When Culture Shock Makes You Cuss

It was summer 2008, and I was the only female in my language class. It was my turn to say a simple past-tense sentence, and I had once again managed to maintain my streak of zero percent accuracy. I was on my sixth try that day, and I was failing on all fronts. But that sixth sentence was the last straw, as they say. I abruptly stood up and announced, “I’m going to the bathroom, and I’m going be there for a while.” 

In a country where nearly everyone had giardia or some other parasite prowling around in their stomachs, my classmates understood my announcement to mean that I needed the toilet in a prolonged and urgent fashion. On that particular day, however, my gut was fine. I marched myself to the upstairs bathroom and locked the door. With my face to the window, I let the sobs come rolling out. I cried for a solid twenty minutes. 

“Why am I such a miserable failure at this?” I asked out loud. “Why can’t I just speak correctly and show my teacher that I’m not a dummy?” 

After a serious ugly cry, I exited the bathroom and sat back down in my classroom. The cry had actually helped a little, but I decided not to let any of my classmates know that I had gone to the bathroom to unleash my tears rather than my gastrointestinal distress. 

When we changed fields and moved to the Middle East, I figured I was long past the days of culture shock. “After all,” I reasoned, “this is where I used to come for vacations!” 

On one particularly hot day, I was collecting my daughter and some neighbor kids from school. In classic Middle Eastern fashion, the school traffic was insane, and tempers were running high. The kids were piling into my SUV, and I was about to put our stroller in the trunk. I eyed the passageway between my car and the one parked next to me, trying to calculate if my stroller would fit between my perfectly parked car and the minivan parked by some idiot next to mine.  “Doable,” I thought. 

It was not. 

Two steps forward, and my stroller was firmly lodged between the two cars. It was hot, I was sweaty, and car horns were being honked at deafening volumes. I shook the stroller, then tried to pull it backward to dislodge it, but to no avail. 

The word that came flying out of my mouth at that point cannot be repeated here. Suffice it to say, it was a combination of four letters that would merit censorship on network television. 

Suddenly, the darkly tinted window of the obscenely parked minivan buzzed downward. I had failed to notice anyone sitting inside that van during my expletive-laden outburst. The open window revealed a face that I instantly recognized from church.

“Need help?” he cheerfully asked.

“Oh, no thanks! I’m fine!” I lied.

“Maybe try to fold it up,” he suggested. I did not respond, but I did heed his advice and collapsed the stroller there between our two cars.  Mercifully, it worked, and I was quickly able to pack the enormous stroller into my trunk. 

It was not just the awkwardly stuck stroller, or the heat, or the car horns. It was all of it plus many other small grievances. Traffic, miscommunication, language barriers, and simply not being known were all other factors in my mini-meltdown. I chalked it up to being a crappy mother and feeling overwhelmed. What I could not wrap my head around at that moment was that all of the anger and frustration I felt was actually culture shock.

In our circles we talk a lot about culture shock prior to moving overseas, but it seems we undersell just how pervasive and long-lasting it can be. Without a name for what we are feeling, we can sometimes mislabel ourselves or become so self-critical that we begin believing that we just were not cut out for this life after all. 

Culture shock can take on many forms, but it is rarely one singular event that causes the dam to break. Usually, there are many struggles or tension points that, on their own, feel inconsequential. But after enough of those stressors have compounded, it may only take something as tame as an ill-timed language mishap to bring calamity. 

Culture shock can take the form of feeling overwhelmed by your incompetence, or even by the feeling that you are the only one who actually is competent. 

It can be the deep longing for rhythms and seasons that once sustained you. A longing that may sting even more with the realization that finding new ways to sustain yourself will involve trial, error, and awkwardness.  

Culture shock can take the form of feeling unknown and unseen, with no immediate avenue towards a relationship where you might finally be known and seen. 

Wherever the culture shock train may be taking you, it’s vital to ask how you got there. Get curious and ask yourself the hard questions.

What makes your current feelings so heavy or debilitating? 

Why are you are feeling the way you are, and what you were feeling before you got to this place? 

Were there other things that had you unsettled? When and where did they happen? 

How did the events prime you for feeling even worse when the next disappointment came?

If you have a story that might help someone in the thick of their own culture shock, we would love to read it in the comments.

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Emmy Lopez

Emmy Lopez lives and works with her husband and two kids in the Arab Gulf. She loves cooking spicy food, bird watching, and early morning runs. She spends part of her day chauffeuring her two children from school but also finds great joy in drinking tea with Afghan and Pakistani women.