Cross-Cultural Stress

Posted on: May 05, 2015 Written by
Cross-Cultural Stress
Photography by: SerrNovik from iStock          

Milk was cheap that day, so I put three one-liter cartons in my cart—instead of my usual two. When I arrived at the checkout the cashier informed me that because the milk was cheap there was a restriction on how many customers could buy. She took one away from me and placed the other two onto my pile of groceries. Apparently, there was a sign in front of the milk informing me of this temporary policy, but I had failed to understand the sign.

I told this story during our first home assignment, and an elder in the church told me later he had never thought about how buying milk in another culture might be stressful.

Most of us have heard of culture shock and anticipate rocky times when we first arrive in our new country of service. Many of us do not realise that when we recover from culture shock, a lesser-known relative—cross-culture stress—stays behind to keep us company.

The daily-living stress for me in Japan has decreased over the years, but it is still more tiring than living in Australia. For example, I still feel stressed in Japan when the doorbell or phone rings, because I will probably not be able to fully understand what the person has to say to me, and it will be awkward.

I feel tense when I ride the public transport to an unfamiliar place, because I cannot read all the signs. I do extra preparation before I leave so that I will not get lost, but I still often do.

If life remains routine, then generally, daily-living stress is not too much. However, as soon as something non-routine comes along—like an unfamiliar illness, a new schedule, or a breakdown—then my stress goes up quickly, faster than if I were in Australia.

Culture shock is feeling frustrated or angry when I cannot easily communicate with my neighbour. Cross-cultural stress is when I realise there is no escape, and that I may struggle with this for months, possibly years, to come.

When I moved to Japan I experienced many strong emotions: excitement, tears at finally being there, and delight in all the many new things. I also felt hopeless as I could not communicate, despondent because I felt reduced to the level of a kindergartner, and confused because it seemed like I had a dual personality—that I could not be myself in Japan. Then I would experience joy when I discovered I had learned something, or was thrilled to be doing something I could not do last week, or felt elated because I had communicated successfully.

The first weeks and months were a forest of emotions. It was exhausting. Everything that I once did, almost without thinking, became a challenge and drained my energy.

Eventually the highs and lows flattened out, but I never got back to the platform of stability and ease of living that I enjoyed in Australia. I remained in a landscape that, though more familiar than the initial forest, still held many mysteries and surprises. The stress of living in a country that was not my own continued to weary me more than living in my home country.

Over time, I learned that I needed more rest. I lowered my expectations of what I could achieve. I became very selective in what I chose to say “yes” to.

Holidays and days off, though challenging in those early days with young children, were valuable. We guarded them jealously. I was shocked to see the senior global worker in our first team using his day off to write his sermon. Now I understand that he was so used to life in Japan that he did not need as much rest as we did.

Be gracious to myself
I have also learned to be gracious to myself. I try not to compare myself to others. If I need more rest than the next person, then I should take it and not feel guilty.

I recently met a global worker who once served in Nepal. She and her husband both suffered burnout. She said they would have done things differently if they had envisioned a longer perspective on their work.

The story of Moses and Jethro helps me here (Exodus 18:13–26). Moses was taking on too much, and his father-in-law helped him see that he did not have to take on all the work himself.

Spiritual care
I need to be aware that I have a tendency to be self-reliant rather than God-reliant. Remembering to take regular time with God in prayer and in the Word helps me keep a good perspective on what God wants me to do.

This is hard. I need to communicate to our supporters that we need their prayers because we are frail and weak, just like them—we are not superheros. They need to hear why we take holidays and days off, and that life is not easy. They need to hear that their prayers make a difference.

Last year we transitioned out of our ministries in Japan so that we could come back to Australia for a year of home assignment. At the start of the year, God impressed upon me the first three verses of Hebrews 12:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Perseverance is something I have needed as our family has gone through this transition. These verses, however, have given me the solution for getting perspective on this journey, and that is keeping my eyes on Jesus.


Question to consider: What are some ways you deal with cross-cultural stress?

©2015 Thrive.

About the author

Wendy Marshall, Tokyo, Japan. Wendy and her husband are Australians who have been serving with OMF International in Japan since 2000. Wendy is the Managing Editor of Japan Harvest, a magazine by and for missionaries to Japanese. In between doing that and looking after her three boys (10, 12, and nearly 16), she writes nearly daily on her blog "on the edge of ordinary": Encouraging others with stories from her life, or the lives of others is one of her great joys.

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  • Susan W

    Thanks for giving a name to something I was somewhat aware existed but haven’t always acknowledged. We have been living in Africa for many years but have moved several times to different countries. After every move I find myself quite stressed for several months. My husband I think has struggled to understand where I’m coming from as I fretted over little tasks that once were so easy, but after a move seemed far more overwhelming. All the factors you mentioned – grace, rest, spiritual care, perseverance, communication, and perspective are very important as one deals with any move, but especially a cross cultural one. We are soon moving back to our passport country; I need to remember to apply these concepts again. 🙂

    • Thanks Susan. I’m glad you’ve got a name for it now. I’m glad that it applies to those with different experiences too, I’ve only been in one country and that’s been challenging enough! God’s blessings to you as you make that potentially difficult transition back to your passport country.

  • Children’s book author and illustrator, Sean Tan, captured this beautifully in his book The Arrival. It helps one identify the emotions and feelings when traveling, as well as and helps one become more compassionate and helpful to the immigrants around us in our home country. A must read for everyone!

    • Wendy

      Sarah, my focus in the article is more on the stress after culture shock has faded, rather than at the time of the initial move. I think there is a lot of ignorance about how much extra energy it takes to live in a country that isn’t your own.

  • Thank you for pointing these things out. I have just come to the Philippines for 4 weeks as our initial scout the land trip before moving here, with my 5 and 10 year old. I have gone through a lot of up and down emotions, more down I would say, even feelings of feeling overwhelmed to the point of gasping for breath. This is at the thought of leaving my own country, Australia as well – from Gold Coast and moving to this country which is less developed, has less options for my children and live is a lot harder to live in in the natural. I had to go from the comforts of life there to washing clothes by hand, having cold showers, no vacuum cleaner, no iron, living in hot humid weather. My husband does not seem to understand my emotions. He finds adjusting very easily, he is not a very emotional person. I am half italian and I am different. On top of it all I have a sinus infection and my 5 year old caught pneumonia on the way here, though she is better now. I saw her struggle when we visited a potential school here crying that she doesn’t want to go there. That does not seem to affect my husband but it touches the chords of my heart a lot. God has been speaking to me about looking to Him, but I loose that perspective in the midst of the hardships sometimes and fall back on feeling overwhelmed. Any advice on how to ride an international move smoothly and settle well would be greatly appreciated by any of the global women. Feel free to contact me via Facebook or my website, I am now the one that needs to receive, though I am usually the giver, I want to connect with women like you who have raised their kids in a different culture and rode the whole journey with Jesus. We might also have to move from city to city maybe once a year as we plan local Christian TV and radio channels, which makes it harder, especially for the children and friendships. Please let me know of any good websites, resources for kids or other missionaries you know about in the Philippines that I could connect with. Thank you in advance.

  • Beth Webster

    Thank you for this article. Both my husband and myself experienced this, perhaps more in the latter years of our overseas service than in the early years. We moved from France to Sweden after 19 years and the stress was even more pronounced because I had gained a good deal of proficiency in French. I recall clearly the feelings of being trapped for years to come in a country whose language I would probably never master (given my age and also the Swedes’ generally high level of English, which meant it was impossible to be immersed in Swedish). While God did reward my perseverance over the ten years I lived there, and I became fairly comfortable using the language, the long-term cultural stress I lived under was definitely a contributing factor to our decision to leave missions after 30 years. Not that re-entering my passport country and finding work at age 59 is stress-free, of course! Just a different kind of struggle.