It’s all foreign to them

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Despite spending the first 19-21 years of life surrounded by food, hunger can become the new norm for a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who spend 18-24 months serving as a missionary abroad.

As missionaries for the LDS Church give their lives to full-time proselytizing, they become encompassed with a love for the people and an adaption to the international culture they live within.

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Serving an LDS mission abroad brings cultural changes.
Jennifer Brinkerhoff, a BYU alum in recreation management, returned home from serving as a full-time mission in Portugal almost a year and a half ago. She still clearly remembers the morning after she was released and the culture shock she experienced in her parent’s home.

“I opened up my family’s refrigerator to a fridge full of food, and it just blew me away,” Brinkerhoff said. “I couldn’t believe that I could just have anything in there.”

After seeing a plethora of food in the fridge Brinkerhoff was then informed that all of her family — many having flown in town for her return home — wanted to go out to breakfast.

“I just thought there’s no need to go out to breakfast, we have a full fridge of food,” Brinkerhoff said. “The idea, it didn’t sit well with me.”

In addition to a change in the amount of food available, most missionaries who served abroad experience a change in the type of food they eat.

Daniel Jensen, a BYU Law School student, served in the Italy Rome mission. Upon returning to the states, Jensen realized he greatly preferred his two-year Italian diet to American foods.

“When I got back from Italy I struggled liking American food,” Jensen said. “I was asked on a group date and we went to In-N-Out. I frankly couldn’t eat that greasiness after Italy, so I didn’t order anything. It definitely made my date feel weird, but I couldn’t get myself to eat a hamburger or a shake. I was so used to a full meal with meat, cheese, bread, a pasta dish with vegetables and fruit for dessert. A meal consisting of a hamburger, fries, soda, and a shake made me sick just being around it.”

In addition to missionaries facing diet adjustments upon returning home, returned missionaries also deal with adjusting to the social norms of their home culture.

Brad Horman, from Salt Lake City, remembers his family pointing out his different method of eating.

“One of the biggest changes for me was the use of utensils,” Horman said. “In Malaysia and Singapore the standard silverware — when not using chopsticks — is a fork in the left hand and a spoon in the right. … When I returned home my family noticed that I didn’t use my knife for cutting things but that I would stab with my fork, cut with my spoon, and then shovel the food into my spoon. … After about a month I started using a knife again, although I still feel for most foods a spoon and fork is all I need.”

A willingness to change back to the social-norm — regardless of what is more preferred — is a rather common cultural adjustment for international missionaries.

Brinkerhoff remembers that when meeting other women in Provo she still wanted to “go in and kiss them on the cheek,” a common greeter for the Portuguese. She also remembers not being willing to purchase clothes when her family took her shopping for the first time, not feeling the need for a cell phone and bluntly stating things that had her family informing her “you just can’t say that here.”

Horman said he was shocked at some of the things that people in the United States were so openly accepting.

He described the music in Malaysia to be “a bit dated,” with the “majority of music” being “about 5-10 years old and usually music that only a small population of my high school would listen to (with the exception of big names like Michael Jackson).”

So Horman was completely shocked when he returned to the states to find that one of the most popular artists in Malaysia was also commonly listened to in the United States.

“I was extremely surprised to hear that Lady Gaga was also popular in the states,” Horman said. “I assumed incorrectly that she was some small time ’90s techno artist. Boy was I wrong. Maybe it says something about me, but without preconceived notions that Lady Gaga was popular I felt she was just some reject from the ’90s.”

Some missionaries who serve abroad face a great struggle in embracing another country’s culture for a significant period of time and then having to find their place back in the U.S. culture.

“To come from seeing these people trying to serve us and trying to take care of us when they had so little, and then coming [home] and feeling like I had so much — that was hard,” Brinkerhoff said.

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