My friend was angry at first, then she burst into tears. I had been there a few years earlier so I listened for a long while before sharing anything. Someone slammed into the back of her car at a red light, then sped away. The tail lights were broken and the bumper was barely hanging on. Thankfully she was unharmed.
“Every time someone puts a dent in my car they excuse themselves by saying, ‘It is not possible I could have done this’ and then they just drive off! The first few times I forgot it because I know in this culture, people want to avoid shame. Besides, there’s no legal way to do anything about it. But it happens every week and I’m getting sick of it! I’m spending so much money on repairs. I yelled at someone today when they rear ended me. When I got home I cried, because if God had truly led me to work in this place, surely I would be able to control my temper better.”
Culture Stress doesn’t mean you’re a bad fit for the place you’ve chosen to live and work. It doesn’t mean you’ve made a mistake in moving there. It just means everything is new for you and it will take time to adjust. It takes time to adjust when you move within your home country, so why would it not take even longer in your host country? A long airplane trip doesn’t make you a different person. The same struggles in your mind will still be there, wherever you move. Plus new ones.
The big, obvious things are different– food, language, driving, social interaction, different perceptions of values like truth and gender roles, etc. Stress comes from these changes. It probably won’t escape your notice when you’re stressed about them. You expected some of them. Especially if you visited your host country on a short term basis…for a few weeks or months.
But you might forget the “small” things– details of how you are accustomed to performing everyday tasks. These are different in your host country as well. When the initial thrill of being there begins wearing off after a few weeks, these things unexpectedly slap you in the face. Processes that were once simple can become difficult and time consuming. New experiences that once felt charming can become annoying. Going to a bank, learning that deodorant isn’t available (or only comes in “arm pit whitening”), finding out you can’t make dinner taste the same even though you’re using the exact same ingredients, assuming that being at home always means privacy, constant stares when you eat or exercise in public…there are SO many I could list. And they don’t go away. You have to learn how to be yourself and thrive in the middle of these new realities. It doesn’t happen fast for most people.
These seemingly “small” things slowly add up. They cause underlying stress that builds to the boiling point. After sudden anger or tears you may wonder why you’re so upset over something “so simple”.
But it’s really not that simple if you think about it. The familiar foundations of life have been shaken. Your life is like a 1,000 piece puzzle and the pieces have been shaken up and dumped out. It will take time to piece them together and even when you are nearly finished, the picture will not be what you expect.
You wil find in the new picture of your life that you are the most changed. God will use you over time to impact lives in your host country. But first, always first, He calls you to Himself. He is more interested in changing you, in conforming you to the image of His Son, than building an “impressive ministry” through you. Culture stress–every wonderful, horrible minute of it– is part of that process. It makes you go to Him instead of thinking you have all the answers. It makes you a humble learner so that over time, He can truly use you to impact a culture the way He wants instead of transplanting your own culture’s “amazing Christian traditions.”
In preparation for the move to your host country, you probably had training, read books, and talked to others about Culture Stress. But the purpose of all this is to help you adjust when Culture Stress happens, not to prevent it from happening.
When you find yourself apologizing to your friend or spouse for speaking in anger during stress, do not think that in the past you had it together spiritually and now you are falling apart. Don’t find it strange if you feel overwhelmed.
Spend some time relaxing and prayerfully evaluate what the sources of stress are. If you discover things you “just can’t stand” about your host country, evaluate whether unrealistic expectations of yourself or the culture around you are causing stress. Should you adjust your expectations or do you need to make some changes to your situation, or both? Is God using your new situation to bring personal issues to the surface you need to deal with? Do you just need to do something you find restful for a little while? Talk with a person of grace who you can trust, who has been there. Give it time. Give yourself grace.
Daniel and I have done everything in the above paragraph this week– and this is our second or third country together. Culture Stress happens to everyone. Not an easy time, but we are slowly understanding each other and our new country better. We are also learning how to enjoy some things. We have lots of good moments, too.
Next time I post in this category, I want to talk about how unchecked expectations can set us up for Culture Stress and some practical ways that help our family deal with it. But for now I want you to know, Dear International Worker, that you will experience Culture Stress. And while you must not excuse or ignore it, you must also know it doesn’t mean you are a bad fit for the country you are serving in. It means you’ve had a major life change that comes with a significant adjustment period. It means you are normal. Be encouraged and know that God’s love for you and work in your life is constant through all the changes you will face.
©2017 Chrissy Winslow – All Rights Reserved
-Read personal stories from my first experience of long term international work in my book, Flying in Labor, set in the beautiful countries and cultures of the Himalayas.
by Mrs. Christina Brookes Winslow, Amazon.com. Available in Paperback or Kindle.