husband beside me- it was deeply lonely. 

In my mind, arriving here was the funeral of my freedom. No more fun, easy choices about clothes or what to eat, how to spend my day off or which jokes to crack. I realized my complete and utter loss of control. When toddlers fall, it takes a few tears (and maybe some screams) before they realize that actually, though they lost it all for a moment, they are going to survive. I guess I am not much different!

For encouragement wherever in the process you are, think about Jonah. There are a few people in the Bible who I am always thrilled to study because they make me feel better about myself- and Jonah is close to the top of that list! He hated so much the place where God had called him that he sprinted in the opposite direction. Jonah, at first, was not even in Nineveh to experience culture shock! Because of grace in measures beyond us, God used him still for His glory. If He can use Jonah… I think he can use us. In the end of the book Jonah sits on the ground, filled with something strange. Instead of rejoicing, he is bitter. His pride could not allow him to let go of his own hopes and plans and ego in trust of the Lord. 

Though it is a beautiful and comforting thing to know that God still used Jonah, identifying his issue as one of pride and control can help in winning against culture shock. In the New Testament, we see Paul, a man from modern-day Turkey, travelling and living and loving people from far away places. In Paul’s life, we see that he understood some things that Jonah did not. Paul knew all too well the havoc that cultural differences wreck in people, but his expectations and pride were placed in Christ. Paul goes so far as to say in Philippians 3:20 that his “citizenship” is in heaven. Anywhere we are, our brothers and sisters in Christ truly belong in the same place we do. And it for sure is not here!

For such a lonely place, there is a surprisingly well traveled path to culture shock’s dark and gloomy space. Part of the final puzzle piece that helped me past my first wave of culture shock is in that path, and realizing that its not wrong just to be there. It is a deeply human response, and from the footprints marking the way, we are in good company even when we are there. 

It is also possible to be actively putting aside your pride and trusting in God, but not be thrilled immediately. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ, who had no sinful pride in Him, shows the perfect, hope-filled response to us. 

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26: 36-39, ESV)

What can we learn from this in times of culture shock? 

  1. Go Pray

Christ does not take His sadness and human want to not do God’s thing anywhere except to God. 

      2.  It’s Not About Us

And thank goodness it isn’t! When we start believing that the way we act or that our plans could save people, we are putting weight on ourselves that we could never carry. We learn from Christ, but we are not Him. On the other hand, when like Christ we surrender our will and offer ourselves to be used in His will- the power of God enters the picture!

3. HOPE!

 Ok, finally- encouragement without the caveats. In culture shock, like in anyone’s trials faced when fighting to serve the Lord- we know the end of the story! And in the end, we can only screw things up so bad- because He takes our broken, crooked, janky-looking trust and creates things so beautiful and glorious that we will not be able to describe them! What amazing things did He do with Jonah? And with Paul, who began as a persecutor of the church? Ultimately, Christ who defeated death for us- who never leaves or forsakes us AND understands the pain we feel- is ours now and forever! 

I have no clue when I will really be over my culture shock. I could not tell you about yours, either. But here- in this place of “not quite,” take heart with me in believing that God will multiply our peace, strength and power when we trust in Him, and begin to listen for the whispers of His work in the places we have landed. 

Erin Rain GautierComment