Reflections on Culture Shock

May we offer the power of our sorrow

to the service of something greater than ourselves

May we endure;

May sorrow bond us and not separate us

May we realize the greatness of our sorrow

and not run from its touch or its flame


May we not be afraid to see or speak our truth

May the bleakness of the wasteland be dispelled

May the soul’s journey be revealed

and the true hunger fed

May we be forgiven for what we have forgotten

and blessed with the remembrance of who we really are

 – A prayer of the Terma Collective; in Life Prayers, p. 111

I’ve had pretty intense culture shock for about the past four months and it has impacted every facet of my life here in Zambia. I don’t want to get out of the bed in the morning. I have constant mood swings that make me feel like I’m immature and childish. I don’t have any motivation to go to work, attend church events, or spend time with my host family. I just feel the urgent need to stay in my room and detach myself from my environment. Dealing with what feels like depression and understanding the root causes of it has been, by far, the most difficult part of my YAV year. Now that I’ve had some time to reflect, I want to try to communicate how I got to this place.

One of the hardest parts about being in Zambia is that you are fully immersed in the community. You eat every meal with your host family, spend all of your social time at church, and work exclusively with Zambians. By doing this, you learn about the culture quickly by creating personal bonds with the people around you. You get intimate insight into the neighborhood you live in. You begin to understand society on a deeper level than you would have gained otherwise. But full-immersion makes it so that you are constantly seeing, hearing, and absorbing other people’s personal struggles.

And this might be the most important lesson I’ve learned since I’ve been in Zambia. You don’t need to face violence directly or live in endemic poverty to experience trauma. When you hear stories about trauma every day, when there’s no escaping it in your daily life, then you experience what’s called secondary trauma. In essence, you are negatively impacted by the inability to escape other people’s difficulties.

When you experience secondary trauma, it’s incredibly difficult to convince yourself that it’s even worthy of acknowledgment. Why should you complain when other people’s pain and hurt is so evident and intense? Why do your struggles and feelings matter?

You minimize the experience of being overwhelmed, defeated, and helpless. You feel guilty for wanting to spend less time with the people in your community and think that you’re in some way less kind or (even worse) a horrible volunteer. You don’t know how to validate the struggle of having to constantly face trauma on a daily basis.

I am desperately trying to address my secondary trauma by processing everything that’s happened to me since being in Zambia. I believe that writing about my culture shock brings lightness to my struggle and affirms my emotions. In some ways, it alleviates my guilt, making self-forgiveness more of a possibility. I’m not going to censor, deny, or selectively tell my story or in some way diminish my experience to make it seem less difficult. I can only do my relationships justice and continue to process pain by admitting the truth about my YAV experience.


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