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What I Wish I Knew Before Moving Overseas

Posted on Thursday, April 25, 2024
By
Luke

Welcome to Part Eleven of our Goer Essentials series, where we’ve asked Goers to sound off on the essentials to thriving in life overseas. In today’s article, we cover dealing with culture shock. 

Goer Essentials:  Essentials to Thriving in Life Overseas

Part 11:  What I Wish I Knew Before Moving Overseas

For this Goer Essential series, we surveyed Goers who are serving two-year global placements.  These articles are your chance to hear directly from Goers as they share their triumphs, best practices, amusing gaffes, and deep experiences of learning to live, thrive and make an impact while immersed in a new culture!

Part 11: What I Wish I Knew Before Moving Overseas

We believe that serving cross-culturally after college is something that every Christian should at least prayerfully consider.  But, we recognize that relocating to a new country, culture, and language comes with certain difficulties.  

GoCorps and our partner organizations all do their best to prepare Goers for the field.  But hearing a warning and experiencing something firsthand isn’t always the same.  Topics like culture shock and language learning can only be explained so thoroughly.  

So for this edition of the Goer Essentials series, we asked Goers to share some of the unexpected hurdles and hardships that they’ve encountered in their time serving cross-culturally.  What are some of the things they wished they’d been told or better prepared for before moving overseas?

How Quickly Things Change

For some Goers there can be a kind of “honeymoon” phase where the excitement of being in a new place takes can cover the feelings of being overwhelmed by a new culture.  But for some Goers like Natalie, the honeymoon phase is replaced by feelings of doubt and questioning.

“One of the things that surprised me was how overwhelming things felt almost immediately. I heard from so many people that there will be a honeymoon phase and then maybe a month in everything will hit you. I was grateful at the thought of having some time to settle in before the wave of everything hits you. When I arrived, instead of a beautiful honeymoon experience it was almost like an arranged marriage. It was difficult to even put into words how I was feeling. I wish that someone had told me to expect questioning things right off the bat. I felt like I was failing and did not know who to tell. Now after almost an entire month, I am so grateful and blessed with where I am.” 
-Natalie, Romania

GoCorps strives to place Goers on teams where they have mentors and leaders that they can go to when times are tough and questions come up.  Natalie wrote about how she learned and grew in her faith during those difficult first few months which you can check out here.  

Miscommunications Happen

Language learning is always a priority as soon as Goers get to their placement.  However, language learning is a process that takes time.  And there may be miscues along the way with a lot of ups and downs.

Language is always a hurdle and no matter how many times you are told before coming to the field, it still is a shock. The local language here is very different from English so when I first came, I understood nothing. Learning also goes slowly. There are a lot of steps forwards and backward. You are highly motivated to learn at the beginning because you want to communicate with friends and neighbors but it is a steep hill to climb. Also, the learning of a language never ends. There are always more nuances or more vocabulary or a better accent you can learn. It is a continual battle to keep your motivation up throughout the ebbs and flows of the learning process. 
-Allison, North Africa

Language is always a hurdle and no matter how many times you are told before coming to the field, it still is a shock.

One of the important things to remember is to give yourself the grace to learn and to mess up sometimes.  

Miscommunications will happen. As you learn the language or try to get around with hand gestures, you are going to be misunderstood. That’s ok! We do the best that we can, and we have a lot of grace for ourselves and for others when we feel like we are not being understood. 
-Hannah, Zambia

You May Stand Out

Depending on where you go, it may be obvious to the locals that you’re not from there.  Even if you land somewhere where your skin tone or hair color resembles that of the majority culture there will be other tells.  Usually, people encounter this when they open their mouth to speak.  But it could be more subtle things that give you away like your style or even how you walk.  

The good news is that it’s okay.  In my travels, I’ve even found this to open the door for gospel conversations.  People often wonder why the foreigner has decided to show up in their village or town and depending on the security in that location it could mean a door flung wide to share about Jesus.  Here’s what Hannah had to say about this discovery.

You are going to stand out. People are going to stare at you. They aren’t stares of hate, but stares of interest and intrigue. It might feel uncomfortable, but a friendly smile can go a long way! 
-Hannah, Zambia

Holidays Aren’t the Same

One of the times when homesickness most often creeps in is during special occasions back home.  You could feel that homesickness won’t hit you but then Christmas or a loved one’s birthday sneaks up on you and you’ll want nothing more than to be back home.  Hannah said it very well.

Holidays are really hard. Most days, you will love what you do and will always miss home, but it is a dull, hidden sadness. Around the holidays, the realization that you are not with your family will be especially highlighted and present. Call your family, go to expat Christmas parties, make your home feel festive. The holidays are hard, but you will get through them. 
-Hannah, Zambia

When I was living overseas I remember just something as simple as seeing my whole family at a football tailgate party on social media kicked it off for me.  It felt like I should have been there in the picture with them.  This isn’t a warning to scare you because there’s also a lot of richness to getting to experience your new host culture’s traditions.  It’s also worth noting that God often meets us in our homesickness and points us to our eternal home.  Here are a few more stories from Goers about this topic:

When the Loneliness is Real
Dear Griever, You Are Not Alone
Mi Familia Peruana
Holiday Season in Berlin

Learning a New Language, Culture, Everything is Draining

There’s something about being dropped in a new culture that is especially tiring and it’s not just the jet lag.  Your brain will be constantly working to translate.  Your eyes will be taking in sights that you never expected.  All your senses will work overtime to make your new surroundings make sense to someone from your culture.  

You’re going to be tired a lot. There were things that you were able to do in college (balance many schedules, be overworked, have 2 jobs, etc.) that you won’t have the energy to do while abroad. The cultural stimulation in itself is exhausting. Take a breather and don’t feel discouraged if you feel like you aren’t accomplishing a lot. Your worth is not in your work. 
-Hannah, Zambia

The cultural stimulation in itself is exhausting. Take a breather and don’t feel discouraged if you feel like you aren’t accomplishing a lot. Your worth is not in your work.

That’s such a good reminder from Hannah, “Your worth is not in your work.”  Often we feel like we can’t take a break.  We came all this way so we may as well pour ourselves out while we’re here.  But we must remember that things like rest, reflection, and community are biblical and God-honoring.

Conclusion

I hope you noticed the common theme in all of these unexpected hurdles of serving cross-culturally.  Homesickness, fatigue, and miscommunications can all be hard.  But it's in these hard things that God shows up and reminds us that He’s the one we need to get through them.  These are some of the means He uses to break us of the notion that we can do the work ourselves.

Because of this, another common theme we’ve seen is that Goers say it’s worth it.  Serving cross-culturally for 2 years is a shaping process and will teach you to rely on God in new and exciting ways.

Dive Deeper

Luke

From a young age, Luke has had a desire to serve the Lord through missions. After graduating from the University of Alabama in 2012, Luke joined the staff of a small start-up mission organization in Alabama to help with operations. While on staff there, Luke attended a Perspectives class where his understanding of unreached people groups and a passion for getting the Gospel to them deepened. In 2017, Luke moved to Scotland where he served as a mobilizer for just over two years. Now back in Alabama, Luke has joined GoCorps staff to serve in both operations and mobilization. He and his wife, Helen, have a daughter and a son. Luke enjoys traveling, board games, and running.

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