Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Ask Jamie Jo: Reverse-Reverse Culture Shocker

Earlier this month a reader sent an email that deserves a serious and thoughtful response. I have written three entire posts attempting to address the issue of reverse culture shock in reverse--I kept starting over, feeling each time that it wasn't adequate. None of the three did it justice. I am counting on you to flesh it out with personal experiences in the comment section.
Nicolette spent the summer in the States after her first three years on the field. She had been warned to expect reverse culture shock back in the home country, and wasn’t surprised when it happened. What she wasn’t expecting was the wave of culture shock that hit when she returned to the field.
You can read her blog post “The Culture Shock that No One Tells You About” here. Basically she poses more questions than I can answer in one short post, but I will say truthfully that, yes, I still go through that shock of re-entry both coming and going. It does get easier, and the transition happens more quickly each time around, but muddling through the discomfort of a major change is inevitable.
My first random thought is that flying has a lot to do with it. In the early years we used to drive back and forth from Guatemala to the States. In that way, we could ease ourselves in and out of cultures gradually. Flying makes the re-entry so abrupt at both ends of the trip. That could be a factor. Think of the old-time missionaries literally taking the slow boat to China. By the time they got there, they were ready to be there. This isn’t necessarily true with air travel.
Secondly, I think we tend to idolize our adopted country while we are stateside. We paint such a rosy portrait of life overseas that we start to believe it ourselves. Returning to the nitty gritty of reality can be a bit of a shock and disappointment just as intense as the disgruntled feelings we experience in the U.S. Neither place seems quite right any more.
I could hang my head in shame having to admit that I haven’t arrived, but the truth is that I am not home yet. It is only natural that I will feel out of place both here and in the U.S. Neither place is my home. The unsettling discomfort of homesickness and culture shock is a wonderful reminder that I will always be in transition until the day I land in heaven. That’s the good news, my friends.
Meanwhile, culture and language learning is a lifelong process. It’s never finished.
And lastly, may we never be so naïve as to forget that there is still a villain in our story who wants to rob us of our joy and replace it with confusion and misunderstanding. Keeping a journal is a wonderful way to document and analyze the wild swings of emotion we experience on the field. I mention it often, but a great tool and weapon is to make a list of things that make you thankful.
IRL* I am thankful most of all that this is not my home!


  1. Jamie Jo, I so very much appreciate your thoughts here... so real and so easy to relate to. I, too, experience culture shock each time I am in or out. And, I think that the fact that eventually, "No place really is home" is the main issue, isn't it? We have warm-home feelings about both... actually all (I have lived more than one)... places. This is both a blessing and a challenge, to be sure!
    I head-nodding agreed with every one of your points.
    It does get easier and acclamation does go more quickly, in my experience, too. But, is this simply because we accept the reality of two-three-four "homes" and come to terms that we bloom where we plant ourselves, yes, but really we are just nomads. We are strangers and aliens. We are tent-living in this world.
    I have been pondering a post about our "tent" living the last few days (who knows if I will ever write it), but this hits right where I am.
    Lastly, GOOD, GOOD reminder of the reality of our enemy, the villain in this journey-story!! Yes, and Amen. He, that dastardly one, wants to kill, to steal and destroy--- and he is especially happy to steal from, kill and destroy God's kids (and their joy, peace, and trust). Good reminder! Thank you.
    Okay I have already written too much... Blessings on you Jamie JO!

  2. I remember reading once that a old timer [one of those ladies who had transitioned back and forth for 30-40 years] that each time she had to readjust to the bugs. One of those cases it can help to know your NOT the only one going through cycles. Fauche.

  3. I completely relate Jamie Jo! Also with Stephanie's comment above. As an MK (from Guatemala!) we traveled to the US every two years for a 3 month furlough. After my years at college and work I left for the field (Brazil 9 yrs and Mexico 5 yrs and counting). I don't think I ever experienced culture "shock", more of a cultural adjustment going both directions, every time. As Stephanie said it's related to the fact that no place is really home, and sometimes is more difficult if you're leaving family or friends who could really use your support or presence at the time. But the Lord knows all of those details and still directs us to keep 'going' and 'going back'!

  4. I like your reminder at the end, too.

    We have three countries to go back and forth too. El Salvador is hard on my husband. He idealizes his home country perhaps and then it's hard to see his kids with mosquito bites all over their faces while we're there in dengue territory, or to have the cars we borrow there break down! It's easier for me to adjust since it's not my home country.

    But it does get a bit easier each time, as you say.

  5. I always find a Rich Mullins song comforting. The land of my soujourn
    "Nobody tells you when you get born here
    How much you'll come to love it
    And how you'll never belong here
    So I call you my country
    And I'll be lonely for my home
    And I wish that I could take you there with me "

    I know it is not specifically relating to the subject, but it expresses the way I feel very much. Each way I miss what was before and I wish I could just meld the places together. no matter where I go now I miss someone. No matter where I go now I miss something! There are challenges in all cultures and those are always draining! (including my home culture) but when you never know something else then you don't realize it's an issue. the problem? I have. lol.

    But, I do agree, it gets easier each time. Now walking my children through it is challenging as well!

  6. I found another helpful comment on Nicolette's blog that you might appreciate, too. (Hope it's okay to repost it here?)

    Suzanne ( makes a "shock list" as Nicolette calls it:

    "Yes, we have the same experience still, and we’ve been going back and forth yearly for five years. I do one thing to help me prepare… I type up ‘Notes to self’ regarding the topic… going both ways actually. One year, in the midst of culture shock repeat upon landing in North Africa again, I wrote down all the things that shocked me (the intense heat, the crazy dust, the exhaustion, etc) in a document. I thought I was prepared, but I wasn’t fully. Now I glance over those notes before I return to Africa again… it helps me to remember what I experienced when I did it previously, and I can better prepare myself for it. And for me, the mental preparation is most of the battle. I do the same for going home to the U.S… I make notes re: the challenges of living with family, visiting churches, etc. I glance over them upon arrival and I remember what I’m gonna be dealing with. :) This has been a great tool for me."

  7. Stephanie, I appreciated your comments over on the original post on Nicolette's blog, too. Thanks.

    Kris, bless you for defining "old-timer" as one who had been in and out like this for more than 30 years. Whew. I have five more years before I'm a true old-timer. :)

    Debbie, you are right. It probably is more of an adjustment than a shock for most of us.

    Olive, that's interesting about the adjustment being harder for your dh in his own home territory. That makes sense, though.

    Amy, I like Rich Mullins, too. The trick with the kids is to help them without getting bogged down in the same negative feelings they might be experiencing. Let us know if you figure it out.

    And you are right, too, about always missing someone wherever we are. So true. Especially when half the family is grown up and living in different countries. Sigh.

  8. I think part of culture shock is the need to grieve the goodbyes we just took. Once we've taken that time, we are better able to cope with the norms of where we are. While we are still grieving, we push away the "here" because we haven't yet set down the "there".

    I've learned to give myself time both ways and to expect a sense of loss and grief. While I grieve, I have more irritation and less ability to cope with things I did fine with at other times.

    Some of that grief will last - the fruit of having my heart splintered between homes and longing for our final home. Most will pass with time.

  9. Grieving the goodbyes. Yes, that has to be part of it, too.

    So I take it that no one is buying my airplane theory, right? That's okay. Maybe it's not a factor. However in light of the grieving the goodbye theory, traveling by car or slow boat would certainly allow time for that!

  10. No, it IS a factor! Also with the insanely crazy pace of our "furloughs", I wish we had the slow boat part of the journey... time to rest!

    We jump too fast from one place to another. No time to grieve, no time to adjust. Getting on the plane in a clean European country that smells like fresh baked goods and getting off in a country that when the airplane door opens you can smell that unmistakable odor of old pee....well, it just wasn't enough time to avoid shock! :)

  11. I appreciate all the comments that have been left. I relate to so many of them. We live five hours south of the States. We only go up and down to renew our visas or go north to Canada.

    It is mind-numbing shift as we cross the border into the States. Huge culture shock of taking our five to the mall to stock up on clothing. All of a sudden 'things' become a strong focus. Oh, how a man-made line on the ground brings so much shock to my system.

    I do experience cultural adjustment each way.Driving back to our "now" home brings with it many mixed emotions and overwhelmed senses.

    I'm coming into the belief that the only place I will truly be comfortable and at peace is in my heavenly one. No culture shock there, everything from here will be shed away.

  12. My husband ones said: "When we are in our birth country we miss the missionary field and when we are on the field me miss our home country so the best place to be is on the airplane....going where we want to be." It always makes me laugh because it is so true.

    We have been in our birth country for the last three months awaiting our visa. I really miss Turkey so much. I do experience culture shock being here back in my birth country. It is as if I don't pick up so easy on the cultural cues anymore. My kids are more Turkish than South African at this stage. Not understanding what people are talking about. It has been a really hard time.

    But true, counting my many blessings has helped me. I have good friends here and meeting for coffee and prayer has really helped me to feel more part of the culture. I went to a birthday party last week and came home in tears. I just felt so fat, out and looked like the missionary. Being honest about what I feel helps me to work through these feelings.
    Focussing on good quiet times and being honest about who I am and where I am helps me to have a good perspective.

    Thank you for this great post Jamie. Many blessings.

  13. Karin, exactly! The place I feel the most rest from all the culture issues and stress and grief IS an airport. Especially once I get past the security stuff and have time to sit and wait.

    I call it my "no man's land" between places, and here I am peaceful.

  14. I've been following the discussion in the comments, but haven't been able to post one myself for some reason until now...

    Thanks Jamie Jo, so much for posting this. And thanks everyone for the comments! It's not the answer I was hoping to hear :) but it's good to know that the culture shock will continue to some degree until we are all called Home... and by Home I don't mean our sending country. ;)

    I really appreciated some of the suggestions as to how to best deal with the shock. I so want to honor the Lord in the way I view the country we've been called to, but at the same time, I can't negate the feelings and emotions I had returning after a summer in the States. So it was really helpful for me to have some great ideas as to how to be better prepared next time!

  15. Thanks for continuing the conversation in my absence. I really appreciate all the input, even though it´s not exactly encouraging to you, Nicolette.


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