You Can’t Go Home: Missionary Families and Reverse Culture Shock

I almost skipped with glee in the calm of the night as I pulled the huge green trash can behind me for the next day’s pickup in my hometown. I was surprised by how comforted I was by this simple routine.

In Burkina Faso, there are no wheels on our trashcans. No calm strolls down the long driveway while all is quiet except for the gently rolling of wheels on concrete. Carts pulled by donkeys come by weekly charging only two dollars a month to collect our garbage. The systems are quite different but equally efficient. I greatly appreciate them both but don’t have the same fuzzy feelings about the latter.

Missionaries fully expect to have to adapt to a new culture and new ways of doing things on their new field of service. What catches many of us by surprise, however, is the situations encountered in the land of our birth and how much we can be shocked by them.

After being away a few years and making a new “home,” the place that we used to call home feels like a foreign land. Some of our children may not remember the United States or may not have ever seen it. The things that seem commonplace to the average American can shock, amuse, upset, or even confuse us or our children. Shock comes unannounced at surprising moments like while taking out the trash or maneuvering our way down miles of grocery aisles.

As you read our examples and enter our foreign Stateside world, keep in mind that some of us serve in very developed countries while others are in more third-world countries. You will see some differences in our experiences.

Used to a 35 mph speed limit, I couldn’t keep up in America. We would also cram as many as possible in the car for a ride to church on the field, and a lot of the time there were no seat belts.

While we were amazed at the sky scrapers, to Asian missionaries everything seemed  small and their children referred to even large cities as “the country.”

Temperature differences and especially cold toilet seats made me want to cry out!

Speaking of toilets, church bathrooms seemed so luxurious and beautiful. My children were scared of automatic toilets and hand dryers in the bathroom and didn’t know how to operate the stall door locks. Some children were obsessed and could always be found there (often soaked) after church. Others were scared of the water flying up out of them. 

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We were surprised at the Christian influence everywhere. Churches on every corner and Christian music playing on the radio or sometimes in public places. This was not the case on the field. Along with our fellow American Christians, we also see many issues in the current political situation and acknowledge that we must fight for what is right, but we also recognize the great blessing of the freedom and availability of the gospel in America.

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It seemed cold and informal to only shake hands instead of greeting others with a kiss on the cheek. Our children didn’t respect everyone’s “personal space” because, on the field, there is no such thing. Children who were singled out on the field because they looked different than everyone else, were just “normal.” No one played with their hair or rubbed their different looking skin. Although, they were harder to find in a crowd when they used to stand out so easily!

Grocery stores were overwhelming. There were SO MANY CHOICES! Junk food was available everywhere- even in shoe and sporting goods stores! Our children didn’t like American food, and Jello was especially weird. Everything seemed overly sweet.

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My sweet child didn’t even know what a Little Debbie was! They have to learn or relearn about things other children have grown up around. We adults don’t know about some new food or invention or new expressions or terms. (BOGO means Buy One Get One Free?!?) Fashion also changed while we were on the field, so we felt out of place.

There was SO MUCH GREEN everywhere! It was neat to see as the plane started to land. It was a new thing to some children, and they thought it felt weird and wouldn’t play outside. Others toed it and finally cautiously walked out onto it. The whole family got excited to pass even the smallest of streams as we traveled. The kids jumped and screamed with glee to see and hear rain.

We felt guilty throwing away ANYTHING in the States; leftovers, empty containers, etc. We would always remember someone on the field who would love those items.

It was strange to drive an automatic and pump our own gas. We were amazed that fast food was ready in minutes, without having to pre-order. Walk in Little Caesar’s and come right out with a pizza! WOW! Order a package and get it at your doorstep in two days! Life in general moved so quickly while some things were more convenient on the field.

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The words for things in the foreign language we learned came to mind before English words especially when speaking to a group of people. Songs and Bible verses came to mind in a foreign language first.

My young daughter was scared to go into a huge church auditorium full of Americans, and my son didn’t understand what the kind lady who asked him if he liked living on the mission field meant.

We try our best to educate our children in all of the social graces that apply to them as an American citizen and as a resident in a foreign land that has become home to us. Please excuse any social blunders that we WILL make especially just after re-entry into the United States.

Sometimes, it is easy to feel torn between the two especially when asked which country we prefer to live in because we respect and love both lands we have been blessed to live in.

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  • 15 thoughts on “You Can’t Go Home: Missionary Families and Reverse Culture Shock

    1. I loved this post! I’m sitting here on a way too comfortable couch listening to my dishwasher, but missing the Bolivian people and the breeze floating through my windows!

      1. I know Mrs. Soraia. It just feels weird in a way that’s hard to explain doesn’t it? I do hope and pray the rest of your furlough is a time of refreshing before you head back. We are just so blessed everywhere we go.

    2. Anything friends and family can do to help ease the reverse culture shock of their loved ones that are returning home?

      1. Great question that shows you really care and love your missionaries! I would say just be aware that things will feel weird and foreign. Try not to be offended by weird things we say or do or if we don’t warm up to you right away. (This is especially difficult for grandparents. It will come we promise!) We have been blessed with family and friends who have always set up a home for us and stocked it with a few necessities. It is overwhelming at first to start over with only what was in our suitcases when you came back. People have donated clothes or grandarents stocked up on sale items. A friend went with me to pick out clothes. Just being available to answer our questions is a big help to. Where can you find a certain item? How do you clean these new types of stoves? etc. We really do love our friends and family and we enjoy being with them again, but if we mention that we miss a certain thing about the field, please don’t be upset. It is our passion, drive, and calling, but it is a different life than you have lived for the last few years. It really excites us when you let us share about it. And keep in mind how much we love you and are so thankful for all you do to enable us to serve the Lord on the mission field. Thanks for asking and for caring.

      1. For real! I almost forgot how. Fortunately my husband does it most of the time. My dad has been known to go out of his way to do it for me when my husband is away. Come to think of it, I haven’t had to do it in….I don’t know when. 🙂

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