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