When I was born, it was quite the event and a lot of really great people wanted to meet me, or so I’m told. Just a few years later, my kindergarten teacher praised me for being especially polite. And then, in grade school, I was awarded the red, white, and blue Good Citizen badge to wear on my day of honor. I guess I was a pretty big deal, but I’m not surprised, seeing how I was living at the very center of the earth.
Growing up, I remember that news from next door, no matter how trivial, was profoundly more important than what was going on anywhere else on the globe. Therefore, a friend who missed school because of the flu got more attention than a famine in Africa. Weather patterns focused on my home town, as well, as we prayed more for sunshine for a birthday party than we did for people in Asia facing a typhoon.
So it’s no wonder I grew up having to fight against selfish tendencies. Who can blame me, knowing how much God was fixated on me and those in my vicinity?
Somewhere along the way, though, I found out that there was a whole world out there, a world filled with people who were just as big a deal as me—people who missed school and had birthday parties and sometimes suffered calamities beyond my comprehension. Jesus loves all the little children of the world, adults, too, I learned, and he wants them to know about his love.
So as I built my life, getting an education, finding a job, and starting a family, I had an eye on the horizon, not content to stay within my tight borders. In time, I booked tickets from America to an uttermost part, and with my wife and children, stepped onto the plane. It was then that I traded my selfishness for selflessness and self-sacrifice and never looked back as I devoted myself to cross-cultural service.
Oh, that it were that easy.
In Genesis, God tells Cain to be wary, as “sin is crouching at the door,” ready to pounce like a wild animal. For me, self-centeredness is at my door, and it doesn’t hide and wait, it steps up and knocks, like an intrusive neighbor or a persistent salesman.
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 beenaround for a few years, please remember where they’ve come from.
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.
If you’re like me, you saw at least one of the “those we lost” montages covering the deaths of notable people over the last year. And when you see some of the names and faces, you react for some with “I didn’t know they were gone” and for others with “That just happened this year?”
I recently saw a different kind of look back. It was a list of high-profile Christians who’d made the news for their failings in 2020. It included pastors, authors, and ministry leaders, among others. There were a couple I hadn’t heard about, but sadly, I thought of a couple more I could add. Not everyone’s transgressions took place last year, but that’s when some of them came to light.
Do cross-cultural workers also face temptations and sometimes give in to them? The answer, of course, is yes. Those abroad are not immune to temptations “common to man.” But added to that, new surroundings can present uncommon enticements seemingly around every corner—at least uncommon when compared to what used to happen at home.
Does the sin of cross-cultural workers sometimes become public? Does it sometimes cause them to leave the field? Does it sometimes bring their work into question? Does it sometimes destroy relationships? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Many of us have seen it happen, to fellow workers, to teammates, to family members, to friends, to ourselves.
I’ve prepared the following questions as a beginning-of-the-year gut check, with the aim of helping us stay off of someone’s 2021 those-we-lost list. Yes, that’s an excellent goal. But I also realize that for some, having their failings exposed is a necessary step leading to healing and restoration. Being on the list doesn’t have to be an indication of lostness. It can also be an opportunity for being found.
You can learn a lot by asking questions. You can learn a lot by answering them, too.
Recently, a young couple came to my wife and me with a list of questions for us. They were trying to figure out how to respond to the stirrings they were feeling about ministry opportunities and wondering if they should consider serving cross-culturally someday.
I think our answers fell somewhat short of profound, but I hope they were helpful. What struck me, though, was how much their questions got me thinking. Good questions have a way of doing that. They’re beneficial for the ones asking and for the ones pondering the answers, as well.
So if you’re considering going overseas, here’s a list of questions you could ask those who’ve already gone. And if you’re one of those who’s already gone, here’s a list of questions to help you reflect on the process that got you there. I hope some of them make you say, “Hmmmm, good question. Let me think about that.” . . .
Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples. (Psalm 96:1-3 NIV)
When I was a young elementary-school student, one of the highlights of my year was going to the store with a teacher-mandated list in hand to buy classroom supplies. Not only was there the possibilities inherent in blank tablets of paper, there was the just-oozing-with-creativity box of brand new Crayola Crayons. Not off-brand crayons, mind you, not last year’s crayons (with black nowhere to be found). No, I’m talking about the real deal, with sharp edges and their paper sleeves still crisply intact.
Every child is a budding Rembrandt when in possession of a new box of crayons (even if it’s not the coveted box of 120 with the built-in sharpener).
Those days are long gone for me. Now it’s more about digging into an old ice-cream bucket of crayons, many of them broken or missing their names. But, in spite of that, coloring is something I can still do.
For example, there was the time when we returned from the field and we were handed crayons and asked to draw a picture of what reentry looked like to us. My drawing was of me leading a group of other stick figures (my family) on an unfinished bridge over choppy water. One fellow returnee’s picture was of him pushing with much effort against an immovable stone wall. It was a great activity, as our pictures led to meaningful discussions about the transitions we were in.
Drawing can be good therapy, and cross-cultural workers aren’t the only ones who know that to be true.
In Inside Higher Ed, Irina Popescu writes about a drawing exercise that she gives to her college students on the first day of class. She asks them to draw a picture of their “imposter monster,” the ugly creature that tells them they don’t belong in college, that “lies in judgment,” reminding them that they’re not enough. When she first tried this, she was surprised at how seriously the students took the exercise, creating “careful representations of very real, frightening monsters.”
“Some monsters had three eyes,” she writes. “Others were family members whom students made into red-eyed ghosts. Others were ugly self-portraits of the students themselves.”
Imposter syndrome is alive and well in academe. It is alive and well among cross-cultural workers, too.
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.