No-longer New: #6. When culture shock isn’t shocking

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On a Skype call last year, after an hour of pouring out my heart, I hear these words from a close friend, ‘I think you’re in culture shock’. ‘Huh… that’s interesting’, I reply.

Two surprises came from those words.

The first surprise concerned my experience of culture shock; not so much that I was experiencing culture shock (I was prepared for that) but by the way it was manifest in me. I wasn’t so much shocked by my culture shock, but more surprised by the way I experienced it. The back story to this conversation was that I was emotionally empty and needed a break after a big first year as a missionary. I’d been prepared for experiencing culture shock through our wonderful training with our sending organisation, CMS. But I was still surprised when it hit. Not because I thought my friend was wrong, but because I think I had been expecting culture shock to feel different or to manifest itself in a different way.

I think my idea of culture shock was the reaction or experience of physical repulsion to a different thing (or event, or experience) in a new culture. I expected feelings of being angry at locals, repulsed over something or feeling like I was trapped in this new place. But my culture shock was for different reasons and so it manifest itself in a different way from what I had been expecting.

My guess is that there is a whole spectrum of how culture shock can manifest itself. I feel like the classic example is of physical repulsion to some aspect of the new place. For me, I didn’t really have any of that. For me, culture shock was more about running so fast and so hard for so long (a whole year, look at me talk as though I’ve been on location for yonks) that I was just worn out. I wasn’t repulsed by the new place, I was just exhausted from experiencing all the new and different aspects. That was my culture shock; exhaustion rather than repulsion.

My second surprise was my reaction to my diagnosis of culture shock. In some ways, I wasn’t shocked that I was in culture shock. It made complete sense. And the result of rightly recognising culture shock for me was a reduction in my culture shock. For me, the simple naming of culture shock helped to reduce its impact. I feel like this is the case for many hard experiences. We name something and its power is reduced. Not only this, but in a funny way my experiencing culture shock assured me. Instead of sending me into further stress, ‘Ohh no… I’m experiencing culture shock, what am I going to do?’ What this meant was that I was on the right path. The way I was feeling wasn’t because I was doing something massively wrong. It’s just a normal experience of missionary work. So in a funny way naming my culture shock assured me that I was normal and that what I was doing was normal. As a result, the diagnosis of culture shock also helped give me clues and ideas of what to do in order to manage the shock. The naming of culture shock was thus the first step and precipitated further steps.

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