TEAM missions define culture stress as “The relearning of daily routines in an unfamiliar environment resulting in fatigue or frustration.” Typically when one goes to a foreign country to live and serve for the first time, there is an initial feeling of excitement; this excitement is sometimes referred to as the “honeymoon” stage. Though there is not a specific time frame, this period of time will usually last from 2-6 months. There are good reasons to feel this way. Everything is new, and you are making new friends, seeing and experiencing different types of food, shopping, forms of transportation, language, etc. However, likely, this feeling will not last. At some point, you will get frustrated. (“referred to as the frustration stage”). This feeling of frustration is usually a result of unmet or having a set of different expectations. For example, if you are coming from the United States, you may expect some things to operate the way they do back home. When that doesn’t happen, it can result in feelings of frustration or anxiety.
Loss of Control
When moving and living overseas for the first time, often what happens is, we feel a sense of loss of control. If you are an American, you are coming from a “do it yourself culture” that values independence and individuality. Now, because you do not know the language or how to get around, you are suddenly dependent on other people. This feeling of dependence can be stressful for the self-sufficient. Once you get your communication and transportation problems solved, you will more than likely feel like you are getting some control of your life back. To make a smoother transition to living overseas, I would like to offer a few suggestions:
If you can come into the country with little expectations on “how things should be” you will find overall that culture stress will be less of a problem. You will be puzzled, or you will find that the way the culture does or does not do something doesn’t make any sense to you. Please remember it makes perfect sense to the culture and citizens living in the country. Also, if you live in the country long enough, you will more than likely begin to understand why it is done a certain way and come to a place where its starts making perfect sense to you. In fact, you may well find yourself wondering why “we do not do this way” in the U.S. For example, my first year in Bolivia (1994) I would go out looking for a place to eat at 6:00 p.m. unable to find open restaurants. I later was to find out that most restaurants in Bolivia do not open until 7:30. At the time, this did not make sense to me because I considered 6:00 p.m. a regular time to eat. After being frustrated, I found out the reason. Restaurants in Bolivia do not open until later in the evening because of the warm climate. Most of the restaurants do not have air conditioning, and if they were to begin at 6:00 p.m. or earlier, it would be too hot to eat at that time. They open later in the evening so people can eat dinner when its cooler.
2. Learning the language:
A big culture stress reducer is the ability to communicate with the people around you. Learning the language of the host culture (Something I did not personally do very well) will make your transition much easier. Learning the language of the host culture makes it easier to go shopping, order food in restaurants, and asked for help. Maybe the biggest plus is it opens doors to building relationships with the citizens of the country. Getting to know and building relationships with the nationals is the gateway to making your adjustment smoother. As I mentioned in “Twenty Suggestions for living and working as a single overseas missionary, according to Bernard Adeney “Friendship is the key to knowledge and wisdom in a foreign context” (p. 54). Adeney believes that through getting involved in the lives of the people and experiencing their culture we can observe, “by seeing that there is another way of seeing, we see our way of seeing for the first time” (p. 24). Not to mention the doors it may open up to share the gospel, which is what the overseas Christian schoolteacher is doing in obedience to his word. (Matthew 18: 20,21).
For the overseas Christian schoolteacher teaching at an English speaking school learning the language of the host, culture may not be easy particularly, if you are not a member of missionary organization that has as one of their requirements for serving on the field a separate time for learning the language. As a school teacher you teach in English, the students and staff are conversing with you in English; the school community is English speaking, you spend a great deal of time with students and faculty in activities outside of the regular school day which is all in English. You will often work 8-10 hours a day teaching and grading and will probably be exhausted when you get home. Unless the teacher is intentional and has a plan for scheduled time (summer months, weekends, holidays, short time in the evening, it’s probably not going to happen).
3. Keep a good sense of humor
The ability to laugh at yourself will be essential to adjusting to living overseas. Some of the most embarrassing things that have happened to me happened while I was living in a foreign country. In one case, I stopped at a Bolivian coffee shop to pick up a takeout coffee. I became baffled and frustrated when they did not have “take out” coffee. In their attempt to please me, they found a cold drink cup and filled it up with hot coffee and wanted to sell it to me with no top. Of course, that was not going to work, so I gave up. While frustrated I realized later that in Bolivia when you have a cup of coffee, it’s meant to be a treat and often a social event, you sit down at the table and are served in a real coffee cup. You take the time to enjoy yourself usually conversing with friends while drinking the coffee. It’s the Americans that are “always in a hurry” that asked for “coffee to go.” Upon reflection, I realized later just how comical the whole event was.
4. Keep short accounts with God and others.
Staying in fellowship with Lord and others will be the most significant single factor in making one’s adjustment to living and teaching overseas a smooth one. It will allow oneself, for example, to exercise patience and humility (listed as fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5) in the face of stressful culture situations. Keep in mind that God has promised that he will be with you wherever you go. God is certainly not bound by geographical location. An essential part of this is as you are walking in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16) you will find it important to keep short accounts with God and the people around you. No doubt, just by the nature of being overseas you will encounter different theological perspectives, educational philosophies, time orientations and in different general worldviews. Remember, it’s easy for statements and actions to be misinterpreted by someone from another culture if you sense that you have offended someone its important to go to that person and asked for forgiveness.
5. Enjoy the ride
It’s essential to recognize that culture stress is a normal part of adjusting to living and teaching overseas. However, try not to get so caught up in the frustration of adjusting to the differences that you don’t enjoy the being on the mission field. I found after teaching and living overseas for 26 years that while culture and language are different people are the same everywhere you go. For example, parents everywhere, regardless of their income level, have dreams and aspiration for their children. I have not lived in a country yet where you don’t hear and see children laughing and playing even amid some of the worse poverty in the world. Most people still get up and go to work and try to take care of and build a life for their families. Most of all, people everywhere need God. As the Lord gives the opportunity, share the good news of Christ, for that is what we have been called to do whether at home or abroad. Most of all, enjoy the ride, God is calling you to an exciting adventure and time in your life and wants to teach you some incredible things during your time teaching and living overseas.