Culture Shock: On the Up Curve


Coming up to three years in country and most days are finally ok. It’s been almost a year since I broke out in sobs because I burnt granola, or couldn’t find oats in town, or judged a friend better at everything than I am. Through the free fall from honeymoon into disillusionment and then the bottom scraping hostility stage of culture shock, I am now somewhere on the up curve. Life is evening out. I laugh a lot more. I feel at home. The contrast between the earlier stages of culture shock and life today is quite startling (take courage, newer friends! It really does get better!).

These days my emotions are a lot more subtle in their attempts at a hostile takeover, but separating the truth from intense feelings still remains a challenge. Here are some of the recent battlegrounds…

1) My neighbor is a jerk
My neighbor revs his motorcycle annoyingly loud, even early in the morning. What’s his problem? Doesn’t he know people are still sleeping? Then my husband’s motorcycle started to have the same problem – you have to rev the engine to warm it up so there’s enough power. Why? I don’t know, but it’s typical, really…

I feel like my neighbor is totally inconsiderate, but he’s actually just trying to get to work.

The truth is I was much more open-minded when I first arrived. Back then I knew I didn’t know anything. Now that I know some things I tend to take for granted that I still don’t most things and am way too quick to judge.

2) Cock-a-doodle-DON’T
Did you know roosters don’t start calling at dawn? That’s a myth. In reality roosters are much more flexible. The one that sleeps by the fence outside our bedroom window is somewhat of an overachiever – he starts around 1am.

A bit delusional after many sleepless nights, a friend once grabbed a shovel and whacked a rooster out of the tree by her bedroom window. Another friend, when woken in the night by his neighbor’s rooster, used go outside and loudly cock-a-doodle-do right back.

I feel like roosters are annoying, but I’ve got coffee to get through the day.

The truth is sleep deprivation amplifies stress in every area. When asked to peg to the general level of stress in my life I use the scale of Zero to “I’m gonna whack the rooster”.

3) Hallelujah I’m out of language school!
In language school (mine at least) we mainly learned the high/formal version of the language, how it’s printed in the newspaper and spoken by the highly educated. But in my town, where most people leave school by the third grade and everyone’s first language is one of hundreds of tribal languages, I quickly learned to speak more like the people around me. This is good in that it works well where I live, but go anywhere else and I speak very basically, even rudely depending on the situation.

I feel like I speak well enough and can just trust everyday conversations to eventually reach fluency.

The truth is I would get a lot out of formal language classes. Now that I have a framework for the language, places in my mind to hang new concepts (and I’m not totally overwhelmed by just trying to live every day), formal study should probably be revisited.

4) Why don’t I have friends?
Before moving overseas, I had the idea that making authentic local friends would be relatively easy. I’m nice. I’m honest. I like people. People like me. These things have always added up to friendships. But here, where the culture gap is so staggeringly wide? It’s a much different story. After a couple attempts at friendship that seemed to go nowhere, I finally thought I’d made an authentic friend. Then one day she just disappeared. I haven’t seen or heard from her in months. I’m told that’s pretty common.

I feel like it’s not worth all the effort.

The truth is I need to chuck my pre-overseas friendship expectations. My pastor in the States likes to say, “Trust plus time equals love.” Cross-culturally, establishing trust over time is long, hard work. It was a bit simplistic of me to think otherwise.

5) Watch it! You’re going to lose your witness!
I grew up in a church culture that spoke of ‘losing your witness’, the concept that you must be careful to live according to a standard of Christian holiness because to fail/sin in public would compromise the gospel message. Now, take that concept overseas where every moment is watched and evaluated. It’s pretty intense. We are openly stared at on the street and eyes peek through fence gaps while our voices carry through open windows.

I feel like I must never ever lose my temper, speak an ill word, act selfishly, or be unkind. If I do, I will be rejected by the people around me and all my hard work will be wasted.

The truth is that’s a bunch of hogwash. Yes, I am responsible for my actions and yes, my actions do impact how others perceive and respond to me – all the more reason to dump this white-washed perfectionism and live authentically. Sincerity, truthfulness, always aiming for love, owning my mistakes, genuine apologies, making amends, and forgiveness are the real witnesses.

It’s a curious thing, living cross-culturally. You do gradually start to get the hang of life, but there’s always something else waiting to happen. Still, I can’t help but feel optimistic. If I’ve learned anything through this culture shock roller coaster, it’s that while my feelings may shoot about wildly, I can trust truth to calm and guide them back.

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Anisha Hopkinson

Anisha was born to Chilean and Texan parents, first tasted missions in Mexico, fell in love with an Englishman in Africa, and now lives in Indonesia. She journals about cross-cultural life, helping people, and loving Jesus on

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