In missions it is vital that you understand the culture of the place God has called you to. As an adult, learning a new culture is hard. Often you feel like you are a child again, and can’t do simple things. It takes much language practice, observing, and many mistakes to come to a place where you can operate well in another culture. The sacrifice and humbling of self is well worth it! Understanding cultural values and norms is vital in properly representing Jesus to the people you are sent to. Let’s take a look at culture shock.
–noun a state of bewilderment and distress experienced by an individual who is suddenly exposed to a new, strange, or foreign social and cultural environment. (Definition from Dictionary.com)
When you travel and immerse yourself in the local culture, without an English speaking tour guide and western hotel-retreat, culture shock will overwhelm you. If you have traveled extensively you may have accustomed yourself to culture shock and even grown comfortable with experiencing a new culture, and the disorientation that comes with it. Creative problem solving and connecting on a level that transcends language are vital skills to develop if you want to connect with local people.
The farther one travels from their home culture (hometown), the more culture shock one will experience. In communities ten miles apart you can find subtle and, sometimes, big differences in culture. Usually these communities were founded for different reasons, hence their cultures, and beliefs will differ. Generally though, you will have a whole lot in common with someone who lives ten miles down the road. Go one hundred miles, and you can run into some real differences in how people think, the ethnic make up of an area, etc. Head north of the US border, and you will find people who speak English, who have much in common historically and culturally, but the differences will probably be more apparent than what you share in common. How you speak, your views on government, your world view will differ vastly. Now go to Russia. You will land in a place where you don’t understand the language, don’t eat the same food, do not dress the same, have very different systems of government, entirely different histories, different cultural values and identities. It can be hard to find common ground. When I first experienced culture shock, I had several reactions. The first is to think “Man, we don’t do it like this where I come from.” Usually what that really means is,” We do it better where I come from”. When you go through a day, and then a week, and then a month of not understanding anyone, eating strange food, seeing people do things that seem normal to them, but make no sense to you, and being noticed by everyone because you stick out like a sore thumb, hiding and crying seem like good reactions. I did both. A lot. The last reaction is to band up with a group of people who come from your home culture. These people speak your language, have similar values, and can identify with your depression, anger, or lost feeling at living in a foreign culture.
If you limit yourself to these reactions, you will never learn a new culture, or become friends with local people. So how do you get past these initial reactions? Check my following posts!