The first time Sita visited our little home in Nepal, I asked her if she wanted a cup of chiya. “Tikchha,” she replied. By then, I’d already done about a month of language training, so I knew that she had said, “Okay.” But I mistakenly assumed that she meant, “No thank you, I’m okay.” Some time later when she was still sitting with me on the floor of our living area, I started to wonder whether she had actually meant, “Yes, okay.” It was, of course, equally possible and I remember feeling terribly awkward and in a great dilemma over what was the culturally acceptable thing to do. Should I ask the question again or should I pretend that I had it right? The problem was, I knew that if I asked the question again I could easily make the situation worse – especially if I had no idea what the answer was. But on the other hand, she didn’t seem to be getting up to leave in a hurry! It was months later before I realized that in Nepal you don’t even have to ask the chiya question – you just go ahead and boil the tea leaves and spices regardless.
For me, the hardest part of culture shock was realizing that none of the thousands of daily scripts that I had used to get through the day worked any more. Letting someone in the door, greeting the lady selling bananas, expressing my feelings, making tea, handing over money, calling someone’s attention, asking for directions, checking whether my friend was okay… Nothing worked anymore. Every single script that I had previously relied upon had to be learnt from scratch again and it was exhausting. I constantly questioned myself and I constantly felt hopeless and inadequate. One of my natural tendencies early on was to assume that a direct translation from our culture would do the job. For months, I used the reply, “Samasya chaina” which I had translated myself for “No worries” – before I realized that Nepalis would never ever express themselves that way. But I was so eager to rewrite my scripts and so exhausted from the process that I had no energy left to check whether my communication was actually working – or not. It was also at this stage (co- incidentally!) that I was most overwhelmed by homesickness – that terrible desire to be back in Australia where it was comfortable and easy and where I could understand and be understood. In Australia I had been the insider, but in Nepal I was most definitely the outsider -until I rewrote some of my scripts and they became second nature again. The challenge for me was to stay humble, to keep asking advice and to constantly work on my relationships with Nepalis while I walked that path. An unexpected challenge was that the more deeply I relearnt my scripts, the harder it was to settle back into our home culture again!
Recently, an encouragement to me has been the reminder that the one thing that doesn’t change when we move cultures is who we are in Christ. The scripts that we use to relate to God stay the same. The scripts that we use to understand his promises stay the same. The scripts that we use to call out to him and to long for eternity stay the same. And amazingly, in heaven there’s not going to be any ambiguity or misunderstanding. Instead of seeing a poor reflection as in a mirror we shall see him face to face! Perhaps our struggles with culture shock here on this earth also increase in us a longing for that time when “… a great multitude… from every nation, tribe, people and language will stand before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” (Rev 7: 9). Let’s await that day!
Naomi Reed is a former Interserve Partner. She is also a bestselling author and gifted speaker. Her latest book, The Plum Tree in the Desert shares stories of faith and mission from Interserve Partners over the last 25 years. Naomi is also speaking on the Australia-wide Unfolding Grace tour. For more information, see Unfolding Grace.