I have had to really dig deep to understand all the ramifications that the ping pong effect of culture shock and reverse culture shock had on me growing up. What I have discovered, in all the great literature that is out there, culture shock is described in very linear way, and somehow disappears after you have gone through all of the levels of it, like someone studied Culture Shock, but never really experienced it over and over again.
Lets back up a second. Remember that movie “Lost in Translation” – everyone raved that it was a perfect movie about Culture Shock, except, it wasn’t, not really.
There are 2 types of culture shock, I should know, I not only grew up in a ministry/vocation that coined the term culture shock, but also worked and traveled for the same ministry. There is a type of culture shock that one gets from actually traveling. It is temporary, it is, in a sense that feeling of shock that everything in a foreign land is completely different from what you are used to. This type of culture shock fades, and kisses ones memory ever so slightly. Travel Culture Shock is part of the fun and the excitement of travel, but it has no lasting effect on ones own mental health.
Then there is the deep and hard hitting Culture Shock, that hits when you actually move to a whole new environment, especially to a new country, where language and culture are completely different from your own. This culture shock, when exposed to, questions every fiber of your being, every sense of what your normal is, and turns it upside down. This is the kind of culture shock can compound onto the next round of culture shock and reverse culture shock. They can stack on top of each other every time you move.
For children, it can question ones own cultural identity. Yes, read that again, because people, Third Culture Kids constantly question their own cultural identity. You can just read back a few posts to when I tell the story of using a brown permanent marker on my arms to make me look like my classmates. That my friends, was a breaking point in my life. My Father was slightly horrified. I was 9, so there’s that.
When you move for a length of time, you settle into a different rythmn, the rules are different, and culture shock comes in waves, almost like grief. You can skip some levels, and then get mowed down hard by an unexpected event. A famous one for me was not being able to speak any Spanish, and not being able to order anything at school other than water and an apple. I lost a lot of weight, and mentally, I was exhausted, scared, and couldn’t figure out how to ask for help, the food was so different, and I didn’t speak enough Spanish to order anything else to keep hunger at bay. I was 16 at the time, and this was my 6th move, and my 4th language. My mind couldn’t compute what was going on, and the waves of culture shock kept hitting me like massive waves, pushing me down every time I attempted to get up.
You see, it wasn’t just one round of culture shock, it was the repetitive culture shock waves that can create trauma. Bet nobody talked to you about that did they. Yes, trauma. That trauma sticks with you, and trust me, it becomes a part of you.
Why do I talk about trauma?
The very act of Culture Shock when you have moved, takes time, and a whole lot of patience, understanding and love to withstand and move through. The problem is, when you move every 3 years, you never actually ease any of that confusion, pain and anxiety that culture shock created, you just throw yourself into the next round never allowing the wounds to fully heal. That motion, actually begins to create trauma.
I have always wanted to tell Diplomats out there, think hard before moving with your kids, and how the transition will work.