Culture Shock: Reducing the Voltage

December 15, 2012

culture shock     Generally speaking, the more informed you are about something, the more likely you are to make it through it. For example, if a pregnant woman expects pain, is aware of the cause, and keeps in the end result of it, she will more than likely go through the process easier than a woman who had no clue what was going on. Being informed does not dull the pain, but helps to keep one’s sanity through the difficulty. Culture shock is no exception. The more a missionary knows about it, the more likely they will be to come out on the right side in the end. The goal here is not to eliminate culture shock but to “reduce the voltage” of the shock.
What is culture shock? Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary Eleventh edition defines culture shock as, “a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment without adequate preparation.”
Let us look at the first part of that definition, “a sense of confusion and uncertainty.” My first time on a missions trip did not include culture shock. I went with my youth group for eight days to Australia and then spent three days in Hawaii on the way back. It was a toss-up between a missions trip and Christian tourism. The brevity of the trip and lack of contrast in cultures did not lend itself to experience culture shock. My second missions trip was for three months in Moldova. Let me try to describe to you what I experienced as culture shock. After spending several days with the veteran missionary outside the capitol city with electricity, hearing English, and seeing the culture from a comfortable environment, I headed off for training week at the larger of the two evangelistic camps. Though this week provided more contact with the people of the country and more experience of the differences of culture, it was not until I left with a Moldovan family to the northern camp that I became more immersed into the culture and separated from the American missionary.
That weekend, due to the different bacteria in the water and food, I became quite ill for a couple days. I also became separated from a lifestyle that was familiar: hole in the floor rather than a toilet, water from a well rather than turning on the faucet, hearing Romanian rather than English, etc. Life became very different. I can remember a couple nights later, while all alone in my room on my bed, realizing how alone I really felt. I began to have a surging desire to grab hold of something familiar. I wanted to hear familiar words, turn on a light switch and know that the power would be there, be with someone I actually knew, have anything that would bring about some security. Longings for America swelled inside, causing a frightful anxiety. I was experiencing culture shock.
How do I respond to culture shock? The second part of the definition states that culture shock brings “feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment.” The anxiety will not only affect the person exposed to an alien culture, but it will also affect those in that culture you are intending to reach.  As the anxiety increased, I began to pray and ask God for help. I stopped and refreshed in my heart and mind that it was God’s will for me to be there for the entire summer. Solidifying your calling is of utmost importance at this crossroad. How a person responds at this crossroad is of utmost importance. Either you will still long for the familiar or venture to learn the unknown. You will either become paralysed from God using you to ministry or you will become a vessel for God to work through.  You will decide to leave or to stay. “Commit thy way unto the LORD; trust also in him; and he shall bring it to pass” (Psalm 37:5). Commit to know and do what God has called you to do. Commit to let go of America. Commit to learn the new people and culture. Commit to let God bring to pass what He desires to through you. On that evening, God graciously led me through the culture shock and into the momentum of ministry in another culture.
How do I prepare for culture shock? The third part of the definition mentions the person not having “adequate preparation.” The best way to decrease the “voltage” of the shock, is to be aware of what it is and the likelihood that it will happen to you in some degree. Watch for the thoughts and feelings listed above and have your “game plan” on how you will respond to it. Watch for this in your family and help guide them through it.
What is the benefit of culture shock? The benefit of culture shock rests in the results of responding to it the correct way. Once you reach this crossroad and take the right path, you will begin to plunge yourself into the new culture with longings to know how they think, to learn the language, and to see their lives changed by the Gospel of Christ. Culture shock is the point when the boulder is at the crest of the hill.  The boulder will either roll back down the direction from whence it came, becoming more distant from the desired end or it will roll over the crest on the other side with great momentum and progress. Let this point of your life on the field be a catalyst for God’s glory rather than man’s defeat.
How many times will it occur? This experience to some degree can occur each time the missionary goes to the field and when he returns back to America. Other factors include: how long the missionary has been in the different culture, the degree of differences between the cultures, and the attachment that one has to a particular culture. If you come back to the States having been in a poorer country, you may find yourself upset at Americans’ selfishness, impatience, ingratitude, etc. This may also be part of culture shock when returning from the foreign field. Be patient and pray through each of these episodes of culture shock that you may encounter.
Culture shock may not be able to be eliminated, but the degree of it may be decreased and the correct response acquired more easily by knowing what culture shock is and how to respond to it. May God use this to help you stay on the field and fulfill God will for your life. “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). “Faithful is he that calleth you, who also will do it” (1 Thess. 5:24).

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