It Struck Me This Morning

The last few days I have been feeling down…a little depressed. It has been hard to motivate myself to do anything. This morning I realized what is going on. I was experiencing cultural fatigue. 

Cultural fatigue is an emotion that is felt when a person grows weary of not comprehending the cultural cues surrounding them. 

A typical tricycle – Not quite at full capacity

I experienced cultural fatigue most severely when I first moved to the Philippines. Nearly everything was new. I was lost in a world that seemed very strange to me. I didn’t know when to smile and when to keep a straight face. I had no idea how to call a tricycle and I definitely did not know how to safely get on one once I flagged it down. I was disoriented, day after day, and it wore me down. 

My experience with cultural fatigue (or culture shock) is not unique. It happens, eventually, to everyone who enters a new culture. We rely on the cultural maps that our society forms in our minds.  Entering a new culture is like trying to use a map of San Francisco to find one’s way around Los Angeles.

It struck me this morning…living during the Covid-19 crisis is very much like entering a foreign land…only worse. Our way of life (culture) us has been blown up. We no longer know how to handle ourselves in social situations. How do we greet each other? Can I pass you in the aisle at the grocery store? 

My method of relaxing, watching sports on TV, is virtually non-existent.  Will there ever be something to watch beside Korean baseball? Will the joy of hearing a crowd cheer at a live sporting event ever happen again?

Knowing how to live in a Covid-19 world is more difficult than entering a foreign land. The people in a foreign land have a cultural map that they all understand. That system can be learned by participating, observing, and talking with insiders. 

The change has been so sudden with Covid-19 that we have no map. We have not agreed on a set of cultural expectations. 

Our struggles go deeper than just how to behave.  Culture includes so much more than just actions.  It also includes the beliefs and values that give rise to those actions. Is it more important to avoid health risks or economic hardship?  Can the church be The Church without face-to-face contact?

My brain hurts when I think about such questions.  I don’t know how much longer I can handle this uncertainty and keep functioning!

I felt the same way during my first few months in the Philippines, but I eventually overcame cultural fatigue and joyfully engaged with Filipino society for many years. 

How did I get to the point where I could function effectively? With God’s help, I did not give up. I pushed myself to keep engaging in life. I observed everyday life, trying to learn the ways of the people around me without judging them. I made friends and asked about their beliefs and values.  Slowing, I learned to (partially) understand and love their way of life. 

Today, the instant and drastic cultural change brought on by Covid-19 has made the situation very challenging. 

We must recognize our shared disorientation and be patient with one another as we all adapt. We must listen to one another’s concerns without judgement. We must seek to understand more than to be understood.

With God’s guidance we will figure it out. One day the disorientation will fade. Like the map that slowly emerges when your Internet connection is weak, an evolving cultural map will materialize. 

I hope that one day I’ll say, like I did in the Philippines, “Wow, life sure is different than it was before, but I love it (most of the time)! Thank you Lord for bringing me through the cultural fatigue and giving me this wonderful new home.”