This past week I was fielding questions from a colleague about to reenter the US for the first time after spending a significant amount of time overseas. I found my answers echoing those of the doctors when my wife was pregnant and wondering about certain symptoms. “Don’t worry, it’s normal. It’s alllll normal.” Reentry can bring with it a surprising range and intensity of emotion and thinking. The proverbial weeping in the cereal aisle really does happen. A prepared person will expect the unexpected and therefore have a place to mentally put that unusual fatigue, skepticism, or anxiety.
Yet our conversation also brought to mind one of the very good fruits of reentry, a quiet upside to reverse culture shock. This upside is the ability to see your home culture with the eyes of an outsider for a limited window of time. When entering a new culture or a foreign country, we are immediately able to recognize differences and to pick up on contrasts. This makes the first few days or weeks in a new context important as we are able to feel the differences in a strong way. Unfortunately, this ability tends to fade quickly as our senses rapidly adapt to a new normal. Thankfully, these new lenses are not only present when moving into a foreign culture, but also return when reentering our native culture and land. It’s worth paying attention to what sticks out in this temporary period when we have slightly different eyes.
For those who have read the book Out of the Silent Planet, you might remember how Dr. Ransom gets to see humans for a brief moment as the alien residents of Malacandra do. His impression of them is quite humorous. He is fascinated by these ugly, stumpy creatures until he suddenly realizes that he is actually looking at members of his own species. It had just been a while.
It’s hard to predict what will stick out on a given trip back “home.” One trip I was struck by how simultaneously friendly and sloppy in dress Americans in airports were. So many approachable people in their pajamas! Another trip I remember marveling at the amount of money and quality control that goes into basic and boring infrastructure in the US – things like bathroom stall latches and highway guardrails. So much costly quality – these bathroom stalls will last for decades! This time around we’ve been struck by how abundantly green Kentucky is in the summer, more like a jungle full of massive oaks than we had remembered. So much wonderful green space for picnics! Why is no one picnicking?
I’ve come to think of this brief initial window as a potentially enjoyable time where making observations can really pay off. Any time that we have the opportunity to see around our own blind-spots we need to seize it. Whether that’s reading old books or authors who have the rare gift of seeing through a culture even while writing from within it (as C.S. Lewis did), or whether it is pursuing dinners with internationals in our churches to hear their take on things, we are helped by these opportunities. The typically unseen suddenly become visible.
Why is it so helpful to see our home culture through new eyes? For starters, it’s hard to think clearly about what you cannot see. Many aspects of our home culture are invisible to us because that is all we have ever known. We are the fish unaware of the water in our fishbowl. But once a given aspect of culture or context is seen it is able to be assessed and compared with other contexts – and more importantly, with biblical principles. Once I can actually see the lack of fresh, cheap fruits and vegetables in the US (particularly in businesses which serve the poor), I can begin to ask why that is. Once I can see that the willingness to help strangers in trouble can be a common virtue (as it is in the US) then I can ask why it is that my Central Asian neighbors don’t share this value. What is biblical modesty? What is biblical masculinity? Should I get a dog? Many kinds of questions are helped by an exposure to diverse cultures and reentry provides a fresh opportunity to wrestle with them.
Those of us who live navigating between various human cultures have the particularly unavoidable challenge and opportunity of carving out our own unique personal culture, which tends to borrow certain emphases from the diverse cultures we have lived in while intentionally rejecting others. Like all believers, we live in the tension of pursuing a more biblical culture while we ourselves are enculturated beings, deeply affected by the unique times and contexts of our upbringing – with all their blind-spots, brokenness, and lingering glory.
When we reflect on the diversity of godly believers and faithful churches throughout the centuries, we come to find a rich tapestry of biblical cultures which have emerged from the same eternal and biblical DNA. Many tribes as it were, distinct in some ways and yet bearing an uncanny blood-resemblance. For those we are called to reach and steward, God has asked us to find our particular place in that tapestry so that we might in the right ways become all things to all men (1 Cor 9:22). Therefore, we need to have eyes that clearly see culture – both foreign and our own.
Reverse culture shock certainly comes with challenges – Watch out for the cereal aisle. Yet it also provides a unique window, one in which we can find helpful or at least interesting clarity. But it is a short window. Let’s seize it while it’s open.