Culture Shock B.C. (Before Children)
I remember the first time I left the country. I went to Honduras with some college friends to visit some of their friends. This was no tourist trip to Roatan. We went native and visited locals in their houses and hiked the trails to visit people in mountain villages. We rode in the back of pickups with a dozen other people down windy mountain roads with 500 foot drop offs. We ate chorizo cooked in wood-fire ovens by kind old women whose calloused fingers outnumbered their teeth. But my culture shock started before we even hit the ground. And I was pretty afraid we were going to hit it hard! No one had warned me that Tegucigalpa has one of the world’s shortest runways. When you fly in, you land by skimming what seems like just a few feet above a mountainside. I remember watching barefoot children in huts on the side of the mountain smiling and waving as we landed. Yes, we were close enough, I swear I could see them smiling!
The whole rest of the week was a dizzying experience. Every sight, every smell, every sound was new and exciting and at times terrifying (for example, I had my first experiences with army ants and fire ants on this trip). As a college student who had already spent several years studying Spanish and had a basic knowledge of Latin America and her culture, I was able to at least put most things in some sort of a framework.
Culture Shock C.E. (Children Everywhere!)
Fast forward more than a decade, and my wife and I are now traveling the world with our four children. In their short time on this earth, they have not had the luxury of studying language or cultures, or really anything much deeper than tying their shoes and saying their ABCs. We have had the privilege of not only watching how they handle culture shock, but actually going through it with them in some of the places we have traveled.
Our first shared culture shock moment came during a layover in Istanbul. We were rushing between gates, and had our youngest, who was less than a year old at the time, strapped to my wife in a baby wrap. He fell asleep, and his head started to flop to the side, but Natalie tucked it into the wrap to keep it somewhat stable. Over the course of the next several minutes as we went through security checkpoints and navigated the moving side walks, I lost count of how many women came up to us, yelled at us, and straightened his head. For the next several years, the reality of total strangers touching our kids and shaming us for what they perceived as “bad parenting” became a daily reality in nearly half a dozen different countries we visited during that time.
I remember riding the bus one fine 65 degree fall day with my oldest daughter. We had already figured out that in that culture she had to wear a winter coat and hat or we would get shamed for putting her at risk of pneumonia. The bus was packed as usual, so we had about 70 people in a space designed for 40. We were given a seat because of how young my daughter was, and she begged me to take her coat off. I slipped her hat off and started to unzip her jacket when again, we were confronted and I was shamed for being a dead-beat dad. I tried to explain that she was from Minnesota, and 65 degrees is beach weather for us, but that didn’t help. The old woman zipped my daughter’s coat and put her hat back on her.
I pointed out the fact that sweat was dripping off my daughter’s face, and my daughter cried that she was too hot. Then I made the mistake of trying to open the window. The old woman started yelling that I was going to kill my daughter and everyone else on the bus, and then a young man reached over, shut the window and glared at me.
When we finally got off the bus, my daughter wanted to know why the old woman wouldn’t let her take off her hat or coat. My response was that she understood the world differently than we did, and she believed that she was trying to keep my daughter safe from the dangers of cold moving air. A few years of repeating scenarios of culture clashes and subsequent explanations has left my now 7-year-old daughter with a very broad view of humanity. She understands that it is possible for people to understand things differently, and that maybe someone is acting “strangely” because that is their understanding of acting “correctly.”
Children, while not able to process things as deeply and rationally as adults, handle culture shock with amazing flexibility. For them, the world is already full of newness and wonder, and they lack the presuppositions that many adults have. We saw our kids adapt to the language and culture ten times faster than we did, and they would even make fun of us when we made a mistake. I remember my kids mocking me because I tried to say I was going to “go get” grandma from the airport, but I said an “s” where a “z” should have been and said I was going to “go collect” a grandma, as in, get one to add to my collection. They almost died laughing and made sure to tell the locals we passed on the sidewalk what their silly father had said.
This isn’t to say that their experiences aren’t frustrating for them. My daughter, for example, has been having a difficult time readjusting to certain aspects of life in America after being gone for several years. Just yesterday, she was crying because she didn’t understand the concept of “budging in line,” and why she got in trouble for it. Where we lived overseas, if there was a 3 foot gap between people, that was a place you could go stand. And if you wanted to find out your place in the line, you simply asked, “Who’s last?” They may not have been standing anywhere near the line, but someone would say, “I am,” and then you would say, “I’m after that person,” and everyone knew where you fit in the order.
Processing Culture Shock With Our Kids
We have found that the best route for helping our kids with culture shock has been creating an environment at home where they can ask questions. We also try to answer those questions in ways that maintain the dignity of all parties involved. We don’t say, “That old woman was just mean and superstitious.” We explain what we believe about that subject and why, and then, to the best of our knowledge, do the same for the person on the other side of the culture-clash. As our kids get older, we have been able to be more in-depth with these explanations.
We also found a couple of good books to help them process things. One is a book called Swirly, which talks about the experience of a little girl who moves from the blue country to the yellow country and finds herself getting some yellow swirling in with her blueness. It has been great for helping them understand why they see the world differently than other people do, and how this is a unique and wonderful blessing that they have in life.
The other book is called What is Your Language? It is a very simple book about a boy who takes a trip around the world and meets many people from different countries. It shows that these people look and dress differently and speak different languages, but can all be friends. It is one of the few books we have bought for our kids multiple times, mostly due to wear and tear and teething toddlers. Though very simple, it helped foster a sense of curiosity instead of fear.
What are some of your kids’ culture shock moments? What have you done to help your kids with culture shock? Share your responses in the comments below!