Culture Shock

I remember my family's move to Ethiopia like it was yesterday. It was 1988. Ethiopia was in the midst of a terrible famine. Our family had been planning to move to Bolivia, and we were all geared up for that, when the organization asked us if we'd consider changing last minute to Ethiopia. So Ethiopia it was.

The organization gave us several months of orientation preparing us for inevitable "culture shock" that was going to occur for us North Americans with our move to a third world country.

I remember when our plane touched down, looking out the window and thinking the airport looked pretty normal.  No culture shock yet.  Even in the airport things were pretty normal.  We loaded up our luggage into a nice Toyota van and still no culture shock.  Then we drove out of the airport...

Culture shock.

I have vivid recollections of the sights, of seeing people relieving themselves in the medians, of people with minimal clothing, of people living in plastic bag houses, of children calling out "You you you you, money give!"
But nothing could have prepared me for the smell.

Culture shock.

I missed home.  I missed our clean life.

As I grew up and spent both junior and senior high school in Ethiopia and Kenya, the sights and smells became normal. I stopped missing Canada for the most part.

What was growing on and in me was the deep friendships, the deep appreciation of people over schedules, the ability to laugh long and hard, the seemingly carefree existence that many enjoyed despite having so little.  This too was culture shock, but the kind you eagerly drink in.

I keenly remember in Grade 12 having to go through Re-entry seminars and training for preparation to come back to North America. At the time it seemed like such a joke. Re-entry back to my home country, how hard could that be???


They were teaching us about how difficult it would be.  Here in Africa we looked different from most people, yet we had adopted many of the same thought processes as the populace. In North America however, the challenge would be that we looked the same as everyone else, but inside we had been rewired. Third culture kids or TCKs they called us.

As we prepared to fly back to Canada, I remember feeling sick, like my soul was being ripped out and left behind in East Africa. I didn't want to go home, I already was home!

I remember arriving back in Canada. Everything was so clean. People were so polite... and private.  Initially I thought it might not be so hard to adjust.

Wrong.

As days turned into weeks turned into months turned into years, I experienced more culture shock than I had ever experienced in Africa.

The thing that shocked me the most was this:

How can people who have so much, be so unhappy. How can so many be so driven to achieve that they have forgotten how to be relational, be carefree, laugh deeply and enjoy this life.
Where I just was, people had so little and things in the future were so uncertain, and yet people were happy!  People laughed. People cried. People grew deep friendships. People would walk around holding each others hands.

It seemed that somehow from the time I lived here before, to the time I lived here again, everything had changed!!

Or had it?

It was me. I had changed. Africa changed me.

It is now 20 years since that REAL culture shock hit me, the shock of moving back to North America.

The thing that concerns me is that at times I feel lulled into the mindset of here... squashing down my African rewiring.  Then I realize what's happening and I shake my head.  Wake up!  Realize that life is a gift. Spend time with people. Laugh. Cry. Play. Run. Relate. Go deep. Be thankful. Grow in gratefulness.

Africa I will always be thankful for the rewiring you did. Grateful.

For those of you that have never had the chance to experience the culture shock of moving back to North America, I hope one day you will. And that you too, will never want to go back to how you were before.


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