The first time it happened to me I was in a grocery store. I stood holding some type of baking product and tears began to trickle down my cheeks. Now, I'm not a cryer, but this was the last straw. I couldn’t read the ingredients, and I couldn’t effectively ask for help. I felt like the walls were closing in, and I felt trapped. I felt completely disoriented, and utterly alone. I hate it here, I thought. I just want to get out…to go home.
The grocery store incident happened to me just a month or so into my life in El Salvador. We weren’t even doing ministry yet, we were just learning Spanish but all I wanted to do was get out! How could I so quickly feel burned out, culture shocked, completely disoriented and ready to head running back to the good ‘ol U.S. of A.?
It happens to me still, unexpectedly sometimes. Traffic, medical billing, and education issues for my kids are frequent culprits. But the daily grind gets to me too…people asking me for money on the same street corner, the poverty, the crime, the diesel bus fumes…all of these things make my insides twist as I battle down resentment, depression, and anger. Nagging irritation at anyone and everyone gnaws away until I feel joy slipping through my grasp and the future looks hopeless, pointless, and like one long stretch of language miscommunications and cultural mishaps.
In our training, we learned about the stages of cultural shock…the honeymoon at the beginning, the disorientation and feeling of complete chaos, and the eventual acceptance and settling in to a new home and a new way of life. Sometimes I find myself spinning through those stages again but it seems to happen when I am also battling burn-out from taking on too many responsibilities and not allowing myself to take the “time-out” that I need. The old, familiar resentment washes over me. So, how do we deal with things like burn-out and culture shock? How do we keep the little things from becoming big things and robbing our joy as we seek to live out God’s calling in our lives?
I need to give a disclaimer: I am not an expert in cultural adjustment. I'm even laughing a little as I share this with you because the fight for contentment has been a difficult one for me. The search to see joy in the daily ups and downs of cross-cultural living has not come easy, to say the least. But I have learned to cope in my own way, and here are a few of my strategies:
1. Write it down. Writing in a journal has helped me immensely. It helps me to get the frustrations off of my heart, and sometimes I realize how petty I am being when I see my thoughts staring back up at me from the page.
2. Laugh at yourself. I often have to laugh at myself and my “gringa” moments. My accent, and my adventures in shopping and medical bill paying. Someday I will have great, and hilarious, stories to share with my grandkids.
3. Take a break. Often a break is all that’s needed, whether it is a trip to the beach, or an afternoon hiking. Find moments to enjoy and celebrate the country and culture where you live. Just a change of scenery can be refreshing and the whole family can be encouraged after a “time-out.” We have really made an effort to clear our schedules so that Sunday truly is a day of rest for us. We go to church and then spend the afternoon relaxing as a family. I know that even in a difficult week, there is always Sunday to look forward to.
4. Be thankful. Living overseas has so many benefits that are easy to overlook when the negatives are pressing in. Making a list, or asking your kids what they like best, are great ways to focus on all the beautiful and unique opportunities that you have living in your host culture.
5. Pray about it. Lastly, and most importantly, bring the whole thing to God. Remember Jesus was the ultimate cross-cultural minister of the Gospel. He left the perfect culture of heaven to come to earth with all of its dirt, and pain, and misery. He’s been there and He knows. Pray to Him and ask Him to renew your heart with the truth of the Gospel and enable you to continue to press on.
This is a short list of some things that have worked for me, but there are many other ways to cope with culture shock and burn-out. The key is finding what helps your family to thrive, not merely survive, as you work through the challenges that come with cross-cultural living. I am grateful for this community of moms because I know that there are others going through this too all day, every day, all over the world.
So...what are your best coping strategies when culture shock rears its ugly head?