How to Prepare for Cultural Transition

How to prepare for cultural transition Airplane sunset

Cultural transition is one of the worst experiences a human being can go through. It seems, at times, as if you’ve changed worlds, and adjusting to this massive change drains more than energy; it drains your spirit.

Why does this happen? Is there an explanation for the difficulty in cultural change?

Firstly, what is cultural change?

Cultural change is the change in cultures. It’s that simple.

“Wow Elisha, you’re brilliant. I never would have thought of that.”

Fantastic. You learn something new every day.

Anyway, when you change cultures, you undergo cultural change. Some changes in cultures are easy to adjust to, others are difficult. Moving from Maine to Florida may mean a small shift in culture (ie. the weather, accents, etc.), while moving from Asia to America would be a massive change (ie. Language, geography, colors, etc.).

What does it look like?

Cultural change is different for everyone. Some do not experience it quite as acutely, while others bear the full brunt of the shift. It appears in full form when the change was greatest, as I have repeatedly discovered when moving from Africa to the United States.

Change in culture often manifests itself twice. It first appears directly after the change happens, usually within just a few hours of the actual change. Often, it will leave the person affected looking stunned or completely overwhelmed. They may be acutely aware of the tiniest details, such as the color of the grass or the difference in haircuts.

It will appear again over a period of several weeks, and it usually does so when the affected person walks into a store or mall. This is extremely common, especially when coming from a poverty-stricken country into a country with a higher standard of living. Suddenly, you realize that there are fifty different choices of shampoo, some customizable to your hair color, length, and thickness!

I have seen people fall to their knees with such a realization, and for good reason; the shift between a poverty-stricken country and a richer country like the United States or Great Britain can be stunning. In the past, when shifting between Africa and the USA, I have avoided grocery stores for months at a time in an effort to keep myself from this level of struggle.

How can we prepare for it?

There are three levels to preparing for cultural change: Preparing before the change, preparing in the change, and preparing after the change for changes in the future. Let’s dissect these piece by piece.

1: Preparing before the change. The best way to prepare beforehand is to understand what you’re going into. When traveling to the United States, I constantly remind myself of the people, the lifestyle, the language, the cost of living, and many more important pieces to the puzzle. Understanding what is going to change is extremely important.

“When changing cultures, understanding what the change entails is crucial to preparing.”

This is also crucial when changing small distances, such as moving from Illinois to Florida. Reminding yourself of a few details (such as the facts that oranges are actually tasty in Florida, the majority of the populace drives golf carts, and the temperature is warm almost year-round) can help you adjust quicker.

2: Preparing during the change. I often do this immediately after landing in the United States. Since I am extremely perceptive, I have to force myself to not study everything, or I am reminded of and seemingly punched in the gut by the change. Realizing the true quality of the car you’re driving is not helpful when you landed mere minutes ago.

3: Preparing after the change for the next change. A few months after the shift, I often do a small recap of what hit me the hardest. Was it realizing how much Ugandan money is involved in paying for a simple cup of coffee (enough to feed a family for two days)? Understanding this and learning what to avoid or pray through is key to making the shift again.

My most recent return from Uganda was, by far, the most difficult. I was, quite literally, ripped from my home and the culture I had grown so accustomed to. While my family was simply packing for a temporary visit to the United States, I packed my life. Since I would not be returning, my packing became far different from that of my family’s.

Furthermore, because of corona and the speed at which the airports shut down, I was unable to say goodbye to any of my friends (with the exception of one). This made the transition to the United States twenty times more difficult then the previous transitions. I was unable to mentally prepare, and so I found myself being surprised by things that shouldn’t have surprised me.

For the following six weeks, I had types of flashbacks, almost as if I was suffering from PTSD (which is, quite realistically, still a possibility). I would randomly see images of my friends, still back in Uganda, standing close to me. Then, they’d vanish, leaving me convinced I was going mad.

It is entirely possible that this is attributed to a lack of sleep and overdose of coffee, but I prefer to not rule out all options.

Regardless, this level of cultural change was far from healthy. It left me with many scars, and growing through that level of hurt has been difficult. Yet through all of it, God has been good, and He has always been gracious with me.

And so, with that, if you find yourself shifting culture at some point in the future, remember to prepare as much as possible. Talk to your pastor, talk to someone who has made that shift before, do anything you can to become truly ready. It isn’t easy, but seeing that side of the world is possibly one of the most rewarding experiences of your life. If I ever marry, I fully intend to take my wife to Africa to show that side of my life. It is well worth it.

Alright, that’s all for today. Thanks for reading, and I hope you have a fantastic day!

-Elisha McFarland

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25 thoughts on “How to Prepare for Cultural Transition

  1. Man, I wish this post was around when I moved from the USA to Canada and back. Even though that wasn’t nearly as drastic as moving from Uganda to America, it was still a culture shock in many different ways.
    I can relate to what you’re saying about the flashbacks – when I moved back to the USA, I’d often be in a public place and see someone who, from the back, looked exactly like one of my friends in Canada. It’s like a slap in the face to remember that you’re in a different place, and that person is not who you think it is.
    Anyway, thanks for sharing, Elisha! I’m sure that this post will help a lot of people preparing to deal with culture transition. It has definitely helped me reflect on my past experiences. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have transitioned quite a few times (from America to Nicaragua and back, plus a couple different state transitions) and I feel like I’ve almost gotten to where I thrive off the energy of the difference. But I definitely still have my moments after the transition when I miss everyone I’ve been around, the feel, the sounds, and even the smells (however bad they may have been). They can definitely be emotionally rough! I remember vividly one time after returning from Nicaragua as we drove down a very smooth highway in Atlanta that I was very amazed at how smooth the road was 😆 The little things we notice during transitions!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely, there are ways in which that change can fuel you. On my first day back in the United States, I was like a little kid- near unlimited energy (I unloaded the entire van almost by myself). But yeah, the other side is hard too xD

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Whoa I’m generally too worn out from third world life to be that filled with energy XD But leaving the US I tend to be really energy filled, so maybe it’s because Africa is more your home than America. And yup, that it is 😬

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t ever moved from one country to another, but I can definitely relate to those PTSD-like flashbacks. They made me feel crazy! My dad is in the military and I’ve moved 6 times. Even though I only moved from one state to another, the change in friends, scenery, activities etc. felt terrible. I can only imagine what it’s like to move from one continent to another! I hope your adjustment to the U.S. is as smooth as possible! Thanks for sharing your tips!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Karl Bickerstaff

    I’ve lived my whole life in the same zip code, so there’s no way I can really relate. Thanks for sharing this. I’ll be praying for y’all.

    Liked by 1 person

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  6. mimerific

    When I left my home in Canada for a week of summer camp in Washington state, I got more homesick than I ever had before. I was fifteen and it was my first time going somewhere knowing absolutely no one and staying away from my family for a week. Camp started Sunday afternoon and by Tuesday evening I had a breakdown. Just before I fell sobbing into my counselor’s arms I was sitting by the roadside, camp activity bustling around me while I wallowed in a pity party. I few times I saw someone with a similar build to a friend or heard a voice that sound familiar. I’d do a double take and think, “Was that Casio walking by? Did I just hear my mom?” But it wasn’t really them, which just made me sadder. (For the record, after I shed some violent tears, I felt much better and had a great week.)
    When we came back from Canada to the land of USA (pronounced OO-suh) I had minor but evident culture shock. We headed down to Mexico for two months. Every time someone I didn’t know would speak to me in English it would take my brain an extra few seconds to register, like, “Wait, did I just understand him?” Back in the States again after Mexico it was like, “Food options! Blonde hair! No dogs on the streets! No barnyard animals mooing through the night! Everyone speaks the same language as me!” Now we’re here in Uganda. It took a while getting used to this place, but I think that Uganda may change me more in a short time than those other countries could have. I’m pretty sure I’m going to have the hardest time adjusting back to the USA after Africa, but I know I won’t regret it in the long run.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Aw yeah, culture shock is honestly one of the most difficult things to experience, especially for someone our age. Yet at the same time, being made as cultural beings, seeing acutely the difference in culture is a gift and privilege, and something I know you’ve been thankful for as well.
      Praying for you, little sister!


      1. Naomi McMahan

        That’s sweet of you to call me little sister. But I’m older than you.
        (Even though you’re WAY taller than me. But, honestly, you’re taller than everyone.)


  7. Ella Smalley

    Wow, Elisha that was a really powerful inspiring. I will be praying for you. I have never moved farther than one state to another, but I can imagine how difficult it would be to leave everything you knew. Thanks so much for sharing with us the high and low points of life. It is really inspiring and motivational to know that other people are struggling and concurring their trials. Amazing post!

    Liked by 1 person

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