The Origins of “Culture Shock,” Part 2

In Part 1 of my discussion of culture shock, I examined the genesis of the phrase. In this follow-up post, I’d like to take a look at what seems to be Kalervo Oberg’s extreme dependence on Cora Du Bois for his views on adapting to a new culture.

A copy of Oberg’s “Culture Shock,” spoken to the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro in 1954, was uploaded to The Pennsylvania State University’s CiteSeerx in 2004. It closes with the following simple notation:

Reference:
DuBois, Cora, Culture Shock. This talk was present [sic] as part of a panel discussion at the first Midwest regional meeting of the Institute of International Education in Chicago, November 28, 1951.

This cites Du Bois’ address, also titled “Culture Shock,” without pointing to any specific sections of Oberg’s presentation. But I haven’t found any other mention of Du Bois in reprints of what Oberg said. This includes edited versions in Cultural Anthropology, as “Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments,” (vol. 7, issue 4, 1960, 177-182), and in Guidelines for Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Training, Part III, Supplementary Readings (Center for Research and Education, Peace Corps, Estes Park, March 1970).

And yet, if you read Oberg’s and Du Bois’ presentations back to back, you will no doubt notice the similarities, and, in fact, the nearly word-for-word passages. My purpose in pointing this out is not to cast aspersions on Oberg (maybe I don’t have all the facts or maybe notions of summarizing or crediting sources have changed since the 50s). Rather, I want to give Du Bois the credit she is due for her original thoughts and insights. My hope is that those who would quote Oberg’s “Culture Shock” in the future would find this post and continue tracing the origins of the observations, when necessary, back to Du Bois.

With that said, here are the related passages, arranged for comparison.

Du Bois: Please do not consider me too irrelevant if I begin talking about an occupational disease among anthropologists. Some twenty years ago I remember first chatting with colleagues about the peculiar emotional status we anthropologists developed when we were working in the field with strange people cut off from our familiar daily surroundings. We all wanted to do field work. We loved it—but we realized that things happened to us when we did. We began calling this peculiar syndrome “culture shock.”

We anthropologists flattered ourselves when we thought culture shock was an occupational disease. It is a malady that seems to affect most transplanted people.

Oberg: We might almost call culture shock an occupational disease of people who have been suddenly transplanted abroad.

Du Bois: The genesis of the malady is really very simple. It is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all your familiar cues.

Oberg: Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. These signs or cues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life.

Du Bois: All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of cues, most of which we do not even carry on a level of conscious awareness. These cues are acquired in the course of growing up and are as much part of our cultural heritage as the language we speak. They have become so habitual that they have been forgotten as part of our conscious cultural equipment.

Oberg: All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of these cues, most of which we do not carry on the level of conscious awareness.

Du Bois: Now suddenly remove all, or most, of these cues—and you have a case of culture shock. No matter how tolerant or broad-minded or full of empathy you may be—a series of props have been knocked out from under you, and more or less acute frustrations are likely to result.

Oberg: Now when an individual enters a strange culture, all or most of these familiar cues are removed. He or she is like a fish out of water. No matter how broad-minded or full of good will you may be, a series of props have been knocked from under you, followed by a feeling of frustration and anxiety.

Du Bois: People the world over react to frustrations in fairly comparable ways. First they reject, with repressed or expressed aggression, the environment that causes them discomfort.

Oberg: People react to the frustration in much the same way. First they reject the environment which causes the discomfort: “the ways of the host country are bad because they make us feel bad.”

Du Bois: Second they regress with irrational fervor to the familiar and comforting.

Oberg: Another phase of culture shock is regression. The home environment suddenly assumes a tremendous importance. To an American everything American becomes irrationally glorified. All the difficulties and problems are forgotten and only the good things back home are remembered.

Du Bois: If you observe a group of Americans—or any other group of nationals—in the throes of culture shock the symptoms are startlingly similar. The slightest inefficiency or delay—particularly variations from our own obsessional time sense—provoke disproportionate anger. All things American acquire new and a sometimes irrational importance. You have all experienced how easy it is to shift from being a “live-and-let-live” patriot to being a chauvinist when you are abroad. You have all observed the tendency of American tourists to cluster together even though they may be spending only a few weeks of their hard-earned vacation to see the English in England or the French in France.

Oberg: You become aggressive, you band together with your fellow countrymen and criticize the host country, its ways, and its people. But this criticism is not an objective appraisal but a derogatory one. Instead of trying to account for conditions as they are through an honest analysis of the actual conditions and the historical circumstances which have created them, you talk as if the difficulties you experience are more or less created by the people of the host country for your special discomfort.

Du Bois: There are other manifestations—the sitting around together in favorite clubs or hotels and grousing about the host country. When you begin hearing broad, and usually derogatory, comments like—the Burmese are lazy; the Indians are ignorant; the French are grasping; the Americans are materialistic, or naive or shallow—then you can be fairly sure the speaker is suffering culture shock.

Oberg: When Americans or other foreigners in a strange land get together to grouse about the host country and its people—you can be sure they are suffering from culture shock.

Oberg: You take refuge in the colony of your countrymen and its cocktail circuit which often becomes the fountainhead of emotionally charged labels known as stereotypes. This is a peculiar kind of invidious shorthand which caricatures the host country and its people in a negative manner. The “dollar grasping American” and the “indolent Latin American” are samples of mild forms of stereotypes.

(Cora Du Bois, “Culture Shock,” To Strengthen World Freedom, Institute of International Education Special Publications Series, No. 1, New York, 1951; and Kalervo Oberg, “Culture Shock,” presented to the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, August 3, 1954)

The Origins of “Culture Shock,” Part 1

While planning my previous post, “Reverse Culture Shock: Repatriating Back to Post-COVID ‘Normal’ in the Church,” I figured somewhere near the beginning I’d include a definition of culture shock, preferably from as far back as I could find one. Pretty quickly I came to the words of the Finnish-Canadian anthropologist Kalervo Oberg, spoken in 1954 to the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro:

Culture shock is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse. These signs or cues include the thousand and one ways in which we orient ourselves to the situations of daily life: when to shake hands and what to say when we meet people, when and how to give tips, how to give orders to servants, how to make purchases, when to accept and when to refuse invitations, when to take statements seriously and when not. Now these cues which may be words, gestures, facial expressions, customs, or norms are acquired by all of us in the course of growing up and are as much a part of our culture as the language we speak or the beliefs we accept. All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of these cues, most of which we do not carry on the level of conscious awareness.

Now when an individual enters a strange culture, all or most of these familiar cues are removed.

(Kalervo Oberg, “Culture Shock,” presented to the Women’s Club of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, August 3, 1954, at CiteSeerx, republished in a slightly edited version as “Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environments,” Practical Anthropology, vol. 7, issue 4, 1960, 177-182)

His is a well-known, often lauded description, and many cite Oberg as the originator of the term culture shock. But not blindly trusting the combined wisdom of the many, I wanted to see for myself it that were true. It didn’t take me long to find evidence to the contrary, and my search led me to Cora Du Bois’ earlier (1951) explanation of the term, which I used for my post. It comes from a talk that she gave, referenced by Oberg, as being “part of a panel discussion at the first Midwest regional meeting of the Institute of International Education in Chicago, November 28, 1951.” Here is some of what Du Bois had to say:

Please do not consider me too irrelevant if I begin talking about an occupational disease among anthropologists. Some twenty years ago I remember first chatting with colleagues about the peculiar emotional status we anthropologists developed when we were working in the field with strange people cut off from our familiar daily surroundings. We all wanted to do field work. We loved it—but we realized that things happened to us when we did. We began calling this peculiar syndrome “culture shock.”

. . . .

We anthropologists flattered ourselves when we thought culture shock was an occupational disease. It is a malady that seems to affect most transplanted people.

The genesis of the malady is really very simple. It is precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all your familiar cues. . . . All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of cues, most of which we do not even carry on a level of conscious awareness. These cues are acquired in the course of growing up and are as much part of our cultural heritage as the language we speak. They have become so habitual that they have been forgotten as part of our conscious cultural equipment.

Now suddenly remove all, or most, of these cues—and you have a case of culture shock. No matter how tolerant or broad-minded or full of empathy you may be—a series of props have been knocked out from under you, and more or less acute frustrations are likely to result. (22)

(Cora Du Bois, “Culture Shock,” To Strengthen World Freedom, Institute of International Education Special Publications Series, No. 1, New York, 1951, 22-24 [a reprint can be found in Guidelines for Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Training, Part III, Supplementary Readings, Center for Research and Education, Peace Corps, Estes Park, March 1970])

While Du Bois’ presentation preceded Oberg’s, she doesn’t claim to have coined the term herself. Rather, she points to someone else as its creator, but we’ll circle back to that later. First, let’s go back to the 1920s.

In 1929, Mexican anthropologist Manuel Gamio wrote about immigrants from Mexico adjusting to life in the US, using the term cultural shock.:

The civilization of the larger part of the immigrants is originally of native or mixed type and consequently different in form and background from that of the American people, all of which, together with the climatic differences between both countries, make the cultural shock sharp and the biological adaptation for the newly arrived Mexican painful. From this situation a selection results; some individuals go back to Mexico not to return to the United States while others gradually become adjusted to the new environment. (468-469)

(Manuel Gamio, “Observations on Mexican Immigration into the United States,” Pacific Affairs, vol. 2, No. 8, August 1929, 63-69)

H. Ian Hogbin, the next year, uses the same words in his discussion of decreasing populations among South Pacific tribes brought on by the arrival of Europeans.

I think we may now conclude that the causes of an increase in the death-rate are, firstly, the introduction of new disease purely and simply, and secondly the break-up of the old culture. This latter has undermined the mental balance of the native and makes him die more quickly from both his own and the new diseases. That is why epidemic diseases have a lasting effect. European society had received no shock at the time bubonic plague was ravaging it, and so it soon recovered. Ongtong Java had been dealt a heavy blow already when influenza reached it, and therefore society there did not recover. (57)

And as he considers that the deaths of the older men leave no one to pass on traditional ceremonies, he writes,

If these ceremonies, or the useful ones, had remained, they might have roused the members of society and in their hours of leisure given them something to occupy their minds, instead of letting them face and acquiesce in despair. That, I think, explains why epidemics in societies which have sustained no cultural shock have no appreciable effect in the long run. All the customs have still a function and so are kept up. The prospect of extinction never occurs to people, because they are too occupied, or possibly too stupid even to think about it unless it is obvious. Therefore they do not become extinct. (64)

(H. Ian Hogbin, “The Problem of Depopulation in Melanesia as Applied to Ongtong Java (Solomon Islands),” The Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 39, March, 1930, 43-66)

And in her 1938 overview of Charles S. Johnson’s “The Present Status and Trends of the Negro Family” (Social Forces, vol. 16, no. 2, 1937), Myrtle R. Phillips talks about “cultural shocks”:

Crime, delinquency, illegitimacy, and the changing fertility rate of Negro families characterize the cultural shocks involved in the cultural expansion of these Negro families. (197)

(Myrtle R. Phillips, “Abstracts and Digests,” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 7, April 1938)

Eventually, cultural shock was largely replaced by culture shock, though sporadic usage of the former has continued, as demonstrated in several references in this post.

It was two years later, in 1931, that sociologist and Episcopal minister Niles Carpenter used culture-shock in his book The Sociology of City Life. It appears in the context of the “shock effect” of people moving to American cities, either as migrants from rural areas in the US or as immigrants from other countries. He postulates that “the heavy incidence of mental disease” among this second group comes from the “general culture-shock” of relocating to a new country and “the special sort of culture-shock involved in the initial acquaintance with the city and it’s ways of life.” (335)

While I can’t say definitively that Carpenter coined the term culture shock (with our without the hyphen), there seems to be evidence to support that conclusion: First of all, from what I have found, this is the earliest occurrence of the exact phrase in print. Also, when Carpenter first uses the term in his book, it’s in the context of “a process that might be termed culture-shock.” Carpenter often uses this passive-voice construction (“might be termed,” “may be remarked,” “may be said,” and “might be said”) to introduce ideas in The Sociology of City Life, and in this case it is followed by “That is to say . . .” with an explanation of the phrase. Also, as shown below, Carpenter lays out the groundwork for culture shock by pointing out its similarities to the “shell-shock” experienced during wartime.

Here are several passages from Carpenter:

One authority, moreover, asserts, “Many of the neuroses of the inhabitants of big cities may be regarded as analogous to the shell-shock that followed deafening bombardments during the war. . . .” (208)

The shock-effect of the city may be carried into the second or even the third generation of migrants. Many conditioning influences are imbedded in traditional folkways. Others are passed on from one generation to another, by conscious precept or by imitation, particularly when the migrating group is also an immigrant group, as is often the case in the cities of the United States. That is to say, there may be reverberations for two or more generations of the shock-effect attendant upon country-to-city migration. (218)

[T]he rural migrant to the city together with his children is undergoing a process that might be termed culture-shock. That is to say, he is transferred suddenly from one sort of culture to another one, and the experience imposes a serious strain upon him, especially as regards the habituations in thought and attitude which he has derived from his rural heritage. This process of culture-shock is well recognized in the case of the immigrant. In its most marked manifestation, it involves personality disorganization, and even mental breakdown. A less spectacular and more common reaction is a sort of interlude of confusion, in which Old-World folkways are dropped while New-World ones are assimilated incompletely, if at all. This process is to be observed in connection with the immigrants family life, his intellectual life, his economic life, and his religious life. The immigrant and more particularly his son or daughter cease to be Germans or Poles, or Italians, without yet becoming in any vital sense Americans. (272)

The urban resident must be, in other words, somewhat more readily inclined to respond to inducements towards crime than the rural-dweller. One of those influences is suggested by the material that has been presented. It is that of culture-shock. (316)

In this connection, it may be remarked that the war neuroses (commonly called shell-shock), seem to be somewhat analogous to the type of shock-effect involved in the transition from a rural to an urban environment. The change was more complete, and the new environment was infinitely more trying. Nevertheless, the general process of sudden change from relative certainty and security to a life of intense mobility, insecurity, and the stress would seem to be essentially similar. Certain of those who gave way would probably have done so in any circumstances, but in a large number of cases it seems that no breakdown would have occurred if the individuals affected had been able to continue in their accustomed round of activities. Moreover, it is noteworthy that, according to Conklin, an essential feature of the war neurosis is the contrast between the mental patterns of the sufferer’s previous way of living and his present situation: “The man is left with only his old reactions, totally unsuited to the demands made up him.

May this shock-effect be continued for more than the migrant generation? Schlapp and Smith believe that it can be continued at least into the second generation, through embryonic and fœtal injuries following upon maternal glandular disturbances. And where ideational conflicts are involved, as in contrasting notions of parental authority, familial solidarity, sexual behavior, religious belief, and the like, such personality-disintegrating influences might be continued for two or three generations, before there would take place what might be termed compete psychic urbanization. (337)

(NIles Carpenter, The Sociology of City Life, Longmans, 1931)

The next year, H. Reynard included culture-shock (without quotation marks or italics) in her review of The Sociology of City Life, and social scientist Walter Greenwood Beach quoted Carpenter in his book Social Aims in a Changing World, writing,

In the conflict of ways it is no wonder that there is a “culture-shock”1 followed by a possible increase of crime or other indications of social maladjustment. (153)

The reference number in this excerpt points to The Sociology of City Life.

(H. Reynard, “The Sociology of City Life, by Niles Carpenter,” The Economic Journal, vol. 42, June 1932, 301-302; Walter Greenwood Beach, Social Aims in a Changing World, Stanford University Press, 1932)

In 1935, a team of sociologists and educators, made up of Mabel Agnes Elliott, Charles Omega Wright, Dorothy Grauerholz Wright, and Francis Ellsworth Merrill, published the high-school textbook Our Dynamic Society, which included explanations for the terms migration and disorganization, culture conflict, the marginal man, and culture shock:

Culture Shock. Such a drastic change in folkways, mores, and traditions may result in what is termed “culture shock.” The immigrant’s former security is exchanged for bewilderment and change. Crises appear which bring difficult new decisions. The shock may follow a severing of old family ties, the loss of old associates, or the facing of a new complex life in a strange city. As a result of culture shock, the immigrant may become highly disorganized and display his disorganization in conduct that runs counter to social values. He may desert his family, drown his disappointment in liquor, or commit suicide. Such disorganization results from his failure to redefine the situation in satisfactory terms. (100)

The authors describe “the marginal man” as one “who appears at the border-line where two cultures meet,” using a term coined/popularized by sociologist Robert E. Park in “Human Migration and the Marginal Man (American Journal of Sociology, vol. 33, May, 1928). They write that this person

may be said to pass through three states of disorganization. (1) The preliminary stage is that of early contact with a new group, during which he is unaware of his marginal problems. (2) The crisis stage appears when he is painfully conscious of his strangeness and his difficult situation. (3) The third stage is that of either adjustment or disorganization. If he meets the crisis in a satisfactory fashion, he becomes adjusted. If he fails, he becomes a disorganized man. (101)

Later in the book, the authors use the term cultural shock when discussing high rates of suicide among immigrants.

(Mabel Agnes Elliott, Charles Omega Wright, Dorothy Grauerholz Wright, and Francis Ellsworth Merrill, Our Dynamic Society, Harper, 1935)

Now, we’ll jump forward to Cora Du Bois, and back to the passage above, where she says, “Some twenty years ago, I remember first chatting with colleagues about the peculiar emotional state we anthropologists developed when we were working in the field.” As the quotation comes from 1951, “some twenty years ago” would put the conversations circa 1931, the same year as Carpenter’s usage of culture-shock.

In Women in the Field: Anthropological Experiences, anthropologist Peggy Golde writes that in “private communication,” Du Bois “credits” culture shock to Ruth Benedict, who was Du Bois’ anthropology teacher at Barnard College. Golde states that “by 1940, [the term] was so well accepted by social scientists that it needed no citation.” (11)

(Women in the Field: Anthropological Experiences, 1970)

Golde’s 1940 reference is to John B. Holt, of the United States Department of Agriculture:

Regarding the possible connection between the rapid rate of urbanization and social maladjustment in the Southeast, Odum observes, “The South, more than the other regions, fitted by habit and tradition to a life closely attuned to natural processes, finds rapid shift to artificial industrialism beyond its power for quick absorption and effective adaptation.” The administrator of a farm program in Kentucky is reported to have said, “The physical ‘bends’ of deep-sea divers exposed too rapidly to lighter atmospheric pressure is nothing compared to the psychological or spiritual bends produced in our mountain communities when subjected too rapidly to urban standards and ways of doing thing.”

All these citations suggest the “culture shock” arising from the precipitation of a rural person or group into an urban situation characterized by a loosening of mores from a strict social control, a liberation of the individual from his group, an increasing impersonalism as against the personal character of the rural environment, an increasing mobility as contrasted with the old stability and isolation, and on top of these changes, a blasting disruption of personal and occupational habits and status. (744)

(John B. Holt, “Holiness Religion: Cultural Shock and Social Reorganization,” American Sociological Review, vol. 5, No. 5, October 1940, 740-747)

Other instances of culture shock in the 1940s include

It is probable that the middle class attitude of sacrifice of family (though not of marriage itself) in order to climb the economic ladder may characterize the college students’ culture more than that of the university students. Some such “culture shock” explanation would seem at least tenable in the light of the religious compulsions, almost certainly more impelling in the college than in the university group, that would presumably operate in the direction of more offspring. (514)

(Wayne C. Neely, “Family Attitudes of Denominational College and University Students, 1929 and 1936,” American Sociological Review, vol. 5, No. 4, August 1940, 512-522)

The concept is most strikingly illustrated by the position of the foreigner who is bridging the Old World culture and the New in the necessary process of assimilation that every foreigner meets. Each individual in this position experiences a certain amount of culture shock. . . . (121)

(Paul Henry Landis, Adolescence and Youth: The Process of Maturing, McGraw-Hill, 1945)

The white man’s alcohol and the seizure of native lands also contributed to the population decline; and along with all these specific causes there was the general disorganization of native life and customs under the impact of foreign civilization. Bewildered, diseased, abused, exploited, the Pacific peoples in many instances seemed almost to lose the will to live. They were the victims of what might be called extreme culture shock. (29)

(Raymond Kennedy, The Islands and Peoples of the South Seas and Their Cultures, American Philosophical Society, 1945)

Individual personality disorganization also usually results, until a new institutional unity has been established by all, usually requiring a period of several generations. The individual’s life organization is bound up most intimately with the social organization which conditioned him and of which he has been a part. The rural-urban, interregional, or international migrant is transferred from one sort of culture and social organization to which he has had life-long adjustment to another one which is radically different. This new environment by virtue of the presence of himself and other in-wanderers usually is even more complex and confused. Immigrants and their children, country-to-city migrants, even those who have moved from one social level to another, encounter such new and unfamiliar experiences that the change is almost certain to produce great disturbance. This has been well called “culture shock” by Carpenter and others. (286)

(Joyce Oramel Hertzler, Social Institutions, University of Nebraska Press, 1946)

It is recognized that the approaching similarity of rural and urban experience, especially in areas where consolidated schools have developed and where farm youths have considerable contact with town and city, has undoubtedly had an important influence in reducing culture shock of those who go to the city.  (220)

(Paul Henry Landis, Rural Life in Process, McGraw-Hill, 1948)

It is interesting to note that leading up to 1951, the writings about culture shock applied largely to immigrants and others facing a transition to the often perilous culture of urban America, or to those in their own countries overwhelmed by the negative influences brought by Western outsiders, and discussions of culture shock in these circumstances included its long-term effects on society, including such issues as suicide rates, crime, alcoholism, declining populations, and even fetal development. It was into this context that Du Bois made her presentation in Chicago, not only shifting the focus to international students and to anthropologists working overseas but, in so doing, kickstarting a widespread application of the concept to the larger expat community. It also marked a change in tone, with what she characterizes as her “semi-facetious remarks” about the topic.

So, to sum up, did culture shock originate with Oberg—in 1954 or 1960? No. What I have found leads me to join others who credit Carpenter with creating the phrase, but I also realize that Oberg will probably continue to get a large share of the attention, as many trace our current usage of culture shock back to him. And he does deserve credit for helping bring the term into the common vocabulary of expats and international travelers and for exploring and promoting the idea that culture shock has a series of stages leading to adjustment.

I do think, though, that there’s more to be discovered about Oberg’s influence on the culture-shock discussion—or maybe I should say there’s more to be discovered about Du Bois’ influence on Oberg. Let’s take a look at that in Part 2.

Reverse Culture Shock: Repatriating Back to Post-COVID “Normal” in the Church

My wife and son and I are now taking tentative steps to return to in-person church after being away for most of the past year. Last week I attended an outdoor gathering and this past Sunday we all went to the worship service and a picnic after. It does feel good to be starting back again—but it also feels very odd and awkward and overwhelming. It’s not the first time we’ve felt that way, though. It’s strangely similar to what we experienced ten years ago, when we moved from living in the capital city of Taiwan back to southwest Missouri, when we found ourselves dealing with “reverse culture shock.”

If you’re not familiar with “culture shock,” let me explain. in 1951, as the concept was being applied to expats around the world, anthropologist Cora Du Bois defined it as a “malady” you face when you arrive in a new country, “precipitated by the anxiety that results from losing all your familiar cues.” She writes,

All of us depend for our peace of mind and our efficiency on hundreds of cues, most of which we do not even carry on a level of conscious awareness. . . . Now suddenly remove all, or most, of these cues—and you have a case of culture shock. No matter how tolerant or broad-minded or full of empathy you may be—a series of props have been knocked out from under you, and more or less acute frustrations are likely to result.

Given time, most of those anxieties subside (at least to an extent) and you become acclimated to your host country, your new home. But that means upon returning to your passport country, you find that you’ve changed—and your old home has probably changed, too, while you’ve been away. You’ve adopted a new set of “familiar cues,” cues that now clash with the people around you. Many find going through this “reverse culture shock” even more difficult than what they experienced relocating overseas. It’s more or less expected that the first trip would be disorienting, but coming “home”? That should be easy, right?

My family changed a lot of our behaviors while spending time as missionaries in Taiwan. We learned to take off our shoes and put on slippers when entering someone’s house. We learned that hugging as a greeting was usually too bold a display of public affection. We learned that we should wear a mask when we weren’t feeling well to keep others from getting sick. We learned that at McDonald’s leftover food needs to be separated from the rest of the trash. And we learned that traffic signals can sometimes be treated as interesting suggestions.

Then we came back, and we learned that those lessons needed to be re-navigated.

Other Americans who move to different countries bring back their own sets of practices and attitudes and face their own brand of reverse culture shock: They may have gotten used to less personal space and wonder why Americans seem so stand-offish. They may have covered their heads and dressed to follow local customs of modesty and upon returning are uncomfortable with the styles they see all around them. They may have walked every day among extreme poverty and find the wealth in the US difficult to come to terms with.

Do you see the similarities to the adjustment to post-COVID life? Just substitute home with normal in the above transitions, and you’ll see how reverse culture shock can describe the disorientation that many are experiencing. Should we wear masks or not? Should we sit close together in large groups? Do we hug, shake hands, bump fists, tap elbows, or just say Hi at a distance? Should we follow the advice of the CDC or social media?

Some of the adaptations we’ve made over the past year we’re eager to get rid of. But some have become habit, and some we might simply prefer. Will those who’ve switched to homeschooling make it a permanent change? Will we continue working from home? Absent our usual face-to-face interactions, have we found new groups we identify with? Will we keep on attending church online? Will our churches continue to offer virtual services? Have we become more comfortable worshiping in small groups? Will we continue to Zoom into meetings? How long will a bookmark for a COVID dashboard sit at the top of our Web browsers?

And what about our children? Families who move abroad raise “TCKs” (Third Culture Kids), children who are molded by living between the world their parents grew up in and the world they themselves have grown accustomed to. It can be hard for them to find a place where they fit in, especially when, as “hidden immigrants” in their passport countries, they look on the outside as if they belong, but inside, they feel out of place. Similarly, some are labeling the children who are growing up in the shadow of COVID, or who are born into a post-COVID world, as “Generation C.” How much of an effect will the pandemic and all the restrictions associated with it have on them?

There’s something else that missionaries and other cross-cultural workers know about cultural transitions, whether coming or going: they bring a fair amount of loss and grief. They also know that this grief can become “disenfranchised” when it stays hidden inside because it doesn’t fit what others (or ourselves) think we should be feeling. Many around us have lingering health issues from COVID. Many have lost loved ones under extremely difficult circumstances. Many couldn’t be with family members as they suffered. Many had to hold memorial services over the Internet. Many have worked countless hours on the front lines. Many have lost jobs or businesses. Many are struggling to get by.

And yet the return to normal tells us that we should move on. We should celebrate. We should go to all the weddings and birthday parties and graduations and vacation getaways that we’ve missed over the last year. It can be too much for some . . . though not for all.

Many have already returned to their old lives without missing much of a beat. (Some cross-cultural workers are able to do the same.) But for those who haven’t, for those who are slow to come back to in-person worship services or who sit on the back row when they do—arriving late and leaving early, feeling more like observers than participants—there’s a need for patience and grace. That patience and grace needs to be extended from those who are comfortable to those who are not, and those who are hesitant need to extend it to themselves, and others, as well.

Please understand that not all of us who are holding back, in whatever form, are living in fear. Not all of us are judging those who take a different approach. Not all of us are trying to make a statement. Not all of us are lacking in faith.

But even for those of us who are. . . .

Patience and grace.

And in the future, if you ever see a returned missionary family sitting quietly on the back row at church, even after they’ve been around for a few years, please remember where they’ve come from.

(Cora Du Bois, “Culture Shock,” To Strengthen World Freedom, Institute of International Education Special Publications Series, No. 1, New York, 1951, reprinted in Guidelines for Peace Corps Cross-Cultural Training, Part III, Supplementary Readings, Center for Research and Education, Peace Corps, Estes Park, March 1970)

[photo: “COVID-19 chronicles,” by Gilbert Mercier, used under a Creative Commons license]

How’s Your Training Montage Coming Along? [—at A Life Overseas]

I have swimmer’s shoulder, but I don’t swim.

It’s not that I can’t swim, I just don’t do it often enough to cause an injury. I’m in physical therapy for my shoulder now, but I actually started PT because of pain in my hip, and then my shoulder started acting up. I wish I could say that my hip problem was caused by swimming, or by mountain climbing or power lifting. Instead, I think it’s from stepping out of my car the wrong way. And my shoulder? It might be caused by painting our dining room. Or who knows? It could have come from brushing my teeth with too much reckless abandon.

I know what you’re thinking. But before you say that it’s clear I’m getting old and my body’s falling apart, let me first say that it’s clear I’m getting old and my body’s falling apart.

So every day I go through my series of exercises. If only my routine included things like “reverse suspended monster crunches” or “overhead double infantry lifts.” But no, I have “supine gluteal sets” and “seated shoulder flexion towel slides at table top.”

It’s not quite the stuff of a Rocky training montage. (If you haven’t seen any of the five Rocky movies, seven if you add the two Creeds, then just think about any film that includes a music video of the main character getting ready for battle.) In preparation for the next ultimate fight, set to stirring music, Rocky boxes with frozen meat (da-da-daaa), rips off dozens of one-handed pull-ups and push-ups (da-da-daaa), lifts log chains over his head (da-da-daaa), guzzles raw eggs (da-da-daaa), and outruns a car (da-da-da-da-da-da-da-daaa-da-daaa).

Here’s the thing about training montages in the movies: They’re in the movies. When you’re tackling challenges in real life, it’s not bigger than life and it’s not condensed down to just a few minutes. Seen from the inside, the real stuff of montages can feel slow, tedious, and monotonous, not monumental.

You can read the rest of this post at A Life Overseas. . . .

[photo: “Focus,” by Keith Ellwood, used under a Creative Commons license]

Coming or Going during Turbulent Times [—at A Life Overseas]

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In October of 2001, my wife and I boarded a flight and moved our family from the US to our new home in Asia. Nearly ten years later, in June of 2011, we moved back to our old home in Joplin, Missouri. Those dates may not jump out at you, but the first was one month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The second was one month after an F5 tornado destroyed about a quarter of Joplin, killing 161.

When you relocate to a different culture, your world is turned upside down. How much more so when the earth itself seems to be tilted off its axis.

Some of you are making a cross-cultural transition right now, in the midst of a global pandemic, a global recession, and far-reaching upheavals confronting racism. So much emotional multitasking. So many unknowns. You’re not only tackling culture stress or reverse culture stress, but you’re trying to get used to a new normal when the old normal is challenging enough already.

There’s another term for new normal. It’s abnormal (at least for a while).

Speaking of culture, you have your own “cancel culture”: cancelled flights. cancelled church services, cancelled good-bye gatherings, cancelled welcome parties, cancelled support, cancelled camps, cancelled vacations, cancelled retreats, cancelled trainings, cancelled conferences, cancelled debriefings, cancelled classes, cancelled job opportunities, cancelled leases, cancelled assumptions, cancelled plans.

And when you get to make your trip, your first experience after you land is to self-quarantine for two weeks.

To read the rest, go to A Life Overseas. . . .

[photo: “Storm Front 4,” by mrpbps, used under a Creative Commons license]

Listening to a Wonderful Immigrant Story in the Walmart Parking Lot while Everybody Was Stocking Up on Bottled Water

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I was sitting in a Walmart parking lot, a few days after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the WHO. It was back when stores weren’t yet limiting the number of shoppers. People were still hoarding toilet paper and making a big deal about how people were hoarding toilet paper, and there wasn’t much of it left in the stores by that time. I had a list in my pocket of things to buy, but I stayed in my car for a while listening to NPR as I watched shoppers file out with their carts piled high with their necessities—bottled water seemed to be a must-have that day. I was in the middle of a Moth Radio Hour and I wanted to hear the end.

The edition playing that day was called “When We Were Young,” and in the second segment, “Sandwiches & Neighbors,” Oanh Ngo Usadi tells about her family of seven leaving Vietnam as refugees when she was twelve. They ended up in Port Arthur, Texas. and she introduces us to their landlords, Mr. Water (not so nice) and Mrs. Water (much nicer). “Water” wasn’t their actually surname, but that’s what Usadi’s family called them. She shares how her father opened a sandwich shop to give McDonald’s “a run for its money” and how they were introduced to the significance of April 1 (the hard way) and how a trip to Costco brought about an unexpected affirmation. And that brings me back to Walmart.

I didn’t have a mask with me, because we weren’t doing that yet, but I had in my head all the reminders to wash my hands and not touch my face. Regardless, I found myself wiping my eyes as Usadi reached the end of her poignant story.

You can listen to the entire episode at The Moth site, and I hope you do. It starts with “Is Love Wild, Is Love Real?” from a man who grew up outside London. His parents were Pakistani Muslims who didn’t believe that love was a useful ingredient in a husband-wife relationship. As he is looking for love anyway, his mother is looking to set him up in an arranged marriage. Enlightenment comes by way of Bruce Springsteen.

And the third, and final, story is “Kid Religion.” In it, the speaker tells about his time as a child in western New York, attending a small Methodist church. His mother, a “labor lawyer from a Catholic Puerto Rican family in the Bronx,” volunteers to teach his Sunday-school class and gets fired for how she answers a question. Years later, after developing a relationship with a girl in a school play, he comes to believe that his mother’s answer was the right one.

If Usadi’s narrative makes you want to hear more about her life, you can read her memoir, Of Monkey Bridges and Bánh Mì Sandwiches: from Sài Gòn to Texas.

[photo: “Walmart,” by Mike Mozart, used under a Creative Commons license]

Plans Unfurled, Change the World: A Poem for Cross-Cultural Workers [—at A Life Overseas]

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I had fun writing a travel poem for my son, so I thought I’d try it again, this time on the topic of working cross culturally. Here are the first eight lines. The rest is at A Life Overseas.

Hear the call
Like St. Paul?
Kneel to pray
Lots to say
Plans unfurled
Change the world
Ready, set
Not quite yet . . .

[photo: “Sandles,” by midnightcomm, used under a Creative Commons license]

Barnga: A Card Game for Culture-Stress Show and Tell [—at A Life Overseas]

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I’ve reworked my original Barnga post from six years ago and put it online at A Life Overseas. Head on over there to read all of it. Here’s how it begins:

Have you ever wanted to show, not just tell, people what culture stress is like? Have you ever wanted them to experience it a bit without them having to travel overseas?

Have you ever heard about Barnga?

Barnga is a simulation game created by Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan in 1980, while working for USAID in Gbarnga, Liberia. . . .

[photo: “Shuffle,” by Melissa Emma’s Photography, used under a Creative Commons license]