Culture Stress, Home, and Space, the Final Frontier

August 13, 2018 § Leave a comment

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Traveling to far-away places and coping with new surroundings brings about lots of adjustments—adjustments in thought patterns and in ways of doing even mundane tasks. Few know this as dramatically as those who have lived aboard the International Space Station. But you don’t need to venture into outer space to be able to relate to their stories of exploration and adaptation.

National Geographic’s One Strange Rock looks at our planet through the eyes of eight astronauts. The final episode of this, the first season, is titled “Home.” (Watch it here.)

In it, host Will Smith asks,

Where is home?  Is it where you were born, where you were raised, or where you are now? Is it somewhere you lived, somewhere you left, somewhere that shaped you? If you really want to know you need to leave them all behind.

One of those who’s left it all behind is Peggy Whitson, who, over three missions, spent a total of 665 days in space—a record for NASA astronauts and more than any other woman in the world. She’s come a long way from where she she lived as a child, a farm near Beaconsfield, Iowa, current population “elevenish.”

Whitson says,

As I’ve grown up and gone to college and gone to graduate school, home has expanded from Iowa to Texas to the United States, and since being in space, home is actually planet earth.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield:

One of the biggest changes I noticed within myself as the result of  flying in space was that the difference between us and them disappeared. Somehow going around the world in 92 minutes, not just once, but over and over and over again, turned the entire world into one shared place. I think it’s a perspective that seeps into astronauts. I think it’s a perspective that’s kind of good for everybody.

Astronaut Leland Melvin adds,

I truly believe that if more people could have the opportunity to see the planet from space, looking at the rich colors, looking at the fact that there are no borders separating us, we could see that we are truly all connected as human beings

Back to Smith, on reentry:

Ever been on a trip and seen something new, something incredibly beautiful, or something that changed the way you think about things? Now imagine that trip was to space. You’ve seen something that only a very few people have ever seen.

Astronauts need to tell someone, anyone, everyone. Soon they’re ready to go back down, but it’s actually bittersweet. They’re going back to the place that made them, but leaving the place that shaped them.

About her return, Whitson shares, “It was hard to leave because I knew I wouldn’t be coming back.” She starts to choke up and then blurts out, “Jeepers!” and laughs. “But I was all excited about being back home and  being back on earth, having, you know, wind, and smelling the air and just being on earth.”

“But coming home isn’t easy,” says Smith. “Mother earth doesn’t exactly welcome you back with open arms.”

Repatriation from space, returning through the earth’s atmosphere, is actually the hardest part of the trip, and setting down on the solid ground of Kazakstan isn’t the softest of landings.

Whitson says, “Most people compare it to a car crash. I would compare it to maybe two car crashes.”

And then there’s the transition from weightlessness to . . . weight. “Wow, space was good,” Whitson says and adds with a smile, “Gravity sucks.”

Though he’s not part of the One Strange Rock crew, Scott Kelly has this to say about the reverse culture stress brought about by gravity:

Back to Melvin, in the National Geographic production:

When I got home from space after getting out of my suit, then to have a meal without the food floating away from you, and being able to pet your dog and talk to your parents fact to face, it made me feel so much more connected to the planet.

Another astronaut, Nicole Scott:

I couldn’t wait to feel what a breeze would be like again, you know, what the smell of grass was going to, you know, smell like again.

Hadfield:

It’s the smells of earth, the smell of home, the smells of the natural world, it’s overpowering. It’s kind of overwhelming.

Melvin again:

Just because you physically leave the surface of the earth does not mean you leave the earth, because the earth is part of you.

And Whitson:

I’m not sure whether I feel more like an earthling or a space woman. I think being a space woman’s a lot more fun.

Blast off . . . G forces . . . wonder . . . homesickness . . . rootlessness . . . reentry . . . landing . . . longing—sounds like crossing cultures.

So what is day-to-day life really like in the culture of space? Here are a few glimpses into how the ordinary becomes anything but:

There’s learning to cook without the comforts of your kitchen or a microwave . . . or plates.

What happens when the food doesn’t want to stay down?

You thought squatty potties were a challenge.

Then you have no-shower showering.

And, oh yeah, when you look out the window, there’s the view.

Don’t forget the view.

(“Home,” One Strange Rock, National Geographic, May 28, 2018)

[photo: “GPN-2000-001056,” by NASA Remix Man, used under a Creative Commons license]

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When It’s Hard to Want to Want to Be Back [—at A Life Overseas]

April 26, 2017 § 3 Comments

Our pictures are on the walls!

It’s been a year since I wrote about the long process I and my family were going through fitting back into life in the States and not yet feeling at home—still not having our pictures hung up. Since then, quite a few things have changed, and I would be remiss if I didn’t pass that on as well. I have a new job and my wife is able to stay at home, and we’ve unpacked our pictures and they’re all hanging in the house we’ve been able to buy.

We are so grateful for the ways God has helped us move forward.

But though it’s been over five years since we came back, we can’t say that the transition is completely behind us. It’s still there, just now in less obvious ways.

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This post is about reverse culture stress, but it’s not about the difficulties of fitting back into a home culture or family culture or church culture. It’s about the undercurrent of feelings that flow in the opposite direction of our physical move. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to fit in. It’s about the difficulty of wanting to want to.

What are some of the things that hold returned missionaries back from pouring our whole hearts into settling in? What are the feelings—good or bad, right or wrong—that can keep us from jumping into this new chapter? Here are a few I’ve noticed. . . .

Finish reading at A Life Overseas. . . .

Let’s Hear It for Mundaneness!

May 2, 2015 § 4 Comments

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You’ve seen those images of all the fish swimming in one direction with one fish swimming agains the flow. The message: That one fish is the only one going the right way, despite the crowd.

It’s not always a lot of fun being that fish, especially when it seems as if you’re the one going in the wrong direction.

During what would become our last State-side service, I and my wife had decided that our time as missionaries would come to an end. But before making that public, I attended a missionary convention held by our fellowship of churches. I remember sitting with several thousand others in Lexington’s Rupp Arena, listening to a plenary speaker give a passionate call to the audience of potential missionaries. “Let someone else build the houses,” he said. “You follow Christ, go into ministry.”

Let someone else be a doctor or an attorney and argue cases in court. You go follow Christ. Let someone else teach in the public schools. You follow Christ. Listen, there will always be people who will go into all those other occupations. But there are a rare few who will say, “I’ll follow my Christ wherever he leads me.”

I’d said similar things, at least to myself. I should be on the front lines. Others would fill in behind. I’d told myself I could never settle for regular work. How could I ever be satisfied living a commonplace life in the US?

And yet, here I was traveling in the opposite direction, burned up and burned out. I was leaving the mission field, not heading to it. I was stepping away, hoping someone might hire me to build that house or teach that class. . . and in time, hoping just to get hired, for just about any job.

Five years ago, David Platt, mega-church pastor and now president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, wrote Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. I have a copy on my bookshelf, but I’ve never read it. I’ve heard good things about Platt’s book, and I’m sure it’s challenging. But it’s not the kind of challenge I’m looking for right now. The book I chose to read instead has a different kind of title. It’s The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People.

Pastor Matt B. Redmond wrote The God of the Mundane as a response to what he had heard himself preach many times:

Change your world. Change the world of someone. Anyone. Sell everything. Sell anything. Give it away. Do something crazy. Be radical. Make people stand up and notice. Take a risk. Jesus moved from heaven to earth and gave up his life and yet you—you just go about your daily life.

But in time, his ponderings, expressed in his blog, Echoes and Stars, led him to ask if there is a God for the bulk of people who live out their lives performing mundane tasks. “Is there a God, for instance, for those who are not changing anything but diapers?”

In his book, Redmond answers the question with a “Yes,” writing to and about stay-at-home moms, dental hygienists, plumbers, children taking care of elderly parents, and bankers. In a blog post, he addresses the youth of a church where he once ministered:

Don’t be afraid of being small. Too often I probably made it sound like if you were really serious about your faith, you should think about ministry. Being a teacher or doctor or farmer was not worthy of your time. Well, that’s just stupid. Don’t be afraid to be in a “small” part of the kingdom. Be ordinary and unknown and be content. That’s more radical than anything else you will hear in the church today.

When he wrote The God of the Mundane, one of the images in Redmond’s mind was of a banker, frustrated and stuck in a job he doesn’t love. After writing his book, he left his career in ministry and became that frustrated banker.

Before reading his book, I had left my position as a missionary and had become frustrated, too. So often in Christian circles, the missionary life is considered the opposite of mundaneness. Redmond refers to it that way, too. But he doesn’t believe that a mundane life, lived in devotion to God, is unimportant.

Neither does he believe that we should stop asking people if they are “willing to give it all and go overseas as a missionary.” “It’s not a bad question to ask,” he says. “There is no question in my mind that this question needs to be out there.” But he also wants other questions asked:

[A]re you willing to be numbered among the nameless believers in history who lived in obscurity? Do you have the courage to be forgotten by everyone but God and the heavenly host? Are you willing to be found only by God as faithful right where you are? Are you willing to have no one write a book about you and what you did in the name of Christ?

When someone studying for a non-missionary career asked him his advice on selecting a missionary biography, Redmond suggested she begin by reading one about a Christian banker.

By that I meant she needed to read a book about a Christian living a mundane life. She told me she could not find one. Figures.

I would characterize Redmond as someone who is trying to be content in his present occupation, but who is not satisfied. He struggles with wanting to do something that better fits who he is, but he doesn’t want to turn his back on those like him who are not doing the BIG THING. He admits that it’s often hard for him to accept his own advice with confidence.

I find myself in the same place. I miss so much of being a missionary and still want to be a part of that work and community. And yet I don’t believe that God loved me more, valued me more then than he does now.

I still have my copy of Radical. I plan to read it someday. Someday, but not today. Today I’m reading and rereading Redmond’s book.

Maybe he’s written the closest thing you’ll find to a biography about a “Christian banker.” But rather than writing about something he’d lived, he wrote it first and now he’s living it. And as he’s been writing in his blog, it’s the living of it that has given him a real understanding of his own words.

Life often works out that way. Figures.

(Barry Cameron, closing session, National Missionary Convention, Lexington, KY, November 21, 2010; Matt B. Redmond, The God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People, Kalos, 2012; Matt B. Redmond, “Tuesday’s 10: What I’d Like to Tell My Former Youth,” Echoes and Stars, August 13, 2012)

[photo: “Fish Vane,” by Mike Gifford, used under a Creative Commons license]

What Is a Bridge but a Paradox?

April 18, 2015 § 8 Comments

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What do you see when you see a dock?

A place for studying the horizon?
For dipping a toe in the water?
For casting off?

Or a place for lowering your sails?
For stepping onto dry land?
For coming ashore?

Is it a place for setting out or coming back? Much depends on the compass of your heart.

If for you, the dock is too short, out of desire or necessity, you build it forward, step by step, plank by plank, as you go—through the spray and the mist and the fog. And when you’ve built till you’re more coming than going, you see another shore—build, step, build, step. You are there.

This is crossing cultures. This is creating a bridge. This is going from home to home.

Then, at some point, out of desire or necessity, you step back onto the bridge. You must have been gone a long time, because what was once a complete span is now incomplete. You need to build to close the gaps. And at times you’re simply on a dock again, building to a shore you cannot yet see. Strange. It was a bridge before.

This time while you’re crossing, you find that in the mist there are others with you, and when they talk, you understand them, because they are speaking your language.

“Where are you from?” you hear someone ask, and the answer, “That’s an interesting question.” “You, too?” one says. “Me, too,” another replies. You understand them, not because you use the same words, but because when you speak those words you agree on the impreciseness of their meanings: near, far, hot, cold, friends, enemies, rich, poor, family, strangershere, there, hello, goodbye. Their meanings are slippery, like the damp boards beneath your feet. And the slipperiness is comfortable.

In time, you cross the bridge again and again, sharing familiar greetings with those in the misty middle. But never do you set out without having to repair what was built before. You continue . . . build, step, build, step.

What is a bridge, but a paradox, leading from home to home, from not-home to not-home? Your heart’s compass spins. The shores, they push and pull, they give hugs at arms length, they don’t plan on changing, but they do. The same can be said of you.

And then, out of desire or necessity, you settle down farther inland. You put down roots in loose soil. There’s a dock over the next, next hill. You go to visit from time to time and walk its length. You listen to the slap of the waves. You breathe in the smell of the ocean. You taste the salt in the air . . . and you remember the sounds and the smells and the bitter-sweet flavors of where you used to be.

What do you see when you see a dock?

You put down roots in loose soil, but you still speak the language of the bridge.


These thoughts are inspired by Mission Training International‘s “Pair of Ducks.” MTI uses two rubber ducks—a “yay duck” and a “yuck duck”—to show cross-cultural workers and their kids that all the places where they’ve lived have their good and bad parts.

[photo: “Harbour Bridge,” by D.Reichardt, used under a Creative Commons license]

Reverse Culture Shock: What It Looks Like from Between

February 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

If you were to draw a picture of reverse culture shock, what would it look like? What images would you show? What colors would you use?

If you were to make a video, what kind of video would it be?

30a781c45c859eecc26383ae27dc0c2aPhotographer and visual artist Jenna Rutanen was born in Finland, attended university in London, and now is continuing her studies and working in the Netherlands. She has turned her experience in crossing cultures into an art installation, consisting of two videos projected on opposite walls of a room. She calls it “Waiting to Belong,” and here’s how she describes what she is representing:

I am experiencing reverse culture shock during each visit to my home country, Finland. In the past, all the winters that I had spent in some sort of hibernation, would now start to suffocate me because of the darkness. As a child, I spent my time playing in the forests, making tree houses and snow castles but now I can hardly venture going into the forest on my own after being away from it for such a long time. It seems as if I have lost the ability to adapt to the surroundings that I used to belong in and as of yet, I haven’t been able to adapt to my current surroundings either, which has kind of left me stuck between two different worlds. All I can do is wait to belong.

Installation art often seems pretentious to me, and this may strike you that way. You may say, “I could have done that.” You may wonder why Rutanen in her “portrait” is so glum. You may wonder what the big deal is.

But watching the two videos of “Waiting to Belong” is very thought provoking to me, and I think it would be even more interesting if I could stand between them, turning from one to the other.

It’s the anticipation—and tedium—of waiting for something to happen, and (spoiler alert, if you haven’t watched the videos yet) nothing does. That’s one of the things that makes reverse culture shock difficult. It’s the nomad gazing at the horizon, waiting for herself to adapt or for her surroundings to become more accommodating, or waiting for both to re-become what they used to be. And it’s the pale landscape waiting itself, staring back at a daughter who has returned a stranger. It seems to say, “I am what I am. It’s up to you.”

These are frustrating feelings to have. And if you become impatient watching the videos, maybe that’s part of the point.

(Jenna Rutanen, “Artist Statement: Waiting to Belong,” jennarutanen.com)

[illustration from Bechance, at bechance.net, used under a Creative Commons license]

Sprechen Sie Facebook? “Cyber Seniors” Learn a New Language

May 22, 2014 § 1 Comment

They are people worlds apart, speaking different languages, living out cultures foreign to each other, coming together in an unlikely place—in the assisted-living center across town.

Cyber Seniors is the story of teenagers who introduce a group of senior citizens to the internet: to YouTube, Skype, and that “Face something,” you know, the one with the friends.

In her new documentary, Canadian director Saffron Cassaday presents a great picture of learning, communicating, expanding horizons—and culture shock. It’s what crossing cultures is all about.

It’s so much fun to watch, and it’s got to be a lot of fun to join in.

How’s this for cross-cultural communication? It’s hard to ask questions when you’re not bilingual.

And here we see that you really are never too old—or too young—to learn a thing or two. Hallelujah!

These clips leave me with the question, When the two groups go “home,” what does reverse culture shock look like?

Repost – You Remember You’re a Repat when . . . (Part 1)

January 7, 2014 § 7 Comments

Repatriation—to borrow a phrase from John Denver—is coming home to a place you’ve never been before.

Here’s a repost from my first year blogging, with 92 things that remind repats that they’ve been out of the country for a while. As time goes by, more and more of them are happening less and less for me. But some will never go away.

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In the hallowed tradition of “You Know You’re an Expat / Third Culture Kid / Missionary when . . .” lists, I offer my own version for repats. This is for the times when you’re reminded that your plug doesn’t always fit the outlet.

Since I’m a former missionary to Asia who’s repatriated back to the US, a lot of my list leans in that direction, but I hope there’s something here for repats of every stripe (or voltage, as it were).

You remember you’re a repat when . . .

1. Your passport is your preferred form of ID.
2. You comment on how cheap gas is in the US.
3. You ask your friends who they’re picking to win the World Cup.
4. Your CNN web page is set on “International.”
5. You accidentally try to pay for something with the strange coins from the top of your dresser.
6. You don’t trust your friends when they say they’ve found a “good” Italian restaurant.
7. You ask the clerk at the convenience store if you can pay your electric bill there.
8. You don’t know how to fill out taxes without Form 2555.
9. You think Americans are loud.
10. You talk about Americans overseas and call them “foreigners.”
11. You find out that living overseas is not the top qualification employers are looking for.
12. You learn to stop talking about the nanny and groundskeeper you used to employ.
13. You have to ask how to write a check.
14. You forgot how many numbers to dial for a local phone call.
15. You tell your toddler, “No seaweed until you finish all your hamburger.”
16. You try to order fried chicken at Burger King.
17. You check prices by converting from what a similar item cost overseas.
18. You think American paper money is boring because it lacks color and the bills are all the same size.
19. You don’t know how to respond when people say, “I bet you’re glad to be back home.”
20. You prefer to hear news reports from someone with a British accent.
21. You wonder why all the commentators on TV are yelling.
22. You wish you’d brought back ten of your favorite kitchen utensil because you didn’t know it’s not sold in the States.
23. You realize international students are you’re kind of people.
24. You ask where you can get a late-model, low-mileage Toyota for around $2000.
25. You turn on the subtitles on an English movie because you don’t want to miss anything.
26. You ask the clerk at the video store if they have VCDs.
27. You wonder if organization should be spelled with an s.
28. You load up your suitcase and you try not to “pack like an American.”
29. You stop bringing your bi-lingual Bible to church.
30. You smirk inside because someone calls a 4.3 earthquake “a big one.”

(Part 2Part 3)

[top photo: “Electrical Outlet,” by grendelkhan, used under a Creative Commons license; bottom photo: “Having It Both Ways,” by Keith Williamson, used under a Creative Commons license]

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