01 April, 2012

6. Your experience of culture shock

   This is the sixth in a series of questions I'm answering for a friend's Bible college assignment. You'll find links to the other answers in the series here.

   It's been over a week since my previous entry, so it's time.
   Here I wrote about some of the struggles we experienced in our early years in Japan. Today I get to write a little more on that topic.

   But first I had to revisit what "Culture shock" actually means. I found this:
The term, culture shock, was introduced for the first time in 1958 to describe the anxiety produced when a person moves to a completely new environment. This term expresses the lack of direction, the feeling of not knowing what to do or how to do things in a new environment, and not knowing what is appropriate or inappropriate. The feeling of culture shock generally sets in after the first few weeks of coming to a new place. http://edweb.sdsu.edu/people/CGuanipa/cultshok.htm
   And now I need to drag myself back to those early years and dredge up some pain...
   Initially it was hard to remember any culture shock. The incidents that stand out the most weren't necessarily in the first few months, as you might expect. 

   The first few months were consumed by something more like "climate shock". We were engrossed in learning to live in permanent snow, and to live without a car. We were consumed by surviving daily. These struggles included:

  • Getting to and from language school in the snow on foot (without getting lost). 
  • Figuring out how to buy groceries and get them home (on a sled). 
  • Trying to find ways to help our active 20 month old to cope (he hated the snow, yet hated being inside all day too).
  • Struggling with how to cook in a tiny kitchen with no bench (US=counter) space, two burners, and a tiny microwave-sized oven.
  • Oh, and trying to figure out how to learn Japanese (my struggle, not my husband's).
   Most of the time we were basically exhausted. Engaging the culture on a wider basis just didn't come into it. 

Our car is the one on the right. This was our second winter
and our eldest son was 2 1/2, thankfully he began to like the
snow this winter.
   We were adjusting to the culture of our organisation too: that included taking a marathon journey to church on Sundays (trudge through snow, many steps down to subway, train, trek through underground station and shops, up many steps, final trek through snow) . . . with a toddler (no stroller – they don't work on snow or stairs). When we got to church we couldn't even sing the songs, they were in Japanese characters, though we did have access to translation of the sermon. And the church was kid-unfriendly. Our son, who we'd dragged on the above marathon wasn't allowed to make any sound at all during the service, or I had to take him out.

   The first "culture shock" that I could remember when thinking about this topic related to being medical issues. 

   Being pregnant during our second year in the country, for example, was one long piece of culture shock. Giving birth at the end of that was a whole month of immersion. I was hospitalised for two weeks prior to our son's birth and then for ten days after the Caesarian. Little things like having Japanese-style pillows in hospital (filled with hard plastic beans), a lack of coffee, and eating rice for breakfast were delayed culture shock I guess. Giving birth in Japan has its own shocks, including having to wear special underwear, being told what kind of sanitary products you have to use, and the nurses wanting to take my baby for the nights and give him sugar water from a bottle. Oh, and my husband held our son only once in the first ten days of his life, the day he was born. After that I had to put our son in the nursery before going out to the visiting area to spend time with my husband and our son – once a day. Oh, so much more I could tell you.

   Then that same son came down with pneumonia at 11 months of age and was hospitalised. That threw me into another whole world of culture shock. Of particular note was that I was expected to sleep in the same bed (a cot) as him. Then the lights weren't turned out until 9pm! Nothing like trying to tell a nurse via an intercom that your son's IV has come out . . . at 2 a.m. and in Japanese, to make you feel rather shocked. Then the development of asthma in that same child with a doctor wouldn't give me any medication I could use at home to prevent another hospitalisation.

   Loneliness and homesickness pervaded those early years in Japan. I idealised Australia and my birth family and was in for some great shocks later on when we spent time back in our "home country". 

   Making friends in a new culture is challenging, made even more so when you cannot speak the language. We didn't know how to make friends. In Australia, if you want to get to know someone you spend time talking with them and you invited them to your house. The first was hard, the second was a cultural issue. Japanese people don't really do this. We could count on one hand the number of Japanese houses we were invited to visit in our first four years. After our first term (nearly four years) we really had hardly any Japanese people we could call friends.

   Well, this is a fairly depressing topic. I lost a lot of confidence in myself and in many ways lost my identity too. This was compounded by what seemed to be a misfit between us and our mission organisation. As I mentioned here, OMF is very focused on church planting and that just didn't seem to be a good fit for us (mentioned that here). Thankfully this isn't the end of the story, though. God brought us here for a reason, and he didn't leave us in that low, depressing spot.


Karen said...

Thanks for posting this Wendy. It does sound pretty depressing, and I really like the way you told it like it was. Glad it didn't stay that way for you though :)

Sarah said...

What Karen said...

I think it's important for all Christians to hear stories like these. Those who have not crossed cultures can only imagine what it's like and can often have this idea that missionaries are some kind of super Christians. We need to be informed even of the depressing bits so we can uphold you in prayer and not do the 'out of sight, out of mind' thing.

Wendy said...

Sarah, that is so much how I feel. So much so, that I don't shy away from telling depressing stories when we are at home. On our first home assignment I nearly talked myself out of coming back! I had to stop telling the depressing ones and move on a little. And part of what is driving me in my writing is proving that we are not "super Christians". Thank you for affirming what I am thinking! Such an encouragement.

Judy said...

Thank you for your honesty, Wendy. It really does help those who want to pray with understanding. Even if you're not a "super Christian", you have given up so much for the Lord's sake and I thank Him for you.