The little girl danced down the aisle, delighted to put her coins in the offering basket, African style. But she was in America, not Africa.
The congregation sat frozen in shock—culture shock.
Her global worker mother told me the story with a mixture of red face and laughter. They were in church their first Sunday back from Africa. Their young daughter jumped up to dance her offering to the front the moment the offertory prayer ended, before her startled parent could react.
Global workers I spoke with on this topic of Reverse Culture Shock, i.e., coming back to North America, were almost unanimous: returning “home” had produced more shock for them than going to a foreign culture. The surprise of hitting culture shock “at home” was equally unanimous. We expect cultural unknowns and surprises going out. We do not expect them coming “home.”
We expect to know how to navigate our own sending culture, and people expect it of us. Usually we do not realize how much we, and our home culture, have changed. Often we are not conscious of our own expectations and assumptions. One global worker woman expressed, “I did not realize I had expectations of my time back in North America until I found myself disappointed. Then I realized that I had unspoken expectations that I was not even conscious of.” Often, while away, we have idealized our home culture, or at least some of the people in our home churches who helped send us. We may have grown more than they, or grown in different directions.
Another global worker woman said, “I’ve changed. The people I know here have changed too, but we haven’t changed together.”
Mission agencies prepare us for going into another culture. Training and cross-cultural preparation are vastly improved over two or three decades ago. Now we are realizing that preparing for Reverse Culture Shock (RCS) may be as important.
As in outgoing culture shock, it may not hit us during the first heady months of transition. RCS often lurks for two or three months or more before pouncing on us, when we think we are past all that, if we think of it at all. Other times it is instantaneous.
“We expected to assimilate quickly here in North America so we hit the ground running and ran into a brick wall,” said a veteran global worker of her time on home assignment. She mused that when they went out, she and her husband had expected culture shock so they had eased into overseas living and language school. “It never occurred to us that we might need transition time on our return.” Like any culture shock, RCS can hang on for a long time. An older woman who had returned to North America for many years before going again to the field confided that she had never gotten over RCS in all of those years back in her home culture.
Reverse Culture Shock: Signs and Symptoms Experienced by Returning Global worker Women
Shopping Amid Abundance
- The complexity is overwhelming.
- The abundance and variety of goods in North American stores paralyzes many women returning to a supermarket or Wal-Mart. One woman confided that she was so overwhelmed that she could not pick out the items she needed. An unusually understanding friend said, “I don’t think you’re ready for Wal-Mart. Let’s go to Walgreen’s.”
- Another related, “I was excited to go shopping for the first time back in the States, but soon said, ‘I have to leave now!’ My Mom saw the panic in my face that first trip to Target. She helped me get a few items we needed and we went home.”
- “The variety, abundance and myriad options force me to make decisions. There are choices of lunch meat, potato chips, shampoo, cereal…”
- “I stare at how big and how wealthy Americans are.”
- “It took me 10 minutes to decide which bread, white or wheat. I was in tears.”
- “I am lonely here. I need a support network but have no friends like I did with the global worker women and the Chinese.”
- “I tried to plug into a women’s Bible study, but women here don’t welcome you with open arms. They may chat for five minutes afterward. Overseas we would visit for a long time before, during, and after.”
- “The level of community seems shallow in North America, because we are all so busy. We are too busy to make friendships, visit, talk, and find out how people are really doing.”
- “We need to make an appointment to visit one another and call ahead to make sure that it is OK. Overseas you just drop by whenever, for no specified amount of time.”
- “In Albania we ask three times if a person wants to go to lunch or something like that. That is true of several places in the world. But here you only ask once. An Oriental friend who was waiting to be asked to go to lunch three times said ‘No,’ the first time, just like she would at home. The American women took her at her word and all went to lunch without her.”
- “We eat everything on our plates overseas and here people don’t. It seems like such a waste.”
- “I run out of subjects to talk about with other women in North America because we have so little in common.”
- “You feel like there is no use in investing in temporary friendships. And when I was first back I was in so much trauma that I couldn’t reach out.”
- “As a global worker I sometimes feel dimwitted compared to normal North American women. I don’t get jokes and am just not fast enough in English conversation to fit in.”
- “It is hard with groups of women in conversation because they speak so fast. I can’t ‘translate’ fast enough and they don’t listen because I am slow to gather my thoughts and know how to say it in English.”
- Personal space is a much bigger issue here in North America than overseas.
- “People here stand a long ways from each other in line. If I forget, they glare at me. In some countries there would be a number of people jammed in that same space.”
- “Do you know how many Ecuadorians would line up in the space of three Americans in a bank line?”
- “They stop at stop signs here!”
- “They drive so fast here.”
- “I forgot and used my car horn here like we did back home where the horn is as valuable as the brake.”
- “I got stopped for speeding here for the real reason. Overseas it is to ask you for a bribe whether you were speeding or not.”
- “I had to pull off to the side of the road to gather my thoughts and courage to drive after living in a country where women don’t drive. I hadn’t driven a car in four years.”
- “It is so easy to forget a simple thing like a parking meter, what it is for and how it works. I hadn’t seen one or had to use one for four years.”
- “I find myself crying in church every time since I’ve been back.”
- “Singing the familiar old hymns makes me cry.”
- “The church infighting makes me sad. Believers in Iraq are persecuted and dying for their faith and over here Christians are fighting over the music and the new building project.”
- “Church is so ‘techie’ with power point and songs projected. Most are new songs and we end up not knowing any. Worship styles have changed.”
Things People Say
- “Things people say to global workers would make a great humor book, but maybe only global workers would laugh.”
- “People in North America ask such dumb questions, like about elephants and global workers living in huts and whether Colombia has computers.”
- “Some people tell us that they are so glad that we are back from that horrible place over there on the mission field.”
- A global worker spoke to a church in Washington State about her work among Native Indian people in nearby British Columbia, Canada. Afterward a man said, “It must be really hot down there in them jungles in British Columbia.”
- “The ethnocentrism in North America is breathtaking. People don’t know about the world and basically don’t care and are not interested in others.”
Our Tendency to Judge
- “People live in such luxury here that I feel guilty.”
- “We say we have no room in our home (to share with someone), but overseas there is always room.”
- “People in the U.S. are trying to be so perfect. In Africa, people see a certain beauty in imperfection.”
- “The immodesty in North American culture and churches causes me deep mourning.”
- “Americans seem to have trouble sitting quietly.”
- “Cell phones seem rude.”
- “It’s like all Americans have ADHD.”
- “I could get around Nepal, but not here in the States.”
- “Each return I remember only some of American culture.”
- “I am uncomfortable here to ask for what I want because you don’t do that where I live overseas.”
- “It is hard to figure out if we as a global worker family are rich or poor as we go back and forth from the poverty on the field where we seem rich to the wealth in North America where we appear poor.”
- “I often question myself, in the grocery store or social situations, ‘Am I doing the right thing here?’ I become insecure when I come back to North America.”
- “Other cultures thrive on chaos. There is no chaos here in the streets. The US seems too quiet, cold and unfriendly.”
Family and Friends
- “Life goes on for everyone here while we are gone. We have missed out on the changes in friends and family.”
- “I was gone for four years. When I arrived home my Dad said ‘Hello’ and went out the door to a meeting he said he had to attend. That really hurt.”
Global worker Kids
- MKs feel like and are called the “hidden immigrants.” They look like normal American kids but they think like the people where they lived while growing up.
- “Global worker children are not used to Xbox, TV, current slang or fads.”
- “Children are more competitive here.”
- “American kids often don’t know how to be friends.”
- “My children hit reverse racism. My son tends to accept everyone. North American kids just don’t.”
- “By the time our third child was in a North American high school, I asked him why all three of our children’s North American high school and college friends had tended to be ethnic minorities and immigrants. ‘We understand each other,’ he said, ‘and nobody understands us.’”
- “Sports in North America are often different than what MKs are used to; some MKs can seem like unathletic dolts, when they actually do well in familiar sports overseas.”
- One mother’s son had a teacher in church make fun of him. He only knew John 3:16 in another language and not in English. “What kind of an MK are you that you don’t know John 3:16?” she chided.
- “Sometimes we parents don’t speak enough English with our children to help them develop a large English vocabulary. That makes it hard in North American schools. MKs have sometimes been ESL students.”
And finally: I Can’t Even Escape Reverse Culture Shock in the Bathroom!
- “There are a million ways for a toilet to work and to be flushed. They all seem to work differently. The same is true for faucets, especially shower controls.”
- “Our kids screamed the first time a toilet flushed automatically and the first time a door opened automatically at the grocery.”
Remember the global worker woman who summed it up this way, “We expected cultural unknowns and surprises going out. We didn’t expect them coming ‘home’!”? Here are some suggestions to help global workers cope with Reverse Culture Shock.
19 Tips to Cope with Reverse Culture Shock
1. Stay overseas! Don’t go home.
2. More seriously, schedule rest/transition time at the beginning, the first few weeks back in North America. Ease back into the culture. (Explain to your family ahead of time.) See WOTH resource webpages under Rest and Recreation for free and/or reasonably priced places to stay.
3. Try to attend a re-entry seminar. Mission Training International (www.mit.org) offers some.
4. Look on the internet before you come home to check on weather where you will be landing. Check current news in the world, nation, and your home town. Try to look at clothes so you will not be surprised.
5. If possible, get a trustworthy clothes coach.
6. Get a dog and walk him in your neighborhood to meet people.
7. Learn to “do lunch.”
8. Realize that people probably will not come to you or reach out as you would like.
9. Be friendly. Proverbs 18:24 says, A man of many companions may come to ruin, but a friend sticks closer than a brother. Push yourself if you are shy.
10. Join smaller Bible study groups, prayer groups, and Sunday school classes.
11. Be a good listener. Understand that people are probably not as interested in your work as you had expected or hoped.
12. Find returned global workers with whom to share.
13. Make a point of befriending the pastor(s). Take them to lunch.
14. Try to keep a sense of humor about any faux pas.
15. Determine to love North Americans.