Saturday, 25 June 2016

Unmasking culture shock

Last week, we thought we had bought a car. We had seen it, driven it, discussed the currency of payment, yet a few days later when we went to finalise the payment, we discovered it had been sold to somebody else. That kind of thing happens all over the world, in relation to cars, goods and houses. In England I discovered there is even a word for it in relation to houses: gazumped. And that was pretty much how I felt.

I was upset. I had started to imagine some things which might be a little easier with a car. I had started to plan in my mind trips out of the city. Being able to move places without a long dusty walk and a squashed minibus ride or two (usually my four children and I occupy two seats, but occasionally the conductor squeezes us onto a single seat. It gets hot). But as I berated myself for being upset over something as inanimate and trivial as a car, I came to realise that how I felt was a symptom of something more.

Suddenly I just wanted to be home. For a moment, through deeply rose tinted glasses, everything in the UK seemed immensely appealing. Through the skewed retrospectoscope, every transaction seemed simple and uncomplicated and everybody was always transparent and helpful. Whereas for me, I felt frustration regarding all the things a car would help me with. Regular power cuts and water cuts. Dodgy electrics and plumbing. Social isolation and cultural misunderstandings. Lack of access to libraries, museums, art galleries, parks and beaches. A car would of course have fixed all that and now my hopes were scuppered.

I write facetiously, but in fact the incident of the car was helpful in revealing some things going on beneath the surface. I have known culture shock before, and have read about it. I have experienced reverse culture shock and published articles on it. I therefore kind of assumed that this knowledge and the understanding and expectation that it might occur would somehow protect me against it.

There has been much written about the process of culture shock, but I thought a diagram would be helpful, such as the one found here. From that, I would say that I've bypassed the initial culture shock stage - we've lived in Africa before, and are used to settling with our family in unfamiliar settings, so I think some of the superficial 'shock' was not there (power and water cuts are normal, we have no worries about insects all over the place, we are used to being stared at). But from that diagram, you can see there is a second phase of confronting some of the deeper issues, and maybe that's where I am now.

However, as much as you read, as with any process, people don't neatly fit into boxes or into curves on a chart. Examples of people who have written about that are here and here. Grief can be like that too - there are well described stages of shock, anger, denial and adjustment, but even in the adjustment phase, you can still be hit by an unexpected wave of shock or anger. But the descriptions, and realising that many others have experienced unexpected waves, is helpful. One of the best blogs I have come across dealing with many issues including adapting to new cultures is the shared missions blog, A Life Overseas. If you are interested in these issues, and how cross cultural living affects all areas of life for both ourselves and our families, I'd recommend you subscribe.

The extreme frustration I felt over the car incident was really just a symptom of ongoing disquiet, and to be honest, I've felt a little unsettled for a couple of months. Some of it is simple tiredness after a busy schedule, many deadlines, a fair bit of overseas travel and adopting a new baby. But some of it is to do with still feeling strange in this new home. Superficial things are fine - we can find our way around quite easily, we've had no difficulty adjusting to the local diet (it is not difficult to adjust to abundant fresh fruit and vegetables!), we are settled and finding increasing ways to serve in our local church, we know our neighbours well and have many acquaintances. We are involved in a number of activities for the children, and I enjoy nattering to the other parents whilst the children do sports, choir or whatever. But what I miss is feeling totally at ease, finding things come naturally and having the level of relationship where I don't feel I have to take care with how things are phrased and where I can freely use humour without fear of getting it wrong. I'd like to go for a walk with the children without being stared at, having people ask me if my two ethnically African children are actually mine, without motorcycle taxis pulling in at every opportunity to offer us a ride (five of us - really?). To be able to stop without people coming and asking for things. To have roads with pavements and safe places to cross so I don't have to be hyper-vigilant with the children. To have a system of public transport which has space and feels safe. These are really small things and I accept that. But I think it is important to acknowledge them, because these small things can build up until you find yourself crying over a car!

I've not spoken about how I had been feeling because it seems trivial. I can rationalise away how I feel. I know that nothing that I have described is a real hardship, and compared with many cross-cultural settings, things are relatively straightforward here. Also, I resolve to look at the positive things. I'll often tell my children to enjoy the things they can get in England when they are in England (apples, cheese, cold mornings, public parks) and to enjoy the things they can get in African when in Africa (hours of outdoor play, mangoes and pineapples that people back home could not even imagine, avocados which fall right outside our front door). I try to have this positive mindset. But the truth is, waves of homesickness do come, and whilst there is no place for self-pity, they should be acknowledged.

In closing I find it helpful to remember the compassionate heart of God our Father towards us. He knows when we feel unsettled and upset, and wishes to comfort and provide for us. Even if we cannot talk things through, we have a heavenly Father who cares deeply for us.

'Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!' Matthew 7:9-11

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