By Michelle Norman
I’ve heard the expression, “She doesn’t know which way is up.”
I’ve not known which way is up before – it happened after each of my children were born. Call it “baby brain” or sleep deprivation, but regardless I would find myself trying to make a decision or concentrate on a task and just feel my head spinning. More recently, I experienced this phenomenon once again through the process of culture shock when my family moved to Spain to serve as CBF field personnel.
I’ve studied about it, prepared for it and even experienced it in the past. But there is nothing like when it hits. Sometimes it is subtle. Sometimes it hits like a train. Regardless of how it comes, one can be assured, it will rear its ugly head.
I remember after we first arrived spending long amounts of time in our small grocery store. Everything was overwhelming…all the labels, all the colors…and I would stand and look at one section over and over trying to find what I needed. The labels in multiple languages were no help.
On one particular day, I remember standing in front of the cleaning products. I had come to find dishwashing soap. Easy, right?
There is no telling how long I stood there. As I looked at the products I could not figure out which one I needed. Was it liquid hand soap or dish soap? Finally, I looked around at the other customers. I saw two women in hijab speaking Arabic and thought they would understand how hard it was to be a newcomer. I asked them, “¿Para platos?” (For plates?)
Now looking back, I don’t know why I would have had such difficulty. The hand soap and dish soap are not on the same aisle. The dish soap comes in a bottle similar to dish soap in the states. But at the time, my head was spinning.
There was so much to understand and figure out and culture shock had set in.
Culture shock has a way of humbling a person, of stripping them of what they thought they knew. It has a way of either taking away preconceived notions and ways of life thus opening one up to new perspectives and growth or causing one to build walls of protection around all that is familiar and comfortable shutting oneself off from all that is new.
Those who study culture shock will tell you that there is a critical point in integration with a new culture where a path is chosen and a person begins to integrate more fully and feel “at home” in their new place or retreat further and further into their own.
I am grateful for those who have welcomed us and offered a hand of friendship and understanding to help walk us along a path of integration. We’ve had people invite us into their homes, explain cultural intricacies and even walk with me through a supermarket explaining foods that are new to me. As a result, the fog is lifting.
Slowly, we are becoming more at home and our prayer is that we may in turn offer the same hospitality to newcomers in our new city helping them discover which way is up.
Michelle Norman and her husband, Matt, are Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel and serve in Barcelona, Spain. Learn more about the Normans and their ministry on the CBF website and check out their blog Another Day Along the Way.