Culture Shock on Returning to America: From June 29, 1991

Everyone was concerned that I would suffer culture shock when I went to Nigeria in 1981. Could I adjust to that foreign culture? Was it safe? Would I ever adapt? The adjustment for me, however, was surprisingly easy. No one at that time spoke about the culture shock when you return home. And yet, for me it was far more difficult, far more painful and time-consuming, to readjust to American culture than it was to go from the United States to Africa. When I say this to friends, they are amazed, and in many ways so am I. Yet for me it is a clear, indisputable fact. Moreover, most foreign missionaries would agree with this view, that the reentry to the United States is more painful than the entry from America to Africa or Latin America.

How do I explain it? What was so difficult in returning home? Why such a slow readjustment? I have tried to reflect on this, and now at a distance of a few years, when I am settled back in Africa, I will try to express what I saw and felt.


First of all, I must say that there are many wonderful aspects of American society. It is always good to get back to U.S. soil, and I look forward to my next home visit. Telephones work, television has an amazing variety of programs, transportation systems can be relied upon, stores and shopping centers usually have whatever you want in stock, business and legal systems can, for the most part, be trusted. Things usually work, or if they are broken, they can be readily repaired. The melting pot is a reality in the major cities, where peoples of various races and creeds live and work together.

And yet, it took me more than six months to readjust to American culture, and even after that, I was never fully at home. What was this other side, what did I see that I didnt like? What did I miss? To check my own reaction, I went out of my way to speak and meet with other people like myself--missionary priests, seminarians and sisters who had worked overseas, and who came back to the United States. They could immediately and easily understand what I went through because, without exception, they had experienced many of the same feelings and difficulties. Their comments on American culture, positive and negative, confirmed my own perceptions and views.

Perhaps the best way to depict the shock or difficulty of reentry is to set forth a series of vignettes, with some comments. These touch two key areas--namely, U.S. society in general, and second, the Catholic Church in the United States.

Children. In Cambridge, Mass., I used to walk back and forth from school along Brattle Street, 20 minutes each way. It is an historic and beautiful street, with large spacious homes on both sides and overarching trees. But something was lacking--people, and especially children! Sure, this was expensive Cambridge, but it is, I feel, becoming more typical. Except in inner cities, one does not see many children. In Nigeria, one cannot avoid them, and one does not want to. Children show forth life, hope, joy, play, a sense of the future. In my more cynical moments, I think that the lack of children in the United States results from self-centeredness, the desire to have it ones own way without any strings or obligations. There is something unreal, something that worries me, about so many beautiful houses, mansions, with so few children playing in or around them.

So much did I miss the smiling faces of children in Nigeria that for the first five months back in the United States, I had to get out my photo album once a week, and spend a few minutes looking at their faces, being with the children once again, at least in my imagination.

Shopping Centers and Supermarkets. One is overwhelmed upon entering a modern supermarket. There are long aisles of breakfast cereals alone. The quantity and variety are shocking. Then half an aisle for pet foods, including diet food for dogs and cats. I can understand why one missionary from a poor country, upon entering a supermarket broke down and wept. Instead of low-cal foods, in Africa many simply need food. Of course it is marvelous, a tribute to U.S. enterprise to see such well-stocked stores, and yet there is another world, most of the world that will never have the opportunity to share that consumer abundance.

Conversation So much American conversation, it seemed to me, was about the latest and often fast-fading fads. Concern with health, foods safe or unsafe, with the latest theory on exercise, with the latest on cholesterol, seemed to take up a disproportionate amount of time. One must talk not about cooking but about cuisine. Again, these can be wonderful. I enjoy a good, healthy meal, but there is more to life than that. And is everyone expected not only to have seen the latest film at the nearby cinema, but also to be able to talk at length about it?

Family One finds a high and growing percentage of single-parent families. Divorce and second marriages are often talked about with no sense of failure, with little sensitivity to their effects on the children. Stories of child neglect or child abuse dot the newspapers. The elderly have special homes with good health care, yet so often they are distant from the children and grandchildren they cared for and love. This is in notable contrast with Nigeria, where the elderly are so often in the center, where family life revolves around them, with their wisdom and experience.

Television. No longer for the living room or recreation room, the television is now found in kitchen and bedroom. The children have their own. Sure, there are many good programs, but then there is the rest. While the quantity of programming has increased, what about the quality? So much television is very provincial and narrow, American-centered. The vision extends beyond the bounds of the United States only to bring us the latest news on the latest crisis. Instead of being with one another, we go to our room or den and turn on the television.

Morality and Media. One does not have to go to 42nd Street and Times Square to see pornography. The local newspaper stand has more than enough. Or videos on the top shelves of rental stores, or special telephone numbers promising thrills. It hurts to see how all this has increased, and with seemingly little question, discussion or opposition. The truly human is being denigrated.

Artificiality. By this word, I mean a distancing from the natural, from nature, or from personal interactions. We live in a world of machines, from our cars to our computers. The marvels of television bring the world of nature into our homes, and yet something - namely, more direct contact - is missing. Our experience is increasingly indirect, filtered, packaged, dished out to us piecemeal. Deep realities of human existence, such as sickness, old age and death are specialized, sanitized, separated off to the hospital or the old folks home. We dont have to visit there. We dont come face to face with these harsh aspects of life, and yet we expect to have a full, rich emotional experience.

Time. Americans are always short of time, caught up in the race, the fast lane. Microwave ovens, fast foods, 15-second commercials, digital watches that cut the second up into hundredths of a second. Time is for doing things, getting things done, rather than (as in Africa) for being with people. We forget that the Sabbath (time) is made for the human and not the human for the Sabbath.

Culture shock also came from reentry into the American church. One takes from Africa scenes of overflowing churches, of liturgies that last for two hours, of 25 infant baptisms each Saturday in a typical parish.

Churches. So many of the church buildings in the United States are new and modern, huge and beautiful. Yet one is often disappointed with the services, the singing, the participation. Many of the large churches are, at most, half filled for the Sunday Masses. Time rules the liturgy--it must be swift and efficient. Few people will put up with more than a 10-minute sermon. For there is so much to do on Sunday--driving, shopping, reading the Sunday papers, watching football or even work.

The Word of God. It is refreshing to see some people in the subways reading their well-worn Bible, but the number is small. Again, there are so many books and magazines, and the Bible becomes one book among many, no longer at the center, no longer eagerly sought and read, as in many homes in Nigeria.

Catechesis. Are young Christians, young Catholics being introduced into the Christian faith and tradition? Or are they far less religiously literate than those of a generation ago? They are learning much from television, from books and in school, yet religious knowledge, Bible knowledge, familiarity with the richness of the Catholic tradition seem to be diminishing. How can catechesis or religious education compete with the latest video, the latest compact disc, the recent best seller? Or with the exercise class, the soccer team practice, the pool party? Youth have so many options, and religion seems to be edged out to just one small option among many.

The Sacred. The holy season of Advent is often celebrated more by a series of Christmas parties than by focusing on the coming of the Messiah. The priest and religious sister are not easily identifiable. They fit in as part of the group. This has its advantages, and yet is there not also a corresponding loss, loss of sacred time, of the witness of priesthood and religious life? Why are vocations to priesthood and religious life so low? What makes that way of life less attractive than in past years? Has religious life lost its counter-cultural edge, thus presenting no distinct challenge to young men and women?

A Heavy Church Atmosphere. In my own sphere of work, teaching theology, I found the atmosphere or milieu of the church very heavy. By that I mean that one must be extremely cautious and careful about what one says to whom on church matters. I found the atmosphere not very optimistic and not very creative. Among the difficult and troublesome issues were those of priestly celibacy, women in ministry, including priesthood, and the seeming stagnation in the ecumenical movement. Progressives, centrists and conservatives all too often eye one another with suspicion. It is true that in varying degrees these are also problematic in Africa, yet somehow they do not weigh so heavily upon the church there. Enthusiasm, optimism and growth provide the basic atmosphere for the church in Nigeria. People are proud of their faith and proud to profess it publicly.

How does one keep a balance? How does one continue to cherish and appreciate the virtues of American culture, and yet not lose a critical perspective? The reality for many missionaries is that they cross back and forth between cultures. My plea is that we give them a hearing. As the United States bishops stated in their 1986 pastoral letter on the mission of the church, "To the Ends of the Earth," there is much to learn from returned missionaries. Their perspective must be taken into account. One can learn from them about a foreign culture and a growing church. Ones sense of the Catholicity, the universality of the church is expanded. And one can also learn, painful as it may be, something of the ambiguity of American culture. And ambiguities there must be, as the theologian Paul Tillich said back in 1963. He praised America, but then reminded us that all people and nations, especially the strong, should constantly be self-critical and aware of the deep ambiguities within them. "He who is not aware of the ambiguity of his perfection as a person and in his work is not yet mature; and a nation which is not aware of the ambiguity of its greatness also lacks maturity. Are we mature as a nation, are we aware of the ambiguity even of the best in us?" Good questions, and questions which the outsider/insider perspective of the returning missionary can help us address.

In listening to returning missionaries, in giving them time to tell their story, one not only learns from them but one offers them the best way to overcome their culture shock, and one assists them through their painful process of reentry.

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