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.
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?