Behind the Scenes and Culture Shock

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I’m going to be honest.

When we moved to Africa 5 months ago, I really didn’t expect much in the way of culture shock. I mean, South Africa isn’t exactly Sudan, you know?

We don’t shop at open air markets.

We have electricity and hot, running water.

And, contrary to popular belief, there aren’t lions running wild through the streets. 

So, when culture shock hit, and hit rather hard, I found myself quite surprised.

The day before we were scheduled to fly to South Africa, our volunteer visas were denied, so we came over on a plain old three month tourist visa. We had no guarantee that we could remain in South Africa longer than that 90 days. The visa issues definitely compounded the culture shock, as it was difficult to attempt to set up our house, stabilize our children, and make this new land home, all while struggling with the stark reality that we might have to leave, and soon. The joy I would have found in buying curtains and hanging family pictures on our walls was overshadowed by a fear of having to sell everything. Again.

So maybe our culture shock was different than others moving to South Africa with the permanence of visa approval. I don’t know for sure. I just thought I’d share what those first few months were like for us.

I first felt the culture shock at the mall, of all places. We had been here for 2 days. I felt like I was walking around in a jet-lagged fog. Some of the other missionaries invited us to meet them for lunch at the mall, and in theory, it sounded like fun.

In reality, it was terrifying.

Brent sat down with the missionaries and our children, and sent me to order food from the food court.

Here I was, in a mall, a beautiful mall, in Africa, where everyone even spoke MY language, and I was so overwhelmed I could barely breathe.

I walked through the food court several times, looking at each restaurant. The only one I recognized was KFC. But the menu was different. The prices were in Rand and my mind was so foggy, I couldn’t seem to do the math necessary to convert the price of each menu item into dollars so I could see if I was getting a good deal (or not!).

The other missionaries were chatty and happy, carefree and enjoying the fellowship.

I wanted to run, to hide, to sleep, anything but being in that mall. 

I couldn’t order anything. I slipped next to Brent and whispered in his ear, “I’m sorry. I can’t seem to figure out what to order for our family. I need help.

He ordered and I sat down and tried to act normal. When the food came, the intensity of the feelings were so strong, I couldn’t swallow. I acted like I wasn’t hungry and willed away the minutes until we could get back to our house.

There are actually grocery stores in the malls here in South Africa, which seemed funny at first, but has since become a nice reality. You can purchase your groceries, then walk around the mall with your full shopping cart (trolley) if you have more shopping to do. So, after the less than enjoyable lunch experience, Brent took me into the grocery store. He said he would sit with the children outside the store and let me “grab a few essentials”.

That sounded great in theory.

I grabbed my trolley and started walking the aisles. You know how it feels when you go on a trip and visit a new grocery store? It takes three times as long as usual to shop because you don’t know where anything is located. Toilet paper? Aisle 13. Milk? You missed that over on aisle 3. You know how challenging it can be.

Well, that first grocery shopping experience in Africa was about 100 times worse for me.

I didn’t recognize ONE single label. There was a whole aisle of “biscuits”, which I later learned were actually cookies. (I should have grabbed some!) The difference from rands to dollars made everything seem crazy expensive. The shopping clerks had heavy accents, so even when I asked for help, we had trouble understanding each other. I wandered up and down the aisles for about 15 minutes. That crazy I-can’t-breathe-run-for-help feeling hit again and I left the store, with an empty trolley and tears.

“I’m sorry.” I whispered to Brent. “I’m just a little overwhelmed. I didn’t buy anything.” 

He gave me a hug, took us home, and returned to the store (alone!), and finished the shopping. He continued doing all of the grocery shopping for about a month. (Yes, I’m so thankful for him!)

A week after we arrived, most of us got seriously sick with a stomach issue. After being up several nights in a row, cleaning up vomit and diarreah and comforting little ones, I got sick. 

I remember sitting on the toilet, rocking back and forth in pain, and shaking so bad I began to cry.

“Oh, God. I know you’ve called us here. I KNOW this will get easier. I know it will feel like home someday. I know my children will fall in love with this place and stop crying to go ‘home’. I know I will sleep better. I know I won’t walk through this house and feel like I’m visiting someone else’s home.  I know I won’t be afraid all of the time. I know this fog will lift. But right now, I can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m tired. I’m sick. I’m miserable. Help me.”

It’s difficult to explain the extreme cultural differences here in South Africa, so I won’t attempt that here. But if the mall caused anxiety, the townships caused even more at first. Don’t get me wrong—I love the people and was burdened to serve—but my body reacted emotionally to the drastic differences in culture.

Security issues also caused culture shock. We were robbed within that first six weeks, and our coworkers were robbed and abused at gunpoint recently, and while I stayed somewhat nonchalant in front of our children, I openly admit that I was truly afraid at times. Adjusting to multiple locks, keys, gates, and bars on all of our windows and doors took a little time as well. I prayed fervently for God to reduce the fear so I could see the needs of people and not be blinded by my feelings.

It took about three full months for the fog to lift. During that time, I slept alot. As soon as I got the children to bed, I just went to bed and slept. I trusted God, that my feelings would eventually follow my knowledge of His perfect plan, and I just tried to do my best each day.

I didn’t look to the future–I just took one moment at a time.

I tried learning to drive, but the panic hit again, and I’m still not driving here. (Most of the issue is because I can’t drive a manual and learning the manual AND the roads here has proven challenging for me.)

But slowly, I could go shopping and not feel overwhelmed. Slowly, I felt safer and more secure. Slowly, our house became a home. Slowly, I began to need less sleep again. Slowly, our children fell in love with South Africa. Slowly, I could cook successfully and effortlessly–and it even tasted good.

Slowly, I knew we were going to make it. 

Slowly, this became our home. 

2 Responses to Behind the Scenes and Culture Shock

  1. Thank you for sharing your heart so genuinely and beautifully in this post!

    I have been to Uganda twice on short-term mission trips with my dad. Towards the end of the last one, I found it quite draining being in a different culture too.

    So glad the Lord is sustaining you all and that, “slowly it has become your home.”

    Thank y’all for serving over there!! And for sharing a glimpse of your journey. <3


    Moriah Simonowich

  2. Yes. We recently returned to the States after two years of living in South Africa. You are describing my experience as well and we expected to live there for 5 years. I waited about a year to start driving – first I wanted to know my way around so I wouldn’t get lost while learning to drive on the wrong side of the road and car. The blind spots and your automatic reflexes are all mixed up! The keys! Having so many was so frustrating at first – but in time I appreciated all of the options to have doors closed and locked, especially the toilets for my little one who was fascinated with them. And we had those exact same curtains in our homeschool room! We got violently sick just after we arrived as well. Your experiences are all so familiar to me! We came back to the US earlier than we wanted, and I miss everything about our lives there so much. Hang in there – all you have experienced is totally normal. Thank you for posting about it and giving this missionary mama’s heart a nostalgic look back!!

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