Ah, the joys of culture shock. It’s funny what one misses and the triggers that cause one to realize it. And it’s funny how one reacts to those triggers.
I had my first dose of reverse culture shock (and continuation of plain, old culture shock) last week during a retreat in Spain. Every 4 years, MTW organizes a retreat for their workers to attend. My first retreat came after I’d been in country just over 2 months. People talk about reverse culture shock especially when they go back to their home culture for the first time after living in a different set of norms. Spain is not my home culture, so I didn’t even consider the possibility that it would hit me there. I barely had much time to think about the trip in general.
Well, the symptoms began virtually as soon as I stepped off the plane in Spain. We were picked up from the airport and taken by bus to the hotel. The lack of humidity, the clean surroundings, the well-paved roads, the vehicles following traffic rules — all of it seemed strange. And as we left the city and crested a hill, the landscape that greeted my eyes filled me with a grief and a longing that caught me off guard. I began to weep.
“Green rolling hills! Oh, it’s so beautiful,” I thought. “It reminds me of Pennsylvania and southern France rolled into one! What kind of cruel joke is this? Is this supposed to show me where God hasn’t called me to live, the landscapes I don’t get to see in West Africa? I don’t want to be in this beautiful place if it’s just going to make it harder to return to dry, dirty, brown West Africa…”
I honestly hadn’t realized how much I’d missed the green, the hills, the forests. Of course I’d noticed the differences in landscape, but I’d found them interesting. I’d also noticed the trash, the lack of Western standards of cleanliness, but I’d grown accustomed to it. Little had I realized how much it wore on me. Natural beauty in West Africa exists in abundance, but it is different; for a foreigner, it takes a certain amount of time and endurance to discover.
There I was in another foreign country but surrounded by the kind of beauty that makes my heart sing. And all I could do was cry. All I could feel was anger at this temporary oasis in what I now saw as a desert. At the hotel, my anger continued to well up: the cleanliness, the hugeness, the arranged attractiveness — it all seemed so artificial, so wasteful, so unnecessarily overwhelming. And I found myself surrounded by talkative fellow Americans, most of them colleagues that I’d never met. I was quickly exhausted by their wordy conversation.
But then I got a long night of sleep. During the next morning’s worship, I was struck by another longing — this time for my West African brothers and sisters. It came at 2 particular times in the service: first, when our hands were attempting (unsuccessfully) to keep the beat to a song of praise. Oh, how I missed the medley of rhythms — all compatible though different, kept flawlessly in clapping and stepping and stomping and swaying — that make worship in West Africa a whole-body and a whole-congregation act! The second time, when we were led in praying aloud and simultaneously: our group was less accustomed to this practice and mostly prayed in silence. Oh, how I missed this audibly corporate prayer time, a part of the West African worship service that I fell in love with the first time I heard it last summer! Hearing the prayers of God’s people all around, and participating in them, gives me the sense of traveling through space and time as the world’s and eternity’s requests are carried to the Lord.
It was 2 days later during my week in Spain that the smells hit me. I was walking down a street in town, not particularly surrounded by nature, when I noticed that I was breathing in deeply through my nose and not smelling any unpleasant odor. In fact, it smelled so good and clean and fresh! For several minutes, all I could do was breathe in lung-fulls of the fragrant air. It was almost as if I’d resurfaced after holding my breath for 2 months. As I’d later visit a prayer garden, botanical gardens, and the beachfront (situated just past a row of sweet-smelling jasmine bushes), more than once, I stopped in my tracks and simply inhaled the scent of flowers. At the back of my mind was the question, How will I return to West Africa and its odors of fish, human waste, city fumes, and garbage? In those moments it’s hard not to feel bitter, resentful — and guilty for feeling this way towards the country where God has called me.
Such were a few of my surprising symptoms of culture shock/ reverse culture shock. Let me be clear: my reactions are less a reflection of the country where I’m living and more a reflection of the all-encompassing effects of cross-cultural life, especially in the early days. I know these reactions are bound to come sooner or later; it is mental and emotional gymnastics to go between cultures. I’m told it gets easier. With more time and practice, I’ll learn to find beauty, joy, rest in both my home culture and my culture of calling. But 2 months isn’t enough time, and I’m not quite there yet…