I am no expert on this topic.
Not at all.
I’m truly just walking through it. Walking through these first years of culture shock.
Navigating the unknown and walking through some big, ambiguous block of new culture awareness, self-discovery and spiritual growth.
I wish I knew more, had prepared more, understood more what this could look like. Oh, I knew it would come. I knew we would go through it. But it felt like such a mysterious title for what seemed so obvious. Of course, we would experience some kind of shock… we were moving across the world!
So right now, with a few questions from all of you, I’m striving to take a step back from everything and get a good look at this whole, magnificent topic of culture shock.
What does it look like for me? Because although, I’m no expert… I’m navigating these wild waters and maybe some of you are too.
Or you are just plain curious about what it’s like to really go through something so dramatic, fun and crazy as inserting yourself within another country, another people, another culture. Not just for the short term but for the long term.
For me, it started the night this picture was taken. We had family pictures taken with my family the weekend we left for France.
It was a wonderful day but, in the days before we flew, I KNEW major, major life change was coming.
I felt it deeply in my soul.
Felt it for me, having moved a lot in my life, having walked the whole “new kid” thing many times and yet anticipating that this was bigger than anything I’d ever experienced before. Knowing this transition was going to be more than I could handle on my own.
Felt it for my girls, for their sweet trust in us and their ability to smile in the midst of great change. Change they had no real concept of yet.
Felt it for Jeremy, who was leading this little family on the journey of a lifetime. Felt his excitement and his cautious breath in as it all began for real. Holding on for dear life.
I felt change, transition, and struggle to my bones.
The night that picture was taken, I got literally sick to my stomach. Multiple times. I spent that night on the floor of the bathroom in my mom’s house just trying to process quickly what I knew was coming. #ohdearbetsy we are really doing this…
2 years of build up to just get on an airplane and leave US soil. Planning. Interviewing. Raising support. None of the challenges we’d faced so far were even visible to me at that moment in the face of the challenge ahead of us.
And right then, culture shock began.
I think I skipped the honeymoon stage altogether because I had walked the path of transition so many times before. And because I knew this was big, I jumped right in. No rose colored glasses or dreamy, romantic ideas in my head. Just the reality of what I knew we would face.
And I think for France, I jumped all the way to neutral zone. (you can click on that to see another “normal” pattern for culture shock with many of the feelings I describe in the coming paragraphs)
I experienced the anxiety, chaos, and confusion of diving head first into another culture. We immediately got the girls signed up for school, started school ourselves and life took off from there. Between training for a marathon, learning French and guiding our girls through French school we didn’t have time for a honeymoon phase. By the end of the year in France, I think I was on the upswing of the curve. I was again feeling discovery, reorientation and even anticipation. Just keep going…
But in the back of my mind, I knew it was a bubble. It was all pretend. The joy and cultural assimilation I was experiencing was false. I really wasn’t in that upswing… in fact, I might be right back in that honeymoon stage I thought I’d jumped over ready to start all over on the whole entire curve.
Why? Because another move was coming. France was just a short stopping point on our journey. It really wasn’t a culture I would be in long enough to mentally settle in to or connect with. The entire time I knew it was temporary.
A move to Africa was looming. That’s where I hit the wall. Hit the end of me. Hit this thing called culture shock for real.
I was bracing for impact and realizing that I could deny another move, a HUGE HARD move, no longer. It had arrived.
By this point, the thought of packing caused a physical reaction. Pain, actually.
The stress of balancing belongings, suitcase weight, changing addresses and meeting new people was pretty much at an all-time high for me.
My family was saying goodbye again to really wonderful people and very fabulous places. We were again going from the oldies in language school to the newbies on the field in Senegal. We were tiny fish jumping into a massive pond. A pond where no one knew us and we were babies in need of everything.
We were leaving our cute apartment, our safe language school, and our convenient grocery store for fully unknown places in West Africa.
So we flew. again. And that was about as intense a day of travel can be.
Again, I think we skipped over what should have been a honeymoon time. We arrived at a not so great time of year between international school starting, team members arriving back to the field, rainy season in full force… we jumped into life here quickly and without fanfare.
Immediate culture immersion. At three weeks in, we didn’t know what to expect each day other than to expect the unexpected.
We looked for housing, got the girls started in school, found grocery stores, visited the local church, met the expat community, and did a whole lot of sweating, itching and shaking our heads.
We had another small move in country about 8 weeks in. A small car accident. Residency card issues…. all kinds of issues.
Every single day a miracle of survival.
We blew through disorientation and disappointment. We couldn’t stay there long or we knew we’d fail.
We moved past emptiness because, well… we have to trust that God is at work even when we can’t see.
I’d say at six months in, we were sitting comfortable in the neutral zone.
And truthfully, at 8 months in Africa (20 months on the field including our time in France), we are still in neutral zone.
We still have some days of chaos… days my friends have names for. Names like “Senegal wins” days or “Buy a ticket home” days.
I had a Senegal win day just this week. But they are further and far between.
I’m seeing glimmers of the up swing coming our way. We have many more days now of seeming low productivity as we just accept, watch and learn what is happening around us. We have moments of discovery as we find new places, learn new words and experience new cultural victories.
We have moments of inner motivation. Moments that cheer us on to keep going. Moments that remind us that culture shock is REAL, hard core and very much our overseas experience so far.
We have moments of anticipation and even dreaming of what can happen when we have more time under our belts and more experience to guide our days.
And then something happens, something crumbles… I plug a 110v outlet into a 220v adapter and poof… kill a brand new electric pencil sharpener sent on a container from America for Elayna’s birthday. Yeah. THOSE moments when you realize… wow. I am NOT at home here yet and it feels like I will never remember it all, the ins and outs of life here, the little tricks that help us through the day seem insurmountable and discouraging. The failures are costly and the lessons painful.
The language barrier seems insurmountable. Not being able to correctly communicate with another mom or a store owner or… anyone… is harder than I ever dreamed. So much I want to say and so little words to share.
But then Jeremy preaches in French and I see the complete miracle happening before my eyes. God using a shy, struggling kid to spread the Good News in another language, in another culture.
And I marvel at how this whole culture shock thing daily teaches me to reach out to my Savior, to desperately depend on Him for every single thing and to call out His Name for each need. That without Him, NONE of this would be possible and I for sure would not face another ride on the culture shock curve. No way. ever.
Knowing just as we settle in, another curve will come… a curve that will bring us back stateside to reenter life there for furlough and fund-raising… just in time to head back here to ride the curve again.
The cultures shift, the relationships change and the skills needed to navigate it all are many.
This first term is riddled with challenges and the biggest hurdle is called culture shock. We will hop around it like a ping pong ball, back and forth, all around for years to come. Trying to navigate marriage, parenting and faith all through the scope of where we are at on the curve at that moment in time.
Sometimes we have to sit back and think, “Ok, wow… where am I at exactly? I thought I was here… but this just felt like I’m there…”
We have to let God speak to us in new ways and trust Him to help us through the day.
Feelings of being overwhelmed, sensing depression, growing anxiety and a million other red flags to hone in on each day.
This culture shock thing is big. And real. And every one walks it in different ways. We process in different ways and we navigate to the beat of our own drum.
No one can really help me walk it… me and Jesus. Walking through blank space.
Yet, I can’t walk it without those around me. I NEED people. I need community and support and people in the mess with me. I need a shoulder to cry on, someone to talk to and a friend to tell me this is all normal.
Culture Shock for us. For the girls. For many years ahead.
What great advice do I have for those walking this with me?
What amazing tips do I have to help you through the process of acclimation to your new culture?
Cling close to Jesus. Do not skimp on your time with him. Do not neglect your relationship with God. Memorize scripture. Read it out loud. Journal your prayers to see how far you’ve come and to see God answer them one by one.
Truthfully, my God shall supply ALL your needs. All things ARE possible through Christ. Even what He is asking you to do. Even that.
There is more I would tell you… 22 things actually. Read books. Get information. Never compare your journey with another expat. Be real and honest about where you are and what you are feeling. Connect with your team members. Find a community online like Velvet Ashes or A Life Overseas. Do not isolate yourself or let loneliness take over. Find a counselor to help you process the changes in your life.
Find tools that will help you and stick with it. Just Keep Going!!
But at the very core… Jesus. Hold on to Him. He is your firm foundation when everything, and I mean EVERYTHING else is shifting sand.
A few other articles you might like:
You can find some other great resources here. Missionary Life
So, to my friends walking the wild road of Culture Shock, I’d love to hear your story. Feel free to comment here or on facebook or instagram. I love connecting with you and your stories encourage all who read them.
You aren’t alone. We are truly in this together.
For those who are watching someone go through culture shock, I hope this helps you pray. Maybe you learned something new or felt challenged to pray in a new way for those living and working overseas. I’d love to hear your thoughts as well!