Dealing with Culture Shock
Living in a different culture can be quite shocking and even depressing. It is like being an adult who suddenly doesn’t know how to do anything. I mean, do anything as it pertains to basic living. My first night on the field I needed to use the restroom. I excused myself from the table and went out into the hallway of the hotel to look for a restroom. I was suddenly hit with the shocking fact that everything was written in Chinese and I could not read the signs. This wouldn’t have been too much of a problem because I could have just wandered around and looked, but it was rather pressing that I find a bathroom quickly. Walking like a penguin, I approached one of the hotel employees and asked, “Where is the restroom?” She just stared at me in disbelief. She couldn’t understand a thing I said. Confused and embarrassed, she called other workers over to help her. It wasn’t long before I had a group of people around me all speaking to me in Chinese. My need was getting more pressing so I thought I would pantomime my need to see if they would understand. I acted like I was undoing my trousers and sitting. It didn’t help that they were the worst people in the world at charades that I have ever known. I kept trying getting more and more graphic. Suddenly one man figured it out: “Da Bien!”, he exclaimed. They all acted proud of themselves for figuring it out. I was straining as he grabbed my arm and began leading me to a room. In the room, there were no urinals, no stalls, no toilets and not toilet paper. There was one long open trench made out of tile. I didn’t know what to do until a Chinese man came in to use it. I learned how to use a public restroom that day. I learned that I should always bring my own toilet paper with me. I learned how to say “Restroom” in Chinese because I didn’t want another scene.
Living in a different culture can be difficult. It is not for the faint of heart. You must have an adventurous and explorative spirit. You can look at it as a “great adventure” or a “great obstacle.” If it is a great obstacle to you, then you will get depressed and long for home. You will long to be someplace where you don’t need to pantomime just to use a restroom. If it is a great adventure, you will enjoy every minute of learning something new (for example: eating peanuts with chopsticks).
You need to learn how to live in the culture because in terms of knowing how to do basic things, you will be like an infant trapped in an adult body. You have to be “babysat” until you can navigate the culture on your own. It is difficult to not know if you are being offensive or not. It is difficult to not know if the people are laughing at you or with you.
When I would walk the streets of our town, people would come and stand directly in front of me and look me up and down, all the while proclaiming loudly, “WHHAAAHH!” This sound coupled with the actions of their arms, indicating how wide and tall I was made it easy to see that they were taken back by my size and weight. They would poke me in the stomach and sides, then laugh and talk to their friends in Chinese, which would set the whole lot of them laughing. What do you do? Do you get mad at them and tell them to mind their own business? Do you walk away obviously offended? What do you do?
I decided to reciprocate. I would look at them and say, “WHHAAAHH!” Speaking in English I would say, “Wow, you sure are a skinny thing! And short too.” all the time sizing them up with my hand gestures indicating how small and thin they were. I’d poke them in the tummy saying, “Man, that’s pretty hard and flat. There’s nothing there.” By the time I got this far, the whole street was laughing–including me. It is the way things are done in a different culture.
When you arrive there, you don’t know how to do basic things like: use money, speak the language, how to use the restroom, how to get a doctor, how to kill a chicken, how to buy clothing, etc. Basic things! Things that you have done all of your life in your own culture without thinking anything about it.
Missionaries need to expect anything and remember that living in another country cannot be compared with how to live in good ol’ America.