Dear Oldies (a letter from a newbie)

by Anisha Hopkinson on September 10, 2015

I'm pretty sure this is what I looked like stepping off the plane.

Hi there. It’s me, the Newbie. I read the 5 tips for Newbies about building relationships with Oldies and figured since the line of communication opened, I’d go ahead and share too. At a year and a half in country, I’m just over the ‘how in the world do I bake with a gas mark oven’ stage. I noticed sometimes my early days had a tendency to either annoy or worry you.

If I may, here are five Newbie observations. Perhaps they can help bridge the Oldie/Newbie relationship gap.

Here goes…

Just so you know, you’re kind of scary.
The culture, language, food, greetings, clothing, toilets… everything is different. We have no idea where we fit within the culture, and that includes our place in the missionary community. Combine all those insecure feelings with meeting you Oldies, and it can be a little intimidating. I mean, you were speaking tonal languages and ushering God’s kingdom in to dark places before I graduated high school (and some of you before I was born!).

I am full of enthusiasm for my new life in missions and probably a bit annoying because of it. I get that you’ve seen a lot of enthusiastic people arrive only to leave within a few years. With so many of us fizzling out, I understand if you are hesitant to offer friendship.

If you can’t be my friend, please do offer your hand. A smile, introduction, and warm handshake go a long way. It helps me know that while I’m struggling to find my feet, I do indeed have a place here and that even if you are distant at the moment, you ultimately hope good things for me.

One upping isn’t helpful (unless it’s really funny).
It’s encouraging to know I’m not the only one who has awful experiences, but sometimes there’s a tendency to one up which actually makes me feel worse. Instead of responding to my awful story with your own even more awful story and a hearty, “So if I could do it you can too!” Try this, “I had some really terrible times in my first year too. Here’s what really helped…” Share your story, but with the motivation to help me through my struggle.

When it comes to one upping the only kind that could be helpful are the really funny stories. By all means, tell me about how you made a fool of yourself when you went to the store to buy a CD and instead asked the clerk if they had any underwear. Laughing with you completely makes my day.

Honor the past but live in the present.
I know you’ve had your heart broken many times in this highly mobile community. You’ve invested in friendships only to be left behind as they return to home countries or move on to new assignments. So when you reach out or respond to my efforts to build a friendship, I don’t take it lightly. I know that opening your heart to me is costly. Here’s the thing though, sometimes it can feel like I’ve been invited to someone else’s high school reunion.

It’s cool to hear about so-and-so however many years ago, but when old friends and old memories are all that gets talked about, I’m left feeling even more out of place than if I hadn’t been invited.

I’m all for honoring your past relationships. I enjoy hearing about that crazy time you and she had to hitch hike back to town in a thunderstorm because you accidentally backed your car into a ditch. But if all I did was talk about the good old times with everyone back home, you’d grow tired of it too. You’d think, “For crying out loud. You live here now!”

Let’s make a commitment to each other – We’ll honor each other’s pasts, but we’ll also live and make new memories in the present.

My expectations are out of whack. Help me refine/form new ones.
I know expectations set me up for disappointment. I know “Ditch your expectations” is the golden rule of Newbie survival, but no matter how I try to assess and strip away any sort of expectation of life on the field, it’s still a totally impossible task. I may do great at resetting my expectations of what my home or relationships with my neighbors will be like, only to be completely thrown by how sketchy the internet service is or that the majority of available vegetables are leafy greens.

You can’t possibly tell me every detail about life here upfront, but you can point me back to center when my unknown expectations throw me for a loop.

“Kangkung makes a good salad, or you can cook it with onion and garlic. It’s a bit like baby spinach.” Or “With the internet I find e-mail works well, but Facebook is always a struggle” is much more helpful than, “Yes, but that’s just the way it is. You’ll get used to it.”

hope despair

A little empathy goes a long way.
At the beginning, a decent amount of my problems are in my head. Sure, there are always practical ways I need help (tell me again, where do I buy eggs?), but the real troublesome emotional stuff probably doesn’t exist in any sort of concrete way. Maybe I’m homesick and spend an inordinate amount of time on social media. Maybe the water stains on the lower third of the walls are a serious pet peeve, and I spend all my spare time for a month obsessively repairing it. Maybe I’m compulsively eating chocolate and popcorn to stifle panic attacks.

In To Kill A Mockingbird Harper Lee wrote, “You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it,”.

It’s a real mistake to think you understand what someone is going through just because you were once a Newbie yourself. Yes, we certainly have shared experiences, and there are general feelings among Newbies, but each of us processes and adjusts differently. This is where practicing empathy can make a huge difference.

If you can take a step back for a moment and focus on what the clearly out-of-their-mind Newbie in front of you is saying and imagine what it must feel like from their perspective, and then reflect those thoughts back, you will melt away our tension.

Empathy doesn’t say, “I know what you’re going through,” but rather, “Yep, I hear you. Homeschooling during language school is incredibly tough. It makes sense that by the end of the day you are up to your ears arguing with your husband. You’re emotionally and physically tapped out. ”

Empathy considers and responds to the matter from the other person’s perspective. Once you’ve opened the door to our hearts through empathy, you’re in a good place to speak truths that we otherwise might not have been able to cope with hearing.

It takes up precious time, I realize, dealing with us Newbies. Some of us are easier to handle than others. But there’s one thing you should know – I am deeply appreciative of the time and effort you’ve poured into me.

One day I hope to be where you are, figuring out what in the world to do with all those Newbies.

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About Anisha Hopkinson

Anisha was born to Chilean and Texan parents, first tasted missions in Mexico, fell in love with an Englishman in Africa, and now lives in Indonesia. She journals about cross-cultural life, helping people, and loving Jesus on
  • Erin Martin

    This is all so true and just what I needed to hear. Some validation of the thoughts going through my head after living in SE Asia for 7 months. Appreciate this site so much!

  • amy medina

    yay! As the author of the Oldie post, I was hoping someone would do this! This is very, very helpful. Well done!

    • Anisha Hopkinson

      Yay! Glad you liked it. I appreciated your post too!

  • Excellent! You expressed that wonderfully! Fortunately, my first year on the field was with people who did all the things you long for in your letter. They were great!

  • Wonderful! I love the fresh insight and take on this role we place ourselves in as a ‘newbie’. No matter how ‘old’ or ‘seasoned’ I am, each new experience is tough. I have sometimes wanted to say, “I’m sorry you had to learn these things on your own. If I had been here before you, I truly would have helped you.” Instead, left without phone contacts, without whom to call for something as important as water, without a translator, without funds … well, it placed within me a determination to never pay that experience forward. Instead, I will share knowledge, encouragement, and share my supply of chocolate! … among other things! I want the person who may potentially ‘replace me’ when I move to another place, to be successful and share their knowledge forward as well. Thank you for sharing and taking time to write a response on behalf of ‘us’. I truly hope for the day when I become an ‘Oldie’ and can recall these important 5 points when welcoming a ‘Newbie’.

  • Martha Wagar Wright

    It’s great for newbies & oldies to share their perspectives on the transition they are going through together. I do think it’s important not to make assumptions about people’s intentions – such as taking people’s stories as one-uppsmanship. Many people really think they’re being encouraging or funny! And they are trying to share stories of their lives with the new people, hoping that hearing about how things have gone in the past will help them to be optimistic. (New people at our place usually want to hear all about how things were before & are disappointed we didn’t record things in more detail.) We don’t all share the same humor necessarily, but we can all try to approach things with a spirit of generosity. Perhaps try not to complain about the house you’ve been given, especially if the person you’re complaining to is the wife of the guy who built it – and did his best with the available materials, expertise, & budget! Try to assume people are being as empathetic as they can. But you just may have to face the disappointment that someone here can’t really relate to how much you miss Target or how that chocolate doesn’t taste exactly like something in the US… And that you will find ways to encourage each other in the life you’re living together here & now!

  • So, maybe I’m doing okay on the one-upping and empathy part. I look at these new people, and I think that I can’t believe how hard they have it! I’ve been known to tell them something along those lines, and then I’ve wondered if that was encouraging. Maybe it was.

    I honestly don’t remember much from my “newbie” days. I wish I had kept a journal or something then. (And that makes me sound like I’m a million years old! I’m not.)

  • Elizabeth

    Thanks so much for penning this! I had a rough entry onto the field, without much support or encouragement, so that’s one reason I want to help new workers as they arrive now. This is a great reminder of how to serve others well.

  • Dana McCain

    New people are so important. Fresh perspective, more energy, new talents. Thanks for the heads up on how to better welcome them.

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