When Culture Shock Feels Like Drowning


Last Christmas, Andrew and I spent a week at the beach in Krabi, Thailand - part "baby-moon", part Christmas holiday trip. And midway through the week, we took an all-day snorkeling trip - which was fun and felt a bit scandalous, since I was 30 weeks pregnant.

We spent a few hours in each spot, floating on the surface of the clearest ocean water I've ever seen, following schools of fish, light flecking off their scales like shards of silver, diving down to examine bits of coral and waving anemone.

When I first went in the water, the cold shocked me - but after a few minutes, my skin adjusted to the temperature. I also had to adjust to the rolling waves that I couldn't see when I was underwater, but would push me in all directions if I wasn't careful to keep kicking and my eyes anchored on a point in front of me.

After a while, I hardly noticed the challenges of kicking against the current or remembering to blow my snorkel clear of water - I was too absorbed in how fascinating and strange everything was. But then at one point, I realized how exhausted I was, that my arms were numb from December water, and I was famished for a drink of water.

Breaking the surface of the water brought me back into hard sunlight, blue skies, and the realization that the current that felt so gentle underneath was actually strong enough to crash me into the side of the boat as I clambered up the ladder. Sitting on the bench, drying my hair, the boat rocked side to side enough to make me nauseous, realizing I was now more comfortable back in the water.

Last week, Andrew and I were talking about culture shock and adjustment and exhaustion. He pointed out that living in a different culture feels just like being underwater - and sometimes, almost like drowning.

Moving to Cambodia is like throwing yourself into an ocean of unfamiliar creatures and customs - the initial shock of how very different everything is, then the fascination with all things new and strange.

You go through a season of adjustment and eventually settle into a routine. On a subconscious level, you know you're kicking against a current of customs and attitudes that are foreign to you.

But you adjust, you change your way of speaking and dealing with conflict and telling others what you think. You realize your American habits don't really fit here, so you change them, too. Doing this allows you to get close and build relationships with people who, through their friendship, show you the beautiful array of diversity and movement that exists within their culture.

But eventually, you realize you've been kicking and working hard and striving the entire time against currents that are not natural to you. And you're exhausted. You need a break. And if you don't get it, you are in danger of burning out, of choking, of allowing your light and strength to be extinguished by the waves around you.

Sometimes that relief comes from allowing yourself to rest on the waters - to stop fighting the cultural differences that bother you, to accept a new way of thinking and doing, to immerse yourself totally in the lives of those around you.

Sometimes relief comes when you climb out of the water and sit in the boat for a while - by taking a weekend or a month or a year off to rest in your home culture, regaining strength so you can jump in again.

The thing is, once you've explored a world so different than your own, it's almost impossible to be satisfied with watching it from the shore. You realize that seeing the crests of the waves and the occasional fish jumping out of the water, the storms darkening on the horizon, is only a small snippet of the world that lies beneath. Reading news stories, seeing photos, and meeting people from other countries gives the briefest glimpse of what life is really like in Cambodia or Uganda or Brazil. The only way to truly understand is to jump in.

And this ability to understand other cultures doesn't just apply to foreign lands. America itself has a dizzying diversity of cultures, brought from other countries and mixed with American values. Even the current riots and protests in Ferguson are impossible to understand fully if you don't understand the culture of that city and those people. We're only seeing the waves on the surface resulting from years of unrest and injustice.

Andrew and I are at the point where we are ready to climb into the boat for a while. Our lives have been enriched by our experience in Cambodia, and we love how the culture here values family, harmony, and friendship. But we don't want to keep swimming if it means endangering a longer future working overseas. So we look forward to an extended time of rest, reflection, and lingering in oceans and communities that are natural to us.

And hopefully, after a time, we'll be ready to dive back into the life overseas God has called us to.

Have you ever lived in a different culture, whether abroad or in your home country? Have you ever felt like you were drowning or fighting hard to stay afloat? What gave you the rest you needed to persevere?

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