When Cultures Move Apart

Twice this week cultural tension came up. Okay, it happened about a zillion times, but twice that I specifically thought of you and the topic.

1. This week I reviewed feedback from my editor on a project for Global Trellis. What stood out to me is that the project is not controversial, but because it talks about parenting and couples, there are far more choices in words than one might think. This the project will be used by a global community spread around the world do we say marriage? Couples? Partners? When referring to the parents instead of saying “the husband” or “the wife” do we simply say “dad” or “mom?”

(All this for checklists! Yes, the checklists are amazing and the topic of postpartum depression on the field is important . . . but let’s also have some perspective here. It’s not an overly controversial topic; yet the amount of thought and effort that has gone into wording because of how differently cultures talk about marriage and parenting . . . though worth the time and effort, it also points to something and I want to pay attention to what it’s pointing towards.)

2. I listened to a podcast that touched on worldwide denominations navigating topics such as who can marry each other and the clash between African countries and North America and parts of Europe.

You have probably experienced something similar. Where you are living and where other people who are dear to you are living are worlds apart . . . both physically and culturally.

You might experience a gap with:

  • Friends and family members in your passport country
  • Supporters and sending churches
  • Local friends and colleagues
  • Other people in your organization
  • Fellow cross-cultural workers in your country

Just consider these different areas over the last fifty years in three countires/cultures that you love:

who can be educated
what “healthy sexuality” includes
gender and gender roles
race and race relations
what a “good” childhood looks like
who has power and authority
who can marry
the role of the government
the role of citizens
the role of the church
the interpretation of history
and the list could go on

I’ve been wondering how you and I can navigate genuine differences as people who have convictions without our convictions being at the expense of relationships. I’ve come up with three suggestions:

1. Acknowledge the tension

I like for everyone to agree with me on everything. You probably do too. This is obviously not realistic. When someone holds a different opinion or belief from yours do you focus on the difference too much, too little, or about the right amount?

Of course there will be seasons—like an election—where your attention to the gaps in convictions or beliefs are greater. But remember the difference between feeling a gap and feeding it. Find a safe person or group to explore and process the tension you feel between your passport culture and your host culture and you on each of the areas listed above.

2. Stay curious

Can I tell you how much this is a discipline for me? Left to my own, I can “stay judgmental” or “stay sure my interpretation is the one God would agree with because clearly it is right.” I am not advocating that you become uber relativistic. Absolutes exist. Truth is real.

But I also believe that curiosity is healthy. Curious about historical events and current events that are informing your host and passport cultures. Curious where Christians are in agreement with a cultural stance, even as a stance changes. Curious about where Christians are not in agreement with a cultural stance. Curious what feels threatening to you. Curious about the tone, word choice, and values coming out of a culture. Curious about what you are willing to die for and what you are not and how that might ebb and flow over time.

3. Be wise in when and where to engage

Not all spaces are created equal. “Be wise” does not mean “say nothing.” We are talking about complex and nuanced topics. A helpful question to add enough space for your brain to kick in so you’re not just reacting is, “Would Lady Sophia say this? Or is this Lady Folly chomping at the bit?” Lady Folly wants to prove she is right even if she breaks relationships, causes hurt and confusion, and leaves a path of destruction.

Lady Sophia will consider the medium: is this a private or public Facebook group? Is this a text message? A newsletter? Is this a voice memo where the other person can hear my tone?

This past week I learned about “2D” and “3D” conversations in another podcast I listened to. A 2D conversation can be easily handled in an email or text. A 3D conversation needs a phone call, video call, or to be in-person. Most of the topics were are talking about probably need to be 3D. If you start to have a 3D conversation in a 2D space, simply say, “Hey, I think this is a 3D conversation, let’s find a time to meet.”

In cases like the checklists my editor and I are working on, having another set of eyes has been invaluable. She notices word choice or phrasing that with a small tweak keep the focus on the topic at hand.

When I close my eyes and picture the throne room in heaven with the Triune God able to see and love at one time all of the cultures He created, I have a sense of his great joy in the variety . . . even in our different convictions.

While gaps will still exist between you and those you care about, you can decrease the chance that you drift too far apart by acknowledging the tensions that do exist between you, staying curious, and being wise about when and where to engage.

Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

Dear Re-entry

by Katherine

Dear Reverse Culture Shock,

I have not enjoyed spending time with you. You are a sneaky thief. Beyond that, your identity is ambiguous. You have made moving back to my passport country horrible.

I’m never sure whether I should call you Reverse Culture Shock or Re-entry. And if Re-entry, how do I spell it? People can’t agree if it’s Re-entry or Reentry.

Even though I have had many dealings with you, I still don’t know what to call you. That says something about your nature. You’re elusive, invisible. 

I wish you were more like your brother Culture Shock. Although also unpleasant, I appreciate that he is obnoxious. Like you, he steals, but in a more obvious way.

Or why can’t you be like your namesake Spacecraft Re-entry? He is loud. Everyone knows he is the most dangerous part of a space journey. Getting back into Earth’s atmosphere is a vulnerable time, and it can be disastrous if is not done carefully.

You are not obvious or loud; you hide away like an afterthought, silently stealing from me.

You stole my house, my job, my friends — lots of tangible things like that but also my skills and identity. You turned me into an incompetent invisible immigrant. On the outside, I look like a normal Australian, but I don’t know how to do anything. At least in Asia, my white skin announces that I will need help talking or eating.

You stole my ability to do things people expect me to be capable of doing. I look like everyone else, so drivers assume I will know how to cross the road. People in the supermarket expect me to be able to buy a box of breakfast cereal.

You stole my ability to do things I expect myself to be capable of doing. I’ve lived here before, so I assume I know how to do all those simple things. Like feed myself and take part in conversations. Like buy and wear shoes after wearing flip-flops for many years.

You stole my ability to be settled in like people seem to expect. “Have you settled in yet?” It sounds like a perfectly reasonable question to ask. But it sometimes sounds like, “You should feel settled now that you have been back for almost a year.”

You stole my ability to sleep as much as I need. Every little thing takes so much more effort, so I’m extra tired. But the bed is too soft, there is no hugging pillow, and it’s so cold I need to use a blanket. I even need to relearn how to sleep.

You stole my ability to have fun and relax. In a new environment, my hobbies and habits that kept me sane can’t happen. So not only do you create extra stress and work for me, but you also take away my ways to cope with stress. 

You stole my ability to understand that I’m in pain. Until I met you, I felt like I was at home, but you took that and replaced it with sadness too big see. Homelessness is the air I’m breathing, but I can’t see that air.

It feels like confusion and helplessness. 

It feels like a problem I need to fix as soon as possible. 

It feels like if I only relearn how to live in Australia, I will be able to function as a normal person.

You make those feelings so overwhelming that I can’t see what is really going on. And if I can’t understand I’m in pain, how can I start processing it? You can’t heal from something unless you know it’s there. In fact, sometimes the simple act of naming emotions is healing, but you stole even that. 

It’s going to end up pushed aside, out of sight, out of mind. Like a bacteria in the permafrost, it will end up frozen and inactive. The unnamed and unacknowledged pain could stay dormant until the next heat wave. When the permafrost melts, the bacteria can start causing destruction again. Not only did you create loss, but you also stole the ability to cope with it. 

I can’t blame you entirely – pain in general is hard to deal with. We prefer to find the silver linings and write gratitude lists. Even people in visible pain are sometimes met with, “At least it’s not as bad as it could be.” 

Perhaps it is hard to see another’s pain, especially if we haven’t processed our own. Or perhaps because it is uncomfortable to see someone in pain ,we try to sweep it away. It’s more convenient to say some “comforting words” than listen to another person scream and cry for five hours. 

So Reentry, my inability to process pain is not all your fault. But if you weren’t so invisible, there would be more chance of acknowledgment. That might not sound like much, but it actually goes a long way. In fact, you can’t get anywhere without it. 

But you stole my ability to do almost everything, including explaining to people that I don’t know how to do anything.  If only I could wear “Learners” plates everywhere so people would know. 

This letter is too short to tell you all the reasons I’m not fond of you. But I hope it gives you a glimpse of some of what you have done to me. 

This letter has no power to stop you from silently stealing from me and your other victims. But what I hope this letter can do is to bring you out of hiding. If you were visible, your victims would have more chance to give their pain space to breathe.

Painfully yours,
Katherine

~~~~~~~~~

Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher. She wrote this letter as a response to two years of re-entry and reverse culture shock in 2011 and 2012.

Regrets and Remembrances: A Prayer for Those Who Leave Home

With one plane ride the whole world as TCKs have known it can die. Every important place they’ve been, every tree climbed, pet owned, and virtually every close friend they’ve made are gone with the closing of the airplane door.
—David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken, Third Culture Kids

This closing door doesn’t just happen to Third Culture Kids. It’s also the experience of immigrants who leave behind many what-could-have-beens in their old country. Cross-cultural workers feel the door close when they leave their work and return “home.” (What other job requires you to leave the country once you’re no longer on the payroll?) International students close the door with the hopes that new opportunities will open many more. And refugees often see the door slammed and locked by soldiers carrying guns.

But while the door is closed, the mind is still open to thoughts about what was left behind. Some thoughts are joyous and life giving. Some are hurtful and life stealing. And often they come intricately, painfully intertwined, called up by a scent, a word, a sound, a flavor, a feeling or a dream. Bittersweet.

For those who find themselves on the other side of a closed door, I offer this prayer, inspired by Reinhold Niebuhr’s “Serenity Prayer“:

God, grant me the confidence to let go of the regrets that I should not hold on to,
The ability to hold on to the memories I should not let go of,
And the wisdom to separate the one from the other. Amen.

(David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2009)

[photo: “over you,” by woodleywonderworks, used under a Creative Commons license]

(This post was originally published at ClearingCustoms.com.)

Moving Abroad Will Fix All Your Issues. . . . and Other Lies

Ahh moving abroad . . . that’ll fix it. A fresh start. A new leaf. A change of scenery.  That’s what I need to break me out of the unhealthy rhythms and dysfunctional habits I’ve been carrying with me for years. Right?

The people reading this are having at least three distinctly different reactions right now. The starry-eyed “Soon-To-Be’s” are like, “Exactly what I was thinking. Makes total sense.” The half-jaded “Been-There’s” are saying, “PFFFT.  Keep dreaming chump.” And somewhere out there someone just giggled and thought, “Yeah, not so much, but it gets better.”

I wish it were true. I really do. I wish that packing up and moving to a new place meant that you could leave your baggage at home. But you can’t . . . at least not most of the time.

(Just a side note to anyone who actually did discover that moving away fixed all of their issues . . . you should maybe not say anything just now . . . the rest of us don’t like you.)

I call it FLIGHT INFLATION (capitalized for emphasis), and it’s a reality built on two simple principles:

    • Issues can fly
    • They expand when they land

The cross-cultural life can be the great inflator of personal problems. It can also be painfully deceptive, early on. The excitement, the adventure, and the newness can serve as a great cover-up for a good long time, but rest assured . . . if it’s in there . . . it will come out.

Let’s get blunt for just a minute so there’s no mistaking what we’re talking about here:

If addiction is your thing — drugs, booze, porn, attention, name it — an international move is not a substitute for recovery. You can expect that your triggers and temptations will be stronger than ever. Even if your vice seems unavailable in your new home, addicts are masters at finding what they crave.

If your marriage is in the toilet —  You may very well need some time away with your spouse, and a trip abroad could be just what the therapist ordered . . . but LIFE abroad is NOT a break from reality to gather your thoughts and talk things out . . . it is a NEW reality altogether. It’s a reality that mixes all of your past frustrations with a whole new set of frustrations. That’s dangerous chemistry.

If you have anger issues — That’s one place in your passport country where your life can be compartmentalized. Blow up at work, and no one at church will ever know. Kick the dog, and he’ll keep it a secret. Life abroad is (and I generalize here) more community driven — less prone to personal space and segmented social spheres. Who you really are is harder to keep secret in a bubble when everyone you know is all up in your business.

Whatever your issue is — Withdrawal. Gossip. Anxiety. Depression. Control issues. Procrastination. Doubt. Shame. Laziness. Misphonia (that thing where mouth sounds make you crazy . . . what? . . . it’s a real thing . . . stop judging).

Seriously — whatever it is — life abroad doesn’t fix it.

Anonymity, isolation, lack of support, cultural stress, feeling out of control (this list goes on for a while) are all factors in the swelling of our issues abroad. Consider the fact that you are often expected to complete high stakes tasks with other anonymous, isolated, unsupported, highly stressed, out-of-control people, and FLIGHT INFLATION starts to make sense.

But this is not a doomsday post (could have fooled me, right?). So hear me out.

If you’re a starry-eyed “Soon-To-Be,” don’t freak out.

    • Everyone has issues . . . for real . . . everyone.
    • Do everything you can to address them before you go. And set up a plan to keep addressing them.
    • Don’t be naive. Going in with your eyes open sets you up to do this right.
    • Sidenote — If your issues are actually going to crush you abroad, it is MUCH better to discover that before you go.

If you’re a half-jaded “Been There,” there’s good news.

    • You’re also half unjaded. Resolve not to go the other half.
    • Say it with me: “Life abroad does not get to rob me of my _______” (marriage, sanity, sobriety, dog).
    • Become a master of seeking wisdom.
    • Sidenote — If your issues are already crushing you, finish this sentence, “It would be better for me to ______ than to lose my ________.” Then do whatever it takes.

And if you’ve been there, come through it, and learned something along the way, here are some requests for you.

    • Share your wisdom. Humbly and with great empathy. Please.
    • Don’t get cocky. Issues come back.
    • Be an advocate for people with issues. They could use someone who understands.
    • Sidenote — Consider that people are NEVER the best version of themselves in transition. Help them navigate.

 

(Originally published at thecultureblend.com.) 

Searching for Home

It’s hard to describe the turbulence of soul that comes from being on the move, always unsettled. You cannot be still and breathe deeply. You cannot love the wild-growing front-lawn tulips too much, or the way the sunlight turns the living room into a golden elven forest in the afternoon. They will soon be gone. And with every big move, you are the new person all over again, trying to make friends at double-speed, weary of explaining where you came from and why you’re here.

We have lived in our current home in Taipei for thirteen months, the longest in any one place for nearly four years. This dubious “longevity” doesn’t prevent my gut fear of another uprooting. Experience leaves an imprint of expectation in our hearts. The nomadic lifestyle began in earnest when we finished seminary, after which a pastoral job and preparation to be missionaries led us to several different cities and even more homes. We moved twelve times in a span of two and a half years, and it hurt my heart terribly.

At nearly every house or apartment I resolutely unpacked everything, decorated the walls with my grandmother’s paintings and the children’s art, and brought cookies when meeting our new neighbors. I tried to make each place a home, even if it would not last long. And I grieved the loss of our previous home and the life we had built there.

I grew up in one place, but without knowing it, even then I longed to be home. I kept subtly searching for something that tingled like a phantom limb; it had to be there—my entire being reached out for it! Or was it only an untouchable dream?

I can relate to Peter when he tells Jesus, “See, we have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28). I reflect with some self-pity, perhaps like Peter, that we have left our family and our friends and our homeland to follow Christ. I know that dying to myself is the only path to life and abiding happiness, but even so, my heart is burdened in the midst of loss.

Jesus responds to Peter’s outburst with a longer-term view:

“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)

His words, though demanding, are a balm to my soul. God has fulfilled the temporal part of the promise many times over. We have been welcomed into the physical homes of fellow believers when we were in need, and our brothers and sisters in Christ are our family in every way. But even more so, the fleeting losses of following Christ are nothing compared to the eternal gain.

The ESV Study Bible notes that “Jesus assures the disciples that they have answered the call and are blessed.” This pain of being between worlds is not a logistical problem, but a sign of following His call. It’s not a sign that we are failures as missionaries, but that the redemption of the world is costly. Christ bore the greatest cost of all.

The home we long for is not a phantom or a dream: we were created to yearn for our Lord’s lovely dwelling place. “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Psalm 84:2). In his earthly life, Jesus shared in our homelessness. He left his perfect heavenly home to rescue us from our sin; he had no place to lay his head. And he will return to remedy our aching hunger with the ultimate Home he prepares for us even now, where there will be no more crying or pain because the former things have passed away.

 

Originally published at A Life Overseas on December 22, 2015.

Magic Charms and Contingency Plans

“A few nights ago, Mama F came to me terrorized, begging and screaming for the basil plant in our yard.” 

I lived in Tanzania for 16 years, and this was one of the most extraordinary stories I heard.

I have a friend, an American I’ll call Allison, who has lived in a remote village in Tanzania for decades. Often when they visited the main city, they would stay with us. 

It was on one of these visits that she told me a story that sounded like it came straight out of the New Testament: mind-blowing to those of us from western, secular cultures, but not uncommon in the rest of the world. What struck me about this story was not just the supernatural aspect, but how at our heart-level, no matter our worldview, we cling to things that feel more certain than God. We idolize our contingency plans. 

But first, the story. 

One of Allison’s neighbors, Mama F, declared faith in Christ and started attending a Bible study. Allison praised God for this, not knowing that the story was just beginning.

This is how Allison told it:

“A few nights ago, Mama F came to me terrorized, begging and screaming for the basil plant in my yard. I saw that something had taken hold of her four-year-old daughter. She was clenched in her mother’s arms, writhing and gurgling, and foaming at the mouth.  

Hearing Mama F’s cries, other neighbor women gathered, and we all followed as she ran back to her house, smearing my basil plant on little F’s head. Baba F, the father, had run for the witchdoctor to buy emergency witchcraft to ward off the attack. Mama F would not accept my westernized offer to take them to the hospital.  

We women entered her home, everyone wanting to help. One woman shook and rubbed a live chicken over little F. Another brought a pouch with herbs to burn and handfuls of dirt to make a mud mixture to smear over her body. Mama F frantically gulped a liquid from a cup and spewed it onto her daughter. Then she placed knives under her armpits, wrapped F in banana leaves, and tied a black cloth charm around F’s wrist. The ladies burned weeds so that smoke filled the room. Meanwhile, F was writhing and foaming, enveloped in darkness.

As I walked that night with these women I love who were so fear stricken, so desperate to save this child in the only ways they knew of, I prayed out loud for His Light to shine in this living nightmare. He enabled me to speak simple, childlike words in this dark chaos of despair. ‘God is able to help and heal F. This witchcraft will not work. May I pray for her in Jesus’ name? I can ask for help from the Almighty God because I believe Jesus shed his blood to pay for my sin so I am forgiven. Please let me pray for her.’  

But I knew I needed to say more. ‘Mama F, because God is holy and only He deserves glory, you have to stop this witchcraft. He wants you to see it is by His power and grace alone that F is healed. Please remove the knives and the leaves.’

Miraculously, they agreed, and placed her in my arms.

I squatted down on the dirt floor, holding that precious, terrorized little girl in my arms and I prayed. I felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit that this was not just a physical need for healing, but spiritual. So, in Jesus name, I prayed against the powers of darkness over this little one; I rebuked Satan and told him to leave; I entrusted F into God’s arms of healing and protection.

God heard and answered! As I prayed, the convulsions and foaming and gurgling ceased, and F lay peacefully in my arms. I heard the women’s voices declare, ‘Wow! The prayer is working! Jesus Heals! God hears the prayers of Christians! Let’s go find more Christians to pray for her!’ 

We returned to my house where my teammates were waiting. With F still in my arms, exhausted but at peace, my teammates and I lingered with our neighbors in our front yard, praising God for His healing in word, prayer, and song.”

But the story was not yet over.

Allison continued, “Mama F attended the ladies prayer group again and gave praise to Jesus for his healing of her child. Then a few days later, F came to our home to play, wearing her charm necklace again.  

I spoke to her mama that God does not share His glory with another. F does not need the charms for her protection when we cry out to the one true God. She agreed, but the necklace charm remained. I told her there is no need to fear, nor appease the forces of darkness. But the necklace remained.”

Allison sat in my kitchen on a Wednesday and told me what happened just the night before:

“Tuesday evening, the terrors came again to F. Since we were here in the city when the attack came on, little F’s family sought the help of our teammates, who together prayed for her, but this time she was not responding. They agreed to take her to the clinic in the neighboring village.  

When I received word of this, I asked if she was still wearing any charms. She was. My husband called Baba F and exhorted him to remove the charms, as God will not share His glory with another. Meanwhile, the doctor was not able to help F. So they brought F to our local evangelist where they cut off her charm necklace and began to pray for her again. She was immediately restored to normal.”

When Allison finished her story, my reaction was to cry, “Glory be to God!” It is, indeed, truly a remarkable story–especially for those of us who assume that this kind of thing ended in the book of Acts. But it would be a shame for those of us from westernized cultures, who scoff at magic charms and witchdoctors, to think that God isn’t trying to teach us the same lessons that he was teaching little F’s family.

He wants the glory alone.  

And his glory is never evident in contingency plans.

I’ve thought about this often since I heard Allison’s story. How often do I have a contingency plan? How often do I say the words that God is faithful, but in the back of my mind, I agonize over solutions to worst case scenarios?

Sure, I say I believe in heaven and that life is only a shadow of what’s to come. But really, I want to enjoy that shadow with as much comfort as I can muster and as much pleasure as I can wring out–just in case this is all there is.

Sure, I know that God is the rightful king and sovereign over the universe. But I’d also really like to be under a government that is safe, powerful, and holds to all of my values–and I’m anxious if I don’t get that.

Sure, I believe that Scripture tells me that God will provide for all my needs.  But I cling to that steady savings account and regular income, just in case.

I know there’s a balance here, because God expects us to be wise and prudent with the tools for protection He gives us. God often chooses to care for us through the grace of life insurance, modern medicine, or social security. But when I go to sleep at night, where is the source of my peace? Where is the line between taking wise precautions versus tying my safety nets to my wrist like a magic charm? I must ask myself: Am I trusting in God, or am I trusting in my contingency plans?

I wonder if sometimes, God is just waiting for us to cut off the magic charm. Because He will not share His glory with another.

*A version of this post was originally published at Not Home Yet.