by Katie Hoffmann
Blurry-eyed after 36 hours of flying with kids, we handed over our passports. The customs official returned a hearty, “Welcome Home.”
Those words felt almost digestible as we entered the Seattle International Airport after years overseas working for a Christian non-profit. Although we were grieving all the goodbyes, I felt ready to embrace my country of origin once again.
Despite my best intentions, reverse culture shock struck in a big way. We had little to no training in re-entry. This left me feeling paralyzed by stuff that should be easy like trying to keep kids quiet in the library or driving on the right side of the road.
After three years stateside, I’ve gladly regained those skills, but occasionally, I fall flat and feel overwhelmed by culture shock again.
Recently, we moved again to a new country, except this time our passport wasn’t stamped. It was a sudden departure without glamour and thankfully no cobras. Here’s the funny part: We haven’t even left our house except for one of us who is deemed an “essential worker.”
Covidland is my new country and once again I must reorient.
Actions I once thought were normal like talking to a person nearby now have both different implications and results. The way people greet each other is foreign. Elbows? A curtsy? This feels awkward. Can I just use a southeast Asian greeting?
Classes are now on new platforms of technology. My kids are expected to learn technical culture, as we parents wade through murky waters of Internet security with youngsters. But, unlike with Zoom we can’t mute all the static, conspiracy theories, rude language and stuff that hits us on all ends during this unique time. Divisive warfare is erupting all around me. To relate in this new country is requiring deflecting skills, because the arrows of mindless attack are piercing our community.
I’m dumbfounded as I find myself jerked between a polarized nation offering two heated sides of opinion and the irony of 40 different cereal choices. Sides have been drawn without healthy nuance, and I’d like to bury my head in my cereal but I can’t.
I’m regretting not getting more pre-field training, but some moves happen too fast and necessitate learning on the job.
As I pull my face out of my Coco Puffs, I remind myself that I must not become complacent no matter which country I reside in. We as the church can never stop being a student of the culture around us. We don’t get a free pass on cultural understanding just because we have a right to act a certain way.
In a society that for too long has defined churches by buildings and programs, we can easily forget that God’s main directives have not changed and despite a lot of changes around us, we are not banned from loving our neighbor or even sharing the gospel.
How I interact in my new country and culture will ultimately open or close doors to people’s receptiveness to the Gospel message.
So I ask the hard questions…
In a nation that is so often an either/or nation can we choose to be a both/and person? Can we bridge to people in many different groups?
Can we care about American liberties and still choose to wear a face mask to a store no matter where we stand on the issue? Yes. Can we support small business and physically distance to show care for the more at-risk folks? Yes. Can we request our state government reassess our phases of local reopening and do it in a way that respects others? Yes. Can we both disagree with someone’s opinion and support their family? Yes. Can we do this all in a loving way? Yes!
As believers we need to be keeping the main thing the main thing. Yes, I know, loving the multitude of neighbors can and will feel stretching and uncomfortable, because culture bridging is real. I’ve experienced that in my home state and overseas. Overseas, dressing in long pants and sleeves in 90-degree tropical weather felt horrid at times, but I knew my neighbors would disrespect me and it would not be loving to disrespect the people around me in conservative Muslim regions by wearing shorts and a tank top. I gladly sweated for the opportunity to connect with those in my community.
Will we gladly wear a mask into a store and not tear apart the store clerks who are simply enforcing what they’ve been told to do? Just like in my experience overseas, clothes are contextual. In situations where others are uncomfortable it behooves me to be sensitive to that. In other cases where people don’t care, it then becomes my own choice based on research.
Culture stretching and culture shock happen even when people look the same and own the same passport. It can be more difficult and blindsiding because when we look alike we expect to have the same internal wiring, but we often don’t. Might I be so bold as to say many of us are sliding into culture shock?
If we aren’t careful culture shock will cause us to attack the neighbor instead of bridging the gap. Because let’s be frank, we’ve all moved to a new land and you are well past phase one of culture shock. The homemade bread- making and binge-watching Netflix is over. You have moved on and if you aren’t careful you won’t pull past it without a lot of destruction.
Store workers and government officials will not forget your face if you, in a fit of rage, mock or tear them apart. If you reach out later to them to share the message of Christ’s redeeming love, good luck.
I’ll never forget the day in Southeast Asia when another mother chastised me for letting my daughter play out in the rain. “Illness doesn’t come from dirt or germs! It comes from the rain and wind.” She scolded me.
I was struggling with culture shock that week and I wanted to do things MY way. I took a deep breath and said, “Thank you for caring about my kids. I’m new here and still learning.” I knew at that moment I had a right to let my daughter play in the rain. I had a right to my own free speech. I hated to be chastised by another woman, but I swallowed my pride. My words needed to reflect our human connection and not a state of winning.
Let us not forget our humanity. Let us be mindful of how we approach the ever-shifting cultures around us. No matter where you stand on how things are operating in Covidland, let your actions and words build bridges and not walls.
We are all new here and we are all still learning.
In second grade, a bubble gum container full of international coins sparked Katie’s heart to discover God’s world. That spark would be kindled through years of interaction and work with refugees and international students. In her early twenties, she married a flyboy and they landed with their first baby in Indonesia. Between killing spiders and drinking tea with local women she continued to grow in her faith and desire to serve. Although transition has brought their now larger family stateside, the fire in her heart still burns. Today you can find Katie mingling with neighbors, advocating for and connecting with refugees, teaching her kids, flying with her husband, gardening, and always learning.