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I want to talk openly and candidly about some of the things that I encountered emotionally in my mission. With the hoard of early release missionaries, I often wonder if many who come home early are struggling with a little bit of culture shock. Maybe they would have been able to stay longer had they recognized the signs, been reassured that they are “normal” and then lost themselves in the work. While I recognize that each early release missionary has a specific case, I hope that this post does not offend anyone whose missionary service ended up being a little shorter than that of the average missionary. This information about “culture shock” can actually be applied universally to understand new situations we encounter that change our world–the first semester away from school, a new marriage, new roommates, a new job, a new school…the applications are endless. For the sake of this post, however, I will address this as one sister missionary to another.
First of all, the first 6 months of my mission were rough. The next six months were better in some ways, and a little rougher in others. Regardless, I grew a lot. Then, the last six months were the best, and made me want to be a missionary forever. (I will also just mention here that I do feel like sister missionaries get cheated just a little because we get 6 months less than the elders right when you are getting things right!)
I just wanted to share with you some wisdom in hindsight. The truth is that no one understands the struggles of sister missionaries like a returned sister missionary. While many of the struggles are the same as those of elders, there are some that are uniquely to sisters.
I remember my first area. I was the only American woman that these people had ever seen. Only one other American woman had ever set foot in their city. It was such a hard thing for me to be such a spectacle to them. The other part was that I was frightened a little because I didn’t always know what was going on around me. My companion was Brazilian, and I was the only English speaker in our area.
A couple of months into my mission, I found myself one night, feeling very sad. We had completed yet another day of teaching. We had no one ready for Baptism, our most recent baptisms had stopped coming to church, and were basically inactive already. (They weren’t even taking visits from us anymore.) I still hadn’t heard from my parents yet, and I was overwhelmed. At home that evening, I was feeling so sad. I didn’t even dare confide in my companions because I was embarrassed to admit I was feeling so lonely. I was feeling overwhelmed, hungry for food I knew, anxious for a language I could speak, and missing air conditioning like only someone new to the steamy Caribbean can probably imagine.
Now looking back, I see that all of my experiences could really be chalked up to “culture shock”.
Here are the stages with a brief explanation, and discussion of their relevance to missionaries:
Stage 1:The Honeymoon Phase
In stage one, you are still excited about the new culture. The new climate, cultural habits, food, music, new surroundings–they are all exciting. This is where you feel the sense of adventure. This is where world travelers reside in their experiences usually. They dip their toe in the new cultural waters but never fully leave the comfort of their tour bus or cruise ship.
For missionaries, in this phase you are still excited. You want to try new things. I was so excited to just get going on the work of missionaries when I first arrived. I wanted to do everything right, be kind to everyone, try every new thing put on my plate, and just experience things. It was still fun. This is the phase where you feel invulnerable, and feel like you are going to be okay. This can be short, or this can be long. It just depends on the individual. I felt like I had several “honeymoon phases” with each new companion and each new area too. If you can try and retain some of the aspects of that excitement of the “newness” of each situation, you will find your capacity to have patience and endurance will increase too as you go along. Needless to say, however, this phase is usually short lived.
Stage 2: The Frustration Phase
This is the stage that usually happens around the 3-5 month mark. For some, it happens earlier, for some later.
This is often softened just a little for missionaries, because unlike travelers, students or newlyweds who might hit this phase, missionaries are driven by a higher purpose. That can help pull you through as you are developing coping skills. Regardless, you still probably will experience this. This is where you start to miss your mom’s food. This is where you miss having the autonomy to just go home and check out of life adult life for a bit. This is where you start to be annoyed by all the little things that you used to find adventurous. This is where that companion you wrote home about in the beginning begins to annoy you. For me, it was that I couldn’t figure out how to make any food that was familiar to me. (I still feel like maybe I should write a cookbook about missionaries making comfort food on the mission, and how to feel good about that. I remember when we were gifted a jar of American peanut butter. I never really loved it in the states, but as a missionary, it became “manna” to me.) It was in this “phase” of my mission that I got sick. I feel like many missionaries do. Your physical system is reacting to the foreign food, climate, and flora (gut bacteria etc) in the area. This causes fatigue, night sweats, sick tummy, headache, etc. and it’s compounded by the fact that you can’t run home to mom to feel better. You are thousands of miles away. That is tough. This is often where missionaries give up and go home. If you can make it through this phase with resilience, and keep your resolve intact, you will be a successful missionary.
I felt like in my mission some missionaries had such terrible home lives, that it wasn’t a big deal for them to not be at home. Mission life was actually better for them. Regular meals, running water, safe shelter… (These were mostly natives of course.) For me, it was when I hit the wall. It just happened to coincide with the rainy season. Everything, and I mean everything, molded over. Even our clothes. Our water became unsafe to drink, and unknowingly, I still drank it. I had no idea that it would be bad. I ended up contracting amoebic dysentery. I got such bad diarrhea that I lost 15 pounds in one week. It was awful. Luckily we took regular doses of anti parasite medicine and it killed it. During that time, I was more homesick than ever. I struggled to figure out what to eat, how to sleep comfortably, and how to keep getting up and keep working. It seemed like we were making no headway anywhere we went. It was the toughest part of my mission. (That second 6 months I talked about.) This was the time where I felt that I had to seek for inspiration more than ever in my mission. It was a time that digging deeply into the scriptures during study time and spending time on my knees was the most critical.
Anyhow, the frustration phase is where many missionaries give up or lose their focus. So, beware. Strengthen yourself for this phase, and brace yourself. You will feel like you can’t go on. You will feel like your efforts are useless. You will feel like you want to give up, but you can’t. Just hang on. Hang in there. Don’t give up, and lose yourself in the work. Decide you will not give up and your heart will follow. Take time to really study the scriptures, and to find good things in your companion. Learn to laugh at yourself. Learn to cope. That is how you make it out of this phase. Ask for a priesthood blessing. Ask for one every week if you need it. Don’t be afraid. Don’t lose your focus, and keep moving forward.
At this low point in my mission, there was a time where after I was feeling physically better, I just couldn’t seem to get it together. I was very discouraged. I remember laying on the floor in our apartment on a Sunday evening. It had been a very awful Sunday, where none of our investigators came to church, the members were not being supportive, and we just felt like we were useless. All of the sudden, a knock came at the door. It was a bishop from another ward. His mother was in our ward, and she had mentioned that I was an American. He was taking his ward to the temple in Sao paulo. It was a 4 day bus ride each way, and it was cold. Because I was American, he thought I may have a warm sweater his wife could borrow, and no one had phones back then. So, he just stopped by. We had met him before, at this member’s home. Anyways, when he arrived, he just said, “Sisters, I felt like i should come over right this night to borrow this sweater instead of waiting for you at my mothers. I just feel like you need to know that hard times in the mission field pass. Pick yourself up, and keep doing the work.It isn’t always easy, and sometimes it feels futile, but you make a difference–even if the only difference you make is in yourself. This is the proving ground of your testimony.” That hit me so hard. I expressed to him that I wanted to go home. He just looked at me, and said, “Don’t ever say that. Just keep working. This is a short time, and you will make it.” I’m so glad that he did. I kept chugging along. I’m so happy I made it through because the next phase of culture shock is…
Stage 3: The Adjustment Phase
This is the phase where you learn to cope. You learn routines that help you to function in the new culture. That is the key to cope and function in the new missionary culture. For me, this was where I learned to bathe in my garments and wash them one pair at a time while I showered instead of saving all my wash for P-day. Before this time, I had been doing this the hard way, and was overwhelmed by the hand washing burden of P-day. I felt like a prisoner every P-day–scrubbing everything. I learned that the natives wash as they go. It makes it so much easier. I learned to make a few dishes that I could handle with the ingredients on hand. I would have toast with eggs for breakfast with a native fruit juice. I learned how to make grilled cheese sandwiches that tasted almost like what we had at home. I learned that by baking a little on pday, it helped my homesickness. I could make cookies or brownies, and bring them to our district meeting. I even learned to go get fresh bread dough, unbaked, from the panificadora (bakery) and have the butcher grind up some hamburger for me. I then made some spaghetti sauce and could make American pizza. (For some reason, they thought pizza was something on a crepe crust, not bread crust…) Not only did it increase my street cred with the American Elders when we shared, it was comforting to me too. I learned to adore green coconut water, and drank it regularly. I found that the food wasn’t so foreign to me anymore, and that I was feeling more like a Brazilian. I got along better with my companions, and was able to cope better. I started wearing bright red lipstick like all the natives (still miss that one!) I didn’t feel “new” and “foreign” anymore. I knew how to shop at the grocery store. I knew how to ride the bus, how to manage some social situations in Portuguese. Best thing that I adopted, was that Brazilian women get a manicure and pedicure weekly. I did that as often as i could. (they were so cheap! the equivalent of about $.50 sometimes even members wanted us to come over on P-day to do this!) Things began to make sense.
Sometimes it takes a little longer to get through this phase than you realize, but this is the phase where you normal out. The sad part is that some missionaries have a hard time coping and making it here. They have already thrown in the towel by now and they miss out on it. It is really important that you strive to make it to this phase.
Don’t think that you can’t get to this phase. Some of the missionaries in my mission made it here faster than others. Those were the missionaries with a good attitude, and good habits. They were the ones with a positive outlook. One thing that really helped me was to keep a journal. In the front of my journal, I took notes about the language. These were things that I couldn’t find in a dictionary, but that I had to ask about. I drew little pictures of things I encountered, and cultural things that caught my attention. The fun thing for me was that now, 20+ years later, I have those journals as little “field journals” that help me remember my mission.
If you are struggling right now to get to a place where you feel normal, try making a routine for yourself that includes some part of your new culture. It makes it easier to throw yourself right into the culture.
Stage 4: The Mastery Phase
This is where you become the “master” of yourself. I feel like understanding this is actually a key to becoming a great missionary. Really, many new converts go through culture shock when they join the church too. It is hard to leave behind old traditions, relationships, habits, and life. It is often why new converts in very social cultures, like Latino cultures, have a hard time staying active.
This is also where you will make or break your re-entry into American society. When you become master of the balance that is appreciating and adopting parts of the new culture, while maintaining your own cultural identity, you will feel comfortable. You will be able to recognize what things set you off emotionally, and make your life tough. You will also be able to be hopeful for the experiences you have while you are gone.
This phase is characterized by mastery of the language and the ability to communicate. This is pretty much when you feel confident enough to teach and be the missionary you need to be. This is the main reason why I feel like sisters get shorted! It can take about this much time to get your feet under you, and then it’s time to go home! Elders get 6 months to bask in this phase, and then come home. So, the sooner you can get here, the better off you will be!
So, there you have it. A little advice from a former sister that was in the trenches just like you!
Remember Sister, you are loved, missed, prayed for, and setting a great example for all the little girls who want to serve.
Hang on to what you know is true, and build up from there. Don’t give up! Just keep moving forward, and as President Kimball said, “Do it.”