Culture Stress, when There’s No Hook to Hang It On

by Craig Thompson on April 22, 2016

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When most people open up their closets in the morning, they usually ignore the out-of-style shirts on the edge, the wrong-color sweaters, the too-tight pants. Instead, as much as they can, they grab something that looks right, something that fits right, something that feels right.

When you transition between countries, your cultural closets get switched. Your choices become limited, and you often have to put on things you’d rather not wear. You’ve given up comfort for other purposes. Some of this discomfort is just an annoyance, like a scratchy tag inside the collar of your shirt. But some can seem unworkable, like that same shirt two sizes too small.

It’s the Water and the Dirt

When I and my family moved overseas, we weren’t surprised by culture stress. We may not have been fully prepared, but we weren’t surprised. What did surprise us, though, was that we couldn’t always identify the causes of our irritation and pain.

For many stressors, you know just what hook to hang them on. Singing at church feels a little off? It’s because everybody’s clapping on a different beat than you are. Can’t sleep? That’s because of the all-night traffic outside your window. Nagging cough? Pollution.

Being able to name a problem helps us sort things out. It gives us vocabulary for talking about it with others. It helps us better understand our new home and ourselves. It helps us find solutions. It helps us cope.

But sometimes, there is no hook, at least not an obvious one.

A few months after we landed in Taipei, my wife developed a “cold,” a cold that lasted on and off for over a year. Our doctor couldn’t find a solution and none of his remedies helped (one medicine caused her heart to race). Finally, he diagnosed her with shui tu bu fu, which can be translated as “not acclimated to the water and soil.” That’s odd, because we didn’t drink the water, and with all the concrete, and we rarely saw the soil.

Shui tu bu fu may have been the most accurate description for her illness, but it wasn’t very comforting. For us it had a simple meaning: we can’t explain it, and the only cure is getting used to Taiwan. (Add vague diagnoses to our cultural stressors.)

Over time, she did get better, but it’s hard to suffer without knowing the cause. With culture stress, even when a cure isn’t evident, we’d like to know the why. Without the why, it can start to seem, at least to others, that the symptoms aren’t real. A tombstone that reads “I told you I was sick” is hardly a victory.

Heavy Pockets

Culture stress is cumulative over time. That’s one of the reasons I prefer the term culture stress over culture shock. To me, culture shock brings up images of being brought to your knees by a great weight—for example, an enormous wool coat with its pockets full of bricks. Culture stress includes that heavy coat and also a jacket with a pebble added to its pockets each day. Bricks are obvious; pebbles, not always, but they can weigh you down just the same.

Of course, not every feeling of frustration or malaise is caused by culture stress. Often, we bring our own ill-fitting wardrobe with us and adjusting to a new setting brings that to the forefront.

Sometimes our feelings come from a combination of multiple causes, with or without identifiable hooks, and at times, they can seem overwhelming. If everything rubs you the wrong way and you find yourself having an “I hate (insert name of host country here) day,” don’t beat yourself up. You’re not alone. It happens. Also, understand that those days are equal opportunity when it comes to place. You may find yourself having an “I hate (insert name of passport country here) day,” too. Reverse culture stress is equally real—and can be equally frustrating to pinpoint.

In whatever form, culture stress is normal. So is it normal to be faced with confusion when going through it. Give yourself time. Give grace to your host culture, and use the same grace for yourself. That time and grace will change you. They will give you the ability to tolerate, accept, and embrace, and to be able to say, “I love this place!”

The Aches of This World

London-born author Tahir Shah makes his living writing about travel and crossing cultures. In his book In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams, he tells about his life after moving to a dilapidated mansion in a Casablanca shantytown. He writes,

Settling into a new country is like getting used to a new pair of shoes. At first they pinch a little, but you like the way they look, so you carry on. The longer you have them, the more comfortable they become. Until one day without realizing it you reach a glorious plateau. Wearing those shoes is like wearing no shoes at all. The more scuffed they get, the more you love them and the more you can’t imagine life without them.

This is the goal when one makes a new country home, this feeling of shoelessness, but it’s not always possible. Some pinches we never get used to, and some we shouldn’t. We should never become comfortable with gross injustices: racism, human trafficking, child abuse, and the like. We want to get rid of the feeling of different, but the pains and the aches are needful reminders that all is not right, and this regardless of the earthly locale. As Paul writes, “Our citizenship is in heaven,” not in this world.

Paul’s writing also shows us that “wearing” our home is an idea that should not be foreign to Christians. In 2 Corinthians, Paul says,

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

“We groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling.” This move goes beyond new clothes for our bodies, it necessitates new bodies for our souls. So if on earth we are not comfortable even in our own skins, how can we expect to be completely comfortable in the trappings of any culture?

Someday when we put on heaven, we’ll truly be home. There will be no more groaning, no more culture stress, no more painful shoes, no more stiff collars, no more weighted pockets . . . and no more need for hooks.

(Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams, Bantam, 2008; Philippians 3:20, 2 Corinthians 5:1-5, NIV)

[photo: “038,” by glassghost, used under a Creative Commons license]

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About Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.
  • Shonda Milmore

    I love following your blog! This is the part that spoke to me the most. “In whatever form, culture stress is normal. So is it normal to be faced with confusion when going through it. Give yourself time. Give grace to your host culture, and use the same grace for yourself. That time and grace will change you. They will give you the ability to tolerate, accept, and embrace, and to be able to say, “I love this place!”

    My husband and I will be traveling to Thailand to serve with a nonprofit that prevents child sex traffiking. We are planning on leaving in September 2016, and be there at least 10 years. So your blog posts are VERY TIMELY for me. Many of the things you right about have crossed my mind…like giving myself grace just as I give grace to others.

    Thank you for sharing!!

    • Craig Thompson

      Glad that you’re helped by the writing here. Thanks, Shonda, for your encouragement. And thanks for the work you’ll be doing. May God bless you as you prepare and as you go.

    • Jenny Gentry

      Praying for you and your husband as you serve in that capacity, Shonda. I love hearing of other prevention missionaries/workers (I am a trainer with a trafficking prevention ministry, though our focus is more on education and equipping), as we rarely hear about them. In fact, my organization actually has trainers in the Bangkok region of Thailand. May God bless you both.

  • Jenny Gentry

    I absolutely loved this article. Just the title alone grabbed my attention and brought back feelings from my worst experiences. Before we left for language school, we’d been prepared by our sending agency to expect bouts of culture shock. I thought I was prepared. But after landing in a second-world country for language school, having no car, and realizing that we must patronize 10 different stores to furnish our house–at prices beyond what we were accustomed to–and in a language I didn’t know, I had a pretty big melt down. That was definitely a culture shock moment for me. But hey, I got it out of the way pretty quickly, and things would be great once we actually reached our country of service, right? I was so naive. Lol! It never occurred to me that culture shock can also be like the slowly building stress you described. So when I began noticing that I was increasingly angry, short-tempered, over emotional, and completely disliked anything to do with the language of the country we were in, my first response was to begin questioning my calling. Had we really heard God correctly? Was He really calling us to this country for these ministries? Needless to say, I cried a lot that day, and then really began to pray. God led me to Google ‘culture stress’, and helped me to recognize what was happening to me. Not 3 weeks later, while taking my visiting director around ministry sites, God reaffirmed the individual calling He’d placed on my life as well as the calling He’d given to both my husband and me with regard to the country we served in. Since then, I’ve learned something very important about preventing culture stress. I wasn’t shoring up my defenses as I should’ve been. I was neglecting my spiritual life, physical health, and emotional well-being. It’s no wonder I left myself wide open for this incident! Thank you for raising awareness about this very real issue in the life of anyone who lives and ministers outside of their passport countries.

    • Craig Thompson

      Thanks for sharing your story, Jenny. I think that most of us at some point think, “Culture shock . . . glad that’s over with.” But we need to understand that it can last for a long time and doesn’t always make sense. “Increasingly angry, short-tempered, over emotional, and completely disliked anything to do with the language” – hmmmm, sounds familiar.

  • Elizabeth Trotter

    This is so great, Craig, thanks for sharing. I was particularly struck by the diagnosis “not acclimated to the water and soil.” It’s such a great way to describe culture stress — we’re just not from around here. Sounds like that Chinese phrase has become a symbol (I do love symbols) of culture shock and stress for you, and now it can be for the rest of us as well!

    • Craig Thompson

      Yeah, if we could just find a place without soil and water, we’d be set.

      • Elizabeth Trotter

        Ha!

  • Wendy Marshall

    I wrote an article about this that was published at http://www.thriveconnection.com: http://thriveconnection.com/2015/05/05/cross-cultural-stress/, including ways that we can manage that stress.

    • Craig Thompson

      Great post, Wendy. We can all use help on coping with culture stress.

  • I love this conclusion: “So if on earth we are not comfortable even in our own skins, how can we expect to be completely comfortable in the trappings of any culture?”

    I think one of the greatest things we get to learn in this strange life of living cross-culturally for Jesus is the ability to keep encouraged and stay thriving in Him, in spite of our continually trying circumstances. The rub, the suffering, drives us closer to him! 🙂

    I also wrote a little thing about staying encouraged in the face of constant trial at https://mark4.co/articles/still-happy/

    • Craig Thompson

      Thanks, Penn, for joining the conversation. Blessings as you continue serving Jesu abroad – or wherever you find yourself.

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