Something worse than culture shock
Lots of people have heard about culture shock. Its that feeling of disorientation, confusion, or frustration when you are suddenly surrounded by a foreign culture and a foreign language, and are not sure which way is up. You don’t know what people are saying, where to find the basic necessities of life, or how to do things that a child would know in your home country. Its the funky smells, the weird dress, and baffling behaviors. But the nice thing about culture shock is that you get over it. It may takes a few days, weeks, or months, but it does pass. All those bizarre things don’t seem so bizarre anymore. In fact, some of them seem down right normal and expected. Some of them you really come to enjoy. Those high levels of stress that you experienced at first are way lower now… usually. And it is that “usually” that I want to talk about in this post. New missionaries and other foreigners in a new culture may eventually get past the culture shock phase of their life overseas, there is something that you never get over, at least not completely. That’s culture stress.
Unlike culture shock, culture stress is not caused by aspects of culture that are new and unknown. Rather, it is caused by those aspects of culture that are familiar and known, but are still frustrating and annoying, perhaps infuriating. Even after a missionary gets a grasp on the language and is familiar with many of the ins and outs of their host culture, there are still things that don’t sit well with them and induce a type of low level stress that would not be present in their home country.
Culture stress can come from lots of different sources. It could be the mere fact of looking different than everyone in the culture around you, and being seen as a curiosity or a source of money before you are seen as a person. It could be the fact you are openly and blatantly charged twice the price at certain locations simply because you look like a foreigner. It could be certain smells, communication styles, or people driving down the wrong side of the street at night with their headlights off. Or maybe it is local people saying you can’t really be American because you are not white. Or not really from South Africa because you are not black. Or questioning why you have “so many” kids and wanting to know if you have been sterilized yet. Or any of a host of little questions or irritants that are not uncommon or unexpected if you’ve lived in the country a while… but still bug you.
On a good day, culture stress is not a big deal. You can overlook those little things that bother you because, after all, they are just little things. In most cases, no one is out to get you or make your life difficult. Sure, some of that stress is due to sinful cultural patterns and habits in your host culture, but even your home country has certain sinful cultural patterns and habits, albeit perhaps not the same ones as your host country. And you know that most of those annoying questions are not malicious, but simply because people don’t know and have never traveled very far. There are ignorant people in your home country too. On a good day, a missionary can overlook all those little cultural stressors.
But on a bad day, when one thing after another seems to be going wrong, any one of those minor cultural stressors can become a huge deal that sends you over the edge, inducing a unhinged rant about “those people” and what “they always do” or some other uncharitable generalization about the host country and its culture. For missionary supporters, it may come as a shock that missionaries have bad days like this where they don’t love everything about their host culture and the people they have come to serve. As I a missionary myself, I can assure you that we do. We’re not proud of it. We wished we were more spiritual and were able to always live in perfect harmony with our adopted cultural environment. But like anyone else, we have bad days too.
The next time you pray for missionaries, or for any Christian living cross-culturally, pray that God would help them to deal with the cultural stress that they experience on a regular basis. Pray that they would remember the grace of Christ that has been shown towards them, and the many ways that they intentionally and unintentionally offend their Maker so that, in turn, they would be able to show grace, kindness, and the benefit of the doubt to their host culture and the people they came to serve.