You Take Yourself With You (And Other Important Things About Living Overseas)

by Marilyn on January 31, 2014

Airport Check-in

The call from the American University in Cairo came on a Sunday morning, a business day in the Middle East. I had worked the night shift as a nurse and arrived home in time to eat breakfast and  hug my husband and three children, sending them on their way to church while I got much needed sleep.

As I lay on my bed in the warmth of that August morning, the phone rang. It was an administrator from the American University in Cairo. I don’t remember much about that phone call but her final words to me were these: “Tell your husband that his future at the American University in Cairo looks very promising”

Two weeks later we were in Cairo with our youth, our passion, and our three little ones. 

And that’s when it got hard. Because there are some important things that we didn’t realize when we were on one side of the pond – the side where churches applauded us and raised prayers on our behalf; the side where Christian fellowship was easy to find and when I was tired I could open up a box of macaroni and cheese for dinner.

Here are some of the things I learned as I unpacked my bags and hung my heart.

  • You take yourself with you. You pack your suitcases with your belongings, and you pack yourself with your past and your problems. All those quirks and insecurities? They are magnified in cross-cultural situations. Think you are an introvert in your passport country? Try being at a party knowing two sentences of the local language. Struggle with expressing yourself? With anger? With self-righteousness? It will all come back at you in spades.  You don’t become a different person on the airplane. The beauty is that the God who called you, who knew you as you were being knit in the womb, who knows your comings and your goings, he knows that and he has chosen to use you – the real you. The late Ruth Siemens says this: “We are all damaged goods in a spoiled, enemy-occupied world.”  The good news of that quote is that he longs to transform us and he uses our time overseas to refine and change us. 
  • You leave a hero, you arrive a servant. When we left for Cairo someone at our church said “It’s like reading the Old Testament!” and indeed it was. The miracles that happened defied common sense, were beyond earthly understanding. And throughout we were the main stage, we were the center of attention. As hands were laid on us at a church service I remember a young pastor saying “Lord, we pray for this unique, gifted couple” and I felt overwhelmed with humility and fear. After 20 hours of travel, children bleary eyed from Benadryl, we arrived. We left with cute clothes and perky smiles, we arrived with bad breath, smelling like limp wash rags. We didn’t even know how to ask for water or where to find the nearest bathroom. We fell from the skyscraper to the dusty ground, hitting balconies on the way down. It was so hard and it was so good, a quick transition from hero to servant.
  • There will be times when you hate where you live. Nothing will be easy. From visas to setting up a telephone, life overseas involves tremendous patience. Patience with never-ending bureaucracy, patience with the concept of “Mañana” or in our case “Bukhara”. Patience with the people you are supposed to love, realizing it was easy to love one person in your home country, but not so easy to love millions of them when you are in the minority. We had to learn “In’Sh’allah, Bukrah, Maalesh” the IBM principal of Egypt translated as “Tomorrow, God-willing. Don’t worry about it!” I  learned that it’s okay to have a complex set of emotions about the places I’ve lived, loving them one day and hating them the next.
  • Travel challenges you, travel changes you.  I love travel. I’m a third culture kid – I flew before I walked. But it’s still a challenge. Crossing time zones, making connections, dealing with tired kids and spouse? It’s all a challenge. Travel is a bit like a mirror that shows your real character, and it’s not always pretty. Travel is exotic only in retrospect, rarely in real-time.  It’s during those times where you pray desperately that you will learn more of what it is to reflect the character of Christ, to love the unlovely, to cope with the unpleasant.
  • Loneliness is a part of the journey. Sometimes I think that when we sign up for this life of pilgrimage there should be a clause that says: “This life will bring you to points of loneliness that you can hardly bear. Signing here indicates that you have been warned.”  David writes this in Psalm 13:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

The Psalm poetically voices the anguish of a heart that feels alone and abandoned. This is what it feels like at times to be away from those you love, to be in a place where you have to learn everything from how to cook to how to say thank you. Loneliness is part of this journey. There is no easy way to say it, there are no platitudes. But if we read farther on in the Psalm, we see the author come to a place of peace:

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.

Our years in Egypt took us through pregnancies, conflicts, and marriage crises, and they are still counted among our best.  Our hearts learned to trust in his unfailing love, to rejoice in salvation, to sing the Lord’s praise.

What about you? What are some of the things you learned as you got off the plane and entered into your new life overseas?

Marilyn Gardner loves God, her family, and her passport and can be found

blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.

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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. She is the author of Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging and you can find her blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.
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  • Kim Johnson

    I cried as I read this. Thank you so very much. We moved to Ukraine with our four young children in November and so far the transition had been pretty great. BUT, just this week I have been overwhelmed with sudden loneliness. The political situation in Ukraine has brought out the very difficult side of our new home, so there are emotions connected to that as well. I very much needed to read this. What a gift! THANK YOU. 🙂

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Ah Kim — so much going on in Ukraine right now! I’m so glad you came by. It’s astonishing how quickly those waves of loneliness can come over us isn’t it? This reminds me of us those years ago (we ended up with 5 kids) but your comment brought back so many memories. Thinking of you today and I’m so glad these words helped.

  • Christy

    Oh yes…if we think we are doing pretty good with “patience” at home where everything is routine and comfortable…certainly in comparison to a foreign country…then we will certainly be challenged, pushed, broken, and ultimately….refined in our new foreign space. But it can get ugly along the path 😉 I came to India 3 months ago, alone, and although I am so thankful for the friend I am staying with and a few of her friends, I certainly experience loneliness from being away from people of my culture. We aren’t perfect…but Jesus is faithful to work mightily in a life fully surrendered to Him! Thankful for your blogpost that made me feel less alone 🙂

    • Marilyn Gardner

      “Refined in our new foreign space” — such a good phrase. I think what amazes me is his ability to work even when we don’t ‘feel’ surrendered. Where are you in India? After so many years in Pakistan I finally got to India this summer. Thinking of you as you continue to transition. And then of course, the rub is that we tend to transition so well that we end up feeling equally lonely on the other side!

  • Richelle Wright

    “You leave a hero, you arrive a servant.” That was one of the hardest ones for me to swallow, maybe because I didn’t understand that I was thinking of myself as a hero when I left and I didn’t realize that I had so much to still learn about servanthood.

    When we first landed at the Niamey airport (after having spent the previous winter studying the language in Quebec – we like to joke that our organization froze us then baked us), my oldest who was then only 5 looked around in amazement and asked “How in the world do they keep all the snow from getting into the airport?” He assumed that would be a problem based off what he’d lived most recently. I remember asking myself shortly afterward – what assumptions am I carrying along, about my family, about this new land… what things am I going to have to relearn… and why in the world did I think we were even remotely qualified to do THIS? For me, one of the most humbling aspects of serving internationally has been has been seeing how what I thought would be strengths have turned upside down and where I thought I’d be weak, I’ve seen God work mightily. Of course, that’s all biblical – but I tend to forget.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Me as well! (hard to swallow, I mean) It was so hard. Face to face with my own pride….because what I didn’t add in the post is that when that pastor prayed over us I felt humility, fear….and maybe, just maybe a tiny speck of pride. I love your words about our strengths being turned upside down. It is astounding to me that all I thought I was good at is turned around and my weak spots are suddenly used — and I see the glory of God in the process. And yes – Biblical but I take heart when I think of the Israelites and how often they had to be told to ‘Remember’. Thanks for these words.

  • Elizabeth Trotter

    LOVE this.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thank you – these words affirmed me in ways you’ll never know.

  • Tim

    I arrived in Costa Rica in 1991 as a 31-year-old father of two with a third on the way. Adjustment to three kids, my lack of parenting skills, the need to devote much more time to the ordinary things of living (shopping, maintenance, food preparation, paperwork), answering to two different sets of bosses (we were members of one mission assigned to teach at another mission’s seminary), my deep insecurity… it played havoc with my marriage and my self-esteem, and ground the arrogance out of me. Things didn’t get any better after we returned to the US because I took myself there as well. The result was separation, being asked to resign from the mission, divorce, and several years of rattling around the bottom of the barrel. I’m grateful for some difficult experiences at work, some extremely valuable retreats, and a men’s group led by a friend from chuch, that removed my insecurity and helped me to comprehend that God’s grace applies to EVERYTHING (including the present and future). I also learned that God doesn’t just love me, he likes me.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thank you for your honesty – I feel like this kind of honesty is critical to the conversation. We have a really similar story that could easily have ended up with a broken marriage. I don’t know about you but part of the healing process for me was forgiving myself, and learning to understand grace better. I was a pro at telling other people there was grace, but when it came to our situation it was so much harder. Thanks for sharing the outcome of your story – it’s the beauty from ashes endings that give me the most hope.

  • Marilyn, this piece is full of seasoned wisdom and hopeful truth. You, my word weaver, are amazing. This part made me nod in agreement and shake my head in astonishment at how wonderfully you capture the vortex effect:

    We left with cute clothes and perky smiles, we arrived with bad breath,
    smelling like limp wash rags. We didn’t even know how to ask for water
    or where to find the nearest bathroom. We fell from the skyscraper to
    the dusty ground, hitting balconies on the way down.

    Yes!!! Not only did I not know what to say, I couldn’t say anything because I lost my voice from: dehydration, corralling a 2yr old and a 3yr old, and nursing a 2mo old, while hopping airports right after the 9/11 incidents for more than 24 hours. Fun times, I tell ya. Fun times.

    I need to let this line marinate in my spirit for a while. “The beauty is that the God who called you, who knew you as you were being knit in the womb, who knows your comings and your goings, he knows that and he has chosen to use you – the real you.” Amen, sister.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Angie – this made me smile because if anyone can weave words it’s You! But I’m so grateful for your comment and your story reminds me that for 6 weeks we had sinus infections from the pollution – I honestly thought we would never get well. Leaving right after 9/11 has to have a series of stories all their own….not for the faint of heart. It makes the whole “Rise up with wings like eagles” verse take on new meaning – because sometimes it’s not like eagles but like ants.

  • Kim Johnson

    Thank you for this post! I am in the process of moving to a new country for the first time. My mission organization, World Venture, has been great at helping me be prepared for the struggles that lie ahead…but I love the way you broke this down! I will definitely be reading this again. Also, would it be okay with you if I re-posted it to my blog (with a link back to you)? I would like my family/friends to have a better idea how they can be praying for me. Thanks again!
    Kim –

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Hi Kim -so glad you found this helpful! World Venture?! That was my parent’s group (only a couple names ago!) And I actually did flood relief work in Pakistan with them a couple of years ago. I’m sure we know some of the same people! And my brother and sister-in-law are with IDEAS which has loose affiliations. I’d love for you to share! I think the guidelines are to post a paragraph and then link back so please feel free. Will be thinking of you as you move forward in this journey.

      • Kim Johnson

        Thanks Marilyn! I’m always amazed by the connections among those in the world of missions! I’m really loving getting to know the World Venture community and I’m sure we would have some mutual staff or missionaries! 🙂

  • Lou Ann Keiser

    Definitely understand everything you said. I agree with it all, especially that the key to success is being dependent on Christ and having Christ-like attitudes. I laughed about your travel comment–seems exotic only in retrospect. VERY true! If they only knew. You’ve done it with little ones. You know! Loved this post! Thank you!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      The trip I remember best – we had 4 kids and I was 8 months pregnant with my 5th. The oldest was 10 so you can imagine the rest….:) We did this last minute shopping thing to make sure we had cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie filling and the only place to put it was in the back packs of our little boys. They were so weighted down they could hardly stand up straight and my husband looked at them and said “Please try and act like they aren’t that heavy!!” and then to me “Could you please pull in your stomach” At that point I knew he was so far gone in terms of stress that I just looked at my mom who was at the airport with us and rolled my eyes. So yeah – exotic?! Not so much in real time! Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

  • Christina Lawrence

    That’s one of my favorite sections of the Psalms. It’s written in three languages in my journal. 🙂 Thanks for your comments Marilyn!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Love this Christina~ And which languages? So cool!

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    My real character comes out most in the Miami airport — their TSA lines have especially resiliant and strong character testers – AHEM. Seriously though, great post!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I hear you – one of the worst experiences my brother had was in the Detroit airport after going through Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey and more….pretty unbelievable. Thanks for the words on the post.

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  • Joyce McAttee Howerton

    I remember well arriving in Romania almost 13 years ago now. Most days it feels like home now but there are still those days of painful loneliness. God is good, His Word is my source of strength and encouragement. It is such a unique life and gives you a different perspective on life living overseas. Our motto has always been to show people Christ not try to make them Americans. Thanks for the post.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I love, love these words on showing people Christ. I often say God is not North American. Thank you for these words Joyce. Two of my close friends here are from Romania which has been fun as it’s an area of the world I know nothing about.

  • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

    So many, many things I love about this post. Depending on the day, a different one you mention would resonate most with my heart and today it is that loneliness is part of the journey. Finding comfort in these Psalms you posted.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thinking of you today Rachel. It comes in waves that surprise doesn’t it?

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  • Kim Atkinson

    This is such a great post! Thank you so much. So many things resonated with us as we have just arrived in the Fiji Islands. Thanks for another quality post! I have linked to you in my blog at

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Kim – I’m so glad you found it helpful and linked to it. Just took a look at your blog and love the title of living fully. Wise words indeed. Thinking of you as you go through this process.

  • Veni Ram

    I am sure that people who lives in abroad have both happy and sad experiences. Because loneliness is the major challenge which everyone faces at first. So, you should prepare yourself emotionally and physically to start your life there.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      So true – sometimes easier said than done!

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