by Linda Wilson
Like most missionaries, I thought I was ready for culture shock, but my preparation didn’t help me at all.
In a graduate research methodology course at McGill University, Montreal, we were required to do a study of some past experience, so I decided to research the surprisingly painful culture shock I had lived through when we moved from Boca Raton, Fla., to Quebec to plant new churches. I had not anticipated culture shock, because I had assumed that life in Quebec would be pretty much the same as life in the eastern United States. But I was ignorant about Quebec and naive about church-planting missionary work.
I found wide differences in language and culture. Quebec is a French-speaking province of Canada whose laws, leaders, and institutions protect and promote French. Eighty-one percent of the people speak French as their mother tongue. Only 9 percent declare English as their mother tongue, and 10 percent represent other languages. Quebec is predominantly Roman Catholic; only one-half of 1 percent claim to be evangelicals.
My culture shock was exacerbated by my inability to communicate, loneliness, lack of a support system, and the climate. Like most missionaries, I thought I was ready for culture shock, but my preparation didn’t help me at all.
On the other hand, culture shock was not as severe for my husband. He already was fluent in French. He enjoyed a busy ministry and his family. He did not always understand what I was going through, and neither did I.
My experience prompted me to explore other missionaries’ bouts with culture shock. For four years I interviewed men, women, and children, collected prayer letters, and read professional literature. My research culminated in a monograph for my master’s degree in education.
I discovered that although literature on culture shock has surfaced in anthropological, psychological, business, military, medical, governmental, educational, missionary, and autobiographical writings, there is a paucity of literature on women’s and children’s experiences. From my own roles as woman, mother, teacher in an immigrant school, and cross-cultural church-planter’s wife, I recognized that some aspects of culture shock are unique to women. Other scholars have found that culture shock may be more difficult for women than for men.
DEFINING CULTURE SHOCK
It is important, first, to define terms. Anthropologist Kalvero Oberg first coined the term “culture shock” in 1960 when he wrote:
Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. These signs or cues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life. . . . Now these cues, which may be words, gestures, facial expressions, customs, or norms are acquired by all of us in the course of growing up and are as much a part of our culture as the language we speak or the beliefs we accept. All of us depend on our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of these cues, most of which we do not carry on the level of conscious awareness (p. 1).
I describe culture shock as maddening angst—an inner turmoil or emotional stress that increases gradually to a point where you think you are going out of your mind. Philip Boch seems to agree: “The person subject to extreme culture shock is often unsure whether he has gone mad, or whether all the people around him are crazy—perhaps both!” (p. x). Recent literature recognizes that culture shock applies to any new situation, job, relationship, or perspective requiring a role adjustment and a new identity.
Culture shock is a universal phenomenon experienced by all people who change their cultural environments. It is a normal, inevitable reaction in cross-cultural situations. It does not strike suddenly, or have a single principal cause, but builds up slowly from a series of events.
Culture shock is the process of adjustment to an unfamiliar situation that has emotional, psychological, behavioral, cognitive, and physiological impact. It will reoccur each time we encounter an unfamiliar culture. The shock may be less severe on subsequentoccasions, but not necessarily, because many variables come into play, such as age, health, living conditions, language, employment, marital status, and so on.
Although culture shock is most often seen in a negative light, it can promote learning and growth. Peter Adler writes: “The transitional experience begins with the encounter of another culture and evolves into an encounter with the self. . . . The more one is capable of experiencing new and different dimensions of human diversity, the more one learns of oneself” (pp. 18, 22). My culture shock drew me closer to God. When all my supports were stripped away, I learned to depend on him alone.
We learn new things about ourselves and the roots of our ethnocentrism as our values, attitudes, motives, weaknesses, and strengths are exposed. My Québécois neighbor relocated to the Philippines and wrote, “The ugliest aspects of our character come out. Then we are ashamed afterwards. . . . The feelings of frustration, impatience, and anger make one say inside, ‘They don’t know how to do anything right here!’”
When we go through such stressful situations, we often react with different coping mechanisms. We may (1) temporarily avoid or withdraw from problem situations, (2) become more aggressive or hostile to the new country, attacking its values, food, climate, etc., (3) yearn for home, and (4) become dependent on others. Unfortunately, these defensive reactions do not facilitate our learning about our new environment. Sooner or later, we must stop protective reactions and gain information that will improve our lives in our host culture.
STAGES OF CULTURE SHOCK
Researchers identify four stages of culture shock. The duration of each stage differs from person to person, because culture shock is a profoundly personal experience. Some people make linear progress from one stage to the next, while others regress as well as progress.
Oberg describes the four stages as the honeymoon stage, the crisis stage, the recovery stage, and the adjustment stage. During the first stage (also called the tourist stage) newcomers are fascinated, enthusiastic, optimistic, and excited. However, this brief honeymoon quickly dissolves into disillusionment. Newcomers are confused, disoriented, and feel out of control. They become hostile and aggressive. This stage sends many people packing for home.
During the recovery stage people make gradual adjustments to their new cultural environment. Language and cultural cues become more familiar. Finally, in the adjustment stage, newcomers accept their new environment, albeit with some anxious moments. They adopt new ways of thinking and doing things. They sense they belong to the new culture. It took me seven years in Quebec to reach this adjustment stage.
Both men and women must establish new networks of social relationships in their host culture. However, the lack of intimate relationships in a new culture is particularly difficult for women. The following categories describe the salient ingredients of culture shock for women. Remember, culture shock is multidimensional, its symptoms are interrelated, and often they are experienced simultaneously.
1. Sense of loss and isolation. Culture shock is not only the meeting of the new and unknown, it is also a loss of the old and familiar. A missionary wife told me:
When I left the States, I really went through an emotional upheaval. It really hit me—I was leaving ALL my family, ALL my friends, my job, my church . . . that was really hard. I can remember driving away and both sets of parents were waving good-bye and our moms were both crying. . . . There were different times when I thought I’d never overcome this. . . . All my supports were stripped away. I felt naked.
A single missionary woman to Germany wrote:
As I look back I realize what a traumatic experience this was. It was the beginning of weeks of struggles, loneliness, and depression. Tears came easily and not always at appropriate times. I had enough of the foreign andlonged for the familiar. I was ready to fly home. I’m tired of learning new things all the time, I’m tired of being alone. I don’t like living where I have no history, where no one has known me in the past, where no one has shared experiences to remember with me and upon which to build a continuing relationship.
I experienced a tremendous sense of loss and loneliness during my second year in Quebec. I was alone all day with my two babies in a wintry climate. At times I felt trapped. I desperately missed my friends. I missed our large church and the numerous activities which I was involved in. I missed laughing. I missed the well-balanced life my husband and I enjoyed back home.
I tried to share my feelings with my husband. He could understand to a certain point. But being a goal-oriented person, he was achieving satisfaction from his work. Once he said to me, “At least you’re not in Africa.” I felt like I should be coping better. After all, this was still North America.
2. Psychological reasons. Stress in the transitional period is associated with culture shock. Internalized stress causes abnormalities in the functioning of the human body. Common symptoms include: headaches, ulcers, lower back pain, fatigue, skin eruptions, mental inefficiency, compulsive eating, excessive sleeping, stuttering, frequent colds, allergic sensitivity, weeping, depression, insomnia, and loss of appetite. Stress can create frigidity, impotence, and other irregularities such as missed menstruation.
I experienced headaches, nightmares, eczema, excruciating stomach cramps, and loss of appetite. I lost 10 pounds one winter without realizing it. I begged the Lord to help me. My prayer became, “Not my will but thine be done.”
Several women told me they struggled with overeating, crying, headaches, fatigue, and depression. One missionary wife admitted with embarrassment, “I got acne on my scalp! Bumps! Bumps! It was gross. I got a bunch of yeast infections that first year. I struggled with eating too much.”
An MK in Quebec told me,
Sometimes in the middle of class I would feel sad and I asked to go to the bathroom and I’d start crying. Sobbing like. But I would have to stop myself from crying. It was like I was going through a bad depression. At home, when I got home, I started crying. I’d cry myself to sleep. I got bad chest pains and my mom took me to the doctor to see if there was anything wrong. He said there was nothing wrong, it was just a reaction to stress.
3. Cultural inconveniences. In general, men are engaged in their work and activities outside the home and women bear the brunt of the daily chores and the inconveniences of life. My friend, whose husband is a missionary pilot in Peru, writes how this is lived out on a daily basis:
Our lives have taken a 180-degree turn. After a month I’m learning to get used to soaking all the fruits and vegetables in iodine and bleach. I have to remember which days they butcher meat so that I go down to the market on the right day. I have to listen for a bell coming down the street indicating the garbage man is coming.
We had intruders the other night—they tried to take the washing machine. I fill the washer up every night so it will be impossible to move. The water dribbles out and takes about an hour to fill—so doing laundry takes a while, plus I have to normally advance the machine to the next cycle—three times each load and then sometimes I forget. Plus twice to spin, as the electricity can’t do it in one cycle. We are building up the back wall six to seven more feet so it looks like a fort—or is it a jail? We also have bars on our windows. So it must be a jail!
John is drowning in school, while Ashley thinks it’s too easy. I may have to home school. Steve is gone for a week of language refresher courses—first of four weeks. . . .
4. Marital strain. Marital conflicts and family tension become accentuated and aggravated in the cross-cultural setting. Whether there is some support or not from others already established in the new country,women most often then turn to their spouses for emotional support and help with household tasks and childcare. Joan, a missionary in Zaire, shared:
Oh, it was terrible. There were no young women to talk to, no one really for the kids to play with. I was constantly crying, it was TERRIBLE. I would just break down and I couldn’t stop. It was terrible for two years. I tried to hide it from the kids; they didn’t need that. I needed to share with SOMEONE, so Pete got the brunt of it. And Pete’s not that good at knowing what to do with that kind of stuff. At first he tried to listen, but then after awhile, he didn’t want to hear anymore. He would say, ‘Well, get off this kick already, this is ENOUGH! This is ENOUGH!’ He didn’t want to hear anymore. He’d ask, ‘Can we talk about something else? These are YOUR problems, leave me alone.’ There weren’t other women around who said, ‘We’ve gone through this too and here’s how we handled it, and it’s NORMAL!’ I thought I must be abnormal. I really wanted to open myself up to someone.
Marital counseling improved their communication patterns. Pete has learned that if Joan has a problem, then he has a problem.
One young mother was very candid during an interview:
I was just depressed. I felt like a failure—failure as a wife, failure in the language. Mark was understanding to a certain point . . . but then . . . it was . . . in terms of our sex life, I lost all desire . . . I was too exhausted. That was really difficult for him. Because of that, he would get upset about other things, minor frustrations. And that made me feel worse. I cried a lot.
5. Identity confusion. Identity confusion and lack of self-confidence are features of culture shock. Adults and children ask: Who am I? Where do I belong? What good am I here?
Since my husband spoke French fluently, he plunged right into pastoral ministry. The phone calls were always for him. I could barely communicate, thus I was often identified as “la femme d’Eugene” (Gene’s wife). I eventually grew to resent that. I was the popular one in the States. And I had a fulfilling career at a National Exemplary school.
My neighbor had a similar experience when she took a two-year leave of absence from her lucrative counseling career to join her “chum” working in the Philippines. Although she enjoys not working, she resents her identity there: “I’ve become Richard’s wife or Hugh’s mother! I had a name and a business in Montreal!”
6. Struggle in language learning. I discovered that many women compared their linguistic acquisition to that of their husband’s, and they often felt bad about themselves. Debbie shares:
We described our attitudes about language learning like approaching a brick wall. If something got in Frank’s way while climbing over it, he would take it down brick by brick. I would come up to the brick wall and bang into it and say, ‘What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I get over it?’ He looked at it and said, ‘This stupid language.’ I looked at it and said, ‘Stupid me.’ I felt stupid for two years. Frank had a conqueror mentality. Learning French was a challenge for him. I remember thinking I’m dumb, it was hopeless. I thought I was a dunce. I felt like there was no hope because language was the connection between myself and other people. If I couldn’t communicate, I couldn’t live here. I felt people couldn’t get to know me.
Indeed, communication is at the heart of cross-cultural adaptation. For women, getting the language means being able to develop relationships. Patty explains in this interview segment:
L: How did you finally adjust to Quebec?
P: For different people I think it’s different things. For Bill, it was his work. He had relationships with people but . . . he had his work. He was doing something that had value. For me, adjusting to a culture was developing relationships. Not knowing the language was a barrier to meeting people. And so, until that happened for me . . . for him he was getting satisfaction from his work, accomplishing his goals. I had work, but forme it was getting the language and having relationships.
After our first lonely winter, I was determined to do something about my situation.
One day, I did the craziest thing. I bundled up my children and marched up the hill and rang my neighbor’s doorbell. She opened the door. I said in my broken French, “I notice that you have a young child; I have two. I don’t know if you work, but I don’t, and I’m stuck in the house all day. I just thought it’d be nice to meet you.” She looked at me in disbelief and paused momentarily (which seemed like a lifetime!). “Come on in,” she said. We had coffee and started to get to know each other. She told me she didn’t know any neighbors and was glad that I came over. We exchanged phone numbers. She called me three times that same week. Women need each other.
COPING WITH CULTURE SHOCK
There are no magical cures for culture shock, only a purposeful pushing on. Adaptation improves steadily with time. Cross-cultural adjustment depends on the acceptance and reassurances of others in the new setting. Though the burden of adjustment falls on the individual, a support system buffers the blow.
The adjustment must take place without pressure or urgency. Reconciliation of new and old may take longer than is convenient, but this is nonetheless necessary.
Children cope well when they have emotional support from their family and from others, such as peers, a teacher, clubs, church, a sports team, etc. Mothers play an important role in helping their children adapt. A 12-year-old MK shared: “I cried ‘cause I missed my friends and stuff. My mom made me look in the mirror everyday and say, ‘I AM SPECIAL.’”
Culture shock, though an unpleasant experience, is a potent and powerful teacher. It evokes adaptive skills that promote personal and spiritual growth and intercultural learning.
It seems to make little difference if we are in Quebec or in Africa. Women thrive on connection with others. Relationships are extremely important in the new cultural context, but they take time and effort to build. We need support and patience from our husbands and colleagues. We need to be reminded that culture shock is normal and temporary. This too shall pass.
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