The Cycle of Culture Shock
In 1960 Kalervo Oberg traced the steps we take when learning to live in a new culture. They are helpful, especially for missionaries and those that send them.
The Tourist Stage (3 weeks-6 months)
When we first move to or visit a new culture, everything is new and exciting. This is the stage where more short-term teams and vacationers find themselves. It is fun to explore, see new sites, learn history, eat new food and get to know new people. There is no need to learn the language as you are probably with someone who can speak both yours and the local dialect.
However, visiting a new culture and moving to one are very different. To become part of a community, things are about to get hard.
Disenchantment (6 months - 1 Year)
Have you ever been overseas for a short time and just longed for your favorite food or drink? Maybe it’s as simple as a coffee from Starbucks or a hamburger from your favorite restaurant. That longing can be satisfied if you are headed home, but when home is where you have moved to, your diet will mostly likely have to change.
And so frustration begins to mount. Simple things like shopping and transportation have to be relearned. You might need to think about how to make sure the water is drinkable or if the food is safe. You might be tempted to pay a bribe just to get something simple taken care of.
If you have to learn a new language, the frustration is even higher. You might have two master's level degrees, but you find it hard to communicate at a first-grade level. People smile and laugh at some of the things you say.
Everyone who may have helped you move into your new home has now returned to their normal schedule, which means they are no longer providing meals or calling to see how you are doing. There is a sense of anger and abandonment and you wonder if people even care about you, including the people back home who cannot understand what you are going through.
This stage is what burns most missionaries out. You begin to make a list of things you will do when you get home: eat at this place, drive to this place, talk to these people, etc. There is now a decision to make: Will you resolve to stay or will the pressure and anxiety be too much to handle so that you will either live in a ghetto with people from your own country or you will move home discouraged and rudderless?
Resolution (1 Year+)
You decide to stay and continue to learn. This does not mean it is easy, but in your heart you resolve to press forward. This is when you as the missionary makes the new culture your own. It does not mean abandoning where you are from, but adopting where you are now.
“This does not mean it is easy, but in your heart you resolve to press forward. This is when you as the missionary makes the new culture your own. It does not mean abandoning where you are from, but adopting where you are now.”
Eventually the new culture becomes home. Going “home” means staying where you are serving, not going back to the sending church. Food and the rules of relationships and interaction become normal. You don’t miss your sports teams back home because you are not even sure who is on the team; you may have (God forbid it!) learned to enjoy soccer.
Reverse Culture Shock
I personally believe this is the hardest to prepare for. After living overseas for some time, your home church wants you to come back for a year. You say goodbye to your friends and head “home” to reconnect with family, friends and supporters. However, when you get back, you have a hard time functioning. You are a stranger in your homeland.
Conversational topics to you are meaningless. Your friends seem more shallow than you remember them. The wealth and affluence really bother you, especially when you go back to your church. You wonder how anyone could not support your work with everything they have. Why does everyone need two cars? Why does anyone need to water their lawn? On and on go your questions, which leads to being angry. You watch your kids struggle along. They don’t know how to play with kids their own age, and they don’t know English as well as others. They also begin to desire a lot of the “things” their new friends have, things that were not options to own where you lived. All of a sudden you long to go back to your new home where the church sent you so you can fit back in. You have become angry and judgmental.
With no desire to end on a sour note, this list is helpful for sending churches, especially in their preparation of missionaries and their care of them when they return. These individuals and families have been through a lot to take the gospel around the world. By knowing these stages, the church can bear the burden with them.