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Shocked By Culture Shock


Culture Shock

What is it?


Why is it a big deal?

Dictionary.com defines it as “a state of bewilderment and distress experienced by an individual who is suddenly exposed to a new, strange, or foreign social and cultural environment.”


It is a huge thing. It is one of the main struggles missionaries face in the first two years of their term.


I remember when we first moved to Bolivia. We lived there two years and Denise and I returned to the States for a funeral. I did not realize how much culture shock and stress I lived under until I found myself relaxed and unstressed. I told Denise, “I did not know how stressed and pressured my brain was until the pressure was released. I do not have to translate signs. I know what to expect on the road. I am not rehearsing dialogue in my mind before walking to the checkout stand. I know where to find cereal. I feel free.”


After a few years in Bolivia, Denise and I did a little missionary training, spoke at a few workshops from different agencies and helped other missionaries. We always spent time on Culture Shock.


Here is how I describe it.


Imagine you are swimming in the ocean. You look up and see a shark fin. You go under and verify it. There is a pretty good sized shark swimming near, around and maybe at you. You have a problem. There is a shark. The shark is your problem. You have to deal with the shark. Problem = Shark.


Now, imagine you are swimming in the river. You feel a little nip on your leg. You look down. You realize that you are in a bad situation. The river is full of piranhas. There are thousands of them swirling and swimming around you. You do not have a big problem, such as one shark, to avoid. There are thousands of little problems.

Which piranha do you focus on?

Which piranha bite is the fatal one?

One bite is not an issue. It probably would not even need a stitch. It isn’t one little bite. You have 873 little bites and they keep coming back.


That is culture shock.


I remember in Bolivia, I was 44 years old when we arrived. Denise and I walked to language school. On the way, in the center of the city, there was a small store which sold mainly soft drinks to pedestrians. I asked for a Coke Zero. I had to ask, including pointing, three times and they still did not understand me.


I turned away and started boo-hoo crying. Full grown man. In public. Bawling like a baby. In between sobs I told Denise, “I can’t even buy a coke. How can I preach the gospel or teach people anything if I can’t even buy a coke! I am supposed to be a communicator and I can’t even buy a coke!”


It wasn’t the coke. The inability to buy the coke was the piranha bite that put me over the edge.


Advertisers in the States struggle with one main thing. They must break through the mundane and ordinary you are used to in order to get your attention. Billions of dollars are spent each year trying to get you to notice the product. This is because we go through life and become immune to the ordinary things.


Think about the last time you drove somewhere. Better yet, the last time you were a passenger.


How much of the time in the car do you remember?

How much did the passing landscape get your attention?

What did you look at.

What did you really notice?


Most likely, nothing. Sometimes we arrive at our destination and don’t even remember the drive.


Contrast that with us, right now, in Ghana.


All. I use that huge word on purpose. All. All of our input is different.


Everything demands atttention, focus, processing and thought. All five senses are screaming at us and all at the same time. It is sensory overload. Sight, sound, smell…the three big ones, are totally overwhelmed.


This morning we went to Immigration in order to get National Id Cards.


All along the drive you see vendor after vendor beside the road. These small stands the size of the shed you keep your lawn mower and garden tools stored sell thousands of different items. They demand attention.

Store after store with little children playing in the dirt beside the highway.

Hundreds of people walking with products balanced on the top of their head.

Deals and purchases made.


The smell of metal working, rubber burning, wood cutting, goat cooking, food processing, urine, feces, dirt and wood fires all rush into your nostrils at the same time.


At the traffic signal, peddlers come to your window and push their product. Blind people led by their children ask for money. People crippled by polio, accidents or disease stand at your window and look at you. They do not move. They do not break eye contact. They stand three inches from your window and stare at you as they wait for a donation.


Children, whose parents are vendors or beggars, play in the dirt two feet from your tire.


All along the way are three wheeled motorcycle taxis. I would say the taxis outnumber the cars 3 to 1. They do not follow all of the traffic laws and I have to stay focused on them because I do not know what they will do next.


Motorcycles outnumber cars 20 to 1. Thousands of motorcycles zoom around. They pass on both sides, use the sidewalk, zoom between you and the car beside you, turn in front of you, and constantly break every traffic law on the books.


The entire time, pedestrians play the old game, “Frogger”, as they cross the street little by little. People are on the side of the road, on the middle stripe, in between lanes, and on the median. They are walking perpendicular to your path and if they do not veer or slow you will hit them.


A wheel chair with peddles designed for hands to power it is in the right lane because there are no sidewalks or ADA.


A child runs into the street for their soccer ball causing a taxi and moto to bump into each other 20’ in front of me.


Music, vendors, the Mosque call to prayer, angry pedestrians, horns, babies crying and tires squealing all hit your ear drums in an incessant beat.


Even the make of the automobiles are different. You don’t see Ford, Dodge, or Chevrolet here. Motorcycles come from China.


This, all of this above, happened in my 15 minute drive to immigration. I just wrote it all out in a word purge.


Now, factor in skin color, dress, language, and use of English is all different. We cannot even just take English for granted because our English is different than Ghanaian pronunciation.


We go to the market and Muslim men ask me to give them my daughters.


I want to buy meat. The butcher is a teenager beside the road with a machete in one hand and a dead cow on a fallen tree in front of him. No nice meat department with various cuts named, packaged, priced and labeled. I don’t even know what part of the cow I want.

Probably 75% of our meals in the States and Bolivia consisted of boneless, skinless chicken breasts. They do not exist here.


The largest grocery store in town does not have a frozen food, meat, bread or dairy department. All of those are purchased on the street.


Look at the above paragraphs again. I literally wrote this in a five minute dump of what happened this morning on the way to Immigration.


This is Culture Shock.

It is sensory overload.

Too much input.


Advertisers try to get you to notice one thing. We can’t stop noticing everything. It is too much. This is why we have headaches at night.


Now, add in other elements of culture which are different, language school, and learning culture. Coming this with missing friends and family.


That is culture shock.

That is why it is a big deal.


It has a way of making you fondly remember and then start longing for “Home”. It can wreck a ministry.


What is the solution to it? We lived through it and taught others how to live through it.

Embrace it.

Refuse to compare/contrast. It is not right/wrong, better/worse.

It is here/there. We are here so be all here.


The only real solution? Push through it until the drive to Immigration demands as much of my attention as your drive to Walmart took of yours. Live in the culture until it is no longer foreign.


Just keep on.


You can also pray for us. That would be cool. :)



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