Culture Shock-what can be said about it that hasn’t already been said? Perhaps all the words have already been spoken, but I think that they tend to be meaningless until you are standing face to face with it. Webster defines it as a sense of confusion and uncertainty sometimes with feelings of anxiety that may affect people exposed to an alien culture or environment. Wow, what a mouthful, but Webster is correct once more. I thought that I was prepared for this thing called culture shock, but reality has proven very differently.
October will mark the 4th month that we have been in Loja, Ecuador. Loja is a small town nestled in the beautiful Andes Mountains. It shouldn’t be so terribly different than where we used to live, Estes Park, Colorado, that’s nestled in the beautiful Rocky Mountains. Right? Wrong.
Everything has changed and I have had to learn even those simple things all over again. For example, there is an “F” and a “C” on the water spigots. “F” means frio, (cold) and “C” means caliente, (hot) – it’s no longer “C” and “H”. The fact that I am like a “giant in the land” because most Ecuadorians are much shorter than me makes it hard to be inconspicuous. The armed guards with AK47’s posted at all the banks tends to set this country girl’s heart a pounding. And oh yes, I will never forget the big brown spider on the toilet seat incident!
Shopping has been a real adjustment too. I shop in open markets that displays chickens hanging on hooks right in front of me that still have their heads and feet attached. Beef , lamb and burro are hanging there too, but they are easily identified because their tails are still attached. OK, so much for the meat department, now I am in search of vegetables. However, it isn’t going to be as easy as I am accustomed to. Those well known potatoes are now called, “papas”, “libra” replaces the familiar word pound, I have to decide whether I want uno, dos or tres pounds, and I must choose whether I want potatoes for “fritas”, frying, or for “sopa”, soup. I become very uncomfortable as the vendor in front of me smiles at my attempts to communicate by pointing and stuttering just to accomplish a simple purchase.
Church has been the hardest adjustment that I have faced. I find myself dreading going to church because I cannot understand the language. It seems as though I just sit there and watch it all go by. This is the extreme opposite of what my life was in Estes Park. I was heavily involved in music and youth ministries, but now the language barrier has limited my involvement in ministry. I am sitting on a back burner and truthfully, it really hurts.
As time progressed I had become comfortable with the many adjustments that I had made. I was content with my language learning and felt pretty good about life in general here in Loja. Then came the time to go to the beauty shop. I knew that trying to communicate what I wanted done, with the little Spanish that I knew would be an impossibility. With this in mind, I asked someone to go with me to translate. Her translation was fine, but the lady with the scissors in her hand apparently had different ideas. As I sat in the chair watching my shoulder-length hair fall to the floor in sections about four inches long, I knew that the comfort level that I had reached was going to be tested. I walked away from that beauty shop with my head held high sporting a brand new, very short look. But, when I was behind closed doors, the floodgates opened and the tears started. All I could think of was that amid all of the changes that I had faced, I should have been able to count on at least having the same hairstyle – but, this changed too.
This just didn’t seem fair – God, what more do you want from me? I have answered your call to the field and have left family, friends and active ministries. There are times that waves of homesickness takes control of my tears, I am learning a new language at the ripe old age of 41, I have adjusted to many changes – but why couldn’t just one thing stay the same? As I cried and called out to God I realized that something did stay the same – He did. Even though my surroundings changed, He didn’t. He is still the same as He was when I lived in Estes Park, and most importantly, the same as He was when I asked Him into my life 23 years ago.
Culture shock will effect all who answer the call to the field, and it will affect everyone differently. One common answer that gives strength to survive these times of feeling useless is found in the promises that are found in Deuteronomy 31:6, “Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the Lord your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.” What a comforting thought to know that He is here right beside me, holding me up daily as I continue to write this new chapter of my life.
Brenda and her husband are global workers with SIM, serving in Loja, Ecuador. They have been there for 3 1/2 months and have found culture shock difficult to handle from time to time. They thought that they were prepared, but “life” has proved differently.