How to Do Life during a Pandemic—Cross-Cultural Workers Can Add to the Discussion

Last weekend, my wife and I used Facebook to video chat with two of our sons, their wives, and our four little grandkids. That’s what you do when your children are serving in a faraway land. That’s what you do, too, when your children, like ours, are close by but COVID-19 protocols tell you to stay home.

When we started out overseas, our parents weren’t computer savvy and Skype hadn’t even been invented yet, but I know how important video conferencing has now become for ocean-separated families wanting to stay in touch. And my recent experiences back in the States have got me thinking about what cross-cultural workers could say about how to live life under the cloud of a pandemic. While people all over the world are scrambling to deal with challenges that have popped up in a matter of days or weeks, cross-cultural workers have been tackling similar problems for years.

Now I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but I’d like to consider the things that cross-cultural workers often take for granted that those “at home” might gain from. Typically, it’s easy for senders not to seek your input: “What is there to learn from people who do abnormal things because they live in abnormal places?” But as we get used to a new normal, at least for a while, we all have things to learn.

So with all the dialogue going on now about how to cope with “social distancing,” “sheltering in place,” and “quarantining,” I hope those of you living and working abroad have opportunities to contribute. You have a lot to share.

Here are some examples I’ve thought of:

You and your loved ones have dealt with extended separation and know how to navigate holidays and special events at a distance. You are masters at video chatting online, wrestling into submission Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, and more, with sometimes spotty internet and electricity. And you’ve developed even more ways of connecting grandkids to Grandpa and Grandma when face-to-face isn’t an option.

Some of you already knew about the uncertainties of dealing with epidemics, because you’ve served populations hit by them before. Some of you work in areas affected by war, famine, and poverty and have seen staples and medical supplies run low. Some of you are aid workers or medical personnel who have to weigh personal and family safety against helping the ill and needy. Some of you are in places where that safety must take into consideration political unrest and religious persecution, as well. Some of you live where fear hangs in the air.

Many of you deal with compromised health environments every day. You and your neighbors often wear face masks to keep out air pollution when you’re outside or to keep in germs when you’re felling sick. You have to be your own food inspectors and make decisions on what unknowns you’re willing to accept. You take a myriad of vaccinations and precautions to fight off diseases and parasites not common in your passport country (sometimes getting them anyway). And you can’t drink the water.

You have made an art out of cooking meals when familiar ingredients are absent or in short supply. And you’ve created networks for getting the word out when certain items hit the shelves.

Some of you know what it’s like to function in the absence of toilet paper.

And some of you have learned the skill of saying hello without hugging or shaking hands.

Many of you know the challenges of working at home and teaching at home while you’re also living at home, often in a small apartment with no yard outside your door. You have long dealt with the need to find a balance—or rhythm—for your different roles, giving attention to self-care as you care for others.

For Christians around the globe, this coronavirus has birthed a new interest in house churches, as large gatherings have been discouraged or banned altogether. It’s birthed a lot of good questions, too, questions many of you have been pondering for a long time. What are the benefits of meeting in small groups? What are the challenges? What makes a small group “church”? What elements are necessary for a church service—singing, praying, preaching, teaching, sharing needs, taking communion?

What resources are available when the Christian gathering you’ve depended on is no longer available? Out of necessity, you’ve put together a plethora of books, blogs, devotionals, online retreats, Facebook groups, videos, Twitter feeds, and podcasts that help nourish your souls.

Many of you have had to find unique ways to do ministry when the community you serve isn’t close by. How do you care for people you don’t see often? How do you reach out to people who don’t live in your neighborhood, city, or even country?

You know from experience that change brings loss and loss brings grief—and losses should be acknowledged and grief should be expressed. You know that not all losses are tangible or easy to describe, and hidden grief can surface in unhealthy ways.

You’ve learned that small, continued stressors have a cumulative effect, that a drip, drip, drip can overflow one’s capacity as easily as a burst from a firehose.

You’ve learned also that difficult times require safe people for honest sharing, people who are willing to listen, really listen, to the unvarnished truth.

Is doing cross-cultural work the same as living during a pandemic? Usually no—COVID-19 has brought increased difficulties to everyone. But you have faced some similar circumstances. Do you have all the answers? Probably not, unless things have changed drastically since I was overseas. But you do have lessons to share, lessons often learned through trial and error, which can be good teachers.

As we all come together to confront this challenge, please take your seat at the table and join the conversations that are circulating. I hope you’re invited in. We’ll need to keep our chairs apart, though, so maybe you can help me figure out Zoom.

[photo: “DSC06088,” by Nickolay Romensky, used under a Creative Commons license]

Come and Celebrate {an invitation to retreat with Velvet Ashes}

Editor’s Note: This beautiful invitation to the Velvet Ashes online retreat was written before much of the world shut down due to COVID-19. At the time I received this piece, I thought it was one of the most moving descriptions of community, both online and otherwise, that I had ever read. I still believe that, and as such, I am hosting this piece unaltered from its original form.

In fact, I believe that in light of the chaos and turmoil of COVID-19, the invitation to retreat and to connect is even more timely. Women across the world might not be able to experience this retreat with their fellow expat friends as they would have in years past, but with an internet connection they can still receive the nourishment and rest they so long for, especially at a time like this. ~Elizabeth Trotter

by Denise Beck

I got word this week that a high school teacher of mine lost her battle with breast cancer. She was such a character that I am sure there will be no rhyme or reason to the kinds of people who will show up to pay their respects. From solemn and prestigious to ornery and the life of the party, they will all sit shoulder to shoulder and wipe their eyes while they laugh and remember her. It reminds me of these words I read recently, “Grief is a chain that ties us together.”  The thing that will unite doctors, and homeschool moms, and pastors, and high-school dropouts at her funeral is the grief they share over losing this fiery strong woman way too soon. And for that moment, it will be enough. All of the ways that life has scattered and changed people will melt away because of how alike they are in those few moments. 

Last night I was with other women who have lived overseas. They were telling me how excited they are about the upcoming Velvet Ashes Retreat. One of them mentioned, “I can’t wait until after the retreat when we hear others start using words that give away that they just experienced the Velvet Ashes Retreat”. Each year the theme that God brings us to walk through ends up being one of those “uniting” moments. It becomes a time in our lives when how we are alike speaks louder than how we are different, and it is so powerful. In the past we have been united over “Shalom”, “Sustain”, and “Release.” In fact, if you have retreated with us before, these words may bring nostalgia over what the Lord showed you during your retreat with Him.  

If you could peek into my first Velvet Ashes Retreat experience you would see a very reluctant Global woman curled up in a leather chair by an open window giving it a try because I promised someone I would. (I was very skeptical that I would get anything out of it.) You would then notice my hard edges of doubt soften as I experienced a very personal God meet me in the spaces between the pages, in the worship music that played; in the time I made just to be with Him. That year I was back in the States on an unplanned medical furlough. I was feeling separated from so many things; my home, my plans for the future; my expectations. In those moments Velvet Ashes reminded me that I am never separated from my God. And no matter how different my experiences were from other women like me, we were all united in that moment as the worldwide community made space to retreat together. All meeting God around the same language.  

This year I invite you to add “Celebrate” to your list of words that unite you with other women across the globe. You have made birthday parties and Fourth of July’s come to life from the most minimal of supplies. You have celebrated holidays you didn’t even know existed before you landed in your host culture. You are no stranger to celebration! However, we can sometimes be a stranger to celebrating the goodness of God. Join us this year as we lean into the author of celebration and learn to celebrate in all seasons of our lives and ministries. 

Are you weary?  Yet I will celebrate.

Are you unappreciated? Yet I will celebrate.

Are you hopeful? Yet I will celebrate.

Are you scared? Yet I will celebrate.

Are you lonely? Yet I will celebrate.

Are you motivated and passionate? Yet I will celebrate.

Are you lost? Yet I will celebrate.

Come find out that wherever you are is where He is waiting to celebrate with you. 

I have no doubt that my old high school math teacher is celebrating more than the fact that she doesn’t have me in class anymore. No greater party than the one in His presence.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Being shaped by her years in S. Sudan, Denise’s heart grew for women who take the unknown and carve out beauty in all its forms.  When she was introduced to Velvet Ashes, she found a place that celebrated that beauty as well. Partnering with this team to provide connection and courage for women in their cross-cultural lives has been another reminder of the beautiful gifts God gives.  Her favorite places to be are anywhere her 4 kids are, next to her husband no matter what country, and anywhere that gets her close to the feet of Jesus.

For the Twenty-Somethings

Last month I wrote the post 10 Ideas For Your Professional Development and stipulated that every adult on the field is a professional.

1. Every adult on the field is a professional. A profession is what you invest the lion’s share of your “work” time and effort into. Let’s not confuse location (inside versus outside of the home) with professional/non-professional in this post and where I want this discussion to go.

2. Many organizations will invest in the professional development of those in public leadership.

3. Every adult on the field needs professional development.

A twenty-something emailed me and the gist of the email was that she came to the field in her early twenties and started off mainly in a supporting role of the missionaries for a couple of years. Wonderfully she loves what she was doing and transitioned into long-term service; but many of the people she first came to serve still see her as a semi-adult (my term!) becasue she started off not “doing the work.”

“I just read your life overseas post about professional development and LOVED it! I hear the purpose is to encourage us on the field to take responsibility for our professional development and give us some great resources and ideas to help in that; but actually the point you made that hit me hard (in a good way) was near the beginning where you wrote how every adult on the field is a professional. Later you said we are all adults. And we are all professionals! Truth! Thank you so much for saying this. I am responsible for my learning and development and I want to grow in that, but also in the confidence of being a professional in the field. I’ve done my degree, I’m doing my masters, I’m having important experiences and my opinions are valid. I have much to learn and grow in but that doesn’t discount who I am now. How do I grow in confidence of being a professional?”

I’ve been thinking about this question all month!

1. Part of this is life stage

One of the tricky aspects of moving to the field in your early twenties is sorting out what is normal adjusting to adulthood and what is unique to the field. I got very itchy around year five on the field because it was “time for change.” In my own case, I realized that for most of my life I experienced a fairly large change every four years or so starting with high school. My high school was four years, my college was four years, my masters was two years, in the midst of that I worked for four years. My internal clock was set to “four years.”

Part of growing in confidence is beginning to see life differently and move beyond a student mentality. Spend a few minutes thinking through what has formed you — what are your “time chunks” (four was mine, you may or may not have the same)? How does student life differ from “later twenties” life?

2. Part is internal

Often young twenties join teams of older singles or married families with kids. In these cases, it is natural to fall into patterns that make sense the first year or two you are on the field. Maybe you help out watching the kids, or sitting at the “kids table” during meals, or offering to watch the kids on Sunday, or letting your older teammates make decisions.

All understandable. All reasonable. Let’s be honest, it would be weird if you are 23 and you overstep decision making with your 47 year old teammate.

But now, as time has passed and you’ve put time into learning language, further education, and the work in general, you see how some patterns are hard to break.

You need to decide that you are a professional. Not in a beat your chest, obnoxious way; more in a “I’m going to own the power God’s given me” way. Growing in confidence starts with you. To a certain extent, people treat us the way we have trained them to treat us.

And then you need to step into that power. During team meetings when a question is put out to the team along the lines of “who will ….?” Volunteer. You can lead a Bible study, prepare for the activity, organize a party, get up early to check on the electricy. You can.

Notice if you fall into patterns with your volunteering. Does the majority involves helping with children? Of course you want to help your teammates! But if you only volunteer to help with kids, you are perpetuating them seeing you as a glorified teenager.

Remember that only one part of a system needs to change for the entire system to change. If you start interacting differently—more on a colleague level with your “older” teammates—they will start interacting differently with you. Maybe not this week, but over the months, the dynamics can change.

2. Part is external

Sometimes it is enough to change yourself and you do not need to say anything to teammates. But if you have a healthy team, talk with them. Ask about their transitions from early twenties to late twenties. Tell them you want to grow in thinking of yourself as a “professional” and what suggestions they might have.

In some circumstances, your teammates will not consciously want you to change because it means they will have to change. They may like for you to ______ fill in the blank (watch the kids, plan the music, buy the bananas) because it means they don’t have to. Talk about what you would like to change. Come prepared with a proposal, maybe something as simple as a sign-up sheet, so everyone can take their turn.

Finally, continue to grow. Last month I shared these 10 ways to keep growing as a professional. I would add one more to the list, be open to learning from non-obvious sources. Global Trellis has a new workshop every month, instead of thinking “that topic has nothing to do with me,” think “I wonder what I could learn from that topic.” Professionals keep growing.

You are a professional. We need you on the field. We need your perspective and energy and fresh eyes. Don’t let us “old folks” keep you from becoming who God has called you to become. We’re glad you’re here.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The Tempest of Shifting Identities

Spiritual identity means we are not what we do or what people say about us. And we are not what we have. We are the beloved daughters and sons of God.’ ~Henri Nouwen

My first cross-cultural experience was not overseas, but rather when I spent the summer in inner-city Kensington, Philadelphia. With a 90 percent Latino and African-American population combined, I was easily noticeable with my blonde hair and fair complexion. As I walked the streets, only in daylight, the burnt out cars and chain link fences seemed an infinite distance from the dairy farm where I lived as a child.

Yet my desire was strong to connect with the people, and especially the children, with whom I worked. I took on a ‘gregarious fun girl’ persona that summer. Although I left far too quickly, my insular identity of a white girl from the country forever shifted as my heart melded to the plight of urban youth.

Now, 26 years later, that restless identity from a summer of immersion in another culture still remains. I want to be known, accepted, trusted by all races, especially the children. I want them to almost instinctively know I am for them. This identity came on quickly and fiercely, and determined to stay.

Freshly changed by that summer, I went to Barcelona, Spain for a study abroad program. Still working through my first major shift of cultural thinking, I didn’t know what to do with the gorgeous architecture, and rich Spanish and Catalan heritage which many people dream to see and experience. I hiked the hills of the city and marveled at the compelling vista. Then I would pray for the precious children who had changed me forever. I’d feel the angst of the ‘here’ and ‘there’, as the world of my summer and fall seemed infinitely distant from one another.

Yet, I let Barcelona change me too. It was much harder to find a place in the hearts of those around me with their material, metropolitan lives. But, I did. And with it, as I returned home, I found myself in the tempest of yet another identity shift.

Each opportunity I had in the subsequent years, whether Mexico, Honduras, or a small, predominantly Dutch town in Massachusetts, whirled my various experiential identities a little more. There was no stopping it. Either I remained separate from the people, which was never a possibility for me, or I fully, deeply identified with them. Halfway was not an option.

If you’ve spent any significant time in another culture, you know it is impossible to maintain this level of identification. It is a quick recipe for burnout. Not to mention, the identity we are intended to have, is something that must go beyond all of the cultures and callings of the world, to the very heart of God.

The term ‘identity’ is used so often and in many different contexts that it can lose its meaning. But the overarching truth is we all have many layers of identity, or facets of who we are, which form over time. They are personal, cultural, and missional, just to name a few. Our journey is to learn how to walk out our identity with integrity, landing ultimately in the only place, or way of being, we are made to fit forever.

What I have shared of my own identity-shifting is from my single years. For me, these years screamed loudly, ‘You must save them all! Who else do you have to pour into? Give it all to them!’

Then, my Mom died and some of my heart went forever to Heaven. I had prayed earnestly for her healing. Now, I didn’t know who I could save. I felt withered of spirit. And yes, it was another tempest of changing identities.

Just one year after my mama died, I got married. Two years after this, my husband and I went to Hungary for a year internship. It was a beautiful year, but it was also confusing. I loved the Hungarian students we worked with, but not like those first kids in Philadelphia. And, now I was a wife, a newlywed. What on earth was my identity?

It is telling how I remember saying often at the end of our internship, as we pursued long-term staff with Cru: ‘Before God, I cannot let my husband get off this path!’ It was the passionate loyalty of a wife speaking, but it also showed how lost I was to my own calling. All I could acknowledge was his.

And this was a type of identity wilderness–the swirling about of all I had thought to be and now none of it fit. I wandered in this desert for many years. I became a Mom and was able to engage less and less in ministry. There was grace for this, as home is so very important. Yet, I had stopped seeking a robust identity–a soulful purpose for which I was made to live. I could have told you all of the right answers about my identity being in Christ, the importance of my role as a wife and mother, but the tempest raged.

When we moved overseas long-term, I was three months pregnant with our third child. I knew, even though we were going back to Hungary, it would be like we’d never been before. The skills I needed to be a successful mom were far different from those needed to reach high school students. There were victories, for sure, but, there was also much fumbling and gasping for air. My already nearly non-existent identity–or confidence and sense of self– whipped around me with much insecurity and striving grasping for it.

I couldn’t have predicted what would come next. I went crazy three years into our time. I spent two weeks in the mental ward of a Hungarian hospital. My lack of true identity, my burnt out heart, and a hereditary strain of mental illness all caught up with me.

As I have fought hard to put the pieces of myself back together, I am learning my true identity all over again. But somehow, now, it is in a much deeper way. I don’t want to discount my life before my mental breakdown, it is a large and significant part of my forever story. But, this time, after the diagnosis of bipolar disorder, I am finding a whole new way of being, one I never really had before.

It’s an identity anchored fully in the love of God. 

It’s easier for me to surrender plans and dreams because I have found the embrace of God, the one thing I can’t live without, on the other side of losing nearly everything. So, it’s easier to come to that place where only God can hold me. It’s easier to gut out the insides, with their junky false identity pieces that remain, because of their stark contrast to the unconditional acceptance of God. And as I rest in God, it’s easier to feel the freedom to keep exploring the things God may have for me to do and be in this life.

So, I offer this encouragement. If you have struggled with the tempest of shifting identities, you are not alone. As you are stretched and looking for things to hold onto, hear my testimony.

At the beginning of all things is God, at the end of all things is God, in the midst of all things is God.

Crawl into his Abba Daddy lap, receive the embrace of the Son and let the Spirit envelop you. No matter how many swirling, hovering identities you have had in your life, this is the only true forever one. Find this place often and become truly identified, known, as the beloved of God.

COVID-19 and the Expatriate

Twelve years ago, I started writing a novel. I’m terrible at fiction and the novel didn’t get very far. But now, I wish I written the darn thing anyway.

The world faced a massive and unstoppable disease. Borders closed. Flights stopped. The economy crashed. 

Seemingly overnight, Americans like myself found themselves as refugees in the countries in which they have moved to live, work, and serve. The tables had turned. The wealthy, dominant, ruling group of people were suddenly needy, desperate, vulnerable, foreign, and unwanted.

My.my.my.

What do we do when the world has gone mad?

What do we do when we face an uncertain future?

What do we do when we cannot reach the people we love and a big, scary, what-if looms?

We, expatriates, who have made the voluntary decision to move to a foreign country for so many reasons: work, education, service, love, faith, dreams, find ourselves feeling extra far away, extra vulnerable. Or maybe we feel safer, maybe we shake our heads in disbelief at the panic of populations who thought they were safe, who have been spared relentless diseases for generations and aren’t sure how to face one. Maybe we’re thankful that we’ve learned how to wipe without toilet paper. Maybe we are confused and disturbed by our swirling emotions that swing from fear to skepticism and back, in mere seconds.

What you decide to do with your fear own is ultimately up to you.

But what you do with your body and how it might impact someone more vulnerable than you isn’t really up to you. Or at least, it shouldn’t be if you love people.

Many of us live in the developing world where things like medical care aren’t really a thing. People can’t afford it, they don’t have vehicles to access it, the electricity goes out, there aren’t enough trained professionals.

The best thing to think about here is prevention.

But how do you wash your hands if you don’t have running water? If you can’t afford soap? How do you practice social distancing if you live a cramped section of town, people right on top of each other? How do you stock up when you don’t own a refrigerator or can barely afford your day-to-day food needs? How do you financially brace yourself for the impact of this when you work as a daily wage earner and there is no such thing as health insurance or paid sick leave?

For people who live among and care about the poor, sick, and vulnerable, COVID-19 simply emphasizes the importance of that work. 

The fight for clean water and steady electricity, the fight for access to health care and for quality health care, the fight for a living wage, for affordable housing, for interactions that are not racist, all of this has always, always mattered.

Now it is clearer to the world just why it is so vital.

The questions we need to be asking ourselves are not, “What will happen?” or “How to save myself (full stop)?” The questions need to be, “How can I be safe and still serve my community?” and, “Who will I be in this crisis? How will I choose to live?” That last question is really asking, “how will I choose to love?”

As Eula Biss asks, “What will we do with our fear?”

We can turn inward, hoard, and hide. Or we can turn outward, with love-in-action. We can:

Bring food to the elderly so they don’t need to go out

Do you know someone who has gotten stuck? Donate to a ticket, as prices rise. Host them if they need a place to stay. Mail supplies if they have run out.

Does someone you love need medications? Check in and ask if they have enough. Help them get it.

Stand against racist comments and fear-mongering.

Check your own spirit and preparedness. Are you being greedy? Unnecessarily hoarding? Contributing to panic?

Pray breath prayers:

Inhale a prayer or piece of Scripture

Exhale a prayer or piece of Scripture

For me during cancer treatment this was:

Inhale: Healer

Exhale: Be with me

Over and over and over until it becomes the air you breathe

The world has always been broken and damaged and vulnerable. It grows increasingly so. How, then, will we live?

Beautifully Broken Belonging

I wrote this poem on January 15 as a way to process my impeding move from China to the U.S. in June. On January 19, I left China for what I thought was going to be 11 days in the US. However, due to the coronavirus, I’m still in the U.S., 50 days later, unsure of my return date. This poem has become even more meaningful to me as I am stuck in this limbo and creating a new normal for myself, all the while waiting to return home so that I can say goodbye to it again. –Kathryn Vasquez

 

 This place.

Always 

A celebrity. 

An “other.”

A goddess.

A ghost.

And double takes.

 

This place.

Culture, Community, and

Collective care.

Beautifully broken belonging.

 

Me in this place.

Is it assimilation or appropriation?

Stress or regrets?

Shock or roadblocks?

Hurting or healing?

 

This place.

Brokenly beautiful belonging.

 

How do I tell of the heartaches and headaches?

That suffocating darkness that

Sat on my chest 

And almost consumed me?

 

How do I tell of that light?

It lifted me out

And washed over me in a waterfall of acceptance.

 

How do I tell of triumph and joy?

Of restoration and worthiness?

Of heartbreak?

Of the cycle of happiness and pain?

Of sleepless nights?

Of peace that passes all understanding?

Of quiet waters?

Of identity?

Of rest?

How do I tell of 

Beautifully belonging to the broken?

 

How do I take: 

What I have learned?

Who I was?

Who I’ve become?

 

And go to a place where 

I can never be who I was

Nor can I be who I am.

What will I become in

That place,

Broken, without beautiful belonging?

 

But I have a consolation,

A hope,

A star to follow through this night.

What I’ve become. 

Who I’ve become.

Whose I’ve become.

The very things to give me strength for the journey ahead.

As I go to that place of beautifully broken belonging.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Kathryn Vasquez has taught English in China since 2011. She enjoys reading, writing, photography, and traveling. She will be moving back to the US in June, but China has forever changed her.

Furlough is Coming

 

‘Twas the day before furlough and all through the house,
Everybody was crazy, even the mouse.

With kilograms counted and carry-ons packed,
The dad will get asked, “Can I fit this last sack?”

With Ma on her IG and Pa on his Twitter,
They’ll update their close friends through one last newsletter.

Frazzled and frayed, the start of a furlough,
The family boards early with one last cold Milo.

Onboard entertainment will probably help
Pass the time and the sadness, and the little one’s yelp.

The children will sleep, if they’re any the wiser;
Jet lag comes for all, the great equalizer.

Arrival with greetings and baggage galore!
“Now pick up the kid sleeping on the floor.”

A welcome is waiting at somebody’s house,
Along with green grass and a bed without louse.

Selah

Awakened and rested, two weeks have now passed.
It seems like a dream the term that was last.

No VPNs needed! No guards at the gate!
And Grandma and Grandpa let parents go date.

“Another world that.” They’ll say to each other,
Debriefing and telling it all to the Mother.

Then shopping will start, making up for lost time,
Enjoying the produce and actual lines.

“The stores are so huge!” They’ll gasp and they’ll stammer,
With carts made for tonnage like fridges and jammers.
“All the things in one place?” A small child’s amused;
A TCK so he’s often confused.

The church is so clean, inviting and nice!
It’s also, turns out, surprisingly white.

The parks are amazing and so well maintained;
The trash is discarded and canines restrained.

Folks think that they’re on an extended vacation,
Relaxing and soaking up big adulations.

“Please Father forgive them, they just do not see,
The pressures and burdens of this ministry.”

The family will travel in borrowed van and,
They’ll tell all their stories and hope that you can,
Listen and care some, then get on your knees,
And join them in this work, their Life Overseas.

~~~~~~~~

The Pink Bike

by Rebecca Hopkins

In April of last year, I moved away from Indonesia—my home of 14 years—and sold almost everything. And so, in June, someone gave me a pink bike.

I’m not exactly sure who. My aunt and uncle did the very loving thing of collecting used and new items from their friends to restock a home we didn’t yet have for a life of whose shape we weren’t sure.

I’m pretty sure they mentioned the giver’s name. But the problem was, there were so many names and gifts, and I was disoriented from all the changes that the gifts were still hard to take in. I’d traded one set of overwhelm for another.

On the first truly warm week of summer in Colorado Springs, I pulled the pink bike out of the garage of my parents’ house where we were staying. It took some adjusting to get the seat the right height and to figure out the gears. I had to remind myself that traffic flows on the right side of the road in America. But soon enough, I was moving and the wind was flipping my pony tail and my legs pushed strong.

And then, as I rounded the corner, I realized I hadn’t ridden a bike in 10 years.

The last time I’d ridden was when I was pregnant with my first child, living on a tiny island in Indonesia where my husband worked as a humanitarian pilot for a nonprofit organization. I remember trying to convince myself that the tropical heat, terrible bouts of morning sickness, rough roads, crazy motorbike traffic and neighborhood harasser weren’t adequate reasons to stop riding for a time. But my new motherly instinct won out over my normal risk-taking personality.

I didn’t give up jogging or writing or teaching English to neighborhood kids. But for reasons I can’t remember, I didn’t really ride much once I gave birth. And one day—three kids into motherhood—someone stopped by my house and asked if he could buy my now rusty bike. Without thinking much of it, I said yes.

Life filled with kids and culture and small airplanes and jungle adventures and serving and I didn’t really miss the bike. The next time I touched one, I was holding the back of my son’s bike, holding it steady, urging him to pedal, telling him to be brave.

It broke all our hearts to sell my kids’ childhood bikes that last week in Indonesia. The two small crates we were allotted filled up fast. We had a million choices to make, and the bikes just didn’t make the cut.

They’re just bikes, I told myself, while holding my son, watching someone leave our yard with his bike. It’s just a dollhouse. It’s just their baby clothes. It’s just their school table. It’s just a cat.

It’s just a house we’ve loved and a life we’ve built and friends we adore and the only country my kids have called home.

When I learned my uncle had found bikes for my kids, that knowledge kept me going through all the decisions we had to make. I guarded the news from my kids like a state secret so that we could all watch their excited faces at the unveiling once we got to the States. I hadn’t known, though, about the bikes he’d found for my husband and me. But when I saw all five of them lined up, I could see, for the first time, the building blocks of a new adventure.

Getting back on a bike several weeks after our arrival in Colorado was… like riding a bike…except…when it was harder than that. The angles on the roads felt too sharp, my agility less than I remembered it, the air too dry and thin. And when I needed to stop, I couldn’t seem to both jump off the seat and keep my feet from becoming entangled on various bike parts. I dumped it a couple of times, both times while others were watching.  I brushed the dirt off my hands, put on a smile and waved. “I’m OK. Just fine.”

“You always have a lot of energy to move forward,” my sister recently told me. “You’re good at it.”

She has a way of mirroring back who I am in a kind, affirming way.

I feel like I’ve spent my whole nomadic life honing what is probably also a natural part of my personality.  I can keep my eyes on my next step, look for the good in people and places, find ways to connect and put energy into building…building relationships, building a home, building a life. I’ve developed what may seem like a conflicted relationship with putting down roots and uprooting. I’m a wanderer and nomad at heart who intentionally grows roots wherever I land.

I’ve read much about “third culture kids,” this category of highly mobile people who’ve moved in and out of countries and cultures in their childhood. As an Army kid, I was one. Now I raise them. These past few years, I’ve been listening to what others are teaching about them, what I’ve experienced and what my kids are saying.

For all the beauty that a third culture kid lifestyle brings (understanding of and appreciation of a broader world, ability to adapt, a near-absence of prejudices, foreign language aptitude), these kids (and later, adults) know so well the world of loss. Sometimes the losses feel real and present, like loss of bikes and houses and friends and pets. Sometimes the losses are hidden and ambiguous loss, the unseen, hard-to-put-into-words losses such as dreams, confidence, identity and belonging.

For me, it’s actually easier to keep moving, keep building, keep Pollyanna-ing my way through hard things than to stop and grieve. Both taking the necessary time to mourn and also putting energy into moving forward can feel like a balancing act.

In late summer, I joined my dad on a bike ride on Cottonwood Trail at sunrise.  He’s so much better at biking in mile-high altitude than I am. I followed behind his smooth, quick pedaling with my own pumping heart loud in my ears. Soon, I had to shed my sweatshirt, and I stuck it in my backpack with my water and phone. I was still carrying so much else, too. All that was now missing from my life felt heavy. In so many ways, it felt hard to breathe.

“Watch the corners,” Dad coached. “Sometimes there are pedestrians out here, too. Also, be careful of sand.”

The ride was hard and tiring, but also freeing and empowering. And I soon found my own rhythm between pushing myself and pacing myself.

I found a way, too, to both keep my eyes mostly on the trail and also notice the beauty around me. Everything was pink—sky, mountains, rocks, my cheeks. And my bike.

Maybe I was starting to fit here. Maybe, too, I was finding my way.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rebecca Hopkins wants to help people feel heard, seen and welcome. She spent the first half of her life moving around as an Army kid and the past 14 years trying to grow roots on three different Indonesian islands while her husband took to the skies as a pilot. She now works in Colorado for Paraclete Mission Group and writes about issues related to non-profit and cross-cultural work. Trained a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding, and truths that last longer than her latest address. You can find her online at www.rebeccahopkins.org.