“Hey! I’m doing so well with the culture shock. Don’t you think? I don’t think I’ve even got it!” I said this to my husband after a few weeks on the field, as if culture shock was a disease that would come and go in a few days. I waited on the breakdown that never came. Instead, I had moments here and there where my lack of understanding overwhelmed me producing anger, tears, loneliness, or total frustration. I was up and down from day to day. There would be moments where I loved all the new and exciting things and others when I didn’t even want anyone to look at me. After years on the field, things have gotten easier, but I continually work at adapting. A veteran missionary once detailed various stages of culture shock and finished with, “You will reach the point where you still don’t understand all of the why’s of the culture, but you will learn to accept the people and their culture.” I don’t know if any of us ever move out of that phase. We will never totally understand or agree with any culture, even our birth culture. With God’s help, though we can show acceptance of the people we are called to serve by learning to accept their culture. Adapting to a foreign culture has been a beautiful and rewarding experience for me, but I have had to learn some things along the way:
• Be willing to fail: I recently sat in a courtyard full of women after the death of a church member’s niece while the men went to the burial. (The child who died belonged to a Muslim family. In keeping with culture, the women didn’t go to the grave.) I suddenly looked up and realized I was the ONLY woman there without a scarf on my head. Even one of our church ladies whom I have never seen in a scarf had one on. I don’t even know how to tie a scarf on my head. I was embarrassed at first, but I had to laugh inside realizing that the only foreigner amongst a group of Africans would have stood out even with a scarf. My friend forgave my ignorance and sincerely appreciated the fact that I was there for her. The only way to never make a mistake is to stay locked up at home. (which is even more insulting)
• Be humble: MY country, MY food, MY language, and MY way of life are irrelevant. I have to learn to do it THEIR way. (If I can. I really have had a hard time cutting a tomato by pushing a dull knife away from me. They laugh as I turn tomatoes to mush. Wishing aloud for a serrated knife and cutting board would be in vain and rude when I know they don’t have either. ) I have eaten meat served with a head in it, sat on the ground in the village, had diaper-less children “bless” me, and conquered my fear of germs and sickness in a place where people do the best they can with little water or soap. I thought nothing of sitting on the ground at a new and bench-less village work because my legs were tired. People commented later that they were shocked and touched to see the foreigner plop down beside them. I realized that they notice even our smallest attempts to “fit in.”
• Try to understand where they are coming from: In my culture, a “real” adult will work out his own problems, but in West African society, it is perfectly acceptable to send a friend to ask forgiveness on your behalf. We were offended the first time someone asked forgiveness for something his friend did to us. We later learned that using a mediator is their custom. They were showing respect. (It serves as a great illustration of Christ, our mediator.) Don’t judge or take offense based on a cultural misunderstanding.
• Ask questions: Sometimes there is no real reason that people do the things they do, but often,
the answers give great insight into their way of thinking. If I am not sure how to act in a certain situation, I ask. I have never had someone get upset with me for asking questions in the right attitude, and it has kept me from big mistakes. I had to get over my “know it all” attitude.
• Don’t completely forget your native culture. Share it at the appropriate time and place: We didn’t give up American foods or games as we learned their way of life. Many of our closer friends have come to enjoy pizza, hamburgers and lasagna. Georgia sweet tea is always a hit. The girls in my Bible study group enjoy jigsaw puzzles with my children, and some of the students love to practice their English on us. From time to time, we decorate sugar cookies together, something they don’t have the means to do at home, just because it’s fun. I don’t constantly talk about my home culture while I am living I theirs, but when they are in my home, I include them in some of our own traditions as a way of reaching out. The young people especially are curious about the foreigners and want to be a part of our lives.
• Learn the language. Trying to learn the tribal language of the area we serve in, in addition to the French, has opened great doors for me. I am nowhere near proficient, but people are shocked when they hear the foreigner use even a simple greeting in their tribal language. Proverbs and figures of speech in the mother tongue give great insight in to the culture. Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions that aren’t in the book like the polite way to say someone died, how do give your condolences or how to ask for the restroom.
• Be willing to adapt: Since Christmas is still on my brain, it reminds me of an area I had to change. I grew up with Christmas being a special family day. The people here receive and feed visitors. I saw this as drudgery at first. We spent so many other days serving others, why couldn’t we have the all-American Christmas with just us? Who wants to cook for others on a day when we should kick back and relax with our family and new gadgets? I had to change unless I wanted to offend our friends and neighbors. It was a little hard at first, but we adapted and found a way to keep our family Christmas traditions. We cook and freeze food ahead so I don’t do extra cooking on Christmas day. We have time for our own Christmas traditions in the morning before people start coming to visit. In the afternoon and evening, we serve them. The day after Christmas, we relax as a family and do all those fun things I grew up doing on Christmas day. I have come enjoy and look forward to the more self-less Christmas we have here, and even our children look forward to serving others. This year as a group of ladies and then 16 young people left our home with smiles on their faces and full bellies, I realized that of ALL the people they could have visited on Christmas they picked us! I was so touched. One lady said it’s because, “In Christ we are family.”
• Appreciate the beauty in their culture: For every one frustrating thing about the culture I live in, there are so many more beautiful things to appreciate! No, their lives aren’t dictated by the clocks, but they also take time to greet one another as they pass by on the streets. They constantly visit one another, often on foot, an almost forgotten art in some places. They are a very friendly and giving people. They accept me and forgive my faults.
• Keep learning: Here in Burkina Faso, every tribe has its own system even though there are similarities throughout the country. Different religious groups have different traditions. Village culture and city culture are quite different. It is a challenge but interesting and fun to learn a little from each group.
• Seek to make true and lasting relationships. A true friend helps get you through those overwhelming moments. I was in a room of crowded women when another came in singing LOUDLY in my face partly in French and partly another tribal language, basically insisting that I give money. I thought she targeted the foreigner. I felt overwhelmed and needed OUT. The doorway was blocked, and I started feeling claustrophobic. Other strangers crowded in and laughed. A friend beside me came to my rescue and joked with the lady until she left me alone. Later, I learned that this was a custom amongst this particular people group on certain occasions. My friends didn’t approve of it either, but they at least understood what was going on. It helped to have them by my side.
• Never forget that we are citizens first and foremost of a heavenly country. My mission is not to promote my earthly culture but to share Christ so that we all my share the same spiritual culture.
• Love God and love people. Resentment shows even if outwardly we do everything “right,” Our love is evident even when we make cultural mistakes. They will forgive our mistakes and appreciate our efforts.
• Remember what the greatest Missionary of all time gave up to come and dwell on earth. Think like HIM! He is just, true, and good. The only perfect culture is HIS. He gave up heaven. He gave his rights up. He stooped down to US! And he is PERFECT. My cultural attachments are pretty petty compared to that. I should get over my own imperfect culture to reach out to someone else.
“If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, fulfill ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2:1-8)