How to Adapt to a New Culture

In my July 17 blog we talked about 3 stages of adapting to a new culture. Maybe you felt you didn’t fit into one of those three categories. Maybe you wished I would have given more help in adapting to a new culture. I’m going to do that today.

When encountering a new culture for a lengthy time, most people go through a stage when they think, “Wow! This is cool!” It’s known as the honeymoon stage or the fascination stage.  Steve Fulks defines it this way: The missionary has just arrived after having raised full support, and all the new sights, sounds, and even smells are a fascination—it seems as if Utopia has been found. However, in a true sense, the missionary is seeing things through rose-colored glasses, and not as things actually are.

Maybe when you first moved to the mission field you hated everything and were ready to go home. That happens too. One missionary decided to leave the first day on the field when she saw a cockroach. That makes things harder, but not impossible. Thousands of missionaries have struggled with culture shock in their own ways. They don’t all fit any particular mold. I experienced more culture shock in my second term than my first. But we can adjust to these ups and downs with God’s help.

When the novelty wears off, new missionaries often experience frustration.  Fulks says, “Now that the new has worn off, the missionary can become frustrated with those things that are not normal.” He or she thinks, “This stinks!” And it may—literally. But that is not the end.

While I listed three stages for simplicity, some list four or five.  Fulks calls stage three the crisis stage. “The missionary feels he must either decide to totally lay aside his own national identity or pull into a shell and have nothing to do with the new culture. While neither is the correct response, at that moment he sees only these two choices.”

I remember watching missionaries in Taiwan who totally immersed themselves in Chinese culture and gave their kids almost no contact with Americans. Other missionaries and their kids seemed to spend all their time at the American school where they had little encounter at all with Chinese people. Both lifestyles have advantages. We landed someplace in the middle.

Fulks says, “Stage four is a time of adapting, when the missionary begins to find meaning in what is going on around him. Finally, there is the stage of acceptance when one realizes there are different ways of doing things, no of which is totally right or wrong . . . just different.”

Perhaps that makes it sound like each new missionary glides effortlessly from one stage to the next in a predictable fashion. Actually these are just general tendencies that help us know what we’ll likely go through when we encounter a new culture. Some missionaries learn to live in a world vastly different from their host country. The language may be very different and hard to learn. Others go to fields that speak English and where culture is quite similar to their host country. They may assume the two countries are completely alike until they discover subtle, but real differences, later.

It’s important to understand that it’s normal to struggle with changes. Cultural and language differences create real challenges and difficult decisions.  Each person is going to have to make his way through this obstacle course in his own way.  We need to encourage and support our co-workers as they work to adapt to a new culture in their own way.

Fulks gives us some practical tips to get through this adjustment time.

Seek an informant.

Find someone who knows the culture and can give some meaning to what you are facing.

Keep a diary.

Put into words what you are experiencing. This often helps you see things more clearly.

Thank God for these new experiences.

Seek comfort and direction from His Word, knowing that He never means us harm.

Learn there is no “right culture.”

It’s easy for us to want to do things the way our home country does, the way that makes sense to us. We need to take the truth of God’s Word  and put it in a cultural context that will relate to our mission field.

Thank you to Steve Fulks for giving me permission to quote from his November 2011 article in Baptist Mid Missions’ student publication, Vision. I made slight revisions to fit my needs.

Steve recommends the book Foreign to Familiar by Sarah A. Lanier to give greater insight into crossing cultures.

If you have experienced a lengthy period of time in a strange culture, what was the hardest thing for you to adjust to? Can you briefly tell us about a funny experience you had in the new culture?