3 Stages of Adapting to a New Culture

You step off the plane with eager anticipation! Finally you have arrived at your new mission field. You can hardly wait to get started in your new ministry. God has put a love in your heart for these people before you ever knew them. He has made you love this country you know so little about.

But when you meet actual people, you  find them annoying. When you experience a new culture you wonder why they can’t just learn to do things the right way, like people in your host country do.

These ups and downs of living in a new culture are normal. If you expect all ups and no downs, you’re probably going to be disappointed. Each person adapts to a new culture in her own way, but most people go through at least 3 phases.

Stage 1: Wow! This is so cool!

When you first arrive on the field everything is new and different and exciting. You feel so privileged to live in this country and see its beauty and live among the nationals. You eat new fruit like hairy rambutans or stinky duriens or fat pomelos.  You find bargains on the ground in the market and learn to count out coins to buy them. You learn to say a few words in the new language and you’re sure you are going to be the next Amy Carmichael or Jim or Elizabeth Elliot.

And you probably expect to stay on this high for a lifetime of ministry. But if you do, your expectations are likely to crash before long when you experience . . .

Stage 2: This stinks!

You find a great restaurant, then you find out they wash their dishes in cold water in the back alley. You have a hard time reading the sign for the restroom, and when you find it, you discover a totally ridiculous style of toilet. These people have no regard for traffic laws. You’re quite sure you are more intelligent than the average national, but when you speak their language you sound like a stammering child. And the way they make decisions is incredible. You could teach them a thing or two from your host culture . . . if anyone would listen.

Stage 2 can be dangerous. Many missionaries give up and go home during stage 2, when they could have been good missionaries if they would stayed long enough to last until . . .

Stage 3: This is life.

In time you come to realize the new culture has both good and bad elements. More than that you learn that there are many acceptable ways to do most tasks. Your way makes most sense to you because you’re used to it. Your way may always seem best to you, but when you are with others you learn to adapt to what makes them comfortable.  In time you may even get past the urge to think of new ways to fix everything you don’t like in the new culture.  That’s real progress!

In my first book, Peanut Butter Friends in a Chop Suey World, Amy goes through this process when she moves from Wyoming to the mission field of Taiwan. This fiction book is aimed at pre-teens, but much of it comes from my own efforts at adapting to Chinese culture. You’ll find it here with discussion questions: http://www.debbrammerbooks.com/books/peanut-butter-friends-in-a-chop-suey-world/

Are you a missionary or have you had prolonged contact with a culture different from your own? What experiences would you like to share that fit into one of these three stages? What have you learned that helped you cope with the ups and downs of adapting to culture? Image