Have you ever heard of ‘culture shock’?
Google defines it as
“the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone when they are suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes.”
It is something that cross-cultural missionaries prepare for when they are about to go to do mission in a culture different from their own.
But there is also something known as ‘reverse culture shock’. This refers to the same kind of experience but it happens when you return to your ‘home’ country after some time away. It is a sign that you have, to some degree, acclimatised to the culture where you were a foreigner.
To give an example, we have spent 8 years working in Japan with OMF. During that time we have tried to learn the Japanese language and understand the Japanese culture. We have sought to grasp the things that are valued in Japanese society and, as Hudson Taylor, the founder of OMF, would have put it,
“in everything not sinful, become like the [Japanese], that by all means we may save some.”
The thing about reverse culture shock is that often people don’t expect it. “They’re coming home. They’ll just slot right back in.” It probably isn’t even an articulated thought – people just don’t think about.
But we’ve changed. We’ve been affected by being immersed in Japanese culture for 8 years. We have seen some of the things that the Japanese value and often seen the value in them. And the UK has changed. Since we first left for Japan as OMF members in 2010, UK culture has continued to develop and move on. So there is a clash of expectations – culture shock.
I actually prefer the term ‘culture stress’. In my experience, very rarely do these issues provoke as strong a reaction as to call it shock. But it is stressful. And all these little stresses can add up.
A book on this topic sometimes referred to as ‘reentry’, is called “Looming Transitions: Starting and Finishing Well in Cross-Cultural Service” by Amy Young. She points out that “stress often starts with a gap between our expectation and perception.” (p21) In the case of reentry, we don’t expect to struggle with the culture. After all, we are Brits coming back to Britain! What’s the problem? But the reality is, we have changed and the UK has changed.
Let me give some examples of where I have seen some of these differences in culture:
- A few days after arriving back in the UK, Anna tried to pay for something at a shop, but the lady behind the till wouldn’t accept our money! It wasn’t Japanese yen. It was definitely pound sterling. What was the problem? We hadn’t realised that there are now new £1 and £2 coins, £5 and £10 notes! Thankfully I was able to exchange our old cash at the bank for new, acceptable money.
- One day I walked with the kids to get some cash out of the ATM at the end of the road only to find that the bank had turned into a bar and there was no ATM there!
- Generally, some shops have changed hands, been replaced by new shops or just closed down.
- Japan has been very much a cash society, although a lot of shops will now take some credit cards. But here in the UK, it seems hardly anyone uses cash anymore. Contactless paying methods seem ubiquitous. Even tapping in to get on to the underground trains in London can be done with a regular credit/debit card!
- In Japan, trains were on time 99.99% of the time (at a guess). In the UK there is a column on the departures board to say what time the train is scheduled and another column for when the train is expected! Posters in train stations boast that 85% of their trains arrived less than 10 minutes late! A 10-minute delay for a train in Japan would make the national news (probably caused by an earthquake)! (For an OMF friend’s thoughts on trains and reverse culture shock, click here.)
- Customer service in Japan is excellent. The customer is king and employees will bend over backwards and rush around to get things done for the customer. In the UK, sometimes it feels like the boot is on the other foot, and we customers are the ones indebted to the company who are doing us a favour and we should jolly well step in line and be quick about it!
- Paperwork is much more relaxed in the UK. We’ve been back in this country over a month now and have not even had one trip to the town hall to register our new address several times.
- I’ve got used to the reliability and speed of the internet in Japan. Here there seems to be a poor connection more often and generally it feels slower.
- The streets here are much dirtier, especially with things like cigarette butts and chewing gum stuck to the pavement.
- Cyclists here actually wear helmets and cycle on the road, not the pavement!
- I got used to driving an automatic in Japan. Now we have bought a second-hand car here in the UK and it is manual. I’m getting the hang of it now, but to begin with we kept stalling the engine! And it has new features like automatic windscreen wipers, handbrake and headlights!
- Roadsigns here are not written in the Japanese script but in the English alphabet. And yet I often find myself puzzled by not being able to read them… until I realise it’s Welsh!
- Driving home after an evening prayer meeting, it took me by surprise that it was nearly 10pm. It felt more like 5:00! Evenings at this time of year are much lighter much later than in Japan.
- In Japan, I never had to stop the car for a herd of cows walking down the road!
None of these things on their own are particularly stressful. But these little things add up.
- Give thanks that we have arrived safely back in the UK.
- Pray that we will deal with all these extra stresses in godly ways, trusting in the God who is our unchanging rock.
- Pray that we wouldn’t have a critical spirit but would give thanks for the good we see in both cultures.
Have you ever been in a cross-cultural setting and then felt this kind of culture stress on returning to your home country?