A while back I had a conversation with a university professor about culture shock. His university had a wonderful program wherein they required all of their students to take part in a cross cultural class. This involves a semester class where they learn about the culture and country they will be visiting, and is capped off with a three week trip with all sorts of cultural and educational experiences. The three week time-frame is intentional, he explained to me, because it allows the students to go through the full culture shock process—from fascination, to exasperation/ arrogance, to acceptance.
I hope I was able to maintain a straight face as he told me that.
I don’t wish to offend or appear to be scoffing at such noble efforts. After all, three weeks is better than the 10 day trip most voluntourists devote to their trips. However, let me say this quite definitively: three weeks is not enough time to experience a single culture shock cycle, let alone the multiple cycles that true cross-cultural people go through normally.
What would be a reasonable time frame, you ask? If done right, with true immersion and a cross cultural life being lived—about two years. That is enough time to learn the language and culture in such a way as to adopt aspects of the new culture. It is also enough time to trigger a good measure of true culture shock upon returning “home.”
And repatriation is where the real shock is. People returning to their passport countries after extensive time away—people who have made a home in another culture and returned—are in some sense broken. But a better way of looking at it is that they have broken free from a single cultural perspective. Upon returning to their birth culture the expectation is that they will no longer experience being “out of place.” But, since they have adopted another way of seeing the world, much of what they return to will no longer make sense. All those cultural blind-spots and deficiencies that they used to overlook, now scream out at them.
For kids going through this experience, the “Third Culture Kids” as they are called, this can be even worse. They may not have years of cultural experience in the “home culture” to fall back on. For them it is just another culture shock. Culture Shock has become a way of life for the expat, it is just stronger in the TCK.
And in that Culture-Shock-as-Lifestyle there are a few ways you can go. You can be the obnoxious person who went native, but lost the ability to adapt back. Did these people learn any skills living cross culturally? Then there are the chameleons. TCKs tend to be this way. The home culture is just another culture to imitate. But the real value for Christian cross cultural workers returning “home” lies in their prophetic perspective. They see the culture in the way that the locals cannot. They see the blind spots and the dangers that people are ignoring. They can call the culture out if they have the courage to do so.
And then there is re-expatriation, which can be a truer sense of “home coming.” And by that I do not even mean a return to the original cross-cultural context. For me, simply moving somewhere where my Culture Shock felt justifiable was a relief. It is fine to be a fish out of water anywhere but “home.” It can even be comfortable. Certainly better than being a fish out of water in the place where you grew up.
But ultimately there is an exhilaration to constantly seeing things from new perspectives. So I applaud the university program that tries to give that to students. I just wish they would find a way to make their students do a whole year or at least a semester feeling true, full culture shock.