I would like to tell a story about something that happened where I observed in myself a stress response to something cultural. I thought I would share this personal story because I’ve recently been asked about culture shock and what it looks like here in North Africa.
Just recently after leaving language class with Nick and Annie (not their real names), we walked to the Metro station and boarded the train to go home.
Nick and Annie work at my school and I am starting to become good friends with them here. They both are not cousins and each identify as “Christian” although, the government requires you to identify as something. They lean more towards the idea that they are “open-minded” rather than religious, so not necessarily followers of Christ. Still, I believe there is opportunity for God-honoring relationships that desire to know Jesus.
Anyway, on the train, I sat across from the both of them and they started to speak to me in Arabic. They both know I am learning, so they speak slower than usual which draws attention from others on the train. This is awkward for me, but I picked up on the smiles from others and recognized in me a more “fun” response.
I was also able to recognize that the majority of these people on the train were cousins. There are identifiers like hair coverings, Qurans, traditional garb, and ash marks on the forehead.
Nick and Annie continue to be loud while talking together and Annie starts grabbing Nick’s hands. This was odd for even me because I hadn’t seen physical contact for some time since being here. So odd that I immediately start asking myself if they are in a relationship but haven’t told me… (They’re not). But they continue to laugh loudly while the rest of the train remains quiet. They also start to speak in Arabic faster than I can understand.
I begin to quiet down and now observe the people on the train around me. Their smiles have transitioned to glaring and disgusted faces toward Nick and Annie. It became obvious to me that judgments were being made about the two of them from nearly 14 other people. In a shame-based culture, just by association, those judgments could also be placed on to me. My response to this clash of culture was flight, which means I was thinking about whether I would want to be seen with Nick and Annie, and if it would inhibit the work I came here to do, to help cousins follow Jesus. But I was also feeling very sad for Nick and Annie, wanting to shout at everyone that they don’t know them, they are amazing people! Being seen as an honorable person that respects the culture is a huge part of the work here and I was torn between whether to fit or fight with the cultural situation taking place.
Annie was wearing a revealing dress near the shoulders and legs with her hair down, visibly not a cousin. Nick was wearing a shirt, jeans, and boots, but has tattoos, an eyebrow piercing, and dreadlocks, also visibly not a cousin. Whether they were loud or not, they would still stand out even though they are still native speakers and grew up in this city.
As we make our way off the train, Annie looks at me and says that I look like I want to kill someone. I smile and pretend to be naïve, even though I could tell she was aware of my distancing on the train because I didn’t take part in anymore of their conversations. The three of us reach the part where we head home in different directions and say our goodbyes.
This was a huge cultural experience that I felt very confused about. I don’t think I adjusted to the cultural reality in a positive way because I feel like I had to pick sides.
My coping strategy is to bring my stress to the Lord and my team during bible study so that maybe they can let me in on some understanding that I am missing. I prayed and continued on as usual with my friends, but the stress and anxiety was cyclical, to this day it comes back around in other situations.
Walking myself through the process of adjusting to this cultural reality, I now want to share just a few thoughts/passages that came to mind after rereading my experience. I was reminded of the words that a Pharisee said to Jesus.
Luke 7:39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is--that she is a sinner.
How uncomfortable I would be as a guest in someone else's home, like Jesus, and be put into this situation; knowing that allowing this woman to touch me would be an offense.
I further studied on to Mark 12:28-34, where Jesus came first to the Jew (religious leaders included) but didn't let their arrogance or contempt get in the way of him loving the Lord and loving his neighbor – all people. These verses in Mark 12 are clearly juxtaposing the greatest commandment with a warning to the leaders. So, although these 14 onlookers from my story are not the religious leaders here in North Africa, they represent the distinctive attitude of cousins that is not necessarily God-honoring.
Finally, the last thought I had when reflecting on this stressful cultural situation is that although God most definitely brought me here to help cousins follow Jesus, He also surely brought me in relationship with Nick and Annie, who also need to experience the love of the Savior. I am now confident that God will make a way for me to be a blessing to both groups.