Culture Shock at the Grocery Store

by Tanya Boyd, wife of MAF President John Boyd

This post is part of a series about the role that culture plays in the missionary experience.

A produce market in Papua, Indonesia.

A produce market in Papua, Indonesia.

I couldn’t find the courgettes.

It was 1992. John and I had just moved from South Africa to the U.S. to participate in missionary candidate class at Mission Aviation Fellowship. As soon as I entered Stater Bros. grocery store in Redlands, California, it was obvious I was in a foreign culture.

I had expected things to be different, but not like this. South Africa’s food stores are moderately sized or even small. Most carry a modest selection of mostly-fresh items. By contrast, American grocery stores are huge! Aisle upon aisle of cans and boxes of convenience foods! All the words, colors, and varieties bombard the senses.

The brands were unfamiliar to me and the vast array, overwhelming! On a missionary’s budget, one does not want to make a poor choice! I didn’t know what to purchase and the minutes would tick by as I stood in the aisles reading labels, trying to select wisely. I remember being overwhelmed in the laundry aisle by all the different brands of washing powder—some with baking soda, others with color-safe bleach, some with “spring burst” scent—are they all necessary? And which is best? I couldn’t find a brand I recognized.

The produce section was a shock of a different kind. Everything seemed unnaturally beautiful and perfect. All the carrots were the same size! All the apples were the same size! I’d never before seen such uniformity. It couldn’t be natural. And where were the courgettes?

I asked the produce man for help, but my accent and my vocabulary got in the way. He didn’t know what courgettes were. I later learned that they are call zucchini in the U.S., and I didn’t recognize them that day because they are so large here! I was used to small, delicious courgettes a little longer than my fingers, and didn’t recognize the 12-inch vegetables in Stater Bros.

Some twenty years have passed since that first experience with culture shock. Since then I have lived in Zaire (DRC), Lesotho, South Africa (again) and Haiti, where buying food was something altogether different. (The meat was questionable in Haiti, but the fresh vegetables were wonderful!) I’ve been living in the U.S. for 10 years now and am no longer shocked to see 70 different varieties of soup. People adjust, and one figures out what to buy.

It helps to go shopping with a friend or neighbor. And missionaries living overseas often have house helpers who can advise on which peppers are too hot or which soap will make you itch. Those moving to the U.S. can do a little research. Just Google “which laundry detergent works best” and you’ll save yourself a half hour of aisle time … as long as you know to type laundry detergent instead of washing powder, or zucchini instead of courgette!

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