05 June 2014

the not so fun reality of culture shock.

We remember a time when we loved life in Tanzania. We would happily greet everyone we came across. We tried new, local foods with gusto. We frolicked through fields of dagaa.

Yeah, those days are long gone. And what has taken their place is the hard reality of culture shock. What does this mean? Well, for starters, we're definitely not in Kansas anymore.

Michael and I have been living in our own house for three and a half weeks now. Naively, we thought that once we moved into a place we could call home, many of our troubles would fall away. "We'll get to hang out in the evening, just the two of us, and cook together!" "Yeah, and we'll get our own space, so we can spread out and just chill!" Living in our house does have its perks. But we've also realized that moving brought about something we've been avoiding, rather happily, for the last six months or so: culture shock.

Back in good old New York City, for our Orientation Program, we were briefed on the many waves of culture shock. Many people, upon moving overseas, hit what is affectionately known as, "The Honeymoon Phase." Well, as we've been on a real honeymoon ourselves, we know what this feels like. It feels like everything is amazing. New food! Local music! Making Tanzanian friends! You think to yourself, "I can easily live here for a really long time. In three and a half years, I'll practically become Tanzanian, I love it here so much!" You and your husband find yourselves pointing out various aspects of Tanzanian culture that you love and wondering why your home country is inferior. Silly Americans! They don't even know what they're missing!

It seems too good to be true.


This is the definition of a honeymoon, my dear friends. It's a lovely paradise-like reality that ends just as quickly as it has begun.

i present, the honeymoon phase.
What happens next? Now, you pass down the hill to the bottom of the next curve on the following wave of emotion. We are in the land of "Yep,-I'm-done-with-this-now-and-I-want-to-pick-another-country-to-move-to,-like-Italy."

Our relationship with Tanzania has really cooled. In what ways, you may ask?

Namba Moja (Number One): I am tired of my daily walk to and from the daladala, where twenty to thirty pikipiki (motorcycle) drivers like to sit and await their next passenger. Just in case I don't notice that there's a huge group of motorcycles all bunched on the corner of the road in close proximity to where I will board the joke that is public transportation in this country, they respectfully like to shout, "Mzungu!" "Baby!" "Sweetie!" Because who doesn't love being harassed every morning on their way to work?

Namba Mbili (Number Two): Michael and I are exhausted by sharing our electricity with the three dukas (shops) that sit outside of our front gate. I'll save the really frustrating details for another blog post, but suffice to say that at least twice a week, we need to visit the dukas in order to get them to cough up some funds for our joint electricity bill. This does not go over well, mainly because the duka owners often pretend as if they don't have money to pay in order to get us to do so. God usually times this perfectly so we have to take care of this fun little chore as soon as we get home from work and just want to relax.

Namba Tatu (Number Three): I am done with feeling like an outsider and I am done with not liking the person I am becoming as a result. I recently was walking downtown and ignoring all of the shouts, noises, and whistles going on around me, as I assume the majority are directed to me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a young boy trying to catch up with me and all I could pick up was that he was shouting something at me. Undeterred, I kept on walking. After a few more shouts, I realized that he was actually a sweet kid that I've gotten to know through my work. I'm sure he was unphased, as we stopped and had a nice conversation for a few moments after I apologized. But I felt horrible. I had been so caught up on avoiding Tanzanians that I had missed one who I have actually come to know!

Unfortunately, those are just the first of many instances I wish I could bid adieu.

Boy, does it sound like we're at the Rock Bottom phase, or what?

Michael and I are, once again, humbled. Instead of pointing out everything we love about Tanzania and its culture, we're doing exactly the opposite. "Why do they do it this way? Can't they see that our way is so much easier?" we ask each other over dinner. Silly Tanzanians!

But worse, this phase of culture shock makes you ask yourself deeper questions, like, "Why on God's green earth am I here?" "Why do people say being an ex-pat is fun?" and "Why can I not find some decently good coffee in this country?!?"

For those of you out there who feel me on this, on hitting Rock Bottom of the Culture Shock Wave, first, holla! Second, we've been told it's supposed to get better. This is a hard one, as it doesn't really comfort you in the moment. All you can think is, "I don't care about tomorrow at all! I want to have a cocktail and go on vacation and feel better right now!" But it really is (allegedly) true. This is just one of many waves that will come your way over whatever period of time you plan on living overseas. You'll ride the next one. Hopefully, it'll be up.

Our recent downward spiral in a different culture has made us think about immigrants in our own home country, the United States, with fresh eyes. Although we'd always supported immigrants successfully transitioning to the U.S. of A., we never realized what a difficult battle they face just to adapt to American culture and language. This doesn't even take into consideration whatever legal or financial troubles they're trying to solve simultaneously. Honestly, just the sheer shift in culture for us has been completely and utterly overwhelming, and we are praying for immigrants everywhere with a new perspective and a new heart.

In the meantime, we're taking it one day at a time here in Tanzania, going to work, doing our chores, and trying to focus on the task at hand, with as much laughter as we can muster. As my dad would say, we're keeping our chins up… and at this point, that's as good as it's going to get.


  1. Hi Ashley,
    Thank you for sharing your "culture shock crisis." It is a good way to release a little bit of the tension, right? Keep doing it. Keep sharing! Do you guys have some kind of a support group that you might get together and share your bi-cultural challenges? You might share with the Maryknoll priests and sisters, too!
    From my own experiences of adapting to another way of life, being caught between the two cultures has never been easy!
    Offer it up!

    1. Hi Father Tino! Thanks for your support. You know all too well the challenges of trying to adapt to another culture. It is great to have a community here in Tanzania and we use it on a weekly basis, to talk about our frustrations and get others' advice. I'm not sure what we'd do without it!

  2. I know what you mean about it wearing off, although I don't think my experiences are as rough as yours. Teaching English the first year in Hungary and trying to save some money with the wedding approaching, I experienced what was probably inevitable - getting ripped off by a school that wouldn't pay me for a month of classes. Long story short, I was pretty angry for awhile, and I started noticing other things I hadn't noticed before, etc. The only way I can think of to get past it is the same thing I think of when I see reckless Dallas drivers: isn't it a miracle that so many other drivers aren't reckless? This fallen world being what it is, why shouldn't every driver be like the reckless one? But yet so many are driving along so orderly.

    So maybe when you're walking through the city the next time you can spot the one guy who isn't an a-hole and think, "Isn't it a miracle that this guy isn't an a-hole?" Hope it helps.

    1. Michael Mattair! We can always count on you for a rousing mix of ironic honesty. I've kept this comment in the back of my mind and yes, in my worst moments, it surprisingly helps!