“Are you in culture shock?”
I barely heard him over the din of the restaurant. We had just met. He and a group from his church had been in Brazil for about a week, helping out with projects at the children’s home in the area. They came to our city for the evening to tour the seminary and enjoy some barbecue.
He asked me because he was curious, and I didn’t know how to answer. “I don’t think so,” I said. Who wants to admit to being in shock? Shock sounds like you have been debilitated. It’s embarrassing. Didn’t I know what I was getting myself into before I came here?
The next morning I asked Marci what she thought about culture shock. As a missionary kid she has experienced both culture shock and reverse culture shock. Still, these terms and their definitions intrigued me, so we googled it.
Turns out, I misspoke at the restaurant. I am indeed in culture shock and have been for a while and will be for a while longer. Culture shock is similar to the stages of grief. We don’t use the phrase “grief shock,” but it’s shocking nonetheless and takes time to go through.
Culture shock is a strange mixture of grief and discovery. Here are its four stages:
1. Honeymoon – This is where everything about your new culture is fun and exciting. Things are quaint, adventurous, maybe even a little quirky. I experienced this in 2016 when I was only in Brazil for a little over two weeks. We visited so many beautiful places, met exciting people, and were tourists who could retreat to a cozy hotel room at the end of the day and return home to our family and friends at the end of the trip.
Moving here was a different experience. Just getting here was a difficult, two-year journey. Arriving here was a whirlwind. Living here is stressful. There is a huge difference between staying at a hotel and living in an apartment. Between a round-trip visit and buying a one-way ticket. Although, we were excited that we finally arrived at our destination, the stresses of the move overshadowed many of those honeymoon feelings.
2. Frustration – This is the stage where everything is exhausting. You cannot overestimate how vital communication is until it disappears. At a crucial time when you feel like you’ve lost all the relationships from people back home, you cannot even come close to building new relationships with people here. Not until you learn their language. It’s a depressing double-loss.
I’m not usually an anxious person, but I became so anxious living here. At first, I had no tools to deal with accidents, problems, or hiccups. And when they come, because they always do, I would get frustrated that I couldn’t just fix them like I could back home. Things here are different standards, sizes, setups—just look at this handy dandy toilet seat chart. And, of course, they all have different solutions.
On my better days I’d tell you that many things are superior here. Stainless steel counters in the kitchen make sense. Having someone label and weigh your fruit at the produce section before you go to the cashier is helpful. It is quite efficient to have buffet restaurants where you can just get your food on your way in from the front door to your table, instead of wasting time going to a table, waiting for a server, and then finally going to the buffet you’ve already passed by.
But on my frustrated days I’m unfair to Brazil and its people. Any little problem and I’m thinking about how better things are back home. We’ve had a bit of water issues in our apartment, and every time we have one I fantasize about the luxury of having turn-off valves under each sink. Oh, the dream of just shutting the water off right there. Our apartment has several mysterious faucets jutting out from walls. But, nobody, not even our building’s unoffical handyman, knows what they are for or what they do. I’ll tell you what they don’t do—they don’t turn off the water to our sinks.
Frustration comes and goes. I’ve learned to not get worked up over traffic most of the time, but sometimes my blood pressure raises. And out of nowhere the communication barrier just hits me. I once made someone mad at me while trying to park in order to pick-up Olivia at her school. He came up and let me know he was displeased with me, and in the moment all I could say was, “Estacionamento, dude!” The first word is the Portuguese word for parking, but I didn’t know what else to say in the moment, so “dude” just came out. Looking back, I don’t even think I used the first word correctly.
My kids struggle in this too. They recognize they are working twice as hard as their peers to get half as far. “It’s not fair,” they say. Nope. But it’s reality…for now. There are days when all five of us long to go back to America. Those are the days that we need God’s grace the most, to be reminded that he is the one who brought us here, and that this is only a season. It too will one day pass. When we hear of your prayers for us on these days they sink in so deeply, whispering to our hearts that we are never alone here.
During this stage every day is tiring, and there never seems to be enough rest. At first, I thought I had a bad case of jet lag, but since moving here I’ve had to sleep more and more and more. Even when I have some physical energy, my brain is mostly dead. Months later I’m still sleeping more than I ever needed to in America. I haven’t been able to read much for fun or for learning because my brain is simply too tired. Before we moved here one missionary friend said to give ourselves lots and lots of grace. I now know what she meant.
I can’t say God gave us thorns in the flesh like he did Paul, but I’ve often thought of Christ’s grace being made perfect in our weakness. Where we are weak, frustrated, exhausted, and stressed, he is strong. His grace is sufficient for us. I’m still prideful, not wanting to admit to my struggles, not wanting to boast in my weakness. But I can boast in God’s grace. When we come to the end of ourselves there he is. And his grace flows through his people.
We have people here praying for us. We have people in North America praying for us. We have a place here, and it’s overwhelming to think that God would call us here. We’re not special. We certainly don’t feel equipped or ready. But it’s a privilege to serve. It’s a joy to grow, even if the growth comes in and through a lot of pain.
3. Adjustment – This can overlap a while with frustration, depending on the day and circumstance. Eventually, you will adapt to your new environment. The same missionary friend that told us about giving ourselves grace also told us about rebuilding our “auto-pilot.” Without thinking about it you know where to go or who to call for your various everyday needs. You know what is a fair price, what is available, and how to do things, from cooking to recreation to home improvement. In this stage of culture shock you have finally figured out most of everyday life in your new culture.
We’ve now rebuilt a lot of our auto-pilot. We have routines, we have go-to meals, we even know what to do for fun, if we all have the energy to do it. A lot of times on a Saturday we just want to stay home all day.
Our brains are still processing language so much that we find ourselves speaking more in Portuguese, thinking more in Portuguese, even dreaming a little in Portuguese. We’ve moved past butchering Portuguese without knowing it to knowing that we are butchering it, but only realizing what we should have said afterwards. Thankfully, people here are always gracious with us. But some sentences are still simply rambled. I can tell you now that the word for “dude” here is “cara.”
The most exciting development in our adjustment is having enough skills to worship God with our church and have deeper conversations. A few weeks ago I was worshipping, and the Holy Spirit spoke through the singing and the message. And I felt at home. Moments like that give me hope to carry on. These moments are our light at the end of the tunnel. They are sweet reminders of the mission God has called us to and why all this adjustment is worth the shock.
4. Acceptance – In this stage there is a realization that in order to feel comfortable here we don’t have to master or even completely understand everything and everyone here. Instead of comparing what is better or worse, we can just accept that things are different. And different is okay.
We are not at this stage yet, but one day we will be. By God’s grace and through many prayers.
Okay, so my name is Brandon, and I am in culture shock.
There, I said it.