Kerstin Prill and her husband Thorsten are German born Brits who have served the Lord in England for 10 years and in Namibia for 9 years. Having received the call into a new ministry at Edinburgh Bible College they left Namibia in 2017 to serve as Crosslinks mission partners in Scotland. In this first of four blog posts, Kerstin reflects on her experience of times of transition and culture shock.
If one more person asks me where I am from I will… well, I don’t know. What will I do? Explode? Run away? What would all these poor unsuspecting people who are just trying to make sense of my funny accent think of me? And what’s wrong with the question anyway?
While for them, the question is simply an attempt to get to know me, to me it is a painful reminder that I don’t belong. As much as I try to fit in - to the locals I will always be a foreigner.
As a missionary I strive towards adapting to the local culture. I want to become ‘a Jew to the Jew’ and a Scot to the Scots. While I lived in Namibia I was treated as a local. People thought I was a German-Namibian. Several times I was asked if I was born in Windhoek. Living and working in the country for a number of years qualified me to be a Namibian in the eyes of the locals. Even the fact that I regularly had to apply for permission to work and stay in the country did not change that view. Having embraced life in Namibia was enough.
Now having returned to the UK with a British passport in my pocket I am having to come to terms with the fact that I will never be treated as a local. While I played and replayed the conversation in my head that begins with the dreaded question about my birth place, I realised that unless I made peace with the situation the anger and bitterness would begin to show. Certainly, exploding or running away were not the answer. It’s not the locals and their questions that needed to change – it was my attitude.
There were other innocent questions that bothered me, too. ‘Do you miss Namibia?’ ‘Do you feel settled?’ How could I possibly feel settled when a big piece of my heart had become Namibian? Realising that people are just kind and well-meaning, I managed to hide my true feelings - but ended up being completely exhausted by the time I got home.
Irritability has been described as a typical hallmark of culture shock. And yet it seems so much easier to deny this and instead blame members of the other culture. Admitting anger would mean that I have to change – and I’m already facing countless changes! A different country, culture, climate, church, ministry – surely there comes a point when enough is enough? How about if others tried a bit harder and were a bit more sensitive?
Analysing the behaviour of others and blaming them for my negative feelings puts me conveniently out of the picture. Thinking along these lines is a way of venting my anger without having to deal with it. But I discovered that my level of frustration and anger rose the better I was getting at analysing and blaming others. Trying to change other people’s way of thinking and behaviour without coming across as judgmental was complicated, tiresome and hopeless. I faced a choice: I could either withdraw and sulk in a corner or admit my angry feelings, accept a dent in my pride and ask Jesus to help me overcome it.
But other people can help too! Churches can learn how to become better at receiving missionaries back from the mission field. This includes being more culturally sensitive by trying to put yourself in the missionary’s shoes, asking questions such as ‘what gives you joy/grief? What makes you feel welcome/understood? What kind of practical or emotional support can I give you? What needs to happen so that you feel part of us?’
If you know someone going through times of transition, then my reflections may shed a bit more light on why your friend appears abrupt or withdrawn at times. Also, it is my hope that my reflections might encourage others to respond to their own inner turmoil in a more helpful way.
Read more of Kerstin’s thoughts: The pain in returning home, The shame in returning home, The guilt in returning home.
Photo credit: CJS*64 licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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