Culture Shock

I remember the first time I went overseas and walked through the city of Tirana Albania and saw soldiers with machine guns and became frozen in my tracks. “Don’t you have soldiers in your country” my host asked? Well, yes we do, but our soldiers do not walk down the street with machine guns. The same person looked at me confused as I was taking pictures of cows. “Don’t you have cows in your country?” Of course we have cows in our country, but they do not meander down the middle of the busiest road in the capitol city. (I suppose I should not have been shocked since the airport runway had to be cleared of cows as well landed, but I was pretty naive back then). We both looked at each other with great confusion trying to understand each other’s normal.

Culture shock is easy to pick out when you are half way around the world, but I have also had my share of culture shock in my own community. When I went to grad school at Grand Valley State University for example. Here I was 22 years old and I had never been to a public institution before. Christian school from preschool through college then working for a Christian agency for years, and here I was with people who did not have the same faith as I did. I was blown away almost every day. At Calvin College I was so liberal I thought maybe I was a communist. At Grand Valley I was one of the most conservative people there. People lived with their boy friends and didn’t go to church. I was in my early 20’s and had no idea people lived like this and certainly did not think they talked about it if they did. These were the great secrets you keep if you lived in the conservative community of Grand Rapids.

As I settled into adult life and found myself and figured out who I was and who I wanted to be, I was still a part of a culture. I worked for a Christian Organization. An organization with a mission and values that I also stood for. An organization that did work I believed in. For my entire adult life. 15 years to be exact, this is where I learned and grew. This is where I made life long friends and had amazing mentors. This was my culture. My world. Of course there were days that were crummy and people that I did not agree with and eventually my career path and my values and ethics reached a fork in the road and I decided it was time to take that “road less traveled”.

And for the first time in 39 years, I began working for a small organization that was not affiliated with religion. Talk about culture shock. Not bad, and actually quite refreshing and interesting to be a part of a group of very diverse people. Not in race, but in every other aspect of culture. And as I settled into my new role, I became baffled at the differences in my new word with the only other world I had ever known. I was less than a mile from the organization I had been with for 15 years yet a world apart. We had meetings and no one prayed. This is seriously something I never really thought about until it didn’t happen. It seems so small, but it is also so big!

So a few weeks ago, when I was working on a presentation and wanted to put in a quote from a famous person who also happens to be a lesbian, it occurred to me that this would be absolutely a non-issue. Because, it was a big issue for people I worked with a few years earlier. This is the difference of cultures. When I saw the irony of being able to post a picture of wine on facebook when years earlier I got in trouble for posting a similar picture I realized the complete difference in cultures.

I think some people may think my pointing out these differences between old job and new job think I am bashing my old job. Here is the thing though, I am not bashing, I am struck by the complete difference in culture.   It blows my mind how completely different my worlds are. How completely different people are and how organizations are run. It is not about right or wrong. It is about, for the first time in 39 years, I am a part of something completely different that I ever have been before.

Is it a better fit? In some ways it absolutely is. Does it take anything away from the last 15 years of my career? No. But it says something to me that in the back yard of where my adult life has lived, is a completely different world, way of thinking and working. And I love it. And it may be a much better fit for me. And it is culture shock. And to be honest I feel so much freedom.

I regret not one single second of my professional career. I think the agency I worked for did and does great things. But as I continue to grow comfortable in my new world, I will likely encounter more moments of clarity and disbelief and, well, culture shock, that, I may share with the online world. Not because I am hateful or bashing or have lost sight of all the good, but because these moments of finally being able to be myself without worry of consequence is completely and totally amazing.  And because sometimes, it hits me how completely bizarre some of these incidents really were, and I was not the bizarre one.  I was not a bad person for liking Ellen or wine.  I was just me.  And that is okay.


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