Going to the mission field as a newly appointed missionary, finally arriving in a new country as a “real live missionary,” is the thrill of a lifetime. At least it is until the confusing onslaught of cultural changes crashes in. New sights, smells, sounds, and customs hold it off for bit. Very soon though, the newness wears off, the emotional highs flatten out, and the realization of the new normal starts to take a toll. Your old normal and routines are back “home,” and everything around you now is abnormal and stressful.
One of the most difficult adjustments is not being able to communicate. Smiling, nodding, pointing, and pantomiming get old quickly. And when culture shock sets in, it’s often accompanied by frustration, fear, and feelings of vulnerability. The inability to communicate with a doctor when your child is sick, or with a policeman when you’re the victim of a crime, or even to pray in church saps the most buoyant personality. Then there’s the constant awareness that you can’t even share the gospel as missionaries should. The new sights often become eyesores, smells become stenches, quaint customs become weird, sounds become rackets, and you begin to see the litter and graffiti that you never even noticed before.
Until the abnormal becomes normal, and you figure out how to keep your cultural shock absorbers in good condition, you may start mentally packing your bags when the going gets tough. You need to remember why you came and decide once and for all whether you want to be there. When you settle that, write it down somewhere so you can remember when hard times hit again. Culture shock never goes completely away, it goes underground and springs up whenever life is hard or doesn’t make sense.
Some missionaries settle in more quickly than others. They seem to have developed their inner Jason Bourne and can seamlessly step from one culture to another with little difficulty. Others struggle a bit more, but eventually adjust to the culture and become effective missionaries for the long haul.
Don’t try to go native or deny the background experiences God gave you that make you you. Rather, make it your habit to do as the Army teaches Green Beret special forces to do: improvise, adapt, and overcome. Here are ten ways to help you do that. Make a checklist and do them one at a time until you’ve checked them all off. You’ll be amazed how much you learn to love your new home as you do.
- Learn the language – The best way to learn the culture is to learn the language, and the best way to learn the language is to learn the culture. Learning the language should not be viewed as a necessary evil but rather the secret to fruitful ministry and to seeing into the heads and hearts of the people.
- Make friends – Build relationships by spending time with people. Most of the cultures in the world are group oriented and relational – they love spending time with people. Individualistic Westerners are slow to invite people into homes and lives, but cultures in the traditional mission fields are just the opposite. Take advantage of that. Buy what you need to settle in by asking for shopping help from a new friend. Allowing them to introduce you to their homeland and to help you settle in will bless you both.
- Try new foods – At first the food may seem strange to you, and you may miss your mom’s cooking. You may want to decline meal invitations, preferring to go home and eat a Snickers bar in secret. It may just be the times of day that they eat, or the number of their daily meals, or the kinds of food they eat for breakfast and dinner. Try new foods, learn how to prepare them, and appreciate what is offered to build your list of local favorites.
- Listen to the music – Make their music yours. Listen to the lyrics to help you learn the language. Find out what kinds of music is preferred by various age groups, how it has changed through the years, and learn to identify popular musicians. Sample it all to find out what you like, who are the best local performers, and the instruments that are different from those you know.
- Talk to a policeman – This one is more enjoyable if you’re the one choosing to do so! Engaging a police officer in conversation can be fascinating. They will know things about the city that you need to know, and that others may not know or be willing to tell you.
- Go to a wedding – Weddings are celebrations in every culture. They allow you a glimpse into family histories, customs, and traditions. May people marry anyone they please or are marriages arranged? What do the various aspects of the ceremony represent? How are weddings and marriage traditions changing in the culture?
- Attend a funeral – Funerals bring outsiders into intimate circles of friends and family and serve as a window, allowing you to see into their true beliefs. Evangelicals sometimes incorporate animistic customs into family members’ funerals, revealing vestiges of old worldviews and religious beliefs that would not be seen at any other time. A part of worldview is how it answers where we came from and where we go when we die. A funeral allows you to see what they really believe about life and death.
- Attend community festivals – Every culture celebrates life. We live together in communities and celebrate what is important to us – independence, ethnic identity, and religious holidays. How do they celebrate? What is the role of music? Are there customs that reveal their values, fears, or aspirations?
- Age is just a number – You’re as old as you feel. If you’re 25 years old when you arrive on the mission field, you will never know what it is like to grow up there. What was it like to be a kid, go to school, or play sports? It is easiest to learn what our own age group peers think and feel because we have so much in common. Be diligent to make friends with people of all ages and backgrounds in your new culture. This will give you a better understanding of the people, families, and communities. Who are the decision makers, gate-keepers, peace-makers, and story-tellers? You need to be able to relate to people of all ages to truly understand, love, and be loved by your new home culture.
- Participant observation – Some missionaries have 20 years of experience, and others have one year of experience 20 times. As Dr. Watson learned from Sherlock, the difference is observing and not just seeing. Ask questions as you participate in life with your new culture. Why do you do this? Why this way? What does it mean when a man does that? Participant observation is the oldest tool in the anthropologist’s toolbox, and as Eugene Nida said, “Good missionaries have always been good anthropologists.”