Beyond Culture Shock: Culture Pain, Culture Stripping

by Rachel Pieh Jones on January 4, 2013

Expatriates are told to prepare for Culture Shock and expect to experience it within their first year.

But what about after that year? What about after seven years? Nine? Fifteen? What about the frustrations and tears, hurt and stress, internal (or external) cries for ‘home’? What about those days when you will do anything to

After the first year, I thought I was free from culture shock. Now I would delve deep, adapt, feel more local than foreign. So when I continued to struggle with cultural issues and when that struggle increased and peaked around year seven, I thought I was crazy. Failing. The Only One.

This wasn’t culture shock, I had moved well beyond shock. So what was it? I discovered that two things happen, after culture shock, as we root in a land not our own, as we love hard and get involved and take risks.

  • Culture Pain

Culture pain comes when the difficult, or different, or confusing aspects of a new culture begin to affect you at a deep, personal level. Living overseas is really your life now. This is your past, your present, your future. This is where your children learned to walk and ride bikes, where you laugh and grieve and build a tapestry of memories.

Things like corruption and poor health care, attitudes toward HIV, education of girls, adoption, or poverty, religious rituals, children’s rites of passage, are not theoretical anymore. This is now you giving birth, your daughter in the classroom, your adoption papers misplaced, your coworker recently diagnosed. These issues are now yours to navigate. And sometimes, that hurts.

  • Culture Stripping

Culture stripping begins the moment you touch the earth in this new place. It doesn’t stop. Ever. Not even when you return to your passport country. Culture stripping forever changes who you are.

Culture stripping is the slow peeling back of layers and layers of self. You give up pork. You give up wearing blue jeans. You give up holidays with relatives. And those are the easy things. Your ideas about politics and faith and family, your sense of humor and taste in clothes, the books you read, evolve and change. Even, potentially, your outlook on spirituality.

You have little instinctive protective layers between you and the world. Buffers like fluency, shared history, family, no longer buoy you. You are learning, but you will never be local. And so you also are stripped of the idealized image of yourself as a local.

This also hurts, but it is a good, purposeful pain. 

Kind of like Eustace in C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He was turned into a dragon and failed to get rid of the scales on his own but Aslan comes.

“That very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when we began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’d ever felt…he peeled the beastly stuff right off…and there it was lying on the grass…and there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been…I’d been turned into a boy again. You’d think me simply phony if I told you how I felt about my own arms. I know they’re no muscle and are pretty mouldy compared with Caspian’s, but I was so glad to see them.”

  • Glad for it

The arms, the new self, this new way of living and seeing the world look different than before you moved overseas. Not perfect, not like anyone else’s, and still sensitive. But different because the shock, the pain, the stripping, have changed you.

And you are glad to see it.

Have you experienced Culture Pain? Culture Stripping? Culture Shock? Did one surprise you more than the others? Linger longer? Cut deeper?

 -Rachel Pieh Jones, development worker, Djibouti

                         Blog: Djibouti Jones, Twitter: @RachelPiehJones, Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones


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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • Rachel, your writing is a balm for my soul!!!! The story of Eustace and Aslan has always been one of my favorite word pictures. At almost 7 years overseas, I think I should be ‘there’ by now but I am so far.

    • Glad to hear it Sherry. There is so much depth and richness and beauty in Narnia, isn’t there? We listen to the audiobooks as a family and I can’t make it through hardly any of the books without crying.

  • As a domestic urban missionary, I resonate with everything that you’ve shared here-it just looks a bit different! Thank you for helping me feel more okay, more normal this morning as I wrestle through these intense emotions!

    • It IS intense. I find myself continuing to deal with these things and one of the reasons I felt led to write about it here was because I need the encouragement from people like you to remind myself that I’m not alone. Even though the details differ for people, we share these kinds of deep currents.

  • Having now been in England for 2 years, I’m beginning to experience some of these things… a lot different than what you have described, though! Thank you for sharing!!

    I see myself experiencing some culture stripping right now. It’s difficult because I tend to notice how the culture in England has changed me more when we go back to to the US on home assignment than when I’m actually here.

    • I find that true too, Chrysti – not fully realizing how much I’ve changed until I’m back where I’m ‘supposed’ to feel normal. Only I don’t feel so normal anymore.

  • Tanja

    Wow! these words come at an opportune time for me. I am at a point where I am just tired. Sick. and. tired. -of the ongoing risk of malaria in a country where the “best” hospital is dirty, has a bad rumor, and is on strike more days than not. -Of the closing of all the gas stations because the whole capital ran out of diesel. -Of knowing that means we have to ration everything we do, ability to move around freely in our vehicle, ability to turn on our diesel powered generator to pump water and have electricity for the things that are too power consuming for solar. Tired of not knowing if another coup is brewing. Tired of not feeling safe. Tired of my kids missing out on educational opportunities and health care readily available in our passport country. I never knew this word “culture pain”, but I think it pretty much cover what I’m battling right now.

    And the difficult part is… I still want to be here! And I don’t. At the same time. I have so much more to accomplish here yet, but at the same time, I just want to pack a bag and get out of here as fast as possible. There is such a push and pull. And there is the constant, nagging question “but if we left, what in the world would we do with ourselves at “home” in our passport country?” This is where our life is now. Our work. Our vocation.

    • Tanja, I feel like we are having a cup of coffee together, reading each other’s minds. Your comment made me cry because you are speaking the exact words that have been coursing through me this season. On one hand, I am so sorry for what you are struggling with. On the other hand, aren’t we told not be surprised and to count it all joy? But it HURTS! And that’s where the pain comes in (I made up that phrase because it seemed so true). The only reason we still want to be in places like you described is because the strength we are relying on is not from ourselves. I need to keep reminding myself of that. Thank you, thank you for being honest and for putting into words what I’m often afraid to admit.

    • Nikole MacGregor

      “And the difficult part is..I still want to be here! And I don’t. At the same time.”

      I can’t tell you how many times I have said this to family, friends, or my husband. How many times I just want to run home but can’t stand the heartbreaking thought of leaving. Glad I am not the only one who is forever torn between here and there.

      • Yup. The thing I continually go back to is heaven. No torn desires there, we’ll be ALL in! Can’t wait for that feeling of completeness.

  • I just loved this posts, and have a feeling it will be a top post here. Its SO true. I never had much initial culture shock. For me it, came after I spoke the language, had months on the field, and had many friends. The sweet Asians on the street who stopped just to help fill my tank with gas weren’t so sweet after the guy shared that he was broke but wouldn’t accept any money for the water bottles I borrowed off him because he needed to erase his bad karma. All the people giving donations to the school didn’t seem as generous when I could then understand the language and the people shouting “come here and make merit.”

    And then there was the pain aspect. My friend dying of AIDS. My friends crying over war pain.

    • I agree, sometimes it is harder when you really know what is going on/what is being said. Now I understand the horrible insults kids shout. Ouch. And I’m so sorry about your friend dying of AIDS. May God give you comfort as you enter local grief.

  • Laura

    What I love about the community we are a part of as missionaries is that there is a true kinship in our experiences, a fellowship in knowing that others “get it”. It is always an encouragement to my spirit to know that I am not alone! And the interesting part is that right now we are living the flip side… and my culture pain is with my “home”, my passport country. We lived abroad just long enough to feel at home in Bolivia, to be forever changed and the return “home” has been so hard and so stripping. I naively thought that coming home would be easier than the initial going, but I was so wrong. Coming back is the realization that I think we all face when we’re home on furlough or home assignment, the understanding that this world is truly not our home. That our time abroad makes us displaced and that our hearts ache and long for our heavenly home. And while that is a peace, a comfort to know that my heavenly home will fulfill places in my heart that this world can never fill, the day to day living in places that are just not “home” can still hurt… Thank you for your transparency!

    • Do you know the Sara Groves song Painting Pictures of Egypt? There is a line that says, “The future looks so hard and I want to go back. But the places that used to fit me cannot hold the things I’ve learned…” I thought of that when you wrote about our heavenly home filling those places in our hearts that this world never can.

    • Laura I *GET* it. My culture shock in the US is brutal. It gets better the more I get back, but I will never, ever belong again. Thanks for getting it with me too.

    • Shay

      Oh my goodness, yes. Not sure if this is the Laura that I know via facebook that used to be in Bolivia, but I can make a good guess that it is you??!! Can’t believe we’re quickly approaching our 2 yr. mark here in Bolivia, but God has already made it very clear that we are to return “home”. I am really, really struggling with this, and every time I begin to think about it or talk about it w/someone, I begin to cry. I’m scared to return stateside. I’m scared because I know I’m not the same person that left there almost 2 years ago. I’m scared because I know that my family isn’t the same. I also know from past experience the struggles and pain you can feel when you’re heart is practically ripped right in two from having to leave a place that has become so beautiful and meaningful to you….and part of you to the core. I’m scared because I think the line from Sara Groves’ song that Rachel posted will come true = “…but the places that used to fit me cannot hold the things I’ve learned…”. It is still just so mind boggling to me that we are going back to the place that we worked so hard to leave years ago, and leaving the place that we worked so hard to get to. I guess this could potentially be another entire discussion…..”leaving the field when you don’t want to, but God is telling you to (or when circumstances force you to)”. I appreciate the encouragement and insight I’ve already received concerning this issue from Laura Parker, personally. What an amazing community!

      • Shay – what a turmoil of emotions, isn’t it? Appreciate your honest about returning. That WOULD be a good conversation to have. We haven’t done it yet, but I’m sure someday we will and I don’t really know what to expect. I’d love to hear what wisdom others have gleaned.

      • Jill

        Hi Shay, Thanks for your post. This is exactly the dilemma that I am facing in the next few months. Have been o/s for 3 years, has been really tough at times, but am seeing some great fruit in the work. But circumstances appear to be closing the door, and looks like I will be heading home after summer. I am so not looking forward to the idea of settling back home…emotional rollercoaster.

  • I think the pain hurts so bad because of that nagging question, “Is it worth it?” We say things like: I can push this child out of me because I know I will have a kid after the whole ordeal. Or: I can do my excruciating physical therapy exercises because I know it will help me heal. I think even the pain of grief after a loss has a purposefulness it. But in the daily grind, at least for me, I find myself weighing the greatness of the pain against the wins. In the beginning years the rush of adventure swallows up the sting of the shock. Hopes fly high as a kite on the string of naivety and the wind of possibilities. Then the pile of defeats starts to loom as tall as those hopes once did and the question comes back, “Is it worth it?” Is it just me, or do you find that to be what makes it hard, too? … Maybe there are more constructive questions I can ask to replace that *one* and ease my voracious analytical brain.

    • So right Angie. This is really helpful and I hadn’t thought it out clearly like that, but it is true. Another great thing about this site – having people help me put words to my struggles. That darn pile of defeats. And the way hope has been swallowed up in discouragement and daily grind. And I find myself answering the ‘is it worth it?’ question with a big, solid, “No” sometimes. So what IS a better question? Maybe redefining what we mean by that first ‘it’? As in: Is Jesus worth it? (instead of a vague sense of ‘it’ or even instead of ‘loving orphans or job creation or food relief or more outwardly religious work’). And then leaning in on, focusing on him? Or maybe changing that persistent question altogether to something like…I don’t know. Any one else have an idea?

      • I’ve always been taught not to ask just simple yes/no questions if you want to get someone to think. But what if you want to get someone (myself) to trust and to fall forward into grace?

        For me, I’ve started avoiding the “worth it” questions – because it only reminds me of what I am giving up and sometimes defeats the purpose. Sometimes I ask myself the questions “Does Jesus Care?” and “Is God using ________ to make a difference in ___________’s life?” And the answer is almost always yes… especially for the second because those differences I can so often see.

        And for those times when I have a hard time answering yes to the first, I return to certain portions of Scripture (Phil 3, Heb 11&12) to let truth seep and sink in… once again.

        • This is good. Does Jesus care? Is God at work? and Can I see it/Where do I see it? And then coming back always, always to truth and the promises. I think I need to write these down and paste them up somewhere I’ll see them often.

        • Trading “Is it worth it?” for “Does Jesus care?” Good idea! I knew there was a better line of questioning at hand. Thanks Richelle.

  • Rachel, I LOVE THIS. You consistently inspire and amaze. The way you write, your experience– gifted. So enjoy reading everything you fling to the world wide web! 🙂

    This, so good. I would imagine that when you hit the wall of not “this is an adventure but I’ll get to go back to normal life” but rather, “this is my LIFE, my FUTURE,” I would think that’s a difficult place to wrestle with.

    Thanks for bravely talking about this reality for long termers . . . . rich on many levels.

    • I don’t know what else to say but a deep, heartfelt, sweaty-morning thank you. The comments here are rich for me too. Of course I know I’m not the only one, but to hear all you lovelies say the same things my heart cries is beauty.

  • Trish

    This article makes SO much sense, thank you for writing it!

  • Brandy Gainor

    Rachel, so good!

  • Lorie Greer

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m an overseas newbie with the expectation of being in West Bengal, India long term. Recently a missionary friend of mine shared that this year(#8) has been the hardest year yet, even harder than the first year. After hearing that my expectations were tweaked a little bit.
    My heart really resonated with your words “…This is your past, your present, your future.” Every so often my husband and I look at each other with a look that says, “This is where we live.” When our son reminisces about his childhood he most likely won’t be looking back at memories of being doted on at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, playing baseball with his buds, summer bbq’s, or fall bonfires, etc…It makes me feel a little sad but at the same time I am “glad for it”.

    • What a blessing that you have someone ahead already sharing these things with you. I remember emailing a friend during year 7 and saying, “Why is it so hard NOW?!” Something interesting about our kids too – their childhood memories won’t mirror our own, but they are still equally treasured childhood memories, if that makes sense. I remind myself of that often and my kids help me – they love it here and are so thankful for the memories we are building as a family.

  • sandyftrz Thank you so much. I’m in year 7 back in my passport country. You just put words to something I have not been able to describe. The restlessness, the new and complicated sense of where home is. The fear of getting stuck. How do I adjust to this new sense of belonging in the States? I can identify with culture pain and culture stripping. Putting words to it provides a door for healing and integration of all my experiences. Thanks!

  • Year seven anniversary this week, I am for sure in one of the toughest streaks/places yet emotionally. Had blamed the confusion on the impeding move of child number two to college in the states … not even sure if that is the core of it but there is something strangely calming about knowing we’re not alone or weird to feel this way.

    • I read these last two comments just this morning. What is it about year 7? Though in the next comment down, it came in year 8. I hear about that in marriages too – the 7 year itch, and experienced it in our own year 7 of living overseas.

      • I tell new missionaries that the 2nd year is the hardest… seen it time and again in this corner of the world. But, yes, after an overview of the comments and feedback it would seem that the 7th and 8th year are also tough. My husband and I recently had a conversation about difficult years. His experience has been different than mine. He can pick out certain years that have been tougher than this last one and years that have been easier. It varies for him. For me, every year has been progressively tougher. Each year piling up on the next. Maybe I need to change something? Eleven years “waiting” for it to get less tough (dare I say ‘easier’) is quite a long while. Hmmm…

        • Maybe it would be just too darn discouraging to hear before even leaving, when you are all pumped up, that it gets progressively harder?! Interesting that this seems to be the case for so many. Press on!

          • Can I just say categorically that I have loved this conversation?! There are so many insights that were sparked here. This is exactly what this site is all about. Rachel, thanks for leading this.

        • Same for my husband and I. Our experience has been that his toughest years have been some of my best and vice versa (hmmm… wonder what that says anything about our marriage?) I’m into my 13th year of “‘waiting’ for it to get less tough…” Sounds nice, but should we really expect that? Just thinking of Jesus’ words in John 16 – maybe my problem is not so much that something is wrong with me because it is tough. Maybe the real problem is my expectation that it shouldnt be?

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  • Thank you for this.

    I have had a hard time articulating these feelings over the past few months, so thank you for helping me look into my heart with some new clarity.

    The pain is hard, but it has been important for me to remember that it is better to keep my heart soft to the pain then to harden it. It is worth it to enter into the pain and the struggle with my community here. It is easier to try and protect myself from it, but it separates me from life here rather than allowing me to learn and grow from it.

    • It is worth it – yes. Easier not to enter it, but worth it. Thanks for sharing.

  • I’m in year four and to answer-yes-yes-yes and it’s hard to say I’m still neck deep in it. Our’s has been a crazy ride for sure. I had a surprise open heart surgery to replace an aortic valve in Paraguay. Two months later my wife was hit but a truck and shattered her femur. She’ll have her 3rd surgery (also in Paraguay) next month near the 2 year anniversary of the accident. Those things have compounded the otherwise “normal” cultural difficulties.

    • Yowsers. That is a TON to add on top of the ‘normal’ cultural adjustments. You guys have been thrust right into the thick of it. Without knowing any more of your story, it is amazing, and a clear sign of grace, that you have stayed. I wonder how much more deeply that will root you to Paraguay!

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  • I’m late in the discussion – but wanted to say this is an excellent piece. I particularly like the parts on culture stripping. What I want to bring up is that for your kids this is home. The place where the shock and the stripping occur will be in their passport countries. 15 years later your first words echo a cry of my heart “What about the frustrations and tears, hurt and stress, internal (or external) cries for ‘home’? What about those days when you will do anything to” …. This week has been one of those weeks where my heart cry is for Pakistan and Egypt even as my body seeks to embrace life in Boston.

    • Nice to have you join in, no matter the timing! I hear you about the kids. For mine, this is really home. We left for a year once and our oldest heard me say, “I just need a break.” She was so shocked to hear that and she said, “Need a break from WHAT?” The transitions all take a toll too – Pakistan to Egypt to Boston, I can only imagine that challenges. Ever in need of grace, right?

      • Yes! I love the way you put that “ever in need of grace…” – just this week I had a guest poster who, though younger than me, also grew up in Pakistan – she did a 2 part piece on TCK arrogance and it was like she gave me a mirror to take a good look inside. A huge part of what I’ve found with TCK’s is we like ourselves better when we’re overseas and I think a big part of that we feel we no longer have to cover up who we are – can embrace it fully. I just found your blog today and so look forward to reading through. Love your heart to communicate that comes through your writing.

        • As a non-TCK trying to raise three TCKs, I appreciate any insights I can gather and this is a good one – feeling more ‘ourselves’ overseas. So interesting. Glad you found the blog.

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  • Casey

    Fantastic post! I lived for 13 years as a kid in the Middle East and while it was all I knew, so much of this range true for how my parents must have felt all those years!

  • Sando84

    I can’t decide whether I am more scared or relieved at the thought of culture-stripping never stopping…! I spent the best part of my twenties outside of my ‘passport home’ between England and Ireland and I am now back in France where I am experiencing all the symptoms of reverse culture shock, culture stripping and culture pain. It’s not a pleasant process and I was looking forward to “getting out of it” bit! I realise now it might never stop so Lord help me, I hope one day to be “Glad for it”. Thanks again for those insights. 🙂 God bless

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  • Liz Schandorff

    I’m late to the conversation but wanted to express my gratitude for this post. After a year on the mission field in Haiti, I’ve passed the initial ‘culture shock’ and have been wondering how to mentally frame the continuing pain of culture adjustment. Thanks for giving me some good language to use to describe this continuing process, and for helping me to understand how normal it is!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Welcome Liz, and thanks for commenting. Great to hear how it encouraged you and gave words.

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  • Researcher

    I think I have gone through a different process. After spending my first 25 years in one house I moved to two different states for graduate school. Then we spent 16 years living with a Native American group. For the last 13 years we have lived outside of the US and have only returned to the US for short visits. We have only spent long periods (longer than a year) in three countries – Cyprus, the Philippines and Romania. But I have spent months in many of the 60 countries I have visited, e.g., I just spent three months in four East African countries.
    After a year or so of being peripatetic I discovered that God had just about taken away my “sense of other”. No place was felling strange anymore. Yes, there are some places with which I am more familiar but in landing in a new place it does not feel strange. I still have a sense of wonder as I see new sights and sites but the strangeness is almost gone – wonder without strangeness. I consider myself to be blessed. I also have friends and favourite foods from many different places.
    I was describing this to someone who very perceptively asked that since I had no “sense of other” then does that mean that I also have no “sense of home”. I am not certain how to answer that.

  • Elizabeth Brasilai

    I am a TCK on my way back to the place of my birth (not my parents’ birthplace, but they do live there). I have been out of country (except for two month-long visits over 12 years ago). I go with my husband and three kids (ages 7 and 5 and 5). I have experienced LOTS of culture stripping AND culture acquisition, and am wondering if anyone can point me to other articles that speak to a return to the place of childhood after much time spent in the other passport country. Looking for the city whose builder and maker is God…

    • Elizabeth Brasilai

      I meant to say I have not lived there for 18 years. I spent my first 20 there.

  • Kate Cottrell

    Was having a rough week and, even after living in Colombia for nearly 3 years, I began searching “how long does culture shock last”. Your concept of culture stripping was a perfect match to what I feel at times. It was so wonderful to read your post, know others have felt this, but also to read a positive perspective on this “good, purposeful pain”. Thank you. I’m no longer questioning my decisions to live here.

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  • David

    “You are learning, but you will never be local. And so you also are stripped of the idealized image of yourself as a local.” As a long time missionary (28 years in a few weeks), this is a very perceptive statement that can be devastating to some when this realization comes. But it is the reality and we have to accept it and do the best we can and go on serving realizing we will never quite fit in. And I might add, we also realize that we no longer fit in the way we once did in our own home country. Thank you!

  • Maggi

    Just commenting to say to those of you who continually blog on this site – you are helping more people than you know. And your words can keep helping, even years after you wrote them. I will be sending out the link to this post to several of my friends. Thank you so much for the time, thought and effort you put into this (this post and this site as a whole). It’s an absolutely incredible resource!

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