During our first few months in Japan we had “climate shock” more than culture shock. We arrived in snowy northern Japan in December from sunny Queensland. Learning to live with permanent snow and without a car was hard. We were consumed by daily survival.
These daily struggles included:
- Getting to and from language school in the snow on foot.
- Figuring out how to buy groceries and get them home on a sled.
- Finding ways to help our active 20-month-old to cope. He hated the snow, yet also hated being inside our tiny apartment all day.
- Learning how to cook in a miniscule kitchen with only a two-burner stove and microwave-sized oven, and no preparation space.
- Trying to learn Japanese.
Most of the time we were just exhausted with daily life. Being a missionary looked a lot different to how we’d imagined.
Sundays were hard too. The church we were assigned to meant a marathon journey. We trudged through snow and then down many steps to the subway with our toddler. After the train journey we trekked through a vast underground station and shopping centre, then up many steps. The final stage was a trek through snow to the church. Did I mention we had a toddler? But no stroller—they don’t work on snow or stairs. When we got to church we couldn’t even sing the songs, they were in Japanese characters, though we did have access to translation of the sermon. The church wasn’t kid-friendly either. Our son wasn’t allowed to make any sound during the service, or we had to take him out.
But biggest culture shocks I remember from our early years relate to medical issues.
During our second year in the country I was pregnant. Those nine months were one long period of culture shock. I also had low platelets (the clotting agents in blood) that meant I was hospitalised for two weeks prior to our son’s birth. The doctor insisted on this birth being a Caesarean because I’d had one with our first son, and that meant another ten days in hospital after he was born. The hospital experience was full cultural immersion. Japanese-style pillows (filled with hard plastic beans), no coffee, and rice for breakfast were delayed culture shock.
That same son had pneumonia at 11 months of age and was hospitalised. That threw me into another valley of culture shock. I was expected to sleep in the same cot as him. The lights in the ward weren’t turned out until 9pm, way after our son’s bedtime. Then, at 2 a.m. a couple of times I had to try to tell a nurse in Japanese via an intercom that his IV had come out.
Loneliness and homesickness pervaded those early years in Japan. I idealised Australia and my extended family and was in for some great shocks later on when we spent time back in our “home country”.
I lost confidence in myself and in many ways lost my identity too. This was compounded by what seemed to be a misfit between us and our mission organisation. OMF Japan was very focused on church planting and that just didn’t seem to be a good fit for us. Thankfully this isn’t the end of the story. God brought us to Japan for a reason and he didn’t leave us in that low, depressing spot.
For more of the story about how God led us through that time to where we are now (and still with OMF), see this post.
By Wendy Marshall
Wendy is an Australian who has been in Japan with OMF since 2000. She’s married to David who teaches maths and science at the Christian Academy in Japan. They have three boys between the ages of 12 and 18. She’s an editor and writer. In this nine-part series she answers searching questions about her experience of life and ministry as a missionary.