Culture Shock Revisited
“No more culture shock. Three short terms, one full term, each return to this country feeling easier. Re-entry after our first full furlough should be NO PROBLEM,” I thought to myself. Boy, was I wrong!
In our first short-term missions trip to a small country in South Asia, there were so many new experiences that our whole family of four suffered some degree of culture shock. There were new foods, new customs, new language, and new culture. We saw a poisonous snake our third night there. The two lefties among us had to learn to use our right hands for eating, giving, and receiving. Having servants dismayed me! Dark-skinned women would surround us, reaching out to stroke the blond heads and pinch the pale cheeks of our 5-year-old twin boys. Sullen men stood around us, just staring. We were offered food that was unclean, or too spicy, or unknown. Vehicles of all sizes played “chicken” on the one-lane roads. At the hospital where he worked, my husband encountered men who preferred to let a wife die than to spend money on her treatment—they would just get another wife.
Thankfully, the global worker home where we were staying had a “Reader’s Digest” article on culture shock in the desk drawer. That helped me to understand what was going on when 5 year old Matt, finding himself standing in a patch of red ants and being bitten, got hysterical. I picked him up and comforted him, then told him that he was going through what most kids feel when they come to a new place like this. There are so many new things to get used to that it makes you feel nervous—sometimes so nervous that you do not know what to do! I told him that it is OK to feel that way; it is normal; it will gradually get better as he gets used to everything. And that the next time he finds himself in the middle of some red ants, he can just step aside and brush them off. Matt just said, “Oh, OK.” and seemed to relax. He did not get upset like that again.
Going through our first four-year term as full-time global workers, I felt a euphoria that helped me gloss over the difficult things. It was exciting to have finally achieved our dream, to be serving the Lord in this country, to be learning the language, to be making friends, to be adapting to the culture, and to be getting involved in various ministries.
On returning to America for furlough, however, I realized how much I had missed my freedom as a woman in America: the freedom to go where I wanted when I wanted, to dress as I wanted, and to talk to anyone. My husband and I savored privacy and intimacy anew—we had not been able to walk holding hands in a Muslim society! We were happy to get back to a place that had diet foods, all kinds of labor-saving products, and “helping” organizations. Laws and mechanical things worked! So a year later, at the end of that “home ministry,” I was not happy to have to leave all these good things again.
Stepping back into life in our adopted country with that reluctance, and without the “first term euphoria,” the negative things hit me more: the filth, the corruption, the mistreatment of women, the backwardness. One day as I was being driven down a path on a rickshaw, all those negative things suddenly overwhelmed me. My heart started to beat faster; I felt panicky. Clenching my seat, I inwardly screamed, “What am I doing here?! Get me out of here!” Another day we were invited to the home of a mission employee for a meal. We had been told that he had 2 wives. As we entered the small, crowded mud house with few windows, the darkness and a sense of evil oppressed me. Again my soul cried out, “What am I doing here? I don’t belong here!” I began to feel agitated and anxious much of the time.
Then my coworker, the director of the handicraft training project to which I was assigned, announced that she and her husband were leaving the field. That would leave me in charge of the whole project, and I felt woefully unprepared and inadequate for that job! I knew nothing about the business and management end of the work. Now my anxiety really soared! I prayed for the Lord to send someone to help me, preferably one of the global worker candidates I had met who had some experience with business.
How did the Lord help me through that time?
- I was sure of our call. My husband and I had both experienced a clear call to serve the Lord in this country in our personal devotions during our second short term there. There was no mistake; we were supposed to be here.
- We were accountable to our supporters. I could not run away; I had to answer to them. And I could not leave my husband. So I had to stick it out somehow.
- I had His Word. I knew that He has promised again and again that whenever He asks us to do something, He will equip us for it. I clung to promises such as 1 Thessalonians 5:24: “The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it” (I do not know how, but He is able!); Isaiah 41:10: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (yes, hold me up, Lord!); and 2 Corinthians 9:8: “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (so many needs, Lord!).
The Lord answered my prayer for help. But instead of the American global worker I had in mind (who would need a couple years to raise support, a couple more years to learn the language, and lots of trial and error to find how business works in this culture), He sent a young national man who had experience in business and a talent for crafts, spoke six or seven languages, had friends and contacts everywhere, could deal tactfully with people of all ages and social status, could preach at the drop of a hat, and wanted to learn Christian business principles! As we shared ideas and implemented new practices, I could see our team at the project becoming more professional. I felt like the head of “The A-Team,” that old TV show, gleefully rubbing my hands together and exulting, “I love it when a plan comes together!”
The Lord further encouraged me one day in my devotions by directing my attention to Ephesians 2:10 (NIV). “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” I realized that God was taking all my past experiences, as a Girl Scout, artist, teacher, consumer, housewife, and mother, and molding them together to fit me for this particular work at this particular time. Yes, I was even learning some new skills in late mid-life, in areas where I thought I had no ability. A vision for how to lead the department heads at the project to work more independently was beginning to develop. I did not need to be an “expert” with a specialized degree or professional experience—God just wanted me to be yielded to Him, and He would take care of the rest. In the place of anxiety and fear, I began to feel excitement and joy in being carried along in the plan of God.
I have no idea how long God will keep me at this project. But now I have a new confidence that He will fit me and guide me for whatever tasks He asks me to do.