What I Learned from a Hobbit about Culture Shock
He was very tired, for though they had ridden slowly, they had ridden with very little rest. Hour after hour for nearly three weary days he had jogged up and down, over passes, and through long dales, and across many streams. Sometimes where the way was broader he had ridden at the king’s side, not noticing that many of the Riders smiled to see the two together: the hobbit on his little shaggy gray pony, and the Lord of Rohan on his great white horse. Then he had talked to Théoden, telling him about his home and the doings of the Shire-folk, or listening in turn to tales of the Mark and its mighty men of old. But most of the time, especially on this last day, Merry had ridden by himself just behind the king, saying nothing, and trying to understand the slow sonorous speech of Rohan that he heard the men behind him using. It was a language in which there seemed to be many words that he knew, though spoken more richly and strongly than in the Shire, yet he could not piece the words together. At times some Rider would lift up his clear voice in stirring song, and Merry felt his heart leap, though he did not know what it was about.
All the same he had been lonely, and never more so than now at the day’s end. He wondered where in all this strange world Pippin had got to; and what would become of Aragorn and Legolas and Gimili. Then suddenly like a cold touch on his heart he thought of Frodo and Sam. ‘I am forgetting them!’ he said to himself reproachfully. ‘And yet, they are more important than all the rest of us. And I came to help them; but now they must be hundreds of miles away, if they are still alive.’ He shuddered.
– The Return of the King, Chapter 3
When I began reading The Lord of the Rings for relaxation, I never expected to get a lesson in culture shock, but I feel like these two paragraphs express exactly what it is like to be a stranger in a new culture.
“He was very tired, for though they had ridden slowly, they had ridden with very little rest. Hour after hour for nearly three weary days he had jogged up and down, over passes, and through long dales, and across many streams.” Merry was tired – he was required to do an activity he was not accustomed to and it made him tired. Likewise, we found ourselves very tired when we first arrived because everything was new and required a lot of concentration. Simply buying sunscreen required a lot of effort – Where do we buy it? How much should it cost? Which bottle should we buy? When everything is new, it takes more work to accomplish a small task.
“Many of the Riders smiled to see the two together: the hobbit on his little shaggy gray pony, and the Lord of Rohan on his great white horse.” While it may seem small in significance, it is sometimes uncomfortable to look different from those around you. It is rare for a Bolivian to be blonde haired and blue-eyed, and I often feel exposed as though everyone is thinking, “look at the foreigner in the room, she looks so different from us.” While I doubt that many people pay that much attention to this fact, the truth is that I do stick out much more because of my physical appearance.
“It was a language in which there seemed to be many words that he knew… yet he could not piece the words together.” This is very true for a language learner and it is frustrating to hear words you know but be unable to understand what is said. But his other experience is true as well – sometimes it is possible to understand what is said without understanding the language, as happened when Riders would sing songs during Merry’s journey.
“All the same he had been lonely, and never more so than now at the day’s end.” Merry had left his close friends and had not yet made new ones – it’s no wonder he was lonely. Although this is another similarity between Merry’s journey and a cross-cultural worker, it is not destined to last forever. As Merry continues with the Riders, he begins to have his own place and friends. And had his journey not ended in a battle, I believe he would have made close friends with the Riders, just as cross-cultural workers make close friends with those they live with.
“He wondered where in all this strange world Pippin had got to; and what would become of Aragorn and Legolas and Gimili.” Part of the loneliness comes from the knowledge that life is continuing in other places without you. As I hear from friends and see pictures of their new babies or hear that my family had a big party to celebrate grandma’s birthday, I do feel lonely. But I am thankful to have technology to communicate with them, and as we form deeper relationships here, the loneliness fades. But the isolation from living in another country also makes it easy to forget about what is happening so far away, as happened to Merry when he forgot about Frodo and Sam. And like Merry, sometimes it evokes feelings of guilt because you have forgotten about those who are important to you.
“Then he had talked to Théoden, telling him about his home and the doings of the Shire-folk, or listening in turn to tales of the Mark and its mighty men of old.” Not everything about crossing cultures is negative, and this is one of the most exciting parts. Sharing about the midwest and learning all about Bolivia has been very encouraging. We have had hours of discussion with friends where we learned about Bolivian universities, churches, and family life, and shared stories and pictures of winter in the Keweenaw, family traditions, and what it’s like in the U.S.
It was not long before Gandalf himself came in search of them. He stooped over Merry and caressed his brow; then he lifted him carefully. ‘He should have been borne in honour into this city’, he said. ‘He has well repaid my trust; for if Elrond had not yielded to me, neither of you would have set out; and then far more grievous would the evils of this day have been.’ – The Return of the King, Chapter 8
Culture shock obviously involves more than what is included here, but I feel like Tolkien did a great job of portraying it. Thankfully it doesn’t last forever and as missionaries we are in a new culture for a purpose. Likewise, though Merry was wounded, he fulfilled a necessary and vital part of the battle and helped bring about its success. God has placed us here for a purpose. That purpose is often obscured during culture shock but it does not disappear. We are here for a purpose.