This post is part of a series on learning from diversity called What I Learned. To contribute, contact Rachel (there is one more scheduled post coming up and then, unless I hear from you, the series will close, but if you have an essay in the future that you feel might be a good fit, feel free to contact me).
Today’s What I Learned post comes from Heidi Thulin, writing from Kenya about culture shock and rock climbing in her first year in Africa.
I stood in the shade of a gigantic cliff at Hell’s Gate National Park, a harness strapped around my waist and my fingers fidgeting nervously with my hair. We had come to do some filming for an outdoorsman ministry, and after we’d conducted interviews and gathered several hours of B-roll, they said we could give rock climbing a try.
The borrowed climbing shoes felt foreign on my feet, and I bounced lightly on my toes while my belayer secured knots and gave me a quiet pep talk. I had never climbed a real cliff before, only a cement rock wall speckled with color-coded handholds. And that was ten years ago.
I was pretty nervous–but the excited kind–and I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t conquer this rock.
Raising my hands above my head, I felt the smoothness and the roughness of the red-brown rock and lifted my foot into a crack. Then my other foot, push, then hand navigation, pull. Straining one part of my body at a time. And slowly, I rose above the crowd.
About halfway up, I got stuck. The rocks all around me felt too smooth, my arms felt too weak, and I was too quick to call down and say I was done. “No, you’re not,” my belayer called back. “You’re almost there! You’re at the hardest part, but you’ll soon pass it.”
I suppressed a panicked laugh and pressed myself against the cliff. It felt cold on my skin and the distance above me looked daunting. I shifted my weight, my foot slipped, I gasped. But the rope supported me. Up until that moment, I hadn’t truly believed I could trust in that rope, but now I knew I was not alone and that I could finish the climb.
Taking a deep breath, I grappled around for a handhold and slipped with my feet until it rested on a small ledge. Below me, people cheered. I had only six feet to go. With renewed vigor and a triumphant smile, I scurried up the rest of the rock and dangled restfully from my rope. My arms hurt in new places, but my heart was beating happily. I did it!
I looked down then and was shocked by the distance I’d traveled. My small husband gazed up at me, smiled, and took a photo. My belayer gave me a thumbs-up and said, “Now I will let you come down.”
My husband and I are more than halfway through our first term in Nairobi, Kenya, and in some ways, this leg of the journey is harder than the first. On some occasions, I’ve had to physically leave the house to prevent me from packing up all our belonging and booking the next flight back to the States. But God taught me a special lesson that day I conquered the rock wall. A lesson that I desperately needed to learn.
Culture shock is like rock climbing. You need take the journey one handhold and foothold at a time. You require encouragement from those with a different perspective. You develop new problem-solving skills and stretch your already-sore muscles. But if you trust in the rope that holds you up, you’ll find relief and smiles at the top of the cliff and, with slight disbelief, you’ll look down and realize just how far you’ve come.
Therefore, I can do this overseas life. Even when I’m confused and don’t know how to move forward, even when my heart (and stomach) hurts in uncommon ways, even when I want to give up. I have the hope that, one day, I will look back at this time of struggle and unpleasantness and be surprised (and maybe impressed) by my progress. I will see how God gave me the strength for each small step and how each of those small steps turned into a grand journey.
By the end, I will be a new person, a person transformed and strong, and I will celebrate my journey with a smile.
Heidi Thulin is a staff writer for an On-Field Media team in Kenya. She and her videographer husband work in Nairobi. They’ve greatly enjoyed traveling together, tossing ideas around with their creative team, and catching glimpses of the everyday lives and work of their fellow expatriates. She loves her Saturday mornings filled with a good book, a cup of hot chai (with plenty of sugar), and the company of her Kenyan mutt.