Tag Archives: culture shock

Indeterminate Culture Shock

Back in the land of cheap, yummy avocados.…

I’ve written before about triviality, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about its application to our current times. That is, for missionaries and others working cross-culturally, there is always an element of adjusting to a new environment and culture. This includes how to find your bedroom light switch in the dark (if you’re moving house), but also how to not insult someone on the road, and how to not be insulted by someone else on the road —i.e., knowing when someones behavior should be offensive, and when it is just normal for your new environment.

But the kicker in all the above (and many other things to adjust to) is that knowing the new reality is only the first layer of adjustment. Being able to point to your light switch after thinking for ten seconds is not the same as being able to reach it intuitively —in the dark, and while still mostly asleep, when your brain is not really working yet. This is where the concept of triviality is helpful (to me, anyway!). Normal life has lots of trivial items in it: how to shop, how to make food, how to greet, how to get around town. There is some adjustment when these things change, but the goal is normally to move these things to a place were we just do them, without having to think through them each time/day.

So the twist that hit me this morning, is that whether we’re talking about culture shock, or reverse culture shock (or reverse reverse culture shock…), the transition is normally from one more or less stable environment to another more or less stable environment. The problem is that one house isn’t laid out the same as another house —but they’re both houses, and neither changes much over time. Similarly, moving from one culture/city to another requires adjusting from one status quo to another, but there is a status quo in each place, which doesn’t change much over time. But this is not what we find in 2020.

Rather, this year we have political and medical facts which seem to change on a regular basis. Then the recommendations, orders/laws, and rulings, which change in response to those facts (or not), then the implementation of those recommendations, orders/laws, and rulings on various levels, which must respond to all of the above. So the question “should I wear a mask right now?”, for instance, has been a non-trivial question for months, for many people. Are the CDC and WHO recommending masks right now, or not? What kind of masks, in what situations? What are the relevant recommendations, orders/laws, and rulings of our federal/national government? And of our state? Of our County? Of our City? And perhaps most frustrating of all, how do we respond when the neighboring nation/state/county/city says something different than ours? Or when the state says something that contradicts what the county says? Most of us are simply not accustomed to thinking through all these issues on any kind of regular basis, much less each time it might be appropriate to put on or take off a mask. And masks or not is not the only question (e.g., distancing, quarantine/isolation, and contact reporting), nor are on and off the only answers to that one question (e.g., public/online shaming, rebellion, political advocacy, and non-/violent public protests)

Now, if there were one set of rules imposed (for better or worse), this might just be a matter of adjusting to them, however much time, energy, and libery that takes. But when the info we’re basing a decision on changes every couple days (on some level), we have to re-evaluate, and the decision never has a chance to become trivial –so we continue to spend energy we shouldn’t on menial, daily tasks.

There is, of course one condition where this problem doesn’t apply. Namely, if your allegiance to a particular body medical/political/whatever is significantly strong to trump all others, then you make your decision once, and only change it when that one body changes advice —and hopefully that’s not often. But I have a hard time distinguishing that from bigotry, especially in the current political climate in the US. That is, if your response to the mask question is really just a badge of political affiliation (as I’ve heard from MANY people), then can you still say you’re wearing a mask (or not) because it is the right response to the pandemic?

I read twitter enough to know that for many people, there is only one correct answer to the mask question. But there seems to be a strong correlation between those people and the many who feel there is only one correct answer to the “which party should be in power” question, on both sides. And I, for one, have never felt fully comfortable voting for either party, as neither seems to represent me particularly well. So for me, my conscience dictates that I continue to reevaluate both questions, as new data comes in.

And I know there are many people out there that feel (at least a bit) the same. I’ve heard from many the difficulty of adjusting to constantly changing goal posts. And I think that this idea of having a culture shock (or lack of triviality) that has no real end in sight, is a large part of it. Even in this context, I feel obliged to continue to insist on my right and responsibility, as a human and as a Christian, to think, to use and develop my conscience, and to pray for the Holy Spirit to give guidance, and to follow that guidance even in the face of direction to do otherwise from lesser authorities:

But Peter and John answered [their rulers and elders and scribes, in council], “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”

Acts 4:19-20 (ESV)

So where do we go from there? I think the bigotry answer, as flawed as it is, has something to it. That is, in the midst of a storm, hold one to one thing that doesn’t move. But I think we want to be careful to not make our one thing a human or human institution, which will all fail us, sooner or later. Rather, Jesus tells us

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.

Matthew 7:24-25 (ESV)

So let us continue to read what Jesus had to say, and try to put it into practice, and let the storm flow around us as it will. Not that I think this will be easy, but I think it’s the only answer that doesn’t result in our eventual destruction.

Reverse Reverse Culture Shock

We have now been back in Africa almost eight months, and in addition to organizing the physical necessities of our house (including receiving our sea freight shipment!), we have had a lot of personal adjustment to do.

Those who have lived cross-culturally are often surprised by what can be called reverse culture shock; it has been described relevant to a number of different domains:

The gist is that you expect culture shock when you go somewhere with a different culture, but you don’t expect culture shock when you come back. The fact that you have been living in another culture changes you, so you experience culture shock coming back to your passport country, but because you don’t expect it, it can be hard to deal with —you can have a hard time figuring out why it doesn’t feel like “home.”

Anyway, that all is stuff we’ve dealt with a number of times (like trying to buy peanut butter and jelly in Fred Meyer in 2000), and we’ve worked through it and come to expect it. But I think the best way to describe our current situation is that we’ve found another layer, which I’m calling “reverse reverse culture shock”. That is, when we returned from DR Congo in 2013, and blitzed through Oregon and California to move to Texas for my doctoral program, we knew we wouldn’t feel at home. As we got to know Texas, we got to know a lot of things, liking some more than others. :-) But however we felt, we had constant reminders that we weren’t from there, so we always had a framework to understand that nagging feeling of not belonging. Then last year, we were finally going back to Africa!

A lizard is a lizard is a lizard, but these aren’t the lizards we knew from DR Congo.…

Granted, we are not so naive as to think that all of Africa is the same. There is some 2,140 languages in Africa; this is a main reason we are here, after all!  Each one of those languages holds at least some cultural distinctives, however much similarity there might be between any two languages or cultures. Our first experience on African soil as Wycliffe missionaries was in Cameroon, where we currently live. But since then, our experience has been on the other side of the continent, in East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda) and DR Congo. DR Congo was an interesting counterpoint to the other countries we worked in because it has French as a national language. It also has laws and customs more common in ex-French colonies (as opposed to laws and customs in ex-British colonies, such as Kenya).

People overload vehicles almost everywhere we’ve been in Africa, but Yaoundé traffic is a new thing altogether

But whether the DR Congo distinguishes itself as an ex-Belgian colony, or for whatever other reason, it stands to reason that DR Congo and Cameroon are simply not the same country, so we shouldn’t expect them to be.

I never expected my daughter to play Volleyball at school in Africa

But there are so many things that you can generalize between them, like the love of soccer (OK, maybe that’s everyone but the USA :-)), beignets, and acronyms.

I’ve been thinking about this last one quite a bit in the last couple weeks, because of how differently Congolese and Cameroonians make acronyms. For instance, in DR Congo, each protestant church denomination is known by an acronym and a number. One group we worked with was called CECCA/16 (planted by WEC). The full name of the church is Communauté Evangélique du Christ au Cœur de l’Afrique (“evangelical community/church of Christ in the heart of Africa”), and it’s registration number with the DRC government is 16, hence the full common name with acronym/number. This is notably not the same group as CECA/20 (was planted by AIM), with full name Communauté Evangélique au Centre de l’Afrique (“evangelical community/church in the heart of Africa”). In each case, the longer/lexical words get one letter each in the acronym, and the smaller/grammatical words do not. The fact that CECA and CECCA are pronounced the same is ameliorated by the use of the government registration numbers, to keep their common names distinct.

But in Cameroon, there is often a different system in place. I don’t know that I’ve fully understood it, so I’ll just present some data. :-) The government ministry I visited last week is MINEDUB,  MINistère de l’EDUcation du Base (“Ministry/department of Basic/primary Education”). Here we have three letters from the first lexical word, three from the second, and one from the third (apparently avoiding MEB, MINEDUBAS, and MINEBAS). On the other hand, the Department of Secondary Education is MINESEC, MINistère des Enseignements SECondaires (“ministry/department of secondary teaching/education”), and the Department of Higher Education is MINESUP, MINistère de l’Enseignement SUPerieur (“ministry/department of higher education/teaching”). In these last two cases, we get three letters from the first and last lexical words, and one letter from the second word.

Lest anyone think I’m picking on government bodies (which I’m not, it was just three related bodies whose acronyms presented themselves), the linguistic conference that I attended last March is NASCAL, the NAtional Symposium on CAmeroonian Languages, with two letters from the first and third lexical word, and one from each of the other two.

And the denomination of our local church here is MEEC, Mission de l’Eglise Évangélique du Cameroun (“mission of the evangelical church of Cameroon”), which, while having an acronym I might expect, appears to be unrelated to the EEC, l’Eglise Évangélique du Cameroun (“the evangelical church of Cameroon”). I never thought I would miss those helpful numbers to disambiguate otherwise similar sounding names.

I’d never been to a US embassy auction before! (but I got priced out of everything we wanted by Africans willing to spend more.…)

Anyway, one of the major elements of cultural adjustment, we have found, is building triviality. There are lots of things we just don’t think about in our daily life, and that goes away when you’re having to think through every little thing as you interact with people who think differently in another culture. Funny how the way people build acronyms can differ, and cause you to have to think through something you never had to spend energy on before. I’ll try to do a few more posts on other ways I’ve found reverse reverse culture shock, readjusting to our life and work in Africa.

On our way to our first valentines dance in Africa

Here are a few other fun acronyms we’ve found around here:

  • ASOY — American School Of Yaoundé (presumably the fun of an acronym pronounced “a soy” trumped the rule against including grammatical words in an acronym. Or perhaps ASY had other problems.…)
  • RFIS — Rain Forest International School (despite the fact that RainForest is one word here, here, here, and here.)
  • CAMBO — CAMeroon Branch Orientation
  • STUCO — STUdent COuncil (at RFIS)
  • SCREAM — School Can Really Expand A Mind (RFIS reading program?!?)
  • FCFA – Franc Communauté Financière Africaine (the money everyone uses here and in a couple other countries, although no one seems to know what the letters stand for)

Senior Year Abroad

It doesn’t make sense on paper to uproot a teenager for the final year of school. But we were questioned about taking him to France as an infant, or to Congo as a kid; much about our life looks like foolishness to some people.

But there are a number of reasons why it makes sense for us to go to Cameroon at the end of this school year, including the fact that Anna will be starting junior high, and Joel will be starting high school.

But James will be a senior next year, and the school in Cameroon has a policy of not admitting students for their senior year only. We believe this is a good and reasonable policy. However, we also think is a good and reasonable thing to ask for an exception to this policy for James. In this post, I’ll discuss some of the reasons their policy makes sense, and why we think James will do OK.

The policy makes sense

Teenage years are tumultuous enough already, without adding a change of school (not to speak of country and language). I know; I moved high schools after my sophomore year. The transition to a new school wasn’t easy, with new classes, new class requirements and prerequisites. I made the best of it, but I wasn’t changing languages or countries (unless you count California to Oregon as an international move.… :-)).

Added to the above are the transitions particular to life in a cross-cultural context. The school is in Cameroon, which has its own cultures, languages and politics. Language might be the easiest to deal with, since French is a national language in Cameroon (in addition to English). But needing to use French to take a taxi, or to buy or sell in a marketplace, is a different kind of stress than having to take a language class.

Politics in Cameroon is its own thing, perhaps especially right now. I hear (from Cameroonians) the president has been in power for a long time, and many people hope for change. There is talk of succession from the provinces that use English, to the point that at least some expatriates are not living there now. When we were there in 2004 (just after Joel was born), I recall the particular irony of not seeing any campaigning for the presidential election until after the election took place.

Encountering other cultures is one of the mixed blessings of any cross-cultural context. We get to rub shoulders with other brothers and sisters in Christ before we meet them at the throne of God (Rev 7:9̈-10). That said, other cultures have other foods, customs, and expectations of life, and these can take some getting used to. My personal top two “I hope I never have to eat that again” foods (tadpole soup, and fermented manioc) were first encountered in Cameroon, though we also saw fermented manioc in D.R. Congo. These adjustments are not insurmountable, but they do take time and work to deal with.

So when you add changes in language, culture and politics to changes of school and hormones, we get that this is not a small task, and we understand why many students would isolate themselves, come to hate themselves or their new context (or their parents, or God), and ultimately do very badly in a single senior year abroad.

James will do OK

That said, we believe that James will do OK, by God’s grace.

As I have talked to people who survived having missionaries as parents, and as I talk to people who work with missionary kid issues, it seems like one of the biggest indicators of how a missionary kid turns out is how much a part of the mission the child personally feels. Because of this, we have for some time talked our kids through transitions from the perspective that this is something our family is doing together for one purpose —not that dad has a job change and everyone else has to go along.

Another key element in weathering transition well, I find, is talking through transition, before, during, and afterward, to make sure everyone is processing it emotionally. This was a particular issue as we struggled with the more difficult years of Asperger’s, but we got used to talking each of our kids through what we would do when and why, so when we did it, there were fewer surprises for them. As soon as we would have an itinerary, we would talk about which planes we would take where (including which would have bathrooms, and which would have movies). I’m not saying this is something we have perfect, but we as a family have lots of experience weathering transition —enough to feel when things are going well, and when we need to take more time to work through things.

The above has two caveats. First, our kids have mostly been in Texas the last five years. So while James remembers Africa, I’m sure he will be surprised more than he thinks. Second, all of this (as in all things) has been done by God’s grace. When I say “experience” above, what I really mean is having some information in advance, but still screwing things up, and depending on God to make things right. Then spending time processing what happened and how to do better. Which means we have more information for the next time, but we still screw things up, and still need God to work all things to good (Romans 8:28). So ultimately what I mean by saying “James will be OK” is that God has given us a history both of weathering transition, and of depending on him, and we trust that he will show himself to be good in this case, as well.

What does this look like practically, right now? We are nine months out from a potential move to Cameroon at the end of this school year. We have already had a number of conversations, both as a family and individually, about the cost and the value of this transition. I have asked each of us to spend some time considering what the cost and value are for us personally, and we’ve had a number of very productive conversations since then. My goal is that each of us would have bought in to this transition without reservation —well in advance of any family move.

So far, I’ve talked more about our family process than about James. There are also a number of reasons why I think James will handle this transition well —beyond the fact that we have experience processing these things as a family. Basically, James is doing well in school, better than we imagined he would five years go. He takes tests very well, and he has developed friendships with classmates that he wants to see outside of school (something I never did much of in high school ;–)). But despite learning to be social, he is excelling at honors and college prep classes in almost every subject, including AP English; he is taking calculus now, as a Junior. James is in his fourth year of French now, and seems eager to be able to use it. Despite wanting to study math in college, he is also working on an endorsement in engineering. And until recently he insisted on taking (and enjoying, and doing well in) art —something I never managed to do myself.

Outside of school, James has showed a commitment to piano, both in practice and lessons (currently working on Sonata in G Major), and in leading worship at church. He is a very emotive pianist, and has said that playing the piano helps him express feelings that don’t come out in words. His commitment can be seen in that he wakes up at 5:45am to practice before school each day.

I’ll let James himself speak to his own motivation to go to Africa for his senior year (post coming soon), but I am grateful for the growth, maturity and responsibility he’s had to date. I am more grateful to see the man God is making him – especially given where he’s been.