CULTURE SHOCK! (yes, it still happens at 6 months)

by Editor on March 1, 2017

By Beth Barthelemy

It’s been almost six months since we stepped off the plane and onto South African soil. Six months of glorious new experiences, of meeting new people and trying new foods, of seeing new sights and relishing (mostly) sunny weather… and six months of that dreaded companion known to all cross-cultural workers: culture shock.

This is how it looks for me right now.

I thought our new dryer was broken, so I called the store we bought it from and they sent out a repair man. He looked at me like I was an idiot when he explained that there is nothing wrong with this dryer – it’s working perfectly fine. “It’s supposed to stop and start like that, the whole cycle?” I asked. “Yes, that’s how it works,” he said. “Oh. Well, why does it run for three hours when I set it for a 40 minute cycle?” I prodded further, still thinking something was wrong with it. “Because it will stop for 5 minutes when the cycle is finished, and if you don’t stop it, it will start the cycle over again,” he explained, eyeing me. “Oh” I said again. I have done hundreds of loads of laundry in my life, maybe thousands, I thought, I’m not an idiot! I know how to work dryers… in my country.

One morning, I see beautiful pictures of the first snow back in Chicago. Here, it is beautifully warm, and I’m trying to be so thankful for the lovely weather, but really, I just miss snow, because it’s February, and I’ve always known snow in February. My oldest daughter has been asking when it will snow, and when she can make a snowman, and when she can go sledding, and where her snow pants and snow boots are, because she loves snow. I’ve told her it probably won’t snow here, and together we shared real disappointment. So I close Facebook and Instagram for now, because it’s just hard to see. And I miss snow. (I know, call me crazy.)

If I am out and about with the girls, especially the little ones, people will randomly come and pick them up. At first, this scared the living daylights out of me, as you can probably understand. Now I know it’s just sweet ladies being affectionate and loving on my kids. If the littlest one is happy, they may even walk her around the store while I try to shop and keep an eye on where she is.

It could be another 21 days before our internet gets hooked up, they said on the phone. Oh, we say, this is another one of those TIA (This Is Africa) things. I take deep breaths.

I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how to keep the girls’ clothes clean. I have tried several different kinds of stain removers here, and nothing seems to work, and there is so much mud. Their clothes are getting ruined, but they are only clothes, so it’s okay, I think? But I wish I could just drive to Target and buy some OxiClean, because, for us, that always worked. But it’s only clothes.

Why don’t the light bulbs sit solidly in the lamps? Every time I open my dresser, the light flickers. Am I doing something wrong here?

In the grocery store the other day, we had all the kids, who were squirrely because it was almost dinner time, and I kept walking up and down the aisles, looking for… beef and vegetable broth. I could not find it. I stood in the soup aisle, and tears filled my eyes as I tried to read all the labels to figure out what these boxes were full of. Finally, I just grabbed something, and am hoping it will work. I think maybe I need to make my own broth.

A few months back, it was American Thanksgiving, and we saw so many great pictures of our friends and families celebrating. I knew the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade was about to start, and I heard it was chilly, so I thought about warm sweaters and crackling fires. It was 81 degrees here, and we had a full day of all the normal language study activities, and I had an appointment late in the afternoon. It’s a holiday in my home country, I thought, like a secret I was carrying. Very late in the game, we invited our fellow American coworkers over for roast beef, and I threw together a pumpkin pie in a cake pan with butternut squash, and we had a meaningful time together. I’m so glad we did.

My daughters are, for the most part, adjusting so well to their new environment. Partly, I think, this is because they are so young, and honestly, do not understand all the losses. So we are helping them with that. But yesterday, I thought, if they talk about their plans to go to Moriah’s house and Micah’s house and Grandma and Grandpa’s house one more time, I’m going to fall apart. I tell them, “Yes, we will, it will just be quite awhile. Do you remember how we had to take three airplanes to get here? We will have to take three airplanes back to see Moriah, and Micah, and Grandma and Grandpa, and all the other people we love in the US.” They understand, sort of, and are not sad, because for them, “quite awhile” could be just a week, or a month or something. They don’t know it will be years. I just carry that for them.

Anytime I see a little girl with her grandma, I look away quickly, but my eyes fill with tears. Anytime I see a mom with her adult daughter, I have to start deep breathing exercises. Anytime I see friends having coffee together, I feel incredibly lonely.

Basically, culture shock right now feels like I do not know how to do quite a lot of things here that I could do well, without evening thinking about it, in my home country (like getting stains out of and drying clothes!). I am like a child, here, in this culture, learning how to do life all over again.

We recently had a truly lovely day, with windows wide open and a nice breeze and warm sun – it was perfect, for July. I knew it would be a challenge to change my internal seasonal “clock” and it is. It will come, I know it will. Day by day we are learning more about how to not just survive, but truly enjoy our new life here. We remind ourselves to be patient.

I remember what Jesus says in Matthew 18:3-4: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Here I am, more like a child than I ever wanted to be, more dependent and fragile and unsure of myself than ever — and though not really out of choice, more humble too. Yet in all these things, I thank my Lord, for they lead me more and more to rely on Him each day.

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Beth Barthelemy is a wife, mother to three young children, and cross cultural worker. She and her husband, Ben, moved to South Africa in 2016 to be involved in teaching and discipling future Christian leaders. She has an MA in Christian Studies from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. You can find her at www.bbbarthelemy.blogspot.com and www.instagram.com/bethbarthelemy.

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  • Still happens at 6 months? Of course. I seem to remember hearing that 6 months is one of the big bumps in the culture shock road. Hang in there! It sounds like you’re doing a great job already.

    • Beth Barthelemy

      Thanks for this comment, Phyllis. Yes, hopefully it’s uphill from here? 😉

  • Kristin Freudenthal

    I moved to South Africa last year as well. And I can relate to so many of these struggles! Thank you for voicing them better than I ever could! Stay strong, girl! God sees you and He’s got you!

    • Beth Barthelemy

      Thank you, Kristin! Glad to share in this with you. 🙂 And yes, God continues to give us the strength we need!

  • My sister in law lives in South Africa too. She makes it seem so easy so it’s kind of nice to hear about how it might actually be! Well, maybe that’s not fair, they complain about the internet and have things stolen all the time too. But they also have house help and have been in Swaziland for 2 years before the current 2 in SA, so I think maybe it’s a step up for them. 😉

    • Beth Barthelemy

      It’s so much about perspective, isn’t it? I expected transitioning to SA to be on the “easier” side of the culture shock spectrum, as I’ve lived (short-term) in much more “difficult” settings. But really, I think no matter where you are transitioning, it’s bound to be difficult at times. Glad your sister-in-law seems to be doing well!

  • bumis smichele

    Six to nine months is often the hardest time… I think because it’s really sinking in that you have to make this home and you feel like you should be catching on to stuff, but instead you’re just realizing how much you don’t know. Press on! One day soon you’ll realize it does feel like home, and though there are always strange tensions in this life, you’ll soon be unable to imagine being anywhere else!

    • Beth Barthelemy

      Yes, so true! Thanks for this comment!

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