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Entering a New Culture

Excerpts from interviews with missionaries, by students in the class “Life and Work on the Mission Field.” Indviduals are identified by their initials.
From interview with Mr. D, by SK in 2004.

Entering a new culture is always stressful, whether from the initial excitement, the bulk of work and time spent to get to the field, the expectations not met when arriving on the field, to learning to work with other missionaries, especially those who have been there a while. Sometimes they feel threatened by your excitement and new or updated ideas on how to spread the gospel. I’ve been told that it often takes a strong willed person to be a missionary- others get discouraged in the long road to training etc, — so many strong willed people trying to work together can rub each other a lot. Then there is the ‘let down’ — the excitement wears off and months 3-9 usually are a let down, you are no longer new, feel you should know more but don’t, and this can bring discouragement– just need to know and recognize that this is part of the cycle of entry and that things will get better once you learn more of the language/culture.

One thing we were not prepared for was the amount of ‘moving’ we had to do. Not all missionaries do this, but we lived in the village, yet had to be in the headquarters town for several weeks or months out of each year. This required ‘shutting down the house,’ turning off and cleaning out the kerosene refrigerator gone more than a couple days, packing all the meds, food, school books, typewriter or computer, toys for the kids, clothes, etc. that we would need for trips of 2 days – 1 month. And doing this about 8 times a year. Then returning to the village and cleaning out the house of bugs, dust, etc. Lots of energy and time.

You’re always in a tension because you don’t look local. Even when you can speak the language and understand the culture, you are never completely an insider.

Interview with MM, by SK, in 2003:
Changing over money at the airport is more expensive, but it is easier. Meeting new people can be difficult in reserved cultures. Each culture is different. People of other countries will likely have stereotypes about Americans before meeting us. We will likely have certain ideas of what the people are going to be like. People of different classes, or even ages are treated much differently in other countries. Things that we may consider cruel, or not cruel may be seen differently in another culture. The people will be different from the types that we have grown accustomed to.

The culture you are going into will likely be male dominated. Almost everything if not everything will likely be different in another culture. Most cultures are very people oriented/out going not introverted when it comes to their neighbors and the other people they will be associating with.

When you enter most countries remember to slow down, America is a very fast paced culture, while most other cultures are not. In some countries it is the culture to go to the market every couple of days, and you have to know how to shop in these cultures.

Try to find things to reduce your homesickness when you enter a new culture. These things can be as simple as ingredients for making foods, pictures, wall décor, or other material objects.
Before you enter a new culture and upon arrival to a new culture, read up on the area and its customs. Also visit the culturally significant areas if you are permitted.

At first you will be out of place, so you will have to trust in other people to make many decisions for you. When you enter a new culture allow yourself to be weak and dependent of others.

When you go into a new culture you experience losses and gains.
…Support from family and friends from church or school
…Familiar ways of communicating and relating to people, nonverbally as well as verbally.
…Knowing how to act and what’s expected of you
…A familiar setting that provides security and a sense of worth
…A new setting and all the sights, tastes, smells, and sounds that go with it.
…New acquaintances who will be new friends and co-workers
…New language, patterns of speech, and nonverbal cues
…A new role, identity, or position within a different society.

From videotape of KB, by SK in 2004.
You need to think about what is really important to you. Take the things you don’t think you can live without. You may get furniture or you may have to bring your own.
Your home will be different than you will expect. A good example of this is the different definitions that you and your organization will have regarding the phrase “basic provisions,” so don’t be afraid to ask for something that you need.
The home that you will be given will likely be better than that areas residents.

From SK 2004: from KB videotape. Be flexible. Share your home. One must try to live and eat like the people. She ate local, then hired a cook to give her a job. Remember that you should not buy ahead or in bulk — Things will go bad.
Some cultures will expect you to hire help such as housekeepers. If you do not do this, because you are seen to have a lot of money the people around you may likely form a bad opinion of you. The important point to remember in that situation is to pay your staff the going rate, not what think is a fair rate. Paying someone too much money will also be likely to cause problems for you as well as for your employees.
The people that you will be interacting will likely have a different diet. This is something to be aware of, especially if visitors will come around dinner time.
No two countries have identical foods. You may find out that you just can’t get a hold of many of the ingredients that you are used to. Even though you may never be able to eat the kinds of dishes that you are used to doesn’t mean that you will necessarily get used to that area’s foods.
A new culture often means a new idea of appropriate and inappropriate clothing. If the culture you are going to enter does not allow its women to wear pants or show legs, than it will only serve to hinder your work (and possibly threaten your safety) to not alter your form of dress.

Interview with Mr. M, by SK in 2004. “Living Successfully as a Guest.
“He said his week-long Culture orientation emphasized learning not to pressure others to accept American ways. He had learned in orientation to be receptive and patience, to LISTEN and then give his opinions after seeing what they think, not to jump in right away.

Student insights from text books:

From the book Culture Shock:
Entering a new culture is an extremely stressful situation. This high stress can significantly lower your level of performance. This lower level of performance will not only hinder anything that you are trying to accomplish but because of the hindrance you will likely feel feelings of guilt and loss of self-esteem.
People in a a particular culture (including us) may have never been exposed to any other culture besides the one that they are in, then they will likely believe that the only correct way to do things is the way that they have always done them.
The tourist does not normally experience a great deal of culture stress. Sp even if you have been to where you will be going, don’t expect things to be as easy as they were before.
What is being threatened most by entering an alien culture is one’s self-esteem.

Notes From Books:
God’s Gift Arrived (p. 113) from Stepping Out. JR
1. Seek out God’s Gift in other cultures
2. appreciate at the good and see how God will use you to help with the bad
3. Get involved
4. live with a national family if you can, especially for the first couple of months; find some of your closest friends form members of that culture
5. Don’t assume you’re right

Return to Life on Field menu            Go To article “Living Overseas.”