Imposter Syndrome and the Cross-cultural Worker

When I was a young elementary-school student, one of the highlights of my year was going to the store with a teacher-mandated list in hand to buy classroom supplies. Not only was there the possibilities inherent in blank tablets of paper, there was the just-oozing-with-creativity box of brand new Crayola Crayons. Not off-brand crayons, mind you, not last year’s crayons (with black nowhere to be found). No, I’m talking about the real deal, with sharp edges and their paper sleeves still crisply intact.

Every child is a budding Rembrandt when in possession of a new box of crayons (even if it’s not the coveted box of 120 with the built-in sharpener).

Those days are long gone for me. Now it’s more about digging into an old ice-cream bucket of crayons, many of them broken or missing their names. But, in spite of that, coloring is something I can still do.

For example, there was the time when we returned from the field and we were handed crayons and asked to draw a picture of what reentry looked like to us. My drawing was of me leading a group of other stick figures (my family) on an unfinished bridge over choppy water. One fellow returnee’s picture was of him pushing with much effort against an immovable stone wall. It was a great activity, as our pictures led to meaningful discussions about the transitions we were in.

Drawing can be good therapy, and cross-cultural workers aren’t the only ones who know that to be true.

In Inside Higher Ed, Irina Popescu writes about a drawing exercise that she gives to her college students on the first day of class. She asks them to draw a picture of their “imposter monster,” the ugly creature that tells them they don’t belong in college, that “lies in judgment,” reminding them that they’re not enough. When she first tried this, she was surprised at how seriously the students took the exercise, creating “careful representations of very real, frightening monsters.”

“Some monsters had three eyes,” she writes. “Others were family members whom students made into red-eyed ghosts. Others were ugly self-portraits of the students themselves.”

Imposter syndrome is alive and well in academe. It is alive and well among cross-cultural workers, too. Popescu was inspired to give this assignment because of the inadequacies she herself feels as a professor who’s a woman, a mother, someone who grew up poor, an immigrant. In your identity serving cross-culturally, what factors do you have in your life that feeds your imposter monster?

Are you too young? Are you too old? Are you single? Do you have too many children? Are you childless? Do you think you’re failing your family? Is it because you’re a female? Is your skin color wrong? Is your support lacking? Your faith? Are your language-learning skills not enough? Are your strategies coming up empty? Are you struggling with the culture? Are you homesick? Do you need more education? Are you unable to perfectly fulfill all your roles? Are you fearful of taking on more? Do you feel inadequate in the face of all the needs around you? Do you fall short of the biographies that have been your inspiration?

And all the while, do those around you seem to be doing just fine . . . no, not just fine, wonderfully well?

What’s the solution? Perhaps you’ve heard this common advice: Fake it till you make it. It sounds great. It rhymes! And it must work because so many people recommend it.

Fake it till you make it.

Um . . . let’s not do that. Let’s not put on smiles just to show our supporters that we’re always happy. Let’s stop nodding our heads so that others think we can speak their language. Let’s not say we’re “excellent,” “amazing,” and “perfect” when we’re far from it. Let’s not think we have to show the locals that we have it all figured out. Let’s not take on more than we can handle in order to impress someone else. Let’s quit imitating another’s life because they seem to be more successful than we are. Let’s not distrust others to the point that we can’t share the truth with them and possibly invite their truth in return. Let’s not act as if we know so much that we have no need to ask questions. Let’s not turn down help because we want to look as if we’ve got it all under control.

If you feel like an imposter, you’re not alone. We’re all, to a certain extent, in over our heads. And acting otherwise doesn’t make you less of an imposter. It makes you more of one. It’s funny how we’ve convinced ourselves that faking it is such a positive thing. Change the wording and here’s how it sounds:

Let’s pretend. Let’s bluff. Let’s lie. Let’s exaggerate. Let’s counterfeit. Let’s con. Let’s fool. Let’s trick. Let’s mislead. Let’s put on an act. Let’s wear a disguise. Will that really lead us where we want to go?

Rather, there’s another way, one that we’re familiar with, though we tend to forget it. It’s counter to much of the culture that surrounds us, but it’s part of a better culture that we aspire to, one that tells us to admit our weakness as a way to lay hold of strength. We’ve heard it before, but sometimes it helps to hear it from new, sometimes unlikely, sources.

Take, for instance, Dr. Francis Collins. He’s the former leader of the Human Genome Project and the current director of the NIH (making him Dr. Anthony Fauci’s boss). He’s the winner of this years $1.3 million Templeton Prize. And he’s a Christian. This past March, The Atlantic’s Peter Wehner asked Collins how his faith has changed over the years. He answered,

I think I’ve also arrived at a place where my faith has become a really strong support for dealing with life’s struggles. It took me awhile, I think—that sense that God is sufficient and that I don’t have to be strong in every circumstance.

One of my great puzzles when I first became a Christian is that verse, “My grace is sufficient for you, because My strength is made perfect in your weakness.” That was so completely upside down for me. Weakness? And now I embrace that with the fullness of everything around me when I’m realizing that my strength is inadequate, whether it’s coronavirus or some family crisis, God’s strength is always sufficient. That is a such a great comfort, but it took me a long time to get to the point of really owning that one.

And here are those words of Paul:

[God] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (NIV)

Like Collins, let’s own that one, too.

(Irina Popescu, “Teaching through Imposter Monsters,” Inside Higher Ed, February 4, 2020; Peter Wehner, “NIH Director: ‘We’re on an Exponential Curve,'” The Atlantic, March 17, 2020)

[photo: “crayons,” by Matt Wengerd, used under a Creative Commons license]

Covid and culture shock feel the same to your brain — and here’s why

by Peter Olson

We suspect you’ve been feeling it too. A frustrating sense of ‘molasses’ clogging your thoughts. A fatigue you just can’t seem to shake. Feeling ‘tired’ or ‘worn-out’ as you search to journey through normal days that simply don’t feel as normal as they should.

As we have both watched and experienced the events of 2020, something has seemed oddly familiar. Every part of life seems to have changed, nearly overnight. Stores are different. Work is different. Interactions with friends and with strangers – it’s all different. Yet in a way this scene seems to be a re-run. Because, in a way, it is. This scene is familiar because it mirrors culture shock.

 

The One-Minute Version:
When someone moves to a completely new culture, many of the ‘autopilots’ your brain uses for thousands of small decisions every day become ineffective. In a similar way, your current environment has likely changed sufficiently enough that many of your own ‘autopilots’ are no longer working. When this happens, the next remaining option for your brain is to use a second decision-making process that requires far more effort and energy (glucose) to operate. Your body can only supply glucose to your brain at a certain rate – a rate far below what would be required to use this kind of thinking continually. Thus, additional thinking about routine matters has likely left you with a chronically depleted level of glucose in your brain. All to say: You are experiencing “culture shock”.

 

The Ten-Minute Version:
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, explains how our brains work in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Here is a summary:

    1. Your brain is a great decision-making engine.
    2. Your brain has two distinct processes it uses to make decisions.
    3. One of these systems operates quickly and automatically and does not require much energy.
    4. One of these systems operates slowly and deliberately and requires a lot more energy.

Kahneman gave names to the two processes your brain uses. He called one the “fast” system. This kind of thinking has also been called the “subconscious” system. The other he called our “slow” system. “Slow” thinking is what you are doing when you say that you are “thinking” about something.

Now, this two-system method is generally very effective for how we live. Your “fast” system is very good at monitoring circumstances for situations similar to things you have encountered in the past. When encountering a routine decision in life, your “fast” system runs through your memories and quickly offers a solution from the past it thinks will work for the present. Usually, it’s right. 

Think of fast thinking like being your autopilot while your slow system is the pilot. Autopilot can normally fly the plane as long as conditions are predictable. But the pilot needs to keep watching in case they need to jump in and take control.

 

Autopilot:
Imagine entering a familiar store or driving in a familiar city. Driving in a familiar place is easy because you don’t seem to have a pressing need to think about where you are going. You just go there. Walking through your favorite grocery store and grabbing staples doesn’t seem all that difficult. This is because your brain is not actually generating many “new” decisions in these scenarios. They are examples of times your “fast” system has autopilot solutions ready.

 

System Failure
Yet what happens when your fast system fails to find easy answers? What happens when the circumstances all around you are different enough from normal that your autopilots stop working? You know what to do for a red traffic light. But would your decision take longer if the same light turned blue? It is the effects of that kind of scenario – repeatedly, hundreds of times a day, for months – that is the structural cause for culture shock. And – I would argue – the structural cause for much of the mental fatigue we are all facing right now.

 

Here’s why: “Thinking” is hard
Really hard. We could get into the biology, but in summary: Thinking requires a lot of energy. You could say that thinking is “expensive”. But not all thinking is the same. “Fast thinking” is relatively efficient, while “slow thinking” is expensive. Your brain – like your muscles – requires a sugar called glucose to function, and slow thinking requires far more of it than fast thinking does. Glucose is delivered by your blood, and the challenge is that there’s a limit to how quickly it can be delivered. Use slow thinking too much, and you risk running out of enough glucose floating around your head to pay the energy bills … so to speak.

Think of “slow thinking” a bit like ‘turbo’ from the old video games. You need it to power through some parts of life. But use it all and you’ll need to wait for it to come back again. This is why you have perhaps said that your brain feels ‘tired’ after a long meeting, an intense discussion, or after much studying. That ‘tired’ feeling is your brain calling for a break so it can replenish the sugar it just used up.

 

A related phenomenon: “Hangry”
For the uninitiated, “hanger” is a state of being both hungry and, consequently, irritable. When we have not eaten for long enough, our body’s overall blood sugar level begins to drop, and this affects the supply of sugar to the brain. When you are “hangry,” you have a supply issue – there is not enough sugar available to give your brain. The scenario we have been talking about ends at the same destination – irritability, loss of decision-making capacity and decreased emotional control. But the reason is on the other side – your brain is using sugar faster than your body can supply it … and you run low.

Slow thinking is great. It is what allows us to contemplate the significant things of life. To have meaningful conversations. And yet, slow thinking has its limits. You simply cannot keep using it and using it and using it and expect it to continue operating at a high level indefinitely. It’s not designed to do that. Slow thinking is designed to step-in when needed. Run it constantly and – quite simply – the sugar runs out. (In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport cites research that suggests an average adult can handle 4 to 6 hours before exhausting their capacity and requiring sleep for a full recovery.)

 

Back to the moment at hand:
Parts of life seem to be changing monthly, if not weekly, if not daily this year. All this change has upturned enough of the normalcy that some amount of our mental “autopilots” are currently not working. Example: Imagine walking down the street, sun shining, water bottle in hand and thinking to yourself what a wonderful day it is when you suddenly run into an old friend! Instantly, you move from recognizing your friend to greeting them. Handshake. Hug. Wave. Whatever. You don’t notice deciding what to do … because that’s how fast thinking works. Automatic. Effortless.

“But wait!” You say. “This is not how it works anymore!” COVID. Yes, I know. And that is the point. Hundreds of times every day we are now facing moments where fast & cheap was handling your decisions for you … but can’t anymore. Last year greeting a friend didn’t require us to use the limited capacity of slow thinking. But now it may. With many of our autopilots disabled, we are facing a world where we are being forced to think in ways we are not accustomed to. And it’s draining your brain of capacity you used to have for other – more meaningful – things.

 

You are a toddler now:
You could say our experience is now similar in some ways to that of a 2-year-old. Hang with me. A 2-year-old has not yet had sufficient time with their environment to develop a good litany of autopilots. They more commonly are stuck in slow thinking. But have you ever noticed how many naps a 2-year-old takes? Ever notice how cranky they get before nap time? Well, that’s us. Like 2-year-olds, we are living in an environment where we are forced to lean on slow thinking to the limits of its capacity. Further, the prolonged mental work of learning to live in a new environment often leads us to experience chronically depleted levels of brain glucose.

This is part of the reason toddlers commonly nap, and it is responsible for the experience expats call “culture shock”. Moving to a new country and into a new culture and language is perhaps the most recognized environment in which we find humans encountering this situation. I would argue that the first year a couple lives together is perhaps the most common one. Well, I would have argued that before this year. Not anymore. Welcome to culture shock, everyone.

 

A Second Point (and a warning):
If the ache of our brains facing a world where all of our ‘autopilots’ have stopped wasn’t enough, there is a second issue that arises from all of this. Here it is, the warning that we always coach people arriving overseas to expect: Prepare for self-control and emotional control to become harder. Let me explain why with an imaginary scenario: You are watching a five-year-old for the day and desperately want them to sit still and quiet for just a few minutes. (I can’t imagine where this example came from…) So, you reach for some candy, and you offer a bribe. They can have one piece of candy for 5 minutes of silence, 3 pieces for 10 minutes … and it continues.

You are asking them to delay gratification. If they are to continue sitting in silence, what kind of thinking is the child using? Is this an ‘automatic’ and impulsive response for them to sit quietly? Or will they need to use some level of focus and concentration to stay still and to stay silent? I think we can agree on the second. “Self-control” is a function of “slow” system thinking. Moderating and controlling our emotions follows the same process – ‘slow’ thinking is required. 

In a world where simply purchasing groceries is now at least somewhat different than the routine action you became used to, groceries are sucking at least some ‘thinking power’ away from the kinds of things we usually used our limited supplies of ‘thinking power’ for. In classic ‘culture shock,’ people experience moments where they feel some loss of emotional control. There is a flash of anger or sadness or frustration or … and you don’t understand why. What we are discussing here may be exactly why. Your brain just ran out of sugar. You’re not ‘crazy’. You are ‘limited’. Your autopilot doesn’t know where to go, but your pilot ran out of steam and is taking a nap right now … So blame yourself a little less when autopilot’s unsupervised guesses leave you smoldering on the side of a mountain (so to speak). Rather, admit you’ve never had reason to learn this environment. This is new, and sometimes this is just how new goes.

 

Here is the take-away:
Anything we are relying on ‘self-control’ to accomplish will become increasingly a challenge in any situation where we are forced to use more ‘slow’ (conscious) thinking than normal. The reason is simple. The amount of ‘slow’ thinking that we are capable of is limited. The more we must consume discovering how to navigate the new reality of our neighborhood grocery store, the less capacity we have left ‘in-the-tank’ later for deciding not to eat half of the ice cream we just purchased. It is simply reality that our brains are not accustomed to actually thinking all day long. When our environment changes suddenly and completely enough, we can easily overwhelm our capacity for conscious, deliberate thought.

 

Let me say it bluntly:
Self-control is a function of ‘slow thinking.’ Emotional control is a function of ‘slow thinking.’ Yet you and I now live in a world where we are all being bled of our ‘slow thinking’ capacity. Bled by the need to consciously make decisions in scenarios we used to have ‘autopilots’ for. Decisions that last year we could have made without really thinking. In this reality we have been left with less available capacity for engaging our minds in rational, logical, deliberate consideration of meaningful things. Less capacity for self-control. Less capacity for emotional control. . . . interesting. And considering the moment, very unfortunate.

 

So, are we helpless?
Of course not. Dealing with massive amounts of sustained change over a long period of time is certainly not the easiest thing in the world to do. But plenty of people have done it. Some of us have even done it willingly. And repeatedly. One thing that most people have found reassuring, if not helpful, is the knowledge that this is normal. This is how it goes. This is how the brain works. This is how and why your whole mental world has some ‘catching up’ to do. But you are normal, and you will get through this.

 

Finally, if you are looking for some advice:

1) Eliminate Options

When faced with the limits of your mental capacity, it can be helpful to realize you cannot deliberately make a choice about everything – you will run out of capacity. So it can be very powerful to use some of your limited capacity deciding what you will not decide about. We coach people moving overseas to limit the choices they make and the options that they will consider – for a time. Have you ever heard those stories of Silicon Valley execs who have perhaps twenty of the same shirt – and nothing else – in their closet? This is what they are doing. If you only have so much ‘slow thinking’ to use today, what is not worth spending it on? Those execs decided shirt choices are simply not worth spending thought on.

2) Routine is your friend

All of us have just lost a massive amount of the familiar in our lives. Routines which effectively accomplished parts of our lives (and at minimal thinking cost) have vanished. Those ‘autopilot’ decisions are gone, so do what you can to get some of it back. Create routines – even imperfect ones – to win back some thinking capacity. Decide how you will do x, y or z and then refuse to continue rethinking it. For now.

3) Reduce Input

Look, I want to be as informed as the next person. But at some point we need to recognize our brain may need a break. Refer back to #1 – this is the opposing side. Your mental capacity is not unlimited, and it’s probably a wise investment to use some of that capacity deciding what you are willing (and able) to spend it on. More may not be better if you cannot process it – don’t overextend.

4) Talk

Externalizing what you are experiencing is key. If you don’t have someone to talk it through with, journal. As Brené Brown has shown in her work, getting our emotions out of our head is one way to gain invaluable perspective. You are not alone, strange, crazy or losing it. Either that, or we all are.


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Following a career in engineering, Peter Olson began life as an expat in 2013. He and his family now serve with Assemblies of God World Missions in the nation of Ethiopia. There they partner with the Ethiopian Assemblies of God and help lead Eastridge Church Addis international church in Addis Ababa. You can reach Peter at peter.olson@eastridgetoday.com.

Four Lessons for Missionaries from Pam on The Office

This summer I read The Actor’s Life by Jenna Fischer who is best known for playing Pam on The Office.  It is an introductory book for anyone who wants to break into the acting scene in the U.S. While I have no interest in (or delusions about) becoming a working actor, I was curious what advice Jenna might give to wanna be actors. I was surprised to find that the actor’s life and the missionary’s life are so similar. In my notes, I wrote four key takeaways from this book and thought I’d share them with you:

1. “Fill the Vault”— when it seems that “nothing is happening!” use that as a time to fill your vault. Life will not always be quiet, so use it to fill your vault.  When you are in a busier phase, you can go back in your vault and pull out a Bible study you outlined, an outreach activity you brainstormed, a list of questions you want to ask your teammates, or any access other tidbits you’ve saved. So, take notes, keep a list, or make a folder on your phone as you listen to podcasts, read, or pray. 

2. Build Community— Over and over Jenna stressed how she thought she was simply going to make it as an actor on her own. “What I didn’t understand was the importance of participating in a creative environment on a regular basis, in finding a group of people with whom I could share a collective artistic life. My life changed when I finally found this. And the way I found this was by joining things.”

Thankfully it is easier than ever for you to join things with fellow cross-cultural workers. Comment on blog posts like this! Respond to other people’s comments. Join Facebook groups. When something live is offered online, sign up! Don’t make the mistake that Jenna did at the start of her career and be isolated in the name of being “focused” or “strategic” . . . isolation just makes things harder. Build community.

3. Listen to Experts— For instance, in the acting world, headshots are key (and not cheap). It was on Jenna’s fourth round of having headshots taken that she hired someone who . . . took headshots! (Not just photos.) There will be people who know about language learning, studying culture, raising TCKs, dealing with grief, raising support, adjusting to change, living far from family, tending your soul, sharing your faith, and all of the other parts of being a cross-cultural worker. Listen to them.

4. Keep Investing in Your Craft— Even though Jenna (and many actors) studied acting in college, they keep taking classes throughout their career. Even now, as a “famous” working actor, Jenna still takes classes. I was curious to read she took classes on how to move your body, block a scene, different accents, among the classes she listed. Historically this type of investing wasn’t available to missionaries so we aren’t used to thinking of it. But now with easier access to books, podcasts, and online training geared specifically for us, we too need to keep investing in our calls. If you haven’t, sign up for Global Trellis’s free 15 day challenge designed for cross-cultural workers and based on Philippians 4:8, sign up today! And check out these workshops.

Jenna’s words are simple but not simplistic: fill the vault, build community, listen to experts, and keep investing in your craft. Yes, yes, yes.

How Do Cultural Factors Influence a Missionary’s Decision to Leave?

by Andrea Sears

In reviewing the cultural factors that are part of a missionary’s decision to return to their passport country, it is relevant to consider where survey participants served. Of the 714 survey participants who answered this question, the following chart represents the proportion that served in each region:

For the purposes of the chart, Mexico was included in Central America with other Latino cultures, though it is technically part of North America. Fifteen percent of participants served on more than one continent, and were given the “various” designation since they could not be assigned to only one continent. All others served in only one country, or in various countries within the same continent. The majority (68.2%) of participants served in one country only, 18.6% served in two countries, 7.6% served in three countries, and 5.6% served in four or more countries during their time on the mission field.

Because survey participants served all over the globe in very disparate cultures, their struggles were at times common and at times very different. We measured the frequency and strength of influence on the return decision for the following statements considered to be host-country-related factors:

  • I struggled with the local language of my host country.
  • I struggled with the local culture of my host country.
  • I struggled with local relationships in my host country.
  • I missed the developed world.
  • I experienced security issues.
  • I had limited access to electricity and/or technology.
  • I felt taken advantage of by locals for resources.
  • I experienced conflict with locals that grew out of cultural differences.
  • I experienced conflict with locals that was unaffected by cultural differences.
  • I had to leave the country because of immigration/visa issues.
  • I was in danger of persecution because of my faith/vocation.
  • I was in danger of persecution because of my nationality.
  • Political instability or armed conflict made it too dangerous to stay.
  • National economic instability made it untenable to stay.
  • The government restricted missionary activities to the point that I was unable to work in the area of my calling.
  • The climate was difficult for me to live in.
  • A natural disaster caused me to be evacuated.

 

Results
This group of factors has relatively low strength indexes for most of the items. While some cultural factors have very high numbers of people experiencing them, usually these factors did not affect the decision to leave, and if it did, it did so to a small degree.

Two of the strongest factors in this group were: (1) having to leave the country because of immigration/visa issues and (2) having security issues. Interestingly, the issues experienced by the most people are thankfully those that are at least in part within the missionary’s locus of control, such as the first four statements on the list. This is a place to look for preventable attrition and prepare missionaries to better weather cultural stress.

 

Language Study
We also collected data on how long each participant studied the language of their host culture (in a formal sense), in order to see if there is a correlation between length of study and tenure, or between length of study and reporting a struggle with the language.

Based on this data, the greatest proportion of those who studied formally did so for at least 9 months, though there is a small bump at 3-6 months. Those who spent at least 3 months in formal language study stayed on the field for at least an average of 9 ½ years, while those who did not study or studied for less than 3 months had an average of 6-7 years of tenure.

The majority of participants admitted to difficulty with the language, regardless of whether or how long they studied it. However, those studying more than 6 months tended to have their language struggles factor less into their return decision. Those studying less than 3 months more often reported that language was a moderate to strong factor in their return decision.

 

Culture Struggles
We also collected open comments on the following question: “What aspects of the local culture did you struggle with?”

Themes that consistently emerged in the comments, ranked by prevalence, were: (1) honor/shame culture and the resulting style of indirect communication, (2) income disparity, (3) gender inequity, (4) corruption/crime, (5) demands of hospitality and having less privacy, and (6) less focus on order/efficiency.

Other themes also frequently mentioned were visibly not fitting in, language difficulties, fatalism, different concepts of time/pace of life, local supernaturalistic beliefs, and different cleanliness/hygiene standards.

Unfortunately, comments about culture often contained tones of negative judgment, with indirect communication being categorized as “dishonesty” or fatalism being called “laziness.” One thing we can learn from these responses is that our own worldview permeates deep in our psyche and defines for us what we think is the “right” way to do things, leading us to evaluate others unfavorably when they don’t share our values. Part of being a successful missionary is intentionally rooting out our own ethnocentrism in expecting others to be like us (or to work on becoming like us).

 

Local Relationships
We also collected comments on the question: “What did you struggle with in your local relationships?”

Themes commonly mentioned were language barriers, developing intimacy and trust, the time required to build friendship as an outsider, differing relationship expectations, and distinguishing between true friendships and ministry.

 

Conclusion
Culture shock and culture stress are common, but also expected and apparently not a primary direct cause of missionary attrition. But they certainly affect the quality of the missionary experience and impact the overall resilience of the missionary. And lowered resilience certainly does affect missionary attrition.

Conclusions and recommendations include preparing missionaries to cross-cultures well, including a list of topics to cover in training and coaching; learning and using the skill of cognitive reframing to minimize ethnocentrism; curbing certain Western tendencies to adjust to different settings; and self-care.

To see the full detailed report and discussion of results, click here. You can subscribe on the website for notifications when future results are published. You can also email andrea.d.sears@gmail.com for a pdf if you want to save or share the results.

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Andrea Sears is co-founder of the ministry giveDIGNITY, which works in the marginalized community of La Carpio in San Jose, Costa Rica. The ministry focuses on Christ-centered community development initiatives in education, vocation, and violence prevention. Her family has been in Costa Rica for 8 years, and served as the Missionaries in Residence at John Brown University during the 2017-2018 year while on furlough.

Questions Third Culture Kids (and Their Parents) Dread

Next month I will share Questions Third Culture Kids (and Their Parents) Love, so stay tuned.

You just arrived in your passport country. Someone is approaching. You can’t remember who they are. You can’t remember where you are. What time is it? What language do they speak here? They are getting closer and closer and then the questions start…

Aren’t you glad to be home? Two hard things about this question – first, the TCK most likely does not consider their passport country home, especially if they have been abroad for a long time. My own kids vacillate, but most consistently they say that Djibouti is home. That’s where their bedrooms are, their treasure boxes, their bookshelves, their dog, their holiday traditions, their friends and school and church and sports team, their memories. That’s where they feel comfortable. Second – the TCK might not be glad. That’s a massive assumption. They might be angry or bitter or sad or intimidated or confused.

Don’t you remember me? Probably not! They’re kids. Even adults! We’ve been gone a long time, have maybe visited a lot of churches or gatherings. We love you. And the kids love you and we are so grateful for you. But we might be jet lagging, culturally overwhelmed, weary or broken. Please remind us of your name. I have been so thankful when someone just says, “Hi Rachel, Marilyn. We were in Bible study a couple years ago…” Almost every time, I know who they are, but that little gift is something I’m glad for.

Where do you buy clothes/food/stuff in your country? The kid might start thinking, “Uhh…my parents buy it…or are you saying I’m dressed funny? Or are you asking for a story from the market or…?” This is a complicated question and especially teenagers might feel awkward about it, already wondering if they are fitting in or sticking out.

How is your host country? Um…What do you mean? Third Culture Kids are just kids, they probably don’t know the political situation or the COVID situation or the economic situation. How is it, like the temperature? The food? The education? This is a confusing question.

You must just love it there! Okay, so that’s not a question, but it makes another big assumption. I was never asked that as a kid when people found out I lived in New Brighton – do you just love it there? Wuh? I dunno. I lived there. It was a place. I’ve learned to answer that question with, “Most of the time.” And people laugh and don’t really care for more than that. Still, I don’t like that question because what do you mean? Should I love it there? What if I don’t? Would you care to hear that longer, complicated answer?

How’s the ministry? Not only do the kids maybe not know or not care, they aren’t the missionary, They are a kid. Would you ask a pastor’s kid about the quality of the church work? Would you ask the child of a surgeon how surgery is going? Plus, not all TCKs identify as missionary kids. 

Say something in XXX language. For my kids, their language ability is a treasure. They use their foreign language skills as a shield sometimes, when they feel overwhelmed in the USA, they start speaking to themselves in their learned language. Or, it is a unique gift that they will pull out when they want to, like when they see a Somali at the store. They don’t often want to spill that gift out, or feel like it is a party trick.

How was your trip? Uh, not a trip. A life. Still living it…

Don’t forget next month I’ll share the great questions people can ask.

What are some questions you or your kids dread?

Life on Loan

This morning the bible app on my phone sent me Matthew 6:34:

“So don’t worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will bring its own worries.
Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Staring at the screen I thought, “Huh. Well, I don’t have the capacity to worry any more this year anyway.”

Not exactly a great spiritual insight, but it’s where I’m at. Any space previously available for future worrying is simply filled up by today.   

This is not for lack of worrying opportunity. 2020 has done it’s best to throw all of us in a tizzy. I’m not challenging the validity of fears we’ve experienced living through a worldwide pandemic, they just don’t belong to us heaped up together all at one time. Today has enough trouble of it’s own.

If there’s anything 2020 has been teaching us, it’s that we can throw predictability out the window. What will the world look like in six months? I don’t know. Six months ago I certainly didn’t see worldwide shut downs coming. Neither could I have guessed a surprise pregnancy during this pandemic would leave us displaced, unable to return to our overseas home.  

Living overseas does tend to throw enough unpredictability at you on a regular basis that you gain a sense of the future not really belonging to you. Every year we face the possibility of losing our visas. Every summer friends and colleagues leave the field (including those I counted on staying forever). Every school year we face new challenges in meeting the academic needs of our children. Every month brings the possibility of changes in financial support. The list could go on and with time you learn to loosen your grip on the future and what you feel ‘should’ happen.

Still, despite all our familiarity with unknown futures, it’s easy to feel like 2020 is a push too far. We shouldn’t be experiencing loss of work, home, and connections. My children shouldn’t be suffering through mandatory isolation and social distancing. I shouldn’t be at risk for a potentially life threatening illness. My husband shouldn’t be experiencing loss of meaningful daily work.

Grief is an appropriate response, but as the months tick by I can’t help but wonder – Isn’t life just on loan to us anyway?

This brief existence, these few fleeting years, are all we have. This notion of life being temporary is exactly what lead us to live our lives the way we do in the first place. Life is precious, but it doesn’t occur decades at a time. Life only lends moments at a time, I only have today.

We may wrestle with the disappointment and sadness of our lost hopes for the future, but may that sadness not consume us into worry. May we not miss the time we have been given or lose sight of the treasures in front of us in this very moment.

I don’t know what the future will bring, but the future never really belonged to me anyway. I do have today, though. And today will bring enough worries of its own.

Decision Making and Transition

In all my years of coming and going, of moving and transition, I’ve never experienced anything like the transition and confusion that the last months of pandemic chaos have brought into our world. Its impossible to quantify the amount of grief and loss that people around the globe and in this community have experienced. I wrote this piece eight months ago when I was living, breathing and eating transition and the impossible decision making that goes with transition. I hope it helps some of you during this time.

The other night I woke up to fierce wind and rain. On the right side of the house an alley way created a wind tunnel and I could hear the wind howling through it. This house is still new to us and the sounds are unfamiliar. I lay listening for while, thinking of the fierce wind, of storms, and of the comfort of my bed within the storm. There is something deeply comforting about feeling safe during a storm. It is a privileged comfort. 

I don’t always feel that way. There are times when storms make me feel deeply afraid. But not the other night. 

For those who have been following along with me, my journey and the sometimes storm of our transition continues. 

During this time I’ve found it difficult to make decisions. It makes sense. We made a massive decision a year and a half ago that included many smaller decisions along the way. Then in May, a decision was made far above us that changed our lives. This resulted in us making another massive decision and smaller decisions along the way. The result is that I have felt trapped in decision making. 

When I am feeling low, the questions are heavy and unrelenting. How do I know what decisions are right? How do I decide what to do next? Our lives were turned upside down two years in a row. What does that mean? Did we make the wrong choice even though it felt so clear at the time? Or did we make the right choice, and nothing and no one could have predicted what came next? Asking too many of these questions is not healthy. It spins your head and your heart and you end up not trusting yourself with any decision. 

One of the ways I have chosen to walk through this season is by reading Emily Freeman’s latest book The Next Right Thing. The subtitle of the book is “A Simple, Soulful Practice for Making Life Decisions.” 

Before Freeman even addresses decision making, she introduces some foundational concepts that are key to being in a place where you can make good decisions. 

Her first concept is to become what she calls a “soul minimalist.” Clear clutter and create space for silence. It’s this that sets a foundation for making decisions. “The world is run by worn-out people, and our soul is often lost beneath the piles of our everyday life.”

“Good decisions require creativity and creativity requires space. This space is necessary for you to speak out against the injustices you see in the world, the problems you know you can help solve, and the beauty you long to deliver.”

Emily P. Freeman in The Next Right Thing

Her second concept is the powerful practice of naming the narrative. Naming those hidden things that are affecting our decision making. This has been a hard, painful process for me. Naming grief, disappointment, dead dreams, and anger are not easy, but the process of doing this and being honest with my emotions has been significant. 

Freeman’s third foundational concept is examining our beliefs about God, discovering the disconnect between what we say we believe and how that works out in practice. This is an eye-opening exercise. While many of us say we believe and trust in God, our daily lives are more like those of practicing atheists. Inside we are a bit like two-year-olds convincing ourselves we can “do by self,” while on the outside we choose the right words and phrases to make our beliefs about God sound good and safe. What happens when we are honest, and we admit the disconnect between our actions and our beliefs?

Reading this book and taking an in-depth look at these concepts as I move forward in decision making has pushed me to grow in meaningful ways. 

“Just because things change doesn’t mean you chose wrong in the first place.  

The Next Right Thing by Emily Freeman

When we left for Kurdistan, we had no idea that we would be back here a year later, trying to make sense of a dream cut short, of a closed door. It would be easy to look back and accuse ourselves of making the wrong decision in the first place. But I don’t think that’s true. I think we made the right decision. 

I’m think we made the right decision for a lot of reasons – probably the most significant being who we became as a result of going. From learning more about empathy and incarnational living to being humbled by all the areas where we fell short, it was an important process in who we are and in who we are becoming. 

I’m convinced God is less interested in where we end up then He is in who we are becoming. Whether we’re employed or unemployed, encouraged or discouraged, filled with vision or fumbling in the fog. More than anything, our Father just wants to be with us.

The Next Right Thing by Emily Freeman

I have read and reread the words above – “Whether we’re employed or unemployed, encouraged or discouraged, filled with vision or fumbling in the fog. More than anything, our Father just wants to be with us.” 

In closing, I think of an episode of the new season of The Crown that we watched last night. In this particular episode there is a tragedy that takes place in a mining town. Many have died, most of them children. The queen is slow to make the decision to go and there are many reasons and excuses as to why. When she finally does decide to go, it’s clear that people just want her to be with them, to bear witness to the pain they are going through, to sit with them in their sorrow. 

Our Father just wants to be with us…” No matter our decisions, whether they are big or small, whether they will change lives or just our next hour, these are words to live by.

An Appeal – A Life Overseas

Yup! We hate to ask but…!

On November 14, 2012 Laura Parker, co-founder of the A Life Overseas blog and community space posted a “Welcome Video” to the site. That was the beginning of what has now become an online community thousands strong.

We are a diverse group linguistically, culturally and theologically, but we all agree that taking the step to live, work, and raise a family overseas takes our lives to places and into circumstances we could never imagine. In this community, life is definitely far stranger than fiction.

We exist to support those in cross cultural work. Whether you’re a business person, a diplomat, a humanitarian aid worker, an educator or all those above, but you are first of all a Christ-follower this community is for you.

Cross-cultural workers cram a life into a suitcase and begin a journey into foreign places, both geographically and spiritually. Assaulted by cultural stress, ministry challenges, learning a new language, and the trauma of culture shock, these workers long for community– a sense of connection, regardless of if they are the boiling water alone in an African hut or battling public transport in a crowded Indian city. No doubt, living overseas can be brutal — on a family, on a faith, and in a soul. But, there’s no doubt, too, that it can be one of the most depth-giving experiences an individual can embrace. Like all of life, though, our stories are understood best when we have a community to share them with.

About A Life Overseas

We are in a place right now where we need funds to continue the site. We are largely funded through the writers and administrators of this blog, but we need help!

So we ask you to consider making a donation to keep the site going. Five dollars, ten dollars, fifty dollars – it doesn’t matter. Our leadership team here at ALOS is committed to keeping this going but we need your help!

Through the past eight years, if you have benefited from reading and interacting with A Life Overseas, would you consider helping?

Click this link to make your donation! And thank you!

A Letter to My Son About Covid Grief

by Shannon Brink

I wrote the following letter to my son about the grief that he is feeling right now. Our family had to come back suddenly to Canada and it’s not the Canada we looked forward to, nor the one we left.  I hope it resonates and encourages other TCK parents out there who are needing to express similar things to their kids.

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Dear Oldest Child,

I know we have already asked a lot from you. We moved you across the globe. You said goodbye to all you had known. You entered into a place that never quite felt like home. The dust on your feet, falling asleep under the heaviness of a mosquito net, forced to be in spaces and places that felt uncomfortable for so many reasons.

I know you have dreams too. You wish you could be a soccer star, but you haven’t had the chance to be on a real team. You wish you could ski down mountains, but there is no snow where we moved. You wish so many things, and we have kept you from them as we’ve embarked on a journey towards our own choices and calling, with you along for the ride.

And you have grieved. Often silently, sometimes loudly, and we have felt the weight of it.  We have grieved family gatherings and playgrounds. We have grieved easy outings and libraries and oh so many things.

You have been so patient. We have counted down days to come back to your home and native land. You have made the lists, stated the hopes, and built your expectations for this special short time, this one gap where you could enjoy all the things you remember and long for. This time when you could take off the foreign face and be familiar. A place where you could play with your childhood friends in our cul-de-sac, and enjoy all the things your hearts have longed for.

We had made oh so many plans in those 2 years for this time now. Just as you got comfortable in this new place, we had to bring you suddenly back to where all your hopes lay.

But nothing is as you hoped.  You couldn’t stay in the house of your earliest memories.

And now here we are.  I had hoped this day wouldn’t come, but here it is.

You didn’t get to go to summer camp.  I know this was your only chance in maybe 5 years. I know I have told you it will change your life as it changed mine. I know I told you it would be one of the best things in your childhood, and now you cannot go. I know that’s the last thing that you were hoping for, after everything else had fallen through. Now it’s not happening either.

You have grieved more than most kids. It’s not really fair, you’re right. How could it be, that we could be so close to all that you had missed, and just when we needed a break from all that was unfamiliar, all that was difficult and uncomfortable, you are thrown back into the fire of uncertainty and confusion. This isn’t the home you left. This isn’t the childhood of your dreams. It has changed.

But remember, dear one, it’s not over yet. God hasn’t changed. Not even a little bit. My childhood will not be your childhood. My experiences will not be your experiences. I know this feels like too much to ask of a 10-year-old, and in many ways it is. Still, I believe this will build in you a resilience that is real and will steer you well in the days ahead.

I know your hopes are crushed, and I feel your pain too. In the midst of all this pain and disappointment, I still believe your childhood will be richer than you think because of our extravagant, loving Father, who will give you all the experiences you need to become the person He is shaping you to be.

This is hard. It’s another loss on a mountain of losses. I am crying my eyes out because it pains me so badly to see your pain. God counts all of our tears mixed together, every one. He has a bright future for you, and He won’t let you down. Our faith will just have to grow stronger together.

I’m so sorry.  We love you, we see your pain, and we’re here with you.

-Mom

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

Shannon is a mother of 4 kids, a nurse, a writer, and a missionary in Malawi. Her family is currently residing in Vancouver, Canada because of COVID. Her writing explores the awkward spaces of life like waiting, grieving, calling, and transition, which seems to become increasingly relevant in our lives and in our global story. She has just finished her first book. Find her at shannonbrink.org.

The Day We Didn’t Go Home

We were supposed to go home on August 6th. We had tickets and plans, we had dreams and ideas. But when we left Cambodia back in March, we did not have an awareness of how COVID-19 would turn the world upside down.

So we’re not flying home on August 6th. As a result of passport issues, visa issues, entry requirements, finances, and a whole host of reasons (everyone has them), we’re staying.

For our family, August 6th is now Stay Day.

Does your story include a Stay Day? Perhaps for you it wasn’t a Stay Day as much as a Leave Day. Do you have a day that marks when life quaked and plans tumbled? Do you memorialize a Stay Day or a Leave Day? Should you?

We hope to remember our eight years in Cambodia on this August 6th, and every August 6th afterwards. It will be a sort of anniversary; a blend of stories and laughter and tears.

Like so many memorials, it will be a funky mix of mirth and merry.

On Stay Day, we’ll remember the day we didn’t go home.

Sure, America is home too. Or at least it was. And it will be again. I’m speaking for myself here, of course, because my children will have their own stories, and they’ll need to tell them. Their relationship with America (and Cambodia) always was and always will be unique. Different than mine.

But some things we shared.

Like the eight years around a thick, Khmer-style round table. Well, more like seven. The first year we had a cheaper wooden rectangular table that got eaten up by termites so big you could hear them feasting: lightning-bug-size table chompers.

We’re shipping the Khmer-style table to America, so every Stay Day we’ll gather around it and remember.

We’ll remember the scent of frangipanis, and we’ll probably try to buy some. We’ll feel the feel of traditional kramas, the checkered scarves Cambodians (and my daughters) use for everything.

We’ll probably order Indian food and remember Mount Everest, the local restaurant in Phnom Penh that taught us to absolutely adore Nepalese and Indian food.

We’ll look at old photos of a younger family riding tuk tuks, playing on the street, trying to figure out cross-cultural living.

We might search YouTube for Khmer dance music, and we will probably laugh about the incessant, LOUD, and DRUNK karaoke that permeated our house during wedding season.

We’ll watch old videos of moto rides through our neighborhood, and we’ll remember the kind old man who laughed at the four white foreigners driving a moto through flooded streets and belly laughing. I wonder if he knew how much it reminded me of riding a jet ski.

Maybe we’ll check Google street view and meander past friends’ houses.

On Stay Day, we will remember. And we will pray.

We’ll pray for Cambodia, for our friends there, and for the Church that’s blossoming into its identity.

And Lord willing, we’ll do this every August 6th: the day we didn’t pack up, weigh all suitcases to 49.9 pounds, quadruple check passports, and jet across the Pacific.

August 7th won’t find us staggering out into the scents and smells of Phnom Penh. We won’t un-mothball our house and turn it back into a home. We won’t schedule reunions with local friends. We won’t visit favorite haunts and coffee shops.

Instead, we’ll mourn what was, and we’ll be grateful for it too.

Mourning is a wetter way of expressing gratitude, after all. 

And we’ll move on, whatever that means.

God remains the God of the past. He will always be the God of the past, and he will always care enough to ask the same question he asked Hagar, “Where have you come from?”

He is the God of Stay Day, August 6th, but he is also the God of August 7th and 8th. And if he’s true, if he’s real, he’s got us, and he holds us in his strong right hand.

And he will hold us on every Stay Day, and every day after that too.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

Do you have a day like this? A Stay Day, or something like it?

Do you need one?

Here are some more thoughts about creating shared meaning and the importance of family rituals. As folks who regularly celebrate “shared meaning” through Sacraments, I hope these ideas will resonate and inspire.

May our families be places where we remember our stories, together.