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Blog: Culture Shock

Culture shock. We’ve all heard of this, and maybe you’ve even experienced some culture shock on a short-term or longer-term trip. To understand what culture shock is, we interviewed Haylee Belcher, our newest Mobilization team member, who lived and served in Brazil for two years working among unreached peoples along the Amazon River.

When asked about dealing with the initial effects of culture shock, she explained how there are several stages of culture shock to work through. The first tends to be a numbness, or a honeymoon phase. You aren’t yet accepting of the vast differences you are being immersed into. Haylee then went on to explain how many people slowly begin to feel a lot of stress in the new culture but can’t identify why they feel stressed. Once any sort of processing begins, and they recognize the culture shock or culture stress, many will feel unable to respond to the stress, as it’s not only dealing with social shock, but also mental, physical, and spiritual shock.

Then beginning to address those stressors is key. Not only is the food different, but the way they cook the food is different. Language learning is tiring and can be frustrating. Social norms are now different, and the way of life in the new country can be vastly different than American culture. Haylee admits how people can respond quite differently to the shock. “Some get angry, emotional, cry a lot…many want to run away or recluse…others try hard to adapt and then feel like a failure.” Haylee recommends identifying those barriers and learning from them through practicing how to make food, understanding culture through locals, befriending locals, and immersing into the language and culture. She offers this brilliant reminder: “You will never function 100% like a native.” When you return to your own culture, you’ll also not be able to 100% function in American culture again, which can become a source of reverse culture shock/stress. If you’re gone longer than 6 months, chances are the culture you knew will not be the same culture you’re returning to. Haylee, for example, left America in 2018 and returned in 2020 in the middle of a pandemic. Talk about change! Her culture and the culture of the whole world had shifted, and transitioning back was no easy task for her.

“You may never fully identify in a culture again but remember that identity is not in culture but in Christ.” Holding onto the constancy who is Christ and dwelling on the fact that He is the same in every culture will truly give you peace in the midst of stressful culture shock.

“Feeling culture shock may not happen for everyone on short-term trips,” according to Haylee. However, for some, it can be quite a quick shock, never having international food or being around a language other than English. Finding a translator and befriending them can help with that. Others may not feel this stress, but the mental exhaustion of trying to understand and listen to a different language day in and day out quickly tires the brain.

On short-term trips Haylee had taken in the past, she didn’t feel culture shock during the trip, but traveling to impoverished countries and then returning to the States led to guilt that she had much while others had little. “This leads to country comparison and a really skewed view of your own culture.” Before you go, recognize you may feel this way. Haylee finishes by telling us to “ask the Lord to give understanding of the culture, be thankful for what He’s given you, and remember to steward what He’s given you for the Kingdom.” Turn the feelings of guilt into thankful praises. God has placed us where we are for His own purposes. Cling to Him, who is constant. Love Him and love others around you, whether in the USA or in another part of the world, and remember Who your identity is found in.

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