Culture shock sandwich

Katelyn Lamb, Guest Writer

   “We’re in it!” my friend exasperatedly declared as the persistent man tried yet again to persuade us into his shop despite our firm refusals. “We are in it.” This has become our catchphrase for India. When things do not go the way you expect, simply proclaim, “We’re in it!” and the adversity becomes adventure. Just take it all in and label it experience. When you are yelled at on the street and you are not sure why, “We’re in it!” When you ask for your change and are handed a candy bar, “We’re in it!” When you take the wrong bus and end up in a tent city, “We’re in it!” When you eat something that looks like moldy pudding, “We’re in it!” And when you are stared at like an escaped lion from the zoo, “We are in it!”

   As you would imagine, going from a small Christian college in the middle of the Bible Belt to a large, secular university in one of India’s largest cities is quite the change. I had heard all the talk about culture shock, prepared myself and expected the challenge. However, a few days after arriving for my semester abroad, I realized there was one thing no one had warned me about, one aspect of studying abroad that had been left out of all the brochures.

   It was what I will call the “culture shock sandwich.” I had expected to feel uncomfortable in a new country, had assumed that learning about Indian life, culture, habits and social norms would be an exciting yet trying experience. What I had not expected was having to learn the culture of my own country.

   Our group is made up of 24 undergraduate students from colleges all across the U.S. Out  of these 24, I am the only Christian. As I have gotten to know my fellow students, I realized that while we came from the same part of the world, we were coming from completely different places. When one of my roommates began to dry leaves on our clothesline because someone told her it was a drug you could smoke, I had a hard time relating.

   When it comes to college party talk, I cannot contribute much experience beyond birthday parties and the occasional talent show. There have been moments when members of our group speak for what the “American” opinion is or, stranger still, what “Christians” believe, and I have found myself a foreigner to their point of view.

   Once visiting a temple in a nearby city, a few of my new friends were truly distraught about the abuse and oppression of an elephant who had been trained to pat tourists’ heads with its trunk in exchange for a few rupees. It was a blessing, our Indian guide told us. My peers were not blessed. They were appalled at the conditions of the elephant, who was being forced to work in a small, dingy temple all day and angry that it was commercial benefit that incurred such suffering.

   Now I am all for good, humane treatment of creation, elephants included, but when I

directly asked my angry friends why their compassion did not extend to the people who live in even worse circumstances just down the road, one boy replied simply, “I have no compassion for people. People are selfish.” These are the instances when my estrangement from my own culture is so glaringly obvious. As a follower of Christ, I am called to see people, in all their selfishness, and love them fiercely, just as has been done for selfish old me.

   The realization that I was utterly alone in what I believe and where I come from made

me terribly sad at first. I did not (and still do not know) how to be a Christian by myself. But, recognizing my complete lack of understanding, both for this new Indian culture and my new

American friends, has led me to something much better than knowledge: utter dependence on


   I have no wisdom, no idea how I am supposed to be as a believer trying desperately to love people and glorify the Lord in such a challenging place. No theology class has prepared me for the simple, daily act of trying to explain, clearly and simply, what Christians believe to someone who has no knowledge of God or scripture. No sermon series has shown me how to make a case for objective truth and an objective God in a culture and community where self-improvement, tolerance and spirituality reign supreme. To try to work issues like this out apart from the support of my Christian friends and church requires absolute reliance on God.

   For so much of my life, I have resisted dependence as a sign of weakness, a flaw to be fixed or ignored. I wanted to live self-sufficiently. It took being “in it,” surrounded by new, uncomfortable situations to make me understand that needing God is the best thing for me. The greater my dependency on Christ, the more intimate our relationship is, the closer I understand him to be. If I could do all things in my own strength and ability, what need would there be for the Gospel? And so I have come to see in a month of culture shock sandwich what I couldn’t understand in 20 years of American Christianity: I am desperately needy, thanks be to God.

   So things go, and remain uncomfortable and challenging. I am still clueless, still insecure

and unsure about how to convey the incredible story that is God’s embrace of humanity. But now I see that it is not up to me to have things all figured out perfectly, to fit every degree of faith into an attractive formula, to make a steely academic defense for my faith. All of that is important, but it is not as important as leaning into my utter dependency and trusting that wisdom will come from the Lord. Here is to being in it, having all the wrong answers and admitting to every inch of neediness.