When your “exotic overseas life” feels ordinary

by Elizabeth Trotter on September 25, 2017

For months now I’ve had writer’s block at A Life Overseas. I’ve been busy, yes, but mostly I’ve had writer’s block. So you haven’t seen me around here much. I have so many things to say in general (and I do so, on my personal blog), but when I sit at the computer and ask myself, how can I help Christian expats and missionaries through my writing? I come up with nothing. Every time.

I feel useless for this community right now. My life just feels so ordinary. I’m in the thick of raising children and educating them. At this point I don’t have a lot of cross cultural advice to give, because I’m not doing a whole lot of cross cultural living or cross cultural ministering. What I am doing a whole lot of is homeschooling and homemaking.

Some friends left in May (some permanently, and some for home assignment), and I felt quite desolate. This summer I realized I have no desire to make new friends. Every relationship is so temporary, and I’m not in the mood to connect deeply with new people. They might just leave in a few years. But then I thought to myself, that’s not the kind of helpful, encouraging attitude I should be offering the readers at A Life Overseas.

On top of that, I’m not sure I’ve gained enough wisdom or experience from which to speak. I’ve only lived here five years, and that doesn’t seem like very much in comparison to friends who’ve lived here 10 or 15 years (or more). I’m not sure I have enough perspective yet. After all, I wouldn’t listen to marriage advice from someone with a five-year-old marriage.

So I figured I might as well just be honest with you: I don’t feel like I have anything to offer the expat community during this time in my life. But I thought I might resurrect the following post from my own website. Four and a half years later, it still captures how I feel about my life: Ordinary.

(If you are also an ordinary wife and mother like myself, you might be interested in this recent compilation of my motherhood and homeschooling essays.)

Ordinary

Learning a new language, interacting with an unfamiliar culture and its customs, living near an orphanage, living near a house of girls rescued from human trafficking, all these things can make my life seem overly exotic to someone living in America.

And while it’s true that living cross-culturally has been known to eat away at my mental and emotional margin, most of my life is extraordinarily . . . ordinary. I wash dishes. I fold laundry. I brush my teeth. I often combine those last two.

I cook. I grocery shop. I get to the end of some days and ask myself just what am I going to feed these people tonight??

I fetch the Band-Aids. I scrub the bathroom. I take care of sick people.

I make sure that my children study and that they play. I make sure that they put away their own laundry and that they brush their own teeth (though not necessarily at the same time).

I get irritable for all the ordinary reasons: being tired, being hungry, being hot. And during certain times of the month, I freak out. Even if I’m not tired, hungry, or hot.

I like to spend time with my husband. I like to spend time with my friends. I like to spend time by myself. (Translation: I like to check Facebook.)

These are not extraordinary things. These are the very ordinary things of my life, and I feel very ordinary doing them. In fact, I did all these things back in America, including the one-handed-laundry-sort.

And maybe, just maybe, you do all these ordinary things too.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Does your supposedly exotic overseas life ever feel ordinary? Does that feeling ever bother you?

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About Elizabeth Trotter

Elizabeth loves life in Southeast Asia, something she never imagined was possible. Before moving to Asia with her husband and four children in 2012, Elizabeth worked in youth ministry for ten years. She loves math, science, all things Jane Austen, and eating hummus by the spoonful. Find her on the web at www.trotters41.com and on Facebook at trotters41.
  • Vivienne

    Hi Elizabeth. Thank you for your honesty. We are also living in India for 5 years. It’s long enough for the novelty of a new place and culture to wear off but maybe still not to feel fully at home. I understand your weariness at meeting new people and making new friends when you realise that either they or you will move away at some point in the not so distant future. I was discussing with a friend recently how we often have an idea that we may change at least a small part of the world we live in when actually, living in the place changes us more than anything. My husband is working in the medical field and I know he is making a difference there. I am mostly with the children, but I don’t homeschool and I am currently working on completing a Master’s degree in Public Health. I hope do something in the Public Health field after this, but often the problems around seem insurmountable and I wonder what difference I can make. I think we just each have to be faithful to whatever God has called us too. I have friends who homeschool and that is a big job in itself. God sees your faithfulness to your children and all the other seemingly small things you do every day. You don’t realise what impact you may have on others just seeing your daily life and trust in God. Be encouraged. Vivienne

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Yes, I think that is it — 5 years is long enough that a place no longer feels new and novel. And on the place changing up more than we change it — so much truth there. We change so much because of living in a different place, and at the same time, the longer we live in a place, the more we begin to see the society as complex and intricate, not something we can quickly or easily impact. Thanks for your thoughts!

  • Angela Lawrence

    I clean the house. I keep people fed. I knit for people I love. I adore market days with my husband because that’s the day when I get to take off the mom hat for a few hours and be the person practicing language skills and learning new ways to cook food…but mostly, with the exception of language learning, I’m just a regular homeschool mom who happens to live in a third world country. We’ve been here for three months (in a few days) and I’m okay with ordinary…as long as I know that ordinary is what He has for me.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Yes, cleaning and keeping people fed — takes so much time, doesn’t it?! And I, too, treasure time with my husband, both doing ministry together (which, because of logistics, doesn’t happen much anymore!) and just being together. It’s so important.

      Peace and strength to you as you put down ever deeper roots in your host country in the weeks and months ahead.

  • All. The. Time. Thanks for this.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      And thank YOU for relating.

  • Jennifer

    My husband was traveling overseas for his exotic job so I was feeling especially alone and ineffective and ordinary when I heard this sermon. God encouraged me that in His Upsidedown Kingdom, He values children most. More than buildings or programs, more than whatever I could be “doing for God” with my skills and abilities if I wasn’t a homeschooling mom. That sounds impossible to believe, but that’s what God actually says.
    Anyway, I hope it might encourage you also. http://christchurchvienna.com/sermons/2017/07/psalm-127/

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Thanks for the sermon link, Jennifer. I’m so glad it gave you encouragement at just the right time.

  • Ruth Felt

    This brought tears to my eyes because this is just how I feel most of the time. So ordinary. And the big, continual question on my mind, even after 7 years of parenting and 12 years overseas, is, “Is it really worth being here, when I’m just at home doing the ordinary? When it takes so much effort just to live, and home school, and keep the kids alive?” Thank you for your honesty.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Yes! There are days that I am definitely asking myself that question — is it worth it, when it’s so hard? And thank you for YOUR honesty in this comment.

  • Erika Loftis

    Oh man, Elizabeth, I hope I get to meet you someday. I feel like we’d have a lot in common. My hubby is also a counselor. I don’t homeschool my offspring though, for everyone’s safety. 😉 I was grateful you were able to get past your writer’s block, or to use it. Because, with all my heart this is me! I’ve always wanted to be a missionary! My whole life. And in my fantasies, it NEVER looked like… this… which looks a lot like regular life… I’m not sure what magic I assumed was going to happen… but I am way LESS ABLE to do ministry in our land of ministry that I was in our home country! I could run bible studies, and disciple college students all while looking after my crew and clean my house! Here, I have house help a few days a week, but my ability to do much outside of the home is so so limited. I’m pretty sure I function at about 15% capacity. I may one day get up to a whopping 20% but… that is not this day… 😉 Anyway, total knuckle bump here. We are so much more that what we DO. If only we could embrace that. 🙂 Love when we can, Give what we can, Be where we are, and through it all Worship the One who made us.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      One of our pre-field trainers told us that even after 20 years in a place, people will often say they are working at only 60% their previous capacity. I’m not usually in the habit of assigning my capacity a number, but I regularly say, “I am a low capacity person.” However this conversation is making me re-evaluate that statement. Maybe I feel low capacity because of the environment, not just that I am low capacity in general. Who knows?!

      And perhaps we will meet sometime 🙂 I think we are in similar parts of the world. . .

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  • Donna McD

    yes.yes.yes. The last of my four children is almost finished with high school and after almost 20 years in Ukraine, there are many, many times when I still feel like my life is ordinary… even though it is crazy NOT ordinary on so many scales. Writing what you have written is, strangely, profoundly helpful (as you can see in the comments already posted): there is something very meaningful in knowing that you’re not alone, that there are people out there who ‘get’ you and where you’re at, and that where you’re at is not some kind of failure, but merely (!) a point along the way in an incredible journey.
    I won’t wax eloquent about the meaningfulness of washing dishes and folding laundry and the superhuman thing that is homeschooling outside of the American context. It’s ordinary as ordinary can get. But in returning to Ukraine after several months of parent-care and wondering what on earth my being here has meant, and still, still trying to wait patiently to hear from the Lord about what is next, he affirmed, once again, that there is profound meaning in the just being here, being present, walking alongside, sharing ordinary burdens with other ordinary people.
    And although it feels dreadful, even those moments of ‘I’m not in the mood to connect deeply with new people’, and your courageously sharing that so publicly, is exactly what some of us readers needed to hear. I just spent those 9-ish months living next door to a refugee from Venezuela, and I could not muster anything to reach out to her, to connect with her in any way. There has been too much transition, too much people-shuffling, too much everything, and I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t even have the energy to beat myself up over it. One thing I’ve picked up, though, in these last 19 years, is that like a first pregnancy, although the place I’m in may feel never-ending, it isn’t. It’s hard not to be afraid during those times, afraid that I will not be x or y, or that I’m deluding myself about everything. But on this side of so many of those times, I have found the Lord to be so incredibly gracious, so tender, so present, and if I may say so, your words are a manifestation of that presence. May you continue to be his presence where you are, dear one. Needy people are being touched.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      I’m so glad to hear from someone else experiencing/having experienced the same things, from the ordinariness right on down to the reticence to engage new people. Thank you for sharing your story here!

  • Elizabeth, I”m working on a chapter in book about where to find material for newsletters. Just now I’m writing about mining our lives and wrote: Mining can be wonderful and it can be painful. You might have to face where you were misunderstood, where you did the misunderstanding, where you have failed. Not that all of this will make it into your newsletters, but you cannot mine only the gold without picking up some dross. Do not let this part of the process derail you. Mining values taking the time to sift through a day, a week, a month and select. The beauty of mining is that you are looking for something small or rare. Something you can make a first for the reader. You do not need to be or impressive or even particularly fresh. Mining finds the value in the ordinary, long-haul trek of ministry. When it appears nothing is happening, mining proves you wrong. The discipline of mining is really about paying attention, not trying to hustle for your worth or prove that you are not wasting space on this planet.

    // and then I read your post. Love that you mined your life and offered us this gem!!!

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      Thanks Amy 🙂

      Also I love your description of mining, looking for something small or rare. Also that you will find bad along with the good. So much to think about right there!

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