COVID Lockdowns and Culture Shock

By: Jessica Wolst

*This article was originally published at

In the Netherlands, we are just starting to come out of an 8-week-long “intelligent lockdown.”
For us, this included the following:
~schools closed
~restaurants only open for carry-out
~a lot of businesses/stores closed
~no close-contact work (like massage, barber, nail salons, etc.) or museums/theaters
~working from home when possible

Three weeks ago elementary schools reopened for students to come 2 1/2 days a week. Slowly, slowly, we are moving forward, one step at a time.

For the most part, I’m satisfied with the local response.  Yesterday we went to a petting zoo / kids’ farm place and there were some older kids running around without adult supervision. (Okay, that’s actually normal at a regular playground here.) But they were also disregarding the signs for one-way foot traffic in some parts. Those kids, along with a woman in the department store who was all up in my 1.5-meter space and who didn’t give a rip about the health guidelines (she pretty much said so herself), are thankfully the few exceptions.

I see many people on Facebook or hear others complaining about “the new normal,” whether that means wearing masks, keeping 1.5m distance from each other, the lines at the store, etc.  I too am frustrated that I can’t just whizz through the stores, because I have to be aware of how close I get to other people.  I’m frustrated that we can’t have friends/family inside to visit (and I’m waiting until most of the restrictions are lifted before I do so). It’s sad for one of our kids, whose class has been split into two groups – and most of this kid’s best buds go to school on the other days. We forfeited a family trip to Eastern Europe and our first weekend getaway with just the 2 of us since before having kids, and are planning to forego our plans to visit America in the summer as well.

As a former missionary and current immigrant, I would like to share a cultural insight that hopefully can help us adjust to this new life.

We are all going through culture shock/stress.

Have you ever gone abroad for at least a week? Have you been in a context where you’ve been the odd one out, whether you’ve gone to the inner city or the countryside or some other social dynamic?

There are four stages that everyone goes through to adjust to a new culture, and they can be summarized as: fun, flight, fight, fit.


This is the honeymoon period.  Everything’s GREAT! In the case of travel, the food is the most delicious you’ve ever had in your life, and the weather is always perfect.

Perhaps during the lockdown, you might have thought, “Oh good, now I don’t have to go to that event I didn’t really want to go to after all.” Or maybe you thought, “Yes! More time with the kids!” Maybe even you were glad for the lockdown, so glad that your local authorities were finally taking the covid-19 threat seriously.

Or maybe this was not at ALL your experience.  Maybe there was no honeymoon period here at all. So, I won’t spend too much time on this one, and skip right to the next phase.


This is the phase of disorientation where you want to avoid anyone and anything that’s different. Maybe you went on a service trip abroad and you just don’t want to get involved any more. The language is too hard, the food is too weird, etc. You start counting down the days til your return flight or begin scheming how you could hide for the rest of the time and just speak your own language.

In the long lockdown days, I didn’t even venture out to the grocery store but sent out my husband instead.  (I’ve gotten the cold and flu already this year and didn’t want to be knocked down by yet another coronavirus.) And the couple times I HAVE ventured out, and had experiences of people getting too close, or being annoyed at having to pick up a shopping basket/cart when I only want one item in the store, I’ve told myself, “Never again. I’m not doing this ever again. Not no way, not no how.”

I think the current equivalent here is where we busy ourselves with things to keep us distracted from covid-19.  Which is of course fine in this situation – it’s a terrible idea to go down the rabbit trail of Facebook and non-stop news coverage. I’m trying to think of some examples here, but they are actually just things that we should have been doing anyway…. We shop online so we don’t have to deal with going out in person and finding out that the store is closed anyway. Or we postpone events so that we don’t have to limit a wedding to 10 people or have to fight the urge to hug loved ones.


“This food is awful! All the people here are so ridiculous with their ____! Nobody here understands me! This weather has been horrible since the day we got here! Why do all the men (or women) have to wear this piece of clothing?” This cranky-pants phase comes next. You’re still trying to adjust, but it’s hard.  You’re mad. You make fun of the culture.

You’re confronted with a reality that is NOT what you grew up with.  You’re romanticizing what it used to be like – whether that’s your home culture or life in January or February 2020 (or better yet, fall 2019).

I think a lot of people are in this phase right now. They’ve had it with the masks, the stay-at-home orders, the 1.5 meters. But this is the reality.  We are here in this new culture, and there’s not really an airplane ticket back home. It’s frustrating to have to do all these new rituals more often than we did before – washing hands what feels like all the time, wearing masks, being aware of our physical/social surroundings. And people are pushing back – they don’t want things to be like this.


Ahhhh, finally.  This new place feels like home. I’m okay with eating like the locals. The sounds of the city don’t bother me so much anymore.

I don’t know of many people who are at this phase yet. However, I think it’s a good sign when we can have a sense of humor about the new guidelines but still follow them.  (Check out the story of the German cafe who had its customers wear pool noodles on their heads to show how far apart they needed to be!) Or maybe we get creative about how to celebrate birthdays – keeping distance but also having the chance to see friends.

This is the reality, and we need to live in it. When you travel abroad, especially to stay there for longer, you HAVE to adjust in order to survive.  You HAVE to connect with people in that new culture. You HAVE to follow the rules of that new culture, because your home culture’s rules might not apply.  Their normal is not your normal.

Keep 1.5m from other people.

Find emotional support in other people, and find a way to help others where you can.

Wear the mask.

Follow whatever other local guidelines have been established.

And just remember, you’re going through culture shock, same as the rest of us.

Every time one of the lockdown restrictions gets lifted, we will have to adjust yet again to the new dynamic. Unlike with a trip abroad, it’s unclear when we will get back to “normal land.”

So the questions remain:
(1) Where do you find yourself in this process? It’s okay to slide back and forth sometimes, especially since things keep changing.
(2) What are some positive things you’ve learned from this strange new culture we find ourselves in? What do you notice about your priorities, your values, etc.?

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