The Beast of Culture Shock

by Laura Parker on December 6, 2012

Culture Shock can be a beast. It can be an unexpected, slow drain that leaves you stressed and angry without really knowing why. This culture shock typically hits hardest during the first year of living overseas, but it can creep back in unexpectedly after a furlough or a vacation or even 6 straight hours at immigration in a foreign country (we all know how fun that can be).

My husband and I said that culture shock was like learning to live on 50% oxygen. People also say that the process of adjusting to a new culture is a bit like going through the stages of grief. In this vlog, which I made almost a year and a half ago, I talk about our own process of dealing with culture shock in SE Asia.

(Subscribers may need to click through to the site to view the above video)

Thoughts? How has culture shock affected you or your kids? How do you handle it? Funny stories, advice, tips? 

More on Culture Shock: Stressed Out Missionary (LauraParkerBlog)  |  5 Mistakes I Made My First Year on the Field

~ Laura Parker,  former humanitarian worker in SE Asia

blog:  LauraParkerBlog     twitter: @LauraParkerBlog     work:  The Exodus Road


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About Laura Parker

Living on three continents and moving 15 times in 15 years of marriage, Laura is no stranger to transition. Recently living in SE Asia with her family, Laura now serves as the VP of a counter-trafficking organization which her husband began, The Exodus Road. Laura is the co-founder and editor here at A Life Overseas and writes at her blog,
  • Funny when I went to the states for the first time in two years (first time outside Asia in two years), I told my family, who couldn’t understand why I was so disoriented and feeling very disconnected from the past, that I felt like I was living on 30% oxygen while everyone else got there 100%. That is literally what it feels like. Good analogy.

    • Funny how culture shock can happen both overseas AND in your home country.

    • We have a trip scheduled home in late February. We will have been here a little over a year. I am already stressing about it internally. I feel like we just passed the first hump here of inculturation. I don’t want to feel like a stranger at home and yet I don’t want to be comfortable there either. It’s always a battle to keep our sights set on the fact that however hard we work to fit into a place, we are always sojourners.

      • Always. Sojourners.

        Yes, for all of us. Until heaven, right?

  • This is a such a great resource for people of every stage of missionary work, Laura. Thanks for taking the time to make it and get it out to the people.

  • Duane & Carin Guthrie

    Hey there! Thanks for this topic and I went over to your original blog Laura and read your article “stressed out missionary” and wonder what kind of discussion thread could be started about burn out…..when we go from stressed out to burn-out. The stats about the stress level numbers being 600 and above for missionaries always shocks me and I wonder how long we can sustain those numbers until we crack? Now I am aware that our cracks are opportunities for God to work great things in our lives, but while you are going through them it is just exhausting. When getting any sleep is a problem, when a trip away for a few days is not enough….

    • YES, we definitely need to do a whole long series on stress and its cumulative effects, bc it is very much a big deal.

    • An organization with whom I work just in the last two weeks had everyone complete a survey to measure “burn out” status. We were given a threshold number and told if we scored above that number, we needed to talk to one of the two counselors available… or at least let them know that our score was on the high side. I was surprised at how high mine was (well above the threshold given) and yet I don’t feel like anything extraordinary is taking place that would send that number any higher than normal. That’s a little sobering. I wonder how many of us are “coping” with a significant stress level and are, for the most part, unaware that that is even abnormal?

  • I felt like I hit another low around 7 years in, which really surprised me but when I talked with other people who have lived overseas for a decade or longer, that seemed fairly common. That probably isn’t culture shock exactly though and I started to call it culture pain, as layers and layers of self got peeled back. Like Eustace when Aslan peels off his dragon skin.

    • Ooh! I like that… the scraping of Esutace’s dragon scales. Perfect illustration on so many levels!

      I seemed to hit some deep scraping when we delved into adopting our Bolivian daughter. It hit me how engrained certain mindsets are (i.e.: compassion is bad, orphans bring shame on our nation, adoptions to have a maid or houseboy, the trafficking, the bribes, the abuse of power, etc.). Spent some dark days curled up in bed on a number of occasions those few years. And that was after we had been in Bolivia for 9 years.

      Common. Yes. Comfortable. NO. But comfort is overrated, right?

      • Yes, Rachel, I LOVED that image of scraping the dragon scales. And Angie, I can only imagine the walls you must have hit with the adoption and how suddenly things that you could ignore really started affecting your future and your family. That’s a hard wrestling.

        • I think the deeper in a person goes in a culture, the more gets unveiled, like in your case, Angie. And, like you said Laura, you suddenly realize, This is really my life now. It wasn’t an adventure, it wasn’t a flash in the pan. This is my past, present, and, probably, future. And for some reason, that shook me. Those two things in combo are really rough.

          • another thing – just like Laura said, when things you used to be able to ignore now start to affect you personally, not just theoretically, that brings the culture pain to a whole new level. The adoption is a perfect example of that. And yet, it bonds you so deeply to a place too. Now you have a Bolivian daughter and all the story of God that goes into that. Amazing.

          • Bond is a good word. Know why? Because it has a cozy overture, but the true definition is like bound, glued, stuck, even, bondage. I can’t ever imagine untwisting my being from this place and it’s people. We are bound together so intimately. Healthy? I don’t know. Friends of ours are in the States making the transition from 10 years of ministry in Botswana to a new life in the Philippines. I couldn’t imagine trying to unhook from our lives here, and we have been here just 11 years.

            Laura, you said, “I guess after the five year mark, you just begin really getting tired of living overseas?” Not the case for me. Quite the opposite, in fact, at least for me.

          • Rachel, I like that idea:

            That the more we struggle to live in a new place, the more we fight through the realities of the other culture, the more deeply we are bonded to it.

    • Hmmm . . . really interesting. I like that term “culture pain– as layers and layers of self got peeled back.” I guess after the five year mark, you just begin really getting tired of living overseas? The honeymoon has loooonngg since past by then, and the idea of having “this” really be your home for the long-haul and the realities of that start to set in? I don’t know. It’d be interesting to see if there is a study about that somewhere . . .

    • My husband and I both hit lows several years within our missions experience as well. Thankfully, we didn’t both crash at the same time or it could have gotten pretty bad. As it was, it was hard and part of the hard is you keep asking yourself: “Why now? Haven’t I already been here done this? Am I a failure as a cross cultural worker because NOW all of this is driving me crazy, again?”

      It isn’t like we don’t expect it, but maybe it is the strength of those feelings as they resurface… things that we’d perhaps forgotten bothered us that much because we’ve become “immunized” (for lack of a better word) and then some tiny little mutation on the norm makes us acutely aware all over again.

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  • Megan Tucker

    I realize this post is from about six months ago, but I’m only just coming across it. I moved to Cambodia a month ago. So far, there is definitely the “initial shock” that is being experienced. Thank you for sharing your bits of wisdom about this. I love that I have found this blog to be an encouragement to me while I’m living here!

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  • Rachel Beth Tan

    Were you on Nimmanhamen road in Chiang Mai in this vlog?

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