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  • Writer's pictureW. Austin Gardner

Learning to Adapt to New Cultures

All of us experience dislocation in moving into new settings-some more than others. Tourists can minimize the shock by returning each night to a Hilton hotel, an island of Americana in the middle of an ocean of strange customs. There they feel at home and recover for another day of adventure. Missionaries, however, have come to make this new setting their home.

Culture shock is rarely terminal. With experience and patience, we all learn to live in one way or another in new cultural settings. We learn to eat the local foods and even like them. We find we can ride buses, and even if we are lost, we can find our way back home. We learn the language well enough to carry on ordinary conversations and order oranges in the market. We gain a feel for the value of the local currency. We make friends and discover that the local people do not all look alike. We find that the native doctor can heal us and that we are not going to die from our first sickness. In short, we learn not only how to survive, but also how to live and enjoy the new culture. Our level of satisfaction begins to rise. This place has become "home."

Individuals differ greatly in the extent to which they suffer shock in new cultural settings. In part, this depends upon their personalities. Some people are flexible and can live with a great deal of ambiguity, and thus find adapting to new ways quite easy. Others are rigid and need to have a great deal of control over their lives. The severity of shock depends partly upon the differences between their first culture and the culture into which they move. The deeper the differences, the more they must change to fit into the local scene.

But culture shock also depends on the methods used to deal with cultural differences. We can learn methods that help us minimize the tensions of adapting to a new culture and that can, in fact, make it an exciting and growing experience. We can identify with the people in ways that will make our ministry more effective. Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries

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