The Loneliness of Culture Shock

I’ve been emailing with a friend of mine who is serving as a missionary.  I asked her how she was doing with homesickness and culture shock, and she wrote back about loneliness. In particular, she wrote one sentence that really resonated with me:  “My most understanding Arab friend thinks in ways that are worlds apart from me.”

This idea, that the very foundation of how we think affects the way we can relate to others, helped me clarify many of my own feelings of culture shock.  I am in a more Western country than my friend, but even in Greece, there is a slow loneliness that comes from representing your nationality by yourself. 

It happens in fun conversations, when you tell someone about your road trip across the States, and then realize you need to explain just how far Texas is from Illinois.  It happens when you are full of emotions about the US presidential race but have to give a US history lesson to friends who are interested in discussions.  It happens when you share your favorite movies or songs or books and realize that not every country has midnight release parties for the newest Harry Potter.

None of these conversations are bad.  In fact, there’s something really amazing about learning that the ways you think of the world as “obvious” or “normal” are really just cultural constructs.  But my God, sometimes you just want to have a conversation with someone who shares your cultural constructs.

When I first moved to Greece, I was encouraged to build my life around Greeks and Greek institutions: language, friends, work, and church.  For the first month, I threw myself into becoming as immersed in Greek culture as possible.  It was easy, because I was riding on short-term excitement.  But then I crashed.  Looking back, I can see that this slow loneliness was at work.  The more I surrounded myself with Greeks, the more I realized that I was NOT Greek at a fundamental, foundational level of thinking.

This came out in strange ways, like how I said we should use a towel in the work bathroom and everyone else wanted to use paper.  Or how I complained about cleaning my porch and everyone said, well, but you should do that.  Or how Greek women told me they would teach me how to cook so that I would be ready for marriage and I said no thanks, I wasn’t interested in perpetuating gender stereotypes.

About four months into my time in Greece, I found a group of ex-pats to hang out with.  This made a huge difference, because here at last I found people who understood the Non-Belongingness of living in a country that is not your own.  But even with ex-pats, my foundational cultural assumptions were not the same as my Portuguese, British, or South African friends.

I have one American friend in Athens.  We hung out on Saturday, and the ease of our conversation shocked me.  I’d forgotten how easy it is to talk about women’s groups in churches with someone who has had the same experiences and frustrations.  We could talk about seminary, about coffee shops, about attitudes toward pets, about family patterns, sharing the same cultural assumptions and jokes.

It is important, I believe, to spend a lot of time with the national people of the country where you live.  But the people who move to the United States and form a China Town or a Little Italy?  I totally get it.  No matter how nice nationals are, and no matter how great the conversations you have together, there is a tiny seed of loneliness that comes with every blank look or extra explanation given.

So if you are someone living in a country not your own:  be patient with yourself!  Give yourself permission to Skype with friends back home or to seek out fellow ex-pats.  Don’t be too hard on yourself for struggling to fit into a culture that is not your own.

And if you are someone living in your own home who knows people from other countries:  Be nice to them!  Ask questions and have fun together, but if you notice them seeking out people from their own culture, don’t take it personally.

And if you live in your own home and are only surrounded by people who have lived there too…well.  Enjoy it, but also get out of your bubble!  As hard as it is, it is infinitely worthwhile to interact with people from other cultures.


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