People often speak of ‘Culture Shock’ and ‘Reverse Culture Shock,’ especially in missionary communities. When one first arrives in a new community oceans away from their native land, one is often gobsmacked by all the differences their new environs surround them with. The climate is different, the fashion is different, people of different races may look different, languages and accents are different, money is different, cars may zip by on the ‘wrong’ side of the street, the noises, the smells, the tastes, even the time zone may shift senses to the point of feeling perpetually off-balance emotionally. But the greatest difference is the ‘culture,’ a nebulous word that cannot be summed up adequately in the collective of previously cited attributes and notions. The ‘culture’ of a place is something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a mentality. It’s a worldview. It’s an approach to life in humanity’s most basic terms.
But then spend a year in this new culture and return to America. Folks frequently claim the ‘Reverse Culture Shock’ can be just as brutalizing. The intemperate bustle of American life, the screens competing insatiably for our attention, the pressed masses uninterested in shaking hands (even pre-covid), but also the green spaces, the manicured lawns, the parks, the ability for people to queue properly in a line. It can be boggling and disorienting, yet at the same time distantly familiar, like returning to a familiar dreamland or having a vague but gnawing sensation of deja vu.
Danae and I feel we have done the transition often enough that we are rarely phased by it anymore. We split ourselves and we have two homes, two self-identities, nearly two beings. The Africa version of ourselves and the America version of ourselves, both so very authentically and genuinely ‘us,’ but also so dissimilar.
Mentally, my brain equates the change to a pair of blue jeans, a pair Danae bought for me years ago, before even going to Chad. Bizarrely, these pants represent America to me. I land, I head to our ‘home,’ wherever that may happen to be, I pull the jeans out of a box in storage and I put them on. I am now American me. I own no jeans in Chad. This is a uniquely American habit and a uniquely American version of myself. In Chad, it’s slacks and a short-sleeve button-up collared shirt seven days a week. In America, it’s jeans and never a short-sleeve button-up collared shirt.
We are now back in Chad, and everything feels like a distant, but familiar, life. We passed quarantine at TEAM, The Evangelical Alliance Mission, in one of the only duplexes. It was familiar and comfortable, a place we’ve stayed many times, with familiar and comfortable host missionaries on their compound, chatting to us from a safe distance. There was our familiar taxi driver, the familiar TEAM dogs, the familiar traffic, the familiar heat, the familiar 220V outlets, the familiar food, the familiar everything. I could sit on the porch and let the sensation wash over me that I am back home, back where I’m intended to be, despite almost a year away.
The morning we left N’Djamena for Bere magnified these sensations. Although we normally take the bus, we have driven it many times, and this time it was the only option, as public transit had been shut down. There was the familiarity of the driver showing up late, of loading all our bags on top of the truck, of filling the cab with the rest of the stuff we overvalued and then cramming ourselves in. There was the familiarity of AC never working and windows going down. The familiar gas station with all the guys selling baguettes like their lives depended on it, because they did. The familiarity of stopping at police checkpoints and insisting that, yes, our documents really are in order, you’re just reading them upside down, here’s a book for a bribe, thanks, let’s go. The familiarity of the camel herds south of N’Djamena, the only source of traffic jams in these parts. The familiar landscape, the gas sold from a glass bottle beside the road, the watermelons for sale at the toll booth, the woven grass mats of this village and the clay pots lining the side of the road in that village. The familiar jarring up my spine weaving on-road and off-road trying to find the path least damaging to the vehicle.
And then almost home. The hippo river. The last two villages on the way. The river where we baptize people. The Bere sign. The glint of the sun off the tin roofs of the hospital. The hospital gate. The people selling wares out front. Our gate. Our three guards all waiting for us to arrive to greet us home and carry in our suitcases. And our house. Our beds. Our mosquito nets. Our broken showers. Our droopy ceiling tiles. Our semi-feral cats. Our darkened light bulbs. Our leaking sinks. The mattress Danae and I have shared all 14+ years of marriage. Our 12x12 master bedroom. Our clothes.
And then the next morning, our jobs. Our work. Our calling.
I go to the hospital for worship, 7am, just like the last ten years. Songs are sung in Nangjere. A devotional is shared. Prayer is prayed. We no longer shake hands with everybody as we used to. I go to round with Andrew, not really being too helpful more than making sure meds are ordered. I go to a meeting, only to discover hospital administration and hospital finance is actually better than I left it.
What??? That can’t be right. The hospital made money during a pandemic, with lockdowns, with a poor harvest and economic turmoil, with a heavy rain that made roads impassable, with roads across the country beaten up so badly nobody wants to travel here? And the human resources aspect of the hospital is clean as a whistle? And they did all this without me? Maybe the hospital is better off without me!
I look around the hospital. I see a lot of deferred maintenance. We run out of water, I guess the float switch failed and wasn’t replaced and the other water tower pump seized up and wasn’t replaced. I see a generator is stripped into a million pieces and I remember I was told the radiator exploded and we’re still looking for a replacement. Cars look to be semi-functional, except the one that hasn’t run for years and another that needs a tire and starter, or something. I see the guesthouse still doesn’t have a new septic tank done yet. I see the wall that needs broken glass on it. I see the nursing school that delayed starting a new class of first year students. I see the ICU that hasn’t been set up. I see the recent container of supplies all piled into a building and not organized. I see the Apple TVs aren’t working. I see the security cameras need new LAN line or something. I see offline Wikipedia is down. I see a lot of broken laptops and tablets that need replacing or reconnection to iTunes. I see the employee handbook that needs updated. I see all the AHI finances that need attended to. I see the two ORs unfinished. I see the need for our solar farm. I see the need for a bigger OR complex even before the two ORs are done. I see the need to train doctors. I see the need to train another ultrasound guy. I see the need to line up a bunch of surgical coverage. I see a nutrition center, agriculture projects, animal husbandry projects, all vying for my attention. I see donors and their expectations. I see the kids needing homeschooling!!!
I see it all, just like I normally do when I get back. I see the enormity of it all. Another container arriving. Inventory. Thievery. The list just goes on and on.
A few years ago, I came home from my first day back at the hospital. Danae had spent the day at home unpacking. I got back overwhelmed and discouraged by all the work I saw needing to get done. And then Danae lit into me for something, I don’t even recall now what, which is true for the day after 99% of marital spats, it would seem. But it was enough to completely break me. I was done. I shut down. I just wanted to go to bed, curl up into a ball, rewind the clock, and start all over. Luckily for me, I have an understanding wife who figured out how my day had gone and that I needed something other than what she was giving me.
This time is different, however. I see the enormity of the work to be done, and I’m energized for the first time. I see that it can be accomplished. It’s a lot. It’s going to be hard. But I look around and it’s not just a few of us to do it. We have a team. A big and solid team. I’m no longer discouraged. I’m encouraged. I have an administrator, a charge nurse, an accountant, somebody in charge of our projects… I have a committed group of missionary doctors… I have Chadian doctors soon to finish school… I have volunteers… I have committed hospital employees… I have an AHI board both here and in America eager to do their part…
And I know we can do this.
I don’t know how. I’m not sure how to prioritize. I’m not sure which piece to bite off first. I know Danae also wants me in the OR doing anesthesia and cranking through patients. But we will delegate. We will chip in where we can. And we will get through this. This place perpetually improves, despite my best efforts.
And as an interesting aside and by nothing more than a fluke, Danae pulled out my jeans for me to travel back to Chad in this year. I wore them around N’Djamena and on the drive down and a couple days around the house. They feel comfortable, if a bit warm in this heat. But as it turns out, maybe that facade between our two versions of ourselves is starting to crumble, finally, after a decade. So long as we can keep Danae from wearing her African moo-moos in America.