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Coronavirus Lockdown is like Culture Shock

Being in an 9pm-5am curfew, under Melbourne’s strict lockdown, reminds me of our time in the late 90’s while serving in Cambodia as missionaries, except the reason for curfew then was so you wouldn’t get robbed or your kids kidnapped.

How else can we relate to the restrictions we’ve been facing in this Coronavirus pandemic? 

Well, working from home is normal; MK’s (Missionary Kids) are mostly home-schooled; markets are often bereft of your basic needs (you could always try field rats which taste like chicken), stock-piling food may not work if you don’t have reliable electricity, toilet paper isn’t used by the locals anyway, unusual deadly diseases are just outside the front door and creativity is a necessity to avoid cabin fever.  Life is certainly not boring.

In Thailand, we greeted each other with closed palms in front of our face.  How many times have you gone for the handshake instead of the elbow touch?  Don’t worry, after a while, it becomes second nature.

Many of our colleagues meet together in secret or have small groups to disciple new believers.  When do you exercise civil disobedience in this and many other grey areas?  

Dealing with corrupt and incompetent government departments can look like having military police with AK47’s at your Vocational Training Centre intimidating your staff into buying their “fire protection” services. Or being charged for utilities at foreigner rates three times more than local rates, along with plenty of other unfair practices.

Because most missionaries are used to living this way, it means we have a lot to offer sending churches or potential missionary candidates. Lockdown is actually a good orientation for cross-cultural missions!   So how can we move from surviving to thriving in this confusing world?

First and foremost, as Christians, we have an eternal hope in Christ who promises to never leave us or forsake us.  He is our Shepherd and promises to strengthen, guide and give us wisdom.  Learning to abide in Him and be yoked with Him helps us through these difficult times, so we can then be able to help others.

Practically speaking, here are some patterns in this culture shock we are currently experiencing, that we  need to be aware of:

Fun:  Sometimes this stage is also called the honeymoon period where everything is quaint and interesting.  When I first arrived in Bangkok, I thought I had landed in the middle of The Royal Show.  There were lots of food stalls, Tuk Tuk’s (3 wheeled motorbikes) that could transport you around the city really fast and cheap and then other motorbikes transporting fridges on the back seat strapped down with a bicycle tube etc.

This unique period of lockdown has advantages with less travel and expenses.  If you’re an introvert, then it’s even more euphoric with so much personal space and the ability to get more work done.  For many though, it can be very difficult and not much fun at all.

Flight: The new cultural experience no longer fascinates you and things that were quaint are now annoying.  Spitting Betel nut all over the path is disgusting and trying to communicate in a complex language with 5 different words just for saying you is very confusing.  So it’s all becoming too hard and it’s better to just opt-out.  Some folk will return home, while others retreat into expatriate communities and never really assimilate into the host culture.

This pandemic can cause us to retreat in different ways.  With heightened levels of stress, we can look for escapes into areas that aren’t healthy.  It could be binging on movies or other excessive habits.  Find out the trigger points and talk them through with other people.  Develop a schedule and use your time wisely.

Fight: Leaving is not an option and some of the things you are noticing people do seem so stupid and even wrong and you become quite negative.  Seeing whole families squeezed onto a small motorbike riding to the market is so dangerous. I must confess our family of 5 did it in Thailand when the kids were young and we had no car.  We called it a contextualisation!  However, some things are not just culturally different, but plain wrong like widow burning (Sati) and need to be fought against, like William Carey did in India.

There are plenty of areas in this pandemic that we can become negative about and even petition against. However, choosing our battles is the better option.  Otherwise, we can become angry and bitter which will affect relationships with those around us and they certainly won’t sense the aroma of Christ, who endured much more than this.

Fit: This is when we become tolerant towards that which is different and a perception that it is okay (within Biblical limits). Having a siesta every afternoon is a great energy saver and we still do it now back in Australia.  Learning how to relate to different classes of people helps sharpen communications skills, especially in another beautiful language.  Local ideas and practices don’t seem so strange and in fact, we learn to live with them. Self-confidence returns and negative feelings subside.

We just don’t know what the new normal will look like in our current world and many are saying we will just have to learn to live with Covid-19 for quite some time. This will mean making new adjustments and shedding some old practices which could be a good thing.  Certainly the use of Zoom has saved organizations and churches a lot of time and money.  

God is always at work in these lockdown experiences and uses them for His eternal purposes. 

For example, Moses and his two 40 year stints, (Midian & wilderness); David hiding in caves from Saul; Jonah stuck in the whale; Daniel in the lions’ den; Paul in prison; Jesus Himself often self-isolated because His life was in danger. 

Because God is always working for good, it helps to not be too concerned about the restrictions, but rather to spend time waiting on Him for His working in us and through us. 

Jim Dawson

Jim Dawson

Jim Dawson has spent 15 years church planting in Thailand and 4 years in Cambodia which included being principal of a Vocational Training Centre. During the past 12 years in WA, he has been mentoring and mobilizing people into cross-cultural mission teams.  Currently, he is the WEC Vic Regional Coordinator and enjoys speaking and engaging with people in churches and Bible colleges on missional subjects. He is married to Lyn and has three adult children Crystal, Liesl and Joel.

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