This is the third article in our #HelloHeather series, if you haven’t read the first two don’t miss out on Sunday’s in Japan, and England Meets Japan: My Journey to Cultural Acceptance.
After four months in Japan, Heather returned home to England. Yet, just because she was back home didn’t mean the impact of her trip had ended. Reverse culture-shock is a reality even for those who have spent a short time on the field.
On Returning Home
Every day in Japan much of my energy was put into trying to fit in with a culture which is incredibly polite, formal and orderly. At times, I would get a sudden urge to jump up and down in the middle of a supermarket aisle shouting out silly noises!
I think (at least I hope!) it was because I felt quite trapped and unable to express myself in this new and very reserved culture with a huge language barrier. (Even when speaking in English I had to simplify my language and slow my speech and often this felt like I was removing my own personality from everything I was saying.)
When Another Culture Changes You
As a result, after 4 months in Japan I came home to England as a far more reserved, softly spoken, formal person in public. Being back in what had previously been my comfortable home environment I suddenly realized how much I had adapted and changed myself- and the new Japanese version of me didn’t seem to quite fit in the UK.
I remember standing at the luggage carousel in Heathrow listening to all the voices around me and marveling out how I could understand every single conversation. But my immediate next thought was, they are all so loud and its really quite rude and annoying!
A few days later I went to a big shopping centre to meet a friend. I couldn’t believe my eyes when a family started having a loud argument in the middle of a department store. I’m fairly sure I stopped and stared for a couple of seconds before I snapped out of the shock!
Seeing With Different Eyes
In the first two months after coming home I found myself getting a little happy feeling walking into a supermarket which I knew would be selling all the foods I know, with packets I can read! And when I stood at the checkout having a quick but friendly chat with the staff I would have a moment of realisation about just how much I had missed these little the day-to-day human interactions while away.
In Japan every trip to the supermarket had the potential to be a stressful and embarrassing experience- not being sure if I was actually buying the food I wanted, not understanding the person on the checkout when they asked a new question I’d not heard before, being stared at as I used my Google Translate app on packets to establish the difference between cream cheese, butter and margarine!
After a few months back home this feeling of awe at being home had pretty much worn off. However, even one year later I still find myself comparing the UK to Japan a lot and wanting to use the tiny bit of Japanese language I picked up even though nobody understands me!
Understanding the Hidden Cost
What I’ve learned from this is that when people commit their lives to serving God overseas there also less obvious sacrifices on top of leaving behind friends, family and favourite foods.
Certainly, we should not underestimate the culture stress that comes of living in an alien culture. But also, as missionaries tend to live in cycles of 4 years on the field then 1 in their home country, the culture stress is exacerbated because returning to their home country is often no longer a simple case of “oh isn’t it lovely to be home”.
Their experiences overseas will, to some extent, have changed them. Suddenly home won’t feel as comfy and normal as it did before because in their experiences living overseas they will have adapted and evolved to fit with their new surroundings.
When a missionary you know (whether long or short-term) comes home please pray for them, that they would recognise this reverse culture shock and know how to understand and process it.
Give them the time they need to talk about their other home overseas and the ways it differs to the country you call home…but most importantly if they start speaking in a different language just go with it!
How You Can Support Cross-Cultural Workers
- Ask them about their experiences. Encourage them to rest and pray for them to process their experiences and home cultures well.
- Pray for strength, discernment and wisdom for all cross-cultural workers, that they may be encouraged to continue their good work for the cause of missions.
- Give thanks that many tribes, people and languages will one day stand around the throne of the Lamb. Pray that many Japanese will be among the faithful who will sing praises and worship on that day.