Culture shock: why don’t you understand?

I’m an Australian-born Cambodian-Chinese (aka ABC). I have thick, black hair; dark brown eyes; and a fairly tanned skin tone. No, this isn’t a dating advert, but it’s a pretty standard description for most South-East Asians.

It’s almost a month since my family and I moved to Taiwan to serve here with OMF International. One of the challenges of living and ministering in Taiwan is my Asian appearance. If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, stay with me.

The locals

If I walk down the street on my own, Taiwanese locals will look at me and they don’t think anything of it. I look enough like a local, that is, until I open my mouth. Whether it’s ordering food, trying to open a bank account, or sort out health issues at the hospital, I get this look—Why don’t you understand?

Additionally, even though I grew up in Australia there are elements of Asian culture which I’ve inherited from my parents. As such, I feel an unspoken expectation and pressure to conform to the Taiwanese culture. What are those expectations, I don’t actually know. Still the whisper comes: Why don’t you understand?

It is all too easy to become judgmental and look upon my Australian upbringing. It is all too easy to begin comparing the West and the East. It is all too easy to shut myself and retreat from the world. None of which would be at all helpful. After all, the purpose of coming to Taiwan was to be part of reaching these people with the gospel.

However, it’s not only with the locals where this issue arises.

Co-workers & expats

On the other end of the spectrum, expat co-workers can overlook or forget that Western naturalised Asians are not necessarily equipped with the language and culture of their ethnic origins. While my experience of this is fairly minor, it does happens. Whether there are cultural expectations to act or behave in a certain manner, or language expectations where I completely miss what’s going on. Why don’t you understand?

I remember working back at home in Australia where the office culture was casual and friendly, but in a public setting, the culture was prim and proper. I was completely caught me off guard! And that’s in my “home” culture.

Here in Taiwan, I work with a team of people from different countries with their own language and culture. There are Swiss, Germans, Singaporeans, Americans, Australians, just to name a few. While English is the working language, only a few call the English culture their own.

The cultural expectations from expat co-workers is probably more dangerous than the cultural conflicts with local people. Why? Conflict with co-workers is one of the most common reasons for missionary attrition.1 I don’t expect any major conflicts, but I expect there will be some. Missionaries need your prayers for their relationships with their co-workers.

Biblical identity

So, how do we to respond to culture shock? How do we deal with the ensuing cultural conflict? Where do we define our identity in the midst of all this transition? What keeps us going?

As we undergo these transitions, we can’t define ourselves from our “home” culture, nor can we define ourselves from our new “adopted” culture. If we continuously define ourselves from the changing world around us, we are tossed around like leaves in the wind.

And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.

— Mark 8:27-30 (ESV)

If you’re familiar with the Gospel of Mark, one of the driving motifs is the identity of Jesus. Mark opens his Gospel, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) Peter declares Jesus as the Christ, and the Gospel will climax with a Roman centurion declaring Jesus as the Son of God (Mark 15:39).

What’s my point? Jesus knew exactly who he was. His life and mission, culminating in his death and resurrection, is driven by a solid knowledge and acceptance of who he is. He is the Christ. He is the Son of God. The opinion of people around him didn’t sway him from his path to redeem humanity from sin.

The Bible sets out our identity in Christ. We are adopted co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17), sons and daughters of God. We are saved by grace and we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:8-10). We are a holy priesthood for the worship of God (1 Peter 2:5). This barely scratches the surface.

As I wrestle with culture shock, the one thing that keeps me grounded and gives me strength to move forward each day is knowing who I am in Christ. Satan seeks to chip away at this foundation, but he cannot. It is a firm foundation on which I will stand. I belong to Christ. He purchased me with his blood. He gave me life, and he gave it abundantly (John 10:10).


  1. Too Valuable to Lose: exploring the causes and cures of missionary attrition by William Taylor Find it on Amazon 

The blessing of support ministries!

We’re new field missionaries. We’ve served for the past couple of years as support missionaries on the “homeside”, but now we are serving on the “field” in Taiwan for the next 18 months or so.

As new cross-cultural workers, we are in the midst of transitions. We’re dealing with culture shock, faced with the limited ability to communicate effectively, learning how to manage day-to-day life in a culture and society different to our own.

These last few days, we were faced with a frustrating situation. Sickness. As we struggle with all the challenges of transition, we now need to figure out the medical system of this country. It’s not like going to the supermarket and figuring out what’s fresh milk, soy milk, or yoghurt milk…

After a misdiagnosis yesterday, we contacted our medical advisor (who happens to be in New Zealand) for a second opinion. We were able to get the opinion of a medical profession who understands our home culture and our adopted culture. While Taiwan certainly provides excellent medical care, there are cultural differences which result into slightly different approaches to patient care.

Just the ability to speak to someone who “speaks our language” and understands our situation without getting things lost in translation is a huge relief. As a result, tomorrow we’ll return to the hospital to get one small detail adjusted to see if we can’t get an improved care plan as we deal with sickness in the family.

We’re fortunate we work with an organisation which believes in supporting its workers to enable long-term effectiveness and survival (it’s already hard enough to survive in cross-cultural ministry without the added stress). Our organisation enlists the help of various people with suitable gifts to support its workers. Some of these roles you would find in any typical organisation: finances, HR, IT, etc. Some, however, are unique to the cross-cultural sphere: language & culture, prayer, TCKs, etc.

There’s more which can be said about the importance of support ministries (check out this article). I just wanted to say thank you!

Culture shock: the early days

Well, it’s Day 4 of our new journey in Taiwan. We arrived safely last Wednesday and we were warmly welcomed by a fellow co-worker.

To date, there are daily communications in the form of personal visits, phone calls, and messages from one or more of our new co-workers here in Taipei. All of them are truly happy to have us as part of the team here, and all of them empathise with our daily struggle as we transition into life here.

However, the culture shock is setting in quicker than I expected. It just hit me in the face. Honestly, it’s probably a good indication of how stressed and tired I am from these last few months of preparing for this current transition.

I could entertain you with the things which frustrate me, but that’s the danger of culture shock, entertaining those frustrations about differences—not failures or mistakes, between my home culture and my current adopted culture—which fuel bitterness and anger, defeating the whole purpose of coming here in the first place.

Rather, my prayer and desire turns to Jesus:

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

Matthew 11:29 (ESV)

He is the reason we are here. He is my hope and my salvation. He is the hope and salvation for all peoples.

I’ll still have days where I will struggle with the culture, but I know that my Lord and Saviour is able to carry me through.

Witnesses of Joy: an invitation to a joy-filled gospel message

Where does the Christian find joy? The apostle John gives us some insights from his first letter.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

— 1 John 1:1-4 (ESV)

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6 Ways to Reach God’s World: Send

Not every Christian is called to go overseas (but we are all called to make disciples). Instead, there are those God calls to remain at home and make disciples. Additionally, for those at home, He calls them to participate in His world-wide mission to reach the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the same way, He calls those away from home to participate in the “local” mission at home.

The role of sending

The role of the sender is, effectively, the resourcing and supporting of missionaries whom God calls to serve Him and build His kingdom. It is a role many people overlook as unimportant or unrecognised. Just as with anything of significance, there are significant factors that contribute to its development and outcome. No less with God’s servants, there is a team of people who work towards their healthy development and preparation, of which the sender is one.

A sender is someone who supports a missionary. A sender is someone who promotes the needs of a missionary before the throne of God in prayer and the people of God. A sender is someone who provides for the material needs of a missionary and their ministry. A sender is someone who supports a missionary emotionally and relationally, keeping in touch and encouraging them in the call and work of God.

6 Ways to Reach God’s World—Send

The importance of sending

The role of the sender is critical. While many churches send missionaries with financial and prayer support, they do not realise the significant part they are to play in the emotional and relational health of the missionaries. A missionary spends a number of years away from their home culture where their emotions are streched and put to the test from their ministry in a foreign culture.

They give of themselves in relationships that are unable to reciprocate in the same way as they would in their home culture. It is not to say a missionary’s life is unhappy and unfulfilling, in many cases it is quite the opposite, but it comes at the long-term cost of their emotional health and quality relationships.

The call of sending

The call to send is based on nothing less than the grace of God (2 Corinthians 8:1-7). It is not something we can command of our Christian brothers and sisters or our churches. Instead, it is the body of Christ in response to the grace of God that responds to the call of sending. The Corinthians are urged not as a command, but as a reflection of their love of God is genuine.

I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
2 Corinthians 8:8-9 (ESV)

It is great when individuals or churches gather around a missionary to send them out with prayer and finances, but it is even greater when the whole body of Christ is spurred to send them with a more holistic view of support—supporting them not only financially and prayerfully, but emotionally and relationally also.

Will you be part of sending missionaries to reach God’s world? Will you not only financially and prayerfully support them, but support them emotionally and relationally? Maybe send them a care package (where it’s financially viable), send them a written letter, an email, a message on Facebook, or make time to Skype with them. What about organising a team from your church to go visit them and see their work they are doing?

If you’re interested in learning more about serving as senders, take a look at Serving as Senders by Neal Pirolo.

6 Ways to Reach God’s World: Pray

The single, most underestimated way to reach God’s world with the gospel of Jesus Christ is prayer. The emphasis upon prayer prevails over any means to accomplish the work of the Kingdom of God.

Take the Jesus’ following comments:

Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.
Matthew 21:21-22 (ESV)

Or, the apostle John:

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.
1 John 5:13-15 (ESV)

Regardless of attempts to qualify and contain passages such as these in a neat little box to avoid heretical prayer, you cannot avoid the fact, if all the godly and righteous conditions are met, these passages indicate that prayer is effectual and effective in the human realm for the Kingdom of God. Or, more simply, ask and you will receive.

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