Dotsie’s Story: Culture Shock, and Making Change

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change culture shock

Change doesn’t come easily for me.

Or more plainly put, I just don’t like change. Give me a quiet routine where interesting things come along but nothing rocks the boat—and I’m good.

When we moved back to the United States from Africa, I remember my husband getting ready to leave for his first day in his office at our mission headquarters. I burst into tears when I saw him at the door in a suit, carrying a briefcase (a lot more common back then).

We were accustomed to him dressed in shorts, working in the office at our house in Africa, where only fans and glasses of water cooled us from the relentless heat. Life was going to be so different now in the States.

But, of course, I adjusted to the change.

Preparing for Change

Some years before, our preparation to move to Africa was intense.

I still have the blue spiral-bound notebook where I made my lists, including a chart of the sizes the boys would be in and how many shirts and shorts I had for each size. I even included some future birthday and Christmas presents.

We were told the country to which we were going had empty shelves in shops and only some vegetables in the market stalls along the streets. So we were going prepared for monumental change, even packing rolls of toilet paper.

When departure time arrived, we were exhausted. We said good-bye to our family and friends quickly. I barely paid attention to what I was doing, I was so bewildered, so “betwixt and between” our past and future worlds.

Later I regretted those carefree farewells.

Change, Indeed: Our First Days in Africa

Since our short-term summer there six years previously, I was eager to get back to Africa. When we arrived this time with our boys in tow, the humidity, sounds, smells and sights were familiar.

We exited the plane with a 50-caliber machine gun pointed towards us passengers, and walked across the tarmac. Old and new friends welcomed us. We arrived around the 4th of July and enjoyed a picnic at the U.S. Embassy. It all felt good in spite of jet lag.

And then it was time to take the five-hour drive north from the capital to our new home just outside another large city–and more intense change began.

The ride was bumpy. Steamy hot air blew in through the open windows. Potholes in the road seemed as big as small rooms.

Due to the rainy season, the roadside scenery was sunless and depressing. Clay-colored mud and makeshift houses marked the landscape. At one point, we all climbed out to push the truck out of a deep, mucky crevice.

I had nightmares about that drive for several weeks after we arrived.

Pain on Arrival

Our house lay across from a mosque and on the edge of a Muslim zongo (a settlement of Hausa speakers from Northern Nigeria). The call to prayer over the mosque’s loudspeaker blasted into our bedroom windows at 3 AM.

I slept restlessly, also hearing the sound of cats and dogs fighting ferociously on the street.

And sharing our ground floor flat were iguana-sized lizards. I often found one sunning on our baby’s crib.

Initially, the magnitude of change was too much for me. And yet no one had been more eager to return to Africa. We all were surprised at my reaction.

I decided it was just different having our children there, thinking they were missing so much not being in their home country.

Eventually, I realized how wrong I was about that. I rapidly lost 20 pounds. (Was it all through tears?)

I was so homesick for friends and family. Letters, taking weeks coming and going, were our only way to communicate. It was a long first month before we heard from “home.”

Mornings were the worst. I’d wake, remember where I was, and try to force the breakfast porridge down my throat while fighting tears.

I tried to put on a happy face for my family. I even wondered if this could be mental illness.

Other missionaries began to notice and grow concerned. Our boss kept his eye on the situation and had talks with me and spoke quietly with my husband about it. What were we to do?

Prayer: Approaching the Change-Maker

We knew people were praying for us. But this adjustment was not going well and we needed to put in a call for extra and specific prayer.

We were willing to be transparent about it, as embarrassing as it was for me.

I’m not sure how word got around. But we prayed. Our team prayed. And somehow people at home knew to pray.

Prayer is powerful. It worked. One day I realized how comfortable I felt, how I loved the rhythm of our days, even to washing diapers in a wringer machine and hanging them on the line.

I enjoyed the market and trying to learn the local language through a new friend. I learned to drink coffee with some expatriate women I met with once a week. And I was so grateful for all that our kids were experiencing.

Some thought that my hard start allowed me an eventual really good adjustment.

What did I learn? Dotsie’s 4 takeaways on approaching culture shock

  1. Give yourself time to adjust.

  2. Take time to mourn the good-byes.

  3. Be transparent and specific in requests for prayer.

  4. Allow yourself some grace. (We moved to the upstairs flat where there was nicer breeze and the iguanas apparently did not climb stairs.)

    I still don’t like change or goodbyes! But I know from experience it’s best to embrace them with prayer, knowing adjustments will come.

Like this post on culture shock? You might like

Dotsie Corwin comes from a long line of missionaries and Christian workers, but it was the illustration of an unbalanced number of people carrying a telephone pole that impacted her and her husband to commit to a career in mission.

Thinking of only one carrying the pole on one end with the rest on the other, it made sense to spend their lives where there was greater need.

Dotsie and her husband, Gary, are members of  SIM (formerly Sudan Interior Mission). After serving in Ghana for several years, they joined SIM’s International Staff where Dotsie worked in Communications for 25 years.

She loves “intentionally grandparenting” their four grandkids; cooking; and mowing the lawn. And we happen to know that her freshman year of college, she tried a little rebellion by climbing the forbidden water tower on campus. 

Read more of Dotsie’s story–including what she did right (and didn’t)–here.

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