Some Ramblings on Life, Loss of Ideals, and Culture Stripping

I arrive back to Rania in the rain. The mountains along the road from Erbil to Rania have changed from dusty brown to lush green. They are beautiful. Rivers are rushing with muddy water, an indication that it has rained for some days, and the sun is seemingly lost behind clouds.

It’s hard to believe that this lush land is the same one that we arrived to in early September. Gone is the dust and brown of summer, replaced by vivid shades of green with snow capped mountains in the distance.

Long hours of power outages accompany the rain and we sit on a couch, huddled in our robes sipping spicy, turmeric tea. It’s not as romantic as it might seem. Flickers of discontent are below the surface and I try hard to focus on the positive.

I bake a cinnamon tea ring and the rich scent is a spark of hope until I realize the bottom has burnt. The dim light from a candle wasn’t enough to see if it had cooked long enough and I kept it in the oven too long. The result was as disappointing as you might imagine.

Along with that we are facing some difficult relationship problems and it makes us want to curl up and isolate. Sometimes nothing works out and that’s the honest truth. When everything seems to go against you in a cross-cultural context you begin to question everything.

The rumblings of discontent stir and then boil. As the electricity stays off and we have no hot water for the fifth day in a row, those rumblings erupted and boiled over the pot. We huddled in our living room as I write an email to see if someone could help us. They could and they did. Within 24 hours we had electricity, we had someone to come and fix some other things that were broken and friends brought us over a kerosene heater to take the chill out of the air when the electricity went off again.

Independence and self-sufficiency are all-American values and in many ways they aren’t very good ones. The idea of “do by self” creates a lot of loneliness and defeats the idea of community. We are in a position that could lead to great loneliness and we are more American than we thought when it comes to trying to do it alone or letting our needs be known.

Along with that are reminders of what we left behind. We came from strong church, work, and friend communities – communities that would give and come alongside us, that challenged us to open our hearts and homes to those around us. In our move to Kurdistan, we left those behind. We have been given much in terms of hospitality and genuine friendship, but it takes a long time to grow an old friend, and we haven’t been here a long time. We are also in a place of need. We don’t know things about living here. We constantly need help. We are two adults who are like children when it comes to our understanding of cultural norms in Kurdistan. We would love to invite people to our home, but it’s small and people have bluntly told us that they wouldn’t come anyway. Instead, we accept invitation after invitation without giving back.

Here’s the thing: We have been stripped of our ideals at every level. 

What does all this mean? Those reading may immediately cry “culture shock”. But I think some of this is not just culture shock – it’s what writer Rachel Pieh Jones calls “culture stripping”. She describes it well in an essay at A Life Overseas, and I quote some of it here as a reminder to me:

Culture stripping begins the moment you touch the earth in this new place. It doesn’t stop. Ever. Not even when you return to your passport country. Culture stripping forever changes who you are.

Culture stripping is the slow peeling back of layers and layers of self. You give up pork. You give up wearing blue jeans. You give up holidays with relatives. And those are the easy things. Your ideas about politics and faith and family, your sense of humor and taste in clothes, the books you read, evolve and change. Even, potentially, your outlook on spirituality.

You have little instinctive protective layers between you and the world. Buffers like fluency, shared history, family, no longer buoy you. You are learning, but you will never be local. And so you also are stripped of the idealized image of yourself as a local.

This also hurts, but it is a good, purposeful pain. 

Kind of like Eustace in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He was turned into a dragon and failed to get rid of the scales on his own but Aslan comes.

“The very first tear he made was so deep and I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.”

These words from Rachel reveal my heart, they reveal what I think is happening under the surface of all that feels hard. In so many ways I hate it. I hate what it reveals about me, I hate that I am not stronger, better, kinder. But in other ways, it reveals truth, and I want truth. I don’t want to live a lie. I want to grow, learn, and move forward even when it is hard. I want to lean into the discomfort. 

As Rachel says, this stripping is not a one and done event. It is like the long journey in the same direction – you keep on going because every once in a while you see a glimpse of yourself without the dragon skin, and that glimpse is so worth it.

So – to you who are on this same journey, a journey of culture stripping and cleansing, of getting rid of our cultural dragon skin, may we share the non-idealized versions of ourselves. These stripped and humbled versions that are vulnerable are ultimately far more useful than the ones we try so hard to cultivate.

I write this as I hear the evening call to prayer. The rain and gloom continue outside, but inside there is warmth and healing. A bit of the dragon skin has been peeled but there’s more to come. For now I sit, grateful for the stripping.

Culture Shock: When Your Soul Takes Longer to Arrive

culture shock.jpg

First you arrive physically and you are very tired. But only after a while, your soul gets here, too. Because the plane is very fast, but the soul takes longer to arrive.*

On Friday, my youngest son arrived home after two months of travel. He experienced hospitality, adventure, and food across Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, and Istanbul. He arrived physically exhausged but full of the best sort of stories and pictures. There are a lot of moments that transpire between goodbye and hello. 

In 2013, the BBC published a short video of a man from a tribe in the rain forests of the Amazon who had come to New York City to live. His words quoted above accurately describe our global world and remind us that though through plane travel we arrive quickly on the other side of the world, our souls take longer.

We have high expectations for ourselves. We expect to jump right into life, to pick up as though we are unchanged, to tell ourselves “it’s no big deal – I’m back now”. But when our souls are still a world away, we can’t fully connect.

We need time and we need grace.

Three years ago Robynn wrote a wise piece called “How to Give Yourself Grace: Advice to someone returning from a long journey.” As Robynn unpacks what this means, she says this:

You can anticipate some cultural confusion. When you switch a baby from breast-feeding to bottle feeding and then back to breast-feeding often the baby experiences some “nipple confusion”. As earthy as the metaphor might be, I think it describes some of what we feel when we return to our beloved places and then reenter our regular placements. We are confused. Our souls are unsettled. We knew a particular way and then we became used to a different way and now we’re back to the old way, but only temporarily and now we race to what was sort of familiar and yet now not so much. There has to be some cultural confusion….some yanking of our tethers, our leashes. We are whiplashed from culture to culture. You can expect to be out of whack!

 She goes on to say:

Resist the urge to return too quickly. Try not to rush back in. Breathe deeply. Move slowly. Go ahead and do the next thing on your list but don’t hurry. Your poor body has been around the world and back again. Let your soul catch up! Come home slowly.

I think of Robynn’s words as I pray for my son and as I watch him slowly enter, because his soul will enter slowly and he may need some time to breathe.

You can read Robynn’s piece here. I know many of you have been missing Robynn – she has take a break for a bit, and I hope to see her back soon resuming her Friday wisdom.

Velvet Ashes – 7 Things to Know about Culture Shock

It’s Saturday and I’m sending you over to Velvet Ashes for a fantastic post by my friend Joann on culture shock. Joann wrote Living Well Where You Don’t Belong for Communicating Across Boundaries. She’s done it again with this post! I’ve posted the first couple paragraphs to give you a trailer! Then head to the link for the full read.


Culture Shock

The first time I crossed a cultural boundary; I was but 1-year-old! And no, it wasn’t my parents whisking me off to some far-off tropical land; it was my family returning to the US after a term of service in Pakistan.

My mother says that my older sister and some of the children travelling with her (you should hear THAT story sometime) spent hours in the London hotel bathroom flushing the toilet because they had never seen such a thing before. Obviously, I have no memories of that experience.

My second cross-cultural experience, and the first one that I remember, was 6 years later, when, once again, my family decamped from Pakistan back to the US for a year. I remember that things in the US were different, but don’t remember much ‘culture shock,’ because at that age, so long as your parents are nearby and you’ve got other kids to play with, that’s all that matters. I do remember the easy access to candy, though!

After that home leave, we returned to Pakistan for another two years, before returning to the US permanently. I was 14, straddling 8th and 9th grades (a confused age anyway), so I have vivid memories of the culture shock I experienced then. I’ll spare you the details, but what I remember most clearly is the feeling of alienation, of being different. Read the rest here.

I hope your Saturday is filled with hope, joy, and perhaps blueberry muffins or scones and clotted cream

For more on culture and belonging take a look at Between Worlds – Essays on Culture and Belonging.

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When You Need to Have the Layers Peeled

“Culture stripping begins the moment you touch the earth in this new place. It doesn’t stop. Ever. Not even when you return to your passport country. Culture stripping forever changes who you are.

Culture stripping is the slow peeling back of layers and layers of self. You give up pork. You give up wearing blue jeans. You give up holidays with relatives. And those are the easy things. Your ideas about politics and faith and family, your sense of humor and taste in clothes, the books you read, evolve and change. Even, potentially, your outlook on spirituality.” Rachel Pieh Jones in Beyond Culture Shock: Culture Pain, Culture Stripping in A Life Overseas

In a beautiful post published five months ago on A Life Overseas, Rachel Pieh Jones takes us beyond culture shock. It was the first piece I think I ever read by Rachel and I was hooked.

Her insight into those layers beyond culture shock comes from experience and she writes about culture pain and culture stripping with wisdom.  I re-read this piece yesterday and it hit me again that I am in a season of culture stripping. It’s like a sunburn. No matter how much aloe or cream you put on it, it still hurts. But perhaps it’s a good hurt, a healthy pain. Perhaps it’s a pain that shows me I’m willing to change, take a deep breath and be stripped of all that hinders.

The cultural trappings that need to go are being ripped off, in their place a new softness that will help me learn. The cultural superiority that I wear so well-hidden, and so hideously? That’s being ripped away and in its place first tears, then a sigh of relief and moving forward.

And as I reflect on culture stripping I realize the Apostle Paul speaks to culture stripping in the book of Romans. His words “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”* are culture stripping words. They are words of challenge, words to wake me to the reality of two worlds – worlds often in conflict with each other.

We who have lived life between worlds should be good at this. We should be able to understand culture stripping and the need for having our layers peeled.

But – I’m not. Not good at having these layers peeled. I fight it. I get angry. I ask ‘Why?’. I point the finger at others. “Look at her” I say “She needs culture stripping!” I try and put the layers back on – because I’ve become comfortable in my layers and I’m stubborn.

I am one flawed character in life’s novel.

But – God is the author and as author of my story He is gently doing this culture stripping, this layer peeling – ever persistent and ever-present.

But oh, it still hurts. 


Rachel closes her post by taking us into the Narnia series and looking at one of the most flawed characters in that series – Eustace found in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  The first words of the book describe Eustace perfectly: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” He was self-centered, proud, and he whined about everything. In the book he is turned into a dragon, his body changing on the outside to what he already is on the inside. Through the course of the story he is transformed back to a boy through the work of Aslan and becomes a different person. He is stripped, layers and layers of dragon skin peeled away until his soft, boy skin is once again revealed. Eustace says this:

“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.” 

And in the transformative process of culture stripping, – sometimes the only thing that makes me bear it is the pleasure of feeling the ‘beastly stuff’ peeled off.

*Romans 12:2a

Blogger’s Note: I encourage you to head over to Beyond Culture Shock: Culture Pain, Culture Stripping – the post that inspired this one.

Part 2 – Re-entry: Reconstructing our lives

In Part I, we discussed how the development of an individual identity, a sense of belonging with one’s peers, and close personal relationships are normal developmental tasks faced by every young adult.

Why then did it knock me off my bearings?

It’s because we face these during the major life transition of re-entry. The cultural changes we face may include a loss of status, a sense of marginality, a loss of friends and perhaps family, and often a loss of purpose and meaning. And the novel ideas, values, people and customs we encounter upon re-entry create a tension between our host and home cultures.

Culture shock

They require a transformation of our approach to the world – a reconstruction of our lives, which emerges as an additional developmental task, one uncommon among our peers. This layering of stressors and life tasks can throw us off balance, and can magnify the anxiety we feel when exploring typical early-adult tasks.

The first couple of years upon return to the U.S., I felt a definite “culture shock.” I had been a blonde among Japanese and all of a sudden I was a blonde among other blondes who all looked like me and I felt lost in the crowd – I wished I looked different because I knew I was different. On the other hand, I also wanted to belong but found that there were many conversational topics that I knew nothing about… and also attitudes/customs that I was unfamiliar with… On one hand I felt “older & wiser” than my college peers, and on the other hand felt inexperienced in life as an American 18 – 20 year old. ~ Re-entered TCK, 31 years of age

It is very difficult to even begin to try to explain what a bicultural upbringing is really like and how it can tear at the very foundations of your life… The whole pace of life and values seemed to be totally reversed… I was neither American nor Indian and I felt like it, an outsider in both worlds… I wish I could explain my anguish to you, but I can’t on paper. ~Re-entered TCK, 28 years of age

During re-entry, most of us maneuver the external demands of our new worlds well. It’s the inner tensions related to our life reconstructions that take some time to work through. It’s wise to not be overly pre-occupied by these tensions; instead, compassionately allowing ourselves time to once more find our bearings. It takes time.

I don’t think people realize how different you are after living overseas. Another country becomes “home” and then you are thrown back int your real “home” and it isn’t really home anymore… After a while it became a lot easier and I finally felt like I belonged… I hardly ever talk about living overseas… ~Re-entered TCK, 20 years of age

When I came back [to my home country], I was very much like a naïve immigrant who thought the streets would be paved with gold; I had a very idealistic idea of what to expect… But when the shock of reality had worn off, …I pretty much accepted things which confronted me… yet to this day, I still feel a part from the world around me… I feel very lucky for having lived overseas and if I had to live my life over again, I wouldn’t want it to be any different than the way it has been. ~Re-entered TCK, 33 years of age

While having simultaneous life stressors can take a toll and leave us vulnerable, studies show that they also give us opportunities to build coping skills and personal strengths. Negative emotions can also be appropriate and helpful if they ground us in reality (e.g. loss of close friends and family) and move us forward to constructive action (e.g. seek out new friends).

It often has been a lonely road full of difficult decisions. But I feel I am a more creative individual than those around me because of it. Though I found it difficult to adjust to my new life in the States, I wouldn’t trade my years overseas for anything. I can see things from different perspectives, understand the world around me more and enjoy life a little more than those around me. ~Re-entered TCK, 22 years of age

The first couple of years, I had a hard time. I was lucky I found an interest to keep me going, setting goals, etc. I met nice people who were interested in the same things. ~Re-entered TCK, 23 years of age

I found that I questioned my sanity a few times because I felt about things differently. As soon as I was able to say to myself, “I just had a different experience and that is why I am different,” then I was able to feel comfortable with other people. ~Re-entered TCK, 22 years of age

What coping skills and personal strengths are/will be part of your life story based on your time abroad and/or re-entry experiences?

In Part 3, we’ll discuss what a life well-lived looks like, and how we might go about reconstructing it.