the shock of culture shock + 48 hours in NYC

I'm writing this post two days into our time in New York City. We've done a lot in the last 48 hours, and I've felt a lot. A lot that I didn't see coming and that I've been frustrated and almost ashamed to be experiencing. Primarily, culture shock.

I consider myself a fairly experienced traveler at this point. In my early twenties I did missions work in a few different countries in Africa. There we were taught, as a crucial part of orientation, all about culture shock. Years later, I'd even lead some of these trips to Africa, and teach others about it. And in all my journeys abroad I've never truly felt the stages of the phenomenon as I am right now. Just seven hours from home, in a city similar (albeit a version on steroids!) to my own. And I'm shocked.

We arrived and all things were electric. We love cities, and New York City is really The City. Coming from a Montreal girl, that's saying a lot. But I couldn't deny it as we drove over the George Washington bridge. We were entering possibly the greatest city on earth. And we get to live here for a month! Most people visit NYC for a weekend, maybe a week. We will be here for four weeks! We are the luckiest family on the planet! This, my friends, is called The Honeymoon Phase. It lasted 12 hours.

Since our rental wasn't available until the next day, we stayed in the Roosevelt Hotel right in midtown Manhattan. Historic, central, awesome. In all of my packing wisdom, I forgot one thing that is crucial: an overnight bag for our stay at the hotel. So there we were, on Madison Avenue, pulled up to the door man, unpacking everything. e v e r y t h i n g . Two pack-n-plays, the stroller, the kid's bag, my bag, Brad's bag, his work bag (ipad, books, etc), toiletries bags, food bag. That was a costly error on my part and added a lot of tension to our rose-coloured glasses.

But we did get over it. We unpacked our things, bathed the kids, put them in their PJs, and hit the town. Without even aiming for them, we hit several key Manhattan landmarks. Times Square, 5th avenue, the Theatre District, Restaurant Row. Boom boom boom. We ate at a decent Italian restaurant and the kids behaved brilliantly. Back at the hotel we played a game on Brad's ipad and shared a large bottle of Pumpkin Ale while the babies slept in their side-by-side pack-n-plays. All was well in the world.

The next morning was raining and oppressively muggy. And the Labor Day parade, one week after Labor Day, so many streets were closed off. We wandered around midtown in search of a good coffee for under $3 (impossible) and headed to the orientation for the International Intensive. This was a high point. Meeting planters from all over the world, working in some of the most influential cities on the planet was in one word, Incredible. Our kids were not as impressed though, so I found myself in an empty conference room changing diapers and colouring while Brad joined the group. Of all the 14 planters attending, only a handful had their wives there and none brought their kids except us. Much of this is due to cost - everyone else had to fly to New York and we just hopped in the car. I'm not naive to think that with two babies I'll be able to participate in a lot, but it was a good reminder. We're here for Brad and for our church. We're here because he could never pass this up and we didn't want to be apart for a month. We aren't here for me. Noted. I'm not bitter in the least, but it was a wake up call.

The anxiety of being here, or as it's labeled, The Negotiation Phase, came to a head this evening as we were putting our kids to sleep in our new "home" for the next month. By the way, we are so blessed and our apartment is astoundingly perfect...It meets all of our needs, is in a great neighbourhood, and we are thankful. But wow. It was an adjustment in itself. Coming into a new place always is for me. It's incredibly swanky and sophisticated (so not us) and couldn't feel less like home. All the lighting is mood lighting, the furniture is chic and stylish, the counters, cabinets, trim, doors, couch, and wainscoting are all black. Lets just say, I'm a white-wainscoting-if-I-had-waintscoting-girl. This apartment is not a home, and I'm missing mine.

I started feeling a tightening in my chest, an aimlessness as I unpacked, and a panic as I tried to sort our few belongings. Brad asked me if he should get us some groceries so I could start dinner and I almost started to cry. When he wisely offered to get take out instead I actually did cry. What is wrong with me? I wondered out loud. Babe, this is culture shock. You're clearly experiencing it.

His words made me feel relieved, vindicated, and at the same time embarrassed. Shouldn't I be able to handle this? Aren't I enough of a city girl to take on NYC? I take pride in raising my family in downtown Montreal. New York City is just another small step beyond my daily life, isn't it?

First of all, maybe this is God humbling me. I may take too much pride in our lifestyle. In our city. In being a city family. in NYC, there is no pride in me and a whole lot of weakness. So that could be a good thing. And second of all, no, this is nothing like my life in Montreal.  Montrealers I know have referred to NYC as Montreal on steroids and that is an understatement. And even if NYC was similar to Montreal, my life here is radically different. I have no friends, no family, no church, no home, no clue. There are three people who I love the heck out of and one, ever-present God who will never leave me or forsake me. And that is more than enough in theory, but I'm struggling today.

Once the kids went down tonight, Brad and I talked through a lot of my anxiety. He was made for me, I tell you. He has traveled so much and has been with people experiencing culture shock in countries all over the globe. He knew what to say, how to help me process, and when to just shut up and hug. He asked me what would make me feel "At Home" and asked what was missing here. My list was pretty pitiful and worldly. Just saying the things out loud (think candles and sweat pants) made me realize how much my comfort is dependent on material things, and also, how easily accessible these things are, in New York. I mean, I could go out and buy almost everything on that list tonight.  And I'm not saying culture shock is materialistic. This weird thing going on my in heart is real. But part of processing it has identified a lot of the idols in my own heart that take up too much real estate.

So here I stand. 48 hours in. I went from being in awe of New York City, to being in total anxiety over it and longing for Montreal, to being in awe of God. The only constant. Here and at home. I'm so thankful that we could join Brad on this adventure. I'm still struggling to adjust, but I'm doing better. Partly because that's just how culture shock goes. Partly because my suitcase is now unpacked and there's a load of laundry in the machine which sounds like home. Partly because my husband is so gentle and helpful. And a lot because I have the same God here as I do in Montreal.

and he will be the stability of your times
isaiah 33:6


  1. <3 sending hugs to you from Canada. Thanks, as always, for being real in your writing and sharing what's on your heart and mind, and what you're learning in the most recent step of the journey. Love you, Em, a wonderful woman of Christ!

  2. Maggie9.9.12

    Emmy, no need to be ashamed of a little culture shock! Did I tell you about how 3 days into arriving here, I had a meltdown at the grocery store? I'd made a huge grocery list and planned on making a big dinner, but when I got to the grocery store, I couldn't find anything. I found two things on my list. I felt like such a failure, like I couldn't even grocery stop right. But as you know, of course it gets better. It's just a little hiccup in this awesome journey you guys are on! Love you!

  3. praying for you a your fam Emily! I can only imagine. I have only experienced this once (and on a very minute level compared to you). When I arrived in Vancouver and saw girls my age shooting up on heroine and teen homeless girls I had a bit of a freak-out panic attack. It's not fun, but I'm sure you're going to get into the "groove" soon enough!! :)