Overcoming culture shock on your mission trip

Overcoming Culture Shock

culture shock
noun: culture shock

the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes. Wikipedia

The term culture shock is one many missionaries and volunteers would come across before their travels to a new destination and in many cases it remains only a ‘term’ or concept on a piece of paper. But if you understand what it is about and how to recognise it, it may be an important issue to address in order for you to contribute and serve with your whole heart during your outreach.

In Thomas Hale’s book, ‘On being a missionary’, he addresses culture shock in a practical way. The bottom line is that if it is not recognised and dealt with, many volunteers in the mission field end up leaving sooner than they planned.

Of course culture shock is not just bad – it means that you are in touch with your new surroundings, and aids you in relying on your new host family where you are serving. But it can be quite severe to some and even lead to ‘physical fatigue, discouragement, depression and a tendency to blame fellow missionaries for problems.’ In some cases it even develops into bitterness and eventually resentment toward the people you are actually seeking to serve. So Hale provides some tips to overcome this:

1. Recognise it
If you pick up on the signs you are able to do something about it in time. It sneaks up on you quite fast! Hale compares it to a python in the grass – before you know it, culture shock has its grip on you and stops you from breathing.

2. Pray for God’s grace
This should be a number one priority before, throughout and after your trip. Pray for God to prepare you for dealing with your own struggles and with those around you.

3. Adjust as much as possible
You have to accept your new home and the circumstances. Make do with what you have and accept that you are not in control of your own life and surrounding – but rather that God is.

4. Create a circle of friends
Make sure that the people you work with become your friends. Be open with them and share from your life, and they will feel more comfortable sharing theirs with you. This friendship helps you feel like you belong.

5. Put yourself in a local’s shoes
Always keep perspective. You come from a different background and in the local circumstances you will still experience things differently than a local. Understand local customs and their practical applications and see how it makes sense to apply it in these unique circumstances.

6. Maintain an attitude of exploration and adventure
It is extremely important to remember this. If you maintain this attitude, it will help you to find good stories in the things that may otherwise seem menial and tiring.

7. Maintain close links with fellow missionaries
This gives you a chance to experience a little bit of your own culture. By reaching out to missionaries at other projects, you maintain friendships and create opportunities for get-togethers, which helps you feel less isolated.

8. Don’t take yourself too seriously
Don’t walk around trying to show that you know it all. When you become less worried about your image, it becomes easier to make a ‘fool’ of yourself. In other words, you may allow yourself to be more vulnerable and hence you are more open to trying to learn the local language and customs. And incidents which would usually seem embarrassing become good stories to share.

9. Learn the language
This is a tough one and really depends on the amount of time you spend in an area. But it is always worth learning as much as you can in the local language, to make it easier to find your way in every day life and also to connect more with the local people you are serving.

So overcoming culture shock is just as much about recognising it than about making sure you do all you can to adjust into your new environment. At the end of the day it is especially about being open to learning and letting go of preconceived perceptions.


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