I am finding that culture shock is real though I don’t really like the term. Shock seems like such a harsh word. I guess in some ways living in a completely different culture than your own can be a little shocking at times. But it doesn’t have to be debillitating. I prefer the term cultural transition. When I think of shock I think of someone about to die. I must get this from my medical background. But culture shock is just a normal part of transition in missionary life. It ebbs and flows and is stronger at some times more than others. Sometimes, you don’t realize you are going through it until you look back and say to yourself, “Why was my emotion at an 8 out of 10 for that little incident? Something is going on here.”
I am finding that in missionary life there is always a mountain to climb, especially as you move through seasons of transition. Each day has new challenges, some of which are harder than others. Each day has its own joys and frustrations that are heightened by the amount of culture transition you may or may not be experiencing at the moment. In addition to normal cultural transitions there are things that I call “pluses.” These factors add to cultural stress and cause it to be intensified. I will touch on a few that I have noticed recently in my own life recently.
In addition to culture shock that a new missionary faces, spiritual warfare is a real ongoing issue we face. In our country, there is a constant stream of open and blatant idol and spirit worship. Daily offerings are made at numerous temples and shrines throughout the city. At our new home, our landlady had both indoor and outdoor altars where she made frequent offerings to the spirits. Most homes and businesses here have these altars and “spirit houses.” This constant worship causes the spiritual atmosphere to feel heavy and sometimes suffocating for the Christian living among it.
It’s one thing to just live or survive somewhere, but things seem to get even more intense when you are working and praying to bring the Kingdom of God to a place like this. We frequently take authority over these things and sense the protection of God over us in the midst of great darkness. Other times, we feel beat up on a little spiritually before we realize what’s going on and pray through. Through it all we know that we are more than conquerors through Jesus Christ!
In a country like ours, we also face stereotyping that causes additional pressures. Most of the foreign men who travel to Thailand are here for illicit reasons. Many times I feel as if people think they know why I am in the country, but their assumptions are totally wrong. At the very least, these tourist men give all of us a bad name. Just yesterday, I was in a cafe where a young man was openly soliciting Thai prostitutes over his cell phone and the internet. I realized he was still an older teenager when his Dad showed up at the cafe to pick him up I waited until a moment when they were apart (dad walked outside) and told him what the boy was doing! But there are many men his dad’s age that are here in Thailand for only that purpose as well, so the battle goes on.
In addition to all of these things, our family is somewhat of an oddity here. Complete western families are hardly ever seen. Most of the time, especially in certain parts of the country, the people have never seen such a thing. The attention can be fun and useful but many times it creates intense additional pressure especially as strangers approach our kids to touch them or tease them. Sometimes you go out to relax and get away but find yourself wanting to retreat home because of the stares and whispers. This is backwards for us because we used to go out to relax when we lived in the States, but now we feel more relaxed when we are at home with each other or with close friends.
The last “plus” is time. Time, being on time, doing what you say you will do when you say you will do it; all seem to be very fluid in this culture. Lying is not seen as such a negative thing, but more of a technique for “saving face” and not causing embarrassment to oneself or making the other person feel bad. Navigating through unfamiliar territory also causes things to take much longer than our Western minds think they should take. Sometimes we don’t know the unspoken rules of the culture yet and this causes us to lose time as people wait for us to “get it” before action is taken. Many times we just have to take a deep breath and let patience do it’s work in us. Anyone who has a Type A personality knows that this is a real hard thing to do because we naturally have a tendency to be impatient.
All in all we have been doing very well in these last four months. We have navigated through many cultural transitions and complexities of life as a missionary to Southeast Asia. We know we have many more to go, but we have been so blessed to finally get into a new home and we are learning new things about the Thai culture and about ourselves every day. We have made new friends and continue to press forward each day in learning the language. We have good friends who love us and help us often. Most importantly, we have people back home who support us and who pray for us regularly.
This makes climbing the mountain so much easier than it would be without the help.
As I finish this blog among the Thai people in this cafe I am listening to Johnny Cash sing a chorus of “Hallelujah” over the speakers and I am reminded of why I do what I do, why I am here, and why I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.