My personal experience with culture shock

ebook: Rookie Notebook — Our first nine months as missionaries in Italy

This ebook by Howard Culbertson re-lives the first nine months he and his wife Barbara spent as missionaries to Italy. These 5 short chapters, plus a Preface and a Postscript, are full of stories reflecting on what it means to be a cross-cultural evangelical missionary to Italy. Originally published by what is now called The Foundry as a Nazarene mission book with ISBN number 0-8341-0401-6

Christian Missions in Italy

4. Sometimes I really want to go home

According to the Apostle Paul, I am classified as a saint. (Don't be too impressed; he addressed all believers as saints!) But I'll let you in on a secret: I don't have a halo. Nor am I a superhuman robot. To be honest with you, there are times when I want to go home. I like McDonald's hamburgers and Dairy Queen malts just like anybody ... and I miss them. I get discouraged ... or disgusted ... just like anybody.

Want to know some of the things that tempt me to reach for the phone and make airline reservations straight to San Antonio, Texas?

Culture shock

Strange as it may seem, it's ice cubes that sometimes make me want to go home. That's right: ice cubes. When I'm out away from home for a weekend or occasionally just for the day, I miss iced drinks ... how I miss them! I sometimes think I must be as addicted to those little squares of frozen water as smokers can get to cigarettes. While Coca-Cola is always available (they tell me you can even get it on the Upper Orinoco, where I had dreamed of going!), it always comes in a glass without one sliver of ice. And tea? Yes, they have cold tea, even cold coffee, in the summertime ... without ice. Or cold water ... without ice.

My entire college and seminary program of studies was oriented toward missions. So I had read all of the latest books as well as magazines on missiology. Paul Orjala and Don Owens had taught me all about culture shock. I could describe all the painful stages (the tourist stage, the rejection of strange values, the craving for familiar values, and depression). I knew the root causes and the outward symptoms. I even knew the recommended recovery process. [ more on culture shock ]

And because I knew so much, I was certain I was going to be able to avoid the whole nasty thing.

But ... I wish I could look you square in the eye and say, "Are you kidding? Me, in culture shock? Look, I'm a college and seminary graduate who took lots of courses on cross-cultural living and ministry. I'm too smart for all that." But I'll have to level with you.

I knew I was in culture shock when autumn Saturday afternoons began to arrive, and I was gripped by an overwhelming desire to watch a televised University of Oklahoma football game (Go, Sooners!) -- and I knew the only televised sport for 25 countries around was soccer ... but I turned the television on anyway.

I knew I was in culture shock when I tried to order Thousand Island Dressing for my salad at every restaurant -- knowing beforehand they wouldn't have it ... or the French, or the Russian, or the New Orleans, or any of the other alternatives that I also asked for. Here, it's either vinegar and olive oil or dry. That's the choice.

I knew I was in culture shock when I realized that I was reading through every article in Rome's English language Daily American newspaper four times (including "Dear Abby" and all the stock market quotations).

I knew I was in culture shock when I began getting hunger pangs at both the American mealtimes (7:30, 12, and 6) and the Italian ones (9:30, 2, and 8).

I knew we were in culture shock the day I realized we were planning all the things we were going to do and all the stuff we were going to buy on our first home assignment -- four years away.

I knew I was in culture shock when I discovered myself blaming Italian culture, all nine Italian political parties, and Emperor Nero himself when Barbara lost her watch on the bus one day because the band came loose.

I knew I was in culture shock the night I came riding into Rome on the train about midnight and my eyes kept peering out the window looking for the familiar sight of Kansas City's Union Station.

I had a feeling I was in culture shock the day I did a count of our incoming-outgoing correspondence and found that we'd been writing 14 airmail letters to the U.S. for each one we'd received. (This thing called culture shock can hit you hard in the pocketbook. The expenses soon begin to mount up not only for postage stamps but also for those imported-from-the-U.S. food items which we just have to have from the supermarket!)

I knew I was in culture shock when I began to order spaghetti -- and spaghetti alone -- at every restaurant because I couldn't remember what all that other stuff on the menu was, and I knew at least some of it might be eel or squid. (I've since learned to like squid.)

I knew I was in culture shock the day I found myself trudging away from the post office, carrying a package I had just gone inside to mail. The man behind the counter had asked me a question I was totally unprepared for. While that strange-sounding combination of words was partially understandable, I couldn't understand why he had asked that particular question. So, rather than trying to find out what he really wanted, I took the coward's way out. I just said, "Thank you," and left with the package.

I knew I was in culture shock when I found myself imagining exactly what the voice of my parents would sound like on the telephone -- even when I knew it might be a year before we would get a phone installed.

I knew I was in culture shock one day when I opened my mouth to say something, and I couldn't think of any words in either English or Italian.

I remember that during my seminary days, Jon and Margaret Scott were talking about their own personal struggles with culture shock. They had served a couple of terms in the Peace Corps in Brazil prior to going to Kansas City for seminary training and then on into missionary service. They had talked about the tendency to withdraw from all contact with outsiders, about the 100 excuses a person could find for staying inside the house rather than going out among people. Even as I listened to them, I was certain I would be too tough to succumb. But I was wrong. Oh, how I was wrong! And there are times when I want to pack up and go home to familiar faces, language, magazines, money, stores, customs, and daily routines.

Sometimes that feeling of uselessness overwhelms me when I realize that to some extent I'll always be an outsider looking in on the Italian. I didn't grow up here playing soccer in the streets. I don't know what it's like to live through a war, with bombs dropping in the night and soldiers fighting house-to-house battles on the block where I live. I don't know what it's like to live all my life under the shadow of the Vatican, believing that the Pope himself is Christ's special representative on earth, going every week to confess to a priest. I am an outsider. And sometimes I feel so inadequate for the task facing us that I want to sneak quietly back home.

The problem of credibility

We first met Roy Fuller, our mission director in Italy, in Dallas, Texas, two weeks after our appointment. One of the first things he said to us as we sat there in that airport coffee shop sizing each other up was: "You're going to have to pastor a church."

I sat there stunned. And I even had a momentary temptation to resign from our appointment. I've lived with the problem since then. If we've come to pastor a church, what are we doing here? I could be a much better pastor in the U.S.A. Surely an Italian will know other Italians better just accidentally than I could hope to after years of study. For a missionary to pastor an organized congregation goes against all effective missionary strategies. Our own Nazarene world missions policy even plainly says, "Our purpose is to organize responsible indigenous churches" (italics mine). Without an Italian ministry, the Church of the Nazarene here can never be called "indigenous." If God has called me to be a missionary, surely He's got something in mind a little different than pastoring a congregation that has been in existence for many years (in our particular case, 30 years).

So, if you ask me what I'm doing moving to Florence to pastor, I really can't give you a logical strategic explanation for it. It's just that at this moment in time, we're extremely shorthanded, and there doesn't seem to be any other solution.

And maybe in the long run, this stint of pastoring will have positive effects on our missionary ministry here. For we're not exactly considered by the Italians as the Great White Hopes from America. Before we'd hardly landed here, some of them were already saying to us, "Well, this isn't like the U.S., you know." They're right, of course. It is a different country and culture. But I don't happen to believe that that invalidates all my biblical, theological, evangelistic, and church growth training. So perhaps being the pastor of a local church for a time will give us a chance to establish our credibility.

Incidentally, I can remember pastors in the U.S. talking about churches in other countries and how "easy" it was to make converts there and get churches growing. Strangely enough, they say exactly the same in Italy about the United States: "It's a lot easier in America, you know. People just don't come flocking in here when you open up a church!" Well, I guess the old adage about the grass always being "greener on the other side" has validity in the field of evangelism as well.

What, then, do I feel is the place of today's missionary? I think we have to get back to the pattern of the New Testament. There the missionary was involved in opening brand-new areas, planting new churches, training leadership, helping deal with doctrinal and organizational problems, and being n encourrager. It seems to me that that was the pattern into which the Holy Spirit led the Early Church. I think we ought to follow the same pattern.

Sometimes it hurts bad

Sometimes it's the hurts and disappointments that nearly drive you to make those plane reservations home. There is the pastor whom you've come to trust and believe in who turns out to be immoral. There are so few of us here anyway, so when one pastor goes bad, it really sends a shock through the work. If we were larger, we could more easily absorb the loss of one person. But we're not. And it hurts badly.

Sometimes it's disappointment in the responsiveness of the sinners that makes you want to quit and go home (although I really can't remember that it was that much easier in South Texas). Rosa had been coming to services for a few weeks. She was really expressing an interest in learning more about the Bible and what God could mean in her everyday life. Then one Sunday morning after service, she said to missionary Barbara Long, "But I really like going to the Catholic churches because they have such beautiful works of art there."

Frustrating! We'd been working on her, praying that her need for a new birth would become clear and that she would listen carefully to the Holy Spirit's leading in her life. And all she can talk about are the statues and paintings of saints! I wanted to run up to her and shout, "Look, we're not in the business of running museums. We want you to know about eternal life in Jesus."

But I guess my reaction was born partly out of my being an outsider. For I can never really hope to understand exactly how she was feeling at that moment.

Sometimes it's the apparent success of spiritual counterfeits that makes me want to give up. Oh yes, they're all here: the Mormons, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Eastern mystical religions.

During our first two months of language study here, we had to walk every day through the Piazza of the Republic on the way to the Berlitz school. And almost every day, there across from the ruins of the Emperor Diocletian's baths, we had to thread our way through four or five Mormons and walk past the portable display they had set up. I don't know what kind of success they're having. But the fact that they were there every day talking with passersby and expounding their heretical doctrines made an imprint on me. It often made me feel useless. There I was, struggling to learn the names of flowers and to memorize verb forms, and they were out freely pushing their distorted version of the Gospel.

Our second section of language study began this spring at a different language school, International House. There we made friends with a fellow American, Angela, who had come to Italy as a teacher of transcendental meditation. I used to come away from encounters with her very discouraged. She'd breeze into class, struggle through the lesson, and then during coffee break would push her pagan philosophy. And she was apparently making converts among both students and teachers. "It requires no change in your lifestyle," she'd purr. "It's just a whole new way of thinking that gives you such deep rest. Your mind just opens up." Her eyes sparkled as she waxed eloquent. On the other hand, we were often faced with smirks or gasps of total disbelief when we said we were believers who accepted the Bible as the Word of God.

I have never questioned that Jesus is the answer for Italians. But I have, at times, been frustrated by the fact that, on the surface, they seem more responsive to lies, distortions, and pagan untruths than they are to God's good news.

The ugly American

Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, at election time in Italy (and they had them fairly often) 30 percent of the Italians (give or take a few percentage points) voted for the Communist party. So you could figure that one Italian in every three you met was either a fully convinced Communist or else believed they had the best possible answers for the country with the best possible chance of implementing them.

I knew this 30 percent statistic before I landed in Italy. But I was totally unprepared for the degree of anti-Americanism that we found here. Naturally, most of it is based on a faulty understanding of U.S. society, political processes, and economic structures -- making such rhetoric all the harder to listen to.

My being here has, however, given me a better understanding of the U.S.'s critics. I understand better why they misunderstand the United States. And I think I can even see my homeland more objectively than before. Even in the middle of unjust criticism, however, I have determined not to fall into the trap of trying to set the critics straight. I have listened to missionaries jump into frays, fiercely defending the U.S. and, as a result, destroying the chance they might have had to talk to the person about Jesus.

Yes, there are times when the criticism makes me want to pack up and go home. I guess my relationship to my country is a little bit like that which I have to my family. I feel quite free to engage in disagreements within the family, but outsiders had better not be criticizing the members of my family in my presence!

One of the things that keeps me on the job here is remembering that I'm not here to be a goodwill ambassador for the government of the United States. I do not have a call to defend U.S. foreign and domestic policies. My ambassadorship is for the King of Kings -- whom I do believe is the Answer.

In 25 words or less ...

Learning to speak, to understand, and to write a new language is one of the most frustrating things I've faced.

I spent eight years in theological, biblical, and pastoral training, learning not only the Scriptures but also how to express myself clearly to my North American peers. Now all those carefully constructed phrases and fine edges of theological expression have to be temporarily shelved while I attempt to reconstruct them all over again.

Last week, for instance, Barbara called me in from the back room where I was babysitting Matthew. Some of the Italian ladies in the Bible study she was conducting in the front room had some questions on the theological significance of the word "justification."

"You've got to be kidding," I told Barbara when she told me what she wanted me to do. But I made a jab at sounding intelligent and theologically learned anyway.

You've got to start all over with little sentences like "God is love" and "Jesus changed my life." But with a 500-word speaking vocabulary (and perhaps an understanding of another 2,000), what can you say beyond that? At this point, I have a new empathy for my former Mexican-American parishioners in Uvalde, Texas., as they struggle to express themselves in English.

Every time I open my mouth to speak, I know I'm going to make a mistake -- use the wrong verb form, forget an article, use the wrong preposition, put the words in the wrong order, or mix up an idiom. I've discovered, however, that they all boil down to three kinds of mistakes: those that make you laugh when you discover them, those that make you red-faced out of embarrassment, and those that make you want to go home out of frustration.

Last week, following a language school night session in downtown Rome, we were feeling a little hungry. So we stepped into a pizza rustica -- a little shop where they make huge pizzas and then sell them by the piece.

I've tried a lot of different kinds of pizza in my time including jalapeno pepper pizza in south Texas. But I'd never eaten eggplant pizza. And as we walked in the door, I noticed that they had some. So, fresh out of language study and bursting with self-confidence, I stepped up to the counter and asked for pizza con zanzare.

The girl behind the counter looked a little startled. She muttered something about not having any. Then, pointing at a potato pizza, she suggested I might try that instead.

Zanzare ... zanzare ... the word rang in my ears and somehow it didn't sound right. Then it began to dawn on me what I had said, and I felt my face grow crimson. Zanzare are mosquitoes. (What I had meant to say was pizza con melanzana.)

As she began to cut and weigh the pizza for us (it's sold by 100-gram units), my embarrassment turned to laughter as I had this vision of her dashing around outdoors trying to capture enough mosquitoes to make one of those huge pizzas.

Another one of my memorable problems with the language came a week ago Sunday evening. I was in Florence conducting the service there in the absence of Mario Cianchi, who had gone to Naples to look for an apartment. As we began the 9 p.m. service, I wanted to ask the congregation to stand for an opening prayer. But the exact way to phrase it escaped me. I knew the infinitive form of the verb was alzarsi. Now in English, there are only 5 basic forms to each verb, but Italian has 47 forms. Think of it: 47 possibilities! And at that moment, the exact one escaped me. Well, somehow I managed to communicate what I wanted to those puzzled faces, and we got the service underway.

Another time, a bit of culture shock combined with language problems made a train ticket cost three times as much as it should have. One day I went by train to Florence to attend a missions rally featuring Jonathan Salgado, a Guatemalan who was a professor at the Central Latin American Nazarene Seminary in Costa Rica. I went up to the ticket office and bought a second-class ticket. Then, checking the departure schedules, I found that a train was leaving in about 10 minutes.

I located the right track and confidently got on board the train waiting there. But something didn't seem quite right. The life of Europe is mirrored in its trains, and the people on this one seemed too well dressed. The train seemed too empty ... and too plush. I began to try to get up enough nerve to ask someone if I was on the right train ... and I was also trying to think of the right words to say it and how to put them into sentences. But by the time I got up the courage and had enough words put together, the train had pulled out of the station. So I settled back into my chair with a sigh of resignation.

About halfway to Florence, the conductor came along to pick up my ticket, and I discovered what was wrong. I had gotten on a first-class-only train. And in order to ride on it (I really had no choice, for it was an express train with the first stop after Rome being Florence), I had to pay not only the difference between the tickets but also a charge for "changing classes." The additional money came to twice what my original ticket cost. My trip was costing me three times as much as I thought I would be spending (The conductor told me I could have saved that additional fee by taking a train leaving less than 15 minutes later!)

Yes, there are times when you do want to go back home where you understand all the signs and every bit of conversation, where it's never a strain to talk or to listen or to read. . . . [ continue reading ]

  Page:   ←Prev  |     1. Preface  |    2. Somebody stole my jungle  |    3. I've always wanted to wear a  pith helmet  |   4. Sometimes I really want to go  home   |    5. It's part of the culture  |    6. Because He lives,  I can face tomorrow   |    7. Postscript  |    Next→ 

    -- Howard Culbertson, ?

It's part of the culture

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