Culture shock can be very real. One often experiences culture shock in places where they believe the culture is the same as their home country. I have seen culture shock experienced worse by those that feel like their world travelers or grew up in a multicultural environment. One thing I learned about culture shock is that everybody experiences it and that usually comes when you’re tired, frustrated, or simply believe you got a handle on the situation you’re traveling or living in. We had a Hispanic girl come from Los Angeles who had traveled the world and thought she would not experience culture shock in China. Of the four College students spent the summer with us that year she was the one who experienced culture shock the most. Personal expectations and our preparation prior to coming overseas shapes the level at which we experience culture shock. I say all that to really remind myself that going to London will produce culture shock moments.
There are aspects a British culture that are similar to the culture in the states. So much so that many travelers and vacationers never look up local differences, saying, or obvious faux pas that those from the States commit. Before going to any country, I often search, “common mistakes Americans make in ______________”(insert name of country visiting). I have found that this has helped make my time in each country I visit more enjoyable. I have also found that this lays some of the initial foundations to building relationships within that country.
This week when reading and trying to understand the differences that I will encounter in Britain I realize there is a custom that will require more of an adaptation for me than many in our group. Other than the times I have been in New York City, I have not experienced outside of China the level of people movement. The excitement of joining a mass of walking people going from one place to another with purpose. This is not a stroll or a leisurely Sunday afternoon sightseeing adventure: no it is moving at a pace that helps one arrive at a destination in a short amount of time. Living in a culture that often jostle’s and bumps one another just walking down the street I have become accustomed to not responding. Very rarely do I say “excuse me” or “ I’m sorry” unless I have almost knock them over. The opposite is true as well. This is because one would be saying that almost constantly when walking in the subway(Metro) or any busy building. The British politeness1 of acknowledgment when bumping or nudging each other needs to be on my radar as I navigate this new culture. There are not Chinese that are taking the time each time I have bumped to make sure that I am ok. It sometimes is everyone for themselves. It think this has become true as the Chinese have learned to wall off themselves from those they do not know. With the insider/outsider mentality of this culture, one is either a part of a family or one doesn’t exist. This has helped Chinese manage relationships in a population of 1.6 billion people. It is no wonder they have begun to offend so many cultures they visit around the world.
Another thing I have learned through the years is do as the locals do. Open our eyes and watch, learn, and repeat what is seen. I often tell those that come and visit me to look around on a bus, subway, restaurant and see if you behavior is the same or more obnoxious than those around. I remember being in the Ukraine and six American Young people boarded the local metro. Everyone on our car was quietly Reading or talking in a low voice until the six American boarded. They were loud, obnoxious, and not even aware of their surroundings. Since everyone could hear their conversation I know they were a group on a summer Mission trip to evangelize the Ukrainians. As I sat quietly at my end of the metroCar, not once did I see them look around and observe the surroundings and they were in. Also they were not even aware that Every member of the car was staring at them in what was obviously a moment of culture shock for the Ukrainians in the subway car. When we travel abroad we like to take what is familiar and what is comfortable with us. Some people travel with pillows, their favorite music, friends, or even a suitcase full of food. However, I have experienced that those that enjoy their time abroad were those that embraced the culture immersing themselves without the distraction the things that bring them comfort from their own home culture.
I have a British friend but I don’t know years would’ve enjoyed holidays experience of The traditions surrounding Easter Christmas. I asked him recently what I needed to know about going to London he responded with a shrug saying “just don’t be an idiot and you’ll be fine.” My British friend loves to laugh, loves a good pint and loves the Lord. There have been times we needed to stop and replay a conversation in order understand what word was used and what was actually meant. His quirky sense of humor has allowed us to laugh when there were moments of frustration while living and working in China. Even though he speaks the Queen’s English and I speak something far less we have enjoyed each other’s company as well as the cross cultural exchanges that come with friendship. I often tell people coming to Asia one of the biggest ways overcome our biases are to spend time with the people in the country we are guest in. A great book about travel is Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain. In it he says, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”2
1 Terry Tan, Culture shock! a Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette (Tarrytown, NY: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2008).
2 Samuel Langhorne Clemens, The Innocents Abroad (London: Collins, 1959).
13 responses to “Know Yourself”
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Thanks for this post, Greg! I really appreciated your thoughts and stories about culture shock as we gear up for another adventure in a new place. I thought your insight that “I have seen culture shock experienced worse by those that feel like their world travelers or grew up in a multicultural environment” was especially interesting to me. Yes, culture shock can catch us and affect us most when we least expect it or see it coming. I see myself as being susceptible and I will take your advice onboard as I prepare to go over. It’s fun to read these books and get a peek at what is ahead.
Dave, we are world travelers and can get overconfident in our own abilities. I too love to travel and need to take my own advice as well 🙂
Great post, Greg!
Good points. You rightly observe, “One often experiences culture shock in places where they believe the culture is the same as their home country.” I think this is the most common issue that many Westerners face when traveling to areas like Great Britain. They assume that because people speak the same language that they have the same customs. This is far from the truth.
Why do many not take the time to understand and appreciate the differences? Do you find that Christians approach different countries with this attitude because of their preference towards nationalism and cultural conversion?
Colleen these are loaded questions. We (the world) definitely mix our faith and our patriotism in unhealthy ways. So it will indeed color our views of other countries and what we are willing to “endure” when encountering those cultural moments our brain struggles for clarity.
I am not sure I am up for the crowded situations you describe. Being in rural Montana, it will take some getting used to in London. The people moving in large crowds will be exciting, but I must admit, tiring as well.
Are we taking trains or buses in London? Maybe both…
I hope we have bus times like we did in South Africa. Those times of talking and getting to know each other were so valuable.
Great post Greg. Yes im more afraid about making a cultural faux pas (sp?) on this trip than on any other country I’ve been to. YOur story about the group on the subway sounded very familiar. Unforuntately my youth group might have been some of the culrpits of this 🙁 whoops@
I think every youth group has made memories in some “mission trip” that we could all tell stories about.
Hi Greg! As always you share such words of wisdom! I have to laugh though in thinking about the movement of people in China vs. the movement of people in the US. Having just completed a jaunt through Yellowstone, there was a lot of buzz from the locals and employees about the “Asians”. I just chuckle because I know and understand the Asian culture, but Americans assume they are just rude. Imagine how we are perceived when we travel overseas. Your wisdom is evident when you mention stand back – observe – look around and watch what is acceptable there. Then go and do!
Jean, when I was in Yellowstone a couple years ago I saw a few Chinese that I wanted to say something to so they could be observant as well. I didn’t knowing their culture and how that would be received.
Greg. I made similar comments to Mike’s post. I think the danger is greater that we are not aware of what is happening around us because of the cultural similarity and this the potent to miss it. I think that of all the advances this one is likely to be most challenging to our understanding of faith and Christian faith issues if we are alert to it. It will be important that we are more than simply tourists but prepared to hear the challenges that are brought to us.
When K and I moved from Colombia to Tennessee is when we experienced the greatest culture shock. We thought we were moving to North America – therefore everything similar at least – but, no.
We were blindsided because we didn’t anticipate it. Many times I have seen that culture is also invisible.
I don’t remember Tennessee apart of your journey. That would be a huge cultural shift. So many pastors make this mistake as well and do see the differences if culture mistaking the new culture they moved into to be the same as their home.