In our interview with Christina Winrich, she shared openly about the challenges and joys of serving God in another culture. In the preview clip below she shares some of the difficulties of arriving into another culture. I’d love to unpack a couple of of the themes she touches upon. Admittedly, we will only be scratching the surface of these huge issues, but hopefully they can give you a grounding, and if you want more, do check out the free Crossing Cultures 101 course, more on that at the end.
Though we may like to think of ourselves as independent, well-informed citizens of the world; open to new ideas and different ways of approaching life and ministry, the fact of the matter is that we are unavoidably a product of our culture(s), whatever that may look like! We have likely been raised with certain priorities, ideas and attitudes which have become ingrained in our own way of living and working. This is not a bad or a good thing, it simply is what it is!
Some people, such as ‘third culture kids’ who have lived experience in multiple cultures are likely to have their eyes open to cultural differences, having experienced this for themselves.
It’s also worth noting that when we speak of ‘culture’, we are not simply restricting this to a nation. Culture is far more fluid than political boundaries. It can vary between regions in a single nation (a stereotype in the UK is that northerners are friendly and southerners are not!), or span multiple nations (think of stereotypical differences between European and African understanding of timekeeping).
When we arrive into a new culture with a view to long-term work or mission, we may begin with a honeymoon season, where things feel new and exciting or (like we found!), everything may go horribly wrong from the moment you land! Either way, a time will come when the novelty has dissipated, and you start to feel worn down by aspects of your new home.
Often it is the little things that wind you up - as Christina mentioned, she struggled with things like crossing the street, pollution, even the way people ate! It can manifest in different ways, including tears, conflict, withdrawal, ridicule and mocking of the new culture, staying within ‘ex-pat’ communities, spiritual dryness and even depression. We want to reject the way people live simply because their way of doing things feels wrong to us!
Here is a definition of Culture Shock: It's “a sense of confusion, discomfort, disorientation, and uncertainty felt by those exposed to a different cultural environment.”
In my experience, I have found that it is as much about our own personal sense of disorientation as it is about any particular culture. I would describe it with the following points:
- It is what we feel when we can’t make sense of this new world we have arrived in…
- There is an emotional aspect - often overwhelming feelings
- There are physical components - exhaustion, climate issues, sickness
- For a new missionary, there is definitely a spiritual side - our enemy, the devil does not welcome your arrival!
Now you may have read or heard about this before and, like Christina, be full of ‘head knowledge’ about culture shock and adaptation. Regardless, when the rubber hits the road it can suddenly feel quite overwhelming, as an intellectual experience becomes an emotional one, no matter how well prepared you are!
1. Don’t deny it
Our automatic assumption at this point is ‘they are doing it wrong, why can’t they be more like us?!’ If you’ve felt this, don’t feel guilty - it’s perfectly natural, but it is important to be honest with ourselves. Identify these feelings and use them as a building block towards cultural understanding and adaptation.
2. It’s a process
Cultural adaptation is a process, of which culture shock is only one stage. Make sure that you have built up a strong network of support, ideally before you depart your home. As you keep pressing on, being honest with yourself, your PACTeam, your family and teammates, you will gradually find yourself adjusting and acclimatising - celebrate these victories! It will be a slow process, especially if learning a new language is involved, but progress is always worth marking. Eventually, life there will become your new normal, as you establish a real connection with people and rediscover a sense of purpose in your being where God has called you!
3. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes!
It’s unavoidable that you will make mistakes, so don’t “fear to fail”. (Note that is a specific term in Chinese – ‘Pashu’or ‘Kiasu’ in Singapore). Fear of failure can be a very negative driver in all of us if we let it be! So please be sure to keep your sense of humour, which includes being able to laugh at yourself when you commit a cultural gaffe or a cringing mistake with the language!
In the interview, Christina mentioned her return to the USA, realising that it was different from the utopia that she remembered! Every culture has positives and negatives, and one of the incredible privileges of living and working in a new culture is that it allows you to see your home culture with fresh eyes. It gives you a new way of thinking, approaching problems and connecting with people!
Imagine a video game or a movie, we have always seen the world through the first-person (or POV) perspective of our home culture. The process of cultural adaptation allows us to ‘zoom out’ to a third-person perspective, giving us a broader view of what is going on.
Think - What characteristics of my home culture that I think are right and normal might someone from that “third-person perspective” struggle with and find ‘wrong’?
Only touched upon briefly in this clip, you can check out the full interview for more, But make no mistake, returning to your culture after years away will be a challenge, just read a couple of these quotes:
“Coming home is far harder than going… You will be changed forever – be prepared to embrace the life of an alien”!
“The feeling of no longer belonging any more on our return, and having little sense of purpose, was really hard.”
“I wish someone had told me it would change me forever and probably no one in my normal circle of friends would be able to understand that”
If you are undergoing or preparing for re-entry, look at our dedicated Post Field resources for a wide range of experiences and tips!
The topics of cultural awareness, culture shock and re-entry are central in my free course; Crossing Cultures 101, and we tackle each one head-on. It is essential for both field workers and senders to gain a deeper understanding of how you are shaped by your own culture, so that you can learn how to connect with people from other cultures!
The three modules cover three critical umbrella topics, with each session drilling down into a particular issue.
- Module 1: Know Thyself
- Module 2: The Process and Challenge of Cultural Adaptation
- Module 3: How to find Support
People from a wide variety of backgrounds and contexts have benefitted from it - I hope you can too!