My family and I have lived in Mexico for the past four years. In the last 48 months, we’ve only been back to the States for about 7 weeks. This means that over 96% of our previous four years of life has been lived in Mexico.
Our friends are there. Our pets are there. Our memories are there.
Most of all, our hearts and our calling — that wondrous place where our deep gladness and the world’s great hunger meet — is there.
We’ve allowed God to root us in the land and among its people deeply. It has not been easy, but it has been good. It is now our home.
Although we’ll always be in the process of cultural learning, we are well past culture shock.
Less than a month ago, we crossed the border and re-entered the United States to begin a 12-week furlough. We are now experiencing reverse culture shock. This can be defined as the emotional, mental, and physical response and transition to life and changes in one’s country of origin, after having lived for a time in another culture.
It’s been said that when you spend significant time in another culture, your values and attitudes will often change, but when you come back to an environment that has not changed, the dissonance can be disorienting. The deeper these attitudes and value changes are, (the more you have experienced and invested in your adopted country), the more likely the re-entry period will be unsettling.
Before you keep reading, keep in mind that it is hard for missionaries to return. Especially after their first term when they are experiencing re-entry for the first time. We desperately need the rest and familiarity, yet we don’t feel we belong in the States anymore. It takes courage to return. We are a changed people. We now live emotionally and mentally between two worlds. It’s a vulnerable and fragile feeling.
As parents, it is especially challenging because we are not only sensing the disorientation within ourselves but often need to put that aside to shepherd our children’s hearts as they wade through transitional stress. Missionary children’s lives are often marked by perpetual new experiences and good-byes. We want this all to shape them for the better, which demands tender care and discernment on our part.
Our calling is unique because it has touched every aspect of our lives inside and out, and it is intricately linked with our team of supporters who live at a considerable distance from our daily realities.
We (and most of your missionaries you may run into this summer) are hoping that you’ve actually been reading with comprehension the monthly updates we send out and have a fair amount of insight into what we’ve been doing, by God’s enablement through you. You are more of a treasure to us than you realize.
Welcome us; we’ve come a long way to be among you for a time and enjoy the gift of your presence. We need a fresh filling. Provide a listening, accepting, and a genuinely attentive ear. Ask us questions. Tell us about your lives and what Jesus has been doing in your hearts. Don’t be surprised if it takes us some time in our conversation for us to put our “US worldview helmet” back on while we listen to you, so we can actually understand your perspective. Don’t be in a hurry; we’re not.
Most missionaries take furloughs saying they are for rest, but they do not actually get rest. They travel and speak at an incredible pace to report to their supporters, keep up their support, and raise more support. We know many fellow missionary families who return to their respective ministries simply exhausted and stressed after a “furlough of performance.”
My husband and I have rebelled against this status quo. Yes, we need to maintain and even raise our monthly support. Yes, we’ve got specific needs that require fairly immediate attention and long-term ones we anticipate. It is all a concern for us.
But, we’re actively choosing rest. We’re wanting to care for our family. We’re deciding to examine and invest in our marriage. We’re choosing to pray. We’re choosing to continue to trust the Holy Spirit to speak to others and guide them. We’re wanting to be sensitive to divine appointments. We’re choosing to value individual relationships and simply love and serve others, as God provides opportunity.
Now, here are some of the aspects of reverse culture shock that we are experiencing. These are things that affect many missionaries who return to the States after a long time serving in another country, particularly a developing country:
EXHAUSTION Granted, before getting on a plane to return to the U.S., we had to completely move out of our house (which we’ve lived in for 31 months, the longest time we’ve ever had a home in 19 years of marriage). We had to find storage in Mexico for all our belongings. Our possessions are now dispersed in four locations. While packing, we had to finish up our kid’s school year, attend a variety of farewell gatherings, make numerous runs to the immigration office, communicate our plans and make arrangements for our furlough and make sure our ministry commitments were delegated or closed out well. As soon as we crossed the border and arrived at my in-laws, we all nearly collapsed. My husband and I mainly slept. For days. We still have days when we are simply exhausted.
AVAILABILITY OF THINGS/CLOTHING We flew to the Mexican border and crossed over by a car. Our younger children, who have spent their formative years in Mexico, peered out the window as we’ve just landed on another planet. “Look at the funny houses!”, they pointed and “why is everything so clean?”, they question. “Where are all the beggars — actually, where are all the people? The streets are dead!” they exclaimed. Then cheers came as they recognized stores and restaurants they have fantasized about these last years.
We foolishly ventured into a Wal-Mart on our second day in the States, and I almost passed out from the exhaustion and shock. There is a Wal-Mart only 30 minutes from where we were in Mexico. It is disorganized, loud, and dirty. There is an entire aisle for cooking oil, another for beans, another for rice. The clothes feel like paper, the choices are limited, the meats are set out in the open on counters, and the shoe selection is poor. The lower-class can’t shop there. Here, when we walked into Wal-Mart, there was no obvious class distinction. Everyone was dressed relatively nicely. In fact, I looked down at what I was wearing and what our kids had on and discovered, with surprise, that we looked pretty ratty in comparison.
Fashion, modesty, and personal care become monitored more closely on the mission field in an attempt to not distance ourselves from the poor, or appear too under-dressed to the rich. Here in the States, clothing in quantity and quality are abundant, and at this onset of a reverse culture shock, it caused me to feel shabby, conflicted, and overstimulated with the expectations and choices.
Some fresh new clothes have already been added to our suitcases, well-priced and well-made. But, as a mother I know that when we return to Texas in August right before we fly back to Mexico, I’ll have the considerable task of thinking through what my family will need as far as clothes, shoes, underwear, socks, supplements, medications and some select cooking supplies — for the entire next year, at least. One indeed cannot find size 30/34 jeans and size 12 shoes for their teenage son in Mexico!
Thinking through how to get all of it back to their country of service and how on earth to pay for it, is most likely something that every missionary dreads. This is the kind of stuff I spend a lot of time praying and planning for. Yet every single time, I return feeling like I could have done a better job.
SPACE, ORDER AND QUIET Mexicans like to live in cracker boxes, and cram stores, houses, buildings, parks and streets together as if their country is the size of Rhode Island. People live far more of their lives outside than people do in the States. City planning is usually likened to this: close your eyes and drop a wad of spaghetti and see where it all lands! Church bells toll from cathedrals, fireworks with the sound of bombs explode multiple times a day, and there are no laws against noise pollution (which means that loud, obnoxious music is played in every public venue and at all hours).
Coming to the States is like the feeling of coming to a land that must go on forever, for the expanse of even public parking lots seems an excessive luxury. Not every corner is a blind corner. There are no bars on every window and door. Security walls, barbed wire, and electric fences are not wrapping every house. It’s like one can breathe here and not feel like their very breath will knock something over. It’s both refreshing and unsettling. The quietness is eerie and fantastic!
LANGUAGE My husband is fluent in Spanish and grew up in Guatemala and Mexico. I am not fluent, and I grew up in Michigan. Imagine living for four years in which the human sounds around you can be likened to the wah-wah-wah of Charlie Brown’s teacher. To decipher the meaning of the sounds, which you soon learn have a certain cadence, you must focus intently. If not, it merely becomes familiar and even soothing background noise. You learn to live with a sense of isolation and eventually push past the feeling of loneliness and inferiority it can bring. Now, imagine all of a sudden that those human sounds are as familiar to you as the words of your own thoughts. It’s startling! It’s like coming out of a silent bubble. Here, my mind becomes saturated with linguistic overload, as I overhear private conversations between shoppers in the next aisle. I can talk! I can understand! I can communicate fully! And, I don’t have to perform mental gymnastics to do all of that!
Friends, it is absurd that when you can do these things, in your own culture besides, that you would be quiet and bashful about the Good News of Jesus Christ and functioning as ministers of this Gospel!
I’ve also noticed that here I understand everything my husband says. This has thrown our marriage for a jolt. I’m unaccustomed to this clarity, and frankly, I don’t always like it. His Spanish, just by the nature of the language, is much “prettier.” I’ve told him more than once I think I like him more as a Mexican than an American! We’ve forgotten how to function as a couple in a culture in which we both understand everything and in a place in which I am not as dependent upon him.
Many missionaries find that when they get to the field, their marriages unravel in some ways. For us, we found it actually grew stronger as we were united in purpose and had a new level of interdependence in a culture in which my husband was finally home again. Language, ironically enough, played a critical role in all of this beauty. I believe this is part of the reason why God prompted us to wait to attend language school until after our first term (we’ll be moving to an entirely new area when we return for language school).
MODERN CONVENIENCES Our 11-year old son was found staring at a flat-top electric stove shortly after arriving in the US, having no memory of ever having seen one. Our oldest son did not know what a garbage disposal was and actually jumped when the switch was flipped to turn it on. Our daughter enjoyed guessing which appliance in a kitchen was the dishwasher. She also laughed when she found the washer and dryer inside the house. She “pet” the carpet at a home in which we were staying. Air-conditioning and central heat? She also has no memories of them and finds those to be miraculous.
None of our children understand why people would have such thick, luxurious carpet in their homes here and still need beds. They’ve mainly (and happily) been sleeping on the floor where we have been staying these last weeks. We rejoice at the sight of a bathtub, put our mouths under the bathroom faucets to drink the clean water just because we can, and we’ve taken extra long showers enjoying the water pressure, with confidence the water will not run dry.
It’s helping us rest not to be concerned about clean water issues (we can rinse baby bottles under sink water!), water availability, having to make so many meals from scratch, not working to keep a house clean from all the dust and volcanic ash and being able to go to one store, nearby, and find just what is needed. It’s incredible how easy it is to live in the States!
TIME AND CHURCH On Sundays, our church started at about 11am. We packed up to go home at about 2:30pm. Stores rarely posted business hours, and if they did, it didn’t mean it was true. Gatherings with friends or for school events never had a set “ending time,” they simply went on as long as they needed to for the sake of savoring relationships. And they rarely started on time.
In the Mexican schools, two of our children attended, they did not tell us when the school year would begin or when special events would occur until a day or two before! In the states, church services are actually timed! People clear out soon after the final prayer, seeming to be distracted or eager to leave. We find that odd, now.
We have forgotten the rhythms and social cues of a time-oriented vs. event-orientated culture.
We’ve been to two church services in the States so far. A full worship band and songs we’ve never heard have brought me to tears. The short sermon length is jarring. I’m hungry for more. Checking our kids in a computer system with fingerprint recognition to go to children’s church brought us to laughter. Our children did not know what “Sunday school” was and were expecting an actual school before the service. Most adults are dressed far more casually (t-shirts and jeans) than Mexicans do when they attend church.
Looking around and seeing the amount of Christians in one place has also brought me to tears. As one of our sons commented, “Why are there so many of them here when we need so many more in Mexico?” It doesn’t make sense to him. We have all forgotten what American Christianity looks like.
We’re blessed, more than can be expressed, to be in church in which we are not leading worship or preaching or ministering in prayer afterward (not that we won’t, when the Spirit leads!), but merely receiving and worshipping with you. We believe this will be the most significant aspect of our time in the States. Don’t be surprised if I break down in tears during service or study, or my husband wants to talk with all the musicians. It all moves us deeply. To simply be here is so much.
Don’t take for granted your body of local believers, and the incredible teaching you receive, the availability of Christian resources in your language and the powerful corporate worship and prayer times.
FOOD OPTIONS This is a big one. It’s difficult for me to venture into an American grocery store. There are many brands I don’t recognize, and the sheer variety is dizzying. And the prices! It brings a bit of anxiety as I’ve learned how to shop and cook in Mexico. Feeding a family in the States looks much different and costs far more. Like someone rescued from near starvation, we have to take it all in slowly.
Two years ago, when our daughter was five, and we visited a US supermarket, she started crying and asked me to pick her up and carry her out of the store. I got her to the car, and she exclaimed, “I couldn’t stand it, Mama! I wanted to eat everything!”
I have heard that most missionaries returning on furlough have the biggest shock when it comes to the supermarkets. I believe it. I look around at people calmly shopping and wonder why they are not jumping up and down with excitement — one literally can find almost any ingredient and be able to eat any type of food at any given time! Astounding!
PERSONAL INTERACTIONS When we have received short-term teams from the States, one of the first things that strike us is how directly, often loudly, opinionated and concisely Americans communicate.
We’re not used to that anymore in communication, outside of our family. It’s startling (have I used that word before?). Americans are also much more immediately vulnerable, and this we have missed.
Mexicans speak in a circular fashion, in flowery and polite platitudes and may eventually get to the point (my precious husband continues to maintain this last one in his English speech!). They rarely speak in profoundly personal and specific terms. They don’t enter or leave a room without greeting everyone. Even in a public restaurant, one welcomes those at nearby tables.
Gatherings to eat together are usually around styrofoam plates, cheap metal silverware, and plastic cups. Food is served out of non-BPA-free plastic containers. The meals are simple, with minimal ingredients and variety. Families, especially in the villages, will often share all the food they have, trusting there will be enough for tomorrow.
Missionaries don’t need fancy dinners with you; what they most cherish is your company and the ability to communicate in an authentic and heartfelt way. They have missed these daily interactions.
DISORIENTATION Things have changed here since we left and other things, we have forgotten. I recently went to get gas in our fuel tank for the van we have been loaned for several weeks. Tired, I pulled up to the pump, turned off the engine, and closed my eyes. After ten minutes and still not hearing the familiar “tap, tap, tap” on my window from the gas attendant, I opened my eyes.
Oh! I’m in the States! I must pump my own gas! I got out and stood before the pump, confused. It took me some time to think about what type of gas I needed and how I was supposed to pay for it. I finally located the number of the pump and walked into the station to pre-pay, practicing silently in my head “$40 (say dollars, not pesos!) on 12, $40 on 12, $40 on 12”. I repeated this to the clerk and walked back out to the pump, feeling foolish and triumphant.
These are the types of things I had forgotten and feel silly about. And it’s just one example. I also didn’t know about the “chip” on my debit card or how to even use it at the store. I forgot people throw away their used Ziploc baggies here and pretty much everything else. Our daughter doesn’t know how to count American money, yet. And all of us are still struggling to translate the numbers on the price tag to a value we understand.
I forget, in many ways, how to be American. But, I’ll never fully be Mexican either. My children will, to an extent. My Mexican-born baby boy will, definitely.
It’s a curious and extraordinary calling, this foreign missionary-thing.
The fact that I am, that we are, citizens of heaven has become more real and more precious to me than ever. It is what unifies us as followers of Jesus from every land and every tongue. One day we’ll all be there before the throne, professing that because of the cross, He is Lord.
It is for the sake of his beautiful Gospel that we give our lives, that we obey his calling, that we love Mexico.
He is worthy.
And that is why, after this 12-week summer furlough, we must return.