A Life Overseas | http://www.alifeoverseas.com the missions conversation Fri, 01 Jul 2016 10:47:48 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Missionaries are supposed to suffer . . . So am I allowed to buy an air conditioner? http://www.alifeoverseas.com/missionaries-are-supposed-to-suffer-so-am-i-allowed-to-buy-an-air-conditioner/ http://www.alifeoverseas.com/missionaries-are-supposed-to-suffer-so-am-i-allowed-to-buy-an-air-conditioner/#respond Fri, 01 Jul 2016 10:47:48 +0000 http://www.alifeoverseas.com/?p=8190 buildings-455239_1920Esta was my best kept secret for a long time. Esta comes to my house four days a week.  She washes my dishes, does my laundry (even ironing!), cleans my floors and scrubs fingerprints off the walls.  She cuts up fruit and cleans the windows and makes tortillas.  And even though all my friends in […]]]>


Esta was my best kept secret for a long time.

Esta comes to my house four days a week.  She washes my dishes, does my laundry (even ironing!), cleans my floors and scrubs fingerprints off the walls.  She cuts up fruit and cleans the windows and makes tortillas.  And even though all my friends in Tanzania know about Esta (because they have their own house helpers), I didn’t want anyone in the States to know about her.

I had other secrets too, like the air conditioner in my bedroom, the generator in my garage, and the times we go snorkeling in a tropical paradise.

I figured that if my American friends and supporters knew about these things, they would think I am spoiled.  That my life is way too easy and if they had to be honest, I might just be a little (dare they say it?) lazy.  Maybe the rich wives of Beverly Hills can get away with that lifestyle, but perish the thought that a missionary hire someone to do her dishes.

After all, everyone knows that missionaries are supposed to suffer.

After all, aren’t you counting the cost?  Taking up your cross?  Denying yourself?  Abandoning it all for the sake of the call?  Aren’t you leaving behind family, friends, and Starbucks to fulfill the Great Commission?  After all, isn’t that why you are put on that pedestal and your picture plastered on everyone’s refrigerator?  So that you can emulate the pinnacle of joyful suffering?

When you’re standing there on the center of that church stage, surrounded by hundreds of people praying for you, plane tickets in hand, earthly possessions packed into bags exactly 49.9 pounds each, you feel ready to suffer.  Yes!  I am ready to abandon it all!

And then you arrive in your long-awaited country and you realize that in order to host the youth group, you’re going to need a big living room.  And in order to get the translation work done, you need electricity, which means you need a generator.  And in order to learn the language, you’ll need to hire someone to wash your dishes and help with childcare.

Suddenly, you find yourself living in a bigger house than you lived in your home country, but you are ashamed to put pictures of it on Facebook.  You don’t want to admit to your supporters that you spent $1000 on a generator, and heaven forbid people find out that you aren’t doing your own ironing.

You even find there’s a bit of competition among missionaries themselves.  A couple of friends and I had a good-natured conversation on which of us deserved the “real missionary” award.  I live in an African country, but I’m a city dweller.  “You live in the village with no running water and a pit toilet,” I told one friend.  She responded, “Well, how about Michelle?  She did her cooking outside on charcoal for two years.”  Apparently, if you suffer more, you are a better missionary.  Or more godly.  Probably both.

But does this attitude really come from Scripture?  Yes, Jesus speaks out against hoarding up wealth and loving money more than Him.  We are called to deny our desires for the sake of the gospel.  But it shouldn’t be about choosing to suffer for suffering’s sake, as if suffering equals more godliness.  It’s about choosing to be intentional, and embracing both the suffering and the privileges that come along with it. 

If God has called you to work among the upper-class in India, then you’ll need to live like them, in a luxury apartment.  If God has called you to work among the coastal tribes of Tanzania, then you’ll need to live like them, in a simple cinder-block house with a pit toilet.  Each life has its set of challenges.  Each life has its set of blessings. 

When comforts or luxuries come along with God’s calling, should we feel guilty?  Or instead, should we see it as an opportunity for stewardship?  Since I have Esta working for me full-time, it doesn’t mean that I sit around watching television while she cleans my floors.  It means that I have extra time for ministry.  It means that I am happy to open my home for youth group, overnight guests, or large dinner parties, because I know that I have someone who will help me with the work.  Since I do have an air conditioner in my bedroom, it means I am getting much better sleep than those around me.  How am I going to steward that privilege? 

God doesn’t judge our godliness based on our degree of suffering; He looks at our hearts.  Have we made comfort, or even suffering, into an idol?  Are we insisting on a way of life that helps us, or hinders us, from connecting with the local culture?  Or are we being intentional with the lifestyle we have chosen?  Are we using the gifts God has given us to indulge in our comfort or to increase our fruitfulness?  These are the heart questions that are far more important than the outside appearance of suffering. 

We often quote, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” but fail to remember the context of that verse.  “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”  And what’s the secret?  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

As missionaries, we are usually prepared for being in need and living in want.  We know Christ will strengthen us in times of homesickness, scary diseases, and no indoor plumbing.  But we can also learn to be content when we get to vacation at the historical castle, our ironed laundry is hanging neatly in our closets, and the generator is purring.  Let’s not idolize comfort or be needless martyrs

If your motives are right, then go ahead and buy that air conditioner.  Use it to the glory of God.

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When the Mission Field Comes to You http://www.alifeoverseas.com/mission-field-come-to-you/ http://www.alifeoverseas.com/mission-field-come-to-you/#comments Wed, 29 Jun 2016 11:43:21 +0000 http://www.alifeoverseas.com/?p=8327 26066292093_aea1395e3eWhile rounding a corner on a run in the United States the other day, I came across a Muslim women clad in a headdress and robes. I could see her cower off the sidewalk a bit as this white, American man came plodding her way in middle America. You could sense her apprehension and read […]]]>

While rounding a corner on a run in the United States the other day, I came across a Muslim women clad in a headdress and robes. I could see her cower off the sidewalk a bit as this white, American man came plodding her way in middle America. You could sense her apprehension and read her thoughts of “here we go again.”

I greeted her warmly, commenting on the beautiful day. You could visibly see her relax and the tension leave her body.

I’ve been in her position before. I too have been the foreigner in a land and culture which is not my own. I can relate to wishing I could change my nationality or accent in order to blend in. I wouldn’t wear my USA soccer jersey because of the perception of my nation in South Africa.

There are many foreigners in South Africa who have a much rougher go than an American not wearing a soccer jersey.

South Africa is a land of opportunity for the rest of Africa. I have met doctors and lawyers who clean houses and wash cars to escape a corrupt government or hope for a better life.


With immigration and refugee issues we actually have the mission field coming to us in both South Africa and the United States.

In the past, persecution of Christians caused the gospel to spread in the book of Acts. Now the persecuted and displaced are often not believers. Today, we have nations with bad presidents and horrible conditions. People are fleeing for a better life. The mission field is coming to us.

I recently learned of an Egyptian friend moving to the United States. For the first time in my life I was quite nervous to hear of someone moving to my country. I fear for the welcome she will face as a person of Middle Eastern descent even if she is a Christian.

The Bible speaks often about hospitality,  devoting 2 books to this (2/3 John) as well as making it a requirement for leadership (1 Timothy 1:2, Titus 1:8).

We often define hospitality as having guests our house or making meals for our friends. The true definition is doing this to people you do not know. What does this love of strangers look like today?

Jesus told us to love God and our neighbors. In the classic parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10), the entire story is told based on the question, “Who is my neighbor?”

Who is our neighbor that we are to love? Those who look and sound just like us? The kingdom will not advance unless we go to those who hail from different places. Without bridging these divides we will merely build up our local Christian bubbles.

Hospitality is love of the stranger and those who are different than us. Perhaps instead of us going to the mission field, today the mission field is coming to us!

In the current climate, this has become a very political discussion.

Let’s lay our politics aside and have a gospel discussion about loving our neighbor, showing care for the stranger, and sharing the gospel with whoever God brings our way.

This week, let’s take a step in the direction of inclusion rather than exclusion.

  • Let’s do something kind for a stranger
  • Greet someone who looks or sounds different than us in a warm manner.
  • Be aware of our stereotypes, our words, and our thoughts to the “foreigner” in our midst
  • And most of all – let’s extend the kingdom of God.

Photo credit: Qiqi via photopin (license)

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Searching for a better way http://www.alifeoverseas.com/searching-for-a-better-way/ http://www.alifeoverseas.com/searching-for-a-better-way/#comments Mon, 27 Jun 2016 10:18:20 +0000 http://www.alifeoverseas.com/?p=8558 boatscrossingMy husband and I have literally raised (more accurately, are still raising) our family “internationally.” I’m typing as we drive through the night, returning our third to the States. She graduated last week and now is beginning a gap year where she will work and earn money for college. She’s pretty sure she wants to be a […]]]>

My husband and I have literally raised (more accurately, are still raising) our family “internationally.” I’m typing as we drive through the night, returning our third to the States. She graduated last week and now is beginning a gap year where she will work and earn money for college. She’s pretty sure she wants to be a teacher someday – maybe even teach at an international school in some far off corner of the world.


In our years as expats, we’ve met many other families doing this very same international, expat life. Some move overseas to work for a few years, always planning to return to their home countries after that sojourn. Others move to another country planning, like us, to spend most – if not all – of the rest of their lives engaged in some form of international (missions, development, diplomatic, military, etc.) work.

I’ve also met several families who’ve come to a fork in the road, a conundrum where they felt they had no other responsible choice but to change that long term plan for a reason that I find hard to accept.

They “head home,” usually feeling defeated, depleted and as though they’ve failed… leaving their adopted home not because they wanted to, but because they were unable to find adequate educational resources to meet the specific and sometimes challenging needs of one or more of their children, in particular a child with some type of disability.

This is a subject near and dear to my heart, for I am a special educator by trade. I’ve taught individuals with severe physical disabilities how to swim. I’ve worked with incarcerated teens. I’ve privately tutored TCKs struggling to pass classes they need to graduate. I’ve helped develop and adapt educational programs, writing plans for children of almost every age and with widely ranging ability levels – academically, behaviorally and socially. I’ve collaborated and consulted with classroom teachers, giving suggestions and ideas to try to help struggling students learn. My specific specialty is teaching reading and comprehension strategies (a field of study which easily adapted to adult literacy work in tribal/local languages), but I also love helping kids who find math an impossibility learn to navigate that world of numbers and word problems.

My educational background has also come in handy with my own children: two struggle with articulation disorders (and while speech and language pathology is NOT something I know much about, I do have skills in my repertoire that have helped me to better help my kids in this area); another battles dyslexia and dysgraphia – in two languages.

I’m thankful for my educational background.  The skills I have developed aren’t “exclusive,” and much of what I do, professionally, simply requires patience, careful observation and creative thinking. But my training gave me the confidence to go ahead and try…

My story isn’t the story most expat parents who find themselves overseas with little or no resources for a child who struggles to learn.

Had I not had this background in special education… if I hadn’t had that training (and sometimes the letters behind my name) which prepared me to advocate for students who struggled when teachers taught the status quo, we could have very well been one of those families heading back to our passport country, feeling like we’d failed – not only in work and/or ministry, but perhaps even more significantly, in properly caring for our family.

If you don’t believe this is a problem, take a quick glance at the staffing needs, or “wish lists,” for international schools servicing TCKs around the world. Every spring, these lists are posted and circulated. Almost every single one that I’ve checked is requesting help in the special education domain.

While still in W. Africa, I was blessed to be a part of a school that was developing a special education “department” to help address the needs of children who, in the United States, would have had an Individualized Education Plan that targeted specific learning goals and objectives. That plan would include detailed educational setting accommodations which would better allow the student to either access information being presented in their classrooms or to better demonstrate his/her comprehension and application of that information. It was exciting to be part of a program that allowed some students to achieve and succeed where they never had before. However, one of the hardest things I had to do during my time at that school was write up a report delineating the necessary parameters to be met before a student with disabilities could be considered for enrollment. Sadly, the reality was that the burden of responsibility fell on the parents because the school had neither the necessary personnel nor resources to address the student’s particular needs. That family left a fruitful ministry and returned to their home country.

I don’t mean to imply that there is a clear right and wrong given these circumstances. The school wanted to help, but didn’t have the necessary “tools.” The parents wanted to enroll their child in the school, but couldn’t meet the required contingencies.

Just recently, we were walking on a terrace that overlooks the St. Lawrence River, and looked out to watch a mini drama unfold. A tugboat had raced up to the sailboat (the little one in the middle, between the much larger boats), sat there for a minute and then went back to escorting the barge. That sailboat sat motionless as the two big boats passed on either side, heading in opposite directions, remaining in that same spot, even many minutes after the larger boats had moved on.


Parents facing this situation often feel a whole lot like I imagine the folks sailing that the sailboat must have felt: trapped, paralyzed and afraid that even a small move in the wrong direction could result in catastrophe.

I don’t have statistics, but based on my own personal experience, I do know that this type of reality happens more than it should. We’ve encountered several families forced to make a difficult choice: leave the place they felt God had called them to be to address challenging educational needs of a child that were not being otherwise met.

They often do so without the support or understanding from either their expat or the home/sending communities.

I dream and pray for a better way…

Do you know someone who had to/is having to leave the field to address the challenging academic needs of one or more of their children?

How can we support those who are walking this path?

What is in place to help families and children with disabilities in your present place of service?

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7 Thoughts for Graduating TCKs http://www.alifeoverseas.com/7-thoughts-for-graduating-tcks/ http://www.alifeoverseas.com/7-thoughts-for-graduating-tcks/#comments Fri, 24 Jun 2016 10:01:31 +0000 http://www.alifeoverseas.com/?p=8513 photo-1437388914080-908608af1956resizedDear Graduating Senior, This spring I hugged you. I cried with you. I said goodbye to you. And then I looked into the faces of your parents as they said goodbye too. How can I express the depth of my love for you and your parents? I don’t know. All I know is that if […]]]>

Dear Graduating Senior,

This spring I hugged you. I cried with you. I said goodbye to you. And then I looked into the faces of your parents as they said goodbye too. How can I express the depth of my love for you and your parents? I don’t know. All I know is that if we were sitting down to coffee again, these are the things I’d want to tell you.

They’re the things I’ve mostly stumbled across on my journey as an Adult Third Culture Kid, though they’re by no means comprehensive or applicable to all people. Much like every other human on the planet, I’ve had to sort through my childhood as an adult, and these are the things that have helped me along the way. I hope they help you too.



When you were young, home was where mom and dad were (or perhaps where grandma and grandpa were), and most likely, you were almost always with one of those people or in one of those places. But TCK angst is something that tends to catch up to people later in life. That’s the way it was for me, anyway.

Issues of home, belonging, and identity are all higher level, more complex topics. And now that you’re launching out on your own, your old idea of “home” probably won’t be as accessible. The Third Culture world of your childhood will be out of reach, and these issues might come crashing down on you. All of this is OK.

Maybe you felt settled in life before, but feel unsettled now. Maybe you thought life was good or even great before, but feel lost now. Maybe you were part of a happy, healthy family as a child and now find yourself dealing with some thorny emotional issues as a young adult. Don’t worry; it doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you.

Or perhaps you’ve already experienced a lot of transition and upheaval in your life, and you’ve already had to grapple with issues of belonging, identity, and home. That’s ok too. You’ll probably still find that TCK issues pop up in your life over the next several years, often when you’re not expecting them. This is normal. It’s part of the process of growing up. I just don’t want you to be surprised by it.



Growing up as a military kid, I didn’t have a vocabulary for what was happening in my life. For example, why was civilian life so different and so hard for us?? Answer: because we had suddenly exited a military system (or culture) and entered a non-military one. I didn’t know that back then, but I know it now, and the idea of viewing the TCK experience through the lens of a system has been very helpful to me.

This is one way to explain the idea: your parents made a conscious choice to enter a system (whichever system it was), but much of your TCK experience was then dictated by that system. Even graduating from high school and having to leave your childhood home — as painful as that can be — is dictated by the system you’re living in. You can even be part of more than one system. There’s your third culture system with other TCKs. Then there’s your parents’ organization’s system. And there are probably more.

Being able to see my life as part of a system (or systems) with a lot of moving parts has allowed me to look at some of the TCK issues I’ve faced as an adult without faulting my parents. Yes, the many moves were traumatic for me (and in ways I didn’t realize, feel, or fully understand until I was an adult), but I don’t see that trauma as being inflicted on me by my parents. Yes, they chose the military, but it wasn’t their fault when the military moved us mid-school year. It wasn’t their fault when kids at my new school didn’t accept me right away. Rather, it was a result of the system I was in.

The ability to have conversations without shame or blame is vital to moving forward. And the more we can understand the systems we’re in, the easier it is to talk about our experiences and make connections instead of disconnections. So remember that you’re living in (and have lived in) a system. Remember that accepting your TCK experience doesn’t mean you have to become estranged from your family. Admitting that you struggle to find belonging or to define home or self doesn’t mean you’re labeling your parents as “bad.” These things are results of your systems.



While it’s true that you don’t need to blame your parents for the challenges of TCK life, it’s also true that they are human beings. They’re sinners, just like you and just like me. And they may have made some mistakes in life as well as in parenting. Forgive them.

There’s no way around the fact that human parents do hurt their human children: all humans hurt other humans. So while you don’t have to carry around some burden of thinking your parents “ruined your life” with their nomadic choices, you probably also need to forgive them for things. All children — mobile and non-mobile alike — are faced with this question.

I love my parents deeply, and they deeply love me, yet we still found it necessary to have these kinds of conversations. We avoided it for a long time, perhaps for fear of conflict or discomfort, but the healing never came until we did. So talk to your parents. Have conversations with them. Process through the painful stuff. Wade into the murky waters, and find healing and wholeness together. Your parents are invested in your continued health and healing, so let them be a part of it.

Your situation may be more complicated than what I’ve just discussed. Someone may have hurt you deeply, even abused you. In that case, you need more than simple conversations with your parents or other trusted adults. You also need to get some outside help. You need to find trustworthy, compassionate counseling. Both Lisa McKay and Kay Bruner have good insight on how to find a counselor in general and while living overseas. I pray you find someone to guide you through the healing process.



As you pack up your boxes and your suitcases, there’s one more thing I want you to pack. That thing is your ability to accept and even embrace paradox. Most likely, your life has been neither one hundred percent good, nor one hundred percent bad. The truth is, TCK or not, no one’s life is one hundred percent one thing. So resist the temptation to spin the story of your childhood in only one direction, either all good or all bad. Don’t pit the good and bad against each other in a futile effort to discover which one outweighs the other.

You don’t have to minimize the bad in order to accept the good. And you don’t have to minimize the good in order to accept the bad. Simply hold them both in your hands and in your heart, and accept them together, side by side, as the things that have shaped you into the person you are and as the things that are continuing to shape the person you are becoming.

We can’t strain the bad out of the good or the good out of the bad; we can’t separate them like cream from milk. They’re a package deal, a paradox, the “and” of this life. So let’s agree together not to outlaw the good or outlaw the bad. Let’s accept all the parts of ourselves, even the parts that make us (or other people) uncomfortable.



About those negative experiences . . . I know this has been talked about before, but it’s so important I’m going to say it again: you’ve got to grieve your losses. List out your losses, and then mourn them. Grieve the hard things that happened to you.

Maybe it was leaving your passport country to move to your host country, or moving between host countries, or within the same host country. Maybe it was losing a close friend or teacher to transition or even death. It’s probably graduating and leaving your host country this summer. Regardless of the cause, there have been so many goodbyes in your life, and you need to acknowledge how hard they’ve been for you.

Grief follows us wherever we go; we can’t outrun it. So spend the time now, on the front end, to grieve your TCK losses. You need to learn this skill because you’ll have to use it again later. We live in a fallen world, and bad things will keep happening to you, whether you’re living cross-culturally or not. That means the need to process grief is ever-present, regardless of who you are or where you live.

Learning to grieve well now will help you for the rest of your life. And you might have to grieve some of your losses more than once. You may feel old losses cycling back around again, and you’ll have to stop and re-grieve them. That’s ok. Be gentle with yourself and grieve them again.



I personally used to think something was wrong with me. Why did I have all these problems fitting in? Why did I feel so rejected all the time? I thought the problem was me. Then — and this only happened a couple of years ago with a counselor who specializes in TCKs — I began to see that the trouble I had fitting in was a consequence of something that happened to me.

It wasn’t me that was the problem; it was all those moves and having to fit in someplace new over and over and over again. But learning how to fit in takes time, and there’s always a period of uncertainty before friends are made and acceptance is granted. I cannot even explain how much that realization helped me. I felt less like a broken object and more like a person who’d had experiences that shaped me but who wasn’t inherently and eternally screwed up. I had previously faced a lot of insecurity and social anxiety in my life, but when I started seeing their roots in my nomadic childhood and addressing them that way, the fear and insecurity stopped trailing me so doggone much.

Likewise, you may need a counselor who is familiar with the TCK world. In fact, in her book Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere: Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile, author and counselor Lois Bushong tells us that a counselor who is not familiar with TCK issues may not know how to treat an adult TCK struggling with depression. In actuality, he or she is probably dealing with unresolved TCK grief, a completely normal response to a globally mobile childhood. (Incidentally Lois is also responsible for my understanding of systems.) So if you are in any way “stuck” in your emotional, mental, or spiritual life, consider finding a counselor who understands TCK life. 

Counseling has been massively helpful in my life, both for TCK-related issues and non-TCK-related issues, and I highly recommend counseling to all people who are breathing. But sometimes you just need someone to talk to, someone who will listen to you and empathize with you and even pray for you. Just talking to an older, wiser adult TCK whom you trust can be very helpful in sorting through your thoughts and feelings. In fact, I’ve done that a lot with Marilyn Gardner, fellow writer and editor on this blog. So if you do nothing else, find a fellow TCK friend to talk to.



I can give you all the advice in the world — advice you might even follow — but you might still turn around one day and be taken by surprise at the intensity of your feelings of loss and isolation and lack of home and belonging. When this happens to me, whether it’s triggered by the yearly May & June goodbyes or by feeling the sting of some rejection, my husband usually asks me, “Is your TCK acting up again?”

Yes, I tell him. The answer is almost always yes. Yes that my TCK is acting up again. Yes that events from my childhood creep into my adulthood. Yes that from time to time issues I thought were settled and resolved feel suddenly unsettled and unresolved.

But simply naming it can take the edge off the pain. Then I can go back to the truths I’ve learned about myself and about God. And you can do that too. When you find your TCK acting up again, name it. Grieve what you need to grieve, and then remind yourself of the truths you’ve learned over the years. Be kind to yourself when this happens, and remember to give yourself some time to recover.


Even though there was pain, I don’t regret my TCK experience. For me every experience (in the end) brought me closer to Christ. Though at times it might have seemed a wandering path, every wound was a road leading straight back to God. The relationship I have with God primarily because of painful TCK “issues” is something I wouldn’t give up for anything.

So take heart. If you let them, the questions of home, belonging, and identity that your TCK childhood has asked you to answer can take you deeper into the heart of God than ever before. If you’ll take the time to look for Him, you’ll find Jesus on the other side of every question you have. Only Jesus can help you live an unhindered life. His is the face of love, and He is the answer to every question you’ll ever ask. So go with Him: there is redemption on this road.

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When Your Extended Family is Made Up of 101 Million People http://www.alifeoverseas.com/when-your-extended-family-is-made-up-of-101-million-people/ http://www.alifeoverseas.com/when-your-extended-family-is-made-up-of-101-million-people/#comments Wed, 22 Jun 2016 09:00:26 +0000 http://www.alifeoverseas.com/?p=8195 human-567563_960_720aWe sat down in church. The pastor found a seat next to us, looked pointedly at us, and started rubbing my son Daniel’s bare feet. I could read it in his eyes: Why does this child not have socks? (Answer: Because when said child has socks, they are somehow pulled off and thrown into unknown locations […]]]>


We sat down in church. The pastor found a seat next to us, looked pointedly at us, and started rubbing my son Daniel’s bare feet. I could read it in his eyes: Why does this child not have socks? (Answer: Because when said child has socks, they are somehow pulled off and thrown into unknown locations within approximately 2 minutes.).

Without a word spoken, I began to feel guilty, a failure as a mom in Ethiopian culture. That’s it. I’m going to do the thing that is right in the eyes of society, I thought. I want to fit in, so I will obey “the rules.”

The rules, it seemed to me, were mostly about the fact that children need to be bundled up at all times. We must act as if we live in the Arctic, though we actually live in a place that never gets below 60 degrees and usually hovers around 75. When in Rome…right?

The next week, a sunny day dawned, warm and bright. Nevertheless, I bundled Daniel up in a sweatshirt and socks and put him on my back, feeling righteous and politically correct. We set out for the fruit stand to buy some bananas, and I congratulated myself on living up to this society’s standards.

As we walked down the uneven cobblestone path, a large, imposing lady passed us. Then she whirled around in shock, almost hitting us with her umbrella. She began a dramatic tirade, shaking her umbrella at me and pointing at Daniel, asking me what in the world I was thinking letting my baby be out in the sun.

Eshi…eshi…eshi…(ok…ok…ok…) I said meekly for a while, then turned and continued on my way, her words ringing in my ears. Ethiopian mom fail. Again.

My cultural sensitivity was in conflict with my nerdy health research habits, which told me that it was essential for Daniel to get vitamin D from sunlight at least a few times a week, even if I have to brave the umbrella preachers and flout their advice.

On another day I was similarly walking in the sun, a sleeping baby on my back, through one of the most crowded areas of town. A woman saw me from afar and started yelling as she came towards me, berating me for not putting a hat on my child, etc. This time I didn’t even stop as I said a single, curt Eshi, and kept walking, head high, emboldened by my anger.

Everyone has opinions. Everyone has advice. Everyone judges everyone else. Americans judge people all the time. But the difference between Americans and Ethiopians is that Americans will judge you and talk bad about you behind your back, in private, but Ethiopians will judge you and talk bad about you to your face, in public (and loudly). This is a little hard to get used to.

This tendency to give advice freely to strangers is a corollary to the fact that here, everyone is all up in everyone else’s business, all of the time. There are not many boundaries, not a lot of personal space, not an abundance of privacy. What we do, we do together. What we think, we share.

I was having a grouchy day after being given one too many pieces of advice (on other topics, in addition to the baby lectures), and I stewed on how much I disliked “busybodies” as I lugged my cranky baby to the minibus stop near my house. I gave a stink-eye at anyone who looked as if they might lecture me, punishing them for their countrymen and countrywomen’s actions.

When I arrived at the hotel restaurant to meet a fellow cross-cultural worker who was leaving town that week, Daniel lost it. Not enough nap plus (in hindsight) starting to get sick meant screaming. In the restaurant. And arching his back and flailing his arms and doing all those things I used to judge other parents about before I had children.

It was the first time I had met this fellow worker (and my only opportunity to meet up), so I had no option to ask for a rain-check. I tried to swallow my mortification and my tea while being cool and listening attentively to her story of how she ended up here, etc., while wrestling a child who resembled a (cute) rabid monkey. I’ve gotten better at multitasking since becoming a mom, but not that much better.

Suddenly, our waitress appeared at my elbow. I wondered if she was going to ask me to calm my child down because the other patrons were disturbed or something. But she held out her arms and said sweetly in Amharic, “Let me take him.”

Speechless, I handed him to her, and watched him relax and enjoy himself as she carried him around the whole restaurant, introducing him to all her coworkers, showing him his reflection in a mirror, looking out the window with him, etc. He changed hands several times for 20 or 30 minutes and eventually the host brought him back to me, happy and smiling.

As I took him back, it hit me. The waitress was sent to remind me that living in a very tight-knit community is a coin with two sides. Yes, living in this kind of community means putting up with daily well-meaning lectures and having to deal with a lot of flack if I decide to go against the norm.

But it also means being noticed, empathized with, and helped even when I don’t say a word. I live in a community that views all kids as their own. The idea of a village being needed to raise a child was lived out here before it was trendy.

I live in a community who sees me, for better or for worse. A community that cares. I’m learning to love it. Learning to experience lectures as love. Learning to love living in an extended family of 101 million, a gigantic network of “relatives” in all their bossy, compassionate, quirky, dysfunctional, wise and beautiful glory. It’s a gift, and I choose to receive it today.


2016-06-06 09.56.55Jessica A. Udall is a culture-crosser who makes sense of her experience by writing it down. She lives with her husband in his native Ethiopia, and is raising one rambunctious toddler. She blogs at www.jessicaudall.wordpress.com and is the author of Loving the Stranger: Welcoming Immigrants in the Name of Jesus. Her favorites include having conversations with interesting people and drinking strong Ethiopian coffee, preferably at the same time.

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The Secret Life of Walter, a Missionary http://www.alifeoverseas.com/the-secret-life-of-walter-a-missionary/ http://www.alifeoverseas.com/the-secret-life-of-walter-a-missionary/#comments Mon, 20 Jun 2016 23:57:22 +0000 http://www.alifeoverseas.com/?p=8494 8730883620_136e294d6c_k[With apologies to James Thurber and Walter Mitty.] “I’ll take the kids outside for a while so you can have some uninterrupted time,” says Walter’s wife as she softly closes the door to his office. It’s time to work on their monthly newsletter, and he turns to the keyboard. Tap, tap, tap, ta-tap tap . . . “Walter?” she yells back […]]]>


[With apologies to James Thurber and Walter Mitty.]

“I’ll take the kids outside for a while so you can have some uninterrupted time,” says Walter’s wife as she softly closes the door to his office. It’s time to work on their monthly newsletter, and he turns to the keyboard.

Tap, tap, tap, ta-tap tap . . .

“Walter?” she yells back from the living room. “Don’t forget to update the email list before you send it out.”

Dear Friends:

As I start typing this newsletter, the words are already spilling out of my heart to let you know what’s gone on this month, but I’m going to change directions and do something a little different this time.

Because the number of our supporters has recently tripled, we realize that many of you don’t know us very well. Therefore we’d like to take this opportunity to summarize our ministry in this newsletter. (We’ll soon need to decide what to do with all the extra funds, but we’ll leave that topic for a later time.) For those of you who’ve been with us from the beginning, we hope you don’t mind. Here goes. . . .

We’re so glad to be able to serve God overseas. I can tell you that even when Hannah and I were co-CEOs of our own non-profit, recognized by Time magazine on it’s annual “100 to Watch” list, and leading worship at our church on the weekends, there was something missing in our lives. Little did we know at the time that it was mission work. But on that Easter morning, when Hannah and I woke up from the same dream—seeing Jesus beckoning us onto a 737—we both knew what we must do. God’s calling was confirmed when we announced our decision to our church later that day, and the entire congregation blessed us with a raucous standing ovation. Then, after the service, friends and people we’d never met before came up to us and put enough funds in our hands to cover our startup expenses twice over.

Still, we were concerned about sharing the news with our parents, as we knew they would miss being close by to us and their three grandchildren. But our fears were allayed when all four of them, through tears of joy, told us that they had been praying for this since we were in the womb. In fact, they wondered what had taken us so long.

That was four years ago, and we can report that we are absolutely flourishing in our new home. Much of that is because of the wonderful relationships we’ve formed from day one. For instance, on our initial flight over (on a 737, of course), Hannah struck up a conversation with the gentleman across the aisle and found out he was the director of the visa office in the capital of the nation we were moving to. He was overjoyed to hear we were coming to serve his countrymen, and after we landed, he personally expedited our paperwork, giving us lifetime entry and exit privileges. In addition, everyone on our current team, made up of people from five different countries, is completely on the same page ministry-wise, and as far as personalities go, our Myers-Briggs profiles fit together perfectly, like pieces of a majestic puzzle.

Of course, our time here has not been without its difficulties. During our first year, what with all the challenges of setting up a new home in a new country, language learning took much longer than we’d planned, and we needed 7 months instead of 6 to become fluent in both of our target languages.

Hannah is my partner and rock. She homeschools our children, heads up a dental and birthing clinic, and leads multiple Bible studies in the community each week. And even though ingredients for cooking are limited here, she has made it a priority to fix us three wonderful meals a day. (For my last birthday, as part of a cooking class she teaches, she made a clam-chowder substitute using curdled milk and beetle larvae, along with an angel food cake baked over an open fire.) I don’t know how she does it, but she says she wouldn’t have it any other way.

We now have 10 children, after adopting 7 from a local orphanage. While that’s a big crew, we’ve been concerned about their socialization, since they’re not attending school outside our home. But we knew that all was fine when we found out that during their weekly trip to the market to get supplies for the family, those little rascals had started an evangelistic soccer club among the kids in the city park nearby.

Of course, I’ve been busy, too. I disciple the leaders of the 12 churches we’ve planted in our city, and I’m helping them to plant more. Each month, I also travel to remote villages to start more churches. I so enjoy these treks, not only for the work of the gospel, but because of the unparalleled opportunity it gives me to enjoy God’s creation. In fact, it was during one trip that I discovered a new species of butterfly, now known as Waltherus missionis). Most of the trips I can make on foot, with the help of my well-worn machete and some rapelling gear. But for the most distant village, because the path through the jungle is especially treacherous and filled with hostile tribespeople, I use a hot-air balloon.

Can I bore you with a quick story? On one occasion last year, my balloon ride was hit by rough weather, and in order to gain altitude, I reluctantly had to jettison all of my supplies, including a box of New Testaments that we’d just finished the translation on. I made it safely, and the visit went pretty much as usual (we had 17 baptisms that time). But it was on a return trip a few months later that I got a surprise. That’s when I found out that the Bibles I’d thrown overboard had ended up in the hands of the most inhospitable group among the jungle tribespeople. After reading the Bibles cover to cover, they’d started their own church network, based simply on “the books that fell from the sky”!

But I do try not to be overwhelmed by busyness. . . . I’m a strong proponent of balancing work and leisure. That’s why I have my quiet time from 3:30 to 6:00 every morning, followed by a quick 15-kilometer run and an exercise session. Then it’s time for family devotions and my personal journaling. It’s funny how when I started journaling online, I intended for it to be just a way to keep track of my own private musings. But then my posts went viral, and now I’ve been contacted by a major publishing company about making my journal entries into a book. That—along with any talk of potential movie rights—will need to wait until I’m done with the oil paintings that will be used for illustrations.

Tap, tap, tap, tap.

Well, I need to bring this letter to a close. I think I hear a knock at the door. It’s Friday evening, and Hannah and I are expecting a few young couples to come by for help in dealing with some marital problems. Sometimes we feel inadequate to address these kinds of issues, since we don’t know firsthand what it’s like to have any disagreements or arguments with a spouse. Thankfully, God has blessed us with the insight we need to counsel others.

Actually, it sounds as if these are not the couples yet but some unexpected guests, instead. (I’m not sure why I call them “unexpected,” as it’s quite common for people to show up at our house unannounced.) Hannah is already welcoming them in, and if I’m hearing them correctly—their accent is unfamiliar so I think they’ve come from a distant city—what they are saying could be translated loosely as “What must we do to be saved?”

Well I really must stop now. We’ll need to prepare a meal for our visitors, and I’m sure they’ll be here until the morning. It makes me glad I need only 3 hours of sleep a night. And I know Hannah doesn’t mind. She draws her energy from all the unplanned events in our life here.

I’d love to keep writing. I have so much more to share. But until next time . . .

Sincerely yours,

Walter, Hannah, and the kids

Tap, tap, tap, tap.

“Walter,” says Hannah, knocking again on the door frame. “Sorry, but it’s getting late. . . .  I need help getting the kids to bed. You know how early the bus leaves in the morning, and we can’t miss our dental appointments again.” She pushes the door open and asks, “How’s the newsletter coming?”

She knows the answer already, seeing Walter in front of a nearly blank page on the computer screen. It says only, “Dear Friends.”

“I’m getting there,” he answers. “I’ve got some ideas.” Then he adds, “If we get back before dark tomorrow, I’ll work on it some more then.”

[photo: “Equipment Trial #3,“” by davidd, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Grounded in Transit http://www.alifeoverseas.com/grounded-in-transit/ http://www.alifeoverseas.com/grounded-in-transit/#comments Thu, 16 Jun 2016 22:00:02 +0000 http://www.alifeoverseas.com/?p=8202 13348827_10156942253870621_534453473_nWhen I moved to Uganda, I met the question, How is home? as part of the standard greeting. I could have easily given the expected fine without putting too much thought into the process, but the inquiry tended to get me thinking. Were they asking about my home in Soroti Town, or in Minnesota, or […]]]>


When I moved to Uganda, I met the question, How is home? as part of the standard greeting. I could have easily given the expected fine without putting too much thought into the process, but the inquiry tended to get me thinking. Were they asking about my home in Soroti Town, or in Minnesota, or the others I’ve lived before? I took to redirecting the question by answering Soroti is fine, and referring to Minnesota as home-home. More recently I relocated to Pittsburgh and feel a kinship here, too. So what happens to home as I continue my wanderlust? Does Minnesota take on a triplicate moniker? Do my strands of place-connection trail out behind me, like the tail of an escaping balloon?

I’m a third-culture kid, having lived overseas for two years and a smattering of months in the formative, memory-making season of life. Because of those memories, I have never felt truly at home in categorical boxes as an American, a Minnesotan, a Ugandan, or anything else.

In response to the Where are you from? question I can answer nowhere and feel utterly alone, or everywhere and feel the need to pull out my passport as proof, but both of these separate me from the questioner in a quest for bragger’s rights. I personally feel less lost in the expanse of home possibilities if I explain where I’m going instead. My life, transient as it is, is a journey. Essentially, all of us are called to live into who God created us to be and to journey into a closer relationship with Him. If I tell people where I’m going, I have immediate companions.

Knowing we are journeying to a destination could be enough motivation to break into a sprint for the finish line, but it is the traveling process that enriches the result. A common third-culture kid trait manifests in a resistance to form lasting friendships because of overwhelming knowledge that at any second the suitcases could be in the hall, so what’s the use anyway? If we follow that temptation, we are not living the joy that God intends for us. We must find a way to be grounded in transit, in being fully present in the now while preparing for the what-will-come.

For me, grounding comes from delight in little things: waking up to lavender jacaranda blooms scattered across my jogging path, knowing how to spell and prepare rich foods from both sides of my heritage, hearing the neighbor down the street whistle the chorus – Hallelujah, thine the glory – as he limps to the bus stop.  I have been known to keep one-line journals, where I write down one amazing thing I notice each day. By waking up to the world, I wake up to God.

Grounding also comes from pushing toward, not away from relationship. I have found that the places I more quickly refer to as home are the ones where I have made a significant kinship connection. They are where my parents, mentors, or friends reside. They are places that I know I can revisit and find welcome, even after lengths of separation. They are rest stops along the road, where I lighten my pack by sharing a meal, but probably pick up a few pebbles to commemorate the moments together.

Grounded in transit. It’s an uncomfortable tension, but one that must be lived, for each of our efforts here approximates our true home yet-to-come. If we practice home-making as a form of communion, we become more fully aware of each other and of God’s presence in our journey.


eh1Esther Harder spent six years in Uganda and Rwanda as an English / Math / Computers teacher, football coach, and peace facilitator. Currently, she works in a library where she is known as the computer literacy instructor, homework mentor, crocheted flower coach, and you-dream-it-I-make-it resident artist. Esther blogs at roamingpen.blogspot.com.

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White Savior Barbie Nails It http://www.alifeoverseas.com/white-savior-barbie-nails-it/ http://www.alifeoverseas.com/white-savior-barbie-nails-it/#comments Wed, 15 Jun 2016 07:06:19 +0000 http://www.alifeoverseas.com/?p=8483 White Savior BarbieBarbie has an Instagram account. In case you’ve missed it, White Savior Barbie goes to Africa where she poses in a variety of absurd scenarios with over-the-top hash tags that perfectly capture the White Savior mentality. Today I woke up to the most unbelievable sight….I have 100 followers! I never imagined when I started this […]]]>

Barbie has an Instagram account. In case you’ve missed it, White Savior Barbie goes to Africa where she poses in a variety of absurd scenarios with over-the-top hash tags that perfectly capture the White Savior mentality.

Of course, as this article points out, Savior Barbie is largely preaching to the choir; people who are already savvy and aware and debating the issues. Most people outside the aid and development world or not engaged in the global South probably don’t care and their attitudes won’t be challenged or changed by a parody Instagram account. Fine, point taken.

Also, the photos reek of sarcasm and cynicism and stereotypes. Got it.

But can we poke a little fun? At ourselves even, as how many of us (myself and Savior Barbie’s creators included as they admit to the Huffington Post) have been guilty of some of these things? Maybe, hopefully, not to the extremes of Savior Barbie, but most of us start our experiences abroad pretty naïve and at least in my own case, rather arrogant. Sometimes then we turn cynical, then bitter, then mockingly cruel toward the new, naïve, generations. I hope instead that these hilarious and in-your-face hashtags and photos will help keep us from going that route. If we can laugh about it, then maybe we can talk about it.

The hashtags are the real genius of Savior Barbie. Photos do communicate, but as a white person who lives in a country of brown people, I take photos with friends who aren’t the same color as me. I’ve held black babies and smiled for the camera. Because the baby is the son of my best friend here, not because I intend to ‘save’ this baby or mother. So judging me as a ‘white savior’ based on a photo I post would be misguided. The beauty of a diverse world is being able to engage across cultures and colors and if we take pictures, so be it. I don’t think that people should only post photos of people in matching skin tones.

It is when the hash tag, or the attitude, conveys something like, “Poor cute orphan baby! Good thing I brought bananas and clothes and vaccinations,” that there is a problem. When the hash tag or attitude is, “My (actual) friend just had a baby!” no problem.

One thing about the Instagram account that makes me really sad is the profile. The first word is “Jesus.” The obvious conclusion is that the majority of the good-intentioned and utterly ignorant White Saviors who inspired the account and who have propagated this attitude are Christians.

Perhaps this is because we have somehow twisted Jesus being the savior of the world to ourselves, as his ambassadors, being the saviors of the world. Perhaps this is because Christians are so eager to serve and Christian organizations are so desperate for staff that people will do things for which they are totally unqualified. People in the developing world are not stupid.

I once translated at a UN meeting and a government leader from a Muslim country stood up and said, “We are tired of these NGOs coming and pretending they know how to teach or how to do construction. They don’t know what they are doing. Why don’t they ask us what we need and send people qualified for that? Most of these people are Christians.”

That also made me really sad.

Perhaps the lesson of White Savior Barbie is that there is nothing wrong with service or with enjoying another culture but it needs to be done with integrity. Let’s be qualified and well trained for the work we do. Develop authentic relationships based on more than great photo ops. Educate ourselves. Be wary of quick clichés like, “I fell in love with Africa the moment I got off the plane.” Be learners.

**As of June 1, a blog is now associated with the Instagram account and it is here that the creators actually wrestle through the issues. I’m glad they aren’t just poking fun but are providing a space for thoughtful discussions.

What do you think of Savior Barbie?

Beyond criticism or poking fun, any tips on appropriate cross-cultural engagement?

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