Culture Shock: Surviving, Thriving and Helping


Culture shock
Culture shock involves a great deal of changes all at once, in everything from simple daily tasks, such as how and what you eat, to bigger life changes. So much change creates stress.

Everyone gets culture shock.  It's normal.  It's healthy.  It's unavoidable.  It's also funny and annoying and depressing and depleting and confusing and sneaky.   Sometimes you are having culture shock even when you don't realize it. 

At the KNU International English Church on the campus of Korea Nazarene University (KNU) in Cheonan, South Korea, we are blessed or cursed with more culture shock than the average community.  On any given Sunday, we may have people from 10 different countries.  Because culture shock is an ever present reality for us, we choose to address it head-on.  What follows here is an adaptation of a sermon on the difficulties of multicultural community and how we move through culture shock together.

The Bible often deals with themes of culture shock.  When the Israelites left Egypt, they complained, “We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt.  And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic we wanted.  But now our appetites are gone.  All we ever see is this manna!” (Numbers 11:5-6).

One of my friends is an engineering executive at a Korean company.  When he sends his Korean engineers to England for training, they pack one suitcase with clothes and one suitcase with Korean instant noodles!  Food has always been and always will be part of culture shock.

When the leaders of Israel were captured and taken into exile in Babylon, they wrested with culture shock, and they were tempted toward isolation.  But God sent them a message through Jeremiah: “Build homes, and plan to stay.  Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce.  Marry and have children. ... Multiply!  Do not dwindle away!  And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:4-7).

But culture shock isn't always pretty.  That same group in Babylon recorded a violent and bitter prayer in Psalm 137:

Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem
We put away our harps, hanging them on the branches of poplar trees.
For our captors demanded a song from us. Our tormentors insisted on a joyful hymn: “Sing us one of those songs of Jerusalem!”
But how can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a pagan land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget how to play the harp.
May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I fail to remember you, if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy.
O LORD, remember what the Edomites did on the day the armies of Babylon captured Jerusalem.
“Destroy it!” they yelled. “Level it to the ground!”
O Babylon, you will be destroyed. Happy is the one who pays you back for what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks!

Culture shoooooock!  Not all of our prayers and feelings need to have happy endings.  Culture shock is tough.  It's real, and it strikes to our hearts.

But perhaps we can be encouraged that even Jesus seems to have experienced culture shock.  Remember how John described Jesus: “In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... God created everything through him ... He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him.  He came to his own people, and even they rejected him” (John 1:1-3, 10-11).  It was his world and his people, and they still rejected him. 

At one point, Jesus shouts out loud: “You faithless and corrupt people! How long must I be with you? How long must I put up with you?” (Matthew 17:17).  In other words, “When can I go back home where people do things the right way?!”

Maybe there isn't one right way to do most things. In Acts 15, as the church started to grow and spread around the Middle East, Gentiles started to become Christians.  Culture shock!  Some of the Jews were upset about this, and they argued that all of the Gentile Christians had to become Jewish.  They said all Christians have to accept Jewish culture.  They said there is only one Christian culture – the Jewish one – and all other ways of doing life and religion are wrong.  This was essentially a debate about mono-culturalism versus multiculturalism.  Multiculturalism won!  Following the leading of the Holy Spirit, that early group of Christian leaders decided that there is more than one way to do things, even important things like following Jesus.

A HUGE part of our adaptation in the culture shock process is coming to terms with this.  There is more than one way to do most things.  Even though my culture's way of doing things seems obviously right to me, it may not be right for everyone or the only right way.

In fact, here's something I've learned after six years in Korea: Some of the things that drive me crazy about Korean culture are strengths if seen from a different perspective.  For example, Koreans tend to make plans quickly and to change plans quickly.  As a Westerner, I really value long-term, stable planning.  But I have also learned that this Korean flexibility (which drives me crazy) is also one of the key strengths which has allowed Korea to grow so quickly and to adapt so well to a rapidly changing global environment.

Years ago, when I was a high school student, I went on a mission trip to Mexico.  Howard Culbertson, a former missionary and professor of missions at Southern Nazarene University (SNU), taught us to change our vocabulary when we are experiencing culture shock.  Don't say: “That's crazy!  That's just stupid!  That's weird!”  When we talk like that, we reveal our own ignorance and arrogance.  Instead, learn to say: “That's different.” 

Let's pause for a few minutes to look at the normal process for culture shock when we move to a new culture. Culture shock normally moves in a predictable pattern. For an example, as we go I'll describe how a new Westerner often feels in Korea.

Stage 1: The Honeymoon Period. 
This is the stage when everything is new and beautiful and wonderful. You are so excited about your new adventure in a new culture.  Everything is cute.  Isn't it cute how the little kids ask if you are an American?  Aren't those little old ladies selling things on the street just so cute?  It makes me want to buy every vegetable they have!  I love how the lady in the store just keeps talking to me. I don't understand anything she's saying, but I bought the soap she was selling because she was just so cute!

This stage usually lasts between two weeks and three months.  For me, it lasted about 12 hours.  After a hot night with no air conditioning and community loudspeakers at 6 a.m., the honeymoon was pretty much over for me.

Stage 2: Frustration. 
Eventually things aren't so cute any more. 

Why does everyone ask me if I'm American?  I'm Canadian, OK?!  You want to keep pointing? I've got a finger. I can point, too!  I feel sad for those grandmas selling vegetables on the street.  I hate when that lady at the store keeps talking and talking and talking.  Doesn't she know I can't understand her? Just let me pick my own soap already!

It may be helpful here to remember that some of the frustrations we are experiencing are not because of the host culture.  We would have similar struggles in any culture different from our own.  Also, part of the frustration is related to change, not culture: new job, new home, new friends, new food, new modes of transportation. That's a whole lot of change at one time, and it can be really hard.

This is the hardest stage of culture shock.  We can feel homesick, depressed, angry and helpless.  This stage can last anywhere from three months to one year.  Some people go home while they are still in frustration mode.

Stage 3: Transition. 
You start to learn some things that are helpful.  Maybe you actually start studying the language, so you can say more than “Hello” and “Thank you.”  You can actually use chopsticks without dropping your food all over your shirt.  You learn which stores have more familiar food. 

Now, when kids look at me in shock and say, “Foreigner,” I point back and say, “Korean!”  Instead of moving awkwardly past the cute lady hawking laundry detergent in the grocery aisle, some of our single guys stop and try to get her phone number.  I remember the first time we ordered pizza over the phone in Korean. It was a huge emotional victory!

The transition isn’t always smooth, though.  Once, when I was at the city swimming pool, a large group of elementary boys were getting ready for their swim lesson.  Some of the boys started pointing and saying, “Foreigner.”  I decided to have some fun and practice my Korean at the same time.  I said in Korean, “No I’m not a foreigner; I’m Korean.  I’m from this city.”  This started a raucus argument among the kids.  They quizzed me about Korea and divided into camps.  Some claimed that I was obviously a foreigner because of my white skin and hairy arms (which they freely touched).  Others vehemently argued that I was clearly Korean because I spoke Korean (still somewhat of a rarity among foreigners here).  As I stood there, at the center of a storm of elementary boys, I decided this was not helping my culture shock.

The key point in the transition stage is regaining hope.  The transition period usually lasts one to three months.

Stage 4: New Balance
After a while, you start to get adjusted.  You find your rhythm in a new place, living in a new way.  You feel less out of place.  You find a few groups or communities where you really belong.  And amazingly, your focus begins to shift away from culture shock and culture and on to just living regular life.

This is the best and easiest stage, but some people never get here.  Some people just give up and go home.  Some people isolate and form a ghetto culture within their new culture.  All their friends are foreigners.  All their food is foreign food.  Sure they work with Koreans, but once they are done working, it's like they live on a different planet, and all interactions with Koreans are unfortunate necessities.  This is really sad.  People who don't get to the New Balance stage miss out on many good experiences and good people.  They never really see Korea.

Stage 5: Re-entry Shock. 
You thought we were done, right?  Nope.  When we go home, we have culture-shock in our own culture.  Home isn't the same any more – or at least it's not the same for us.  Maybe new buildings have gone up in your favorite park.  Or maybe nothing has changed, and that seems incredibly boring.

Once I asked a Korean KNU worker to help me at the ATM, and she said she didn't know how to work them either.  She had just come back to Korea after 15-20 years abroad, and they didn't have ATMs here when she left.
A few years ago, we felt lucky to find more than two or three varieties of cereal in our local grocery store in Korea.  While visiting family in Iowa, my wife and I walked up and down the aisles of a small country grocery store just counting the different kinds of cereal.  I lost count somewhere after 70! 

Some people feel a great sense of surprise and betrayal when they go “home.”  Others feel deeply out of place returning to friends and family who have not had the same life-changing experiences.

Let's review the stages of culture shock.

  • Honeymoon (fun and cute).
  • Frustration (difficulty and homesickness).
  • Transition (learning and hope). 
  • New Balance (adjustment).
  • Re-entry (going home is harder than you think).

By the way, we can still experience culture shock even if we never leave our home culture. When people from other cultures come to us, we also experience culture shock, but it doesn't always follow the same pattern.  It's not as intense. It's a bit here and a bit there, but not all at once.

So how do we go through culture shock well?  I'll start with a few tips for the foreigners, and then I'll give some tips for people in the host culture. 
Strategies for the 'foreigner'
To deal with culture shock well, we need a few basic strategies.

  • Learn.  Become a student again.  Learn all you can about your new culture, and learn the basics of the language. At least – AT LEAST – learn how to read the letters. This will help tremendously with culture shock.
  • Balance.  Maintain healthy habits: sleep, exercise and eating. They really make a difference. Also, stay productive.  Too much free time becomes more of a curse than a blessing.
  • Community.  Build friendships.  Get in a small group.  Ask someone to hold you accountable for being healthy and faithful.  Avoid isolation at all costs.
  • Home.  Figure out a good way to communicate with your family and friends.  Learn how to get the foods that are really important to you.  Put up some photos of home, and don't go too, too long without a visit.
  • Invite God in.  Let this whole culture shock thing be part of your spiritual journey.  Pray your questions and frustrations.  Allow God to challenge you and to reveal where you may be wrong.
  • Patience.  Have patience with yourself.  You are human, too.  Have patience with people in the host culture.  Have patience with the other foreigners.  They are going through culture shock, too.

Strategies for the host culture
OK, now a few tips for our people in the host culture (and maybe for the long-term foreigners).  We have an obligation to help the new folks cope with culture shock.  As God's people, we have a special obligation to foreigners.

When Moses was teaching the people how to live in the land, he said: God “shows love to the foreigners living among you, giving them food and clothing.  So you, too, must show love to foreigners, for you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).
If you have lived abroad or traveled to other countries, remember what it's like to be new.  Remember what it's like to be different.  Remember those people who helped you, or remember how you wished someone would help you.  Now, it's your turn.  Make your community a place of healing and grace.  Be the kind of people who help others feel welcomed and loved.

Maybe you'll start a language class.  Maybe you'll invite a few new people out to lunch every Sunday.  Maybe you'll pick one or two new people and make a special point to become their friends.  Maybe you'll develop a welcome packet for new foreigners.  Maybe you'll go to the doctor with someone, or volunteer for translation help by phone.  Maybe you'll take a foreigner with you when your family goes on vacation.  Maybe you'll offer to drive a few folks to hard-to-reach places.  There are many ways to help.  The main things are to become a friend and to welcome them into your life.

Culture shock is real and unavoidable.  Culture shock can tear us up and spit us out.  Culture shock can sometimes cause serious problems in our churches and in our work places.  But we can get through it.  If we address culture shock directly, if we learn together, if we are patient and loving and caring, we will find that culture shock can be something that leads to a kind of healing and growth and depth and community that is not available any other way.     

Engage the process with open eyes and an open heart.

-- Josh Broward is pastor of the International English Church of the Nazarene at Korea Nazarene University, in Cheonan, South Korea.