How do you face and adapt to living in a completely different world, amongst a completely different culture, surrounded by people speaking a bizarre language that bears no resemblance to your own and who have a completely upside-down attitude to life? How?
Four months ago, I moved to a country in West Asia. It’s hard to explain how completely my life turned around in a matter of days. From where I lived in Adelaide, I could hop in the car and be surrounded by trees within 15 minutes. Now I live in a concrete jungle, with 18 million chain-smokers as neighbours. The nearest forest/open area is two buses, a train and a ferry away. In Adelaide I was a confident, capable, professional woman. Now, because of the language barrier, ordering a coffee can seem like an insurmountable task. Everything is new, everything I thought I knew has to be relearned. Habits which were harmless in Adelaide are culturally unacceptable here. Routines I had before have to be changed. I shouldn’t cross my legs, smile at waiters or wear shoes indoors. I shouldn’t go outside with wet hair (because that would make me an immoral woman); I shouldn’t accept someone’s invitation on the first ask (only on the third ask); I should reply to WhatsApp messages instantly (or else were we even friends in the first place?). I shouldn’t flush toilet paper. I shouldn’t drink Ayran (made of yoghurt, water and salt) with fish, or eat lettuce in winter, or order chicken before noon. Many of these adjustments may seem like small things, but when added together, and paired with the almost constant stress, confusion and exhaustion that comes with living in a new culture, it can become a considerable weight to bear every day. So how do you adapt to living a completely different life? I don’t have any of the answers (if you have the answers email me!), but what follows is a rough outline of my battle strategy for surviving the past four months.
1) Laugh. A lot. There a lot of discouragements and disappointments when you first move to a new culture. You miss your family, friends, food and familiar things. At the moment I am language learning, and I will continue language learning for the foreseeable future. Learning a new language is always hard and, as any good language learner knows, you fail a lot! In fact, the more mistakes you make the better you learn. But failing is still failing, and there are times when failing hurts! The best cure I have found for failure is laughter. There is something about laughter that lightens loads and soothes the painful areas.
Usually, yes, you are laughing at yourself, because you’ve made a cultural mistake, or because you aren’t able to communicate something, or because instead of ordering a loaf of bread from the baker you’ve accidentally ordered a ‘man’ (true story — you should have seen the baker’s face!). Sometimes it is laughing at something funny in the culture, like a motorbike loaded with thirty 20L water bottles, only attached to the bike with rope and duct tape. Sometimes it is laughing just with sheer joy at a completely new experience, or it’s from discovering a shop that sells soy sauce. Make the most of these ‘laughing moments’. Laugh at them long and laugh at them often. The next failure won’t be as painful if you do.
Celebrate often as well. I try to make the most of any and every small success. In my context, celebration generally takes the form of baklava, or some other delectable Middle Eastern delicacy. If you celebrate the daily successes, the daily difficulties begin to decrease. Some days, celebrating is the only way I stay sane!
2) Prioritise time with God. I know, this one is a cliché. After all, everyone should be prioritising time with God, whether you are in a new culture or in the home you grew up in, it goes without saying. But I live in a spiritually dark country, one of the most unreached countries in the world. My city has been a stronghold of the evil one for centuries. And the evil one knows exactly where we are weakest, he knows which buttons to push, he knows which weapons in his arsenal will hurt us the most — and he will and does use them! I have found that letting myself drift even slightly from the firm foundation I have in Christ has a noticeable impact on every other area of my live. I have come to realise that nothing I do, not even the most basic things, are of any worth at all, if they have not been preceded with time with God. God gave us armour and weapons, but these are only effective if we wear them and maintain them regularly!
And pray a lot. Pray all the time, in every situation. Laughter lightens the burden in the short term, but prayer ensures you don’t bear the burden in the long term. And prayer is such a privilege! Have you ever been on a 15-carriage train at peak hour, with standing room only, and realised that statistically you are probably the only person on that train, bursting at the seams with commuters, who is a follower of the one true God? I have. And I have had the unspeakable privilege of being able to pray for the woman who’s armpit is inches from my face, or the girl across from me who looks like she is about to fall asleep, or the man wearing the red beanie with the pompom and know that they have probably never, and may never again, have someone pray for them. It’s moments like these that make the struggles of living in a completely different world, sooooo worth it.
3) Recognise that your culture isn’t the ‘correct’ culture. I thought this one was going to be easy—it’s not! When you are stressed you just want people to behave in a way that is familiar to you, and when they don’t (they never do!) it can be easy to hate the culture. But ask God to open your eyes to see God in the culture around you. God, after all, is the Master of cross-cultural communication and He can teach us a lot through culture. I am a strong believer that we can learn something new about God if we look at Him through the lens of different cultures. Each culture views the world slightly differently and they see different facets of God that are not as obvious in our Western cultures.
There is beauty, depth and richness in every culture, and if we refuse to embrace anything that is not familiar to us, we are the ones that miss out. Be flexible and take on the attitude of a learner in every situation and you will be surprised at what treasures you walk away with.
Of course, not everything in each culture is beautiful or godly. I am a single woman living in a male-dominated, Muslim culture. Every day I am confronted with the truth that culture can be harsh and ugly. It can become a prison, just as easily as it can be a way to see and worship God. I find it helpful in these situations to remember that a lot of the things that Jesus did and believed went against the cultural norms of His time as well. It has been important for me to recognise that sometimes to be a good witness I need to set aside my own culture, and take on the local culture; but at other times, in order to be a reflection of Christ, I have to be counter-cultural as well.
4) Prepare well. Good training before arriving was absolutely vital for me, and not just biblical and theological training, but cultural training. In fact, even though it might upset some people, I’d go as far as to say that for cross-cultural ministry, cross-cultural training is more important. If you know someone who is going into cross-cultural ministry, please encourage them to first attend a Bible college where they can take courses in anthropology and cross-cultural communication. It is so, so, very important to be given the tools to thrive in a new environment, and formal training goes a long way to giving you these tools.
Part of preparing well for me was making sure I had a strong prayer network established before I left. We are fighting a battle, whether we see it or not. I believe that there are many obstacles and difficulties I have not had to face, specifically because people are praying for me. We follow a God who hears us, and the prayers of His saints are powerful! That leaves you readers with an important role to play in ensuring workers thrive in their fields of ministry. Pray for your workers and let them know that you are praying for them. Keep in touch with them and encourage them. It might only take five minutes for you to write an email, but it could make the day of the worker receiving it.
As a foreigner in a new country it is very easy to feel like an alien on a new planet. It presents many challenges, but it also creates so many opportunities for joy and to depend on God in a new and exciting way. I don’t know how other people survive the cultures they are in, and I definitely don’t claim to have any of the answers. I stumble and fumble more often than I succeed. But I know that that’s OK, because we are not called into this place to be perfect, or confident, or even capable. We are simply called to be obedient to God and to worship Him as well as we can in whatever language, whatever culture, whatever country to which He has brought us. We don’t have to ‘do’ for Christ, we simply have to ‘be’ with Him. I don’t know about you, but remembering that always makes my struggles feel a little easier to bear.