After seven months of living here in Mexico, I finally hit culture shock. Slammed right into it. Literally.
Being a mother and a wife with the inner compulsion to tend to my family and walk them well through their phases of adjustment, I came in last place to the inevitable. We know the textbook definition of culture shock, right? It goes something like this: “feelings of confusion, doubt or nervousness caused by being in a place (such as a foreign country) that is very different from what you are used to and can be described as consisting of four distinct phases: Honeymoon, Negotiation, Adjustment, and Mastery.”
A die-hard idealist and creative, I recoil at conforming generalizations and believe there is always a way around or over what most folks think is routine. Apparently when it comes to adjusting to a new culture, the studies are fairly accurate and there are little responsive alternatives. Ehh, I hate admitting that.
Apparently my honeymoon ended last week.
I had not been feeling well for days (these darn parasites). Our roof was leaking. Our water flow from our rooftop cistern was intermittent. The cold here in our cement ice-box home with no central heat was seeping into my Floridian heat-loving bones and evoking me to plain grumpiness. There was a discrepancy over a payment to our little neighborhood gate service, so our guards were not letting me in our out without me having to do it myself, multiple times a day. In the cold, mind you. The workman who have been building multiple houses against the back of ours were unrelentingly in their last four months of banging and drilling into our walls from dawn until dusk. And my Spanish studies? Well, I was doing as good in those as I did in high school math. Oh wait, I never made it to high school math.
Knowing I crave nature and the life it breathes back into me, I packed a snack and water for the kiddos and loaded our girl and our two dogs into our Pilot. I would fight speed bumps and crazy traffic again to pick up the boys from school and we would go directly to hike through the hills near our home and sit in the quiet.
I could not wait.
We retrieved the boys and got back on the road. All was calm and quiet as we drove. Rounding a corner, there was a line-up of cars that stopped and started. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a chalky-blue old VW bug serve in front of the car ahead of me clear across the street into a gate which shut behind it. The fancy little tan pearly car stopped abruptly and I slammed into it. Full force.
The dogs yipped. I pulled over into a little area in front of a taco stand, a mechanic, a teinda, and a tortilleria and got out. The two young women, obviously more Spaniard and upper-class, in the pearly ride also pulled in and we began to talk. Thankfully the passenger spoke good English. We inspected their car and saw a slight indentation and a long scratch on their bumper. You would have thought the whole back end of the car was smashed in the way they carried on. They hemmed and hawed, calling the driver’s father and insurance. My cell was not operating (I hate cell phones and had forgotten I needed to put more minutes on it), so I borrowed theirs and tried to call my husband’s cell, multiple times with no answer. We have insurance, but I already experienced having to wait 3 hours before for an adjuster to come and remember all the paperwork, in Spanish, and there was no way I had the energy or the clarity for that process.
I wish I could tell you that I looked on these ladies with compassion and saw this as a divine “ministry opportunity”. I was praying in my mind for wisdom and calm. But not for them.
As I stood there, the accumulation of all I have seen, felt and experienced that has not been enchanting, exotic or wonderfully curious rose up out of me, “Look around you girls! See that old woman with braids walking just down the way carrying a basket? She doesn’t even have shoes on and it looks like her feet have blisters! And look the other way, see the garbage strewn all over the side of the road and the wild dogs so skinny you can see their hip bones picking through it? See the little girl selling candies looking like she has not had a bath in two weeks? Now look at your fancy little car with the little dent and scratch. Hello!? Could we bring in a little perspective here, please? I mean, big deal. How can you ignore real issues? What is up with the contradictions of this culture? You realize I am still standing here and I could have driven off, like I see most of you people do multiple times a week, taking no responsibility or care. And don’t you even try to squeeze tons of money out of me because I am a tall, white gringo who you assume has money. I don’t! So stop taking advantage of me, even if you know I can’t understand everything you say! I may often feel like a kinder-gardener here, but I am a grown woman! There are bigger stories all around you than this little dent that happened because of another crazy driver. You all drive crazy so why don’t you just get used to all the dents! And no, I will not give you a copy of my ID and my papers like you keep asking, absolutely not! Here, take the last of my grocery money, my household money and my gas money from my categorized envelopes. And I don’t have anymore in my bank account. I am doing this because the One I follow says that when someone asks you for something you give him even more and I may be really upset right now but I am going to do something right because I feel He is telling me to. “
The poor women just stared at me. They took the money that would cover their repair according to the mechanic (I heard him give the estimate and understood what he said, and told the girls so when they tried to triple the figure on me).
Yep, no salvation story here. Just the guts of humanness. Ick. And I hated, HATED that I spoke down to and referred to the people here, the people I love for heaven’s sake as “you people”. I have heard other expats do this and I abhorred it.
I got in the car and my wise oldest son patted my leg and said, “Mom, I think you just hit culture shock. You are kinda slow at coming to these things. You didn’t yell at them. You spoke like Jesus in Matthew when he called the Pharisees a brood of vipers. So maybe it was not so bad. Why don’t you drive home slow and I’ll give the little ones their snacks and we’ll walk the dogs around the neighborhood. And what is that black stuff running off your eyes with your tears? You look terrible.”
Great Mom moment. I came home and sobbed. I hardly ever sob. Where was my husband in all of this? I later learned he was in a dentist chair getting 3 wisdom teeth pulled and four fillings replaced. It was a last moment decision, or as he called it an “opportunity”. No wonder he could not answer the phone. The week didn’t perk up from there but those are other stories.
I have been processing this whole issue of culture shock (which can be so ambiguous and hard to define when you are living it) and these are some of my thoughts:
- Jesus experienced culture shock. When I was driving home with my kids, I heard His voice say to my heart, “I did this too, I know. I have never asked you to follow me where I have not already been.” He gave up his dignity to come to us. Yes, this was probably the most humbling aspect of Jesus’ appearance on earth as a full human being. In the heavenly realms Jesus is all-loved and all-worshiped and all-respected. However, on earth Jesus intentionally put himself into the hands of his own creation (what a God!). He knows and I can rest in this. He is tender towards me when I am not often like that towards myself. And He, well is the Savior of Mexico. I am not. Psalm 47
- It is a privilege to experience the humility of adjusting to another culture because it is another means of sanctification. Really, how many of us get to experience this particular way of being utterly undone? It is well-known fact that anything that lies beneath in your own soul or that already are issues in your home culture, will be surface and be magnified in your new culture. For me, hitting the wall meant hitting my knees. “Undo my pride as I confess it and replace it with humility, Abba. Apart from You I don’t have the power to not become apathetic towards the people and the issues here. My sense of isolation is a call to lean deeper into you. Fill me afresh with so much of You that I am full. I avail myself to You in all my inadequacies. And when things rise up in me that may be my flesh, that dead man walking, I might see just failure, but you see your blood. You see more pages I am giving you to write more chapters on redemption. Give me eyes to see the way You see or my perspective will keep me in bondage.”
- I have to accept that I will never be Mexican. I have a pile of books near my reading chair on Mexican culture, I ask as many questions as occur to me, I listen and observe closely the mannerisms and ways of communicating of the people here, but I cannot be incarnational, not really (which goes against all my missions training, I know). The Jesus in me can rise forward and supersede culture when those encounters are needed, but my culture is deeply embedded into who I am. And God celebrates this. The greatest thing which bind the cultures together is the love of Jesus and I can express that love by the sharing of who I am, where I have come from and what I have. I don’t hold onto it all as if it is of no value here, nor do I hide away fearing rejection. But I have in some ways. Even in regards to the other expats here, which can also be a temptation. I can give to those who want to partake. And it will not be everybody, just those God has sent me to and them to me. I am who God has created me to be and I am here because He has ordained it and I have obeyed with a full heart. And another thing: it all takes time. Urgh!
- I have to engage in that which is life-giving to me; these are gifts from God and if I don’t freely receive I cannot freely give. It has taken me seven months to set up my art studio here and I have still not opened my paints. I have not planted flowers or vegetables in pots. I longingly look at my ideas for the next books I want to write. Strolling through nature outside the city beckons me more times than I answer. Why? I have believed the lie that these things are selfish and that we are not being sacrificially financially supported to engage in personal pursuits. There is too much “real ministry to do”– just look at the needs all around us! And, after all we live nicer than so many others here, how could I ever add even more beauty to my life? Most missionaries wrestle through these same thoughts, at least the majority I have spoken to; we can be afraid to show you how human we are and how North American we live within our own walls as if suffering and scarcity are the true marks of a called servant. But when I don’t do those things in which I feel God’s pleasure, those ways in which I am taking part in creating culture and in exercising godly dominion, I begin to wilt. And then it all compounds and seems to much. Then I am especially susceptible to the pitfalls of culture shock and I may stunt the necessary process of full enculteration. I feel heavy and wooden, ineffective and even lost. I am not in a posture to listen and be, but to do and go. As if it all depended on me, as if the fruit in my life is all my prerogative and not the Gardeners. Forgive me Yeshua. How I wish I could have watched you in your carpenter’s shop all those years and seen what it all meant.
- It is easier to move forward in the process when you know you have the blessing. Our pastor here preached yesterday on John’s baptism. I love the imagery he gave of describing the humanity of Jesus and how hard it is for any of us to embark on a new path in our pilgrimage. We see all the obstacles ahead of us and the hardness which we know we are being called to walk through, and without the blessing of our Father we cannot do it, we cannot go. Here the Father God spoke His pleasure and made the Son feel His belovedness, empowering Him with the gifts of the Spirit. If Jesus Himself could not go forward into His ministry of rescuing the whole world without this profound blessing, how can we go it alone? How can we not hear and receive these same things from Him, through one another? We cannot. Oh we do not bless each other enough! On my weary days I read the notes of blessing folks post on our family fb page, I read the prayers people have sent us and the words of encouragement I don’t always have the time to respond to. I almost feel unworthy of all the time and attention people have taken with these, but then I remember this is the function of the Body and I have to receive. It is humbling. And most often, I take out a letter our missions pastor gave us on our leaving. He wrote on behalf of our church, “We bless you and say a genuine “amen ” to the Blycker family answering the call to serve in Mexico. We ask and will continue to ask for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit for smooth transitions, effective ministries, and every possible need to be met. With confidence in the power of the resurrected Jesus, we know there will be huge success for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the expansion of His kingdom on earth because of this act of obedience. We much love and respect, go with our blessing and make disciples. We love you!” Brings tears to my eyes every time. We just see these little seeds of our often nutty lives here, but they see a harvest.
And so does God. No matter what “walls”, or cars we hit.