The following is taken from Paul G. Hiebert. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, n.d.. This is a book that I highly suggest that all missionaries read. It has made a difference in my life and will in yours also.
It is consoling when we are in culture shock to know that we are normal human beings and that in time the traumas of adjusting to a new culture will end. Furthermore, a knowledge of how culture shock progresses can help us to deal with it and turn it into a positive experience that prepares us for our future ministry.
The first year or two is crucial in our adaptation to a new culture. How we adjust during this time will color our ministry for the rest of our lives.
Kalervo Oberg (1960:177- 182) traces the steps we normally take in learning to live in a new cultural setting.
The Tourist Stage
Our first response to a new culture is fascination. We live in hotels, with other missionaries, or in homes not too different from what we are used to, and we associate with nationals who can speak our language and are gracious to us as foreigners. We spend the days exploring new sights and sounds and retreat at night to places insulated in part from the strange culture outside. We may be taken to see the local attractions and to meet important people who welcome us. And we will respond with words of goodwill and appreciation for the local culture.
This honeymoon stage may last from a few weeks to several months, depending on the circumstances. Ordinary tourists leave before this phase comes to an end and return home to tell stories about the strange ways of the people. But as missionaries we have come to stay, which means we must begin the difficult journey of becoming members of a new culture.
The tourist stage ends when we move from being outside visitors to becoming cultural insiders. This takes place when we establish our own homes, take responsibility for ourselves, and start making a contribution to the local community. It is here that frustrations and anxieties arise. We have language problems, shopping trouble, transportation woes, and laundry mixups. We are concerned about the cleanliness of our drinking water, food, and bedding and afraid of being cheated or robbed. We also feel left alone. Those who welcomed us so warmly have gone back to their work and now seem indifferent to our troubles.
The result is disenchantment. No longer is the strange culture exciting. Now it seems inscrutable and impossible to learn. Our normal response is hostility because the security of our lives is threatened. We find fault with the culture and compare it unfavorably with our own. We criticize the people and see each shortcoming as proof of their laziness and inferiority, developing stereotypes that caricature the host country in negative ways. We withdraw from the culture and take refuge in a small circle of foreign friends, or stay in our homes where we try to re-create the culture of our native land.
This stage marks the crisis in the disease. How we respond to it determines whether or not we stay and how we will ultimately adjust to the new culture. We look for mail and talk about things we will do when we return “home.” We write letters of resignation but do not mail them. After all, what would our friends or church say if we were to return?
Another process, however, is also at work during this stage, one we hardly notice. We are learning how to live in the new culture. We begin to realize that we can learn how to shop in the new language and use the local currency. As we make friends among the people, we start having good days. With a word of encouragement from older missionaries and national leaders, most of us throw away our letters of resignation and begin the long task of learning the language and adjusting to the new culture. Those who cannot make this transition may have to leave before they experience a nervous breakdown.
The emergence of humor often marks the beginning of recovery. We begin to laugh at our predicaments and crack jokes about the people instead of criticizing them. We begin to sympathize with others who we think are worse off than ourselves. Although we may still take a superior attitude, we are beginning to learn new cultural ways.
How we relate to the people and culture at this stage is particularly crucial, for the patterns of adjustment we form here tend to stay with us. If we develop positive attitudes of appreciation and acceptance of the host people, we have laid the foundations for learning their culture and becoming one with them. On the other hand, if we remain negative and aloof, chances are that we will remain foreign and never identify ourselves with the nationals. And since we are models of the gospel for these people, it, too, will appear to them as distant and foreign.
Not only is our first year, indeed our first month, crucial in molding our lifelong relationship to a culture, it is also the time when we are most adaptable to it. We have few preconceptions of what we should do and a strong idealism that has motivated us to come. Since we have not yet settled into comfortable routines that blind us to what is going on, we are willing, at this stage, to identify closely with the people and make their culture our own. In this sense, culture shock is not simply an experience to be endured. As the Brewsters point out (1982), it is, in fact, one of the most significant and formative periods in our whole missionary experience. To use their term, it is a time when we are “bonded” in one way or another to the new culture.
The final stage of culture shock comes when we feel comfortable in the new culture. We have now learned enough to function efficiently in our new setting without feelings of anxiety. We not only accept the local foods, dress, and customs, but actually begin to enjoy them. We cherish the friendship of the people and can begin to feel constructive in our work. If we take time to think about it, we realize that we will miss the country and its people when we leave.
We can adjust to the new culture in a number of ways. We can, for example, keep our distance and build a Western ghetto from which we sally forth to do our work. Or we can reject our past and try to “go native.” A third possibility is to identify ourselves with the culture and work for some type of integration with our own.