Cultural transition is one of the worst experiences a human being can go through. It seems, at times, as if you’ve changed worlds, and adjusting to this massive change drains more than energy; it drains your spirit.
Why does this happen? Is there an explanation for the difficulty in cultural change?
Firstly, what is cultural change?
Cultural change is the change in cultures. It’s that simple.
“Wow Elisha, you’re brilliant. I never would have thought of that.”
Fantastic. You learn something new every day.
Anyway, when you change cultures, you undergo cultural change. Some changes in cultures are easy to adjust to, others are difficult. Moving from Maine to Florida may mean a small shift in culture (ie. the weather, accents, etc.), while moving from Asia to America would be a massive change (ie. Language, geography, colors, etc.).
What does it look like?
Cultural change is different for everyone. Some do not experience it quite as acutely, while others bear the full brunt of the shift. It appears in full form when the change was greatest, as I have repeatedly discovered when moving from Africa to the United States.
Change in culture often manifests itself twice. It first appears directly after the change happens, usually within just a few hours of the actual change. Often, it will leave the person affected looking stunned or completely overwhelmed. They may be acutely aware of the tiniest details, such as the color of the grass or the difference in haircuts.
It will appear again over a period of several weeks, and it usually does so when the affected person walks into a store or mall. This is extremely common, especially when coming from a poverty-stricken country into a country with a higher standard of living. Suddenly, you realize that there are fifty different choices of shampoo, some customizable to your hair color, length, and thickness!
I have seen people fall to their knees with such a realization, and for good reason; the shift between a poverty-stricken country and a richer country like the United States or Great Britain can be stunning. In the past, when shifting between Africa and the USA, I have avoided grocery stores for months at a time in an effort to keep myself from this level of struggle.
How can we prepare for it?
There are three levels to preparing for cultural change: Preparing before the change, preparing in the change, and preparing after the change for changes in the future. Let’s dissect these piece by piece.
1: Preparing before the change. The best way to prepare beforehand is to understand what you’re going into. When traveling to the United States, I constantly remind myself of the people, the lifestyle, the language, the cost of living, and many more important pieces to the puzzle. Understanding what is going to change is extremely important.
“When changing cultures, understanding what the change entails is crucial to preparing.”Tweet
This is also crucial when changing small distances, such as moving from Illinois to Florida. Reminding yourself of a few details (such as the facts that oranges are actually tasty in Florida, the majority of the populace drives golf carts, and the temperature is warm almost year-round) can help you adjust quicker.
2: Preparing during the change. I often do this immediately after landing in the United States. Since I am extremely perceptive, I have to force myself to not study everything, or I am reminded of and seemingly punched in the gut by the change. Realizing the true quality of the car you’re driving is not helpful when you landed mere minutes ago.
3: Preparing after the change for the next change. A few months after the shift, I often do a small recap of what hit me the hardest. Was it realizing how much Ugandan money is involved in paying for a simple cup of coffee (enough to feed a family for two days)? Understanding this and learning what to avoid or pray through is key to making the shift again.
My most recent return from Uganda was, by far, the most difficult. I was, quite literally, ripped from my home and the culture I had grown so accustomed to. While my family was simply packing for a temporary visit to the United States, I packed my life. Since I would not be returning, my packing became far different from that of my family’s.
Furthermore, because of corona and the speed at which the airports shut down, I was unable to say goodbye to any of my friends (with the exception of one). This made the transition to the United States twenty times more difficult then the previous transitions. I was unable to mentally prepare, and so I found myself being surprised by things that shouldn’t have surprised me.
For the following six weeks, I had types of flashbacks, almost as if I was suffering from PTSD (which is, quite realistically, still a possibility). I would randomly see images of my friends, still back in Uganda, standing close to me. Then, they’d vanish, leaving me convinced I was going mad.
It is entirely possible that this is attributed to a lack of sleep and overdose of coffee, but I prefer to not rule out all options.
Regardless, this level of cultural change was far from healthy. It left me with many scars, and growing through that level of hurt has been difficult. Yet through all of it, God has been good, and He has always been gracious with me.
And so, with that, if you find yourself shifting culture at some point in the future, remember to prepare as much as possible. Talk to your pastor, talk to someone who has made that shift before, do anything you can to become truly ready. It isn’t easy, but seeing that side of the world is possibly one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. If I ever marry, I fully intend to take my wife to Africa to show that side of my life. It is well worth it.
Alright, that’s all for today. Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a fantastic day!
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