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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Image credit: flik47 / 123RF Stock Photo

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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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