What is culture shock?

1 Aug

Before we moved to Peru, many people warned us about culture shock. We read books about it to try to understand it and prepare for it. We talked to many veteran missionaries about it. Here is the best definition I’ve seen so far, from a missions Web site:

What is culture shock? Nearly every missionary, at some time in their first year to two of service, comes to the bottom of themselves, and usually, it is not a pretty place. They feel alone, even abandoned. Things that have never bothered them before are now driving them to irrational expressions of emotion. God, the person who lead them into all this, seems absent…or at least, deaf or worse, uncaring. Welcome to the experience that is, “culture shock!”

The big surprise for me is that despite being well aware of it and having prepared intentionally, it still snuck up on me. At least, I think it did. What strikes me odd is that the classic examples relate to culture: different customs, attitudes towards time and personal space, directness vs. indirectness, etc. Initially, these were challenges, for sure, but I’ve grown accustomed to and even enjoy many aspects of the culture. I try hard to accept that many things are not bad, just different.

But one thing I’ve really struggled with is the land! Parts of Peru are gorgeous, but we don’t live in those parts. We live on the edge of the driest desert in the world. We moved from an evergreen state to a place where the only green things are cactii (mind you, I like cactii, but they’re not shade trees 🙂 From an idyllic suburban setting in the forest that is Georgia, we moved to narrow streets, wall-to-wall concrete houses, crumbled sidewalks, and a whole lot of exhaust. Never mind Colorado, I’m missing Georgia and Iowa and even western Kansas! At first, I liked it. It did (and does) have its own beauty. But as time goes on, it becomes just as crushingly monotonous as western Kansas. Except there are no thunderstorms or snowstorms or even tumbleweeds. Just desert and sunshine and the very occasional cloud. And unlike driving through western Kansas to Colorado, the desert is still there the next day, and the next day, and the next. (Note: I’m extra looking forward to my visit to Colorado next month!).

So we’re thankful to report that tonight we found a new greenspace less than 10 minutes walk from our house. It is a very small park, only a few square meters, but has green grass, a lovely arrangement of cactii, and overlooks the onion fields. It’s on the nicest street we’ve seen in Arequipa. Every house is painted and immaculate except one and it just needs a fresh coat of paint. The sidewalks are smooth are there is no trash. But the few meters of greenspace overlooking the onion fields through the stone arch is the best part, and I think I shall have to visit often.

There are a lot of other factors that have contributed to a general malaise for me of late, but for me, the desert is symbolic. Culture shock is something like living in an urban desert. On the bright side, I can breathe better than I’ve been able to in my whole adult life. As we had hoped, my asthma loves the desert! For the trees and flowers I love to photograph are also those to which I’m allergic. Thus, I now feel somewhat trapped in the desert. To be honest, I don’t really know what to make of it yet. But breathing is important, after all.

3 Responses to “What is culture shock?”

  1. georgiajammy August 1, 2014 at 6:36 am #

    Another great and descriptive post, David! So glad you found the little park and that you’ll be visiting Colorado soon! This is a way we can pray for y’all. (I bet Peruvians don’t say “y’all” either!)

  2. Dawn August 1, 2014 at 3:37 pm #

    Hugs to you all. Xoxoxo

  3. roliver74 August 6, 2014 at 3:07 pm #

    Praise God for the green space blessing! I will be praying for “y’all” in the desert(s).

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