Social psychologist Geert Hofstede defined culture as “the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one category of people from another.” Each of us is subject to a process of programming that begins at birth. Before we are even born, our parents have already made one of their first culturally based decisions—where we will sleep. In Africa, newborns usually sleep between the parents. In America, parents often place babies in a separate room.
As we grow up, our parents and elders serve as our role models and give us their best advice to prepare us for successful interaction with our community and society. These cultural concepts become our core beliefs. We view the beliefs and habits of other cultures as strange because they are different from ours.
When we bring our cultural programming into a different cultural context, culture shock is the usual result. Culture shock is a mental irritation that comes from an inability to understand, anticipate and appropriately respond to normal circumstances in an unfamiliar culture. There is so much to see, so many new tastes and smells and so many things to figure out about the basics of living your daily life. As days turn into weeks and months, your focus changes, and the daily stresses seem unbearable. In this mental state, welcoming smiles of passersby become smirks at your strangeness. Everything you see, taste, hear and smell tells you that you don’t belong. Everybody who moves into a different culture goes through some level of culture shock and adaptation before learning how to thrive in their new environment.
When my wife and I traveled to the States for AFM training, the American culture was a shock for us. In Africa we live a very social life. We live close together with others, eat together and spend time and play together. The U.S. seemed completely different to us, and everyone seemed to live in isolation. My wife became depressed. In tears, she yearned to return to Africa. She found it hard to talk with people. She lost her appetite, and she experienced outbursts of anger. It was difficult for us as we lost our sense of group identity. We didn’t feel we could be ourselves. We didn’t know how to function maturely and well in the American culture.
To adapt to our new American context, my wife and I had to develop new identities, complete with entirely new values, new ways of communicating, and new relationships. Gradually, we moved from seeing the world around us as odd to the realization that we ourselves were the odd ones. We had to go out and live life and build relationships in our new culture, allowing it to change us.
We are now feeling much better about our transition into this new environment as we make new friends and try new things. However, we still have further to go, so please pray for us that we will be able to set aside our African cultural spectacles and see the world through American eyes while we are here in the States.