For those who feel called to live abroad, we invest heavily in preparing ourselves for culture shock. We can't fully predict how it'll hit us, but we at least know to expect it. We expect to feel completely overwhelmed upon arrival, as unfamiliar music and speech wash over us. We expect to discover delightful new experiences, as well as extremely painful ones. We expect people to look at us like we are freaks, and possibly even make fun of us as we fall on our faces in attempting simple tasks like buying shampoo or getting money from the ATM. Yet we power through, because we trust that these difficulties will sharpen our character and equip us for our calling. We trust that we'll eventually experience mutual blessing with our host culture. And we do.
We celebrate small victories, and we notice how much we OURSELVES are changing because of the experience. We learn that the Jewish Carpenter not only cares for our every need, but He is scrubbing us with his launderer's soap. He truly is a refining fire (Malachi 3:2). And while it hurts like hell to be scrubbed and roasted, we're amazed to discover how much we LIKE the people we become. Our best selves shine forth, cleaner and more fragrant. So we stay, even in the midst of nursing raw flesh.
As we stay, we also must adapt. When we need a new jacket or new glasses, we buy them at Asian shopping malls. We study the language, and learn the local customs so errands will become less onerous. We jostle just like everyone else around us so we won't be crushed on the Metro or on the bus. We become more familiar with Chinese food, and even find ourselves craving dishes we previously didn't even know existed. We start to feel a strange comfort in seeing the same local brands around us, and hearing the same local songs on the radio.
More or less every year, we plan a return trip back home. As we anticipated our first visit back to the US, we were giddy with excitement. Yay! A break from the purification! No more roasting, no more pain! We could surround ourselves with the familiar comforts of our childhood culture.
What we didn't expect, however, is the reverse culture shock. After a few days of initial euphoria back in the US, we discover we feel overwhelmed as unfamiliar music and speech wash over us. While we encounter delightful new experiences, we also confront extremely painful ones. We fear people are looking at us like we are freaks, and maybe they even make fun of us as we fall on our faces in attempting simple tasks like buying shampoo, or getting money from the ATM.
A trip at a DC grocery store is equal parts exhilarating and crushing as we wander around, lost in confusion about how to know which shampoo to buy. A stop at an Atlanta ATM almost evokes tears, as I admit after six failed attempts to withdraw money that I've forgotten the PIN number to my US bank account. A DC Metro worker screams at me when I cannot figure out how to add money to my card. And a blonde woman huffs at me in indignation in the Detroit airport after I've jostled past her to get on the airplane. I realize, with the eponymous "shock" of this phenomenon, that I am no longer fully comfortable in my home culture.
I must name the increasing fear I feel about returning to the US, because I'm afraid my own culture will reject me. What happens when the first response to your polite inquiries that comes out of my mouth is in Chinese? What happens when I instinctively jostle you on the sidewalk? What happens when I forget how to parallel park, or even the name of the street where that cherished coffee shop is? What happens when my brain is completely saturated with too much spoken English, and I need to withdraw by myself? What happens when I want to tell you about that strange Chinese dish that I've discovered, or vent about once-practiced habits in the US that I now find frustrating?
Will you stay by my side, responding in love to this reality? Or will you walk away in denial? I share all of this with you, dear reader, with hands outstretched with raw flesh. These hands are trembling. They've done things they never knew they could do, and they've suffered pain they didn't know existed. But they are stretched out to you in love, my family and friends back home. Will you receive them?
*This is at least my (Melanie's) reality. Brian may perceive all of this slightly differently, and I'll let him choose if/how he wants to share. For now, please receive this as Melanie's story :).