Earlier this year I had a group of friends who came back to the U.S. after spending a year teaching English in Asia. They shared a range of emotions experienced through re-entry. Uniformly, they were surprised that the adjustment was so hard.
Each expressed that moving to this Asian nation had brought culture-shock. Speaking so little of the language compounded the cultural challenges. Knowing they were not staying long enough to gain fluency made it difficult to pour themselves into learning the language. Being employed to teach conversational English meant their job kept them focused on speaking their mother-tongue, too.
But that was last year. Now they are home. Their blond hair and pale skin no longer result in anyone staring. Why feel so odd being back in the States?
People in any culture are basically oblivious to how they are shaped by their upbringing. Many of us have little appreciation for what culture is until we are adrift in a foreign one. Paul Hiebert says, “Culture shock is the disorientation we experience when all the cultural maps and guidelines we learned as children no longer work…In a new culture much of our old knowledge is useless, if not misleading….We are overwhelmed by constantly having to face confusing situations and the strain of learning a new way of life” (Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, pp. 64-73).
But we are more prone to cut ourselves some slack when we move to a new country. Yes, we go with unrealistically high expectations for ourselves, but we are at least open to the likelihood of experiencing culture shock. But when we return home, the re-adjustment will be much quicker and easier, right?
Hiebert warns us, “After this initial excitement [of our return] subsides, we begin the serious business of reestablishing ourselves in the local culture. It is now that we begin to experience irritation and frustration. Things that once seemed so natural now look extravagant and insensitive in a world of need. People seem so parochial. They soon lose interest in our stories and turn to more important topics of conversation—changes in the latest models of cars, local politics, neighborhood gossip, and sports. We even find it hard to relate to our friends and relatives because they will not listen, or they will listen politely but do not seem to understand what we are trying to say….Our frustration is intensified by the fact that all this is so unexpected. We have become strangers in our own culture! We are put into new roles we did not expect. We are out-of-step with the lifestyles that once seemed so important but now seem so extravagant and self-centered” (AIfM, pp. 78-79).
Humor, flexibility, forgiveness and thankfulness are four antidotes to the stress of culture-shock. Whether we are leaving or returning, we need to remember that people are not laughing at us, but at our strange ways and faux pas. Laughing with them overcomes the fear of failure that often prevents us from trying something new. Remember that relationships are more important than plans and schedules. Be flexible. The Gospel is a message of grace. Forgiveness is at the core of our identity in Christ. Thankfulness rejoices at everything that goes well. Peace is often found in the company of joy and thanksgiving. Practice the gospel. Live kingdom realities.
When you re-enter, be sure to thank Papa God for the insight you have by gaining a second cultural lens. You are now able to see the world with greater depth (the distance between your two eyes creates your capacity to adequately judge depth). Realize no place is home, as it used to be. Recognize that we are pilgrims—we are just passing through!