Does it mean something if the Wikipedia entry for “culture shock” brought me a strange sense of comfort?

Posted by on August 23, 2011

I feel like I owe it to my soul to say something on here about culture shock. And not just my soul – I think my stomach would also appreciate it if I spoke up rather than continuing my rather indecorous streak of stress eating.

I sort of alluded to my culture shock in my post about the weather, but that wasn’t quite coming out with it -weather can be stressful wherever you are. Part of the trouble is, I can’t quite pinpoint my culture shock on any one thing. Not that that’s the definition of culture shock, but somehow I feel like I should be able to point my finger at one big bad thing. Or like there has to be something wrong with the new culture, for it to deserve a complaint like a visitor experiencing culture shock in it. And I can hardly call Sydney a bad place.

The people are wonderful and welcoming (particularly at our church, as well as Aussies by and large). Maybe it’s a bit hard to understand them, but they’re kind and warm-hearted to an un-American degree.

We have Internet and phone (and Skype!) so I’m able to stay in touch with family and friends back home. Maybe most times I feel like calling someone to talk it’s the middle of the night where they live, but it’s still possible to talk to them at some point.

Sydney is an amazing city, with lots of great things for kids to do. Maybe it takes an hour to actually get to any of them because of the public transit system, but they’re there for the visiting.

There are all kinds of moms’ groups everywhere. I mean everywhere. Do you realize that if I wanted to, Naomi and I could attend a play group every day of the week without walking more than 7 minutes from our front door? Maybe they cost to attend, but they’re thriving and happy to have newcomers.

The weather isn’t bad. Maybe we lost half our summer to be plopped down in the middle of winter, and I’ll be giving up my entire Fall (my favorite season) in return for TWO winters (and a spring), but people say spring here will be nice, and there’s no snow only rain.

The food is essentially Western. We can get bread, meat, cheese, chocolate, fruit. Maybe bananas are $7/pound (?? Part of Australia is tropical, so Daniel and I are scratching our heads over this). And maybe bread is $5.50 a loaf. And maybe the “pure butter” I bought actually acts, looks and tastes like really bad margarine. And maybe the cheddar only comes in two varieties: “sharp” and “sharper.” And maybe all the chicken and eggs I’ve eaten here have an odd taste to them. And maybe no freaking country outside the US seems to sell plain Cheerios without a glaze of sugar on them that mysteriously turns Naomi into an unusually demanding little booger… ok, so maybe the food is a bit of an issue for me.

But maybe the real problem is all those little “but”s. There isn’t any one big complaint I can make about Australia, except that: it’s not my home. That sounds cliche but it’s a difficult experience, no matter how much you know to expect it. Much as I despise Southern California’s image-obsessed culture, it is my culture. Those are my people. At least Hollywood and the body-image focused ads on TV are familiar things for me, and I’m used to feeling annoyed by them. But then on top of that, there are so many individual people that I love who live there – my church, my friends, my family. I’m realizing how much I miss being able to go over to a friend’s house, where Naomi can have fun with friends, and I can visit with someone I already know and trust. For me personally, it takes an extra 10 pounds of mental/emotional effort to go furrowing out into an unknown place, amongst perhaps-kind-but-still-UNKNOWN people, just to do something simple like take Naomi outdoors to play at a park. It’s not easy for me. Or cooking: making breakfast, lunch and dinner may be annoying or tiresome at home in the US but at least I already know of several things I could make without looking at a recipe. And going to the store may be a pain with a kiddo and the car seat and the traffic etc., but at least I know where to go to get what I’m looking for, and I can zip in and get it and then zip out. That’s all different here, and it is an expedition to either find the ingredients needed for a familiar recipe, or invent a new recipe from local ingredients.

I know a lot of people would find the adventure of it fun – I myself found it super fun when I spent a summer in the Philippines or a semester in England, in college. It was part of what made life abroad so exciting and interesting and full of life, for lack of a better description. Going to the grocery store was an adventure. Making dinner was an adventure. Heck, stepping out the front door was an adventure. And the same is all true now, only… the adventure is stressing me out!

I don’t know what’s changed – maybe I’m older and less flexible, or maybe it’s just that I’m a mom of a toddler now. Daily life with Naomi in itself fills up my adventure zone to about capacity on most days – much of anything else takes me into a red zone. It sounds kind of pathetic to say that, but I think it is true. Same reason I gave up training for marathons and triathlons for the foreseeable future – I don’t have enough reserve in me after parenting to do much more than a quick jog every couple days.

Daniel and I actually had a good talk about it last night. He reflected on the fact that, as a missionary kid, his deepest self bears the imprint of “the unknown” being familiar and normal to him. When he doesn’t know what’s coming or something unexpected happens, it doesn’t stress him out nearly as much as me. It probably also helps that he has a particularly easygoing and laid-back personality to boot. I on the other hand, was raised in an environment that was very predictable. When I don’t know what to expect, that does not feel familiar or usual for me. It’s different and so it takes a bit of effort to deal with it. And not only that, but I am by nature a highly sensitive person. So when I don’t know what to expect, it might even be more stressful for me than for the average, non-MK adult.

I’m going to ignore the very true statement that a lot of people really wish they could be here in my place. I know it’s meant to cheer me up and I appreciate the intention (and I acknowledge that I am very lucky and I’m grateful for this fun opportunity), but the truth of that statement doesn’t cancel out the stress, strain and pain I’m experiencing here, 7,000 miles from home. I don’t know if there’s much more to be said about it than that. It’s not that the specific experiences are so bad – some are pleasant, some are unpleasant. Some are a lot of fun, and interesting and exhilarating. But the amount of unfamiliarity in simple everyday things is just kind of overwhelming my heart at the moment. Kind of like sensory overload. Or like the red pressed-in marks on your hands after carrying extra heavy grocery bags. It’s lots of really itty bitty things that just add up to making me want to cry at 7 in the morning when my toddler wants raisins instead of the orange I just peeled.

15 Responses to Does it mean something if the Wikipedia entry for “culture shock” brought me a strange sense of comfort?

  1. Tara

    First of all you are totally normal if I am any kind of reference. I used to be fine traveling on the road or running to the store or dropping things at a moments notice to do something else, but now that I have my kids, it feels like anything unpredictable sends me over the edge. They take all that I have in the energy department and anything else added to the to-do pile is exhausting and almost too much. If it helps though, no matter how stressed I get and how busy our lives get, my kids are happy healthy people, so something must be going right. Naomi is learning from the get go how to be a pro at traveling, so hopefully that will help a lot as she gets older. If you need someone to send you a care package, let me know. Cheerios and cheese could be on their way before you know it! Remember to stop every once in a while and remind yourself, “Just Breathe.” God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.

    • Katie

      Thanks so much Tara. And you’re right – it’s good to be able to see that I’m doing all of that for the super-important purpose of the healthy happy little girl running around in my living room. :)

  2. Monica Romig Green

    Dear Katie, don’t let anyone kid you! What you’re doing right now is really, really hard. I hope that the writing of this post was a help to you. And, I also hope that hearing from others that how you are experiencing this season isn’t “bad” or “wrong” will also take off some strain. Living in another country – even one where they speak the same language and share some of your culture – is just really, really hard, particularly for the first 3 to 6 months. Praying for you and your family every day, Katie! Much love, Monica

  3. Erica

    Much of what you share echoes my own feelings each time we move. The moves became harder as a mom and the difficulty has increased with each move, as it’s now much harder on the kids. We also have to find new dentists, grocery stores, church, friends, etc. without family nearby. And sometimes it just makes me ache. I’ve been inexplicably challenged by it (almost out of the blue) the last few weeks. I think the ache started when I remembered that I haven’t seen my family in 8 months. Anyway, I’ll be praying for you and I hope you can feel comfortable enough to truly enjoy the ride….I know that can be so tough even if you can’t pinpoint anything horrible.

    I can also sympathize with cooking. Not a real problem with the moves but when we spent some time living in Ireland I tried to make a Christmas feast and not one dish tasted the same as at home. Otherwise, we had fun with it and I liked their cheese better…really, it is too bad about the cheese. I also think Aussie food is…well…not my favorite.

    I’ll be praying for you to find a sense of comfort where you are…and soon! I know I battle deep anxiety in situations like that and I hope your heart will be at peace!

    God bless,

  4. Erica

    P.S. All I meant to say (and didn’t) was that your feelings are valid and it’s okay to be uncomfortable. Give yourself permission to be not okay with it. Sometimes allowing myself the grace to be where I am with a situation smoothes the way so I can find happier footing.

    • Katie

      Erica, thanks so much for all that you said. It’s a real comfort to know another mom in a similar (but definitely more extreme) situation.

  5. Sharon Harrington

    Katie, I hear you! I understand the pressure to “feel only good things” because this is such an awesome opportunity… but your culture stress sounds really normal and you should definitely be given the chance to express it, too. Hang in there! I’ll be praying for you.

  6. Christianne

    Oh, Katie. I felt you so much in this post. (And in the last one, too, about the weather.) It sounds so hard, and I’m glad you could write it all out and say, “Here. This is what it’s like.”

    I just checked out the highly sensitive person’s website you linked to … I had to laugh while taking the self-test because every single one of the points on the test described me! I am not a fan of disruptions or unfamiliarity, and I notice the subtleties most people don’t. I get easily overwhelmed and overstimulated by too much going on or too much information or too much noise or too much anything (except perhaps too much quiet).

    All that to say, I feel you. And I’m sorry it’s so hard. Even though many things are good, it’s still hard. Love you.

    • Katie

      Thanks Christianne – and thank you for gently asking me to share more about the culture shock on FB – that actually prompted this post, which I think was really therapeutic for me to write. And it’s good to hear from another hsp. I’m only a 17 on that test, but the ones that do describe me REALLY describe me! :)

  7. Anna

    Hi Katie, my family knew Daniel’s in Indo and I’ve been following this blog with great interest since I first saw it mentioned on his facebook. (Part of that interest probably stems from having lived in Sydney myself for about 14 months until March this year – and I’ve been in Australia much longer than that). Hang in there, and I hope it becomes more comfortable over time.

    And I have an answer on the expensive bananas… Earlier this year a cyclone wiped out most of the country’s crop and the price skyrocketed. They were $15/kg for a while. (Australia doesn’t import bananas from overseas due to quarantine restrictions, so supply was super low.) It does seem to be taking an awfully long time for the price to drop back to <$3…

    • Katie

      Thanks a lot for the explanation Anna! Your suggestion of the TripView app for the iPhone has been a lifesaver too. :)

  8. Christa

    Ditto on Tara.

  9. Dad Peckham

    Dear Katie, Hearing such great comments from your friends encourages me. You have resources. And, in your writing, you have fossilized the feelings of the moment in such a beautiful form that I would like to use it in classes and in speaking at Mu Kappa. May I? I am praying for you with empathy. Lovingly, Dad.

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