Tag Archives: culture shock

Time Travel Jet Lag

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We are coming up on “summer vacation” here in Costa Rica.  As a family we are looking forward to returning to the States for a few weeks of R&R for Christmas and to attend a World Missions Summit.  We are totally blessed to be able to travel with relative ease between our mission field and our home state.  But in many ways, making short trips back home sort of has the same effect as traveling through time might have.  I feel like I get Time Travel Shock and the space-time continuum is interrupted.

When I am in Latin America, the third world is my “normal”.  It’s like I exist in a completely different period of time now.  There are so many aspects of life that I just take for granted at this point.  The things that used to shock me or catch my attention have become part of my background white noise and I hardly notice them any more.  But when I am dropped like a paratrooper back into my original setting, everything that used to be “normal” before I was a missionary seems stunning or note-worthy.  Not only do I change locations physically, I seem to travel into the future to a time that has not yet existed in Costa Rica.  The bouncing back and forth can be quite a shock to me both mentally and emotionally.

Let me expound on just one feature of my time travel shock.  When I return to Minnesota the first thing I notice is the SPACE around me.  There is just so much SPACE!  Even in a crowded airport, I have ample elbow room.  When we get in the car and drive from the airport to the house, the cars all keep a reasonable distance from each other. The highway is buffered on both flanks by wide hills of grass or dunes of snow depending on the season.  So much unused SPACE!  In the grocery store, I have lost all sense of what is an appropriate distance to maintain between myself and the other shoppers.  Either I fall into my Latin American patterns of driving my cart right up to the behind of the person in line in front of me, or I over compensate and leave a confusing gap between us.  My sense of space is all out of wack.

When I return again to Latin America, the first thing I notice when I step outside of the airport is the closeness of everything and everyone.  The humidity wraps around my head and presses against my face, making me feel like I am breathing through a wet blanket.  The people press in all around me asking to carry my bags or find a taxi for me.  I have to resist the urge to start pushing people out of my way.  I want to shove everyone and shout, “Back off!  I have been folded into an airplane seat for hours and I really need some space.”  The smells of wet pavement, rotting sewer, and over perfumed humanity all press in against my senses leaving me no where to turn.  Then we get in the car and start driving home.  The traffic zooms up to us and stops suddenly, no buffer, no fear of hitting us.  They are just taking up space as fast as they can lest another car come along and claim that inch of pavement.  We zoom, they zoom.  The buildings on both sides of the highway hug the road, dangerously close.  When we stop, people swarm the car trying to sell us things through the car windows.  We keep the windows rolled up.  That 3/4 of an inch of glass between us and the street vendors feels like enough space.  Personal space has become relative.

In addition to our awkward use of space and the gawking our family of 5 will do in every public space, going back for Christmas time is a surreal experience in and of itself.  My parents want my kids to make a Christmas list.  My kids don’t know what toys are “out there” now.  They ask me, “What do I need, Mom?”  I just shake my head.  I am stuck back in time from when we first left America 6 years ago.  I think about what will fit in a suitcase- again, I have space issues.  Before we leave, I will search the internet for what clothes are in fashion now.  I will try to pack things that are neutral enough so that I blend into the background and don’t make me stick out like someone who just arrived from the year 2006.  Not only to we change spaces, we change times as well.  I am already anticipating the Time Travel Jet Lag.

What did I expect?

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There are two things that are difficult to know about yourself:  your true motivations and your pre-conceived expectations.  When we were in our missionary training days I remember one speaker talking about culture shock.  She said that we all carry our culture secretely within us.  At some point it will most definitely collide with something our new culture, but we won’t be able to anticipate the collision ahead of time because most of us are completely unaware of our cultural expectations.  They are as natural to us as our own skin.  I so desperately wanted her to tell me exactly what I would struggle with in my new culture, but she couldn’t.  And I couldn’t see myself objectively enough to identify my expectations.

But with time comes perspective.  This week I wrote this for an orientation for missions teams:

Be flexible and expect the plans to change.  Expect to ‘hurry up and wait’, expect things to go wrong, expect things to start late, expect traffic, expect hunger, expect exhaustion, expect to hear from God, expect to be changed, expect to see great things happen, expect to be uncomfortable, expect to have your eyes opened, expect to fall in love with missions, expect to have the time of your life!

After I reread what I wrote, I sat back and thought about it.  These are MY expectations.  This is very much a reflection of my expectations of ministry overseas.  So what do I do when one of these perky phrases is left dangling, frayed and loose?  These are the cultural things in me that have come to a screeching, shattering collision with Latin America.

I expected that learning Spanish would be easier than it is.  Anyone who says learning Spanish is easy has never done it.  The verbs kill me!  Fifteen tenses, moods and voices, multiplied by six variations in person…  These verbs are hard!  I expected to be smart.  I didn’t expect so many tears.  I didn’t expect feeling frustrated at not being able to say exactly what I mean.  I didn’t expect to mourn the loss of eloquence.  I didn’t expect that 6 years later I’d still have days when I don’t understand what people say to me.

I expected to make a couple of really close friends that I could minister to.  Instead I have a few really close friends that humble me with how much they bless me over and over again.  I came here to make a difference in the lives of others, but I think they are having a greater impact on me.  I came here prepared to love, but I find myself the loved one.

I expected to settle into the culture and to never feel home sick.  This was to be my new home.  Now I have two homes. When I’m here, I miss Minnesota.  When I’m in Minnesota, I miss Costa Rica.  It seems like I can never be whole.  I always ache for another place.  I know that aching is ultimately a longing for my home in Heaven.  We are not citizens of this world, we are just sojourners passing through for a time.  I long, I pine, I ache, I didn’t expect this unsettled feeling.

I didn’t expect to feel so lonely, but I am.

I expected that living on the mission field would be more like living on a missions trip.  I expected miracles and dramatic salvations every week!  I didn’t expect boredom.  And I didn’t expect feeling so dry.  I’m spiritually parched, just trudging through this desert one step at a time.  I don’t feel God every day.  I know he’s still there.  I just don’t feel him or hear him very well.  I expected a view from the mountain top, instead this looks a lot like a valley of dry bones.

I’ve always had good health, so I expected that to continue.  I expected it in an indirect kind of way by not ever even thinking about my health.  Today I went to the pharmacy to buy another box of pills.  I didn’t expect getting cancer.  I could tell something was wrong, but never in a million years did I think I had cancer.  I knew I felt really awful- like I was always on the verge of getting the flu.  I knew this was not normal for me.  But I didn’t expect the worst.  Now I have a new normal.  I have less stamina than before.  I ache everywhere and I’m tired, so unrelentingly tired.  I never expected to be weak.

Have you ever heard someone say, “If you lower your expectations, you’ll be happier”?  If that’s true, then why does that statement make me sad?  Maybe a better way of saying it would be “If you have REALISTIC expectations you’ll be LESS DISAPPOINTED.”  Most of the time when I find myself unhappy I don’t really know why.  But if I take the time to wade deeper into the sadness, I find it’s source springs from an unrealistic expectation that has burst open under the pressure of an incongruent reality.  And it is no one’s fault but my own.

So the final question is, after this cultural collision of expectations against hard reality, can I still walk away from the crash unscathed or am I forever living wounded like Jacob with his limp after wrestling with an angel?  I limp.

Navigating with a broken rudder- Reverse Culture Shock

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Before we became missionaries I heard lot about culture shock, the emotional roller coaster ride you take when you enter a new culture.  What I didn’t hear much about was reentry shock or reverse culture shock, the emotional roller coaster ride you take when you return to your native culture.  OK, so what I did hear about reentry shock made me roll my eyes.  I heard stories about missionaries having tearful break downs in the grocery store because they couldn’t decide which salad dressing to buy (Good grief, get a grip Woman!).  I heard of missionaries forgetting their English vocabulary (seriously?!).  I heard of missionaries hiding in their houses and not wanting to talk to people (don’t be such a party pooper).  I thought, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of.  Why would anyone have shock coming HOME to the culture you grew up in?  That’s ridiculous.”  I mocked.  Until it happened to me.

Coming back home from Mexico for the first time, reentry shock hit me hard.  And I was horrified that I had ever made fun of it before.  It’s real.  Oh, let me tell you, it’s real!  Now I was the missionary having a melt down in the grocery store… only it was over shredded wheat, not dressing… I remember the feeling of panic rising in my heart when I entered the cereal aisle.  Oh my Gosh!  There are 6 different flavors of shredded wheat- and I’ve never tried ANY of them!  How do I know which one I like?  In the end, I couldn’t commit to a new flavor.  I walked out with an ordinary box of mini wheats because it was the safe choice.

I also remember the first 5 times I entered Walmart and walked out again without buying a single thing.  Yes, I said FIVE TIMES.  I could feel my decision making brain cells starting to sizzle.  I felt a migraine coming on.  I was totally incapable of making so many decisions at once.  I was overwhelmed by my options.  Do you remember the first time being a parent and going to buy diapers?  Do you remember standing in the diaper aisle and reading every label, comparing prices, size of package, size of child, special features?  Remember how consuming and overwhelming that was because you didn’t know which was going to be the best bargain?  Then after a while you commit to a brand and it becomes your “go to” brand.  You can tell your husband, Pick up some diapers at the store, and he knows to get the red package or the package with the puppies on it.  You don’t have to think about that decision any more.

Well, coming back into America it was like my computer had crashed and the memory had been erased.  All my “favorites” had been erased, my cache had been emptied.  I had to start from scratch and rebuild my life.  There were a lot of tears in the first few months.  I remember half way through the grocery store putting my head down on my exhausted arms resting on the handle of the cart.  I said, “I just can’t make one more decision!  Why the heck is this store so big?”  I looked at my cart and I thought about unloading everything onto the conveyor belt at the check out, then bagging it all up, then loading it back into my cart, then loading it all into my car, then bringing it all into my house, then putting it all away in my kitchen.  I was seriously tempted to abandon my cart right then and there.  I was in a full fledged reentry shock episode.

Unfortunately it didn’t stop there, and it didn’t consume just me.  My entire household was in a state of emotional upheaval and I was navigating with a broken rudder.  Now I can look back on those first few months and laugh at having to read the instructions on the gas pump or standing too close to the lady in the line in front of me or accidentally kissing my friend’s husband on the check when I greeted him or throwing my toilet paper in the garbage can or whatever loco stuff I did.  I can blame it all on reentry shock… don’t YOU roll your eyes at me!